Archive for the Comedy Category

Minions

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on July 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Minions photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt was only a matter of time before the Minions, those breakout stars from the Despicable Me movies, got their own picture. You already know whether you’re going to enjoy this. If you appreciated their antics in the aforementioned films, then you should find this to be the bee’s knees. On the other hand, if you walk in begrudgingly detesting those lovable rapscallions, then you’ll undoubtedly just go on hating them with clenched fists and a closed heart. Theirs is a physical comedy part of a rich tradition that is an evolution of slapstick and farce. Buster Keaton begat The Three Stooges who begat Jerry Lewis who begat Benny Hill who begat the Minions.

The word evolution is particularly apropos in this case. Minions commences with the very dawn of time. Starting as single-celled organisms, we see the Minions evolve through the ages. In every era they unceasingly serve a litany of only the most despicable of masters. From Tyrannosaurus Rex to Dracula to Napoleon, they go through one boss after another, accidentally killing off each one due to their own clumsiness. Our proper adventure begins when the Minions (all voiced by director Pierre Coffin) find themselves without a master to serve. Then one Minion named Kevin decides to change things. He has a plan to find a new master. He’s taking two buddies, Stuart and Bob. These three, who bear a striking style similarity to Gru’s 3 daughters, travel cross the ocean. They visit New York City first – circa 1968 or 42 years B.G (Before Gru) – before winding up in swinging mod London.

The setup lays the groundwork for a nonstop silly fun fest. Granted, the Minions are not known for their sophisticated wit. In fact most of their communication is a dialect that is mixture of English words peppered with foreign phrases. It’s a creative amalgamation of vernacular where syntax is key. Humor is derived from being able to interpret their Minionese within the right context. Although you don’t understand the vocabulary, you feel what they’re saying. It’s not hard to grasp. Kids in particular appreciate their lighthearted ability to adapt to whatever situation they must face. It’s an admirable quality.

Their business takes them to something called Villain-Con in Orlando. The city is presented as swampland in 1968 but it’s perhaps no small coincidence that the studio responsible for this, built a resort there in 1990. Villain-Con is clearly based on San Diego’s Comic Con but functions as sort of a delegation for the most evil supervillains ever assembled. Look carefully and you’ll notice Dr Nefario from the previous films. Gru and his mother are there too. With a nod to female empowerment, the undisputed leader in the field is Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the baddest criminal of them all. With her perfect 1960’s flip, she recalls Mary Tyler Moore. Her husband Herb (Jon Hamm) suggests Ringo Starr…or is it Pete Townshend? I’m not too sure. The rocking 60s soundtrack features both The Beatles (“Got To Get You Into My Life”) and The Who (“My Generation”) so I suppose it could be either. Which leads into my next point.

On the surface Minions is silly fun, but the narrative highlights a lot of delightful in-jokes that should entice hip viewers. Kids won’t get them and frankly many adults won’t either. The floor in Scarlet Overkill’s abode resembles the carpet in The Shining. Stuart greets the fire hydrant he fancies with “Papagena” which sounds like nonsense unless you realize it’s a character in The Magic Flute. Kevin whistles a tune from Mozart’s opera later. Scarlet Overkill’s bedtime story about a big bad wolf is underscored by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. But it’s not all classical music. Baby boomers should dig the 60s fan service. Minions pop up out of a manhole cover just as the Beatles are crossing the street à la Abbey Road. The minions sing “Revolution”, the “Theme from the Monkees”, and “Hair”. They watch TV while flipping past The Saint, Bewitched & The Dating Game. Alas there are instances where toilet humor shows up like an unwelcome house guest. In those brief moments, taste takes a regrettable detour. However, more often than not, Minions is a feast for savvy pop culture aesthetes and their children as well.

07-09-15

The Overnight

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

The Overnight photo starrating-2stars.jpgYoungish parents Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) have recently moved to Los Angeles. Trying to fit in, they are longing to make some new friends. One day while out at the playground with their son (RJ Hermes) they meet slightly odd but seemingly genial Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), whose own son (Max Moritt ) has quickly made friends with the couple’s boy. Kurt invites them over for pizza. They tentatively accept.

Using “slightly odd but seemingly genial” to characterize Kurt also kind of describes this film. At Kurt’s grand estate, they meet his French wife, Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) whose smiley demeanor is particularly welcoming. As the evening progresses, the conversation is pleasant. The kids grow tired of playing. The parents agree to let them sleep over. They put them to bed. Then things really get weird.

For a while, you question what is the point of all his. Then it becomes clear. Writer/director Patrick Brice has fashioned a whole comedy around male insecurity. It’s the squares vs. the swingers. Their night of discussion highlighted by an escalating series of outré moments: Charlotte’s acting career, Kurt’s paintings, a dip in the pool, a wine run excursion. I’ll admit there are a few mildly amusing bits here and there. It’s sort of like if Woody Allen directed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Unfortunately, what this ultimately leads to doesn’t justify the entire evening that we have endured with these people. The punchline of an ending is pretty limp. This is a comedy skit, not a movie.  Size doesn’t matter. Yet it’s only a mere 79 minutes.  Still I wouldn’t have even spent that much time in their house. Honestly I wish I hadn’t even attended in the first place.

07-02-15

Infinitely Polar Bear

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 7, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Infinitely Polar Bear photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWriter Maya Forbes’ (TV’s The Larry Sanders Show) directorial debut is based on her reminiscences of her father — who had bipolar disorder. Set in 1978, our saga focuses on a period when she was 10 years old. He was the primary caregiver for Forbes and her 8 year old sister while their mother was studying for an MBA at Columbia Business School in New York City. Two free spirited daughters being raised by a parent with mental illness, proves to be a formidable task.

The cast is likable. In the movie, the young Maya Forbes is portrayed by her actual daughter in real life (Imogene Wolodarsky). Although the character is fictionalized as Amelia Stuart. Her younger sister China, is named Faith here (Ashley Aufderheide). Both actresses are making their feature film debuts and both are warm and natural. They give the film a genuine, unaffected element. Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana are parents Cam and Maggie Stuart. They’re pleasant enough but their performances are a bit more studied. In particular Mark Ruffalo’s manic depressive father alternates between wacky dad and weird dad. One minute he’s telling his daughters to join him in the forest to pick mushrooms.  The next, mother is locking herself in the car with her daughters to escape his scary behavior. Unemployed Cam never gives the slightest indication he is capable of raising two daughters alone, so it makes Mom’s decision to leave them in his care perplexing.

Infinitely Polar Bear seeks to put a smiley face on dad’s affliction. That colors this account as a very shallow production. The lives of Father and his 2 daughters are presented as a series of highs and lows with little insight into any of it. As the filtered recollections of a child, that would explain the lack of sense.  Obviously the autobiographical tale is a personal project for Maya.  Her husband, Wally Wolodarsky, even co-produced. She presents this earnest drama as a sugarcoated valentine to her father who passed away in 1998. I’ll give the chronicle points for heart and sincerity. But Maya Forbes can’t seem to make the events in these people’s lives seem like anything more substantial than quirky gimmicks. The production is merely a whimsical roller coaster of contrivances designed to tug at your heartstrings. Infinitely Polar Bear comes across more like a sunny sitcom called My Goofy Dad than a thoughtful portrait of a man suffering from a serious mental illness.

07-03-15

Dope

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on July 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Dope photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMalcolm (Shameik Moore) is a straight A high school geek constantly pushed around at school. His dream is to get into Harvard after graduation. This coming of age story sounds familiar right? OK now let me add that he lives in the Darby-Dixon neighborhood of Inglewood nicknamed “The Bottoms”. He loves 90s hip hop and desses like the 4th member of Bell Biv DeVoe. That’s different because this is 2015. He lives with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) and he’s never known his father. His two best friends are Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) with whom he has formed a punk band called Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo” because…oh do I even have to explain it?).

Life is tough for Malcom. He’s picked on by bullies who want his shoes, harassed by neighborhood thugs who want his bike, and belittled by the school counselor (Bruce Beatty) for his Harvard dreams. The playful tone is shattered when the drug dealer’s (rap star A$AP Rocky) party they’re attending, ends in a shower of bullets and a police raid. They escape. However back at school Malcolm discovers several bricks of Molly (MDMA in powder form) and a gun have been stuffed in his backpack. Now he and his friends must find a way to get rid of the drugs without getting killed or locked up.

Dope is one of those movies that really demands a lot from its audience. Smart viewers will think of easier ways out of this mess, but the screenplay doesn’t see it that way. It’s a progression of convoluted occurrences with a hodgepodge of zany gags bolstered by glib racial commentary. Shootings played for laughs and kamikaze disrobings by a sexually promiscuous coke fiend (Chanel Iman) are clumsy attempts at humor. Her filmed outdoor embarrassment becomes a social media meme because well “the Internet”. The script works hard throwing all sorts of random bits at the viewer. It’s a desperate attempt to be funny but the awkward mix of violence and lighthearted shenanigans are tonally off putting.

Dope is highlighted by a game attractive cast. There are moments, mostly in the first half, that had me laughing at its amusing view of nerds in the ‘hood. But the narrative is sloppy. The film vacillates between subverting stereotypes almost as often as it exploits them. I liked Dope when it did the former and not so much when it succumbed to the latter. Malcolm’s college application essay for Harvard is literally spoken at the end as a kind of justification for his actions. It’s a risky (business) move because Malcolm has done many questionable things. Oh and I must fault a script too oblivious to point out that the black male used blackmail.  Talk about a missed opportunity. The author (read screenwriter) has clearly fashioned the moment as a call to stand up and cheer. I suppose life is a series of choices and not everyone is faced with the same ones. Fair enough. Still it’s hard to hang your hat on a movie where the apparent moral is “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.

06-29-15

Magic Mike XXL

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Magic Mike XXL photo starrating-3stars.jpgOn paper, a sequel like Magic Mike XXL shouldn’t work. It has no plot and no conflict. The director of the original surprise hit has changed (Steven Soderbergh is editor and cinematographer), and major star, Matthew McConaughey, is gone. This is simply a road trip movie with a bunch of guys hanging out, who also happen to strip for a living. They’re on their way from Florida to Myrtle Beach for the annual strippers’ convention. They have conventions? None of them are getting any younger, so this is seen as their last hurrah together. Their vehicle, an old ice cream truck, makes stops along the way. Friends are made in different locales.

Magic Mike XXL stars men, but it’s really about the women. Those they meet on the trip and those for whom they entertain. There’s Nancy (Andie MacDowell) who hosts a group of well-to-do Southern ladies sipping wine at her luxurious estate or Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the proprietor of a ladies’ club that caters to an African American clientele. At a beach party Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard), an acerbic love interest in a truly expendable character. In between getting from point A to point B they perform shows.

The gang’s routines relied on the “classics” in the first film – the fireman, the cowboy, the military number. This time Mike (Channing Tatum) seeks to reinvent their show so that it’s more fun for them to act. He hopes their renewed passion will invigorate the show. Joe Manganiello as Richie steals the spotlight, not once, but twice. In the finale, Joe Manganiello outfitted in a tux, mock proposes to a girl in the crowd. He walks her through a wedding ceremony while Donald Glover sings Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” in the background. (Oh Matt Bomer sings a couple times too and it’s shockingly good.) Then comes the wedding night and “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails plays. The performance is prurient, but it’s also creative. There are some genuinely hilarious moments too. The guys dare Richie to walk into a gas station and make the unhappy plain jane behind the counter smile with a dance routine to the Backstreet Boys. The scene has a sexual bent but its overall gist is one of sweetness. The scene is shot to amplify the energy of the club.

Star Channing Tatum is charismatic and he can dance. Now I’m not talking the smooth elegance of Fred Astaire or the dazzling technique of Gene Kelly. But Channing exhibits an athleticism that draws on the bump and grind mentality of the tradition. The choreography employs enough gravity defying flair with physical lifting to make what he does seem difficult. His earnest “let’s-put-on-a-show” ethos is infectious and he heads up a cast of dudes that really just want to entertain. Their heart is in the right place, even if their chosen profession is a bit salacious. They enjoy hanging around each other almost as much as they enjoy being onstage. It’s their friendship that unites the spaces in between musical numbers. These are nice guys who happen to be in great athletic shape. In most movies they would be stereotyped as greasy jerks. But these buddies don’t put anybody down and they never act in a mean-spirited fashion. The boys have a relaxed, easygoing camaraderie that is contagious.

What elevates the production is the utter feeling of positivity. Good vibes surround the film. The boys are charming. They have big hearts and they want to make the audience feel good about themselves. Their performances are highlighted by spectators that are average everyday women. These are not gorgeous models picked out of central casting, but average girls who are missing something in their lives. The analogy is made that the dancers are like shrinks catering to “queens who need to be worshiped”. They’re selling a fantasy. The bros are manipulative, but so is the drama. The picture never pretends to be anything less. Magic Mike XXL is such a pure film, it’s practically revolutionary. It’s a surprisingly lighthearted production given the subject matter. The whole thing has an uplifting view of humanity that I wasn’t expecting. Yes the narrative is a (ahem) skin deep examination of this lifestyle, but it’s still a better movie than it has any right to be.

06-30-15

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

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

The Blues Brothers

Posted in Action, Comedy, Music, Musical on May 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Blues Brothers photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Blues Brothers began as a novelty act on Saturday Night Live on January 17, 1976. Dressed in bee outfits, the duo sang “I’m a King Bee”. They made 3 appearances total on the show but their fame grew far beyond these performances. The invented personas and life histories for the Blues Brothers followed later. John Belushi was lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues and Dan Aykroyd was the harmonica player/backing singer Elwood Blues. Dressed in iconic matching suits, skinny ties, dark glasses and fedoras. The actual band, was composed of well-known and respected musicians. Despite the comedic leanings of the sketch TV show, their love for the blues was anything but a joke. The Holland Tunnel Blues bar was a place that Aykroyd rented (or bought?) for the cast to hang out following shows. It was here that Aykroyd inspired Belushi’s interest in the blues. The popularity of the pair led to the release of their debut album on November 28, 1978. A runaway success, Briefcase Full of Blues reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum.

Given the chart success of their album, I suppose a feature film was only a matter of time. The plot is elementary. After Elwood Blues’ brother, Jake is released from prison, the two visit the orphanage where they were raised. It is there that they learn from Sister Mary Stigmata (a.k.a. The Penguin) that they must raise $5000 in order to save their beloved childhood home. The brothers decide to put their blues band back together and stage a big gig as a fundraising event. But can they earn enough money? It helps that they are on a “mission from God” as Elwood reminds us.

The Blues Brothers is a spectacular blockbuster filled with car chases and big, bright musical numbers. It seems so upbeat on the surface, but it was a nightmare behind the scenes. The 6 months in development script, primarily written by Aykroyd, was an unwieldy tome that needed to be hacked down to size by John Landis who also got screenwriting credit. A ballooning budget and Belushi’s cocaine addiction, compounded a production that was wildly behind schedule. The action featured perhaps the most destructive race of cars in pursuit ever filmed, part of which takes place inside a shopping mall. The picture cost $38 million dollars, an unprecedented amount for a comedy at the time. The critics were unconvinced. Nevertheless the megahit grossed $57.2 million in the summer of 1980 making it the 10th biggest movie of the year with the same frat-boy contingent that made Animal House a classic. Both directed by John Landis and both starring John Belushi.

Over time The Blues Brothers has grown in stature to become a cult classic. Separated from the storied Hollywood backstory it’s easy to see why. The chronicle is host to a plethora of cameos including R&B legends Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown. The love the filmmakers have for this music is obvious. The production numbers are buoyant and sensational featuring a cast of hundreds dancing with a joie de vivre rarely captured on screen. Aretha Franklin performs “Think” as a warning to her husband in a diner and the moment is miraculous. Granted the plot of this overlong 135 minute extravaganza is simplistic in the extreme. The story is essentially an an ever escalating car chase that includes the Chicago police force, Illinois state troopers, a parade of Nazis, an outraged country & western band and Jake’s jilted girlfriend (Carrie Fisher). But heck if the whole thing isn’t enjoyable fun. Laying waste to the greater Chicago area never felt so joyous….or soulful.

05-20-15

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