Archive for the Comedy Category

The Big Sick

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on July 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

big_sickSTARS5I adore romantic comedies.  Good ones, that is. The genre gets such a bad rap nowadays, but when they’re good, they can be transcendent. They capture that most sublime of all human emotions: love. It’s when we, as people are at our most vulnerable. It Happened One Night (1934), Roman Holiday (1953), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Princess Bride (1987), Notting Hill (1999), 500 Days of Summer (2009): these are my very favorites. We’re talking some of the best movies ever made. Let’s add another title to that growing list of rom-coms: The Big Sick.

You’ve heard the old adage before: Write what you know. Screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon really took that to heart. They’ve been a married couple for 10 years now. The Big Sick is the story of their lives fully realized in cinematic form. Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a mildly fictionalized version of himself. Actress Zoe Kazan (Meek’s Cutoff, Ruby Sparks) plays Emily. Kumail is a Chicago-based stand-up comic who first meets Emily, a grad student, at one of his shows. She is in the audience and her heckling, which is more flirtatious in nature, piques his interest. The two chat after the show and you can practically see the physical sparks ignite in the air. What begins as a one-night stand develops into a full blown relationship with deep romantic feelings. It gets the early stages of a courtship perfectly and it’s a giddy experience.

Now if that set-up was all there was to The Big Sick, it would still be a profound paean to love. But there’s a unique point of view that makes this drama unlike any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. Kumail and his parents are from Pakistan. They have emigrated to the U.S and now live here. Kumail is very close to his folks and he visits them regularly. Mom and Dad are conventionally religious Muslims. They believe in arranged marriage. The seemingly endless parade of women that just happen to “drop by” their home is an amusing facade. We know mom is behind all this, hoping that one of them might be a match. Yet there is a very real cultural tradition at play here and it’s presented with sensitivity and compassion. However, Kumail wants no part of that practice. He wants to find his own true love, although he is loath to bring up the subject.  He is afraid to express his actual feelings to them. In fact, his parents know nothing of his association with Emily. Emily’s realization of this fact is a heartbreaking moment that causes a serious rift.

If it feels as though I have described the entire plot, rest assured, I haven’t even come close. The story, as are the ups and downs of any relationship, is a series of setbacks. I still have yet to even detail the biggest one of all. I won’t though. I will only say that it gives us the opportunity to meet Emily’s parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Simply put, they are wonderful. They express grief, pathos, and humor in a way that is absolutely masterful. Their performances blend the gravest of circumstances with a tragicomedy touch. Although they are merely supporting parts, we get a full and rich understanding of their affinity as well. Their bond feels as breathtakingly real and nuanced as any I’ve ever seen put up on the screen. I rarely talk Oscars this early in the year, but both actors are worthy of a nomination. They are so genuine in their portrayals.

The Big Sick embraces all the ideals of what makes the classic romances succeed. It’s a saga about when two people who are truly meant for each other, fall in love. It sounds simple to do but few movies detail the experience with this much soul and authenticity.  What can I say?  Actors Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani captivated my heart. I was emotionally invested in their relationship. The Big Sick is humanity with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies on full display. The screenplay mines humor in the clash of cultures but it also extracts the awkwardness of relatives. The idea that “You don’t just marry a person; you marry into a family” is a concept that frequently comes up. It’s not going to be smooth. Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel produce. Michael Showalter directs. Individually, these people have done a lot of great work. Yet this combination of talent utilizing a script from Nanjiani and Gordon, have produced a masterpiece. It’s a flawless testament to a couple in love. The pièce de résistance is that it’s actually true.

07-02-17

Beatriz at Dinner

Posted in Comedy, Drama on June 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo beatriz_zpsh6gtpliq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Beatriz (Salma Hayek) in Beatriz at Dinner is a massage therapist. More specifically, she’s a natural healer who works at a holistic cancer center in Los Angeles. When we first meet her she’s having an idyllic daydream of rowing a boat as it glides down a picturesque river. It’s a sunny day, there’s a flock of birds flying overhead, and then the bleat of a goat. It cries out again and she’s awakened to the sound of the actual goat she keeps in her bedroom. Yup. She lives in a modest LA apartment and keeps goats. She loves animals. She has dogs too. She drives a VW beetle with the bumper sticker “Have a Nice Day…unless you’ve made other plans”. She makes house calls. Her longtime client is Kathy (Connie Britton), an extremely wealthy but progressively minded housewife. Kathy and her husband live in a Newport Beach community behind multiple levels of security gates. When Beatriz’ beat-up old VW bug won’t start after completing her massage therapy, Kathy invites her to stay for dinner.  She is hosting an intimate shindig for some important co-workers of her husband. Kathy is unceasingly friendly toward Beatriz. In fact, she wears her accommodating treatment like a badge of honor. It’s not without conflict, however. She must force her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) to accept the presence of Beatriz at their little affair.

Beatriz at Dinner is a new production directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White. The two have worked together before, most notably on Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). White has a gift for making the audience ill at ease. He creates odd personalities in awkward situations. The Mike White written and directed Year of the Dog (2007) is a perfect example. His latest screenplay, Beatriz at Dinner, is another. The drama concerns three couples. In addition to our aforementioned hosts, Kathy and Grant, there’s attractive but haughty couple Shannon (Chloë Sevigny ) and Alex (Jay Duplass). Chloë Sevigny, in particular, makes the condescension of her character seem almost elegant. But the alpha guest is John Lithgow as Doug Strutt, a billionaire real estate tycoon. He is accompanied by his third (and much younger) wife Jeana (Amy Landecker).

You can’t read a critique of this film without the reviewer noting a connection between Doug Strutt and Donald Trump. It’s a rather glib comparison. Granted the U.S. president currently occupies the media’s attention in a capacity never seen before – in my lifetime anyway.  However, I’d say Lithgow’s portrayal is a more nuanced stand-in for a universal archetype.  White has said the idea for John Lithgow’s part was inspired from the fallout regarding the Minnesota dentist and big game hunter who killed Cecil the Lion on African safari in 2015.  In fact, one key scene has Doug Strutt passing around his cell with a photo of his latest conquest, a Rhino.  The scene ends with Beatriz angrily hurling the phone across the room at the mogul.

The script has an ear for dialogue, but what sells the discourse is its nonjudgmental point of view.  Everyone is a character, but no one is a stereotype.  These people do indeed exist.  What makes the set-up such a delight is its off-kilter sense of humor.  The turn of events are not here to change your mind or sell one point of view. It’s to expose a situation that is ripe for humor. The exercise places us in Beatriz’ shoes so we’re ostensibly on her side. Yet the comedy is uncomfortable and sometimes it’s not clear whether it’s mocking the haves or the have-not. The recommendations of this natural healer are so clearly out of place amongst these people. Her home remedy of apple cider vinegar and dandelion root to cure some random ailment is met with bemused patronization. “Oh dandelion root, honey.  Your favorite!” Shannon coos.  It’s hard not to snicker along with her and then immediately hate ourselves for doing so.  The screenplay is remarkably shrewd in this way.

Salma Hayek is a beautiful actress, but as Beatriz, she is plain and mousy. She wears no makeup and sports unflattering bangs.  Given the unexpected circumstances of her being stranded, she’s underdressed for their little get-together too, wearing mom jeans and athletic shoes.  She walks tentatively but purposefully throughout the home.  Beatriz is an outsider.  At first, she glides from one room to another like a cat quietly eavesdropping along the fringes of the gathering. She hovers so much that early on Doug Strutt asks her to freshen his drink, mistaking her for the help. You instinctively want to chastise him because we know who she is, but then his mistake is kind of understandable given her behavior. Incidentally the help, Kathy’s chef, is a white male (John Early).  As the party continues and the conversation deepens our understanding of these people Beatriz’ eyes are opened. To her, Doug Strut is the personification of evil. He represents everything that is wrong in the world. You can see her wrestle with how she should proceed throughout the course of the evening. Should she confront the man or merely satisfy her curiosity with questions to try and understand him or perhaps she should take much more dire actions. The wine flows freely and additional glasses make her bolder as the evening progresses. As Margo Channing once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

We are a nation ideologically divided.  It is the intersection between conservative and liberal viewpoints that is presented here.  Mike White is a brilliant comedic writer by choosing to have this discourse under the auspices of an awkward dinner party. He has fashioned a sophisticated comedy of manners in which he mines humor out of tension and discomfort. There’s a caustic tone that recalls writer-director Todd Solondz, but White shows more compassion. It’s a fascinating watch for the majority of the drama. Unfortunately, the narrative is flawed.  The ending is a frustrating cop out that left me unfulfilled.  It’s simply not up to the standard of the rest of the film. However for about three-quarters of the picture I was captivated. Salma Hayek gives the performance of her career. She absolutely nails the role. Her performance is mesmerizing. Actually, the entire ensemble is compelling with every actor bringing a humanity to their parts.  They may not be admirable, but they do feel genuine.  Beatriz at Dinner implausibly brings them all together for one evening.  I was uncomfortably entertained.

06-22-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo cars_three_ver3_zpscemphvxy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgCars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy on June 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_underpants_zpslgih4pza.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgGeorge and Harold are two mischievous 4th graders that enjoy playing practical jokes because they cheer the students up at their miserable school.  They also write comic books in their spare time. Their latest superhero creation is Captain Underpants, a literary work that is ripped up by their ill-tempered principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms).  Despite the fact he doesn’t have proof, Mr. Krupp knows they are behind the practical jokes on the teachers at their elementary school. At the Invention Convention, the boys tamper with a fellow classmates’ entry called the Turbo Toilet so that it shoots toilet paper rolls at the audience. However this time, Mr. Krupp has video evidence of their shenanigans. He threatens to end the kids’ alliance by splitting them up into different classes. Before this can happen, the kids put him in a trance using a Hypno-Ring they got out of a cereal box. They make him act like a chicken, then a monkey, until finally…Captain Underpants. Hilarity ensues.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on an extremely successful 10-part series of children’s fiction by author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.  The saga revolves around George and Harold, two imaginative but disobedient fourth graders.  The youngsters defy authority and are prone to pranks. The massive popularity of the books, particularly with children ages 6–8 has garnered much attention since they were first published in 1997.

The boys’ playful disrespect for authority has garnered some controversy. The series surprisingly topped the list of the most banned books in America in 2012, beating out the much more controversial Fifty Shades of Grey. These novels were never part of my upbringing.  I was a wee bit older than 8 in 1997. I haven’t read any of them, but I can affirm there’s nothing in this kid-friendly movie that would offend even the most delicate sensibilities. Yes the main protagonist does wear tighty whities but let’s face it, if the sight of a cartoon wearing underpants is offensive to you, then you probably shouldn’t be watching films made after 1968 anyway.

The humor is rather innocent, but it certainly doesn’t reach sophisticated highs either. The potty jokes are mild but they’re constant. I suppose gags about poop and other bodily functions carry a certain charm – for budding minds anyway.  If you still think a planet with the name Uranus is hilarious, then calling it a “gas giant” should have you rolling with laughter.  That experience is what originally unites these two friends.  The taunts don’t get any more vulgar that “weirdo,” “stupid,” and “suck up”. Although some parents may bristle at one of the film’s subtle underlying messages.  The kids’ decision to tinker with a classmate’s science project is partially based on the fact that he enjoys learning and is excited about going to the science fair.  Since Melvin is socially awkward, he is apparently deserving of their ridicule.

The movie is colorful and should appeal to the young and young at heart. Where the production excels is in the bright and lively animation. When Professor P ( Nick Kroll) attacks the school, it’s presented as slapstick.  The action for the climatic big battle switches from the 3D computer graphics to the style of a flip-book. It’s such an amusing way to lighten the mood while lending interest to the scene. The voice actors are all well cast.  The two main 4th grade protagonists are especially good.  George is portrayed by well-known comedian Kevin Hart.  His best friend Harold is voiced by lesser known actor, Thomas Middleditch (TV series Silicon Valley).  The uplifting takeaway amongst all the poo poo and pee pee jokes is the unshakable bond of true friendship. George and Harold’s loyalty to one another is something to admire and emulate. Nonetheless, potty humor is still low comedy. Not objectionable in this case, just naive, simplistic and childish.  The film is a trifle. The main antagonist introduces himself as Professor P but the boys later discover the P stands for Poopypants. If that reveal causes you to burst out giggling, then I highly recommend this.  5 years olds will totally dig it. Some adults will too.  You know who you are.

06-07-17

Baywatch

Posted in Action, Comedy with tags on May 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo baywatch_ver14_zpsut0mbflb.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgI suppose when you go see a feature length film based on a cheesy 90s TV series, you get what you deserve.  Somehow I thought a winking comedy based on that type of material had potential. Baywatch was an hour-long action drama that relied heavily on lots of pretty people in bathing suits, running in slow motion. It was canceled after only 1 season on NBC but was brought back in 1991 to the first-run syndication where it went on to become hugely successful, particularly in the international market. Its charms were admittedly mostly visual but let’s acknowledge the fact that it ran for 11 seasons. That’s nothing to scoff at.

This re-imagining takes its cues from the school of manipulating something sincere and poking fun at it.  So if you’re looking for a reverent homage, keep swimming.  It’s like The Brady Bunch Movie in that respect. However, the adaptation assays the R-rated direction of the 21 Jump Street movie. I dare say Baywatch is even less sacred than either of those properties. The original source is ripe for a spoof.  The series took itself way too seriously, so the idea of transforming the show into a self-aware caricature actually appealed to me on some level.

Baywatch the movie lacks the integrity of the TV show. That’s really saying something. I’m not saying the series was artistically pure.   It was a frivolous action drama, but at least it had a sense of purpose.  The movie version is completely empty headed.  There are occasional laughs, but the screenplay relies far too heavily on f-bombs and penis jokes. That’s not a substitute for a good parody. Credit for the screenplay goes to Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, two scribes more known for horror projects [Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Friday the 13th (2009]. Baywatch is just one long meandering and haphazard trudge through witless humor. One extended sequence involves a poor schmuck (Jon Bass) who gets his manhood caught in a beach chair. Another involves Zac Efron’s character when he must examine a naked corpse. It’s even worse than you think. The skit makes the previous mangled crotch gag seem highbrow by comparison. I haven’t seen all of Efron’s films, but I’m still willing to bet it’s a career low for the young actor.

Despite the markedly different tone, this production still attempts to recreate the cast of the original series. Dwayne Johnson is Mitch Buchannon, the David Hasselhoff role. I suspect the writers just assumed Johnson’s affable charisma would somehow compensate for the script’s failings. He tries really hard. His second in command is Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) – Alexandra Paul in the TV show. There’s also CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), a portrayal made famous by Pamela Anderson, but she is surprisingly relegated to a bit part. The film’s arch villainess is a diva in heels, resort owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). She’s as bland as she is beautiful.

A subplot involves the upcoming tryouts held in order to hire 3 new lifeguards. First, we have nerdy Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), a comic relief with no direct counterpart in the TV program, Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario ) a part originally portrayed by Nicole Eggert, and arrogant recruit Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced Olympic swimmer hired as a public relations move. David Charvet was his TV equivalent. Although Charvet was never the main focus of the show, Efron dominates the proceedings here. Johnson is clearly the star, but Efron is a close second. They have some funny moments but even their considerable chemistry together can’t salvage this soggy script.

Baywatch wants to make you laugh, but the script is detrimentally focused on other things. Instead of just lampooning the job of being a lifeguard, the story spends an inordinate amount of time on an insipid plot involving drug trafficking. You see the ongoing joke is that these beach attendants are more focused on the duties of a cop than as the protectors of the beach.  Investigating crime is a big part of this film.   It’s too serious when it should have been absurd.   Baywatch had promise. The comedy initially gets off to an inspired start when Mitch Buchannon rescues a man who has injured himself while parasailing. The scene is shot in slow motion and ends with dolphins jumping out of the water as if to celebrate Mitch’s heroic save.  I wish for more of that buoyant energy.   Instead we’re given a bloated corruption tale that is just too freaking long.  If ever there was a mindless comedy that demanded a brief 90 minute run time, this is it.   The screenplay has barely enough grins to be a 1-hour episode of the TV show. Unfortunately, it’s a 2-hour movie.

05-25-17

Colossal

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction on April 26, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo colossal_ver2_zpsxbe75ffw.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgColossal is a bizarre movie. So strange in fact that I’m almost tempted to give it a pass simply because it’s audacious. And yet I really can’t say that I completely enjoyed the experience. Oh, it’s entertaining in parts. Particularly in the first half when we’re trying to make sense of it all. Yet the production meddles with tone to the point of exasperation.

The story begins with a random flashback involving a Godzilla-like monster that terrorizes a little girl in South Korea. Then flash forward to the present day and Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is getting kicked out of boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment. She is an unemployed writer and has just come home in the early morning, drunk yet again. “I expect you to be gone when I get home.” Tim leaves for work angry. He leaves her sitting there in disbelief. All of a sudden a bunch of her friends come over and start partying. Colossal is highlighted by awkward tonal shifts like that. One minute it’s deadly serious, the next it’s trying to make you laugh. But mostly it’s trying to make you laugh. It’s silly and light until it isn’t.

Colossal starts out like a romantic comedy with a lighthearted touch. Gloria journeys back to her quiet hometown and moves into her parent’s vacant home. While struggling with an inflatable mattress she runs into old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Their meet cute turns into a date at the bar Oscar owns. They have drinks. She meets his friends Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). The group have a palpable chemistry together. We remember ex-boyfriend Tim broke up with Gloria because of her drinking problem. Yet the affable Oscar happily offers her a job working in his bar. Peculiarly the atmosphere still remains upbeat and appealing. Then it develops into a kaiju movie when a giant reptilian creature magically appears out of thin air over in South Korea. I told you it was bizarre. I enjoyed the whimsical spirit because it’s unexpected and charming. Gloria’s morning stumbles through a children’s playground after a night of drinking seem to coincide with this astonishing event. Yet it still keeps the same silly and light atmosphere. Side note: Anne Hathaway is possibly the cutest/most fashionable portrayal of a drunk I’ve ever seen in a film.

The screenplay is vague. At times it doesn’t even seem to be aware of its own absurdities.  The story eventually falters when a once sympathetic individual grows increasingly dark in ways that are incoherent and unreasonable. Oscar abruptly becomes strangely cold and cruel in a way that defies sense. The character doesn’t logically evolve. The narrative’s ability to subvert expectations is admirable, but the failure to lose all sense with a well-written personality is not. Is it an underdeveloped script or is it Jason Sudeikis’ inability to convey the complexities of a capricious character?  Jason Sudeikis is too good to simply lay all the blame on him. It’s a bit of both.

Colossal is essentially a fable about alcoholism. It’s emblematic of the film’s obliqueness that that word is never uttered. If you haven’t guessed by now, the fantastical tale is very metaphorical. The giant beast is literal but can be figurative too. It’s about the devil we become when we succumb to addiction or perhaps the monster is also the person that enables our addiction. The narrative clumsily goes through some labored machinations that enable it to present a kooky conclusion. The screenplay is provocative yet the narrative’s oddly shifting mood is disjointed to the point it’s more irritating than innovative. I’ll celebrate the subversive enthusiasm to a point. I liked the unpredictability of the genre: romantic comedy vs. sci-fi flick vs. alcoholic drama. Surprise! It’s all of these things Yet the ever-shifting mood from silly to dark and back to fun again are completely random. The human behavior on display is even more haphazard. I grew frustrated at the experience.

04-23-17

T2 Trainspotting

Posted in Comedy, Drama on April 2, 2017 by Mark Hobin

Note: This review assumes you’ve seen Trainspotting from 1996 and mentions past plot developments that could be considered spoilers of the older film.

 photo t_two_trainspotting_ver6_zps4u8ankvv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgTrainspotting was an unlikely hit when it was first released in 1996. It has remained on the IMDb Top 250 ever since. The film became an iconic standard of British pop culture in the 90s. It defined a generation much in the same way that Easy Rider or Saturday Night Fever did. The harrowing comedy-drama about heroin addicts put director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) on the map. Even the soundtrack was such a hit it prompted the release of a Vol. 2.

Trainspotting was based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh. Likewise, the sequel is very loosely based on Welsh’s 2002 follow-up Porno with elements lifted from the previous novel as well. With a nod to the way Terminator 2 is often informally referred, Danny Boyle has cheekily named his sequel T2 Trainspotting. Although the book was set 9 years after the events of the first, director Danny Boyle felt a longer wait was necessary which is why T2 is set 20 years later. The last time we saw Mark Renton he’d just swindled his pals out of £16,000 (minus the £4,000 he left to Spud). The plot is set in motion when Renton returns to Edinburgh after a 20-year absence living in Amsterdam. Sick Boy is running the Port Sunshine Pub, which he inherited from his aunt. He’s operating a videotape-then-blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) too. His drug of choice is now cocaine. Spud is addicted to heroin. He’s lost his job. His long suffering wife (and son) have left him. He’s currently in the grips of depression. Franco Begbie is serving a 25-year prison sentence for murder. His violent disposition has not mellowed with age.

In theory, the very idea of a sequel to a modern classic like Trainspotting sounds like a bad idea, a desecration to the sublime ambiguousness of the ending in the original. Like doing a sequel to CasablancaTrainspotting captured lightning in a bottle. It zipped along with a comedic irreverence and exploited the inexperienced energy of a youthful cast. What made the production so magnetic was the assemblage of young talent in the form of a group of friendly reprobates played by Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd and Robert Carlyle. Kelly Macdonald was introduced in a brief role as a jailbait love interest.

The good news is T2 is solid fan service for aficionados of the first movie. If you’ve missed these characters to the point where you were dying to know what happened next, this story will not disappoint. To begin with, all the regulars are back. Well everyone but Kevin McKidd obviously since Tommy succumbed to HIV-related toxoplasmosis. Both director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge return also. They do a good job of honoring the memory of the previous incarnation. However, the youthful spirit of the original is gone. That’s intentional. The guys have significantly aged and the tone is more somber and world-weary. Die-hard devotees will be happy to see that the personalities of these individuals remain consistent though. That fluctuating temptation between trying to be a decent guy and scamming your friends for money is still at the heart of these lads.

T2 is an enjoyable production but principally aimed at idolizing the original for fans. The soundtrack includes remixed pieces of Underworld’s “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as callbacks to the first feature. A few well-placed vignettes of old footage are strategically woven into the narrative. Additionally, much of the dialogue recalls the former film. Renton has a conversation with Veronika that references the famous “Choose Life” speech: “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares…” The pacing is equally brisk and there are plenty of random vignettes that will make you laugh. One entertaining bit has Renton and Simon distracting the clientele of a Protestant pub with an anti-Catholic chant after robbing them blind. In another scene, Renton and Begbie discover the presence of the other in a most amusing way. The scene is perfectly shot. The irreverent humor is still is there, although it’s neither revolutionary nor necessary. T2 works but it needs the other to exist. It has been fashioned as an exceptionally well-made companion piece.

03-31-17

My Life as a Zucchini

Posted in Animation, Comedy with tags on March 22, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo ma_vie_de_courgette_ver2_zpso33svp5z.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgQuirky, dark and charming. These are the three words that immediately spring to mind when I think of My Life as a Zucchini (also titled My Life as a Courgette). Icare (Erick Abbate), or Zucchini as he likes to be called, is a 9-year old boy who lives with his single mother. An only child, he’s a lonely lad seemingly without any playmates. His mother spends her days watching TV and drinking beer, as evinced by all the aluminum cans lying around the house. He passes time playing up in the attic and flying his kite adorned with a drawing of his father as a superhero. The dad is MIA by the way – whereabouts unknown. One day, little Zucchini is playing up in his room while his inebriated mom is downstairs. He has collected her discarded beer cans and is stacking them to build a tower. Most kids would use blocks but you use what’s available right? One thing leads to another and suddenly Zucchini is facing the unexpected death of his mother. I told you it was dark.

The animation is a painstakingly rendered stop-motion charmer. The plasticine people have big heads and large eyes like a Margaret Keane painting. Their faces are not as expressive as the cartoons with which we are familiar, but that almost gives these characters a sense of mystery underneath their pleasant facades.  My Life as a Zucchini is French-Swiss director Claude Barras’  first full-length feature. It’s an adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette.  Barras receives an able assist from a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood).   The intelligent writing details how resilient children truly are.  Despite the medium, this material isn’t meant for young children, hence the PG-13. Although most pre-adolescents age 10 and up should be fine, the subject matter might disturb kids of Zucchini’s age or younger.

Zucchini is taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman named Raymond (Nick Offerman). There he meets 5 others like him without parents already living there.  They’re a ragtag group. Amazingly the screenplay takes the time to develop a nuanced personality for each waif. Red haired Simon (Romy Beckman) is “the boss”. Alluring Kafka-reading Camille (Ness Krell), who arrives later, turns his head.  This enchanting stop-motion cartoon was originally presented in French, but the English language dub features actors Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. I found their work engaging.  For the most part, Zucchini’s encounters are positive experiences.  It’s refreshing that a state-run institution is actually presented as a place of kindness rather than terror. The boys have a hilarious conversation about the birds and the bees and it captures the spotty understanding that a group of 10-year-olds would have. We love these kids

My Life as a Zucchini flies by in a scant 70 minutes but mines more depth of emotion than a drama twice its length. The nature of the production allows the disturbing script to deal with sensitive problems that might be off-putting in a live action movie. As performed with stop motion puppets the weighty issues take on a poignant charm.  Sometimes children find themselves without a mom or a dad. The circumstances are many: some have passed on, others arrested, deported, or maybe they have just simply abandoned them.  It’s a heartwarming tale that doesn’t sugarcoat the toughest thing a youngster may ever have to face. Yet somehow kids manage to weather the tribulations that life throws at them.  The narrative delves into the need for a child, and anyone really, to feel loved. My Life As A Zucchini received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film well before it was even available in theaters. Now it has been officially released and it’s still pretty hard to find. I suspect most people will have to discover this lovingly crafted gem once it’s available to rent. And please do seek it out. It’s an unconventional delight.

03-19-17

The LEGO Batman Movie

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Superhero with tags on February 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo lego_batman_movie_ver4_zpsc1rro5mm.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBack in 2014, Batman was introduced as a supporting role in The Lego Movie, an animated tale from Warner Bros. Now the Dark Knight has returned. Both his gravelly voice and out-sized ego are in full force in this humorous take that is his most (deliberately) funny manifestation yet. I still contend Joel Schumacher’s 1997 Batman & Robin is unintentionally funnier.  Director Chris McKay (Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken), who worked as an editor on The Lego Movie, is making his feature film debut here and he maintains the buoyant quality of the first picture.

The Lego Batman Movie is a rollicking good time. The light and breezy humor pokes fun at its own creation. The pop culture amalgamation is steeped in self-aware satire. It relies heavily on Batman history and every incarnation he’s ever had. Not only sampling from Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s work but from comic books, the campy 60s TV show, and animated adaptations as well. Unless you’re a superhero savant, it should be impossible to correctly place all the references. I laughed at a part where they recite a ridiculously long list of villains.  The Riddler, Catwoman and the Penguin I knew, but Polka-Dot Man, Crazy Quilt, and the Condiment King? I chuckled at the seemingly made up names. I had no idea that they were all real characters. The joke is amusing either way.

If you thought the triumph of The Lego Movie was a fluke, prepare to be surprised once more. The Lego Batman Movie is another delight. It’s smart and witty in a way that everyone, even this comic book illiterate, can enjoy. Batman fights crime by night but by day he lives an ordinary existence. He retires to his living room to watch a live action projection of Jerry Maguire on a big screen while he eats his microwaved Lobster Thermidor. His computer assistant informs him he has an expired Bed Bath & Beyond coupon, “but I hear some stores will honor them after the expiration date,” she offers. That’s so random it’s genius. Listen closely for a mention of cheesy 80s martial arts flick Gymkata.

But The Lego Batman Movie is first and foremost about the Caped Crusader. He’s once again articulated by Will Arnett. His absurd rendition stands in stark contrast to the dark and brooding iterations of the cinematic adaptations since 1989. Nevertheless, his goofy performance ranks up there with the very best. It’s a clever choice that his Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera voices Robin. The cast is spirited.  Rosario Dawson is the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon. Ralph Fiennes is Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler. Zach Galifianakis is the Joker. Even Mariah Carey plays a character. The whole production is agreeable fun. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the story is merely a perfunctory excuse to make wisecracks.  Even as the narrative sags in the 2nd half, the action continues to zoom forward in an increasingly eccentric fashion.  It plays for 15 minutes too long. Still, there are enough left-field references and rapid-fire gags to entertain. In fact, it’s tough to catch them all the first time around. I just might be willing to see it a second time.

Sing

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_zpskxzncfte.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBuster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a plucky koala who owns a music theater. Lately, his productions have bombed and now he is in financial trouble. He loves the concert hall for it has a rich history. In an effort to save his failing business he decides to hold a singing contest, not unlike American Idol. He starts by holding auditions and we’re introduced to an interesting assortment of animal critters. Sing is the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the animation company owned by Universal Studios. They scored big this Summer with The Secret Life of Pets and it looks as though they’ve got another major hit on their hands.

Sing gets a lot right, starting with juggling a colorful cast with ease. The screenplay wisely takes the time to thoughtfully delve into the backstories of various individuals. We become emotionally invested in these critters. Five leads emerge: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who is a devoted wife and loving mother. She longs to return to the entertainment spotlight of her teenage years. Mike the mouse croons like Frank Sinatra and has got the confidence to match. Ash is a porcupine who comprises one-half of a punk rock duo with her arrogant boyfriend Lance. She can belt it out, but hasn’t been given the chance. Meena is a shy teen elephant with an incredible voice. Unfortunately her crippling stage fright holds her back. Lastly, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a British mountain gorilla. He longs to perform, but his father wants him to take part in the family’s criminal escapades. These characters occasionally touch on ambitions that can be a bit clichéd. They may follow conventional tropes but they manage to engage. These are reasonably well-developed personalities with some unexpected depth. The narrative could have easily worked as a live action movie with human actors.

“Sing, sing a song / Sing out loud / Sing out strong…” sang Karen Carpenter in a 1973 hit song penned by Joe Raposo. Oddly enough, that similarly titled ditty is NOT included in Sing. This jukebox musical contains over 85 tunes ranging from 1940s standards by Frank Sinatra to current pop singles. These are heard throughout both in the background of scenes or sung in competition by the contestants. The compositions work and many actually feel as though they were written for the drama. Katy Perry’s “Firework” as sung by Rosita (Witherspoon), and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” sung by Johnny (Egerton) as his climatic number at the end, are galvanizing pop hits that pluck your heartstrings. Johnny’s incarcerated father discovers his son’s vocal talent from the TV in his jail cell. I can’t explain why I got choked up, but I did gosh-darn it! There’s a lot here that feels familiar. I mean did we really need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Please retire that ballad immediately. Nevertheless, I freely admit that it’s beautifully sung here by Tori Kelly. 2016 has been a stellar year for animated films. The bar has been raised incredibly high. Sing doesn’t reach the heights of the year’s very best (Zootopia), but I still left the cinema with a smile.

12-22-16