The Shallows

Man versus shark. Or, in this case, woman versus shark. Yes, you’ll think of Jaws, but The Shallows is different. As with Jaws, the chills and tingles come early and often.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is a 20-something med school student from Texas. She is also a talented surfer. She is dropped off at an out-of-the-way beach in Mexico. It’s the beach that her late mother visited when she became pregnant with Nancy.

In the water, she chats with a couple of locals on their boards. They ride waves together. After the locals head in for the day, Nancy senses something is amiss. An injured whale floats nearby, victim of an attack by an enormous great white shark.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that the shark attacks Nancy. She survives and takes refuge atop the whale. Later she manages to move to a nearby rock, just a few hundred yards from shore. Here she uses her jewelry to close her leg wound in a scene that’s not for the squeamish.

Those of us who saw Jaws 41 summers ago knew—due to reams of advance publicity for the film—that Spielberg’s shark was a dummy. The shark in The Shallows (who gets significant screen time) appears more real.

Nancy spends the night on the rock, along with a bloodstained bird that managed to escape the shark. When the two locals return to surf the next day, she tries to warn them away but their outcome is not a happy one.

As she prepares to spend a second night on the rock with the shark nearby and the tide rising, she plots her next moves that might ensure her survival.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed the 2014 suspense thriller Non-Stop and last year’s Run All Night) keeps the tension level at a simmer between moments of terror. Prepare to jump a few times during the film’s compact 85-minute runtime.

Blake Lively does an admirable job of communicating her upset/horror of the situation without overplaying the role. She’s not the only human character in The Shallows, but it’s her film to win or lose and she wins.

 

 

 

 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar

You just know that the mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is going to be funny. But will it be clever funny or stupid funny? Turns out it’s a bit of both.

You also just know that Popstar, with Andy Samberg in the title role of Conner, is going to have numerous SNL alums in the cast. But who? Well, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Jimmy Fallon, Will Forte and Tim Meadows (who has a big role as Conner’s manager Harry).

One blurb for the movie called it a modern day This Is Spinal Tap. While that comparison is obvious, a few things have changed in 32 years since Derek, Nigel and David mocked the rock music world. Such as holograms, the internet and social media. Also, the good/bad taste boundary has moved, allowing Popstar to include a scene of male “graphic nudity,” as the MPAA describes it.

Speaking of which, the performer who collaborated with Samberg on SNL’s classic “Dick in a Box” song/video appears in the film in an uncredited cameo. I didn’t recognize him until well into the film.

Other real life music stars who populate Popstar include Carrie Underwood, Snoop Dogg, Adam Levine, Pink, Mariah Carey, Usher and in a funny bit involving wolves, Seal.

The plot has Conner, becoming the star within a musical trio and leaving his buddies in his dust. Those two are Samberg’s partners in the viral video group Lonely Island, Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). Taccone and Schaffer are the film’s co-directors and (with Samberg) co-writers. When Conner’s newest album bombs, drastic action must be taken.

So how hilarious is Popstar? Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny. But some bits are merely grin-worthy. Credit goes to all involved for throwing a huge amount of “business” into the movie. Not everything connects, but the effort is appreciated.

Special mention must be given to the hilarious parody of the TMZ television show with Will Arnett as the Harvey Levin-type character.

My main complaint is that many of Popstar’s funnier bits are in the film’s trailers. (That’s why I included a poster instead of an embedded trailer at the top of this review.) Yes, it’s a necessary marketing evil in 2016, but it disappoints when the audience explodes in laughter while you just nod acknowledgement at the funny business onscreen.

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is not a direct descendant of the Lethal Weapon movies but it might be a first cousin. And it’s a casual acquaintance of Boogie Nights.

Some of my favorite movies are L.A. detective stories, including a few bad ones. The Nice Guys is a good one. Set in 1977 with a cool 70’s soundtrack, the film features title characters who are not quite as hardened as most other L.A. movie detectives.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a bumbling, hard-drinking single father. His precocious and cute 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is the brains of the family (and the better driver).

Jackson Healy (a pudgier-than-usual Russell Crowe) is an enforcer who comes calling to damage Holland but goes on to partner with him as they work to solve a caper.

The film opens with a young boy checking out a babe named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) in a girlie mag when a car slams through his house. He sees the real life version of the foldout babe, tossed from the car and partially unclothed. She dies, setting the plot in motion.

Another babe, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) is trying to escape from a number of people who would silence her quest to end smog in L.A. One of those people is her mother Judith (Kim Basinger), a federal agent supposedly trying to bust the auto industry for violating EPA regs.

(The 62-year-old Basinger won an Oscar for her work with Crowe in another period piece film set in the same town, 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Her latest performance doesn’t make nearly as strong an impression.)

The Nice Guys’ plot is clever but the main reason to see the film is the newly-hatched partnership between Holland and Healy. There’s verbal and physical humor. My favorite bit involves Holland in a bathroom stall trying to manage his newspaper, his gun, his cigarette, the stall’s door and his pants at the same time. It’s a classic piece of business. A couple of the large scale tumbles Holland takes end with lucky landings.

Shane Black wrote and directed The Nice Guys. He wrote the first Lethal Weapon movie and is credited with creating those characters. He also wrote and directed Iron Man 3.

Gosling and Crowe are two of our most charismatic actors. Their onscreen chemistry is not quite a home run, but there’s enough going on here to suggest those two characters might be worth another go-around. It’s not a “must see” movie, but it’s a lot of fun! (With a healthy dose of violence, car crashes, explosions and all that other action film stuff.)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Tasteless humor is okay—if it’s funny. When it’s not funny, it’s just gross and dumb.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is gross and dumb. The first Neighbors movie (2014) had the dynamic of Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) coming to grips with their adulthood and changing attitudes. Plus the competition between Mac and noisy next-door frat boy Teddy (Zac Efron) was hilarious.

In the new film, Mac and Kelly are selling their home. They have a contract but the sale won’t close for 30 days.

A trio of sorority pledges learns that the girls’ groups aren’t allowed to party on campus, so they manage to rent a house off campus, the one next door to the Radners—much to the dismay of Mac and Kelly. The three, Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), waste no time causing Mac and Kelly great upset.

Meanwhile, Efron’s Teddy is coping with his ascent into adulthood. His former frat-mates are moving on while he languishes in immaturity. He teams up with previous rivals Mac and Kelly to derail the sorority from pulling off their hell-raising shenanigans (which include a disgusting stunt with feminine hygiene products).

Among the supporting cast, it’s good to see Lisa Kudrow as the college dean, Kelsey Grammer as Shelby’s dad, Selena Gomez as a sorority president, Jerrod Carmichael as Teddy’s chum Garf and Hannibal Buress as a police officer.

Buress gained notoriety a couple of years back for mentioning, during a standup routine, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations. After his remarks were spread, Cosby victims came out of the woodwork. In Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, when a couple realizes they’ve accidentally taken powerful drugs, the guy says, “We’ve been Cosbied!”

I had Moretz pegged for real stardom. She has talent, a distinctive look and on-screen confidence. But she moves back a couple of steps in this ridiculous role. She just turned 20 and still has plenty of career ahead, but her choice to be in this bad film is a misstep.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is disappointing on numerous levels. My main issue with the N2:SR is… it’s just not that funny. A comedy should make you laugh a lot instead of making you look at your watch, waiting for the end titles to show up.

 

 

 

 

Captain America: Civil War

Family squabbles can get messy. Workplace violence can be frightening.

In Captain America: Civil War, which is really an Avengers movie without Avengers in the title, the battle between the two sides is epic. Then, the final faceoff between Captain America and Iron Man gets even rougher.

The leadup to the big fight (which occurs about 90 minutes into this nearly 2-and-a-half-hour film) centers on concern over collateral damage resulting from past Avengers’ battles with evil entities. Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) tells the Avengers that 117 countries are about to sign off on accords that would require the Avengers to get approval before any missions.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is opposed to the limitations; Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks they are reasonable. Before resolution of the issue, a bomb explodes at a UN meeting in Vienna. The bomber is Captain America’s childhood friend turned brainwashed bad guy Bucky Barnes AKA Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

The son of an African blast victim joins the Avengers on their quest. His superhero character is Panther (Chadwick Boseman).

Before the rumble, Stark recruits a high school kid named Peter Parker, just as he is becoming Spiderman. This latest iteration of the webslinger is portrayed by Tom Holland with wit and charm. (Marisa Tomei is the best-looking Aunt May ever.) Another citizen of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), returns to the big screen and plays a key role in the big melee.

This fight is fierce but more cartoonish than might’ve been guessed. Despite all the firepower from those named, along with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), there’s only slight damage: War Machine (Don Cheadle) suffers a significant leg injury. More fighting between Captain America and Ironman follows soon after, with participation from Winter Soldier.

Captain America: Civil War runs the risk of being packed with too many plot points and characters. It risks running too long. But the pacing is good with action and exposition alternating nicely. Robert Downey Jr. is still the best actor of the lot. But, as he matures, Chris Evans continues to bring a stronger screen presence to his role.

Stick around for the Stan Lee cameo, which happens near the end of the film and the brief coda which signals yet another reboot for Underoos (Ironman’s nickname for Spiderman).

 

 

 

The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Boss

Melissa McCarthy is a likable, funny woman. Unfortunately, not all of her movies are likable and funny. The Boss is hard to like and not particularly funny. And while storylines for comedies are often dumb, this one is particularly so.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is a self-made financial success who screwed over a lot of people on her way up the ladder. One of them is former boyfriend Renault (Peter Dinklage) who leads investigators to nab her for insider trading.

After her jail time, she crashes with her former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Michelle tags along to a Dandelion meeting (a Girl Scouts sort of group) and takes over. When Claire agrees to mass produce brownies, Michelle recruits Dandelions to jump ship and help sell the brownies.

The street fight between the Dandelions and the Darnell’s Darlings is a funny highlight, well-staged by director Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real life husband). But the rest of the film leaves much to be desired.

Michelle takes the production of the brownies to a much larger scale and sells the company to Renault. Later, she and Claire attempt to steal back the brownie recipe from Renault, leading to the film’s resolution.

The Boss is a mess. Not nearly as funny as it should be. And while crude humor is fine with me if it’s funny, crude humor for the sake of shocking an audience, as in The Boss, is embarrassing. And I was disappointed that appearances by the usually strong Kristen Schaal and Kathy Bates’s were essentially wasted.

Unless you’re a member of the Melissa McCarthy fan club and you thought Tammy was a decent film, take a pass on The Boss.

McCarthy’s got talent and charm and she can make you laugh until you cry. But those big laughs and tears will have to wait for another Melissa McCarthy movie.

 

 

 

City Of Gold

You’ve tasted Korean, Thai and Mexican food. You may have tasted Burmese, Ethiopian and Iranian food. You may know that Los Angeles is a city with a diverse population. In City of Gold, you learn that Jonathan Gold often begins his reviews with writing in the second person. Hence, my opening paragraph.

Food critic Jonathan Gold wraps his arms around Los Angeles and its diversity. He loves L.A., his hometown. City of Gold explores the food of Los Angeles and the people who cook and serve it. The film also provides insight into Gold the person and his writing.

Gold says, “You’re not going to find food like this anywhere but L.A.” I’d suggest that many cities in the U.S., including St. Louis, offer a wide range of ethnic cuisines prepared with skill and passion.

But this film is about Los Angeles. The sheer enormity of the L.A. metro area and its population from across the world make it possible for Gold to experience meal after excellent meal at favorite dining spots. Gold revels in the smaller establishments, often in the less celebrated corners of town. (He once wrote a series of articles about what’s on every block on Pico Boulevard, which runs from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica.)

Among the spots I like best in the film are taco stand King Taco, which also has a taco truck permanently parked outside, and downtown’s Grand Central Market.

City of Gold has appearances from noted food personalities Andrew Zimmern, David Chang, Ruth Reichl and Calvin Trillin talking about or with Gold. (He and Reichl commiserate over fried grasshoppers.) Gold’s wife Laura Ochoa, who, like Gold, works for the Los Angeles Times, adds her takes about her husband and his work.

Gold, the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize (2007), writes colorfully. Of a spicy dish, he compares it to “a mysteriously pleasurable punch in the mouth.” In an Op-Ed regarding preservation of over-harvested seafood animals, he writes of the “bitter taste of extinction.”

Jonathan Gold the man is a cello player who grew up listening to classical music but later wrote about Gangsta rap. He doesn’t seem like he’d be a truck guy, but he proudly drives a Dodge pickup.

Laura Gabbert directed City of Gold. Her shots of Los Angeles at the end of the day give the city an appealing look that contrast with the gritty look of much of her street level filming.

City of Gold provides a glimpse of the many food choices L.A. brings to the table. Gold is a man who loves his work as much as he loves his city. His passion is obvious. You will enjoy meeting him and, especially, checking out the food he eats.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Creepy, frightening and suspenseful. Imagine being held prisoner in an underground bunker by a doomsday prepper who tells you that you should be grateful because he saved your life! 10 Cloverfield Lane provides thrills and chills and keeps you wondering.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving on a lonely road on a dark Louisiana night, having left the city and her boyfriend. Suddenly her car is hit. When she awakens, she finds herself in a room with concrete block walls. She is receiving an IV drip and she is handcuffed to the wall.

Soon she meets her rescuer/captor Howard (John Goodman) who tells her that she was lucky to have been brought to the shelter because everyone else is dead. Well, except Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a good ol’ boy who doesn’t seem quite as panicked about being underground as Michelle is.

What’s the story? Has there been a nuclear attack? Chemical weapons? Aliens? Or… does Howard just have an active, paranoid imagination? Is he a protector? Is he to be feared? Or is he a guy whose military training has prepared him for fateful, factual end times? And what exactly happened to his daughter Megan? Lots of questions!

10 Cloverfield Lane is a suspense thriller. Like some of Hitchcock’s best works it presents an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, one where things are not what they seem to be. First time feature director Dan Trachtenberg has delivered an efficient movie that doesn’t waste a frame.

The setting inside the underground bunker recalls the shed in last year’s Room where a young woman and her son went imprisoned. But the abode in Cloverfield has several rooms. Claustrophobia is an issue but the real concern for Michelle and Emmett is Howard and his unpredictability.

Winstead (best known, to me at least, as Ramona Flowers in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim Versus The World) is perfect as a woman whose survival depends on quick thinking while constantly reevaluating her situation. Goodman as the alternately threatening and comforting Howard is an enigma whose ultimate playbook can only be guessed at until the film’s climax. Gallagher (who looks like the guy who played Chuck on TV but isn’t) has little opportunity to shine.

FYI—10 Cloverfield Lane has nothing to do with the 2008 film Cloverfield except for the fact that J.J. Abrams served as a producer for both.

If you’re up for some creepy fun, 10 Cloverfield Lane brings it. But remember, when you’re telling your friends about it, no spoilers!

 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

What The F is this movie supposed to be? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a little bit of everything: action, comedy, romance and political intrigue. It is the story of a woman’s three-year adventure as a TV reporter based in Kabul, Afghanistan from ’03 to ’06.

Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is not unlike 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon. She’s a 40-something network employee whose professional and personal lives are not quite satisfying. Lemon was a show producer; Baker is a lowly news writer. When the opportunity to cover the allied peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan—with a chance to do on-camera reports—is offered, she jumps.

One of the first members of the media she encounters in Kabul is competing TV reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who introduces herself by asking, “Can I [have sex with] your bodyguard?” Vanderpoel explains (and a Marine general played by Billy Bob Thornton later reiterates) that Baker may be a “6” or a “7” back home, but is a “10” to men in this foreign land. Baker replies to Vanderpoel, “What are you then, like a ‘15?’”

Despite the creature discomforts, Baker comes to enjoy the rush of being in a hot spot. She skypes with boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) back home until she sees another woman in his bedroom. She hooks up with Scottish journalist Iain (Martin Freeman). She looks to get information from an Afghanistan cabinet member (Alfred Molina) who hits on her every time she calls on him.

A handful of chuckles and a few solid laughs make WTF a bit of a comedy. It’s also a bit of a buddy movie as Baker and Vanderpoel become chums. It’s a war movie, though the peril level varies throughout the film. The romance between Baker and Iain forms the crux of the third act. WTF covers a lot of category bases.

Co-directors are Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who scored big a few years ago with Crazy, Stupid Love. Robert Carlock who wrote and produced for 30 Rock wrote WTF. On the heavy to light spectrum, the script is on the light side, but not by much.

Last fall, another movie set in Afghanistan, Rock The Casbah starring Bill Murray, bombed badly. Can Tina Fey and Margot Robbie pull people into the theater to see a movie that sells itself as a comedy, but isn’t exactly a comedy? I think yes.

Most importantly (not really): Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has caused me to forgive Tina Fey for last year’s misfire, Sisters. You’re back in my good graces, TF!