Archive for the Comedy Category

Pitch Perfect 2

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pitch Perfect 2 photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the apparent mantra of Pitch Perfect 2. In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an obvious riff on Bring It On, but instead of competitive cheerleading, it was a cappella singing. Despite the familiarity, it was a delightful bit of fluff . The presentation was charming and it had a nice soundtrack to boot. Now in 2015 we have the sequel. Perhaps less innovative given we’ve seen this all before, but nevertheless it’s enchanting as well.

The saga picks up 3 years after the original. The Barden Bellas — collegiate champions — are now headed by Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). They’re rounded out by the same team of lovable music geeks, including goofy Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), soft-spoken Korean Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), lesbian African-American Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) and new Guatemalan exchange student Flo (Chrissie Fit). Talented and likable characters all. Fat Amy comes across the best because she seems like a fully formed individual. The rest have apparently been assigned one funny gag each to which they apparently must promote into the ground. Flo grew up very poor for example and she reminds us of this fact over and over and over. They’re not the focus so these formulaic conventions don’t detract, but a little more nuance to their personalities would’ve been appreciated.

There are some random subplots too. Beca interns at a high profile recording studio headed by a cruel music producer (Keegan-Michael Key). Fat Amy’s burgeoning romance with Bumper (Adam DeVine) continues to grow. And how will new recruit freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) fare in the group? She is a legacy whose mother was also a Barden Bella. Her songwriting talents blend with Beca’s producing skills. Emily’s original composition “Flashlight” seeks to duplicate the success of “Cups” from the last film. Emily even develops a little on-screen romance with adorkable Treblemaker Benji (Ben Platt). Unfortunately his fellow Treblemaker Jesse (Skylar Astin) barely registers any screen time in this outing. Oh but Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are back as politically incorrect color commentators. They’re good for some giggles. In fact, Pitch Perfect 2 is funnier. The script by Kay Cannon and Mickey Rapkin keeps the rapid-fire humor coming at a steady pace. An offhand reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Impressive.

Plotwise this is virtually the same thing. The story even begins with yet another public disgrace at a competition. They’re performing live for President Obama and one of the girls has a, shall we say, wardrobe malfunction. The incident is dubbed “Muffgate”. The team must now regroup and prove themselves once again. The disgraced Bellas are banned from contests at the collegiate level. Although they are not prevented from competing internationally. Thank goodness for loopholes. This time it’s at the world championships in Copenhagen where they must face rivals from schools on a global level. Thing is, no U.S. a cappella group has ever won this event before. Can they do it? If you really think they don’t have a chance then can I interest you in purchasing some prime Florida swampland?

To be quite honest, the predictability of the narrative is kind of the selling point. You come for songs, jokes and camaraderie and you’re given exactly that. However now the laughs are bigger, the music is better, and the cameos are more badass. I can’t spoil who pops up, but there are some very amusing appearances. Several are highlighted in an exclusive invite only a cappella riff-off. (YES another one). Here the Bellas battle against one special guest team of note I won’t reveal. Also competing at the party are all-boy harmony group The Treblemakers, Barden University alumni The Tonehangers, and a spectacular German group co-led by Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Pieter (Flula Borg). Das Sound Machine is a formidable opponent of Teutonic vocal precision and intense choreography. They are the primary antagonists of the film. Kommissar “actually speaks 8 languages, but loser is not one of them.” They perform “Uprising” by Muse at a car show and it’s breathtaking. I can say without hesitation that it was THEIR finale at the world championships that impressed me the most.

Pitch Perfect 2 goes down easily by championing wholesome values like friendship, teamwork and the importance of practice in between gently outrageous PG-13 rated behavior. The first category in the mid-story riff-off is “Songs About Butts” which allows for an admittedly inspired medley of “Thong Song”, “Shake Your Booty”, “Low”, “Bootylicious” and “Baby Got Back.” The musical ditty is just one of many exhilarating numbers throughout the film. I didn’t expect to hear Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” or Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”. It’s the music that propels this retread into a must see experience.

05-17-15

While We’re Young

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

While We're Young photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgNoah Baumbach has a unique outlook on life. The director has always had precocious ideas to the point where they become precious. He belongs to that rare club that dares to present quirky New York angst of the white middle to upper class. Woody Allen is the patron saint of these hyper-intellectuals – Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson are the disciples. Those latter two veer closer to a rosy Norman Rockwellian angle where Baumbach, up until recently, was decidedly more pessimistic. The Squid and the Whale was downright nasty. But his attitude changed with Frances Ha and now I feel that Baumbach has taken another leap forward with his worldview. It’s measured and much more layered.

While We’re Young is ostensibly a story about getting older. Noah Baumbach presents us with an aging couple in their 40s. Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentarian who has been struggling with his obtuse 7 hour documentary for a decade. Naomi Watts is Cornelia, his wife who is struggling to come to terms with her inability to have children. They’re in a rut. Then they meet a catalyst for change in hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) & Darby (Amanda Seyfried). They’re vibrant, laid back and spontaneous. Jaime & Darby are down to earth, but they’re nutty too. They have 70s movie posters up on the walls, watch movies on VHS tapes and listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” on vinyl. There‘s a little subtext here in appreciating something because you actually experienced it as opposed to enjoying something in an ironic sense from afar.

While We’re Young is a movie based on existential discussions. Josh & Cornelia are drawn to Jamie & Darby’s carefree but irresponsible perspective on life. The narrative is sensible and even-handed in a way that endorses everyone’s point of view. The chronicle doesn’t take sides. Their relationship with these free spirits reacquaints them with commendable qualities they no longer possess and forces them to come to terms with how they have changed. These loquacious New Yorkers can be trying at times, but they’re funny too. We see people we know and then we see the qualities of people that annoy us. We see ourselves in Josh and Cornelia as well. I don’t care who you are. Anyone who has ever felt old while observing twenty-somethings as another life form can relate.

Baumbach can make the behavior of these bohemian intellectuals admirable and childish all in the same scene. That’s kind of brilliant. Whether Josh and Cornelia are attending an invite to an impromptu “street beach” event in Brooklyn or an Ayahuasca ceremony, I found myself thinking, “That might be cool” at the idea but when confronted with the reality thinking, “Ok that looks unpleasant.” That’s probably because I have grown up and my perspective is closer to the director’s than the youthful hipsters that populate these parties. Baumbach’s greatest contribution is the way he subverts your expectations. Nobody is the butt of the joke here. While We’re Young isn’t perfect. What drives Josh as a filmmaker is completely unrelatable – to me anyway. But then that’s part of the humor now isn’t it? These are multidimensional people that have genuine good qualities – each and every one of them. They also have components to their personalities that can make them a little insufferable too. In other words they’re human. These characters are more lovable than any I have ever seen in one of the director’s films. Baumbach really has something interesting to say with While We’re Young…and I’m listening.

04-12-15

Trainwreck

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Trainwreck photo starrating-4stars.jpgTrainwreck is a romantic comedy with a different point of view – Amy Schumer‘s. She isn’t interested in settling down. Part of the humor is her knee-jerk reaction to leave quickly after every one-night stand before it develops into a relationship. This is regardless of how sweet, sincere or handsome her date is.  This is especially true when she meets Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader).  It’s difficult at times to comprehend why she acts the way she does. That’s the beauty of the screenplay. We view her so-called male sensibility with fresh eyes. There’s some insight into her worldview in the very first scene – a flashback of her father giving Amy and her younger sister Kim some advice when they were little girls. His “monogamy isn’t realistic” speech draws an analogy the little ones can understand: “What if you were told that you could only play with just one doll for the rest of your life?” Twenty-three years later we see the results of those words. Amy took the lesson to heart and has never looked back. However her sister (Brie Larson), resisted the suggestion and has settled down into a happy existence of domesticity with her husband (Mike Birbiglia) and their son. Kim is a nice counterpoint to her sister. Larson makes the most of a portrayal that could’ve been the target of jokes but the presentation of her reality, while sedate, is one of happiness.

Actually Trainwreck is populated by a supporting cast of really well written side characters that make a strong impression. Amy works as a writer at a dopey men’s interest magazine called S’NUFF that publishes articles like “The Ugliest Celebrity Children Under 6″. Her place of employment is the setting for some very clever material. Tilda Swinton stands out in a supporting performance as Amy’s editor. To be honest, at first I didn’t recognize the British actress with her long tresses and heavy eyeliner. I thought, “Who is this hilarious woman that kind of resembles Tilda Swinton?“ The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, and now this – once again she really shines. Tilda Swinton is like bacon. She makes everything better. In addition the production reunites Tilda with Ezra Miller, her co-star from We Need to Talk About Kevin. Miller plays an odd intern.

Trainwreck is full of random people that defy conventions. These include pro wrestler John Cena as a sweet musclehead that is closest thing she has to a boyfriend. He only wants to settle down with Amy. There’s professional basketball player LeBron James as Aaron’s effusive best friend who doesn’t want to see his buddy get hurt. Did I mention he’s a big fan of Downton Abbey? The fact that LeBron is supposed to be playing himself makes his unexpected personality quirks even more random. His counterpart in Amy’s life is Nikki, Amy’s best friend played by Vanessa Bayer. “Why would he call? You guys just had sex.” More role reversal. And that’s merely the beginning. Amy has written a production with parts that allow a whole cast to shine. There are a ton other cameos. No more disclosures. They’ll be more amusing when you discover them for yourself.

Is Judd Apatow the directorial successor to James L. Brooks? Kind of looks that way. Trainwreck is as funny & poignant as Brooks in his prime. Judd Apatow directed but Amy Schumer wrote the script and this movie has her fingerprints all over it. The generic romantic comedy model tells the chronicle of a man who dates a lot of women. He can’t be tied down. He doesn’t want the commitment of a relationship, simply the superficial pleasures that serial dating affords. Then one day he meets the woman that challenges his expectations and nothing will ever be the same from that point on.

Trainwreck follows that romantic comedy blueprint. The difference? Amy Schumer is the “man” who shuns commitment. Heck. It goes far beyond that. She doesn’t even want a second date. Then she meets successful and charming sports doctor, Aaron Connors. Comedian Bill Hader is the “woman” that challenges her approach to relationships. If this was Trainwreck’s only contribution, it might not have been so innovative. But Amy Schumer amplifies the folly of such attitudes with the role reversal. Her character, also named Amy, is such a strange bird. The behavior doesn’t exactly make her endearing. As the story progresses and Dr. Connors becomes almost saintly, you just want to shake Amy to her senses. But the conduct makes her funny and there are laughs, insightful ones that belie her hedonistic perspective. Even when she is making fun of her sister’s domesticity, you can sense a little jealousy behind her barbs. It’s that bitterness mixed with sensitivity that comes through and makes her personality someone we want to embrace.

04-09-15

Get Hard

Posted in Comedy, Crime with tags on April 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Get Hard photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgComedy Is Not Pretty! was a 1979 album by Steve Martin. But he might as well been talking about the directorial debut effort from writer Etan Cohen. And I use “effort” in the loosest definition of the word. The plot concerns a filthy rich stockbroker named James King (Ferrell) who is arrested for embezzlement. His gold digging fiancée (Alison Brie) also happens to be the boss‘ daughter. Her father Martin Barrow (Craig T. Nelson ) was going to make James a partner in his company Barrow Funds. Despite his assertions to the contrary, the judge finds James guilty and sentences him to ten years at San Quentin, with only 30 days to get his affairs in order. During this time he relies on his boss to prove his innocence. Meanwhile James contacts his car washer, Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) to teach him how to toughen up so that he will be able to survive in prison.

In Get Hard, Ferrell and Hart are the worst comedy duo since Clooney and O’Donnell in Batman & Robin. It doesn’t help that the premise is artificially fabricated for laughs without a lick of sense. Rather than trying to prove James’ innocence, Darnell just decides to prepare him for prison life by transforming his luxurious estate into a prison. This leads to a lot of really lame bits that simply rely on the stars’ personas to nail the joke. Instead of exploiting conventions, the screenplay wallows in them never rising above hackneyed stereotypes that were already tired in the 80s. The scene at an outdoor L.A. cafe with an all-gay clientele is the nadir. No wait, make that the moment that follows in the restaurant’s bathroom.  It reminded me that Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt did a forgotten buddy comedy in 1982 called Partners. That was bad. This is worse.

Ok I’ll admit there are a few scattered jokes that are amusing. At their engagement party, James’ fiancée introduces John Mayer as the surprise entertainment and her father leans over to her and asks, “Who’s John Mayer?“ In another bit, Kevin Hart impersonates several personalities in a prison exercise yard. As he jumps around in a frenzy changing his voice and demeanor to suit various characters, I saw talent.

Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart can be funny but you’d never know it from this lazily written time waster. Even the title is a double entendre that sounds like a 5th grader made it up. Ok hold up. That’s not fair, I’m underestimating the wit of a 10 year old. Get Hard is based on the stale conceit that if you combine a tall uptight white guy with a short streetwise black guy then laughs will follow. This is a bloated vehicle for two stars to just act silly and film what happens. A paper thin premise is stretched to fill 100 minutes that has fewer chuckles than a visit to the dentist. In this case, multiplying two positives actually equals a negative.

03-31-15

Faults

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Thriller on March 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Faults photo starrating-4stars.jpgAnsel Roth (Leland Orser) is “one of the world’s foremost authorities on mind control and cult organizations” or so he adamantly proclaims to a heckler at one of his poorly attended seminars. You see Ansel’s life has taken a downturn. He’s divorced, his TV show is canceled, and now he’s been reduced to shilling his new book in a conference room in a cheap hotel. “I can sign it for $5.”  It wasn’t always this way. His first book was a big hit. Unfortunately his former wife acquired the rights to it as part of their divorce settlement. Now he’s starting from ground zero with a new tome that hasn’t exactly burned up the bestseller list. His last intervention to help someone in a religious sect tragically resulted in their suicide. Because of this, when the parents (Chris Ellis & Beth Grant) of another member of a cult recruit him to deprogram their daughter, his first instinct is to disregard their request. But their persistence and the looming monetary debt he owes to his manager (Jon Gries) soon leads to a change of heart.

Faults carefully straddles the line between black comedy and cautionary tale. The chronicle begins rather playfully but as the story develops it becomes less and less so. By the conclusion, it becomes extremely serious without a hint of humor. The ending is actually rather chilling. “Faults” is the name of the cult. Ansel’s plan begins with kidnapping the parents’ daughter and bringing her to a sparsely decorated hotel room for deprogramming. This is where the majority of the action takes place. The narrative mostly consists of conversations designed to get to the root of her devotion to “Faults”.

The success of Faults is the result of a brilliant screenplay. The claustrophobic surroundings and extended cinematic takes add to the dialogue heavy drama. The interactions of the two principals uncover intriguing discoveries. To go into more details would be to spoil the movie, but writer/director Riley Stearns has written a fascinating script and extracted the best performances I have ever seen from these two talented performers. Character actor Leland Orser is probably best known as a recurring part on the television show ER. Here is given a rare starring role and he makes the most of this compelling cult expert. He has this hapless quality that grows more self assured when he is in his element. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is the wife of the director, is phenomenal as well. There is a blankness to her expressions where you’re never really sure where her head is at. She has this weird mix of vulnerability and calm throughout. This is very much a non-traditional horror film of sorts. It sets up a troubling premise and then follows through to a surprising twist ending with a point. Faults is a rewarding experience.

03-28-15

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Posted in Comedy, Drama on March 10, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgThe greatest thing about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the title. God bless truth in advertising. This is a pale imitation of the original. The existence of which preys upon those wanting to relive the good times of the first film. It bilks poor trusting folks out of their hard earned cash. Judging from my audience that would be retired people over 60 which makes the act even more pernicious. The movie is a such an obvious cash grab I’m surprised they didn’t offer this in IMAX 3D so they could charge more money honestly. Truth be told, I found the first one to be kind of insipid. Yet that was an exhilarating enchantment compared to this transgression.

Let’s start with the overburdened plot. It’s positively stuffed with an extreme number of characters with yawn inducing story threads. Most of the ensemble returns with the exception of Tom Wilkinson who is sorely missed. If you saw the first one you’ll understand why he’s not here. He should thank the screenwriter. Sonny (Dev Patel) desperately wants to expand his hotel business with another property. But wait! He’s also planning his wedding to pretty Sunaina (Tina Desai) while being jealous of handsome family friend Kushal (Shazad Latif) whom Sonny distrusts. Is Kushal trying to steal his girl or does he want his real estate? Or both? Who cares! It’s hard to get past Sonny’s obsequious gestures and cloying demeanor. His embarrassing behavior is a full-blown caricature.  Imagine the hyperactive movements of a Disney cartoon and you’ll get his performance.

But we have yet to scratch the surface of this convoluted saga! Embittered curmudgeon Muriel (Maggie Smith) now manages the existing property with him. Evelyn (Judi Dench) works as a textile buyer and keeps tour guide Douglas (Bill Nighy) at bay. Let’s not forget his ex wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) who shows up late in the film just to be insufferable. Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle) are trying to remain faithful to each other. But are they? Madge (Celia Imrie) is always on the make. She makes Blanche Devereaux look like a nun. That’s a Golden Girls reference for you Millennials. Even with two wealthy suitors panting after her, another handsome visitor makes her head spin. That arrival is Guy, played by Richard Gere who is newly added to the cast. Is he the liaison sent to inspect the hotel for a possible investor? Never mind. He’s actually got his eyes on Sonny’s no nonsense mother (Lillete Dubey) in a slapdash romance that has about as much spark of a damp sponge. Lavinia (Tamsin Greig) is also a new guest there to look over the place for her mother. Can she even stay here? She looks like she’s in her 40s, a comparative baby to this lot. Did I mention she has a thing for Kushal?

The romantic escapades of the inhabitants of the Marigold Hotel is the subject of this soap opera masquerading as sophisticated entertainment. This is Love, American Style for the geriatric set. Although I hope I didn’t insult the early 1970s ABC TV anthology series. Seriously though. What are they feeding these folks? Even with all the amorous adventures, the production is absolute drudgery for a moviegoer to endure. Not much of consequence happens. Even the title refers to a subplot that doesn’t really figure into the story until the very end. A sensible and evolving drama is clearly not a priority of the script.  The narrative advances with the urgency of a three-toed sloth. Not to boast, but I’m rather proud I was able to stay awake during the snoozy happenings. Naturally everything culminates in a Bollywood style musical number at an Indian wedding.  Its presence only to adhere to some checklist of clichés. By then I had already checked out of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. My advice? Don’t even bother checking in.

03-09-15

Wild Tales

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Thriller with tags on March 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Wild Tales photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“Don’t get mad, get even.” That’s the apparent mantra of Wild Tales – Argentina’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2015. An anthology comprising of six stories connected by a common theme: revenge. The presentation is constructed much in the same way as a collection Twilight Zone episodes strung together. The very best have an underlying sense of humor that offsets the negative view that humans are nothing more than savage beasts. Indeed, photos of wildlife are subtly inserted in the background during the opening credits.

The chronicle commences with “Pasternak”. It’s the shortest segment, but one of the most effective. The story immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with its anecdote of two passengers on a plane united by a startling coincidence. The last freeze frame shot brilliantly begins the production on the right note – wicked farce. “The Rats”, and “Road To Hell” maintain that sense. In the latter, an altercation between two drivers is like a modern day Western. Their duel escalates into a battling game of one-upmanship. There is giddy anticipation as to how far they’ll go. The next three are a bit longer. “Bombita”, number four, details the rising frustrations of a man brought to the brink by one misfortune after another. It’s triggered when his car is towed. A man at odds with government bureaucracy immediately recalls Michael Douglas in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. “The Deal“, about a wealthy father trying to keep his spoiled rich son out of jail has a heavy-handed ending that kind of kills the winking spirit of the piece. It’s at this fifth tale where the drama starts to drag a bit under the movie’s extended length. However it all ends on a suitably funny note with “Til Death Do Us Part“. A bride discovers her husband-to-be’s infidelity at their wedding reception and reacts accordingly. The party descends into chaos with amusing results.

Wild Tales contends that human beings are merely separated by a thin line between societal norms and raging beasts. These six sagas of revenge highlight this fact. The most successful of which suffuse their bleak takes on life with comedy. Damián Szifrón writes and directs this glossy picture co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar. Stunning cinematography by Javier Juliá gives these dark comedies a picturesque quality that lightens the mood. A memorable score by Gustavo Santaolalla beautifully complements the production. Occasionally the tone gets nasty. There is a delicate balance between comedy and ugliness. It’s the twisted humor that redeems these misanthropic sagas. More often than not, the strength of the composition outweighs the occasional lapse. I didn’t expect the “Love Theme From Flashdance” to pop up in one segment but its playful moments like that which uplift a gloomy narrative. Those lighthearted touches keep these 6 unexpected tales of retribution consistently entertaining.

03-06-15

What We Do in the Shadows

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags on March 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

What We Do in the Shadows photo starrating-4stars.jpgWhat We Do in the Shadows is a mock documentary about Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr, four vampires who share a flat in New Zealand. Viago (Taika Waititi) is the most affable. He’s a bit of a neat freak as well. Viago laments that the others don’t put down newspaper in the house before a kill. A regular dandy, he is the sophisticate of the clan. At a mere 183 years, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the baby of the group. A rebel “bad boy” who sleeps upside down in a closet. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) carries himself like a sexy rock star. His explanation as to why vampires prefer virgins is hands down the funniest line I’ve heard in a long time. If there is an odd man out in this clique it would be 8,000-year-old Petyr who recalls Nosferatu. His incongruous presence next to the other 3 is the source of several laughs. The production was written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi who also star. The two have worked together before on Flight of the Conchords, the HBO series which Clement stars with Bret McKenzie.

The routine tribulations of being a vampire in modern New Zealand is profiled. By day they are holed up in the secluded enclave of their apartment. By night the four bachelors prowl the streets looking for people on which to feast. It pokes fun of the clichés of vampire lore and celebrates them in the process. Much of the humor is extracted from their often banal existence and matter-of-fact regard that other people have to their existence. Even after the gang has turned another victim (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a vampire, the guy insists on bringing his best buddy along who still remains a human. Deacon also keeps a human servant named Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), a housewife who bemoans the fact that he has not turned her into a vampire.

What We Do in the Shadows contains horror elements with moments of bloody gore mixed with an overall sense of lighthearted comedy. A surprising amount of warmth surfaces amongst this pseudo family of sorts. It isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. That is, it doesn’t present a self contained story. It’s more of a series of gags strung together. That might irk some. However the account is so brief (86 minutes) that the lack of a strong narrative isn’t a problem. The unique mix is somewhat odd, but it generally works. An apt point of reference would be the documentary This Is Spinal Tap, except well ya know it’s about vampires instead of rock musicians. The script has a very high ratio of jokes that really tickle the funny bone. Although the loosely constructed picture doesn’t immediately feel like a comedic classic, it’s solidly written. Repeat viewings should give this a longevity that will make it an enduring cult movie for many years to come.

03-03-15

Focus

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on March 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Focus photo starrating-2stars.jpgSeasoned con man Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) takes inexperienced protégé Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) under his wing to teach her the art of the grift. You’d think the fact that Smith is Robbie’s senior by two decades might give them a more father-daughter relationship but you’d be wrong. Robbie is stunning and Smith is still famous so naturally the two are fated to fall in love. Or do they? The problem with Focus is that you never quite believe anything that is happening on the screen. It’s one of those “who’s cheating who” type deceptions. There’s genuine skill in creating the perfect con that the best films (The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can) understand. There is a delicate balance between a grounded tale and a twisty fraud. Unfortunately this chronicle is so artificial, there’s nothing to count on. The many eye-rolling moments kill interest in this deception.

Focus is a glossy bit of entertainment, but it’s all a con. It’s crucial to your enjoyment that you enjoy the sexual chemistry that Smith and Robbie are trying so hard to ignite. Robbie is game but Smith lacks the suave demeanor required to really pull this off. He’s no Cary Grant. He’s not even Jim Carrey. There was a time where Smith could pull off charming. He had it in Hitch. But he doesn’t even exude the warmth necessary to even like him as a human being. Smith comes across as more smug – coolly detached to everyone and everything. He’s more in love with himself than his beautiful young co-star. With the romance falling flat there’s just the haphazardly constructed “big job” in the second half to hold our interest. A keen viewer will disregard everything in this subterfuge with a discerning eye. The story never earns our trust. It fails to engage – with one notable exception. Early on Nicky meets a compulsive gambler while attending a football game. B. D. Wong plays the wealthy businessman with fiendish glee. Their escalating back and forth double or nothing betting is the single most delightful scene in the entire film. For a brief moment, the movie comes alive. Too bad it loses focus.

03-04-15

The Last Five Years

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical on February 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Last 5 Years photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Last Five Years begins on an elegiac note. Anna Kendrick’s beautifully sung “Still Hurting” is a mournful ballad about the breakup of her marriage. Yup, the couple breaks up….in 5 years according to the title.  You would call this production a romantic musical.  Although the tone for this genre is usually buoyant, you realize right from the start that this going to be anything but a happy tale.

Kendrick is Cathy Hiatt. Her story begins at the end and is told in reverse as we progress to her happy beginning. Actor Jeremy Jordan is Jamie Wellerstein. His account is told chronologically and reaches the same conclusion but in the opposite direction from her. Technically there are other people on screen, but the drama only involves these two characters. Back and forth their sagas are interwoven. When she’s singing, we’re going backwards. When he’s crooning, we’re going forward. In the middle they sing a duet. It chronicles the few ups but mostly downs in a five-year relationship between the rising novelist (him) and the struggling actor (her).

The Last Five Years is based on a 2002 Off Broadway production written by Jason Robert Brown, a 3-time Tony Award winner (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County). Forget the story because this one is absolutely rote. That doesn’t have to be a problem. Some of the greatest musicals of all time (Singin’ in the Rain for example) are nothing more than a fabrication designed to highlight a bunch of great songs. The tunes in this case are good, but not great. The best belong to Anna. Beside the aforementioned “Still Hurting”, there’s “I Can Do Better Than That” about her friend who ended up in Smalltown, USA.  There’s also a delightfully ubeat ditty “A Summer in Ohio”. It’s imaginatively staged as she’s talking from afar with her hubby via video internet chat. The creative number is performed with backup dancers practicing their routines at the theater .

The strength of any musical rests on its music. These melodies are odd. They’re not fabricated using a typical song structure made up of an intro/verses/chorus components. Instead they’re sung dialogue that propel a weak story. Sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but obviously not a film as sacred to aesthetes. What The Last Five Years has going for it is a nice showcase for Anna Kendrick to sing. She could sing the dictionary and it would sound delightful. She’s got a fantastic voice and she interprets the hell out of these songs. She employs just enough vocal interpretation to be interesting, but not so much that seems like she’s showing off. The play embraces its own artificial theatricality. The issue is that their “love” is never uplifting. There’s precious little chemistry between the two leads. This is partly due to the fact that they’re portraying a fighting couple through most of the picture. Their disenchantment with each other kind of rubs off on the viewer. However the sheer singing talent of Ana Kendrick compels me to give this a pass.

02-24-15

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