Sunday, May 28, 2017

Review: War Machine

Image courtesy of Netflix.
David Michod's "War Machine" is a film with a personality crisis. It has been described as a satire, although its critiques of U.S. military policy are missing a satirical sting. The picture is set amid the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, but there's only one actual combat scene. And while the film follows the story of Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a badass general who is brought to Afghanistan in 2009 to help win the war, and finds himself butting heads - although it could be argued that, in this case, it's a good thing - with bureaucracy, the picture is only moderately interested in how politics work. So, how could one classify "War Machine"?

For starters, it's all over the place. As the movie opens, Pitt's McMahon has arrived in Afghanistan with a whole team of yes men in tow - these include the dedicated Greg (Anthony Michael Hall), PR guy Matt (Topher Grace), right-hand-man Cory (John Magaro) and nutcase Pete (Anthony Hayes). It's never exactly clear whether we are supposed to relate to this entourage. The film, however, is narrated by Sean (Scoot McNairy), a reporter with Rolling Stone whom we don't see in the flesh until a ways in to the film, which is another of its flaws. For much of the movie, we have no idea who is narrating the story or why.

Pitt is a very good actor who often shines when given the right material. But McMahon is a character whose only seeming character trait is that, much like a certain someone in U.S. politics, feels the need to win all the time. To make matters worse, the filmmakers have Pitt doing a strange impression of his character from "Inglourious Basterds." The character seems like someone who would have been better suited to a Coen Brothers movie as opposed to a film that isn't even quite sure whether it's a satire.

The film - which is based on Michael Hastings' "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" - takes a dim view of all involved in the war on terror. Everyone from Washington, D.C. is portrayed as feckless, while the military characters are seen as true to their cause. However, that cause happens to be McMahon's obsession with conducting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, a move that is portrayed in the picture as being foolhardy. There's a good movie to be made about U.S. intervention in foreign countries - in fact, there have already been some good ones - but "War Machine" never settles on a tone or, for lack of a better word, thesis.

Michod is a talented director, although I'm basing my praise for him primarily on his debut, the gritty Australian crime drama "Animal Kingdom." His post apocalyptic "The Rover" was visually stimulating, but didn't add up for me and "War Machine" is a mixed bag.

There's one sequence late in "War Machine" that nearly puts the film on track. In the picture's one combat scene, a group of young soldiers are sent in to a particularly rough spot and one soldier, temporarily losing his bearings, heads off by himself, discovering along the way the cost of war. It's a powerful sequence that provides an example of what had previously been missing from the picture. Otherwise, "War Machine" is a series of ingredients that could have made for a better movie, but never pay off.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: Baywatch

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Not even the charming presence of future presidential candidate Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson can quite save "Baywatch," a film that aims to be a tongue in cheek reimagining in the vein of "21 Jump Street," but considers as wit scenes that involve ubiquitous raunch comedy star Zac Efron checking the undercarriage of a dead man - whose genitalia is the star of multiple shots - or another character getting their junk stuck in a beach chair.

The film update of the popular 1990s TV show replaces the cheesiness of its predecessor with a nonstop onslaught of adults-only gags and a standard plot thread involving drug dealers that might have felt more at home on "Miami Vice."

In the picture, Johnson plays Mitch, the head lifeguard at a popular California beach who takes his job seriously. His staff includes the attractive CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) - whose body the camera takes every opportunity to ogle - as well as Ronnie (Jon Bass), whose physique doesn't quite match the beach's other lifeguards and, therefore, gets to be the butt of many of the film's jokes.

In an effort to draw some publicity to the beach, Zac Efron's spoiled former Olympian Matt Brody gets hired and immediately draws all eyes to his constantly exposed abs. Previously, Brody had fallen from grace after drinking too much before a relay race, during which he barfed in the pool.

The film includes a rudimentary subplot regarding a local businesswoman named Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) who moonlights as a drug smuggler. One could be tempted to praise "Baywatch" for its diverse cast, although most of the minority characters are villains working for Leeds' drug operation - oh right, there's also that bungling cop.

There are, admittedly, a few laughs to be had during the course of "Baywatch" and Johnson can be fun to watch. It's obvious he's committed to the picture, without taking it too seriously. And Efron proves again - after the moderately amusing "Neighbors 2" and execrable "Dirty Grandpa" - that he's game for some outlandish scenarios - including that one where he has to dig around a dead man's scrotum.

So, no, "Baywatch" isn't as bad as you might think. It pokes fun at itself and even brings in David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson for cameos. The film knows, to an extent, that it is ridiculous - which is not to say that it's good either. It makes jokes at the expense of the cliches involved in such a storyline, but peddles them all the same.

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
"Dead Men Tell No Tales" is the fifth entry into Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and it's a step up from the previous few entries, although still not exactly necessary and somewhat lacking in inspiration.

In this latest picture, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has fallen on hard times and lost his mojo. As the film opens, he makes a failed attempt at robbing a bank and his crew, fed up with inability to deliver the goods, bails on him.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) is attempting to follow a map of the stars to an unknown destination; a young man named Henry (Brendon Thwaites) is in search of Sparrow to persuade him to help free his father (Orlando Bloom), who has been taken captive by some sort of undead pirate ship; an otherworldly captain known as Salazar (Javier Bardem) hellbent on revenge aims to pay Sparrow an unwelcome visit; and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) seeks to make a deal with Salazar.

In other words, this is a film of many meanwhiles. There's entirely too much going on in "Dead Men Tell No Tales" and only some of it is diverting. Bardem is a wonderful actor and - based on his work in "No Country for Old Men" and "Skyfall" - prime villain material, but here he is asked to ham it up and twirl his undead hair slowly through the air. Rush's character, on the other hand, finds himself with a plot thread that takes a turn for the interesting - albeit overly familiar - toward the end and Bloom is able to reunite with another former cast member during the finale.

The attempts at playful banter between Thwaites and Carina that is aimed at building chemistry mostly falls flat and Depp is left to keep everything afloat by, well, just being Sparrow - a drunken swashbuckler who skirts the line of being a hero or a knave.

"Dead Men Tell No Tales" is loaded down with special effects. Some are good, such as the gigantic gap in the ocean during the end of the picture, while others are just overkill - for example, the statue on the front of Salazar's ship that comes to life and chases Sparrow around during one of the film's many boat battle sequences.

Basically, this has all been done before and better - the picture pales in comparison to the 2003 original, although it's an improvement over several of the soggy sequels that followed. This is a character that Depp could play in his sleep, but he continues to have fun with it and it's one of the elements that makes "Dead Men Tell No Tales" watchable. But regardless, this is another sequel that didn't need to exist, other than to line some pockets.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: Alien: Covenant

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" feels familiar - despite the director's inclusion of a plot thread involving the act of creation and its consequences that gives this latest entry into the franchise some much needed oomph - and that is because it not only follows the similar trajectory of previous "Alien" movies, down to the crew members being picked off one by one by slimy extraterrestrials that burst through their victim's stomachs and other body parts, but it also gives a shout-out to "Blade Runner," although I didn't immediately catch it.

That being said, "Covenant" has more in common with "Prometheus" - the underrated Scott film that explained the origins of this series' universe - than the numerous other "Alien" sequels of the 1980s and 1990s. It's more philosophical and while there are more than a few scenes of blood splattering due to attacks by the titular creatures, this prequel is more interested in exploring the idea of the God complex.

The film opens with David (Michael Fassbender, the android from "Prometheus," having a discussion with his creator (Guy Pearce) on the nature of what it means to create. We cut to the Covenant and its crew, who are undertaking a mission to relocate to a new planet with 2,000 colonists in tow who happen to be sleeping. But an accident results in the death of the ship's captain - and involves a brief glimpse of James Franco in one of the strangest cameos I've seen in recent years - who is then replaced by Billy Crudup's Oram, who appears unsure of his leadership qualities.

Other crew members include Katherine Waterston as Daniels - a stand-in for Sigourney Weaver's Ripley - as well as the pilot, Tennessee (a restrained Danny McBride), Walter (an upgraded android, also played by Fassbender) and minor characters played by Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo. Upon receiving a message from another planet, the crew veers from their mission to respond to the call, much to Daniels' discomfort.

After arriving on the planet, the crew is attacked by the creatures - known as xenomorphs - but then saved by David, who now has long, flowing hair, wears what can be described best as a Jedi robe and occupies a large cavern all by himself. At first, the crew members trust David, but Walter appears to find the whole scenario fishy.

A conversation between the two androids regarding their own limitations and those of human beings as well as the concept of what it means to be a creator makes this latest "Alien" picture an often fascinating piece of genre filmmaking. Then again, it also relies heavily on the beats of the first pictures - bursting stomachs and backs, an alien stalking the corridors of a ship, a tough heroine in a tank top, etc.

David's storyline in "Covenant" accounts for the existence of the previous "Alien" movies and, quite often, when a sequel attempts to explain away the earlier films, it falls flat (for example, the psychoanalysis of the later "Halloween" sequels). However, in this case, the explanation is more philosophical by nature and, therefore, more interesting. Scott's original 1979 picture and James Cameron's ultra-violent 1986 sequel remain the standard bearers for this series, but "Covenant" is a well made, intense and thoughtful addendum to the franchise.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: Snatched

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Jonathan Levine's "Snatched" wants to be multiple things at once - a mother-daughter bonding comedy, a raucous fish out of water story and a showcase for comedian Amy Schumer - but, unfortunately, the picture fails on all three fronts. Despite Schumer's presence as well as a game Goldie Hawn in her first movie appearance in some time and a bevy of great supporting actors (including Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack), the film is a mostly unfunny bust.

As the film opens, Schumer's Emily is an unambitious clothing store employee with a wannabe rock star boyfriend. She loses both the job and the guy in the picture's opening scenes, leaving her to run back home to her mother, Linda (Hawn), who spends much of her time alone with her cats and is obsessed with keeping her home's doors locked and bolted.

Emily was supposed to take a trip to Ecuador with her boyfriend, so after she is unable to convince any of her friends to tag along, she invites Linda, who doesn't seem to want to leave her house, much less the United States. Emily also has a clingy, grown up brother (Ike Barinholtz) who lives with Linda.

Emily and Linda travel together to Ecuador, where they meet another guest (Sykes), who warns them about not wandering too far away from the resort where they are staying. Sykes is accompanied by a pal (Cusack) who is a former special ops. Of course, the duo end up wandering off and quickly find themselves in trouble because, first of all, this is a comedy, and secondly, Hollywood has a history of peddling the concept that going overseas will get you into trouble.

The two women are kidnapped by a group of villains led by a long-haired heavy whose portrayal is, to say the least, culturally insensitive - then again, much of the film's material might leave you in the uncomfortable zone. Also, the movie is not particularly funny. Aside from a sequence involving a clay statue that Hawn's character molded, I barely found myself even snickering for much of "Snatched."

Schumer is a funny and talented comedian, while Hawn has elevated silly material more than a few times in her career. Sadly, neither actress is given much to do, other than run from absurd caricatures of scary foreigners and spout mostly groan inducing one-liners (OK, I admit that Schumer's quip regarding the movie "Powder" made me laugh and shake my head).

Levine has also seen better days - his "50/50" and "The Wackness" combined humor and heart, whereas "Snatched" has more in common with his previous feature, the woefully unfunny "The Night Before." In other words, everyone involved here has more talent than is on display in this film. Schumer's previous film was titled "Trainwreck," but that name better applies to this picture.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Image courtesy of Disney Studios.
"Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2" is, much like its predecessor, a little too pleased with itself - and yet, it has more personality and doesn't take itself as seriously as the other Marvel Comics cinematic ventures of recent years. In other words, you've sort of seen it all before, but for the first of many movies this summer in which heroes will likely save the planet or galaxy, it's not half bad and often pretty fun.

Similar to the first entry in the series, this second "Guardians" movie is loaded with wisecracks - some funny, others groan inducing - as well as plenty of 1970s musical nuggets (hey, when's the last time you remember hearing Silver's "Wham Bam Shang a Lang" in a movie, amirite?) and a few too many visual effects.

As the film kicks off, the Guardians - Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, whatever that means) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are taking on a mission to stop some gigantic beast during a credit sequence that makes nice of use both Groot and ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky." As it turns out, the alien race who employed them for the job is easily offended and find themselves so after Rocket steals some batteries - don't ask, I couldn't possibly explain - from them, leading to the Guardians being pursued to a planet known as Ego.

One of the planet's two inhabitants is a man named Ego (get it?), who is played by Kurt Russell and, as it happens, is Quill's father. The other inhabitant is a woman named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) - for obvious reasons - who appears to want to tell the Guardians that something is amiss on the planet.

In some ways, "vol. 2" bears similarities to "The Empire Strikes Back" in that it features a father-son story, although there's also a twin sister plotline, another involving a stepdad and an overall exploration of what it means to be a family, a theme that makes for some nice touches, but also a little banging over the head in its delivery.

But mostly, this second "Guardians" offers more of the same irreverent humor regarding its respected genre as the first in the series and its protagonists fit into the Batman anti-hero mold, although they can tell better jokes. The film's final battle on planet Ego is a near headache inducing CGI onslaught that nearly kills the film's vibe, although the scene that follows it - set to the tune of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" - is a more fitting culmination.

Much like most of the summer blockbusters that arrive between May and August, "Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2" isn't particularly necessary. That being said, it's a fun tentpole movie that, thankfully, isn't as stone-faced as some of the other comic book films of recent years that fancied themselves topical. In other words, if this movie is your type of thing, you'll likely be amused. I mostly was.

Review: The Lovers

Image courtesy of A24.
Azazel Jacobs' "The Lovers" spends its first half as a fairly routine story of marital infidelity that follows a couple (playwright Tracy Letts and Debra Winger) whose marriage has long grown stale and later transforms into a drama about rediscovery and generational misunderstandings that works much better than the picture's first half.

As the film opens, Letts' Michael and Winger's Mary are both office drones who spend more time having affairs - Letts with Melora Walters' Lucy, a dancer, and Winger with Aidan Gillen's Robert - than being around each other. It's probably for the best as they have little to say to each other and their interactions are barely transactional.

However, one morning they awake facing each other and something seems to click. Thereafter, the two rekindle their spark and, well, have sex all over their house. Whether this has anything to do with the fact that their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), will be arriving for a visit in a few days with his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula), is questionable. During the only scene in which we see Joel prior to his arrival, he is warning Erin that his parents hate each other. So, you can imagine his surprise when he arrives home and finds the situation to be otherwise.

The first two halves of the film are polar opposites - the first is routine almost to the point that you begin to lost interest in the characters and the second half perks up significantly, not only due to a family blowout, but also because you begin to see the characters more as people, rather than indie movie caricatures. The film's first half contains some stilted dialogue - especially a sequence during which Letts, while on the phone, pretends to see someone he knows - while the second half does a better job at capturing how people actually talk.

So, could I recommend "The Lovers?" Almost. Winger gives her best performance in years and Letts, mostly known for his writing, also provides some solid work. The supporting cast - Gillen, Walters, Ross and Sula - are also effective.

But the film's first half is sluggish and much of the drama in the picture feels manufactured - in other words, fights occur between characters at the right points to move the plot forward and some of them don't feel natural or are too exaggerated. All in all, "The Lovers" has some nice moments - including a charming ending - but it's the type of movie that nearly works, but doesn't quite.