Friday, June 15, 2018

'Tag', A Bad Bromance

You mean to tell me, we're in our FORTIES?  
The creators of Tag really want us to know their film is based on a true story, mentioning that fact in the trailer, the poster, and the film's opening credits. And in the broadest sense, it is. (The true story actually involves a larger, older, and whiter group of men.)

I'm not sure if knowing there actually are middle-aged men out there playing Tag makes the movie's concept seem less or more stupid, but that's one of Tag's problems. It wants to recognize the sheer bizarreness of grown men playing Tag, while also couching it in some cloying messages about friendship and the death of youth.

Hoagie (Ed Helms) is the self-proclaimed leader of the man-boys. After learning their friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is getting married, without inviting any of the Tag clan to the wedding, Hoagie sees it as the perfect opportunity to finally corner and tag the elusive and never-tagged Jerry, and ropes in businessman Bob (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker and perpetually stoned Chili (Jake Johnson), and the reliably deadpan Sable (Hannibal Buress).

The continuous game started when they were in junior high, and has a few rules. It only takes place during the month of May; there's no safe spaces, so you just might get tagged at funeral; whoever is tagged at the end of that month is "It" for the rest of the year; and no girls. That last rule is why Hoagie's ultra-competitive wife Anna (a manic Isla Fisher) can never actually play, although she's ruthless in helping and rooting for her husband.

We also learn amendments can be added to the rules, which is how the gang eventually gets themselves invited to the rehearsal dinner for Jerry and his future wife, Susan (Leslie Bibb): no tagging during the dinner, ceremony, or reception.

That still leaves plenty of opportunities to tag Jerry, and the means he goes through to avoid it are the film's better moments. Jeremy Renner may not have actually played Jason Bourne in 2012's The Bourne Legacy, but he's basically playing him here, setting up elaborate ruses, fighting off stealth attacks, and roping in utility players to act as decoys. These moments, in all their slo-mo glory, are not the least bit realistic, and in real life would likely result in, hospitalization, paralysis, or death. But Jerry's almost supernatural abilities can be fun to watch.

Also fun is some of the more relaxed banter between the guys, particularly between Hannibal Buress and whomever he may be speaking to at any given moment (and often, it's just to himself). But it's not enough. Most of the film is the equivalent of running in circles, which is the epitome of predictable. And an attempt to turn earnest near the end doesn't have the effect it should since up to that point the gag has been never knowing if anything is truth, or just an elaborate means to avoid getting tagged. Tag may be based on true story, but it fails to get real.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ocean's H8?

I'm just as stunned as you, ladies.

I usually write my reviews the week I see a film, posting on the day of release. I'm old school like that. I miss the days when you had to wait for Friday's morning paper to see if the new summer movie was worth seeing or not.

But these days, it's all about the "hot take," getting reviews out there as soon as possible. Despite that, I try to avoid reading most reviews before I've gotten a chance to write my own. As a result, when I'm done writing mine it sometimes comes as a big surprise to see that my opinion does not jibe with the majority's.

Last week I was felled by illness for a few days, unable to even look at a computer screen without being overcome with dizziness and nausea, so I wasn't able to finish my review of Ocean's 8 before my self-imposed Friday deadline. Because of that, I went ahead and checked out Rotten Tomatoes this weekend, only to find the film has a tepid ripe tomato rating. This was shocking to me because, and I'll put it bluntly, I fucking loved Ocean's 8.

It seems the general opinion is that it's good, as good as the Ocean's films that preceded it, but somehow it should have been better. That it's not enough to fill a sequel with a great female cast, a solid screenplay, and every trope that befits a good heist picture. There should've been more.

I can easily say I enjoyed Ocean's 8 as much as I did Ocean's 11, definitely more than Ocean's 12, and probably more than Ocean's 13, which I saw but have completely forgotten. It's not just a retread with a female cast, but cleverly creates a central heist that not only couldn't be pulled off by men, but is actually centered on women's frustrations, desires, and obsessions.

Along with the the fancy dresses and pretty jewels, there's a healthy dose of vengeful female rage, via Sandra Bullock's Debbie Ocean. There's also a starlet (Anne Hathaway) who is both vapidly vain and racked with debilitating insecurities; a Betsey Johnson-esque designer (Helena Bonham Carter) who fears she may have aged herself out of the industry with her latest dated collection; not to mention the presence of Rihanna herself, someone who embodies frustration, desire, and obsession. (Surely I'm not the only woman who feels that way about her?)

I'll say it again: Ocean's 8 is as good as the first Ocean's film, and better than its previous sequels. It's brisk and clever, has the twists we've come to expect from the series, ripples with wit, and is filled with excellent performances. And I don't get why, just because it's got a female cast, it has to be more than that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

'Hereditary' Chillness

Boo!...I mean, can I kiss you goodnight?

When we think about the things that really and truly scare us, it is rarely the monster-under-the-bed, serial killers, or alien invasions. It's more often things like suddenly losing your family; the inability to protect the vulnerable people you love; and maybe, losing your mind.

Hereditary is a horror movie that definitely recognizes the potential horrors of family life, and is at its best when it focuses on that.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist and mother of two who has just lost her own mother after an extended illness. Annie has mixed feelings about this death, as her mother was a secretive and often difficult woman.

Her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and pre-teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are also dealing with this loss in their own way. Peter and Steve take it in stride, perhaps recognizing it as a relief, while daughter Charlie is sadder. She and her grandmother were close, and it's clear Charlie was her favorite child, as odd as she is. Or perhaps because of that oddness.

A palpable level of gloom surrounds the family, due in part to their home, a beautiful but dark craftsman house in the middle of some wintery woods. Annie's artwork centers on detailed dioramas depicting pivotal moments in her life, and the camera often tricks the eye into seeing their home as one of Annie's dioramas. It's a creepy and great effect.

Also lending itself to the creep meter is Annie's realization that her mother had a secret life that may have been downright evil, and the mental illness that runs in Annie's family may not have skipped over her like she thought.

When a second, devastating loss hits the family, it pushes Annie to seek solace in an unconventional way, with the help of a fellow grief recovery group member (Anne Dowd), while also causing some of her long held resentments to rise the surface, fracturing the family.

Toni Collette's Annie goes through almost as many personality changes as her United States of Tara character. She's at times charmingly bewildered by the possible supernatural events that surround her, heartbreaking when she's trying to wrestle with her grief, and utterly terrifying when it appears her mind may be cracking.

At times Alex Wolf's performance as teenage Peter is woefully overshadowed by Collette, but he eventually gets some pretty intense moments of his own. Sadly, Gabriel Byrne is completely underutilized in an underwritten role.

Hereditary is definitely creepy,  and it allows its utterly shocking tragedy to permeate everything that follows. For the majority of the film, we never really know where its going, and ambiguity lends to the terror. But then it decides to stop the ambiguity, landing with a very heavy thud on one side, favoring the kinds of things that ultimately don't keep us up at night.


Friday, May 18, 2018

'Book Club': Sex And The Creaky

Movie still? Or a photo shoot for Town & Country?

When I found out there was an advance screening of Book Club scheduled on Mother's Day, I immediately thought what they wanted me to think: a perfect opportunity to take mom to the movies! But then I realized I actually love my mother, and shouldn't subject her to such dreck, especially on Mother's Day. Still, I mentioned the option to her, and she jumped on it. I guess mother knows best because it turns out, Book Club isn't that bad.

It's not that great, either, but as a vehicle for four stellar actresses of a certain age, it manages to hit all the mature lady buttons you'd expect it to. And if that sentence sounds dirty, it's because you can't walk away from a viewing without a bad case of innuendo-itis; the club's selection, as the movie begins, is Fifty Shades of Grey.

That the majority of them wouldn't have already read it may seem a little unbelievable, especially since their monthly book club started during their college days in the 1970's, with Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. But I'll allow it, especially since most of them have had things other than sex on their minds for a long time. Aside, that is, from Vivian (Jane Fonda), a wealthy hotelier, and the Samantha of the group, who recognizes a profound lack of gettin' any in her friends, hence her choosing the bestseller as that month's pick.

None of the book club members is particularly excited by the choice. Not Sharon (Candace Bergen), a federal judge who hasn't had a date since she divorced her boring accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr.), 18 years prior. Not Carol (Mary Steenburgen), who has been married to her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), for decades. And definitely not Diane (Diane Keaton), who is recently widowed and dealing with two adult daughters who are convinced she's so feeble she should move to Arizona to be closer to them. But the book, or more accurately, the discussions the women have as a result of reading the book, lead to realizations for all of them, mostly centered on the men, or lack thereof, in their lives.

I have no love for the Fifty Shades series, but I've long maintained that if it somehow leads to unsatisfied women finally getting what they want in the bedroom, more power to them. What I take issue with is how the series makes an abusive and cold man seem like some kind of prize. And with that in mind, Book Club is kind of depressing. At its heart, it's a movie focused on four successful women in their later years who all seem to believe their lives would be much better if they either had a man, or could at least get more attention from the man they have.

Vivian, who has long believed in no-strings-attached sex, begins to question her lifestyle when an ex-flame (Don Johnson, father of Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson) shows up in town. Sharon, supposedly a powerful federal judge, is still hung up on an ex-husband she never even liked, while trying to build up enough courage to finally get out there by joining a dating app.

Diane's arc is the most entertaining, mainly because it's Diane Keaton at her most Diane Keatonish, paired with a surprisingly witty Andy Garcia, as the independently wealthy (because of course) airline pilot Mitchell. He is a prize, and they have a believable chemistry; you can totally buy their meet-cute romance.

All of the women are given scenes that display both their comedic and dramatic chops, but it's the moments that feature just them, screen legends, together and talking, away from any men, that elevates the film above your basic rote, multi-storied rom-com.

You may be shocked to hear this film is NOT from Nancy Meyers, the director behind "women of a certain age" hits like It's Complicated and Something's Got to Give. With its very white cast and perfectly manicured settings (every home is worthy of a magazine spread), it certainly looks like one of her films. The presence of Diane Keaton, playing someone named Diane, surely adds to the confusion. But no, this one comes from first-time director and screenwriter Bill Holderman (with a screenplay co-written by Erin Simms). And really, that's fine. There should be more than one filmmaker in Hollywood making movies for and about older women.

And if you're wondering which of the film's stars has the best plastic surgeon, my mother has a strong opinion on the matter: It's Don Johnson.

Friday, May 11, 2018

'Life Of The Party' Isn't


"Ben, honey, I love you. But I need my space...so I can go make Spy 2."

I'm sure Melissa McCarthy loves her husband Ben Falcone very much, but the bottom line is she has to stop making movies with him. Life of the Party is the third film they've made together, with Falcone directing and co-writing (Tammy and The Boss being the others), and it just solidifies the fact that McCarthy succeeds much better when she's away from the creative influences of her husband. (Her best starring vehicles, Spy and The Heat, as well as her breakout supporting role in Bridesmaids, were all directed by Paul Feig.)

McCarthy stars as Deanna, a middle-aged mom who, immediately after dropping her daughter off at her senior year of college, is informed by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce because he's fallen in love with a realtor named Marcie (Julie Bowen). Dropping her child off at the same school Dan forced her to drop out of when she became pregnant during their senior years sets the wheels turning in Deanna's head. She decides to take "lemonade and turn it into lemons" (as a future sorority sister tells her later) and go back to school to finish her archeology degree.

There's some obvious comedy to be had having Deanna enroll in the same school as her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), but after some initial horror, Maddie is mainly delighted by her mother's presence. In fact, most of the students she encounters are delighted by her, (except for a couple of mean girls who would be considered too cartoonish for even the worst '80s teen movie).

So then what's funny about a middle aged woman going back to school, having a great time, making friends, and achieving a life goal? Not much! Even Deanna's frumpy mom looks are done away with pretty quickly after a makeover from her daughter. The result is a perfectly lovely looking, slightly older woman, who is able to attract the attentions of the nearest hunk and fellow chardonnay lover, frat boy Jack (Luke Benward).

There were some groans from the audience when Jack and Deanna eventually hook up (though aside from some kissing, we don't see them get physical), but I appreciate that their relationship isn't used as a tool for shaming Deanna in any way. There's no scene of Jack pretending he doesn't know her with his buddies, or showing any embarrassment over his infatuation with her. (At one point he deems her his "Sexual Dumbledore," to which she replies that no woman ever, ever, wants to be compared to a grizzled wizard.)

But again, since that relationship isn't really played for laughs, it's another aspect of the film that just...is. And since McCarthy isn't allowed to do much more aside from being perfectly lovely and pleasant, it's up to supporting players like Gillian Jacobs, as a fellow college student who recently came out of an eight year coma, and Maya Rudolph as Deanna's devoted BFF, to supply a majority of the laughs, and they aren't given nearly enough to work with.

As the movie progressed, I began to tick down in my notes the number of times I actually laughed out loud, and emerged with two ticks in that notebook--and I can't for the life of me even remember what it was that made me laugh. And when a movie includes Maya Rudolph as a high strung best friend with an aggressively flippy hairstyle and you only laugh twice? You know it's a failure as a comedy.