Review: Isn’t It Romantic, All The Devil’s Men, Solis, Gotti

The March round-up, and boy, it was not a good month.

Isn’t It Romantic

Trailer

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Isn’t it so not worth it?

Natalie (Rebel Wilson) struggles through her subordinate position in an architectural firm and less than exceptional life, decrying the idealised worlds she see’s in romantic comedies. But after hitting her head during a mugging, she wakes up to find herself inside such a genre-piece, replete with a hunk love interest (Liam Hemsworth), sassy gay best fiend (Brandon Scott Jones), work-based antagonist (Betty Gilpin) and a colleague in a relationship that’s all wrong for him (Adam DeVine).

This seems to me to very much be an idea that looked great on paper, but in practice ends up coming across less than stellar. Much like Amy Schumer tried to do with 2015’s Trainwreck (and this film bears more than a few similar elements to that comedian’s I Feel Pretty), director Todd Strauss-Schulson obviously hopes to re-invent the wheel that is “rom-com” by skewering it mercilessly, but in the end Isn’t It Romantic can’t get beyond the fact that it is exhibiting the same old tropes even as it tries to parody them.

It’s at its very best in that 20 minutes after Rebel Wilson – a fine comedic actress too often pigeon-holed into physical comedy ala early era Melissa McCarthy – wakes up in rom-com land, when we can settle into some fun and games. New York is transformed into a fine looking, fine smelling utopia of flowers and manners; Natalie’s job turns into the standard rom-com career that tends to be high-pressure, artistic, yet vague, along with the requisite “big account”; instead of getting to enjoy sex with Luke Hemsworth, Natalie keeps finding herself waking up the next morning lest the PG rating be troubled; and her real world assistant turns into the snarky rival, the kind of part that might as well be called “the Judy Greer”. Wilson, long deserving of her own comedy vehicle at this level, gives it her best shot.

But then, much like Trainwreck, Isn’t It Romantic gets caught up in the requirements of the genre, in the form of Adam DeVine’s Josh (he and Wilson reuniting from their snappy back-and-forth in the otherwise dreadful Pitch Perfect franchise), the office friend who really should be more-than-a-friend, if only Natalie would get her head out of her ass long enough to notice. The resulting parody is so similar to the real thing that it stops being parody, and turns into formula. An occasionally funny formula that has a bit of an edge to it, but a formula all the same.

Cinema has largely passed the rom-com by, and efforts like Isn’t It Romantic smell more like nostalgia fueled reverence (the direct nods to the classics of the genre are numerous here, with scenes from Pretty Woman and The Wedding Singer being shown) than witty take-down. Hanging lanterns on tropes doesn’t change the fact that they are tropes, and mixed in with some lame attempts at body-positive themes let down by frequent resort to body based humour, we end up with forgettable attempt at a high concept comedy, with a cast that deserves better. Not Recommended.

All The Devil’s Men

Trailer

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…couldn’t make anything out of this.

Military expert Collins (Milo Gibson) is called upon to undertake one last job: to take down London-based terrorist McKnight (Elliot Cohen) before he gets his hands on a nuclear weapon. But in his way is old comrade Deighton (Joseph Millson), making this mission personal.

These films are dime a dozen, and you could probably shift through the back catalogue of any streaming surface and find any number of them to waste your time with, but you might be hard-pressed to find one as cheap-looking as this. And it isn’t because the production went with nobody’s, because the cast is littered with names and faces you’ll have seen from American and British TV, most notably William Fichtner. That is, unless you count Milo Gibson, a bit of a stunt casting I suppose, trying very hard to ape his father in terms of screen presence (check out the beard), and never adequately succeeding.

We go through the motions here: the scarred veteran, the morally dubious superiors, the black-ops shoot-outs in a succession of increasingly underpopulated London locations (there might be abandoned warehouses in London, but is everything around them abandoned as well?), the betrayals, the failing attempts at depth. These kind of films fetishise the modern military experience by trying to make even trauma look cool: Gibson’s Collins might have the tragic backstory and talk a big game about mental scars, but in the end he is still a spec-ops superman more suited to Tom Clancy fan-fiction, endlessly efficient with his guns and an expert in dealing with any number of life-or-death situations. Perhaps the bigger problem is simply that Collins isn’t really a character, because that would require some kind of arc, and All The Devil’s Men certainly does not have any of those: he starts out as a grizzled veteran who is ignoring his family, and he ends it as a grizzled veteran who is ignoring his family.

Where All The Devil’s Men might still have been saved if it had managed to make something out of the Collins/Deighton relationship, to turn them into some sort of dueling martial superheros, but the languid performances from both Gibson and Millson (the later has been better, most notably in an antagonist role in period drama The Last Kingdom) make this an impossibility. Instead we are subjected to repetitive action where a lot of ammunition is expended to very little effect, and where the various players look like they are playing soldier instead of playing characters. The lone exception is undoubtedly an opening set-piece in Morocco where Collins undertakes an assassination job, a sequence that stands out mainly because it’s set in broad daylight.

The poor lighting, the lack of extras, the limited script, they all add up to Direct-To-DVD level stuff that, at its very best, is merely a 90 minute distraction. Gibson isn’t leading man material like his father was (emphasis on the “was”), and nobody involved in this production covers themselves in glory. Not recommended.

Solis

Trailer

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Don’t look Marion!

After a catastrophic event, private space firm engineer Troy Holloway (Steven Ogg) finds himself in an escape pod hurtling towards the sun. With only the voice of would-be rescuer Roberts (Alice Lowe) to support him, Troy contemplates death and regrets as his situation grows more and more desperate.

Long live the space problem solving genre: we’ve had Moon, we’ve had Gravity, we’ve had The Martian, Sunshine, Netflix’s Lost In Space, Europa Report and even Interstellar, a cacophony of “realistic” space-based survival stories, often with a limited cast and environment, that seek to offer a believable look at how space travel, and space emergencies, work. Solis, from director Carl Strathie, is very much of the low-budget kind and while this gives it a certain ramshackle charm – both space flight and film-making by the seat of your pants – there is a good reason why the aforementioned examples had decent budgets. The minimalist approach ends up sucking you out of the experience, as you wonder how the interior of a spaceship can look so bare.

Ogg does the very best that he can do here, and it is a lot, he being the only person to appear on-screen. An established character actor best known for his TV and video game voice work, Ogg doesn’t really have the chops or the presence for this one-man show, and I don’t see that as a damning indictment, just an appraisal. He’s fine, but he can’t carry this can, when the material that he has to work with amounts to a re-treading of Gravity, right down to the tragic backstory and past mistakes he wants to live to correct. He comes across as too changeable in mood to really get behind, and far too late does the script attempt to make him likable.

On the other side of the coin is Alice Lowe, perhaps best known for her role in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, but whom I remember much better from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. I don’t wish to compromise my judgement here from a memory of her in a radically different production, but it suffices to say that Lowe, as a voice in Troy’s ear sharing her own tragic backstory while trying to keep him alive, can only do so much as well. Straithe may have wished for her character to come across as the George Clooney, but in the end she has more of a Navi quality to her: “Hey! Listen!” you can almost imagine her blurting out, as she continually urges Troy to allow himself to be cooked alive instead of running out of air, or something. She only starts gaining character when she becomes gushingly feminine late-on, and that leaves a bad taste.

Somewhere along the course of the film’s surprisingly lengthy feeling 90 minute running time, it tries to enliven proceedings with diatribes on how much a human life is worth to a billion dollar space mining corporation, leading to a late-in-the-second-act “twist” that falls very flat. Having aped Gravity, this section feels like it’s aping Moon, and Solis never comes anywhere near the level required. It is only in brief moments when Solis rises to the occasion, such as exterior shots showing Troy’s pod hurtling towards it’s fiery conclusion, but it’s been done before, many times, and been done better. Not recommended.

Gotti

Trailer

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The viewer’s face.

From humble beginnings, John Gotti (John Travolta) rises to becomes the head of the New York Gambino crime family, with plenty of bodies left in his wake. Even at the height of his power he faces numerous criminal investigations, that soon involve his son John Jr (Spencer Lofranco), and threaten to tear apart the family-centric empire he has dominated.

In the eight years since Fiore Films got John Gotti Jr to sign over the rights to his family’s story, this project has allegedly gone through four directors, 44 producers and cast changes that resulted in lawsuits, before we’ve come to this, with Kevin Connolly – better known for a regular role on TV series Entourage than a very unexceptional directing career – at the helm and an aging Travolta in the lead, long past his prime, and giving a performance here that makes you wonder if he ever had one, filling Gotti’s every utterance with fegedabbotit-style nonsense, in clumsy book ended segments where he speaks directly to the audience from beyond the grave.

But what could he possibly do with this script, which essentially tries to rally audience opinion behind Gotti, as a dedicated family man out to clean-up the neighborhood, and then turns his son into a persecuted innocent, unfairly victimised by a vengeful government that just can’t leave him alone? Mafia films are oft criticised for glamourising the criminal lifestyle, but I don’t know if I have ever seen a film that attempted to paint the Dons as likable as they are here. And it gets worse: when discussing how they need to get the loyalty of all five New York boroughs one Gotti loyalist feels the need to list them; Travolta’s Gotti casually threatens to murder his wife in front of his young children during a prison visit, with a nonchalance that was laughable; and Pitbull, responsible for the score, includes a hip-hop/rap song which notes plot points in its lyrics, that is bizarrely anachronistic for a film set primarily in the 80’s.

Perhaps the key fault is that the film can’t decide who it wants to focus on. I feel that Gotti would undoubtedly have been a better film if it choose to focus on the son, and further I suspect that was the original edition: Gotti is so scattershot in its editing and pacing that it screams “rewrites” and “reshoots” in order to get more of Travolta on-screen, when the premise of the story from the perspective of the heir apparent – ala The Godfather, if I can be forgiven for such a heinous comparison – sounds much better to me.

Instead Gotti is about the elder man for about two-thirds of its running time, before becoming the bizarre “John Jr tries to get out of the business because he is secretly a swell guy beneath it all” story that takes over the third act. If such schizophrenic narratives were bad enough, Connolly fails at every turn in terms of cinematography and the crafting of creative sequences, with tonal issues popping up all over. This occurs most vividly in a montage where the elder Gotti, on a temporary medical absence from prison, undertakes a savage assassination job on a disloyal underling, which is overladen with a jaunty tune that I can only presume is meant to make the horror unfolding look comedic. It’s evidence of a director completely out of his depth, and editors who realised pretty quickly that Gotti wasn’t worth trying to save.

At time of writing Gotti is on the unfortunate list of films with a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, joining such luminaries as The Ridiculous Six, Mac And Me and Jaws: The Revenge, a state of affairs hilariously exacerbated by accusations that companies behind the film attempted to unduly influence that site’s audience score, having already been caught out buying boatloads of tickets to their own production. Why they wouldn’t consider this a total write-off is a more interesting question than anything Gotti poses, it being probably the worst mafia movie ever made. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix, GEM Entertainment, Vertical Entertainment and MoviePass Ventures).

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