Ted 2

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy on June 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ted 2 photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgFor those unaware, Ted was John’s childhood teddy bear that came to life when he wished for it. Now he’s getting married (the bear not John) to his girlfriend, Tami-Lynn. Ted 2 begins with a wedding. The nuptials climax in a big splashy Busby Berkeley production number that rivals the choreography of those classic pictures. It’s an elegant beginning of well dressed dancers in tuxes and gowns in a choreographed spectacle on a wedding cake. The classy beginning kind of stands in direct contrast to the scene that follows. Time flash forwards 1year and Ted and his once happy bride are now a bickering couple fighting over money. What’s a bear to do?  Following the advice of a co-worker, Ted decides that he and his wife need to have a baby to save their marriage. But Ted lacks the (ahem) reproductive organ needed to get the process started so they decide to adopt. However, and this is where the real story get started, their decision is blocked because Ted isn’t human.

Ah so Ted 2 is a civil rights drama. Well no, it‘s not that socially high minded. I mean the drive to get him legally recognized as a person does underlie the flow of the narrative and it does give it some heft. However the construct is really just an excuse on which to drape a lot of gags. The story is best appreciated as a selection of amusing jokes and naughty shtick. As before, Seth MacFarlane is writer/director/voice star. He remains a clever guy as evidenced by his ability to intelligently poke fun of convention. Even his musical tastes lean to decidedly old fashioned preferences like swing and traditional pop. But his mind is so clearly in the gutter. This is lowbrow comedy about lowbrow people. Ted and his human owner are pretty despicable. They curse, smoke marijuana at every possible moment, hurl abusive epithets and literally hurl apples at passing joggers. But they are crusaders for human rights too so I guess that gives them a purpose.

Ted was a serendipitous success. What made the original so unique was the idea of an anthropomorphized toy that had a cute cuddly exterior but with the personality of an adult in a state of arrested development. Ted 2 feels like your witty party guest that continues to hang out even after 2am. The innovation isn’t new anymore so the novelty is gone. What we have is more of the same. Are the jokes funny? Yes they are. The script is still intelligent. The chronicle is a window into the mind of Seth MacFarlane. Once again he uses the opportunity to make pop culture allusions. For the most part it’s pretty incisive. There are plenty of gags and most of them hit their target. Tom Brady, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried not only add support as actors, but their personas are fodder for some of the funnier laughs. A few guest stars miss though. Michael Dorn and Patrick Warburton play a couple that bully attendees at New York Comic-Con. They’re just insufferably nasty people without any redeeming qualities. But that’s the exception. For most of the running time, Ted 2 offers more hilarious high jinks in the same manner as the first. Nothing more, nothing less. If you’re OK with that, then Ted 2 should satisfy your humor cravings.

06-25-15

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on June 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl photo starrating-4stars.jpgGreg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high schooler in his senior year. Despite being on good terms with virtually every social clique there is, he doesn’t deeply connect on a personal level with any of them. OK so there’s his “co-worker” Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler) with whom he remakes classic films into parodies, redubbing them with titles like “2:48 PM Cowboy”, “A Sockwork Orange”, “Eyes Wide Butt”, “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” and “The 400 Bros”. I savor the day the DVD is released and I’ll be able to pause the frame to see every pun-worthy title that sits on that shelf. Together the duo eat lunch in the office of their hip, heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal).

Yes the narrative is twee, almost stridently so. There’s the coming-of-age plot coupled with the sardonic male lead – actually everybody here is pretty cynical. There’s Greg’s voiceover – a style device which lets you know the inner monologue of this artistic fellow. How arty? Well, he goes beyond watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and onto Burden of Dreams, the 1982 documentary about the making of that picture. Then there’s the manic pixie dream girl. The one he didn’t want to pursue but did so out of duty. She just so happens to suffer from a fatal disease. Obviously given the title, right? The tragically doomed teen invites recent comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars but this has a quirkiness as filtered through the eyes Wes Anderson.  Film aesthete Greg Gaines is cut from the same angst-ridden cloth as Max Fischer in Rushmore. Rejecting those allusions to other works, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl still stands on its own, an ode to a generation, perhaps even becoming a classic in its own right over time.

The plot concerns a local girl named Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. When Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) discovers that she is a classmate of Greg’s, she forces her son to make a date to go hang out with Rachel for a day. After some prodding, he agrees. This is the beginning of what he calls his “doomed friendship.” There’s no faster shortcut to give a narrative weight than death. The construct threatens shameless sentimentality but the way the drama unfolds, it never succumbs to that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon keeps the conversations intimate and involving. He’s directing from an honest script by Jesse Andrews which is based on Andrews’ own 2012 novel of the same name. The story slowly works its way into your heart to become a delightful charmer. Greg and Rachel are essentially forced to be together, neither particularly wanting the other’s company. It’s their accidental relationship that forms the heart of the picture.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes with a notable pedigree. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and took top dramatic honors with the U.S. Grand Jury Prize. It’s easy to see why. The chronicle is a sincere slice of adolescent life. Alright so it’s a bit precious too. The account integrates a triad of performances that alternates between cutesy and clever. But the story rises above indie movie clichés to give the viewer a genuinely heartfelt portrait. I embraced this trio. The friendship between Greg, Earl and Rachel isn’t as calculated as it seems on paper. Greg is a wistful lad while Earl is much more pragmatic. Their seemingly incongruous personalities are united by their enthusiasm for cinema. Occasionally their obsessions threaten to disrupt credibility with their “adorable” idiosyncrasies. Yet the saga ultimately hews closer to real life. Their quirks serve the tale, enriching its themes with visual flair rather than derailing it. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejona got his start as a second unit director on films like Babel, Julie & Julia, and Argo. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is only his second feature but his experience shows a talented director with a facility for different genres. He clearly has something to say and now I am listening.

06-18-15

Inside Out

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family on June 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Inside Out photo starrating-4stars.jpgPixar’s ode to the emotions of a little girl, Inside Out is a sophisticated journey into the physical expression of the psyche. Sounds pretty philosophical for a cartoon, right? However Pixar brilliantly distills the idea into an interpretation that is surprisingly lucid.  It manages to be gracefully enlightened in what it conceptualizes too. OK but just how many emotions are there really? In the 4th century BC Aristotle came up with 14: Anger, Calm, Friendship, Enmity, Fear, Confidence, Shame, Shamelessness, Kindness, Pity, Indignation, Envy, Emulation, and Contempt. Whew! That’s a lot of characters. Experts say it’s your facial muscles that tell the real story. As a result, many scientists have since agreed to reduce the core number all the way down to 4. Well Pixar chose 5: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader) and then granted Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) their own separate entities.

In the physical world, a girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is born to a loving mother (Diane Lane ) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota. When her dad gets a new job, the family must relocate to San Francisco. Moving is a particularly troublesome experience for the by now 11 year old: new home, new school, new people. On the outside, we see the facial expressions that belie her feelings. On the inside, we see the emotions argue, persuade, pressure and praise in the “Headquarters” of Riley’s mind. Joy is an effervescent pixie with a haircut to match. She is most often in control of Riley’s memories which are housed in glowing color coded orbs. Each one the shade of their overriding emotion. The spheres considered the most relevant are known as “core memories”. These power five “islands” in Riley’s subconscious, each highlighting a different aspect of her personality.

Then one day, Riley’s emotional world falls apart. Everything comes to a head on her first day of school. Sadness is a blue bespeckled awkward girl with bad posture. Sadness inadvertently touches a happy memory and turns it “sad”.  So Joy tries to eliminate the negative recollection.  Complications arise causing Riley’s 5 core memories to get knocked from their container. Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked through a tube and displaced along with Riley’s essential thoughts into the far reaches of Riley’s mind.  Disgust, Fear, and Anger become the de facto masters at the control of decisions that could ruin her life.

As a saga, Inside Out is The Incredible Journey or it’s Fantastic Voyage. Joy and Sadness must navigate their way across this bizarro world back to the command center. Indeed navigating the subconscious mind is pretty surreal. It’s not unlike the Beatles trying to get to Pepperland in Yellow Submarine. Inside Out isn’t anywhere near as psychedelic, but it still includes the realm of Abstract Thought, an Imagination Land, Dream Productions, and a dizzying labyrinth of Long Term Memory. Denizens include a clown, a unicorn and Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from early childhood. Voiced by Richard Kind he is a cotton candy colored creature that fuses the trunk of an elephant with the tail of a cat and the squeal of a dolphin. A fun loving fellow wearing a porkpie hat and a purple bow tie, this hybrid creature is one of the more surreal entities on the Pixar roster. Anyone remember Jeremy Hillary Boob? That’s another reference to Yellow Submarine, a character that was also a bit of a nowhere man. Now a forgotten friend, Bing Boing consistently radiates joyful exuberance, although his selfless act later in the narrative has an elegiac quality.

Inside Out is a dazzling manifestation of the emotional mind, both visually and aurally. Last time director Pete Docter and composer Michael Giacchino collaborated, it earned them both Oscars (for Up). It could easily happen again. Pixar has long been the animation studio that combines the weight of poignant drama with dazzling visuals. Inside Out’s greatest gift is the presentation of the psyche as a landscape for which thoughts and memories are accounted and sorted. I realize Pixar didn’t invent this construct. The early 90s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head (It followed Married… with Children on Sunday nights) did a variation on this theme over 2 decades ago. But Pixar gets credit for expounding on the abstraction in a way that makes you question the way you experience your own life. The “Personality Islands” are a nice touch in making concepts tangible. That’s just one example of an idea that could be taught in the field of psychology.

After a series of perfectly adequate films that began in 2011, Inside Out is a welcome return to cinema par excellence for the Pixar studio. First and foremost, the adventure is an affecting story. Anthropomorphic emotions in red, yellow, green, blue and purple hues articulated as individual characters we can embrace. Joy and Sadness are the real stars here. They dominate the narrative with their odyssey back to the central hub. Call it Journey to the Center of the Mind. However Disgust, Fear and Anger all have their their moments too. Every emotion is key to a well adjusted human being. Pixar staddles the line between presenting it all as something a young child can comprehend but allowing just enough depth to captivate the adults in the audience. It’s still pretty straightforward, but there’s beauty in simplifying a complicated subject. Inside Out makes it all seem effortless.

06-18-15

Love & Mercy

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on June 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Love & Mercy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCo-founder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson gets the biographical treatment in Love & Mercy. Taking its name from a song off his 1988 self titled solo album, the picture is an engrossing portrait of a complicated man. A complex man deserves a likeminded biography and as such, the production submits his life as two halves, each played by a different person.

In the 1960s the chronicle shows Wilson as the mastermind behind the unique California sound of the Beach Boys which culminated in the critically revered Pet Sounds in 1966. Actor Paul Dano embodies the very talented young man who endured a rough childhood at the hands of a hard-hearted father (Bill Camp). Music was a creative outlet. The group comprised his two younger brothers Dennis and Carl (Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern), their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). Together they poured their hearts into song with Brian as their primary composer. The chronicle presents the songwriter as a gifted genius struggling to reconcile the “voices in his head” and then put that into music. Wilson had several nervous breakdowns. Paul Dano has a quality that lends itself to Brian Wilson’s off kilter personality.

The other half of his life takes place in the 80s when Brian Wilson was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. From the start, he is already under the care of “psychologist to the stars” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy has an around the clock presence in the musician’s life. Wilson meets car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabath Banks), one day while shopping for a Cadillac. The two strike up a relationship. An actress usually known for playing comedic parts, the dramatic weight is a stark contrast to the roles she usually plays. Banks is a revelation. A nurturing presence, she is a foil to Landy’s svengali like control. Her speechless reactions while Landy barks at Wilson, perfectly conveys her growing unease with the situation. Landy clearly sees Wilson’s burgeoning romance with Ledbetter as a problem. She becomes a calming force. I will admit that the story could have just as easily been told from Landy’s point of view and dismissed Ledbetter as a gold digger. This is not the case, however. Landy is vilified as a doctor with no redeeming qualities. The portrait then begs the unanswered question, how did this particular man obtain so much authority over Wilson’s life?

Love & Mercy wisely narrows its focus. By staging the existence of Brian Wilson as two separate people, we get a richer appreciation for the complexities of the man. It puts distance between two stages of his life. Paul Dano is particularly good as the younger Wilson. It’s easier to accept him as the talent that guided the Beach Boys because he looks quite a bit like the guy. He does a great job portraying his musical obsessions in a very natural way. John Cusack has a harder time because his long face and dark hair deviate so sharply from the physical features of the actual person. It’s an interesting idea though. Cusack’s mannered performance highlights a compelling soul. Two sides that link one man, unite the story as it jumps back and forth between the past and the present. His mental illness compounded by abusive people, first by his father and then his doctor. Through it all we get glimpses into the creative process. Love & Mercy effectively depicts the hidden torment behind some of the 60s most uplifting music. Thankfully it’s not all misery. In the 80s, it’s his bond with Ledbetter that gives us hope with his troubled life. Elizabath Banks is that oasis of calm that compels you to watch.

06-11-15

When Marnie Was There

Posted in Animation, Drama, Family with tags on June 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

When Marnie Was There photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe difference between what this chronicle suggests it might be, and what it truly is, are night and day. Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is a 12 year old girl that has yet to find her place in this world. An orphan, she is being raised by loving foster parents Yoriko (Geena Davis) and her husband. Unfortunately Anna still suffers from the emotional scars of the past. “I hate myself” she cries out early on. Indeed she begins from a very dark place. Her reclusive state lends the narrative a grim context not often associated with animation. One day at school she collapses from an asthma attack. Her parents decide to have Anna spend the summer with her aunt (Grey DeLisle) and uncle (John C. Reilly) in Kushiro, a seaside town with fresher air. There she meets a mysterious girl named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka).

When Marnie Was There has similar national ties that sort of make it a spiritual successor to The Secret World of Arrietty, a 2010 Studio Ghibli film. The story also began as a British young adult novel.  This one published in 1967 by author Joan G. Robinson. Studio head Hayao Miyazaki had it among his recommended list of 50 children’s books. The same director of Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, then adapted it with help from Keiko Niwa and Masashi Andō, into a movie of the same name.

When Marnie Was There is an extremely slow saga but I am reluctant to call it plodding. I admire the gradually unfolding nature of the drama. Its reflective nature allows the viewer to kind of luxuriate in its mood. This is a plot that earns its drama from the heartbreaking turmoil of a teen going through adolescence. At first you want to embrace Anna. She feels isolated and alone. Yet she isn’t beyond reproach for her current circumstance either.  Anna is rather nasty at times, calling one of her new friends a “fat pig” out of nowhere. However Anna responds differently to the beautiful blonde Marnie, a friend her own age who lives in the dilapidated mansion across the pond. Except it isn’t in ruins whenever she visits her. At night there are even parties where Anna is invited to attend disguised as a flower girl. “You look like a girl from my dreams” Anna confides in Marnie.  Does Marnie really exist or is she merely a figment of Anna’s imagination?

When Marnie Was There never fulfills on its grand promise of something profound. Anna and Marnie strike up a friendship and their interactions allow the previously withdrawn Anna to open up. The two frequently abscond away together in clandestine meetings that suggest a rapport that is far more intimate. It reaches an apex when a jealous Anna questions Marnie about dancing with a boy. You’re certain that something more will come of this. But nothing does. Later there is a scary interlude that resembles a Gothic tale involving an old abandoned silo that terrifies Marnie. More suggestions of something grander than what is actually presented. The denouement ultimately ignores all of these plot threads and settles into a resolution that doesn’t effectively address the issues with which this poor kid is struggling. She was really messed up and the reveal is totally disconnected from what this girl had been feeling. Sill, the picture is too visually hypnotic to ignore. The soundtrack, both the music and the sounds of the environment, create a lavish atmosphere that is spellbinding. I liked When Marnie Was There. I just didn’t love it.

06-13-15

Jurassic World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Jurassic World photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJurassic World is a sequel set 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park. Pay no attention to entries 2 and 3. They’re irrelevant. The dream of a dinosaur theme park on Isla Nublar, initially conceived by John Hammond, is now a reality. In fact it has been in operation and running smoothly for a couple decades. It’s an amusement park like no other. Jurassic World boasts a plethora of attractions seemingly based on the Disneyland template. Get up close and personal at the Gentle Giants petting zoo. View the flora and fauna by rolling around in a glass encased Gyrosphere or kayaking on the Cretaceous Cruise. Or just sit back, relax and watch a Mosasauraus feeding show in an outdoor arena. Careful, you may get wet.

Much of the visual awe lies in the beautifully crafted details of a dinosaur theme park that looks like a physical creation that could actually exist. We’re told that it has been a success for years. However Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the operations manager, laments that attendance has grown stagnant. Velociraptors have become old hat and the attraction needs to rely on some innovation to spark interest, Chief bioengineer, Dr. Henry Wu (B. D. Wong) has abnormally engineered dinosaur DNA with modern animals to breed a completely new creature. Indominus Rex is impressively large but he reasons in such an intelligent way that it begs laughter. But hey, that’s part of the fun.

Jurassic World delivers on the promise of an exhilarating movie. It’s more thrill ride than complex drama though. The beasts dazzle. The humans? Not so much. The human drama is fabricated upon a frosty operations manager (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose raison d’être is to increase the popularity of the attraction. Naturally she has no time for her two nephews that come to visit the park. Granted Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) are pretty irritating. The first is a sullen drag and the other spouts facts every 5 minutes. Just call them”gloomy” and “gabby”. I suppose the narrative wouldn’t have been the same without those annoying kids. Check the franchise. It’s a tradition. Vincent D’Onofrio is a heel out of the Generic Villains 101 handbook. As head of security operations, he wants to utilize the Raptors as weapons for military purposes. We’re obviously supposed to hate him. Nevertheless I found myself reacting against the script’s obvious manipulation to the point where his idea started to make sense. Chris Pratt as a Velociraptor expert and trainer is the movie’s MVP. Despite his top billing, he doesn’t appear until 20 minutes in. He’s only onscreen for a short period and then doesn’t reappear until the second hour. But when he does, he captivates our attention and exudes the charm of a movie star.  However, his romance with Claire is the very definition of contrived.

The visual splendor of Jurassic World presents all the whiz-bang biological appeal of dinosaurs run amok. It highlights creative set pieces that champion the excitement of a dinosaur disaster story. This is easily the best entry since the first. The narrative frequently references Jurassic Park to tell a tale that is slavishly devoted to the blueprint of the original. Critics might deem it uncreative. Fans would call it nostalgia. I side more with the latter. You came to see animals gone wild and that’s exactly what you’ll get. There’s a showdown of a final fight that includes an aggregation of dinosaurs. The climax pays off perfectly.  The park is manifested as a stunning reality that hearkens back to the wonder of the first film. Although I can’t say the technology has really taken a significant leap. Some CGI bits were spectacular while others had Pratt riding his motorcycle alongside a gang of raptors. There are a lot of tedious scenes involving humans. Claire, who spends the entire movie running in high heels, has her predictable moment where she saves the day. It’s more eye-rolling than applause-worthy. But if you go to a dinosaur movie for “Shakespearean” characterization” then you’ve missed the point. With that said, I will offer that I truly enjoyed an exchange between actors Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson at the end. Wait for it. It’s the funniest moment in the entire film…at least intentionally.

06-11-15

Insidious: Chapter 3

Posted in Horror with tags on June 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Insidious Chapter 3 photo starrating-2stars.jpgInsidious Chapter 3 is the inevitable prequel set before the events concerning the Lambert family in part one. Despite her third billed status, the drama revolves around teen Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott). Her mother has recently succumbed to cancer and Quinn misses her terribly. She goes to visit a spirit medium, Elise Rainier, played by returning cast member Lin Shaye. A warm presence, she is a welcome sight. Elise attempts to make contact and immediately feels an evil entity that strikes her with fear. She warns Quinn that when you try to speak to the dead, all of them can hear you. So the apparent moral is, “Don’t attempt to talk to your loved ones who have passed on.” Seriously?

Insidious was an an effective chiller because it built suspense out of simple things. It was able to make a pair of shoes behind the curtains seem creepy or a shadowy figure outside the window. As the 2010 movie was refreshingly straightforward, Chapter 2 went the other route, becoming overly complicated with needless exposition to define everything we had seen in the first story. In this way the script undermined the source. It’s not unlike revealing the secrets behind how a magician performs his craft. You’re now more informed but less dazzled by what you initially saw.

I guess the nicest thing I can say about Chapter 3 is that it doesn’t leave a stench as rank as Chapter 2. It’s not horrible – just dull. The narrative is utterly rote. There’s precious little creativity to justify why this was made. Actress Lin Shaye is vital as the psychic. Also back are paranormal investigators Tucker and Specs: Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell. They’re mildly amusing. Unfortunately the plot relies on a lot of cheap jump scares that are more irritating than frightening. Furthermore, every single one is inserted exactly where you expect it, so they’re predicable as well as tiresome. Dermot Mulroney plays it sitcom campy as Quinn’s father. He acts as if he’s in a completely different film from everyone else. He’s a shouter in a room full of whisperers. Whannell returns as screenwriter and takes over directing duties this time. James Wan, the director of the previous installments, is now only a co-producer. While it’s an improvement over Chapter 2, the picture has significantly lower production values. If how Elise met Tucker & Specs has been keeping you up at night, then Chapter 3 might serve a purpose. Otherwise be good to your ears and watch something less discordant.

06-06-15

Spy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spy photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgCould Melissa McCarthy be the funniest comedian working today? I asked myself this question on October 1, 2011 when she hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time. (Incredibly, She’s already managed to host 3 times in the previous four seasons). The entire episode was gold but it was the “Hidden Valley Ranch Taste Test ” skit that cemented that status. Her interpretation of an overexcited consumer, made the sketch an instant classic. It was her fearless commitment to a character desperate to get her opinion noticed, complete with facial ticks, pushy gestures and obsessively repeated lines that made it so iconic. It was the same ability that nabbed her an Oscar nomination the same year for Best Supporting Actress in Bridemaids. The film was directed by Paul Feig. The two also collaborated on The Heat. Now Spy marks the third time the two have joined forces. I must say the partnership is electric.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst that has actually chosen desk duty as her preferred career choice. You see, Susan is hopelessly in love with Bradley Fine (Jude Law in his debonair best), the field agent with whom she is partnered. She works at a computer in a dingy rat-infested basement at CIA’s Langley headquarters. As his much needed extra set of eyes when he goes on assignment in the field, she is the whispering voice in his earpiece. Despite her misplaced feelings for Fine, she’s a very perceptive woman. She’s quite effective behind the scenes, extremely good at what she does. As a result, it’s simply a matter of time before she’s forced into international field as a secret agent of the world. Yes, there’s the visual joke that this zaftig woman is playing the role of a James Bond-esque undercover secret agent. However, Susan Cooper is anything but a joke.

Spy manages to be both silly adventure while mocking gender cliches as well. The screenplay is sharp because it gets to present the prejudices of her enemies, only to have them humiliated at every turn by her competence. The story intelligently exploits their low expectations of Susan. It’s surprisingly transgressive. Susan is saddled with embarrassing fake identities that make her look like a crazy cat lady or a frumpy tourist. There’s a a hilarious scene where she’s outfitted with her spy accouterments by the script’s version of Q (Michael McDonald). Instead of the usual high tech gadgets of a sophisticated super spy, her equipment comes disguised as hemorrhoid wipes and stool softeners.

If this was the basis for the comedy, it would’ve been enough. But then we’re introduced to the icy daughter of the target that Fine accidentally killed. Rose Byrne is a hoot as Rayna Boyanov. Her snobby barbs and bitchy attitude make her ice queen of a villain a campy delight – a ruthless Bulgarian beauty with an exaggerated accent and a hairstyle that would make a drag queen envious. Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne trade digs as their back and forth verbal game of one-upmanship escalates. Rayna referring to Susan’s chic getup: “The moment I saw you standing there in that abortion of a dress…” versus Susan’s estimation that Rayna’s haute couture looks like “a slutty dolphin-trainer.” Rayna compares Susan to a “sad little Bulgarian clown.” “Thank God, your hair broke your fall” Susan snips after Rayna stumbles. Invective is thrown while the audience gleefully watches, savoring every nasty insult. The pair form a combative team that extends the chronicle into the realm of genius.

As a ridiculous comedy, Spy wholeheartedly delivers the laughs. What deepens this into a tour de force, rests in the way Melissa McCarthy subverts our expectations. She is a heroine to be admired because she is so darn talented. When she fights a lithe knife wielding female assassin in the tight confines of a restaurant kitchen, she demonstrates athleticism by using a frying man to defend herself. The visual sight gag is a spectacle of perfectly timed physical satire and choreography. The understanding is, these athletic specimens may be good, but she is better. Melissa McCarthy has the ability to take even slow parts and make them shine. Add Rose Byrne as the emotionless villain and you have a match made in comedy heaven. If you could bottle their chemistry, you’d have the key ingredient for any successful duo. The rest of the star filled supporting cast (Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law) are amusing too. They’re just not quite at the level of McCarthy or Rose Byrne. That’s OK. There’s more than enough laughs here to sustain two movies. Spy is the most gut-bustingly funny movie of the year so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if it retains that title.

06-04-15

About Elly

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on June 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

About Elly photo starrating-4stars.jpgAsghar Farhadi is the master of the emotionally complex human drama. The Iranian director and screenwriter first came to worldwide recognition with his masterpiece A Separation. That picture debuted December 2011 in the U.S. and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for that year. Two years later he helmed The Past, another masterwork that brilliantly explored human relationships. Before those successes however he directed About Elly, a 2009 movie in his native Iran, but ran into difficulties when the original U.S. distributor went bankrupt. New York based Cinema Guild stepped in and gave the film an official limited release in April 2015.

Like Farhadi’s two most recent works, About Elly is composed in very much the same way. The calm of a slowly constructed set-up is shattered by a significant event which propels the drama. This story concerns a group 3 married couples, the single brother of one of the married women, and three young children, reuniting for a weekend outing by the Caspian Sea. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the woman whose stunning visage adorns the movie poster, has also invited Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher. A bit of a matchmaker, Sepideh has brought Elly along in hopes of setting her up with her recently divorced brother Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). For the first 40 minutes, we see the group have a good time. This effectively establishes the relationships, although I’d contend this section could’ve been a little more compelling. They dance, talk, play charades and volleyball. Yet Elly seems somewhat disconnected from the proceedings, a little shy perhaps. Then, as is usually the case with Farhadi dramas, that moment occurs which sets everything in motion.

With About Elly, the less you know the better, so I won’t reveal specifics. I’ll only say that the whereabouts of Elly becomes a problem. This introduces a series of conversations that slowly expose details that were heretofore unknown. The exchanges raise some unusual questions about moral principles and conduct. The toxicity of lies has been the subject of Farhadi’s previous work, and this chronicle is no exception. What makes About Elly even more uncommon is the ethical concerns it raises that are unique to Iranian culture. One lie leads to another. Many arise out of cultural norms that would not be an issue in say the U.S. Farhadi’s screenplay, based on a story created with Azad Jafarian, is brilliant and perfectly acted by an ensemble cast that is asd captivating as they are natural. Actress Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh is particularly good. The narrative rests heavily on her shoulders. When she starts coughing out of worry, you can feel her stress. About Elly further cements Asghar Farhadi’s reputation as one of our finest directors working today.

05-31-15

San Andreas

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller on May 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

San Andreas photo starrating-1star.jpgSan Andreas is a catastrophe. It is a lamentable skill when a disaster film, a piece of entertainment that is routinely met with the lowest of expectations, fails to even meet the basic requirements of simply being “dumb summer entertainment”. This is a genre in which universally panned movies like Dante’s Peak, Poseidon or 2012 can still manage to earn big bucks at the box office. However the popular opinion of which inevitably deteriorates over time in the mind of the American public. Oh there are high minded exceptions. The Birds, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, Contagion. But what makes those productions great is the blending of mass destruction with characters that captivate our attention.

San Andreas on the other hand eschews originality in favor of series of tropes uncreatively strung together by CGI effects. The plot can be summarized in a sentence: When the San Andreas fault triggers a 9 plus magnitude quake up the West coast, a search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) make their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). A plot so simple it might be refreshing. But oh the cliches! Most disaster films rely on a few timeworn shortcuts to tell a story but that’s all San Andreas is – literally a checklist of hackneyed tropes and nothing more. How does San Andreas conventionalize? Let me count the ways…

Brad Peyton is the brains behind such movies as Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Kid friendly doesn’t have to mean intellectually vacant, but I’ll let his filmography speak for itself. Ray and Emma are a divorced couple that are still amicable toward each other. This gives them the awkward sexual tension when they band together to save their daughter trapped in San Francisco. Clearly the narrative wants you to think Ray is a stand-up guy. Clumsily inserted amongst the CGI mayhem we get the occasional “quiet dramatic scene”. In flashback, Ray reflects on his greatest failure: he wasn’t able to save his younger daughter when she tragically drowned in a rafting accident. He obsesses over the daughter he couldn’t save while the living daughter suffers in need. His behavior gets more egregious. Here we have an active-duty LAFD pilot who ignores orders by abandoning his job in the middle of the greatest natural emergency in American history. Instead he goes AWOL on a personal mission with one of the department’s helicopters. He intends to save his wife and daughter but no none else – leaving thousands to die as a result. To emphasize the point further, he drives past an elderly couple on the side of the road leaving them in the dust. The only reason he ultimately turns around is because they were trying to warn HIM before he drove into a chasm. Ray’s dereliction of duty is disgusting.

However according to the script, the truly reprehensible human is Emma’s rich boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). Naturally he is revealed to be an unctuous jerk who cowardly abandons Blake in her hour of need. This an obvious setup to make his inevitable death by a falling building all the more gratifying. Daniel’s sister Susan (Kylie Minogue) dies too but that’s OK because she made an insensitive comment. Death karma to people who are rude. But good people die as well. You almost have to admire a film with the audacity to kill millions but then conveniently neglects to show a single dead body. Buildings will fall, tides will raise, but there’s nary a casualty in sight. The death and trauma that follow a major earthquake are nonexistent here. That would interrupt the viewer’s enjoyment of the pristine beauty of CGI served up for visual consumption.

There are some impressive effects. Behold the brilliant shards of glass raining down upon people as they narrowly make their escape. Narrowly is the operative words here. Nobody escapes a discernible threat unless it is barely by the skin of their teeth. Time and again the audience is led to believe that every major character is just within a hair’s breadth of losing their life only to escape within an inch of life. This includes a scenario where the pilot of a helicopter tempts fate by saying “we’re only 90 minutes away” and then seconds later, the engine fails. Meanwhile Ray’s daughter Blake is trapped in a San Francisco parking garage. There she encounters Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). The meet-cute allows her to rescue him. Girl Power! They’re all such a bore though. The one lone individual that is mildly interesting is Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) a seismology professor at Caltech who detects the quake and warns everybody about their impending doom. He’s the “I told you so!”

San Andreas has a lot of faults. A narrative disaster that falls apart under the weight of a thousand cliches. In a few years this DVD should find a permanent home in the 99 cent bin at your local Walmart. Until then crowds will flock to see pretty CGI . The chronicle’s lazy reliance on tropes from other disaster pictures is pretty shameful. Did the real script get destroyed in the quake? LA and San Francisco are decimated and millions have died. But a happy ending rests on whether our “hero” Ray and his family are reunited. The countless souls that have their lives extinguished is presented as a mild inconvenience. The final minutes lovingly feature the courageous efforts of FEMA, the National Guard, and the UN. Please note the giant American flag draped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. As Emma ponders, “What now?” Ray looks up to the heavens and says without irony “We rebuild.” I wouldn’t say the picture was forgettable because  that would have been a blessing. San Andreas is so hopelessly bad, I just can’t stop thinking about its miserableness.

05-28-15

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