Friday, May 26, 2017

The Waters Of 'Baywatch' Are Tepid, At Best



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I lived through the 90's and somehow managed get through the entire decade without ever watching a single episode of Baywatch. But it's a testament to that show's weirdly global popularity that I still know who some of the cast was (Pamela Anderson, Yasmine Bleeth, international superstar David Hasselhoff), what it was about (beach lifeguards who also managed to thwart a lot of crime), and why people watched it (several big bouncing reasons). Those last features were the show's biggest (pun intended) appeal, which is why it's odd that it's inspired a limp reboot obsessed with dicks.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of boobs in this Baywatch, but less attention is paid to the bouncing kind than to the kind played by Zac Efron. He plays idiot Olympic swimmer Matt Brody, a character clearly modeled after Ryan Lochte, though with a little more public puking involved. After a minor crime Brody was sentenced to community service, and Captain Thorne (Rob Huebel) wants him to serve that time in the Baywatch to help bring publicity, and possibly money, to the fledgling program.

Lieutenant Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) is fiercely opposed, suspecting Brody is nothing but a selfish pretty boy, and won't be a team player. In a try-out, Brody proves himself reckless but effective, and also there wouldn't be a movie if he wasn't let on the team so on board he comes, along with fellow recruits Summer (Alexandra Daddario), a blue-eyed brunette Brody hopes to bag, and Ronnie (Jon Bass), a doughy nerd who gets to join because the movie needs comic relief.

Together with C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) they are a tight-knit team of red-clad lifeguards who barely have time to save people from drowning; they're too busy trying to thwart evil hotel owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) and her plan to drive down beach property prices by flooding the area with drugs, with the ultimate goal of buying up the beachfront and making it a private club.

Obviously there are people around the world who found David Hasselhoff appealing (or at least people in Germany), but his presence as the star of the TV show helps explain why its women (and their physiques) were much more memorable. But in the movie, we're dealing with Dwayne Johnson, who wasn't called The Rock for nothing, and Efron, who has never looked more unreal. There are several moments in the film where Efron's torso is the center of attention, and it looks so much like a caricature of a "ripped male body" that I was almost convinced it was CGI. Who can bother to look at the women when there's so much flexing going on?

Baywatch tries to be self-aware and meta on a few occasions, like when someone notices that it always looks like C.J. is running in slow motion, or when Brody points out that all of the past crimes the Baywatch team have solved sound like farfetched plots from a bad TV show. But it doesn't go far enough with that kind of of parody, which was used much more effectively in another 90's TV show-turned-movie-reboot, 21 Jump Street. Instead, the humor is centered on tits and dicks. (Though I do have to give the movie some credit for keeping those tits covered, and saving the nudity for one of those aforementioned dicks.)

Zac Efron, killer bod or not, is about as charismatic as a Ken doll. He's devoid of anything that feels genuine, be it talent or personality. And it's not enough to give him the dumb blonde role if you're going to leave the majority of the women in the film completely forgettable. Only Chopra seems to realize scene-chewing is the only route to take with a movie so tepid.

While Dwayne Johnson brings his megawatt charm to his role, nothing ever matches the killer combination of him plus ridiculous stunts seen during the opening credits, which ends with the film's title emerging from the same sea as Johnson and a trio of high-fiving dolphins. More surreal stuff like that, and you might have had something original. Instead, it's just dead in the water.

Friday, May 19, 2017

'Alien: Covenant' Is An Enjoyable Correction In Xenomorph Course



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I was too young to see the first Alien when it was in theaters, which means I missed out on its initial visceral impact. So for years, Aliens was my favorite Alien movie, fueled primarily by the incredible experience of seeing it on opening night at the Coronet Theater in San Francisco. The theater was sold out, the audience was pumped, and by the end of it, I had a new role model in Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. And while I didn't take to wearing a jumpsuit, I did buy some Reeboks that were, at the time, the closest I could get to the ones she dons in the movie.

Eventually, Alien would supplant Aliens as the my favorite Alien film, and while I still love them both, I think Alien is about as near to perfect as a sci-fi horror movie can get. I'm likely not the only person who thinks this. It's probably why so many of the sequels and prequels tend to follow the same basic plot, centered on a female heroine, a motley crew, a suspicious synthetic human, and those pesky aliens. The two times they've strayed a bit from that formula, well, the less said about those, the better.

I wasn't a fan of Prometheus, mainly because giving the aliens an origin story wasn't something I had been clamoring for (was anyone?). The fact that the movie was so full of plot holes and flat-out stupid behavior by its characters, and, most importantly, didn't have Ripley, or anyone near Ripley's charisma, strength and smarts, made me worried for the future of the franchise.

Alien: Covenant has assuaged those fears.

Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus, set ten years after the events of that film and 18 years before the first Alien. The Covenant is a large space ark carrying two thousand colonists and drawers full of embryos is on its way to a new planet, along with a crew lead by terraforming scientist Daniels (Katherine Waterson) and first mate Oram (Billy Crudup). A synthetic android named Walter (Michael Fassbender), an updated version of the David model seen in Prometheus, is also on board.

An event remarkably similar to the beginning of last year's Passengers causes damage to the ship, requiring the early awakening of the crew to assess the issue and make repairs. As they're dealing with that, they receive a radio call from a previously uncharted planet that looks a lot more habitable and closer than the planet they were on their way to. So, despite protests from Daniels (who, being the heroine, knows this shit is iffy) they change course.

What follows sticks close to the formula many Alien movies have stuck to, with the crew (which includes Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, and Amy Seimitz) venturing where they shouldn't, only to meet some aliens, who, with each mutation, grow closer to the aliens we all grew up with.

This is the first Alien movie that clearly implies that it takes place in the same universe as Ridley Scott's other nearly-perfect movie, Blade Runner. Like Blade Runner, the film's beginning includes a close-up of a replicant's synthetic's eye. In Covenant, the android plays a lead role, with most of his story centered on creation, "fatherhood," and what it means to be human, something the replicants of Blade Runner were a tad preoccupied with as well.

This is an interesting idea for Covenant to explore, and conceptually, it melds the evolution of those aliens and the android's obsessions fairly well. Where it fails a bit is in execution, as it gradually turns into a mutation of its own, becoming an Alien serial killer movie; an Alien Se7en, if you will.

Like Prometheus, Covenant is a prequel, which always brings with it its own set of problems: Why does the tech in all these ships look 100 times more advanced than the tech in the original films? How come no one in the originals ever heard about these alien encounters, or at least that past ships and crews have vanished mysteriously? And most importantly, why do they keep bringing androids on board when they usually end up trying do something sketchy, if not flat out try to kill the crew? (Except for you, Bishop! We love you!)

Clearly, Scott read the room, and realized the route he originally wanted to take following Prometheus wasn't going to cut it, so Covenant is a direct bridge between it and a full on reboot of the franchise. On the one hand, that's good, because it's much more of a crowd-pleaser. But on the other, it's a little too faithful to the formula, with that ship's motley crew (who are all paired off couples, yet aside from McBride never develop any clear personalities of their own), Waterson's Dany as a Ripley stand-in (right down to her sassy short haircut), and the one-on-one climatic battle with an alien.

That said, there's enough suspense mixed in to make the predictable bits more palatable, enough gore to satisfy fans of the original, and some really nice surprises. Fassbender's roles as both David and the upgraded model, Walter, are a big part of the latter. He's always a little scary, no matter which android he's playing, but there are some scenes that cross over into weirdly sexual territory (and let's face it, Geiger's aliens have also always been weirdly sexual) that made me squirm. Fassbender's so good, I'm even willing to overlook Walter 's terrible American accent.

Alien: Covenant doesn't come close to the near perfection of the original — I doubt a sequel ever could — but it's a close enough cousin to the exciting familiarity of Aliens that, while I won't be running out to the store to buy another pair of futuristic Reeboks, I will definitely go into the next installment (and oh yes, you can bet there will be more) with a little less dread than I had going into this one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

'Snatched' Proves That A Terrible Movie Can Still Make You Laugh



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I'm going to be completely honest here: Amy Schumer's new comedy Snatched made me laugh a lot, and for some, that will be enough.

But it's also possible for a comedy to both make you laugh, and be terrible at the same time. After all, there are some things most people just can't help but laugh at, quality humor or not. For me, it's usually slapstick; for others, it might be someone making a fool of themselves. And while Snatched has plenty of both, it also has a central plot that can be viewed as racist at worst, and just profoundly badly timed at best.

Schumer plays a character not unlike the many she's played on her TV show Inside Amy Schumer, and her previous film Trainwreck. Emily Middleton is a completely self-absorbed, occasionally delusional, but ultimately lovable loser who, within the first ten minutes of the film, is fired from her job and dumped by her boyfriend, right before they were to go on vacation in Ecuador.

So Emily convinces her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) to come along on the non-refundable trip instead. And while Linda is most comfortable at home with her cats and her agoraphobic middle-aged son — Emily's brother Jefferey (Ike Barinholtz) — she gives in, despite tremendous misgivings about the location and its potential dangers.

Needless to say, as the movie title, previews, and poster make abundantly clear, the two women are snatched, and held for ransom by a Colombian gang headed by a notorious crime lord named Morgado (Oscar Jaenada). It isn't long before the women break free, and must somehow make their way to through the Colombian jungle to Bogota and the American consulate, with Morgado on their tail.

This is Goldie Hawn's first movie in 15 years, and I went into it hoping she'd be given the opportunity to be as abrasively funny as Schumer often is. Alas, for the most part she's relegated to the straight role. Still, she's talented enough to make the stiff stuff funny, even when she's supposed to be the cool and collected one. A scene where she tries to calm herself by to reading the only available thing in their jail cell — a porn mag — is a highlight.

Also adding considerable laughs are supporting players Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack, as Ruth and Barb, two "platonic friends' on vacation at the same high-end resort. Ruth does all the talking because Barb, a former member of "special ops," cut out her own tongue after retirement to thwart any possible attempts by foreign agents to torture her and force her to spill secrets. Emily points out she could still be tortured and just forced to write stuff down, but Ruth chooses to ignore this observation.

Snatched was written by Katie Dippold, who also wrote several Melissa McCarthy vehicles, including the Ghostbusters reboot, and is directed by 50/50 and Warm Bodies director Jonathan Levine, and there's an odd, almost surreal quality to much of the movie. It's not just that none of Emily and Linda's situation seems remotely realistic (if it was realistic, it probably wouldn't be funny since they'd likely both be dead before the movie was even halfway through), it's that scenes will end and then abruptly transition to the next, with no real sense of how they got where they are, let alone how they got there alive. Once we get to the point where a tapeworm is coaxed out of Emily's mouth with a dangling piece of raw meat, I was expecting someone to wake up and reveal the whole thing was just a dream.

It almost feels like the surreality is a conscious attempt by the makers to try and absolve themselves of any accusations of racism or cultural insensitivity. Because, if everything else in the film is completely unrealistic, maybe you can overlook the bad timing inherent in a movie whose central villains are literally "bad hombres."

Now, I don't think Schumer, the writer, or the director are being intentionally racist at any point in Snatched. But they are being unpleasantly tone-deaf — something Schumer is not unfamiliar with — to much of the film's characterization of South America and its residents. And too often, they try to mask this by making a joke about the appearance of racism, in a "I'm not being racist, I'm making fun of racism" way.

But having to repeatedly reinforce that your movie isn't being insensitive by constantly acknowledging that insensitivity, just makes me wonder, wouldn't it be better to just... not do something that could be perceived as insensitive in the first place? Granted, it might not be easy, but really, that leads me to the biggest criticism I have with Snatched: it's lazy.

So while, yes, it is funny in parts, Snatched is ultimately a missed opportunity as a female-led comedy; as a comeback vehicle for Goldie Hawn; and as proof that the first season of Inside Amy Schumer wasn't a fluke, and Schumer is capable of continuing that same smart, uncomfortable, and most importantly, difficult comedy into her movie career.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

'Paris Can Wait' Is Conventionally Pleasant



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

In 1991, Eleanor Coppola turned the interviews and footage she shot during the production of her husband Francis's film Apocalypse Now into the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness. And she hasn't made a feature film since. Now, at the age of 80, she's returned to screens with Paris Can Wait, her first narrative movie, a romantic road trip loosely based on a similar trip she took through France.

Diane Lane is Anne Lockwood, wife of Michael Lockwood (Alec Baldwin.) He's a movie producer and together they're traveling through Europe on business. When an earache prevents her from getting on the private jet that will take them to their next destination, Michael's business associate Jacques (Arnaud Viard) offers to drive her from Cannes to Paris, insisting he'll get her there by that evening. Anne accepts.

But Jacques turns out to be the kind of guy who must stop at least once an hour to smoke, refill his vintage convertible's radiator, or just pop into a little roadside cafe that has the best cheese/wine/berries/anything in France. He will not let the possibility of delight pass them by because of her schedule.

At first Anne is annoyed by this, but eventually she gives in, even if she's the one who ends up paying for the food, and eventually hotel rooms, herself. (Jacques is conveniently without credit cards for the moment.)

Like a feminine version of The Trip or The Italian Trip, the film is definitely a lush journey, with beautiful landscapes and shot after glorious shot of French meals, from elaborate five course affairs to simple roadside picnics filled with wine and cheese. By the time the movie was over I was angry. Angry that I didn't have any wine and cheese to come home to! And I don't even drink wine!

What begins as a purely platonic trip turns into something with the potential for romance, even if Jacques isn't exactly the ideal match. Let's just say one of his many stops is not simply to sample the cuisine of that particular town.

Coppola's direction is solid if conventional, and the film probably has more in common with the works of her daughter Sofia than it does with her husband Francis. Much like Sofia's Lost in Translation, the story follows an unlikely pair as they make discoveries about themselves and their surroundings, and like that film, its success is heavily dependent on its two leads.

Diane Lane glows and is inherently likable, which helps since her character is one that could easily be seen as a nothing but a privileged, rich, white lady who hasn't earned the sympathy that is demanded from the audience. And Arnaud Viard is just charming enough; you can understand why someone would put up with his whims.

But unlike Lost in Translation, Paris Can Wait is stymied by conventional plotting, and a romance that never really gels. Anne is married, and while its revealed that her husband isn't exactly a saint, Anne never seems angry or dissatisfied enough to warrant any straying on her part. There's a romance in the movie because that's what this kind of movie demands. (Lifetime is, after all, one of the studios behind the film.)

It isn't until the very end that Coppola takes some real chances, with a cheeky shout-out to San Francisco's Swan's Oyster Depot and a playful break of the fourth wall that pays tribute to the Parisian filmmakers of the nouvelle vague. If she's able to make another movie, I hope she's given the freedom to dig a little further into the art school roots that show up with that last shot; conventional movies can wait.

Paris Can Wait opens in New York and LA on May 12th, and in San Francisco on May 19th.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Third Time Is *Not* A Charm For 'The Dinner'




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Dinner is the third adaptation of Dutch author Herman Koch's novel to hit the screens since the book's 2009 release, and the first version to be set in America. I'll have to watch the Dutch and Italian versions before I can make a judgment on whether a good movie can be made from this book, because this version definitely isn't it.

Set in an unnamed New England city, the story centers on two married couples who are meeting for an expensive dinner, and their troubled teenage children, who are back at home.

Steve Coogan and Laura Linney are the first Lohmans, Paul and Claire. Paul is a school teacher and writer and Claire runs a "health center." They have one teenage son named Michael (Charlie Plummer). Paul is not looking forward to the dinner, mainly because it involves his brother, Stan.

Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) is a U.S. congressman married to his second wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). They have two teenagers of their own, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Beau (Miles J. Harvey), an African-American youth Stan adopted with his first wife Barbara (Chloƫ Sevigny).

Paul does not like Stan one bit, and this at first could be chalked up to long-standing sibling rivalry, until we learn that there's not a lot Paul likes at all. He's a ranty curmudgeon with a huge chip on his shoulder. Claire, on the other hand, is at least enthusiastic about the restaurant, if not the company.

That restaurant turns out to be one of those obscenely expensive joints that serves eight course tasting menus with elaborate presentations (sauce poured from mini gourds!) and ridiculous ingredients (burnt pumpernickel soil!). It's also housed in an old candlelit mansion that would make an excellent location for an Eyes Wide Shut orgy.

While there's an ominous mood from the very beginning of the movie, it takes a very, very long time before the dinner guests finally reveal why they've gathered for a meal few of them seem eager to eat: It's to discuss something horrible their teenage boys have done, and how they plan to deal with it.

Director Oren Moverman drags out this reveal way too long by having the characters constantly leaving the table, either to take political calls (Stan) or just to be angry and pout (Paul). The narrative is further interrupted with flashbacks that go on way too long. (There's a ten minute flashback to a visit at a Gettysburg museum that is simply baffling in its length and indulgence.)

As a result, when we learn about the boys' actions it doesn't have the impact it should. Revelations about Paul's past are similarly ineffective. He's been such an intolerable asshole for much of the film that any sympathy the audience may have had for him has long been lost. Coogan was likely hired more for his comedic abilities than his dramatic skills, but the film is completely lacking in the dark humor it's clearly shooting for; Coogan's quips come off as unearned bitterness

Moverman worked with Gere in a previous film, 2014's Time Out of Mind, a character study about a mentally ill homeless man. Ultimately that film wasn't great, but it was filled with some interesting framing and camerawork. There's some similarly intriguing work in The Dinner, as Moverman places the camera far from his subjects, utilizing slow pans and zooms that keep them at a distance from the audience, a technique that brings to mind the work of Robert Altman.

The audio is also ambitious, with a constant hum of background chatter, ambient music, and, during one scene, the omnipresent "ping" of a character's iPhone, a sound that will no doubt cause numerous audience members to shout "Turn off your phone!" at fellow theatergoers.

But while technically interesting, The Dinner fails because of its choppy storytelling and the ultimate realization that almost everyone in it is a complete and utter nightmare, undeserving of our time, let alone our sympathy. When the noblest person in a story turns out to be a congressman, you know you're dealing with some truly horrible people.