Review – Book Club

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Though I was obviously aware that I in no way, shape, or form fall within Dirk Diggler’s reach of the target demographic of Bill Holderman’s Book Club, upon seeing the trailer, I was curious as to what the focus of the film would be.  There were so many various directions of so many various magnitudes in which a premise of this sort could potentially navigate that I found the concept somewhat intriguing in spite of myself.  Plus, hey, you expect me to review the new movies (right?) and I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Mary Steenburgen ever since I was a kid and my mom’s affinity for the holidays resulted in my watching One Magic Christmas approximately six-thousand times.

If you aren’t familiar with the film, Book Club centers on a group of longtime friends (Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Jane Fonda) who still make time to meet once a month for their . . . you guessed it . . . book club.  Their club’s theme for the year (quite the commitment) is books that have been adapted into movies, so, when her turn comes around, Fonda’s Vivian chooses Fifty Shades of Grey as that month’s assigned reading.  The book’s saucy content reignites the flames of the ladies and they set out to once again learn how to live life to the fullest . . . primarily by getting laid.

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Going into the film, I was truly intrigued.  Was this film going to be a commentary on the social impact that the Fifty Shades series has had on modern American culture?  Would it address the series’ more problematic messages from the perspectives of older, more experienced women?  Or perhaps the narrative would go in the opposite direction and take a stand on behalf of E. L. James’s best-selling franchise, proclaiming it to be nothing more than harmless entertainment.  Well, it turns out that, for better or for worse, the movie really doesn’t do much of either.

James’s book really doesn’t have any significant influence on the friends outside of pushing them towards the revelation that they have come to find their own lives to be boring, as if they’re all simply waiting to die.  None of them are suddenly pulling on leather dominatrix masks or donning spikes.  Of course, nobody – including myself – was exactly asking for that.  But let’s be honest; the movie would be the talk of the industry if that had actually happened.  Instead, the narrative focuses on the women and their internal search for excitement and fulfillment.  I suppose this is fine and even the appropriate take on the premise, but I can’t help but feel that the film plays it extremely safe considering all of the possibilities.

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The other people in my screening seemed to be enjoying themselves, however.  Then again, as I stated, I’m not the target audience.  They very much were.  Look, I can’t speak for them, their experience, or their interests.  My only real point of reference is what I see my grandmother watch on television when I go to visit her for Thanksgiving, which is lots of Fox News, Dr. Phil, true crime, and scripted crime.  So, while I suppose there’s nothing wrong with three of those four things, none of them really light the world on fire with copious amounts of wit, intelligence, or humor.  So, if that is anything like the general viewing habits of senior citizen women, then Book Club would come across as the height of groundbreaking, sophisticated entertainment the likes of which Rupert Murdoch has never imagined.

The film is a bit long for its subject matter.  It’s mostly fine, but does begin to drag a bit, as it has more endings than The Return of the King (find that #ThrowbackThursday here).  Truly, the ending took so long that I half-expected to see the Square Enix logo appear when it was all over.  Continuing with the video game analogy, each of the four characters gets their own “ending”, so to speak, which of course makes sense from a narrative point of view, but could have been pared down a bit to keep it moving along a little more briskly.

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To be fair, though, I wasn’t having an awful time.  The film isn’t exactly a paragon of introspection (despite its half-hearted attempts to be otherwise), but the cast – including, besides the four leads, the likes of Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia, Alicia Silverstone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Begley, Jr., and Richard Dreyfuss – are experienced and talented enough to elevate the material to the level of amusing and entertaining.  This is the senior citizen set’s own version of Blockers (but not nearly as good).  I don’t think many – if any – of you fit within this film’s target demographic any more than I do.  But, if you end up going with your mom or grandmother or whoever, I don’t expect you’ll have the worst time of your life.  It’s not as if this is The 15:17 to Paris; it’s not a bad movie.  It’s just safe and predictable.

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Review – Book Club

Review – Deadpool 2

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Josh Brolin is having one heck of a summer, isn’t he?  First he stood toe-to-toe with the Avengers as Thanos and now here he is as the fan-favorite character Cable, giving Deadpool a run for his money (unless they’re friends, of course.  One can never tell with these two.).  Deadpool 2 has been highly anticipated since Deadpool hit it big back in 2016.  Audiences went crazy for that film and the movie grossed far more money than anyone anticipated, making this follow-up a simple formality.  For this go-’round, original director Tim Miller has bowed out and been replaced by David Leitch, which doesn’t upset me since he directed one of my favorite films of 2017.  But how did he handle everyone’s favorite Merc with a Mouth?

In the film, Deadpool encounters a young mutant by the name of Russell (Julian Dennison, from one of the best films that almost none of you have seen, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) being hunted by Cable, a cybernetic mercenary from the future.  Cable claims that Russell will be responsible for something horrific, later in his life, and Cable has come to kill Russell and prevent those events from ever transpiring.  To help stop Cable and save Russell, Deadpool assembles a team of wannabe-heroes, including Domino (Zazie Beetz, “Atlanta”), Bedlam (Terry Crews, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – the show no one ever talked or cared about until it appeared to be canceled), and the Internet’s favorite: trailer standout Peter (Rob Delaney, “Catastrophe”), and christens the team as X-Force.

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I’m going to stop there describing the events – and even the characters – in the film because Deadpool 2 is chock full of fun surprises.  Whether they be in the form of cameos, storyline developments, or one-liners, there is a lot that the viewer won’t see coming (assuming they didn’t search such things out and ruin it for themselves due to their complete lack of patience and respect for how the filmmakers desire to deliver their own film).  I never knew what was coming and very much appreciated that in this day and age.

I also appreciated the much-improved story structure and characterization when compared to the original film.  2016’s Deadpool was unquestionably enjoyable but it seemed that every time that film started gaining momentum, it was stopped in its tracks by the decidedly unenjoyable flashback origin sequences.  In this sequel, the tone is consistent, even when allowing for more serious events to unfold amidst the expected zaniness that comes as part of the Deadpool package.

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Also significantly improved is Deadpool, himself.  In the previous film, Deadpool was a riot, but wasn’t the Deadpool from the comics.  Those who aren’t as familiar with the comics and only know Deadpool from Internet memes, or some such, were convinced otherwise, unable to recognize anything beyond the overall irreverence of his presentation.  But the subtleties in his character were way off mark (which I detailed at length here).  But that has all been fixed in Deadpool 2.  From a personality standpoint, this is the Deadpool I’ve been reading for so many years.  And, even if it wasn’t, now that he’s lacking the self-awareness that he had in the original film, he is much more likable and endearing, making it an improvement not because it’s closer to the source material, but because it better serves the protagonist and his connection to the audience.

Not all sat well with me, though.  I thought the majority of the humor was either only mildly amusing or fell completely flat.  Don’t misinterpret (or misquote) me; there are funny parts in the film.  In fact, there are a couple that are both hilarious and memorable.  But, much like the first film, the adult language is forced, only present to justify the unnecessary R-rating and often attempting to serve as the sole source of a laugh.  That might have worked to an extent in the first film but that was due to the novelty of a Marvel Comics character using such language (even though, again, he doesn’t do so in the comics any more than a dozen other characters do).  But with this sequel, that novelty has worn off.  Maybe the guy two rows in front of me is so easily amused by adult language that he guffaws at every use of the f-word, but I require more wit and surprise in my humor and, by the sound of it, so did most everyone else at my Thursday-night screening.  And much of the comedy was derivative of not only the first Deadpool film but other films, as well, even lifting an entire bit from Shrek the Third, if you can believe that.  This was the preview night screening crowd, folks.  They/we are the ones most likely to enjoy whatever is thrown at them/us.  And the laughs were not exactly dominating the entire viewing of the film.  They should have asked Gerry Duggan – the best Deadpool writer in history – for some assistance.  That guy knows how to make Deadpool funny.

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And then there’s the biggest issue with the film: the mid-credit scenes (there is no post-credits scene, so feel free to leave after the second mid-credits scene).  It’s going to be difficult to convey this because I’m not about to spoil any aspect of it for anyone who has yet to see the movie, but all I’ve heard is how these are “the best mid/post-credits scenes ever” and I couldn’t disagree more.  I understand why people are saying that with their gut reactions: the scenes are funny.  And, yes, I agree with that.  They are funny.  But they also so severely undercut the dramatic events of the film that I couldn’t believe a professional filmmaker working for a major motion picture studio would even consider including them or that the studio would acquiesce.  They are the most important mid- or post-credits scenes I can immediately recall.  The film’s narrative is not complete without them.  But I absolutely loathe their contribution to the story and they leave me wondering if this franchise has any genuine aspirations to be anything other than a kooky alternative to other blockbuster fare, without worrying about containing any real substance of which to speak.

Overall, Deadpool 2 is an enjoyable couple of hours.  The action is thrilling and exceptionally choreographed.  The cast of characters is varied and colorful (if lacking much depth) and Deadpool, himself, is more thoughtfully developed than in his first film.  The structure and pacing is a vast improvement over the original; the film never drags and I thought the two hours flew by.  But the humor lacks much in the way of cleverness and the mid-credits scenes left such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to see Infinity War for the fourth time in an attempt to wash it out – and it still lingers.  Without those scenes, I’d be feeling much better about the film, even with the lazy comedy in tact.  Perhaps the scenes won’t bother you as much, despite the weight that they hold.  I hope that’s the case and that you can also enjoy the fun and surprises that Deadpool 2 otherwise holds.

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Review – Deadpool 2

Review – Life of the Party

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As I’ve mentioned many times, comedies are a peculiar thing.  With each person maintaining their own unique sense of humor, attempting to craft and then execute a story that appeals to, if not the majority, enough people to earn millions of dollars is quite the lofty task.  Lately, many comedies have opted to become more sophisticated in order to reach viewers on levels outside of their funny bones.  Of recent films, Blockers (review) and Love, Simon (review) were both extraordinarily successful in their own attempts to pull this off, whereas Game Night (review) reigned in the subtext but delivered huge laughs.  Life of the Party follows in the tracks of those films, delivering solid comedy but ultimately decides to send a much more important message along the way.

In the film, Melissa McCarthy (Spy) portrays Deanna, a loving mom and housewife who is seeing her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) enter her senior year of college.  Dreading the inevitable moment of full separation as Maddie is approaching full-blown independence, Deanna’s world is decimated when her husband and Maddie’s father asks for a divorce.  In order to dust herself off and start a new life, Deanna vows to finish her college degree and enrolls at the same school as her daughter, trying to find the balance between fitting in, behaving responsibly, enjoying her freedom, and allowing Maddie her space.

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Directed by Ben Falcone (The Boss) and written by Falcone and McCarthy, Life of the Party has mostly taken a drubbing from critics.  Normally, critics make valid points, even when I find their ultimate opinion to be disagreeable, but I’m not finding that to be true in this case.  Many of them are saying things such as, “This part was good and this other part was good and the film does a good job with this thing, too, but I still don’t like it.”  Others are stating that it’s completely unfunny (that’s relative) or that it’s clichéd and/or formulaic.  I can’t help but think that perhaps some are feeling threatened by the film and its message because, in my estimation, none of this is true.

Before I dive too deep, I want to give a nod to not only McCarthy but also to her primary supporting cast.  McCarthy commits wholeheartedly to the role of Deanna, earning her laughs through her naivety and earnest cluelessness about modern youth culture.  It’s not always what she says, but how and why she says it.  But around her are her best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph), her daughter Maddie, and Maddie’s friends (Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, and Jessie Ennis).  The script is thoughtful enough to give each of these characters their own distinct personalities, complete with unique strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.  They aren’t just indistinguishable college girls tossed in to be used as props.  They all contribute to the film, earn the audience’s appreciation, and validate their presence.  Throw in a scene-stealing turn by Heidi Gardner (one of Saturday Night Live’s biggest assets) and we have a film packed with women who are all knocking it out of the park.

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The film is funny, and my fellow moviegoers agreed.  Certain moments actually received sustained and hardy laughter.  We get off to a rough start when the divorce request is made, but things get better after that.  It’s not the funniest movie of the year, but it’s definitely funny – funnier than most current comedies.  Even better is the fact that its humor is good-spirited.  Even jokes about Deanna’s age are in actuality targeting those making said joke, as, while Deanna is presented as out-of-touch, she is never genuinely presented as old.

That leads me to what I loved most about Life of the Party: The film and the narrative are targeted on positivity and optimism.  I fully expected the main conflict in the film to be between mother and daughter, with the daughter being embarrassed by her mother and having to overcome her own anger towards the woman who raised and loves her, but that isn’t the case, at all.  There are a few moments where Deanna and Maddie rub each other the wrong way, but these moments are brief and mostly played for comedy, rather than drama.  That would have been the easy and obvious story to tell, but the movie avoids it.

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Instead, Deanna and Maddie are presented as a loving and supportive mother-daughter pairing, and it’s incredibly refreshing.  In fact, nearly everyone in the film is a good, decent, caring person.  The few that are not are quickly shut down and disposed of, sending the message that positivity is far preferable and superior to negativity.  So, the primary conflict of the film is not external but rather the internal battle in which Deanna is struggling to reclaim her own identity after decades of defining herself entirely by her daughter and husband.

I saw another critic – one who liked the film – state that Life of the Party projects a message of feminism, but I don’t necessarily find that to be accurate.  With the exception of Deanna’s ex-husband, the men in the film are just as endearing and likable as the women (though there aren’t as many of them).  Rather than that, I see the film as simultaneously being about identity and sisterhood.  This story could have pitted female against female at nearly every turn but mostly sidesteps the typical college girl stereotype and instead presents a group of wildly different women – different in background, age, personality, interests – as being supportive, unified, and complex , all while making us laugh.  I walked out thinking how I wish that real life and people could be the way the people in this film are.  Sadly, that isn’t the case, but I sure enjoyed living in this world where it is – even if it was only for an hour and forty-five minutes.  Maybe some critics fear the idea of women supporting each other and forming a unified front.  But if you don’t, I say go and enjoy this movie.  I don’t see how you couldn’t.

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Review – Life of the Party

Review – Breaking In

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Another day, another thriller!  After seeing the excellent Bad Samaritan, a few days ago (find that review here), James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) returns with another film of that type in the form of Breaking In, starring Gabrielle Union (Bring it On).  Other than belonging to the same genre, however, the two films have little in common.  I would liken Breaking In more to last year’s enjoyable Kidnap (and that review is here) in the sense that both are essentially rescue/revenge pictures in which a mother is attempting to rescue her child/children and both star African-American females in the lead, which is notable and commendable after the Oscar controversy from a couple of years ago.  That’s not to say, however, that there’s any chance of Breaking In winning an Oscar.

The story of Breaking In centers around Union’s Shaun and her children Jasmine (Ajiona Alexis) and Glover (Seth Carr).  When Shaun’s estranged father passes away, she and her family inherit his opulent house.  Within a safe inside the house resides a large amount of cash, of which some rather ambitious criminals have gotten wind.  When they come for the money, they unsuspectingly find Shaun and her kids there and end up taking the children hostage and locking Shaun out of the well-fortified mansion.  To save her children, Shaun must break into her own house and attempt to outwit and possibly outlast the men who are threatening the lives of her daughter and son.

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While the cast isn’t required to push themselves to anything particularly challenging, all do a fine job, with Union and Billy Burke (who plays Eddie, the mastermind behind the theft) standing out.  Union has a strong presence and a charisma that both clamor for her to be in the leading role.  She deftly finds the proper balance between concern, fear, desperation, and anger, with a natural inclination for when to project which and to what degree.  As I was preparing this post, I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to name – and then find – a recognizable film and/or part in which she had previously partaken, and that’s a shame.  Union shows here that she’s got the chops; she just needs the opportunity.

Burke slinks through the film as the cool-as-a-cucumber criminal genius.  Eddie has a plan and he has confidence in himself.  He has no reason to doubt that he can handle whatever Shaun throws his way – especially with three other men at his side – and, though she presents more of a challenge than he initially expects, he never panics or behaves rashly.  This is a refreshing change of pace from what we often see in these pulpy thrillers and that uniqueness is compounded when taking the three other criminals into consideration.  Each of the four men have distinct personalities, temperaments, goals, and methodologies, adding an extra element to their inclusion and spicing up their interactions.

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It would have been nice if the script had paid as much attention to the story as it does to the characters.  It all starts out well enough.  The plot device of having Shaun – the protagonist – trying to break into the house in order to get at the villains is clever and provides a unique role reversal.  In positioning her as the aggressor, the thieves are put on the defensive and get a taste of their own medicine.  But it doesn’t take too long before the narrative runs out of tricks to pull regarding that idea and the rest of the film becomes more traditional and less inspired, offering little that audiences haven’t seen before.

Even then, most of that would be fine.  It was still an entertaining ride up to that point, even if very little fresh ground had been broken.  But then, in an ill-advised attempt at a late third-act twist, the film commits one of the most tired and eye-rolling of clichés, essentially pulling the plug on what had been a mostly believable, if distinctly Hollywood, adventure.  But McTeigue simply couldn’t resist and, rather than knowing when to quit, he pushes the events too far and ends on the sourest note he could have possibly contrived (with “contrived” being the operative word).

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So, what does all of this amount to?  My powers of mathematical logic and reasoning make it simple: the first act is above average, the second act is average, and the third act is below average.  So, naturally, that means that Breaking In is – as most movies are – average.  But I would take it one step further and state that it’s frustratingly average.  Union and Burke try to elevate the film with authentic, nuanced performances and the original premise of the film is a fun one.  But it’s clear that the further screenwriter Ryan Engle got into his story, the fewer ideas he had, and so, rather than take the time to develop it further, he fell back on what he (and the rest of us) had seen so many times before.  And, unfortunately, he didn’t stick to only the good stuff.  Still, it’s not a horrible experience, and offers up some fun.  And it would be good to support Union and the diverse casting.  But if you want the best thriller in theaters, right now, Bad Samaritan is where you need to be.

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Review – Breaking In

Review – Bad Samaritan

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I went into Dean Devlin’s Bad Samaritan with low expectations.  Despite starring the incredibly popular David Tennant (“Jessica Jones”, “Doctor Who”) there has been virtually no pre-release buzz around this film and I’ve gotten a vibe from the marketing that reminds me a little too much of 2016’s Criminal, one of my least-favorite films of the last several years.  Devlin, himself, is a big name in the film industry, but mostly as a producer.  Bad Samaritan is only his sophomore effort as a director, after Geostorm.  But, despite what all the Facebook comment sections believe, it’s not fair to judge a film without seeing it, so here I am, after giving it a chance and hoping for the best.

And, I’m so glad I did.  I’m not going to get into the narrative of the film, because the less you know, the better.  Here’s everything I knew before the film began rolling: David Tennant plays a bad guy.  That’s it.  That’s literally all I knew.  I had seen no trailers, no television spots, read no reviews . . . all I had to go on were a few stills and the official poster.  I went into this film as blind as I can recall being in quite some time and it was the right call.  Knowing virtually nothing is absolutely the best way to go into this film.  Discovering the twists and turns is a large part of the fun.

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But that’s not all of the fun – not by a long shot.  Bad Samaritan assumes a compelling dual identity of its own, splitting its time between being an over-the-top Hollywood thriller and a more down-to-Earth suspense tale that tackles the genre in as realistic a way as I can recall seeing.  The over-the-top components are largely supplied by the characters and their decision-making.  In the real world, most people would never follow the patterns of thinking or behavior that Tennant’s Cale and/or Robert Sheehan’s (Geostorm) Sean follow within the film.  But that’s why it’s a movie.  On that front, it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.

But once those characters begin to follow said trains of thought, the reality of the world around them actively works to keep them from their respective goals.  If you’ve ever watched a thriller and thought to yourself that “breaking that [enter your favorite object] wouldn’t really be that easy” or “they aren’t strong enough to do that”, then this is the movie for you!  Additionally, even if the characters’ behavior is exaggerated, their dialogue is spot-on – sometimes to the point of being humorous in a that’s-exactly-what-they-should-have-said-but-I-never-expected-them-to-actually-say-it kind of way.  The film actually features one of my favorite lines of the year.  I feel like even telling you who it comes from would be saying too much, but it’s near the end of the film.  If you see it (please see it) and want to reach out to me with a guess, feel free to.  I expect you’ll know it when you hear it.

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The main reasons to see this movie are simple and twofold: it’s riveting and it’s exciting.  From the moment that the first twist (of many) is revealed, my heartrate became elevated and I’m not sure it ever got back to the resting rate.  With each twist and each reveal, the stakes are raised and the consequences become more dire.  And even if you think you know what might happen, there are so many possibilities that there’s no way to be sure.  Here I was, expecting this film to be a chore, and I hardly wanted to take the time to even blink because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing something.

Tennant and Sheehan also complement the tremendous script by turning in authentic and memorable performances.  Tennant uses an American accent and almost doesn’t even feel like he’s David Tennant, which is exactly what any actor would hope to accomplish.  He’s a blast to watch and is clearly enjoying himself.  Sheehan plays his own role to perfection: a boy attempting to navigate a harrowing experience and turning into a man, along the way.  He takes an initially unlikable character and compels the viewer to root for him.  His character arc is the epitome of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, except that Sean can only hope that the experience actually doesn’t kill him, which I won’t ruin for you, of course.

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There are slight instances of Devlin sacrificing some narrative logic in order to compound the tension and suspense.  However, any concessions that are made only do minor damage to that unique moment, and not to the overarching anecdote, and even that is arguable.  What’s more important: minor logical fallacies that could be explained away, anyway, or a suspense film actually containing palpable suspense?  And, in any case, the small logical missteps are in no way as critical as those in A Quiet Place so anyone who can overlook that movie’s flaws and love it, anyway, can certainly do the same, here.  Ultimately, it’s worth it.

Despite the aforementioned popularity of Tennant, many of his so-called “big fans” apparently aren’t that big, because the majority of them haven’t been supporting this film (kudos to those of you who have).  So, now it’s up to you, as an apparent movie lover.  Here’s what you need to do: 1) Don’t read anything else about the film.  Don’t!  2) Go see the film.  3) Do it soon because it likely won’t be around for long.  That’s pretty easy, right?  Come on, a lot of you have MoviePass, anyway, so what do you have to lose?  Nobody loves Infinity War (review) more than I do, but there are other films out there, too, and they need the support a heck of a lot more than that film does.  With Bad Samaritan, we have a sharp, surprising, well-acted thriller that will have you flinching, jumping, and squirming in your seat, just like a thriller is supposed to do.  Don’t let it pass you by; you’ll eventually kick yourself for it.

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Review – Bad Samaritan

Review – Tully

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I’ve been looking forward to Jason Reitman’s Tully for a while, now.  Having directed such cult classics as Juno (that #ThrowbackThursday column is here), Young Adult, and my personal favorite Up in the Air, Reitman has a solid track record of thoughtful, relatable dramedies.  The film is also written by Diablo Cody, who wrote both the previously mentioned Juno and Young Adult. And on top of that, star Charlize Theron has been on a roll, lately, and very few throw themselves as completely into a part as she does.  So what wasn’t there to be looking forward to with Tully?

The story follows Theron’s Marlo, a mother of three who is at her wit’s end. While her oldest, Emmy (Maddie Dixon-Poirier), is pretty well-adjusted and doing fine, her middle child, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) suffers from an undiagnosed developmental disorder and her newborn daughter was unplanned. Marlo’s husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is of very little help and Marlo is coming to the realization that the family that is supposed to be a source of happiness and a feeling of accomplishment is instead filling her with frustration and regret. At the suggestion of her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to help Marlo to hopefully get some sleep and regain her metaphorical balance. As a bond develops between mother and nanny, Marlo discovers that life’s inspirations can sometimes come from the least-expected places.

Theron is great, as always. Not only did she gain fifty pounds for the role, but I was fully convinced that Theron – not just Marlo – hates her life. I wouldn’t ever consider Theron to be underrated, as I’m pretty sure everyone knows by now what a tremendous talent she is, but I do think it’s becoming a little easier to take her for granted, these days. She makes her job look easy, no matter what that job is. And she can do it all; whether she be a kickass action star such as in Mad Max: Fury Road or Atomic Blonde or an everyday person like us struggling with real world problems, Theron is going to deliver, every time, and Tully just adds to her impressive resume.

Starring as the title character, Tully features Mackenzie Davis’s highest-profile role, yet, and she will charm her way into the hearts of any viewer who gives the film a chance. In the hands of a lesser or otherwise miscast performer, Tully could come across as annoyingly young, exuberant, and self-confident. As we age, we feel as if we begin to lose the qualities that once made us special. That’s exactly how Marlo feels. Tully needs to become a source of energy, not resentment – both for the audience and for Marlo. The entire film hinges on it. And the wrong performance would have killed the film flat. But Davis nails it, bringing fun and good cheer to the proceedings and carrying the weight of the premise on her shoulders alone.

And the film certainly needed it. It takes a while – much longer than I expected – for Tully to arrive on the scene. Before we meet her, we get to know Marlo and her family, a process which really isn’t all that enjoyable. As I mentioned, nobody in the family is exactly enjoying life, which makes enjoying the family equally difficult. The first act of the film, as well-written and -produced as it is, was actually a difficult chore for me because absolutely none of the adults were in any way likable.

This is by design, of course, because when Tully finally makes her presence known, she has the same effect on the viewer as she does on Marlo. Tully is the breath of fresh air that we all need by that time and brings the lightness that Reitman and Cody are known for to bear. I’m not even certain that there were more than a couple of on-screen smiles before Tully arrives (and those were just for show), but Tully’s smile not only lights up the screen, but the lives of those around her, infusing them with a life force that they hadn’t felt in many years.

As the film progresses, the end game remains satisfyingly shrouded in mystery. Despite my own inner speculation, I never once had the sense that I knew where the film was going either narratively or regarding the burgeoning relationship between Marlo and Tully. And the ending came as a genuine surprise. I suppose that ending will rub some the wrong way, as it’s extremely unconventional for a film of this kind. But it also works and fits nicely into what the film establishes in the time leading up to it. But I promise that if you tell me you knew what was coming, I’m mentally marking you as a liar for life.

Tully is a film about learning to care for oneself before attempting to care for others. But it’s also a film about caring for others once you have yourself taken care of. We’re all in this together and we’re all important. Constantly putting others before yourself isn’t noble; it’s dangerous to both you and them. Reitman and Cody make the point that life is a game of give and take and that taking is sometimes the right thing to do. Overall, while I didn’t quite find Tully to be the funniest or most entertaining film from the Reitman/Cody duo, it might just be the most poignant and effective. And it’s definitely worth your money or your MoviePass.

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Review – Tully

Review – Traffik

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I had intended to see Deon Taylor’s Traffik on two separate previous occasions but ended up putting it off due to Infinity War fever (see that review here).  If I had forced myself to see this film when I wasn’t in the mood for it, I would have gone it with an underlying and unfounded resentment towards it and that wouldn’t have been fair.  After all, the reviews for it are bad enough already.  But, even with that, I liked the trailer and still wanted to see it and give it a fair shot.  After all, audiences seem to like it (as of the time I’m writing this, it has a surprisingly high 8.0 rating at IMDb, for what that’s worth – which might be little, these days) so there seems to be some disagreement.  Having now seen Traffik, I understand why, as the film even seems to be at odds with itself in a search for its identity.

In the movie, Brea and John (Paula Patton and Omar Epps, respectively) head to the mountains for a romantic getaway only to find themselves on the wrong side of an angry and determined sex-trafficking ring.  Along with their fellow friends and couple Malia and Darren (Roselyn Sanchez and Laz Alonso, respectively), Brea and John must not only fight for their own lives but for the lives of the innocent women who are being held captive by the ring, as well.

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Despite possessing a cast of moderate size, Traffik is Paula Patton’s vehicle.  The narrative is presented from her perspective; we see what she sees, we think what she thinks (ideally), and we feel what she feels.  Patton does a mostly-fine job of carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders.  She shines during the more downplayed moments, appearing to have little to no difficulty in coming across as natural and authentic.  However, at times when she is required to show intense anger or sadness, she struggles.  This only seems to be the case during the first half of the film, as she unquestionably feels more comfortable in the latter scenes.  Maybe this makes no sense.  Maybe the movie wasn’t even filmed in chronological order and she filmed the earlier scenes last.  I don’t know.  All I do know is that, on screen during those earlier moments, Patton appears to be extremely self-conscious.  There’s no reason for her to be, though, as she proves later in the film.

The rest of the cast is fine, never really being pushed.  I do want to mention, though, that Laz Alonso’s Darren is the most thoroughly unlikable character I’ve seen in a film, this year.  That includes all of the villains and antagonists that have graced the screen in 2018.  That includes the villains in this very film.  That includes Thanos.  Darren isn’t the worst person to be depicted in film – just extraordinarily unlikable.  In contrast to traditional antagonists, Darren fakes his way through life, pretending to be one person when he’s really another.  He doesn’t even treat his own friends with basic decency and I have no idea why any of them keep him around.  To be clear, Darren isn’t supposed to be endearing.  But the fact that our protagonists associate with him by choice doesn’t speak well of them.

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Aside from Patton, the film is dependent upon its script and director Deon Taylor to work, and I still can’t determine if it’s a success or not.  By that very admission, I suppose I’m suggesting that it’s very much not a success, but I don’t consider the film to be entirely without merit.  As a suspense thriller, it’s rather effective, with well-crafted mood and atmosphere and acceptable pacing (it takes a few minutes to rev up, but it gets there without too much delay).  And it does bring attention to the oft-overlooked problem of sex trafficking, even as it’s coincidentally been in the news, lately, thanks to the alleged shocking involvement of former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack in a sex trafficking ring of her own.

But at the same time, Taylor can’t seem to determine if he wants the film to be a public service announcement or entertaining schlock (and I use that word lovingly.  Nothing wrong with a little schlock.).  The apparent message of the film was evident early on (the name of the film, after all, is Traffik, silly spelling or not) but as I found myself enjoying the suspenseful nature of what was playing out on the screen, I felt an immediate twinge of guilt.  This sort of thing is actually happening.  Am I supposed to be “enjoying” this filmgoing experience or not?  I honestly have no idea.

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And then there’s the third act twist that isn’t a twist.  It’s a predictably-Hollywood overused plot device that I saw coming in the first act (and you will, too).  It’s not that the story point doesn’t make sense; it actually kind of does.  But it’s been done so many times that, by now, Taylor and other filmmakers should be making a point of navigating around these sorts of tropes in order to give audiences something different and unexpected while staying true to their creative goals.  It can be done.  It could have been done here.  But Taylor got lazy under the guise of maintaining artistic integrity.

So, I guess Traffik is a guiltily enjoyable, utterly average film.  It’s captivating and easy to pay attention to, though it also suffers from an identity crisis, at war with itself over what it’s setting out to achieve.  Patton shows some chops, after powering through a couple of weak moments, and Taylor has a good eye, but the subject matter deserves a stronger commitment and a deeper focus in order to carry any measure of substantial weight.  Fans of thrillers will probably find something to enjoy here, though they may be questioning what that says about them, later.

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Review – Traffik