Tagged: Dwayne Johnson

Box Office Democracy: Baywatch

The best part of Baywatch was that everyone on screen seemed completely invested in making it a good movie.  It isn’t a good movie— it isn’t even particularly close to being a good movie— but the cast is willing to push as hard as they can to make it better.  Baywatch is elevated from the train wreck I’m sure it is on the page in to a simply bland, kind of mediocre, film.  Baywatch is a reasonably charming medley of punchless comedy, unintelligible story, and a generous amount of scantily clad pretty people.  It’s the kind of movie to see on an exceptionally hot day, or if your first choice movie is sold out and you’ve already put in so much effort to park at the mall.

I paid careful attention to the story in Baywatch and I’m still not entirely sure what was going on.  There’s Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a new-in-town rich person who has some kind of scheme to buy up a bunch of property and create some sort of massive private beach club.  She’s also a drug kingpin, but no one for the entire movie seems to care about the drugs at all so they end up being white crystalline breadcrumbs that just serve to tie things together.  Because of civic corruption/incompetence, the only people who can stop this nefarious scheme are the local lifeguards led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and joined by pretty boy newcomer Matt Brody (Zac Efron), attractive newbie Summer Quinn (Alexandra D’addario), attractive veteran CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), attractive veteran with fewer lines Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), and not-so-attractive local wannabe Ronnie (Jon Bass).  They are an elite cadre of small town lifeguards who also excel in detective work and infiltration techniques.  They do an awful lot of meta-commentary on how insane it is that they all wear so many hats but it is never quite a substitute for having actual narrative justification.

I could forgive the flimsy plot if Baywatch was outrageously funny, but it just isn’t.  Most of the humor is Johnson dunking on Efron in some capacity or another and you’ve seen that relationship a million times, probably half a dozen times where the dunker was The Rock, and most of those times it was being done better.  There’s a fantastic sequence about someone getting their penis stuck in a wooden chair but you can probably get to most of that joke just from reading this sentence.  It’s not that I never laughed or that the charm of the cast was never strong enough to deliver some average material— but the stakes are higher now.  21 Jump Street was a legitimately hilarious movie adapted from a reasonably irrelevant old TV show and it came out five years ago.  You can’t do this much worse this much later and expect to get a pass.

One of the more fun moments in the 21 Jump Street movie is when Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise make cameos as their characters from the original series.  It’s a cute nod and a bit surprising, especially considering Depp’s latter-day star power, and then they move on to finishing up their movie.  They try to recreate this in Baywatch with David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson and fail on just about every level.  To start with, both characters have identically named analogues in the movie and they bring this up so the Mitch Buchannon has a mentor who is also named Mitch Buchannon, and our Mitch works with a CJ Parker and then at the end we’re introduced to former employee Casey Jean Parker.  I know we’re not supposed to be thinking too much about this movie but that’s bizarre enough to leap off the screen and smack you in the face.  They also take all of the surprise out of the cameos (including one that’s the closing joke of the movie) by giving both Hasselhoff and Anderson prominent billing in the opening credits.  Instead of being a cute surprise, it’s something you’re waiting for and trying to figure out during the slower moments.  If Johnny Depp can set aside his ego to do something cute, you would think Hasselhoff and Anderson could too.

Baywatch the movie ends up feeling an awful lot like Baywatch the TV show.  It’s a movie that doesn’t feel the need to hold itself to the same standard of production and narrative nuance because they have a bit of tawdry sex appeal and the charisma of The Rock.  There’s enough charm here to pull through the stuff that doesn’t work, but not quite enough to feel like a movie worth the price of a ticket.  Much like the original show, Baywatch is the perfect movie for a gap in a TV schedule or to randomly catch on a plane… but it isn’t quite ready for prime time.

Box Office Democracy: The Fate of the Furious

Box Office Democracy: The Fate of the Furious

I don’t believe in objective reviews of media.  I think the personal subjectivity of the reviewer is impossible to remove and, honestly, that it would be boring if you could.  That said, I am not capable of being remotely objective when it comes to the Fast & Furious franchise.  I find the formula they have stumbled upon since Fast Five to be unbelievably charming and I can’t separate the movie from the joy they’ve brought in to my life and the friendships these movies have enriched.  If this bothers you, I can give you the low down on how I feel about this movie and you can be on your way: if you’ve liked any of the last three entries in the franchise you’ll like this one, and if you didn’t this will not change your mind.  If my F&F obsession does not bother you, come on and let me geek out a little bit.

If you’ve seen the trailer you know the hook for The Fate of the Furious: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has turned against his crew, his family, and is now working for the super hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron).  That’s sort of the whole film.  Cipher has a nefarious plan but it’s very nebulous.  She wants nuclear weapons and she wants to launch one, but I’m not sure what she wants to do after that.  It all feels hastily thrown together so we can get the shots of Dom in his evil black jumpsuit driving a more evil-looking black Challenger.  That’s all fine, the plot is only there to hold top the action sequences— but this feels less substantial than usual.  There’s also the idea that Cipher would blackmail someone who has pulled off some of the zaniest heists and car chases in history but only uses him as a glorified bag man that rubbed me the wrong way— but again it’s all about big action sequences and meaningful glances, so whatever.

There are two signature action pieces in The Fate of the Furious and they’re the most important thing to judge the movie by.  There’s a big second act set piece in New York where Cipher hacks a bunch of cars and controls them remotely as a big swarm to take out a motorcade.  This is a visually interesting bit but it might finally be the moment where a Fast & Furious movie got too far out there for me.  I know cars don’t work like that.  More importantly, it doesn’t feature any characters we care about so it’s literally just cars smashing in to each other with no purpose.  The sequence picks up a lot when it becomes about Dom and the rest of the crew, but by that point you’re kind of tired of action.  The movie’s climax is a race across a frozen bay to stop a submarine while being chased by cars firing missiles.  I know I said self-driving cars were straining my suspension of disbelief earlier in this very paragraph, but I loved every ridiculous second of this sequence.  It feels a little like they’re trying to top the tank sequence from Fast & Furious 6 by using a bigger more menacing piece of military hardware and it doesn’t live up to it, maybe nothing ever could, but it’s great in its own right.

Fast Five was a heist movie with all the wonderful twists and turns inherent in the genre, and in the two films since they’ve abandoned that to make straight-up action movies.  While they haven’t gone back to stealing giant safes, they have returned to meaningful third act twists and I’m so thankful for it.  There’s so many things we find out were slightly different than the first time we saw them, and it’s what these movies need to not just be an endless parade of flashy car tricks.  It needs characters, it needs stakes, and it needs to be just a little bit surprising.

Reading this back, I can see how much I’m grading The Fate of the Furious on a curve.  If this was any other movie with the flaws this one has I would probably be here tearing it apart and begging you not to see it.  I love this franchise, I love these characters, and I can’t set that aside.  There are so many little things to appreciate from an eight movie franchise that can’t be replicated.  It’s nice just to hang out with these characters and exist in their world for another couple hours.  It’s fun to pick up on the callbacks and see them pick up threads that were set down years and years ago.  I still find The Fate of the Furious as refreshing as a Corona on a hot LA afternoon— and as long as that’s true, I’ll carry water for these movies.

Box Office Democracy: Moana

It’s getting a little boring to talk about how consistently excellent Disney Animation’s features output has gotten.  Moana is the eighth movie Disney Animation has released since 2008 that I would recommend to anyone without any qualification.  It’s a great movie, a fun movie, and I enjoyed every minute of watching it.  It’s a safe movie, there aren’t a lot of chances taken beyond having a non-white cast, and while I’d certainly enjoy seeing Disney take some big chances on these movies, the princesses are the cash cows and I get why they can’t branch out too far.

I found the story in Moana to be perfectly charming.  The titular character (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a young girl with a stunning signing voice) is the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe who wants to abandon the static nature of island life and push out beyond the reef, something forbidden by cultural tradition.  Like most movies about an adolescent stuck in one place, Moana ends up off the island— in this case searching for the cure to the decay that plagues her island.  She meets the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson who is doing his best with the singing but I wouldn’t hold your breath for his solo album) an arrogant, prickly, kind of guy obsessed with his own glory and reputation.  The two struggle to get along, eventually get along and save they day.  There’s also a surprisingly good subplot about restoring the sailing traditions of the ancestors to Moana’s people who had become island-bound out of fear.

I’m always thankful when Disney puts out a princess movie and the primary thrust isn’t a love story.  Not because I don’t think there’s a place for love stories, but because young girls get a lot of media about how boys should be the center of their universes and it’s nice to see something else.  Moana turns it all the way up, there isn’t even a male character in her age bracket, and she never seems to have any interest in anything but leading her people and participating in the plot.  I’m beyond thrilled they didn’t insert any trace of romance in to the relationship between Moana and Maui as there’s absolutely no way that wouldn’t have been the creepiest thing in a movie in some time.  I’m sure the internet is already filled with art and fiction on the topic, but I’m thankful Disney didn’t do anything to lead those people on.

Disney has made some fine animated musicals in their time and Moana is no exception.  “How Far I’ll Go” and “You’re Welcome” are songs you’ll definitely find yourself humming the week after the movie.  “Shiny” is an almost Bowie-esque number that might not burn up the charts on Radio Disney (if Radio Disney is still a thing) but it will absolutely be a favorite of the Hot Topic set in your local mall— if not now, then in five years.  The songs are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda in a deal I have to believe he signed before Hamilton became the cultural force that it is.  Not because the work feels phoned-in or amateurish, but it doesn’t feel like the follow-up anyone would pick after penning the most popular Broadway show in recent memory.  This is the benefit of Disney’s famous frugalness when it comes to talent, sometimes you pick someone just before they become the biggest name in their field.

Moana is a great movie, but in the context of the eight year Disney Revival we’re in the midst of it can’t help but feel a little boring.  It’s not as thought-provoking as Zootopia was earlier in the year, neither will it be the cultural phenomenon that Frozen was.  It’s definitely unfair to mark a movie down for not being a cultural phenomenon, but isn’t it fair to ask a studio that has made eight smash hits in eight years to be a little more interesting?  Isn’t it worth the risk of stumbling and releasing a clunky movie to potentially make something fantastic?  As a film critic I want the answer to be yes but I see that the people in charge of these things would rather make the safe good movie and make all the money.

Box Office Democracy: San Andreas

I’ve been dreading San Andreas since the first trailer I saw of it. I don’t like movies where cities get destroyed especially if they’re cities I happen to live in, I think 9/11 ruined that for me forever. I do, however, have a deep, profound, love for Dawyne “The Rock” Johnson going back to the late 90s, long before any buildings fell down around me. San Andreas is a battle between a genre that’s felt stale for as long as I’ve been aware of it, one that offends me personally, and a man who is possibly the greatest American action star in history. Unfortunately, not even The Rock can carry this movie and judging from the size of his arms these days that’s probably the only thing he can’t carry.

San Andreas is the same as Volcano, which is the same as The Day After Tomorrow, which is the same as 2012. It hits all of the same beats and has basically all the same characters. The Rock plays the action hero, in this case a LAFD rescue chopper pilot his family is collapsing around him but nothing that can’t be patched up by saving them from a cataclysmic once-in-a-lifetime disaster. Paul Giamatti’s considerable talent is wasted as the scientist who tries to warn people but is ultimately useless because no warnings he gives could possibly be useful and all of the science is nonsesne anyway. There’s the smug rich guy (played by Ioan Gruffudd) who treats everyone like garbage as soon as things start going wrong and gets his comeuppance in a seemingly random twist of fate. There’s the attractive young woman, in this case Alexandra Daddario playing Johnson’s alarmingly white daughter, who is constantly in peril while wearing impractical clothing. I suppose the twist on the formula is that Daddario’s character is stunningly competent and frequently saves the men around her as opposed to the other way around but I’m not sure it counts for anything when none of these characters have any sort of depth or even narrative arcs. Every character just sort of runs towards or away from things as needed and the movie doesn’t end with any resolution just by the characters all being in the same place.

Johnson tries his best to save this movie and he very nearly pulls it off. He has the same effortless physicality he brings to all his movies; impossible things look more possible when he does them. He gets all the best stunts, approximately 90% of the emotional content of the movie, and he gets to perfectly pilot three different vehicles through every manner of hell imaginable. Everything that works in the movie works because of him but that doesn’t save it from being a bland, predictable film with a script that feels two levels above a Syfy original movie.

I suppose it’s the spectacle of San Andreas that’s supposed to make me fall in love with it but it doesn’t do it for me. The grandness of the destruction is counterbalanced frequently by just how blatantly the film ignores how things would actually happen. Not that I expect this to be some kind of slavishly accurate depiction of a big earthquake but I feel like with all the tsunamis that have caused such devastation in recent years that I’ve been told so many times how they work to just completely ignore that. There are also some particularly pandering shots of things like the American flag being flown in the rubble of the Golden Gate Bridge and fences full of fliers looking for missing persons that are designed to evoke real world tragedies in a way that feels less authentic than exploitative. In a movie with more genuine heart I might give it a pass but everything feels just a bit too slick and phony in San Andreas.

Box Office Democracy: Furious 7


Justin Lin was the architect of the most dramatic film franchise turnarounds in my lifetime. When he signed on to make a third Fast & Furious movie the franchise was a laughing stock (I heard more jokes about the name 2 Fast 2 Furious than any movie before or since). He would, over the course of four films, turn the franchise in to the best original action movie franchise of the modern era. Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 are the best action films of this decade and it isn’t particularly close. The mid-credits scene of Fast & Furious 6 revealing Jason Statham as the villain for the next installment was one of the happiest moments I’ve ever had in a movie theater.   If I knew anything in the world of cinema I knew Furious 7 would be a fantastic movie and that I needed to wait on the edge of my seat for it to come and deliver another transcendent action movie experience.

Then Paul Walker died.