Archive for the Comedy Category

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

brittany_runs_a_marathon_ver3STARS2.5Given the title, Brittany Runs a Marathon sounds like an uplifting tale of how a woman tackles a lofty goal she has set for herself.  The nicest thing I can say about the production is that it means well.  It’s not predictable.  I’ll give the saga points for subverting expectations.   However, it’s also not particularly enjoyable.  It didn’t make me feel good.  I liked the main character even less when it was all over.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on director and writer Paul Downs Colaizzo’s former roommate Brittany O’Neill.  Kudos to him for an account that doesn’t follow the formula of a traditional narrative.  Brittany has more problems than the mere inability to run a marathon.  She’s a hard-partying, drug-taking, 28-year-old with no direction in her life.  She visits a doctor (Patch Darragh) hoping to score a prescription for Adderall so she can take it recreationally.  He isn’t fooled.  Instead, he confronts Brittany with the news that her body mass index falls within the obese zone.  He recommends that she lose 50 pounds for her own health.  Given the fat acceptance movement has only gained more adherents over the years, the script takes a controversial stance – sort of.

The production tries to straddle the line between advocating the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while still affirming body positivity in equal fashion.  The belief that all human beings should have confidence regardless of how they look is predictably asserted, especially in the beginning.  Fat-shaming is a definite no-no.  Meanwhile, the script champions Brittany for losing weight anyway.  Her ability to get thinner is promoted as a good thing.  It’s a schizophrenic perspective that obscures the clarity of whatever message this film is attempting to champion.

The story is presented as a comedy and not a drama.  That helps.  Comedies can often get away with things a drama can’t.  Events normally seen as painful can be depicted as humorous.  Even within that framework, the characterization of this woman is so odd.  Have you ever had a friend that completely sucks the life out of a room?  Brittany Runs a Marathon is a biography of such a person.  She is a human being undone by her own critical self-view.  She is fueled by self-hate and in turn, her negative outlook punishes the audience.  It’s a tribute to the talent of Jillian Bell that she imbues the role with humanity and wit.  She starts out nice.  As the pounds are shed, however, so too does the lightness of Brittany’s personality.  Unfortunately, Bell must act within the confines of a screenplay that continues to keep her character within a place of despair.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is highlighted by a charismatic cast.  They’re so appealing that they misdirect our compassion away from the lead character.  Brittany makes two new friends while running.  The first is Catherine played by Michaela Watkins (Season 34 of Saturday Night Live).   She appears stuck up at first but shows herself to be a warm and compassionate human being.  The other is Seth portrayed by Micah Stock (Netflix series Bonding).  He amicably fulfills that old standby – the supportive gay best friend.   She alienates both when they offer her financial assistance.  Later she rejects the awkward affections of directionless Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a fellow house crasher/sitter who bonds with Brittany in the middle of her transformation.  Their atypical relationship is rather compelling initially.  People want to be her friend and she responds by pushing them away.  There’s also narcissistic best friend Gretchen, played by Alice Lee who is written as a one-dimensional stereotype.  I imagine Grethen’s existence is meant to make Brittany’s nasty disposition seem justifiable.  Actress Lee is saddled with a completely thankless role.  When Gretchen expresses remorse, Brittany dismisses the friendship with “I’m tired of being your fat sidekick.”  I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for.  In almost every interaction that Brittany has with another person, I rarely took her side.

I’m a big fan of star Jillian Bell.  I think she is extremely talented.  My hard take is somewhat provoked by my disappointment from a star that I know can do better.  She was the high point of 22 Jump Street.  Her recurring roles on Comedy Central’s Workaholics and HBO’s Eastbound & Down are amusing.  Even her January 2019 appearance on Match Game with Alec Baldwin was a pure delight.  Yes, I even saw that.  I told you I was a fan.  The fact that Brittany Runs a Marathon works at all is due to Jillian Bell’s performance.  She’s the star as well as the executive producer.  This was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival.  I had very high hopes.  It has performed less well since it debuted in theaters.

As Brittany nears the date of the marathon, she grows more and more contemptuous until she becomes insufferably sanctimonious.  There are a lot of uncomfortable interactions where people are poorly treated.  Brittany moves in for a bit with her sister (Kate Arrington) and brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery).  They throw a BBQ and it’s there that a drunk Brittany projects her own self hated on an overweight woman (Sarah Bolt).  She asks the woman if she met her slimmer husband when she wasn’t fat.  The screenplay understands that this question is beyond the pale.  However, we shouldn’t be so repulsed that we resent the main character.  Brittany has become tiresome at this point. This shocking display signals the moment I was done with her.  Brittany later sends the woman she insulted a note with some flowers to apologize for the ugliness of her behavior. The gesture is inadequate. So is this feature actually. There are bits of insight and humor. Jillian Bell’s one-liners are indeed hilarious.  The best scenes detail her personal progress.  Brittany finally starts to love herself and in turn love others.  Good for her!  Sadly, coming to this realization occurs far too late.  It’s merely one obstacle in an attempt to present a satisfying film.   The picture still has many hurdles to overcome.

08-29-19

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on August 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

peanut_butter_falcon_ver2STARS4The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those films I like to recommend to people who say “They don’t make movies like they used to anymore.”  Sweet, innocent, and traditional – it’s all those things.  Furthermore, the film isn’t a remake, a sequel or a comic book adaptation.  It’s the very antithesis of what’s popular at the megaplex these days.  The fact that it even got financed at all is something of an anomaly.  For some, that description won’t be enticing.  However, I most definitely mean that as a strong endorsement.  This, despite the fact that the plot isn’t particularly innovative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the straightforward account of a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from a retirement home.  He longs to become a professional wrestler.   The bizarre title refers to the stage name that Zak ultimately adopts.   He idolizes a fighter named The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  It is Zak’s dream to locate his hero and attend his wrestling school.  This is advertised on a timeworn VHS tape that Zak has watched hundreds of times.  His roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) wants to help him accomplish that goal and so Carl helps him escape.  Zak stows away on a boat owned by crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).  Tyler is on the run too after setting fire to the business of rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and his sidekick heavy Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf).  Zak and Tyler are both runways.  They have this in common, but that’s the only thing.  The unlikely duo team up for an epic adventure beginning in the Outer Banks and drifting south down the stagnant swamps of North Carolina.  Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is a sympathetic social worker at Zak’s nursing facility that goes in search of her missing resident.  Co-director Tyler Nilson (also boasting the same first name as Shia’s character) is originally from the Tar Heel State.  The love for his childhood home comes through in the atmospheric details of the production.  This fable set amongst these backwood swamps and marshes has a fully realized languid quality that is assisted by the picturesque cinematography of Nigel Bluck.

At the heart of this simple tale is actor Zack Gottsagen who has Down syndrome.  He gives a convincing performance that is both warm and natural.  The background of how this picture got made is an uplifting anecdote in itself.  Writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met their leading man at Zeno Mountain Farm, an acting camp in Southern California.  Gottsagen had studied his craft for many years.  The filmmakers were captivated by his talent that had gone unfulfilled.  They were inspired to write a starring vehicle for him.  What started out as a short story ultimately developed into a feature.  The chronicle entertains by appealing to the emotions.  Far more jaded types will describe this as manipulative and sentimental.  True, the relationships do progress in ways that are easy to predict.  The saga of Zak and Tyler is a classic buddy movie of a burgeoning friendship.  The portrait could be superficially criticized for that quality, but there’s something really authentic about the way the narrative mines emotion.  As the old adage goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  This is a composition made up of human interactions and the way those people emotionally connect on an elemental level.  There’s a purity to the setup that shares a commonality with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Simply watching their rapport evolve is the account.  It doesn’t get more complicated than that.  Yet it is that very simplicity that makes this flick so poignant.

The rest of the cast is equally affecting.  These established professionals were perhaps motivated by the guileless sincerity of the lead.  Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) aren’t exactly the first names you’d associate with a production that is so decidedly wholesome.  Yet they both bring a genuine warmth and humanity to their characters.  Together this trio forms a closeness that is as engaging as any relationship I’ve seen this year.  Additionally, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church appear in supporting parts that deeply benefit the little scenarios that occur throughout the drama.

There has been no shortage of heartwarming movies in 2019: The Upside, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Blinded by the light, and Good Boys are just a few of the titles that could be classified as such.  In a year filled with many inspiring movie choices, The Peanut Butter Falcon just may be the “heartwarming-est” production of the year.  Indeed it won an Audience Award at South by Southwest back in March and its long journey to achieve a widespread release has finally arrived.  Please do enjoy this wonderful film immediately.

08-20-19

Blinded by the Light

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on August 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

blinded_by_the_light_ver2STARS4Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a teen living a humble existence in the city of Luton, England.  It’s the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.  Javed is a poor Pakistani immigrant whose family came here for a better life.  It has been hard.  The economic times are blighted by mass unemployment.  Apparently, skinheads and neo-Nazis roam the streets.  Amidst these political and racial tensions, he attends high school.  He longs to be a writer finding solace in composing poetry.  However, his devout father pushes his son to seek a more lucrative career.  He means well.  He only wants the best for his son but his strict Muslim traditions clash with the boy’s desires.  Right now Javed simply longs to be a kid.  His buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring synth-rocker, invites him to parties to which Javed is forbidden to attend.  He’s also smitten by Eliza (Nell Williams).  One day, a fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) turns his ear onto the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.  He is transformed.  The words play off of the cassette tape and into his heart.  An unlikely fandom is the focus of this winning film.

The subject is so quirky it almost feels like the construct of a writer but this is indeed based on a very real journalist – Sarfraz Manzoor.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. There are so many personal and offbeat touches.  His life clearly resonated with the director.  Manzoor’s saga is a labor of love.  That heartfelt touch comes through every scene and it will resonate with an audience unfamiliar with the time period or his religious upbringing.  Chadha has often approached her subjects from the perspective of Indian women living in the UK.  As an immigrant, they must reconcile a traditional background with their modern society.  Our passions can motivate us.  The equally wonderful Bend It Like Beckham is her most famous work.  The enthusiasm that Chadha evoked from soccer, so too does this extract that same feeling from the music of Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve ever been an obsessive adherent of a particular artist, this portrait will ring true.  There are moments of despair, but the overall tone is uplifting.  The cast is populated by charismatic individuals which includes an intimate depiction of Jared’s strict but positive Muslim family.  Everyone is wonderful, but young actor Viveik Kalra is particularly appealing as the star.  We genuinely hope his dreams are realized despite the stress it places on his father (Kulvinder Ghir).  It’s not necessary to be an admirer of Bruce Springsteen but I do think it helps.  Much of the drama capitalizes on his lyrics in musical vignettes.  The charming numbers are amusing because of their sloppy choreography and guileless lack of precision.  Surprisingly the more compelling sequences just feature the lyrics of “The Boss” literally swirling around Javed’s head.  We are instantly made aware of how the words of a working-class hero from Jersey could galvanize this British Pakistani fan.  Rapturous and exuberant but also unfailingly cheesy.  That’s Blinded by the Light in a nutshell.  Occasionally the sweetness is so overbearing it can get a bit twee.  This is a sincere celebration of how art can inspire us.  Is there such a thing as being too earnest?  For most, the answer would be no.  Blinded by the Light is overflowing with joy.

08-18-19

Good Boys

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

good_boysSTARS3.5If you saw the red band trailer for Good Boys, you will probably expect a version of Superbad with an underage cast.  It has the same producers (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg).  Even the co-star of that film, Jonah Hill, is a producer here.  These pre-teens say and do the kinds of crude things that you’d associate with much older kids.  It looked awful.  The trailer featured non-stop F-bombs and it came off as puerile attempt to simply shock.  It was all raunch and nothing more. That is not this movie. True, there is the occasional curse word, but this comedy is considerably sweeter in tone.  The surprise isn’t that these prepubescent “good boys” are bad.  That revelation would have been a conventional irony.  No, the twist is that they really are well-behaved lads that want to do right.  These are naive youths trying to prepare for a party where spin-the-bottle will be played.  They are sweet and sincere fellows at heart.

Good Boys is a hilarious “one-day-in the life-of” type comedy.  Best friends Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) get invited to their first kissing party.  The invitation is extended by the school’s coolest kid, a little Asian American baller named Soren (Izaac Wang) — an inspired casting choice.  All their female classmates will be in attendance, including Brixlee (Millie Davis), Max’s crush.  The problem is, these 12 year olds are kind of clueless when it comes to the opposite sex.  They have never kissed a girl.  Max decides to use his dad’s drone to spy on neighbor Hannah (Molly Gordon).  The boys want to observe her make out with dimwitted boyfriend Benji (Josh Caras).  Hannah also has a BFF named Lily (Midori Francis) over as well.  The girls see the drone, get angry and things spiral downward from there.  The various misadventures of three sixth-graders involve adult toys, drugs, alcohol, and cops.  Some of their escapades are wrong, but other bits are so right.  A highway of bumper to bumper traffic transforms into a high-speed freeway in seconds.  As their situations grow increasingly convoluted, I relished the absurdity of it all.

Good Boys is a hopeful ode to friendship.  These chums call themselves the Bean Bag Boys for no other reason than they like hanging out in bean bags with each other.  Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Bad Teacher, Year One) emphasize this camaraderie at every turn.  These buddies deal with the age-old problems of middle school: bullying, peer pressure, and annoying younger siblings,  This pre-teen bromance ultimately transcends because of a talented ensemble.  These are genuine characters for whom we truly care.  Max is the most worldly of the three.  He’s into girls and one in particular.  He also cares about his standing in the social hierarchy.  Thor, on the other hand, has no interest in dating yet. He’s a theater geek more concerned with singing in the school play.  Lucas is into role-playing card games, has a high pitched scream, and wears his goodie-two-shoes lifestyle like a badge of honor.   Actor Jacob Tremblay may be the most famous of the three, but Keith L. Williams is the breakout star.   Their innocence is poignant.  “I’m already a social piranha!” Thor laments at one point.  Max takes a single sip of beer and immediately declares that he’s “already feeling something”.  The laughs frequently rely on the characters’ mistaken or uninformed understanding of the adult world.  It’s that naiveté that affirms the humor and makes it touching.  This is a very heartwarming film.

08-15-19

The Art of Self-Defense

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19

The Farewell

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

farewellSTARS4“Based on an actual lie.”  That how The Farewell begins – with a bit of levity.  It’s a true story culled from director Lulu Wang’s own experiences in hiding the truth.  Her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Since Chinese law does not require doctors to disclose such determinations to patients, her relatives didn’t divulge the news to the terminally ill woman.  They meant well.  They didn’t want to spoil her final months.  They carried on as if everything was fine so that her final days would be stress-free.  According to the filmmaker, this is a Chinese tradition.

In just her second feature, director Lulu Wang has fashioned a very personal film based on her own experience.  In the movie, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has only a limited time left to live.  The family has hatched a plan.  Under the deception of a fake wedding for Hao Hao (Chen Han), Nai Nai’s grandson, everyone will travel to China to see the matriarch one last time.  Nai Nai thinks they have arrived to plan and attend the wedding when in reality they are simply there to see her.  In this way, they can personally pay their respects.  Awkwafina plays Billi, a fictionalized version of the director.  Wang was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6.  That mix of cultures shapes Billi’s point of view as well.  Her American desire to truthfully break the news is at odds with this Chinese custom to shield their beloved grandmother from this heartbreaking prognosis.  Billi’s mom (Diana Lin) and dad (Tzi Ma) have advised Billi to remain at home in the U.S.  They know she will be unable to hide her feelings and promote the ruse.  Billi shows up unannounced anyway and her entrance is one of many awkwardly amusing scenes.

Awkwafina is a fascinating actress and the identity with which the audience can most relate in this account.  The Queens-born rapper initially had a viral rap success on YouTube before she was cast in the ensemble Ocean’s 8 in 2018. She later appeared in Crazy Rich Asians that same year.  In both, she was a flamboyant, extroverted individual.  She was funny and likable.  She is no less captivating here but her personality is notably dialed way down.  Awkwafina bridges the cultural divide between Billi’s New York home and her Chinese roots.  There are mentions that Billi’s ability to speak Mandarin isn’t very good so that struggle to fit in remains an underlying subtext.  Awkwafina’s acting is extremely unaffected and understated in its sophistication.  She incurs our empathy without sentimentality.  Her amazing achievement stands out because of (despite?) the exquisite subtlety of the performance.

The Farewell brilliantly details familial bonds in a most personal and honest way.  We’re detailing the impending death of a loved one.  This is pretty serious stuff but Lulu Wang’s screenplay somehow combines real comedy amongst the tragic circumstances.  “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die,” her mom proclaims early on.  An idiosyncratic blend of humor and solemnity pervades the atmosphere.  The Farewell is a heartfelt and touching picture.  What makes it so powerful is the utter veracity with which the household comes together to deal with the news.  The different ways in which a family grieves is a big part of the narrative.  It invites the viewer to reflect on their own relatives and how one would handle the situation. This may detail a Chinese family but the human emotions on display are universal.

The Farewell contains moments of great insight and poignancy. At times the screenplay is quite subtle because it suggests things without overtly expressing them. Given the melancholy mood surrounding the wedding, you start to wonder if perhaps Nai Nai doesn’t suspect something is amiss.  When we learn that Nai Nai also kept her own husband in the dark about his terminal illness, that suspicion intensifies but is still not confirmed.  As in life, ambiguity delicately informs this tale from beginning to end.  A movie about dying that shuns conventional rules where everyone must explicitly confess what they are thinking – what a refreshing take!  Every once in awhile an authentic reminiscence can capture our attention without requiring a complicated plot or melodramatic performances.  It’s the depth of emotion that charms our heart. The Farewell is just such a film.

07-28-19

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_ver7STARS2.5A new Quentin Tarantino film is an event.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been billed as his ninth picture.  So apparently Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 are now considered one film.  The auteur has declared his plans to retire after he has made 10 total.  Much of the critical establishment has worshiped at the altar of this much-lauded filmmaker.  Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of the way he succumbs to his excessive impulses.  His last production, The Hateful Eight, was a mean-spirited tale of truly reprehensible individuals.  To its credit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is decidedly more good-natured.  It’s a tale that longs for a bygone era.  But that isn’t for the Golden Age of directors like William Wyler, Frank Capra, and George Cukor.  No Tarantino reveres the men of 1960s Hollywood like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and John Sturges who made manly movies.

The drama takes place in Los Angeles circa 1969 which was a turning point in the entertainment industry.  Easy Rider, Medium Cool and The Wild Bunch all came out that year.  The studio driven era of the past was giving way to a slew of cinematic revolutionaries that were pushing the envelope in what types of behavior could be portrayed on film.  Studios had always kept a tight reign on what could be depicted on screen.  That standard was quickly eroding due to a social conflict that was playing out in real life.  The Best Picture of 1969 was a whimsical musical – Oliver – the last G-rated movie to win the award in fact.  In 1970 it was the X rated Midnight Cowboy.  Contrasts don’t get more conspicuous than that.  This is all mere subtext however but it helps to appreciate the social environment that this film details.

Tarantino’s attention to detail in fabricating Los Angeles circa 1969 is visually flawless.  He favors practical effects over CGI.  There is exhausting attention to period detail and production designer Barbara Ling is the MVP on this picture as far as I’m concerned.  The time is lovingly recreated with painstaking accuracy.   The vehicles, the storefronts, the clothing, Hollywood Boulevard – it is an immersive and palpable atmosphere.  The movie employs a soundtrack of Top 40 hits and vintage radio commercials in an aural pastiche that recalls American Graffiti.  To Tarantino’s credit, he’s depicting a generation that occurred a whopping 50 years ago whereas George Lucas manifested a past that transpired a mere 11 years from his fabrication.  Still, American Graffiti was positively hypnotic compared to this formless rambling.  If set design were the whole movie, this would be the best film of the year.  However, movies also rely on pacing and that’s a major problem in this nearly 3-hour endurance test.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like a patchwork quilt of interconnecting characters.  This is the saga of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a fading actor, and his close buddy/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was once a successful star of TV westerns of the 50s and 60s but has seen his career decline as of late.  He’s currently guest-starring as the villain in an action series.  In contrast, the more level-headed Cliff, who also doubles as Rick’s valet, is more resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him.  Cliff hasn’t been able to get much work due to speculation surrounding his wife’s death.  The central relationship is loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his buddy Hal Needham, a stuntman as well as director, actor, and writer.   There’s also a superfluous story that involves actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newlywed to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).  Her chronicle simply revolves around going to the cinema to watch herself in the Dean Martin spy comedy The Wrecking Crew. Her vacuous but beautiful face is enrapt at the sight of her own visage.  Except she’s watching genuine footage of the actual movie with the real Sharon Tate.  It’s an odd juxtaposition because Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate are clearly not the same people.

That’s the set-up, but what exactly is the story?  In this 3 hour tale, the account plods along at a leisurely pace that seems in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.  The fable operates as sort of a meandering series of vignettes in and around Los Angles.  The account largely focuses on the slumping career of Rick Dalton.  His interaction with a precocious young co-star named Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) is a high point.  Her obsessive allegiance to her craft actually causes Rick to question his own dedication.  Another is Cliff’s bizarre run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who was starring in The Green Hornet at the time.  Tarantino is a fan of martial arts.  Cliff implausibly humiliates the Asian star in hand to hand combat.  I didn’t take this biased fantasy of Quentin’s as truth, although that doesn’t make the deceit any less compelling.  Moh’s portrayal is so over the top that the martial artist star still remains the most captivating presence on screen.  Actors Moh and Butters were my two favorite cameos in a sprawling cast that has many of them.  Well, human ones anyway. Brandy, the pit bull that plays Cliff Booth’s pet, bears a mention as well.  The drama has little narrative thrust so any one of these scenes could be excerpted and enjoyed independently or even excised completely and not affect the story.

The movie briefly springs to life in a fascinating diversion which concerns Cliff Booth and an underage teen hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley).  She invites him back to the ranch of George Spahn (Bruce Dern).  This is the desert commune/cult where she lives and works.  She invites him to stay and meet their friend Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Booth is clearly distrustful of the hippies.  He insists on seeing the 80-year-old almost blind George for himself to make sure he isn’t being exploited.  It’s a captivating segment.

They say that this is Tarantino’s most personal work, but what exactly is this man idolizing?  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Tarantino was pining for the days when America was bolstered by strong conservative values before the cultural mores were upended by the freethinkers of the “decadent” 1960s.  The production functions as a mournful lament.  These two men bemoan the liberal hippie culture that is infiltrating show business and indeed the rest of society.  At one point 4 young people pull up and park their car in Rick’s driveway.  Rick, who has had enough of these counterculture types, lunges from his doorway like a bat out of hell cursing.  He orders the youths to leave, uttering the word “hippie” almost like it’s a slur.  It’s a surprisingly sympathetic point of view for what these two middle-aged white guys represent in our post-2017 MeToo movement.  The fact that this is Quentin Tarantino’s first film without producer Harvey Weinstein provides some interesting underlying context.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most amiable picture.  There is less bloodshed than you’d expect from a man who routinely fetishizes violence.  It’s only during the climax that this production ultimately submits to slaughter.  I must admit, knowing that Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her unborn child when she was murdered along with coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Polish screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) gave me anxiety about where this movie was headed.  Leave it to Quentin to subvert expectations.  Inglourious Basterds is his most satisfying work.  There are parallels between that alternate take on history and this one.  However, where that film gradually builds toward its conclusion, this one simply meanders without focus or direction.  Only in the last 15 minutes do the characters come together in an action-filled (and yes extremely violent) altercation.  It’s the director’s classic presentation of wish fulfillment.  There is a point I suppose.   I sadly regret that once this movie started to show a pulse, it was all over.

07-25-19

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 6, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_far_from_home_ver7STARS4Warning: Review contains an Avengers: Endgame spoiler.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn’t waste any time getting started.  A gigantic cyclone “with a face” terrorizes a city in Mexico.  An enigmatic superhero heretofore unknown arrives to fight the creature and save the day.  We later learn his name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  He will become a key figure in this narrative.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) investigate.  They appeal to Peter Parker (Tom Holland ) for help.  However the mild-mannered teen a.k.a. Spider-Man is more concerned with high school life.  This means preparing for a class trip to Europe, hanging out with his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and attending to the crush he has on cute classmate “MJ” (Zendaya).  He likes her and she likes him.  They’re just too painfully shy to tell one another.  It may technically be the final chapter in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but debuting after Avengers: Endgame, this really feels like a fresh beginning.  The adventure enthusiastically prepares the viewer for a new series of MCU movies with a lighthearted attitude that is buoyant and fun.

Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own identity.  Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its 2017 predecessor, this one is equally coming of age comedy as it is a superhero fantasy.  Actually, the portrait of teen angst is the best part.  Coming on the heels of Endgame, this is the first feature to detail the aftermath of what Thanos caused.  In that vein, their high-school TV station playfully presents an “In Memoriam” segment for Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Vision.  It also explains what happened when half the Earth’s population disappeared in what this story calls “The Blip” then reappeared exactly the same age five years later.  Their peers who remained on Earth did age.

Peter Parker is torn.  Four Elementals are wreaking havoc on the world.  These immortal creatures are so-named because each one controls an element: earth, air, fire, and water.  As Tony Stark’s protegee, he feels the call to be a superhero.  At the same time, Peter just wants to see the sights of Europe with his friends.  Enter Quentin Beck, a hero from a parallel Earth, who seems ever more capable than Peter when dealing with these supernatural threats.  Peter’s classmates start calling the individual “Mysterio” which the genial guy soon adopts as his moniker.  Jake Gyllenhaal is memorable.  He imbues his character with a charisma that deftly straddles the line between good-natured and disingenuous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a blast.  It also details a very personal odyssey.  Directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the film brilliantly juggles a crisis of conscience for Peter Parker.  This is a character based chronicle and as such, his desire to simply live a “normal” life is quite compelling.  I truly cared about the various choices that Peter Parker makes.  One, in particular, is an (almost) unforgivable decision.  Deep down we know in this Tony Stark-less reality, the world truly needs Spider-Man.  The emotional stakes are huge!  A wonderful cast engages the emotions with humor and intensity.  I’ve discussed most of the main players but “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) also bear a mention.  They share an amusing flirtation in their minor roles.  The class field trip provides a picaresque tour of Europe.  This appealingly sets the action in various destinations: Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London.  The action comes to a crescendo in a climax that exploits the idea that everything you see in a deception.  It’s a dizzying feat of CGI and the effects had me gasping at the optical illusion of it all.  The chaotic frenzy recalls the bewildering displays of last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Mysterio’s glowing orbs of lightning blasts are kind of awesome in a kitschy old-school science fiction way.  This saga perfectly blends emotion and technology.  This summertime romp effortlessly entertains with wit and style.

07-02-19

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19