You’re It

A Crazy, Preposterously True Tale of Fun & Friendship


Starring Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson & Hannibal Buress
Directed by Jeff Tomsic
In theaters June 15, 2018

If you sometimes feel like Hollywood just makes the same movie over and over, well, here’s one for you.

Tag is so unusual, so unique, so stupidly crazy, it’s practically a guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like it.

Unless, perhaps, you’re one of the people it’s about—or you remember the newspaper piece, a few years ago, that inspired it.

As wild and nutty and preposterous as it seems, Tag is based on a group of friends from Washington state who bonded over the childhood chase game in the 1980s and kept playing it, three decades after they graduated high school.


Jon Hamm

The movie takes shape around a business interview by a Wall Street Journal reporter (British actress Annabelle Wallis) of Fortune 500 CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), just before he gets “tagged” by Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms). The reporter becomes so intrigued, she scraps her original piece and decides to do her story instead on these grown men and their all-consuming obsession with the game, which kicks into “play” every year during the month of May.

(The movie is based on the actual story in the Wall Street Journal, “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It,” by Russell Adams, published in 2013. Stick around for the credits to meet the real people and see just how closely the movie captures their experiences.)

Callahan and Hoagie assemble their fellow players, the doper “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson, from TV’s New Girl) and laid-back Sable (comedian-actor Hannibal Buress), to go after the elusive Jerry (Jeremy Renner), a master of the game who has never been tagged “it.”

Jerry is getting married, and rumor has it he’s retiring from the game after this “season,” going out in a blaze of glory. His fellow players can’t let that happen—not without tagging him at least once.


Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm & Isla Fisher

They have a plan: ambush Jerry at his wedding. But first they have to locate him…

Director Jeff Tomsic, a TV veteran whose resume includes several stand-up comedy specials and episodes of Broad City, Idiotsitter and The Detour, keeps things lively with frisky banter and comedic-action scenes that show the extremes to which the characters go to get the jump on each other—costumes and disguises; breaking and entering; interrupting business sessions, funerals, medical procedures and AA meetings.

One especially funny sequence, with Thomas Middleditch (from TV’s Silicon Valley) as an employee of Jerry’s, reveals a line they won’t cross, however. “We’re not doing that,” says Callahan. “That’s a war crime.”

The group, we learn, even has a customized, handwritten book of rules and bylaws. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the book we see in the movie is the real book from the real-life group.)

A sly bit of meta-casting features the venerable Brian Dennehy, whose resume includes more than 175 roles, including his recent stints on TV’s The Blacklist and in the film The Seagull with Saoirse Ronan. In Tag, he has a brief scene as Chili’s pot-smoking, philosophizing father. It may seem like a lark, a throwaway role—until you realize that the actor shares his name with one of the real characters on which the film is based.


Rashida Jones

Isla Fisher plays Hoagie’s excitable wife, Anna, itching to get in on the action, but prohibited by the game’s boys-only rule. Rashida Jones is Cheryl Deakins, a childhood crush who reappears as a grownup, wowing Chilli and Callahan—and questioning why in the world they’re still playing a silly game from adolescence.

Jones’ character is eventually charmed by their antics. And you probably will be, too, especially as the movie races to a heartwarming finale, wrapped up in a bigger theme of friendship, comradery and fun without an expiration date. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” says Hoagie. “We grow old because we stop playing.”

It’s a cheery message we all need to hear: Long may we run—and oh, by the way, you’re it!














Super Fam

Everyone’s Favorite Superhero Family Returns, as Incredible as Ever 


The Incredibles 2
Starring the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell & Huck Miner
Directed by Brad Bird

As family reunions go, this one took a while—14 years!

It was worth the wait—and the Incredibles haven’t aged a bit. The superhero family we first met back in 2004, in the original double-Oscar-winning, Disney-Pixar smash, returns for another animated adventure, picking up exactly where they left off.

In the opening sequence, they scramble to deal with threat—a subterranean supervillain called the Underminer—who surfaced at the cliffhanger end of the previous film. It’s a setup that might seem like it could easily have come from any one of dozens of other superhero flicks. But right off the bat, the movie finds its unique, family-centric mojo: You’d never see the Avengers or the Justice League bickering about who’s going to mind the baby while the others sprint into the fray.

RGB(The rodent-like Underminer is voiced by John Ratzenberger, the former TV Cheers star who’s been a character in every movie to come off the Disney-Pixar assembly line, beginning with Toy Story in 1995.)

It’s great to hear the familiar sounds again of Craig T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible, gifted with super strength); Holly Hunter (his wife, the super-stretchy Elastigirl); and Sarah Vowell (teenage daughter Violet, who can project force fields and make herself invisible). Newcomer Huck Miner is the voice of Violet’s younger, rascally brother Dash, who has speed to match his name.

But hang on for baby Jack-Jack (voiced by Eli Fucile, also returning from the first film, and the son of Pixar animator Tony Fucile). The family’s little bundle of joy steals the show as his surprise superhero powers come poppin’ out all over.

Samuel L. Jackson returns as Incredibles’ pal Frozone, whose supercool power is zapping things into to ice.

Things really click into gear when the plug gets pulled on the local undercover superhero program, largely due to the high levels of collateral damage whenever the Incredibles swing into action. The public, fed up with buildings getting smashed and bad guys slipping through the cracks, finally make superheroes illegal. The family’s contact, government agent Dicker (Jonathan Banks), wearily informs them it’s time to pack up the spandex.

But a global telecom tycoon and fan, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk of TV’s Better Call Saul) and his inventor sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), offer them a lifeline: They want to use the Incredibles as the cornerstone of an ambitious media campaign to “rebrand” all superheroes and make them superstars again. But Winston only wants Elastigirl, not all the Incredibles.

RGBThat means it’s off to work—on her zippy new Elasticycle—for Mrs. E, while Mr. Incredible heads to the sidelines as a stay-at-home dad.

Returning writer-director Brad Bird (who also voices Edna Mode, the Incredibles’ quirky fashion designer) once again creates a deliciously detailed, multilayered, multitextured, multigenerational tale brimming with espionage satire, cinema savvy and pop-culture wit, while digging into some broader themes that resonate deep, wide and true—family, marriage, gender roles, kids.

But the movie doesn’t shortchange the super-charged, superhero action. (Bird also directed Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, the fourth film in the Tom Cruise spy-flick franchise, and his kinetic knack for action shows.) There’s plenty of drive as the plot takes a diabolical turn you might (or might not) see coming, with a motley, colorful host of supporting-cast superheroes (my favorite was Reflux, who belches up fiery streams of yuck) and a devious ploy involving mass-media mass hypnosis.

RGBThere’s a depth, a richness and a pathos to the story and characters that make Incredibles 2 one of the most superior superhero movies of the year, animated or otherwise. It’s that good. The movie’s mod, retro-hipster look—futuristic ’50s settings spiced up and spliced with slick, contemporary gadgetry and gizmos—is enriched by the jazzy, snazzy, cool-cat musical overlays of Michael Giacchino (who also scored the first movie, as well as dozens of other TV shows and films). The whole thing glides, grooves and makes you grin from start to finish.

“I just wanted to be a good dad,” says Mr. Incredible to Violet one night, after a particularly exasperating day—one in which he admits he made a parenting glitch, one that ultimately brings him closer to his daughter. “You’re not good,” she assures him. “You’re super.”

Clever, comedic, all but alive with masterful animation and bursting with brisk, frisky creativity, Incredibles 2 is a rollicking romp that reunites us with our favorite superhero family—and reminds us why they were so super all along.

In theaters June 15, 2018

Jeepers Creepers

Masterfully disturbing horror flick gets under your skin and into your head

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Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabrielle Bryne & Anne Dowd
Directed by Ari Aster

Lots of things can get passed on, generation to generation—homesteads, hairlines, heirlooms.

In Hereditary, first-time feature filmmaker Ari Aster makes a stunning big-screen debut with this terrifying tale of a family haunted—possibly—by something awful and unholy wrapped around the roots of a family tree. Maybe It’s something sinister and supernatural that won’t let go, as years go by.

And maybe it’s something else… something scarier still.

The movie begins with an ending—a funeral. The mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has just died, and soon troubling clues begin to pile up, for Annie and for us, that somehow things just aren’t right.

Annie notices strange words scrawled on the walls of her home, and unusual patterns woven into welcome mats. She finds old scrapbooks, about spiritualism and the occult, that belonged to her mother, and cryptic notes. (“Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards,” reads one of them.) Annie knew her mom—who lived with Annie and her family during her final years—was stubborn, secretive and given to “private rituals.” But this starts to really unnerve her.

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Milly Shapiro

Annie’s withdrawn youngest child, her oddball tomboy daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who received a Tony Honor for her role in Matilda the Musical on Broadway), begins acting even stranger. Annie’s husband (Gabrielle Byrne) becomes even more concerned. Teenage slacker son Peter (Alex Wolff), already alarmed by his mom’s bizarre sleepwalking episodes, escapes even further into the smoke and bubbles of his bong.

Anne lies about her whereabouts to sneak off to support-group grief therapy sessions, where she pours out her poisoned feelings about her mother and her family. In her confessions of grief, guilt and a lifetime built on brokenness, it becomes clear that her psychological scars are raw, deep—and possibly dangerous.

Then a horrific incident—an accident?—sends things spinning further out of control, into even darker, more deeply disturbing places.

There’s a lot going on in Hereditary, a lot to absorb and unpack as the movie slowly tightens its screws and masterfully layers on the creepiness. The Grahams are surely super-troubled, headed off the rails and hyper-dysfunctional. But is Annie haunted, cursed or crazy? The film wants to keep us, and her family, off-balance and guessing. Director Aster, who also wrote the screenplay, fills every scene with an atmosphere of almost suffocating dread and creates some truly unsettling sights that get under your skin, into your head and stay there, festering, long after they’ve left the screen.


Alex Wolff

Charlie decapitates a bird. Prompted by a new friend (Anne Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia on the hit Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale), Anne conducts a living-room séance, which goes badly. Peter, seized by a grotesque contortion in class, bashes his head bloody on his desk, to the shock of his classmates and teacher.

Toni Collette, the prolific Australian actress whose resume includes more than 75 roles, is still best known for her movie appearances in the comedy Little Miss Sunshine and the mystery-drama The Sixth Sense. She’s amazing here, going full gonzo as a woman who becomes the vessel of malevolent forces she can’t understand or contain.

RAC_6922.NEFIt’s fitting that her character, Annie, works as a gallery artist creating intricate miniature models of people, rooms and scenes. Her art becomes a direct reflection of her reality, in ominous detail. The tiny, delicate figures of her dioramas—shaped by her tools and hands—come to represent the frail, feeble, vulnerable characters of the film, manipulated, placed and positioned (and sometimes destroyed) by powers beyond their control or comprehension.

Director Aster borrows from other horror movies, but at least he borrows from some of the best, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. And as it barrels into the wild, crazy-train, freak-out finale, Hereditary—with its rotting core of ancestry gone to hell and family dysfunction terribly, horrifically twisted, toxic, wicked, warped and wrong—ultimately finds a horror path all its own.

Can families be haunted? Hereditary suggests they certainly, surely can, in more ways than one—and that evil may be lurking, watching and waiting, in our house, our neighborhood and just beneath the surface of our gene pool.

In theaters June 8, 2018

Sail Away

Shailene Woodley sails into trouble in seafaring survival tale

Shailene Woodley stars in ADRIFT
Courtesy of STXfilms

Starring Shailene Woodley & Sam Claflin
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

Why would anyone launch a two-person sailboat, head into the ocean and embark on a journey of more than 6,000 miles?

I wouldn’t, and perhaps you wouldn’t, but the young couple in this movie do exactly that, and their voyage leads them smack into the maw of a monstrous hurricane.

Maybe you remember the true story on which Adrift is based. It’s a pretty incredible survival tale, from 1983, and Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur brings it to dramatic life with a bracing blast of salty sea spray and a deep-dive, committed performance from his female star, who was also one of the film’s producers.

Adrift_poster (72)Shailene Woodley plays Tami Oldham, a 24-year-old California dreamer blown by the winds of wanderlust to Tahiti, where she meets the dashing English sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). He’s slightly older, he’s built his own boat from scrap, and he wants to sail around the world.

Tami is charmed by Richard, and though she’s been on lots of vessels, she admits she’s no sailor. What’s it like, she asks him, to be out there, on the ocean, all alone? “It’s intense,” he tells her. “After a few days, I feel reborn.” But Richard also shoots straight: It’s no paradise. “You’re either sunburned, sleep-deprived or seasick.” And there’s always hallucinations, dehydration and other potential hazards.

But soon enough, Tami and Richard have fallen in love in the tropical island paradise, and they’re making plans to sail away—taking a British couple’s luxury vessel on a one-way trip from the South Pacific to San Diego, Tami’s hometown.

They expect a month of romantic sea travel. But they certainly don’t expect a tropical storm to turn into Hurricane Raymond, which nearly destroys their craft and pushes them irrevocably off-course, with a broken mainmast, busted engine and other debilitating damages.

Shailene Woodley stars in ADRIFT
Courtesy of STXfilmsRather than a “linear” approach, director Kormákur lays out the story by toggling back and forth after the hurricane and before it happened. The movie opens, for instance, with a bravo sequence (the cinematographer is three-time Oscar-winner Robert Richardson) that begins underneath the water, then inside the hull of the capsized boat, with the camera following Tami in what must be the aftermath of an enormous, devastating wave. She sloshes and splashes in waist-deep muck and debris, looking for Richard, before finally emerging topside—at which point the camera pulls away high into the air, revealing her, and the boat, all alone in the vast, empty ocean.

Then the title of the movie comes up, we meet our characters and begin learning about them. Knowing and seeing “in advance” what is going to happen, and checking in at various times later, adds depth to more tranquil scenes as Tami and Richard discuss their dreams, their future and the decisions and choices they’re making.

Shailene Woodley stars in ADRIFT
Courtesy of STXfilmsWoodley, who found fame in The Spectacular Now, the Divergent franchise and now HBO’s Big Little Lies, anchors the movie with resourcefulness and resolve, especially as her character is baked to a crisp and worn down by 41 days of exposure to the elements.

Through Tami’s plight, the movie poses the practical question: What would you do, if you suddenly found yourself in such dire straits? Could you catch and gut a fish? Figure out how to use a sextant? Repair a hole in a leaky boat? Stitch up a gash on your forehead with a fishhook and line? Keep from going crazy?

Claflin, who starred in The Hunger Games and its sequels, has a bit less to do. Richard is seriously injured in the storm, and he spends the rest of the film on the sidelines, which spurs the much-less-experienced Tami into full stay-alive mode.

Director Kormákur seems to like it when things go horribly wrong. His 2015 disaster flick Everest depicted climbers of the world’s tallest mountain peak when engulfed by a massive blizzard. In the end, not everyone makes it off the mountain alive.

Who makes it to the end of Adrift is a bit more certain, especially if you happen to know the true events that inspired the film. But if you don’t (there’s a pretty big surprise close to the end), I suggest you just go see the movie and ride out the waves. This sea-saga blend of love story, fem-strong survival tale and ocean-yarn adventure makes a decent young-adult, date-night flick.

It still doesn’t, however, make me want to get on a sailboat.

In theaters June 1, 2018

Going Solo

Give him a mo’: Young Han will grow on you in new Star Wars saga


Solo: A Star Wars Story
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover & Woody Harrelson
Directed by Ron Howard

Meet the man who’d grow up to be the most famous space cowboy of all time.

In Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenreich stars as the younger version of the iconic character Han Solo, who—as we know!—will eventually evolve into Harrison Ford and align with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in a cosmic crusade for the fate of the universe.

But that’s not this flick.

Solo introduces us to Han and shows us how he got his smirk, his strut and his swagger, from his inauspicious beginnings as a “scrumrat” on a dismal, dingy mining planet where he and his rebel girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from HBO’s Game of Thrones) plot their getaway.


Emilia Clarke

But Imperial goons, mutant dogs and fate intervene, and only Han is able to escape. He vows to return for his lady love, no matter what, and that sets the course of a wild, wide-ranging adventure that explains how young Solo meets the Wookie Chewbacca (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, back inside the costume again after Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and the suave intergalactic gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, star of TV’s Atlanta). And we learn how he comes into possession of his prized starship, the Millennium Falcon.

One of the best parts of the movie is learning more about Chewie, from his age (he’s old!) to his strength (yikes!) and his backstory—and watching the bond form between the shaggy, towering Wookie and the cocky wannabe pilot.


Donald Glover

Maybe you already knew that veteran director Ron Howard was brought in by Disney at the eleventh hour to take over the reins from the original team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord—who piloted The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street to riotously comedic heights—after they were dismissed for “creative differences.” The movie reportedly underwent weeks of rushed reshoots and loads of retweaks, and it’s tempting to wonder about what was so off-course, so creatively different, about the version that didn’t get made.


Woody Harrelson

But the one that hits the screen is solid, sound and sure to please Star Wars fans—Howard finds both freshness and familiarity in this exhilarating, rip-roaring yarn that zooms into hyperspace, stomps across muddy battlefields, flits around snowy mountaintops and introduces a palette of colorful new characters.

Woody Harrelson is pitch-perfect as Tobias Beckett, the scoundrel who gives Han his start in the smuggling business. Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s loyal partner, Val. Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides the voice of L3-37, Lando Calrissian’s droid navigator. Jon Favreau is the voice of Rio Durant, the four-armed, simian-like Ardennian pilot of Beckett’s crew. Paul Bettany (Vision in The Avengers) plays the ruthless, scar-faced cosmic crime lord Dryden Voss.

Ehrenreich, who had critically acclaimed appearances in Blue Jasmine and the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, doesn’t really resemble Harrison Ford, the actor who branded the classic character of Han Solo in the original Star Wars (1977) and then three later movie appearances. Those are some big space shoes to fill. But hey, give the new Han some room to grow—to become Solo—and he grows on you. You see the character begin to take shape in the quips, the mannerisms and the awareness—if not the full embrace, not just yet—of a cause much bigger than himself.

Solo has a lot going on—rollicking, sprawling adventure; sock-o surprises; sweeping romance; double crosses and dastardly twists. Even though it’s meant to be a “standalone” movie (like Rogue One), without needing other films before or after it to continue the story, it’s got plenty of connectivity to the bigger Star Wars canon. (And you can easily see how it could stretch to another movie, if anyone wanted to take it there.)

nullHoward, the Oscar-winning Hollywood insider whose resume includes Splash, Apollo 13, the Da Vinci Code franchise and Frost/Nixon, certainly knows how build a blockbuster, and the movie is often a feast for the eyes. Film buffs will love its references to other movies and themes, particularly Westerns, World War I films like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and samurai flicks.

And when the movie opens with Han revving up his getaway “hot rod” on the mean, junky streets of the grimy, dead-end planet Coreillia, it’s cool to remember how the director appeared—before his directing career—as an actor in American Graffiti, a movie about kids in cars peeling out and dreaming of getting out. Maybe that’s why the scenes that really seem strongest in Solo are the ones that are “close to the ground”—not epic space battles, but times when characters talk, interact and feel the true “gravity” of their situation.

At one critical moment, Beckett and Solo find themselves a bit short of manpower. “C’mon, Chewie,” says Tobias. “Gonna need a little bit of that Wookie oomph.”

With excitement, tension, drama, style, emotion and a sure sense of its footing in one of the most fruitful franchises in pop culture history, Solo will delight Star Wars fans with plenty of that good ol’ Wookie oomph.

In theaters May 25, 2018

Over-50 Shades

Female Friends Rediscover Romance in Sweet, Saucy, Grown-Up Comedy

Book Club poster (72)

Book Club
Starring Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton & Mary Steenburgen
Directed by Bill Holderman

In a fight between a motor-mouthed superhero and four female friends “of a certain age,” who do think will win?

That’s not really hypothetical, as this past weekend, Marvel’s highly anticipated Deadpool 2 hit screens at the same time as this chick flick, about a group of women whose lives are comedically disrupted when their book club decides to read E.L. James’ steamy Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel, about a spicy, S&M-flavored relationship, puts them all in the mood to rediscover romance anew, reignite old flames or strike out on bold new sexual adventures.

Of course, the intended audiences for the two movies are quite different. The box-office battle is real, but the other issue is whether moviegoers will flock to this star-packed, character-rich comedy that’s clearly being served up as a customized, over-50, and fem-centric multi-plex counteroffer to Hollywood’s typical fare, usually aimed at male targets and much younger.


Diane Keaton

Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), Diane (Diane Keaton) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) play bestie girlfriends in Los Angeles who’ve been meeting monthly for 40 years to discuss books, sip wine and catch up with each other.


Mary Steenburgen

Vivian, never married, is a successful hotel magnate. Sharon’s a federal judge whose ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) has just hooked up with a much younger woman. Recent widower Diane is being pestered by her two adult children (Katie Aselton, from TV’s Legion, and Alicia Silverstone), who want to relocate her to live with them in Arizona. The passion has gone from the longtime marriage of Carol and her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).

When Vivian plops down Fifty Shades of Grey as her monthly selection at the book club, it’s a game changer. At first, her three friends are surprised, even a bit shocked.


Candice Bergen

“To even be holding this book is embarrassing,” says Bergen’s buttoned-up magistrate.

But soon enough, the women are shopping for sexy evening wear, looking for love online and finding their own shades of excitement with partners old and new.

The four lead actresses make for an iconic lineup; between them, they’ve got a stack of five Emmys and four Oscars, and a line of classic movies that includes Barberella, Klute, Coming Home, Carnal Knowledge, The Godfather, Anne Hall, Manhattan and Melvin and Howard.

Here, all that star power folds into an easygoing groove and a casual comedic chemistry; you feel like these four golden gals really are the old friends they’re pretending to be, and you laugh along with them as they gleefully discover things about themselves, reawaken old passions and forge ahead into new chapters of their love lives.

The movie is rated PG-13, but there’s plenty of tee-hee, sitcom-level humor as the women make cracks about the book, sex and their life situations. Sharon refers the long-neglected nether region of her body as “the cave of forgotten dreams.” Carol, totally engrossed in Fifty Shades, overwaters a houseplant; we watch the monitoring gauge in the soil move from “Moist” to “Wet.” Bruce has an unexpected encounter with Viagra—and a policewoman.

Sometimes the movie plies the sex jokes, puns and metaphors on a little too thick; it’s like writer/director Bill Holderman wanted to squeeze in every possible idea, somewhere, somehow. Yes, we get it: Bruce’s prized motorcycle is meant to represent his misplaced affections for his wife. We don’t need a stream of “lube,” “grease” and “crankshaft” jokes, spread over four different scenes.


Don Johnson & Jane Fonda

But the real tale of Book Club, however, is the multi-tiered love story that it unfolds as all the characters explore and expand their romantic vistas. Don Johnson will be an audience favorite as Arthur, Vivian’s dashing beau from the past. But it’s Andy Garcia who practically steals the show, as the smooth-talking airplane seatmate who takes wing with Diane’s heart.

Richard Dreyfuss has a laugh-out-loud scene as a Bumble blind date, and Wallace Shawn gets several chuckles out of his quick moment as a surgeon suitor.

Sweet, funny, feisty, romantic and aglow with the playful, sentimental warmth of friendships nurtured over time, Book Club is a charming, grown-up feel-good movie, with just the right amount of saucy seasoning, for mature audiences—especially if they’re not in the mood for a sassy superhero.

In theaters May 18, 2018















Down to Clown

Melissa McCarthy Goes Back to School


Life of the Party
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, Maya Rudolph & Luke Benward
Directed by Ben Falcone

Ah, college.

Even if you don’t remember it fondly, Hollywood does—which is why movies keep returning to it.


Molly Gordon

Melissa McCarthy goes back to school in Life of the Party as Deanna Miles, a newly divorced mom who’s sorry she never completed her university education. Facing an uncertain future, she enrolls at the same college as her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon, who appeared on TV’s Animal Kingdom and provides the voice of Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Showtime’s Our Cartoon President).

Deanna’s enthusiastic plunge anew into college life lights the movie’s comedic fuse as the “fresh-mom” charms Maddie’s sorority sisters, meets her new Goth dorm mate (Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Gardner), clashes with mean girls (including former Disney star Debby Ryan) and discovers the limited beverage selection (no woodsy wines!) of noisy frat-house parties.


Matt Walsh & Julie Bowen

After the bitter sting of divorce from her cad of a husband (Matt Walsh from TV’s Veep)—who left Deanna for a “wife upgrade” to the local realtor (Julie Bowen, the Emmy-winning star of Modern Family)—university life is a fresh start for Deanna in more ways than one. She hooks up with a hot college hunk (Luke Benward, who appeared as Lloy Danderson on the CMT series Still the King), begins “chipping away” at the archeology degree she never finished the first time, and becomes even closer to her daughter and her friends.

As the once buttoned-up Deanna learns to cut loose, she tells Maddie, “I’m down to clown!”


Luke Benward & Jimmy O. Yang

There’s nothing really groundbreaking in Life of the Party. It’s a fairly conventional comedy, and it draws on themes that will feel a bit familiar to other movies, especially ones that have gone back to college for laughs. Imagine Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986) with a gender twist and boob and vagina jokes. Will Ferrell couldn’t forget his college fraternity days in Old School (2003), and neither can we. There’s also a sly, wink-wink nod to a John Belushi scene from Animal House.

But McCarthy: She’s a force of nature, a humor hurricane. She’s got impeccable comic timing, gonzo enthusiasm and a sense of empathy to balance the hilarity of her characters. Viewers will relate to Deanna on several levels—as a wronged, wounded ex-wife, as a mom, as a woman basking in her second chance at life—and McCarthy finds the right emotional buttons, at just the right moments, to push for them all.

At her best, she creates a core of honesty that digs deeper than the laughter; we chuckle, because she makes us understand. One scene, in particular, when Deanna struggles to overcome her fear of public speaking to give a class presentation, is like watching a mini-disaster unfold; it made me think of the physical gifts of the great Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball.

McCarthy wrote the script with her husband, Ben Falcone, and Life of the Party marks the third McCarthy movie Falcone has directed. (Watch for him in a cameo, early in the film, driving Deana to her mother’s home.) They obviously click.


Maya Rudolph plays Deanna’s best friend, Christine.

And in this case, they rounded up a great cast of other funny people to round things out. Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver are hoots as Deanna’s parents. There’s Jimmy O. Yang (from TV’s Silicon Valley) as Maddie’s boyfriend. Maya Rudolph is hilarious as Deanna’s best friend, Christine. Maddie’s sorority sisters include Gillian Jacobs (from TV’s Community) as Helen, whose former oddball fame as a the “coma girl” comes in handy; Adria Arjona (she played Dorothy Gale on Emerald City); and Jessie Ennis (from TV’s Better Call Saul). SNL alum Chris Parnell (he plays Dean Parker on TV’s Grown-ish) gets in some pun-ny lines as Deanna’s professor.

And I won’t spoil it, but there’s a big superstar cameo at the end to bring it all home, wrap it up and put a tassel on its message of positive female bonding and empowerment.

This feel-good, back-to-school comedy won’t get many extra credits, but it shows just how dependably, reliably funny Melissa McCarthy continues to be when she’s “down to clown.”

In theaters May 11, 2018


Marvel all-stars scramble in sprawling superhero smorgasbord 


Avengers: Infinity War
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo & Zoe Saldana

Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

The superhero smorgasbord Avengers: Infinity War brings together pretty much every character, narrative thread and place from most every Marvel movie of the past 10 years.

It’s like a $300 million mega-version of one of those ratings-grabbing TV episodes, when characters from Family Guy showed up on The Simpsons, or Alf washed ashore on Gilligan’s Island, or The Six Million Dollar Man collaborated with The Bionic Woman.

This ambitious all-star game of Marvel movies revolves around the A-team coming together to fight the cosmic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin), a super-sized, lavender-hued Titan with a plan to re-make the universe—by destroying half of it.

Thanos seeks all six Infinity Stones, magical, immensely powerful objects that, when combined, will give him the ultimate keys to the kingdom. If you’ve been watching Marvel movies over the years, you’ve probably seen an Infinity Stone or two. These far-flung hot rocks have cropped up in other flicks, and now you’ll know why: Whoever gathers all of them has the building blocks to break down creation itself, and put it back together again, any way they choose.

The superheroes know a gravely serious situation when they see it. And though they’ve had their quarrels before (see Captain America: Civil War, also directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo), they set those squabbles aside to scramble for a common cause: Keep those stones out of the hands of the warmongering Thanos.


Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Wong

The gang’s all here: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) teams with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) busts free of his classmates to swing into action as Spider-Man; scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) worries about Hulk-tile dysfunction when he has some trouble summoning his raging green-guy alter ego.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) reunite with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) to join the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in battle on the plains of Wakanda.


Tom Holland, Downey Jr., Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt and Pom Klementieff

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ends up in a rocketship with the Guardians of the Galaxy. The presence of the hunky God of Thunder brings out a jealous bone in “Star Lord” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) when some of his crew—Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the now-teenaged tree creature Groot, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff)—seems to fall under the sway of handsome Asgardian.

Gwyneth Paltrow makes a brief appearance as Pepper Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries and now fiancé of Tony Stark. Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones has a cameo as a giant dwarf. And there’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s trickster brother, and Nebula, Gamora’s cyborg sister (Karen Gillan). Elizabeth Olson is the telekinetic Scarlet Witch, who’s in love with Vision (Paul Bettany), the android Avenger.

There wasn’t enough room, however, to squeeze in Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). But he did get a shout-out (and he’ll get his own sequel in July of next year).


Josh Brolin provides the voice and motion-capture animation for Thanos.

Even though his performance is CGI and motion-capture, Brolin brings an amazing combination of pathos, terror and gravity to Thanos, a madman with the power to destroy anything—and a willingness to lose everything. He’s a towering purple people crusher that practically steals the whole show.

It’s crowded, busy and noisy—and if you’re a Marvel fan, pretty close to heaven. If you haven’t been following the franchise storylines, at least casually, you might feel a bit lost in its speed, shuffle, smashing action scenes and the star-hopping, two and a half-hour race for the Infinity Stones, which are scattered from Earth to the far reaches of the cosmos. But the Marvel faithful will love the rush, sweep, scope, spectacle and almost operatic scale.

Although there are moments of levity and humor, there’s a lot heaviness, darkness and even heartbreak that finally crescendos in a spectacular, breathtaking finale orchestrated to leave fans gasping for more. It’s a closer that ranks among Marvel’s most enigmatic wrap-ups—and set-ups.

The film keeps returning to the notion of mortality, and it’s not a spoiler to report the widespread rumors that not all the beloved characters make it all the way through. I won’t give anything away, but Thanos does ominously intone early on that there’ll be “no resurrection this time.”

But he’s in a franchise, remember, that always seems to keep a few surprises up its comic-book sleeve—especially when you have characters with time warps, inter-dimensionality and certain other things to put into play.

And after all, the word infinity means unlimited, boundless, continuing without end. Spider-Man is set to return next summer, and if you stay through the credits, you’ll see the plug for the next new character in the Marvel line, and the movie coming March 2019. And the next Avengers movie, the fourth, is scheduled to release a little over a year from now.

So, to infinity… and beyond!

In theaters April 27, 2018


Pretty Funny

Amy Schumer comically confronts beauty bombardment head-on

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I Feel Pretty
Starring Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel & Tom Hooper
Directed by Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein

Who hasn’t wanted to be thinner or taller, look younger, banish those zits or age spots, get smoother skin or whiter teeth, have more hair or change something else about their appearance?

In Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, she plays Renee, a New Yorker who’s obsessed with the “beauty” that bombards her every day on the streets, in magazines and on television.

Pretty much everyone, especially girls and young women, feels that bombardment, almost all the time. It’s created a gazillion-dollar industry of products, diets, fashion, fitness fads, plastic surgery—and a toxic tide of eating disorders, bullying, body shaming and self-loathing.

I Feel Pretty 2 (72)cRenee doesn’t feel pretty, despite all the effort she puts into her hair, her makeup and her clothes. She’s a few pounds overweight; she’s invisible to guys; babies burst in tears when she even looks at them. More than anything else, she wants to be pretty, to know what it’s like to be beautiful and have that “world” open up to her, a place she’s only imagined from the outside. She tosses a coin into a fountain and makes a wish—to be pretty.

Then Renee bumps her head in a SoulCycle spinning class, passes out and wakes up thinking she’s a total babe. When she looks in the mirror, she sees something wildly, impossibly hot-stuff gorgeous where her dumpy, doughy old self used to be.

Her wish has “magically” come true.

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Schumer (right) with Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips

No one else sees anything outwardly different about her, though, especially not her standby BFFs (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, and Busy Phillips, from TV’s Cougar Town) or Mason (familiar character actor Adrien Martinez), her coworker in the dingy basement office where they toil over the website of a cosmetics corporation, Lily LeClaire.

But Renee, beaming with the newfound self-confidence that accompanies her perceived self-transformation, finds a whole new world unfolding before her. She meets a charming guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel, who plays principal Geoffrey Quinn on truTV’s sitcom Those Who Can’t), and lands her “dream job” as a receptionist at the gleaming, high-rise corporate office of the cosmetics company.

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Rory Scovel (right) plays Renee’s nice-guy boyfriend.

Soon she’s become part of the Lily LeClaire inner circle, giving no-nonsense marketing advice to the firm’s top tier, including its founder (supermodel icon Lauren Hutton) and the CEO (Michelle Williams), as the high-end company prepares to roll out a line of less-expensive products for “bargain” shoppers.

Tom Hooper (from TV’s Game of Thrones and Black Sails) plays Grant LeClaire, the hunky, globetrotting playboy brother of Williams’ character, who is likewise captivated by Renee’s straight-up poise and self-assured personality.

Schumer, who rose to prominence as a standup then with her Emmy-winning comedy series Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, has always walked a sharp satirical edge. Her R-rated movies, Trainwreck and Snatched, were raunchy-ride riffs on romantic relationships and motherhood.

I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silversteen (the team behind the movies Never Been Kissed and How to Be Single) has a lot to unpack, including themes of body image, self-esteem and self-confidence, dating and relationships, appearances, the messages of advertising and the importance of friends. Schumer, who’s spoken publicly about the many potshots she’s taken about her looks and her body—many of them disgustingly, disturbingly nasty—here boldly confronts them head-on.

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Michelle Williams

Emily Ratajkowski plays Mallory, a drop-dead gorgeous woman Renee meets in her spinning class, who admits some surprising insecurities of her own. Michelle Williams, a four-time Oscar winner (for Manchester By the Sea, Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain and My Weekend With Marilyn), steps outside her usual dramatic comfort zone with her character—who talks in a cartoonish, baby-girl squeak—and finds some delightful shades of comedic nuance as her icy-cool fashionista is warmed by Renee’s fearless, down-to-earth charm.

Depending on how you slice it, the movie gets lots of laughs as Renee goes about living her “pretty” dream-come-true life, unaware that nothing has really changed—except her attitude about herself. It’s impossible to miss, though, that more than one person thinks she’s crazy, and someone even mentions she might need “mental health” counselling. There are a lot of people walking around in the world who think they’re someone they not, or whose view of reality has been somehow altered. Is that really funny?

I Feel Pretty 8cComedy is highly subjective and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, especially when it hits too close to home. What makes you laugh might not make someone else laugh, and vice versa. I Feel Pretty made me laugh, but it also made me a tad uncomfortable, like Ethan, when Renee—wanting to show off her “hot,” sexy bod—enters a Bangin’ Bikini Contest in a bar and does an impromptu performance on stage. Was I laughing at Renee, or at Amy Schumer?

But the main message of the movie is solid: “We are real women,” Renee tells a crowd in a climactic scene. “What a great thing to be!”

In this particular moment in time, when women and girls need all the positivity and encouragement they can get, Amy Schumer and I Feel Pretty deliver the message…pretty well.

In theaters Friday, April 20, 2018

The ‘Truth’ Hurts

The scares are lite in Lucy Hale’s would-be shudder-fest

Film Title: Blumhouse's Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare
Starring Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey & Violett Beane
Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Scary movies make the familiar frightening. Remember how Jaws terrified people about going into the water? How Friday the 13th changed the way we looked at a hockey mask? Or what Poltergeist and The Ring did to spook-ify TV screens?

In Truth or Dare, an innocent-enough childhood game takes a deadly, demonic twist as a group of college friends on a spring-break fling in Mexico are lured into some late-night partying by a charming young stranger (Landon Liboiron, who stars on the Netflix series Frontier). Hey, he suggests, how about a friendly game of Truth or Dare?


That’s not exactly what these kids came to Mexico to do. “Is this a second-grade sleepover?” one of the spring breakers scoffs. They eventually come around; it is the title of the movie, after all.

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Lucy Hale

But the stranger has a horrible secret: The game is cursed, and so is he, and the only way he can survive—at least for a while longer—is to pass on the curse by bringing in more players. Major buzzkill!

The rules are simple: Tell the truth or you die. Do the dare or you die. Refuse to play and you die.

That’s the setup. This is the latest from the Blumhouse little shop of horrors, the production house that brought us five Paranormal Activity flicks; four chapters of Insidious; three Purges; two installments of Sinister and Creep; Ouija and its prequel; plus Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit; and Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

The Blumhouse formula is typically low-budget/high-profit; most of their movies are made on a relative shoestring and make a profit at the box office. They’re usually geared toward teens and young adults, often rated PG-13 instead of R to attract a younger crowd, and packed with attractive, young-ish actors.

Are they any good? Sometimes—Get Out was lauded as one of the best films of 2017, and nominated for four Oscars (it won for Best Original Screenplay). But does it matter? They make money. And young audiences—who’ve outgrown “family” films and animated movies—have embraced these creepshow flicks as part of their adolescent experience.

In Truth or Dare, it’s a carload of TV stars in trouble. Literally, a carload: The spring-break vehicle to Mexico includes Lucy Hale (formerly on Pretty Little Liars and now Life Sentence); Tyler Posey (from Teen Wolf and Scream: The TV Series); Violett Beane (she’s Jesse Quick on The Flash); Sophia Ali (Grey’s Anatomy, Famous in Love); Nolan Gerard Funk (Counterpart); and Sam Lerner (Geoff Schwartz on The Goldbergs).

The cast is game but the scares are lame, the dialogue is weightless and dumb and the movie’s big effect—the leering, demonic “smiles” on faces that a player sees when he or she gets a turn in the game—looks like results of extreme Botox, which I suppose is pretty scary.

Writer-director Jeff Wadlow—who also directed the superhero comedy Kick-Ass 2 (2013)—has a couple of original ideas, like how an ancient curse can coexist with the modern era of social media. But the plot is a muddled mess of a soap opera in which characters anguish over secrets (the “truths” they’ve kept hidden from each other). The fact that someone has died doesn’t seem as weighty as the idea that someone might have lied.


Lucy Hale, Hayden Szeto, Tyler Posey & Violett Beane

And too much of Truth or Dare, too much of the time, simply reminds you of too many other, better movies in which we’re waiting to find out which teen dies next, and how. Characters remark that the game “followed” them home. Did none of these kids see It Follows? I’ll venture most of the audience has. There’s an old crone, a cryptic message, a crazy homeless man, a crumbing church mission and a police officer who advises the kids, “Don’t take any more vacations.”

Perhaps more specifically: And stay out of haunted church missions!

At one point, the ever-dwindling pool of players figures a way to beat the game is to “always choose truth.” That seems like a pretty good tack—until it’s not. The game, it turns out, isn’t as clear-cut as they thought, and the movie gets impossibly tangled in its own knot of changing rules.

Truth or dare: I dare you to seek out really good, original scary movies. Director-star John Krasinski’s The Quiet Place is still in theaters, and it’s a new classic. Check out Get Out and It Follows if you haven’t seen them already.

And the truth: This movie scores low in scares and it retreads too much ground already covered by other horror flicks. But hey, in the true spirit of the Friday the 13th, this unpretentious, bottom-feeding boo! ride reminds us that nothing—including the games of our childhood—is safe from being plundered and yanked into a place of nightmares.

So, who’s up for a little game…of Truth or Dare?

In theaters Friday, April 13, 2018