Archive for the Comedy Category

Licorice Pizza

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 30, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Never underestimate the power of a simple story exquisitely told by a passionate filmmaker. The year is 1973 and the setting is the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine is a 15-year-old teen but with the confidence of a man twice that age. Actor Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s got personality to spare. It’s school picture day at his Tarzana high school and he’s smitten by the photographer’s assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane. Actress Alana Haim is memorable in her feature film debut. In real life, Alana is a musician in the pop/rock band Haim. Her familial group also includes her two older sisters, Este and Danielle who play her siblings in this movie.

Gary and Alana are an odd couple romance. She’s the yin to his yang. I wouldn’t say they exactly hit it off. He flirts and she fends off his persistent verbal advances. He’s a decade her junior after all. I’ll concede their age difference seems inappropriate. However, they look about the same age and she still lives at home so they seem compatible on a maturity level. His persistence pays off. She agrees to meet him for dinner at this bar/restaurant where he’s a regular. Thus begins a fascinating relationship with many ups and downs.

Gary is a hustler that gets by on sheer determination. His mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) works for an advertising company that Gary created. He’ll start a water bed company and open a pinball palace during the chronicle. Gary boasts he’s an actor. At first, it sounds like something he simply made up to impress Alana, but we soon discover it’s the truth.

Licorice Pizza is a brilliant movie that flawlessly weaves reality with fiction into a compelling tale. The character is based on Gary Goetzman, a Hollywood producer who was a former child actor. Goetzman’s presence in the comedy Yours, Mine and Ours inspires a most delightful production number. In a personal appearance, Gary performs on stage with a shrewish star named Lucille Dolittle — a thinly disguised portrayal of Lucille Ball. In a year where Being the Ricardos exists, who knew the funniest depiction of the comedienne would come from Christine Ebersole? That’s not the only tie to the real world. Sean Penn portrays a highly fictionalized version of William Holden, Bradley Cooper hams it up as hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters and Benny Safdie is Joel Wachs, an LA politician running for mayor.

This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature and his fifth to be set largely in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived most of his life. It’s a place the director knows well. The title refers to a bygone chain of record stores in southern California. The Glendale-based business flourished in the 1970s. The words “Licorice Pizza” are never uttered or referenced but its aura informs the narrative. Cherry-picked tunes are catchy selections you haven’t heard a million times. They perfectly convey the laid-back ambiance: “Stumblin’ In” by Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro, “Peace Frog” by The Doors, “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and “Life On Mars?” by David Bowie are just a few. The music truly enhances the mood.

I love a director that has done his homework. Licorice Pizza is an engaging dive into the early 70s aesthetic. This is an auteur working at full capacity and the results are an absolute joy. The finely tuned ensemble piece highlights a series of captivating vignettes. On the surface, it’s a meandering saga with a lackadaisical plot. Yet the journey back in time is perfectly realized. I was amazed at the detail. Honestly, the portrait is so convincing, I question whether Anderson used a time machine to film this picture. In a word, it’s immersive.

12-25-21

Don’t Look Up

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on December 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It’s never a good sign when you’re rooting for the end of humanity in a movie. Nevertheless, I did experience gleeful anticipation as an impending comet loomed ever closer to destroying all life on Earth — a planet filled with a complete bunch of dum-dums.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two astronomers who discover a comet is plunging toward the planet. They soon determine that the celestial sphere is extremely dangerous. It will kill all life as we know it in 6 months. Naturally, they contact the authorities. NASA scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) is totally on board, but President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is not. Meryl Streep is doing a version of Donald Trump in a female form complete with a nitwit son Jason (Jonah Hill) who also happens to be her Chief-of-Staff. At first, President Orlean avoids doing anything about the problem. Then decides with mid-term elections approaching, a response would benefit her campaign.

This is a heavy-handed parable with a lot of stars working extra hard to portray unpleasant people to elicit laughs. The central conceit is that the scientists speak the truth, but no one listens or cares. A raft of celebrities inhabit incidental subplots. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play perky TV personalities on a Morning Joe-style TV show. Ariana Grande noticeably flexes her acting muscles to play a vacuous pop star that sings a soaring ballad about our imminent doom. Timothée Chalamet embodies a directionless teen who has a fling with Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Ron Perlman yells a lot as a general who will pilot the spacecraft that will divert the trajectory of the cosmic snowball in question. Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwood, the placid CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company. His Elon Musk-ish billionaire steps in to help out when it’s discovered that the comet can be mined for valuable resources.

Subtle political satire is difficult to pull off. Why address grave concepts like climate change or the pandemic head-on when a physical object hurtling toward the world is so much easier to grasp? The filmmakers exploit that obvious metaphor by repeatedly hammering the same point using different actors in assorted situations for a mind-numbing 138-minutes. This sanctimonious sermon would have been so much more effective (and enjoyable) if presented in half that time. Honestly, there are plenty of funny jokes that land. I would have given this a recommendation if 50 minutes of the repetitive tedium were excised. Writer and Director Adam McKay is working from a story by David Sirota. McKay applies the same haphazard but smug approach he used in The Big Short and Vice. Hard to believe, but this is the same guy that once gave us the breezy comedy triumvirate of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. Oh, how I miss that guy.

Don’t Look Up is a clashing hybrid of drama and comedy. We can cite the inspirations of the past. Dr. Strangelove or Network are the acknowledged classics. As a matter of fact, when Leonardo DiCaprio loses it on the air, he seems to be channeling Peter Finch’s famous meltdown. The screenplay is more potent as a silly comedy. There are occasional laughs. A running joke which cites Kate’s inability to get over the fact that General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) charged her for free snacks is so random, it’s amusing. There are many hilarious lines. Indeed I chuckled throughout. However, Adam McKay’s method grows increasingly didactic over a punishingly long runtime. The tone is irritable when the narrative would have been better served by a lighter touch. Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy also exploited a similar vibe in its sendup of human nature. Where that lighthearted parody had many targets, this oppressive spoof has one: America is one big country of stupid people. Thanks. I already get that perspective from the news (and it’s delivered in under 30 minutes to boot!).

12-26-21

Encanto

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2021 is alive with the sound of musicals! I submit exhibits A through G as evidence: In the Heights, Annette, Cinderella, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story. Disney’s latest is a notable addition to the genre this year.

Encanto is a saga about a sprawling family and the matriarch who controls it all with an iron hand. Alma (María Cecilia Botero) whom everyone affectionally calls “Abuela”—uses an enchanted candle to create a magical house in the hills of Columbia for the Madrigal family in which to live. These include her three infant children Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno. The magical protection allows an entire village to flourish around the “casita” and this same magic imbues the clan with exceptional powers. Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal others with her cooking, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, and Bruno (John Leguizamo) can see the future. However, Bruno’s visions — which contradicted Abuela’s “everything is wonderful” vibe — weren’t appreciated. He is mysteriously missing when the main story begins.

After an initial setup, the main chronicle centers around Julieta’s daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) depicted with a visual anomaly. This is never acknowledged, but I will. She wears glasses. Oh sure, for years many men have worn them in Disney’s canonical animated features: Doc, Gepetto, Mr. Smee & John from Peter Pan to name a few. But a female protagonist sporting spectacles is virtually nonexistent. The internet informs me that Anita Radcliffe, a supporting character in 101 Dalmatians, occasionally wore them. Mirabel is a splendid addition to an animated tradition that includes icons like Velma, Edna Mode, Meg Griffin, and Daria. Sadly she is not blessed with supernatural abilities like older sisters Isabela (Diane Guerrero ) who can make flowers bloom and Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) superhuman strength. Although Mirabel has an undeniable kinship with their sentient house. She is a warm and empathic fifteen-year-old that may have accepted her lack of a gift, but it weighs on her. Nevertheless, she seems well-adjusted with a maturity that supersedes most of the adults. This includes Abuela, an enigmatic individual with a temperament that grows angrier as the tale develops.

Of course, any musical must be judged by the music, and the production reigns supreme in this area. Encanto features a buoyant score with music and lyrics by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns). His familiarity with Broadway elevates the production. I cannot minimize how captivating a melody can be when also accompanied by bright colorful visuals. The whole songbook is stellar: “The Family Madrigal” is a toe-tapping delight, “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is joyful and Luisa’s lament “Surface Pressure” all rank highly, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” really stands out. That “…no, no, no.” refrain is so memorable. I haven’t been this wowed by a Disney tune since “Let It Go” in Frozen.

Everyone is special in their own unique way. The moral is timeworn but conveyed with sincerity and style. I’m impressed by a screenplay by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush that can deftly handle such an expansive cast of characters. Everyone has a well-defined and engaging personality. They gradually each begin to feel the stress of living in the Madrigal household. There is a nuanced idea percolating beneath the surface. People who outwardly appear to be successful may carry a private pain. Those rifts within this “perfect” dynasty begin to manifest themselves as cracks within the physical building of their Casita. The metaphor is so obvious, but it feels fresh within this presentation. Encanto means “charm” in Spanish and it is indeed charming.

11-25-21

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One of the biggest highlights at the cinema during my youth was the incongruous reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (1984). I’ll never forget how shocked and amused I was in the theater by that unholy amalgamation of the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Everyone was. It was a communal event. I’ll forgo further details to avoid spoiling the surprise. Although, one might argue that there’s no one’s experience still left to spoil. The movie is now nearly four decades old and the moment is iconic. However, perhaps to those young readers who haven’t seen it yet: Do yourself a favor and watch it now. This sequel does reference the goofy mascot “s’more” (that’s a pun on the marshmallow treat) as well as a plethora of other ideas from the 1984 classic. Sometimes nostalgia can be an albatross to creativity.

The story of a single mother who moves to a small town in Oklahoma with her two kids doesn’t sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The daughter’s familial connection to the supernatural events of the past is discovered when she inadvertently uncovers the legacy of her grandfather. This picture is directed by Jason Reitman and is a continuation of both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989). Those were directed by his father Ivan who is the producer here. You may recall there was a female-led reboot in 2016. If you don’t, that’s OK because this chapter doesn’t acknowledge that the picture even exists.

The ending of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is completely indebted to the inspiration of the past. More to the point, the lack of originality in the denouement isn’t endearing. Nevertheless, for the first three quarters, the narrative presents an engaging plot about kids that veers closer in spirit to something like The Goonies. The saga focuses on the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler who was Harold Ramis’ character. Her name is Phoebe and she is nicely realized with understated charisma by Mckenna Grace. Her mom and brother relocate to an abandoned farm that Egon left behind when he passed away. There, on his dilapidated estate, she discovers some of his ghostbusting tools. She brings a PKE Meter and an electronic trap to school — much to the delight of her classmate. The precocious boy is played by Logan Kim. “I call myself Podcast…because of my podcast.” He is undeniably funny, captivating, and also a real scene-stealer. Phoebe and Podcast form a compelling duo that I enjoyed immensely.

For the significant duration of the picture, the languid drama feels more like an indie picture. The fantasy isn’t as zany or sarcastic as its predecessor. It takes 45 minutes before we even see a ghost. However, there are laughs. The adventure adds additional members to the ghostbusting team. These include Phoebe’s brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his girlfriend Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), along with their mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and a teacher named Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). The movie charms but with the heart and character development of a leisurely-paced production and a smaller scale. This cost a comparatively low $75 million before promotion and advertising.

Sadly the filmmakers didn’t trust in the beauty of this new innovative direction they had forged. In the final quarter, it’s as if another malevolent director grabbed the steering wheel of this amiable tale, stepped on the gas, and forced it down a path that lazily remixes the climax of the 1984 blockbuster with garish and extravagant CGI effects. Unfortunately, everything from that point on is the exploitation of nostalgia in the most heavy-handed demonstration of the concept. I wasn’t a fan of the closing act. However, the chronicle before that was good. I’ll give it a pass because I was entertained. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a pleasant time-filler. Ah, but it could’ve been so much more.

11-18-21

The French Dispatch

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on November 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Over the last quarter-century, Wes Anderson has built up an impressive oeuvre. Ever since he debuted with Bottle Rocket in 1996, he has consistently released a new feature on average every 2 to 3 years. That’s downright prolific for an auteur. From the superlative (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) to the merely tolerable (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) — if you’re familiar with the director’s aesthetic, you know his style is instantly recognizable. Fastidiously produced productions featuring a large cast with a lot of care that goes into the construction. Each piece is a thoughtfully manicured diorama of minutiae. Every shot is the manifestation of perfectly placed objects in a dollhouse. His movies can be a little difficult to embrace for the unconverted. They’re so twee. This one is no different. Yet I am a devotee and so I relish them all. The French Dispatch doesn’t rank among his very best, but I did admire the effort that went into making it.

A Wes Anderson release is nothing if not precious. At times the degree of whimsy almost verges into a parody of his technique. It’s set in a fictional French town called “Ennui-sur-Blasé.” Both “ennui” and “blasé” of course are fancy words for similar things. The saga begins as a tale about a newspaper staffed by a team of American expatriates living in France. The paper itself is loosely based on the New Yorker magazine. As it begins, it’s about the journalists writing articles. The account frames this in a vignette about “cycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). From there, he recounts an anthology of three columns each told by separate individuals: art impresario J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).

The chronicle grows even more convoluted. For you see, those three stores then become a framing device for introducing the proper stories. The first is about an art dealer (Adrien Brody) and a jailed painter (Benicio Del Toro) who uses a female prison guard (Léa Seydoux ) as a model. The second concerns a group of young activists (Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri), and the third is about a celebrated chef (Stephen Park) who solves a kidnapping plot for a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric). The narrative configuration becomes something of a Russian Matryoshka doll — those wooden figurines of decreasing size placed inside one another.

The French Dispatch has a romantic affection for Europe, the past, literary pursuits, and quirky details. Like all of the director’s compositions, the piece is filled with meticulous production design amusing sight gags, and dry dialogue. It’s inspired by actual people and events. If you get the references you’ll adore it more. There are so many performances and every actor has a scant amount of screen time. Tilda Swinton sporting big hair and a sophisticated accent while addressing a crowd in an auditorium was a favorite.

Wes Anderson has a fondness for historical happenings and personalities. He weaves that enthusiasm into the fabric of the film. As we delve deeper, the story is influenced by a multitude of real-life people. Those with a knowledge of luminaries like Joseph Mitchell, Rosamund Bernier, Lord Duveen, and James Baldwin will be at an advantage, It isn’t necessary to share his artistic passions. However, it will certainly give you a greater appreciation for Anderson’s indulgences. Other than Baldwin, I was unaware of these tangible connections. I still enjoyed the whimsical nature, but I have always been a fan. File this under the heading “Your mileage may vary.”

10-21-21

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on October 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s not uncommon for a musical to have origins in the theater, but how many of those works sprung from a documentary first? Everybody’s Talking About Jamie can trace its beginnings to the BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 — a 2011 portrait of Jamie Campbell, a 16-year-old boy who wanted to wear a dress to the prom. His true story inspired a West End stage play by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Jonathan Butterell directs this film adaptation of that smash hit musical.

Jamie New (Max Harwood) — as he’s re-named here — is gay. However, that’s not even the issue. His classmates already know this. Jamie is out at the beginning of the picture. While his peers are thinking about what they want to be after graduation, Jamie wants to be a drag queen. He craves the spotlight and needs to be a star. The upcoming prom is the pivotal location where he hopes to unveil his new persona. His best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and his loving single mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) may register slight surprise initially, but quickly shower him with unwavering support. There’s also local drag legend Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant). He acts as a mentor. Even Jamie’s schoolmates seem mostly OK with his decision save for the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley). The underwritten character casts a dismissive remark here and there, but never physical violence. Providing more genuine conflict is his absent father (Ralph Ineson), who wants nothing to do with him and one teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan).

Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) is a fascinating character. She imbues the saga with some unexpected nuance and complexity. She isn’t so much intolerant as irritated by this diva who demands to be the center of attention in her class. “I’m a superstar and you don’t even know it,” Jamie sings in a lively production number where the boy daydreams a full-on performance with his classmates as backup dancers. Miss Hedge has no problems with his desire to wear a dress and be a drag queen. However, the prom she contends is not the setting. The yearly dance is a place for all the kids to shine. Jamie’s desire threatens to seize focus. The gala for many becomes a celebration of one. In a musical where you’re playing to the back of the house, her negativity has the undermining temperament of a villain, but here it’s registering a little subtlety. Her pushing back on his narcissism starts to make sense.

The central conceit could have been handled in any number of ways. Here the drama is presented as a cheery and upbeat crowd-pleaser. The lesson promotes the timeworn mantra “Be true to yourself.” Disregard what other people think. The thing is, Jamie does care. His biggest fear: being ignored. He is supremely self-absorbed. He aspires to be famous and demands that everybody love him. His personality is all ME! ME! ME! His ego grows a little less inspiring after a while.

Propelling the lighthearted spirit is an energetic collection of show tunes. Full disclosure — initially, I thought the songs were merely pleasant. I couldn’t recall a single one immediately after I watched the film. Then I started listening to the movie soundtrack. Its buoyant energy started to work its way into my consciousness. I’ve been humming it ever since, “Everybody’s talking ’bout J-J-Jamie. Everybody’s talking ’bout the boy in the dress who was born to impress” the students sing at school. The title track occurs after they attend Jamie’s drag show the night before. Other highlights include Jamie’s mother’s poignant ode “He’s My Boy” and “This Was Me,” a vulnerable reminiscence from Hugo about the past. The aforementioned “And You Don’t Even Know It” is perhaps the stage musical’s best-known ditty. These hook-laden melodies paired with the imaginatively staged routines elevate the production. The subject of self-acceptance comes across as superficial at times but the colorful, catchy compositions have a joy that propels the message of encouragement with vitality and verve.

09-19-21

Free Guy

Posted in Action, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on August 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Give people a reason to go to theaters and they will. Audiences went to see Free Guy opening weekend. The prediction was that it would only do $15M-17 million due to a recent surge in the Delta variant. The reality is that it debuted well above expectations with $28.4 million. The fact that it wasn’t available on streaming — that you had to see it in a theater — certainly helped.

Free Guy is the story of a random bank teller that lives in a video game called Free City. He’s merely a background character, but then one day he becomes self-aware after seeing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) from afar. In the game, his best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard who works alongside him at the bank. Outside in the real world, he’s supported by computer specialists Keys (Joe Keery), Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and Millie (also played by Jodie Comer). This peripheral cipher decides to break away from his programming and make himself the hero of the game and pursue the woman he loves.

Ryan Reynolds is an actor that has made a career out of playing the talkative sarcastic smart-aleck. Here his generic personality is simply known as Blue Shirt Guy — a cheerfully upbeat nonentity with a vapid demeanor that has never thought for himself. He is a blank slate of a man whose eyes are suddenly opened. Reynolds doesn’t give a performance so much as deliver his lines loudly while mugging for emphasis. He affects the same persona he always has and this doesn’t come across as a well-rounded individual. Yet that’s exactly what the script calls for. He’s not playing a human being after all, but rather a video game character. It’s easy to laugh AT him but difficult to have empathy FOR him.

The deconstruction of one’s reality is an idea presented on the weighty shoulders of other better movies. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) is working from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. The boilerplate story even throws in a romance solely because it’s expected. The repetitive nature of the game gently evokes Groundhog Day while the themes of repression recall Pleasantville. Meanwhile, the tale about a good-natured everyman whose life is broadcast to people throughout the planet is like The Truman Show. Given their philosophy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the megalomaniacal boss of Soonami Studios (insufferably overplayed by Taika Waititi) would be friends with Christof (Ed Harris) of The Truman Show.

Free Guy is a hyper-exaggerated saga so you’ll have to warm up to the film’s tone. I did but gradually. This is a self-conscious production that is constantly winking at the viewer. The account inserts numerous celebrity cameos. Most of the “stars” are from online streaming platforms YouTube and Twitch. I was blissfully unaware of their fame. There were a couple of major personalities that I did recognize. Unfortunately, the mass media callbacks kept my emotional connection at arm’s length. This is a release from 20th Century Studios. The fact that Disney is their parent company will be obvious given several high profile pop-culture gags that are fan service and nothing more. Meta-humor and Easter eggs (insidery jokes for fans) threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times.

The highest praise I can give Free Guy is that it’s an original movie. This isn’t a sequel, a remake, based on a comic book or a pre-existing video game. The action takes place in a completely new computerized action-adventure. Although, it’s inspired by violent open-world interactive titles like Grand Theft Auto. The thing is, the chronicle is not about video games per se. It concerns the way we exist and how we aspire to break out of the rut in which we may reside. The moral is “Seize the Day!” but pitched toward gamers. Overall the message is extremely lightweight, but I appreciated that Blue Shirt Guy was a force for hope and good in a city of chaos. I can get behind that.

08-12-21

The Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Comedy, Superhero with tags on August 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Director/Producer/Writer/Actor James Gunn is a hyphenate who’s known for doing many things. He famously — and successfully — directed Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and its Vol. 2 continuation in 2017. After he was temporarily fired by Marvel Studios from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, he was snapped up by Warner Bros. to helm this movie.

A superhero lineup of misfits that unite to get a job done is kind of becoming his thing. James Gunn loves The Dirty Dozen (1967) and it shows. That blueprint is utilized again for The Suicide Squad. Note that this standalone sequel has a definite article before the title to distinguish itself from its predecessor. The filmmakers have been distancing themselves from the 2016 entry in interviews but this feels like a Part 2 and a superior follow-up at that. Actors Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag), Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang), and Viola Davis (Amanda Waller) all return in the same roles. Notably not present is Will Smith as Deadshot. An entirely new character named Bloodsport played by Idris Elba shows up. He’s similarly a gun-toting killer who coincidentally also happens to have an estranged daughter.

At first glance, The Suicide Squad may seem rather similar to Gunn’s Marvel superhero franchise. Instead of Rocket Raccoon, we get Weasel (Sean Gunn). In place of a tree-like humanoid that repeats “I am Groot,” there’s a different oddball with a limited vocabulary named King Shark. The overlap of talent includes Sylvester Stallone who provides his voice. Additionally, Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff have minor parts. Yet the movies couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. Guardians was rated PG-13. This is rated R. That’s a hard R predominantly for strong violence and gore.

First and foremost, The Suicide Squad is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny, but only if you embrace Gunn’s cynical point of view that life is disposable. Ah, but how to discuss a picture that inspires essays that rank the various deaths. Don’t get attached to anyone. Everyone is fair game including a false start of a beginning that introduces us to Suicide Squad #1. There’s more than one team. James Gunn doesn’t believe shocks are more potent when doled out sparingly. His nihilistic ethos of “more is more” will test all but his most ardent fans . If you saw this on opening weekend (or immediately viewed when it debuted on HBO Max) you probably loved it. The saga employs a gleeful abandon toward cruelty and death but all for comedic effect. In that spirit, the bloodshed is cartoonish and silly. The action is uniquely absurd for a while. Over two hours, the grotesqueries pile on top of each other and it grows exhausting.

There’s still a great deal here to recommend. Idris Elba and John Cena play Bloodsport and Peacemaker respectively. They’re superheroes on the same side but always at odds. Their constant bickering is amusing. Fresh off of Birds of Prey (2020), Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quin. Third time’s the charm. This is the most I’ve enjoyed her character. “Recently I made a promise to myself that next time I got a boyfriend I’d be on the lookout for red flags…” she declares to justify an unexpected decision. David Dastmalchian as the edgy Polka-Dot Man and Daniela Melchior as surprisingly sweet Ratcatcher 2 are interesting members of the outfit. Their backstories and abilities significantly support the narrative with something this adventure needs more of…heart.

The Suicide Squad has an “everything but the kitchen sink” aesthetic. French poet Paul Valery proclaimed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.” Simply put, the most visionary work comes from figuring out how to invent through the constraints. Tell someone they can’t drop an F-bomb in their picture and they’ll have to devise creative words to circumvent that rule. On the contrary, this chronicle is the product of a filmmaker unrestrained and free to do whatever he wants. It is a violent, bloody, action-packed exhibition. I’ll concede there are some memorable displays. The colorful climax owes a serious debt to 1984’s Ghostbusters. As I sat gobsmacked by the spectacle, I was indeed entertained. So much stuff crammed into this movie that it’s impossible not to be. At least I can say I was never bored.

08-05-21

Jungle Cruise

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Jungle Cruise is shallow, even for a production based on a Disney theme park attraction. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is the gold standard. That picture justified a ride could be adapted into something enjoyable – once. Sorry, the sequels gave me a headache. Other movies inspired by one of their properties include Tower of Terror (1997), Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003), and Tomorrowland (2015). Throw this piece of corporate product onto that unexceptional list.

Jungle Cruise (the ride) was featured at Disneyland’s grand opening back in 1955. Over the next 65 years, it received only minor changes. Welcome to 2021 when it was completely overhauled to remove “imperialist and racist” content that included “negative depictions of native people.” Despite their mea culpa, Disney was still determined to adapt the attraction into a feature. There’s money to be made, right? The chronicle feels more like a course corrective apology than an organic story that needed to be told. It lacks an identity from which to distinguish itself as something vital or unique. This generic commodity has no spark.

The adventure involves Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) who goes on an expedition down the Amazon river to find the Tears of the Moon. Her research has found the life-saving petals from a mythical tree of life have healing properties. Her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall ) joins her and wisecracking tour-boat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) leads the excursion. The plot begins well. Dwayne Johnson is always a likable presence. He’s a tour guide riffing through various puns that his audience finds annoying. His schtick is the funniest bit. I laughed at those jokes (as did the audience). The puns are one of the few callbacks to the Disneyland ride. Unfortunately it’s all downhill, or over the falls, from there.

Frank’s passengers on his riverboat include a strong, confident, tough-talking, no-nonsense individual and a feeble, fastidious namby-pamby. They would be poorly written stock characters no matter who played them. Yet the screenwriters’ idea of innovation is to swap gender roles. Get ready for a tiresome running gag about how a woman is wearing pants in 1916. Meanwhile, the man that packs a dozen suitcases of clothes for the trip is exploited as comic relief. It also allows Disney to promote him as their “first gay character” for the seventh time by my count. Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast, Avengers: Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, and Onward were all hyped as being the “first” too. MacGregor gets a poignant scene halfway through where he confides in Frank his lack of interest in getting married. It’s the one moment we aren’t supposed to be laughing at his buffoonery. The word “gay” is never uttered. However, we’ve experienced his flamboyant histrionics for over an hour at this point. The scene merely emphasized what had been made abundantly clear previously with less sophistication.

Disney spent a boatload (pun intended) of money so points for really trying. Jungle Cruise reportedly cost at least $200 million to make and another $100 million to market. Normally I wouldn’t mention the budget in a review but expensive special effects are an intrinsic part of the film. The narrative employs an inordinate amount of CGI. You wouldn’t think computer graphics would be required in 1916, but somehow Disney found a way. Whether red flowers are glowing in the moonlight or rip-roaring rapids about to capsize our protagonist’s ship, there isn’t a single scene in this god-forsaken mess that isn’t blighted by a programmer’s code to enhance the spectacle. One of the recurring characters is a poorly rendered CGI leopard. I’m dumbfounded we are still getting animals this phony in 2021. He looks like a cartoon.

At least Jungle Cruise has the good sense to appropriate from the best. It’s as if a newbie watched The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, and The Mummy all back to back in one sitting. They then regurgitated a superficial composite of what they had just seen without the character development, originality, or heart. Credit (or blame) goes to Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop) who directs from a screenplay written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green.

The plot is a dizzying clutter of stuff. Did I mention there’s more than one villain? This includes Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), a conquistador who once sought the tree’s power. He was cursed with immortality and is now inexplicably surrounded by CGI snakes that burst out of his zombie body. There’s also a German aristocrat named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). He leads a competing expedition to harness the Tree of Life for himself. Joachim pops up in a massive submarine at one point. I told you the budget was huge. Almost topping him in the contest for most ridiculous accent is Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), the harbormaster that Dr. Lily Houghton initially seeks to secure a boat for their voyage. If there’s anything to salvage from this sinking ship, it’s that actors Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson do muster up a modicum of charisma. They provide the wispy threads of some chemistry together. Nevertheless, they aren’t even in the same universe as a superior duo like Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. If The African Queen is the cinematic Queen Mary of seaworthy vessels, then Jungle Cruise is the garbage scow.

08-03-21

Fatherhood

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family with tags on June 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I review what people see. F9 just set a pandemic era record by making $70 million this past weekend. Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place: Part II also did well earlier this year. Given those theatrical successes, I suspect box office will become an accurate reflection of what captures the public interest at some point. With everyone’s viewing habits currently relegated to streaming, it’s been difficult to tell what the masses are watching. At 208 million subscribers, Netflix is far and away the #1 streaming service. Amazon Prime Video is a distant second. For most of 2020 (and 2021 so far), the Netflix Top 10 has been a good reflection on what’s popular. Originally scheduled as a theatrical release by Sony Pictures, Fatherhood was ultimately sold to Netflix and debuted on June 18. It immediately became their #1 movie so I decided to check it out.

This drama starring Kevin Hart is based on the biography by blogger turned author Matthew Logelin entitled Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love. Logelin’s recollection is an account of grief following the unexpected death of his wife right after giving birth to the couple’s first child and then his adapting to single parenthood. I won’t negate the unimaginable real-life tragedy of losing your wife hours after becoming a father. That is a profound event from which few could ever recover. Somehow Matthew Logelin managed to channel that agony and then write about it. Kudos and respect on his accomplishment. Paul Weitz and Dana Stevens subsequently adapted Logelin’s book into a screenplay (far less successfully) that became Fatherhood.

This movie doesn’t do his thoughtful subject any justice. Fatherhood is a maudlin, overly saccharine tale that fails to introduce a single genuine emotion. The chronicle is a well-meaning but uninvolving series of hackneyed affairs that even non-parents would associate with being a father. When Maddy is a baby, plot developments include the difficulty of changing diapers and that infants cry at night. Then when she’s a toddler (Melody Hurd) the story concerns Matthews entering the dating world and Maddy’s acceptance of his choice for a mate (DeWanda Wise). The details are generic and mundane. The film is lacking an original point of view and quite frankly a pulse.

Fatherhood is a calculated effort to present a kinder, gentler version of comedian Hart. The narrative is incredibly sappy. Every time something uplifting happens, inspiring music swells to emphasize the fact and when a sad occurrence unfolds, a very somber tune overwhelms the soundtrack. Those familiar with Hart’s manic stand-up routines will be surprised to find he affects a persona here that is completely unrecognizable. I’ll give him points for going outside his comfort zone. There are occasional glimpses of humor, but this is mostly a bleak, serious affair. It’s like an pale rewrite of the 80s comedy Three Men and a Baby except with just one person and minus the laughs.

06-25-21