Snatched (2017)


Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn get a look at the reviews.

(2017) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Randall Park, Oscar Jaenada, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Al Madrigal, Bashir Salahuddin, Arturo Castro, Raven Goodwin, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Dippold, Moani Hara, Nicholas J. Lockwood, Pedro Haro, Tom Choi, Modesto Cordero, Linda Molina, Kim Caramele. Directed by Jonathan Levine

 

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating; comedy is a highly personal thing. Everyone’s taste is different. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s meh and vice versa. We all react differently to different stimuli and what tickles our funny bones can’t necessarily be predicted. I know there are things I find funny one day that I wonder what on earth I was thinking the next. Still, there are things that we can universally agree on are not as funny as others.

Take this Mothers Day comedy. Emily Middleton (Schumer) is failing at life. Fired from her retail job, dumped by her musician boyfriend and left holding the bag on a non-refundable vacation to Ecuador – Ecuador? – she searches desperately for someone to go with on the “trip of a lifetime” (Ecuador?) but none of her friends are particularly interested in going or more to the point, interested in going with her. Judging on the behavior we observe in the first ten minutes of the film, one can scarcely blame them.

With almost no options available, she turns to her mother Linda (Hawn), an adventure-challenged cat lady of a mom who is happiest staying at home with a glass of wine and a book. One has to wonder why, particularly since Emily’s agoraphobic and passive-aggressively spoiled younger brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz) lives with mom, whom he addresses as “Ma-mah” and complains loudly if his bread isn’t warm enough. Millennials *eyeroll*!

Emily manages to convince Linda to go but it promises to be as awkward as you can imagine. Linda bundles up like a mummy by the pool and slathers Emily with enough SPF-1000 to deflect a flamethrower. Linda also shows no interest in going out partying so Emily goes by herself and is picked up by the handsome and charming James (Bateman). One simply can’t fathom what he could possibly see in her until of course it turns out his interest is strictly financial.

He arranges for Linda and Emily to be kidnapped by a ponytailed drug lord named Morgado (Jaenada) for white slavery purposes. However, the two intrepid women escape from Morgado’s essentially brain-dead  thugs and hook up with an Indiana Jones wannabe named Roger Simmons (Meloni) whose wilderness experience is limited to being the former manager at a Best Buy. With Jeffrey trying to get the U.S. Embassy to mount a rescue and the women trying to make their way back to civilization with an enraged Morgado in hot pursuit with a personal vendetta, the jungle might not be the safest place to be.

On paper, this should have worked. A strong cast led by the redoubtable Hawn who reminds us here why she was one of the greatest comediennes of her generation and a director who has some pretty quality films on his resume with a writer who co-wrote some of Melissa McCarthy’s best movies all lead to the assumption that this should have been a high quality film. Sadly, it Is not.

Hawn is one of the bright spots here although Schumer acquits herself reasonably well in a thankless role that mainly consists of the actress going from one onscreen embarrassment to the next. Schumer is one of the most talented comedic actresses working today but this feels like the character was cobbled together from dozens of other characters Schumer has played over the years. There’s nothing really original for her to sink her teeth into.

Poor Barinholtz, generally a pretty reliable character actor, gives his all to a character who you just want to punch in the throat at nearly every opportunity but the character is so inherently unlikable that you don’t care if he improves himself or not. Likewise the Emily character starts off basically as a self-involved bitch but as she spends more time with her mom becomes softer and more humble. Schumer is likable enough that even in an unlikable role we end up rooting for her but the transformation is fairly cliché.

The major sin here is that the comic set pieces – and the movie literally one set piece after another after another – are mostly unfunny. You don’t expect everything to work but you would hope at least 50% worked. That’s not the case here. Most of the gags here left me completely flat. There are some that work – and a lot of them are in the trailer – but there are fewer that work than don’t.

Hawn is really the reason to see this movie, particularly if you’re of a certain age. She’s not the Cactus Flower at this stage of her career but she still has deft comic timing and a screen persona that is both ditzy and charming. Schumer and her have a pretty comfortable chemistry that makes one wonder/hope that there might be further collaborations for the two in the future. If there is, one hopes they get better material to work with than this.

REASONS TO GO: It is wonderful to see Hawn onscreen again who remains an engaging screen personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is dreadfully unfunny in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity, plenty of profanity and some sexual content of the crude variety.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hawn’s first movie since 2002 when she made The Banger Sisters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grandma
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (about 4 of which is Hawn)
NEXT: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

Shuttle


With air travel, getting home safely after landing can be the hardest part.

With air travel, getting home safely after landing can be the hardest part.

(2008) Horror (Truly Indie) Tony Curran, Peyton List, Cameron Goodman, Cullen Douglas, Dave Power, James Snyder, Tom Kemp, Kaylan Tracey, Jen Alison Lewis, James Ryen, Jackie Cowls, Roy Souza, Michael DeMello, Skip Shea, Ylian Alfaro Snyder. Directed by Edward Anderson

2am on a rainy night in L.A. Two beautiful young girls are just landing at the airport after a vacation on the Mexican Riviera. Not a taxi in sight but there is a minibus that is willing to take them wherever they want to go, a parking lot shuttle. From such things horror stories are made.

Said girls are Mel (List) the smart brunette and Jules (Goodman) the flirty brunette. They’re tired and they want to get home and the shuttle looks like their best bet. They aren’t alone though – there are a couple of hunky guys – Matt (Power) and Seth (J. Snyder) who are hoping to pick up on the girls who aren’t particularly interested and a kind of nerdy guy (Douglas) already aboard. There’s also the driver (Curran) who seems friendly enough – at first.

Soon though he’s driving down strange streets in empty, lonely industrial districts. When the minibus gets a flat, there is a little bit of concern but what happens after that turns concern into outright terror.

First-time director Anderson takes a nifty concept and takes it out for a spin with mixed results. The young actors, mostly unknown (although List has an extensive TV background with a good run on The Young and the Restless as well as major roles on shows like Mad Men, The Tomorrow People, Windfall and FlashForward) are solid throughout and Curran does particularly well as the driver who becomes increasingly menacing and creepy.

The violence here can be fairly extreme although it isn’t particularly gory which might disappoint horror fans who like their violence bloody and disgusting. And the sexuality, the other mainstay of horror films, while definitely present may not be enough for the liking of some horror buffs. What Anderson does extremely well is create an atmosphere of tension and suspense. While there are a few too many scenes of the minibus driving aimlessly down empty streets (and unnecessarily as it turns out), what’s happening aboard the bus is always compelling.

Not so the ending which when it comes almost seems like the filmmakers had come up against some sort of time constraint and had to cease production, so they cobbled a quickly shot ending together on the fly. It is most unsatisfying and drops a pretty decent suspense horror film down a whole point.

Needless to say this is more of a good try than a good film. I liked it enough to keep an eye on Anderson for future projects although I can’t quite bring myself to recommend his first film wholeheartedly. Nonetheless for a first effort it certainly is much better than a lot of first time films than I’ve seen.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely atmospheric. Nifty premise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sex and violence kind of disappointing. Ending kind of abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly graphic violence as well as brief nudity and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in 2008.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is video of the casting sessions.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1,925 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Love Birds

Girl Model


Girl Model

Meat markets come in all sorts of varieties.

(2011) Documentary (Cinereach) Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh, Madlen, Tigram. Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

There is a certain glamour inherent with the modeling industry. Beautiful girls flown to exotic locations, dressing in designer couture, adored by millions. So when talent agents come calling, it’s not hard to understand why young girls answer with eyes full of stars.

One such agent is Ashley Arbaugh who herself was a teen model. Her territory is mostly the former Soviet Union where she plucks young girls to work in the lucrative Japanese market. The promise of easy cash and a foot in the door of an industry that’s notoriously hard to break into brings girls swarming to try-outs, particularly in economically depressed places like Siberia.

Nadya Vall lives in a small village in Siberia. Her parents are poor; they live in a tiny little house that her father has been adding on additional room so that his children may have rooms of their own. However work has stalled on that as he is barely making enough money to make ends meet as it is.

Her shy, sweet demeanor and lustrous child-like beauty get her a contract with Ashley and her Russian boss Tigram. Tigram sees himself as a kind of savior for these young girls, taking them out of bad situations and giving them fame and fortune. Of course, he gets a cut of both but that’s a small price to pay isn’t it?

Nadya sets out for Tokyo and things turn into a nightmare from there. Nobody from the agency meets Nadya at the airport; she is lost, not knowing where to go or what to do and doesn’t speak any other language than Russian; tearfully she begs the filmmakers to translate to English to the Japanese clerks to find out information as to where she can find the apartment she’s supposed to stay at.

Eventually things sort themselves out and she is set up in a tiny little apartment that looks to be the size of a walk-in closet. She has a roommate, Madlen, who is supposed to share the space with her – and it’s not a lot of space, let’s face it.

Japanese law requires her to have two paying jobs in order to remain in the country for the full length of the visa. She is sent to try-out after try-out, to shoot after shoot with no sales forthcoming. The two are made to realize that if their measurements increase even by a centimeter they will be sent packing and not paid; in fact, because of the cost of their apartment and their airfare, they will be deep in debt to the agency.

Homesickness, the psychological wear and tear of not being wanted and the general indifference of those who are supposed to be watching over them take their toll. Madlen, who at last has a credit card from her family that allows her to purchase food, eats her way back home on purpose leaving Nadya alone in a country that she doesn’t understand – and at 13 years old, is she really equipped to handle this situation?

This is absolutely riveting stuff. There are no real regulatory agencies that watch over these girls. 13 and 14 year old girls are encouraged to lie about their ages and are sent to Japan and other countries unsupervised and essentially thrown out into the waters to sink or swim – and they mostly sink. There is a good deal of hypocrisy – Arbaugh tells her next set of girls airily that everyone makes money in Japan after we’ve just clearly seen two girls who returned home deeply in debt, and we are given the impression that it isn’t all that uncommon. Everybody gets paid but the models.

This isn’t just exploitation, it’s white slavery. There needs to be an industry watchdog to ensure that these girls get proper supervision, understand what it is they’re getting into and have some regulatory power to watch that the girls aren’t exploited. Unfortunately, as Arbaugh herself says late in the film, it isn’t much of a step to go from modeling to prostitution. After all, both are instances of a woman selling her body.

I didn’t expect that there was a story here that I’d be hooked by. Fashion interests me not in the least and I’d always had the perception that models are mostly self-absorbed divas who had a very easy life that required very little work on their part. After all, how hard can looking beautiful be?

Obviously, being a guy makes me completely dumb and uneducated as to how hard work it is for women to look beautiful, models or no so perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance. However one screening of this documentary is enough to shock my system into understanding that there is exploitation of children going on in this industry – and it needs to be stopped.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling and heartbreaking. Eye-opening look on a shadowy world.

REASONS TO STAY: Pounds its point a little bit too relentlessly. May have benefitted from some follow-up.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some profanity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the making of the film, Arbaugh got a job with Elite Models in New York scouting American girls.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Picture Me

JAPAN LOVERS: Some aspects of the Japanese culture are explored here.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Monsieur Lazhar

And Soon the Darkness


And Soon the Darkness

Both these girls need to take Horror Movie Heroine 101 over again

(2010) Thriller (Anchor Bay) Amber Heard, Odette Yustman, Karl Urban, Adriana Barraza, Cesar Vianco, Michel Noher, Luis Sabatini, Daniel Figuereido, Jorge Booth, Gia Mantegna, Javier Luna, Andrea Verdun.  Directed by Marcos Efron

Travel is one of life’s sublime pleasures. Seeing a new place, investigating a new culture can be a good way of broadening your horizon and gaining new perspective. Travel in a foreign  country however can be exceedingly dangerous as well.

Stephanie (Heard) and Ellie (Yustman) are a couple of cute American girls who decide to break off from their tour group in Argentina and go biking around some of the more rural parts. Two young girls alone, who don’t speak the language biking in a rural part of a country not known for being the safest place on earth. Sounds reasonable to me.

They stop by the Hotel Ass End of Nowhere and are warned to stay away from a certain lake by the desk clerk (Barraza). They need to get up early to catch a bus that will take them back to their group, so of course they go out and party the night before. While Stephanie is the responsible one, Ellie never met a guy she didn’t flirt with or a drink that didn’t make her shout WOOOOOOOOH! (the international mating call for college-age girls). Of course that leads to a tussle in which  strong silent guy named Michal (Urban) kicks the shit out of a local who is getting too familiar.

Of course in the struggle the alarm clock gets unplugged, they miss their bus and decide to go to the forbidden lake to sunbathe in skimpy bikinis. Of course they have an argument and Stephanie storms away. Of course Ellie disappears. Of course the police, in the form of Calvo (Vianco) dispute that Ellie is gone. And Michael, who claims to be looking for his own girlfriend, complicates matters. Is he really looking for his girlfriend or is he in fact the one who took Ellie?

Director Efron based this on a 1970 British film of the same name. I actually saw that one a long time go; there are some images I remember from it but little else save that Pamela Franklin played the good girl and Michele Dotrice the party girl – OK I remembered Franklin but I had to look Dotrice up on IMDB.

Heard is an appealing actress who is one of those performers who always puts on a performance that no matter how bad or how good the movie is, is always a strong effort. She has kind of a stock horror movie role of the plucky heroine and there really isn’t a lot she can do with it, but she makes the best of it. Yustman is a beautiful girl who sometimes gets roles that basically has only that element to them –  the pretty party girl. She does it well enough but I get the sense that she has much more in her than that. I hope she gets to show off her range one of these days.

One of the problems with this movie is that it is based on a movie that really has a lot of clichés built into it. The original could have used a little more originality and the remake doesn’t give the original any twists, nothing that would set it apart from the rest. Karl Urban, who was so good in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays the suspect with a likable performance but you never get the sense that Michael is seriously the culprit.

You should figure out what’s going on pretty early on. This is one of those movies where the heroines put themselves into jeopardy by acting in a way no intelligence young woman (whom Stephanie is purported to be) would ever act. Sorry guys; if you’re going to get two young women taking a bike tour on their own in Argentina, you’re going to need a better way than this to get them isolated and vulnerable. You’re also going to need a better movie than this to get my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely thrilling moments. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An extremely derivative movie that could have used some stronger performances from its stars.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence, a bit of brief torture, an even more brief bit of sexuality and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this movie is set in Argentina, the original British thriller it’s based on was set in France.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a director’s video diary here if you like that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: One Day