Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: Q2 Review Purge

In which we run through some mini-reviews of current 2018 films that I either didn't have time or interest to review fully.


Year: 2018
Director: Jeff Tomsic
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A group of five grown men play the same game of tag every month of May, and they're pulling out all the stops for their final season, interrupting the wedding of the only friend who has never been tagged.

Tag is a hangout comedy through and through, and luckily you mostly do want to hang out with these people, even if they're textbook examples of the white heterosexual man-children that occupy so much space in the comedy arena. It doesn't hurt that one of these people is Jon Hamm, who takes to comedy like a fish to water, and excels in any of the few places that ask him to be funny. Ed Helms is also never a bad personality to spend time with, Jeremy Renner's asshole character is in too little of the movie to make a negative impact, and Jake Johnson's cartoon stoner character isn't as foregrounded as another movie would have made him,

OK, well now that it's laid out like that, maybe I don't want to spend time with these people. Who I do want to spend time with is Isla Fisher as Ed Helms' wife. She occupies the Rose Byrne in Neighbors role here, as the supportive wife who is eighteen times more invested in the antics than her partner, to the point that it's almost psychotic. She steals the movie like she's auditioning for Ocean's 9, with a relaxed confidence that is effortlessly cool and compelling.

Where Tag fails is anytime it tries to apply any sort of dramatic subtext to the goings-on. We don't care about Jeremy Renner's relationship with these people for the same reason that it's troubled: he's never with them. There is no rapport established at any point in the movie, even in the many lame slow motion flashbacks to kids running around like gremlins.

Although his character is no good for drama, Renner does give the movie its best sequences, where it turns into a slapstick action movie. He channels the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes with a perfectly calculated inner monologue that show what an absolute machine he is when it comes to the game of Tag. These sequences are probably a bit too violent for how seriously the movie takes the rest of its characters and their situations (there is a really bad bit where the fakeouts and reality blend in a way that is much too brutal for what the stakes of this game really are), but they're also energetic and fun bright spots in a movie that mostly presents its world in a drab color palette of slate greys and shadow.

It seems like it's trying to be one of those indie comedies that isn't really funny, but an occasional Paul Feig burst of energy emerges to save the day. This doesn't add up to anything particularly special, but I had a decent time watching it, if only to see some fun personalities chill with one another and chatter pleasantly about the good old days.

Rating: 6/10


Year: 2018
Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Rosco Campbell
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A man whose wife has been murdered, leaving him a paraplegic, gets a computer chip installed in his spine that allows him to exact bloody revenge.

Have you heard of the odious movie trope known as "fridging?" The more you're aware of it, the less you'll like the first act of this movie, which uses a dead woman as a kick-off to a man's arc like many an action flick. This is not forgivable by the fact that Upgrade transparently wants to be a sci-fi version of Death Wish, though maybe it's a little more comprehensible why anybody thought that plot line was a good idea in mid-2018. Maybe.

That aside, I liked Upgrade quite a bit. Other than its obvious Death Wish ties, it also seems to be a pre-remake of the upcoming flick Venom, with a murderous symbiote grafted to a Tom Hardy lookalike. It's like an Asylum studios project, only actually fun!

Set in a Blade Runner-esque near future (the fact that this movie only serves to remind you of other movies could have been a liability, but the way it mixes and matches the tropes its pulling does give it a certain madcap playset energy that does it well), Upgrade exists in a beautifully conceived setting. It's not a particularly wide world they have created, but the honeycomb design of most of the futuristic spaces combined with the still-recognizable remnants of our current society that haven't quite been phased out is a triumph of mid-budget production design.

Although the characters are stock archetypes and the plot is predictable as hell, it's still fun to watch this roller coaster ride play out through this world, and the action sequences contained therein are pretty phenomenal. Logan Marshall-Green gets a chance to show off his best Bruce Campbell impression as his body performs incredible stunts, much to the shock of his face. The duality of the two characters inhabiting one body is never forgotten, and his physical performance is terrific, adding a boost to well-choreographed fights that end in ecstatically gruesome gore gags.

Sure, Upgrade isn't the most original or provocative movie that tumbled into theaters this year, but it was a hell of a turn-your-brain-off good time. Leigh Whannell knows how to entertain an audience, and in the summer season that's exactly what the world needs.

Rating: 7/10

The Death of Stalin
Year: 2018
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After the death of Josef Stalin, his political comrades struggle to fill the power vacuum he has left behind, with hilarious [sic] results.

The Death of Stalin is a comedy for fancy people. I like to consider myself a fancy person every now and again (at least in my movie tastes, though that fact that I give equal marks to Breathless and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre probably disqualifies me from the club), but boy was this movie a chore. If you took the most forgotten sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus and expanded it into a feature film, it would be exactly like this movie. Except funnier.

This is Monty Python through a game of telephone, with characters jostling for attention through a series of comic vignettes that quietly refuse to land. It's a very meat and potatoes comedy, relying on setups and gags that are creaking and musty with age. But that's probably not fair to the movie either, because Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times uses every comic trick in the book and it's still fresh nearly a century later. It just kind of doesn't work, at least for my personal sense of humor, which is obviously extremely subjective.

The thing I think people are having a hard time separating here is the difference between "something smart" and "smart humor." Sure, this movie knows a heck of a lot about Russian politics, but faithfully presenting that throughout multiple extended scenes of murder and torture isn't funny. It just... is. Death of Stalin works better as a low budget History Channel documentary than a comedy, faithfully presenting so many events that it leaches the humor right on out of them in favor of historical footnotes and endless cameos from political figures of the time.

Maybe I'm just an uncultured boor who likes things to be loud and in my face, but this one just wasn't doing for me. And the less said about Jeffrey Tambor's presence, the better.

Rating: 4/10

Deep Blue Sea 2 (For the Scream 101 episode about this title, click here.)

Year: 2018
Director: Darin Scott
Cast: Danielle Savre, Rob Mayes, Michael Beach
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A businessman brings a team of experts to an ocean facility where he's experimenting on sharks to create a pill that increases intelligence, and obviously the sharks eat most of those people.

And here is the movie that I'm going to give the same rating as Death of Stalin, even though my enjoyment with it took me about ten million light years further than the former. I contain multitudes, everyone.

I have seen my fair share of direct-to-video, many years later sequels, and I must say, Deep Blue Sea 2 delivered exactly what I was expecting (a pale wisp of the original that acts more as a remake than a bona fide sequel). And yet, there's some spark about it that kept me invested more than usual. I wouldn't go so far to say that it qualifies as a true bad-good epic, but it certainly flirts with being entertaining more often than not, which is more than I can say for a lot of its ilk.

There are certainly a great deal of budgetary limitations that lead to a drab set, subpar acting, and an alarming lack of shark mayhem for long periods. But those limitations also lead to some very special moments, most notably a completely indelible scene where a shark puppet spies on a conversation through a porthole. Also, the one element where the film truly feels like a sequel is by far its best: instead of the giant sharks being the villains this time around, it's a herd of baby mutant sharks that have been let loose in the facility.

These baby sharks are the stuff that B-movie dreams are made of. They're adorable partially because of their low-fi nature, they allow for some creative kill sequences that wouldn't be physically possible with a larger specimen, and they allow this film to have some sort of feeling of generational legacy and passing the baton that gives it the air of a sequel, even if it's really nothing of the sort.

Sure, I could do with a lot fewer scenes of the characters wandering down the same metal hallway and bleating about their divergent philosophies. But for my money (which, mark you, was $1.75 at Redbox, I ain't no big spender), I had a decent time with this one. Recommended to anyone who likes sharks and isn't discerning.

Rating: 4/10

Sicario: Day of the Solado
Year: 2018
Director: Stefano Sollima
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

American operatives attempt to ignite a cartel war by kidnapping the daughter of a kingpin.

I have no large amount of love for the original Sicario, which is a beautiful but deeply unpleasant experience. But the deeper I got into the cumbersomely titled Day of the Soldado, the more I realized the value of that film. Because this is exactly the movie Sicario could have been if the script wasn't guided by the firm hands of director Denis Villenueve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and star Emily Blunt.

Replace those people with an Italian TV director, the dude who shot the "Eternal Flame" music video, the cellist from The Revenant, and, well, nobody could replace Emily Blunt, and you have stripped away everything that made Sicario great. Instead of being a slick, tense, visually stunning descent into bleak nihilism, this film is just a shotgun blast of misery that begins to falter in the third act and falls face first in the mud before credits roll.

This film has a lot of problems, but it starts by introducing a wholly unnecessary terrorism element in favor of being "topical" before completely ignoring that plotline to continue their heavy-handed drudgery about the Mexican border (a topic that in the age of Trump is even more unpleasant to engage with, by the way). This allows the movie to reintroduce Josh Brolin's amoral character in a torture scene that reminds you how unsympathetic he is, before forcing you to spend the entire movie with him.

Also returning is Benicio del Toro, whose entire motivation has been corrupted by the need to bring back somebody else from the original film. He at least gets to act across from one of the only two interesting people in the movie, the young and talented Isabela Moner (the other is also a newbie - Elijah Rodriguez as a Mexican-American living in a Texas bordertown).

But the movie is still an endless repetition of shots and elements of the original, but worse. Even the overhead shots of helicopters soaring over the Mexican desert are more boring and ill-framed, and those were literally just shots of objects moving in a straight line. This is a sequel that never should have existed in the first place, and every single thing it does serves to remind you of that fact, especially the two worst elements in the movie: a pair of pulled punches in the third act that convert the film into a half-hearted fist-pumping hero flick, and Catherine Keener as Brolin's boss, totally lost in her nothing of a character. One to miss.

Rating: 3/10
Word Count:
Reviews In This Series
Sicario (Villenueve, 2015)
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sollima, 2018)


  1. Man, I have not seen one of these movies, though I'll probably eventually see Soldado (to test out my hypothesis that Blunt was Sicario's unwanted third wheel, which I guess will turn out to he empirically wrong), and Death of Stalin (but Tim says it's amazing! Tim thought Hereditary was actually different in any deep or meaningful way from Untitled Demon Possession Movie), and maybe Tag (hey, how was Isla Fisher *not* in Ocean's 8?).

    1. I would have said that Emily Blunt was a third wheel too, because I don't find her to have much of an interesting arc, but God when she's not there you really miss her.