Tag Archives: film reviews

Identity Crisis

My Spy The Eternal City

by George Wolf

I said it four years ago and I still stand by it: My Spy is “the best huge-former-wrestler-stars-with-little-kid movie I have ever seen.”

Amazon Prime brings almost all the gang back for a trip abroad in The Eternal City, a sequel that unfortunately forgets to pack much of what made the original so charming.

CIA agent JJ (Dave Bautista) is still with Kate (now played by Lara Babalola), but she’s conveniently out of the country, which means JJ is guardian for Sophie (Chloe Coleman) just as she’s getting that teenage itch to test boundaries.

Happily domestic, JJ is still resisting offers from his boss David (Ken Jeong) and partner Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) to quit desk duty and return to the field. But like it or not, JJ is about to be forced back into action.

Chloe’s school choir has earned a trip to Italy, and JJ comes along as a chaperone under the demanding eye of Vice Principal Nancy (Anna Faris). David’s son Collin (Taeho K) is also part of the choir group, until he’s kidnapped by some evildoers so his dad will cough up the info needed to activate all those suitcase nukes hidden by the KGB.

And how do the bad guys know where all those suitcases are? Duh, they stole the thumb drive. It’s always the thumb drive!

Director Peter Segal again teams with co-writers Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, but this time they seem much more interested in joining a genre they were winking at in part one.

My Spy would have used all this evil plan exposition for more charmingly self-aware humor. The Eternal City has lost much of that awareness, instead vying to launch some sort of hybrid stepdad/daughter action franchise that can also throw out teen hijinks and adult wisecracks.

Juggling is not in this CIA handbook. As likable as this ensemble is, only a few of the gags actually land, the running time starts to swell and the film spreads its tone so thin that no one gets out of The Eternal City feeling like they had a good time.

Especially those of us so pleasantly surprised with the first outing.

Queen of the Waves

Young Woman and the Sea

by George Wolf

She died in 2003 at the age of 98. And to this day, the New York parade that honored her in 1926 is the largest the city has ever given to a single athlete, man or woman.

Her name was Trudy Ederle, and that year she became the first woman to swim the 21 miles across the English Channel.

Disney’s Young Woman and the Sea brings Trudy’s story to streaming with broad strokes of sports inspiration, and a grounded lead turn from Daisy Ridley that consistently keeps engagement afloat.

Ridley brings intimacy to Trudy’s early struggles against health issues and sexism, crafting a quiet determination to conquer both through swimming the Channel.

Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and writer Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) adapt Jeff Stout’s source biography with a familiar treatment of Trudy’s path to history. Solid supporting players (including Jeanette Hain, Kim Bodnia, Tilda Cobham-Hervey) create an Ederle family unit with an earned humanity. In contrast to forced underdog sports dramas such as the recent The Boys in the Boat, the family dynamics here feel earned, and that fuels the conflicts that come with the arrival of Bill Burgess (Stephen Graham).

Burgess – who swam the Channel himself years earlier – sees through the attempts by insecure males to sabotage Trudy’s quest, and commits himself to helping her succeed, even when the Ederle family wants to call it off. The period details are affecting, Rønning mines tension from an outcome we already know, and Ridley makes sure Trudy is inspirational without becoming a one note hero.

Young Woman and the Sea may never attempt to shake up the sports biography playbook, but it doesn’t feel like pandering, either. Disney obviously knows the game plan, and the film’s commitment to execution delivers a satisfying and overdue salute to a woman who earned it.

Man in the Middle

The Convert

by George Wolf

Director and co-writer Lee Tamahori lets us know that for 500 years, the Māori were “edged weapon” warriors. Then, the 1800s brought them muskets, and Christianity.

You can guess how that worked out.

In The Convert, Tamahori brings us into their world via Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce, solid), a lay minister who has accepted an assignment as Chaplain of Epworth, a British colony on New Zealand.

After years in the British army, Munro has a new commitment to mercy, and it almost immediately puts him squarely between two Māori warlords still committed to blood.

One Chief sends young Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) and Pahirua (Duane Evans Jr.) to live in Epworth and be mentored by Munro. While the opposing Chief plots an invasion to take back the land he feels is his, Munro quickly finds how deeply the bigotry grows in little Epworth.

New Zealander Tamahori (The Edge, Next, Die Another Day) shows a strong respect for authenticity in casting, language and customs of the Māori people. But as we learn more about why Munro “converted” from a soldier to a man of peace, a strong Dances With Wolves vibe clouds the more compelling history of these two rival tribes.

Some worthy (and timely) points are made about wars between “have-nots” only serving the “haves,” but while the film never goes full-on white savior, you wonder how it would have benefitted from a less pale point of view.

Munro’s arc isn’t frivolous, but neither is it fresh. The emotional pull here is clearly with the Māori, and it’s a shame The Convert is content to make them side players.

Science, Fiction

Fly Me to the Moon

by George Wolf

Apologies to the Seinfeld/Maher committee, but the biggest problem in comedy isn’t woke madness, it’s people not even realizing when their leg is being pulled.

Remember “Birds Aren’t Real?” It gained real believers. Q Anon? There’s good reason to think it started as gag, just to see just what type of wacked-out conspiracies some folks would buy into.

Then there’s 2002’s Opération lune, a MOCKumentary about the conspiracy theory that the Apollo XI moon landing footage was faked by Stanley Kubrick. The mocking even included much laughing and fessing up at the end of the film, but to this day conspiracy fans cite it as proof of the NASA/Kubrick hoax.

Fly Me to the Moon adds more historical fiction to that Opération lune idea, wraps it an impressive throwback sheen, and then leans on the playful chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Woody Harrelson for some winning rom-com moments.

Trouble is, they aren’t playing romantic partners.

Scarlett is Kelly Jones, a born saleswoman who’s hired by NASA to get the public back behind the Apollo program. Channing Tatum is launch director Cole Davis (loosely based on Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton), a committed leader who has little use for Kelly’s marketing ploys, even if he can’t deny her beauty and charm.

Kelly’s campaign works so well that President Nixon decides the moon landing is now “too big to fail,” and sends Moe Berkus (Woody) in to charge Kelly with filming a fake landing that can be used for backup.

And Kelly better agree to the ruse no matter what Cole thinks, or else some embarrassing facts about her past might come to light.

Director Greg Berlanti (Love, Simon) weaves some snappy production design into a zesty 60s aesthetic. There is style aplenty, which always props up a debut screenplay from Keenan Flynn, Rose Gilroy and Bill Kirstein that throws a drive-by bone to the science vs. religion debate while it delivers more amusement than outright comedy.

Nice supporting turns from Ray Romano and Jim Rash add to the list of likable elements, but as Kelly and Cole finally get romantic, you can’t be blamed for wanting a little more Woody. No doubt, Tatum has proven to be a solid comedic talent, but here he’s tasked instead with delivering Cole’s tortured backstory as well as his conflicted torch for Kelly, and neither is convincing.

Johansson carries the film by crafting Kelly as a delightful blend of con artist and seductive vamp. Harrelson is a natural as the winking rogue with a talent for intimidation. It’s no surprise, then, that the entire film steps more lively when those two are trying to outfox one another.

Enjoy their mischief, even if none of this really happened, a fact which makes the two-hour-plus running time seen a little more bloated. Still, Fly Me to the Moon has just enough stylish star power to make it a satisfying flight about something that never really happened.

And remember, birds are real.

We Love the 80s!

Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F

by George Wolf

Within the first ten minutes of Netflix’s Axel F, we hear the big hit songs from both Beverly Hills Cop 1 (“The Heat Is On”) and 2 (“Shakedown”). So the promise of 80s nostalgia is made early, and then part 4 in the franchise makes good on that promise for nearly two hours.

Thirty years after the dreadful BHC III, Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) still has the same Detroit Lions jacket, and the same penchant for stirring up trouble.

He also has an estranged daughter named Jane Saunders (Taylor Paige, classing up the joint) who’s a successful defense lawyer in…anyone?…Beverly Hills. And Jane sometimes works with now P.I. Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), who left the Beverly Hills police force after now Chief Taggart (John Ashton) didn’t have his back on a complicated case.

Jane is defending an accused cop killer that Billy thinks might have been framed. Their work doesn’t sit well with Taggart, or with the Rolex-wearing Captain Grant (Kevin Bacon), head of the new narcotics task force. So when some goons try to scare Jane off the case, Billy feels responsible and….anyone?…calls Axel.

First-time feature director Mark Molloy dutifully rolls out a workmanlike series of recognizable franchise faces (Bronson Pinchot, Paul Reiser) and situations (Axel crashes an exclusive club, Axel startles cops by jumping in the back seat of their cruiser). And while it’s nice to see the addition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a well meaning cop/ex boyfriend of Jane, little of the script from Will Beall, Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten deviates from the convenient and the predictable.

But is it fun? Yeah, it kinda is.

Murphy seems engaged about the character again (especially during a surprisingly relevant exchange with a parking valet), and the film is perfectly happy to remind you of happier times and take your mind off of Supreme Court decisions.

Come back in the room after feeding the cat: oh, look it’s Serge! Check your phone for minute: there’s a shoot-em-up car crash! You know who the bad guys are, you know fences will be mended, and you know you love the 80s.

Axel F knows you know, and this time, that’s just enough.

You know?

Some of Them Want to Be Abused

Kinds of Kindness

by George Wolf

Yorgos Lanthimos debuted as a writer/director nearly twenty years ago, with 2005’s Kinetta. Since then, each feature has seemed to push his brand of black comedic satire closer and closer to the mainstream. His last two features, The Favourite and Poor Things, brought him new levels of acceptance and praise.

Well, don’t get used to it. Kinds of Kindness finds Lanthimos at his most abstract, curious and unexpectedly hilarious.

Writing again with Efthimis Filippou, Lanthimos crafts an anthology with a strong stable of actors that includes Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, Margaret Qualley and Mamoudou Athie. They rotate through various roles in three chapters, each connected by a strange man known only as “the R.M.F.”

Part one finds a man exiled from his years-long benefactor after deviating from the strict life schedule chosen for him. We then move to the story of a cop who is relieved when his missing wife returns, and then suspicious that the woman is not his wife at all. Finally, a woman abandons her family to join a cult and search for a spiritual guide with the ability to raise the dead.

Lanthimos reunites with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, but don’t expect more fisheye lenses or unnerving POVs. Here, we’re kept off balance by imposing architecture and wide, sparsely populated spaces, all waiting to be firebombed by Lanthimos and his sudden blasts of heavy metal music, insane driving, group sex, and bit part players that don’t seem like actors at all among this splendid ensemble.

A soundtrack full of staccato piano and chorale harmonies adds to the tightly controlled exercise that often speaks to lost control and uneasy compliance. You have no idea where any of this is going, which allows Lanthimos to keep levels of interest and fascination high as the running time balloons to nearly three hours.

This is dense and demanding cinema, complex and sometimes utterly confounding. It can wander self-indulgently, then slap your face with moments of brilliance, hilarity, insight and even horror.

No doubt, Kinds of Kindness is all kids of trippy. But it’s a trip that is unquestionably and unapologetically stamped by Yorgos Lanthimos. No brand of weird can comment on our human condition quite like his or trust us enough to take from it what we need the most.

Mommy Issues

A Family Affair

by George Wolf

First off, A Family Affair seems like it might have been a better fit for Netflix’s November slate. Not only does the film have an important Holiday sequence and at least one Christmas tune, a fall release would have put more distance between it and Amazon’s very similar May release The Idea of You.

But here we are again, where the Nancy Meyers rom-com fantasy formula is tweaked by having the mature rich white lady find love with a very famous younger man.

Here, the famous guy is the 34 year-old Chris Cole (Zac Efron), a major action star with an upcoming film in need of a script re-write. Chris’s 24 year-old assistant Zara (Joey King) is tired of just running his errands and would like to move up in the movie biz, but it’s her 50-something mother Brooke (Nicole Kidman) that gets Chris’s attention.

Zara’s not happy about Mom’s “sexcapades” with her demanding boss, but Grandma Leila (Kathy Bates) reminds Zara that Brooke is not just a mother, but a woman, too. And it’s been over ten years since Zara’s Dad passed, so surely she’s “earned” this indulgence, right?

Nothing wrong with a fantasy aimed toward older women, but like any familiar formula, the key lies in executing it well enough to move beyond the generic and develop a distinctive voice. Director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures, P.S. I Love You) and first-time screenwriter Carrie Solomon can’t summon many wins beyond the three likable leads.

Not only will the inevitable comparisons to the warmer, more organic The Idea of You come up short, but madcap peeks behind the production of Chris’s latest action film instantly recall one of Tugg Speedman’s (“Tuggernuts!”) sequels in Tropic Thunder.

There are a few amusing jabs at fame and self-absorption, but A Family Affair never feels any fresher than a plate of reheated leftovers.

Which usually taste better at Christmas.

Zeros and Ones

Daddio

by George Wolf

I’m no math whiz, but I imagine there’s some theorem to explain how much acting talent needs to increase as a film’s cast of characters decreases.

Daddio is a classic two-hander, which means there’s plenty of heavy lifting for both Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson. And they prove to have strong backs, indeed, more than enough to cover the film’s occasionally heavy hands.

Johnson plays an unnamed woman coming back home to New York, and looking for a ride from JFK to midtown Manhattan. She piles in Clark’s (Sean Penn) Yellow cab, and isn’t long before he’s pleasantly surprised.

“It’s nice that you’re not on your phone.”

She’s distracted, but is drawn into a conversation by Clark’s description of how currency has evolved in his years behind the wheel. Clark reads his fare pretty well, and they agree that her job dealing with the zeros and ones in computer coding is just another way of balancing “true” and “false.”

But the woman eventually starts exchanging very provocative texts with a mystery someone, and she becomes more guarded when Clark starts probing her relationship status and offering his views on what men and women really want.

One thing women rarely want is to hear the word “panties.” Clark really should have known that.

In her feature debut, writer/director Christy Hall crafts an extended dialogue that ebbs and flows in compelling, organic and sometimes touching ways. Yes, the traffic jam that stops the cab dead seems pretty convenient, but Hall also keeps things visually interesting by varying our views of the texting thread and weaving the verbal banter through window reflections, focus pulls and front seat/back seat partitions.

But all of that would crumble if we don’t care about these two people, and these two actors make sure we do.

Penn’s Carl is just this side of a smug a-hole in the early going, but eventually lessens his own defenses enough to drop the street-wise sage persona and share parts of himself. Penn also seems willing to bring shades of his offscreen image into the cab, giving Carl an added layer of mischief.

“Girlie” has even more of a journey, and Johnson responds with perhaps her finest performance to date. She spars with Clark over philosophies on life and love, while revealing her reactions to incoming texts mainly through facial expressions alone. Johnson juggles both with nuance and emotional pull, taking an hour and forty-minute ride up to the next level of dramatic talents.

You may not applaud where each character stands at the end of the cab ride, but that’s not exactly the point here. Daddio (not gonna lie, still a little curious about that title) is about taking the time for human connection, and about how much understanding can come from truly listening to each other.

That’s not exactly a novel concept in our plugged-in world, but Daddio proves adding the right messengers can still deliver a resonate message.

Just do the math.

Ride or Die

The Bikeriders

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Jeff Nichols has never made a bad movie.  Hell, he’s never made a mediocre movie. Nothing but glory with this guy. And The Bikeriders has everything a good Nichols film delivers—location, bruised masculinity, lyrical realism, Michael Shannon—but this time the writer/director has cast for days. Tom Hardy. Austin Butler. Jodie Comer. Shannon (natch). Columbus hometown hero Mike Faist, Boyd Holdbrook, Norman Reedus, Damon Herriman—all in top form, all clinging to camaraderie and connection and that fleeting American rebellion that is freedom.

Based on Danny Lyon’s 1968 book of photos and interviews of the Chicago-based motorcycle club the Vandals, Nichols’s tale catches a moment in history.

The setting—mainly areas in and around Cincinnati—captures the texture of the era, allowing this fine ensemble to transport you. Butler’s the James Dean to Hardy’s Brando. As gang leader Johnny, Hardy stalks the screen in a deeply felt performance full of pathos, tenderness and fear. His spiritual opposite, Butler (as Benny) haunts the film, a beautiful phantom forever outside anyone’s grasp.

But as Benny”s wife Kathy, it is Comer who drives The Bikeriders. As she warily enters this fringe existence, Kathy brings us along. And it is through her interviews with Danny (Faist, standing in for the actual photojournalist Danny Lyons) that the tales emerge, eventually interconnecting and expanding to mirror not only the Vandals’ evolution but a moment of cultural shift in American history.

Comer’s a force. Her Midwest accent is a strangely melodic storytelling device, but her impish facial changes tell us even more about Kathy. Marrying Benny barely a month after they meet, Kathy becomes the narrative lynchpin standing between Johnny and Benny’s undevided devotion.

This love triangle of sorts gives the film its magnetic center, but those oddballs who orbit the trio are almost as compelling. Shannon, with limited screen time, is transfixing and both Boyd and Reedus carve out memorable madmen.

Nichols’s character building and patient, lyrical pace combine with cinematographer Adam Stone’s gritty, gorgeous, picture postcard pastiche for an immersive experience that gracefully echoes the source material. Pages are turned and stakes are raised for these characters, their way of life and the country they call home.

And like most of us, that’s what these people are searching for: a place to feel like they belong. Weaving thematic threads from The Wild One, Goodfellas and even Shakespearean tragedy, The Bikeriders gives that search brutal beauty and compelling life.

Stop or My Grandma Will Shoot

Thelma

by George Wolf

Within the first few minutes of Thelma, writer/director Josh Margolin establishes two important things: 1) 90+ year-old Thelma (June Squibb) and her twenty-something grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger) share a sweetly authentic relationship, and 2) we’re not here to simply laugh at old people eating hot wings or talking dirty.

The laughs are here, but they are lightly organic and relatable across generational divides, consistently peppered around a kinda sorta heist caper and the search for a getaway scooter.

After getting computer lessons from her helpful and patience grandson, Thelma receives a convincingly scary phone call. The boy on the line sure sounds like Danny, and he says he’s been arrested. Then an authoritative voice (Malcolm McDowell) takes over, telling Thelma to cough up $10,000 for her grandson’s quick release.

Danny, and his parents (Parker Posey and Clark Gregg) eventually sort out the scam, but not before Thelma has dropped the cash in a mailbox. The police don’t offer much help, so Thelma sets out to “borrow” her friend Mona’s (Bunny Levine’s) gun and her other friend Ben’s (the late Richard Roundtree) tricked out scoot, and go get her 10k back.

Yes, Ben worries that they’re “old, diminished,” and Thelma laments that most or her friends are “dead, got sepsis or moved to Cleveland.” But they’re not the only ones struggling with their current phase of life. Danny is full of anxiety about his move into adulthood, his parents can’t seem to let go, and Margolin makes sure the message here is that we all have our good and bad days.

“And what’s today?” Ben wonders.

“We’ll find out!” Thelma is quick to reply.

Squibb is an absolute delight (shocker!), and her pairing with the distinguished Roundtree makes for an irresistible duo of vigilantes. Posey and Gregg supply some effective slapstick, and Hechinger (so good in News of the World) impresses again as a young man who worries that caring for his grandma may be the only thing he’s really good at.

Thelma is Margolin’s feature debut, and it displays a fine flair for madcap comedy that comes with a crowd-pleasing, easily digestible message. You’ll be laughing with Thelma, not at her, and that’s an important difference that Squibb rides all the way to the ATM.