Although largely a by-the-books action comedy, Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City (B) is handsomely produced and features Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum each doing what they do best. It’s a lot like Romancing the Stone with a novelist who gets embroiled in one of the types of exotic anthropological excursions ripped from her own fiction. Bullock is appealing in both her physical humor pratfalls (she performs several sequences while tied to a chair and many in a glittery jumpsuit) and in her authorial interplay with Tatum’s dim witted character who is cover model of her elevated bodice rippers and unexpected co-adventurer. Daniel Radcliffe feels like he’s cameoing in a different movie as a caricatured villain whose best sequence involves a whirlwind of charcuterie; meanwhile Brad Pitt is a delight in his brief sequences as a charming mercenary, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph also hilariously steals her scenes as a publicist at wit’s end. This movie handily delivers on its populist fun and sometimes transcends its formula, even as its pacing sometimes misses the mark. Both the leads utter some pretty funny lines under their breath that hopefully won’t be missed in all the activity. Bullock’s character finally gets out of the house, which is an apt metaphor for movie audiences seeking escapism amidst the almost post-pandemic zeitgeist.
We’re all in on the joke, right, that he’s not making these movies for critics? The prolific writer, director and actor at the heart of Tyler Perry’s A Madea Homecoming (C-) brings the streaming Netflix service a madcap dose of his patented brand of crass humor mixed with dollops of melodrama. The irreverent “Madea” character is back for her twelfth feature film appearance, and this time the sassy matriarch is holding sway over a family gathering as her great-grandson who is harboring a secret (Brandon Black) prepares to graduate from college. Director Perry doesn’t seem to mind saying “that’s a wrap” to his very first take of a scene, regardless of his own line readings as actor, nor does he give a good “hallelujer!” if the screenplay’s tone veers wildly from soapy sentiment to cartoonish caricature to full-throttle Red Lobster commercial midway into the narrative. A crossover with another drag comedian, Brendan O’Carroll as “Agnes Brown” doesn’t quite give the parallel mothers story any additional gravitas. Gabrielle Dennis and Isha Blaaker are standouts of the serious parts of the story, and Perry upstages himself with the uproarious antics of his wildly inappropriate “Uncle Joe” character as well as flashbacks of “Young Madea” in an inexplicable feud with Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks!). Still, this is comfort food for the soul with some wild-eyed characters skimming the surface of social commentary amidst some pratfalls and pathos.
The W.C. Fields admonition to never work with children or animals gets a hard pass when those stars are one of the screen’s charming rejuveniles and a canine companion trained for war but imbued with empathetic instincts. Dog (B+), the feature film co-directing debut of Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin, is a rare breed of heady human/animal bond pictures with a dramatic undercurrent about the aftermath of war and just needing someone to talk to about it. The film stars Tatum as an Army Ranger who must escort the Belgian Malinois military working dog of his fallen commander down the Pacific coast to her handler’s funeral. It’s packed with funny and dramatic road trip elements, some slapstick sequences and some moments of profundity along the journey as both man and dog overcome emotions for which they were never trained. This is an ideal vehicle for Tatum’s wry, affable Everyman demeanor, plus the animal is ever a winning screen partner. There’s definitely some content in the film not appropriate for younger kids, but the portrayal of a duo facing PTSD as they attempt to move on in civilian life makes this an unexpectedly moving story.
Those seeking truth in advertising will find very few ghosts here of note, but this sequel is quite definitely a bust. Director Jason Reitman continues the film series of two groundbreaking ‘80s special effects centric comedies helmed by his dad Ivan in the tonally muddled Ghostbusters: Afterlife (C), and this next generation entry is a spectral slog. Only the committed performances of young protagonists Mckenna Grace as Phoebe (the late Egon Spengler’s precocious granddaughter) and Logan Kim as her witty classmate Podcast plus a brief fantasia of animated mini-marshmallow men enliven the lethargic story. The film’s action moves from Manhattan to Middle America with teens who plug and play with the old wraith-warring artifacts in a momentum-free plot. Reitman builds very little atmosphere specifics, introduces few compelling apparitions and simply never finds his comedic stride despite game attempts by Paul Rudd and others. It doesn’t help that a good third of the film is a complete retread of the “Gozer” narrative from the original film. There is neither enough of a nostalgia trip nor an entertaining adventure in its own right to warrant a recommendation.
The latest lark by a gifted director is modern artifice without much of a meaning. Wes Anderson’s wry and literate anthology The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (C) contains within its whimsical sampler a bunch of half-baked ideas beautifully rendered. The director continues his tradition of focusing on madcap minutiae and summons a game and familiar journeyman cast to mostly pose in oddball characterizations without actually being characters. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and others make the most of their brief moments but are criminally underused in serving Anderson’s vague vision. All vignettes are very loosely connected via the framing device of a literary news magazine. The story of a “tortured artist” featuring Benicio del Toro is by far the strongest entry; a take on “journalistic neutrality” less so; and a meandering morsel on “delicious irony” fails to satisfy. There’s a lot on display but not much to see here.
You might find yourself with resting glitch face after all the stimulation of Shawn Levy’s video game comedy fantasy Free Guy (B), a film that actually gets better and richer as it progresses and reveals superpowers in some of the most supporting players in society. A bit of a riff or revival of The Truman Show set in an open-world video game, this film places Ryan Reynolds at the center as a “non-player character” who learns he can start making his own choices. There’s interplay among the denizens of the game, plus a plot about a diabolical dudebro executive (a hilarious Taika Waititi) trying to manipulate the gameplay to line his pockets and a duo of developers (Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, both earnest) helping steer the situation to a better resolution. The passiveness of the main character is a problem for the first half of the movie, despite Reynolds’ considerable charms and penchant for physical comedy. But the film gains a bit of soulfulness at the half-way point and proceeds to surprise and delight. If you can bear the clang and clamor, you’ll find Levy and company have something to say about community, about taming toxic masculinity and about choosing your own adventure. It’s a bit better than expected, with funny asides, clever effects and a timely lesson about the power of world building.
Betting on the scrappiness of a bunch of bros who become woke in a history-bending take on the founding of the country, Matt Thompson’s America: The Motion Picture (B-) is an irreverent and often quite funny animated film aimed at the adults of the household. The movie’s tipsy time bandits traversing a stew of history involving George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Geronimo, a female Thomas Edison and many others throw out a lot of vulgar gags and end up with a winning comedy in the tradition of the South Park movie, Team America: World Police or even the live action This is the End. Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Olivia Munn, Killer Mike and Andy Samberg are among the spry voice cast ensemble in this veritable Mad or National Lampoon magazine come to life. The animation is accomplished and the profane and prophetic jokes abundant enough to keep surprising even the most academic viewers. It’s anachronistic, anarchic and lots of mindless fun and ultimately pulses with a patriotic heart.
The Royal P is painfully clean of inspiration, Your Highness, in Craig Brewer’s fan service filled sequel Coming 2 America (D+). It’s low stakes and low States, all the while firing blanks, as most of Prince Akeem’s story centers on Africa this time around, removing the fish out of water shenanigans which were the main attraction of the first film. Despite the presence of many comic actors, this follow-up is not very funny, relying on occasional bursts of pageantry, bits of whimsy and frequent musical cameos to basically tread water through the low-key variety show filling most of the film’s duration. The plot includes the discovery that Eddie Murphy’s regal character is baby daddy to a Manhattan ticket scalper (the charming Jermaine Fowler, salvaging what he can from a poorly written role), born of a feisty mom (an occasionally funny Leslie Jones), requiring some very brief trips Stateside from what is essentially a moribund melodrama set squarely in the Eastern hemisphere. Much of the film revolves around the princesses of the African kingdom (led by KiKi Layne doing fierce work despite the script) and an oddball Wesley Snipes as some sort of incidental rival villain. There’s so much retread in this cheese Zamunda that it actually resorts to flashbacks from the first film multiple times, just underscoring how old and tired some of its cast and schtick are. The enterprise is rescued at times by some sweet-natured familial moments and some roundabout girl power, plus a glimpse of the barber shop gang with a few zingers about political correctness. Otherwise it’s sloppy seconds all around for a bunch of game performers who aren’t given much to do.
In the tradition of Naked Gun and Austin Powers, Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (B) is a delightfully daffy comedy written by and starring Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig as the titular characters, two best friends who leave their small town for a beachside vacation and find themselves embroiled in an absurd and often very funny spy plot. The central duo’s comic rhythm is on remarkable display as these sunshiny Midwesterners become up to their culottes in madcap adventures. A spry Jamie Dornan plays a romantic interest, plus Wiig is double cast as a vampy villain. Physical comedy and one-liners abound, and there are lots of esoteric references to please fans of Wiig’s wit. Greenbaum films the movie in lush tropical fever dream colors and with a loose and playful spirit allowing characters to break out into musical production numbers or have conversations with animals. Mostly this is a frothy celebration of female friendship and pretty entertaining for most of its duration. This is a go for broke, go with the flow escapade and a welcome retreat from the message movies of awards season.
The goodwill generated by one of the most manic fish out of water comedies in recent times is greatly diminished in this dead fish of a follow-up. There are few happy returns as Jason Woliner’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (D+) sends its intrepid foreign reporter played by Sacha Baron Cohen back to America on a redemption tour to counter the embarrassment his titular character inflicted on his homeland in the original film. The notoriously sexist and anti-Semitic but strangely likable hero is on a mission to broker a relationship with the United States presidential administration by offering his own daughter, played by Maria Bakalova, as a gift to VP Mike Pence. Aside from some pretty ambitious stunts propelling this mockumentary crew very close to high seats of power, the film is gloomily shot and meandering in theme and tone. Sequences that worked so well to make potent points in the first film are squandered this time around: a case in point is a charm school sequence used for a cheap gag instead of a funny or piercing insight. The film stumbles onto two interesting notions: Its filming during the pandemic takes it on an interesting if not fully exploited detour, and the casting of the lively and likable Bakalova as daughter and sidekick allows for a vaguely feminist arch for her suppressed character. Overall though, this glum follow-up in which its main character seems to be going through the motions, often in lame disguises, neither nails its topics nor nails its targets. It’s merely subsequent when it could have been vital as parody — or even just competent.
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (B) is the anti-Masterpiece Theater take on the autobiographical Charles Dickens classic, and it’s a delightful ode to harnessing one’s creative impulses. It’s not as breezy a bildungsroman as last year’s Little Women remix, but it has significant whimsical charms. The director, a noted acerbic satirist, tells the story with a sunny disposition and multi-ethnic casting and condenses the novel’s hundreds of pages into a tidy two hours. It’s nearly all there: the house made of an upturned boat, the kite fashioned of prose pages, the scene-stealing lapdog personified by its ventriloquist owner and much more in a brisk build. Dev Patel embodies the Victorian Everyman with relish, even though the story feels a bit like it is happening to him rather than him having much discernible dominion over his destiny. Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton stand out in the vividly painted ensemble of eccentrics festooned with fabulous costumes and stunning locales. Dickens was notoriously paid by the installment, so it’s fitting that Iannucci dramatizes his story in almost serialized form with title cards marking each episode. Despite its storied pedigree, this adaptation is a bonbon of coming of age reality bites.
Nearly three decades after their last time trek, they’re on a mission to prove they’re dad bod-acious, but their bid for bogus bonafides exhumes a most triumphantly tepid detour. Dean Parisot’s Bill and Ted Face the Music (C) is best when it just gives in to absurdist metaphysical humor, and there are indeed a few brief flashes of the franchise’s blissfully harmless DNA scattered and smothered through a nonsensical screenplay. Most of the time, however, the story just goes through the motions with an overly sprawling ensemble of underdeveloped characters. A story lurks somewhere in this sequel about reconciling romances, discovering the music that pulses through generations and aligning a madcap world, but the plotting is listless and the episodic pacing maddening. The cheap effects that worked in the past two films now just seem like sloppy filmmaking. There’s a nice bit of sonic history with a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup involving the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, but mostly the movie assembles lots of disparate elements – from charmless wives and daughters to an ill-tempered emo robot – and doesn’t know what to do with any of them. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are reasonably spry and great sports in multiple multiverse roles, but it all seems like it was more fun to make than to watch.