Bad Boys for Life

48/100
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys for Life

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are definitely too old for this shit, which doesn’t stop them from trying to reclaim their 1990s buddy-cop swagger in Bad Boys for Life, a belated threequel that trades in outrageous mayhem for the more street-smart brand of personal combat apparently favored by Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, aka Adil and Bilall. The bones of the story are pretty familiar: aging cop Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is looking forward to retirement, a fate worse than death for his cocky partner Mike Lowrey (Smith), who mocks Burnett’s increasingly grandfatherly vibes. Just as the two men agree to arbitrate Burnett’s retirement date via the results of an impromptu foot race on the streets of Miami, Lowrey is gunned down by an assassin on a black motorcycle. Once Lowrey recovers, he’s bent on revenge, but his faithful sidekick Burnett wants out of the game entirely. What will it take to bring these bad boys back together … for life?

There’s plenty of plotline here and a solid helping of action, but for a too-long proportion of its running time, Bad Boys for Life is surprisingly … plain. Smith and Lawrence are coasting into their fifth decades on a cushy bed of audience goodwill — I don’t mind that; they’ve earned it — but their verbal sparring has lost a lot of its snap. In his quieter moments Lawrence turns in an impressive, genuinely touching performance as a man torn between duties to his family and his friend, but Smith is more reliant on a constant feed of mild one-liners. Fortunately, the cooler-than-thou young actors playing members of the Ammo squad, an elite task force inside the police department (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton’s, Paola Nuñez) keep Smith on his toes. 

Adil and Bilall rev things up substantially by deploying a brutal array of stabs and slashes, using deep crimson pools of blood as set dressing; those fight scenes can get vicious. Ace stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos helps put bigger action on the screen, but the set pieces are dim echoes of that old Michael Bay bellicosity, or better or worse. While the directors do take advantage of an undercover mission in a nightclub to establish that Smith and Lawrence’s younger co-stars look good wearing very little clothing, they have ditched Bay’s signature leering camera moves in favor of hanging back respectfully from the bodies — and they seem every bit as impressed by Alexander Ludwig’s hulking physique and Charles Melton’s impeccably cocky charm as they are by the bodies of Paola Nuñez and Vanessa Hudgens. That’s a nice touch.

What For Life really gets right about the Bad Boys ethos is its insensitivity: When Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) asks Lowrey if he shot anyone during a surveillance mission gone horribly wrong, he’s unperturbed: “C’mon, captain, you know I shot some people.” (It’s a great line reading from Smith.) In another scene, a body drops unexpectedly from the sky and smashes into Burnett’s parked Nissan Quest, occasioning loud complaints as he imagines only his wife’s displeasure at the wrecked roof and windshield, all speckled with blood and, presumably, other bits of human tissue. This callous disregard for human life is definitely a joke held over from the earlier films; I don’t want to be the guy complaining that a Bad Boys movie isn’t leftie enough for my taste. Still, a decade of hard reflection on Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and hands-up-don’t-shoot has made it a little harder for me to cheer for trigger-happy heroes in uniform.

Then again, there’s a lightness to Arbi and Fallah’s unadorned approach that’s hard to resist entirely. The film turns pleasantly silly as we head into its third act, which involves a Mexico City bruja and the emergence of a skeleton from Mike Lowrey’s closet. The film’s production design and color palette turn things up one step from the look favored by Bay, if such a thing is even possible. Daylight exteriors (and some interiors) are lit with harsh Miami sunlight that shows up as saturated yellow verging on orange on screen; if you don’t care for that look, wait for the glorious purples and pinks of evening skies, nightclubs and more. There’s even a scene where Pantoliano’s shirt is the same shade as his Pepto-Bismol. Now that’s production design! 

 

Knives and Skin

52/100
Knives and Skin

Knives and Skin, an oddly inflected new film from director Jennifer Reeder, is unlike much else I’ve seen. Sure, there are signposts. The overall vibe is sort of midwestern David Lynch, with highly theatrical color effects borrowed from Dario Argento and an atmosphere of spotlighted American malaise a la the photographer Gregory Crewsdon. But to enumerate those clear influences is to define the film on the terms of a succession of Great White Men who came before it, and that feels unfair to Reeder. She’s working to open up new territory; Knives and Skin is an explicitly feminist endeavor that’s more interested in upending its forebears than paying them homage. Continue reading

Piercing

58/100

As Piercing opens, Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a man with murder on his mind. About 30, nondescript, slightly schlubby even, with a receding hairline, five-o-clock shadow, and a troubled, unsure demeanor, Reed is first seen hovering over his infant daughter with an ice pick in hand. He’s not making a cocktail. Riddled with anxiety and insomnia, Reed is a wreck. His work isn’t fulfilling him. His wife can’t calm him. And then at one point, as he gazes down into the dark pools that are his daughter’s eyes, the infant speaks to him: “You know what you have to do, right?” The moment is chilling, yet absurd. In a very dark way, it’s hilarious. And with that, Piercing is off to the races. Continue reading

The Spy Who Dumped Me

59/100
Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis

The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot — femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity–and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who’s just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year. The party’s been organized by Audrey’s devoted pal Morgan (Kate McKinnon), an aspiring actress whose ceaseless shenanigans help blunt Audrey’s sadness. It quickly becomes clear that, somehow, the guy hiding out from Lithuanian thugs in the gloomy, desaturated espionage thriller is Drew himself. When Morgan grabs Audrey’s phone and sends a text calling him a “worthless nutsack” and promising to “set his shit on fire,” Audrey gets a returned phone call from that other movie, in which Drew beseeches her to reconsider. Fogel keeps this up for a solid 10 minutes before the film’s title appears on screen, and it’s an intriguing overture.

The idea of a female-fronted, R-rated spy movie isn’t especially novel in the aftermath of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, but there is something delicious about the notion of a couple of completely ordinary millennials boasting and bluffing their way through a multinational conspiracy plot. The funny business isn’t as funny as it should be — too many gags don’t land, and some of the scenes have a choppy quality, suggesting they never quite came together in the cutting room. But Fogel cuts no corners getting her spy-movie pastiche on screen, which helps propel things forward. Second-unit director Gary Powell is a veteran of Jason Bourne, James Bond, and more, and with his assistance Fogel pulls off stunts and executes camera moves that shouldn’t really be possible in a romantic comedy–including a great shot that begins inside an apartment, then follows closely behind and beside Theroux as he takes a running jump off a balcony, rolls off the back of a panel truck, commandeers a motorcycle, and rides off. Scenes shot in Vienna have the sophisticated gloss of a Mission: Impossible movie, and the large-scale modernist architecture of Budapest provides some especially imposing locations as the film’s mood grows darker near its midpoint, when Audrey and Morgan are taken hostage and briefly threatened with torture. That’s when we meet Ivanna Sakhno, who gives an intensely deadpan performance as Nadedja, a round-eyed, tightly strung Olympic-gymnast-turned-assassin with a sadistic streak and a probably unhealthy attachment to her balance beam.

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Before long, the picture springs back into a more broadly comic mode, even developing a second, more devastatingly handsome spy, Sebastian (Sam Heughan of Outlander), as a love interest for Audrey. More than anything else, though, The Spy Who Dumped Me builds a showcase for Kate McKinnon, who first appears high-stepping her way into the frame as she sings “Happy Birthday” like the love child of Liza Minnelli and John Cleese. And she swings, struts, and sashays her way through the increasingly violent proceedings with brio as Kunis plays straight woman to her lanky, savvy jester. Her outfit for the first third of the movie is a black-and-white tank-top, suspenders, and capris combo that suggests a knockabout lineage dating back to vaudeville and silent movies. It is possible Fogel is so smitten with McKinnon that she allows her to overplay this shtick–the extended climax has Morgan fulfilling her longtime dream of performing on stage in a Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze act. (“Remember your training from the New Jersey Circus Center,” she tells herself.) This bit of business is meant, I think, as a triumphant sally into surrealistic lunacy — and there’s something so spectacularly unflattering about McKinnon’s outfit, as well as the way the harsh stage lights hit her face, that you have to admire her commitment–but it seems to go on forever and, worse, separates Morgan from Audrey.

If McKinnon’s constant mugging threatens to deprive her co-stars of oxygen, she nevertheless brightens the film considerably and even gives it a measure of poignancy. The love life described by the title belongs only to Audrey; Morgan is single when the movie begins and single when it ends, and there’s the faintest hint that her surface outrageousness hides a loneliness and insecurity underneath. (She’s stunned into silence when Drew responds to one of her jokes by calling her “a little much.”) But she’s not bitter about it–far from it, she plays Cupid. In one scene, the pay-off to a long-running gag, she’s delighted to learn that Audrey has the film’s MacGuffin hidden inside her vagina. When Audrey retrieves it and hands it to a nonplussed Sebastian, the look on McKinnon’s face is, well, not lascivious, exactly, but kind of wicked. She’s watching a connection being made, and she’s excited for her friend — though not sappy about it. It’s a broad moment, yet well-observed and almost precious in context. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn’t totally successful, but with character beats like this in her wheelhouse, Fogel deserves another shot.

Bad Times at the El Royale

34/100
Photo Credit: Kimberley French.

At least Cabin in the Woods had the sense to call it a day after misrepresenting the horror genre for 95 minutes. Bad Times at the El Royale misunderstands Quentin Tarantino for two hours and 20 and doesn’t stop fêting its own cleverness until the moment the credits roll. Writer-director Drew Goddard brings on the bursts of unexpected violence, ostentatious tracking shots, nonlinear narrative elements, and heavy-handed allusions to faith and salvation, sets them all to a soundtrack peppered with period soul and R&B and some ostensibly sassy dialogue, mixes it up, and strains it into a cocktail glass instead of serving it up in the red Solo cup it deserves.


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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

80/100
Ken Okada in Mishima

A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. “The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22,” Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. “Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful.” Like the rest of the film’s narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima’s published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” Mishima continues. “No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live.” In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982’s Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn’t a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People‘s disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That’s where Mishima came in.


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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

74/100

I remember the summer of 1991, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day landed in movie theatres with all the fuck-you noise, power, and momentum of a Ford Freightliner crashing from an L.A. thoroughfare overpass into a concrete spillway below. It was the year of Operation Desert Storm and the ending of the Cold War, the year LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King. With the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still a few months away, latter-day cock-rocker Axl Rose still led the most popular band in America. It had been a pretty good year for women in film, even if the material was grim — Jodie Foster helped open The Silence of the Lambs at #1 in February and Davis/Sarandon kick-started a thousand feminist (and anti-feminist) thinkpieces when Thelma & Louise arrived in May. But the main movie event of the summer was the testosterone-laden sequel to The Terminator. Serenaded by a hit single from Axl’s Guns N’ Roses, heralded as the most expensive movie ever made, and stuffed with apocalyptic imagery, T2 roared onto screens, smacked you upside the head, and stole your lunch money, then smirked about it as it strolled away.


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The Hurricane Heist

62/100

The Hurricane Heist gets down to business from the moment the opening credits appear on a dark screen and we hear the rumble of thunder on the soundtrack. It’s 1992, and Hurricane Andrew is slamming the fictional town of Gulfport, Alabama, making orphans of two young boys named (no kidding) Will and Breeze, who watch helplessly through the windows of a farmhouse as their papa is flattened by debris. As the storm clouds recede they clearly resolve the features of a demonic face, laughing at the children from the heavens. (I think I said this out loud in my living room: “Wow.”) Fast-forward to the present day, where a guilt-racked Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) is sleeping his way through days and nights as a handyman (and ladies’ man) while semi-estranged brother Will (Toby Kebbell) has earned himself a job as a synoptic meteorologist–that is, he drives around in a weather-nerd Batmobile, analyzing storm fronts and predicting their impact, determined that the skies will mock him no more. Bringing the high concept to this pity party is new-in-town treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who happens to be charged with protecting $600 million of U.S. currency earmarked for destruction at a government facility. Unfortunately for her, the paper shredder is temporarily offline and there are villains about who plan to use cover provided by an incoming hurricane to make off with the cash before it can be destroyed. It gets a little complicated–the money ends up locked in an impenetrable vault inside the compound and Casey ends up outside, tooling around with Will. Together, they need to foil the robbery and rescue the hapless Breeze, who is being held hostage inside as the winds grow stronger and stronger.


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