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Life of the Party (2018)/ Breaking In (2018)

Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend comes two eminently bland, safe, and unmemorable movies that generally waste their female stars. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most funny and dynamic performers in comedy, but Life of the Party is a listless and groan-inducing back-to-school comedy that feels tonally off, adopting the persona of its tacky, talky, and awkward middle-aged mother. You would think the premise would lead to plenty of R-rated shenanigans, but instead the film adopts a very sedate PG-13 atmosphere, dulling the wild collegiate experience into something so predictable and safe as to be completely inoffensive. It feels like a caricature reminiscent of a feature-length rendition of a Saved by the Bell: The College Years. McCarthy falls back on tired, corny jokes that don’t attempt to be anything else, and the supporting cast is left to gasp and grasp for anything to spark laughs (special credit Gillian Jacobs for doing everything possible as “coma girl”). McCarthy is best when given room to improvise and discover interesting odd angles for jokes, but she also needs a stronger comedic vision, and that’s not going to come from husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone (Tammy). It feels like they had a general outline for a comedy and, in grand collegiate tradition, pulled an all-nighter and sloppily finished a serviceable draft. I chuckled about four times, mostly involving an exuberant Maya Rudolph and the one clever structural payoff revolving around a much younger fraternal hookup. Mostly, Life of the Party lacks a sense of stakes, credibility, surprises, development, and laughs, though the middle-aged mothers in my preview screening lapped it up, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if the trailer seemed moderately appealing for you.

On the other side, Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.

Nate’s Grades:

Life of the Party: C-

Breaking In: D+

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The Raven (2012)

When “The Raven” was released in 1845, it was a literary sensation. I can’t say that the 2012 movie of the same name will be met with anywhere near the devoted fanfare. Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) has become embroiled in a deadly criminal investigation. The famous author is penniless, drunk, and depressed, but what else is new? What is new is that some Poe admirer has been stalking Baltimore and killing people in grisly styles fashioned after Poe’s macabre stories and poems. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) recognizes the connection to Poe and enlists the author to aid in capturing the murderer. Poe’s upper-class love, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), is captured by the unknown madman and buried alive. Poe must race against time to stop a killer, rescue the girl, and write a new horror-themed story to be published via the killer’s demands.

The Raven feels like an ill fit from the start. What is the point of featuring an American literary icon when all you’re going to do is plop the man into a pretty rote police procedural/serial killer thriller? The deadly flaw of The Raven isn’t its concept; it’s that the finished product didn’t embrace the particulars of its literary mash-up enough. Is it really a good use of Poe to just have him tag along on a police investigation? I wanted this premise to crackle with a devious slyness, a cleverness of genre and concept that the movie seems incapable of producing. You’re taking America’s singular literary voice of the Gothic and macabre and putting him into a game with a deranged fan. That’s a great start. I’m interested in that movie. But there needs to be some follow-through. This should be a battle of wits, an opportunity for Poe to backslide into the murky chasm of his own creations, bearing some pinning of guilt at having birthed a mad killer with the power of his words and imagination. This should be a psychological descent into hell for a man already famously tortured. Instead, the movie just becomes another rote serial killer movie but somebody typed in the name “Poe.” The various corpses, inspired by Poe’s works, just end up being gory, easily telegraphed deposits for clues. We don’t see these people in peril, terrified by the fiendish ye olde Saw-like death traps. We don’t even understand the process of the killer. The movie just ends up becoming one long, tiresome chase from dead body to next dead body, with Poe literary association haphazardly ladled in to tie stuff together. After a while, it feels like somebody took a thoroughly uninspiring serial killer script and just transported it into mid 19th century America. It’s nice to know that some clichés are timeless.

The movie never feels like it works properly, and the potential of its premise is completely unrealized. The murder mystery isn’t really ever given suitable footing to be a mystery, except in that tried-and-true “who’s going to be the bad guy” reveal. There aren’t really any clues left behind. So when characters suddenly come up with epiphanies on their murder investigation, you wish they would at least show their work. For a movie written by screenwriters with names like Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, The Raven certainly isn’t smart. The Poe stories feel tacked on in an arbitrary fashion instead of being interwoven into foundational elements of the story. Who cares how the characters die if their deaths have no impact on Poe or anyone else? The “how” of the equation becomes inconsequential. The title poem doesn’t even bear any weight on the story. The love interest/damsel in distress character is so bland and underwritten, that it’s hard to really feel Poe’s gnawing sense of urgency. Sidling the gloomy Gus Poe with a puppy-dog love story seems like a poor misunderstanding of the man and his demons. To top it off, the girl isn’t even his cousin (surely the oddest criticism of mine thrown at a movie)!

The movie doesn’t really ever become a convincing thriller either. The pulpier elements are ignored or downplayed, played with stodgy seriousness for a movie this ridiculous (Saw-style death traps in 1849?). Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), who after this and 2009’s Ninja Assassin is starting to look like a one-hit wonder, badly misplays the action elements. The dingy cinematography is unnaturally dark, making it exceedingly difficult to understand certain sequences and giving the audience yet another reason to lose interest. The impressive production design is totally mitigated when there’s not enough light to even see it. I understand given the nature of the story that we’d be dealing with  lot of shadows and darkness, but this is just one poor looking movie. The only way you’d feel excitement from this movie is if in a fit of amnesia you forgot what you were watching and suddenly thought it might be a different, better movie, only to be disappointed ten minutes later when that sinking feeling reemerges and you realize, no, I am still watching The Raven.

I love me some John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine), but this guy is just the wrong fit for the movie. His sensibilities never really gel with the character, so Poe’s sense of melancholy comes across as more haughty boredom. He is not the right fit for the material. Eve (She’s Out of my League) has got nothing to do but look pretty and scream occasionally. The worst crime of all is utterly wasting one of my favorite contemporary character actors, the phenomenally great Brendan Gleeson (The Guard). He plays the uptight father of Poe’s love interest, which means he gets to pop onscreen and glare at Poe while looking worried. It’s a criminal waste of this man’s considerable talents.

I think the best part of The Raven is actually it’s mostly unseen killer. It’s not because the guy is particularly clever or interesting or even remotely memorable (when they reveal who it is, make sure to pay attention to the constant reiteration of who he is, because if you’re like me, you plum forgot). The reason this guy is good is because of his impetus. He’s ultimately terrorizing Poe so that he can force the author to create more stories. Call it an extreme case of motivation. I can see our studious killer justifying his bad behavior, claiming to give the world new gifts of literary brilliance that we can all share, stories that will last the test of time. Isn’t that worth a few dead bodies, he’d argue. Ultimately, this rationale becomes more egotistical, about flattering the killer and his devious appetites, which is a shame. I’d prefer if the bad guy were more devoted to the cause of helping to shape the Canon of transcendental literature. I almost wish that the movie were told from this skewed perspective. I could have dealt with an entire catalogue of famous authors being victimized under the auspices of producing great literature. What if this one sick person is responsible for wresting the great works of the 19th century out of the authors’ minds and onto the page? I think we all owe this terrible individual a debt of gratitude.

I’m finding myself disliking The Raven the more thought I put into it, which, admittedly, my brain is actively fighting against. It does not want to spend more time processing this bore of a movie; a fun premise never fully realized, a conflict never truly developed, and characters that are the 19th century equivalent of the stock roles you’d find in any mechanical CSI/Law & Order TV episode. So in the interest of literary fairness, I’ve decided to channel the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe for the final word on The Raven:

And The Raven, never flowing, still is going, still is going,

On the pallid screen I silently stare at in unblinking bore,

And its plot is not that smart, missing heart and clues to start,

And it seems like the writers were tasked with an unfriendly chore,

The movie does not work; it’s dull and empty to its very core,

And so I lastly ask does this movie properly entertain?

Quoth The Raven – “nevermore.”

Nate’s Grade: C

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