REVIEW: “Vacation Friends” (2021)

“Vacation Friends” is yet another movie that was originally planned for theaters, ended up delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then eventually moved to streaming. Ideas for the film sprang up as far back as 2014 and over the years there have been several big names attached including Chris Pratt and Ice Cube. It’s set to premiere this weekend on Hulu and suffice it to say tossing it to streaming was definitely the right move.

In this COVID-19 world of quarantines and lockdowns, this is the kind of movie that may attract those of us who have postponed trips or canceled reservations. But don’t let its title fool you. While the idea of a ‘vacation movie’ may sound strangely cathartic, in reality this proudly raunchy and glaringly unfunny endurance test makes the idea of staying at home and skipping vacation a lot more appealing.

Produced by 20th Century Studios, “Vacation Friends” comes from first-time feature film director Clay Tarver (perhaps best known for his work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) who also co-writes with a team of four other screenwriters. Their unapologetically simple story opens with Marcus and Emily (Lil Rel Howery and Yvonne Orji) arriving in Mexico for a romantic week-long getaway. But this is more than just a vacation. The uptight and antsy Marcus has meticulously planned-out the perfect marriage proposal. What could possibly go wrong?

A series of rather unfortunate events leads to Marcus and Emily crossing paths with the aggressively free-spirited Ron (John Cena) and his flighty girlfriend Kyla (Meredith Hagner). Soon the two couples are jaunting around Puerto Rico (posing as Mexico) engaging in all kinds of mind-numbing debauchery. Cocaine-laced margaritas, trippy hallucinogens, tons of booze and one extremely wild and hazy final night together.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

This is all stuff we’ve seen before – dull yet seemingly normal characters losing any sense of sound judgement or common sense and going wild for reasons that only make sense in movies like this. And it’s nothing new seeing a strait-laced stiff paired on screen with a rambunctious hedonist. Here it just happens to be a couples movie rather than a buddy feature.

Mercifully the grating vacation horseplay only lasts around thirty minutes and soon Marcus and Emily are on a plane heading home, eager to erase the rowdy week with Ron and Kyla from their memory. But as the press notes so eloquently put it, what happens on vacation doesn’t always stay on vacation, and leaving behind their new hard-partying chums turns out to be easier said than done.

Six months pass and Marcus and Emily are ready to formally tie the knot in an extravagant ceremony put on by her snooty upper-crust parents. But in keeping with the movie’s unwavering predictably, the oblivious Ron and Kyla pop back up and crash the wedding, bringing along their clueless chaos and turning the starchy festivities into their own personal party.

And just like that we’re thrust right back into the maddening mayhem of the earlier scenes. It’s toned down some, but barely enough to notice. As for the rest of the story, it’s nothing more that one wacky mishap after another; scene after scene of Ron and Kyla driving Marcus and Emily (and the audience) crazy. Of course most of it could be avoided with a few words of dialogue or some common everyday discernment. But most movies like this require a certain level of idiocy from all of its characters.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

If you look close, underneath the lowbrow humor and relentless silliness, you’ll find a handful of lightly breaded themes. The most obvious is the idea of living in the moment, although the example Ron and Kyla set is hardly worth following. There’s also the issue of classism which is used in a couple of interesting ways. Marcus and Emily see Ron and Kyla as beneath them, much like Emily’s haughty father (a really good Robert Wisdom) sees Marcus.

As for the performances, Howery finds himself stuck in one of those roles as old as cinema itself. He’s the movie’s straight man who for 95 minutes is tortured by the irritating antics of others. We do get a few scenes of him doing his Lil Rel “thing”, but for the most part he’s the film’s punching bag. Orji is a good match for him, but her character doesn’t get much to do other than react to the craziness.

As for Cena, he’s certainly committed. But there are scenes where he’s working so hard to sell himself as the lovable buffoon. Sometimes he’s believable, other times he’s almost mechanical. Hagner is amusing early on, but her ditzy act gets old well before the halfway mark. Together the two share a playful chemistry, but they’re so over-the-top, and the film’s attempt at humanizing them in the final 10 minutes falls flat.

Movies like “Vacation Friends” are a dime a dozen, but they often manage to find an audience. If you’re a fan of this kind of stock quality comedy then chances are you’ll like this one. But it does nothing to separate itself from countless similar movies that came before it. Sure, it has a fairly unique premise. But having a a fresh idea and then doing the same old tired thing isn’t much to get excited about. “Vacation Friends” premieres this weekend on Hulu.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Val” (2021)

There was a time when Val Kilmer was one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood. In the 1980’s and through much of the 90’s Kilmer was everywhere and a long and prosperous career seemed all but a certainty. He played high-profile characters like Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday, even Batman. But in recent years his life has taken dramatically different form. A two-year battle with throat cancer left the star of such films as “Top Gun”, “Tombstone”, and “Heat” barely able to speak and on a feeding tube.

The new documentary “Val” recently premiered at the Cannes film Festival just ahead of its streaming release on Amazon Prime. It’s a intensely personal film with a deep sense of longing, not so much for a career that once was, but for a chance to finally tell his life story in his own words. Over the years Kilmer has shot and collected thousands of hours of video tapes and film reels. They include 16mm home movies, audition tapes, and behind the scenes video which co-directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo use to paint a unique and bittersweet portrait.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The narration was written by Kilmer himself and is presented from his perspective. It’s recited by Val’s 26-year-old son Jack whose voice carries an uncanny resemblance to his father’s. Full of old footage and peppered with the actor’s unique artistry, “Val” begins its first-person journey with a look into his life growing up with two brothers in the San Fernando Valley. His industrialist father and his horse-loving mother gave them a comfortable life even buying Roy Rogers’ old ranch when it went up for sale. The creative siblings turned the ranch into their own movie studio and nurtured there love for movie-making.

Our trek through Kilmer’s youth show there were also devastating heartaches. His parents would divorce when Val was 8-years-old due to his father’s many affairs. But nothing could prepare his family for the tragic death of his 15-year-old brother Wesley. From Kilmer’s own words “there were no more home videos, no more make-shift plays“. In a painful admission “Our family was never the same again.” He had lost not only his closest sibling but his best friend. It’s a loss he carries with him to this day.

One of the most compelling parts of “Val” is the intimate and eye-opening perspective it gives into Kilmer’s incredible yet complicated acting career. Kilmer and his handheld camera walk us across his professional timeline, beginning with his early days as the youngest person accepted into the Juilliard School in New York. We see his initiation into Hollywood with the hilarious “Top Secret!”. And of course his first taste of stardom that came with “Top Gun” and grew with films like “The Doors” and “Batman Forever”. And the film doesn’t shy away from his later struggles and his effort to reinvent himself through one-man stage show titled “Cinema Twain”.

Along the way Kilmer shares his own personal behind-the-scenes footage taken from numerous movie sets and featuring co-stars like Kurt Russell, Marlon Brando, Mira Sorvino, Tom Cruise, David Thewlis, and Tom Sizemore. Some of the most insightful bits include hearing him express his excitement and then utter disappointment in playing Batman. And his video from the troubled set of 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” that includes a spat with the film’s director John Frankenheimer.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The documentary also touches on the long-held perception that Kilmer was “difficult” to work with. But the Val we see is more of a perfectionist than a trouble-maker. He certainly had his run-ins and you sense there are things he regrets. But Kilmer was always about the art and finding the soul in every role. He brought a seriousness and an intensity to his work which led to some viewing him as “difficult”. Media outlets quickly picked up on it and ran. But there are just as many who worked with Kilmer that pushed back. We see clips from Oliver Stone, Mira Sorvino, Robert Downey, Jr. and others who outright refute the claims.

In Oliver Stone’s clip he called Val Kilmer “a puzzle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma”. The man we see in “Val” fits that description but not in some overly eccentric way. He is a man who once found fame but was never comfortable with it. He was never driven by fame. Instead he set out to find roles that would “transform” him. “Val” shows us that professional side, but also the private side that few outside of his family ever got to see. The movie sometimes gets lost in the artist’s self-reflection, but it’s hard to knock something this personal and cathartic. “Val” opens in select theaters Friday (July 23rd) and streaming on Amazon Prime August 6th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Vanquish” (2021)

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A cool idea can go a long way in making a good movie. But rarely is a movie good solely because of a cool idea. That speaks to the biggest problem with “Vanquish”, the new crime thriller directed and co-written by George Gallo. The movie’s snappy premise is action movie junk food, the perfect scenario for wild car chases, shoot-outs, and all sorts of cinematic mayhem. It’s the pieces around it that ends up dragging the whole thing down.

Although he’s been working pretty steady for over three decades, George Gallo is probably still known best as the screenwriter for “Midnight Run” and the first “Bad Boys” movie. With “Vanquish” he takes budding action star Ruby Rose and teams her with screen veteran Morgan Freeman. Both prove to be more than capable of pulling their weight and selling their roles. It’s the unconvincing supporting characters around them and the wafer-thin story that squashes any potential. It ends up being a movie all about the action beats and not much else.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

A lengthy opening credits scene introduces us to Freeman’s character. He plays Damon Hickey, a highly decorated former police detective who later became known as “America’s Police Commissioner”. But then he was gunned down on the front steps of his home by a drug cartel seeking retribution. He survived the attempted hit but was left paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Now he lives in a posh ultra-modern home where he’s visited daily by his caregiver, a young single mom named Vicky (Rose).

It doesn’t take long for us to learn that “America’s Police Commissioner” has a dark side. It turns out he runs a shady crew of dirty cops and they have their hands in some ugly underworld business. But good luck making much sense of it. Unfortunately it’s all pretty muddled and woefully underwritten. Basically you have dirty cops and dirtier cops, a crooked federal agent and an angry German drug-runner with a vendetta. More importantly, Damon has five bags of money at different locations around the city and he needs someone he can trust to make the pickups. So he asks Vicky to dust off some lethal skills from her past that she has tried to bury and retrieve his cash. And just to make sure she falls in line, Damon has Vicky’s daughter kidnapped until all five pickups are complete.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

For the sake of her daughter, Vicky reluctantly agrees. The movie then becomes a series of five action-laced encounters as she picks up a bag of money, has it out with some double-crossing baddies, and takes the cash back to Damon who then gives her the address for the next pickup. In between we get snippets of a broader story about police corruption but it’s so insubstantial you won’t even care. You’ll want more of Ruby Rose cutting through thugs with her pistols as Freeman keeps tabs through her body-cam. The two have a good chemistry and do what they can to keep the film afloat.

But ultimately “Vanquish” needs more than a fun action loop and two well-tuned stars. Gallo tries to spruce things up with the few stylish flourishes, such as bathing several scenes in fluorescent greens and blues, or by occasionally shifting to first-person view when Vicky is zipping through the night on her motorcycle. But the bland band of supporting players and the even more forgettable story (complete with a preposterous ending) are liabilities too big to overcome. “Vanquish” opens April 16th on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Voyagers” (2021)

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Some science-fiction junkies like me might be tempted to approach the new film “Voyagers” with a touch of caution. The movie’s first trailer showed off a fairly interesting premise and a cast rich with sparkling young talent. And then you have the description going around calling it “Lord of the Flies in space” which only added to the intrigue. Yet there was one nagging concern – an inescapable YA novel vibe that made it hard to get a handle on what kind of movie it was going to be.

“Voyagers” is written and directed by Neil Burger whose last movie was 2017’s “The Upside”, an American remake of the far superior French buddy drama “The Intouchables”. Originally slated for last year, “Voyagers” was bounced from its November 2020 release date by COVID-19 but finally opens in theaters this weekend. His latest has no shortage of big ideas and it asks some thought-provoking questions. At the same time you can’t help but think a deeper and slightly darker version of this movie would give some of its themes even more bite.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

The movie is built upon the tried-and-true sci-fi premise of earth in peril and humanity needing to find a new home. In 2063 scientists find one, a planet believed to be suitable for colonization. But first they’ll need to send out a scouting mission to verify its habitability. It’s calculated to take 86 years to reach the new planet meaning the crew would never live to see the fruit of the labors. So earth’s scientists breed their own crew, bio-engineered with enhanced intelligence and pumped full of emotion suppressors. The idea is that once they are of age, the capable yet emotionally detached crew would reproduce during the voyage so that their grandchildren can one day set foot on the new world (not convinced of the math but that’s how the movie explains it). What could go wrong?

A reserved Colin Farrell plays Richard, the saturnine father figure, schoolmaster and chaperone for the thirty or so children as they go through education, training, and are eventually launched into space. Burger wastes no time bumping us up ten years into the mission which is where most of the story plays out. The young kids are now young adults coldly going about their work duties. Then two inquisitive crew members Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover the blue drink they consume as part of their daily routine contains a drug used for “impulse control”. It keeps the crew docile and focused; suppressing emotions, sexual urges, and so on.

From there it becomes pretty easy to see where Burger’s metaphor-heavy story is going. It quickly morphs into a compelling although sanitized case study on human nature, ugly warts and all. Christopher and Zac secretly stop taking the drug and are slowly introduced to a plethora of new emotions. The two friends handle these fresh feelings differently as seen clearest in their mutual attraction to young medical officer Sela (an effectively understated Lily-Rose Depp). As more crew members come off “the Blue”, previously untapped feelings of passion, jealousy, and aggression arise. Some handle it with restraint while others revert to the most primal of instincts. Soon factions form pitting rule versus anarchy and just like that humanity’s hope for a new society starts to crumble.

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Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

It’s hard to dismiss the profusion of cool ideas and the sheer potential teases something magnificent. Watching the emergence of one young person’s leadership and another’s sociopathy says interesting things about the human condition and chemical stabilizers. Watching the crew splinter as they discover their inner selves poses thoughtful questions about morality and depravity. Yet as engaging as it is, “Voyagers” remains remarkably subdued, easily fitting within its PG-13 rating but leaving so much unexplored. The movie makes its points and the symbolism is easy to decrypt. But far too much is left under the surface.

The film’s second half essentially tosses aside the cerebral suspense for a more action-thriller vibe (no doubt in hopes of grabbing a broader appeal). It ends up putting the cast in a tough spot, but committed performances from Sheridan, Depp, and Whitehead make it effortlessly watchable. The production design gives the ship a familiar yet elegant look with long sharply-lit halls and sterile suffocating spaces. But some visuals fall flat including a bland and uninspired spacewalk sequence and some of the most hilariously fake looking guns I’ve ever seen in a movie. It only reinforces the notion that “Voyagers” would have been better sticking to its semi-Kubrickian concepts. “Voyagers” opens tomorrow (April 9th) in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Vigil” (2021)

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In the upcoming indie chiller “The Vigil” a troubled young man encounters a malevolent spirit while watching over the body of deceased man from his Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s a religious ritual where the person watching (called a shomer if male, a shomeret if female) both protects and comforts the deceased’s soul until time for burial. First time director Keith Thomas uses this Jewish practice as a catalyst in his small-scale supernatural horror film about the psychological ravages of oppressive guilt.

“The Vigil” premiered way back at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and has since released in a handful of markets. Now it has finally found its way to the States thanks to IFC Films. The troubled young man is Yakov (Dave Davis) who we first meet at a support group for struggling Jewish twenty-somethings who have left their Orthodox roots. He shares with the group his bad news of losing a job opportunity and of how his financial woes “having to choose between medication and meals“.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

As Yakov leaves the meeting he’s greeted by his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) who’s in a pickle. He needs Yakov to fill in as a shomer for the recently deceased Mr. Litvak, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the concentration camps. After the war Mr. Litvak started a new family but the scars from his last drove him to become a recluse, estranged from his children and grandchildren. For the last several years he had stayed shut-up inside his home with his frail dementia-addled wife. The shomer who was there left in a panic. Reb Shulem needs Yakov to cover the final five hours until morning when Mr. Litvak is set to be buried.

Cash-strapped and a bit desperate, Yakov works his payment up to $400 and heads to the Litvak home. Most of the film takes place in this shadowy townhouse which Thomas uses to great effect. Within moments of settling in, Yakov begins hearing noises upstairs where Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is sleeping. The bumps, creaks and flickering lights are nothing compared to the horrifying visions that follow and intensify as the night goes on. Meanwhile Mr. Litvak’s body ominously lays in the living room covered in a sheet and bathed in an eerie off-white glow.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Some of the film’s biggest strengths lies in Thomas’ ability to manage his unsettling tone while developing and sustaining a spooky atmosphere despite the constrictions of such a small setting. There is a time or two where he gives in and goes for some unneeded jump scares. They’re made worse by an uneven sound design that had me constantly adjusting the volume on my television. It’s as if in those few moments Thomas lost faith in his vision and went the cheap route. But thankfully those moments are few and the film’s deeper meaning quickly comes to the surface.

Over the course of the film we learn more about what drove Yakov to leave his Orthodox roots – a particular tragedy that has not only left him disillusioned but also burdened by guilt. The evil spirit in the house hones in on that weakness turning “The Vigil” into an unexpectedly compelling supernatural and psychological blend. And it’s all realized through a smart visual technique that centers on building its foreboding mood rather than leaning on blood-soaked special effects. So we end up with a crafty theme-conscious horror film with an interesting cultural perspective and mostly good instincts when it comes keeping its audience squirming. “The Vigil” premieres February 26th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Valley Girl” (2020)

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For those hoping 2016’s “La La Land” was going to usher in a new era of Hollywood musicals, it hasn’t really panned out. The critically acclaimed, feel-good Oscar-winner was a fresh breeze from a bygone era, but there haven’t been a slew of movies following its lead. The new film “Valley Girl” does, but not in a way that will change the movie landscape. Still, it’s a light and breezy musical with a fun nostalgic tinge. I kinda liked it.

“Valley Girl” comes from director Rachel Lee Goldenberg working from a screenplay by Amy Talkington. Their film sits down in the heart of the 1980’s, the time of Guess jeans, leg warmers, and MTV (when it actually played music). It takes place in Southern California where a San Fernando Valley girl and a Hollywood punker cross zip codes to be together despite the steady objections from their vastly different sets of friends.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Classics

The film stars 32-year-old Jessica Rothe who is still convincing playing a high school senior. Rothe is the real strength of the picture, delightful and full of charm and energy. She plays Julie, every bit a valley girl who loves shopping, fashion, and is fluent in all forms of Valleyspeak. She lives a comfortable, pampered life with her wealthy friends who are seemingly impervious to life outside of the Valley. Yet there are signs that Julie isn’t the snobby elitist some of her pals tend to be.

Just over the hills in Hollywood lies an entirely different world. That’s where Randy (Josh Whitehouse) lives, an aspiring punk rocker who is the antithesis of everything from the Valley. He fits the movie stereotype of every parent’s nightmare – he’s loud, rowdy, and has tons of family baggage. Oh, and there’s that whole punk rock thing which you know must mean he’s bad news.

The two opposites cross paths and there is an instant spark. Julie’s friends (Chloe Bennet, Mae Whitman, and Ashleigh Murray respectively) warn her that Randy is trouble and she should stick with her obnoxious bro-boyfriend Mickey (fittingly played by Logan Paul) who happens to be the toast of their high school. How someone so glaringly repellent and insufferable can be adored by students, teachers and parents is beyond me. Meanwhile Randy’s punk band members tell him he doesn’t belong with a rich, well-to-do valley girl and she’s sure to break his heart.

As it all plays out we get an assortment of 80’s pop inspired musical numbers. Almost inevitably we get the girlfriends singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. And there’s a sweet duet of A-Ha’s “Take on Me”. We also get some punk versions of “You Might Think” by The Cars, and Madonna’s “Crazy For You”. Strangely, the music numbers are more fun than actually good. They’ll have you singing along with a smile on your face, but you won’t be rushing out to buy the soundtrack.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Classics

As a culture-clashing romance, “Valley Girl” is pretty predictable. None of the characters step out of their molds to offer much we haven’t seen before. But the cast is game, especially Rothe who had a small role in “La La Land” singing in one of the film’s best numbers. Here she shows the same charisma, while adding a dash of innocence and naïveté, which brings empathy to a character you can’t help but like.

The film opens with the line “Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words.” It then goes on to show that no one really knows all the words and we should be learning new verses everyday. It’s one of the movie’s several themes splashed in aquas and pinks. I haven’t seen the movie it’s based on, a 1983 cult hit perhaps known best as Nicolas Cage’s first big screen role (sorta). But this one provides a nice little diversion in a time when a lot of us are looking for one.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars