Movie Review ~ Gunpowder Milkshake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret sisterhood comes to the rescue of a mother-daughter assassin team.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Chloe Coleman, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson, Adam Nagaitis, Michael Smiley

Director: Navot Papushado

Rated: NR

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As the credits were rolling on the new hyper-stylized action film Gunpowder Milkshake (which features copious glamor shots of both, I might add), a small but lively debate raged on between my partner and myself over the age-old notion of style over substance.  He argued the film was basically plotless, just a shell for Israelian director Navot Papushado to exercise some considerable effort in filming extensive action sequences where a whole bunch of people get shot, stabbed, beaten, maimed, bludgeoned, squished, and squashed.  I took the position that what is an action film but a basic set-up which leads to a series of events that bring resolution to that initial set-up?  With most of our deliberations, movies or otherwise, it ended with a détente, reasoning that we were essentially both right in the case of this admittedly sleight but nonetheless entertaining technicolor-hued romp. (I’m a little more right…because I’m the one with the blog 🙂 )

Originally intended for major theatrical distribution when it was announced for production back in 2018, the film was bought by Netflix from its original production house STXfilms for its continuing summer series pledging new movies every week.  Gunpowder Milkshake fits right in with early 2021 title Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead thanks to over-the-top action and a willingness to go the extra mile with gore and ultra-violence throughout.  Unlike that earlier “zombies in Las Vegas” epic which was always meant for a major Netflix debut at home after its awards qualifying run in theaters, Gunpowder Milkshake feels as if it should have been first experienced on the big screen to allow audiences to truly be immersed in the environmental space Papushado and his collaborators have created.

After being abandoned by her assassin mother (Lena Headey, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) fifteen years earlier, Sam (Karen Gillan, Oculus) has followed in the footsteps of her estranged parent and learned to detach herself from the jobs she is sent on.  Under the wing of The Firm (not the Tom Cruise movie, the other one) and her contact Nathan (Paul Giamatti, Saving Mr. Banks, appearing far less blustery than usual), she has survived not only on her skill but her ability to do what she’s told and little else.  Her latest assignment has left a pile of bodies in her wake, one the son of a prominent gangster (Ralph Ineson, Dolittle) that now wants her dead.  To save themselves embarrassment and willing to lose their great asset, The Firm offers her up…a decision made easier by the fact that she just lost them a tidy sum of money.

Along with the money issues, Sam comes into a guardianship role for Emily (Chloe Coleman, My Spy), a precocious tot Sam feels she owes a debt to.  The Firm first sends a trio of their own henchmen to snuff her out, leading to a spectacular hallway battle where a disadvantaged Sam manages to come up with a clever way to gain the upper hand on her opponents.  It’s not the first of Papushado’s numerous breathless action sequences but it’s the one I remember feeling my jaw drop open out of surprise more than once.  A bowling alley, a library, a fantasy forest, and a fictional shipwreck are all locations that pulsate with color and provide ample playing space for cinematographer Michael Seresin (with a career spanning titles like 1980’s Fame and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes) to capture Gillan, Headey, and a trio of butt-kicking friends of the two women duke it out with a never-ending onslaught of henchmen.

Surprisingly, it’s the three reasons most will be enticed to see the film that may prove the most disappointing for some.  Those hoping to find Gunpowder Milkshake to be one featuring equal time for Angela Bassett (Soul), Carla Gugino (San Andreas), and Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) could be vexed at the long gaps the three vanish from sight.  Despite an early appearance, which shows good promise as Sam visits the library lair the women use as a front as well as a watchtower of sorts, we have to wait a solid 40-45 minutes before they are back again.  While all three get in on the action, it almost feels like Papushado waited too long to release his secret weapon.  Up until then, Gillan has remained strangely strained in her role, confusing detached for clipped and robotic.  Finding some moments of levity and lightness when Coleman enters the picture, Gillan comes to regard the youngster with some of the motherly protection she never received.

Miraculously, all of this finely dialed-up mayhem is an original work from Papushado and Ehud Lavski and not, as I had thought throughout, an adaptation of a previously published graphic novel.  You’d forgive me for thinking that, seeing that there are so many key points during the film where it feels like the filmmakers are paying fan service to something…else…that only specific audience members are meant to get something out of.  Mostly, it trends toward a mishmash of different styles from auteur filmmakers that need only go by their last name: Tarantino, Fincher, Bekmambetov, Leone, Besson.  For some, the nods may feel overly emblematic of a movie with no style of its own but I tended to enjoy the way Papushado took something we know as classic Leone (utilizing a haunting Ennio Morricone’s score) but giving it his own twist.

Running about ten minutes too long for my tastes, though with all the slow motion it likely clocks in around 104 minutes instead of 114, Gunpowder Milkshake’s vision may not be as boldly original as one might hope but there’s plenty of worth to be found within.  Despite Gillan’s uncharacteristically shaky leading performance, the supporting cast (especially Gugino) totally understands the tone of the film they’re in and plays it to the hilt.  I won’t spoil if all will come back for seconds but there’s enough story left to tell and you can bet an additional serving could be prepared if it proves popular with audiences.

Movie Review ~ The Mauritanian

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A detainee at the U.S military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center is held without charges for over a decade and seeks help from a defense attorney for his release.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Tahar Rahim, Zachary Levi

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I wouldn’t say the topic of The Mauritanian is something to get excited about, the release of it is because it signals another big screen (or small screen depending on your COVID-19 comfort level) appearance of Jodie Foster.  The notoriously picky Oscar winning actress doesn’t show up much in front of the camera these days, preferring to sit in the director’s chair more than anything else and while I appreciate the work she’s done for television and movies I do miss seeing her…she’s one of the best.  Foster returned (the same weekend The Silence of the Lambs turned 30, by the way) with this true-life story that casts her in a supporting role as famed criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander.  Even though many may be wary of another heavy-handed 9/11 political thriller, thanks to a powerful lead performance and assured direction this is one that should be given consideration.

Based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary, which was infamously released with a number of the pages heavily redacted (it was later re-published with all of the redactions fully restored), the film sets out to tell Slahi’s story from a mostly bipartisan standpoint.  Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Slahi was an electrical engineering student going to school on scholarship in Germany when he returned home to Mauritania for a wedding.  It was there the local police detained him after suspecting Slahi of ties to Al-Qaeda through his cousin and other loosely laced evidence that could easily be explained had he been given the opportunity.  This was 2002 and was only the beginning of a 14-year fight for freedom that would stretch across two presidential administrations, several countries, and many legal challenges.

By 2005, Slahi (Tahar Rahim) had been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay without being charged with a crime and subjected to the interrogation techniques that would be the downfall of several leading military officials.  Taking on the defense of a suspected 9/11 terrorist might seem like poison to an established professional like Hollander (Foster, Carnage) but something smells off to the seasoned attorney and she isn’t scared off by her disapproving colleagues or a stern military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917) out to thwart her progress.  Working with junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), Hollander meets with Slahi who might be the most dubious of all about her prospects at success.  Over time, she begins to win his trust as they begin to make the mightiest argument of Slahi’s life so he may reunite with his family and have his freedom restored.

Plenty of films have been made about the horrors that occurred at Guantanamo “Gitmo” and wisely director Kevin Macdonald (Whitney, How I Live Now) and screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani avoid making the focus of the film on that aspect of Slahi’s experience.  Instead, they shift the attention to Slahi’s current encounters with his attorney’s as well as detailing how he was moved from Mauritania to Gitmo.  Though Macdonald wants to frame some of this in mystery at times and adds some flash by changing the aspect ratio of the film (less obvious in a home viewing experience, probably), The Mauritanian is one of those experiences that works better when it sticks to the facts and tenets of straightforward narrative.  It’s when the Macdonald jumps around in the timeline that it becomes hard to follow and track.  For this film in particular, losing the thread of where we are in the overall Slahi lifecycle can set you back a few precious minutes.

Where the film is receiving the most notice are the performances of Rahim and Foster and I can’t help but agree that both are shouldering most of the weight, with a slight edge going to Rahim considering he’s the de facto lead of the film.  Rahim is able to take Slahi from an idealistic young man to a unjustly kept detainee without the urge to instill a bitter bite to his delivery.  Like the real Slahi who miraculously kept a positive outlook throughout even the worst of his low points, Rahim’s chin is always up and squared with his belief that he will be proven innocent.  Sporting a white-blonde wig and the reddest lipstick that’s just ever so slightly imperfect, Foster gives Hollander knowing authority and never backs down when challenged.  It’s exactly the type of role we want to see Foster chew on, and she happily snacks away…but does it with her mouth closed because while she takes big bites out of scenes, they aren’t obnoxious ones.

The supporting players are a bit all over the map.  Like she did within the cast of TV’s Big Little Lies, Woodley shrinks a bit when sharing the screen with more dominant females, eventually fading from view and memory.  In a small role that turns pivotal somewhat out of the blue, Zachary Levi (Shazam!) reminds you of John Krasinski and makes you wonder if Macdonald didn’t have that actor in mind originally for the part.  Levi is fine for the requirement but is missing some of the easy-going guard-down charisma someone like Krasinski could have brought to it.  Then we have Cumberbatch in a downright crazy wig and an even more eyebrow-raising accent.  Both don’t do him any favors and it’s another case of wondering if the actor wasn’t a last-minute replacement for someone else or if it was just a bit of casting that didn’t go as planned.  Scenes that should crackle between Foster and Cumberbatch only fizz and it’s largely because Foster is working harder than she has to as a way to make up for Cumberbatch’s lack of vigor.

While I wouldn’t rush out and line-up The Mauritanian for a Friday or Saturday night selection, this is a solid choice for a Sunday afternoon or mid-week bit of entertainment.  The story is quite a ride and kudos to the filmmakers for doing their level best to leave major politics at the door for what is ostensibly a movie all about political maneuvering.  Both Bush supporters and Obama fans will come away with something to grumble about, I’m sure, and that will lead to a good discussion…so be sure to choose your movie watching party carefully!

Movie Review ~ Greenland

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: John Garrity, his estranged wife and their young son embark on a perilous journey to find sanctuary as a planet-killing comet hurtles toward Earth.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn, David Denman, Hope Davis

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I feel like I should give a disclaimer at the top of this review for the new end of the world disaster film Greenland which is being released onto streaming platforms after its summer 2020 release was delayed.  Though it had already arrived in theaters over in Europe back in July, it’s just now entering the U.S. atmosphere for all of us to see.  My disclaimer is that though I’m going to be dissecting some finer points of Greenland along the way and they are going to come off as maybe a tad harsh, I am definitely landing squarely on the side of recommending this film on the quality of the filmmaking and its overall effectiveness as a motion picture.  Whatever you may think of the characters within or the timing of its release, the movie has an almost tangible presence while you’re watching it that makes for an unsettling viewing experience.

Director Ric Roman Waugh reteams with his Angel Has Fallen star Gerard Butler in hopes of reigniting that same good chemistry and recapturing the rich details of their unexpectedly excellent third sequel to London Has Fallen and Olympus Has Fallen.  The film starts rather innocuously with spare titles and news of a recently discovered interstellar comet, named Clarke, that is making headlines but isn’t cause for much concern.  Butler is an Atlanta-based structural engineer estranged from his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) but returning to help patch things up and host a party for his son (Roger Dale Floyd, Doctor Sleep) to watch the comet enter Earth’s orbit along with friends from their upper class neighborhood.

The fun stops quickly when John receives a message from the Office of Homeland Security notifying him that he, along with his family, have been selected for evacuation to a secret bunker and that they need to make their way to a designated location for transport immediately.  The comet’s trajectory has changed course and small fragments have begun to vaporize cities across the country and the world, with a massive sized chunk due to touch down in mere days, killing 75% of the population.  Leaving their dazed neighbors behind, the Garrity family heads for the transport base but getting to safety amidst the rising panic of a country not used to being denied access to anything proves to be a journey as perilous as the danger plummeting toward them from the sky.

Perhaps it’s just that as we’re reaching the end of 2020 I’ve had my fill of the selfishness I’ve seen overflowing in American cities, but there’s something about the actions of the central characters in Greenland that started to really annoy me early on.  Numerous times during the film John and Allison have a direct impact on preventing thousands of people making their way to safety (i.e. surviving) because of something stupid they’ve thrown a fit about being able to do (get on a plane, get off a plane, etc).  There’s even a scene where John says that if he can’t get on a plane, no one will be able to take off.  Is that really how we want our heroes in movies to act?  It’s likely something that every action hero or heroine has done in similar films throughout movie history but for some reason I couldn’t get over it while the film was rolling, and that frustration sat over me like a dark cloud straight through to the end of the movie.  Constant elbowing to the front of lines, moving from the back of crowds to the front touting their importance above the person next to them, numerous demands of attention needing to be paid right then and there while millions of lives hang in the balance echoes a lot of the kind of behavior we’re seeing today.  Then again, it could be one other thing.

Maybe…well.  How do I say it?  Maybe it’s also because there’s so much whiteness in the film as well.  There, I’ve said it.  That’s what’s really bothering me.  On more than one occasion, one of the Garrity family is directly helped by a minority character who either winds up sacrificing their life for a Garrity to survive or becomes collateral damage because of the actions caused by something a Garrity did or didn’t do.  It almost becomes a farce after a while because each person they meet you are almost counting down the minutes until they’re either dispatched or disappear without so much as a goodbye wave.  Complaining to a black female military official that she and her son aren’t able to board a plane to safety for those selected to go to the survival bunker, the official (Merrin Dungey, who faced another comet in 1998’s Deep Impact) tells Allison that her family wasn’t even allowed to go to the bunker and Allison takes it in for a moment, shrugs it off, and then asks for help finding her husband so they can get on the plane together.  It’s a constant feeling of “me first above all else” that starts to grate on you.

So, it almost feels wrong to whip my head around and tell you that Greenland is still quite an entertaining film…but it is.  Yes, it has some serious issues in the moral character department (strangely and in a scary way, it’s not as far-fetched as it may sound) but it finds a way to by-pass those problematic stumbling blocks with grounding the actors and situations with as much realism as possible.  Other disaster films are all about the massive visual effects and destruction scenes and while those are present here, Waugh is more adept at creating dread than causing mayhem.  The movie is infinitely more effective when it is leaving us to think about our current situation and what we’d do if faced with days left with nowhere to run.  It is frightening, I admit.

Arguably an experience that would be more impressive on the big screen, watching Greenland at home isn’t a total loss because at least when the tension gets too high you can (as I did) jump up and pace at your leisure without worrying about bothering your neighbors.  Fans of Butler will be pleased with his continued run of middle-aged do-gooders trying to do-good (even if John Garrity is, as mentioned already, kind of a Karen) and Baccarin is a fine match for him in the action scenes as well as the dramatic ones that make up the front end of the movie.  Watch with confidence of a film that delivers on its promise of entertainment value for the full two hours but do take note of what I’m talking about and see if you know what I mean about the whole “me first” attitude…

Movie Review ~ Songbird (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 2024 a pandemic ravages the world and its cities. Centering on a handful of people as they navigate the obstacles currently hindering society: disease, martial law, quarantine, and vigilantes.

Stars: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Craig Robinson, Peter Stormare

Director: Adam Mason

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve boo-hoo-ed enough on here about how much I miss the experience of going to the theaters and cherishing that feeling of sitting in a darkened movie house with a packed crowd waiting for something exciting to happen.  What I don’t think I’ve spoken of is the flip side to that, the exasperation of dragging yourself out of the house after a long day of work (yes, some of us have to keep that day job), battling traffic and often out of the way theaters, and then getting a turkey of a film for your efforts.  That’s likely why so many critics get such a bee in their bonnet over not that bad films…it’s just because they were annoyed they left their house for a middle of the road piffle that was neither here nor there.

That’s why it’s been nice to not have to leave the house while watching a stinker, you literally can roll over and go to sleep if you want when it’s over; or, in the case of the dreary Sometimes Always Never, wake up first, brush your teeth, and then go to bed.  So should you happen to get the urge to commit some electronic funds to the el dweeb-o new Michael Bay produced pandemic thriller Songbird upon its release, you won’t be kicking yourself for wasting precious gas money for the round trip out to the theater.

The first movie to shoot in L.A. since the onslaught of COVID-19 shut down most Hollywood films, Songbird is an odd duck of a film that never can quite decide what it wants to be.  Shot in 19 days over the summer of 2020 and coming under early scrutiny for kinda-maybe-probably not adhering to all the health protocols put in place while filming, writer/director Adam Mason aims for a sort of ensemble feel but winds up with no one story or character that’s interesting enough to invest in.  Even worse, timely as it may be, there’s something just a tad ugly about releasing a film via Paid Video on Demand about the continued deaths attributed to COVID-23 right as many are in lockdown and facing a dark winter ahead.

In 2024, over 100 million people have died from the spread of COVID-23 which continues to mutate and is airborne.  Half of all people who contract it will die but there are a rare few that have proven to be immune to the virus, bearers of a coveted yellow bracelet that goes for big bucks on the black market. These people can roam free outdoors, though there’s not much out there to be living for.  Instead, the majority of the population exist behind glass walls and UV cleansing spaces where they receive items from the outside and take their temperature daily through an app and pray it doesn’t detect a virus.  Should they fail their test, armed guards come to take them and everyone in their house to quarantine zone (Q-Zone) from which no one returns.

Mason introduces a wealth of characters in quick order, keeping his eye on the 85-minute run time that is swiftly ticking away.  There’s bike messenger Nico (KJ Apa) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson, Dolittle) making deliveries to wealthy families like the Griffins (Demi Moore, About Last Night and Bradley Whitford, Saving Mr. Banks).  The Griffins make their money selling those yellow immune bracelets to high-paying friends and are in business with the shady head of the Sanitation Department (Peter Stormare, Clown) who doubles as the one that comes to cart people away to the Q-Zones.  Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) plays a wheelchair bound vet and associate of Lester’s who takes time in between flying his drone to follow aspiring singer May (Alexandra Daddario, We Summon the Darkness) on social media.  May, meanwhile, has a connection to one of the above-mentioned individuals that’s a bit of a spoiler so I’ll keep that one secret to myself.

That’s enough plot for most two hour films but Mason isn’t quite done – we’re not even into the main plotline yet.  Nico loves Sara (Sofia Carson) who he’s never met but talks to from behind her apartment door where she lives with her grandmother.  With their plans on starting a new life together if/when a cure is found, the Romeo + Juliet parallels are hard to miss, but it’s too bad that Apa and Carson don’t have a chemistry that could keep some sort of fire burning between the two.  When Sara’s safety is threatened, Nico has to find a way to get her out of the city before she winds up in a Q-Zone of no return…and to do that he’ll have to use his connections and resources in a short amount of time.  Ditching his bike for a motorcycle (what is this, Premium Rush?), Nico races around a danger zone of a city to avoid being caught by double-crossing government agents and making it back to Sara before she’s gone forever.

It almost feels at times that Songbird was made long before Hollywood was shut down and the filmmakers went back in post-production to overlay the words COVID in place of whatever random disease name was previously there.  Despite being sold as a pandemic thriller, there’s very little in the way of actual thrills on display and once you realize this is all going to be about finding a way for Nico and Sara to be together the interest just empties from the film in a flash.  At first, I was pulled in a bit at Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes set-up and though I shudder at the thought of our current lock-down extending, gulp, another four years the film presented at least a visually impressive view of a Los Angeles ravaged by a mass exodus.  The longer it plays, the more I grew bored with it because the characters are so bland and there are just so dang many of them.

Leads Apa and Carson are charming enough holding solo scenes to themselves but not totally ready to carry their own film yet, even forgettable fare like this.  You can see Apa possibly developing into a decent boyfriend character for a popular star down the road but not this type of nervy action hero…it’s not for him.  Carson was the better of the two on the whole, though Mason doesn’t know quite what to do with her; once she’s put in peril she becomes that sad standard female that needs saving.  I quite liked Moore as a ballsy take-charge mama bear protecting her immune-compromised daughter but when she ditches subtlety toward the end the character gets away from her.  Hauser and Daddario have worthlessly thankless parts and they know it, the less said about their awkward conversations about war, the better.  At this point, I’m not ever sure how to classify what Stormare is doing…it’s so kooky and weird that I guess in some way it works almost by accident, but this is a well he’s returned to so many times that he’s just repeating old hat characters now and collecting a paycheck.

Blessedly skipping a run in theaters and heading straight to streaming, I’m not sure how many people unable to visit their favorite local small business or go to a restaurant are going to want to watch a film about an endless plague with no hope in sight.  No time would really be right for this but is the second week of December really the best choice they could come up with?  Watch, it will snow real soon and you’ll be tempted to watch Songbird (by the way, the title makes no sense whatsoever.  What. So. Ever.) when it’s bleak and horrible out.  And you’ll feel worse after.  Don’t take the bait.  This tune is foul.

Movie Review ~ My Spy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers, Greg Bryk

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The last movie I had on my schedule to see in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down was My Spy and to be honest it was a film I was considering skipping all together.  Sometimes you just have to say no to movies you don’t think you’ll like, right?  I know that makes me sound less like the well-rounded critic I profess to be but if you are going in with some preconceived notion that predetermines you to not like the film, you aren’t going to give the movie a fair shot…and that’s almost worse, right?  I offer this up at the beginning of my review for My Spy because when the film was eventually snapped up by Amazon to be released via the streaming service and an opportunity to review it at home came up – I was desperate for a comedy to watch and accepted the mission with little reservation.

Again, dear reader, I say to you that The MN Movie Man is not infallible and I’m not sure if my craving for a laugh overcame my critical eye or what but I found My Spy to be the kind of easy to digest fun that is a rare treat to enjoy.  It’s a harmless endeavor that showcases the continued appeal of Dave Bautista and makes a stronger case for the wrestler turned actor to keep headlining projects that show him flexing not only his muscles but his comedic chops.  Further, bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to streaming was the best thing that could have happened to My Spy because it gives the film a fighting chance to be seen/enjoyed by more than just the target family audience…which it’s not even a great fit for.

Freshman CIA agent JJ (Bautista, Skyfall) biffs a major weapons trade as the film opens, a big blunder that doesn’t sit well with his boss (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians, in his umpteenth iteration of the perpetually annoyed authority figure role) who quickly busts him down to a low impact stakeout in Chicago.  Paired with nerdy tech Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, Toy Story 4) that has a fangirl crush on JJ’s agent status, the two are keeping an eye on the sister-in-law and niece of a French baddie trying to build a nuclear bomb.  What should be an easy and uneventful assignment gets complicated when wiser-than-her-years fourth-grader Sophie (Chloe Coleman) figures out what JJ and Bobbi are up to.  Blackmailing the CIA agent into being her friend, protector, and trainer in all things spy, Sophie puts the tough as nails JJ through the ringer and, not wanting to further get in trouble with the home office, he complies.  Visiting school for career day, ice skating in the park, and making a good impression on her mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley) are all part of the bargain in balancing his double life, even as the danger of Sophie’s uncle draws closer.

Though it has its moments of originality here and here, I couldn’t help but think that the script from Erich Hoeber (The Meg) & Jon Hoeber (Battleship) reminded me an awful lot of Kindergarten Cop.  Thankfully, it reminded of the good parts of that movie and director Peter Segal (Second Act) keeps things moving along with workmanlike efficiency.  It’s largely a predictable affair but then again you likely didn’t go into My Spy thinking you’ll be surprised by the plot – it’s best to just fire it up and let it roll.  It has some geniune moments of fun and they don’t all come at the expense of low brow jokes and gags — even the usually grating Schaal has a few potent zingers that land right on target.

The main thing that’s wrong with the film at the end of it all is that I’m not sure who the target audience is.  Carrying a PG-13 rating and justly earning it thanks to violence and other content behooving some parental caution, this wouldn’t be a movie for families to enjoy in line with their PG movie night.  It also wouldn’t be something I think would appeal to the Bautista base that know him from the Guardians of the Galaxy films.  That leaves it in a strange limbo place where the audience will have to find it on their own which is why I think the streaming platform was the best place for it to debut.  If you do choose My Spy (as a guilty pleasure watch or otherwise), do so with confidence because it’s far better than it looks and more entertaining than you’d think.

Movie Review ~ Hustlers


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of exotic dancers get their revenge on wealthy, drunk and abusive clients by maxing out their credit cards after they’ve passed out.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lizzo, Cardi B

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few years back, a different side to the world of male strippers was shown in Magic Mike and its superior sequel Magic Mike XXL.  Both films went beyond the flesh flash to give insight into a different walk (lapdance?) of life, with the results trending more toward the comedic than the dramatic.  Solidifying the rising star of Channing Tatum and partly based on his own life, the movie opened the door for A-list talent to approach parallel roles with confidence.  The first film was also notable for being one of the first stops of the infamous McConaissance, highlighting Matthew McConaughey’s return to fine form that wound up with him just narrowly missing being nominated for an Oscar for his work.  There’s similar Oscar buzz surrounding Hustlers, another true-life tale of strippers behaving badly, but this time I think the performance in question has the goods to go all the way.

Based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler and adapted by director Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers charts the rise and fall of a group of exotic dancers that started bilking their customers for thousands of dollars through an elaborate scheme involving unscrupulous measures.  Sticking close to the source material, Scafaria changes the names and softens a few of the situations but manages to remain remarkably in step with Pressler’s original story.  The article is a good read and the movie is a decent watch, though neither linger substantially in the memory long after you’ve completed them.

In 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) is working at a popular NYC strip club under the name Destiny but not seeing much of a future in the work.  Pulling in pennies compared to the wads of cash her colleagues take home, she’s barely scraping by in the New Jersey house she shares with her grandmother.  One night, she catches an onstage performance from Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, Second Act) and witnesses the way men literally throw mountains of bills at her feet.  Going beyond mere stage presence, Ramona possesses an immeasurable “it” factor that can’t be taught…but she takes Destiny under her wing anyway.  Together, the two women become a dynamic duo…until the financial crisis throws everything into a tailspin.

Though she leaves the club life for a while, eventually Destiny returns to a much different climate and without her partner.  When she crosses paths with Ramona again, she finds her old pal has a different way of earning money and, while it might not be on the up and up, it’s a lot easier than what they’d been required to do before.  Looping in two former dancers (Keke Palmer, Joyful Noise and Lili Reinhart, The Kings of Summer), the ladies begin targeting wealthy men and drugging them, bringing them back to the club, running their credit cards up, and pocketing the cash.  The men don’t report it because they can’t remember what exactly happened, for all they know they had a great time and just passed out.   For a while, this system works but, as with most organized crime set-ups, the good times don’t last and soon things start to fall apart.

What keeps the film interesting at every turn is Lopez doing some of her all-time best work as Ramona, the ringleader of the operation.  While the brains of the business eventually fall to Destiny when Ramona’s focus strays elsewhere, the original orchestration of the scam was Ramona’s and Lopez makes the character’s motivations understandable if not downright likable.  Lopez is in killer shape and has several meme-worthy moments – it’s totally likely an Oscar nomination is in her future for her performance, though I wouldn’t exactly engrave the statute quite yet.  As good as she is, I’m not completely convinced it’s an Oscar-winning role.

Less successful is Wu, struggling in vain to hold our attention anytime Lopez is off-screen (and anytime she is onscreen, actually) and the movie is weakened substantially for it.  Giving rather blandly blank line readings that are missing key emotive shifts, Wu doesn’t build on the promise she showed so well in Crazy Rich Asians.  You’re tempted to blame Lopez on shining too brightly but there’s a generosity of spirit in what Lopez is doing, gamely sharing the screen with anyone/everyone and Wu should have taken better advantage of this.  In all fairness, Reinhart and Palmer are kinda duds as well so Wu gets little help from them either.  Boo to the marketing materials flaunting Lizzo and Cardi B on the poster for the film, both appear briefly in glorified cameos.

Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) keeps the movie going at a good clip, bouncing between Destiny in 2007 and again in 2014 when Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, Closed Circuit) is interviewing her for a magazine article about her crimes.  The narrative device works well, though I missed the article’s slight assertation that Destiny might not be the most reliable of narrators.  In Scafaria’s eyes, Destiny is playing straight with Elizabeth and it colors too inside the lines to make the character truly come to life with any added dimension.  While it’s a smart move to have a woman in the director’s chair to tell this story, there are some elements that feel too restrained or, dare I say it, respectful.  Taking place in a hard-edged NYC strip club, this one happens to be the one in which no one is naked 98% of the time.  I don’t need nudity, don’t get me wrong, but a little more authenticity would have helped.

While the movie is fun, it’s rarely more than your standard caper film with the ultimate expected dénouement lurking around the corner at the 90 minute mark.  I kept wanting things to get taken up a notch or pivot in a different direction but found the material and some of the performances didn’t measure up, especially when Lopez seems to be so polished.

Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
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Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ The Upside

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m going to level with you and let you know that for the most part remakes are just not my cup of tea.  I just don’t see the point of the exercise so unless you are going to go your own way (hello, Suspiria), then I’d rather filmmakers spend their time on creating new work.  Don’t even get me started on American remakes of foreign films, just another way Hollywood plays into the notion that audiences won’t sit for two hours reading subtitles.  Box office notwithstanding, there are but a few examples where an English film has surpassed its international counterpart but there are times when a movie makes the leap over the ocean to our shores without tarnishing our good memories of the original.

Thankfully, The Upside is an example of the happy path a film can take when translated and it has arrived in theaters by the skin of its teeth, nearly lost indefinitely due to a controversy within its production house that delayed its release for nearly a year.  Originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, when the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein sent waves through Hollywood their slate of films set for release were canned and sold off to other studios.  It’s unfortunate The Upside suffered under this melee because, while imperfect, it’s largely an audience pleasing dramedy that feels like the kind of critic-proof feel-gooder that could be a sleeper hit if audiences bite.

Based on Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables from 2011, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work with some modifications that I felt were improvements…but more on that later.  The set-up is still the same: mega-millionaire Phillip (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) is a quadriplegic looking for a new care-giver who chooses recent parolee Dell (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer) against the advice of his executive (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased) because he’s the least qualified for the job.  The two are a mismatched pair with Aretha Franklin loving Dell clashing with opera-fan Phillip in fairly benign ways.  As Dell learns more about responsibility after largely being absent from his own son’s life and Phillip gets a new lease on living via Dell’s tough love methods, the two form exactly the bond you expect but don’t arrive there in quite the way you’d think.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere have tinkered with the story, removing some of the more white savior-esque moments from the original which just wouldn’t have gone over well in this age where everything is under a different microscope.  Dell is more of a fleshed out character than his French counterpart was, there’s less imposed upon him but rather he is the driving force in many of the key developments of the movie.  There’s also an interesting splitting of one character into two (kinda) and the insertion of a tense scene between Phillip and woman played by Julianna Margulies (Ghost Ship).  With movies like Green Book running afoul of the PC police, I feel The Upside slides by largely without incident.  In the end I guess you could unfairly boil it down to it being about a rich white guy somewhat educating, and by proxy being educated by, a poor black man but the movie rises above that antiquated trope largely on the strength of its casting.

We talk a lot about chemistry in the movies and how hard it is to come by and it’s clear at this point that Hart can create chemistry with just about any costar you put him with.  Cranston has his moments as well but Hart is what really fuels the film even when it teeters into preachy schmaltz or cornball familiar territory.  He’s dialed his routine down a few notches but that hasn’t diminished his delivery or screen energy.  It’s not hard to see why there was early buzz on his performance being a bit of a revelation.  Confined to a wheelchair and not able to move his extremities, Cranston can only use his face to sell the scenes and it turns out that restraint works wonders for coming across less earnest.  Though saddled with a wig that always seems like it needed to be brushed, Kidman’s tightly wound exec gets to cut loose a few times, though some developments later in the film feel a tad underdeveloped (if not wholly underwritten).

It’s surprising to me how popular The Intouchables remains seven years after its release.  It was the second biggest film in France that year and last time I checked it was #40 on IMDb’s list of Top 250 films…ahead of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I quite liked the film that inspired The Upside and was surprised at how easy this remake went over with not just me but the audience I screened it with.  The laughs were where they should be and, as expected, when the credits rolled it was met with enthusiastic applause.  This says to me that audiences won’t be swayed by critics thumbing their nose at this decently entertaining buddy film.  I’d still suggest watching the original but if you’ve given that one a spin then there’s no downside to seeking out The Upside.

Movie Review ~ Second Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A big box store worker reinvents her life and her life-story and shows Madison Avenue what street smarts can do.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams, Milo Ventimiglia

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s a feeling you get while watching Second Act that you’ve been magically transported back to the early 2000s when movie studios were still making mid-range comedies that weren’t based on a comic book or an established franchise.  This was a time when a 30 million-dollar movie could get greenlit on star power alone and make its money back in the opening weekend before going on to enjoy a healthy life with repeat viewings on cable or well-worn DVDs.  Alas, this is 2018 and even if Second Act isn’t the same kind of slam-dunk destined for repeat viewings guilty pleasure we want it to be, it’s certainly a nice blast of nostalgia with several modern twists that keep it interesting.

When she misses out on a big promotion at her Wal-Mart-ish job she more than deserves that coincides with a milestone birthday, Maya (Jennifer Lopex, The Boy Next Door, radiant as ever) is feeling down in the dumps.  Though comforted by her best friend Joan (Leah Remini) and boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, Kiss of the Damned) she can’t get over the fact that just because she doesn’t have a college degree it means she can’t advance in her career even if she has earned it.  Thanks to Joan’s whiz-kid son, with a little fancy internet tweaking and resume fudging Maya lands and interview and eventual consulting job with a beauty company in New York City.

I’m going to stop right there because that’s what the previews for Second Act have told you and it’s better if I let you see for yourself how the story develops.  Let it be known that Second Act isn’t exactly the movie it has marketed itself to be (sorry ladies, an early shirtless Ventimiglia scene is the closest you’re going to get to romantic territory) and that’s not entirely a bad thing.  You can see why Lopez, who scored so many early hits in the rom-com genre got the script for this and found it to be worthy of her time and producing effort.  It’s formulaic as all get-out but it works in ways that surprised me more than I thought it would.

Playing to its target audience by sending Maya on a Cinderella-esque story from rags to riches (with stops at all the major designer stores along the way) and putting her up in a swanky NYC apartment, the only thing screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas don’t give Maya is much of a personality.  Lopez sells the material well but Maya is often the passive viewer in her own life story, acquiescing to the wishes of others and not standing up for herself.  Case in point, though she has told him over and over again she wants to advance in her career Ventimiglia’s character keeps giving her a guilt trip about delaying starting a family — why doesn’t Maya ever say “No, dude, I don’t want to start a family…I’m 40 years old and want to be an executive!”  In all honesty, the entire Ventimiglia storyline could be excised without losing anything major…except for a small sampling of its female demographic.

Director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) doesn’t do anything special from a technical perspective but he gets the right people in the room and lets the charm of the collective hive carry the movie through some of the cheesier fare.  Aside from Lopez (who seems to change into one glorious costume/hairstyle every 30 seconds), Remini scores a win as Maya’s smart-acre sidekick (you can absolutely tell the two are besties in real life) and I got a kick out of Annaleigh Ashford (Frozen), Charlyne Yi (The Disaster Artist), and Alan Aisenberg as Maya’s coworkers who bring their own comedic oddities to their screen time.  Only Vanessa Hudgens (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as Maya’s corporate rival struggles to stay convincing, though Lopez tends to elevate her anytime they share a scene.

With so many movies out this holiday season, I’m guessing this isn’t going to make that big of a dent in the box office but will likely find a better audience when it’s available to watch at home.  It likely will play better on the smaller screen, too, and might have even made a bigger splash as, say, a Netflix original film.  Still, for those like me who mourn the death of these types of smaller genre films Second Act is a nice reminder that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Movie Review ~ The Happytime Murders


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When the puppet cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begin to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Leslie David Baker, Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Klash

Director: Brian Henson

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Continuing the entertainment industry’s penchant for turning the sweet and cuddly into rude and raunchy, The Happytime Murders comes from none other than the son of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. Brian Henson grew up in Muppet-land and even directed Muppet Treasure Island and the enduring chestnut that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Like a former child star that decides to pose in Playboy, Henson wants to show us all how grown up he is by pandering to the lowest common denominator, not just in jokes but in filmmaking. The results is a gross, stupid movie that elicits a few shocked laughs but more often than not earns a somber silence.

At the screening I attended for The Happytime Murders there was a problem with the projection and they had to stop the film about five minutes in. This turned out to be a blessing. Not only did it get rid of the foreign language subtitles that had been mistakenly turned on but it also gave audiences a chance to see what a second viewing of the movie might be like.  And it wasn’t pretty.  The first time a puppet swore, there was a huge reaction from the crowd. When a female puppet said something repulsively filthy, you could hear shrieks of stunned cackles. Then the movie stopped to fix the issue and they started it from the beginning. The next time these same jokes came around not ten minutes later, there were light titters but the odd feeling we knew it wasn’t truly funny the first time.

Aping on the classic film noir, the film follows disgraced cop turned private investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta, Muppets Most Wanted) as he teams up with his former partner (Melissa McCarthy, The Boss) to solve a series of murders. All the victims were members of a popular kids show, the first of its kind to show puppets and humans on equal ground, even though in reality puppets are seen as second-class citizens humans can do whatever they want with. At the same time, Phillips gets tangled up with a femme fatale client (voiced by Dorien Davies) being blackmailed who has more than her fair share of skeletons in the closet.

The set-up is not so far afield from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett but I doubt either writer could have ever thought they’d be mentioned in a review about trampy puppets that secrete, excrete, and swear like sailors. Screenwriter Todd Berger’s weary script resurrects ‘90s-era groaners in between languid exposition and tired twists. Any audience member that’s watched a police procedural in the last three decades will be able to spot the killer and figure out their motive long before our hero does.

There’s probably no point in poking holes in the logic here but I’m going to give it a go. The way that Berger and Henson see it, puppets are little more than socks filled with fluff so it’s easy to watch them get torn up, blown up, or wrung out without cringing too much. Yet at the same time we’re led to believe that a human can receive an organ transplant from a puppet that supposedly isn’t made of any kind of tissue and just how are these puppets popping out Easter eggs when frightened or ejaculating silly string when excited? If they aren’t more than stuffing, where is the glitter pee coming from? I won’t even get into the scene set in a sex shop that features an octopus doing terrible things with their eight arms to a ecstatic cow.

Poor McCarthy, she’s regressing right back into the gutter humor that did her no favors in films like This is 40 and Tammy. While she’s made a bid in the last few years for respect with Spy and Life of the Party, here she’s slumming it once again and apparently without much arm-twisting. This is a tired performance from an actress that usually shows boundless energy. The same sorrow can be felt for Maya Rudolph (Inherent Vice) who gives great moll but is stuck delivering her lines to a puppet – it’s a lot of energy being spent for absolutely no result. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 3) another actress like McCarthy that has experience with ribald comedy, deserves some sort of award for sportsmanship for the scene where she peels a carrot in order to sexually excite a trio of rabbits.  Proving he’s definitely no movie star once and for all, Joel McHale (Blended) pops up as a grimacing FBI agent and manages to miss every potential laugh.

The most shocking thing about the movie is that, based on the audience I saw the film with, parents actually are considering it OK to bring their kids. This is nowhere near an acceptable film for anyone under 17 and this is coming from someone who saw a heap of inappropriate films in the theater before I was old enough to drive. Parents…please, don’t bring your kids to this. YOU don’t even have to go…and, in fact, you shouldn’t.