SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY
Kind of a funny story. After roughly 24 hours spent in Chicagoland this past weekend, my number-one priority upon returning to the Quad Cities was to wrap up my four-movie to-do list with Space Jam: A New Legacy, the frequently animated family-comedy sequel currently playing at cineplexes and streaming on HBO Max. Unfortunately, my ages-old cell phone finally imploded during the trip back, making my actual first priority a trip to my local Verizon retailer to secure a new device. When I got there, a service rep was waiting on another customer, so I did the standard browsing of cases and cords and whatnot. And then I heard a familiar voice, one immediately recognizable from the phrase “What's up, Doc?” I turned to the store's wall-mounted TV … and wouldn't you know it? I had walked into the very last minutes of Space Jam: A New Legacy, meaning that I saw the finale to the film before seeing the film itself. (Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending.)
Like I said: Kind of a funny story. But after securing my new phone and sitting through all two hours of Bugs Bunny and company, my anecdote proved about a hundred times funnier than director Malcolm D. Lee's LeBron-James-meets-the-Looney-Tunes adventure, which, beyond feeling cynical and desperate, may be the most flabbergasting, relentlessly self-promoting entertainment I've ever endured. Lee's movie is constantly selling, yet the only thing it actually gave me was a headache.
Admittedly, I'm hardly A New Legacy's targeted demographic, considering I'm not a grade-schooler, don't follow basketball, and have no interest in computer-animated versions of Wile E. Coyote and Foghorn Leghorn enacting a brain-damaged version of TRON. I also never saw the 1996 Space Jam, a film that several of my younger friends reportedly re-watched until their VHS copies wore themselves out. It's hard to imagine, though, that the original could have been half the feature-length irritant that this one is. I won't gripe about the unabashedly silly plot, which sends LeBron and his (fictional) son into something called the Warner Bros. server-verse, where the two are forced to play a video-game-inspired rendition of basketball amongst the familiar cartoon figures of the Tune Squad and the CGI-avatar pros of the Goon Squad. But beginning with the decision to feature Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun in the first 10 minutes and then not let them do or say anything remotely interesting or amusing, A New Legacy is one depressing, insulting bummer after another. While the film is unquestionably better-produced than the witless Tom & Jerry that Warner Bros. and HBO Max foisted on us earlier this year, I'm pretty sure I loathed this animated/live-action hybrid more.
I groaned at the constant, blatant reminders of Warner Bros.' intellectual-property library, with a hefty portion of the film's running length devoted to reminders that this is the same studio that owns DC's superheroes, and Game of Thrones, and the Harry Potters, and The Wizard of Oz, and Austin Powers, and King Kong, and Rick & Morty, and Gremlins, and Mad Max, and … . (I'm sure that any child who watched the film now has a furious desire to catch Casablanca.) I winced at the predictable “modernizing” of the Looney Tunes characters through madly outdated slang, with Daffy Duck shouting “Nerd alert!” and that old lady from the Sylvester-and-Tweety shorts muttering “Haters gonna hate.” (You know what I hated? The transformation of Porky Pig into rap sensation The Notorious P.I.G.) I all but wept for poor, poor Don Cheadle, who gives what has to stand as one of modern cinema's most dispiriting green-screened performances. I wanted to drop-kick Lee's release for the basketball game's employment of “style points” over traditional points, leading play-by-play announcer Lil Rel Howery to face the camera and proclaim, “See, kids! Playing video games do pay off!” (Parents desperate for their kids to get some fresh air will no doubt adore that bit.)
Mostly, though, I was incensed that the movie held precisely zero laughs for this childless, basketball-indifferent adult, even in the hand-drawn sequences that came close to mirroring the Looney Tunes visual style of old, with seemingly sure-fire nods to “Duck Season/Rabbit Season” and faux tunnels drawn onto desert rock formations failing to inspire a grin. I expected schmaltzy detours involving LeBron (who does his best to be likable here) learning to be a better father and such, and presumed that the female-bunny basketball tyro voiced by Zendaya would be all empowerment and no giggles, and I wasn't let down – or rather, I was. But how did the filmmakers, 25 years after Michael Jordan's big-screen debut, even manage to screw up the inevitable comedic cameo by Michael B. Jordan?
A hyperactive advertisement for itself that consistently forgets to be enjoyable on the most basic levels, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a mess – and don't be surprised if your kids wind up agreeing. Deep into the climactic game's first half, the Tune Squad's coach sends one of his players onto the court with “Road Runner! You're in!” A smart move, of course. But won't even five-year-olds react to that moment with “Wait a minute … . He's the fastest creature on Earth … . Why the hell wasn't he in before then?!”
ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS
“What is this?” someone asks not long into director Adam Robitel's new horror-thriller sequel. “Like, a tournament of champions?!” Considering the movie he's in is titled Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, the only possible response to that guy's question is “Duh.” Happily, however, this unpretentious, 88-minute nerve-jangler zips along so quickly that you're barely given time to be snarky about it.
A followup to Robiel's moderate hit (and fairly decent entertainment) from 2019, this Saw-lite offering places the original film's two young survivors – Taylor Russell's Zoey and Logan Miller's Ben – in another deadly beat-the-clock game alongside four victors of other challenges orchestrated by the nefarious Minos Corporation. This time around, the murderous “rooms” to be escaped include a high-voltage subway car, a quicksand-y beachfront, and a city street where it rains acid, and with the score by composers Brian Tyler and John Carey pounding away, each segment is edited within an inch of its life. The action is so relentless, and the cutaways so quick, that the thousands of logistical “Huh?!”s that might enter your brain on the drive home fail to materialize in the moment, and unlike in the first movie, there's almost no time for sentiment in Tournament of Champions; we're kept as deliberately off-balance as the characters are. Beyond Zoey and Ben, we're given no reason to care about the game's other participants, and a late-film twist feels unlikely even under these deeply unlikely (and prohibitively expensive) circumstances, and the ending doesn't end so much as merely stop. Yet this second Escape Room is still a tighter, nastier, more effective outing than its predecessor, and even the friend who joined me for the screening – someone who hadn't seen the original and doesn't really enjoy freak-outs at the cineplex – told me afterward, “I didn't hate that!” You'd have to know her to fully get it, but trust me: High praise.
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Despite having only a passing familiarity with the oeuvre of the late author, chef, and world traveler – I never read Kitchen Confidential, never saw No Reservations or Parts Unknown, but do recall his cheeky cameo in The Big Short – I was riveted by Morgan Neville's documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. I say this even though my fascination was inherently, and perhaps inevitably, filled with queasiness.
Through found footage ranging from the late-'90s to not long after Bourdain's 2018 suicide, Neville paints a fascinating, warts-and-all portrait of an artist who was also an addict forever searching for his next drug-less high: a magnificent dish served on a Bangkok street corner; unexpected bliss as a late-in-life father; newfound fame, and notoriety, as an intensely vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement. (Part of the documentary's queasiness stems from the decision to cast performer/director Asia Argento – Bourdain's then-girlfriend who accused Harvey Weinstein of rape – as its ultimate villain, and it was upsetting to learn, recently, that Neville never approached the woman for her side of the story.) Yet because we all know what kind of fate was in store for the man, we also can't help but view Roadrunner as a hopelessly ambiguous mystery, repeatedly listening to Bourdain's words and looking into his eyes for some indication – any indication – of precisely why this successful and obviously beloved figure ended his life in a French hotel room without a note of explanation.
Clearly, the on-screen friends, co-workers, and former spouses Neville interviews are desperate for answers to the lingering question of “Why?” But what I most admired about this bio-doc was that, despite their many words of praise and adoration, those offering testimonials on Bourdain's personal and professional lives aren't confused or heartbroken so much as deeply pissed. Unlike with most every other work in this genre, the interviewees don't (merely) extend the subject a belated “I love you.” It's more of a bone-deep “F--- you,” and Roadrunner, expertly assembled though it is, finally achieves greatness when it confronts the awful, heartbreaking selfishness of Bourdain's final act. His pain may be over, but as we can see, the pain he's left others with has barely started to abate.
Not to be ungrateful for a summer-movie season in which – at last! – there are actual summer movies to see, but our cineplexes have been so traditionally rife with high-profile sequels and blockbuster IP that I'd hoped to fall madly in love with Pig, a low-key drama that casts a shaggy, growling Nicolas Cage as a truffle-hunting hermit who yearns to be reunited with his stolen pet swine. Is it consequently okay to instead feel appreciation and mild fondness and simply pretend it's love?
Writer/director Michael Samoski's unclassifiable offering, a character drama that morphs into a revenge thriller that morphs into a meditation on life itself, has much to recommend it: the rural and urban Oregon locales vibrantly captured by cinematographer Patrick Scola; the engaging, oftentimes delightfully off-putting “What's gonna happen now?!” nature of the plotting; Cage delivering his most soulful, lived-in portrayal in more years than I care to recall. Yet too much of Samoski's admirably unseasonal effort left me with a raised eyebrow that may as well have been held in place by a fish hook. What's with the Portland-restaurateur scene that, as is evidently common knowledge, doubles as an underground fight club? How is Cage's forest dweller allowed entry into a chic midtown eatery when his face is bloodied beyond belief and he likely smells like Limburger cheese that's spent three days in the sun? How are we meant to believe (and we're definitely asked to) that this former master chef remembers every meal he's ever served to every one of his decades' worth of patrons? Why is his unwitting chauffeur (an initially obnoxious, eventually touching Alex Wolff) so blasé about running errands that could effectively ruin his burgeoning career? What does it say about a film when its emotional highlight – a meal served for Adam Arkin's vaguely threatening culinary kingpin – just makes you think the same thing was done far more effectively in Pixar's Ratatouille? I might give Pig another viewing someday. But on a first one, beautifully shot and unpredictable though the movie is, I left my auditorium thinking it was all high-minded hogwash.