Saturday, August 15, 2020


The latest Disney+ original is Magic Camp, a long-on-the-shelf theatrical castoff that was filmed three years ago, but plays more like ten. The thing would’ve been stale and behind-the-times even if it came out when it first was made. It stars Adam DeVine, from back when some thought he might turn a moderately appealing supporting turn in a couple Pitch Perfects, and starring role in an irritating Comedy Central show, into something like a leading man career. This was right before most big screen comedy stopped existing in any significant way, and also before his Jexi bombed hard. You can tell it’s a musty project is what I’m saying. Here he’s doing a milquetoast impression of the kind of role Jack Black would've turned down as a down-on-his-luck magician who agrees to be a counselor at a magic camp. (Think School of Rock if that was a bad movie.) He takes the job in order to compete with his much-more-successful rival, played with disinterest by Gillian Jacobs. There’s a lot of material about the campers that plays like mild sub-Disney Channel shenanigans and believe-in-yourself sentiment, and the stuff between the adults is the kind of half-amusing-at-best sitcom antics you might tolerate in syndication if you turned in a few minutes too early for the rerun you really wanted to see. (Remember that?) There’s a vague sense of low-key dissatisfaction radiating off screen, including Jeffrey Tambor, seen here pre-#MeToo allegations, who appears to be contemplating anything but the scene he’s in. No one really cares. It’s all flatly lit and sluggishly paced, with nothing engaging even threatening to happen at any point. The director is Mark Waters, whose good work on the Lohan classics Mean Girls and Freaky Friday shows he’s capable of more, but he’s clearly at the mercy of an undercooked, formulaic screenplay. (Anyone who’s seen Vampire Academy, a more recent effort, will understand how he’s not an elevator of subpar material.) The result is a big whiff. No wonder Disney held it back to quietly slip out into the streaming library of originals instead of making a big deal about it.

A little better, but not by much, is Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Project Power over on Netflix. It has a good premise. There’s a new designer drug flooding the black market in New Orleans. The little glowing pills give the user five minutes of a random superpower. We get early action scenes like one in which a glowering Jamie Foxx alternately flees and fights a desperate dealer who turns himself into a Human Torch. A little later, cop-on-the-edge Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in his second straight-to-streaming high-concept thriller of the summer, after several years away from movies—it’s good to see him) chases a naked bank robber who has turned himself invisible. Luckily the puff of paint from the cash bag keeps him somewhat noticeable. These are fun ideas. The movie bounces between its lead characters for the longest time—and quickly includes a third, an imperiled teenager (Dominique Fishback)—who are all on the hunt for something. It has a fine where’s-this-all-going? interest for a while. And the filmmakers tackle the project with a stylish approach much like their superior Nerve, the entertaining social-media truth-or-dare thriller from a few years back. There are canted angles and vibrant colors and hip-hop interludes—a pounding back beat and a saturated neon look freely mixing with a graffiti and wet-concrete local color. It’s a delight to see for a bit. But the movie gets slower and slower as it goes, each subsequent ten minutes feeling like twenty, then thirty. I checked the time counter thinking surely I’d been watching for hours and saw it’d been barely 50 minutes. Not even half done. The characters grow less interesting as it goes, and the intriguing concept is drained of interest by formulaic moves. It’s never as clever or appealing as it should be. By the end, Mattson Tomlin's screenplay has drawn together its various plot strands for increasingly boring action sequences with lots of hectic cutting and loud noises failing to gin up additional interest. What begins with a colorful blast ends with the typical blurry genre nothing.

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