It’s sink or swim time at the multiplex, and Seth Gordon’s feeble film adaptation of guilty pleasure lifeguards on the loose TV series Baywatch (C-), complete with beach-side booty and treasured chests but not much else, fails to deliver enough compelling content to stay afloat. Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are fine in stock roles as mismatched ocean-side officers, trading tired barbs and partaking in minor action sequences. Priyanka Chopra adds some sinister and Kelly Rohrbach some sweetness to a reed-thin plot line about a ritzy resort with a drug-dealing underground. The movie keeps its surf-ready bodies front and center but rarely scratches the surface in terms of consistent tone, wit or sentiment. It never quite settles on whether it’s a full-fledged parody, a hard-R comedy or just an action lark set in a familiar retro milieu. This is another comedic knockoff of the 21 Jump Street formula that just can’t capture magic in a bottle. Folks shouldn’t plan an adult swim or a breezy getaway expecting much out of this movie.
Told in multicolor hues that would make a frappuccino unicorn whinny and packed to the gills with gee-whiz gadgetry, action and laughter, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (B+) is most successful when it examines the unconventional family dynamics of Marvel’s outer space superheroes. With baby on board (Groot, that is, and his highjinks are precious), the Guardians’ shipmates encounter Peter’s father and Gamora’s sister, among assorted new characters, and must reflect on their place in the universe. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista display natural chemistry and charm. It’s like a Corleone saga with blasters and dick jokes. The new planets and plot lines are full of intrigue, and the dialogue is witty and wise. It’s an early summer movie that delivers the goods.
Despite being imminently topical as a meditation on privacy in the age of social media, James Ponsoldt’s The Circle (C-) manages to misfire in its major story arch, acting choices, thematic intensity and ultimate resolution. Emma Watson bears the burden of an underwritten role as the protagonist who joins an all-encompassing social networking company that takes an increasing interest in her personal life regardless of moral implications. Tom Hanks phones in a role as the is-he-smug-or-isn’t-he? company visionary. None of the actors in the ensemble is immune to the film’s deadly direction and trite dialogue. The film’s far-fetched plot points are made even more preposterous by their gaping holes. At least two incidents of miscasting lead to less than satisfying dramatic results and at utter lack of suspense. This movie is a major missed opportunity to connect and contemplate with the world of the here and now.
Book blogger Ashley Williams reviews the novel and the film, and we do a joint Q&A here on The Book Fetish blog.
F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious (B-), the eighth film in the adrenaline-soaked automobiles and action series (and the reported first part of a three-film story arch of international espionage involving a cyberterrorism ring), logs a lot of miles to deliver its promised blockbuster goods. Heroes in hacking and hot-roding such as Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are in fine form as Vin Diesel’s character is co-opted into a diabolical plan versus his mates by a criminal mastermind played by Charlize Theron. As Cipher, the film’s most interesting character, Theron singlehandedly ups the game. Her dialogue delivery is cunning, and it’s a hoot to watch her weaponize driverless cars on the streets of New York as easily as she mobilizes Russian submarines to torpedo our heroes. There’s a funny bit involving Jason Statham and a baby and a lovely cameo with Dame Helen Mirren (yup). Part of the fun of these films is the wanderlust, but Gray guides this entry all over the place. The pre-title sequence in Havana, featuring a fiery photo finish of a road race, may be the most simple and satisfying auto stunt in the whole movie. Later as we slog from Berlin to Russia with every type of pile-up possible, it occasionally feels like 13 year olds are going wild with their matchbox cars. Still, there’s an undeniable alchemy at work here, with machismo humor, high caliber stunts and those spoilers polished like a thing of beauty that keep folks clamoring for more.
If you’ve ever felt like the late-night denizens on a bender in your neighborhood bar or Uber pool could be as destructive to urban life as Godzilla, Mothra or a Giant Robot, you’ll find comfort in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (B-), a hit or miss sci-fi fantasy with grander repercussions than are actually explored on screen. Anne Hathaway plays against type as a flighty NYC writer perpetually experiencing alcohol induced blackouts. Coinciding with her rural reboot to her childhood hometown, a worldwide panic breaks out with a gigantic monster appearing in Korea, and our protagonist and the creature just may be connected. Hathaway solidly anchors a far fetched and somewhat plot hole laden experiment with a tinge of a theme about the ripple effects of domestic squabbles and their unintended consequences. It’s a good thing the film’s undercurrents lean a bit on the feminist since the men in the ensemble including Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens and Tim Blake Nelson are fairly dreadful. The effects are impressive for what seems like a cult indie. Ultimately, it wasn’t quite an OMG when I was hoping it would at least be a BFG.
The actor Chris Evans superbly inhabits the role of his young lifetime as a caretaker uncle of a child prodigy in Mark Webb’s moving melodrama Gifted (B+). It’s easy to dismiss the film as Good Will Hunting: Junior Edition, Kramer vs. Kramer: Special Girl Genius Unit or even what happens next if Manchester by the Sea were just a wee bit less melancholy; but under Webb’s assured direction, the drama about whether Evans is the right person to rear a precocious first grader (solid child actor Mckenna Grace) plays out with freshness and even some third act surprises. Evans’ character, the beach bum brother of a deceased math genius, shines in his role opposite Grace, and the bond they create is indelible. The cast is roundly excellent, from Jenny Slate as a quirky teacher to Octavia Spencer as a supportive neighbor and maternal figure. But it is great stage actress Lindsay Duncan (last seen as the acerbic critic in Birdman) who steals her scenes as the controlling grandmother whose dreams of solving the great mathematical challenges of our era fall on her pint-sized progeny. You can see much of the conflict coming from a mile away, and yet the characters are real, the dialogue crisp and the tearjerking earned. It’s ultimately an uplifting tale of the sacrifices one makes for family. It’s a smart film about smart people and should enrich those who discover it.
Despite being overstuffed and overproduced, Emma Watson is by far the best special effect in Bill Condon’s live action Beauty & the Beast (B-) as the luminous leading lady who enlivens the fairy tale proceedings with enchanting radiance. Attempts to color outside the lines of the 1991 animated musical’s story and to lovingly re-create iconic classic sequences are both a mixed bag: the opulent “I want” song called “Belle” is simply smashing, awash with propulsive joy and resplendent color, but by the time an awkwardly unappetizing “Be Our Guest” is served up by curiously stilted anthropomorphic antiques, it’s more of a test of endurance than the whimsical showstopper that played out as a cartoon. A star-studded cast is squandered; set pieces seem limited to one village, one castle and one CGI forest; and the awkwardness of an inter-species romance feels a little strange when everyone isn’t rendered in line art. Luke Evans is quite good as Gaston, and there’s some new back story that provides intrigue for those concerned this will simply be a shot for shot remake. It’s good source material, so the original Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are a delight (the new Alan Menken/Tim Rice song snippets aren’t as good). See it mainly for Watson’s game take on a Disney heroine (better still, see this actress in Perks of Being a Wallflower). Otherwise, there’s not much here that wasn’t there before.
These sleazy riders receive a citation and a C- for being decidedly middle of the road. Dax Shepard wrote, directed and stars as Jon opposite Michael Peña’s Ponch in the buddy comedy film based on the vintage TV show CHiPS, and the West coast chill vibe is so pervasive that the movie nearly forgets to identify a protagonist or conflict. By the time it introduces eyebrow-raising vulgarities and daredevil motorcycle stunts, the flourishes seem largely superfluous. Peña is the comic find here, playing against his usual stoic dramatic type to quite enjoyable effect. Shepard exerts occasional wit and flair behind the camera and proves a deft physical comedian. Together the central duo has good chemistry but not much to do. 21 Jump Street did this same shtick better.
Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze (C-) is puzzlingly one-note, like a student film stretched incessantly to feature length and a bit too pleased with its random acts of peculiarity. When a frustrated thirty-year-old (Nick Thune, unconvincing) builds a cardboard labyrinth in his apartment and unwittingly “boxes” his hipster friends within a walled garden that starts taking on a life of its own, metaphors and minotaurs are unleashed with reckless abandon. The acting is largely unconvincing and sometimes insufferable, but there are some nifty practical effects and epic moments of stoner whimsy sure to charm. It’s hard to completely dislike a film in which the ensemble is temporarily re-cast with paper-bag puppets. There are a few surprises around some of the corners, and Meera Rohit Kumbhani is fiercely committed to her underwritten role. Ultimately the story simply can’t support its playful premise and starts to feel more like a dumpster dive than a flight of fantasy.
Note: A hit at the Slamdance Film Festival, DMAM was featured as the opening night movie of the 41st Annual Atlanta Film Festival. #ATLFF
In the latest case of CGI taxidermy, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (C+) plumbs a menagerie of good ideas but doesn’t zero in on any of them well enough. Set in the post-Vietnam War era, a band of American explorers sets sail to an uncharted land filled with mythical creatures and must confront if they are the peacekeepers or oppressors of their new jungle. Early sequences have a fabulous Raiders of the Lost Ark or Rocketeer type vibe but devolve into video game overload style anarchy. The film is notable for the sheer randomness it allows its cast members to bite the dust. Frankly, others could have joined them. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are among the charmless ensemble. There were two to three spectacular action sequences stitched together with a lot of awkward exposition in between. I’ve had better times with animated apes at Chuck E Cheese.