(On Cable TV, January 2019) As far as contemporary comedies go, Tag holds its own as an enjoyable entry in the genre. Starting with an off-beat premise inspired by real events (a group of guys playing a lifelong game of tag), it stocks its ensemble cast with known comic personas, features a script that exploits the nooks and crannies of the premise and wraps it all up in sequences that have more cinematic depth than most other comedies. As a comedy/action hybrid (naturally, with the “tag” hook), it features enough CGI and gags stolen from other action movies (including the Sherlockian slow-motion voice-over options analysis) to act as a semi-satire. The film does a credible job at rationalizing its unlikely premise, from how the game was created to the various rules that make it a bit more complex. To support that intent, it also features a coterie of observers (including a journalist played by Annabelle Wallis in a thankless role that is reduced to being the audience’s surrogate) to highlight how crazy the main characters can become in playing the game. The cast was clearly chosen for their established personas, whether we’re talking about Jon Hamm’s propensity for comedy, Isla Fisher’s energetic enthusiasm, Ed Helms as the goofy straight man, and Jeremy Renner to make use of his action-movie credentials in a more serious character than the other. The result is funny enough, although the third-act turn into drama is suspect in the way movies written according to screenwriting rules feel obliged to hit specific emotional turns. Tag is an enjoyable comedy, with set-pieces more ambitious than is the norm for many flatter comedies. The dialogue shows signs of having been written rather than improvised, which usually improves the results.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) The appeal of Edgar Wright’s role as a director is multifaceted (you can like his impeccable editing, highly structured scripting, hip pop-culture references or ability to get great comic performances from his actors), but he is without peers in his use of music as an essential counterpoint to the visual aspects of his movies. Nearly all of his films so far have included at least one sequence that perfectly blend sound and images, and he pushes that facet of his work to its limits in Baby Driver, a movie in which nearly the entire film seems built around its soundtrack. I mean it in the best way, as the opening sequence proves: Wright dares to synchronize an entire feature film around a selection of underexposed songs and the result is a frizzy delight. Sure, it’s all in the service of a criminal revenge story … but why use labels when the entire film is a tour de force? From beginning to end, Baby Driver is a choreography of sound and visuals as it takes us in the mind of its music-obsessed protagonist. A movie experience with few peers, Baby Driver is meant to be listened to as much as seen—while I’m a big fan of watching movies with the sound down as so not to disturb other members of my household, I made an exception for Baby Driver—and it deserves to be played at the appropriate volume. Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead performance, but the supporting actors are far more interesting, in-between what is likely to be Kevin Spacey’s last high-profile performance, Jon Hamm leaning on his comedy and action skills, Jamie Foxx as a dangerous sidekick and Lily James as the love interest. Much of the overall plot is familiar, but it’s the execution that truly shines—Baby Driver is filled with cool little moments, set pieces and the usual amount of Wright’s clever writing that becomes more apparent upon viewing the film a second time. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a particular treat for anyone who’s been following Wright’s career so far.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2017) Well, if you’re feeling too optimistic about your life, the world or what humans are capable of doing to each other with a little bit of technological help, have fun with this second season of Black Mirror (including the unusually bleak “White Christmas” special). If the first season left you with nightmares, this one won’t be any easier to stomach, with “White Bear” and “White Christmas,” in particular, being particularly able to give you fits of guilt at being part of the human species. “White Bear” talks about our capacity for righteous indignation and how rage can become an entertainment experience (hilariously enough, the credit sequence plays like a hideous making-of), while “White Christmas” simply points out how eager we are to enslave even ourselves. But I summarize too much: part of the pleasure of Black Mirror’s twisted effectiveness is finding out that what we think we see on-screen isn’t what’s really happening. Better production values and bigger names (such as Jon Hamm and Oona Chaplin in “White Christmas”) help make the show even better. Still, there’s more to Black Mirror than simple bleakness. Episodes such as “Be Right Back” show that series creator Charlie Brooker is also able to touch upon more complex emotions than simple revulsion. But then, of course, you have “The Waldo Moment” which, in its critique of cheap populism, rather depressingly anticipates that a buffoon could in fact be elected in a position of power. After the way the first season’s “The National Anthem” proved stomach-churningly prescient, maybe someone should keep tabs on what Charlie Brooker has in store for Black Mirror’s third season…
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I can be a surprisingly good audience for middle-of-the-road comedies, which may explain why I had a generally good time watching Keeping up with the Joneses even though it doesn’t really revolution anything. Much of it has to do with the movie giving good roles to three actors I like, and minimizing the irritation from an actor that I generally find annoying. Beginning not too far away from The ’burbs, this film begins as a comfortably married couple having shipped their kids to summer camp reacts to the arrival of a sexy new couple in their cul-de-sac: As hints of improper behavior pile up, the wife becomes convinced that the new neighbours are spies, while the husband excuses away the incidents and tries to make friends with the new guy. Complications piles up, leading to a second half that’s far more action-heavy than the comedic first half. Much of it feels familiar, to the point of missing comic opportunities by lack of daring. But who cares about originality when you’ve got Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot and Isla Fisher co-starring? All three of them get a chance to show their comic skills, with Gadot and Hamm in particular getting a further opportunity to play action heroes along the way. Gadot in particular gets a role that balances toughness, seduction and comedy—it’s not a great movie, but it’s the kind of film that encapsulates her range at this point. Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis, often unbearably annoying in his usual screen persona, is here reined in and almost tolerable as a mild-mannered HR officer targeted for counterintelligence operations. (He’s far more sympathetic than in his almost-contemporary Masterminds, for instance.) It makes up for a likable quartet of comedians, and Keeping Up with the Joneses coasts a long time on their inherent likability … and having Gadot and Fisher both show up in decent lingerie. Otherwise, the action scenes are generic, elements of the conclusion are arbitrary and the epilogue is a disappointment. Still, it’s a relatively entertaining film, somewhat unobjectionable and yet likable in its own way. I’ve seen far worse this week alone, starting with the aforementioned Masterminds.
(In theatres, September 2010) Who would have thought that barely seven years after the nadir of Gigli, Ben Affleck would re-emerge as a significant director of Boston-based crime dramas? Strange but true: After wowing reviewers with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is back with another Boston thriller in The Town, this time taking a look at a gang of professional bank robbers as one of them begins a relationship with an ex-hostage of theirs. Deceptions accumulate alongside complications as the gang keeps planning heists, the FBI is tracking them closely and the lead character wants out of his own life. It’s the complex mixture of crime, action, romance and drama that makes The Town work, along with a clean direction, a good sense of place and a few capable actors. Jeremy Renner is once again remarkable as a hot-headed criminal, whereas Jon Hamm gets more than his fair share of good lines as a dogged FBI agent. The script feels refreshingly adult, full of difficult entanglements, capable performances and textured moral problems. The adaptation from Chuck Hogan’s novel is decent, although most readers will be amused to note that a movie theatre heist has been replaced by something else entirely. More significant, however, is the flattening of the FBI agent character and the far more optimistic conclusion of the film –in the end, the movie feels more superficial in general but also more satisfying in its closure. The Town isn’t flashy, though, and this may be what separates it from a longer-lasting legacy. No matter, though: it’s a good a satisfying film, and one that confirms what Affleck is now capable of accomplishing.