Wednesday, July 17, 2024

OK 'Twisters' twirls into summer

 

Quick takes after watching Twisters, a semi-sequel to the popular 1996 blockbuster.
1. Advances in effects have made tornadoes feel more nerve-rattling than they were in 1979. But if you rewatch the 1979 movie, you may be surprised to discover that the effects don’t look hopelessly dated. The new movie's strategy: To convey and underscore tornadic ferocity in Oklahoma's tornado alley and then repeat. After that, do it again.
2. The new edition rewrites one of the original's equations, pitting greedy capitalism (a real estate company exploits tragedy by underpaying for tornado damaged homes) against do-good impulses. Good-guy storm chasers help those whose lives are destroyed by tornadoes. They also struggle to disarm lethal twisters.
3. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt (as a divorced couple reunited in their fight against tornadoes) were a more interesting pair than Glenn Powell and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Powell plays Tyler Owens, a cowboy storm chaser from Arkansas, a subculture superstar who calls himself "The Tornado Wrangler." Powell underscores his magnetism and proves that in movies, a gleaming smile can outdo a tornado. Edgar-Jones, passable.
4. Twisters has been criticized for ignoring global warming as a contributor to increasingly powerful and more frequent tornadoes. Rising temperatures are mentioned, but, hey, this is an aspiring summer blockbuster; it wasn't written by Bill Nye, the science guy.
5. The screenplay toys with another conflict found in the original -- individual creativity vs. organizational conformity; the split allows for the introduction of underutilized supporting characters, colorful individuals who defy corporate authority, Keep an eye out for Sasha Lane and Brandon Perea.
6. If you’re familiar with the original, you’ll notice that director Lee Isaac Chung restates but tries to freshen plot points from the original. An example: A visit to Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) in the original becomes a stop at the home of Kate’s mom (Maura Tierney). I didn’t mind. 
7. Chung, widely hailed for the indie hit Minari, tries to layer a melancholic tone into the proceedings: Tornadoes can wipe out years of old-fashioned striving in an instant.
8. Some of the set pieces are great, including one in which a movie theater is destroyed, its screen ripped to shreds, thereby hinting at the destruction of theater culture or maybe trying to pit escapist thrills against the real thing, which — of course — is a little weird for a movie in which the storms are artificially created.
9. Chung doesn’t have the kind of sardonic streak that might have given the story more edge. An example: He presents a rodeo as a shining example of Americana, even though it’s disrupted by a tornado. He unabashedly celebrates the open spaces of the American heartland.
10. Do the characters have psychological resonance? Edgar-Jones’s Kate is driven by guilt over losing her significant other during an early picture prologue involving an experiment gone awry. A one-time bull rider, Tyler tells her to ride her fears, not face them. When it comes to motivation, the movie scores a meh.
11. What about the romance between Tyler and Kate? In another wrinkle, Anthony Ramos plays the chaser who lures Kate back into storm chasing but loses the love game to Powell. The movie’s love triangle is rigged; the deck is stacked against Ramos's character from the beginning.
11. Tired of this yet?
12.  Me, too.
13.  All in all, Twisters is a reasonably effective attempt at creating a summer box office storm that delivers what it promises. But a word of caution:  It’s possible to grow weary of getting pounded by tornado after tornado (I eventually did). It's possible, though, that some will see the punishing stream of tornadoes as a virtue, even if the vividly presented storms aren't  likely to boost Oklahoma tourism.

Monday, July 15, 2024

'Longlegs': A horror promise unfulfilled

 

    Longlegs opened on Friday, June 12, mostly to laudatory reviews. I was eager to see it. I hoped that I'd find something I've been patiently awaiting, a great horror movie.
    As it turned out, Longlegs puzzled me: It's well-crafted, and brimming with dread-provoking atmosphere. On top of that, a wild-ass performance from Nicolas Cage (who else?) as the movie's title character provides added appeal.
     Under a ton of make-up and sporting a gray wig that makes him look like an aging hag, Cage's voice travels the upper registers as he plays a suspected serial killer. His wild fairy-tale solo plays against a chorus of gloom, almost a sideshow to the main event.
   Longlegs has been compared to Silence of the Lambs, probably because its story centers on Lee Harker (Maika Monroe), a fledgling FBI agent  assigned by her boss (Blair Underwood) to catch a prolific serial killer.
   The killer makes life-sized dolls that become one of his calling cards. Longlegs also leaves notes with strange lettering, one of several suggestions that demonic influences may be at play.
    For her part, Harper has unexplained psychic powers that link her to Longlegs.
    Director Oz Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) and cinematographer Nico Aguilar shroud the Seattle area in darkness, dropping hints that the story is unfolding during the 1990s. A pay phone and photos of Bill Clinton on the walls of government offices establish the period.
    The atmospherics are strong, but Perkins gives the movie's grim realism a supernatural gloss that dilutes rather than enhances its eerie power.
    The supporting cast doesn't have much to do, but Alicia Witt has an unsettling turn as Harker's mom, a woman who seems to be on the edge of a breakdown -- or maybe already has taken the plunge.
      Perkins primes us for a high-impact finale but devotes the movie's ending to an extended and far-fetched rationale for the evil we've seen. Less explanation would have said more.
       I'll avoid spoilers and say only that the ending didn't fulfill the promise of the build-up. For me, Longlegs stumbled before it crossed the finish line. By leaving too little mystery for us to unravel, the movie outsmarts itself.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

A romcom mashup that sputters

 

   Fly me to the moon or so goes the lyric. On second thought, if it means sitting through the mashup of romcom moves, intrigue, and satire that's being peddled in the new comedy Fly Me to the Moon, I'll happily remain on Earth.  
  Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum star in roles that seem intended to evoke memories of the comedies of yesteryear -- updated with a dose of conspiratorial thinking on the part of screenwriters Keenan Flynn, Rose Gilroy, Bill Kirstein, and director Greg Berlanti.
  Fly Me to the Moon isn't meant to be taken too seriously, but it often feels slight, and inconsequential, a big-screen bauble hasn't been polished enough to shine.
  Johansson plays Kelly Jones, an unscrupulous marketer who's recruited by a shadowy government agent (Woody Harrelson) to help sell the public on NASA's Apollo 11 mission, which, in 1969, landed the first humans on the moon.
  As the Apollo launch chief stationed in Cocoa Beach, Fla., Channing's Cole Harris resists efforts to commercialize the mission. He gradually yields, accepting   the idea that putting astronauts on cereal boxes will help provide much-needed support for NASA funding.
   The movie attributes Cole's all-business attitude to the seriousness of the task and to a past tragedy. He was the launch director of Apollo 1, which resulted in the deaths of three astronauts.
   Harrelson's Moe Berkus has more in mind than elevating NASA's popularity. He involves Kelly in a scheme to set up a faux moon landing that he plans to televise regardless of what the real astronauts accomplish. Berkus refuses to risk losing what he views as an ideological battle with the Soviets.
   Blather about a faked moon landing isn't new, but little of the movie's maneuvering passes the credibility test, and the romance between Kelly and Cole poses no threat to the likes of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert or any of the other great romcom pairings.
   At the same time, a lively Johansson brings plenty of verve to a role that allows her to employ a variety of accents. Channing's character, on the other hand, seems to have been written in ways that minimize some of the actor's strengths, notably charm and good humor.
    The supporting cast adds little. Anna Garcia portrays Kelly's assistant, and Jim Rash plays the deluded director Kelly hires to fake the moon landing. A frustrated director of commercials, Rash's character is waiting for Hollywood to recognize his brilliance.
   The movie wastes Ray Romano as a NASA engineer and the movie's resident sadsack.
    The Apollo astronauts, of course, reached the moon. This one? If not a case of crash and burn, its overlong two-hours and 11 minutes hardly rocket to new heights.
    

Thursday, July 4, 2024

A porn star's bumpy road to fame

 

   At one point in the movie MaXXXine, a porn star (Mia Goth) seeking crossover fame as a horror movie queen,  tries to evade a slimy private investigator (Kevin Bacon). To avoid her pursuer, Goth's Maxine seeks refuge inside the famous Psycho house on the Universal Studios lot.
   Mark the Psycho house as one of many movie references in the third installment of director Ti West's horror trilogy, which began in 2022 with X and Pearl
   West primes us to see Norman Bates, or a facsimile, pose a frightening new danger, but he purposefully undermines the suspense he creates. Once inside, all we see is the wooden scaffolding that keeps the house from collapsing. 
     We're behind the facade, a strategy West repeatedly employs as he plays with horror and movie tropes from the 1980s. The result ranges from smartly mounted jests to self-conscious displays of pop-cultural savvy.
    MaXXXine feels like an ambitious movie that can't quite shed enough of its genre skin to emerge as something startlingly fresh, even as West works to expose the seaminess behind Hollywood’s bright lights.
     The movie's casting probably broadens its reach. Employing a southern accent that makes his words sound as if they've been dipped in grease, Bacon scores as PI John Labat. 
     The rest of the cast includes Giancarlo Esposito, as  Teddy Night, Maxine's unscrupulous agent. Two homicide detectives (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan) figure in the plot. Elizabeth Debicki portrays the ambitious director of the crossover horror movie Maxine hopes will make her a star. Of course, it's a sequel. 
     Then there's Goth, who has staked out impressive territory in three of these movies, most notably in Pearl, the best of the trilogy. 
    Goth plays the only character who survived the first movie, which saw a group of young filmmakers trying to break into the biz by making a porno. Post X, Maxine  traveled to Hollywood where she made a mark in the adult-film world.
     Goth's performance embodies one of West's central observations; those who don't wish to become monsters shouldn't aspire to stardom. The movie never forgets that Maxine's past is bathed in the first movie’s bloodshed. Her freckled face looks innocent, until it curdles into an expression of monstrous ambition.
        Although it’s difficult to take seriously amid all of West’s showmanship, a story emerges. During the 1980s, a real-life serial killer called The Night Stalker terrified Los Angeles. News footage tells us about this horrific chapter of LA history, which West uses as a springboard to put Maxine in danger.  More can't be said without spoilers.
     West's movies have become known for adding layers of meaning that elevate them from the usual Hollywood gore ghetto -- while also not abandoning major plasma flows.
    The gore in MaXXXine slashes and smashes its way onto the screen like exclamation points.
     The movie's conclusion struck me as more risible than chilling; it's followed by a needless epilogue that restates the movie's ideas.
      It's also arguable that the parade of movie allusions gets out of hand.  West even finds a way to put a bandage on the nose of Bacon's PI. We're clued to remember Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes, the detective who discovered Los Angeles's dark side in Chinatown.
     Chinatown (1974), of course, was not an '80s movie, but West uses the reference to draw thematic connections to his LA foray -- the story that festers beneath the surface, the lowdown.
      Garish, glitzy, and gruesome, MaXXXine can’t outdo its predecessors. Still, if you’re a fan of the first two movies, West gives you no particular reason to avoid the trilogy’s semi-successful finale.
       Oh, I almost forgot an important question: Is  MaXXXine scary and creepy enough to haunt you once you leave the theater? I don't think so.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Kevin Costner’s Western has its virtues

   

  In a perceptive article in Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman assessed the lackluster opening weekend of Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga -- Chapter 1,  $11 million for a three-hour Western that cost $100 million to make. Chapter 1 is only the first part of what Costner conceives of as a four-part movie. Chapter 2 releases in August.
     Not a fan of the movie, Gleiberman likened Horizon to fare we might see on TV, calling it  "the seedbed for a miniseries." Although he admired Costner's courage and commitment (the actor/director spent a reported $38 million of his own money on the production), Gleiberman went on to say that the movie teaches the following lesson:
       "Don't turn movies into television."
       Initial box office returns appear to be proving Gleiberman right. 
       But Costner's gamble on the form was interesting and perhaps justified. Audiences, after all, have grown accustomed to watching lengthy novelistic series on small screens; it's reasonable to think they might embrace the form if it were successfully transposed to the big screen.
        Or maybe not. Most miniseries are presented in digestible one-hour segments. Pause buttons allow for bathroom breaks, and concessions are no further away than the refrigerator.
         So, a quick Q&A on Horizons.
         Q. Did it deserve to be widely panned, as it was after premiering at last May's Cannes Film Festival?
          A. No. We've all seen plenty of catastrophes on the big screen. Horizons isn't one of them.
          Q. Are some of the criticisms of the movie justifiable?
          A. Of course.
          Q. Is Horizon a commercial folly -- considering cost and possible returns?
          A. Not my concern.
          Q. Can you summarize your reaction?
           A. Horizon held my interest, kept me from looking at my watch, and included enough tension to build a series of mostly involving mini-dramas.
         Beyond that, Horizon proves adventurous -- albeit not always in expected ways.
      The movie, or more accurately, its form tends toward abstraction. I don't mean to suggest that those who see the movie won't be watching gritty characters who operate in realistic settings. Nothing about Horizon feels avant-garde. 
       I'm talking about the way Costner breaks his Western opus into chunks. Presumably, upon the movie's completion, all these fragments will cohere in ways that justify the "American Saga" part of the movie's title. Perhaps we'll emerge with a comprehensive picture of the forces that helped shape the American West with all its rawness, fiber, decency, and deceit.
      I agree with those who've pointed out that it's difficult to watch Horizon without thinking about Costner's treatment of Native Americans. He did, after all, direct Dances With Wolves, widely hailed for recognizing a Native American perspective.
      One of Costner's most gruesome scenes occurs early and involves Apaches. A band of warriors attack a settlement, ravaging those they view as invaders of their land.
      Although the movie's Apache attack could have been lifted from an older, less sensitive era of moviemaking, Costner -- who wrote the screenplay with Jon Baird -- adds nuance by including a scene in which an aging chief warns the Apache warrior (Owen Crow Shoe) who led the assault that he's fighting a losing battle. 
    A later raid on a peaceful Native American village provides an example of bloody white brutality: Greedy marauders collect scalps for money.
    The movie's structure might be called partially successful. Like clumsy couples on a dance floor, the episodes in Horizon sometimes bump abruptly into one another. Some episodes are better (and more compelling) than others, and I sometimes forgot characters by the time they reappeared.
      It's also possible that the movie has been overpopulated with characters. A mother (Sienna Miller) and her daughter (Georgia MacPhail) survive the early-picture Apache attack. Soldiers (Danny Huston and Sam Worthington) help depict the cavalry as  incapable of protecting so much open terrain. 
      After roughly an hour, Costner appears as Hayes Ellison, and the movie takes on a more conventional Western tone. A hard-bitten horse trader, Ellison kills the brother of an outlaw who's then intent on revenge. In the process, Ellison becomes the protector of a flirtatious prostitute (Abbey Lee) who has taken charge of another woman's two-year-old boy.
     That's a lot for one movie, and I haven't even mentioned Matthew Van Meyden (Luke Wilson), the leader of a wagon train that becomes another source of small dramas, one involving a tender-foot Brit and his wife.
      But the overriding theme seems to be the settlement of the West, which the movie sees less as a matter of cowboy grit or settler pluck than as a wave of history breaking across the land, leaving plenty of carnage in its wake. 
     When the movie opens in 1859, a nameless white man and his assistant are seen surveying a remote patch of land. Two Native Americans observe, and a point is made in schematic form: The untamed West is about to be carved into discreet chunks of property. 
      I suppose we should be uneasy about judging a movie that has yet to finish. It's also possible that "good" -- how I'd describe Chapter 1 -- might not be enough for a movie with so much epic ambition.
      Still, in my view, Costner does more than enough to get us to the next chapter. Horizon gives us a version of the West that stems from Costner's knowledge of the genre. The movie often matches the seriousness of its intentions, and Costner doesn't indulge in mythologizing romanticism or cynical deconstruction. The movie acquires its forward motion from the broadness of its sweep.
      I hope the remaining chapters of Horizon  -- unlike this installment -- will be made available to critics in every market before their release. Chapter 1 was not screened for critics in my city.
    So to get back to where we started... Sure, the opening weekend was far from glorious, but it's possible that by the time he's done, Costner will have made a movie that will look quite different.
     What some now see as a misbegotten labor of love may, in time, be viewed as a laudable achievement. After the first helping, Costner left me rooting for the latter.

Friday, June 28, 2024

A heartbreaking look at refugees


   Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) takes us to the Polish/Belarusian border in GreenBorder, a gripping look at Syrian refugees desperate to escape their war-torn country.
  Holland avoids the kind of hand-wringing that could have resulted from portrayal of a fraught and polarizing moment, smartly shifting our attention to different aspects of a complex problem.
  — We meet and empathize with a Syrian family — a grandfather, husband, wife, and three kids — who hope to reach Sweden, where they already have a relative.
  —- We’re appalled by the brutality the family faces at the hands of Polish border guards who treat them like a virus that must be prevented from spreading.
   — We also meet a border guard whose wife is pregnant. He represses his conscience so that he can do his job. 
   — We’re introduced to activists who help the refugees at great personal risk. A psychiatrist joins a cause that could bring criminal charges. The activists seem to have as many failures as successes.
   Holland imbues most of her characters with humanity, a choice that works against any temptation to adopt holier-than-thou attitudes toward what we’re seeing.
   The most moving part of the film involves the Syrian family that’s fleeing ISIS. They’ve been misled to think that they’ll find allies in Belarus.
    Dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko offered safe passage to Syrian refugees, but his real intention was to disrupt EU countries by flooding them with desperate migrants.
    Belarusian soldiers push the refugees through razor-wire fences bordering Poland. Polish border guards catch them and force them back into Belarus. At times, the guards throw fleeing refugees over the fence.
  A Syrian boy named Nur (Taim Arian) becomes a focal point of sadness when he’s separated from his family during a border “pushback” from Poland to Belarus.
   Refugees live in a state of sustained fear and panic. They frantically use their cell phones for navigation or to contact relatives who have promised help.
   All of this takes place in the cold and rain with characters on all sides caught in a forest nightmare. 
  The Polish government condemned Holland’s film. Perhaps it should have watched more closely. Holland clearly empathizes with refugees, but she’s presenting a comprehensive portrait of Poles who are trying to deal with an impossible situation. 
   Holland concludes with an epilogue in which she shows Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland after the Russian invasion. They are greeted warmly by some of the same guards who tormented Syrian refugees, leaving little question that race played a role in the Polish response to some of the refugees.
    Green Border begins with an aerial view of the forest where much of the story will unfold. As the camera glides over the forest, the image fades from color to black-and-white but Holland never takes a black-and-white approach to storytelling. Her movie dramatizes the plight of refugees, but it's also a thought-provoking look at the struggle to retain humanity under extreme conditions.
   Undeniably harsh and sometimes difficult to watch, Green Border is a rarity, a movie that doesn't give up on humanity, even in the face of so much heartbreak and wreckage.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

A tense new 'Quiet Place' movie

 

  Did we really need a prequel to 2018's clever, scary A Quiet Place, which had a sequel in 2021?
  Probably not, but we have one now, and director Michael Sarnoski, who debuted with the impressive Nicolas Cage movie, The Pig, makes the most of it. Sarnoski overloads A Quiet Place: Day One with stomping, leaping aliens, and turns his plot into a swift straight-line affair, sustaining high-pitched tension throughout.
   I wouldn’t say the movie is a classic of its kind. But Sarnoski, with help from his creative sound design and effects teams, fills a fleet 99 minutes with the high-anxiety stress movies such as this are meant to deliver.
  Day One begins with a title card informing us that the daily noise level in New York City averages 90 decibels, which explains why aliens attracted to loud sounds might seek it out. The aliens don't tiptoe around, either. Their screeching and smashing ways boost both the city's and the movie’s noise levels.
  Any success the movie attains qualifies as improbable. We don’t know what the invading aliens want or why they've come. We’ve seen computer-generated urban destruction before, and we know the alien MO from previous movies. 
    Fortunately for Sarnoski, the urban setting provides a new playground for the aliens. A scene in which ash-covered New Yorkers walk zombie-like through streets evokes memories of 9/11, one line in the grim poetry of destruction.
   Dropping an animal into the mayhem might seem like a cheap bid for sentiment, but Sarnoski fully embraces it. A pet cat — cutely named Yoda — belongs to Lupita Nyong’o's Samira, a hospice patient with terminal cancer. 
    Samira can't beat cancer, but maybe she can outlive the alien onslaught, and, at least, save her cat.
     Samira soon meets a fellow traveler. Dazed and bewildered, Eric (Joseph Quinn) follows Samira despite her desire to be left alone. The two develop a relationship, and a major set piece involves Eric's attempt to secure a transdermal fentanyl patch to relieve Samira's pain.
    And, yes, without many words, the actors must use their faces in the ways silent film stars might have. Nyong'o proves more than up to the task.
   Attempts at humor are marginal. Samira introduces a running joke about her desire to find a slice of New York pizza, which she prizes above any other variety, a subject audiences can debate on their way to the parking lot.
      As fast as the movie moves, there's still time to wonder about a few things. Why, for example, does Eric never remove his tie, even amid so much physical trauma? What keeps the white of Yoda's fur from ever seeming dirty?
     I've read that Yoda is played by two cats that prove that some cats do have nine lives — at least in movies that are less committed to pinpoint logic than to maintaining the intensity that results from knowing terror is seldom more than a beat away.

Dull movie about a rich subject


  Janet Planet explores the complex relationship between a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) and her young daughter (Zoe Ziegler).
  The subject brims with possibility. Visitors (some in romantic relationships with Mom) come and go, leaving Ziegler's 11-year-old Lacy to adjust to Mom's fluid living situation.
  Writer/director Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, sets her film in a cabin-like home in rural Massachusetts, attuning the story to the viewpoint of a child who craves more of her mother's attention.
    Promising, yes, but the movie goes flat.
    Baker's directorial choices favor the ordinary over the dramatic, not necessarily a mistake but one that risks tedium. Made with an often static camera and indulging a preference for pauses that threaten to tip into emptiness, Janet Planet drifts into dullness. 
    Baker structures the movie around the instability with which Lacy lives, introducing various residents of the house occupied by Mom  -- Janet of the title -- and Lacy.
    Early on, Janet, a recently licensed acupuncturist, is seen living with Wayne (Will Patton), a brooding fellow who seems to regard conversation as a mortal sin. Baker introduces the “Wayne’’ scenes with a title card reading, "Wayne." When Wayne departs, another title card offers a terse, "End Wayne."
    The rest of the movie follows suit: Additional chapter headings introduce Regina (Sophie Okonedo), a former friend who moves in for a while.
    A bearded visitor named Avi (Elias Koteas) follows Regina into the house. He offers short talks on big subjects, notably the origin of the universe. Avi  doesn't converse, so much as lecture, a role he may have adopted as leader of a cult to which Regina once belonged.
   I wondered whether Baker found these characters more interesting than I did.
   Baker doesn't do much to vary the movie's tone. Lucy leaves home for a piano Lesson. She and another girl run around a local mall. Lacy sets up a small stage in her bedroom and populates it with figurines.  Mother and daughter walk into the woods to view a show given by a roving theater company in which performers don large puppet costumes.
    The performances have a tamped down quality. A quirky Ziegler convey's Lacy's distress As played by Nicholson, Janet fumbles her way through relationships and agonizes about whether she's capable of finding fulfillment. She makes bad choices in men.
    Dry flashes of humor can be found. The movie opens with Lacy calling her mother and asking to be picked up from summer camp. Her suitcase is ready.
    "I'm going to kill myself if you don't come get me,'' she says, ridiculously raising the stakes of her request.
    Janet Planet  felt edgeless to me, a movie that was  reluctant to sharpen anything that might have added dramatic seasoning. 
    When Lacy practices piano on a folding keyboard, it's clear that she's no budding Paderewsky. If that's meant to be humorous, it works for a second, but the joke quickly deflates.
    Baker has rich dramatic soil to till but nothing much grows from it. Janet Planet seldom opens up emotionally. For me, it became a slog.
    

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

An intriguing cab ride in New York


   If you've ever hopped into a New York City taxi, you might have encountered a particular type of driver, the guy who seems to know everything and wastes no time telling you so.
   Director Christy Hall capitalizes on a cabbie cliche in Daddio, a two-hander starring Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson. That's not to say, though, that the movie is dominated by cliches.
    As the movie's cab ride progresses from JFK to midtown Manhattan, Clark reveals his vulnerability, along with an ability to empathize with a passenger who seems to be facing a pivotal decision in her life.
   It's not always easy to believe that Johnson's
character, listed in the credits as Girlie, would reveal as much as she does, but the movie is based on the idea that it can be easier to be honest with strangers than with those who know us well. There's less at stake.
    For a two-character drama that's limited to the claustrophobic confines of a taxi, Daddio travels further than you'd expect.
     Daddio also reminds us of how good an actor Penn can be. He packs a lot into the character of Clark, revealing touches of misogyny, street savvy, humor, and even tenderness. By the end, it's clear that Clark knows he's not as smart as he pretends to be, even though he reads people pretty well after 20 years of dealing with strangers.
      And then there's Penn's face. As he ages, Penn convincingly suggests that Clark has spent too many long days behind the wheel. Life has required that he not only to collect fares but that he pay some himself.
    Returning from a trip to visit her half-sister in Oklahoma, Johnson's character initially exchanges banter with Clark, who correctly guesses that she's mired in an affair with a married man. He's only in it for sex, Clark insists.
     A third conversation, unheard by Clark, emerges in the background as Johnson's character exchanges texts with her horny lover. The texts demonstrate that Clark is right. The man can't wait to meet for sex. Short of that, he wants Johnson’s character to send him a risqué photo of herself to which he'll happily masturbate. 
     It takes time for Clark to let go of the reins that drive the conversation. At first, he talks about himself in ways that are intended to reveal the background from which he draws his conclusion. He’s been married three times; he’s had his share of sexual conquests. Take it from him: He understands what goes on between men and women.
     Eventually, walls topple and the two communicate honestly -- or at least as honestly as they can. Wisely Hall, who wrote the screenplay, doesn't overdo what such a short-lived bond can accomplish.
      Hall was lucky to find actors who could pull this off, and cinematographer Phedan Papamichael dispels the visual inertia that could have come from spending so much time inside a taxi.
     I don't want to oversell Daddio; at times, the story required the suspension of more disbelief than I was willing to surrender, but Johnson and Penn play a duet that makes it well worth tagging along for the ride.
     

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

A triptych from Yorgos Lanthimos


     I had an oddly mixed response to Yorgos Lanthimos's Kinds of Kindness, the director's follow-up to the well-received Poor Things, which won a best-actress Oscar for Emma Stone.  
 Was I confounded? At times. Did I find the movie revelatory? Not really. Did I wonder whether Lanthimos has become a prisoner of his own stylized weirdness? That, too.
    Yet Lanthimos held my attention, even as I made peace with the fact that this over-extended movie (two hours and 45 minutes) wasn’t accomplishing much more than providing a showcase for the strange flights of imagination that characterize Lanthimos's work.
     Among them: severed fingers, intentional car crashes, nudity sans eroticism, a pool full of water derived from tears, and a frantic sexual foursome. 
     Lanthimos divides his movie into three distinct stories in which the same actors play different roles. A recurring character named RMF crops up in each of the segments.  
      Reunited with regulars Stone and Willem Dafoe, Lanthimos maintains tension with a signature blend of discordant sound design, unsettling music, and images that tease the surreal, the bizarre presented as if it were normal.
   The cast, which also includes Jesse Plemons in a featured role, fully embraces Lanthimos’s approach. Safe to say that actors who appear in Lanthimos films have a taste for stretching the borders of realism.
  So what the hell is the movie about? In the first segment, a controlling boss (Dafoe) tries to coerce a servile employee (Plemons) into crashing a car into another car, an act of obedience that could result in the death of the other driver. 
   In the second film, Plemons plays a police officer whose marine researcher wife (Stone) is rescued after being stranded at sea. She returns but seems to be a facsimile of her “real” self, a synthetic doppleganger who is asked by her suspicious husband to cut off different body parts to prove how far she'll go to prove her love.
   Film three finds Stone playing a woman who leaves her husband and daughter to join a cult run by a leader (Dafoe) who expels her after deeming her impure. 
   None of these brief descriptions do justice to the three segments, which are full of intricacies and digressions and which make room for performances by Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe AlwynMamaoudou Athie, and Yorgos Stefanakos. 
    I’m not a Lanthimos devotee, although I greatly admire The Favourite and Poor Things. Still, I’d say that Kinds of Kindness qualifies as a lesser work that suggests themes — abuse of power, submission to power, and insanity made commonplace — without exploring them deeply. The movie can be perplexing, funny in a deadpan way, and even off-putting. 
   Less lavish than Poor Things, Kinds of Kindness feels  like a sketchbook in which the director tests various ideas.  If you see the movie, you’ll notice that Lanthimos's close-ups have a cruel intensity, unless, of course, you’ve always wanted to examine every pore and blemish on Plemon’s face, to cite just one example.
   I felt no ill will toward Kinds of Kindness. Scorn might have been better than a giggle and a shrug accompanied by little desire to unpack the movie's mysteries any further. I'll offer this, though:
   At one point, Lanthimos makes use of the Eurythmics hit, Sweet Dreams. The song's lyrics, also featured in the movie’s trailer, provides a strong suggestion about what drives the movie’s characters:
   “Some of them want to use you 
   Some of them want to be used by you
   Some of them want to abuse
   Some of them want to be abused”
   As I said, not Lanthimos’s best work, but the director kept me watching with the mixture of attention and curiosity his work always demands.


Thursday, June 20, 2024

She's old but don't mess with her

 


Jane Squibb,  the 94 year old actress who made a big-screen mark in Alexander Payne's 2013 film Nebraska, lands a starring role in Thelma, a movie centered on characters lucky enough to live into their 90s.  
   Although the movie begins with a serious problem (older people being bilked by unscrupulous phone callers), director Josh Margolin veers off into a Los Angeles-based caper comedy in which Squibb’s Thelma takes matters into her own hands. She pursues the swindler. 
   To conduct her search, Thelma commandeers a scooter — really a motorized wheelchair — from a friend  (Richard Roundtree) who resides in an assisted living facility. Roundtree’s Ben grudgingly joins Thelma on her quest. 
     Margolin jams the movie’s aging stars into a scenario in which they battle their infirmities while heading toward the confrontation that serves as the movie’s climax and provides a late-picture role for Malcolm McDowell. The screenplay also contrives to put a gun in Thelma’s hands.
    Fred Hechinger plays Thelma's feckless grandson, a young man in need of an ego boost. Parker Posey signs on as Thelma's daughter with Clark Gregg playing her son-in-law.
    The scam begins when Thelma receives a phone call saying that her grandson has been in a terrible automobile accident and needs $10,000 for a lawyer. In a panic, she  mails the money to a post office box. 
     Thelma makes a few nods toward the grief of losing family and friends as old age encroaches. Margolin also plays with action movie tropes, but mostly the movie proceeds as a lightweight trifle built around two strong performances that feel more credible than the plot. 
     In sum: three cheers for the plucky, engaging Squibb and for the dignified and still charismatic Roundtree. Two for the rest of the movie. Thelma marks Roundtree's last big-screen performance. The actor died in 2023.


Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The play's the thing in 'Ghostlight'


Modest but emotionally grounded, Ghostlight tells a story about an ordinary family coping (or not) with grief. Directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson slowly reveal the nature of the loss suffered by a suburban Chicago family in which Dad (Keith Kupferer) works construction, Mom (Tara Mallen) tries to hold the family together, and daughter Daisy (Katherine Kupferer) indulges in ample doses of teenage fury. Bordering on the trite and flirting with cliche, Ghostlight emerges as a good-hearted exploration of how an improbable foray into community theater unites a family. Kupferer’s Dan learns about a local theater group when group member Rita (Dolly De Leon) approaches him. After seeing Dan struggle with his temper, Rita invites Dan to visit the group’s rehearsal space. Perhaps sensing a route into emotions he’s been unable to express, Dan joins the group. He winds up playing the part of Romeo to Rita’s Juliet. The company consists mostly of older people who agree to bypass issues of age in their staging of Shakespeare's play. A back story about the death of Dan and Tara's son runs a parallel course to the play. The connection feels a bit forced, but the movie makes a touching case for art as a means of exploring parts of ourselves that otherwise might prove inaccessible. And, no, Dan doesn't become a new Olivier. Gradually, Kupferer shows how Shakespeare's language begins to speak directly to Dan. For the record: A ghost light is the only light that’s left on when a stage is otherwise dark and a theater is empty. Also, the roles of father, daughter, and mother are played by a real family. Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen are the real-life parents of Katherine Kupferer. 

'Bikeriders' revs a 1960s engine


  In 1953, Marlon Brando climbed onto a motorcycle and created Johnny Strabler, a character that became an iconic figure who still adorns posters in his leather jacket and tilted cap. The Wild One may not be a great movie, but it stands as a reference point for movies that try to capture the spirit of rebellious youths who impolitely ram their heads against the walls of social convention.
   Bikeriders -- from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Loving, Mud) -- opts for immersion in the midwestern motorcycle culture of the 1960s, basing its screenplay on The Bikeriders, a 1968 book by Danny Lyon. Lyon photographed and documented the lives of members of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club.  Nichols, who also wrote the screenplay, builds from interviews Lyons (played in the movie by Mike Faist) conducted from 1963 to 1967.
    A prime interview subject, biker girlfriend Kathy (Jodie Comer) becomes the viewer's guide through biker culture. Kathy knows the gang well because she married Benny (Austin Butler), the coolest gang member, a guy who'd rather be beaten silly than remove his Vandals jacket. 
      An actor's feast; Bikeriders boasts riveting, immersive performances from Butler, Comer, and Thomas Hardy, who plays Johnny, the founder of the Vandals -- as they're called in the movie. 
    Hardy can be one of the screen's most imposing actors. Intimidating as a violent leader inspired by The Wild One, Johnny expresses himself through action. When he squares off against an opponent, Johnny asks whether they'd rather fight with fists or knives. They'd be well advised to back down.
      Taking their cue from Lyons' photographs, Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone create a movie with plenty of dirt under its fingernails. Much of Nichols's episodic story unfolds in the shot-and-beer joint the Vandals adopt as their clubhouse. Riding their bikes in formation, they're a fearsome lot.
      As impossible to ignore as a piece of loud clothing, Comer’s clipped Chicago accent defines a character who's smitten by Benny, whose don't give-a-damn-cool and movie-star looks prove irresistible to her. 
      If it hadn’t been for sexual attraction, Kathy might never have encountered the Vandals; she could have been snapping gum with other girls at some local diner and talking about boys. Instead, she entered a world ruled by the bikers' idea of muscle and manhood.
      When I saw that the cast included Michael Shannon, I wondered how he'd fit into the gang. Not only does Shannon make an impression as Zipco, he also defines one of the group's sensibilities. Zipco hates pinkos, the word he uses to express contempt for loafer-wearing college types
       Other bikers include Brucie (Damon Harriman), Cal (Boyd Holbrook), and Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), a laidback West Coast arrival who joins the gang. These characters give Nichols an opportunity to explore group pressures. What happens when someone outgrows the gang and wants to leave, for example?
     The story narrows to a tug-of-war between Kathy and Johnny. Tired of trying to keep the Vandals going, Johnny wants Benny to take over the gang. Kathy wants him to settle down. She's had enough of the biker life.
     At the same time, the Vandals are morphing into drug-dealing rogues. Initially rejected by the Vandals, a Milwaukee rider (Toby Wallace) tries to redefine the gang, pushing it toward criminality. 
     For his part, Johnny has trouble relating to a new generation of young men who don't care about the unwritten codes by which the Vandals live -- not that the Vandals were angels before the influx of nihilistic newbies.
      Earlier, I described Bikeriders as a feast for actors. The cast swallows it whole. Even Butler's portrayal of a character that seems drawn from an amalgam of characters from other movies has the right kind of presence. He's more magnetic here than he was as Elvis.
      The trailer for Bikeriders bills the movie's characters as freedom-seeking rebels, but Nichols doesn't seem to be after a big statement; he accepts these characters as they are. But what should we make of them?
     That's where the rubber meets the road for me.  Are these riders relics from a moment that has passed its expiration date or do they have something more relevant and deeper to tell us? And who are these guys and what in their experiences made the biker life so appealing?
     Bikeriders documents the 1960s outlaw/motorcycle scene. The movie crackles with dramatic moments but doesn't have much of a dramatic arc. Rough naturalism and vivid performances give the film its charge, but sans a layer of countercultural romanticism (see Easy Rider) or a more compelling story, we're left to wonder whether there's anything left for the movie to latch onto.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A clever 2nd helping of 'Inside Out'



 Pixar carries the central idea behind the original Inside Out movie -- mastering the art of emotional balance -- over to Inside Out 2, but the number of emotions in play proliferates.
 Don't be misled. This isn't a case of sequel bloat. Now 13, Riley -- the character around whom the story revolves -- enters adolescence, a reliable platform from which to expand the palette of emotions the movie transforms into characters.
  The original characters -- Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Liza Lapira), Sadness, Phyllis Smith) and Fear (Tony Hale) -- return but they must make room for newbies that include Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), and Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos).
  New voices and clever visual strokes (making the stream of consciousness literal, for example) add to the movie’s pleasures. Ditto for a depiction of a Sar-Chasm.
   The story centers on a weekend long hockey camp to which Riley (Kensington Tallman) has been invited. 
   A familiar question arises. Will Riley try to win favor among the camp’s most popular player (Lilimar) or will she remain loyal to her two besties (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green and Grace Lu), both of whom will be separating from Riley in the fall. They'll be attending a different high school.
  Visually, Pixar employs a mixture of cartoon simplicity, technical prowess (great displays of ice skating), and whimsical asides, a brain storm that’s depicted as a real storm, for example.
  Mostly, the story focuses on tensions between ever-0ptimistic Joy and frantic Anxiety, an orange-colored character that resembles an exploding turnip.
  Some of the characters add cartoon flourish, notably Bloofy (Ron Furnches), an all-blue variation on Goofy, and Pouchy (James Austin Johnson), a helpful fanny pack containing items that figure into the plot. 
    The competing tendencies vie to determine which of them will take control of the brain console that guides Riley's behavior -- or will Riley be able to make her own decisions?
     As expected, an instructional message looms. Riley must preserve the qualities of character that defined her childhood while accepting the characteristics that emerge during her teen years. Can all the forces that rumble around her psyche get along?
   In all, this second helping  — delivered under the direction of Kelsey Mann — keeps faith with the spirit of the 2015 original while offering fresh perspectives, a welcome change for a sequel.

A mother and her dying daughter.

 

 Well, at least it's not the same old, same old.
 We're talking about Tuesday, a story in which a mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) struggles with her terminally ill 15-year-old daughter (Lola Petticrew). The premise may not sound novel, but director Daina O. Pusic begins with a wildly allegorical gambit: Death appears as a talking macaw that grows or shrinks in size.
  The bird (a visual effect voiced by Arise Kene) displays a variety of personalities. It can be comforting, ominous, naive, or exhausted.
   How could it not be weary? The macaw has spent centuries working overtime as he attends to the dying. He remembers the historical figures he helped usher into the great beyond, Jesus included.
  The bird's design avoids suggestions of cuteness. Gawking and even ugly, the nameless macaw speaks with a voice that sometimes degenerates into an incomprehensible growl. A cacophony of human voices buzz inside the macaw's head, a woeful chorus of sufferers pleading for release.
   The human characters in the sparsely populated movie also include a nurse (Leah Harvey) who tends to Tuesday when her mother leaves home to sell household items and personal treasures to help pay for her daughter's care.
  A scene in which Louis-Dreyfus's Zora visits a taxidermy shop to sell a pair of stuffed rats dressed as Catholic bishops sums up what she's been doing since she quit her job to tend to Tuesday.
    For much of the movie, mother and daughter have different relationships with the macaw. For Tuesday, the bird is a companion and a curiosity. 
   In an amusing scene, Tuesday creates a makeshift bird bath in a bathroom sink so the bird can wash away the dirty residue of its grim occupation. She also introduces the macaw to vaping.
    Mom, on the other hand, resists the bird's doom-struck call. A physical battle with the macaw results in a horror-tinged gross-out scene in which an unrelenting Louis-Dreyfus taps her inner rage.
   Unlike her daughter, Zora can't accept the idea that death is inevitable, universal, and, in some instances, a welcome end to suffering.
    Since the movie premiered at last fall's Telluride Film Festival, much has been made of Louis-Dreyfus's performance. Leaving the comedy vibes of Vice and Seinfeld behind, a haggard-looking Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman whose denial curdles into ferocity,
    At times, Louis-Dreyfus's performance flips over the top but she delivers in the key moments; Petticrew deftly combines the traits of normal adolescence with a growing acceptance that her time has come. She approaches the end without fear.
    Pusic, who lives in London and hails from Croatia, brings a bit of bleak Eastern European flavor to a story that treats magic realism with matter-of-fact bluntness. No explanations. No apologies. The macaw delivers death. That's that.
    Some viewers will laugh and shed tears. I can't say I did much of either. Still, I appreciated the creative audacity of a first-time director who tackles a question many would rather avoid: Does mortality mean anything in a universe too vast to notice our puny sorrows?

A Malaysian movie makes its mark


 Tiger Stripes from Malaysian writer/director Amanda Nell Eu, takes us places we haven't been before -- not in terms of its subject (an adolescent girl's transition to womanhood) but in terms of milieu and the specific horrors confronting Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), a 12-year-old girl whose first period earns her the scorn of girls who once were friends. Eu makes Zaffan's independence clear from the start; she's a free-spirited kid who faces the meanness of a schoolgirl (Deena Ezral) with whom she has grown up. The movie also reflects ingrained prejudices about female sexuality found in some parts of Malaysian society. Zaffan's mother greets news of her daughter's menstruation less than sympathetically. "You're dirty now," she tells her daughter. Gradually, Zaffan’s raw, angry nature emerges, turning her into a kind of demon who, late in the movie, is subjected to an exorcism, clearly the last thing she needs. The filmmaking sometimes shows ragged edges but Tiger Stripes sticks with you, and Eu and Zairizal create a portrait of an intensely independent young woman fighting to keep her physicality from being suppressed.

A father/daughter journey into the past


 I wish I could give a ringing endorsement to Treasure, director Julia von Heinz's story about a Jewish woman who travels with her father to Poland during the 1990s. Unfortunately, the movie's obvious sincerity is tempered by too many notes of sentimentality. Sentiment seems out-of-place in a story about a widowed Holocaust survivor (Stephen Fry) and his daughter (Lena Dunham), a journalist who wants to learn about her family's past. In adapting a 2001 novel by Lily Brett, von Heinz evokes the pain of the Holocaust but the movie winds up scratching the surface -- which is not to say that some of those scratches don't sting. Fry's Edek Rothwax and Dunham's Ruth Rothwax visit Poland soon after the Russian grasp of its former satellite countries has faded. Dad, who insisted on accompanying his daughter, hires a driver (Zbignew Zamachowski) because Polish trains elicit too many memories of the German transports that took his relatives to death camps. Von Heinz draws the movie's father/ daughter conflict in less than tempestuous terms. Fry's portrayal of Edek borders on the folksy, and Dunham's playing a character who doesn't have a firm grasp on her identity. A meeting with the Poles who occupy the apartment where Edek grew up can't quite embody the difficulties some Poles have with Jewish visitors. It needed more development.  I can't say that I wasn't moved by Treasure. But as someone who has traveled to Poland and visited some of the same places as this father/daughter duo, I expected more from a film that's tackling the pained relationship of a parent who wants to protect himself and his daughter from an indigestible and horrific past. 

Friday, June 7, 2024

'The Watchers': Moody but that's it

 


Steeped in mysterious folklore and dodging in and out of the shadows of an Irish forest, The Watchers marks the feature debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan, the daughter of M. Night Shyamalan. (M. Night served as one of the movie’s producers.) The set-up goes something like this: The owner of a Galway pet shop asks one of his employees (Dakota Fanning) to deliver a parrot to a customer in Belfast. Fanning's Mina drives through the countryside with the parrot, possibly the film's most interesting character, but loses her way upon entering a forbidding forest. Mina soon finds herself trapped in a bunker-like cabin with three strangers (Georgina Campbell, Olwen Fouere, and Oliver Finnegan), none of whom have been able to escape the forest. Each night, creatures dubbed The Watchers gather to observe those who are trapped in The Coop, which is what this forest redoubt is called. The Watchers view these unlucky characters through a two-way mirror that serves as one of the walls of this strange one-room outpost. Shyamalan's screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by A.M. Shine,  gives Mina a backstory, but for much of its one-hour and 42-minute running time, the movie tries to build suspense with sound design and by offering quick glimpses of The Watchers. The approach is too familiar to create much excitement, and the movie's drawn-out conclusion offers a far-fetched serving of mythology, as well as the introduction of a new character (John Lynch)The Watchers has some atmospheric richness but the characters aren’t intriguing and the movie’s mixture of fairy-tale and horror tropes proves difficult to swallow.


Thursday, June 6, 2024

Viggo Mortensen directs a Western


Viggo Mortensen directs and co-stars with Vicky Krieps in The Dead Don't Hurt, a Western that looks as if it's trying to follow in the footsteps of genre-busting exercises such as Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. Defined more by silence than dialogue, the acting in The Dead Don't Hurt, a bit like the movie itself, can border on self-consciousness. Approached with a hyper-awareness of period detail, the movie works its way through two hours and nine minutes, employing a structure that involves abruptly inserted flashbacks. The basic story: A Danish immigrant, played by Mortensen, and a French Canadian woman of independent spirit, portrayed by Krieps, meet in San Francisco and migrate to a frontier outpost in Nevada where Mortensen's Olsen owns a dilapidated cabin. Krieps's Vivienne tidies up, adding warmth to the bleak surroundings, but Vivienne resists domestication -- not that Olsen tries to force it on her. Immigrant soulmates, Olsen and Vivienne try to define new lives in the West. When Olsen joins the Union Army to fight against slavery, Vivienne -- now alone -- has a predictably violent encounter with Weston (Solly McLoud), the town's bully and part owner of the bar where Vivienne has landed a job.  To further complicate matters, Weston's dad (Garret Dillahunt) is in the midst of a shady deal with the town's mayor (Danny Huston). Mortensen strains to defeat Western romanticism as The Dead Don't Hurt builds to the inevitable confrontation between Olsen and Weston. Mortensen only partially succeeds at subverting the genre's macho cliches by tossing a strong woman into a male-dominated pressure cooker. Delivering some of her lines in French, Krieps gives the movie's best performance, but The Dead Don't Hurt seems to be aiming for more than it delivers. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Some spark in a superfluous sequel

   

  Early in Bad Boys: Ride or Die, the fourth in a series of Bad Boy films that began in 1995, Marcus Burnett, a Miami detective played by Martin Lawrence, has a near-death experience. It’s tempting to view the entire movie as a near-death experience for a buddy team (Lawrence and Will Smith) that has passed its expiration date.
   It doesn't take long before another character — the late Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliono) -- appears in a video he made prior to his death. Do I hear a death rattle here as well?
   OK, enough gloom. Ride or Die is no action comedy masterpiece but -- and this comes as a surprise --  the movie holds its own. Credit directors Edil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who made the last movie, with breathing life into an unnecessary sequel in which Smith’s character issues a number of apologies and is slapped in the face (three times) by Lawrence’s character. 
   Any connection to Smith’s Oscar fiasco may be purely ... well ... you know.
   Our beloved cops are getting long in the tooth. Smith's Mike Lowrey struggles with remorse and panic attacks, and Marcus, now a grandpa, suffers a heart attack while dancing at Mike's wedding. Mike marries early in the film, perhaps so that his new wife (Melanie Liburd) later can be placed in danger, thus raising the personal stakes for Mike.
    When Marcus recovers, he believes that he's impossible to kill. It's not his time, so he stands on the ledge of the hospital roof to prove his theory.
    The story tasks Mike and Marcus with clearing the name of the late Captain Howard, assassinated in the last installment. The captain has been linked to drug cartels. 
   A ridiculously complicated script concocts a scheme in which a former special forces officer (Eric Dane) becomes the primary villain.
    When the Florida law enforcement establishment tags Mike and Marcus as corrupt, they scurry to evade capture while also working to clear Captain Howard’s name.  
     Smith and Lawrence remain the main draw, but other actors punctuate the film's heavy and excessive gunfire. Rhea Seehorn, of Better Call Saul, turns up as Howard’s daughter, and Vanessa Hudgens reprises her Bad Boys work as a Miami cop.
     John Salley does cameo duty as Fletcher, a character who has branched out from the first two movies. Tiffany Haddish turns up as a stripper, delivering some off-color humor -- hardly a novelty in Bad Boys movies.
     Mike's son (Jacob Scipio) finds his way back into the plot, adding a slightly serious note to the proceedings.
     Frenzied editing defines much of the action, and the story culminates in an abandoned amusement park that’s home to a giant alligator. 
      You know the drill. A helicopter spins out of control. A small plane crashes into a building. Automatic weapons are fired. Stuff blows up.
      Smith and Lawrence generate enough comic chemistry to keep this Bad Boys from going totally bad but it’s difficult to watch Ride or Die without wondering what’s at stake beyond kick-starting the summer box office with an outsized helping of fan food. Think of it as a formula movie -- albeit with a bit of spark.
      One more note: Smith never has trouble commanding the screen -- even when he's in easygoing mode. Martin brings most of the comic juice to this edition. For my money, he's  the best Bad Boy.