Welcome to candyland for moviegoers who won’t be sorry for taking a risk on a new film that blends clue upon clue with sly takes on the game of life. Although it lingers a beat longer than it should, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night (B+) arrives on the top of the leader board for the genre of comedy mysteries. Along with clever plotting and lots of genuine laughs, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a delightful romantic duo as a highly competitive and witty couple with overarching anxiety blocking their ability to conceive. When Bateman’s larger than life brother (a funny Kyle Chandler) crashes a weekly charades party with a real-life murder mystery, the stakes just get higher and higher. Jesse Plemons is hilarious as a mopey cop next door who keeps being left out of the festivities. Billy Magnussen and Lamorne Morris are also a riot as supporting players in the shenanigans. Except for a few off-color jokes, it’s largely good old-fashioned fun. Roll the dice and check it out.
A bit more subversive at times than expected while still fun for the family, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (B) is ostensibly a riff on The Breakfast Club if detention were actually a fantasy forest of video game characters and its ensemble of aimless teens transformed into avatars on a quest for their inner heroism. After a sluggish start, the film gains its footing once the characters start learning life lessons in and around thrilling action sequences involving animal stampedes, helicopter chases, encounters in exotic marketplaces and a subplot involving a stolen jewel. The film makes compelling use of its gaming conceits as characters discover their powers and vulnerabilities and preserve “lives” for the moments that matter. As far as characters go, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas fare best with charisma in spades, and Jack Black sinks his teeth into the role of a female teen diva learning to care about others while adapting to her new male body functions. Kasdan finds the fables behind the fun and makes sure the escapism leaves everyone a wee bit wiser from the journey.
After the original film showcased the fresh sounds and culture of collegiate a capella and the sequel amped up girl power in glorious fashion, Trish Sie’s Pitch Perfect 3 (C-) squanders the goodwill the musical comedy franchise has engendered with a denouement that temporarily turns the franchise into a head-scratching thriller before briefly returning to form for a tepid final bow. The Bellas are missing their fellas (would it have been too much to bankroll a Skylar Astin or Adam DeVine cameo?) and end up on a USO road show with a contrived competition, but thankfully the funny and talented Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson rise above the material. It seems they’d be fun just laughing together in a blank room. The film’s fictional bands don’t feel rooted in reality, the military subplots feel underdeveloped; and, as maestro of the film’s obligatory contest, DJ Khaled is so bad at playing himself that perhaps Christopher Plummer could have stepped in. John Lithgow’s character is a shark jumper in human form, and “Fat Amy” develops so many new superpowers, I half expected her to “Force project” herself through time and space. Of course the joy of these films is largely discovered in the quality of the musical sequences and droll comic lines, and there are enough here for fans to complete the viewing of the trilogy. There are also some occasional inside jokes that land like sweet lozenges amidst the hastily assembled script’s sore wanderlust. The series went from throw down to throwaway fast, but long live any entry into that adds Britney Spears and George Michael covers into its canon.
Alexander Payne pushes more buttons than audiences may expect in his new human miniaturization movie; it’s par for the course for the midwestern provocateur. This skilled writer/director blends physical pratfalls, witty wordplay, social satire, wicked parody and almost every conceivable flavor of comedy for the deliriously inventive and surprisingly highbrow Downsizing (A-). Matt Damon is in full sad-sack mode as a nebbishy Nebraskan hoping to please his materialistic wife (Kristen Wiig) by signing them up for an experimental planned community in which citizens are shrunk to live in dollhouse-sized McMansions in a sunny country club suburbia called “Leisureland.” Christoph Waltz shines as a wee rogue defying the new community’s evolving rules, and Hong Chau is a revelation as a compact freedom fighter and humanitarian heroine. Both get absolutely delicious dialogue commenting on class issues prevalent in the upstairs and downstairs of even the tiniest of houses. Two of the film’s themes – to look closer and to take good care of the part of the world that you can affect – are developed to staggering impact. A few central plot points are jettisoned or careen off course a bit as the stakes are raised beyond simply the fates of the film’s pint-sized protagonists. There’s so much more to this comedy/drama/sci-fi hybrid than meets the eye, and it is heartily recommended for the intellectually adventurous.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s coming of age dramedy Lady Bird (A) is witty and wise and recognizes the nuances and power of mini revolutions afoot in the life of a teenager. Saoirse Ronan is sensational as the titular protagonist, a high schooler who feels trapped in the first world problems of life in Sacramento. The plot centers largely on the pivotal final two semesters of Lady Bird’s senior year as she tests her wry, unconventional outlook against the backdrop of cliques and friendships, parochial rules, drama club, college applications, counseling and school dances. The rhythm of fights with her tough mom, played masterfully by Laurie Metcalf, anchors many of the film’s most poignant moments. These actresses are spectacular at depicting the tempestuous mother/daughter dynamic. Lucas Hedges is also fantastic as Lady’s first love. Gerwig nails the tone and observational humor of episodes that build up to unexpected life lessons. Filled with a blissful Jon Brion score and subtle reference checks to Steinbeck and Sondheim, the film represents an auspicious debut for a talented actress trying her hand behind the camera. Gerwig and her uncanny muse Ronan have created a funny and tender work of utter joy. Moviegoers will enjoy watching this Bird fly.
Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish lift the curse of this summer’s R-rated comedies while celebrating the power of wonder women with a joyous journey to New Orleans in Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip (B). The quartet of actresses play lifelong friends who reconnect after a few years apart over a turnt-up trip to the Essence Music Festival. Their sisterhood is roused anew through parties and pratfalls across the Crescent City, along with some vulnerable moments that take their bond to a higher level. The film succeeds largely on the charms of its stars, with Hall registering strong as the woman trying to save face while grappling with a failing high-profile relationship and Haddish prompting the biggest laughs as the devil-may-care friend whose high-jinks are a hoot throughout the madcappery. For those seeking raunchy shenanigans, it’s all there, with crazy antics involving the full alphabet of possibilities from absinthe and zol. There are also some enjoyable cameos from a who’s who of the music scene. Although it overstays its welcome a bit, and not all jokes hit their mark, the movie rewards those who take the trek with an empowering message. For those wishing to escape to the movies, these ladies slay in their getaway!
With Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (B+), cinema catches up a bit to television as small screen cast and collaborators bring an outsider cross-cultural sensibility to the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy formula. Star and semiautobiographical co-screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani brings a mild-mannered and endearing quality to his lead performance as a Pakistani Muslim stand-up comic who falls for a woman decidedly outside of his arranged marriage options. Zoe Kazan delivers warmth and wit to the role of the real-life psychiatry student for whom Nanjiani finds himself smitten. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano get some nice bits as her parents, who arrive at a critical juncture in the relationship. The dialogue is largely droll, inventive and natural and the mix of comedy and drama kept at lofty levels. Only in the final act does the film sputter a bit and fall prey to romcom clichés. Overall it’s a winning ensemble and a joyous time, filled with moments that feel new and relatable on screen.
Four decades after Bandit’s criss-crossing car chases left Smokey in the dust of Georgia, Edgar Wright’s Atlanta-set Baby Driver (A) grafts grifts and getaways, criminally comic chase capers and manic musical syncopations that yield new song to this southern boomtown into a wholly original new entertainment. This candy-colored fantasia is an engrossing and involving tale from the get-go, propelled by a very charming Ansel Elgort in the central role as a go-to guy for driving armed robbers from scenes of the crime and plucky Lily James as the waitress who wins his heart and may just pull him away from his life in the shadows. Add to these great performances scenery chewing Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, and it’s off to the races. Wright has drawn his characters finely with clever quirks that pay off perfectly in episodes behind the crimes and behind the wheel. Because Elgort’s character has “a hum in the drum” and relies on an iTunes shuffle for the soundtrack to his days (including sweet, swift exit music), the film is laced with an electric and eclectic jukebox of joy ranging from Blur to The Beach Boys to the Incredible Bongo Band. The movie is faster, more furious and funnier than most anything in the marketplace right now because it sweats the details, cares for its characters, goes out on a limb for adventure and doesn’t mind crossing lanes between genres. It’s an ultracool summons into trippy territory. It’s the mix-tape and mash-up of summer that you didn’t know you were looking for, and it’s ready for a fresh spin.
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 and goes wide(r) in the U.S. August 18, 2017.
With a timely script by frequent collaborator Mike White, Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner (A-) is billed as a dark comedy but is actually one of the most arresting dramas of the year, anchored by a title performance by Salma Hayek that will become an indelible part of the cinema canon and the actress’s defining role. Hayek plays a Mexican immigrant holistic healer who ends up as an unexpected guest at a ritzy celebratory house party hosted by Connie Britton’s character where a business real estate tycoon played by John Lithgow becomes a singular foil and object of obsession. Hayek fully inhabits nearly every frame of the film and is a stunning observer for what it means to be an American living in Trump’s 2017. She is as focused and feral as Lithgow is pompous and proud. This is one of those films sure to be referenced by academics who will note how fully it captures the mood and zeitgeist of a nation grappling with the specific politics of the here and now. Supporting actress Chloë Sevigny is always a delight, as is Jay Duplass as her increasingly drunk husband. The film captures the syncopation of conversation well, especially the ability of groups to change the subject. Given the gourmet feast of acting and reflection that abounds, the final ten minutes were a bit “dine and dash.” It’s otherwise a blissfully enjoyable if surprisingly melancholy trip to the thinking person’s table.
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.
Jeffrey Blitz’s Table 19 (D+) is a few chairs short of a winner. Despite the presence of Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow, this comedy about mismatched guests at a wedding table never fully gels in its attempt at droll observational humor. The characters are implausible and their actions unmotivated. The director, along with the DuPlass brothers, famed for their mumblecore films, can’t cobble together a worthy script for this ensemble. You’re just waiting for them to knock over the cake and be done with it. The film is a good choice if you’re trying to fall asleep on a plane.