Archive for the Comedy Category

Jojo Rabbit

Posted in Comedy, Drama, War with tags on November 11, 2019 by Mark Hobin

jojo_rabbit_ver2STARS4.5You wouldn’t think a comedy about a pro-Nazi boy that looks upon Adolph Hitler as a hero would be one of the most heartwarming movies of the year, but Jojo Rabbit has proven otherwise.  The inspiration for the adaptation is based upon the 2008 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.  Charlie Chaplin found humor in the Third Reich with The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks did the same with The Producers.  Now writer/director Taika Waititi just may have joined their ranks with equally successful results.  I loved this film and I’m happy to say it’s one of the very best of 2019.

Jojo Rabbit is the saga of a 10-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler.  People call him “Jojo”.  He lives in Nazi Germany during WW2 and he idolizes Adolf Hitler.  So much so that he has created an imaginary friend in him to whom he often speaks.  It’s a childlike interpretation that doesn’t fully comprehend the true nature of the dictator.  Coming to terms with that realization is the underlying basis of this drama.  It’s a comedy so the character of the Führer, played by the director, Taika Waititi, is a sillier, less serious version of him.  The filmmaker himself identifies as a Polynesian Jew so therein lies the subversive nature of this casting.

Jojo Rabbit is an affectionate account of a little boy who wants to be a part of something bigger than himself.  He attends a Hitler youth club that offers boys the validating camaraderie of a scout troop.  Meanwhile, the girls are taught the value of domestic servitude.  One day Jojo is tested on his commitment by his superior who commands him to kill a rabbit.  His inability to execute this task earns him his nickname.  Then after a grenade mishap, he is unable to continue to serve in the group.  Obviously, a child who idolizes Adolf Hitler would normally be a difficult personality to engage an audience’s sympathies.  Part of what sells the movie is the elemental compassion of young actor Roman Griffin Davis as the titular star.  He gives a brilliant performance that manages to make the character seem lovable and yet misguided.

The drama is highlighted by a stellar supporting cast.  First and foremost I must cite juvenile actor Archie Yates, the breakout star who plays Yorki, Jojo’s best friend. He’s an adorable scene stealer. Throughout the story, Jojo keeps a diary of his thoughts and we become aware of these reflections in a key scene when Jojo is confronted by an intimidating Gestapo agent played by Stephen Merchant (HBO’s Extras).  Merchant has never been more terrifying.  Jojo’s fanaticism is not shared by his single mother.  Rosie is lovingly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in a small but important role.  She must keep her anti-Nazi feelings under wraps for fear of reprisal.  Sam Rockwell is also memorable as the Hitler Youth leader Captain “K” Klenzendorf who trains boys to hunt and throw grenades.  One day Jojo meets Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teen.  Their developing relationship is captivating.

Truth be told, I was already predisposed to love this picture.  I am a fan of director Taika Waititi.  His off-kilter but thoughtful sensibilities agree with my own.   Waititi has demonstrated a whimsical flair for humor with a filmography composed of fastidiously produced productions that are obsessively meticulous with visual details.  These include What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  Taika Waititi’s painstaking aesthetic is often compared to the work of Wes Anderson.  Moonrise Kingdom is clearly an influence here because the Hitler youth rally here bears a striking similarity to the Khaki Scout summer camp.  However, Taika Waititi is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. He has been creating pictures like this since the very beginning with his debut feature Eagle vs Shark in 2007.  Waititi has a point of view uniquely his own.  His handling of this material deftly combines real genuine heartbreak with lighthearted glee in a film about Nazis. This is one of the most beautifully realized stories of the year.

People have labeled this as satire but that really isn’t correct.  It certainly is a farce about deadly serious things.  It’s clearly anti-Nazi and anti-hate but the filmmaker’s angle is much more open and straightforward without the latent snark and sarcasm that satire requires.  The movie actually succeeds because of that sincerity.  Jojo Rabbit is a tale about humanity that manages to be an affecting, funny, dramatic and poignant depiction.  I was completely overcome with emotion at one point.  The moment occurs when Jojo is tying someone’s shoes.  When you see the drama you’ll understand why that image is so heartbreaking.  I’ve enjoyed every single production that Taika Waititi has directed but this is possibly his greatest work.

11-01-19

Parasite

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Thriller with tags on October 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

parasite_ver2STARS4Over the past decade, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival hasn’t exactly set the U.S. box office on fire.  You have to go back to 2011 just to find a Palme d’Or winner that made over $10 million (The Tree of Life).  That low bar will most certainly be crushed this year by a South Korean entry that is arguably the festival’s most accessible winner since Pulp Fiction.  Internationally Parasite has become a box office sensation and it’s likely to become a U.S. success also.

The Kims are a South Korean family of four consisting of Dad Ki-taek ( Song Kang-ho ) mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik who was also in Okja) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam).  They’re very poor.  They live in a small dark underground apartment where stink bugs dwell and a local drunk frequently relieves himself within full view of their tiny window.  They have a tiresome job folding pizza boxes and they steal Wi-Fi from their neighbors.  Well, that is until the nearby residents change the password.

Their fortunes begin to change when a school chum of Ki-woo, recommends him as a substitute tutor for the high school daughter of the affluent Park household.  Ki-woo cons his way through the interview with fake teaching papers.  The mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) is impressed and soon he’s charmed Mrs. Park into hiring his sister Ki-jung as an art teacher for their little boy.  That’s merely the beginning.  One by one the rest of the Kim clan begins working for the well-to-do Park family who have no clue that each additional hire is actually related.  It’s a home invasion of sorts but one where the owners are willing — albeit duped — participants.

The first half is an outstanding account of carefully laid plans.  After an hour had passed, I was convinced this was going to be the best movie of the year.  The way the Kim household ever so slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of the Parks is fascinating to watch.  It happens coincidentally at first and then as each new family member is welcomed into the fold, the Kim’s methods become more and more aggressive.  Then the original housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) returns.   From that point on the developments are somewhat less, uh shall we say, systematic.  It’s important to pay attention to the little things the wealthy Parks say and do because they will have a profound effect on the struggling Kims — the father especially.  The sad sack dad Ki-taek is portrayed by actor Song Kang-ho who is a frequent collaborator in this director’s efforts.   He’s excellent in turning in a performance that is a gradually building focus of resentment.

Parasite is a genre-shifting tale from the mind of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho who mainstream audiences may know from The Host and Snowpiercer.  It has comedy, drama, thrills, and gore.  Put simply, it’s a dark comedy about classism.  He has dealt with these themes before.  Inequality amongst different classes was a major theme of the riveting Snowpiercer so it’s clearly a topic the director is particularly fond of.  There’s a reason for this.  In the past 50 years, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest societies in the world to becoming an advanced industrialized economy.  As a result, the wealth gap there has widened exponentially.  Class warfare proves to be a gripping subject complete with wild tonal shifts and abrupt story changes.  The various plot machinations that occur can feel a bit convoluted.  The way people behave isn’t always rational either.  Still, the events are so unpredictable that they seize our attention.  It’s intriguing to see what occurs next.   No specifics though.  I wouldn’t even think of spoiling them.  I will only assert that the metaphor of upstairs/downstairs class distinctions gets more heavy-handed and therefore less clever.

What else can I say?  I’m optimistic about the Oscar chances.  South Korea has never been nominated in the Foreign Language Film category, let alone for the highest honor, Best Picture.  For the first time, a submission has the potential to compete in both.  This is a production where the joy of where the narrative will go next means I can’t give any more details.  I will offer a random but humorous aside.  At one point the Kims return home. It has been raining non-stop and they come to find their apartment flooded with rain and sewage.  Their bathroom is essentially an open toilet inexplicably mounted on a high ledge with no door to separate it from the rest of the living room.  Parasite features the most disgusting commode I can remember in a movie since Trainspotting.

Zombieland: Double Tap

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Horror with tags on October 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zombieland_double_tap_ver2STARS3.5So forgive the pun, but I am a DEAD-icated fan of the 2009 original film.  With that said, I didn’t need a sequel 10 years later but here we are.  I’m happy to report it’s a funny and well-paced tale.  Director Ruben Fleischer (Venom) returns along with the same screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool).  Writer Dave Callaham is a new addition.  The script doesn’t overcomplicate things.  Zombies are still on the loose and our four protagonists are back to fight them.  Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) all go by the cities where they’re from.  Those aren’t their actual names.  Getting too attached to people in this society is not encouraged.  Death by zombies is a serious reality.

Zombieland 2 Double Tap is an entertaining road movie about a family of sorts.  Little Rock isn’t a child anymore.  An adolescent often needs to rebel against a father figure.    She leaves the nest, so to speak, and meets up with a hippie/stoner/pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia).  The others go out on the road in search of her.  That’s when the adventure starts to get interesting.  Along the way, they meet a blonde airhead named Madison.  Actress Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!) is the MVP of this production.   How Madison has managed to survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland is nothing short of a miracle.  Deutch is absolutely hilarious.  She steals every scene in which she appears.  No small feat given the caliber of talent assembled here.  These 4 stars have 8 Oscar nominations between them.  Emma Stone (La La Land) has actually won.

Our heroes have truly perfected their zombie-killing methods.  Over the years, walking corpses have evolved.   They’ve divided these monsters into different types by giving them humorous code names.  Brief vignettes detail the “zombie kills of the year” and each interlude is good for a few chuckles.  Columbus’ strict rules for survival frequently pop up like huge letters that take up space in the physical world to emphasize their importance.  In fact, a double-tap shooting technique is the most effective way to kill the undead.  However, I’ve also got a cinematic rule of my own.  Projectile vomiting is never okay.  This movie unfortunately breaks that rule.

Like its predecessor, Zombieland: Double Tap is a comedy first and a horror movie….well it really isn’t very scary at all.  Although it is incredibly violent.  Zombies are shot within point-blank range over and over.  The nonstop slaughter feels like a first-person-shooter video game in a comedic vein.  That flippant attitude pervades the adventure.  The playfulness helps to both lighten the mood as well as make the entire endeavor feel like a frivolous exercise.  These friends live at the White House, go to Graceland in one segment, meet their doppelgangers in another.  It’s all so very random – a series of gags that have been assembled together to make a feature.  Yet the dialogue-heavy screenplay has a lot of bright banter that truly elevates this clever zombie satire.  The conflict amongst this amiable extended family is far more engaging than any of the altercations with faceless ghouls.   As a compelling story the narrative is lacking, but as an afternoon diversion to make you laugh the production is quite successful.  Yes, this sequel is completely unnecessary but that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedy.   I laughed out loud…a lot.

10-17-19

The Addams Family

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

addams_familySTARS3The characters who first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, in 1938, wouldn’t be christened “The Addams Family” until the 1964 TV series.  Charles Addams’ comic strip also spawned wildly successful movies in the 1990s.  Given the passage of time, these are probably how most people know these individuals today.  Incidentally, there was a Broadway show back in 2010 as well.  The execution of this current animated film is actually the closest rendering to the cartoonist’s original creation.  It acts as a nice introduction for kids to the ghoulish clan.

Our tale begins in the past with the marriage of Gomez and Morticia voiced by Oscar Isaac Charlize Theron.  Flash forward to the present where they move to New Jersey, in a particularly amusing gag.  There are a few plot threads.  An oppressive neighborhood busybody and reality TV host named Margeaux Needler (Allison Janney) threatens to make the Addams’ life miserable.  More on her later.  Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) prepares for a coming of age ritual involving swordplay.  Finally, their daughter, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) is curious about life outside her home and so she enrolls herself in junior high school.  There she befriends a girl named Parker (Elsie Fisher), who happens to be Margaux’s daughter.

The Addams Family isn’t an expensive effort and picky animation fans raised on Pixar and Disney may balk at the modest appearance of the production.  This cost a mere $24 million to make.  Compare that to Toy Story 4 which had a budget of $200 million.  However, this uncluttered simplicity is part of its charm.  Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan brought us the raunchy R rated Sausage Party back in 2016.  This bears absolutely no resemblance to that endeavor.  Depending on your point of view that could either be a good thing or a bad thing.  (Personally, I was pleased.)

First the bad news: The Addams Family won’t win any awards.  As a stroy it’s kind of a scattershot affair that keeps hammering the same lesson– it’s OK to be different.  Promoting the virtues of uniformity is Home And Garden (HAG) TV maven Margeaux.  She’s building a planned community known as Assimilation near the Addams’ mansion.  She has this ridiculously large bouffant of blonde hair.  It looks like a gigantic plastic headpiece.  She’s the villain obviously and she’s hilarious.  The moral is heavy-handed but its heart is in the right place.

That’s the good news: As a piece of animated entertainment, it’s a pleasant diversion that stays true to the spirit of Charles Addams’ cartoon strip.  The artwork and his quirky sense of humor are intact.  These folks remain the appealingly oddball personalities that we know and love.  They’re all here: Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) Grandmama (Bette Midler), Wednesday, Pugsley, their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg) and Thing, a disembodied hand.  Their eccentricities are on full display and they provide laughs aplenty for children and adults alike.  Monochromatic Wednesday Addams and her school chum Parker (Elsie Fisher) are talking about which Instagram filter to use for their photo and Wednesday dismisses making a choice. “I still appear black and white in all of them.”  It’s these little throwaway comments that made me chuckle.  The Addams Family is a spirited bit of fluff with inspired atmospheric touches.

10-10-19

Abominable

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

abominable_ver4STARS3This site is called “Fast” Film Reviews so I’ll get right to the point.  I’m giving Abominable a marginal pass because it’s vivid entertainment that will undoubtedly charm 8 years olds and under who haven’t been corrupted by as many movies as I.  My mind, however, went to a lot of other flicks while watching this tried and true tale.   It suffers by comparison.  The adventure is about a Yeti.  It begins in Shanghai, China.  One day a girl discovers a cute roly-poly creature with a loving disposition on her rooftop.  He has escaped from his holding cell in a laboratory at the sinister Burnish Industries.  The two bond and she names him Everest.  She vows to bring him back to that highest mountain on earth where he lives.  The problem is that they’re pursued by authorities who want to apprehend him.  With her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and his selfie-obsessed cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), the four individuals undertake an epic journey.

Despite the setting, the experience succumbs to an Americanized milieu.  This is a joint effort by DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.  With the exception of her diminutive grandmother Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), the entire cast sounds as if they were assembled from a Hollywood casting call of local talent.  The central character is a teenaged girl named Yi.  Given the flat tonal quality of her voice, she recalls Miley Cyrus (Bolt) to this untrained ear.  I checked the credits and saw it was in fact actress Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).  Yi plays the violin which allows for a few expressive pieces that genuinely enhance the soundtrack.  However, hearing London based Coldplay’s song “Fix You” takes you right out of that atmosphere.  A pop ditty entitled “Beautiful Life” by Brooklyn born Bebe Rexha doesn’t add to the mood either.  English Eddie Izzard and American Sarah Paulson voice the antagonists.   Ok so the visual backgrounds are culled from Far East locations but there’s nothing about this production that would have substantially changed if it had been set in a large American city like New York.  In a year where The Farewell truly presented Chinese culture with depth and nuance, you’re going to have to do better than simply having your characters eat a few pork buns.  Abominable was also released with a far more evocative Mandarin-language translation for Chinese-speaking moviegoers.  Personally, I would’ve appreciated that version, with English subtitles of course.

Abominable meets the acceptable standard of children’s entertainment.  It’s pleasant enough. The visuals are indeed colorful and the saving grace of this picture.  A highlight occurs when huge blueberries rain down a hill toward our protagonists in a tsunami.  Vast sweeping fields of canola flowers are appropriately stunning.  Shanghai is a glowing neon metropolis, the Gobi desert is pretty and the giant mountainside Buddha in Leshan is an impressively rendered landmark.  The principal critter is a smartly designed plump ball of fur.  He doesn’t resemble an abominable snowman but as a stuffed animal to be manufactured and produced for the masses, he’s adorable.  The animation is adventurous.  The screenplay by writer-director Jill Culton is not.

The “girl makes an unlikely friend” chronicle is stridently average.  Substitute Everest for an alien or pet or dragon and you have the blueprint of countless (better) tales that have come before.  Additionally, the pacing is unbearably slow.  There is surprisingly very little humor to break up the monotony.  A full third of the drama must elapse before they even begin their journey, which is the main thrust of the narrative.  The final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy came out just 7 months ago.  That far superior release was also from DreamWorks, so the company is actually offering pale imitations of their own movies now.  This story is rote and unoriginal.  The noteworthy thing about Abominable is that it’s is the 7th movie from Universal to top the box office weekend in the U.S. this year (8 if you include Downton Abbey).  The studio has the most #1 films in 2019.  At a time where Disney’s dominance over the market is unprecedented, I love to root for the underdog.  Kudos to Universal for still being a competitor.  I just wish it could do so with a less conventional product.

10-01-19

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

brittany_runs_a_marathon_ver3STARS2.5Given the title, Brittany Runs a Marathon sounds like an uplifting tale of how a woman tackles a lofty goal she has set for herself.  The nicest thing I can say about the production is that it means well.  It’s not predictable.  I’ll give the saga points for subverting expectations.   However, it’s also not particularly enjoyable.  It didn’t make me feel good.  I liked the main character even less when it was all over.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on director and writer Paul Downs Colaizzo’s former roommate Brittany O’Neill.  Kudos to him for an account that doesn’t follow the formula of a traditional narrative.  Brittany has more problems than the mere inability to run a marathon.  She’s a hard-partying, drug-taking, 28-year-old with no direction in her life.  She visits a doctor (Patch Darragh) hoping to score a prescription for Adderall so she can take it recreationally.  He isn’t fooled.  Instead, he confronts Brittany with the news that her body mass index falls within the obese zone.  He recommends that she lose 50 pounds for her own health.  Given the fat acceptance movement has only gained more adherents over the years, the script takes a controversial stance – sort of.

The production tries to straddle the line between advocating the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while still affirming body positivity in equal fashion.  The belief that all human beings should have confidence regardless of how they look is predictably asserted, especially in the beginning.  Fat-shaming is a definite no-no.  Meanwhile, the script champions Brittany for losing weight anyway.  Her ability to get thinner is promoted as a good thing.  It’s a schizophrenic perspective that obscures the clarity of whatever message this film is attempting to champion.

The story is presented as a comedy and not a drama.  That helps.  Comedies can often get away with things a drama can’t.  Events normally seen as painful can be depicted as humorous.  Even within that framework, the characterization of this woman is so odd.  Have you ever had a friend that completely sucks the life out of a room?  Brittany Runs a Marathon is a biography of such a person.  She is a human being undone by her own critical self-view.  She is fueled by self-hate and in turn, her negative outlook punishes the audience.  It’s a tribute to the talent of Jillian Bell that she imbues the role with humanity and wit.  She starts out nice.  As the pounds are shed, however, so too does the lightness of Brittany’s personality.  Unfortunately, Bell must act within the confines of a screenplay that continues to keep her character within a place of despair.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is highlighted by a charismatic cast.  They’re so appealing that they misdirect our compassion away from the lead character.  Brittany makes two new friends while running.  The first is Catherine played by Michaela Watkins (Season 34 of Saturday Night Live).   She appears stuck up at first but shows herself to be a warm and compassionate human being.  The other is Seth portrayed by Micah Stock (Netflix series Bonding).  He amicably fulfills that old standby – the supportive gay best friend.   She alienates both when they offer her financial assistance.  Later she rejects the awkward affections of directionless Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a fellow house crasher/sitter who bonds with Brittany in the middle of her transformation.  Their atypical relationship is rather compelling initially.  People want to be her friend and she responds by pushing them away.  There’s also narcissistic best friend Gretchen, played by Alice Lee who is written as a one-dimensional stereotype.  I imagine Grethen’s existence is meant to make Brittany’s nasty disposition seem justifiable.  Actress Lee is saddled with a completely thankless role.  When Gretchen expresses remorse, Brittany dismisses the friendship with “I’m tired of being your fat sidekick.”  I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for.  In almost every interaction that Brittany has with another person, I rarely took her side.

I’m a big fan of star Jillian Bell.  I think she is extremely talented.  My hard take is somewhat provoked by my disappointment from a star that I know can do better.  She was the high point of 22 Jump Street.  Her recurring roles on Comedy Central’s Workaholics and HBO’s Eastbound & Down are amusing.  Even her January 2019 appearance on Match Game with Alec Baldwin was a pure delight.  Yes, I even saw that.  I told you I was a fan.  The fact that Brittany Runs a Marathon works at all is due to Jillian Bell’s performance.  She’s the star as well as the executive producer.  This was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival.  I had very high hopes.  It has performed less well since it debuted in theaters.

As Brittany nears the date of the marathon, she grows more and more contemptuous until she becomes insufferably sanctimonious.  There are a lot of uncomfortable interactions where people are poorly treated.  Brittany moves in for a bit with her sister (Kate Arrington) and brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery).  They throw a BBQ and it’s there that a drunk Brittany projects her own self hated on an overweight woman (Sarah Bolt).  She asks the woman if she met her slimmer husband when she wasn’t fat.  The screenplay understands that this question is beyond the pale.  However, we shouldn’t be so repulsed that we resent the main character.  Brittany has become tiresome at this point. This shocking display signals the moment I was done with her.  Brittany later sends the woman she insulted a note with some flowers to apologize for the ugliness of her behavior. The gesture is inadequate. So is this feature actually. There are bits of insight and humor. Jillian Bell’s one-liners are indeed hilarious.  The best scenes detail her personal progress.  Brittany finally starts to love herself and in turn love others.  Good for her!  Sadly, coming to this realization occurs far too late.  It’s merely one obstacle in an attempt to present a satisfying film.   The picture still has many hurdles to overcome.

08-29-19

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on August 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

peanut_butter_falcon_ver2STARS4The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those films I like to recommend to people who say “They don’t make movies like they used to anymore.”  Sweet, innocent, and traditional – it’s all those things.  Furthermore, the film isn’t a remake, a sequel or a comic book adaptation.  It’s the very antithesis of what’s popular at the megaplex these days.  The fact that it even got financed at all is something of an anomaly.  For some, that description won’t be enticing.  However, I most definitely mean that as a strong endorsement.  This, despite the fact that the plot isn’t particularly innovative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the straightforward account of a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from a retirement home.  He longs to become a professional wrestler.   The bizarre title refers to the stage name that Zak ultimately adopts.   He idolizes a fighter named The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  It is Zak’s dream to locate his hero and attend his wrestling school.  This is advertised on a timeworn VHS tape that Zak has watched hundreds of times.  His roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) wants to help him accomplish that goal and so Carl helps him escape.  Zak stows away on a boat owned by crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).  Tyler is on the run too after setting fire to the business of rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and his sidekick heavy Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf).  Zak and Tyler are both runways.  They have this in common, but that’s the only thing.  The unlikely duo team up for an epic adventure beginning in the Outer Banks and drifting south down the stagnant swamps of North Carolina.  Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is a sympathetic social worker at Zak’s nursing facility that goes in search of her missing resident.  Co-director Tyler Nilson (also boasting the same first name as Shia’s character) is originally from the Tar Heel State.  The love for his childhood home comes through in the atmospheric details of the production.  This fable set amongst these backwood swamps and marshes has a fully realized languid quality that is assisted by the picturesque cinematography of Nigel Bluck.

At the heart of this simple tale is actor Zack Gottsagen who has Down syndrome.  He gives a convincing performance that is both warm and natural.  The background of how this picture got made is an uplifting anecdote in itself.  Writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met their leading man at Zeno Mountain Farm, an acting camp in Southern California.  Gottsagen had studied his craft for many years.  The filmmakers were captivated by his talent that had gone unfulfilled.  They were inspired to write a starring vehicle for him.  What started out as a short story ultimately developed into a feature.  The chronicle entertains by appealing to the emotions.  Far more jaded types will describe this as manipulative and sentimental.  True, the relationships do progress in ways that are easy to predict.  The saga of Zak and Tyler is a classic buddy movie of a burgeoning friendship.  The portrait could be superficially criticized for that quality, but there’s something really authentic about the way the narrative mines emotion.  As the old adage goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  This is a composition made up of human interactions and the way those people emotionally connect on an elemental level.  There’s a purity to the setup that shares a commonality with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Simply watching their rapport evolve is the account.  It doesn’t get more complicated than that.  Yet it is that very simplicity that makes this flick so poignant.

The rest of the cast is equally affecting.  These established professionals were perhaps motivated by the guileless sincerity of the lead.  Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) aren’t exactly the first names you’d associate with a production that is so decidedly wholesome.  Yet they both bring a genuine warmth and humanity to their characters.  Together this trio forms a closeness that is as engaging as any relationship I’ve seen this year.  Additionally, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church appear in supporting parts that deeply benefit the little scenarios that occur throughout the drama.

There has been no shortage of heartwarming movies in 2019: The Upside, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Blinded by the light, and Good Boys are just a few of the titles that could be classified as such.  In a year filled with many inspiring movie choices, The Peanut Butter Falcon just may be the “heartwarming-est” production of the year.  Indeed it won an Audience Award at South by Southwest back in March and its long journey to achieve a widespread release has finally arrived.  Please do enjoy this wonderful film immediately.

08-20-19

Blinded by the Light

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on August 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

blinded_by_the_light_ver2STARS4Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a teen living a humble existence in the city of Luton, England.  It’s the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.  Javed is a poor Pakistani immigrant whose family came here for a better life.  It has been hard.  The economic times are blighted by mass unemployment.  Apparently, skinheads and neo-Nazis roam the streets.  Amidst these political and racial tensions, he attends high school.  He longs to be a writer finding solace in composing poetry.  However, his devout father pushes his son to seek a more lucrative career.  He means well.  He only wants the best for his son but his strict Muslim traditions clash with the boy’s desires.  Right now Javed simply longs to be a kid.  His buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring synth-rocker, invites him to parties to which Javed is forbidden to attend.  He’s also smitten by Eliza (Nell Williams).  One day, a fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) turns his ear onto the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.  He is transformed.  The words play off of the cassette tape and into his heart.  An unlikely fandom is the focus of this winning film.

The subject is so quirky it almost feels like the construct of a writer but this is indeed based on a very real journalist – Sarfraz Manzoor.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. There are so many personal and offbeat touches.  His life clearly resonated with the director.  Manzoor’s saga is a labor of love.  That heartfelt touch comes through every scene and it will resonate with an audience unfamiliar with the time period or his religious upbringing.  Chadha has often approached her subjects from the perspective of Indian women living in the UK.  As an immigrant, they must reconcile a traditional background with their modern society.  Our passions can motivate us.  The equally wonderful Bend It Like Beckham is her most famous work.  The enthusiasm that Chadha evoked from soccer, so too does this extract that same feeling from the music of Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve ever been an obsessive adherent of a particular artist, this portrait will ring true.  There are moments of despair, but the overall tone is uplifting.  The cast is populated by charismatic individuals which includes an intimate depiction of Jared’s strict but positive Muslim family.  Everyone is wonderful, but young actor Viveik Kalra is particularly appealing as the star.  We genuinely hope his dreams are realized despite the stress it places on his father (Kulvinder Ghir).  It’s not necessary to be an admirer of Bruce Springsteen but I do think it helps.  Much of the drama capitalizes on his lyrics in musical vignettes.  The charming numbers are amusing because of their sloppy choreography and guileless lack of precision.  Surprisingly the more compelling sequences just feature the lyrics of “The Boss” literally swirling around Javed’s head.  We are instantly made aware of how the words of a working-class hero from Jersey could galvanize this British Pakistani fan.  Rapturous and exuberant but also unfailingly cheesy.  That’s Blinded by the Light in a nutshell.  Occasionally the sweetness is so overbearing it can get a bit twee.  This is a sincere celebration of how art can inspire us.  Is there such a thing as being too earnest?  For most, the answer would be no.  Blinded by the Light is overflowing with joy.

08-18-19

Good Boys

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

good_boysSTARS3.5If you saw the red band trailer for Good Boys, you will probably expect a version of Superbad with an underage cast.  It has the same producers (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg).  Even the co-star of that film, Jonah Hill, is a producer here.  These pre-teens say and do the kinds of crude things that you’d associate with much older kids.  It looked awful.  The trailer featured non-stop F-bombs and it came off as puerile attempt to simply shock.  It was all raunch and nothing more. That is not this movie. True, there is the occasional curse word, but this comedy is considerably sweeter in tone.  The surprise isn’t that these prepubescent “good boys” are bad.  That revelation would have been a conventional irony.  No, the twist is that they really are well-behaved lads that want to do right.  These are naive youths trying to prepare for a party where spin-the-bottle will be played.  They are sweet and sincere fellows at heart.

Good Boys is a hilarious “one-day-in the life-of” type comedy.  Best friends Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) get invited to their first kissing party.  The invitation is extended by the school’s coolest kid, a little Asian American baller named Soren (Izaac Wang) — an inspired casting choice.  All their female classmates will be in attendance, including Brixlee (Millie Davis), Max’s crush.  The problem is, these 12 year olds are kind of clueless when it comes to the opposite sex.  They have never kissed a girl.  Max decides to use his dad’s drone to spy on neighbor Hannah (Molly Gordon).  The boys want to observe her make out with dimwitted boyfriend Benji (Josh Caras).  Hannah also has a BFF named Lily (Midori Francis) over as well.  The girls see the drone, get angry and things spiral downward from there.  The various misadventures of three sixth-graders involve adult toys, drugs, alcohol, and cops.  Some of their escapades are wrong, but other bits are so right.  A highway of bumper to bumper traffic transforms into a high-speed freeway in seconds.  As their situations grow increasingly convoluted, I relished the absurdity of it all.

Good Boys is a hopeful ode to friendship.  These chums call themselves the Bean Bag Boys for no other reason than they like hanging out in bean bags with each other.  Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Bad Teacher, Year One) emphasize this camaraderie at every turn.  These buddies deal with the age-old problems of middle school: bullying, peer pressure, and annoying younger siblings,  This pre-teen bromance ultimately transcends because of a talented ensemble.  These are genuine characters for whom we truly care.  Max is the most worldly of the three.  He’s into girls and one in particular.  He also cares about his standing in the social hierarchy.  Thor, on the other hand, has no interest in dating yet. He’s a theater geek more concerned with singing in the school play.  Lucas is into role-playing card games, has a high pitched scream, and wears his goodie-two-shoes lifestyle like a badge of honor.   Actor Jacob Tremblay may be the most famous of the three, but Keith L. Williams is the breakout star.   Their innocence is poignant.  “I’m already a social piranha!” Thor laments at one point.  Max takes a single sip of beer and immediately declares that he’s “already feeling something”.  The laughs frequently rely on the characters’ mistaken or uninformed understanding of the adult world.  It’s that naiveté that affirms the humor and makes it touching.  This is a very heartwarming film.

08-15-19