Archive for the Comedy Category

Babyteeth

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

STARS3.5Australian coming of age saga concerns a teen dealing with painful issues. Ok well, that pretty much describes all of them right?! Yet this one is not your run of the mill standard young adult drama. Where a tale about illness could have been maudlin, this is pragmatic. Its unvarnished account is so rare for this genre and I appreciated its unromantic portrait. Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) is a terminally ill girl attracted to a small-time drug dealer named Moses (Toby Wallace). Their unexpected relationship is the focus. They couldn’t be more different but hey….the heart wants what it wants. Naturally, mother Anna (Essie Davis) and father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) are not happy. Still, they indulge their daughter’s whims. Their overwhelming desire to make Milla happy outweighs their moral misgivings. The more reckless Milla behaves, the more they are compelled to step in. This honest presentation of humanity details some complicated ethical dilemmas.

What is notable is how much the narrative doesn’t explain. It’s clear that Milla is ill and in time we come to realize she has some form of cancer, but it’s never explicitly stated for the viewer. The observation is voyeuristic in that it is as if we’re eavesdropping on these people’s lives and we have to kind fo fill in the blanks with what we’re seeing. I was frequently perplexed by the actions of these people. For example it’s unclear whether Moses sticks around because he loves Milla or because her family provides the access he needs to drugs. Dad is a psychiatrist and can prescribe medication. These individuals are flawed and the chronicle is knowingly aware of this. However, as things develop we’re able to sort of piece together what makes these various people tick. Even when their judgment is perplexing, it never seems unconvincing. The characters are unique. They challenge our principles but we slowly understand their choices as a result of circumstance.

Director Shannon Murphy has an obvious rapport with this ensemble of actors. Here she makes her feature debut with a script by Rita Kalnejais. Remarkable talents Davis and Mendelsohn make an unconventional mom and dad. We question their child-rearing decisions. The ambivalence of the screenplay does not. It merely presents them as frayed human beings in a problematic situation. Eliza Scanlen plays Milla, the 16-year-old at the center. She is the key. This is a girl whose very existence is limited and that sad fact underscores her behavior. She has nothing to lose. No parent would ever approve of Milla’s choice of a boyfriend in Moses. Nevertheless, we are sensitive to her plight. Scanlen is known for the HBO series Sharp Objects. She also played Beth, the youngest sister in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women in 2019. That was a supporting part. Here she is the star and she rises to the occasion beautifully.

08-14-20

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Music, Science Fiction with tags on August 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bill_and_ted_face_the_music_ver3STARS2.5So the last time we saw Bill & Ted, it was 29 years ago.  A lot has changed since the duo’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bogus Journey (1991).  I mean, let’s be real.  It’s been nearly three decades.  Neither installment was what I’d call great cinema but they both coast on the affable charm of the leads.  “Be excellent to each other!” and “Party on dudes!” they proclaimed.  I really wanted to like this sequel because (1) of nostalgia for the first film and (2) there are flashes of inspiration that kept me hoping it would get better.  Unfortunately, the production is a chaotic, loud special effects-laden fantasy that never quite gelled for me.

So the boys (well men — Bill & Ted are in their 50s now) are tasked with writing a song that will unite the world and save humanity.  If they don’t, then reality will collapse.  Being the slackers that they are, they decide to reutilize their old miraculous phone booth to time travel into the future where the tune already exists, steal it and bring it back to their current era.  But there’s so much more going on.  They are married and their wives (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) are also time traveling to find an existence where each woman is happily married to their respective husband.  Bill & Ted are also pursued by a neurotic robot (Anthony Carrigan) that has been sent by The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) to kill the duo in order to restore balance to the universe. Whew!

Now on to the most righteous part.  Bill & Ted are aided by their daughters, Thea and Billie, who want to help their fathers write the song.  Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine embody the offspring with charisma and appeal.  Their personalities reflect their fathers’ demeanor but with more wisdom.  They have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and they put it to good use as they recruit a supergroup of the greatest musicians from throughout history.  Mozart (Daniel Dorr), Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft), and Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) are among the choices.  This is the story thread that harkens back to the sweet simplicity of the first movie.  The portion concerning the two girls is actually the most compelling.

The bloated saga is tedious though. Bill & Ted keep running into depressing or silly future versions of themselves.  In one they’re muscle-bound inmates in prison, in another timeline, hippies, in still another, old men.   None of these different iterations are very funny or clever.  Of course, most people tuning in won’t care.  They want to see “Bill” played by Alex Winter and “Ted” portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  The dudes are back and that’s very important because nostalgia is everything in this episode.  I think it’s safe to say if you haven’t seen the other two chapters or didn’t enjoy them,  then Face the Music is definitely not made with you in mind.   This is for the fans and it relies on jokes and asides that reward people who are.

8-28-20

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

personal_history_of_david_copperfield_ver9STARS3.5Frenzied, stylized version of David Copperfield is such a hyperactive exercise that you’d swear it was based on a comic book and not the Charles Dickens’ book published in 1850.  The production is nothing if not creative — a vibrant display of manic drama fashioned around a memorable performance by Dev Patel at the center of the narrative.

Dev Patel is a charismatic choice to play the naive and trusting protagonist.  The British-Indian actor is perhaps not the first actor one would select to play this historical character.  Yet he personifies Copperfield’s spirit with singular joyous energy.  His gawky frame and wide-eyed expressions engage the viewer.  We are captivated by this man as we enthusiastically follow him on his journey.  The ensemble is — in fact– populated by a few notable actors in roles that favor colorblind casting choices.  Where this felt like a stunt in 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots, here the actors mostly relish their parts with a comedic zeal that invigorates the proceedings.

Charles Dickens’ autobiographical tale of the titular character’s maturation to adulthood was supposedly his personal favorite.  The chronicle details Victorian England and the effects that wealth and class have on various individuals.  Director Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin) and co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell present a rather unconventional reworking.  The mood is frenetic and fast-paced.  That’s particularly good news for moviegoers with short attention spans.  However, it’s less encouraging for those period piece fans who prefer tradition and nuance.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is not your father’s stuffy adaptation.  The saga has a loose, disjointed feel.  The hardships and good fortunes jammed together like a herky-jerky roller coaster of ups and downs throughout.  The sprawling novel has been serialized for TV many times over the years.  There’s also George Cukor’s highly respected 1935 version for MGM. The episodic nature of the numerous events could easily be seen as chaotic and random.  Nevertheless it alls serves in the detail of the gradual ascent of a young man in society.  It’s fitfully charming as a whole.  Take my positive appraisal with a  grain of salt.  I confess I have never read the book, nor seen any production of the work.  I do not worship the source.  However, I know what’s entertaining and this breezy movie certainly is that.

08-26-20

An American Pickle

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 7, 2020 by Mark Hobin

american_pickleSTARS2.5So I did laugh during An American Pickle.  The saga concerns Herschel Greenbaum, A struggling Jewish laborer who emigrates from Schlupke, Poland to New York in 1920 with hopes of building a better life.  He gets a menial job at a factory and accidentally falls into a vat of pickles.  Apparently, no one realizes this has occurred.  A lid is placed on the cask and then the warehouse is condemned immediately after.  100 years later, he wakes up alive in present-day Brooklyn and hasn’t aged a day.  He was perfectly preserved in that salty brine.  You’ve heard of magical realism?  Well, this is that component taken to the tenth power.  Herschel’s existence is a wonder of science.  He is promptly placed on television where he is interviewed.  An expert is asked how such an unbelievable event could have happened.  His inaudible response makes complete sense to all who hear it, or so we’re told through voice-over narration.   THAT writer’s construct made me chuckle.  The rest of the film, unfortunately, did not.  When the story isn’t unfocused, it’s uninteresting.

After a clever setup, the fable coasts gently downward from there.  Herschel learns his only surviving relative is a great-grandson named Ben, also played by Seth Rogen.  Rogen’s ability to play dual roles is indeed convincing.  It’s easy to forget that each character is played by the same person.  However, that doesn’t mean that they are both are appealing.  I appreciated the plight of old-world Herschel who wakes up disoriented à la Rip Van Winkle in contemporary society.  However, I didn’t warm up to Ben.  He’s such a jealous sourpuss of a personality.  First, he calls the authorities to destroy his great-grandfather’s business, then purposefully gives him bad advice for navigating social media, and later asks him a difficult question in a public forum to trip him up.  Ben is a thoroughly reprehensible human being.  And yet relationships improve simply because Hershel finds a drawing Ben made as a child.  Huh?!

An American Pickle is neither a tale where people behave rationally nor one where things develop in a coherent manner.  The slapdash nature of the story is irksome.  Case in point: how many different ways can you make a joke about androgynous people?  I counted three but there may have been more.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for this.   The feature debut from cinematographer Brandon Trost was written by Simon Rich—based on his novella Sell Out.   If you’ve ever joined a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish then you may appreciate how the chronicle honors certain traditions.  The screenplay has a reverence for Judaism as well as maintaining personal ties with our ancestors.  Although I did find it amusing that when Herschel first meets Ben.  1920s Herschel is the inquisitive one, eager to learn all about his great-grandson’s modern time.  Meanwhile self-absorbed Ben surprisingly has not one question to ask regarding Hershel’s experiences in the past.  Ben’s lack of interest in anything but himself, matched my lack of enthusiasm for this movie.

08-06-20

Yes, God, Yes

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

Adobe Photoshop PDFSTARS3“Guys are like microwave ovens and ladies are like conventional ovens.  Guys just need a few seconds, like a microwave, to get switched on, while ladies typically need to preheat for a while.”  So says Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) as he addresses a class of high schoolers in their morality class.  I had 8 years of Catholic schooling and I can honestly say I never had any instructor, priest or layperson ever compare sexual arousal to the workings of a kitchen appliance.  As a matter of fact, my teachers rarely even addressed sexuality at all, and when they did it was from a biological context (secondary sex characteristics and stuff like that).  I get that this is a movie though.  Humor is more entertaining than reality so I’ll accept writerly dialogue that feels invented.

Alice (Natalia Dyer) is a 16-year-old Catholic from Iowa during the early 2000s.  Yes, God, Yes is a sensitive portrait about the teen who is currently experiencing a sexual awakening.  After an AOL chat turns racy, Alice grapples with the guilt by signing up for a four-day retreat.  While trying to suppress her natural burgeoning sexuality, she inadvertently becomes the victim of a scandalous rumor concerning her and fellow student Wade (Parker Wierling).  It’s completely untrue.  Although Alice’s attraction to camp counselor Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz) is indeed genuine.  The adults have no nuance or depth.  They are hypocrites all.  In particular, the Father presiding over the event hides an embarrassing secret.  The teens however are a bit more nuanced.  Some even express an earnest and uplifting devotion to God.  When fellow student Nina (Alisha Boe) testifies at the retreat, it’s a sincere moment

The “big reveal” of Karen Maine’s screenplay is that those who profess to be Christian actually succumb to temptations as well.  Surprise!  Priests and teachers and peer youth leaders are human.  No points for the stating the obvious but at least she speaks from experience.  Writer-director Karen Maine is an ex-Catholic.  As such she intends to expose what she deems as hypocrisy.  This is her gentle send-up of religion.  The satire is pretty lighthearted and reminded me of my own experiences once or twice.  There’s one scene where Father Murphy plays Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and he instructs the kids to imagine the song is about Jesus.  That is amusing but it also rings true.  I can attest ministers have indeed quoted current songs of the day as ways to make their talks more relevant to kids.  I still recall a lector who ardently cited the lyrics of “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics during a homily for a mass when I was in high school.

The account does present the subject honestly and amicably without being acerbic.  The overall message does not condemn religion but rather promotes individuals to respect yourself as well as others.  Who can’t get behind that?  It’s a heavy topic but the narrative ultimately feels pretty slight.  The secret weapon is actress Natalia Dyer.  Her performance is at once shy, heartfelt, and authentic.  She’s markedly different from the more confident character she portrays on TV’s Stranger Things.  Alice evokes our sympathy because of innocence.  She is sexually naive and yet she understandably has questions.  Catholic guilt is powerful.  Regardless of your upbringing, the audience can relate and appreciate her struggle to do the right thing.  Couple that with normal teen angst and you got a coming of age story that is like navigating a minefield.

07-30-20

Palm Springs

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance with tags on July 27, 2020 by Mark Hobin

palm_springsSTARS4So I’ll just cut to the chase and start off by saying that Palm Springs made assembling my Top 10 list for 2020 a little easier.  I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly enjoyable this tale would be.  Romantic comedies are often given short shrift when it comes to discussing great cinema but when they are done well the genre can hit emotional highs in a way that few stories can.

The amorous entanglement concerns two strangers who are both guests at a wedding in Palm Springs.  They meet and then promptly get stuck repeating the same span of time over and over.  It’s obviously similar to Groundhog Day.  I cherish that classic and I dare say Palm Springs is a close 2nd in all films featuring a time loop.  That may seem like a narrow bar but there’s a surprising number of choices that qualify: Source Code, About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Naked and Happy Death Day are but only a few.  This is a story about how Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) become an unlikely couple in the midst of bizarre circumstances.

Palm Springs has a breezy screenplay that doesn’t take itself very seriously.  Yet it’s smart and coherent when it needs to be.  Nyles and Sarah aren’t about love at first sight.  He’s actually there with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) who one of the bridesmaids.  Oh, it’s OK he flirts with Sarah.  Misty has been cheating on Nyles and he knows it.  Sarah isn’t some demure heroine.  In fact, she’s kind of edgy and bitter. Meanwhile, Nyles isn’t a suave leading man. He can be a goofball but he’s still charming nonetheless.  Neither Sarah nor Nyles wants to be a guest at this wedding.  So they have that in common and are united by this feeling.  That’s enough.  Then the temporal loop shenanigans begin.

None of this preposterous — albeit inspired — nonsense would work if the two stars weren’t so charismatic.  The saga stars Andy Samberg who got his start on the long-running late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2005.  He’s part of a contingent with a persona like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon in the ensemble.  Pete Davidson currently holds that casting slot.  This may sound like I’m negating actor Samberg’s individuality.  I’m not.  In fact, he is probably the most appealing member that has ever held that niche.

Nyles has met the woman who will change his life in Sarah.  Cristin Milioti is probably best known for her role in the final season of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  She’s featured in one of my favorite scenes in this production.  Sarah is hardcore studying quantum physics to figure out how to end this infinite time loop in which she’s stuck.  The inspired montage is set to “The Brazilian” by Genesis.  Another endearing musical vignette involves the couple’s impromptu dance in a bar while “Megatron Man” by Patrick Cowley blasts in the background.  These displays aren’t rare occurrences but representative of the many delightful moments contained within.  It’s been a while since a romantic comedy captivated me this much.  It’s funny, sweet, and a little acerbic.  I loved it.

07-11-20

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted in Comedy, Music with tags on June 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

eurovision_song_contest_the_story_of_fire_sagaSTARS3So the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was originally scheduled to culminate on May 16.  For the first time in the festival’s 64-year history it was canceled, but that doesn’t mean we can ‘t honor the spirit of that competition in a work of fiction.  As I sat there watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, it gradually dawned on me what makes a successful comedy.  Sorry, no.  This is not a great comedy.  However, it does indeed contain marvelous segments that occasionally elevate the film.  The problem is those inspired bits must be connected by dialogue that unites the pieces into a coherent whole.  That’s where this movie comes up short.

For the uninformed, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international tournament held since 1956 among mainly European countries.  Many Americans are still unaware of this cultural event.  Some facts: Ireland holds the record for the most wins with 7.  Sweden is close behind with 6.  As a fan of ABBA, I happen to know they won for Sweden with “Waterloo” in 1974.  Most of the winners are unknown to American audiences although French-Canadian singing sensation Céline Dion won in 1988 representing Switzerland of all places for reasons I still don’t understand.  Regardless, some allege the match tends to recognize the most bombastic, overproduced pop music you can imagine.  And to those people I say, what’s wrong with that?

This is a surprisingly respectful take on the event.  Homer Simpson once said, “It’s funny because it’s true.”  Even a simpleton like him knows that humor is most effective when there’s a kernel of truth to it.  The thing that saves the production is that Eurovision is less a parodic skewering but rather holds genuine affection for the source material.  There’s a lot of infectious music in this movie that brilliantly straddles the line between frivolous fluff and melodic earworms.  The first instance occurs early on, not 3 minutes into the picture.  Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) of Fire Saga present a mesmerizing pop video called “Volcano Man”.  The spectacle features costumes that would’ve made KISS look restrained in their heyday.  I relished the sight of Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams excessively dolled up in shiny armor and resplendent fur respectively.  The lyrics are silly, but the tune is a bass-thumping banger.  It’s brilliant.  Unfortunately, their fantastic number is cut off halfway through for a laugh.  I’m still disappointed by that.

All of these wonderful musical ditties are poorly united with a screenplay by Will Ferrell & Andrew Steele (The Ladies Man) that is a real downer.  For one thing, the chronicle is far too long.  The film is over 2 hours and it goes through a lot of tangled machinations.  The Icelandic council first needs to pick twelve acts to compete for the Eurovision slot.  This includes a frontrunner named Katianna (Demi Lovato).  Fire Saga succeeds with another feel-good jam called “Double Trouble”.  However, one judge named Victor (Mikael Persbrandt) doesn’t want his own country to win for an illogical reason that could easily be solved by simply not participating.  Bizarrely all of the potential entrants die in a freak accident, save one.  Guess which act survives?  In Scotland, the heads of our central duo are tuned by other singers.  Sigrit is drawn to Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) a Russian competitor and Lars by Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) from Greece.  We the audience know that Fire Saga must get to the semi-finals.  I mean that is the whole point.  Yet there is so much convoluted nonsense that really taxes the viewer’s patience.  This is an endurance test.

Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) is a vision as Sigrit Ericksdottir.  She is the more charismatic half of their amateur pop musical duo.  Her charm is undeniable and when she sings it is a revelation.  Alas, it is not her voice but dubbed by a performer named Molly Sandén, who represented Sweden at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006.  There is one point in the adventure where McAdams does sing a ballad about her hometown “Husavikat”.  Not the climatic version but earlier in a quiet moment at a piano.  Sigrit is a captivating presence.  When she pleads with fellow partner Lars to stay in the competition, all of our sympathies are with her.  We resent Lars for the decision he makes.

As the setting for an interesting tale, Eurovision is a great idea.  Will Ferrell gets a lot of credit for that.  He isn’t just the star, but also its writer and producer.  However, I wish he could’ve swallowed his ego and cast someone who fits the part of nordic pop star Lars Erickssong better.  Alexander Skarsgård is the most obvious choice but Joel Kinnaman or Jakob Oftebro also come to mind.  Will Ferrell may “only” be 11 years older, but he seems more plausible as Rachel McAdams’ father than her love interest.  Oh, but on a related note, the actor playing Will Ferrell’s father Erick is none other than James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan sports a graying beard but the two guys still look like they’re nearly the same age.  I had to check.  Brosnan is merely 14 years Ferrell’s senior. Apparently, father Erick started young.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that every casting decision flatters a star who also happens to be the producer.

Key moments uplift this picture into something worth watching.  A cinematographer can elevate a film.  That previously mentioned video for “Volcano Man” is stunning.  The piece was photographed on location at a real volcanic lava field near Keflavik, Iceland.  The segment is lavishly photographed as is the rest of the production which highlights gorgeous vistas shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow when they get to Scotland.  Oscar-nominated cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) deserves some serious credit for raising the film’s aesthetic into art even when the words coming out of the actor’s mouths are not.  Another high point occurs when the contestants gather together for a party.  Suddenly it’s time for a group sing they call a song-along.  The joyous medley combines Believe (Cher), Ray of Light (Madonna), Waterloo (ABBA) Ne partez pas sans moi (Celine Dion), and I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas) into one singular anthem.  Eurovision fans in the know will recognize a raft of past performers in a series of cameos.  It’s performances like this that ultimately push my review into a recommendation.   It’s such a pity that the non-musical portions are so tedious.

The High Note

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on June 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

high_note_ver2STARS3At first, the focus of this fetaure appears to be Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B/pop music superstar along the lines of Beyoncé or Rihanna.  However, Grace Davis is older than those artists.  To its credit, the screenplay makes a feeble attempt to address the concerns of an aging woman in the music industry.   Unfortunately,  it merely pays lip service to those feelings without tackling them in any meaningful way.  Manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) assumes that her hit-making days have passed.  He advises Grace to accept a Las Vegas residency.  He’s not wrong.    I’ve always regarded a residency as an impressive honor.  In the last decade beloved performers such as Celine Dion, Elton John, and Britney Spears have solidified their ongoing appeal in this way while reaping millions of dollars in the process without having to tour.  Curiously the drama regards the very consideration as an embarrassing desire — an acknowledgment of being irrelevant.  Call me crazy, but the idea is not hitting rock bottom folks.  Far from it.  This is in fact an account detailing the enviable choice between two very attractive options.   There are literally no stakes here and therefore the plot is inconsequential at best.

The narrative slowly morphs, however, into a tale centered around a completely different person.  Grace is indeed a big personality.  She is a demanding individual with a huge talent and the sizable ego that comes along with it.  But she also has Maggie, a personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) who is a dedicated and overworked soul.  Maggie’s job description apparently requires her to do trivial things like break in Grace’s new pair of shoes.  Maggie’s dream is to be a record producer.  Much to my surprise, it is really her ambitions that ultimately become the main focus of the film.

Figuring out the point of view of The High Note is rather confusing.   You’d think supporting the achievements of an aging woman in show business would be something we should admire.   Yet Grace Davis is presented as a wholly self-centered creature.  She carelessly dismisses a request from a fellow accomplished and well-known musician (Eddie Izzard) because he doesn’t have as many Grammys as she does.  In other scenes, Grace is hellbent on suppressing her own creativity.   It has been years since the artist put out new material.  Assistant Maggie encourages her boss to release a new album because she believes in her talent.   Nonetheless, Grace doesn’t agree.  She counteracts with a declaration highlighted in the trailer:  “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit and only one of them was black.”  [Fact-check: Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Sia and Mariah Carey have all had #1’s over the age of 40.]  Maggie is trying to support the creative expression of this celebrity, while the woman herself argues against the idea.  Maggie has taken the time to learn everything she can about her employer.   She is uplifted as an intrinsically kind-hearted human.   I’ll admit these admirable qualities may be a requirement of Maggie’s job but Grace can’t even be bothered to learn Maggie’s last name.  Ouch!

The High Note is a glossy pop distraction directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and written by first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson.  This superficial fable won’t any awards for originality.  However, it’s well-acted by the entire cast.  It exists as lighthearted entertainment that is easily consumed as comfort food to make you feel good while sheltering at home during dark times.  Let’s not ignore the fact that this music superstar is depicted by the daughter of one of the most iconic personalities that ever lived: Diana Ross.  Tracee Ellis Ross brings knowledge and depth to a role that few others could.  There are two additional standouts: Dakota Johnson is engaging as the assistant.  I continue to be impressed by her.  Check out The Peanut Butter Falcon if you need further proof.  There’s also Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays David, an aspiring singer who becomes Maggie’s love interest.  The actor was also in Waves last year and he’s definitely a rising star.   See the movie for them.  If you want to watch something new and you need it now. The High Note will suffice.

05-30-20

The Lovebirds

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

lovebirdsSTARS2So I was excited about this film for a couple reasons.  (1) it was originally scheduled to be released to theaters in April by Paramount Pictures and (2) it reunites Kumail Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter who were both responsible for The Big Sick, my favorite movie of 2017.  However I’ll cut to the chase, it didn’t deliver, and the fact that this had different writers probably explains why it wasn’t on the same level.

I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The Lovebirds debuted to Netflix on May 22 and briefly held the #1 position.  Then it plummeted.  Not even two weeks later and the title is nowhere to be found in the Top 10.  Meanwhile, Uncut Gems and  Just Go With It have been popular mainstays. Perhaps Netflix should try acquiring Adam Sandler’s entire filmography.

But back to The Lovebirds.  Our story concerns a constantly bickering duo played by Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani that unintentionally become murder suspects in a mystery where they must clear their names.  A tale of mistaken identity can be a great basis for a plot.  Alfred Hitchcock took the idea and delivered North by Northwest, an indisputable classic.   Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall who wrote the screenplay are presenting us with a comedy.   The problem is it’s not funny.

The dialogue is mostly scenes where this annoying couple endlessly bicker.   It’s the details of those arguments that are supposed to make the audience laugh.  Comedy is the most subjective genre.  However, humor must be rooted in a kernel of truth.  The conversations don’t read as the ways humans really talk.  They’re like stand up routines.  The dialogue is completely detached from the situation happening on screen.  A few times they find themselves in dire circumstances where there appears to be no escape.  Yet each time they easily get out of it.  There are no stakes.  This is essentially a series of fabricated situations so the lovers have an excuse to simply argue.  I’ll admit there are some amusing lines but not enough to justify sitting through this 87-minute movie.  I know, that seems short….but it feels long.

05-22-20

Bad Education

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 12, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_educationSTARS4You wouldn’t think a movie whose plot could easily be summarized as “The Bad Superintendent” would be a compelling saga but it is.  Based on the 2004 New York magazine article by Robert Kolker with the aforementioned title, Bad Education is a true-life tale about one Frank Tassone.  This release may have debuted April 25 on HBO but it would’ve made perfect sense to release it during awards season in a theater.  This is indeed one of the best films of the year.  Yeah, I know.  There’s hasn’t been much competition this year, but hear me out.

How could the embezzlement of $11.2 million from a public school — the largest in U.S. History — even happen?  It is the unbelievable foundation for a fascinating film.  Credit a charismatic and talented cast for bringing this story to fruition.  Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a popular and successful superintendent of the Roslyn District in the wealthy enclave of Nassau County, New York.  Roslyn High School became one of the top ten best public institutions in national rankings.  That kind of success creates power.  Jackman is completely believable as someone who uses his own eloquence and charm to dupe gullible staff members and parents.  That includes Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a much too trusting school board president.  The fact that Frank held a doctorate from Columbia University probably didn’t hurt either.

Frank Tassone didn’t act alone.  The scandal was first discovered in 2002 when Roslyn officials initially assumed that it was Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) who had “only” embezzled $250,000.  Her actual sum later revealed to be $4.3 million.  Pamela was the assistant superintendent and business administrator.  She got her niece (Annaleigh Ashford) and son (Jimmy Tatro) involved as well.  She was Frank’s close confidant and partner-in-crime.  As reported in the original article: “If Tassone was the proud father of the Roslyn family, Pam Gluckin was the fun-loving aunt.”  Nevertheless, the woman is fairly obstinate and headstrong.   Not likable but at least fiercely loyal to Frank.  As embodied by Allison Janney, the chronicle paints a picture of two like-minded individuals united in their quest for more money.  Unfortunately for Pam, Frank immediately threw her under the bus, forcing her to resign and subsequently causing her to lose her license.

Deception was a way of life for this reprehensible man and it ran deep into every facet of his being — both personally and professionally.  Frank appears to be a virtuous paragon of the community.  He eats lunch with the students and attends a book club with the parents.  He still even keeps a photo on his desk of his late wife who passed on in 1973.  It’s unclear whether she ever even existed.  However, he was definitely in a longtime relationship with domestic partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella).  They had been living together for many years in a tawny Park Avenue apartment.  Frank was also involved in an affair with Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), a lover in Las Vegas.  Tom was unaware Frank kept a picture of his wife on his desk or his adultery.

The star of the account is the wrongdoer, not the champion that brought him to justice.  However, this could be looked upon as one of those great films about journalism like All the President’s Men.  The impressive difference is that the reporter was a bright, determined correspondent at the high school’s newspaper — Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan).  She uncovered school administrators had been embezzling taxpayer money.  It’s a surprising twist that the corruption was first uncovered by one of Frank’s pupils.  That gives this account an extra-added dimension that makes it even more appealing.  Rachel first reported the story in the school’s humble journal scooping The New York Times and every other periodical of note.  She is rightfully portrayed as a hero.  Her zealous pursuit of the truth bested all of her supposedly more established peers.

Sometimes style is just as important as content.  The dirty dealings are gripping but director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) presents the subject matter with such artistic elan.  The cover-up of fraud could have been dry material but it’s presented with a healthy dose of levity.  Of course, there’s nothing funny about what happened.  Yet there are amusing details.  The reception Frank receives from the student body upon coming to work after the article is published is a memorable scene.  He is a preening peacock who tried to save his own — allegedly face-lifted — skin.  This is a person more concerned with his superficial appearance on the outside than with the quality of his character on the inside.  Bad Education is a portrait of a fallen individual with nefarious impulses that got exactly what he deserved.  The fact that his comeuppance was served by an undergraduate only makes the account all the more fascinating.  Occasionally reality is stranger — and more satisfying — than fiction.

05-09-20