Archive for the Comedy Category

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on July 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hunt_for_the_wilderpeople_ver3_zpssdgunvub.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgTaika Waititi is a major talent. New Zealand already knows this after several of the director’s offbeat films, which include Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, have become hits in that country. The latter comedy was one of my favorites of the year when it was finally released in the U.S. in 2015.  On November 3, 2017, the rest of the world will come to know Taika Waititi’s name when Thor: Ragnarok (Thor 3) is released.

His latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a quirky joy. A movie fashioned with such care and so much warmth that it practically leaps from the screen and gives the audience a hug. It’s based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump. Crump’s semi-autobiographical tales are often comic adventures set in the rugged outdoors. Wilderpeople is no different. The saga stars a famous name in actor Sam Neill as Uncle Hec, a grizzled man. He chases after Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a defiant city boy after Ricky runs away from home into the forest.

But let’s start at the beginning. Sweet Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous Uncle Hec (Neill) are Ricky’s latest foster parents.  Living in the country has been an adjustment for the city kid. Aunt Bella is chipper although her bloody killing of a boar does frighten the child a bit. However Ricky finally seems to have found a family he likes. When Bella abruptly passes away, the authorities threaten to extract the youngster and place him in yet another foster home. Fearing more bad experiences, Ricky runs away into the wild. Uncle Hec follows after the boy. When strict child-services worker Paula (Rachel House) discovers the missing pair, a manhunt ensues.

Ricky is an orphan that has been shuttled around in the foster care system. Raised on hip-hop and affecting a gansta lean (that is if he was actually old enough to drive) he’s been labeled as a bad egg. Nothing could be further from the truth. With dog Tupac by his side, he is disarmingly charismatic. The elderly geezer and the young whippersnapper, thrown together by fate, united by friendship. The idea sounds clichéd but in the hands of Sam Neil and especially novice actor Julian Dennison, the idea is fresh and delightful. Dennison is the secret weapon of the chronicle, bringing a fresh interpretation to a character that charms us almost immediately. A heavy set kid of about 12, there’s a physicality to his performance that makes his precociousness all the more amusing.

Hunt of the Wilderpeople is a beautiful blending of a road movie and a coming of age tale. Like the novel, the production is divided into chapters, each with its own title. The whimsical adventure fashions amusing vignettes that, like delectable morsels, are easily digestible in bite size pieces. With gorgeous scenery as a backdrop, a musical score charms with a retro 80s feel courtesy of the band Moniker . “Trifecta (Ricky Baker Song)” is a highlight. Musical interludes are inserted amongst sharp, witty moments between Uncle Hec and the tender lad. If there is a quibble, it’s that the plot drags on a bit too long when a tighter narrative might have made the ending pop a bit more . By the time the story finally wraps up, we’re more than ready for things to end.  Still, there’s a preciousness that touches the heart without ever being overtly twee. It recalls the work of Wes Anderson. Believe me,  that’s a compliment of the highest order in my book.  Actor Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison have an odd couple chemistry that makes this “hang-out” yarn thoroughly enjoyable. The veteran actor is good but the rookie is even better. Julian Dennison steals the film and probably your heart as well.

07-17-16

Ghostbusters

Posted in Action, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ghostbusters_ver5_zpsuplq07c1.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI don’t think I could’ve been more primed to like this film. (1) I adore the classic 1984 comedy and the concept of a distinctly fresh version of Ghostbusters sounded like fun. (2) I am a huge fan of the cast. Melissa McCarthy has the whip-smart comic timing that can shape even a stale bit into a gem. Kristen Wiig is a genius of oft kilter humor. Up-and-comers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are rising stars whose work on Saturday Night Live is among the most outstanding on that show right now. (3) Bridesmaids was one of the best features of 2011. It made my Top 10 for that year. Reunite the director Paul Feig with two of that picture’s personalities and watch their obvious chemistry unfold again. (4) The pre-release internet hate directed at this production was so unfounded I was tempted to give the movie a pass simply to prove the naysayers wrong.

The good news is that Ghostbusters is not the disaster that the internet predicted. Yet it’s far from the inspired reboot for which I was hoping. The set-up: Many years ago, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) collaborated on an unpopular book about paranormal phenomenon. When Gilbert realizes the book has been republished, she seeks out Yates to undo an embarrassing situation that might damage her tenure at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, Yates has continued to study the supernatural with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates coaxes Gilbert into joining her on another investigation in exchange for squashing the book’s publication. And so they’re off to fight ghosts.

Joining them are MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who sees a ghost in a subway line and contacts the Department. She joins the team a while later. Jones is normally a uniquely dynamic presence on SNL but here she is given nothing more to do than pedestrian shtick.  Unfortunately the sidekick part fails to highlight the sharp comedic gifts she displays every week.  Shouting your lines doesn’t make them funnier. There’s also Kevin Beckman, a feebleminded but handsome receptionist (Chris Hemsworth). I could easily fault the “himbo” act for being nothing more than a dumb blonde role reversal joke.  The thing is, he’s actually one of the funniest things in the film. Credit his affable charisma for taking a flimsy part and making it funny.

Of the four Ghostbusters, only Kate McKinnon truly elevates her loony scientist into something interesting and original. She interprets lines that would normally fall flat in the hands of a lesser actress. By delivering them with an off beat sensibility, she makes the character her own and not a pale imitation. A relative unknown, she has the most to gain from this exposure. I suspect this credit on her resume will be a nice stepping stone to greater things in her career. However established stars McCarthy and Wiig have been lobotomized. They seriously downplay their normally quirky appeal here. Perhaps that’s admirable. This is an ensemble piece and it allows others like McKinnon and Hemsworth to shine. However, in the process we lose what makes their comedic personas so invigorating.

Ghostbusters is a largely uninspired take on a well known property. The story scores points for changing up the plot at least. Like a remix of a classic song with a new singer and modern production, it entertains based on familiarity but not through excellence or innovation. Ok so Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are amusing, but the script hangs the rest of the cast out to dry. In lieu of a Sumerian deity from another dimension brought back from the dead, we get a nerdy petulant weirdo (Neil Casey).  He is a weak excuse for the main villain. Humor is subjective, but I rarely laughed and that’s a deal breaker when assessing a comedy. This cacophonous spectacle wants it both ways. Embrace a modern take, while constantly reminding you of nostalgia for the 1984 original. Star cameos abound with Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all in conspicuous bits that distract from, rather than add to the narrative. The idea of a summer blockbuster that headlines 4 women celebrated for their witty minds, and not their physical attributes, is exciting in theory. I so very wanted this movie to be spectacular. Instead it’s just barely acceptable.

07-14-16

Wiener-Dog

Posted in Comedy, Drama on July 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo wiener_dog_zpsbwumiqbq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThey don’t call Todd Solondz “The King Of Feel-Bad Cinema” for nothing. Few directors expose the horror that exists beneath the well manicured facade of the suburban dream as frightfully as he. Wiener-Dog is only his 8th feature since 1989. A prolific filmmaker he is not. Welcome To The Dollhouse was the 1996 picture that put the New Jersey native on the indie map. It still remains his biggest success to this day. While subsequent releases have seen less box office, most have achieved a certain level of critical acclaim. All are informed by his cruel, albeit multi-layered take on the human condition.

In Wiener-Dog, four tales are linked together by the presence of the same dachshund. As she inhabits the lives of four different individuals, we come to learn the details of the families within. There’s Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a sensitive little boy who is a cancer survivor, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), an awkward young woman who runs into an old crush, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) a screenwriting professor disregarded by his students, and Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly woman visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). You can see the director’s alter ego in the lead protagonist as the focus of each story gets a little older. The spirit of every principal beaten down by the inequities of life.

Mortality is a fact of life. Death isn’t a cheerful idea, but it is real. Because Todd Solondz deals in these themes, he is not an easy director to like. His worldview is bleak and pessimistic. Oh and did I mention this is a comedy? A very funny one at that if you can cuddle up to the movie’s prickly charms. The absurdity of the conversations within can be laugh out loud hilarious at times. There’s even an intermission scored to an original countrified song called “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog”. It adds just the right amount of levity before embarking on the production’s even more somber 2nd half. Aided by gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, he lends a hyper surreality to these mundane settings.

The pup in Wiener-Dog features heavily in each episode. Yet despite the title, this is really about people, not the canine. The beloved pet is merely a construct that gives us an excuse to follow an assortment of characters. There’s a world weary tone to these sagas, but there’s also the soul of humanity as well. For example the relationship between Remi and the dachshund is pure and sweet. They share a friendship to which his parents are immune. We sympathize with the various heroes in their respective vignettes, even though they may have serious flaws. There’s an authenticity to that. I mean we are flawed too, right? As the film marches to its inevitable conclusion, we brace ourselves. Todd Solondz has contempt for the Hollywood happy ending. Wiener-Dog is typified by a grisly finale that hits you like a slap in the face. Then the camera lingers on the event. There’s a palpable rage against society here.  The experience may sting, but the script still makes a sincere plea for mankind. I saw hope amidst the despair. That’s kind of powerful.

07-08-16

The Secret Life Of Pets

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on July 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo secret_life_of_pets_ver2_zpsst2sqnzq.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Secret Life of Pets promises to show you what domesticated animals are really like when people aren’t around. In set-up, it’s a spiritual cousin to Toy Story. But here the mood is defined by a cursory depth and a far zanier mentality.  The narrative structure is loose and free-form. Pets seems inspired by the cartoons of the 1940s & 50s from Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Character development is minimized in exchange for the almighty gag. It’s a hodgepodge of routines but if you’re looking to laugh, it does the job.

The production is overflowing with a huge cadre of personalities, an odd assortment of mostly cats and dogs given life by celebrity voices. They’re an amusing variety of individuals. At first it’s unclear which animal will be the center of attention. There are so many. However we come to understand that Max (Louis C.K.) a Jack Russell Terrier, is the star. He’s a good natured doggie, but grows rather jealous when his owner (Ellie Kemper) adopts another pet in Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big shaggy Newfoundland. The two dogs are soon thrust into an odyssey on the streets of New York. There they meet up with a cult that promotes “The Flushed Pets” movement. They want to overthrow the humans. Meanwhile Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian, rounds up Max’s friends in an effort to find him. Pops (Dana Carvey) stands out as an elderly basset hound with paralyzed back legs. Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a menacing red-tailed hawk is an unexpected addition. There’s a tattooed pig (Michael Beattie), a parakeet (Tara Strong) and a guinea pig (Chris Renaud) as well. However none stand out as much as Snowball, a white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. His manic charisma stole every scene he was in. He is hilarious.

The Secret Life of Pets is largely a joy that beguiles almost as easily as it evaporates from the mind. That’s actually part of the script’s ephemeral appeal. The cartoon is brought to you by Illumination Entertainment, the highly successful film production company that brought you the Despicable Me movies. This flick wants to charm us with unfettered antics. There is a purity to that.  You’d have to have the cold heart of a grinch to not at least chuckle at some of the random absurdities. At one point a bizarre hallucination sequence in a sausage factory involves a Busby Berkeley number of dancing wieners clad in hula skirts. As their heads are bitten off, they gleefully sing “We Go Together” from Grease. The eclectic soundtrack also includes selections from artists as disparate as Taylor Swift, System of a Down, Queen, Nappy Roots, Ringworm, Beastie Boys, Bill Withers, Andrew W.K. and N-Trance with their the 1995 remake of “Stayin’ Alive”. Sadly, a compilation of all this diverse music has not been released but you can download the selections individually I suppose. Humor targets run the gamut from behavioral shenanigans to poop jokes. And yes there are one too many of the latter. The Secret Life of Pets is a chaotic tornado of random bits & characters. There is very little sense to this. At times, I struggled to discern the focus of the story. And yet it pops up every now and then when it needs to make an appearance or simply make us laugh. I was entertained.

07-07-16

Central Intelligence

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo central_intelligence_ver2_zps8nxd0sdr.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMovies don’t get more agreeably disposable than Central Intelligence, a stridently by-the-numbers action comedy. The source of all humor contained within is an incongruous juxtaposition – the visual joke as it were. Hey guys!! Watch a big muscular dude (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) pal around with a yappy shrimp of a man (Kevin Hart). The former has a flamboyant personality. The latter possesses a shrill disposition. Just what we’re in short supply of – another “odd couple” comedy.

Back in high school it was a much different story. Calvin Joyner (Hart) was a BMOC: class president, homecoming king, drama club thespian, et cetera. Conversely Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was a morbidly obese dork who enjoyed dancing in the gym locker room to En Vogue’s “My Loving (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”. Yup, complete with hand gestures and everything. He was mercilessly teased. Flash forward to the modern day. Calvin is in a funk. He hasn’t yet achieved what he had envisioned for his life. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart and gainfully employed as an accountant. “Wait what’s the problem?”, you may ask. That’s a very good question. Oops! I think you just might be too smart for this picture.

Robbie Weirdicht (now calling himself Bob Stone), on the other hand, is a huge brawny guy who likes to wear unicorn shirts that look like they were purchased at Baby Gap. He also happens to be a competent CIA agent. This figures into the plot but it’s kind of irrelevant. The purpose of this buddy film is to unite two unlikely people and merely savor their chemistry. Bob still idolizes Calvin like a hero. He quickly ingratiates himself back into Calvin’s life after a Facebook invite. Within hours he’s already sleeping on his couch. Honestly Bob’s obsessive fascination with Calvin is borderline stalker behavior.

Central Intelligence isn’t a horrible movie. It coasts on the charm of its leads. Dwayne Johnson is eager, overzealous and blissfully unaware. He imagines this close personal friendship with Kevin Hart’s character that was never really there. He’s so naive he seems almost mentally challenged. Kevin Hart plays an exasperated, persnickety fuss-budget. The two are a mismatched pair. If you can appreciate the constant mugging from the two stars then you should cuddle up to the film’s modest charms. Me? I was hoping for a bit more story than the threadbare plot that’s served up here. For the record, it’s some nonsense about selling critical U.S. satellite codes to terrorists. There’s also some confusion as to whether Bob Stone is actually a good or a bad guy in the CIA but you’d have to be fast asleep not to figure that out. Yes it’s totally predictable, but that’s not the issue. I found their hijinks mildly amusing. I simply never laughed out loud at any point. It’s so thoroughly generic. Directer and co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber has done better work. I’d uphold DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story over this. What sets Central Intelligence apart is Wayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. I recommend this to very forgiving fans (and only fans) for whom these celebrities can do no wrong.

06-21-16

Finding Dory

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo finding_dory_ver6_zpsvkailyui.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s been 13 years. How do you follow up Pixar’s highest grossing (when adjusting for inflation) film ever? Why you release a sequel that goes bigger.  Add more characters, more zaniness and even better animation, but don’t stray too far from what worked before. A tragic backstory that leads to a great adventure is nearly identical in nature. The dramatic beats are kind of samey too. Instead of a frightening encounter with a giant shark we get one with an enormous squid. It’s a bit of a rough watch in the beginning. I was worried. It does takes awhile for Finding Dory to find its footing and form a distinct identity from the original, but I’m happy to say it ultimately does. The story doesn’t take chances but rather goes for audience pleasing entertainment. It may be pure formula but hey it’s also pure fun.

You may remember (pun not intended) that Dory, the blue tang, is forgetful. She suffers from short term memory loss. In flashback, we see her as a tiny fish with her parents. “Stay away from the undertow!”, they say. Father Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Mother Jenny (Diane Keaton) resort to repetitive learning techniques using rhymes to impress upon her. Any parent of a child with special needs will surely relate. The scenes encourage understanding for those who are unfamiliar with how difficult it can be. Despite their due diligence, Dory becomes separated from her parents anyway.

The years pass. Dory (voiced as an adult by Ellen DeGeneres) continues to solicit help from other fish in finding her family. This leads to the events depicted in the first film when she meets Marlin (Albert Brooks) looking for his lost son Nemo. Now flash forward to a year after Nemo was found. While on a field trip with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) a long forgotten memory is triggered while watching a stingray migration. Dory hears the word “undertow”. She recalls bits and pieces. She was looking for her parents. She realizes she must travel from the Great Barrier Reef to California – specifically “The Jewel of Morro Bay.” – in order to find them. And so begins our adventure.

Most of the activity takes place in California at a state of the art “rescue, rehabilitate, release” aquarium called the Marine Life Institute modeled after the impressive one in Monterey*. During production, the setting was changed from a SeaWorld type facility. This was as a result of the backlash caused by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Sigourney Weaver’s voice is overheard in pre-recorded announcements at the exhibits in the park like the voice of God. It was at that moment, I knew everything was going to be OK. She never appears in physical form, but we know it’s her because she introduces herself by name over and over. We’re reminded that it’s her speaking so many times, it becomes a running joke.

Finding Dory adds a dizzying array of new characters. Clownfish Nemo and his father Marlin are back aiding Dory in her quest. It piles on the cutes too. In the early scenes baby Dory (Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes) has eyes as big as her body. Just the sight of her will make your heart melt. They’re still the characters we know and love, but I’d argue a new character tops them all — Ed O’Neill as Hank The octopus. Ok so actually he’s a septopus — he lost a tentacle. Hank is a wondrous creation that seems the next likely candidate to get his own movie. An irascible sort, he surprisingly prefers an aquarium in Cleveland to the open wild of the Ocean. He slings himself from one room to another with elastic ease, using adaptive camouflage to blend in with whatever background he chooses. He’s almost human the way he ambles about. There’s no natural explanation why a cephalopod should behave this way, but I loved every second of him. Other denizens of the Marine Life Institute include a clumsy whale shark with poor eyesight named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a neurotic beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), a pair of territorial sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), and an awkward loon named Becky. She doesn’t speak, but her frazzled personality shines through.

Finding Dory is a lot of fun by amping up the craziness. After Dory is captured by two aquarium employees, the primary setting shifts to the Marine Life Institute. It might seem odd that the majority of action takes place on dry land. After all Dory is a blue tang who needs water to, ya know, like swim. This is one of the constructs that is most unexpected. The journey is not without its challenges. The Kid Zone touch pool scene is an absolute nightmare of grabby hands from the perspective of the aquatic life within. Nevertheless, Dory is able to navigate the outside world with surprising ease. She leaps from one tank to another. Fish move distances using the spouting geysers of a fountain. Others travel in a bucket of water grasped by Becky the loon and carried in a coffee pot by Hank the Octopus. You might think that that’s stretching things. Wait until you see the car chase.

Finding Dory doesn’t top Finding Nemo. It’s sillier and more frivolous than its predecessor. Although there’s some consideration for mental illness and the importance of family, it doesn’t attempt the emotional depth. No I didn’t cry.  Pixar is usually so good at that.  Although there is a poignant moment that certainly tries. However, the movie does goes off in a bizarre, completely zany direction, and forges its own identity that way. Once it does, it’s a warm, good–natured, non-stop hilarious, gag-filled joy of a film.

*[Side note: The script mentions the coastal city of Morro Bay which is about 125 miles south of Monterey, but the aquarium in that city is most definitely not the the same place depicted here].

06-16-16

The Lobster

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction on June 3, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lobster_zpsjfnskqu5.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Lobster concerns a dystopian society where coupledom is key. Set within The City, singles are given 45 days to locate a partner or be turned into the animal of their choice. Upon arrival at the Hotel — more like a prison — guests must make a selection. This happens immediately regardless of whether one is successful at finding a mate. Apparently David (Colin Farrell) has just been dumped.  During his initial interview he chooses a lobster and hence bestows the film its title. “They live for over 100 years, they are blue-blooded like aristocrats, they are fertile all their lives and I like the sea.” At least that’s his reasoning. He’s praised for not choosing a dog because there is a surplus of that animal. I snickered a little at that line. If you actually guffaw, then you may adore this movie. That’s the level of humor.

Bizarre drama honors ambiguousness over detail and extols absurdity over coherence. It’s an intriguing setup for a comedy that creates a surreal environment from which to extract humor. The script succeeds for awhile. Particularly in the beginning where the insanity of it all can be rather diverting. But what is the point?  Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos possibly means to mock the societal pressure to couple up. Also the superficiality of the common interest that ultimately unites one person with another is satirized. Actress Jessica Barden plays a woman who gets nosebleeds. Actor Ben Whishaw portrays a man who has a limp. It appears that the two can only be together if they share the same malady.

Grim farce had me entertained for the first hour where David experiences the rules of the Hotel. His daily routine in which to find a companion is dryly amusing in parts. To prepare them for coupled life, patrons are initially handcuffed with one hand behind their back.  Then they converse with one another employing the stilted dialogue of a robot going through the motions of a conversation.  They have joyless sex with the employees like they were performing a chore.  Later guests hunt their unattached peers in the forest. The tale then takes a disastrous turn in part two after David escapes and experiences solace with a radical group in the wild called the Loners. They promote the exact opposite theology, separateness. It is there that he actually meets a soulmate in fellow Loner Rachel Weisz. Oh the irony! They’re prisoners yet again.

Yorgos Lanthimos also directed the extremely misanthropic comedy(?) Dogtooth. Devotees of that picture should find his disaffected worldview appealing here as well.  Less cynical individuals may discover his malevolent characters a bit harder to endorse. Surprisingly, I was on board. The silly rules at the Hotel are ridiculously wicked. But I checked out during the tedious second half.  Opening segments that fabricate the story should be absolute catnip for anyone who vehemently despises the very concept of a holiday like Valentine’s Day. If there’s such a thing as discrimination against singles, then this satire will surely hit home with any viewer who feels like a victim. Once the script throws the foundation kit and caboodle out the window, the fable emerges merely as an excuse to parade a group of antisocial types around for the viewer’s pleasure. These people are really hard to embrace, especially in the second section where the narrative and the jokes come to a grinding halt. To like these people is clearly not the aim. However after spending 118 minutes with these thoroughly unpleasant people, I wish I was a lobster too.

05-28-16

The Meddler

Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo meddler_zpsymwvy5tf.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThese days, Susan Sarandon is more likely to make headlines with her political beliefs than her films. For the record, she was in the minor hit Tammy two years prior in 2014. However that was more of a comedic vehicle for Melissa McCarthy than an opportunity for the Oscar winner to stretch her acting chops. Curiously, this time around she has to share space in equal billing with Rose Byrne on the movie poster. Make no mistake, however, Susan Sarandon is the indisputable star of The Meddler. Byrne, along with the rest of the cast: J. K. Simmons, Cecily Strong and Jerrod Carmichael exist as bit parts in support of the seasoned actress.

Susan Sarandon plays Marnie, a lonely widow who has moved from one coast to the other so she can be with her screenwriter daughter, Lori.   Feeling isolated and heartbroken, Marnie has left her home in New York for LA. Actually that’s New Yawk — spelled that way because she has the exaggerated accent to match.  Marnie’s husband has only recently passed away and so she is adjusting to a fresh restart. As the title conveys, Marnie attempts to get involved in Lori’s life: leaving frequent messages on her cell phone, dropping by with little notice, offering unsolicited advice. When her own daughter proves resistant to her interference, Marnie readjusts her priorities and moves on to encroaching upon the lives of the people she meets. There is Lori’s gal pal, the Apple store clerk and an elderly woman at the hospital. How this “kibitzer” changes the lives of these people is rather unforeseeable.

The Meddler is a production of modest charms. This is an account concerning ordinary people dealing with ordinary things. That makes it somewhat forgettable in a way, but the script is better than what you predict. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria penned Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, one of my favorites from 2008. The Meddler is her 2nd time behind the director’s chair after 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. She does a great job of elevating the tale above the atmosphere of what could have been a routine sitcom. Scafaria’s intelligent screenplay has something genuinely interesting to say about loss, grief and how those issues can affect us as we age.

The Meddler subverts expectations. As the narrative begins to play out, I kept anticipating that Marnie would become the butt of the joke, but she never does. Usually relegated as a background character, Susan Sarandon’s role is reminiscent of a sitcom trope I call “overbearing mom to celebrity comedian”. Yet she is not banished to the background of the story, she IS the story. The plot is lovingly constructed around her saga. She is sweetly sympathetic. She behaves like a caring mom, if perhaps a bit suffocating. If nothing else, the drama is a suitable showcase for the veteran performer. It’s nice to see that in 2016, great actresses of a certain age can still excel in indie films amidst all the FX and explosions of blockbuster Hollywood. This has been a recent trend. Sally Field and Helen Mirren have also scored this year with indie hits. Susan Sarandon’s achievement is more than enough reason to enjoy The Meddler.

05-19-16

The Nice Guys

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo nice_guys_ver2_zpsk3d3imaa.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBuddy film about Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hapless private eye and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a paid enforcer. The pair team up to solve the seemingly unrelated disappearance of a runaway teen (Margaret Qualley), and the apparent suicide of porn starlet (Murielle Telio).

The Nice Guys was not only written but also directed by Shane Black.  A celebrated screenwriter, he penned Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With its fast talking, neo-noir stylings, his script here could be inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler. That Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author was known for seminal detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. However Shane Black’s script isn’t as organized to bear comparison with Chandler’s writing. The plot is made up of various story threads thrown together in a dramatic blender that favors messy incongruity over twisty coherence.

The Nice Guys succeeds best when it’s going for laughs. Crowe is an effective straight man. Gosling is enjoyable as the comic relief. As hired muscle and private eye respectively, they make an amusing duo. Actress Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s 14 year old daughter, Holly March, a nice addition to the mix. Holly desperately wants to help her father out with his business, much to his dismay. She is an appealing presence, but she also brings out the more benevolent qualities of the two men. Their more iniquitous traits are downplayed when she is around. She steals every scene too. In fact, the narrative might have benefited if it had been simplified solely around a father-daughter crime fighting team.

The Nice Guys is at heart, a simple B-movie thriller dressed up as a period piece. The feature is a loving evocation of 1970s excess. Polyester suits, bom chicka wah wah guitar riffs and Playboy mansion style parties uplift the environment with a kitschy retro sheen.  That’s fun, but then there’s a lot of extraneous story nonsense here that is wholly unnecessary.  Less is more.  A basic tale is obstructed with a convoluted plot involving the mistaken identities of two lookalikes, the porn world, government corruption, and a whole lot of murders. One, in particular, is especially depressing because the victim gets away from the killer only to be murdered by him minutes later while hitchhiking to escape. Zany comedy mixed with violence is a difficult balancing act. The uneven tone can be off-putting. Still, there’s enough jokes and charisma to make up for the unsavory stretches that occasionally bring this production down. The slapdash recipe is generally a tasty one.

05-22-16

Dough

Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 16, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo Dough_zpsuhvg2vma.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgUndemanding little piffle that concerns the elderly Jewish proprietor (Jonathan Pryce) of a struggling Kosher bakery in London’s East End . Nat has continued the vocation of his father. However his little business has fallen on hard times due to local competition. Rather than follow in Nat’s footsteps, his own married son (Daniel Caltagirone) has become a lawyer. He encourages Nat to sell the shop. To add insult to injury, Nat’s sole employee has recently quit to go work for what can only be referred to as his evil competitor, a grocery-store chain called Cotton’s. In a bind, he hesitantly hires Ayyash (Holder), a young Muslim immigrant (Jerome Holder) from Africa.

Dough is just as cliched as it sounds. Ayyash is a troubled teen who also happens to deal marijuana. Trying to juggle both jobs is not easy. Wacky shenanigans ensue. I won’t spoil a specific plot point because it is the only thing that occurs that is mildly unpredictable. Although even the trailer gives that away. Sprinkle in a villainous corporate type (Philip Davis), a local drug kingpin (Ian Hart), a love interest (Pauline Collins) and a story that wildly careens from sensitive drama into a zany heist movie. The store’s problems are ultimately fixed with a happy solution that seemingly solves all their woes out of thin air. The remedy is cheekily independent of all the convoluted developments we have endured. It renders everything we watched irrelevant, but then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

Dough is pleasant enough. If you’re looking for a sweet British confection that doesn’t tax your brain, you should be entertained. Jonathan Pryce and Jerome Holder are working with cardboard characters but they give them life. They are captivating despite the utter predictability of the narrative. I mean, how much do you wanna bet that these disparate individuals will eventually learn to embrace each other’s differences by the end? This is essentially one of those culture clash sitcoms from the 1970s with a few minor tweaks. Anyone remember Chico and the Man? I miss that show.

05-12-16

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