ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (2019)

February 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not usually the guy anyone turns to for recommendations on Romantic Comedies. Rather than dreamy and fantasy-like, I find most of them imbecilic and disrespectful to those of us living in the real world. It’s because of this predisposition that I was cautiously optimistic when I heard that Rebel Wilson’s new movie offered a satirical look at the genre. Well, it turns out the movie is more spoof than satire, yet I was pleasantly surprised to find it darn funny and quite clever.

The story begins with a young girl mesmerized while watching Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN. A minute later, the girl’s fantasy is shattered when her mother (Jennifer Saunders) explains ‘there are no happy endings for girls like us.’ We then flash forward 25 years to find that little girl has grown up to become Natalie (Rebel Wilson, PITCH PERFECT), an architect whose lack of confidence and self-esteem has caused her career to stall and her daily life to be a grind (even her dog ghosts her). Additionally, Natalie is a skeptic when it comes to love, and offers up a brilliant rant on the misgivings and pain caused by Romantic Comedies. The rant is directed towards her loyal assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin, “GLOW”), who spends a significant portion of each workday streaming rom-coms at her desk.

Of course, Natalie’s rant foreshadows everything we are about to see, and it all occurs after a freak subway accident leaves her concussed. It’s at this point where Natalie finds herself trapped within her own Romantic Comedy … the kind of world she so disdains. All of the familiar rom-com tropes and clichés are mixed in, and Natalie is kind enough to literally point out most of them. The obvious comparison here is to Amy Schumer’s I FEEL PRETTY, but this film benefits not just from the very talented Ms. Wilson (a master of dry snark), but also a cast that is fully on board.

Liam Hemsworth (aka Mr. Miley Cyrus) appears as Blake, the picturesque, charming and of course, very rich romantic lead. Priyanka Chopra (BAYWATCH) stars as the stunning competition-in-love for Natalie, and Adam Devine (PITCH PERFECT) is Josh, Natalie’s nice guy co-worker and not-so-secret admirer who can’t seem to escape the friend zone. Given the times, it is a bit surprising to see Brandon Scott Jones take his stereotypical gay friend Donny so over the top. The love quadrangle plays out as expected, yet thanks to the site gags and Rebel’s zingers, it’s quite entertaining.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman clearly have a solid grasp on the repeatable offenses that occur during most romantic comedies, and I would have preferred they cut a bit deeper in their commentary, but understand the decision not to. They offer us a rare Prozac joke, the new phrase “extra invisible”, and the best use in years of Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place”. Toying with the PG-13 rating is also part of the gag, and the musical interludes are funny enough, especially the finale presented in Bollywood style. Expect this one to be a favorite on ladies night out, and don’t be shocked if some men on dates catch themselves laughing a few times.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

ADULT LIFE SKILLS (2019)

January 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Each of us deals with grief in our own way, and often it’s even more challenging to help a grieving loved one. Loss and grief are at the core of writer-director Rachel Tunnard’s feature length film developed from her award winning short, EMOTIONAL FUSEBOX (2014).

When first we meet Anna, she is creating a space-oriented home video using aluminum foil and her thumbs. Yes, Anna is an adult – mere days from her 30th birthday. She’s not the type to live in her mom’s basement … no, instead she lives in the cluttered garden shed in her mom’s backyard. The play on words for the shed clues us in to Anna’s quirky personality (as if the foil spaceship and thumb faces hadn’t already done so). The Anna we see currently has no place for humor in her life.

Anna is struggling with the grief associated with losing her twin brother – a brother she was extremely close to. She’s challenged daily by the fine line between sorrow and depression, and is regularly late to her job at an outdoor camp for kids. Her morning routine includes drying her clothes in the microwave and bickering with her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) over finding a boyfriend and new place to live. Mom has demanded Anna move out of the shed by her birthday.

Others in Anna’s life include her grandmother (Eileen Davies), Anna’s close friend Fiona (Rachael Deering), and local real estate agent Brendan (Brett Goldstein) who may or may not be on the spectrum, is constantly refuting assumptions that he is gay, and undoubtedly has an unrequited crush on Anna. Each of these folks tries in their own way to pull Anna from her funk and get her back to living. Surprisingly, the turn occurs when she is forced to look after a neighbor boy named Clint when his mother gets rushed to the hospital. Clint is an odd kid who wears cowboy attire and proclaims his desire to be like Anna … and they are more similar than she would care to admit initially.

Jodie Whittaker plays Anna and newcomer Ozzy Myers is Clint. Young Mr. Myers excels in his role, never going over-the-top with his offbeat tendencies. Ms. Whitaker (“Doctor Who”) first charmed us on screen with her role in VENUS (2006) and she proves yet again what an accomplished actress she is … likable and relatable. Here she turns an arrested development 30 year old hermit into someone we pull for. The film is filled with awkward interactions, each grounded in reality.

Of course, there is really nothing cute or charming about a 30 year old who hasn’t yet grown up, but slack and understanding is due here because of the grief. And it’s difficult to name another film character who could count mole hills daily and make it seem natural. Just remember that when a kid says they want to be like you, take it seriously – even if it’s because you are sad and lonely. Ms. Tunnard’s film is a bittersweet comedy that’s not too bitter, not too sweet, and not overly funny. It’s simply a fine little indie movie with a terrific performance from a talented actress.

watch the trailer:


EGG (2019)

January 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what would likely be more effective as a stage play than a film, director Marianna Palka (GOOD DICK, 2008) subjects us to first four, and then five adults, each participating in what is mostly a 90 minute exercise in passive-aggressive bickering. There are absolutely some moments of pure movie gold, and the premise is quite promising, but unfortunately the bulk of this movie experience is simply watching annoying people and listening to their irritating banter (courtesy of the first screenplay from Risa Mickenberg).

In defense, annoyance is the goal here. Former art school classmates Karen (Christina Hendricks) and Tina (Alysia Reiner) have arranged their first get-together in many years. Karen brings her wealthy snob husband Don (David Alan Basche, Ms. Reiner’s real life husband) to Tina’s bohemian loft which she shares with Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Karen is 8 months pregnant, Don is worried about his Cadillac in this neighborhood, Tina is a conceptual artist, and Wayne adamantly refuses to be defined by his work – of which he seems to have little.

Judging others seems to be the point of this little party, and as Karen calls giving birth “one of the most beautiful things in life”, she has to stop every 5 minutes to pee and eat, and repeat the cycle – all while being unable to sit comfortably. Riffing on how decisions are made on whether to become a parent, and how contemporary gender roles are defined, an abundance of societal commentary leads to a never-ending soft core argument. The bombshell hits when Tina announces she and Wayne are having a baby via a surrogate. Things get really interesting when Kiki (Anna Camp), the surrogate, joins the group.

The wheels go flying off when Kiki reveals she has been in a 5 year relationship with a married man, and that man’s wife is now pregnant with their 6th child. Kiki also talks about the 5 stages of womanhood … each seeming to be in service to man. The conventions of motherhood, and contrasts in suburbia vs. bohemian lifestyles are a central theme here, but none of these folks are the type from which we can draw any inspiration or insight. They are self-centered, insecure types with each trying to prove their high level of enlightenment to the others.

Mostly it’s 90 minutes of whiny women and whiny men, in what could have been a fascinating look at motherhood and the evolution of friendship between two women who chose different paths. There is a bitterness to the story and the characters, and uncomfortable discussions handled in such a way that the biting humor rarely hits its mark. Even the ending, which is totally believable, is unsatisfying given what we’ve been through with these characters.

watch the trailer:


THE UPSIDE (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Frequent movie goers often complain about the lack of originality in American movies. It sometimes seems as if most are sequels, remakes or reboots, or simply pulled from the panels of a comic book. There is another source that is particularly irksome to yours truly, and that’s the Americanization of an outstanding film from another country – World Cinema, if you will. Seven plus years ago, while watching the crowd-pleasing (though not so critically acclaimed) and exceptionally performed 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, there was little doubt that it would, at some point, be subjected to an American “enhancement”. Sure enough, director Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) perfectly captures why this transition is sometimes so painful to see.

Based on a true story, filthy rich quadriplegic widower Phillip Lacasse is played by Bryan Cranston, while Nicole Kidman (her 4th film in 8 weeks) plays Yvonne, Phillip’s wound-too-tight, ultra-loyal chief of staff (she handles his many business affairs and calendar) with an obvious ulterior motive. Kevin Hart (he of recent Oscar-hosting drama) plays Dell, an unemployed ex-con street hustler. While searching for employment to appease his Parole Officer, Dell stumbles into a Park Avenue penthouse where Phillip and Yvonne are conducting interviews for a full-time caregiver to Phillip. Though he is woefully unqualified, and Yvonne protests mightily, Phillip chooses Dell. The undercurrent here is that Dell’s self-centeredness corresponds nicely to Phillip’s DNR and lack of will to live since his wife’s death from cancer.

The opening sequence has Dell racing through downtown, evading police, while driving a Ferrari with Phillip in the passenger seat. This is followed by a promising “6 months earlier” flashback introducing us to Dell’s ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and their teenage son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), both of whom are fed up with the lack of support and trustworthiness of Dell. Basically, Dell is a deadbeat dad with little ambition – other than to avoid returning to prison.

The tone of the film changes once Dell has the job as Phillip’s carer. The bulk of the remaining run time (which is 20 minutes too long) becomes a comedy skit showcasing the punchlines of Kevin Hart. Mind you, the full house I watched the screening with seemed to love every bit, as laughter filled the theatre. For me, I could only long for the soul and spirit of that beloved French film from years ago … and the amazing chemistry between the charismatic Omar Sy and the talented Francois Cluzet. This version isn’t about chemistry – it’s about comic timing. The only real exception to that is a terrific and psychologically deep scene with Julianna Margulies playing Phillip’s pen pal, as they meet for the first time over lunch. The scene is played beautifully, but is a complete tonal change from what comes before and after. Contrasting this scene with Kevin Hart’s over-the-top antics in the high-tech shower, magnifies the contrast in concepts.

Jon Hartmere is credited with the screenplay based on the original film’s screenplay by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. For some reason, Phillip Pozzo di Borgo’s autobiography doesn’t make the credits for this version. A bit more attention to Dell’s ex and son could have worked to humanize him, and soften the caricature on display. This comes across as an interracial odd-fellow buddy flick, where yet another black man (often in a subservient role) rescues an entitled white person (even if they’re disabled) from lack of hope and leads them to a life worth living. Is it possible to make a movie based on race and class, and even romance, and still offer no real insight? Apparently the answer is yes, if one chooses to go for easy laughs. Perhaps you’ll join the audience in rolling along with Dell’s first trip to the opera, or the disrespect to art collectors – or that seemingly never-ending catheter scene. Or perhaps you can be persuaded to track down THE INTOUCHABLES for a more emotional and inspirational telling of this story.

***NOTE: I should also mention that one of my Top 5 movies of 2018 has already been targeted for an American remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal.  Boo. Hiss.

watch the trailer:


STAN & OLLIE (2019)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Any list of the all-time great comedic teams would surely include Laurel and Hardy at or near the top. Influenced by pioneers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the rotund one) rose to the top of the comedy world through their films and shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios during 1926-1941. In later years, we recognize the Laurel and Hardy influence in hugely popular acts such as Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. Director Jon S Baird (FILTH, 2013) and writer Joe Pope (PHILOMENA, 2013) deliver a warm tribute to the comedy giants by giving us a peek on stage and off.

The film kicks off in 1937 when the duo are the height of their popularity, and a wonderful extended opening take allows us to follow them as they make their way across the studio lot and onto the set of their latest film, WAY OUT WEST. Before filming the scene, they have a little dust up with studio owner Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over the money they are being paid per their contract. Stan thinks they deserve more, while Oliver, racked with debt from a stream of broken marriages, prefers to not rock the boat.

It’s this early scene that acts as a precursor to the challenges we witness in the business partnership side of the duo. Imagine if the work of you and your business partner were on display for the world to judge. And how does friendship fit in? The film flashes forward to 1953 when the popularity of the comedic duo has faded. They find themselves on a United Kingdom tour arranged by smarmy booking agent Bernard Delfont (played well by Rufus Jones). The purpose of the tour is to convince a film producer to back their Robin Hood parody idea. The early gigs are very small music venues and the crowds are even smaller. But these are true pros, and soon Stan and Ollie hustle up their own growing audiences, and by the time their wives join them on the tour, they are filling the best venues.

As Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) make their appearance, we soon find ourselves with two comedy teams to watch. The chemistry between the ladies is so terrific, they could be the featured players in their own movie. Lucille is a strong and quiet former script girl who is quite protective of her Ollie, while the outspoken Ida is a former Russian dancer who, in her own way, is also protective of the gentlemen performers.

The suppressed resentment over the (much) earlier Roach negotiations finally boils over in a heart-wrenching scene. The grudges and feelings of betrayal are voiced – alongside Ollie’s physical ailments. As they air their grievances, it cuts to the quick. Not long after, Ollie’s heart condition finds the two mimicking their “hospital” skit in real life … it’s a show of ultimate friendship that can only be built through decades of working closely together.

John C Reilly plays Oliver Hardy (the American) and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel (the Brit). Both are extraordinary in capturing the look and movements of the comic geniuses. Mr. Reilly and Mr. Coogan are such strong actors, that it’s difficult to decide which segments are best. Is it the reenactments of some of Laurel and Hardy’s iconic skits, or is the off-stage moments when they are dealing with the human side of these entertainment giants? Reilly benefits from excellent make-up and prosthetics (that chin!) and Coogan has the hair and determination needed for his role.

Director Baird’s film is sweet and sad and funny. Stan and Ollie deserve this warm tribute, and it’s a reminder of all the stress and hard work that performers put in so that the show looks “easy”. This is what’s meant by honing the craft … even if it’s “another fine mess” accompanied by the trademark “Dance of the Cuckoos” music. Let’s hope the film attracts some youngsters who might gain an appreciation for the good ol’ days of Classical Hollywood.

watch the trailer:


VICE (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration … and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.

In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman), the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.

Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.

The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man’, and most fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin’ George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here … his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.

Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.

September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority … at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost”, and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.

Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.

Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works.  “America” from WEST SIDE STORY is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.

watch the trailer:


MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1964 classic Disney film MARY POPPINS is much beloved and has been shared across generations for more than 50 years. It won 5 Oscars on 13 nominations, and shifted Julie Andrews from a Broadway star to an international movie star, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress while becoming the ideal nanny for most every boy and girl. Rarely do reboots, remakes, or sequels to the classics make much of a dent with the movie-going public, but it’s likely director Rob Marshall’s (CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS) film will be an exception. Marshall balances nostalgia with contemporary, and benefits from a marvelous successor to the Mary Poppins role … Emily Blunt.

The film opens in low-key fashion as we follow Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) through town as he performs his lamplighting duties singing the melancholic “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”. It’s actually a bit of a dry opening that may have some impatient kids wondering why their parents dragged them to see this. Soon after, we are at the familiar 17 Cherry Tree Lane – the Banks’ home – easily recognizable from the original film. We meet grown up siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane is a labor organizer following in her mom’s footsteps, and Michael is a struggling artist and widower raising 3 kids. He has taken a teller job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad (now deceased) worked, but mostly he’s an emotional wreck. In fact, the only way to save the family home from foreclosure is with proof of his father’s bank shares … something the evil new Bank President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), conspires to prevent.

It’s at this point that the kids’ popcorn should just about be gone, so it’s fortunate that our beloved nanny makes her timely appearance … literally floating (with practically perfect posture) into the park where Georgie (an adorable Joel Dawson) and lamplighter Jack are flying a very recognizable kite. Jack, having been an apprentice under Bert the Chimney Sweep, is quite familiar with the significance of Mary Poppins’ arrival. Back on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael and Jane are shocked to see their childhood nanny back in the house, and Michael’s two spunky twins Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) aren’t sure what to make of this mysterious visitor.

Director Marshall wisely utilizes the template from the original film, so many of the subsequent sequences have a familiar and cozy feel to them. Mary Poppins’ “Off we go” kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation (from Walt Disney Studios) sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. Meryl Streep performs “Turning Turtle” in her topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

Julie Walters appears as the Banks’ housekeeper and David Warner is Admiral Boom, the Banks’ canon-firing neighbor; however it’s two cameos that will really hit home with the older viewers: Angela Landsbury (not in the original) is the balloon lady singing “Nowhere to Go but Up”, and the remarkable Dick Van Dyke (a huge part of the original) plays an elderly Mr. Dawes Jr from the bank – and even performs a dance routine atop a desk. All of the actors perform admirably, yet this is clearly Emily Blunt’s movie. She shines as the practically perfect nanny, whether debating with her umbrella, digging in her mystical baggage, filling heads with ‘stuff and nonsense’, teaching life lessons to those in need, or singing solo and with others. It’s a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation.

Director Marshall co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, and they have created a worthy sequel (a quite high standard) from P.L. Travers’ original books that is delightful and a joy to watch. The group of original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman serve the story fine, but the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Che-ree”), and left us singing others such as “Spoon Full of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course, “Supercalifragilistic”. These new songs including “Can You Imagine That”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, “A Cover is not the Book”, “Nowhere to Go but Up” all contribute to the story and to the viewer’s enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theatre.

This is film where those behind-the-scenes are crucial to its success. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Editor Wyatt Smith both are at the top of their game, and Costume Designer Sandy Powell delivers stunners, not just for the singing nanny, but for all characters. The core of the story remains rediscovering the magic in life, and finding joy in each other – and this sequel also provides the adventures to match the original. It’s simultaneously familiar and fresh, which is key to a successful follow up to a beloved classic. Director Marshall has signed on to Disney’s live action THE LITTLE MERMAID, but it’s with MARY POPPINS RETURNS where he has delivered a film that is practically perfect in every way.

watch the trailer: