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

THE DRESSMAKER (2016, Australia)

September 29, 2016

dressmaker Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just have to give thanks (and credit) to a filmmaker for boldly stepping out of the Hollywood box and delivering a cinematic experience that is creative, interesting and downright unusual. Such is the case with director Jocelyn Moorhouse and her first film since A Thousand Acres (1997).

We know immediately that we are in for something a bit different. A1950’s era bus rolls down the dusty road and stops in a desolate little Aussie town with only a handful of store fronts. Western-style music accompanies Kate Winslet as she steps off the bus brandishing a Singer sewing machine rather than a Winchester or Colt. She lights up a cigarette, squints out from under her hat, and utters one of the more memorable first lines of any movie. We are hooked. (You had me at “bastards”)

What follows is based on Rosalie Ham’s best-selling novel with a screenplay from the director and PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, 1997), and features a most remarkable blend of slapstick comedy, dark humor, tragedy, romance, mystery, and revenge. At times the film has a Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson feel, while at various other moments it recalls the Keystone Cops, Chocolat, a spaghetti western and a spoof of … well it’s difficult to say whether it’s a spoof or homage to numerous genres.

Ms. Winslet is in full lead mode as Tilly … the local girl who was accused of murder at age ten and banished from her mother and hometown. After 25 years, Tilly returns to Dungatar in an attempt to reconnect with her mom, gain a bit of revenge on the petty townfolks, and remember that fateful day that has been blocked from her memory. The tool of her trade is a sewing machine (and at times a golf club) and Tilly has the magic touch to transform the local ladies into more attractive and confident versions of themselves. She wields her Singer with every bit of danger as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) did with his revolver in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Judy Davis (A Passage to India) is fantastic (worthy of an Oscar nom) as Tilly’s mother “Mad” Molly. In a role that would have been pure caricature in different hands (Maggie Smith), Ms. Davis provides a depth and humanity to a role that is truly the heart of the film. Also excellent is Hugo Weaving as the local Police Sergeant who has his own secret quirks and guilty conscience, and is one of the first to appreciate the talents Tilly brings to the small town. Liam Hemsworth spends the movie grinning and gazing in the role of arm candy Teddy – one easily recognizable as the female role in most movies (those not directed by a woman). The deep cast always features Sarah Snook as Gertrude and Kerry Fox as the villainous school marm Beulah (replete with devilish hairdo).

While the story itself is relatively predictable, it’s the manner in which scenes are staged that makes this such a pleasure. The offbeat combination of desolate Aussie town and near cartoon characters are set against the colorful and textured world of highly fashionable clothes, wicked twists, twisted humor, reconciliation and tragedy – many scenes combining more than a couple of these.

Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson deserve special attention for costume design, as the costumes themselves play as characters to contrast the local atmosphere. It’s startling to realize that such a coherent story utilizes such topics as domestic violence, spousal rape, misogyny, cross-dressing, murder, perjury, blackmail, Billie Holliday, South Pacific, cannabis brownies, and Sunset Boulevard in such creative ways. Though many critics will not agree, Ms. Moorhouse has delivered an entertaining and accessible movie despite its complexity with multiple subplots and various undertones. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait 20 years for her next film project.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

November 24, 2013

hunger1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s quite clear I am not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy or the corresponding movies that are packing in the teenagers and young adults. Still, I’ll admit to enjoying the first movie … and am even a bit more impressed by this second entry. Having a female heroine that is young, strong, smart, loyal, and emotionally grounded is not just unusual, but also quite a welcome change of pace.

Any uproar over missing/adapted elements from the source books can be chalked up to the young readers who haven’t yet come to understand that a 2 hour movie cannot possibly relay all the details and imagination held within the written page. In fact, co-hunger3screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBrauyn (aka Michael Arndt of Toy Story 3 fame) do an excellent job of balancing the numerous elements contained within the story: a fascist government, the off-kilter romances, family bonds, and the early stages of a revolution/uprising. This sequel features a new and much better suited director in Francis Lawrence, known for I Am Legend.

What really makes this material click on screen is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Her Mockingjay becomes the symbol of hope for the many districts intimidated by the iron fist rule of the President, played by the menacing Donald Sutherland. Ms. Lawrence is an absurdly talented actress and is one of the rare few who can convey a multitude of hunger2emotions through facial expressions alone. Despite Katniss’ sometimes prickly personality, the audience connects with her in a most positive manner.

In addition to Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Sutherland, returning to the fold are Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (still lacking even an ounce of screen presence), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (giving a bit more effort this time around), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother (seen recently as Abby in “Ray Donovan“), Willow Shields as Prim, Liam Hemsworth as Gale (his most exciting scene is washing his hands), and of course the instant electricity and energy provided by Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar – two of the most colorful characters this side of 1970’s era Elton John.

hunger4 New to this chapter are two of the finest actors working today: Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jeffrey Wright as “Volts” from the “nuts and volts” duo with Amanda Plummer. Jena Malone tries, but is miscast as Johanna, and Sam Claflin has a couple of worthy moments as Finnick. Two of the best additions are the frightening killer baboons and the Black Swan-style wedding dress. Both make eye-opening entries.

There is much to like about this series thus far, but of course, one must accept it for the genre it represents. And fair warning – see the two Hunger Games movies in order … or don’t bother. Regardless of your take on this franchise – may the odds be ever in your favor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you have seen and enjoyed the first one OR you want to see some angry baboons take on a group who just escaped a fog bank that would make John Carpenter jealous.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you skipped The Hunger Games.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzGXqJSDJ8

 

 


THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012)

August 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. As we get older, we expect to learn from our experiences. That’s exactly what happened here. It’s been almost two years to the day since The Expendables hit theatres. That first entry was directed, produced, written by, and starred Sylvester Stallone. This time around Sly sticks to acting and a script credit. Con Air director Simon West is now at the helm and the film clearly benefits from better action, improved characters and especially MUCH more humor … the key reason it works.  However, fear not, Stallone’s face is still on screen the majority of the running time.

Most of the familiar faces are back. Stallone as Barney, the leader of this pack of mercenaries; Jason Statham as Christmas; Dolph Lundgren as Gunner; Terry Crews as Hale Caesar; Randy Couture as Toll Road; and Jet Li as Yin Yang, though he is unfortunately only in the fantastic pre-opening credits sequence. Also back, after brief but funny cameos in the first, are Bruce Willis as Church, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Trench. If somehow that’s not enough testosterone for you, the second installment also provides Liam Hemsworth as Billy the Kid, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Vilain (pronounced vi-LANE, get it?), martial arts expert Scott Adkins, and 72 year old Chuck Norris as Booker … the “Lone Wolf” soldier.

 For what passes in balance in this world, the female lead is played by Nan Yu as Maggie. She is a brilliant fighter, speaks multiple languages, yet unfortunate enough to fall for Stallone (guessing that was his contribution to the script). While the story is necessarily simple, her role is vital in that she softens some scenes, while at the same time holding her own with the sea of steroid and botox stars.  This time around, love plays into the story a bit more.  In addition to the beautiful, intelligent, 30 + years younger character falling for his Barney, Statham’s romance picks back up, and a true love story featuring Hemsworth takes place (no, it’s not with Miley Cyrus).

 A couple of sequences are noteworthy.  Even though it’s in the trailer, the scene with Willis and Arnold in the SMART car driving inside the airport terminal is quite entertaining.  Also, the chaotic opening rescue scene finds Stallone getting shot twice, yet somehow he is immediately healed and never again bothered by something so minor. Something I found quite funny, was watching JCVD leave his sunglasses on even while filming his scenes underground in the plutonium storage facility. And, like the first one, the music seems picked to purposefully be a punchline … oh, and Frank Stallone (Sly’s brother) once again manages to gain a musical credit, right there along side Little Richard.  

 This version is extremely likable and filled with tongue-in-cheek humor, sarcasm and wit. Sure, it’s quite cheesy and some of the one-liners are obvious and telegraphed, but it’s fun to have references to The Terminator, Die Hard and Rambo, among others.  The guys are not hesitant about poking fun at themselves or each other … all the while surrounded by nearly non-stop action, gun play, missile firing and other forms of over-the-top violence and action. The body count is impossible to track, which goes right along with the extreme ammunition usage. In other words, it’s exactly what we hoped it would be!

** Note: Rumor has it that Harrison Ford may join for the next sequel

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some cheesy fun provided by nostalgia, wrapped in an over-the-top action film stocked with stars from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Where else are you going to get that?

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your action movies to be more intense and reality based like “Bourne” or “Mission: Impossible”.

watch the trailer:


THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

April 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read the Young Adult novels of Suzanne Collins, my comments will be limited to the movie only and not a comparison to the books. The screenplay was a joint affair courtesy Ms. Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). Whether or not you read the books, you surely know that this has been an anticipated film version in the vein of Twilight and Harry Potter. My analysis is that it falls short of Harry and is superior to the vamps.

What this film definitely is … proof that Jennifer Lawrence is for real. She burst onto the scene in her Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone and once again, her squirrel recipes come in handy. Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough as nails and very resourceful resident of the dirt poor District 12. She provides for her little sis and their emotionally vacant mother, and does so by honing her bow and arrow skills hunting in the vast woodlands.

 Without going into too much detail, the dystopian world of Panem is divided into 12 districts and a Capitol. As a combination entertainment and price for previous rebellion, an annual lottery is held to select a boy and girl from each district … “tributes” to their community. Those drawing the proverbial short straw are entered into a brutal fight to the death, where 23 are to be killed and one left standing. In the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister. So she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids are All Right) are whisked away to the Capitol to meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a one time winner who now celebrates daily by downing as much booze as possible.

 In stark contrast to the hopeless community from which they arrive, the Capitol is a gleaming, bright-colored land of enchantment filled with wildly costumed residents seemingly bored by the atrocity of the annual event. Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) is the man in charge of staging and manipulating the event for the highest possible ratings and entertainment value. He carries out his duties while sporting a very unique satanic beard, unlike you have seen before.

After prepping from a futuristic Tom Ford named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the tributes appear in front of a futuristic Ryan Seacrest played by the flamboyant Stanley Tucci. His Caesar Flickerman is charged with interviewing so as to help the audience make a connection. Nothing like humanizing the prey.

 It takes a full hour, but the actual Hunger Games finally begin. Quickly the faceless characters disappear and the game of brutality and brains begins. Lawrence is truly a standout here since she has tremendous ability as an actress, and sells her athletic ability quite well. I can’t say I was as taken by Mr. Hutcherson, who spends most of the film looking like a wounded puppy.

While the PG-13 rating keeps it from becoming a gore fest, I found the action sequences to be quite entertaining. More interesting to me was how the story and characters are posed so that a viewer might interpret meaning in just about any manner one cares to twist. There are political views and human nature traits and commentary on the Reality TV world that are primed for claiming … regardless of one’s opinion. To me, that’s a weakness. I would rather the story take a stand and make a statement. But then I remind myself that this is the first in a trilogy of Young Adult stories. It’s not designed for deep thought. The movie succeeds in reaching the goal of producing a strong young female character in a world run amok.

The movie and story seems a mash-up of The Running Man (1987) and Japan’s Battle Royale (2000), but do deliver some other interesting characters, notably Donald Sutherland as the viscious President, Elizabeth Banks as the colorful PR expert Effie Trinket.  T Bone Burnett teams with James Newton Howard for the music, and the Tracker Jackers will definitely cross your mind the next time you have a wasp nest to deal with.  The missed opportunities with political commentary and a more in-depth love story do not harm the entertainment value here, and the box office success guarantees we will see “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” to finish out the trilogy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the books (haha … like you haven’t already seen the movie at least twice) OR you want to follow the career of Jennifer Lawrence (super star in the making)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting an incredibly intense, socio-political commentary OR a satanic looking beard could cause nightmares

watch the trailer: