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‘Life of the Party’ Should Have Stayed Home

Jeremiah

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I left the theatre after watching Life of the Party dazed and confused. As unsure as I was about what I had just seen, I was sure of one thing: I didn’t like it. Life of the Party is an unqualified mess of a movie. It lurches from scene to scene with no real consequence of anything that has happened before. It was dreadful.

The plot, so called, of Life of the Party is relatively simple. Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) discovers her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) wants a divorce mere seconds after they drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at her sorority for her senior year of college. Dan informs her he’s been having an affair with a realtor, Marcie (Julie Bowen). Since the house is in his name, he’s selling it as soon as possible.

So goes the opening five minutes. I might also add the first minutes are one of the few times in which something that happens that has any kind of consequence or connection to later scenes. The rest of Life of the Party deals with Deanna deciding to go back to school and get her archeology degree. A field that apparently Deanna is in love with but only talks about when she is in class. Even then, she and the professor Truzack (Chris Parnell) trade archeology puns.

McCarthy’s Deanna is a wonderful fully fleshed out creation. A ferocious ball of pure love and goodness. Deanna’s sweetness radiates from within as she barrels through one misfortune or another. I’m not exaggerating that her Deanna parallels Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. One of the great disappointments of Life of the Party is how badly it serves McCarthy and her comedic creation.

At times, I was gobsmacked at how much Life of the Party seems to hate its main character. Ben Falcone, co-writer and director, seems to take great glee in Deanna’s misfortune. As the movie rolls along it begins to warm up to her. I couldn’t figure out if that was by design or just McCarthy’s Deanna forcing the movie to bend to her will. Perhaps this is due to McCarthy being the other co-writer. Life of the Party at times feels like a duel of sorts between two writers of varying sensibilities and cross purposes. The fact that Falcone is McCarthy’s husband only intensifies the mystery.

Then again it could be he doesn’t understand how his camera is affecting our mood. Frequently while watching Life of the Party, characters will say something and the camera will rest on them as if they said a joke. Except since no one behaves as if someone else is in the scene, it’s hard to figure out if what was said was ironic, silly, or just bad writing. I grant you it could easily be all three. Though ‘bad writing’ would imply there is something of a script, which would further imply some kind of structure. I can assure you the implications are misleading.

Take the moment in which Deanna meets Maddie’s sorority sisters. They introduce themselves one by one even though they seem to have no real distinguishing character traits. Helen (Gillian Jacobs) seems older than the others by a good ten years. Deanna asks Helen why she seems older. Helen’s reply of “I’ve been in a coma for nine years,” is mishandled both in framing and in timing. I spent the next ten or twenty minutes trying to figure out if it was a joke or not.

Life of the Party comes so close to brushing up against something resembling a joke that you become exhausted from hoping. Much of the hope comes from McCarthy’s brilliant Deanna, but also because underneath all the sloppiness Life of the Party has a great big heart. Deanna is a cheerleader of other women. The other sorority sisters, who barely have characteristics, much less names, are emboldened by Deanna’s undyingly optimistic outlook on life. She is a woman who has found out her husband has been having an affair, her home will be sold without her consent, and there is precious little she can do about it. Still, Deanna never fails to greet anyone with a smile.

Even the mean girls Jennifer (Debbie Ryan) and Trina (Yani Simone), who have consistently made fun of Deanna, eventually give way to her sunny disposition. When Jennifer and Deanna first meet in the archaeology class, Jennifer makes a snarky comment about Deanna’s clothes. Deanna’s response is a simple gasp, “Oh, we’re still doing that? We’re still attacking other girls for no real reason. Well, that’s nice to know.”

McCarthy’s Deanna bends the movie and the characters within in it, to her worldview. Disappointing because so much of it simply doesn’t work. I sat there watching the images flicker on the screen and came so close to laughing I became a little disheartened. No one likes to hate a movie, especially a movie as chock full of talent as Life of the Party.

Deanna’s best friend Christine (Mya Rudolph) is another rare bright spot. Of the three times I did laugh, two of them were scenes involving her foul-mouthed but supportive middle-class housewife. In one scene in particular, Christine and her husband Frank (Damon Jones) are at dinner with another couple and Deanna. Dan and Marcie show up and announce their wedding plans.

The scene only becomes more awkward. The waiter shows up and we see it’s Jack (Luke Benward), Deanna’s college boyfriend. In what I must admit is a hilarious twist, we also learn something else about Jack. I won’t spoil it, suffice to say if the rest of the movie was as funny as that scene I would be writing a much different review.

It should be noted that the scene is as funny as it is because it’s one of the few connected to other scenes. We have a set up for it. The people in the scene have a shared history and actually interact with each other. As opposed to the rest of the movie where one person says something mean or weird, then cut to a reaction shot. Followed by someone else saying weird or mean. Rinse and repeat.

In the interest of full disclosure, the other man in the theater with me was a man I was talking with at the bar. The bartender jokingly suggested I buy him a ticket to the show. The stranger perked up. It so happened I had an extra ticket and so we saw the movie together. With twenty minutes or so left to go, the stranger abruptly and silently stood up. He stared at the screen in deep contemplative silence. Without saying a word to me or the screen he turned and walked out.

Afterward, as I left the theater the bartender apologized to me. He hadn’t meant the stranger to take him seriously. I told him it was alright. We walked out together and there outside sitting on the bench was the drunk man who I just spent the last couple of hours with. His face was slacked and his eyes glassy. I waved goodbye to him. He waved goodbye back. A look of sadness and disappointment in his eyes.

It was a look I knew intimately. I had the same look on my face. Part of the sadness had to do with the loss of time that can never be regained. But the other part was seeing great talent spin its wheels in hopeless aimlessness. Life of the Party is a mess of good intentions and bad filmmaking.


Image Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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‘A Dog’s Way Home’ Needs a Tighter Leash

Jeremiah

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To be perfectly honest, if I were a child I’d probably love A Dog’s Way Home. I say this not just because the children at my screening seemed riveted and on the literal edge of their seat seats. No, I say this because I remember loving movies like Benji the Hunted and The Adventures of Milo and Otis.

It goes back even further though. Hollywood has long peddled movies such as Black Beauty and The Black Stallion at youngsters and the grandparents who accompany them. These movies exist for families to go and experience uncomplicated stories with cute little animals braving the horrors of the world.

A Dog’s Way Home is harmless enough but unless you have children or have a special affinity for this genre of movie it may well be, as it was for me, excruciating. While I used to enjoy those movies, I have long since gotten over them. One could argue that I’m poorer for it.

Charles Martin Smith is a wonderful character actor from movies like No Deposit, No Return, and Starman. He has directed such movies as the infamous Trick or Treat and, in its own way, the equally infamous Air Bud. A Dog’s Way Home somehow bridges the two together.

For most of the movie, we follow Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) played by Shelby the dog, a cute and expressive mixed pit bull. She embarks on a four hundred mile journey to return to her owner Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King). We’ve all heard stories like this before. Stories where a dog, cat, or some other animal travels a great distance to somehow miraculously find it’s way home. These stories have great power to them because for us, I imagine, it challenges our perceptions about the inner lives our pets lead. Maybe there is something more to these animals than just sit, heel, and beg. Add to all of that the basic simple draw of the basic human desire to return home.

Home need not be the place you grew up or even where you were born. After all, Bella was born in the cellar of an abandoned and run down house. Her mother and siblings were taken by animal control. She was raised by a family of cats who also lived in the building. Eventually, Lucas and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) find her and take her in.

No, home is where we feel “safe from all alarm” as the song goes. It’s why movies such as O’Brother Where Art Thou cast such a lasting spell on the psyche of its audience. Even the story of which it’s based, The Odyssey, is about characters who yearn to be back with their loved ones.

All of this is not to say A Dog’s Way Home is any good. I love Bryce Dallas Howard. She is often the best thing about movies that I don’t generally like. Here though, as the voice of Bella, less is more.

The script, written by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, makes Bella a constant insufferable narrator. Cameron, who wrote the book the film is based on, seems to misunderstand the differences between the mediums. In a book, the narration is necessary in order to give us insight into Bella’s fear and emotions.

But dogs are far and away the most expressive of animals. Often times Howard’s voice-over feels insulting to children. She is forced to say such lines as “I was so happy.” My hatred of children is well documented, but even I am forced to argue on their behalf. Surely a child is able to tell when a dog is happy or sad without being told so. If not, then we may have more problems then we are aware of.

Cameron and Michon can’t seem to make up their minds how they want A Dog’s Way Home to be. For much of the movie, it is a harmless saccharine sweet piece of fluff. Even with poor Howard’s inane dialogue. But at times there were moments of manufactured drama that seem out of place.

For example, the home where Lucas and Olivia found Bella. It is a crumbling house amidst a row of condemned houses owned by Gunter (Brian Markinson). Gunter is the greedy landowner whose plans to renovate the street are foiled because of the rumors of cats living in the rubble. The animal control department, the same ones who took Bella’s family, claim there are no cats. Spoiler alert: there are still cats living there.

Gunter is the villain in a movie that clearly doesn’t even need a villain. Much like Bella doesn’t need a voice, A Dog’s Way Home almost goes out of its way to make itself more complicated than it needs to be. Gunter, enraged by Lucas and Olivia’s attempts at forcing him to employ the barest of due diligence, lashes out.

He labels Bella a Pit Bull. Here’s where A Dog’s Way Home gets interesting, sort of. In Denver under the law, “pit bull,” is extremely vague. It’s a catch-all term that encompasses any animal deemed dangerous or a threat to public safety. The whole first act of A Dog’s Way Home is set up for what seems to be an attempt at exploring the pitfalls of breed-specific laws and regulations.

Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) make the difficult decision to move Bella out of Denver at a friend’s house. Lucas and Olivia will find a house outside Denver and collect Bella then. But Bella runs away before Lucas can come to get her.

Believe it or not, I am not a monster. As much as I was bored to tears in A Dog’s Way Home and as much as I prayed for a power outage, or for the projector to malfunction, anything to save me from the tedious time at the movies, parts of it worked. Smith from time to time, scales back Howard’s voice over and allows Shelby the dog to just do her thing. At these moments I found myself, much like the little girl in front of me, absorbed by Bella’s plight.

Moments such as when Bella saves a man buried alive from an avalanche only to be found by an interracial gay couple. No, you didn’t misread that sentence and I’m not exaggerating. The order and contents of that sentence are exactly correct. Gavin (Barry Watson) and Taylor (Motell Gyn Foster) have moments with Bella which are simple and effective. We are allowed to just watch without being told what anyone is feeling or thinking.

When Bella leaves to continue her hunt for Lucas, we feel the pang of loss both for the men and for Bella. But nothing prepares us for the hard left turn involving Axel (Edward James Olmos). He’s a homeless Veteran who adopts Bella. He keeps her on a leash and eventually chains her to his body and promptly dies. She is left to die of starvation and dehydration.

Don’t worry, unlike most modern day dog movies, Bella lives. She is discovered by two kids who are about to have their own Stand By Me adventure. Their discovery of Bella is soon overcome by their discovery of Axel.

I haven’t even mentioned the part where Bella basically raises a cougar cub or the subplot about how pets and animals make for good coping therapy for veterans. For a movie that doesn’t have much under the surface, a lot happens above it. Heck, even the legendary Wes Studi shows up at the end. He plays the one character with anything close to resembling common sense and rationality. A welcome reprieve in a movie oftentimes filled with idiots.

Smith tries in vain to tie all of this together into a cohesive story and to some degree he succeeds. Shot by Peter Menzies Jr, the film is pretty to look at and at times borders on more of a nature documentary than a movie. Many scenes involve blatant CGI so as to not put Shelby or the other animals in danger. Although one scene where Bella is concussed by a police car as it skids to a stop jolted me out of my seat.

A Dog’s Way Home is nothing if not sincere in its aim. It just wants to be a little story about a dog trying to get home. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I found myself charmed by the little things it did despite my stubborn curmudgeonous demeanor.


Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Golden Globes Declare #MeToo Movement Finally Over, Award Top Prize to Embattled Director

Dan Arndt

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My fellow moviegoers, our long national nightmare is over. The first step came last night at the Golden Globe awards when the Best Motion Picture-Drama Award was given to Bohemian Rhapsody, created and directed by Bryan Singer. While Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies and allegedly raped an underage boy half his age in the ’90s, was not at the show in person, the award indicates that Hollywood is ready to move past #MeToo.

Giving the award to Bohemian Rhapsody was only the third worst part of the awards

Singer, who’s been fighting these allegations for years (stretching back to 1997), had left the picture in 2017 after, yes, more allegations came out. However, he laid most of the groundwork for the piece and was a producer, as well as the credited director despite clean-up work by Dexter Fletcher. With all that in mind, and with the easy out of Bohemian Rhapsody being not really that good, the Hollywood Foreign Press decided to give a movie that still listed Singer as director their most prestigious award, even as multiple actresses sat in the audience bearing #TimesUp on their outfits.

While there’s been no official statement from the Globes or the company behind Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s clear that there was at least some attempt to un-person him, as he went unmentioned in Rami Malek’s speech for his (well deserved) Best Actor award, as well as those for the Best Motion Picture-Drama award itself. He was notably absent from the stage and the audience as well. After, the producers were cagey on whether Singer shared in the award, and Malek tried to block by shifting the focus back to Freddie Mercury. Singer did acknowledge the award on his Instagram, however, and thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press.

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What an honor. Thank you #HollywoodForeignPress

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With #MeToo finally over, perhaps the other awards shows will follow suit. Perhaps Louis C.K. get a Grammy for his leaked comedy audio where he called the Parkland Teens “boring,” or maybe Kevin Spacey will get a Tony for his bizarre monologue from Christmas. The skies the limit thanks to the Golden Globes! And don’t worry about Bryan, he’s still helping produce The Gifted for Marvel and Fox. Oh, and he’s in talks to direct Red Sonja.


Images via Hollywood Foreign Press

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Walk, Don’t Run to ‘Escape Room’

Jeremiah

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Escape Room is an enjoyable, if at times quite effective, horror film. If you liked Saw or the Final Destination movies you will more than likely enjoy this. Both of these franchises have built a successful formula out of sitting in the dark watching people die in varying elaborate Rube Goldberg fashion.

The difference is that the Saw movies try to behave as if they have some deeper moralistic or philosophical meaning to it all. The Final Destination movies, however, never pretend to be anything other than what they are. For the record, I enjoy the latter over the former.

Your enjoyment of Escape Room will largely depend on how much gore versus how much riddle and puzzle solving you like in your horror. Either way, the movie is competent enough and slick enough to make the tension work. Adam Robitel, the director, has given us a relatively decent horror movie for January.

My tepid response comes not from my bias towards Final Destination over Saw. Rather it”s my own personal taste. Quite frankly this is not the type of movie that I particularly enjoy. To be clear neither is Final Destination. Horror movies are my least favorite genre. Sometimes I enjoy them. But most of the time I am unable to overcome my initial unease at watching them.

Escape Room follows six seemingly unconnected characters as they make their way through one elaborate booby trap after another. Because of the modern cinematic landscape, these six strangers will all have something in common. God forbid six strangers actually turn out to be six strangers with nothing in common. The thread that ties the characters together is revealed as the movie goes along.

The structure of the movie tips its hand slightly. Escape Room is designed for fans of the genre but its surprises will be easily spotted. For example of the six characters only Zoe (Taylor Russell), Ben (Logan Miller), and Jason (Jay Ellis) are given any kind of backstory. We see each of them receive an elaborate puzzle box which contains an invitation. The other three, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Mike (Tyler Labine), and Danny (Nik Dodani), we meet at the escape room itself. Since they have no backstory, and we have no connection to them, they will be the first to die.

To give Escape Room credit it’s never really obvious which of the three will die. The movie begins with the last scene. Knowing this tells us more than the last three we met will die. The suspense becomes who and in what order. Of course, all of this is predicated on the notion that Escape Room is playing fair with us. Meaning if the beginning is really the end, then everything I’ve just said is correct. Except since this is a horror movie, the notion that it would be playing fair is naive.

The script written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik is inventive in how the rooms are designed and plotted out to relate to each of the characters. The problem is that as fun as Escape Room is it begins to wobble by the end. The cracks begin to show towards the end. For much it’s runtime Escape Room is grounded to some degree in reality. By the end it has lept off the rails and into an over the top Illuminati inspired ending.

While Escape Room at times feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone it never feels over the top. Robitel manages to make the improbability and most convoluted coincidences and designs seem believable. But the ending verges into television, “I’ll get you next time!” territory. It feels hokey and overdone. 

Up until the end though it’s a perfectly serviceable horror movie. Taylor Russell as the shy and introverted Zoey is a lovely presence. Her character adds a layer of tension. She’s so likable and endearing you begin to feel bad for her even before people start dying. Russell has a thankless job of turning her character from shy savant to embracing being the smartest one in the room.

Deborah Ann Woll is the other bright spot. An ex Iraq veteran she is the pragmatic voice of the group as well as the unspoken leader. Of all the cast members she has the most physically challenging role. In a movie where characters must out run, out think, and out guess a faceless menace, her Amanda has to outdo them all.

The most effective scene involves a room designed like a honky-tonk pool room. Russell’s Zoey realizes the records on the wall are a picture puzzle while Woll’s Amanda figures out the clue must be in a lockbox. The room is upside down. The timer is the floor giving way in sections revealing a massive elevator shaft beneath.

Despite my initial boredom, I was curled into a tight ball watching the group try and work through the room. Whatever predictability Escape Room has Robitol and his writers seem aware of it and either lean into it or tease you with enough information for us to know we don’t have everything.

Marc Spicer, the cinematographer, and editor Steve Mirkovich work together to make a cohesive horror thriller. Despite its shortcomings, I found myself cringing from the intensity of the atmosphere. Spicer and Mirkovich cleverly play with the boundaries of PG-13 rating. Utilizing the constraints they are able to create a very specific atmosphere of dread despite the ludicrousness of the plot.

The rising popularity of escape rooms only made the inevitability of a horror movie about them all the more likely. The element of some far-seeing shadowy billionaire oligarch behind it all is merely a sign of our ever-increasing class-conscious times. Escape Room does what it promises to do, but trips over itself trying to set up a future franchise deal. All in all not bad for a January horror film.


Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

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