Archive for the Comedy Category

Matilda the Musical

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why UK author Roald Dahl is considered a national treasure. I’m an aficionado of the legendary author’s work too. He wrote James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, and The Witches. All were made into fine films. I wasn’t as familiar with Matilda, which was published in 1988. You will likely follow this meandering account better if you’re well-versed in the original text. It has a beloved following, particularly in the UK. It’s been adapted into a 1996 film directed by Danny DeVito, a two-part special on BBC Radio 4, and a 2010 West End/Broadway musical by Tim Minchin. This is the cinematic adaptation of that musical, directed by Matthew Warchus (Pride), from a screenplay by Dennis Kelly.

Matilda the Musical is an overstuffed production with a lot of characters. Matilda Wormwood is a precocious five-and-a-half-year-old girl. Yet the child isn’t appreciated by her mom and dad. “My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm,” she laments. Her father wanted a boy and continues to refer to Matilda as one. Actors Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are amusingly festooned in tacky clothes and goofy hair. I cherished their campy presence. Due to her parents’ lack of care and concern, she seeks solace at the local library. She’s a voracious reader. There she tells a parable to Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee), the librarian. Matilda’s tale is about a renowned acrobat (Lauren Alexandra) and escapologist (Carl Spencer) couple who long to have a baby. Frequent cutaways dramatize this external circus saga throughout the film.

The movie finally hints at a coherent story when Matilda is admitted as a student at Crunchem Hall. The sweet but timid teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), sees her potential. It’s hard to believe this passive instructor is portrayed by the same actress who was the fierce lieutenant in The Woman King and the new 007 in No Time to Die. Talk about range. Meanwhile, Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson, unrecognizable under prosthetics) does not like kids. She considers them maggots. As a matter of fact, it’s the school’s motto. However, Matilda is a willful girl with a powerful brain that develops a knack for telekinesis. Matilda and Trunchbull are destined to face off. Any wagers on who will win?

Matilda’s personality could use tweaking. Actress Alisha Weir is indeed effective in the title role. When she sings, “Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty,” an optimistic ode about her sad life, I felt her sorrow. To Matilda’s credit, she is surrounded by negative influences and still finds the strength to champion her fellow students. However, she comes across as a tad self-righteous and conceited. She solves a ridiculously complicated math problem to the bewildered shock of Miss Honey and shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. Then she puts on airs by listing all the novels she read that week (Nicholas Nickleby, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Of Mice And Men, The Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, and…The Cat in the Hat.) We get it. You’re a prodigy, but a touch of humility goes a long way. The rebel in me was silently rooting for Agatha Trunchbull.

I miss the subversiveness of Roald Dahl. The author is weird. What makes his books so interesting is the dark sensibility that saturates his irreverent tales. His chronicles often feature a child narrator against villainous adults. Matilda is no exception. Sure the adults are evil on the written page. Agatha Trunchbull competed in the hammer throw at the ’72 Olympics. When she likewise hurls a young student by her pigtails, it is an outrageously bizarre sight., However, the scene is silly, and the savagery is ephemeral.

Dahl’s aesthetic has been considerably undermined by a bright, colorful exhibition infused with spoonfuls of saccharine sentimentality. The vigorous dance numbers are fabricated and edited within an inch of their life. One group sequence highlights jittery step patterns in detailed precision. When the youngsters dance and sing to “Revolting Children,” it is a spectacle to behold. The scene is frenzied and intense but employs slow motion, too, with CGI flying paper planes and streamers. The presentation veers from excellent to exhausting in a scant 3 minutes. I longed for the comparative calm of the earlier ditty, “When I Grow Up.”

I love musicals, but Matilda wasn’t made for fans of the golden age (the 1930s through the early 1950s). It’s for young theater geeks raised on TikTok, where the triumphant, hyper-edited, special effects-enhanced displays of choreographed demonstrations can be uploaded onto social media platforms and then go viral. The picture is best enjoyed for the production numbers. They are impressive, but they overshadow a disjointed and cluttered mess of a story. Matilda the Musical is a collection of catchy songs and high-energy dancing in search of a focused narrative.

12-26-22

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on December 27, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

An effective whodunnit needs a good setup, and Glass Onion — the sequel to the 2019 mystery film Knives Out — intelligently delivers. Let’s start with the title, which was inspired by the third track on the 1968 double album The Beatles (aka The White Album). The song was a self-referential composition that toyed with fans who sought to decipher hidden meanings in the Fab Four’s work. “Well, here’s another clue for you all….” John Lennon sang. It appropriately plays over the end credits.

In this account, the “Glass Onion” is the bar where five close friends hang out and meet future billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). These associates called themselves the disruptors. The inception of Miles’ successful Manhattan tech company, Alpha, had its humble origins at this dive. In the present day, Miles is hosting a murder mystery party at his estate on a private Greek island. A giant translucent sphere sits atop his compound. He invites his long-time pals for a friendly get-together. These innovators include Alpha head scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), supermodel turned fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson ), Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), men’s rights streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), and co-founder and ousted Alpha CEO Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe). Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) also has an invitation and joins the group along with Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) and Duke’s girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline).

Director Rian Johnson has crafted a clever puzzle for people who love to solve mysteries. A crackerjack screenplay punctuates the chronicle. Johnson shrewdly drops critical information in seemingly casual dialogue. The main story culminates about halfway through after Benoit Blanc easily solves the challenge of the fake murder. However, it isn’t long before the game becomes deadly, and one of their own is killed for real. The chronicle then flashes back and gives us the background leading up to their little soiree. It is here that the salient particulars of the plot unfold. The interconnected details of the past of these various individuals are exposed. Their sordid histories reveal that everyone has a motive.

Glass Onion is a sparkling delight that surpasses its predecessor. Ok, so the denouement may not be a jaw-dropping shocker, and Benoit Blanc’s presence is reduced to focus more on other characters. It’s an intricately assembled ensemble piece of amusing personalities. Every actor gets to shine, albeit some more brightly than others—lots of witty gags. The funniest moment is a realization that Kate Hudson’s character makes regarding someone’s identity after that fact had been well established. However, Janelle Monáe gets the juiciest part. She suitably shines in her role. The surroundings are opulent, the cast is fun, and the jokes are funny, Glass Onion provides layers and layers of fun.

11-29-22

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on December 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

An old English proverb states: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.” After defeating a giant monster, Puss in Boots is unexpectedly crushed by a massive falling bell. The critter has been an active feline and has now exhausted eight of his nine lives. One more crazy adventure, and he is kaput. However, if he finds the legendary wishing star, he can restore his nine lives. And so begins his mystical quest aided by returning love interest Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and a therapy dog they name Perrito (Harvey Guillén)

Puss in Boots is a feline fugitive from the law but a hero of the town of San Ricardo, Spain. The character made his first appearance in Shrek 2 and is the current ongoing legacy of that franchise. This entry is technically a follow-up to Puss in Boots which came out in 2011 — over a decade ago. Most of that movie’s young fans are now adults. That’s ok because (1) this picture is so fun, a person of any age can enjoy it, and (2) it has little narrative connection to the original. This is the best kind of sequel, a standalone narrative, AND it improves upon its predecessor.

With all due respect to the celebrated voice of Mel Blanc, I’d suggest that Antonio Banderas is one of the greatest marriages of an actor to an animated character. He’s that effective in evoking a distinct persona. When he speaks, I feel connected to this personality. That goes a long way into making this a quest in which I am invested. A gang of new characters is introduced—some with fairy tale origins but with a twist. So we get Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman & Samson Kayo) with cockney accents and an evil crime lord in the form of “Big” (formerly “Little”) Jack Horner (John Mulaney) as well as an elderly cat lady (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

The Last Wish is a pleasant swashbuckling diversion. The goal is stunning visuals and amusing jokes, and the production delivers both. The computer graphics are a vibrant display that occasionally relies on painterly designs that resemble storybook illustrations. The visual aesthetic is more influenced by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Akira than the realistic style used in the Shrek series. The gags aren’t all guffaws, but they are plentiful. If there’s a complaint, it’s that this saga is such a frenetic rendition of a simple tale. Watching our champion attempt to secure his objective by using an animated map while multiple antagonists try to stop him is not unlike a video game. But that can be a compliment too. The story moves, and it’s never dull.

12-19-22

Triangle of Sadness

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 15, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Satirizing the upper class is very in right now. Parasite won Best Picture in 2020. The Menu has been entertaining moviegoers in cinemas for the past month. TV series The White Lotus just completed its second season on HBO. Glass Onion — the sequel to Knives Out — hits Netflix on December 23. Triangle of Sadness is the latest opus by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund. It secured the Palme d’Or — the highest merit — at the Cannes Film Festival in May. His movie The Square took the award in 2017.

Östlund’s sensibilities are dark but with a humorous undercurrent. The script explains that a “triangle of sadness” is the furrowed brow of wrinkles due to tension in the face. An alternate explanation is that our sorrowful tale is conveniently divided into three parts. The through line that unites all three sections is a young dating couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson) is a male model, and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) is also a model. She is an influencer, and they’re invited on an ocean liner in exchange for promoting it on social media. Beauty is their ticket into this world of elites.

Through them, we get to know some of the wealthy vacationers on board the luxury yacht. There’s a lonely tech billionaire (Henrik Dorsin), a Russian fertilizer tycoon (Zlatko Burić) traveling with his wife (Sunnyi Melles) and mistress ( Carolina Gynning), a sweet elderly married pair (Amanda Walker & Oliver Ford Davies) who amassed a fortune manufacturing hand grenades, and a poor German woman who has suffered a stroke and repeatedly says “In Den Wolken” which means “in the clouds.”

In an upstairs-downstairs scenario, we also see scenes of the crew working hard to cater to the guests’ whims and desires. The head of the crew is Paula (Vicki Berlin), who believes no request is too absurd. The ship’s drunken captain (Woody Harrelson) is a self-proclaimed Marxist. But the most noteworthy individual is a “toilet manager” named Abigail, portrayed by Filipina actress Dolly de Leon. If the Academy truly exists to honor the best performances regardless of Hollywood status, they will nominate the heretofore unknown. She makes the most memorable impression in a supporting role for 2022. Her brilliant performance is the kind of depiction that often gets overlooked. Later the ship encounters rough seas, the power goes out, and pirates attack the ship. Only a select few survivors can escape. They wind up on an island.

To give more plot details would be to ruin the surprise of what occurs. Ruben Ostlund’s screenplay is a companion to Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017). The trilogy collectively mocks the 1%. I was riveted by the twists and turns of how the narrative in his latest develops. The story touches on class, race, and gender to comment on celebrity, wealth, and inequality. Yet it unfolds organically, which compels the viewer to keep watching. It’s a long production (147 minutes) but never dull. I will admit in one extended sequence, the people on the boat get sick, and there’s a lot of regurgitation. It goes on for far too long, but that’s the purpose. You’ll either be repulsed or amused by the exaggeration. It’s outrageous. I wasn’t a fan of that patience-testing display. However, everything else succeeds. The objective isn’t subtle, but it is intelligent and funny.

12-01-22

Triangle of Sadness is available to rent on digital retailers like Amazon Video, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube Movies, Google Play, and more.

A Christmas Story Christmas

Posted in Comedy, Family with tags on December 5, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

1983’s A Christmas Story ranks in my Top 5 all-time greatest holiday movies. I’m not alone in my love for that adaptation based on the anecdotal writings of humorist Jean Shepherd. In the U.S., the TV networks TBS and TNT air the film for 24 hours in a nonstop marathon on the actual day. So it was with a mixture of excitement and reserve that I approached this sequel to the beloved classic: the awkwardly titled A Christmas Story Christmas.

From a screenplay he co-wrote with Nick Schenk (Gran Torino), director Clay Kaytis (The Christmas Chronicles) has fashioned this warm update for people who have seen the original many times. The year is 1973 — 33 years after the previous installment took place. Peter Billingsley, who played little Ralphie in the first picture, is now an adult father. He travels back to the home in Hammond, Indiana from whence he grew up. He’s there to console his mother after receiving news that his father has passed. He’s promised his mother two things. (1) to write his father’s obituary and (1) to give his kids a magical Christmas like the one he had as a child.

There’s more nostalgia to be mined. Ralphie also reconnects with his childhood friends. A cadre of original cast members return. This includes his kid brother Randy (Ian Petrella), his best friend Schwartz (R.D. Robb), who dared buddy Flick (Scott Schwartz) to stick his tongue to a frozen pole, and the ultimate bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) with his right-hand man Grover Dill (Yano Anaya). Melinda Dillion retired from acting in 2007, so the always dependable Julie Hagerty ably steps into the role of his mother, Mrs. Parker.

Ralphie is all grown up, so the narrative’s perspective has appropriately changed. The account concerns navigating festive traditions as a married father with kids. Rituals include picking out a tree, finding the appropriate topper, and buying gifts while his wife (Erinn Hayes) and mom get tipsy in the lounge. Outdoor fun consists of snowball fights with the kids, sledding down a ridiculously high ramp, building snowmen, etc. Of course, nothing goes according to plan. The script finds humor in some new gags, but it also relies on developments from the 1983 picture and puts a twist on them. I enjoyed the remix. My biggest complaint is that it’s all very inconsequential. Nonetheless, this is still a sweet revisit if you’re a fan of the previous movie. Not as good, but then again, it hasn’t had the advantage of almost 40 years of repeat viewings.

11-29-22

The Menu

Posted in Comedy, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 25, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Eat the rich.” The expression is a rallying cry against capitalism and class inequality. It’s commonly attributed to Jean Jacques Rousseau, a political philosopher and leading figure in the late 18th century during the French Revolution. However, the idiom has been invoked many times since. The words are never uttered here, but that ethos is all over this movie and is especially apropos, given the account is all about eating. Not literally “people,” as the phrase somewhat humorously implies, but gourmet fare. However, this narrative does not celebrate fine dining. Obsessive foodies, celebrity chefs, and tasting menus will be roasted to the death..and it isn’t pretty.

The Menu is a dark and nasty satire on the art of fine dining. Hawthorn is the name of an elegant restaurant in the Pacific Northwest run by Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). It’s likely a mash-up of many haute cuisine destinations. Director Mark Mylo — best known for his directorial work on TV shows Succession and Shameless — is working from a clever screenplay by Will Tracy and Seth Reichs (The Onion). A visit to Cornelius, a prestigious destination for seafood in Norway, inspired this production. Living in Nothern California, my mind went to The French Laundry, which charged $850 per person at the height of the COVID pandemic. There’s also a more direct geographic comparison of La Isla, the isolated private island in Patagonia of chef Francis Mallman visited by affluent gastro-tourists. There’s no cell coverage or Wi-Fi there either.

Guests travel by boat to a remote island to dine at an exclusive venue where the chef has prepared a lavish multi-course culinary journey with a sinister agenda. That’s the plot in a nutshell. This is a world where the top 1% spend hundreds (even thousands) of dollars on an epicurean experience. The “Breadless Bread Plate” merely features dollops of oil and emulsions on a plate. “The Island” course is a rock with a raw diver scallop carefully adorned with pickled seaweeds and algae using tweezers. These chefs have reduced their craft to an intellectual exercise by taking the joy out of eating. The final insult? The diner is still hungry after their meal of minimalism is all over.

Then there are the 12 chic and shallow elites who have each paid $1250 a head. The guest list includes Nicholas Hoult as Tyler, an obsequious foodie who has watched every episode of Chef’s Table. He worships Julian Slowik. His date is Margot, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy. She is different, a cynic, unimpressed with all the highfalutin nonsense. “You’re the customer,” she chides a sycophantic Tyler. “You’re paying him to serve you.” Reed Birney and Judith Light play a wealthy couple whose marital problems are exposed during the service. Janet McTeer is a pompous delight as a powerful food critic. John Leguizamo is a name-dropping has-been actor.

Ultimately, this is a hilarious food film with stylish horror influences. It’s like Saw blended with Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The script mines a smug contempt for establishments that flaunt their farm-to-table practices like a badge of honor. Yet, one should approach the tongue-in-cheek tone with a grain of salt. Despite the semi-serious horror milieu, the atmosphere’s evolving sense of silliness must be embraced to fully enjoy these shenanigans. Airplane! represents the airline industry about as closely as The Menu embodies a high-end restaurant. Time and again, these idiotic victims do not behave like normal people. There are numerous examples, but any patron that would happily pull out their wallet to pay for the experience they get here would have to be either suicidal or certifiably insane. A healthy suspension of disbelief is required. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed this far-fetched parody.

11-22-22

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Music with tags on November 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is nothing if not self-aware. “It’s odd to be like a footnote in musical history,” he opined in 2019. “Like you pick up a Kurt Cobain biography, and you’ll look in the index, and there I am.” Yankovic was referencing “Smells Like Nirvana,” which was his spoof of that band’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit. His parodies of famous songs have sold millions, so some would argue he’s more than a footnote. “Eat It” and “White & Nerdy” were massive hits. His discography includes four gold albums and six platinum. He’s even earned five Grammy Awards. Some of the most celebrated artists of rock and roll can’t boast those statistics.

Yet given the comedy genre in which he works, “Weird Al” has always preferred jokes over great art, and that’s precisely the spirit in which this so-called memoir is presented. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a satire of the biopic genre. As such, it has more in common with This Is Spinal Tap or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Even then, it falls far short of the high bar set by those films. For one thing, it would help if there was more than a kernel of truth. The events depicted here bear little resemblance to anything he actually did.

There is one laugh-out-loud sequence. It occurs about 30 minutes in. Radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) takes “Weird Al” (Daniel Radcliffe) under his wing and offers him an opportunity for success. At his pool party, Demento introduces Al to various celebrities. It’s an incongruous gathering of eclectic individuals that includes Andy Warhol (Conan O’Brien), Tiny Tim (Demetri Martin), Pee Wee Herman (Jorma Taccone), Salvador Dali (Emo Philips), Divine (Nina West), Alice Cooper (Akiva Schaffer) and Gallagher (Paul F. Tompkins). Unconvinced of his talent, Wolfman Jack (Jack Black) dares him to come up with a new parody song right there on the spot. Someone shouts out, “Another One Bites the Dust” as a suggestion. Turns out it’s John Deacon (David Dastmalchian), the bassist for Queen. The fact that no one at the party has ever heard of him is a hoot.

The rest of the movie isn’t as inspired. The narrative follows the same formulaic beats of a music documentary but with all sorts of random feats the man never accomplished. His debut album goes quintuple platinum. He gains fans worldwide, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey (Quinta Brunson) and drug lord Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro). Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a mishmash of developments so far-fetched that this could have been fabricated around any celebrity. In an extended tangent, Al has a torrid affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). Their relationship would make this a better biography about, say, Vanilla Ice — a singer that did, in fact, date Madonna. A kidnapping plot involving the “Material Girl” grows tiresome. The point is the whole thing is a complete joke. By the end, the chronicle descends into a Jim Morrison-esque fall from grace. It’s so stridently relentless in attempting to be funny…it isn’t. I give this movie the same response “Weird Al” offers after John Deacon invites Al to perform with Queen on stage at Live Aid: “Hard pass!”

11-05-22

The Banshees of Inisherin

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on November 2, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Friendship is a state of mutual trust and support between two people. This is a tale about the disintegration of that bond. The story is set on a fictional island off the west coast of Ireland in 1923. Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are lifelong friends until suddenly they’re not. Fiddle player and composer Colm abruptly ends his association with his drinking mate Pádraic. His justification is bewildering, to say the least. “I just don’t like you no more,” Colm says. Padraic is a soft-hearted man, fond of simple pleasures. He enjoys eating meals with his sister, caring for his miniature donkey, Jenny, and drinking at the pub with his pal. He’s a nice guy, and he’s deeply hurt. Pádraic presses Colm for an answer, yet the more he does, the further he pushes his buddy away.

Apparently, Pádraic didn’t say or do anything wrong. It’s just that he’s too dull. That’s a lot to swallow. Pádraic comes across as the most likable man in this isolated town but whatever. It’s the movies—suspension of disbelief. Colm aspires to have interesting conversations and create a legacy as a folk artist. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is the title Colm bestows on the song he’s currently writing. A banshee is also a female spirit in Irish folklore who heralds the death of a victim, and a local named Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton) quite literally fulfills this role. Their feud has an effect on the lives of Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), a bartender (Pat Shortt), a shopkeeper (Bríd Ní Neachtain), a priest (David Pearse), and even a beloved pet. Things come to a head when Colm angrily delivers a shocking ultimatum to Padric. It’s never acknowledged, but Colm may have a mental disorder.

The Banshees of Inisherin is filled with a panoply of soulful performances. The production reunites writer and director Martin McDonagh, who helmed In Bruges with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Farrell gives a nuanced and heartfelt performance that kept me enrapt through most of the picture. Pádraic’s sincerity is so genuine you want to befriend him. He begins as a decent human being, but as the narrative wears on, even he is dragged down into the muck of Colm’s antisocial behavior. The only character whose situation improves is Siobhán, who lives with her brother. She’s an intelligent woman and seemingly the most sensible personality on the island. Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan) is a sweet lad that is abused in more ways than one by his monster of a father (Gary Lydon). Peadar Kearney is also the town policeman, natch.

Domestic and sexual abuse, suicide, arson, and self-mutilation…The Banshees of Inisherin is a bleak account. That these topics are the subject of a 2022 comedy — albeit a dark one — is par for the course. The saga unfolds while the Irish Civil War rages on the mainland. A glimpse of an explosion can be occasionally seen in the distance. That historical event can provide some context for the unsavory developments here. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t make me want to spend time with these people.

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has introduced a bevy of misanthropic characters over four feature films. I have seen them all, and I realize what makes this man tick. His outlook on life is an acquired taste. Yet the director has legions of dedicated fans. His last movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, received 7 Oscar nominations in 2018. Based on early buzz, this is poised for a similar reception. Good luck to him, but I’ll likely cheer for the other nine nominees in the Best Picture category first. This reviewer can’t embrace McDonagh’s pessimistic worldview.

11-01-22

Werewolf by Night

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy with tags on October 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

An eclectic group of monster hunters converges on the estate of dearly departed Ulysses Bloodstone. They are there to compete for a powerful relic — also called the Bloodstone. The gem affords protection, strength, and longevity to the possessor. One caveat, they’ll have to fight a dangerous beast to get it. Among the seven attendees are the enigmatic Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal). He may not be a Terrier, but he does have a hairy problem. Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly) is the daughter of the recently deceased, a fellow monster slayer who is both Jack’s rival and teammate — but conspicuously not a love interest. Harriet Sansom Harris portrays Verussa, Ulysses’ eccentric widow.

Werewolf by Night is a unique offering in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness dipped its toe in the horror waters. Composer Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up) — making his directorial debut — completely dives in. That singularity is part of this picture’s charm. The narrative spotlights a decent protagonist (Jack Russell) that doesn’t want to cause harm. Everyone else is on a different page. Also enticing is the use of practical effects and black-and-white cinematography. This allows that jewel to shine even brighter as it glows ruby red.

Just in time for Halloween, this creature feature provides a seasonal but forgettable experience for MCU completists. This adaptation is based on a Marvel comic book character first introduced in 1972 and then updated in 2020. Giacchino evokes the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Taking you out of that milieu is bloodshed that is significantly more graphic than the films of that era. That’s fine. Perhaps this is meant to be a marriage of the present and the past, but only in a very superficial sense. In comparison, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr. had real emotional stakes.

So why does this exist? I suspect this production will ultimately serve to introduce elements we will see later in the MCU. Jack Russell and Elsa Bloodstone are a given, but I hope to see another appearance of Man-Thing. The plot is inconsequential piffle. Oh, sure, necks will be ripped, and people will burst into flames. With all apologies to writers Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron, that is not the foundation for a screenplay you can sink your teeth into. (If this were a vampire flick, that would’ve been the perfect pun.) Falling somewhere between a feature-length movie and a half-hour TV show, I admire that this delivers a simple, self-contained story. Kudos that the saga wasn’t unnecessarily stretched to 2 hours. Yet even at 53 minutes, this “special presentation” on Disney+ is such a simplistic tale that it still manages to drag.

10-10-22

Amsterdam

Posted in Comedy, Drama, History with tags on October 11, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Sometimes distilling a perplexing film down to its bare essence can seem daunting. Director David O. Russell has made a slew of great films, Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle. Amsterdam is significantly harder to enjoy. This is a case where my “powers” of reviewing a movie are put to the test. It isn’t easy to even know where to begin with his latest picture.

Let’s start with the plot. To put it succinctly, Amsterdam is a mystery set in the 1930s starring Christian Bale and John David Washington as longtime best friends. They are framed for a murder they didn’t commit and must get to the bottom of the motives behind the killing to absolve themselves. Margot Robbie rounds out their trio. They developed a close bond during their halcyon days in the Netherlands capital. The circle of friends made a pact to protect each other no matter what years ago.

Considering our core triad, Christian Bale is giving the best/most performance as nutty doctor Burt Berendsen. He’s doing a riff on Peter Falk as Columbo. He’s even got a glass eye that keeps falling out. Maybe there’s a dash of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman in the character too. John David Washington portrays lawyer Harold Woodman. The actor — so riveting in BlacKkKlansman — has been seemingly replaced by a subdued, somber imposter I hardly recognize. Margot Robbie is a wealthy but eccentric artist named Valerie Voze. She met the duo while working as a nurse in France during World War I. She becomes romantically involved with Harold, although their interactions fail to generate any sparks.

Amsterdam is blessed (maybe cursed?) with a cast over-stuffed with stars. It would be tedious to list them all. Nevertheless, a surprising number of actors with speaking parts bear mention: Zoe Saldaña, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Taylor Swift, and Robert De Niro comprise a distended roster of celebrities. Most inhabit parts that coast on their fame. When De Niro recounts his political ideology as retired general Gil Dillenbeck, I saw an actor playing himself. Every time another well-known actor popped up, I chuckled at their conspicuous presence. There are many, and they keep coming. These appearances do contribute to the kooky nature of the narrative. However, they constantly remind the viewer that this is first and foremost a farce — not a period piece.

Amsterdam is plagued by a convoluted screenplay written by its director David O. Russell: simple at heart but tortuous in execution. A collection of capricious subplots meanders without a sense of direction or focus. The screenplay is merely a series of offbeat conversations in various locations. If there’s a bright spot to any of these deviations, it is the introduction of Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek as an affluent married couple who sympathize with Hitler and Mussolini. Their mugging faces and campy line readings belong in a completely different movie — the one I wanted to see.

I looked at my watch one hour into the narrative, hoping it would be over soon. There had to be some grand design served by these random developments. Still another 75 minutes to go. Keep the faith, I told myself. The positive is that all becomes clear in the end. There is an ultimate purpose. The story is partly inspired by a 1933 U.S. political conspiracy called the Business Plot. In addition, the 2021 events at the nation’s Capitol on January 6th are an obvious inspiration too. My overall reaction to the way it was presented was ho-hum. None of it captivated me.

It’s obvious a lot of care and effort went into making this picture. I admit the production looks spectacular. I’m talking costumes and production design. Also, the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki is outstanding. He uses many close-ups to lovingly frame these actors’ faces, and they do indeed hold our attention, even if only visually. Amsterdam is largely a disappointment where whimsy and quirkiness are celebrated as the ultimate goal. On occasion, that works. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.