Archive for the Comedy Category

Daddy’s Home

Posted in Comedy, Uncategorized with tags on January 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo daddys_home_zpsmwctg3sm.jpg photo starrating-halfstar.jpgI wasn’t going to review Daddy’s Home. I absolutely hated it. So much that I didn’t even want to ever think about it again. But then it became a hit. Since Dec 18th Star Wars: The Force Awakens has loomed large over everything else at the multiplex. That makes the success of Daddy’s Home even more incredible. While Oscar hopefuls like Concussion, Joy, The Big Short and The Hateful Eight all compete for an audience, this meager comedy outperformed them all with $120 million dollars. I can no longer ignore this. It has incurred my wrath.

It’s a sad coincidence, but Will Ferrell actually managed to co-produce the 3 worst movies I saw in 2015. No joke. Daddy’s Home, Get Hard, and Welcome to Me were the very dregs of everything I saw. It wasn’t always this way. Will Ferrell was once a favorite of mine. I consider Elf, Blades of Glory and Step Brothers to be among the funniest comedies of the 2000s decade. I even liked The Other Guys, the last flick he made with Mark Wahlberg – his onscreen co-star here. That makes his recent output all the more depressing. He can do better.

Brad (Will Ferrell) is married to Sara (Linda Cardellini). Right from the start we learn Brad cannot produce children of his own because his groin was subjected to x-ray radiation at the dentist. The script thinks it is important that we know he is infertile. The implicit-association is that he is defective and enfeebled. He is, nonetheless, a loving stepdad to her two young children. The children, who come across as ungrateful brats, hate him anyway simply because he isn’t their real dad. Megan draws a picture of Brad with “homeless man poop” on his head. However after 6 months of sycophantic behavior, Brad is finally starting to fit in with the family. That is, until the kids’ biological dad (Mark Wahlberg) decides to show up and re-enter the picture. Dusty is presented as a more handsome, athletic, macho dude that rides a motorcycle and knows the coach of the Lakers. He ingratiates himself back into their lives much to the consternation of Brad.

This is probably a good time to point out that that the entire narrative is based on a battle of egos to determine male superiority. Brad is unceasingly shown as not being able to measure up to stereotypical standards of masculinity. Will Ferrell has built a career on being an affable buffoon. He’s always been a passive milquetoast, a cloying entity desperately seeking approval. Daddy’s Home relies on those character traits, but here he amps up the obsequious sensibilities of his character to the point it becomes embarrassing. As his feeble attempts to win his stepkids’ love intensify, the more pathetic he seems.

I’ve never been a fan of comedies that derive laughs at the expense of a poor sap who is the obvious butt of jokes. It’s a very low form of humor because it relies on the degradation of another human being. Will Ferrell is a virtual whipping boy of ugly and mean-spirited humiliation. In fact, he’s emasculated to such a degree it becomes excruciating to watch. Despite the evidence that Brad is a nice guy, everyone comes to favor Dusty over Brad. This includes his boss (Thomas Haden Church), the handyman (Hannibal Buress), and the fertility doctor (Bobby Cannavale). Even his own wife (Linda Cardellini), who originally wanted nothing to do with the freeloader, is seduced by Dusty’s self serving ego-driven shenanigans. Here’s where the plot defies logic. Apparently Dusty thumped his chest the loudest.

Tonally Daddy’s Home is an unholy union of raunchy humor unconformably shoved into an account concerning children. Nowhere is this more disturbing than when Dusty improvises a fairy tale to the kids about the “real king” and the “step-king” in a way that paints Brad in a negative light, including the relative sizes of the men’s “swords”.  I’m trying to figure out where the script hits rock bottom and I think sexual innuendos in a children’s bedtime story is the nadir. If this schizophrenic mishmash were only guilty of being painfully unfunny, then I could have dismissed it as just another lowbrow farce. Yet the screenplay has the unmitigated gall to tack on an inspiring coda at the eleventh hour that retrofits this dirty adult comedy with an uplifting moral. You see Brad’s fathering skills ultimately redeem all of his male deficiencies. That this appalling piece of filth eventually shapeshifts into a kid-friendly sermon makes the film too pernicious at which to even gaze. No one should see this vile film. Avert thine eyes!

12-31-15

Anomalisa

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Uncategorized with tags on December 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo anomalisa_ver2_zpses0g7amc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgAnomalisa is unlike any animated movie I’ve ever seen. Past the muddled din of inane chatter, the picture opens to a cloud bank. A plane is flying through the sky. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is traveling to Cincinnati. A successful writer, he’s going there to give a motivational speech on customer service. It’s not immediately apparent at first but something is amiss. Right from the get-go we’re confronted with an angry letter from what appears to be an ex-girlfriend. As he reads the note we hear the words in voiceover from a male speaker (Tom Noonan). It’s an bitter missive full of expletives. The F-word repeatedly used over and over. Once on land, he picks up his iPod and plays the “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé. Observant viewers will notice the portable player says sung by Dame Joan Sutherland, but it’s clearly not her. That man’s voice again, overdubbed several times, intones the melody. It doesn’t end there. Every articulation is an exact duplicate of the next. The passenger on the plane, his cab driver, the desk clerk at the hotel, the waitress in the lounge. After awhile we figure out it’s not just auditory. Although people appear as male and female individuals of various shapes and sizes, they all have identical faces too. Every last one.

Tom is not well – mentally, that is. By the time he calls his wife, we realize he’s a supremely unhappy man. She wants to put their son on the phone and he greets the prospect like he’s about to undergo a root canal. Life around him is ugly. He looks out the window and spies a man in the building across the way at a computer touching himself. Then he walks past a couple locked in a heated argument in the hallway. More F-words echo down the corridor behind him. All of this informs the misanthropic outlook of his own reality. Then while staring at his own visage in the bathroom mirror, he suddenly hears a different voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) coming though the walls of his hotel room.

The writing is exceptionally smart. I’d expect nothing less from the writer/director of Synecdoche, New York who drew thematic parallels between a figure of speech and the city of Schenectady. Our protagonist is utterly lonely. He talks with a world weariness that is more palpable than the emotion I’ve felt from some live actors. Michael is the author of “How May I Help You Help Them?” and he’s oh-so-much smarter than the philistines around him. Little jokes abound. When he whistles part of the opera Lakmé, the taxi driver “educates” him that it’s the British Airways ad. He checks into the Hotel Fregoli – that’s Fregoli as in the delusional belief that everyone is somehow the same person. He turns on the TV in his hotel room and catches a glimpse of the 1936 classic My Man Godfrey. His date sings “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, first in English, then an Italian version by Sarah Brightman. There’s no such thing….right?

Michael Stone is a miserable person. He’s emotionally disabled from connecting with another human being. That is until he meets Lisa, a woman who may or may not be the love of his life. She is an exception – an anomaly, if you will. She looks and sounds different. However she’s downright clumsy, tripping and literally falling flat on her face at one point. She’s also a bit of a rube. Upon entering his hotel room, she marvels at the way he has prepared his sheets and slippers for bed, only to learn of “turndown service” for the first time. Then she recites the lyrics of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, like it’s her highest aspiration. “I wanna be the one to walk in the sun,” she coos. It’s never quite evident whether her ignorance is supposed to be legitimately charming or if Michael has achieved some level of humanity by being able to look past her provincial charm and see the real beauty within. Regardless he falls in love with her. Then they have sex in an unforgettable scene I cannot even begin to describe. The less said, the better.

On one level it’s impossible not to admire the remarkable craft that went into making this production. The detailed sets create an environment that feels lived in and substantive. Charlie Kaufman has created an extraordinarily realistic setting. The characters inhabit this environment in such a human way that it’s easy to forget we’re watching animation.  His existential ennui is handled in a pretty adult way, but Anomalisa is about routine. Tom has an abnormally misanthropic worldview. He’s bored with life and the public at large. Everyone has the same face. Everyone has the same voice. Their upbeat monotone is pleasant but insincere. Michael doesn’t connect with any of these drones, except one.  Even the object of his affection is intentionally imbued with a two dimensional personality.  The mundanity of his existence is manifested in the banality of the narrative. The abrupt non-ending leaves a unsatisfying finish. An unresolved narrative that is all foreplay, no climax. A spiritual malaise hangs heavy over the film. Michael’s total apathy becomes our boredom too and the experience is disheartening.

12-21-15

Joy

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on December 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo joy_zpsft2v08cz.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Joy of the title is Joy Mangano. For those unfamiliar, she is an American inventor who created the Miracle Mop – a plastic implement “with a head made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton that can be easily wrung out without getting the user’s hands wet.” Although a modest succes initially, it wasn’t until the entrepreneur appeared on shopping channel QVC in 1992, that the invention actually took off. Although Joy is based on a real woman, this isn’t some straightforward, by the numbers biopic. What David O. Russell has done with the saga of Joy Mangano is a visionary appropriation of the facts. The director has creatively imagined Joy Mangano’s memoir as a modern day fantasy.

Fairy tales do come true. Jennifer Lawrence is surrounded by a colorful ensemble that supports her narrative to comical effect. They almost compel her to rise above the depths of her existence. There’s never any suggestion that her family members don’t love each other. However the menagerie of eccentrics that comprise her family are, hmmm shall we say, a little dysfunctional? As the matriarch of a multi-generational household, her environment is constantly in a state of disarray.  Joy is a divorced mother with two small children. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with this soap opera and never leaves her bed. An amusing aside is that the daytime serial she’s watching is a fictitious send-up. It features newly shot scenes starring icons of the medium, including Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard.  It pops up throughout the years hilariously marking the time period.

As in any fable, there are many obstacles to overcome. Her father, and mother’s ex-husband, Rudy (Robert De Niro) comes over to live in her basement after he has broken up with his girlfriend. Complicating matters is the fact that Tony (Edgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, is already living down there and has for the past two years. He’s trying to jump start his stalled lounge singing career. Isabella Rossellini later emerges as Trudi, Rudy’s new girlfriend who becomes the chief financial backer for Joy’s innovative idea. Do I see a ray of light? There’s also Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who runs the QVC shopping network. He’s sort of the male version of a fairy godmother in her life. Joy’s jealous half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) is a negative presence, but her longtime childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) is a positive one. Diane Ladd is Mimi, Joy’s supportive grandmother and the narrator of this fable.

Truth is stranger than fiction. David O. Russell has brilliantly distilled the elaborate narrative to its essence, trimming away the excess fat of unimportant details and highlighted the bonkers mentality of her life. The director has recontextualized the very true story of Joy Mangano into that of a contemporary fairy tale. Like some Cinderella scrubbing up a spill on the floor, she gets cut after wringing out a mop. Her hands bleed from the shards of glass. Inspiration strikes without a hint of cynicism. Joy isn’t some woman waiting for her prince charming . She improves the very mire of her own existence with her entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The chronicle demands that we reconsider how inspirational fantasies from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, are still happening today. The hard working resolve of a single mother with a dream manifested as a glorious paean to female empowerment.

David O. Russell has found his muse. As Katharine Hepburn was to George Cukor or Marlene Dietrich was to Josef von Sternberg, so too is Jennifer Lawrence to David O. Russell. This is his 3rd picture to feature Jennifer Lawrence but the first to star her — or any woman for that matter — as the sole lead in one of his movies. The partnership has yielded yet another fruitful collaboration for all involved. In an era where we routinely bemoan the derth of strong roles for women, Joy quietly enters the discussion and gives us exactly that. It’s a real tribute to the scrappy heroines of the 1940s when female-centric films were common. Think pictures starring Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. Yes those are indeed lofty comparisons but Jennifer Lawrence embodies the fierce spirit of those trailblazing heroines. What’s old seems new again. She’s an uplifting breath of fresh air. A woman with her eyes firmly set on the American dream. This is a defining role where she comes in not aggressively “with a bow and arrow,” as the director has noted, “but with her heart and soul.”

12-03-15

The Big Short

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 10, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo big_short_ver2_zps2a2vcozo.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Big Short seeks to educate as well as entertain. The subject is the credit crisis of 2008 brought on by the build-up of the housing and credit bubble during the 2000s. In other words, it’s about a group of guys who saw a chance to bet against the risky business loans being offered by American fiscal institutions and profit from it. Are phrases like subprime mortgage, credit default swaps (CDS) and collateralized debt obligation (CDO) part of your everyday vocabulary? Don’t worry because the script has already assumed they’re not and dumbed things down as an irreverent primer on the topic. This breezy tale details a economic armageddon that wildly vacillates between comedic and dramatic extremes. The Big Short is based on the 2010 book of the same name by Michael Lewis. The successful journalist also wrote the books on which Moneyball and The Blind Side were based.

The screenplay focuses on some key people who predicted the bubble would burst and then bet heavily on that conclusion. These speculators believed that the U.S. real estate market was a house of cards. According to this account, “shorting” a financial institution was an unheard of idea at the time. The men that wanted to do this are seen as fools by the mortgage brokers. Their suggestion was greeted with amusement. However the banks were more than happy to oblige them with what they saw as easy money. The concept is still misunderstood by many today, so I’ll give the chronicle points for trying at least. We know how this ends so observing these events is analogous to ancient historical figures laughing at Pythagoras for saying the world is round. We gleefully watch the economy fall apart from a position of smug awareness.

The story highlights a huge number of parts in a dizzying juggling act. This all-star comedy production is built around a collection of crucial players involved. In particular, the saga features 3 main financial experts portrayed by Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Bale portrays real life hedge fund manager Michael Burry, walking around barefoot in his office and rocking out to heavy metal music. The other two are fictionalized versions based on speculators Steve Eisman and Greg Lippmann. Brad Pitt also shows up disguised with beard and spectacles. His take on Ben Hockett is more of a glorified cameo. You see the script never develops any depth to any of these people. That’s apparently by design because the account is so desperate to keep moving for fear you might get bored. Steve Carell makes the best impression. Although he must also express anguish for all the millions he earned at the expense of people who lost everything. I didn’t buy that narrative arc, but it’s a random suggestion tacked on at the end. Whether it’s true is kind of irrelevant to the overall story.

The biographical drama madly fluctuates between cheeky comedy and deadly serious reality check. The gimmick is haphazard, almost chaotic, jumping from one scene to the next. The goofy atmosphere isn’t completely obnoxious but it isn’t entirely “winning” either. Director Adam McKay is mostly known for his comedies with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) Here he injects a silly sensibility into a dry and depressing subject. There’s a huge menagerie of oddballs, all with speaking parts.  They arbitrarily pop up to clarify what they’re doing in verbose detail so we can conveniently eavesdrop on their conversation. The spoon feeding of information is intense. After a while, the drama is so unrelentingly didactic that the tone becomes wearying.  A lot of facts and figures are thrown at the audience like informational diarrhea. The script does everything but put Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain what a “subprime” loan is. Oh wait…they do that too. Ryan Gosling even narrates by talking directly to the camera with a cocky swagger that says “I’m better than you.” But with his unnaturally dyed hair and colorful spray tan, his brash style is more amusingly tragic than intimidating. The irreverent attitude comes across as flippant and self-satisfied when it wants to be charming and humorous. It’s a little off-putting. It’s akin to listening to a lecture by a hip college professor that likes to juice up his lessons about macroeconomics with saucy tales of what he did last night.

11-13-15

The Night Before

Posted in Comedy, Holiday with tags on December 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo night_before_ver3_zpsb2jypr1m.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgLazy, haphazard comedy tries to combine stoner movie with Christmas. If you’re already snickering at that idea then you might find this amusing. Everyone else would be wise to skip this lump of coal. Still curious? Well, here’s the “plot”. Every year Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have taken their best buddy, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), out on Christmas Eve for a wacky night of carousing. The three have been friends since childhood and this has become an annual tradition. You see back in 2001 Ethan lost his parents in a car accident on this very night. The Night Before basically answers a question no decent person would ask, why honor your loved ones by visiting their final resting place, when you can engage in a night of debauchery instead?

The “Holy Grail” in their life is the Nutcracker Ball a wildly outrageous but highly exclusive party they’ve always heard about, but never been to. While working as a coat check “elf” for a hotel, Ethan finds three tickets to said blowout in the pocket of someone else’s jacket. He promptly steals them and then he’s off to round up his friends. Before they go out, Ethan gives them festive sweaters to wear because er uh I guess someone in wardrobe thought ugly knit pullovers were hilarious. Anyway, the location of the bash won’t be announced until 10pm so that means they have got some time to kill. Buckle up for a series of scattershot gags and misfires.

I know it’s stupid to try and find reason in a stoner comedy, but at least the setup in the best of them (Friday, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) is rooted in some sense. Why Chris, who is now a famous football player, would still have nothing better to do than hang around these preternatural adolescents, is an enigma shrouded in mystery. Another befuddlement: why would Isaac’s wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), who is ready to give birth to their first child at any minute, give her husband a Whitman’s sampler of recreational drugs, then send him out for the evening, while she hosts her own holiday soiree without him, on Christmas Eve no less?! Oh wait, was the screenwriter on drugs? Perhaps the viewer is supposed to be.

It is one night in the life of 3 men in a perpetual state of adolescence. The feeble set-up keeps promising that something TOTALLY UH-MAZE-ZING is going to happen. It never does. (Unless watching Miley Cyrus lip sync “Wrecking Ball” is your idea of the most awesomest thing ever.) They play a giant toy piano at FAO Schwartz à la the movie Big, sing “Christmas in Hollis” in karaoke bar, hang out with Ethan’s ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), then irritate her best friend Sarah (Mindy Kaling).  A major plot development happens when Isaac receives some racy texts after he accidentally takes Sarah’s phone. Isaac is perpetually under the influence of drugs which means he’s unhinged the entire time. Michael Shannon pops up occasionally as their disturbingly peculiar pot dealer. He’s kind of a welcome presence actually. None of the three dudes’ adventures are even remotely funny. That is until about halfway through when Isaac winds up in a Catholic church wearing his blue Hanukkah sweater. Isaac is still tripping out and he’s feeling a bit self-conscious. Then he hallucinates a baby is cursing at him. I laughed then and I think I chuckled again somewhere before the end. 2 stars, one for each guffaw.

11-22-15

The Good Dinosaur

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on November 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo good_dinosaur_ver3_zpsykoytrdq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt would be easy to dismiss The Good Dinosaur‘s simple narrative as minor Pixar. The tale’s themes touch upon the importance of family and finding your place in this world. These lessons have certainly been done before. But delve deeper and what the studio has done here is no less magical than some of their very best. In many ways, the blend of ideas is one of their most subversive. To begin with, it relies on less dialogue than virtually all of their productions. They explored this abstraction in the first half of Wall-E then abandoned it in the second. A cursory look at production stills show a little boy and his dinosaur, a seemingly clichéd set-up that suggests that the dinosaur is a substitute for the boy’s proverbial dog. Leave it to Pixar to flip the script.

The saga begins with a vignette that might not even register if you’ve managed to avoid press materials for this picture. An asteroid flies overhead. Dinosaurs look up. Go back to eating. What the visual tableau is hypothesizing without words is, what if the theoretical asteroid that was supposed to hit earth rendering dinosaurs extinct, never did. How would they evolve, and even more intriguingly, how would they interact with humans? The answer is one of Pixar’s most radical concepts. Naturally the dinosaurs talk. Animals do that in animated films all the time.  But Pixar takes the conceit one step further. They’re now highly evolved creatures, developing a sophisticated ecosystem. They grow crops, store grain in a silo and raise what appears to be dino-chickens in a coop.

Pixar has designed a fully realized world that pushes graphic technology to the next level. The plot concerns an Apatosaurus family. There’s Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand) who witness the birth of their three children at the outset: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner) and runt of the litter, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Though the main character is cute and cartoonish, the environment created is not. To say this is the studio’s most visually impressive movie, is an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly or negated. Some of these awe-inspiring landscapes are photo realistic achievements that dazzle the eye. This isn’t a film, it’s an experience. You can get lost in the mood, particularly during the wordless spectacles. After a not so spectacular intro, something tragic happens (Pixar is known for this) and young Arlo is separated from his family. He meets a caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright). Spot is an unexpected individual full of facial expressions and body language. His dirty mangled hair, fair skin, slightly red from the sun and piercing green eyes embody a mesmerizing soul that captivates with tangible cues. In one episode he forages for food and offers some to Arlo. The moment manages to be funny, gross and tender in mere moments. The charm slowly sneaks up on you. I fell in love with this kid.

The Good Dinosaur is a deceptively slight narrative that belies a philosophical exploration of humanity. Is it about a spirit journey? Is it a coming-of-age movie? Is it a western? Pay attention, because there is a lot being covered. Much of the drama evolves like seeds that grow in the mind well after the film is over. It stays with you. Let’s start with the notion that fear is something you learn to live with, not conquer. That’s pretty “out of the box” thinking for a children’s story. Oh but there’s so much more. On the surface, you might not even realize what’s being promoted here because it’s never expressly stated. The evolutionary relationship between Arlo and Spot is a completely subversive idea that caught me quite by surprise. Pixar has drawn inspiration from classics of the past. The close alliance between two species has been explored before. There are many examples but perhaps never done better than in something like The Black Stallion. The Good Dinosaur ranks up there in tender sophistication. When Arlo and Spot “discuss” their families, the communication is a pantomime where sticks are used. Their interaction presents a harsh reality in such a refreshingly simple way, it’s profound. The scene is heartbreaking. I’ll admit I teared up. Ok Pixar, you win again.

11-24-15

The Peanuts Movie

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Peanuts Movie photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Peanuts characters have been animated before, but never quite like this. Charles Schultz’ creations debuted as a comic strip way back in 1950 and ran for 50 years until 2000. It continued on in reruns. During those years Peanuts expanded on its success with television specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are so iconic, they’re still run today. In addition 4 feature films were released between 1969 and 1980. Each relied on traditional hand-drawn techniques. The comics were pitched at adults but the cartoons had a childlike mentality with a nod to adults who might be watching as well. That’s likewise the sensibility of The Peanuts Movie.

The animation comes courtesy of Blue Sky Studios, the CGI team behind those barely tolerable Ice Age flicks. The artists have done a beautiful job at portraying the gang in this medium. The characters look exactly like you’d expect if they were magically made whole and became 3D designs. There’s a visual depth to these renderings. For example Frieda’s naturally curly red hair and Pig Pen’s dust cloud are so vivid you see distinct strands and dirt particles. It’s the originals you know, only to the second power. Director Steve Martino has had experience turning illustrations into cinematic sagas. He helmed Horton Hears a Who! in 2008. Charles Schulz’s son Craig, his grandson Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, co-write the screenplay.

Honoring a 2D property and modernizing it as a computer animated feature, in 3D no less, is a difficult balancing act. This nostalgia connects people across generational lines. Peanuts have seemingly been around forever so virtually everyone has at least some connection to these kids. Mess with the memory, you mess with our childhood. Despite the visually modern update, the account is a slavishly faithful manifestation of previous incarnations. That’s good news and bad. The positive is the story doesn’t taint the dignity of Charles Schultz’ beloved work. These are the same cherished icons dealing with identical conundrums. Now the dilemma.

The Peanuts Movie is amiable, but if you’re looking for creativity or imagination, you’re watching the wrong movie. The plot is merely a compendium of replicated gags. Charlie Brown develops a crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl who moves in next door. He wants to make a good first impression. Meanwhile Ace pilot Snoopy writes a novel where he faces his arch nemesis, the Red Baron. He’s supported by Woodstock. The rest of the gang says and does things you remember from past iterations. Lucy dispenses psychiatric advice. Schroeder plays the piano. Marcie calls Peppermint Patty “sir”. Sally pines for her sweet baboo, Linus, who clutches a security blanket, and so forth. They go ice skating and play hockey. There’s a talent show and a dance. Its warm nostalgia and it’s pleasant. The nicest thing I can say is that it honors the source. Yet there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Peanuts is a “greatest hits” of recycled vignettes. Its gentle pabulum is guaranteed not to upset the status quo. I was hoping for more.

11-07-15

The Visit

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags on September 15, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Visit photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe good news is that The Visit is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film in a decade. The bad news is that it’s still nothing to write home about. The perennial letdown hasn’t directed anything satisfying since 2002’s Signs. As of this writing, that was 13 years ago and with each passing year, the possibility of another gem like The Sixth Sense becomes less and less likely. However The Visit warrants some praise. He’s working with a much lower budget this time around, so the expectation for an “event” movie is gone. This is a much more restrained affair. Additionally, the lighthearted drama frequently veers away from standard horror into outright comedy. The two characteristics are enough to lift this out of the execrable muck from which his work usually descends. However, that still doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable.

Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are two annoyingly precocious teenagers who board a train alone. [Random aside: Oxenbould is the reincarnation of young 80s actor Joshua John Miller (River’s Edge, Near Dark)] Tyler is an enthusiastic rapper. It’s not clear whether this suburban white boy’s rhyming skills are supposed to be humorous or endearing. Grating is a word that comes to mind. Anyway, the two kids are on their way to meeting their grandparents for the very first time. That’s right, they’ve never met. Mom (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with her parents 15 years prior and so Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) have been estranged from the family for all this time.

Here’s where things go from adequate to unbearable. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and wants to capture her visit for posterity. The movie we’re watching is her shaky cam footage of everything she views. Her brother Tyler is also given a camera so more than one point of view shot can be rationalized . Naturally M. Night Shyamalan is actually the one responsible for this approach. We get these headache inducing shots that switch back and forth between the two camcorders in an effort to record everything. Even when a device is dropped on the ground, it still conveniently captures the important action. This cinematographic style adds no value to the account other than to create a nuisance. It’s shtick and it doesn’t serve the story.

The Visit has a decent foundation. Kids stay with grandparents that are complete strangers to them.  Nana and Pop Pop are seemingly well meaning old people. Their initial impression is warm and pleasant. Then things change when the sun goes down. Their behavior becomes erratic, in essence bizarre. Nana roams the house at night in various states of undress. She vomits on the floor and scratches at the walls. Pop-pop keeps his soiled adult diapers in the woodshed, attacks a stranger on the street and delusionally dresses in formal wear for a nonexistent costume party. Are they suffering from aging mental disorders or is there something even more sinister afoot? The chronicle marks the kids’ vacation time with five title cards, one for each day of their trip. The first person shaky cam perspective only obscures an empty narrative. The gimmick takes what could’ve been a passable time filler into something interminable. Right around the halfway point you’ll realize there’s no plot. That is, of course, until that inevitable “twist” that in no way justifies the long-drawn-out set-up. Apparently M. Night Shyamalan knows no other way to creatively end a story. The movie is a mere 94 minutes. Yet you’ll be begging for that final Friday title card way before it appears.

09-10-15

Stripes

Posted in Comedy, War on September 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Stripes photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAll around screw-up John Winger loses his car, girlfriend, apartment and job as a taxi driver, all within a few hours. After seeing an ad on TV, he decides joining the army is the answer. With his friend Russell Ziskey, they go down to the local recruiting center to enlist. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis enter boot camp, make a lot of wisecracks and show off the lighter side of basic training. This American military comedy was a massive summer hit in 1981 and further cemented the popularity of rising star Bill Murray who had previously scored big with both Meatballs and Caddyshack in each of the two prior years.

Director Ivan Reitman would most successfully direct Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters. Here he keeps things much looser in this meandering comedy that comes across as kind of sloppy in parts. Every major plot thread in the movie is a bit bewildering. To be quite honest, that’s a significant component of the film’s charm. Don’t try to reason why being late to your own graduation ceremony and then giving an utterly unconventional (albeit coordinated) drill display, earns you the accordance of even greater respectability.

General Barnicke: Are you telling me that you men finished your training on your own?
John Winger: That’s the fact, Jack.
Soldiers: That’s the fact, Jack!

Impressed, the General decides these are just the ambitious men he wants guarding a top secret EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle. Incidentally, it looks like a Winnebago. The men are sent to Italy to guard the weapon. Here’s where the narrative falls apart. John and Russell basically run afoul over there. One thing leads to another and they end up taking on the Communists.

There are segments that make this seem more like a relic than the blockbuster comedy it became. Early in the film, when John returns home, his girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) is casually walking around the apartment topless. Later the boys go to a bikini bar to participate in a mud wrestling match. It’s a protracted scene.  Gratuitous nudity was a hallmark of 80s comedies and this one employed it more than most.  Oh and apparently women are simply putty in the hands of Bill Murray. At one point, he gives his sweetheart (P.J. Soles) what he calls “The Aunt Jemima Treatment”. That’s where he charms her skeptical exterior by throwing her onto a stovetop and shoving a spatula into her crotch. It ends with her admitting that’s she’s “helplessly, hopelessly, deeply in love” with him. Something tells me this would end differently in the real world

It’s odd how a comedy from 1981 can seem more outdated than say one from 1961. Irreverent is the nicest way to put it. That’s not to say Stripes isn’t worth watching. It’s occasionally hilarious. At the time, the film was the third on which Harold Ramis collaborated with Bill Murray, but the first in which the two actually appeared on camera together. The chemistry of their effortless friendship in real life, easily translates on screen. There’s some terrific moments leading up to their arrival at Fort Arnold. The meet-and-greet scene in the Army barracks is a highlight for everyone involved. Ox (John Candy) and Psycho (Conrad Dunn) have amusing introductions. Legend has it that Bill Murray’s “Chicks Dig Me” speech, including the bit about Lee Harvey and the cow, was improvised, Their basic training and on through their graduation feature some extremely funny bits. Unfortunately the dramatic momentum runs out of steam during the final act. Up until then, it’s quite entertaining. Nostalgic viewers old enough to have originally seen it during the 80s should enjoy it even more.

09-09-15

Mistress America

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

Mistress America photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNoah Baumbach’s latest character drama is a slender abstraction in search of a meaningful narrative. This isn’t a story but a series of witticisms strung together as entertainment. Actress Lola Kirke is Tracy Fishko, a drab artsy college student. She is starting her freshman year at Barnard, that oh-so-selective liberal arts college for women in Manhattan. She has no friends, flirts unsuccessfully with Tony, a potential boyfriend turned buddy, and is rejected by the school’s elite literary society. Then her life takes a turn for the better when she calls her soon-to-be step-sister. Brooke Cardenas is a bubbly Times Square resident who “does everything and nothing”. That’s according to Tracy’s assessment. She wavers between spin-class instructor, math tutor, freelance interior designer and whatever else strikes her fancy. Brooke is larger than life, a gal about town. Our tale centers around their night of unbridled whimsy. Tracy seems to idolize her. Or does she?

These individuals don’t talk to each other, but rather at each other knowing full well we the audience are eavesdropping on their affected conversation. These aren’t people as we know them, but models of pseudo-intellectual posturing. A chum photographs Brooke in a club and she loudly proclaims “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?” The sheer volume at which she makes this declaration ostensibly so that everyone within earshot can applaud her specious display of modesty. She never stops, constantly in motion, incessantly talking. On several occasions I was compelled to simply shake this woman free from her all-encompassing fog of self-interest. It’s inexhaustible. “Could you please just shut up for 2 seconds?! Seriously, please.” Brooke never stops to take a breath for fear that she might actually hear something other than the sound of her own voice.

Good grief, Brooke Cardenas is incredibly self-absorbed. You’ll snicker. You’ll smile occasionally, but the sum total adds precious little value. Noah Baumbach has been making movies for 2 decades now. Mistress America is his 9th directorial effort and his 3rd collaboration with Greta Gerwig. They’re a couple in real life and I will admit the relationship has actually made his characters more pleasant. Brooke has a sunny disposition at least, but she’s too self-indulgent to truly embrace. The whole shebang climaxes (a most charitably chosen verb) over an act of betrayal. The acrimonious finale takes place in the upscale home of Brooke’s ex-fiance (Michael Chernus) and his wife, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). She was once Brooke’s best friend, now mortal enemy. A coterie of supporting players present weigh in on Brooke and Tracy’s friendship. The mixed message of the piece leaves the viewer in a state of flux. Is Brooke life-affirming? Is Brooke a disorganized mess? She’s got moxie, sure, but inherently flawed as well. So what’s the point? To worship at the altar of an individual who is shamelessly narcissistic apparently.

08-23-15

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