Archive for the Comedy Category

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted in Comedy, Music with tags on June 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

eurovision_song_contest_the_story_of_fire_sagaSTARS3So the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was originally scheduled to culminate on May 16.  For the first time in the festival’s 64-year history it was canceled, but that doesn’t mean we can ‘t honor the spirit of that competition in a work of fiction.  As I sat there watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, it gradually dawned on me what makes a successful comedy.  Sorry, no.  This is not a great comedy.  However, it does indeed contain marvelous segments that occasionally elevate the film.  The problem is those inspired bits must be connected by dialogue that unites the pieces into a coherent whole.  That’s where this movie comes up short.

For the uninformed, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international tournament held since 1956 among mainly European countries.  Many Americans are still unaware of this cultural event.  Some facts: Ireland holds the record for the most wins with 7.  Sweden is close behind with 6.  As a fan of ABBA, I happen to know they won for Sweden with “Waterloo” in 1974.  Most of the winners are unknown to American audiences although French-Canadian singing sensation Céline Dion won in 1988 representing Switzerland of all places for reasons I still don’t understand.  Regardless, some allege the match tends to recognize the most bombastic, overproduced pop music you can imagine.  And to those people I say, what’s wrong with that?

This is a surprisingly respectful take on the event.  Homer Simpson once said, “It’s funny because it’s true.”  Even a simpleton like him knows that humor is most effective when there’s a kernel of truth to it.  The thing that saves the production is that Eurovision is less a parodic skewering but rather holds genuine affection for the source material.  There’s a lot of infectious music in this movie that brilliantly straddles the line between frivolous fluff and melodic earworms.  The first instance occurs early on, not 3 minutes into the picture.  Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) of Fire Saga present a mesmerizing pop video called “Volcano Man”.  The spectacle features costumes that would’ve made KISS look restrained in their heyday.  I relished the sight of Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams excessively dolled up in shiny armor and resplendent fur respectively.  The lyrics are silly, but the tune is a bass-thumping banger.  It’s brilliant.  Unfortunately, their fantastic number is cut off halfway through for a laugh.  I’m still disappointed by that.

All of these wonderful musical ditties are poorly united with a screenplay by Will Ferrell & Andrew Steele (The Ladies Man) that is a real downer.  For one thing, the chronicle is far too long.  The film is over 2 hours and it goes through a lot of tangled machinations.  The Icelandic council first needs to pick twelve acts to compete for the Eurovision slot.  This includes a frontrunner named Katianna (Demi Lovato).  Fire Saga succeeds with another feel-good jam called “Double Trouble”.  However, one judge named Victor (Mikael Persbrandt) doesn’t want his own country to win for an illogical reason that could easily be solved by simply not participating.  Bizarrely all of the potential entrants die in a freak accident, save one.  Guess which act survives?  In Scotland, the heads of our central duo are tuned by other singers.  Sigrit is drawn to Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) a Russian competitor and Lars by Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) from Greece.  We the audience know that Fire Saga must get to the semi-finals.  I mean that is the whole point.  Yet there is so much convoluted nonsense that really taxes the viewer’s patience.  This is an endurance test.

Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) is a vision as Sigrit Ericksdottir.  She is the more charismatic half of their amateur pop musical duo.  Her charm is undeniable and when she sings it is a revelation.  Alas, it is not her voice but dubbed by a performer named Molly Sandén, who represented Sweden at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006.  There is one point in the adventure where McAdams does sing a ballad about her hometown “Husavikat”.  Not the climatic version but earlier in a quiet moment at a piano.  Sigrit is a captivating presence.  When she pleads with fellow partner Lars to stay in the competition, all of our sympathies are with her.  We resent Lars for the decision he makes.

As the setting for an interesting tale, Eurovision is a great idea.  Will Ferrell gets a lot of credit for that.  He isn’t just the star, but also its writer and producer.  However, I wish he could’ve swallowed his ego and cast someone who fits the part of nordic pop star Lars Erickssong better.  Alexander Skarsgård is the most obvious choice but Joel Kinnaman or Jakob Oftebro also come to mind.  Will Ferrell may “only” be 11 years older, but he seems more plausible as Rachel McAdams’ father than her love interest.  Oh, but on a related note, the actor playing Will Ferrell’s father Erick is none other than James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan sports a graying beard but the two guys still look like they’re nearly the same age.  I had to check.  Brosnan is merely 14 years Ferrell’s senior. Apparently, father Erick started young.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that every casting decision flatters a star who also happens to be the producer.

Key moments uplift this picture into something worth watching.  A cinematographer can elevate a film.  That previously mentioned video for “Volcano Man” is stunning.  The piece was photographed on location at a real volcanic lava field near Keflavik, Iceland.  The segment is lavishly photographed as is the rest of the production which highlights gorgeous vistas shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow when they get to Scotland.  Oscar-nominated cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) deserves some serious credit for raising the film’s aesthetic into art even when the words coming out of the actor’s mouths are not.  Another high point occurs when the contestants gather together for a party.  Suddenly it’s time for a group sing they call a song-along.  The joyous medley combines Believe (Cher), Ray of Light (Madonna), Waterloo (ABBA) Ne partez pas sans moi (Celine Dion), and I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas) into one singular anthem.  Eurovision fans in the know will recognize a raft of past performers in a series of cameos.  It’s performances like this that ultimately push my review into a recommendation.   It’s such a pity that the non-musical portions are so tedious.

The High Note

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on June 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

high_note_ver2STARS3At first, the focus of this fetaure appears to be Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B/pop music superstar along the lines of Beyoncé or Rihanna.  However, Grace Davis is older than those artists.  To its credit, the screenplay makes a feeble attempt to address the concerns of an aging woman in the music industry.   Unfortunately,  it merely pays lip service to those feelings without tackling them in any meaningful way.  Manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) assumes that her hit-making days have passed.  He advises Grace to accept a Las Vegas residency.  He’s not wrong.    I’ve always regarded a residency as an impressive honor.  In the last decade beloved performers such as Celine Dion, Elton John, and Britney Spears have solidified their ongoing appeal in this way while reaping millions of dollars in the process without having to tour.  Curiously the drama regards the very consideration as an embarrassing desire — an acknowledgment of being irrelevant.  Call me crazy, but the idea is not hitting rock bottom folks.  Far from it.  This is in fact an account detailing the enviable choice between two very attractive options.   There are literally no stakes here and therefore the plot is inconsequential at best.

The narrative slowly morphs, however, into a tale centered around a completely different person.  Grace is indeed a big personality.  She is a demanding individual with a huge talent and the sizable ego that comes along with it.  But she also has Maggie, a personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) who is a dedicated and overworked soul.  Maggie’s job description apparently requires her to do trivial things like break in Grace’s new pair of shoes.  Maggie’s dream is to be a record producer.  Much to my surprise, it is really her ambitions that ultimately become the main focus of the film.

Figuring out the point of view of The High Note is rather confusing.   You’d think supporting the achievements of an aging woman in show business would be something we should admire.   Yet Grace Davis is presented as a wholly self-centered creature.  She carelessly dismisses a request from a fellow accomplished and well-known musician (Eddie Izzard) because he doesn’t have as many Grammys as she does.  In other scenes, Grace is hellbent on suppressing her own creativity.   It has been years since the artist put out new material.  Assistant Maggie encourages her boss to release a new album because she believes in her talent.   Nonetheless, Grace doesn’t agree.  She counteracts with a declaration highlighted in the trailer:  “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit and only one of them was black.”  [Fact-check: Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Sia and Mariah Carey have all had #1’s over the age of 40.]  Maggie is trying to support the creative expression of this celebrity, while the woman herself argues against the idea.  Maggie has taken the time to learn everything she can about her employer.   She is uplifted as an intrinsically kind-hearted human.   I’ll admit these admirable qualities may be a requirement of Maggie’s job but Grace can’t even be bothered to learn Maggie’s last name.  Ouch!

The High Note is a glossy pop distraction directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and written by first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson.  This superficial fable won’t any awards for originality.  However, it’s well-acted by the entire cast.  It exists as lighthearted entertainment that is easily consumed as comfort food to make you feel good while sheltering at home during dark times.  Let’s not ignore the fact that this music superstar is depicted by the daughter of one of the most iconic personalities that ever lived: Diana Ross.  Tracee Ellis Ross brings knowledge and depth to a role that few others could.  There are two additional standouts: Dakota Johnson is engaging as the assistant.  I continue to be impressed by her.  Check out The Peanut Butter Falcon if you need further proof.  There’s also Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays David, an aspiring singer who becomes Maggie’s love interest.  The actor was also in Waves last year and he’s definitely a rising star.   See the movie for them.  If you want to watch something new and you need it now. The High Note will suffice.

05-30-20

The Lovebirds

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

lovebirdsSTARS2So I was excited about this film for a couple reasons.  (1) it was originally scheduled to be released to theaters in April by Paramount Pictures and (2) it reunites Kumail Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter who were both responsible for The Big Sick, my favorite movie of 2017.  However I’ll cut to the chase, it didn’t deliver, and the fact that this had different writers probably explains why it wasn’t on the same level.

I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The Lovebirds debuted to Netflix on May 22 and briefly held the #1 position.  Then it plummeted.  Not even two weeks later and the title is nowhere to be found in the Top 10.  Meanwhile, Uncut Gems and  Just Go With It have been popular mainstays. Perhaps Netflix should try acquiring Adam Sandler’s entire filmography.

But back to The Lovebirds.  Our story concerns a constantly bickering duo played by Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani that unintentionally become murder suspects in a mystery where they must clear their names.  A tale of mistaken identity can be a great basis for a plot.  Alfred Hitchcock took the idea and delivered North by Northwest, an indisputable classic.   Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall who wrote the screenplay are presenting us with a comedy.   The problem is it’s not funny.

The dialogue is mostly scenes where this annoying couple endlessly bicker.   It’s the details of those arguments that are supposed to make the audience laugh.  Comedy is the most subjective genre.  However, humor must be rooted in a kernel of truth.  The conversations don’t read as the ways humans really talk.  They’re like stand up routines.  The dialogue is completely detached from the situation happening on screen.  A few times they find themselves in dire circumstances where there appears to be no escape.  Yet each time they easily get out of it.  There are no stakes.  This is essentially a series of fabricated situations so the lovers have an excuse to simply argue.  I’ll admit there are some amusing lines but not enough to justify sitting through this 87-minute movie.  I know, that seems short….but it feels long.

05-22-20

Bad Education

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 12, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_educationSTARS4You wouldn’t think a movie whose plot could easily be summarized as “The Bad Superintendent” would be a compelling saga but it is.  Based on the 2004 New York magazine article by Robert Kolker with the aforementioned title, Bad Education is a true-life tale about one Frank Tassone.  This release may have debuted April 25 on HBO but it would’ve made perfect sense to release it during awards season in a theater.  This is indeed one of the best films of the year.  Yeah, I know.  There’s hasn’t been much competition this year, but hear me out.

How could the embezzlement of $11.2 million from a public school — the largest in U.S. History — even happen?  It is the unbelievable foundation for a fascinating film.  Credit a charismatic and talented cast for bringing this story to fruition.  Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a popular and successful superintendent of the Roslyn District in the wealthy enclave of Nassau County, New York.  Roslyn High School became one of the top ten best public institutions in national rankings.  That kind of success creates power.  Jackman is completely believable as someone who uses his own eloquence and charm to dupe gullible staff members and parents.  That includes Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a much too trusting school board president.  The fact that Frank held a doctorate from Columbia University probably didn’t hurt either.

Frank Tassone didn’t act alone.  The scandal was first discovered in 2002 when Roslyn officials initially assumed that it was Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) who had “only” embezzled $250,000.  Her actual sum later revealed to be $4.3 million.  Pamela was the assistant superintendent and business administrator.  She got her niece (Annaleigh Ashford) and son (Jimmy Tatro) involved as well.  She was Frank’s close confidant and partner-in-crime.  As reported in the original article: “If Tassone was the proud father of the Roslyn family, Pam Gluckin was the fun-loving aunt.”  Nevertheless, the woman is fairly obstinate and headstrong.   Not likable but at least fiercely loyal to Frank.  As embodied by Allison Janney, the chronicle paints a picture of two like-minded individuals united in their quest for more money.  Unfortunately for Pam, Frank immediately threw her under the bus, forcing her to resign and subsequently causing her to lose her license.

Deception was a way of life for this reprehensible man and it ran deep into every facet of his being — both personally and professionally.  Frank appears to be a virtuous paragon of the community.  He eats lunch with the students and attends a book club with the parents.  He still even keeps a photo on his desk of his late wife who passed on in 1973.  It’s unclear whether she ever even existed.  However, he was definitely in a longtime relationship with domestic partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella).  They had been living together for many years in a tawny Park Avenue apartment.  Frank was also involved in an affair with Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), a lover in Las Vegas.  Tom was unaware Frank kept a picture of his wife on his desk or his adultery.

The star of the account is the wrongdoer, not the champion that brought him to justice.  However, this could be looked upon as one of those great films about journalism like All the President’s Men.  The impressive difference is that the reporter was a bright, determined correspondent at the high school’s newspaper — Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan).  She uncovered school administrators had been embezzling taxpayer money.  It’s a surprising twist that the corruption was first uncovered by one of Frank’s pupils.  That gives this account an extra-added dimension that makes it even more appealing.  Rachel first reported the story in the school’s humble journal scooping The New York Times and every other periodical of note.  She is rightfully portrayed as a hero.  Her zealous pursuit of the truth bested all of her supposedly more established peers.

Sometimes style is just as important as content.  The dirty dealings are gripping but director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) presents the subject matter with such artistic elan.  The cover-up of fraud could have been dry material but it’s presented with a healthy dose of levity.  Of course, there’s nothing funny about what happened.  Yet there are amusing details.  The reception Frank receives from the student body upon coming to work after the article is published is a memorable scene.  He is a preening peacock who tried to save his own — allegedly face-lifted — skin.  This is a person more concerned with his superficial appearance on the outside than with the quality of his character on the inside.  Bad Education is a portrait of a fallen individual with nefarious impulses that got exactly what he deserved.  The fact that his comeuppance was served by an undergraduate only makes the account all the more fascinating.  Occasionally reality is stranger — and more satisfying — than fiction.

05-09-20

Abe

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family with tags on April 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

abeSTARS2Abe is a strange little movie.  On the surface, it presents a feel-good premise about a boy who simply wants to be a chef.  The title role is played by Noah Schnapp (Will Byers on TV’s Stranger Things) and in his hands, the character is sincere and likable.  Unfortunately, he must deal with some nasty turmoil at home.  You see his mom’s (Dagmara Dominczyk) family are Israeli Jews and his Dad’s (Arian Moayed) ancestors are Palestinian Muslims.  When both sides of these opposing clans come together they’re always fighting about “important” things like who invented hummus.  To make matters more confusing for this promising young boy, his parents fail to express any devotion towards either side of their respective religious cultures.  In fact, Father is a self-avowed atheist.  Abe has his heart in the right place.  He simply wants to unite the members of his conflicting families.  The budding culinary artist in him plans to cook a special meal that brings them all together by creating a perfect fusion of Israeli and Palestinian flavors.  It sounds earnest and sweet.   I was ready for one of those great food films similar to Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate.  Oh, how wrong I was!

Rarely have I ever been so disappointed by a screenplay’s utter failure to deliver on such a heartfelt thesis.  The thin, inconsistent script from screenwriters Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of what makes an emotionally satisfying story.  It’s difficult to explain why Abe is such a soul-crushing experience without getting into specifics.  Naturally, I won’t spoil the drama by revealing the ending.  However, I will offer that the principal adolescent — who is supremely charming — deserves better parents.  Abe is a bundle of fervent innocence filled with burgeoning optimism.   Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are demoralizing killjoys utterly lacking the emotional fortitude to even raise a child.   They are the absolute worst.  There are some nice details.  Brazilian Chef Chico (Seu Jorge) motivates him and the cinematography of food is attractive but this is a portrait of missed opportunities.   This chronicle should’ve been a buoyant movie about warm relationships.   Not even close…it’s actually a depressing comment on why some parents should seek counseling on how to be decent human beings for the sake of their children.  Occasionally the production offers brief glimpses of hope and inspiration — but this account was a profound disappointment.

04-18-20

The Willoughbys

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on April 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

willoughbysSTARS3.5“If you love stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin and it all ends happily ever after…this isn’t the film for you, okay?”

That’s how The Willoughbys (available on Netflix) begins.  A narrator introduces this witty riff on classic children tales by authors like Charles Dickens and P. L. Travers.   It turns out, the storyteller is actually a stray blue tabby cat who comments on everything he oversees.  He’s drolly voiced by comedian Ricky Gervais.  The parents (Martin Short & Jane Krakowski) are dysfunctional to say the least.  Apparently, mom and dad have so much affection for each other that they have nothing left to give to their kids.  Unfortunately, these adults don’t hide their lack of affection for their offspring.   There’s sensible eldest child Tim (Will Forte), cheerful middle child Jane (Alessia Cara), and creepy twin boys Barnaby and Barnaby.  Yes, the two were given the same name. Fed up with their parent’s distressing lack of parenting skills, the youngsters devise a plan  to make themselves orphans.  It’s not as gruesome as it sounds.  The kids simply entice their wicked parents to take a vacation that might prove hazardous to their health.  The moppets merely wish to experience their own happy ending.  Nothing wrong with that, right?!

If one word defines this work of fiction, it’s zany.  Director Kris Pearn also helmed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 in 2013, and this has the same goofy aesthetic.  More sober viewers may struggle to keep up with the account’s frantic pace.  As a matter of fact, I am talking about myself.  The dialogue (screenplay by Pearn and Mark Stanleigh) is rapid-fire and consists not so much of jokes, but a myriad of random plot developments.  One focuses on actor Terry Crews as Commander Melanoff — a merry owner of a candy factory.  Holy shades of Willy Wonka!  Later when the juveniles discover an abandoned baby, they leave the infant on his doorstep.  Another development highlights comedian Maya Rudolph as Linda — a kooky nanny.  She somewhat suggests Mary Poppins — that is if she were a disorderly mess.   In fact, the whole saga is the very definition of chaotic confusion.

I have always appreciated a distinct lack of saccharine in my children’s fables.  Novelist Roald Dahl is an enduring favorite of mine.  The Willoughbys is based on a 2008 novel by Lois Lowry (Number the Stars, The Giver).  This feature has been frequently compared in print to the work of Roald Dahl as well as Lemony Snicket.  Yes, I’ll admit those are valid comparisons.  Yet this is so much more hyper than the works inspired by those writers.  The production is defined by a frenetic narrative that rarely stops to take a pause.    I never developed an emotional attachment to these characters.  However, I did slowly warm up to the film’s wacky approach.  Perhaps I was worn down by the movie’s admitted — albeit relentless — charm.  The creative silliness ultimately won me over.

04-22-20

Trolls World Tour

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on April 11, 2020 by Mark Hobin

trolls_two_ver23STARS3Ok, I’ll admit I saw Trolls in 2016 — at the theater no less — but I wasn’t a huge fan.  Oh don’t get me wrong, it was a lively diversion but it evaporated from memory soon after I saw it.  The prospect of watching a sequel didn’t excite me.  In the original plan Trolls World Tour would have opened against the 25th James Bond film.  No Time to Die was going to be one of the biggest releases of the year.  That’s what I was looking forward to.  Then “stay at home” orders were issued and cinemas across the U.S. were closed indefinitely.  New movie prospects suddenly changed.  Given that theaters are unlikely to reopen anytime soon, Universal Studios course-corrected immediately.  Trolls World Tour is the first major studio offering to bow out of its scheduled theatrical release and go directly to VOD since the Coronavirus outbreak.  That alone makes it noteworthy.

Trolls World Tour is essentially a 94-minute long music video but there is a loose thread of a story nonetheless.  Poppy (Anna Kendrick) has recently been anointed, Queen.  She’s a cutesy hot pink creature with an even darker pink whale spout of hair.  She desperately wants to be a good ruler.  Her intentions are good but her inability to listen to other people will lead to trouble.  One of those is her father King Peppy (Walt Dohrn). He informs the kingdom that other similar societies do in fact exist.  Trolls have always loved music.  However, disagreements in the distant past led to different factions going their separate ways.  They are the “Pop” troll clan. The rest of the tribes each took a magical harp string representing different genres: Pop, Rock, Country, Classical, Techno and Funk.

Each land is host to a slew of new characters in what is substantially a marketing tool for new dolls and toys.  There are far too many celebrities involved to list them all, but Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, Ozzy Osbourne, Anderson Paak, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige all make appearances.  I had some fun being able to identify their voices.  The proper plot begins when Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls invites everyone to a big event.  She sports a red mohawk and sings a medley of rock classics: “Rock You Like A Hurricane”, “Crazy Train”, and “Barracuda”.  King Peppy warns to “stay away” but newly-crowned Poppy wants to befriend the other groups in the spirit of peace and harmony.  Joining her is Branch (Justin Timberlake), her closest friend.  He secretly holds romantic feelings for Poppy.

Trolls World Tour is not so much a story as it is a glitter bomb of color and music.  It is a non-stop unending deluge of one melody after another.  In what I can only describe as an assault, its accompanying razzle-dazzle visuals are extremely aggressive.  The spectacle is an unquestionable delight of intensity, but it’s almost akin to eating Pixy Stix laced with Pop Rocks paired with a shot of Mountain Dew.  It gives new meaning to the phrase eye candy.  Young kids will unquestionably be enchanted so I’m not exactly knocking it.  This might be perfect for children craving new entertainment.  There are a few original ditties including “The Other Side”, but it’s the medleys/mash-ups of older tunes that I remember most.  The graphical displays that supplement the songs can be quite beautiful at times, but it’s a lot to process.  I’m just warning adults who prefer a less hyper experience because I’m one of those people as well.  Then again, criticizing a product like this is kind of silly.  It simply wasn’t made for me.

04-10-20

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20

Onward

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

onward_ver11STARS3.5When I hear the name Pixar I think of some of the best animated films ever made.  Few will deny the entertainment value of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out for example.  So the announcement of a new release from that subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios will always be something that I greet with joyous anticipation.  I’ll admit they’re not all classics.  The Cars trilogy, Monsters University, and Brave would land near the bottom in my estimation.  Nevertheless, I have never given a Pixar movie a negative review.  That hasn’t changed with this effort.

Onward is about two brothers who happen to be elves.  They’re the Lightfoot brothers.  Younger teenaged Ian is a dead ringer for Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille.  Remember how Disney recycled the character design of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book (1967) for Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) or how about Penny in The Rescuers (1977) from Mowgli in The Jungle Book?   I’m ok with it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Ian is articulated by Tom Holland who is fresh from another voice starring appearance in the feature-length cartoon Spies in Disguise from Blue Sky Studios.  Barley (Chris Pratt) is Ian’s stocky older teenaged brother who acts as a mentor.  He’s also partial to fantasy role-playing games.  Together they set out on an epic quest to find a jewel that will allow them to see their long-deceased father.

Ok, so I was worried. Onward didn’t grab me right away.  For the first 20-30 minutes or so I wasn’t feeling this movie.  It simply felt like a present-day sitcom superficially dressed up with fantastical elements.  The individuals may look like magical figures but they act like contemporary people.  There’s a centaur, a cyclops, pixies, elves, and other assorted creatures.  The animation is bright and colorful but it’s hard not to feel like the fanciful critters are frivolously employed to obscure a very pedestrian plot.  Then they go on a road trip and they meet a manticore who owns a restaurant and she’s vocalized by Octavia Spencer.  There’s a joy to the animation and the voice acting with her character that kind of jump-starts this drama.  From then on it gets better.  There a lot of jokes obtained from this fictional world.  Let me tell you, there’s is a depth to the creativity of this world-building that definitely raises the bar.

Pixar is famous for being able to extract emotion. Onward didn’t make me cry.  Although it certainly tries.  Most of the adventure is fine but it’s in the resolution where I was converted into a fan.  During the climax, the chronicle smartly recalls previous events that occurred throughout the saga.  Those episodes didn’t seem so important at the time but the story connects the dots and recontextualizes them.  This touching through-line elevates the denouement into an emotionally resonant finale.   It’s a savvy manipulation.  Director Dan Scanlon – who also helmed Monsters University – wrote the film with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.  They essentially redeem the entire narrative within the final 15 minutes.  It reconsiders everything that we have seen before.  Onward isn’t anywhere near as affecting or innovative as the studio’s best work but it is pleasant enough.  It just goes to prove that even a minor Pixar release is still pretty enjoyable.

Emma.

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

emma_ver2STARS3.5“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.” — Jane Austen

Emma is like a piece of candy wrapped in colorful cellophane placed in a silver box covered in shiny paper, affixed with a bright bow and then placed on a pedestal.  Given the sumptuous demonstration, it’s not the most substantive endeavor, but it is easily appreciated for its frivolous charms.  Even the title has been stylized with a period at the end — because it’s a period piece –according to director Autumn de Wilde.

This is indeed an adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel.  The esteemed author is celebrated for literary works that include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  However, Emma is not some stuffy scholarly chore.  This is a diversion about an impertinent girl who likes meddling in the affairs of other people.  Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a doe-eyed beauty with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.  She was rather memorable in  The Witch back in 2015.  Taylor-Joy does a convincing about-face here embodying a completely different kind of individual with believable conviction.  Emma is a bit spoiled and conceited with shallow concerns.  She fancies herself as a matchmaker but she really isn’t very good at it.  Furthermore, Emma has no desire to get married or even fall in love herself.  Ah but we the audience know better, don’t we?  Her gradual and changing realization is a developing theme of the story.

This is a gorgeous spectacle that is more readily enjoyed for the pleasures of presentation over content.  I do not mean that as a bad thing.  You don’t drink a Mimosa for its nutrients but because it’s a sparkling gem of a cocktail.   There’s a fizzy superficiality to this production that actually endears itself to the audience because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  The movie is playfully divided into sections by title cards that highlight the seasons.  The cast is sprightly and fun.  Besides the aforementioned Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, there’s also Johnny Flynn as her brother-in-law – George Knightley, Bill Nighy as her father Mr. Woodhouse and Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, the object of Emma’s matchmaking schemes.  This is a carefully choreographed portrait that exercises great care, not only in the placement of characters within any given frame but in the studied manifestation of opulent tableaus.  Filmmaker de Wilde is known for her portraiture photography and her talent shows.   The thinness of the plot is greatly augmented by visual detail.

Emma has been adapted a few times, most famously as Clueless in 1995.  Amy Heckerling’s reworking was a coming of age comedy classic about contemporary teens.  Any fan of that film (I am a proud one myself) will relish matching these personalities with their Clueless counterparts.  I realize this practice may sound a little reductive but it makes me value the source even more in fact.  Emma is perhaps the most stylish variation yet and a worthy addition to the cinematic canon of Jane Austin.

02-27-20