I’m So Eggcited

Red Notice

by George Wolf

Heist Movie? Gal Gadot? I’m in.

Plus Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds.

I said I’m in! Sounds like a bunch of fun.

But somehow, it’s just not.

Johnson is FBI agent John Hartley, and he’s on the trail of Nolan Booth (Reynolds), the 2nd most wanted art thief in the world.

Who’s number 1? That would be The Bishop (Gadot), a mysterious criminal who always seems one step ahead of Booth in the quest to reunite three priceless jeweled eggs that Marc Antony once gave to Cleopatra. Yes, Cleopatra.

After a snappy, parkour-heavy chase to open the film, Hartley offers Booth the chance to move up to the top spot on Interpol’s Red Notice (highest level arrest warrant) list. All he has to do is help Hartley and the Feds nab The Bishop.

And the game is on!

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, Skyscraper) has assembled three charismatic A-listers for a globe-trotting adventure with glamourous locales, double crosses and a script full of quippy banter. And it takes barely thirty minutes to begin wondering how it all went wrong.

You would think that watching Gadot, Reynolds and Johnson do anything together would be at least a marginal hoot, but nobody seems comfortable. What chemistry there is feels forced, at best, and none of the three stars bring much beyond the personas they’ve earned in better films. Reynolds carries most of the comedic weight, but with schtick that’s nearly interchangeable from his two Hitman’s Bodyguard films, a stale odor appears early and often.

There are a few LOL moments, most notably Hartley and Booth arguing about Jurassic Park and the real Ed Sheeran showing up to fight some federal agents. But with direct references that include Indiana Jones and Vin Diesel, plus multiple outlandish wardrobe changes (Johnson can’t exactly buy off the rack, so who had the tailor made safari outfit?), Thurber ends up navigating an awkward space that teeters on spoof.

Is Red Notice really trying to launch a new action/comedy franchise? Or is it just riffing on the genre? Either way, it ends up on the naughty list. Even those two Hitmans Bodyguard films embrace their own ridiculousness to deliver some dumb, forgettable fun. Red Notice manages two out of those three, and that ain’t good.

Pants and Skippy

Jungle Cruise

by George Wolf

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wears trousers in 1916 London, so she’s “pants.”

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the skipper Lily hires to guide her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the Amazon jungle, she he’s “skippy.”

As Lily and Frank’s verbal sparring grows more and more flirtatious during the swashbuckling adventures of Jungle Cruise, the sheer charisma of the two leads succeeds in steering the film away from dull waters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra fills Disney’s latest with plenty of wink-wink spirit from the original theme park ride, right down to the cornball jokes Frank insists on telling to his tour boat clients.

But Lily is no tourist. She’s a botanist in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree said to contain magical healing powers. The closer Frank gets them to the prize, the more dangers come out of the jungle. Not only does Kaiser Wilhelm’s son Joachim (Jesse Plemons) also want the magic flowers, but a 400-year-old undead conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) is seeking to break the curse that ties him to the jungle.

Yes, there’s much going on, but Collet-Serra keeps the CGI action sequences (some of which will remind you plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean) front and center on a journey that never loses the family adventure vibe.

Not that the five credited writers have forgotten about us grown-ups who took this actual Disney ride as kids. An extended bout of Blunt v Johnson innuendo becomes a frisky delight, while the subtle nods to marriage equality and the savagery of colonialism are fleeting but effective.

The film’s third act delivers a major surprise, which results in extended exposition and the first signs of treading water. But even at its most formulaic, there’s enough humor, heart and genuine movie star appeal here to make Jungle Cruise an excursion full of rollicking good fun.

Extra Life

Jumanji: The Next Level

by George Wolf

Recent box office totals have sent a pretty clear message: if you want a butts-in-seats reboot, you gotta come with a strong new hook.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle got it right two years ago, and now most of that gang is back for The Next Level, which is smart enough to add a few new wrinkles (plus some trusty old ones) for freshness.

We catch up with our four young heroes a year removed from high school and trying hard to keep in touch. Over Christmas break from college, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) make plans for a meetup, but Spencer doesn’t show.

Hearing those familiar drums, the other three quickly figure out he’s been sucked back into Jumanji, and decide to go after him. I mean, they beat it once, right?

New game, new rules, brand new hook.

Bethany is left behind, but two new players aren’t: Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s ex-best friend Milo (Danny Glover). Know what else? Everyone gets a new avatar.

Well, not Martha, she’s still badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). But this time, it’s Eddie who gets the smoldering heroic intensity of Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Fridge is portly Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Milo is diminutive zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Spencer is newly-added cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina).

The next level mission: free Jumanji from the evil clutches of Jurgen the Brutal (GOT‘s Rory McCann), or die trying. Game on!

Watching the four adult stars channel teenagers in the first film was a blast, but the avatar switches here are the smart plays, and the body swaps don’t stop once the game begins. Some of the gags do settle for low hanging fruit (i.e. old people are easily confused) but plenty others are clever and inspired.

The film itself even gets in on the switcheroo spirit, with fewer solid laughs but a markedly better adventure. Welcome to the Jungle’s riffs on The Breakfast Club make way for director Jake Kasdan’s set piece homages to Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, Kingsman and even Peter Jackson’s King Kong in a thrilling escape from angry mandrills.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do not return, which I’m guessing is a major reason the life lesson feels don’t land as smoothly this time. But Kasdan and his team hit the big shots. They give us a reason to be interested in a return to Jumanji, and plenty of fun once we get there.

Sibling Smackdown

Fighting With My Family

by Hope Madden

Rarely, if ever, has WWE PR been as charming as Stephen Merchant’s biopic Fighting with My Family.

A traditional underdog tale, the film is also savvy enough to know how to wield its source material to broaden its audience beyond your traditional WWE fanatic.

Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) — or Britani or, later, Paige — takes part in her family’s business. Mornings, she hands out flyers to their wrestling events, mainly to passersby who look down their noses at the notion.

Afternoons she helps her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) coach local kids on the arts of grappling. Evenings, she gets in the ring with her brother, mum (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) to entertain amateur wrestling enthusiasts in Norwich, England.

Then the call comes inviting Saraya and Zak to audition for WWE at an upcoming London Smackdown event.

The set-up is there and, for any sports story, it is golden. Scrappy working class upbringing? Check! Sibling rivalry? Check! Opportunities for montage? Everywhere!

Better still is a madcap supporting cast you can’t help but love. Frost and Headey share a really lovely and incredibly goofy onscreen chemistry as the Mohawk-sporting ex-con patriarch and former homeless drug addict turned devoted mum. Merchant’s sharp direction and even sharper script avoids condescension or sentimentality.

The solid first act dovetails nicely into a less comedic journey for Saraya, the only sibling the WWE actually hires. Additional supporting players cannot live up to the charisma of Saraya’s family, but Dwayne Johnson plays himself and he has enough charisma for an entire cast.

Vince Vaughn, adding one more to a string of solid performances, plays the recruiter/drill sergeant/coach who helps Saraya find her individual strength for the journey to WWE Diva.

Pugh is the spark that makes the engines go, here. Though Saraya’s wigs are not always believable, her inner conflict and fighting spirit are.

While Fighting with My Family manages to sidestep or subvert a lot of genre clichés, it hardly breaks new ground. Instead, Merchant elevates the familiar with a more authentic feeling backstory and a winning cast.





Rock and a High Place

Skyscraper

by George Wolf

My wife says if I can’t get through this without mentioning Die Hard, I owe her ten bucks.

So how much will The Towering Inferno cost me?

Get over it, right? Those are decades old.

Fair enough. Ideas are born to be borrowed, and the real question is how well Skyscraper assembles its inspirations. The answers come without apology, cranked up to full tilt boogie until the rubble-strewn, crowd pleasing finale.

Of course Dwayne Johnson stars as Will Seymour, a former Marine and FBI hostage negotiator now working as a security expert. A tragedy on his former job cost Will his left lower leg, but it led him to a perfect new life with his surgeon wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two cute kids.

Will’s hired to assess the security measures at The Pearl in Hong Kong, the world’s new tallest building that is ready to open its luxurious residential upper half. Will’s intimidated by such a large assignment for his small firm, but there’s a specific reason he got the call.

There’s something in The Pearl’s vault that is very valuable to international terrorist Kores Botha (Roland Moller), and Will is part of the plan to take it from the skyscraper’s visionary designer (Chin Han).

Who’s the fly in that high rise ointment? The monkey in the wrench? It’s The F. Rock

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence) trades comedy for disaster thrills with the tangible relish of a kid trading flashcards for the latest XNintendoBox 64 in 3D.

The heroics are grand in scale, engulfed in flames and often unveiled with gasp-inducing effects that consistently poke at our fear of heights. The pace is quick, Johnson serves up his usual good guy charisma and Campbell gets to be more than just a loving bystander.

And it all could only be more ridiculous if Will and Botha got in the Face/Off machine and switched identities.

The film’s plot turns and callbacks get so shameless it nearly pauses for applause, but the commitment is so unabashed and the spectacle so summer-ready, Skyscraper wins you over with pure “are you not entertained?” tenacity.

Yippee Ki….psych!





The Badness of King George

Rampage

by Matt Weiner

Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I miss the cohesive vision of Battleship, a movie that is no longer the dullest adaptation of a game. That’s because Rampage exists, the latest video game adaptation to suggest that Hollywood is intentionally tanking these things to convince audiences that movies are a superior medium.

To be fair, there are far worse adaptations out there. Rampage reunites director Brad Peyton with disasters, Dwayne Johnson and green screen destruction, last seen together in San Andreas (2015). Peyton knows how to keep the action moving along, and Johnson is extremely adept by now at oozing charm no matter how nonsensical the material.

Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye, whose beloved gorilla George is one of three beasts who fall victim to rogue genetic engineering and cut a destructive path through the country as they all converge on the company responsible for their mutation.

Because some tension is needed to pad out the sparse story, Okoye is joined by genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who all have reservations teaming up at first but come to learn that they have more in common than not. For example, they are the only three people involved in the relief effort who think maybe it’s not a good idea to level a major American city.

Sure, the plot is inane and the dialogue breaks new ground in expository heights—especially from the film’s human antagonists, corporate baddies Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Åckerman and Jake Lacy, who do about as much as possible for being tasked with Explaining Things We Just Saw a Minute Ago).

Rampage’s script-by-committee strives to meet some golden ratio of one-liners and world-ending peril. And the cast is game, plainly knowing what they’ve signed onto. But something still feels off, and it’s a fatal problem for a movie like this when the biggest tension isn’t onscreen but rather a nagging conflict between millions of dollars and who knows how many studio honchos never quite committing to whether this should be a serious property or a popcorn flick.

While the Rampage video game series managed to pay tribute to its monster movie conventions as much as it tore them down, all of that gets ignored for something so by-the-numbers that the number of people credited for the screenplay is the only thing less believable than the movie’s treatment of genetics. (Also physics.)

And as if Rampage needed any more off-screen problems, Warner Bros. isn’t doing themselves any favors by reminding people of King Kong and Godzilla at a time when the studio’s “MonsterVerse” is giving those properties insightful, visually distinct and even daring reboots.

If you’re under the age of 13 and might enjoy seeing The Rock swap crude jokes with a CGI gorilla—or if you’re over the age of 30 and have an inexplicably intense connection to a niche video game series—then there’s a chance Rampage is for you.

Otherwise, it’s a muddled genre substitute for the real thing. Save your quarters.

 

 





The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





The Safari Club

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

by George Wolf

Do you hear a ruckus?

It’s coming from some easily identifiable high schoolers in detention, but this time they’re in an old storage room filled with everything from old magazines to a gaming system from the 1990s.

Turns out, that’s the same decade the soul-sucking Jumanji morphed from board to video cartridge, so the nerd, the jock, the queen bee and the outcast decide to power up this mystery game and kill some time.

In an instant, Welcome to the Jungle puts them all in the heart of one, playing for their lives as the avatars they chose, which just happen to be the polar opposites of their “real” selves.

Whaaat?

Yes, convenient, but director Jake Kasdan and an extremely likable cast squeeze a fine amount of fun from a colorful adventure that follows its own advice for a healthy self-image.

Nerdy Spencer becomes the muscular hero (Dwayne Johnson), athletic “Fridge” is now the diminutive sidekick (Kevin Hart), and introvert Martha becomes a Lara Croft-y babe (Karen Gillan) while the self-absorbed beauty faces life as Jack Black.

Some solid laughs are landed from the foursome discovering their new gaming strengths (“smoldering intensity”), weaknesses (“cake”) and body parts (“don’t forget to aim!”), with the actors’ willingness to poke fun at their own images only adding to the good vibes.

There are some effective set pieces, but the overall heroics required to get back home are fairly standard, and Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Sex Tape, the under-appreciated Walk Hard) wisely doesn’t overreach. He’s not tasked with one-upping Indiana Jones, and keeps things focused more on the breezy fun to be had with his stars. These moments when the tone hits a frisky groove of self-awareness (no doubt aided by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, two writers from the wonderful Spider-Man: Homecoming) are the film’s high points, making it easier to look past some shaky CGI or an overly cartoonish villain (Bobby Cannavale, in yet another over-the-top waste of his talent).

The teens have to learn something today, so Welcome to the Jungle can’t hold that tone throughout, but it displays enough of a commitment to character-based comedy for a ruckus worth exploring.





Sexy Meddling Kids

Baywatch

by George Wolf

Did you hear about the lifeguards that fight crime?

“Wow, that sounds like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show!”

So says Brody (Zac Efron), one of the new recruits on the super lifeguard team at Emerald Bay, and this very self-aware attitude is the main reason the big screen Baywatch works as well as it does.

Yes, the entire premise has always been a ridiculous excuse to ogle beautiful bodies, so director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) wisely chooses to have some fun with that and not be stingy with the slo-mo!

Dwayne Johnson is Mitch, head of the Baywatch team and all-around King of the Beach. He’s got Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) as his veterans on the squad, while Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass) are rookies who just won their spots during open tryouts.

Then there’s Matt Brody (pinching his character name from two of the lead roles in Jaws is another clue this film’s tongue is in the right cheek), an Olympic swimmer nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” for the way his career flamed out thanks to gold medal partying.

Brody arrives thinking he’s God’s gift to Baywatch, quickly learns some humility, and joins the team just as they’ve stumbled onto another case. Could local business tycoon Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra from TV’s Quantico) really be the biggest drug dealer on the beach?

And she might get away with it, too, if not for these lifeguards and their sexy meddling!

Writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift come from the land of bad horror (Freddy vs. Jason, Friday the 13th reboot) but they’re able to tap into a witty and breezy R-rated vibe that tests some crude waters without ever diving in.

As often as the ladies flaunt buns and cleavage, Johnson and Efron’s suns out/guns out show gets even more attention, which seems only fair as their roles also have the most substance. It helps that the actors share an easy, likable chemistry and neither is above poking fun at their own image. Self-deprecation is usually endearing, and running gags involving Brody’s nicknames and a “mini-Mitch” aquarium decoration are consistent winners.

Hey, it’s summer, the perfect time for a trashy little novel to read by the pool. Baywatch fits that same bill, and ends up all the more fun for not trying to be anything else.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Polynesian Princess

Moana

by Hope Madden

Disney’s no Pixar, but in 2016 that doesn’t seem to matter. In an ocean of excellent animation this year, Disney’s Zootopia stands out as quite possibly the best – certainly the most relevant. While their holiday release, Moana, returns to some tried-and-true-and-tired tropes, it frees itself often enough from Disneyisms to become yet another strong ‘toon from the studio.

The animation behemoth never strays for too long from its merch-encrusted path. Yes, Moana (Auli’i Cravahlo) is a Disney princess. She’s the daughter of a Polynesian chief, but as demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out, “You’re wearing a dress, you have an animal sidekick – you’re a princess.”

Yes, she’s a princess who yearns for more than the responsibilities life affords her. (Mercifully, that dream never does involve a beau.) There are songs of self-actualization and the thrill of adventure. There’s a lot that’s familiar.

Set generations ago in the Polynesian islands, the film tells of the ancient demigod Maui – a shapeshifter who used his magical fishhook to steal the heart of the earth goddess, dooming the islands to eventual peril. Moana is called by the sea to find Maui, retrieve his hook and return the heart to save her people.

Moana draws comparisons to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pixar’s Brave – hell, there’s even a bit of Mad Max on the high seas (nice!). But the film ultimately carves out its own presence, partly due to a refreshing cultural change.

From music to art to tattooing, the film offers more than a patronizing nod to Polynesian historical context. Also refreshing: sturdier looking characters, a lack of (creepy, pre-adolescent) love story, quiet mockery of standard Disney motifs, one fantastically jewel-encrusted crab.

Jemaine! The always welcome Jemaine Clement voices one of the many dastardly creatures Moana and Maui encounter on their trek, and he’s almost Tim Curry glorious. (He also has the best song in the film.)

He’s just one baddie in a film littered with fascinating menaces – from the coconut pirates (no, they don’t steal coconuts – they are coconuts) to various undersea dangers to the lava demon the heroic duo must defeat to save the world.

Johnson steals most of the film. With broad humor to match Maui’s enormous, ornately tattooed body, his chemistry with the teen voyager is nearly as entertaining as his struggles to shape shift.

The film has its troubles, including a slog of a first act, but Moana contains more than enough freshness to offset its weaknesses and guarantee holiday family fun.

Verdict-3-5-Stars