Archive for the Comedy Category

A Simple Favor

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller on September 15, 2018 by Mark Hobin

simple_favor_ver9STARS2.5Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) has carved out a successful niche in Hollywood.  His female-centric comedies have been both box office successes as well as critically lauded hits.  I consider myself an admirer.  So when A Simple Favor was announced, I welcomed another offering from the filmmaker.  The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (TV’s American Horror Story) is based on a 2017 novel by Darcey Bell.  I was intrigued by ads that led me to believe that he was undertaking something new. The trailer promised a shift into neo-noir thriller, that A Simple Favor would deviate from Feig’s comedy wheelhouse.  While the production attempts to affect a pseudo-serious edge, this material incongruously relies on laughs, sometimes awkwardly in the very same scene.

I was elated by the cast.  I am a Blake Lively fan. The statuesque actress plays Emily, a mysterious friend of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) who goes missing.   Lively got her start in features with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). Then made a splash in the CW television series Gossip Girl (2007–2012). Initially subsequent films (Green Lantern, Savages) followed that didn’t make use of her talents.  I must confess she really didn’t impress until her appearance in The Age of Adaline. The willowy blonde epitomized cool stylish class in that production.  Visually, Lively is a chic throwback to Hollywood heroines like Jean Harlow, Kim Novak, Veronica Lake, or Grace Kelly.  She is undeniably well cast here.  With her designer duds and cosmopolitan demeanor, she is the epitome of a gorgeous sophisticate. The movie adopts a refined air.  Although her character subverts that mood with a vulgar temperament.  Her conversations with Stephanie make it clear.  Emily is a lewd and crude woman.

The rest of the cast intrigued me.  Emily’s husband is portrayed by Crazy Rich Asians newcomer Henry Golding.  He plays it rather straight.  The actor treats the screenplay as if he’s in a sincere drama.  Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, seems to be in a different picture altogether.  As a mother, she hosts her own self-produced internet program for fellow moms.  When she addresses her audience of mommies in her video blog, her strident performance makes sense.  Yet she maintains that same shrill demeanor even while sipping martinis with newly found friend Emily.  Her acting is broad and gratingly self-aware.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the part was originally written with frequent Paul Feig collaborator Melissa McCarthy in mind.  McCarthy was brilliant taking on an uncharacteristic role in Spy so I have no doubt she could have pulled off this part with aplomb as well.  She would’ve been a better casting selection given the way Kendrick is directed to behave.  Miss Kendrick’s constant mugging would be more at home in a Miller-Boyett sitcom.  I have nothing against Full House, Perfect Strangers, Family Matters, Step by Step, et al.  Those 90s hits have their place in TV history.  It’s just that the acting style doesn’t suit an elegant mystery.

The choice to mix folly with drama is black comedy and when it works, it can be marvelous.  But taking a serious subject and introducing humor is a difficult balancing act.  It’s been done successfully.  David O. Russell achieved the feat with 2013’s American Hustle to cite one recent example.  There has to be a modicum of respect for your own characters so the audience can be invested in their plight.  Quite simply, these characters lack depth.  All of them.  Even Emily’s young son (Ian Ho) comes across like spoiled brat on a bad sitcom.  I consider the moment when the little tyke surprisingly shouts “F— You!” at Stephanie to be the nadir.  With A Simple Favor, what initially begins like as a captivating mystery slowly devolves into superficial farce. Sometimes in mid-scene. The decision to undercut tension with silliness undermines the story’s more lofty ambitions.  I hesitate to mention Hitchcock because invoking his name in the same breath as a sordid piece of entertainment such as this is akin to blasphemy.  However, that’s clearly the aesthetic to which director Paul Feig was aiming.  Unfortunately, misplaced absurdity and then a convoluted denouement with a few too many twists, completely sinks the plot.  The recent Searching had twists too but at least they were coherent.  Perusing the number of one-star reviews on the social book site Goodreads for Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel leads me to believe the problem lies with the source material.  That’s a shame.  The ultimate mystery of A Simple Favor is why they buried an elegant thriller underneath this goofy mess.

09-13-18

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on August 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

crazy_rich_asiansSTARS3.5Hollywood is so steeped in the culture of comic books and sci-fi these days that when a movie comes along that hinges on the various alliances between a clan of a well to do socialites, the occurrence seems almost unique.  There was a time when Hollywood used to regularly finance big-budget relationship-based tales.  The romantic comedy in particular has a long history of stock characters that the audience can easily identify.  We cheer and jeer accordingly.  That is the case with Crazy Rich Asians.  However, there is a very essential distinction to this account. This is the first major studio offering since The Joy Luck Club to feature a predominately Asian cast.  Hard to believe that was 25 years ago.  That makes the film significant, but more importantly, it also happens to be incredibly entertaining.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on the 2013 bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.  The narrative features a large cast but is centered on longtime couple Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding).  Two attractive people that are intellectually distinguished and utterly pleasant in every way.  If they have faults, they aren’t shown here.  They’re blandly perfect.  She is an American born economics professor at NYU of Chinese descent.  He is a professor at NYU as well.  He currently lives with Rachel in New York City but is originally from Singapore.  She comes from modest beginnings but he, unbeknownst to her, hails from a very prosperous family living back in Singapore.  Things are set in motion when Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang) invites Nick to his upcoming wedding back home.  This is a golden opportunity for the longtime couple to of course attend, but also meet Nick’s parents in the process.   Father is away on business but mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is very much present and a force with which to be reckoned.

Crazy Rich Asians is a big budget spectacle fashioned around the “wedding of the year.”  Jon Chu directs this story with an eye toward luxury and elegance.   There’s an abundance of wealth on parade – enough affluence to accent several movies. This is colorful entertainment.  An escapist movie built on extravagance.  Nick’s family makes him a well-known member of the upper class.  We live in a celebrity-obsessed age. Just how exactly Rachel is unaware of his social standing is rather incomprehensible but I’m game.   I’ll suspend disbelief.   The speed at which gossip travels in our modern world is featured to delightful effect. There’s a moment early on when Nick and Rachel are on a date in public and a stranger from a blog site snaps a photo of the two together. News of the mystery woman (Rachel) gets back to Nick’s mother.  The cinematic vignette of how that photo goes viral is brilliantly presented with a succinct flair that encapsulates the power of social media in seconds.

Crazy Rich Asians is always giving us something to see. The ensemble is highlighted by a large cast of interesting individuals. There’s too many to mention each in detail. However, Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) stands out. She’s a larger than life personality.  Her family’s ostentatious residence is done up in the gilded and gold style of the Palace of Versailles or “Donald’s Trump’s bathroom” as she jokes.  Nick’s second-cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) also seizes the viewers’ attention whenever he is on screen. So too does Gemma Chan as fashionista Astrid, Nick’s cousin.  When first introduced, I was getting vibes of Audrey Hepburn.  In fact, I was thinking more about her marital woes with husband Michael (Pierre Png) than the main storyline.

The myriad of human bonds intertwine and elevate the drama. They affirm that detailing interconnected relationships is an idea worthy of a film.  This saga is a glorious soap opera.  I say that with respect not ridicule. Director Douglas Sirk appealed to the same emotions. His work in the 1950s pushed the genre into art.  Crazy Rich Asians is a lot sillier than that.  We’re poking fun at class obsessed people who think that where you come from is more important than who you are.  There’s side glances and disapproving looks galore.  If looks could kill, this movie would have the highest body count of the summer.  Crazy Rich Asians makes sure to condemn those superficial sensibilities but still manages to simultaneous revel in them anyway so the viewer gets lots of opulent displays. The wedding is a wow!  It’s a charming amalgamation that is a worthy addition to the pantheon of light, frothy rom-coms.

08-18-19

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18

Eighth Grade

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

eighth_gradeSTARS4It was in 1996 that Director Todd Solondz released his Welcome to the Dollhouse. That seminal indie about growing up was a landmark film that captured the painfully insecure adolescence of a young girl. Few dramas capture the pain of that childhood stage in such a raw, unflinching manner. Now in 2018, we get comedian Bo Burnham’s first-time feature, Eighth Grade. Though nowhere near as bitter, the absolute credibility of the presentation comes as close as anything I’ve seen since.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a 13-year-old teen navigating the gawky existence of middle school in the midst of social media.  Right from the start, she addresses the camera. Although she’s not talking to the audience directly, but rather to her YouTube subscribers. Her channel is sort of a testimonial of self-empowerment interspersed with copious uses of the words “like” and “um”.  She not the most polished speaker, but what she lacks in poise she makes up for in heart.  “Be Yourself!” is the kind of thing she champions before saying goodbye with her trademark signoff “Gucci!”  The simple phrase is at once precious and sad. She says it not because she’s living the life of the luxury brand, but because she’s trying to cater to people she hopes will like her.  Yes, there is a disparity to her affirmations.  She’s saying all the right things.  Be confident! Put yourself out there!  Yet her demeanor betrays a deeply felt anxiety.  We instantly embrace her fragile personality.

Let’s face it. This isn’t just eighth grade, this is the human experience and it speaks to everyone. We love this girl because she so desperately desires what we all crave: friends, acceptance, to be validated.  As adults, we learn to build a thicker skin.  Sure we aspire to be revered for who we are, but most of us adapt to a world that may not appreciate our uniqueness.  Kayla hasn’t adjusted to that way of thinking yet.  She isn’t celebrated by her fellow classmates, although she does win an award for “Most Quiet”.  The fact that a junior high would even hand out a “superlative” for the quality of being shy is sadly believable.  Kids can be insensitive and sometimes adults are oblivious to it.

Teen actress Elsie Fisher is a revelation as Kayla. She doesn’t appear to be putting on an act.  She simply exists and her achievement is a marvel of natural truth.  Her sincere, helpful single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton) simply wishes to engage his daughter at the dinner table. This is sadly a conversation in which she has no interest. Oh, what a cruel irony!  He wishes to relate to her in the same way she longs to connect with her peers. That alone makes the scene heartbreaking.  She shuts him out wearing headphones. He’s so sweet that her conduct should make us dislike her, but Kayla is such a fully formed individual.  She’s vulnerable and anxious and so uniquely human.  We make excuses in our own mind to justify her behavior.  We can understand her lack of desire to converse on cue.  It’s a terrific balancing act that ranks among the most honest performances of the entire year.

The fact that 27 year old, male Bo Burnham has so perfectly portrayed the angst of a 13-year-old girl is a miraculous talent. Burnham’s career began on YouTube back on 2006 which lead to a contract with Comedy Central Records.  There’s humor here to be sure, but it’s rather serious.  Eight Grade captures the utter authenticity of real life.  Her existence is made up of seemingly minor associations with other people. Kayla scores an invitation to a pool party thanks to the wishes of a well-meaning mom of the popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere).  What should be an enjoyable event is a minefield of social interactions with which to navigate.  A run-in with her crush (Luke Prael) is an awkward communication.  Aidan’s personality is unexceptional, but in her eyes, he’s the unattainable boy of her dreams.  Kennedy’s cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan) is at the party as well.  Their introduction to each other is a welcome relief.  Her presence has been acknowledged.  Later, an invite to shadow a high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson), results is an opportunity to hang out with Olivia and her friends at the mall.  The evening ends with an exchange with one of her friends (Daniel Zolghadri) that is so unbearable to watch I winced at the discussion.  There are a lot of cringey moments in Kayla’s navigation of junior high.  Her odyssey is merely the commonalities of life with which we have all experienced in some form.  If you haven’t, then consider yourself lucky.  For the rest of us, Eighth Grade is so real it hurts.

07-19-18

Sorry to Bother You

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 12, 2018 by Mark Hobin

sorry_to_bother_youSTARS4An unemployed man (Lakeith Stanfield) in his twenties is existing in an alternate reality version of modern-day Oakland, California. He’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and is 4 months behind in the rent His name is Cassius Green and the similarity of that moniker to “cash green” is intentionally ironic I’m sure. He simply wants a job. There’s an opportunity to be a telemarketer with a company called RegalView. He’s even gone so far as to bring a fake “Employee of the Month” plaque that he made himself to the job interview. The interviewer (Robert Longstreet) sees through the facade but hires him anyway because he appreciates the initiative it took to do such a thing. After he’s hired, the manager tells him to “Stick to the Script” or “S.T.T.S.” and amusingly pronounces it as if it’s an acronym. The movie’s title refers to his first line of rehearsed patter. Cassius’ happiness at attaining a job turns to despair however when he realizes how difficult it is to finish his marketing spiel before a potential client hangs up on him. Director Boots Riley has a creative spirit and this cleverness informs the entire film. These interactions are presented with his desk crashing through the floor into the homes of various people he’s calling. It was at this moment I was ready to accept whatever the filmmaker would be throwing down. And let me tell you, he assaults us with a bizarro world of absurdity.

The presentation of Cassius’ mundane workaday milieu will ring true for anyone who has ever held a job they really didn’t enjoy. I would suspect that is pretty much everyone and if that doesn’t describe you, then count your blessings. RegalView is a depressing work environment based in a dingy basement of cubicles surrounded by drab white walls. Things change however when he meets black co-worker Langston (Danny Glover). The aged associate advises him to use his “white voice” which is actually the dubbed delivery of actor David Cross. The incongruity of hearing that nasal tone coming out of the man’s body is perhaps a simple joy but it’s supremely funny nevertheless. Suddenly Cassius’ success rate with clients drastically improves.  One quibble.  Why Langston wasn’t successful at doing the exact same thing is never explained. However, we will soon discover that’s far from the most baffling enigma in this story.  Cassius gains the attention of his superiors who want to promote him up to the high-rise offices as a hallowed Power Caller.

Sorry to Bother You is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. His girlfriend is Detroit, an alternative artist played Tessa Thompson. Her comically oversized earrings displaying messages are a running gag throughout the picture. Unfortunately, her radical performance art, supposedly designed to “take down the system”, was completely lost on me.  How does getting pelted with water balloons filled with sheep’s blood make a point? She also condemns Cassius for affecting a false persona that she too is guilty of as well. I wanted her to acknowledge her own hypocrisy.  She doesn’t.  Back in the business realm, low-level supervisor Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) is an absolute hoot. Her surname looks like “debauchery”.  “It’s pronounced DE-bau-sher-AY” she corrects. To physically get him to those high rise offices she must enter a code into the elevator buttons that look like a touch tone phone pad. The joke is extended for such a long time that it actually goes from tiresome to genius. When he gets to his new employment digs he meets Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick) replete with an eye patch and bowler hat. He’s a black man with his own “white voice” (Patton Oswalt) that’s sort of a bridge between Cassius and the chief executive.  Cassius ultimately meets the shadowy business mogul Steve Lift played by Armie Hammer. Steve is the coke-snorting C.E.O. of a morally corrupt corporation named WorryFree.  His company is liable for questionable business practices although “questionable” doesn’t even begin to describe what they do.  I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.  As a symbol of the establishment, he is the very definition of “The Man”. This all happens at the very same time that Cassius’ peers, which include buddy Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and led by colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun), are inciting to strike due to poor working conditions.  Does he align with his oppressed workers or assimilate into the mainstream corporate world? The drama is successful at presenting this as a conundrum to be sure, but you don’t even know the half of it.  Things get decidedly weirder after that. The political focus spins wildly out of control along with the plot developments.

This is director Boots Riley’s first feature. I predict this will change, but heretofore he’s been best known as the frontman of a radical hip-hop group known as The Coup. Their politically charged songs center around race, class, capitalism, police brutality, the proletariat, and other issues. Those topics inform the group’s biting social commentary. That point of view gently infiltrates the film’s very funny outlook but it doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the insanity that follows. The screenplay satirizes social media, race, class, poverty, television, and rap music in brilliant ways that often have different interpretations. The production is so adventurous and so gloriously bizarre that it won me over. Sorry to Bother You is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen and yet If I had to draw analogies, I could say the work of Mike Judge is a close parallel.  I found elements of both Office Space and Idiocracy in its targets. There’s also the loopiness of Michel Gondry, who is indirectly name-dropped in an absolutely disturbing claymation video. There’s an off-kilter sensibility that influences the narrative that makes this instantly feel like a cult classic that should play at midnight screenings. Despite a chaotic fantasy that careens wildly from political satire into science fiction, this movie remains fun and witty in a lively way that boldly announces its presence. Its freewheeling bonkers mentality is simply too audacious to ignore.

07-06-18

Ocean’s 8

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Thriller on June 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

oceans_eight_ver2STARS3.5It’s very easy to roll your eyes when Hollywood decides to take a tried and true movie series and simply tweak the formula in some cosmetic way to make it seem different for a new generation. i.e. “It’s ________ but now with women!” Back in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise famously retooled the recipe with a cast of female comedians. This sparked a much-publicized outrage amongst Internet fanboys. Nevertheless, it was still a modest summer hit in the U.S. Although it wouldn’t have recouped its massive production costs without the benefit of the foreign market. Now Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy gets the gender flip treatment.  I’m happy to report the results are a frothy delight. It’s lighthearted, breezy and effortless.

To be fair, Ocean’s Eleven is merely a blueprint onto which you can tell any heist tale. Here Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s now deceased character. There’s that connective story DNA. Cameos by Elliott Gould and Shaobo Qinbut try to link the series together but they don’t really add any substantive value to their adventure. The plot concerns Debbie Ocean, freshly released from prison for a fraud scheme. She immediately celebrates her freedom by shoplifting fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman within the first 15 minutes of the picture. So much for rehabilitation. In fact, she has been planning a jewelry heist while locked up for the past 5 years, 8 months and 12 days. Lou (Cate Blanchett,) is her confidant and best friend. Their witty exchanges suggest more than a hint of sexual tension between the two. Debbie enlists her help first.  Then Debbie mobilizes the assistance of a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson), a street hustler (Awkwafina), a computer hacker (Rihanna), and a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).  Each one ideally equipped with some special talent in lifting an item valued at $150 million.

Ah but what exactly is the MacGuffin in question? Why that would be the Jeanne Toussaint necklace created by Cartier. I was curious if this ridiculously expensive bauble was an authentic thing.  If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you’d want to know too.  It was created in 1931 for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, an Indian prince.  Since then, the necklace has been dismantled and the individual diamonds used in other pieces. However, the pendant did in fact once exist.  Cartier was hired to create a replica out of natural zirconium and white gold for the movie.  The prop is pretty valuable too, but at a value nowhere near the original obviously. Debbie Ocean wants to steal the treasure.  She insists on only hiring women because they are “invisible”. Then proceeds to plan a heist where the objet d’art will be worn by one of the guests at the annual Met Gala. Oh hell no! I thought.  That’s where the men in a sea of tuxedos are invisible.  The wearer of the adornment is Daphne Kluger, a self-centered celebrity wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway.  In a film stuffed with many charismatic entities, she arguably makes the biggest impression.  It is a fully aware performance that trades on the star’s real-world persona in such a knowing way, that it makes her acting achievement an absolute joy.

Ocean’s 8 succeeds best when it focuses on telling its own story.  People recognize the Ocean’s Eleven brand.  Marketing this as a spin-off is an easy way to sell this film to the public.  Yet Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable romp in its own right.  Honestly, this has less to do with the Soderbergh entries and more in common with other heist movies that feature women like Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Set It Off (1996). Setting the central heist at the Met Gala with its haute couture and luxurious trappings bathes the production in slick style.  The fundraising event is America’s most exclusive, elegant, star-studded party so the atmosphere is stylish and chic.  The stellar ensemble adds immeasurably to the sophisticated, high-class mood of the production.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t have the innovative instincts of Steven Soderbergh but he is a reliable director that knows how to relate an account in an efficient manner. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch.  It doesn’t reinvent the formula.  Nor does it provide much conflict. The women sail through this heist with the greatest of ease.  There’s hardly any struggle in the entire 110 minutes. But there’s something to be said for a fizzy comedy in the early summer months that doesn’t tax your brain. It’s free-spirited fun, has ample charisma from an impressive cast and you’ll have a chuckle or two before it’s all over.  I left the theater in an upbeat mood and that garners a solid recommendation in my book.

06-07-18

Deadpool 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on May 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

deadpool_two_ver15STARS3Deadpool 2 is a comedy first and then a superhero movie second. Now that we’ve established that, let’s proceed. The latest installment within the X-Men universe is a difficult feature to criticize because the issues that kept me from wholeheartedly embracing this film would actually be considered the strengths by its adherents. In other words, take my measured critique with a grain of salt. I don’t speak for card-carrying members.  I gave the original a marginal pass because I enjoyed it in parts. I found its meta-awareness to be humorous. I hadn’t ever seen a superhero production quite like it. It was so completely self-aware, the point of view was rather novel. Obviously, with a sequel, a lot of what made the introduction of his personality fresh and witty is gone. In its place, is more of the same. Deadpool really doubles down this time on the self-referential style. I’ll admit this pastiche of stuff still made me chuckle, but what was once unique and innovative has now become smug and tiresome.

Deadpool 2 offers more of the same meta-humor that made its predecessor a huge hit. In that sense, it delivers lots of gags, but creatively it offers nothing new.  It’s a mildly diverting collection of tributes to entertainment loosely connected by a meaningless plot. The story, such as it is, is set in motion when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) a.k.a Wade Wilson is spending the evening with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). She is killed when a criminal breaks into their home. This occurs as they are celebrating their anniversary and it’s one of the few moments I think the screenwriters actually want you to react with an emotion other than glee. However, in a film that is constantly cracking wise, that’s a problem. It’s just so cavalier about everything, it’s difficult to care.

The screenplay (by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds) keeps feelings at bay. Since Deadpool’s regenerative qualities make it impossible for him to die, the stakes are never very high. Deadpool is so distraught he attempts to commit suicide but is put back together by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic). Then Deadpool does a lot of stuff. He reunites with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) from the first episode. He rescues a 14-year-old boy named Russell Collins, aka Firefist from an abusive orphanage. Firefist is portrayed by the wonderful Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A mutant from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) later materializes to destroy Firefist. Deadpool assembles a team called X-Force to aid in protecting the boy.  They include a charismatic Zazie Beetz as Domino and comedian Rob Delaney as the hilarious Peter. The superficial developments are an excuse to make more allusions to contemporary tastes.  The mood is so glib and affected. Woe unto the audience member that even dares to feel something, anything, for these people.

Nothing is sincere. Even the soundtrack of Deadpool can only appreciate music in a post-modern ironic way.  “Ashes” is a newly recorded ballad by Celine Dion. It sounds like the anthemic wannabe theme from a James Bond flick. It’s genuinely sung well although in this context it sounds cheesy. “All Out of Love” (Air Supply), “9 to 5” (Dolly Parton), “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher) and many other tunes appear as pop cultural appropriation. They underscore scenes where their incongruous appearance is the actual joke.

Every mention of another property, whether it be a song, a movie, a TV show or something else, is presented as humor. For example, numerous actors show up in cameos. Look fast when the identity of Vanisher, an invisible mutant, is revealed. But what is the joke exactly? Introducing something familiar out of context is an imitation of wit.  This is simply an opportunity to exclaim “Hey! I know that thing!” Sharknado, My Little Pony,Fox & Friends, Basic Instinct, Say Anything, DC vs. Marvel, the list of targets is extensive. I did laugh. There are some legitimately intelligent observations that have some thought behind them. When our hero Wade notes the melodic similarity between “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Frozen, it’s a definite moment of insight. Those are few and far between, however. Most of the A-ha moments are merely playing musical ditties like “Take on Me” in the background.

5-17-18

Tully

Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

tullySTARS3I do consider myself a bit of a cinematic egghead. I don’t go into any film uninformed. I was excited to see Tully. Apparently I was alone. This picture barely made more than $3 million this weekend. I can understand why. It’s the summer and people want to see fun flicks. Avengers: Infinity War is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. Still, I was pretty excited for this. This is the seventh directorial feature from the son of director Ivan Reitman. I only make reference to Jason’s father because Ghostbusters is still one of my favorites. It is in no way to negate the younger’s contributions to cinema. Jason Reitman is no slouch. He established himself to the masses with Juno. He also directed a movie in 2011 I quite liked called Young Adult and it is that achievement on which I was reflecting when entering the theater to see this. Reitman is once again working with screenwriter Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron. I had very high expectations. Though this effort is admirable, they sadly weren’t met.

Tully is first and foremost a chronicle about motherhood. Not the glowing profile of a parent’s unconditional love for her children as reflected through rose-colored glasses. This is the difficult somewhat frustrating version that most real-world mothers know to be true. Charlize Theron is Marlo, a mom who has just given birth to her third child. Theron is a gorgeous actress. She looks as beautiful as anyone on this planet. She has been a brand ambassador for Christian Dior as recently as 2016. That is as good a validation of one’s physical beauty as any I suppose.  Yet Theron delights in making herself ugly. Doing so won her an Oscar in the 2003 film Monster where she portrayed a serial killer. Here, she is embodying a mom in all of its unfettered ugliness. That means we get to see the realities of motherhood: the weight gain, the sleepless nights, the breast pump issues. Her son Jonah appears to exhibit signs of autism, although that word is never uttered. He’s merely “quirky”. Marlo accidentally drops a cell phone on her newborn’s head. She is notified of his cries at all hours through a baby monitor. She walks away from an open bag of breast milk — only to then watch it topple over and spill out all over the counter. These scenes were all shown in the trailer so you potentially have already witnessed the highlights.

The saga concerns a somewhat inept mother who is given the “gift” of a night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) by her affluent brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Mackenzie Davis is a spirited vision as the titular nanny. Tully succeeds is no small part due to her charismatic performance.  Craig sees her struggling and he wishes to help his sister through the difficult early months following the birth of her newly born third child. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is no help at all.  He is a reactionary creation out of a 1950s melodrama — a wholly unbelievable personality. Drew almost exists as a separate entity from Marlo and as the narrative develops you’ll grow to understand why.  By day he is focused on work and by night he is seen playing video games on their bedroom TV.  In another era, he would have been depicted preoccupied with his head buried in a newspaper.  With regard to his fatherly duties, he is perfectly unsupportive. Set in the conservative past this construct might seem acceptable but in 2018 it seems like an entirely fanciful fabrication. In other areas, Tully attempts to mine humor out of the bougie mentality of her brother Craig and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan). The problem here is that they are genuinely trying to help her out, so if you find them ridiculous (as Diablo Cody ostensibly wrote them to be) perhaps you simply find helpful people laughable. Diablo Cody does find Marlo and her struggle to be a mother worthy of our sympathy so that’s nice.

Tully is Mary Poppins for Generation X. For awhile the tale is kind of uplifting. The skill with which director Jason Reitman can bring a screenplay to the screen is never in question. However, acclaim must also go to cinematographer Eric Steelberg (500 Days of Summer) for basking Reitman’s work in the shadowy hues of a twilight glow. There is one moment where the girls venture into Manhattan for a girls’ night out of drinking.  The soundtrack literally samples the sum total of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album from 1983. In that singular moment director Jason Reitman is specifically speaking to millions of kids born in the 1960s and 1970s that are now having kids of their own (Charlize Theron was born in 1975 incidentally). At that moment I thought this is a great film. I enjoyed the camaraderie of Tully and Marlo.  Then there’s a twist.  It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone familiar with a now well regarded 90s classic. I’ll remain vague because I won’t spoil the “surprise”. It’s a whimsical choice that belies a lack of faith in its own established premise. The story could have simply existed as originally presented without silly tricks. Tully is still fairly enjoyable. The narrative will undoubtedly speak to the millions of women that struggle with postpartum depression. It should strike a chord with certain viewers. That is if they ever actually see this movie.

05-03-18

The Death of Stalin

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

death_of_stalinSTARS4The Death of Stalin is a political satire about the power struggle that occurs after the infamous leader (or more appropriately – dictator) of the Soviet Union suffers a stroke and dies. The aftermath has a major effect, plunging the ruling government into a genuine free-for-all where control is seemingly up for grabs. The production had a most curious journey to the screen. Obviously, the characters are based on actual historical figures. However, the property began as a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The screenplay was then adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows.  The film details the events in October 1953 after the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that’s a terrific starting point for any great comedy.  In fact, the resulting power play that occurs is so ridiculous it could only be true. Be that as it may, the details of the ensuing crisis is infused with a bit of whimsical conjecture.

The depiction is a sensational ensemble piece of people who fight over Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) vacant seat. There’s Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), his advisor vs. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. These two are directly at odds. They try to manipulate a coterie of peripheral characters that include Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Deputy Premier, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), originally the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but subsequently placed on his enemies list, and lastly Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), the famed communist’s son. Well-informed history buffs will be in absolute heaven. For others, it can be a lot to grasp. I’ll admit there were times I was a little confused as to who is aligned with whom.

The Death of Stalin is such a literate comedy. So packed with intelligence and wit. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of one-liners and quotable dialogue. It can get somewhat impenetrable, but for those with the right mindset, it is a most rewarding experience. Director Armando Iannucci cleverly utilizes real occurrences and then embellishes for the purposes of parody. In the U.S. the director is probably best known for creating Veep, the HBO TV series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s full of political satire as well. Right from the start, the circumstances here are completely absurd. A live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 has just been broadcast over the radio waves. Stalin requests a recording of the concerto. The trouble is, none was made. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) frantically endeavors to restage the entire concert, including bringing in random people to recreate the commotion of the audience. It’s just as bizarre as it sounds.  Things only get more outlandish from there.

There is something inherently satisfying about taking the exemplars of pure evil and making them buffoons. The film makes a lot of concessions in the name of comedy. For example, no Russian is spoken. The actors don’t even attempt a fake accent. They speak English as they would in their everyday life, cockney diction included!  It’s a bold but welcome choice. Elsewhere the screenplay wisely references the egregious sins of Lavrentiy Beria without unnecessarily dwelling on their legitimate horror. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he commands at one point. The execution ordered with all the calm demeanor of selecting an entree off a dinner menu.  Despite the subject, it remains comical, even when dramatizing the physical demise of Stalin. The exhibition of his body falling to the ground produces a loud thud. Hearing the noise, the two bumbling guards outside his room debate whether they should investigate. Too afraid, they don’t. When they finally realize he is ill, it would make sense to find a doctor. Ironically all the good physicians have either been killed or sent to the gulags. No one wants to treat him for fear of reprisal by the state. I could go on and on and on with more hard to believe examples. The funeral scene is my favorite, but I’ve said enough. I’ve tempted you with the history, now see the way it’s been exploited for laughs. The script shrewdly mixes what literally happened with some creative augmentations for the sake of humor. The amazing thing is the root of these events actually transpired. How it all played out is another story, but that’s where the fun of this chronicle begins.

04-16-18

Blockers

Posted in Comedy on April 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

blockers_ver2STARS2.5The marketing team behind Blockers must not have had much faith in the movie they were selling. The ad campaign is the most frustrating form of bait and switch. Specifically, the ads promised a raunchy sex comedy but instead, they delivered a mawkishly sentimental drama about self-empowered teens. Now I know what you’re thinking. They actually marketed it as something that is less respected? I know. I’m confused too. There’s nothing particularly noble or admirable about a bawdy picture fixated on human beings attempting to have sex. Yet that idea has been the inspiration for a lot of films. Some admittedly hilarious ones as a matter of fact.  Maybe that’s the lofty standard to which screenwriter (Pitch Perfect) and first-time director Kay Cannon aspired.  The “illustrious” genre arguably started back in 1978 with the granddaddy of all teen comedies Animal House and has continued on through American Pie, Superbad, The Hangover and even 2017’s Girls Trip. I’m casting a wide net because those last two examples were most definitely about adults, not teens, but the focus is the same. As long as people are trying to get their groove on, there will always be a movie to make light of it.

Yet Blockers really isn’t akin to those films. Only on paper does the chronicle seem similar. The plot is simple. Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) are unrelated parents each with a different child. Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) are their respective daughters. The guardians are goofballs. Their offspring are self-serious killjoys.  Nevertheless, the girls make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. The parents find out and try to stop them. Mayhem ensues. I’ll give the script points for flipping the script and making this about female teen horniness instead of the tractional male libido but that’s about where the innovation stops.

The funny thing is, or rather ironically, Blockers is NOT very funny.   It’s rather heavy-handed unfortunately.   That’s where I cry “Foul!”  It’s essentially a girl power drama about parental responsibility and how teens empower themselves to rationally make the so-called right choices. That sounds like an improvement but then the third act descends into cloying melodrama. Mom and each dad pontificates to the audience on what they learned. Yawn! This isn’t a comedy at heart. It’s a preachy, after-school special about making the right life choices with some crudities thrown in.   Oh sure there are a few clever jokes here and there. One extended vignette involves the adults hanging out in mother Lisa’s home after having sent each of their three children off to prom. Lisa’s daughter Julie accidentally leaves her computer on. Some noises from Julie’s laptop compel them to convene in her room. Once there, they eavesdrop on the adolescents’ emoji-filled group chat from their phones as it is displayed on the computer monitor. Don’t question whether this is possible. It’s 2018. Technology allows everything. The subsequent parents’ conversation over what they read is possibly the funniest scene that I will see in all of 2018. Their deciphering over what a drooling face means vs. the significance of an eggplant is the kind of dialogue this movie needed more of.

I’ll admit it. I laughed. Maybe for a total of 3 times throughout the picture. I wish the rest of the screenplay had been that smart. It’s so not.  One sketch involves something that can only wholesomely be referred to as an “alcohol enema”. The sequence is stupid and lowbrow. There’s no point other than to simply be disgusting. There are a lot of those moments in this picture. Crude bits can be excusable when they show some signs of intelligent life. Moronic bits are unforgivable. When it isn’t gross, Blockers is trying to be positively upbeat and sappy. Nothing wrong with emotion if it feels sincere. When it follows a scene in which everyone projectile vomits, well….it made me want to vomit. Save for the “emoji texting” scene, the jokes aren’t amusing. When you’re calling yourself a comedy, that’s kind of a deal breaker.

04-12-18