REVIEW: “The Lovebirds” (2020)

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One of the earliest big screen casualties of the coronavirus theater closings was “The Lovebirds”. Paramount was in the middle of a pretty hefty promotional campaign when the coronavirus pandemic shut down movie houses and multiplexes around the globe. In a surprise move the film was sold to Netflix and now set to release on their streaming platform tomorrow.

The film is directed by Michael Showalter who earned critical acclaim for his 2017 comedy “The Big Sick”. He follows it up with “The Lovebirds”, a film that reunites him with Kumail Nanjiani and adds rising star Issa Rae. Their movie plays like a slightly edgier “Date Night” (remember that Steve Carell/Tina Fey flick) but without the memorable supporting players. Instead everything here rides on the backs of the two able leads who are forced to carry the load.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Everything starts rosy for Jibran (Nanjiani), an introvert who makes documentaries, and Leilani (Rae), a social go-getter works at an ad agency. They really hit it off on their first date and the lovestruck couple seem destined to be together. Fast-forward four years and the two are still an item but hardly the starry-eyed romantics they once were. They find themselves arguing over the most inconsequential stuff (like whether or not they could win “The Amazing Race”). This couple who once looked like a match made in Heaven now are on the verge of calling it quits.

But something crazy happens on the drive to a dinner party. While arguing (again) Jibran hits a guy on a bike who darts out in front of their car. The man gets up and speeds off, but another man claiming to be cop takes the wheel and runs the cyclist over – literally…over and over. He then takes off leaving Jibran and Leilani to take the heat. Rather than wait for the police, the two panic and run away setting up a night of close calls and off-the-cuff detective work as they try to clear their name.

Nicely set within the not-so touristy parts of New Orleans, “The Lovebirds” bounces Jibran and Leilani around the city dropping them into one ludicrous scenario after another. They start out silly but undeniably amusing such as when they’re abducted and forced to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with a saucy Southern vixen (a really fun Anna Camp). But their predicaments get more ridiculous as we go, topping off with an absurd aristocratic sex cult sequence à la “Eyes Wide Shut”. It’s something that I’m sure looked better on paper than on screen.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

And then you have the mystery/conspiracy itself (if you can find enough meat on its bones to even call it that). It’s half-baked and barely held together. It completely fizzles out by the end while the antagonist is as generic and paper-thin as any you’ll ever see. I get that these things are secondary and are only there to offer up moments for Nanjiani and Rae to do their thing. But the stakes seem like an afterthought and if it’s going to be a fundamental part of your story it should at least be mildly convincing.

The movie finds its dual saviors in Nanjiani and Rae. It’s at its strongest when the two charismatic leads are bouncing barbs back-and-forth or bickering over frivolous nonsense in the face of various dangers. Nanjiani is solidly within his comfort zone while Rae continues to open eyes and turn heads. I wouldn’t say they are brimming with romantic chemistry, but as a comedy duo they pair up nicely doing a lot with little and ultimately keeping “The Lovebirds” afloat.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Trip to Greece” (2020)

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If you aren’t familiar with the “Trip” movies, they actually have an interesting origin. The brainchild of actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon along with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, they began back in 2010 as an improvised six-episode BBC television series. The series was then edited into a well-received feature film. In the years following, the trio would successfully repeat their comedic TV-to-movie formula for trips to Italy and Spain.

The idea has Coogan and Brydon playing fictionalized and slightly exaggerated versions of themselves. Coogan is commissioned to venture out on a culinary road trip reviewing restaurants across various European locations. Everybody he invites to go along turns him down except Brydon. So the two set out on week-long journeys into history, culture and cuisine. But as before, the real draw is the steady diet of banter, drollery, and of course the wildly funny impersonations.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The fourth and final “Trip” series aired earlier this year in the U.K. and this Friday we get its film version “The Trip to Greece”. This time around the pithy, chattering Brits set out to retrace the steps of Odysseus in six days beginning with a brief stop in Turkey. From there it’s across Greece’s beautiful rolling hills and along its stunning sun-soaked coasts, making stops at Ancient Stagira, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Theatre of Epidaurus, the Caves of Diros, among other history-rich landmarks. Each day is wrapped up with a delectable gourmet meal at a five-star local restaurant.

While the film absolutely works as an exquisitely shot travelogue, it’s the easygoing and often hilarious conversations that sets these films apart. Coogan and Brydon have a relaxed, free-wheeling chemistry that shows itself in their off-the-cuff chats about history, mythology, and philosophy. Their good-natured riffing and playful competitiveness lead to some really funny exchanges. And then you have the slew of impersonations from Marlon Brando to Sean Connery (their “Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy” bit may be my personal favorite).

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

But though coated in humor, some of their topics expose a thinly-veiled middle-age melancholy. Certain discussions reveal deeper and more personal reflections – ponderings about life and death, happiness and contentment. It really comes to light in the final act where Winterbottom injects his film with a heavy dose of humanity that quite frankly caught me off guard. It’s culminates in a strong ending which taps into some important but often less recognized themes that have subtly ran throughout the entire series.

“The Trip to Greece” is a fitting and thoroughly satisfying way to end a surprisingly enduring series. It’s a joy to look at whether admiring the gorgeous seas and countryside or enviously drooling over the exquisite dishes. And it’s all threaded together by Coogan and Brydon’s terrific camaraderie. You could make the argument that this is more of the same just in a different country. You wouldn’t be wrong and that should excite fans of the previous movies. Interestingly, this may be the most mature of the four films, but it’s just as funny and entertaining even when the duo’s jokes are flying over my head.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Tremors” (1990)

TREMORSposterImagine a movie that opens with Kevin Bacon standing on a ledge and peeing into a vast Nevada canyon. Inspiring, right? Yet it’s an opening that strangely fits “Tremors”, a goofy creature-feature comedy that barely made a dent in the box office back in 1990, but went on to earn a pretty big cult following over the next few years. Enough in fact to spawn at least five direct-to-video sequels and an ill-fated 2003 television series.

That indelible opening image introduces us to Bacon’s character, Valentine McKee (how’s that for a name). He and his older but not always wiser partner Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) are a couple of redneck “handymen” in the small town of Perfection, population 14. Val and Earl are basically jacks-of-all-trades, doing all sorts of odd-and-in jobs for the motley group of townsfolk. But the pair dreams of brushing off the dust of Perfection to strike it rich in the bigger town of Bixby.

But the boys have their plans interrupted by a pack of giant subterranean slug-like varmints who begin devouring residents and destroying the town. Val and Earl team alongside their fellow local eccentrics fight to fend off the underground beasts. In the process the two guys learn that maybe Perfection isn’t such a bad place after all.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

The origin of “Tremors” is as amusing as the movie itself. Writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock came up with the idea while doing safety videos for the United States Navy. They shared their concept of “land sharks” with director Ron Underwood who was doing documentaries for National Geographic. They shopped it around soon getting Universal Pictures to distribute.

A big part of the fun comes from the wacky assortment of supporting characters. Finn Carter plays a grad-student named Rhonda. She’s out in the desert doing seismology studies when the big worms hit. Victor Wong plays Walter, the town’s lone store owner. But the best may be Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. They play Burt and Heather Gummer, a gun-loving couple who just happen to have their own “bunker” filled with firearms and explosives. Gross was just coming off the successful TV show “Family Ties” while Reba was (obviously) a beloved country singer. The two steal nearly every scene they’re in.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

“Tremors” builds on its foundation of goofy, often foul-mouthed, banter (how it managed a PG-13 rating is beyond me) and modestly budgeted special effects that fall somewhere between cool and comically bad. But to be honest the effects are part of the film’s strangely infectious charm. The slugs themselves (designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis) are well conceived and Underwood has a lot of fun easing us and the characters into understanding what makes them tick. Three things are certain: they’re huge, they’re hungry, and they have a weakness (you know, because they always have to have a weakness).

Unashamedly silly and playfully irreverent, “Tremors” is born from plenty of inspiration while still carving out its own offbeat identity. It’s smartly made and you can’t help but see traces of old westerns, slice of 1950s sci-fi, maybe even a bit of satire. While I may not hold it in as high regard as it’s passionate cult following, I do see where their enthusiasm comes from. And after watching this 30-year-old movie again, it’s kinda surprising to see how well this kooky concoction still holds up.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Tread” (2020)

TREADposterSometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things.” Those words were written in 2004 by Marvin Heemeyer and found several days after he went on a bulldozer rampage through a small Colorado town. For obvious reasons the story caught national attention but only for a short time. President Ronald Reagan died the very next day, quickly stealing the headlines. Meanwhile the locals were left trying to make sense out of what had happened.

“Tread” is a fascinating documentary from Paul Solet that examines the lead-up and eventual wave of destruction in Granby, Colorado. The story is constructed through a combination of interviews, reenactments, camcorder footage, and actually audio from cassette recordings Heemeyer left behind. Solet gives plenty of attention to the genesis of Heemeyer’s rage and carefully uncoils the motivations behind the “job” he believed God had asked him do.

Through a sly and absorbing story structure Solet begins by playing with our sympathies. The film makes a compelling case that Heemeyer was a victim of “good ol’ boy” small town politics. In interviews friends portray him as a fun-loving, larger-than-life guy. A friendly, self-made man who loved snowboarding and had a knack for welding and working on engines.

Heemeyer was from South Dakota but stationed in Colorado while serving in the Air Force. He liked it so much that he stayed, buying a home in Granby and a two acre spot of land where he built a muffler shop. He earned the reputation of being a fine citizen and a hard worker. But things soured when Heemeyer’s business was annexed into the sewer district. The local board informed him that he was not only required to connect to the town’s sewer lines, but to pay to run the lines himself. Something that would cost up to $80,000. It set in motion a series of conflicts between Heemeyer and those in power who he felt were trying to squeeze him out.

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PHOTO: Gravitas Ventures

But then Solet takes an interesting turn and begins considering the disputes from different points of view, particularly from the city officials and businessmen who were involved. They each paint a much different picture of the situations which led to the bad blood. The new perspectives instantly challenge our sympathies. It muddies the waters and the reliability of Heemeyer’s narration is suddenly called into question. The same audio tapes that first put us on his side suddenly become full of self-justification for the horrible act he was preparing for.

Heemeyer purchased a Komatsu D55A bulldozer and for a year worked in secret to turn it into a tank, reinforced with steel and concrete. It was impenetrable and June 4, 2004, Marvin Heemeyer sealed himself in and set out to destroy select targets around Granby. From there Solet’s film takes yet another form. You would think you were suddenly watching a grindhouse thriller except for the real camcorder footage that injects it with reality. Solet keeps us glued to the screen as this unbelievable rampage plays out.

“Tread” is thoroughly compelling filmmaking; a documentary just as interested in the buildup as the notorious headline-making act. It may start slow for some, but even those early moments offer a fuller picture of Marvin Heemeyer and his ultimately beef with Granby, Colorado. And by the time we get to his destructive warpath we practically feel like citizens ourselves.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Terminator: Dark Fate”

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You might say the Terminator series is the definition of a tired franchise. I know it still has its fans and I’ve certainly squeezed out my share of enjoyment from the series. But there’s no denying that the name Terminator doesn’t stir up nearly the same excitement as it has in the past. I know I wasn’t exactly rushing to see yet another installment.

Here’s another reason I wasn’t chomping at the bit for a new Terminator – the last movie, 2015’s “Terminator: Genisys”. It wasn’t good and (for me) it easily sits as the weakest of the franchise. In an attempt to get things back on track as well as usher in the return of producer James Cameron, the new film “Terminator: Dark Fate” tosses out everything since the much beloved “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. In other words, T3, Salvation, Genisys – none of it happened according to this new movie. It’s a lazy tactic I’ve never really liked and it was stuck in my head throughout the new film. Thankfully the movie is surprisingly good on its own merits which helps overlook at least some of the convolution.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

“Dark Fate” begins with a flashback meant to serve one lone purpose – to sever ties with everything after T2. Set three years after “Judgement Day”, younger Sarah Connor and her son John (both CGI rendered) have thwarted the machine-led apocalypse and now live on the beach in Guatemala. They are suddenly attacked by a T-800 Terminator who kills John before disappearing. Just like that “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and everything that followed was gone.

Jump ahead twenty-two years later. A clothing impaired augmented human appears in present day Mexico City. She goes by Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and has been sent from the future to protect an auto factory worker named Dani (Natalia Reyes). From what/who you ask? A new advanced shape-shifting Terminator called Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). Ruthless and relentless, the Rev-9 has been sent to kill Dani by any means necessary. Grace intercepts and the chase begins.

Tim Miller of “Deadpool” fame directs from a screenplay written by the team of David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray. It’s filled with all of the big action flourishes you would expect glued together by scenes intended to humanize the whole crazy concept. There’s also a healthy dose of nostalgia mainly in the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a domesticated T-800. Hamilton’s Sarah is in hardened ‘been-there-done-that’ mode, snarling verbal jabs and packing an assortment of high-powered weaponry. Arnie brings levity and (of course) a handful of crowd-pleasing action moments that are sure to tickle fans.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

The new female driven story does a surprisingly good job mixing the old with the new. Miller goes big with several action scenes, none better than a chase sequence in the first 30 minutes. After that the action gets more digitally enhanced and less engaging. It’s not bad, just noticeably CGI heavy. And the story, while starting off strong, basically becomes you standard Terminator tale with slightly different dressing.

But “Dark Fate” still packs enough to make this enjoyable especially for franchise fans. The characters are the biggest treat, the fresh faces and the series vets. And despite the ever lingering scent of familiarity, Tim Miller and company breathe a little life into a franchise that was on its last leg. Does this film warrant yet another sequel? I don’t really know. But one thing is for sure, Terminator movies are as persistent as the futuristic killer machines themselves so I wouldn’t rule one out.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Two Popes”

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I think it’s safe to say this is not your average buddy movie. And while that statement is certainly a thinly veiled attempt at humor, in many ways “The Two Popes” has quite a bit of common with those kinds of films. It just happens to take place within the boundaries of the Catholic church and the buddies happen to be Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis.

“The Two Popes” is such an odd yet thoroughly fascinating creation. In one sense it’s an enlightening behind the scenes look at one of Catholicism’s most sacred traditions. It also resembles a biopic spending big chunks of time digging into the backstory of (specifically) Pope Francis (aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio). Yet it’s very much a ‘what-if’ dramedy about the unorthodox friendship between a firm-footed conservative (Benedict) and a loose progressive (Francis).

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

Director Fernando Meirelles, working from a dense and colorful screenplay by Anthony McCarten, infuses his film with a visual style that adds an unexpected vibrancy. Sometimes it looks at its subject from a documentarian’s point of view, but other times Meirelles employs an energetic assortment of flourishes often bathed in bright light and vivid colors. At times it makes you forget that you’re simply watching two elderly men talk.

The perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce do most of the heavy lifting capturing an odd couple-like vibe that’s both honest and at times really funny. We first meet them following the death of Pope John Paul II. They are part of a conclave of 115 Cardinals gathering at the Vatican to choose a new pontiff. The process is shown to be as much political as it is spiritual. In the end German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) gets the required 77 votes beating the prospected frontrunner Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce).

Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI while Cardinal Bergoglio heads back to Argentina to continue his work among the impoverished. Seven years pass and the Vatican is embroiled in the knotty Vati-Leaks scandal. Meanwhile Bergoglio has prepared to retire but he can’t get Benedict to respond to his letters. Frustrated, he books a flight to Rome but before he can leave he is summoned to the Pope’s summer home at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

This begins a steady series of discussions that move from the gardens of the summer palace to Vatican City. Their talks start seriously as pointed debates on Catholic dogma and the direction of the church. But as their icy relationship warms we get more playful back-and-forths about things like the music of ABBA and World Cup soccer. Soon a true friendship blooms and their conversations turn deeply personal and confessional. This opens the door for several of the film’s lengthy but compelling flashbacks.

“The Two Popes” begins with the “inspired by true events” tag but a ton of artistic license is clearly taken. It works though thanks to the film’s ability to make every encounter we have with its two titular characters feel organic and true. The two veteran actors bring plenty gravitas but just as much humor and humanity. And while the movie is a bit talky, you can’t help but be pulled in by its heart regardless of your position on faith.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars