Archive for the Comedy Category

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20

Onward

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

onward_ver11STARS3.5When I hear the name Pixar I think of some of the best animated films ever made.  Few will deny the entertainment value of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out for example.  So the announcement of a new release from that subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios will always be something that I greet with joyous anticipation.  I’ll admit they’re not all classics.  The Cars trilogy, Monsters University, and Brave would land near the bottom in my estimation.  Nevertheless, I have never given a Pixar movie a negative review.  That hasn’t changed with this effort.

Onward is about two brothers who happen to be elves.  They’re the Lightfoot brothers.  Younger teenaged Ian is a dead ringer for Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille.  Remember how Disney recycled the character design of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book (1967) for Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) or how about Penny in The Rescuers (1977) from Mowgli in The Jungle Book?   I’m ok with it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Ian is articulated by Tom Holland who is fresh from another voice starring appearance in the feature-length cartoon Spies in Disguise from Blue Sky Studios.  Barley (Chris Pratt) is Ian’s stocky older teenaged brother who acts as a mentor.  He’s also partial to fantasy role-playing games.  Together they set out on an epic quest to find a jewel that will allow them to see their long-deceased father.

Ok, so I was worried. Onward didn’t grab me right away.  For the first 20-30 minutes or so I wasn’t feeling this movie.  It simply felt like a present-day sitcom superficially dressed up with fantastical elements.  The individuals may look like magical figures but they act like contemporary people.  There’s a centaur, a cyclops, pixies, elves, and other assorted creatures.  The animation is bright and colorful but it’s hard not to feel like the fanciful critters are frivolously employed to obscure a very pedestrian plot.  Then they go on a road trip and they meet a manticore who owns a restaurant and she’s vocalized by Octavia Spencer.  There’s a joy to the animation and the voice acting with her character that kind of jump-starts this drama.  From then on it gets better.  There a lot of jokes obtained from this fictional world.  Let me tell you, there’s is a depth to the creativity of this world-building that definitely raises the bar.

Pixar is famous for being able to extract emotion. Onward didn’t make me cry.  Although it certainly tries.  Most of the adventure is fine but it’s in the resolution where I was converted into a fan.  During the climax, the chronicle smartly recalls previous events that occurred throughout the saga.  Those episodes didn’t seem so important at the time but the story connects the dots and recontextualizes them.  This touching through-line elevates the denouement into an emotionally resonant finale.   It’s a savvy manipulation.  Director Dan Scanlon – who also helmed Monsters University – wrote the film with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.  They essentially redeem the entire narrative within the final 15 minutes.  It reconsiders everything that we have seen before.  Onward isn’t anywhere near as affecting or innovative as the studio’s best work but it is pleasant enough.  It just goes to prove that even a minor Pixar release is still pretty enjoyable.

Emma.

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

emma_ver2STARS3.5“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.” — Jane Austen

Emma is like a piece of candy wrapped in colorful cellophane placed in a silver box covered in shiny paper, affixed with a bright bow and then placed on a pedestal.  Given the sumptuous demonstration, it’s not the most substantive endeavor, but it is easily appreciated for its frivolous charms.  Even the title has been stylized with a period at the end — because it’s a period piece –according to director Autumn de Wilde.

This is indeed an adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel.  The esteemed author is celebrated for literary works that include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  However, Emma is not some stuffy scholarly chore.  This is a diversion about an impertinent girl who likes meddling in the affairs of other people.  Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a doe-eyed beauty with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.  She was rather memorable in  The Witch back in 2015.  Taylor-Joy does a convincing about-face here embodying a completely different kind of individual with believable conviction.  Emma is a bit spoiled and conceited with shallow concerns.  She fancies herself as a matchmaker but she really isn’t very good at it.  Furthermore, Emma has no desire to get married or even fall in love herself.  Ah but we the audience know better, don’t we?  Her gradual and changing realization is a developing theme of the story.

This is a gorgeous spectacle that is more readily enjoyed for the pleasures of presentation over content.  I do not mean that as a bad thing.  You don’t drink a Mimosa for its nutrients but because it’s a sparkling gem of a cocktail.   There’s a fizzy superficiality to this production that actually endears itself to the audience because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  The movie is playfully divided into sections by title cards that highlight the seasons.  The cast is sprightly and fun.  Besides the aforementioned Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, there’s also Johnny Flynn as her brother-in-law – George Knightley, Bill Nighy as her father Mr. Woodhouse and Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, the object of Emma’s matchmaking schemes.  This is a carefully choreographed portrait that exercises great care, not only in the placement of characters within any given frame but in the studied manifestation of opulent tableaus.  Filmmaker de Wilde is known for her portraiture photography and her talent shows.   The thinness of the plot is greatly augmented by visual detail.

Emma has been adapted a few times, most famously as Clueless in 1995.  Amy Heckerling’s reworking was a coming of age comedy classic about contemporary teens.  Any fan of that film (I am a proud one myself) will relish matching these personalities with their Clueless counterparts.  I realize this practice may sound a little reductive but it makes me value the source even more in fact.  Emma is perhaps the most stylish variation yet and a worthy addition to the cinematic canon of Jane Austin.

02-27-20

Downhill

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

downhillSTARS3.5I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Downhill is not a comedy.  It may appear to be one given the presence of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  It’s also from writing/directing duo—Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who previously made the sweet summer comedy The Way Way Back.  Even the misguided marketing campaign promised frivolity by highlighting the amusing bits with lighthearted music underscoring the trailer.  As a result, hoodwinked audiences saddled the movie with a “D” Cinemascore.  Critics haven’t been very kind either.  I will confirm that this is an uncomfortable experience.  Yes, that much is true, but it’s also the entire point.  It is, in fact, a compelling profile of a marriage in free fall.

The Stauntons are an American family on a ski vacation in the Alps.  The plot is set in motion when an explosive charge sets off an avalanche that comes dangerously close to burying Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Dad (Will Ferrell), and their two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) while having lunch on an elevated patio.  The shocking event is the impetus for an existential crisis.  The argument which ensues causes the married couple to reevaluate their relationship and how they feel about each other.

Downhill is a remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film I adored in 2014.  One might argue that the picture was perfect and didn’t require a redo.  Downhill doesn’t achieve the same heights.  I’ll concede that.   Nonetheless, Faxon and Rash have done more than simply translate the dialogue.  They’ve shifted the focus away from the husband, whose fraying masculinity was the focus in the original.  Downhill is about the wife.  She must come to terms with a marriage that isn’t in great shape to begin with.  The avalanche exposes a rift that’s already there.  That’s different. 

There’s a distinction in the way the two protagonists interact with other people at the resort as well.  Casting Americans as opposed to Swedes contrasts Scandinavian and American identities within a French setting.  There’s a complete personality shift to this family that gives the proceedings a singular feel.  When Billie goes down to complain to the mountain safety patrolman (Kristofer Hivju – who was also in Force Majeure) about the way the controlled avalanche was handed by the hotel, the narrative heightens a culture-clash between Americans and Europeans that was not present in the original production.  There’s also Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an oversexed concierge and a suave ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulo Berruti).   The contrast in their behavior with the Stauntons is a droll riff on American sensibilities.

However the #1 reason to see Downhill is a stellar performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as wife Billie Staunton.  It’s no wonder the actress currently has a record-breaking 8 Emmys, the most wins for any performer (she’s tied with Cloris Leachman).  It’s rare for the actress to do a theatrical feature so when she commits to a project like this, it’s something to cherish.  Her last was the delightful Enough Said in 2013.  Billie is a structured bundle of exasperation slowly coming apart at the seams.  To observe her is to witness the gradual shock of a woman that has been betrayed.  Downhill is indeed messy and awkward and hard to watch.  That’s part of the experience.  I get why audiences have savaged this movie.  If viewed through a lens of needing laughs, it will come up short.  This is no more a comedy than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Noah Baumbach’s more recent Marriage Story.  There are some funny bits to lighten the mood.  There is a certain humor in Pete’s character flaws or Billie’s irritation, but at heart, this is a portrait of pain.  It feels honest and genuine and that’s uncommon.  The achievement is something to champion.

02-18-20

Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on February 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sonic_the_hedgehog_ver6STARS3.5Surprise!  Sonic the Hedgehog is a hit.  I must say it’s a happy ending for a production that was the focus of some seriously negative online buzz last year.  The trailer dropped in April 2019.  Admittedly the main character looked ugly.  Sonic appeared as a rat-like entity with human teeth.  He was more than just a bit unsettling.  The backlash was so severe it led animators to redesign his look which delayed the release until Feb 14.   In this case, the decision to heed the public outcry was — in retrospect — smart.  The $58 million debut far exceeded expectations.  At $75 million and counting it’s currently the 2nd biggest hit of 2020 (after Bad Boys for Life).  Not sure what this will mean when movie trailers undoubtedly earn unfavorable reactions in the future.  However, in this case, the filmmaker’s decision to react to feedback was handsomely rewarded.

No one could have been less interested in this feature than me.  First off, I don’t care for films based on video games.  I’d be hard-pressed to name one I genuinely loved.  Mortal Kombat (1995) has been my go-to answer when asked to name my favorite and I’ll admit there’s a little nostalgia mixed in my enjoyment of it.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu came out in May of 2019.  It starred a “pocket monster.”  I tolerated it, but I didn’t recommend it to anyone outside of die-hard fans.  Sonic is yet another creature.  This one is an anthropomorphic hedgehog that first appeared in a 1991 game for the Sega Genesis.  It wasn’t part of my childhood so I had no interest in the character which makes what I’m about to say even more astonishing.  Sonic the Hedgehog is the best video game movie ever made.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve read my intro.  The competition isn’t even that fierce but hear me out.  I am not damning with faint praise.  This is indeed an enjoyable movie.  The saga concerns a hedgehog from another dimension.  He’s a blue computer-animated creation voiced by Ben Schwartz (TV’s Parks and Recreation) but he interacts with human people.  While using magical rings like portals to travel to other planets, he ends up in Green Hills, Montana.  There he meets a man named Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter).  Tom is the local sheriff who wants to help Sonic find his missing rings so he can return home.  The two form a friendship, not unlike a boy named Elliott and another extra-terrestrial from a 1982 science fiction classic.

The adventure heralds the welcome return of Jim Carrey in his finest performance in a decade.  The Department of Defense suspects something dangerous is going on after a widespread power outage.  They enlist the aid of Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a scientific genius sporting a bushy handlebar-mustache that would make any member of a barbershop quartet jealous.  I cannot downplay how much I enjoyed his antics.  His presence is truly a return to form.  I’m talking zany bonkers Jim Carrey in 1994 when he made Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all in the same year.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this role might be tiresome, but in his capable hands, the wacky physical comedy is hilarious.  The high point is when Robotnik does his dance of anarchy to “Where Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family.  His facial expressions and vocal delivery are amusing whenever he’s on screen.  He’s supported by a sidekick named Agent Stone portrayed by actor Lee Majdoub and he’s a calming counterpoint to Carrey’s wild shenanigans.

Sonic the Hedgehog may ostensibly be an adaptation of a video game.  The chronicle is merely about a character that gets into lots of mischief while trying to evade his captors but there’s just enough oddity and edge to delight adults too.  Jim Carrey is indeed the MVP but a charismatic cast featuring James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, Natasha Rothwell and Adam Pally all contribute.  The entire production is blessed with memorable and likable personalities.  At its center is Sonic and Tom, a duo whose evolving dynamic develops from casual acquaintances into close friends.  Thanks to them, this ends up being a sweet, warm, clever, and funny story about the importance of friendship.  This may be a broad, accessible family-friendly film for the pre-teen set.  Yet the narrative delves deeper to extract a depth of heart and feeling.  I wasn’t expecting that in a video game movie.

02-13-20

Bombshell

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bombshellSTARS2.5I wasn’t planning to review Bombshell.  I saw it weeks ago.  When it went wide on December 20, it did rather poorly at the box office.  Apparently, a drama about sexual harassment wasn’t what people wanted to see right before Christmas.  Go figure.  I assumed it would be forgotten.  Then on Monday, January 13, it was unduly rewarded with three Oscar nominations.  Seven weeks later it’s still hanging on for dear life in theaters.

Bombshell is based on the accounts of several women at Fox News who decided to bring a case against chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.  It features a triumvirate of star power in the form of three actresses.  Charlize Theron portrays the very real news anchor Megyn Kelly and Margot Robbie plays a fictional associate producer named Kayla Pospisil – a character based on a composite of witnesses.  Pospisil’s uncomfortable private meeting with Roger Ailes is the acting reel highlight of the entire picture.  Both actresses garnered regrettable Oscar nods.  Either slot could’ve been filled by a host of far more deserving candidates: Awkwafina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, Zhao Shuzhen…I could go on.  Ironically the Academy actually failed to honor the best performance in the production.  That would be Nicole Kidman as “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson.  Her no-nonsense portrayal is the heart of this film that sets everything in motion.

I will defend one of Bombshell‘s nominations to the hilt, however.  The MVP is makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji who won an Academy Award for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for The Darkest Hour.  He’s responsible for the uncanny physical modifications of this production too.  John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes under pounds of old age fat makeup.  Charlize Theron, in particular, looks eerily like Megyn Kelly.  She is changed but in an intangible way.  You don’t realize her subtle alteration is due to makeup.

Bombshell is a moderately captivating piece of entertainment.  Nevertheless, you won’t feel you’ve learned anything new or that the subject has been explored with even a modicum of depth.  It’s is a slick movie with no teeth.  This story deserved a deeper and more intelligent handling.   This is directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) and written by Charles Randolph who was a co-writer on The Big Short.  The atmosphere here has that same comedic style — giving you details at a snappy pace but without the complexity that the subject demands.  The tone is flippant and irreverent.  Fans of Fox News won’t enjoy being mocked and people seeking a hard-hitting takedown aren’t going to feel any satisfaction either.  Just who exactly is the audience for this movie?

12-15-19

Bad Boys for Life

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_boys_for_life_ver2STARS3 I was skeptical.  When they unearth and dust off some long-done franchise for another sequel, it’s very easy to simply view it as a cash grab.  Bad Boys II was released in 2003.  17 years have passed and now we get this entry.  Surprise!  The result is a lively diversion.  Jerry Bruckheimer is back again to produce but Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are helming the film.  The ambiance is calmer and more coherent than the previous movies directed by Michael Bay.   However, fans will appreciate this.  Critics have already hailed it as the best of the trilogy.  (Side note: a fourth episode is planned).

Bad Boys for Life is entertaining.  Sometimes going back to the well can yield engaging results.  I was one of the few that enjoyed Men in Black: International, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fundamental difference with this release is the original stars have returned.  The pairing of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is the reason to see this.  They ground the film with their considerable charisma.

The comedy smartly acknowledges that they are indeed older.  Although can they rightly be called “boys” at this point?  They’re quinquagenarians.  Nevertheless, Will Smith doesn’t seem to age.  As Mike Lowrey, he’s the straight man while Martin Lawrence gets to be the comic relief as Marcus Burnett.  Marcus just wants to retire and spend time with his newborn grandson.  It’s a formula but hey it works.  This conventional action movie coasts on the affable charm of its stars.  The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan has given some depth to the backstories of these characters. Actors Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio portray antagonists that are better than the run of the mill kingpins that have blighted this franchise in the past.   One individual has prior ties with a villain.  That connection adds some interesting insight into these relationships.

Bad Boys for Life is undemanding fun.  That is — it has little value beyond providing an evening’s worth of amusement.  If anyone should be enriched the most from this exercise it’s Sony Pictures.  This was a surprise hit.   People often bemoan the fact that Hollywood likes to recycle old properties.  The success of this picture is a prime example of why studios rely so heavily on the practice.  It’s perfectly fine.  Aficionados of the earlier flicks will be satisfied and those seeking 2 hours of distraction should be appeased as well.  I was.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I wrote this review shortly after I watched the film.  I doubt I’ll remember much of it by next week.

01-16-20

Marriage Story

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

marriage_story_ver3STARS4At first glance, it would appear that Marriage Story is a paean to love given that title.  It begins eloquently, with a wife’s declaration about all the things she loves about her husband.  He too expresses lovely thoughts about her and we hear both of them as voiceover monologues in the respective voice of each writer.  However, this is a narrative from the mind of filmmaker Noah Baumbach who brought us acidic works like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.  It turns out those letters were written under the direction of a therapist.  The two are having a counseling session.  In fact, this account is a tale about a couple getting a divorce.

Marriage Story is a fully realized take on a disintegrating relationship.  Noah Baumbach knows a thing or two about this subject because it’s a fictionalized version of his very real split in 2013 from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.   Since then he has indeed tempered his caustic takes on relationships with warmth (Frances Ha, While We’re Young).  The chronicle evades the upbeat tone of those recent efforts, but it’s in the carefully presented details where he captivates the viewer.  Noah Baumbach’s screenplay acknowledges that separation is painful but the depiction is extracted from a place of affection and understanding.  It’s both intimate and unique which makes this feature refreshingly realistic.

Anyone will tell you that a lifelong union is about compromise. Divorce is about the inability to concede.  A lot of this couple’s disagreements focus on where the family will ultimately live.  Adam Driver’s Charlie is a New York guy.  He’s in the theater and writes plays.  Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole has a TV pilot that’s taking off and so she prefers LA.  They also have an eight-year-old son together.  Obviously, young Henry (Azhy Robertson) can’t live in both places at the same time so this is where their problem lays.

Marriage Story is a fascinating saga where very little happens, but so much is said.  This is simply about getting to know two people and why they can no longer stay married.  This is where the movie comes alive.  The talk is the action.  The dialogue is elegant, witty, sharp, funny, and quick.  Their problems really don’t seem all that bad in the beginning.  I mean, nothing so unsolvable that several good discussions might fix.  But as things develop we get a nuanced snapshot of how their relationship has deteriorated past the point of no return.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to involve outside counsel.  They initially agree to amicably separate without the use of lawyers.  Then Nicole hires one (Laura Dern) and things deteriorate steadily from there.

Marriage Story is highlighted by a whole ensemble of compelling performances.  It goes without saying that the power of this film rests on the authenticity of acting from main stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.  The skill of thespian achievement doesn’t end with them.   I could write a whole paragraph about Laura Dern.  The greatest lawyers must savagely but intelligently manipulate laws.  As attorney Nora Fanshaw, Dern is absolutely brilliant at conveying understanding toward her client and utter contempt for her opponent.  She’s beautifully nasty.  Alan Alda and Ray Liotta also play advocates for Charlie’s side at different points.  One is sensitive (but ineffective) at his profession.  The other is a pit bull.  You can figure out who plays which.

So who is to blame?  The depiction is sure to incite a debate.  Given this is a personal tale from Noah Baumbach, you’d expect a more sympathetic viewpoint for the man.  Yet I found it to be an even-handed presentation of the two sides.  For example, it doesn’t sidestep the ugly fact that Charlie actually cheated on Nicole even though their breakup isn’t due to his immoral act.  At one point, Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) asserts, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”  Noah Baumbach may not have originated that cogent declaration, but he perfectly utilizes it in his crackerjack screenplay.  It’s in the little details where the movie soars.  Charlie and Nicole both have their redeeming features and failings.  Why Charlie’s at fault vs. why Nicole is to be condemned is an interesting conversation.  I could go on and on giving precise details as to why for each,  but that’s why you need to see this film.  Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly effective portrait of how love fades where it once blossomed.

12-06-19

Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on December 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

jumanji_the_next_level_ver3STARS2.5I didn’t expect much from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in 2017.  I was pleasantly surprised. The feature was a fun adventure about four kids in the real world that inhabited the bodies of visually disparate avatars in a video game.  The joke was how their personalities were matched up.  For example, the shy nerdy boy (Alex Wolff) became a strong confident explorer (Dwayne Johnson) and a pretty but ditzy, self-centered girl (Madison Iseman) was reborn as a pudgy male archeologist (Jack Black).  The concept was both innovative and funny.  It wasn’t great art but it succeeded because it was entertaining.

Audiences loved the first film and positive word of mouth propelled a healthy run in theaters. It grossed over $962 million worldwide so it was only a matter of time before we got this inevitable sequel.  Once again Jumanji: The Next Level essentially relies on the very same gag with a slight twist.  The difference this time is that each protagonist is now inhabiting a different body in the simulated fantasy.  So Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan are all back but with the added “novelty” to act in a different manner.

The proceedings are essentially a tired rehash of the previous film, but there are bright spots.  The script also attempts to inject new life by adding 2 old people.  The scribes have introduced two characters in the real world.  Danny De Vito portrays Spencer’s grandfather Eddie and Danny Glover pops up as Eddie’s estranged friend.  They are both sucked into the video game adventure.  Their temperaments are good for a few laughs.  Also, breakout star and current “It Girl” Awkwafina plays an additional avatar within the video game.  Awkwafina stands out.  She’s a legitimately good actress so she’s effective at manifesting distinctive identities.  Kevin Hart downplays his more intense charisma by talking much slower which is rather amusing in itself.

However, the story is a complete snooze.  Actor Rory McCann impersonates this “Game of Thrones” style warlord named Jurgen the Brutal.  He’s stolen a necklace called the Falcon’s Heart and the gang must get it back and expose it to the sun so they may end the drought that has infected the land and yada yada yada.

A fresh idea can no longer captivate when it’s simply repeated with more clutter.  This narrative is undone by a screenplay that is content to check the boxes of a formula to safely produce another hit in the same vein.  Writers Jake Kasdan (who also returns as director), Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg barely tweak the formula to produce this generic hit.  The first half of the movie relies more on the characters so it genially coasts on the talents of its cast but in the 2nd half, the chronicle dwells far too long on a convoluted story.  I just didn’t give a care.  The final 30 minutes is a difficult sit.  The saga runs over two hours when it should’ve been a brisk 90 minutes.  So ultimately Jumanji: The Next Level turns out to be a level down from its predecessor.

12-12-19

Knives Out

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 3, 2019 by Mark Hobin

knives_out_ver13STARS3.5At first glance, Knives Out would appear to be a retro throwback to the classic whodunit-style mysteries that Agatha Christie wrote.  Additionally, it appears to suggest the kind of thrillers that made Hitchcock famous.  That certainly raises the bar with me.  I adore both of those things and so I was primed to enjoy this.  Filmmaker Rian Johnson both writes and directs this feature, which is something he has always done on his films.  He also serves as a producer for the first time.  He’s a clever individual.  Perhaps too clever.  By that, I mean that the production is extremely meta.  It’s fully aware of TV shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote as well as movies like Sleuth, Deathtrap, and Clue.  Rian wants to exploit that knowledge but subvert the audience’s expectations at the same time.

Knives Out is unquestionably a fun film.  It flies by over its extended 130-minute running time.  The production design is a character in itself.  The setting is a palatial Victorian mansion in Massachusetts.  This allows us to have the most amazing art direction.  This includes quirky antiques, weird sculptures, giant paintings, bear rugs, and an impressive knife collection that is arranged as a huge circle that looks like a halo pointing at the head of anyone who steps in front of it.  Never underestimate the power of an exquisite estate.  The digs are pretty swanky and the gorgeous environment infuses the trappings with enough style to gloss over any lulls in the chatty proceedings.

The production is distinguished by a charismatic cast.  There’s the murder victim Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  A trio arrives to investigate: two police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and more importantly, one private detective portrayed by Daniel Craig.  He’ll take center stage in the investigation.  He chews the scenery with a ridiculous accent as Detective Benoit Blanc to learn the truth.  His animated vocal inflections call to mind Foghorn Leghorn — that larger than life cartoon rooster.  I say boy I say… I do declare that his performance is an enjoyable display.

There’s also a colorful house of suspects which include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette.  They’re all great in their own unique ways but I could watch Toni Collette read the phone book and appreciate her oratory skills.  Here she’s portraying a Paltrow-esque head of a beauty company called Flam.  Later Chris Evans shows up performing the part of a villainous playboy named Hugh Ransom Drysdale.  He seizes our attention playing a spoiled brat in his luxurious white cable knit sweater.  I don’t know if a movie can get an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design simply based on an article of clothing but given the buzz on social media, this film could set a precedent.  Ana de Armas is the acting newcomer as Harlan Thrombey’s nurse.  Her immigrant status is a very calculated and conscious choice to suit the political zeitgeist in 2019.  Regardless, she solidly holds her own in a pivotal role amidst a much more experienced cast.

Rian Johnson is keen on undermining expectations.  He deconstructs the whodunit in a way that plays with convention.  It’s not just about who did it, but also why and how.  These tidbits are revealed in a way that feels like the script is oh-so-very pleased with itself.  It’s snarky and knowing.  I suppose this is obligatory in 2019.  We have to up our game to account for our modern sensibility.  What I expected and what I got were somewhat different things.  You ultimately have to ask yourself this question: Does Rian Johnson’s vision improve upon the time-honored sophistication of a straight-ahead mystery?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s offbeat.  Although it’s hard to warmly embrace the smug self-satisfaction that emanates from the proceedings.  Still, I admire the unconventionality of a winking screenplay so beautifully dressed up in a lavish production.

11-22-19