Archive for the Comedy Category

Florence Foster Jenkins

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on September 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo florence_foster_jenkins_zpsglvvlopw.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWho knew that a historical drama starring Meryl Streep would elicit the loudest and most sustained laughter I’ve heard in a theater this year? Certainly not I. Chalk it up to matching the right audience with the perfect film. Florence Foster Jenkins is old-fashioned in its construction, but it’s so lovingly composed and well acted that you can’t help but appreciate the craft that went into making it.

The 2nd week of August saw a flurry of new movies. Florence Foster Jenkins is a picture I initially passed on back in August because I chose to see wider releases instead, namely Pete’s Dragon and Sausage Party.  This biopic tops them both. Florence Foster Jenkins was an actual New York City heiress and socialite who loved to sing but didn’t let her lack of vocal talent stop her. In the face of substantial shortcomings, she attracted a considerable fan base. She sang at the parties of the various clubs and societies she supported, amassing a fervent following of affluent New Yorkers. Her popularity and reputation grew during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Florence Foster Jenkins makes a comprehensible case as to how such a bad singer could become such a sensation. People relished her awfulness. This fascination with failed crooners isn’t a peculiarity of the 1940s. The success of William Hung’s American Idol audition or the 2011 song “Friday” by YouTube personality Rebecca Black are recent examples of this phenomenon. Whether Florence was aware of the “mockers and the scoffers” is not altogether clear. To be fair, she had her genuine adherents too.

As you’d expect, Meryl Streep is flawless. Yet the production features not one but three bravura performances. St. Clair Bayfield was her husband and a minor Shakespearean actor, to boot. He devoted decades to protecting the soprano from the critical voices that might silence her enthusiasm. It’s Hugh Grant’s juiciest role in almost a decade. An important side character through all this was her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame. His double takes and incredulous stares are priceless.

Director Stephen Frears has given us successes like Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen, so he obviously knows how to produce a tale that is perceptive as well as crowd pleasing. Despite the costume drama milieu, Florence Foster Jenkins is not some staid period piece. This is a comedic farce that relies heavily on Meryl Streep’s hilarious ability to sing really really badly. Indeed, there are scenes where most directors would have cut the song short, but Frears gives us extended takes that revel in just how truly awful she is. In the hands of Meryl Streep, the character becomes larger than life with a predilection for ornate costumes and flamboyant flair for the theatrical show. It’s a spectacle to be sure but a rather amusing one at that. Although there’s nothing funny about the deeper notion of idealistic dreams. The narrative is equally uplifting. A fearless spirit has the capacity to transcend one’s limitations.

08-30-16

Captain Fantastic

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_fantastic_zpsmej8s5nl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe trials and tribulations of a family clan is the subject of this domestic comedy-drama. But this isn’t your typical household. They’re headed up by patriarch Ben Cash – a father to his six children ranging in age from about 6 to 18. Each is bestowed with a unique made up name: Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai. His wife, their mother, has spent the past few months hospitalized for bipolar disorder. Their lives have continued on while she recuperates. They subsist in the untamed wilderness of the Pacific Northwest by living a rugged, self-sufficient lifestyle. Home schooled and shunning modern conveniences like supermarkets they have learned to fend for themselves by living off the land. That means hunting, fishing and growing their own food. It also means being homeschooled and even eschewing time-honored holidays of Christianity like Christmas.  Instead, they celebrate Ben’s invented festivals honoring leftist ideologues like Noam Chomsky Day. They’ve gone further than reject civilization, they live in complete isolation.

In the hands of actor Viggo Mortensen, the profile is a mesmerizing character study of a bizarre family while maintaining the humanity of the people within. In layman’s terms, he’s a radical hippie dad. They’re unorthodox but at the same time, they seem well adjusted in their own way. Ben’s teaching style is honest and straightforward. He doesn’t believe in mincing words. Questions about “The birds and the bees” for example are answered in a frank fashion. He gives it to his kids straight with an approach that would make most moms and dads bristle. Alex Comfort’s book The Joy of Sex is probably not an appropriate gift for a 6-year-old, but Ben is not a traditional dad. When a life-altering event forces the family to enter the big city, his progressive parenting skills are called into question, particularly by his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) who doesn’t think his grandkids are being raised properly. He suspects they may even be in danger. The conflict accentuates the positives and negatives of Ben’s child rearing technique with grace and subtlety.

Front and center in Captain Fantastic is Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) the father of this eccentric brood. Even a parent with the best intentions can be flawed — and he is — in some pretty major ways actually. Yet deep down he still truly wants to do the right thing. His children are given a thorough education in science, history, and the arts. They read voraciously. They can not only recite knowledge but also apply it to real world situations. A memorable head to head challenge featuring his daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks), highlights the superior success of his educational approach. The methods of conventional schools have clearly failed the sons of their Aunt Harper and Uncle Dave (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, respectively). The script is intelligent enough to value Ben’s take on life but there’s also a lot wrong with it as well. His oldest – slim, ponytailed Bodevan (George MacKay) is socially awkward and he himself knows it. Bodevan yearns to attend a university where he can learn in a traditional setting and socialize with other people. The portrait is not perfect.  Father Ben can be so stridently overbearing that he loses our sympathy.  It’s the nuance that gives this sincere story a soul. Viggo Mortensen is the heart of the drama.  He’s incredible, and the 6 youngsters are the veins. Together they unite in a manner that will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

08/08/16

Sausage Party

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on August 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sausage_party_zps9nxxlrpb.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe R-rated Sausage Party is an ugly computer animated film – a putrid, gross-out, lowbrow spoof of the kind of quality cartoon features that Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks usually put out. There are so many levels on which to trash Sausage Party. But I’ll start with the most basic. It’s supposed to be a comedy and it simply isn’t funny.

The setting is Shopwell’s, a grocery store where various fruits, vegetables and other assorted products await their time to be purchased. They sing about “The Great Beyond” a wonderful place where they ultimately end up once the “gods” (shoppers) select them. Can we start with the fact that the lyrics to this song are really hard to understand? I don’t know if it was the sound mix or just the singers’ failure to enunciate clearly, but most of the words were unintelligible. I got the gist of it though. “The Great Beyond” is a magnificent place where all food aspires to go. It’s kind of like the afterlife if you haven’t picked up on the not-so-subtle metaphor. The star is Frank (Seth Rogen) a wiener that wants to be paired up with his girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a hot dog bun.

Then one day a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to Shopwell’s with news of his experience.  Once you leave the store, he says, the gods will eat you and your life is over. That’s it. Nothing more. “The Great Beyond” is a lie. After being chosen once again by a different shopper, Honey Mustard, attempts to leap off the cart. Frank tries to save him. This sets off a chain of events where several other products fall off the cart. Besides Frank and Brenda, there’s Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), a flatbread, Sammy Bagel Jr.(Edward Norton), a bagel who does a Woody Allen impression circa 1973, and a Douche (Nick Kroll) who appropriately enough, acts like an obnoxious bro. The display of causalities is like a scene out of Saving Private Ryan.  It’s the sole amusing moment in the entire picture.

Sausage Party is a movie in which the filmmakers seemingly started out with a question, Wouldn’t it be amusing if cute animated characters dropped a lot of F-bombs?  Then proceeded to beat the idea into the ground. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s 2016. If this is your interpretation of pushing the boundaries of comedy, you haven’t watched a film in the past 50 years.  The joy of hearing the F word coming out of the mouths of cuddly figures is already pretty debatable.  For me, it lost its luster when I graduated from the 4th grade, but hey – to each his own. Great writers can make anything humorous, even a cartoon tangentially about atheism. Sausage party is co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and like all their works (Pineapple Express, The Interview, The Night Before), their drug-addled mentality is probably funnier if you’re already half baked. Me? I was stone cold sober and apparently so was the entire audience I saw this with. You could’ve heard a pin drop at any time throughout its running time. That is until the very end when a food orgy did elicit some guffaws from a few theater patrons.

This production presents the skimpy plot of an 8 minute short, not an 88-minute feature. The screenwriters toss in some jokes along the way – mostly ethnic stereotypes. Let’s see, a German tub of sauerkraut with a Hitler ‘stache wants to exterminate the “juice”. The lavash and the bagel are mortal enemies who bicker over their occupied territory in the grocery aisle. Craig Robinson plays a jive talking box of grits who’s got a problem with crackers. A lot of weak gags, but there’s little story.  Just a lot of bickering: “Things get better!” vs. “No they don’t!”  As short as it is, I was squirming in my seat for it to be over. If bad words still make you giggle, you’ll be in heaven with this script. If you want witty food-related puns, then go watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. There’s a better party than a sausage party ’cause this Sausage Party do stop.

08-11-16

Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Superhero with tags on August 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo suicide_squad_ver24_zpstam6rkzx.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI love the concept of Suicide Squad. The whole movie is predicated on the idea that bringing together a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals would be a great way to fight crime. Fight fire with fire, right? Their lives are expendable so if they don’t succeed it’s no great loss. The collection of a ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells has formed the basis of great films from The Dirty Dozen to Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, the notion of assembling crooks to fight their own is inherently ridiculous. So if you can get past the illogical set up, you’re half the way there into buying this hokum.

The key thing is to set up an engaging group of characters that we want to embrace. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or evil. Give them charisma and we’ll follow their adventure. The assortment of convicts here is also known as Task Force X. “The worst of the worst” as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls them. She’s the high ranking government official who oversees them. At her side is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is responsible for executing her orders. He directs the baddies in the field. But as we find out, deep down they’re really not so bad at heart.  Let’s start with the slightly more interesting people. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), a dangerous assassin with impeccable aim. He also has an 11 year old daughter for whom he’d do anything in the world. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has pyrokinetic abilities. However he is reluctant to use them after accidentally killing his wife and daughter from setting a building on fire.

The best character is Harley Quinn in a star making turn by Margot Robbie. If this superhero movie has any hope for longevity in these seemingly endless comic book adaptations, it will be because of her. Honestly they should’ve called Suicide Squad, The Harley Quinn Show. She is the reason to see this picture and easily the most compelling outcast. She’s the psychiatrist that became a psychopath. Face smeared with pale makeup, she wears her hair in colorful pigtails, wields a baseball bat as a weapon and giggles incessantly. She knows more than her male cohorts but downplays her smarts with a flirtatious wink. She certainly outshines her boyfriend, none other than the Joker (Jared Leto), a former patient now turned paramour.  Ah yes she’s motivated by her love for him.  Given all the advance studio promotion of Leto’s appearance, you’d think he was the star of this joint. He’s nothing more than an expanded cameo here – neither the main villain nor a member of the squad – only Harley Quinn’s boyfriend that pops up briefly to rescue her in a scene. After months of online hype, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated.

Let’s not forget the section I call “and the rest” on the team: Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Rick Flag’s bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) joins the gang too I think. It  wasn’t clear to me whether she’s an official addition or just sort of tags along.  Regardless none of the remaining constituents are able to register a definable personality in this loud cacophonous mess. In an adventure where everyone is a lunatic, the main evildoer should be pretty boffo. Instead we get the Enchantress, an archaeologist who becomes a powerful sorceress when possessed . She’s played by Cara Delevingne. The model turned actress simply doesn’t have the gravitas to play the arch villain that should anchor a production such as this. It’s not apparent at first, but suppressing her ultimately becomes Task Force X’s main objective.

The plot is confusing. We get so many incidental asides that give backstory as to how these felons came to be. A chemical baptism flashback between the Joker and Harley Quinn has some promise, but with so many tangents, it’s easy to lose track of all the random individuals. The film descends into tired action picture clichés with overstuffed commotion. The rapid fire cut and paste edit aesthetic does nothing to uplift this feature. The characters disappear under the weight of discordant madness and haphazard editing. The movie poster promises a colorful psychedelic mushroom cloud extravaganza. Yet in reality the production is actually a dark, dimly lit slog with a surprising lack of color.

I’d fault Suicide Squad for not having a story, but that’s not really the point. Introducing a bunch of characters is the plot. This is an excuse to create archetypes and parade them around for 123 minutes in a gleefully exuberant devil-may-care spectacle. That might have been acceptable. If every member of this battalion had as much pizzazz as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), I’d be loving this flick.  If I had to name one other MVP, it would be Viola Davis as their governmental superior. She is often the voice of calm in a calamitous haze, reciting exposition to clarify the script’s more ambiguous passages. Three installments into the DC Extended Universe and I can see things are improving. The problem is that the rest of the cast is lacking. Not the actors’ fault. Their parts are simply underwritten. Suicide Squad is better than Batman v Superman. I’ll give it that. It’s just that it still has a ways to go.

08-04-16

Café Society

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo cafe_society_zpsegp6dclo.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgWoody Allen is an auteur. As any director that releases a movie every year (side note: are there any others?), he operates on 2 levels. There is his essential canon and then you have his dispensable curiosities. Blue Jasmine is the last movie I’d place in the former category. Sadly I’d have to say Cafe Society belongs more in the latter category. But I sound harsher than I mean to. Cafe Society is enjoyable in parts. It’s certainly a major step up from Magic in the Moonlight. However this slight tale of woe isn’t as vital as his best.

Cafe Society is a chronicle of missed connections and love lost. This period comedy set in the 1930s details the story of Bobby Dorfman, a nobody that comes to LA and begins doing menial errands for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a very powerful and influential talent agent. Phil has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show Bobby around and get settled in Hollywood. Bobby becomes smitten by her down-to-earth personality and easy going temperament. However she is taken and unavailable to date.  Vonnie is already seeing “Doug”.  Notice I put “Doug” in quotes. That’s not actually her boyfriend’s name. Any guesses as to who the Doug really is in this romantic triangle?

Woody Allen movies are a casting agent’s dream. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart gracefully inhabit their parts. Steve Carell on the other hand, is somewhat less captivating. Yes Phil is a rich powerful man in Hollywood but he still doesn’t seem to convey the charisma that would sweep a pretty young girl off her feet. There’s some nice supporting work here though. Parker Posey is modeling-agency owner Rad Taylor, a sparkling wit of the nightclub scene. The luminous setting in the 2nd half gives the film its title. Carey Stoll plays Bobby’s elder brother Ben as a gangster who resorts to murder to solve every problem. It’s a running joke. There’s also a gorgeous Blake Lively as Veronica Hayes. She is Bobby’s too-stunning-to-be-considered-merely-a-backup-choice girlfriend.

The script is a saga that weaves passion, desire, melancholy, and pathos. Jesse Eisenberg’s dramatic arc from a gabby naive Jewish boy into a worldly nightclub owner is rather improbable. Yet it happens so gradually it’s believable. His stuttering rhythms and affectations are pure Woody Allen in his prime and it’s easy to see the director playing this role in 1977. I can’t remember a time when Kristen Stewart was so fetching. Her makeup and wardrobe beautifully recall screen legends of yesteryear. As the object of Bobby’s affection, she exudes gum smacking sensibility with a brassy charm, but still enough sweetness to be alluring.

Cafe Society is a blast from the past. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have an established chemistry, this being their third collaboration after making both Adventureland (2009) and American Ultra (2015) together. Their synergy is the most exciting reason to see this picture.  There are a few missteps. The account doesn’t end as strongly as it begins. It just sort of fizzles out. Woody Allen also chooses to narrate the story himself. His gravely voice is so awkward when juxtaposed with the beauty of the age. But oh what a time! The cast is bathed in the retro glow of the 1930s. Legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro soaks the film in rich hues. His photography celebrates the spirit of the era.  If you needed more, his work is validation enough to see Cafe Society.

07-27-16

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on July 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hunt_for_the_wilderpeople_ver3_zpssdgunvub.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgTaika Waititi is a major talent. New Zealand already knows this after several of the director’s offbeat films, which include Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, have become hits in that country. The latter comedy was one of my favorites of the year when it was finally released in the U.S. in 2015.  On November 3, 2017, the rest of the world will come to know Taika Waititi’s name when Thor: Ragnarok (Thor 3) is released.

His latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a quirky joy. A movie fashioned with such care and so much warmth that it practically leaps from the screen and gives the audience a hug. It’s based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump. Crump’s semi-autobiographical tales are often comic adventures set in the rugged outdoors. Wilderpeople is no different. The saga stars a famous name in actor Sam Neill as Uncle Hec, a grizzled man. He chases after Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a defiant city boy after Ricky runs away from home into the forest.

But let’s start at the beginning. Sweet Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous Uncle Hec (Neill) are Ricky’s latest foster parents.  Living in the country has been an adjustment for the city kid. Aunt Bella is chipper although her bloody killing of a boar does frighten the child a bit. However Ricky finally seems to have found a family he likes. When Bella abruptly passes away, the authorities threaten to extract the youngster and place him in yet another foster home. Fearing more bad experiences, Ricky runs away into the wild. Uncle Hec follows after the boy. When strict child-services worker Paula (Rachel House) discovers the missing pair, a manhunt ensues.

Ricky is an orphan that has been shuttled around in the foster care system. Raised on hip-hop and affecting a gansta lean (that is if he was actually old enough to drive) he’s been labeled as a bad egg. Nothing could be further from the truth. With dog Tupac by his side, he is disarmingly charismatic. The elderly geezer and the young whippersnapper, thrown together by fate, united by friendship. The idea sounds clichéd but in the hands of Sam Neil and especially novice actor Julian Dennison, the idea is fresh and delightful. Dennison is the secret weapon of the chronicle, bringing a fresh interpretation to a character that charms us almost immediately. A heavy set kid of about 12, there’s a physicality to his performance that makes his precociousness all the more amusing.

Hunt of the Wilderpeople is a beautiful blending of a road movie and a coming of age tale. Like the novel, the production is divided into chapters, each with its own title. The whimsical adventure fashions amusing vignettes that, like delectable morsels, are easily digestible in bite size pieces. With gorgeous scenery as a backdrop, a musical score charms with a retro 80s feel courtesy of the band Moniker . “Trifecta (Ricky Baker Song)” is a highlight. Musical interludes are inserted amongst sharp, witty moments between Uncle Hec and the tender lad. If there is a quibble, it’s that the plot drags on a bit too long when a tighter narrative might have made the ending pop a bit more . By the time the story finally wraps up, we’re more than ready for things to end.  Still, there’s a preciousness that touches the heart without ever being overtly twee. It recalls the work of Wes Anderson. Believe me,  that’s a compliment of the highest order in my book.  Actor Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison have an odd couple chemistry that makes this “hang-out” yarn thoroughly enjoyable. The veteran actor is good but the rookie is even better. Julian Dennison steals the film and probably your heart as well.

07-17-16

Ghostbusters

Posted in Action, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ghostbusters_ver5_zpsuplq07c1.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI don’t think I could’ve been more primed to like this film. (1) I adore the classic 1984 comedy and the concept of a distinctly fresh version of Ghostbusters sounded like fun. (2) I am a huge fan of the cast. Melissa McCarthy has the whip-smart comic timing that can shape even a stale bit into a gem. Kristen Wiig is a genius of oft kilter humor. Up-and-comers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are rising stars whose work on Saturday Night Live is among the most outstanding on that show right now. (3) Bridesmaids was one of the best features of 2011. It made my Top 10 for that year. Reunite the director Paul Feig with two of that picture’s personalities and watch their obvious chemistry unfold again. (4) The pre-release internet hate directed at this production was so unfounded I was tempted to give the movie a pass simply to prove the naysayers wrong.

The good news is that Ghostbusters is not the disaster that the internet predicted. Yet it’s far from the inspired reboot for which I was hoping. The set-up: Many years ago, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) collaborated on an unpopular book about paranormal phenomenon. When Gilbert realizes the book has been republished, she seeks out Yates to undo an embarrassing situation that might damage her tenure at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, Yates has continued to study the supernatural with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates coaxes Gilbert into joining her on another investigation in exchange for squashing the book’s publication. And so they’re off to fight ghosts.

Joining them are MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who sees a ghost in a subway line and contacts the Department. She joins the team a while later. Jones is normally a uniquely dynamic presence on SNL but here she is given nothing more to do than pedestrian shtick.  Unfortunately the sidekick part fails to highlight the sharp comedic gifts she displays every week.  Shouting your lines doesn’t make them funnier. There’s also Kevin Beckman, a feebleminded but handsome receptionist (Chris Hemsworth). I could easily fault the “himbo” act for being nothing more than a dumb blonde role reversal joke.  The thing is, he’s actually one of the funniest things in the film. Credit his affable charisma for taking a flimsy part and making it funny.

Of the four Ghostbusters, only Kate McKinnon truly elevates her loony scientist into something interesting and original. She interprets lines that would normally fall flat in the hands of a lesser actress. By delivering them with an off beat sensibility, she makes the character her own and not a pale imitation. A relative unknown, she has the most to gain from this exposure. I suspect this credit on her resume will be a nice stepping stone to greater things in her career. However established stars McCarthy and Wiig have been lobotomized. They seriously downplay their normally quirky appeal here. Perhaps that’s admirable. This is an ensemble piece and it allows others like McKinnon and Hemsworth to shine. However, in the process we lose what makes their comedic personas so invigorating.

Ghostbusters is a largely uninspired take on a well known property. The story scores points for changing up the plot at least. Like a remix of a classic song with a new singer and modern production, it entertains based on familiarity but not through excellence or innovation. Ok so Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are amusing, but the script hangs the rest of the cast out to dry. In lieu of a Sumerian deity from another dimension brought back from the dead, we get a nerdy petulant weirdo (Neil Casey).  He is a weak excuse for the main villain. Humor is subjective, but I rarely laughed and that’s a deal breaker when assessing a comedy. This cacophonous spectacle wants it both ways. Embrace a modern take, while constantly reminding you of nostalgia for the 1984 original. Star cameos abound with Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all in conspicuous bits that distract from, rather than add to the narrative. The idea of a summer blockbuster that headlines 4 women celebrated for their witty minds, and not their physical attributes, is exciting in theory. I so very wanted this movie to be spectacular. Instead it’s just barely acceptable.

07-14-16

Wiener-Dog

Posted in Comedy, Drama on July 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo wiener_dog_zpsbwumiqbq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThey don’t call Todd Solondz “The King Of Feel-Bad Cinema” for nothing. Few directors expose the horror that exists beneath the well manicured facade of the suburban dream as frightfully as he. Wiener-Dog is only his 8th feature since 1989. A prolific filmmaker he is not. Welcome To The Dollhouse was the 1996 picture that put the New Jersey native on the indie map. It still remains his biggest success to this day. While subsequent releases have seen less box office, most have achieved a certain level of critical acclaim. All are informed by his cruel, albeit multi-layered take on the human condition.

In Wiener-Dog, four tales are linked together by the presence of the same dachshund. As she inhabits the lives of four different individuals, we come to learn the details of the families within. There’s Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a sensitive little boy who is a cancer survivor, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), an awkward young woman who runs into an old crush, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) a screenwriting professor disregarded by his students, and Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly woman visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). You can see the director’s alter ego in the lead protagonist as the focus of each story gets a little older. The spirit of every principal beaten down by the inequities of life.

Mortality is a fact of life. Death isn’t a cheerful idea, but it is real. Because Todd Solondz deals in these themes, he is not an easy director to like. His worldview is bleak and pessimistic. Oh and did I mention this is a comedy? A very funny one at that if you can cuddle up to the movie’s prickly charms. The absurdity of the conversations within can be laugh out loud hilarious at times. There’s even an intermission scored to an original countrified song called “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog”. It adds just the right amount of levity before embarking on the production’s even more somber 2nd half. Aided by gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, he lends a hyper surreality to these mundane settings.

The pup in Wiener-Dog features heavily in each episode. Yet despite the title, this is really about people, not the canine. The beloved pet is merely a construct that gives us an excuse to follow an assortment of characters. There’s a world weary tone to these sagas, but there’s also the soul of humanity as well. For example the relationship between Remi and the dachshund is pure and sweet. They share a friendship to which his parents are immune. We sympathize with the various heroes in their respective vignettes, even though they may have serious flaws. There’s an authenticity to that. I mean we are flawed too, right? As the film marches to its inevitable conclusion, we brace ourselves. Todd Solondz has contempt for the Hollywood happy ending. Wiener-Dog is typified by a grisly finale that hits you like a slap in the face. Then the camera lingers on the event. There’s a palpable rage against society here.  The experience may sting, but the script still makes a sincere plea for mankind. I saw hope amidst the despair. That’s kind of powerful.

07-08-16

The Secret Life Of Pets

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on July 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo secret_life_of_pets_ver2_zpsst2sqnzq.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Secret Life of Pets promises to show you what domesticated animals are really like when people aren’t around. In set-up, it’s a spiritual cousin to Toy Story. But here the mood is defined by a cursory depth and a far zanier mentality.  The narrative structure is loose and free-form. Pets seems inspired by the cartoons of the 1940s & 50s from Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Character development is minimized in exchange for the almighty gag. It’s a hodgepodge of routines but if you’re looking to laugh, it does the job.

The production is overflowing with a huge cadre of personalities, an odd assortment of mostly cats and dogs given life by celebrity voices. They’re an amusing variety of individuals. At first it’s unclear which animal will be the center of attention. There are so many. However we come to understand that Max (Louis C.K.) a Jack Russell Terrier, is the star. He’s a good natured doggie, but grows rather jealous when his owner (Ellie Kemper) adopts another pet in Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big shaggy Newfoundland. The two dogs are soon thrust into an odyssey on the streets of New York. There they meet up with a cult that promotes “The Flushed Pets” movement. They want to overthrow the humans. Meanwhile Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian, rounds up Max’s friends in an effort to find him. Pops (Dana Carvey) stands out as an elderly basset hound with paralyzed back legs. Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a menacing red-tailed hawk is an unexpected addition. There’s a tattooed pig (Michael Beattie), a parakeet (Tara Strong) and a guinea pig (Chris Renaud) as well. However none stand out as much as Snowball, a white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. His manic charisma stole every scene he was in. He is hilarious.

The Secret Life of Pets is largely a joy that beguiles almost as easily as it evaporates from the mind. That’s actually part of the script’s ephemeral appeal. The cartoon is brought to you by Illumination Entertainment, the highly successful film production company that brought you the Despicable Me movies. This flick wants to charm us with unfettered antics. There is a purity to that.  You’d have to have the cold heart of a grinch to not at least chuckle at some of the random absurdities. At one point a bizarre hallucination sequence in a sausage factory involves a Busby Berkeley number of dancing wieners clad in hula skirts. As their heads are bitten off, they gleefully sing “We Go Together” from Grease. The eclectic soundtrack also includes selections from artists as disparate as Taylor Swift, System of a Down, Queen, Nappy Roots, Ringworm, Beastie Boys, Bill Withers, Andrew W.K. and N-Trance with their the 1995 remake of “Stayin’ Alive”. Sadly, a compilation of all this diverse music has not been released but you can download the selections individually I suppose. Humor targets run the gamut from behavioral shenanigans to poop jokes. And yes there are one too many of the latter. The Secret Life of Pets is a chaotic tornado of random bits & characters. There is very little sense to this. At times, I struggled to discern the focus of the story. And yet it pops up every now and then when it needs to make an appearance or simply make us laugh. I was entertained.

07-07-16

Central Intelligence

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo central_intelligence_ver2_zps8nxd0sdr.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMovies don’t get more agreeably disposable than Central Intelligence, a stridently by-the-numbers action comedy. The source of all humor contained within is an incongruous juxtaposition – the visual joke as it were. Hey guys!! Watch a big muscular dude (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) pal around with a yappy shrimp of a man (Kevin Hart). The former has a flamboyant personality. The latter possesses a shrill disposition. Just what we’re in short supply of – another “odd couple” comedy.

Back in high school it was a much different story. Calvin Joyner (Hart) was a BMOC: class president, homecoming king, drama club thespian, et cetera. Conversely Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was a morbidly obese dork who enjoyed dancing in the gym locker room to En Vogue’s “My Loving (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”. Yup, complete with hand gestures and everything. He was mercilessly teased. Flash forward to the modern day. Calvin is in a funk. He hasn’t yet achieved what he had envisioned for his life. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart and gainfully employed as an accountant. “Wait what’s the problem?”, you may ask. That’s a very good question. Oops! I think you just might be too smart for this picture.

Robbie Weirdicht (now calling himself Bob Stone), on the other hand, is a huge brawny guy who likes to wear unicorn shirts that look like they were purchased at Baby Gap. He also happens to be a competent CIA agent. This figures into the plot but it’s kind of irrelevant. The purpose of this buddy film is to unite two unlikely people and merely savor their chemistry. Bob still idolizes Calvin like a hero. He quickly ingratiates himself back into Calvin’s life after a Facebook invite. Within hours he’s already sleeping on his couch. Honestly Bob’s obsessive fascination with Calvin is borderline stalker behavior.

Central Intelligence isn’t a horrible movie. It coasts on the charm of its leads. Dwayne Johnson is eager, overzealous and blissfully unaware. He imagines this close personal friendship with Kevin Hart’s character that was never really there. He’s so naive he seems almost mentally challenged. Kevin Hart plays an exasperated, persnickety fuss-budget. The two are a mismatched pair. If you can appreciate the constant mugging from the two stars then you should cuddle up to the film’s modest charms. Me? I was hoping for a bit more story than the threadbare plot that’s served up here. For the record, it’s some nonsense about selling critical U.S. satellite codes to terrorists. There’s also some confusion as to whether Bob Stone is actually a good or a bad guy in the CIA but you’d have to be fast asleep not to figure that out. Yes it’s totally predictable, but that’s not the issue. I found their hijinks mildly amusing. I simply never laughed out loud at any point. It’s so thoroughly generic. Directer and co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber has done better work. I’d uphold DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story over this. What sets Central Intelligence apart is Wayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. I recommend this to very forgiving fans (and only fans) for whom these celebrities can do no wrong.

06-21-16