I FEEL PRETTY (2018)

April 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Comedians taking the leap from TV to movies sometimes find the going a bit rough. Amy Schumer hit it big with critics and audiences in TRAINWRECK (2015), and then flopped with both groups in last year’s SNATCHED (2017). This time out, she quells the raunchiness, and instead serves us a PG-13 message movie aimed squarely at adolescent girls. Ms. Schumer doesn’t abandon comedy, it’s now just a bit tamer and comes with a life lesson.

Renee (Ms. Schumer) is a mostly normal person who works in a computer “dungeon” as website support for a high-end make-up company named Lily LeClaire. Adrian Martinez plays her usually unresponsive co-worker who seems quite comfortable with the lack of human interaction that comes with the daily process. When not at her dead-end job, Renee hangs out with her also mostly normal friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips, wife of the film’s co-director Marc Silverstein). Renee does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time hoping for her dream job (receptionist at Lily LeClaire headquarters) and her dream lifestyle (being beautiful and slim like the Lily LeClaire models).

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what happens next. Renee gets conked on the head during a fitness class, and when she wakes up, she sees herself as the beautiful woman she always dreamed of becoming. Of course, her appearance hasn’t changed the slightest, but the way she carries herself certainly has. Where once there was moping and hoping, there is now confidence and daring. Her self-esteem cup is overflowing and she falls into her dream job, and lands a terrific boyfriend, while also being pursued by a dreamy one.

Her time at the company headquarters finds her interacting with CEO Avery LeClaire played with drop-dead perfect comedic timing from 4-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams. Yes, THAT Michelle Williams! It’s such a treat to see this talented actress step away from her usual dramatic characters and flat out nail a comedic role in which she seems to nearly flutter across the screen while sporting a voice that would typically only be heard in Saturday morning cartoons. The shared scenes with Ms. Schumer and Ms. Williams are the film’s best, but unfortunately are too few – leaving some unexplored humor to our imaginations.

Co-writers and co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (first time directors, co-writers of HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU) work hard to deliver the type of humor that Amy Schumer fans expect, while also paying respect to the all-important female body image message the film strives to deliver. It’s a challenging proposal, however despite my finding much of the comedy predictable, the theatre was filled with laughter from what was very likely a group of loyal Schumer fans. The bikini contest sequence seemed especially effective in generating laughter and praise from the loyalists.

As for the boyfriend role of nice guy Ethan, Rory Scovel may seem like an odd choice. He’s the anti-Hollywood leading man type – generally laid back with no glimmer of Type A personality. A quiet guy who takes Zumba classes is actually the perfect straight man for Schumer’s dominating screen personality … she does talk incessantly through most of the movie. Other supporting roles are filled by Lauren Hutton as Lilly “Gram” LeClaire, the company founder and grandmother to Avery; Emily Ratajkowski as Renee’s fitness class acquaintance, whose sole purpose seems to be in convincing Renee that beautiful women have life struggles too; Naomi Campbell as a company executive; and Tom Hopper (“Game of Thrones”), as the required eye candy for a viewing audience likely to skew heavily female.

Ms. Schumer is surely to receive backlash on the movie due to utilizing a head injury to show her character the road to self-esteem and confidence. In my opinion she should be commended for using comedy and her celebrity to send this message to the girls out there. We never know what delivery method will work, and if a fake bump on the head in a movie gets a few girls to realize success in life is not about one’s physical attractiveness, then I’m on board. Of course, there are many who say I’m not qualified to review the movie since, being a male, I can’t possibly understand what girls go through. And on that point, they are likely correct.

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BLOCKERS (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Teen sex comedies exploring new boundaries are a Hollywood tradition. ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), PORKY’S (1981), AMERICAN PIE (1999), and SUPERBAD (2007) all pushed the limits of decency for their era, and provided varying levels of laughter while doing so. In her directorial debut, Tina Fey protégé Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”, PITCH PERFECT franchise), offers up what has been called the first “Feminist teen comedy”, and the risqué humor is far more extreme than that of its predecessors noted above.

We have become quite accustomed to the all-too-common male-centric perspective in these types of movies, so kudos to director Cannon for taking a look from the other side: a Female-centric teen sex comedy. Co-writers Brian and Jim Kehoe unfortunately try to cram too much into what should mostly be a laugh-a-thon. We get the #SexPact2018 from 3 high school senior best friends who agree to lose their virginity on prom night. We get the far-too-involved parents trying to prevent that from happening. We get those same parents dealing with the pending empty nest syndrome, while those three friends are immersed in drugs, alcohol and sex talk. If that’s not quite enough, there is also a sexual identity awakening and a hotel party more extreme than you would find in Las Vegas.

Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the helicopter single mom to Julie (Kathryn Newton). WWE star John Cena is Mitchell, the overprotective dad and life coach to Kayla (an outstanding Geraldine Viswanathan); and comedian Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is Hunter, the estranged/absentee/banished dad to Sam (Gideon Adlon). Julie envisions the perfect romantic encounter, while Kayla just wants to be done with it, and Sam is still trying to figure out why she isn’t so attracted to boys.

Riffing off of the “one wild and crazy night” theme, prom night is chosen by the three amigas, and what follows is outrageous and periodically hilarious. Most of the humor comes courtesy of the parents on the ill-fated ‘blocking’ mission. The story bounces from heartfelt emotions of parents to ‘butt-chugging’ at a party. There is also a car explosion, felony breaking and entering, and projectile vomiting. Perhaps there is an overuse of hulking John Cena crying, but that’s less cringe-inducing than the role-playing of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon (parents of one of the girl’s dates).

Setting the story in Chicago allows the filmmakers to take on the conservative Midwestern attitudes toward sex, while also providing a teenager with the “I’m getting as far away as possible” (UCLA) comeback. It makes sense that SUPERBAD co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Producers, as this film often feels like the female cousin to that 2007 film. Hannibal Buress has a small memorable role, as does Jimmy Bellinger, as fedora wearing Chad. The real standouts here are relative newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, and John Cena, who previously has excelled with less screen time (DADDYS HOME 2, TRAINWRECK). Many will be offended on numerous occasions, and certainly most parents will be uncomfortable with the drug use and sexcapades of teenagers. However, the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter, proving that this is what constitutes contemporary cinematic comedy. Only you can decide if you are OK with that.

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ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

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BIRTHMARKED (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Billed as a comedy, the movie will leave most viewers wondering wherefore art the laughs. Filmmaker Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and his co-writer Marc Tulin aim high with a grown-up level look at the trials and tribulations of parenting – complicated here by a science experiment gone awry.

Matthew Goode plays Ben, the son of a long line of renowned scientists, and Toni Collette plays Catherine, the daughter of two noted physicists. The two nerds (a term of admiration) meet in graduate school, fall in love, and hatch a plan to conduct a revolutionary sociological scientific experiment. In 1977 they convince an arrogant and glory-seeking rich guy named Gertz (Michael Smiley) to fund an experiment with a premise that boils down to their intention of settling the nature vs. nurture debate once and for all.

Ben and Catherine plan to take their biological son Luke and turn him into an artist, while at the same time raising two adopted kids contrary to their genetic heritage. Maya, born into a family of “nitwits” will be raised as a Brainiac, while Maurice, born into a violent household, will be developed as a pacifist. It’s an interesting set-up that also includes Russian athlete Samsonov (Andreas Apergis) as their live-in caregiver/nanny, and Mrs. Tridek (Fionnula Flanagan) as Gertz’s well-meaning assistant.

The story jumps ahead to 1989 when Gertz arrives for the 12 year check-up and evaluation. When he deems the children to be “average”, Ben and Catherine are devastated. Gertz threatens them with bankruptcy if the experiment isn’t successfully expedited so he can publish the desired results. Mrs. Tridek also functions as the narrator who fills in the gaps with some details that might ordinarily leave us a bit confused.

Predictability rears its ugly head in the final act, and the film slips into more traditional cinematic story-telling and characterizations. Emotions and greed are the natural responses to the deception that has occurred, and while the adults leave us disappointed, it’s at this point where the story finally shifts to the kids and we get to see the winner in the nature vs. nurture battle. Where the film works best is in its look at just how powerful and overwhelming parenting can be, regardless of the brain power and intentions one brings to the situation. Toss in some greed and the power of biology, and the final analysis can’t be shocking, even if the film itself doesn’t quite live up to its premise.

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KEEP THE CHANGE (2018)

March 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. More attention is being paid these days to those on the spectrum, and it’s fascinating to see how the entertainment world deals with these folks. Writer/director Rachel Israel has developed her short story into her first feature length film with an unusually naturalistic approach by having numerous non-actors on the spectrum play key characters. Rather than observing from the outside, we are privileged to join in with how they handle life’s daily challenges.

Brandon Polansky is David, a self-proclaimed filmmaker who lives with his very wealthy parents (Jessica Walter, Tibor Feldman). We first meet David as he’s being dropped off at some type of support group meeting. His attendance is court-ordered as an alternative to jail after he was arrested for telling a pig joke to a cop. It’s pretty clear to us that David doesn’t subscribe to traditionally accepted social behavior, though he aims to be a cool guy while hiding behind sunglasses that mask his insecurities. He thrives on telling jokes, although he is unable to discern what is appropriate and what isn’t, learning the hard way that rape jokes aren’t proper for a first date.

The support group meetings leave us trying to figure out exactly how these folks got here … and why. Autism and other forms of personality disorders are part of each of the members, and yet we quickly come to understand the various traits of each person. Some are shy, while others are outgoing – and each is a distinct individual. David is initially annoyed by the enthusiasm and positivity offered by Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), but the two quickly form a relationship that is probably good for both of them, though quite different than what we usually see in a Romantic Comedy.

Ms. Israel films all around NYC, and some of the street scenes are terrific with a realism we don’t often see. These are outsiders and outcasts, and we soon come to appreciate the ebbs and flows of their community. The quirks that we all have are at a heightened level here. These may include sand on our feet, or the trauma of a merry-go-round. Social anxiety abounds, and David even admits to his parents that one of the reasons he likes Sarah is that they are both “weird”.

There is a blend of sweetness, sadness, and cruelty throughout and Mr. Polansky and Ms. Elisofon are a pleasure to watch. That is the life these folks live. They may be able to tell a funny Bernie Madoff joke, while not understanding that their “perfect pitch” is anything but. We do get to hear David’s joke, and he prefaces it with “I got in trouble for this one”. Understanding leads to acceptance, and though Ms. Israel’s film tells us “sometimes change happens for the worse”, it also shows us a bit of empathy goes a long way.

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FLOWER (2018)

March 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite being early in her career, actress Zoey Deutch has often been the highlight of her film projects. Although that sounds like a good thing, in her case it speaks not just to her talent, but also the quality of those choices. Her father is director Howard Deutch and her mother is Lea Thompson, so her industry bloodlines run deep. Her eyes and smile are truly luminescent on the big screen, where she comes across as a natural. It’s now time for her take control of her career. Muck like this latest make us question whether she is a next level talent.

Director Max Winkler (son of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) co-wrote the script with Matt Spicer (a terrific INGRID GOES WEST) and Alex McAuley, and they are fortunate to have such talent as Ms. Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. A profane, voyeuristic exercise in disturbed behavior becomes something nearly watchable when these three and newcomer Joey Morgan are on screen.

Ms. Deutch plays Erica, a motor-mouthed (in more ways than one) force of nature teenager whose ‘BJ’s for Dad’s bail’ involves seducing older men and then extorting money from them after Erica’s posse catches them on camera. Oh, and she keeps a sketch book of her victims … no, not their faces. The fundraising approach to springing her dad from jail is difficult to accept, but Deutch sells it as best she can. Her mother (Kathryn Hahn) is desperately trying to build a relationship with Bob (Tim Heidecker), whose son Luke (Joey Morgan) is being released after a lengthy rehab stint for pills.

Luke is a hefty young man who finds solace in food and little else. He and Erica could keep multiple therapists busy for years. His problems are exacerbated by an improper school incident involving Will Gordon, a teacher played by Adam Scott. Coincidentally, this same teacher has been labeled “Old Hot Guy” by Erica and her friends at the bowling alley. Once she learns about Luke’s history with the pedophile, Erica plots an evil revenge. You can probably imagine where it goes from there.

Those same eyes and smile mentioned in my first paragraph even light up when Erica describes herself as “the d*** whisperer”. It’s this kind of moment that finds us hoping Ms. Deutch and her agent quickly learn to distinguish between edgy indie project and trashy script not likely to lead to more work. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch, but not in the way where we walk out feeling enlightened. The title does deserve applause because even the scratchiest and toughest flower has a delicate side.

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THE LEISURE SEEKER (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Getting older is often used as comedy fodder for entertainment purposes; however, there is fine line that can be crossed into disrespect and melancholy. Long time Italian director Paolo Virzi (HUMAN CAPITAL, 2013) delivers his first English-language film, and it’s at times quite uncomfortable to watch. Marketed as a dramatic-comedy road trip by a long married couple, the film provides a few laughs, but an overwhelming pall of sadness mostly sets the tone, while sliding right into my category of Grey Cinema.

Helen Mirren is Ella Spencer, and Donald Sutherland is her husband John. They are a happily married couple who, to the shock of their grown children and neighbor, hit the road in their 1970’s era Winnebago. Isn’t it interesting that an RV of age is considered “classic”, while old people are just referred to as “old”? John is a curmudgeonly former Professor and Helen is a gregarious, adventuresome woman who fondly recalls the many family trips in this same RV. She is clearly the one in charge, and has planned this road trip from their upscale Wellesley, Massachusetts home to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

Although John recites his favorite passages from Hemingway and Melville, he is certainly battling the effects of dementia … a battle that frequently has a negative impact on Ella’s enjoyment of their time together. While he may recall details of a long-ago student, he often forgets the names of his own kids – or even his wife! While John’s mental state is causing emotional pain for Ella, it’s her own untreated cancer that is driving her body to fail her. They are each slipping away in different ways, though their paths lead to the same destination.

Based on the novel from Michael Zadoorian, four different writers worked on the screenplay, and that is likely the cause of the distorted tone and approach. It’s quite difficult to be funny when the moments are so poignant and sad. There is even a political undercurrent which is teased, but carries no heft or substance. Taking place during the most recent Presidential campaign, Trump rallies are used as punchlines, and a Hillary rally is inferred. Neither have any impact, though a sequence involving a roadside robbery ends with (unintended?) support of carrying a gun, even if it was an odd attempt at humor.

Janel Moloney and Christian McKay are little more than caricatures as the grown kids, while we do get to see Dick Gregory’s final on screen appearance (he passed away last year).  Carole King and Janis Joplin songs are put to obvious use, and there aren’t enough “Happy Swirls” in the world to overcome the inherent fear that most aging folks have towards a failing body or mind … and this film shows both sides, while attempting to inject humor on that one last road trip that most of us dread.

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