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.

watch the trailer:

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READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While there is a massive target audience for Steven Spielberg’s return to fantasy adventure filmmaking, I am most certainly not part of that esteemed group. Although I very much enjoy throwbacks and tributes, I haven’t touched a video game controller in 3 decades, and of course have not read Ernest Cline’s popular novel – the source material that inspired Mr. Spielberg to veer from his recent heavy dramas (the exception being THE BFG). Still, being a movie lover, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the project.

Seemingly a match made in Virtual Reality heaven, we get one of the premier fantasy filmmakers joining forces with a screenwriter (Zak Penn) who has had success with comic book adaptions, and a bestselling first novel from a geeky author. Fascinating to watch, the film plays like Mr. Spielberg’s $175 million personal toy box.

There is a story, though one could argue it exists solely for the purpose of pushing the visual FX envelope. A Steve Jobs-type guru named Halliday (Mark Rylance) designed a 3-part contest of skill and strategy with the grand prize being full control over OASIS – a virtual world that allows the players to be anyone or anything they desire. Since Halliday’s death, most people in this dystopian future of the year 2045 spend their waking hours immersed in OASIS. Some use it as an escape from their bleak lives, while others are attempting to solve the mysteries of the 3 keys.

Set in Columbus, Ohio, which we are informed is the fastest growing city in the world (why??), there are two factions vying for the grand prize: true gamers/gunters and megacorporation IOI being run by corporate villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Tye Sheridan (MUD) stars as Wade Watts, whose avatar is Parzival, one of the more thoughtful characters. Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS) plays Ar3mis, a rebel gunter (egg hunter) out more for revenge than victory. They are part of a group of misfits who label themselves ‘High-Five’, even though Parzival gets left hanging every time.

Near non-stop action and relentless pacing result in a whirlwind of lights and colors and visuals that are mixed with more 1980’s pop culture references than anyone could possibly catch in one viewing. As a primer, you should brace yourself for a key role from THE IRON GIANT (1999), as well as various appearances and nods to TRON, BACK TO THE FUTURE, Freddie Krueger, Chucky from CHILD’S PLAY, the Holy hand grenade (Monty Python), the infamous Big Foot monster truck, a speeding DeLorean, the 1960’s era Batmobile, that hideous A-Team van, Christine from CHRISTINE (1983), John Hughes, King Kong, BEETLEJUICE, and a personal favorite, Buckaroo Bonzai. It’s also a kick to see the Rubik renamed Zemeckis Cube. The most stunning sequence for this old geezer was the virtual recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), especially the focus on Room 237. It’s these kind of nostalgic injections that prevent it from coming across as an overblown CGI spectacle with VR goggles.

Others in the cast (more time as voices than real people) include Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), TJ Miller as a bounty hunter with some of the film’s best one-liners, Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner, and Phillip Zhao as Sho. Surely you’ve figured out that this one isn’t about the cast. OASIS is where your imagination rules and Easter eggs are driving plot lines. Alan Silvestri takes over the music from usual Spielberg collaborator John Williams, and delivers one of my favorite references (and one of the oldest) in the film – WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski must have been exhausted by the time filming was complete, though we can’t always tell what was filmed and what was created in the lab. Spielberg is a master manipulator when it comes to nostalgia, though we can’t help but wonder if he is making a statement with this being the next evolution as our society becomes ever-more-involved with their phones and personal devices. At least maybe some kid will leave this film with a greater appreciation of research.

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BIG FISH & BEGONIA (Dayu haitang, China, 2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Animated films from Asia will likely always draw comparisons to the films of Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master storyteller behind Studio Ghibli and such animated classics as SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONOKE, and THE WIND RISES. Some may find it curious to mention Miyazaki when discussing a project from two first time Chinese filmmakers, but their work here is so impressive, the comparison is justified. Not only that, it’s quite clear Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang have studied the master’s work and are believers in his style.

As with any animated film, success can only be had when both the look and the story hold our attention. Supposedly the film took 12 years to complete, and with its intricate weaving of Chinese culture and tradition, and the dreamy visuals, we understand why. While I don’t begin to understand the many references to Chinese mythologies and legends, and most of the classic Chinese literary characters are new to me, the movie has a spellbinding effect that draws us in and leaves us fascinated.

On her 16th birthday, Chun partakes in a rite of passage that involves spending 7 days in the land of humans. See, Chun is from a magical parallel world where “the others” control the human world seasons and tides. And we all know that if one is going to have control over another world, it only makes sense to have a basic understanding of that world and its inhabitants!  Chun is transformed into a red dolphin and shoots through a portal into the land of humans. It’s there that she is saved by a boy, whose courageous act costs him his own life when he is caught in a vortex. Chun is determined to deliver his life back to him … remember, she is from a magical world.

The story really takes off from here and becomes an adventure filled with love and sacrifice. We are told “Some fish aren’t meant to be caged, because they are meant for the sky”, and it’s not until the conclusion that we fully understand. Chun’s mission has her crossing paths with both the Keeper of Good Souls who lives with more cats than anyone should, and a creepy Rat Lady who is the Keeper of less fortunate souls and commands an army of rats for her dirty work. This game of cat and mouse between the two factions of soul-keepers is but one of the many webs of intrigue presented in the story.

As you would expect, these two parallel worlds collide and Chun, her friend Qui, and the hero human who is resurrected as a small fish named Kun are all at the center. Chun must protect Kun for his soul to survive, and this puts her in conflict with her own family who prefer the tradition of keeping the two worlds separate.

“Without happiness, what’s the meaning of longevity?” This quote is at the heart of Chun’s passion, and in fact, also drives her friend Qui to go above and beyond. A debt to be paid sprinkled with love and attraction adds a personal touch to the otherwise fantastical proceedings. Though the visuals are splendid and enough to keep us engaged, it’s the convergence of sky and sea – and Begonia flower power – that move this from a fancy cartoon into a story with depth and meaning. Remarkably, it’s the first film for these two filmmakers, though I do hope we mustn’t wait a dozen years for their next.

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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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BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

watch the trailer:

 


PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

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THE STRANGE ONES (2018)

January 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having been well received at film festivals throughout 2017, this film is journey of patience for both the characters and its viewers. Co-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein have expanded their 2011 short film into their first feature length film, and though some evidence of ‘stretching’ is present, so is a somber, moody style that provides an interesting look and feel.

It’s more mysterious and atmospheric than it is thriller, and at times it even has a “Twilight Zone” vibe. Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) are traveling together as brothers, though we never really believe they are related. An impending dread hovers around each move they make, and the film tortures/teases us with unspecified relationships and connections. Nick and Sam are semi-desperate and clearly on the run, yet it’s not until the end when things somewhat come together.

Young Freedson-Jackson is the key to the film, and his facial reactions are critical. His astounding blank stares seem to hold meaning. It’s a bleak film with a gloomy tone, and while I’m all for slow and deliberate story-telling, the technique is usually more effective when there is a reason for it. This is a deep cut indie that lacks mass appeal, but for those patient enough to commit, the supernatural aura will likely keep you engaged for the run time.

watch the trailer: