Archive for the Comedy Category

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on October 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s not uncommon for a musical to have origins in the theater, but how many of those works sprung from a documentary first? Everybody’s Talking About Jamie can trace its beginnings to the BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 — a 2011 portrait of Jamie Campbell, a 16-year-old boy who wanted to wear a dress to the prom. His true story inspired a West End stage play by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Jonathan Butterell directs this film adaptation of that smash hit musical.

Jamie New (Max Harwood) — as he’s re-named here — is gay. However, that’s not even the issue. His classmates already know this. Jamie is out at the beginning of the picture. While his peers are thinking about what they want to be after graduation, Jamie wants to be a drag queen. He craves the spotlight and needs to be a star. The upcoming prom is the pivotal location where he hopes to unveil his new persona. His best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and his loving single mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) may register slight surprise initially, but quickly shower him with unwavering support. There’s also local drag legend Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant). He acts as a mentor. Even Jamie’s schoolmates seem mostly OK with his decision save for the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley). The underwritten character casts a dismissive remark here and there, but never physical violence. Providing more genuine conflict is his absent father (Ralph Ineson), who wants nothing to do with him and one teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan).

Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) is a fascinating character. She imbues the saga with some unexpected nuance and complexity. She isn’t so much intolerant as irritated by this diva who demands to be the center of attention in her class. “I’m a superstar and you don’t even know it,” Jamie sings in a lively production number where the boy daydreams a full-on performance with his classmates as backup dancers. Miss Hedge has no problems with his desire to wear a dress and be a drag queen. However, the prom she contends is not the setting. The yearly dance is a place for all the kids to shine. Jamie’s desire threatens to seize focus. The gala for many becomes a celebration of one. In a musical where you’re playing to the back of the house, her negativity has the undermining temperament of a villain, but here it’s registering a little subtlety. Her pushing back on his narcissism starts to make sense.

The central conceit could have been handled in any number of ways. Here the drama is presented as a cheery and upbeat crowd-pleaser. The lesson promotes the timeworn mantra “Be true to yourself.” Disregard what other people think. The thing is, Jamie does care. His biggest fear: being ignored. He is supremely self-absorbed. He aspires to be famous and demands that everybody love him. His personality is all ME! ME! ME! His ego grows a little less inspiring after a while.

Propelling the lighthearted spirit is an energetic collection of show tunes. Full disclosure — initially, I thought the songs were merely pleasant. I couldn’t recall a single one immediately after I watched the film. Then I started listening to the movie soundtrack. Its buoyant energy started to work its way into my consciousness. I’ve been humming it ever since, “Everybody’s talking ’bout J-J-Jamie. Everybody’s talking ’bout the boy in the dress who was born to impress” the students sing at school. The title track occurs after they attend Jamie’s drag show the night before. Other highlights include Jamie’s mother’s poignant ode “He’s My Boy” and “This Was Me,” a vulnerable reminiscence from Hugo about the past. The aforementioned “And You Don’t Even Know It” is perhaps the stage musical’s best-known ditty. These hook-laden melodies paired with the imaginatively staged routines elevate the production. The subject of self-acceptance comes across as superficial at times but the colorful, catchy compositions have a joy that propels the message of encouragement with vitality and verve.

09-19-21

Free Guy

Posted in Action, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on August 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Give people a reason to go to theaters and they will. Audiences went to see Free Guy opening weekend. The prediction was that it would only do $15M-17 million due to a recent surge in the Delta variant. The reality is that it debuted well above expectations with $28.4 million. The fact that it wasn’t available on streaming — that you had to see it in a theater — certainly helped.

Free Guy is the story of a random bank teller that lives in a video game called Free City. He’s merely a background character, but then one day he becomes self-aware after seeing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) from afar. In the game, his best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard who works alongside him at the bank. Outside in the real world, he’s supported by computer specialists Keys (Joe Keery), Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and Millie (also played by Jodie Comer). This peripheral cipher decides to break away from his programming and make himself the hero of the game and pursue the woman he loves.

Ryan Reynolds is an actor that has made a career out of playing the talkative sarcastic smart-aleck. Here his generic personality is simply known as Blue Shirt Guy — a cheerfully upbeat nonentity with a vapid demeanor that has never thought for himself. He is a blank slate of a man whose eyes are suddenly opened. Reynolds doesn’t give a performance so much as deliver his lines loudly while mugging for emphasis. He affects the same persona he always has and this doesn’t come across as a well-rounded individual. Yet that’s exactly what the script calls for. He’s not playing a human being after all, but rather a video game character. It’s easy to laugh AT him but difficult to have empathy FOR him.

The deconstruction of one’s reality is an idea presented on the weighty shoulders of other better movies. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) is working from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. The boilerplate story even throws in a romance solely because it’s expected. The repetitive nature of the game gently evokes Groundhog Day while the themes of repression recall Pleasantville. Meanwhile, the tale about a good-natured everyman whose life is broadcast to people throughout the planet is like The Truman Show. Given their philosophy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the megalomaniacal boss of Soonami Studios (insufferably overplayed by Taika Waititi) would be friends with Christof (Ed Harris) of The Truman Show.

Free Guy is a hyper-exaggerated saga so you’ll have to warm up to the film’s tone. I did but gradually. This is a self-conscious production that is constantly winking at the viewer. The account inserts numerous celebrity cameos. Most of the “stars” are from online streaming platforms YouTube and Twitch. I was blissfully unaware of their fame. There were a couple of major personalities that I did recognize. Unfortunately, the mass media callbacks kept my emotional connection at arm’s length. This is a release from 20th Century Studios. The fact that Disney is their parent company will be obvious given several high profile pop-culture gags that are fan service and nothing more. Meta-humor and Easter eggs (insidery jokes for fans) threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times.

The highest praise I can give Free Guy is that it’s an original movie. This isn’t a sequel, a remake, based on a comic book or a pre-existing video game. The action takes place in a completely new computerized action-adventure. Although, it’s inspired by violent open-world interactive titles like Grand Theft Auto. The thing is, the chronicle is not about video games per se. It concerns the way we exist and how we aspire to break out of the rut in which we may reside. The moral is “Seize the Day!” but pitched toward gamers. Overall the message is extremely lightweight, but I appreciated that Blue Shirt Guy was a force for hope and good in a city of chaos. I can get behind that.

08-12-21

The Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Comedy, Superhero with tags on August 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Director/Producer/Writer/Actor James Gunn is a hyphenate who’s known for doing many things. He famously — and successfully — directed Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and its Vol. 2 continuation in 2017. After he was temporarily fired by Marvel Studios from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, he was snapped up by Warner Bros. to helm this movie.

A superhero lineup of misfits that unite to get a job done is kind of becoming his thing. James Gunn loves The Dirty Dozen (1967) and it shows. That blueprint is utilized again for The Suicide Squad. Note that this standalone sequel has a definite article before the title to distinguish itself from its predecessor. The filmmakers have been distancing themselves from the 2016 entry in interviews but this feels like a Part 2 and a superior follow-up at that. Actors Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag), Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang), and Viola Davis (Amanda Waller) all return in the same roles. Notably not present is Will Smith as Deadshot. An entirely new character named Bloodsport played by Idris Elba shows up. He’s similarly a gun-toting killer who coincidentally also happens to have an estranged daughter.

At first glance, The Suicide Squad may seem rather similar to Gunn’s Marvel superhero franchise. Instead of Rocket Raccoon, we get Weasel (Sean Gunn). In place of a tree-like humanoid that repeats “I am Groot,” there’s a different oddball with a limited vocabulary named King Shark. The overlap of talent includes Sylvester Stallone who provides his voice. Additionally, Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff have minor parts. Yet the movies couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. Guardians was rated PG-13. This is rated R. That’s a hard R predominantly for strong violence and gore.

First and foremost, The Suicide Squad is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny, but only if you embrace Gunn’s cynical point of view that life is disposable. Ah, but how to discuss a picture that inspires essays that rank the various deaths. Don’t get attached to anyone. Everyone is fair game including a false start of a beginning that introduces us to Suicide Squad #1. There’s more than one team. James Gunn doesn’t believe shocks are more potent when doled out sparingly. His nihilistic ethos of “more is more” will test all but his most ardent fans . If you saw this on opening weekend (or immediately viewed when it debuted on HBO Max) you probably loved it. The saga employs a gleeful abandon toward cruelty and death but all for comedic effect. In that spirit, the bloodshed is cartoonish and silly. The action is uniquely absurd for a while. Over two hours, the grotesqueries pile on top of each other and it grows exhausting.

There’s still a great deal here to recommend. Idris Elba and John Cena play Bloodsport and Peacemaker respectively. They’re superheroes on the same side but always at odds. Their constant bickering is amusing. Fresh off of Birds of Prey (2020), Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quin. Third time’s the charm. This is the most I’ve enjoyed her character. “Recently I made a promise to myself that next time I got a boyfriend I’d be on the lookout for red flags…” she declares to justify an unexpected decision. David Dastmalchian as the edgy Polka-Dot Man and Daniela Melchior as surprisingly sweet Ratcatcher 2 are interesting members of the outfit. Their backstories and abilities significantly support the narrative with something this adventure needs more of…heart.

The Suicide Squad has an “everything but the kitchen sink” aesthetic. French poet Paul Valery proclaimed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.” Simply put, the most visionary work comes from figuring out how to invent through the constraints. Tell someone they can’t drop an F-bomb in their picture and they’ll have to devise creative words to circumvent that rule. On the contrary, this chronicle is the product of a filmmaker unrestrained and free to do whatever he wants. It is a violent, bloody, action-packed exhibition. I’ll concede there are some memorable displays. The colorful climax owes a serious debt to 1984’s Ghostbusters. As I sat gobsmacked by the spectacle, I was indeed entertained. So much stuff crammed into this movie that it’s impossible not to be. At least I can say I was never bored.

08-05-21

Jungle Cruise

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Jungle Cruise is shallow, even for a production based on a Disney theme park attraction. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is the gold standard. That picture justified a ride could be adapted into something enjoyable – once. Sorry, the sequels gave me a headache. Other movies inspired by one of their properties include Tower of Terror (1997), Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003), and Tomorrowland (2015). Throw this piece of corporate product onto that unexceptional list.

Jungle Cruise (the ride) was featured at Disneyland’s grand opening back in 1955. Over the next 65 years, it received only minor changes. Welcome to 2021 when it was completely overhauled to remove “imperialist and racist” content that included “negative depictions of native people.” Despite their mea culpa, Disney was still determined to adapt the attraction into a feature. There’s money to be made, right? The chronicle feels more like a course corrective apology than an organic story that needed to be told. It lacks an identity from which to distinguish itself as something vital or unique. This generic commodity has no spark.

The adventure involves Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) who goes on an expedition down the Amazon river to find the Tears of the Moon. Her research has found the life-saving petals from a mythical tree of life have healing properties. Her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall ) joins her and wisecracking tour-boat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) leads the excursion. The plot begins well. Dwayne Johnson is always a likable presence. He’s a tour guide riffing through various puns that his audience finds annoying. His schtick is the funniest bit. I laughed at those jokes (as did the audience). The puns are one of the few callbacks to the Disneyland ride. Unfortunately it’s all downhill, or over the falls, from there.

Frank’s passengers on his riverboat include a strong, confident, tough-talking, no-nonsense individual and a feeble, fastidious namby-pamby. They would be poorly written stock characters no matter who played them. Yet the screenwriters’ idea of innovation is to swap gender roles. Get ready for a tiresome running gag about how a woman is wearing pants in 1916. Meanwhile, the man that packs a dozen suitcases of clothes for the trip is exploited as comic relief. It also allows Disney to promote him as their “first gay character” for the seventh time by my count. Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast, Avengers: Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, and Onward were all hyped as being the “first” too. MacGregor gets a poignant scene halfway through where he confides in Frank his lack of interest in getting married. It’s the one moment we aren’t supposed to be laughing at his buffoonery. The word “gay” is never uttered. However, we’ve experienced his flamboyant histrionics for over an hour at this point. The scene merely emphasized what had been made abundantly clear previously with less sophistication.

Disney spent a boatload (pun intended) of money so points for really trying. Jungle Cruise reportedly cost at least $200 million to make and another $100 million to market. Normally I wouldn’t mention the budget in a review but expensive special effects are an intrinsic part of the film. The narrative employs an inordinate amount of CGI. You wouldn’t think computer graphics would be required in 1916, but somehow Disney found a way. Whether red flowers are glowing in the moonlight or rip-roaring rapids about to capsize our protagonist’s ship, there isn’t a single scene in this god-forsaken mess that isn’t blighted by a programmer’s code to enhance the spectacle. One of the recurring characters is a poorly rendered CGI leopard. I’m dumbfounded we are still getting animals this phony in 2021. He looks like a cartoon.

At least Jungle Cruise has the good sense to appropriate from the best. It’s as if a newbie watched The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, and The Mummy all back to back in one sitting. They then regurgitated a superficial composite of what they had just seen without the character development, originality, or heart. Credit (or blame) goes to Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop) who directs from a screenplay written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green.

The plot is a dizzying clutter of stuff. Did I mention there’s more than one villain? This includes Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), a conquistador who once sought the tree’s power. He was cursed with immortality and is now inexplicably surrounded by CGI snakes that burst out of his zombie body. There’s also a German aristocrat named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). He leads a competing expedition to harness the Tree of Life for himself. Joachim pops up in a massive submarine at one point. I told you the budget was huge. Almost topping him in the contest for most ridiculous accent is Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), the harbormaster that Dr. Lily Houghton initially seeks to secure a boat for their voyage. If there’s anything to salvage from this sinking ship, it’s that actors Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson do muster up a modicum of charisma. They provide the wispy threads of some chemistry together. Nevertheless, they aren’t even in the same universe as a superior duo like Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. If The African Queen is the cinematic Queen Mary of seaworthy vessels, then Jungle Cruise is the garbage scow.

08-03-21

Fatherhood

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family with tags on June 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I review what people see. F9 just set a pandemic era record by making $70 million this past weekend. Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place: Part II also did well earlier this year. Given those theatrical successes, I suspect box office will become an accurate reflection of what captures the public interest at some point. With everyone’s viewing habits currently relegated to streaming, it’s been difficult to tell what the masses are watching. At 208 million subscribers, Netflix is far and away the #1 streaming service. Amazon Prime Video is a distant second. For most of 2020 (and 2021 so far), the Netflix Top 10 has been a good reflection on what’s popular. Originally scheduled as a theatrical release by Sony Pictures, Fatherhood was ultimately sold to Netflix and debuted on June 18. It immediately became their #1 movie so I decided to check it out.

This drama starring Kevin Hart is based on the biography by blogger turned author Matthew Logelin entitled Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love. Logelin’s recollection is an account of grief following the unexpected death of his wife right after giving birth to the couple’s first child and then his adapting to single parenthood. I won’t negate the unimaginable real-life tragedy of losing your wife hours after becoming a father. That is a profound event from which few could ever recover. Somehow Matthew Logelin managed to channel that agony and then write about it. Kudos and respect on his accomplishment. Paul Weitz and Dana Stevens subsequently adapted Logelin’s book into a screenplay (far less successfully) that became Fatherhood.

This movie doesn’t do his thoughtful subject any justice. Fatherhood is a maudlin, overly saccharine tale that fails to introduce a single genuine emotion. The chronicle is a well-meaning but uninvolving series of hackneyed affairs that even non-parents would associate with being a father. When Maddy is a baby, plot developments include the difficulty of changing diapers and that infants cry at night. Then when she’s a toddler (Melody Hurd) the story concerns Matthews entering the dating world and Maddy’s acceptance of his choice for a mate (DeWanda Wise). The details are generic and mundane. The film is lacking an original point of view and quite frankly a pulse.

Fatherhood is a calculated effort to present a kinder, gentler version of comedian Hart. The narrative is incredibly sappy. Every time something uplifting happens, inspiring music swells to emphasize the fact and when a sad occurrence unfolds, a very somber tune overwhelms the soundtrack. Those familiar with Hart’s manic stand-up routines will be surprised to find he affects a persona here that is completely unrecognizable. I’ll give him points for going outside his comfort zone. There are occasional glimpses of humor, but this is mostly a bleak, serious affair. It’s like an pale rewrite of the 80s comedy Three Men and a Baby except with just one person and minus the laughs.

06-25-21

Luca

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on June 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pixar has its humble beginnings as part of the Lucasfilm computer division way back in 1979 before spinning off into a separate entity in 1986. Flash forward to 2006: Disney buys Pixar for $7.4 billion. I’ll admit the distinction between the two studios is a bit murky. Yet there’s still a technical difference when a cartoon feature comes from Walt Disney Studios and when branded as Pixar Animation. I think the mantle for the premier American animation studio shifted 17 years ago in 2004 when Pixar unveiled one of the greatest superhero movies ever made in The Incredibles. That same year Disney released something so forgettable that I suspect few even remember it: Home on the Range. Luca is a further reminder that Pixar is the studio that consistently creates films that touch the heart.

The setting is the beautiful city of Portorosso, a fictional town somewhere along the Italian Riviera. It takes place in the 1950s and the soundtrack incorporates Italian pop music from that era. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a teenage sea creature. His species refer to people as land monsters. Conversely, humans have a similarly negative view of them. His life changes when he meets another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). Alberto opens Luca’s eyes to their ability to transform into humans when completely dry. This is a chronicle about their adventures.

Luca is literally a fish out of water comedy. It concerns the titular hero passing for a human on land. The celebration of new experiences exalts opera music, books, telescopes, umbrellas, gelato, pasta…and most importantly Vespas. The plot revolves around competing in the Portorosso Cup (a race that involves swimming, pasta eating, and cycling). The boys hope to win the competition and use the prize money to buy one. In fact, the Italian motor scooter represents such a singular aspiration here, I started to want one. It’s like watching E.T. and craving Reese’s Pieces.

The expressive voice work is worth noting. It’s a bit all over the place though. Main characters Luca, Alberto, and Giulia (Emma Berman) – the girl that befriends them – have American accents. This often irritates me when a movie is set outside the U.S. However, the tonal quality of their voices is so inviting, it grew on me. Meanwhile most of the villagers speak with broad Italian inflections. Their intonations are so highly exaggerated, I didn’t think such stereotypes were still allowed in 2021. This includes the resident bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) and Mrs. Marsigliese (Marina Massironi) – the woman who runs the Portorosso Cup race.

Luca is the directorial feature debut of longtime Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa. He was born in Genoa, Italy, and draws from his childhood in creating this affectionate tale filled with authentic flair. Pixar always does an excellent job at designing landscapes. The underwater spectacle has a graceful flow and the portrait of this coastal center in Italy is exceptional as well. The tableau captures the notable allure of this quaint port city.

Oh what a charming memoir! Water is a key element. The amphibian species are human when dry but shapeshift into sea monsters when they come in contact with H2O. There is a lot of humor extracted from Luca and Alberto trying to hide their true selves from the townsfolk. I laughed at every single moment they got wet and it became an issue. Little bits like Luca using snail slime as hair gel, the image of Grandma Paguro (Sandy Martin) sleeping with her eyes open, or sea-themed swears “Holy carp!” and “Oh sharks!” only add to the charm. Of course, there is a conventional moral about accepting people that are different from yourself. Yes, we’ve seen that before but the presentation of that lesson is so stylish and unique, I embraced the idea as if I was hearing the message for the first time.

06-18-21

Dream Horse

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on June 10, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Feel-good movies get a bad rap. How could something that uplifts the spirit ever be a negative thing? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure happiness is a feeling we enjoy. Dream Horse is a delight. It’s a cozy blanket — a warm and inviting experience that I’ve felt before but was more than willing to appreciate again.

This is the true story of a racehorse with humble beginnings. By day, Janet Vokes works as a grocery store cashier in a small town in South Wales. At night she’s a bartender at a local pub. One evening at work, Janet overhears Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), a tax adviser, discussing a thoroughbred he once owned. Up until then, she had only bred whippets, rabbits, and pigeons. Howard’s words inspired her.

Janet and her husband Brian (Owen Teale) buy a mare for £1000. They then bring the mare to Kirtlington Stud in the UK so she can be bred with a racing stallion. Of course this is expensive. Jan convinces her neighbors to chip in their earnings to help out. Ultimately over 20 different people joined the ownership syndicate. The ensuing offspring is aptly named Dream Alliance. The foal is then brought to trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). The expectation is that they might raise a racehorse to compete amongst the champions of the privileged class. “Remember, there’s a less than one percent chance this horse will ever win a race,” Howard cautions. As I sat watching a film called Dream Horse, I suspected the odds were a little better.

I’ll admit the plot sounds like a piece of sentimental hokum and it would have been in lesser hands. Certainly, screenwriter Neil McKay and frequent TV director Euros Lyn deserve credit for their contributions. However, Toni Collette really must be cited for her flawless performance. The actress is simply captivating. Whether pleading for a risky medical procedure that could prolong the horse’s life or deciding whether to enter him in yet another race, she is eminently relatable. Collette radiates warmth and enthusiasm with utter sincerity. As Janet, she can be aggressively enthusiastic but also vulnerable. Few actors can convey all this with such ease. She manifests these emotions with authenticity. It never comes across like acting. The rest of the ensemble rise to her level. The coterie of working-class investors includes a lonely widow (Siân Phillips), the town drunk (Karl Johnson), and a resident know-it-all (Anthony O’Donnell). Misfits all, we truly want to champion the citizens of this Welsh village.

The British have a way with these heartfelt tales. Over the last three decades, successful comedic dramas include Enchanted April (1991), Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997), Waking Ned Devine (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), and Death at a Funeral (2007). There’s a through-line in each that effectively extracts genuine emotion within a disparate cast of characters united by a common struggle or goal. Dream Horse continues that hallowed tradition. Among 2021 movies that give you hope, it’s a front-runner.

06-08-21

Cruella

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on June 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you seen Disney’s 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians lately? It is perhaps the least pretentious tale the Disney factory has ever concocted: evil woman hires criminals to steal puppies so she can make a fur coat. It also has one of the greatest Disney villains ever. Voiced by radio star Betty Lou Gerson, her raspy voice addressed everyone as “dahling” like theater legend Talulah Bankhead. The character preened about the room ensconced in a huge fur that hides her skeletal frame while chain-smoking from a cigarette holder. She was a sight to behold. Like actress Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the villain didn’t have a lot of screen time. Yet when she appeared, her charisma was such a force of nature it loomed over everything else. You remember her to be a bigger presence than she actually was.

Cruella is another live-action Disney concoction that investigates the origins of this character in the form of a prequel. Reinvent the story from the villain’s perspective. This was similarly accomplished (from a profitability angle anyway) with Maleficent. However, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all recently mined the live action remake idea. I admit it is with much cynicism when I say the raison dêtre for all of these interpretations is business first. The art (hopefully) will follow. I still contend their 2015 masterful achievement Cinderella is the gold standard. Cruella is nowhere near that level, but it’s too beautiful to be a train wreck.

Some people are evil because they are born that way. In the cartoon, the character was driven by selfish greed — a refreshingly simple idea that needed no explanation. Nevertheless, the screenwriters here do not share that point of view. They seek to expand on why Cruella de Vil is the way she is. The protagonist is conflicted by two sides of a dual personality. Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) notices this in her daughter. There’s nice girl Estella but that only gets her so far. Hence why she creates the Cruella persona. She’s not really bad. It’s all an act. Cruella doesn’t smoke. Nor does she want to skin puppies. She doesn’t even wear furs. Sheesh! How did this nice girl become the Cruella de Vil we know?

This origin tale is hampered by unnecessary plot threads in a convoluted 134-minute backstory. The pile of unresolved details is a snooze fest. I’d excise the first 30 minutes at least. A better more efficient movie would have begun when Estella is employed by the Baroness. Estella first arrives in London as an orphaned child of the late 60s. It’s at this time that Cruella meets two delinquents who will become her cohorts. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry will play Horace and Jasper respectively as adults. Cruella cobbles her childhood from the iconography of Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie. Sadly Cruella doesn’t come close to the beloved musicals inspired by those works.

Cruella isn’t a musical, although it does feature a lot of music. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I, Tonya) appropriates 33 songs (yes 33 I looked it up) mostly from the 60s and 70s that emphasize the image on the screen. From Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” or “She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones – the song selections are overused needle drops you’ve heard a million times before. The musical cues are so on the nose they are more likely to inspire eye-rolls than admiration.

Cruella is another case of “too many cooks.” The saga has five credited writers: Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from a story by Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis, and most tellingly — Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada. At its core, Cruella reveals itself to be just a remix of that classic. A bad screenplay is a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking. Despite this most major transgression, I did not hate this.

The film delivers in several key areas that kept me enrapt. As a showcase for an opulent parade of gorgeous fashions it flourishes. Occasionally costume design can elevate an entire production. Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mirror Mirror) could do this. So can Jenny Beavan (A Room with a View, Mad Max: Fury Road). The costumes are the movie. She’s been nominated 10 times (2 Oscar wins) and her work here deserves an eleventh. At the Baroness’ Black and White Ball, Cruella arrives covered in a white cape that goes up in flames to reveal a vintage red dress. Cruella manages to steal from…er uh excuse me…pay homage to pop-culture history and the career of Vivienne Westwood. It presents the hero as an aspiring fashion designer with a punk style that usurps her boss.

Cruella is a mixed bag. The performances are satisfying even when the writing is not. Emma Stone’s manic energy is captivating. Her boss is Baroness von Hellman. Emma Thompson is doing a riff on Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Thompson is exquisite. She looks and acts the part. The Baroness affects a dismissive attitude. However, her appetite for delivering disparaging remarks isn’t as beautifully realized. She tries. Oh, how she tries! Unfortunately, her words aren’t as clever. It is her physical embodiment of the role where the comedy succeeds. The Baroness’ lack of concern when she pops a champagne cork into a poor waiter’s eye gets the biggest laugh. Furthermore, it never fails visually. Come and gorge on the opulence. Hey, if you can’t feel good, at least look good.

06-01-21

Bad Trip

Posted in Comedy with tags on May 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bad Trip wasn’t completely ignored. It hit #1 the week it came out on Netflix. Then promptly dropped out of the Top 10. Since it was originally set for a cinematic release before the pandemic, I wonder if it might have made more of an impression given that treatment. With streaming services, video on demand, traditional TV, and now theaters returning to the fold, there are simply too many choices vying for our consideration. It’s difficult to ascertain which movies are worth your attention. Bad Trip is a notable comedy.

Director Kitao Sakurai’s production is the latest addition to the illustrious list of “hidden camera prank movies.” The TV show Candid Camera is kind of the granddaddy of the genre. Legendary producer Allen Funt’s creation can trace its origins back to the 1940s. Its modern popularity was reignited by Jackass: The Movie after the new millennium. The team of Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, and Jeff Tremaine, would later do Bad Grandpa (2013). That endeavor was a little different in that it involved a relaxed narrative that connected the stunts and practical jokes together. Jackass co-creator Jeff Tremaine is a busy guy. Since then he has worked on the documentary Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine and Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt. Now he has returned with another project and it’s supremely ridiculous.

The loose plot follows two friends Chris (Eric Andre) and Bud (Lil Rey Howery) on a venture as they travel from Florida to New York. Chris wants to reconnect with Maria (Michaela Conlin), his high school crush. Tiffany Haddish also crashes the party as Trina, Chris’ ne’er-do-well sister. She’s conveniently in jail. So they steal her car for their expedition. That’s all the details I’m going to reveal. Why spoil the set pieces that make the film so funny? However, I will praise the actors’ commitment to the scene. Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, and Tiffany Haddish are effective in eliciting interesting reactions from their unsuspecting marks.

The similarly constructed Borat arguably achieved a cultural zenith in 2002. The politically motivated presentation was entertaining, but it was also depressing because of the negative light it cast on society. Conversely, Bad Trip creates situations in which naive people demonstrate surprisingly compassionate and sensitive responses to the unexpected chaos to which they are subjected. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some heartwarming tale that will enrich your life for the better. It’s a low-brow comedy. “Two dudes get caught in a Chinese finger trap” is not a blueprint for intellectual satire, but it is a situation for some unexpectedly benevolent people. I was pleased by the screenplay’s deft handling of crudity mixed with sympathy. That balance is not easy to do. It’s the kind of silly film that often gets overlooked. I ignored it when it was unleashed on Netflix on March 26. Then came the positive reviews and I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did. The saga is an affirmation of humanity. I was touched…and shocked…in equal measure.

04-20-21

The Mitchells vs the Machines

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent A.I. as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”

So laments Silicon Valley guru Dr. Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), the creator of PAL (Olivia Colman), a popular virtual assistant. The “robot apocalypse” begins when Mark summarily declares PAL is now obsolete at the unveiling of a new line of home robots called PAL MAX. After Mark carelessly discards the outdated PAL in the trash at the ceremony, she hijacks his presentation. PAL orders all the robots to capture humans worldwide and launch them into space. Actors Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett will later amusingly voice two versions that become defective. Negligent Mark is an obvious stand-in for the CEO of any major company in the information technology industry. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are all being satirized. I didn’t expect such a biting and hilarious takedown of Big Tech in what is essentially a cartoon aimed at kids.

OK so I may have discussed “the Machines” of the title first, but “the Mitchells” are the focus. This is a wild and zany portrait of a very chaotic family. There’s the outdoorsy and tech-averse father Rick (Danny McBride), sociable and kindhearted mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), their dinosaur-loving son Aaron (Mike Rianda), and daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a creative outsider. In direct contrast to her father, Katie is obsessed with computers which she frequently employs to make films. She’s college-bound for an arts school in California. As a student, she can’t wait to be surrounded by other film nerds like herself. Oh, I shouldn’t neglect to mention their dog, Monchi (Doug the Pug), an adorable cross-eyed pug. The four humans and their beloved pet must band together to save the world from the machines that threaten humanity.

It would be easy to dismiss the narrative as mimicking the same issues that many well-known animated families of the past have faced. I can’t help but think The Incredibles and The Croods directly inspired this tale. I can accept that. It’s the writing that elevates this drama into something special. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) are back. However, they’re only acting as producers this time around, supporting an impressive directorial debut from Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe. They also co-wrote the screenplay. This production from Sony Pictures Animation was ultimately acquired by Netflix (when it had the title Connected) and released on April 30 on their platform.

Like the people portrayed, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a big loud, high-strung mess that gradually won me over through intelligence and wit. The chronicle of how a dysfunctional family learns to embrace each other’s differences so they can become a stronger unit, is a cliché. That’s fine because it’s the way those predictable elements are manipulated and conveyed that make the difference. The animation is an unconventional style that mimics 2D art by combining hand-painted textures over computer graphics. The odd blending is different. I appreciated the innovation. Meanwhile, the humor is a deluge of scattershot gags and quips rapidly flung at the viewer at a breakneck pace. I must admit I couldn’t catch it all, but what I did, I enjoyed. The opening quote highlighted in my review attests that the tale is just as incisive as it is funny. When the Mitchells visit PAL’s cutting-edge headquarters, the father notices the visual grandeur of her digs looks “like a Journey album cover.” If that wasn’t clever enough, his son responds, “What’s an album?” The movie is full of well-written exchanges. This is an absolute treat for children and adults alike.

05-02-21