Thursday, February 14, 2019

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC

Rebel Wilson     Priyanka Chopra      Liam Hemsworth     Adam Devine     Betty Gilpin


     How long has it been since you saw a creative, really romantic rom-com with new ideas?  I daresay not since the 1990’s and maybe early 2000 (e.g., When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, High Fidelity).   Isn’t It Romantic is predictable based on all these earlier films and it, unfortunately, borrows from Melissa McCarthy’s playbook in having the heroine blunder, stumble, and tumble time and again.  But hey!, these antics are always good for a laugh in the audience somewhere.  
     The set-up here is that Natalie—apparently a very good architect—is filled with cynicism about love and romance, belittling her assistant for watching rom-coms—not because it’s at work, but because she is disdainful of such stories—and being oblivious of every admiring glance, compliment, or invitation that comes her way.  The basic concept is introduced realistically by having Natalie’s mother delivering rather constant skepticism about anything touching on the romantic, especially where Natalie is concerned because she is heavy-set.  (“Give up those dreams, girl; that will never happen to you!”) The story also brings home the resulting lack of self-worth that Natalie has developed, as in “Sure, I’ll take your trash and dispose of it”, “Sure, I’ll call the printer repairman”, etc.
     What transpires in an expected way is that Natalie has experiences that finally bring home to her—that is, she gets—what she has been missing; that despite the feedback from all her friends, not only does she miss the denigrations, she misses the positives coming her way.
     The journey it takes to get to insight for Natalie involves encounters with doctors, a suave charmer (Hemsworth) at the office, and her best-friend office mate (Devine).  
     The film ends up modeling basically good principles that highlight the value of substantive human connections, but it essentially repeats what its predecessors have already portrayed.  So I have to ask about the reason for the film.  Is it meant to titillate viewers with the high life (private planes, yachts, extravagant parties), and then expect to pull them in with heartfelt values?
     Rebel Wilson is a gifted actress who, like McCarthy in her movies, is using slapstick to make light of being heavy, which overshadows their acting ability. How I wish both of them would find/pick  scripts that portray them as normal people with interesting problems that ignore their physical appearance.  It seems to me that the Europeans are much better than Americans at casting actresses based on their ability to portray all kinds of characters irrespective of their physical appearance.  This movie runs the risk of promoting a stereotype when it’s trying to do just the opposite.
     It’s the acting that will save this film—if anything will—not the hackneyed story.

Rom-com about a heavy-set woman having dreams that are fulfilled—just not in the way she expects.

Grade:  D+                        By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 7, 2019

LEGO MOVIE 2

Voices of:  Chris Pratt     Elizabeth Banks     Tiffany Haddish     Will Arnett 
Alison Brie     Channing Tatum     Maya Rudolph     Will Ferrell


     Following upon The Lego Movie (2014), this sequel continues the adventures of the “Master Builders” who started out as resistance fighters against Lord Business and his army of Micro Managers. Emmet (Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Banks) were heroic in the previous story and ended up as best friends in a happy town, Bricksburg, where everyone is special.  It should be noted that Wyldstyle (Lucy as she is now called), is more pessimistic and skeptical, in contrast to Emmet’s sunny outlook. Each would like for the other to change just a bit. 
     Their town now is a darker, chaotic--maybe cooler--Apocalypseburg that is changed significantly from the sunnier Bricksburg. Within the backdrop of an exciting confrontation between their city and some invaders coming in from outer space (who are wrecking everything faster than it can be rebuilt in a city of Master Builders), Emmet and Lucy become significantly changed for the better.  Emmet is both helped and hindered by making the acquaintance of Rex Dangervest (also Pratt, signifying polar opposite traits in the same person), who is brash and confident and easily counteracts Emmet’s diffidence. When Lucy gets kidnapped, Emmet enlists the help of Rex Dangervest in getting her back.  Their struggles increase insight for Emmet and Lucy; however, Rex’s issues are more complex.
     This sequel continues the psychological journeys of the characters that were begun in the first rendition.  And in this sense, the movie seems addressed more to the adult audience than to children.  For example, themes of and questions around romance, marriage, self-actualization, and détente between warring factions make the film more interesting for adults.  The production design and animation are so engaging (almost to the point of overpowering the characters and the story), children are likely to enjoy that aspect of the film; I just don’t know how much of the import of the story actually gets through to them. I suspect little of it.  The beginning scenes are so laden with special effects, it’s often hard to decipher what is going on, especially when the chorus sings, with lyrics that are hard to decipher.
     At any rate, there are exciting scenes showing colorful vignettes of the invaders led by Queen Wa’Nabi (Haddish) and the heroic efforts of the Apocalypseburg trio (Emmet, Rex, and Lucy) to protect themselves.  The invaders are clever in “brainwashing” others to join their ranks, including Batman (Arnett) who is seduced into wedding the queen, despite his fiercely avowed bat-chlerhood.   [The manipulative clichéd means by which Queen Wa’Nabi seduces him are some of the scenes I hope do pass over the heads of children.]  But there is a quick twist toward the end of the story that seems to discount the charge of brainwashing.
     Tiffany Haddish is clearly the star in this production, with her character’s chameleon-like presentation and witty dialog.  Haddish is perfectly cast, managing to be both outrageous and lovable.  Pratt and Banks also capture their roles in a way that makes them as believable as real people. Numerous cameos of the likes of Richard Ayoade, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ralphe Fiennes, Will Forte, Will Arnett, and still others popping up throughout, do their part in increasing the entertainment value of Lego Movie 2.

The continuing adventures and personal development of Lego characters Emmet and Lucy/Wyldstyle.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

WHAT MEN WANT

Taraji P. Henson     Josh Brener     Aldis Hodge     Richard Roundtree
Tracy Morgan     Shane Paul McGhie    Erykah Badu


     What Men Want is counterpart to Nancy Meyers’ earlier film, What Women Want, with essentially the same plot.  In this version, sharp-edged sports agent Ali (Henson) has to contend with the macho men in her company who are disparaging and pass over her in subtle and not so subtle ways.  But having been brought up by her boxing pro father (Roundtree), she has no trouble throwing her own punches, leading the men around her to regard her as a ball buster.  She, in turn, is dismissive of her gay assistant Brandon (Brener) and his aspirations to become a sports agent in his own right.  
     There are some entertaining and funny scenes of a poker game (which Ali crashes) and when the firm wants to become the agent for a budding basketball star, Jamal (McGhie), with a helicopter parent (Morgan).  After the front-line male agents put together an appalling video to promote him, Jamal is horrified, and Ali thinks she has a good chance to win him over.  With the plot turn of her visiting a psychic and gaining the ability to read men’s minds, she starts being very successful in poker as well as winning over Jamal and his father.
     But Ali’s penchant for topping everyone causes her to cut corners and run roughshod over anyone who can be of use to her, all of which she will have to answer to by the end of the film.  
     The kind of humor in this film and in its predecessor is not especially appealing to me, although I can understand how others might find it very entertaining. The audience in the screening I attended seemed to have a great appreciation for it.  However, I would have liked to ask them what they thought of the sex scenes, which were rather insensitive in their portrayal by apparently being intended primarily for laughs.  I also wonder if the gay community will have something to say about the way in which sexual orientation is presented, which is in a rather stereotypically humorous way.
     I have admired Taraji P. Henson ever since I first saw her in television’s “Person of Interest”, in which she played a slightly dowdy but sharp witted and stubborn city cop.  Of course, she has gone on to much grander roles in, for instance, Hidden Figures and the TV series “Empire” and become more glamorous in her appearance.  She shows a wide range of skills here, from brash and unheeding to sexily fun-loving to thoughtful and penitent.  Other standouts in performance include Richard Roundtree playing a loving father who understands the shortcoming of his parenting efforts, Erykah Badu playing a wondrous eccentric psychic, Tracy Morgan playing a kind of crazy parent, and Aldis Hodge as a gorgeous hunk with values.

Light comedy is the order of the day here, along with a few life lessons.

Grade:  C                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 31, 2019

MISS BALA

Gina Rodriguez    Anthony Mackie    Ismael Cruz    Thomas Dekker    Matt Lauria


     It’s a mystery to me why a remake of a mildly successful movie would be attempted. This production directed and executive produced by Catherine Hardwicke is an example.  The previous Miss Bala (2011) received some recognition after its premier at the Cannes Film Festival, but did not win any significant awards.  Nevertheless, it was regarded more highly than this version is likely to be.  Both are based on an actual event that occurred in 2008 when a beauty pageant winner in Mexico, got mixed up in a drug trafficking scandal.
     In 2019’s Miss Bala, Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist, returns to Mexico where she grew up to visit her old friend Suzu (Christina Rodlo), who is competing in a contest to become Miss Bala of Baja, California.  They’re thrilled to be together again and decide to go to a club in the evening where the mayor is supposed to be.  Suzu tells Gloria that he is influential in the contest, and she wants to make contact with him.  She does indeed, and introduces him to Gloria.  The evening is cut short when the club is terrorized by gang members shooting it up.  The two women are separated, and although Gloria survives, she can’t find Suzu.
     What follows is a series of mishaps in Gloria trying to get help, and instead, getting abducted, not just once, but twice.  The first time is by Lino (Cruz), the leader of the Estrellas gang, who eventually promises to help her find Suzu IF she will do something(s) for him.  The second time is by a DEA agent (Lauria) who wants her to help him locate Lino.  Each man places her in a double bind so that she is forced to help both of them—a real dilemma.
     There are some exciting, interesting scenes and plot twists, but these are weakened by illogical and implausible situations and actions, some simply going against common sense.  An example is when the club is attacked and bodies are falling all around her, Gloria does not lie on the floor and play dead.  She risks her life by running through a barrage of bullets, and then puts her trust in someone who betrays her.  Another is when Gloria becomes an expert shot with an AK 47 after one lesson.  A major issue for me is when a DEA agent (Lauria) is portrayed unfavorably as compared to Lino, who is shown at times to be heroic and respectful.  Not to say that DEA agents are all fine and upstanding, but this portrayal seems to come from a bias against them.
     The main actors (Rodriguez, Mackie, Cruz, Lauria) hold their own in terms of skill and being convincing; Rodriguez and Mackie, especially so.  Probably the weakest aspect of the film lies in the script by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer that stretches plausibility.  Catherine Hardwicke’s direction seems well measured with a good sense of timing.
     For viewers looking for an entertaining two hours and willing to accept flaws in the plot, this is an OK movie.

A novel twist on a beauty pageant mixed up with drug trafficking.

Grade:  C-                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT

Sam Elliott     Aidan Turner     Ron Livingston     Caitlin FitzGerald     Larry Miller


     This is a charming (and sometimes tense) story about an eccentric old man with regrets. It’s striking, because many would call him a hero.  He eschews that appellation, saying that there were real heroes in WWII, and he was only doing what he was told to do.  This is a role made for Sam Elliott (playing Calvin Barr, a man of few words and deep thoughts), who draws out every conversation, every scene, as long as possible to instill maximum emotional impact.
     Writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski has chosen to alternate back and forth between the experiences of the young Calvin, played by Aidan Turner, and older Calvin, played by Sam Elliott.  The younger has been undercover in the WWII Nazi military with a special mission, to kill Hitler.  The older Calvin lives in the same town, same house as the younger. But he has long been home from the war, still grieving the loss of his pre-war beloved (Caitlin FitzGerald).  
     Calvin now leads a solitary life, talking only to his bartender and his dog, but hardly to anyone else, even his brother Ed (Miller).  He seems like he is preparing to die (as in dumping all his meds in the trash) when he is visited by FBI agents asking him to go after the current “Bigfoot” in the Canada wild, who is infecting the civilized world with dread diseases—ones that trace their beginnings to the black plague in the 14thcentury—and ones to which he is immune.   (A little hokey is the stated fact that he is the “only one in the world capable of destroying this animal/human being.)
     At first, he refuses; but this is a man who is still questioning his first “kill.” Yet, he is torn because of his position of being honorable in all things.  Will he go when he is called as an old man to fight yet another fight?  Or will he cling to his basic principles?  
     The film is engaging and entertaining, and Sam Elliott is mesmerizing (with Aidan Turner expertly and convincingly playing his younger self).  The plot is interesting and fanciful, yet it doesn’t quite hit that “sweet spot” where reality, fantasy, and inspiration come together.  Perhaps if the script were more plausible, it could have been more engaging as a fantasy. But as it stands, its remains interesting but not one that will stay with you.

A military fantasy that, however intriguing, lacks enough grounding in reality to be impressive.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, January 24, 2019

STAN & OLLIE

John C. Reilly     Steve Coogan     Shirley Henderson     Nina Arianda     Danny Huston     Rufus Jones



     Laurel & Hardy were a sensation beginning in the ‘20’s, faded a bit in the ‘40’s, and then had a comeback in the ‘50’s.  Their act was an old-time slapstick comedy, with each being a buffoon or a straight man in turn.  But Stan & Ollie is less about their act and more about the relationship between them during their long association, which survived when their other relationships did not, necessarily.
     In the film, we see them working, amiable and jostling together as they dream up their act.  Stan Laurel was the writer, and his work got them started on planning an act.  As time goes on and, as in all relationships, previously overlooked feelings start surfacing.  It gets more complicated as their wives join them on their last tour through Europe, ending in London.  Hardy’s wife is the traditional American wife, nurturing and ever mindful of her husband’s welfare.  Laurel’s wife is more cosmopolitan and has had something of a career as a dancer.  Her acerbic personality provides more entertainment in its contrast with the American conception of the “ideal” wife.
     The casting by Andy Pryor is right on.  John C. Reilly, in his usual “nailed it” mode, shows Ollie as someone who looks like he doesn’t know much and is a buffoon underneath, but actually shows a kind of intelligence that complements the Laurel character’s creativity. Steve Coogan likewise shows both sides of the buffoon-smart character.  Each deals with the business of entertainment in very different ways, and each is successful in his own way, although they don’t necessarily fit together in a negotiation.  Best to leave them negotiating on their own.
     I especially enjoyed the wives.  Shirley Henderson is a staple in British theatre and television, reliable in projecting color and meaning into a story.  Nina Arianda similarly gives movies she’s in a special punch. The writer (Jeff Pope) and director (Jon S. Baird) wisely use the two wives to illuminate the personas of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
     The kind of comedy Laurel & Hardy embody is not especially appealing to me, but I found this account of their association compelling and moving.

Laurel and Hardy as Stan and Ollie in their private lives.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

Louis Ashbourne     Dean Chaumoo     Tom Taylor     Rhianna Dorris
Rebecca Ferguson     Patrick Stewart     Angus Imrie


     Written and directed by Joe Cornish (Attack the Block, Ant-Man, Hot Fuzz), the film is an entertaining mix of fantasy and reality, weaving together tales from King Arthur’s Court and contemporary life at Dungate Academy, where the main four young characters attend school.  It starts out with two fast friends, Alex (Ashbourne) and Bedders (Chaumoo) being bullied by two older students, Lance (Taylor) and Kay (Dorris). Alex and Bedders are nerdy kids who are interested in magic, and are derided by Lance and Kay.  Lance promotes himself as “king” of the school, and uses every opportunity to show it, backed up by his sidekick, Kay. 
     Alex is brave and fights back, especially in defense of his friend.  And one day, when he is running from Lance he ends up at a construction site, briefly assuming himself safe.  But in a confrontation with Lance, he falls over backwards off a fence onto a pile of dirt.  Lance and Kay leave him for dead, but when Alex comes to he sees a huge sword stuck in stone. Curious, he pulls it out with some effort, and runs home with it.
     This is where his and Bedders’ nerdiness comes in handy.  They notice an inscription on the sword written in Latin, and in an example of Cornish’s exquisite blending of history and modern technology, they look up the inscription on Google Translate and find that it says that the sword belongs to King Arthur, son of Tintagel (not a person, but an island).  Putting that together with a book Alex’s missing dad gave him with the message, “to the once and future king”, they begin to wonder mildly if it is Alex who is that “once and future king.”  
     This actually gets corroborated by a strange new student at school who does amazing things, simply with some kind of ritual he performs with his hands and arms.  Merton/Merlin (Imrie and Stewart) informs Alex that he is indeed “the king”, and that he is charged with preparing for a major battle with someone evil for ownership of the sword.  This is Morgana (Ferguson), King Arthur’s half-sister, who has been chained up in vines against a rock for centuries, struggling to get free. She is convinced she is the rightful heir to the throne, and knows that her success requires that she possess the sword (Excalibur).  
     Alex and his three friends/enemies (he needs the aggressive qualities of the bullies in his quest), whom he has knighted, set off to Tintagel Island to locate the entrance to the underworld and wage battle with Morgana.  Along the way, Merlin in his younger and older forms will guide and sometimes rescue them on their quest.  Their journey is engaging; it’s only at the very end the movie starts falling apart.  It would have been better if the last half-hour had been edited out.
     Production design (Marcus Rowland), cinematography (Bill Pope), and special and visual effects make this an enchanting journey that will keep children and adults raptly engaged.  The dragons that appear in the night-time with their brilliantly lit swords trying to catch up with and attack the seekers are truly terrifying, and the way old trees uproot themselves to train the king and knights in fighting is cleverly done and humorous at the same time.
         Alex(played by Director Serkis’ son)is a surprised but charming hero who wins you over with his wonder, valor, and smartness, which Ashbourne gracefully captures.  Chaumoo as Bedders portrays an interesting kid whose loyalty and whose interest and devotion to magic is admirable, as well as providing welcome levity at times.  Tom Taylor gives us a picture of an overly entitled, spoiled rich kid who needs to have his ears pinned back from time to time, but is one who finally learns from it.  Rhianna Dorris evinces the loyal follower who is not quite ready to stand on her own.  Imrie and Stewart playing the young and old Merlin grab your attention and keep you fascinated.  Finally, Rebecca Ferguson convincingly shows us a ferocious, hag-like figure whose greediness for power is unmatched. 
     With all its fantastical, other-world glamour, The Kid Who Would be King contains teaching moments for children (and adults in these modern times) about the necessity for cooperation in overcoming adversity, on the values in the chivalric code (honoring those we love, not being wanton, speaking truth at all times, and persevering to the end in any enterprise), overcoming disillusionment, and the value of diversity in any endeavor.  

If only the chivalric code would be applied in our troubled times!

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland