Saturday, March 17, 2018

Just One of the Gays: 10 Things I Love About “Love, Simon”

The equally sweet and cheesy “Love, Simon” is not only influenced by 80s and 90s teen films but it’s actually three films in one. One is a story about a teenager struggling with coming out as gay. One is a coming of age story about blossoming teen love that feels universal. And one is actually a pretty fun mystery. Here are ten things I don’t hate about “Love, Simon.”

A coming of age story from a new perspective. “Love Simon” follows a teenager named Simon who seemingly has the perfect life (read: huge house, car, hot parents) But life isn’t always as perfect as it appears on the surface. Simon happens to struggle with a big secret. He’s gay and hasn’t told anyone. He begins a penpal-like relationship with a fellow student named “Blue” who comes out anonymously on their school’s blog site and Simon becomes obsessed with figuring out who this mystery guy as he begins to fall for him.

A strong message about inclusion and representation in a mainstream Hollywood film. Sure there are small films like Brokeback Mountain and recent Oscar winner Call Me By Your Name that sometime breakout into the mainstream but they often are serious dramas with stories that end in either tragedy or heart break. “Love, Simon” thankfully has no such ending. The film isn’t political whatsoever; there’s no agenda, that’s not the point.

An impressive lead performance. All the performances here are truly great. However, Nick Robinson (somewhat channeling a young Matthew Broderick) who many probably recognize from “Jurassic World” gives a particularly impressive lead performance as the confused Simon. His struggles are palpable and the emotional roller coaster he invites us on is hard to forget.

The directing. The film is directed by Greg Berlanti. It’s a name few probably know but many will be familiar with. He’s responsible for the DC-universe on TV’s The CW. Yeah, he developed “Arrow” and “The Flash” and got his start writing for “Dawson’s Creek.” Berlanti’s film is bright and colorful and even if there’s nothing too flashy in how the film itself looks, he offers plenty of fun touches including a mid-film fantasy musical number that had be beaming from ear to ear. Sure “Love Simon” is a little sappy and cheesy at times, but what do you expect from the writers of “This is Us.”

The writing. That’s right, the film was written by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker who work on the delightfully soapy hit NBC drama. This is easily the type of film that could have wound up as a made-for-tv event but the fact that it got green-lit for the big screen is almost miraculous. The script is witty and offers up a fun mystery in regards to Simon’s quest to figure out who “Blue” is. The screenwriters obviously had a strong foundation as the often comedic film is based on Becky Albertalli’s award winning young adult novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.”

Moviedom’s nicest, coolest, and most understanding parents. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play power couple/Simon’s parents and even if they’re not necessarily given all that much to do they each have their moment to truly shine. After Simon’s coming out each parent has a really sweet moment with their teenage son. Bring tissues.

The best friends. Thankfully the casting directors were able to find actors who actually looked, sounded, and acted like teenagers. Robinson is 22 sure but he looks young. Simon’s friends are all likable, appealing young actors and you feel like you’re watching real people. Of course the film isn’t afraid to have these people do unlikable things that have important effects on the plot which keeps things interesting.

A fun soundtrack. The film is loaded with radio-friendly tunes, most of which come from the band “Bleachers.” The songs are fun and recognizable and the movie even throws in a few classics into the mix. Which means Rob Simonsen’s retro sounding score fits perfectly with the 80s teen movie aesthetic the filmmakers were going for. Which brings me to...

Nostalgia. Nostalgia. Nostalgia. Teen movies were a big deal back in the day thanks to John Hughes and all the other filmmakers inspired by him. All of those films are great, but you’d never see a gay character portrayed in such a non-stereotypical/offensive way let alone in a story from their perspective. The film really feels more like the teen movie genre’s 90s counterpart that featured everything from “Clueless” to “Ten Things I Hate About You” and “Never Been Kissed” all the way up to the more recent “Easy A.” This one just so happens to be about a lead male character who isn’t into girls. Which is why anyone who was either a) ever a teenager or b) ever enjoyed movies about teenagers should find “Love, Simon” rather enjoyable.

Teen movie cliches. Yes they exist. I’m talking about the goofy comic relief vice-principle (Tony Hale) who tries too hard to relate to his students (Natasha Rothwell). The pissed-off teacher who tells it like it is. And most ridiculous of all, the sheer amount of time that students in these movies have in the morning before class. Simon is able blow off breakfast with his already awake and showered family, pick up three of his friends, stop for iced coffee, find a parking space right in front of the building, and get to class on time. Right.  GRADE: A-

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Maul in the Family: “The Strangers: Prey at Night” Offers Some Nostalgic Slasher Fun But Not Much Else

Wow these guys REALLY want to find Tamara huh? “The Strangers: Prey at Night” conjures mixed feelings. The horror nerd inside me wants to declare it a slasher-tastic, raucous good time. While the snobby film critic in me wants to complain about the many reasons why it’s a pretty terrible film. It is a pretty terrible film. But you know what? It’s sort of fun… It’s “fun” in a way that the superior original is not. The 2008 film “The Strangers” was nihilistic, depressing, but utterly terrifying. The film brimmed with suspense and tension. It was like “Halloween” turned up to an eleven. “Halloween” never offered much hope, but at least the main protagonist survived. There’s no such reassurance in “The Strangers.” The film’s long delayed sequel “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is way less cynical and is even arguably amusing in a way the original just wasn’t; but it really lacks the unbearable tension that made the first film so powerful. The 2008 film functions as a gritty 70s torture drama with no real hope or catharsis; while the belated sequel finds pleasure in an 80s chase and slash aesthetic in which the audience is practically encouraged to groan, shout, and cheer at the appropriate moments. At least the enthusiastic audience members did when I saw it.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way so we can get to the good stuff. The acting. No one is winning an Oscar for a slasher film let’s be honest. The performances don’t need to be transcendent; they just need to be passable. Are they passable here? Barely. Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) and Martin Henderson (“The Ring”) are the parents of the troubled Kinsey (Bailee Madison) who’s being sent away to boarding school. You can tell she’s rebellious because she wears a Ramones shirt and smokes cigarettes; I didn’t buy it. Then there’s her jock-geek older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman). Madison feels like she was plucked from the Disney Channel casting pool and it shows; she doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off Final Girl duties. That’s a bummer. Pullman is likable. It’s probably because he’s Bill Pullman’s son. Hendricks and Henderson are serviceable as the disposable parents but they’re frankly not given much to do. They’re all we have to root for which is kind of sad really. Then there’s the three masked maniacs who spend a late night stalking and killing off this dysfunctional family as the clan settles into an off-season mobile home park.

There’s no plot. Here’s a family. Here are the killers. The killers want to murder the family. That’s pretty much all we’re given. And that’s fine because we know this ain’t Shakespeare. It works in the original film because what the film lacked in plot or character development was made up with tremendous suspense and dread. It was quite effective. There’s not quite as much tension here but you can tell director Johannes Roberts (who also made last year’s disappointing shark flick “47 Meters Down”) is trying to accomplish. There is certainly a strong sense of mood and 70s/80s nostalgia flowing through the film’s brief 85 minute runtime. The film is loaded with wide shots and zooms with the killers creepily lingering in the corners of the frame. Nods to everything from John Carpenter, Steven King, and even a bit of Texas Chain Saw Massacre are nice. The film has a fun retro soundtrack featuring a fun electronic score from Adrian Johnston. Roberts obviously had a vision; from the retro title card to the 80s pop tunes blaring on the soundtrack (he initially wanted to score the entire film with 80s songs) and the fun camerawork. The film however looks and feels somewhat cheap, as if it was all rushed into production.

For those of us awaiting the return of the three masked strangers there’s very little connective tissue from this film to its 2008 counterpart. The first film was a disturbing home invasion thriller; this second entry expands it slightly and feels more like a traditional chase and slasher flick. The fun retro-vibe is really appealing though I don’t know if the film works as well as the filmmakers think it does. To be honest, I’m torn. The film is somewhat shoddy and the characters are pretty bland and the actors don’t help much and the Final Girl is completely unworthy. But there are so many fun moments in the ridiculous third act that annoyed the critic in me but delighted the horror nerd in me. It’s certainly a must-see for those horror fanatics who have been waiting an entire decade for the triumphant return of Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask. It’s not the sequel I was necessarily expecting but that’s not always such a bad thing.  GRADE: B-

Monday, March 05, 2018

Good Grief: “Wake” is a Smart and Observant Dramedy

Is there anything more awkward in life than death? Probably not. In the short film “Wake” death sets the scene as a young woman returns to her hometown for the funeral of her estranged best friend. Taking a cue from observant films about death in the presence of life such as “Garden State” and “The Big Chill” the film finds itself dealing with grief in a really keen way. A short film doesn’t always give filmmakers much time for truly in-depth character development but “Wake” makes great use of its 25 minutes. Even for its low budget the film features standout performances from its unknown cast and some really funny humor that smartly breaks much of the dramatic tension. The film really gets human nature and I found myself intoxicated by these people and their story.

“Wake” follows a young professional woman named Michelle. She’s played very well by Liz Noth who has the likable charm and charisma of a younger Natalie Portman. Michelle returns to her small hometown to attend the funeral of her friend Jess. We’ve never met Jess and we never do. And initially all we know is that these two friends had previously had a falling out and Michelle can’t even bring herself to actually show up at the wake, stopping short of Jess’ house and deciding to return to her vehicle. Later that evening, she attends a party being thrown by another former classmate and other 20-something friends who are celebrating Jess’ life. And here is where things begin to get awkward, tense, and surprisingly funny. We slowly learn more about the people that used to be in Michelle’s life and how she and Jess came to be estranged.

The film’s attentive script from writer and co-star Jake Smith is tight and true-to-life. One can easily project their own life and experiences on these characters and situation. And Darin Guerrasio, who also shows up in a small role, directs with an assured hand. The two balance serious drama and humor rather well and slowly peel back the layers on these characters as more and more is revealed about them and their past. After all, in life nobody’s perfect.

The small, intimate film looks pretty nice. With a budget of $12,000 according to IMDb, the production value impresses. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the camerawork but that’s not necessary; the film is a reflection of the human experience and it beautifully captures it simply with truth and grace. “Wake,” with its bouts of perfectly timed humor, moments of quiet sadness, and some impressive burgeoning talent, reflects an undeniable truth about life whether you’re a millennial or not: that grief comes with the human experience and everyone deals with it in different ways.  GRADE: A-

“Wake” has screened at several film festivals including the Golden Door International Film Festival and the Big Apple Film Festival and will be showing at the Pasadena International Film Festival (March 7-15th) and the New Haven International Film Festival in May.  

Wake (Short Film) - Official Trailer from Jake The Myth Smith on Vimeo.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Oscar Forecast: “Three Billboards” with a Chance of Everything Else. Oy Vey.

Updated: Wow. So The Shape of Water actually pulled it off. It won Best Picture without a Best Cast SAG nomination. The only film to do that since Braveheart. BP and Director did NOT end up splitting. The film walked away with 4 total wins (Picture, Director, Score, & Production Design). Get Out did pull off a win for Jordan Peele’s script which was probably my favorite win of the evening. The acting wins went to their respective front runners and otherwise there weren’t really any surprises. The show was really fun and even if I only got 16 out of 24 correct I’m still proud to have correctly predicted the Academy, yet again, refused to award the Planet of the Apes series for their jaw dropping effects work. 

I like stats. Stats usually work. But stats are sometimes meant to be broken. And it’s gonna happen this year. Every single best picture nominee will break a stat if it wins Best Picture. I remember last year when I was losing sleep over my Oscar picks and that’s when La La Land was the unabashed frontrunner. Nothing could stop it. Not even an envelope mix-up. Oh wait. RIGHT! MOONLIGHT WON! What a crazy surprise that was huh? I was so sure nothing could upset La La Land last year (even though it didn’t have a SAG CAST nomination), and now there are about FIVE films that could possibly take best picture and I can’t for the life of me figure out which one it’s gonna be. At least I know what definitely won’t win. But that’s not helping much. And like I said, each film has something working against it. Three Billboards doesn’t have a directing nod. Only four films in Academy history have won BP without a directing nom. The Shape of Water doesn’t have a SAG cast nomination. Only ONE film in 25 years has won BP without a SAG Cast nomination (it was Braveheart). Niether Get Out nor Lady Bird have an editing nomination nor any other “tech” nods. Only one film has won BP without an editing nomination since 1980 (it was Birdman). Dunkirk also doesn’t have a SAG Cast nod, nor writing or acting nominations (it’s been 85 years since a film won without Writing and Acting  nominations). The other films are happy to be nominated. One of those stats is going bye-bye, but which one? Let’s jump in, shall we?

Best Picture

Who Will Win: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” Where do I even begin? Except that I honestly have no clue what’s gonna win best picture. I’ve never been so unsure.  In three of the last four years Picture and Director have split. And in those three incidents I have incorrectly predicted Best Picture because I’ve always gone with whoever was going to win Best Director. Correctly predicting splits are difficult. This year I’m predicting Guillermo del Toro for Director for The Shape of Water, so technically Shape of Water should have the most obvious shot. But not so fast. In the those three years where I’ve been wrong, I’ve incorrectly predicted a film that was also snubbed in the Best Cast award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. There’s a disturbingly accurate correlation between the SAG award nominees and what ends up winning the Best Picture Oscar. And guess what? The Shape of Water wasn’t nominated there so you know what? I REFUSE TO PREDICT IT. I’m going with “Three Billboards” because it FEELS like a Best Picture winner even if it will have a tough time making it through the Academy’s annoyingly perplexing preferential ballot (this ballot, in which members rank their choices, functions to award a consensus pick, in other words, what film does a majority of the Academy like overall. As opposed to just circling a winner, in which case Three Billboards or Shape of Water would win easily. So basically, with ten potential nominees the Academy things that a film winning with less than 20% of the Academy’s vote is unfair). If not “Three Billboards” I’d say “Get Out” has a slight chance (remember when the last and only horror film to win Best Picture was The Silence of the Lambs? That film came out in February just like Get Out. Coincidence?) but I’m still not buying it as an actual winner. Same with “Lady Bird.” Heck, even “Dunkirk” could win here since it felt like an obvious choice since its summer release. So basically what I’m saying here is there are 5 strong possibilities for Best Picture, while four films (Call Me By Your Name, The Post, Phantom Thread, and Darkest Hour) have no real shot. OK I’m done with you Best Picture, you’re giving me anxiety.

Who Should Win: “Get Out.” It’s a zeitgeist film. A surprise hit. It SAYS something and entertains all at once. It feels like the movie of the moment.  Having said that, I’d truly be happy if any of the five frontrunners won.

Should Have Been Nominated: “The Big Sick” My favorite film of the year had a shot, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Best Director

Will Win: Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water.” He won the DGA. It’s hard to bet against history. Anyone else would be a surprise at this point.

Should Win: Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk.” What does this guy have to do to win a freaking Oscar already?

Should Have Been Nominated: Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” There was no excuse for leaving his name off the list. None.

Best Actor

Will Win: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour.” The easiest of the four acting races to call this year (in a year where all four awards seem to be locked up anyways). He’s a respected actor who’s never won in a role that checks off all the traditional Academy boxes. Poor Timothee Chalamet will have other chances.

Should Win: Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name.” Chalamet’s performance is way subtler than what Oldman is doing but it’s way more impressive considering how young the kid is. What is he like 12?

Should Have Been Nominated: James Franco, “The Disaster Artist.” Even if he’s a tool, his performance was impressive and fun.

Best Actress

Will Win: Frances Mc Dormand, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” If Frances AND Three Billboards wins, it’ll be the first film since Million Dollar Baby that the Best Actress winner comes from the Best Picture. I’m pretty sure Frances has a second win the bag at this point. If anyone spoils I guess it’s Saoirse Ronan but that’s unlikely.

Should Win: Frances Mc Dormand, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” I thought everyone here was pretty great.

Should Have Been Nominated: Brooklyn Prince, “The Florida Project.” One of the more impressive child performances in quite some time.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” I’m pretty sure Rockwell is a lock. Willem Dafoe was the frontrunner until Rockwell started actually winning everything. Surprises happen in this category so don’t get too cocky Rockwell. Just ask Stallone. It helps that Rockwell is in a widely seen movie and Dafoe is the solo nomination for his film.

Should Win: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.”  That fact that Rockwell plays such a hateful character speaks volumes to how good his performance really is. No one said this was an easy film to like.

Should Have Been Nominated: Michael Stuhlbarg, “Call Me By Your Name.” Best. Monologue. Ever.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya.”  Arguably the least sure thing of the acting races this year, though she’s still pretty much locked in at this point. Laurie Metcalf could pull this off, but Janney’s performance is showier while Metcalf’s is subtler. Though tell that to Mark Rylance.

Should Win: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya.”  Janney plays such an evil bitch; it has to go down as one of Oscar’s best villainous roles.

Should Have Been Nominated: Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick.” This one still stings.

And the rest:

Best Adapted Screenplay 
Will Win: “Call Me By Your Name.” The 89 year-old James Ivory is poised to win his first Oscar after many former times at bat. Probably one of the sure things of the night, but tell that to Jason Reitman for “Up in the Air” who won every single Adapted Screenplay award that year except the Oscar.

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” If this category was called Most Original Screenplay, then sure Get Out would be a shoo-in. This is really a race to watch as pretty much any of the nominees could win, with the probable exception being “The Big Sick.” I’m pretty certain that if Three Billboards wins this it’s going all the way. The last Best Picture winner to not win for its Screenplay was “The Artist” which didn’t have dialogue. Also, watch for Get Out, a legitimate threat. It really has to win here if it’s going all the way. (Though it could still win here and literally anything could win BP).

Best Animated Feature Film
Will Win: “Coco.” It’s Pixar. Good Pixar. Moving on.

Best Cinematography
Will Win: “Blade Runner 2049.” Could this really be Roger Deakins’ year? I guess so?? There’s something that’s telling me that “Dunkirk’s” thrilling IMAX footage or love of “The Shape of Water” might actually take this. This is a category I’m excited about.

Best Costume Design
Will Win: “Phantom Thread.” This is probably Phantom Thread’s only real shot at a win (with a possibility of Best Score, but we’ll get to that). It’s interesting to note that the last nine winners of this award have also at least been nominated for Best Production Design (previously Art Direction). There’s sometimes a correlation between the two but I think Phantom Thread will still pull it off.  There’s a chance that something like Beauty and the Beast could win here but I don’t know that the film is liked or respected enough (though that didn’t stop the borderline garish “Alice in Wonderland” from winning 2 Oscars).

Best Documentary - Feature
Will Win: “Faces Places.” The frontrunner in this category, “Jane,” isn’t even nominated which makes things a little fuzzy. Unless some late-breaking news about the director of “Last Men in Aleppo” being denied a visa to attend the Oscars got enough people to get riled up, I think 89 year old documentarian Agnes Varda (the oldest nominee ever) will probably win her first competitive Oscar (She was just honored with an honorary award in the fall). “Icarus” has the power of Netflix behind it, and its  Russian doping storyline is certainly timely. Anything can happen here.

Best Documentary - Short Subject
Will Win: “Edith+Eddie.” I’m torn between this depressing tale of really old people in love and “Heroin(e)” because it’s readily available on Netflix. These shorts categories are always tough to call since so few members actually watch them and vote. I think people will respond to “Heaving is a Traffic Jam on the 405” but I found the film rather distancing. For what it’s worth, there is no film about the Holocaust this time.

Best Film Editing
Will Win: “Baby Driver.” This category is always ripe for an upset. There are certain types of films that usually win here, whether it’s a war film (like last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge”) or a frenetic action film (like “The Borne Ultimatum”). The Academy also isn’t afraid to award this film to a non-Best Picture nominee though the last five winners were up for the night’s big prize. I’m going out on a limb for “Baby Driver” which recently won at BAFTA (which correctly predicted the last two most recent surprise winners). While Dunkirk feels like the obvious pick, I’m worried that the film’s fragmented editing style is more confusing to Academy members than showy.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will Win: “A Fantastic Woman.” The Academy made a political statement with last year’s winner. A win for “A Fantastic Woman” would be the first win for Chile. But watch out for “The Square” which is the other most well-known of the nominees.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will Win: “Darkest Hour.”
 Last year everyone was surprised that a film as horrendous as “Suicide Squad” could actually win an Academy Award no matter how good the particular craft was. This time it will easily go to “Darkest Hour” which completely transformed Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. I’d be shocked if either of the other two won here.

Best Original Score
Will Win: “The Shape of Water.” The Academy likes to reward newcomers in this category which is why “Phantom Thread” feels like a possible spoiler. The Academy also loves a good string score (tell that to Thomas Newman who lost for his amazing American Beauty score to The Red Violin). I think previous winner Alexandre Desplat is poised for his second trip to the podium for his memorable work in “The Shape of Water” though I found that the music in “Dunkirk” is what really drove much of the dialogue-less film – and the Academy may recognize that as well.

Best Original Song
Will Win: This is Me, “The Greatest Showman.” It’s not impossible for a movie to win on its only nomination here. “Spectre” pulled off somewhat of a shock win here two years ago. I think the surprise popularity of “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack will prevail against the plot-significant  and memorable Remember Me from “Coco.”  If This is Me wins, its writers Pasek & Paul will be the Tom Hanks of song composers with back-to-back wins.

Best Production Design
Will Win: “The Shape of Water.” I think the flooded room sequence is enough to get Academy members to vote for “The Shape of Water” even if that was more of a visual effect. Sometimes the Academy confuses Producting Design with Production Value after all (I know, I know, no one said they’re the smartest people in the world). I guess the futuristic sets of “Blade Runner 2049” could pull off a win here, but it is “Beauty and the Beast” and its relevant Costume Design nomination we all must watch out for.

Best Short Film – Animated
Will Win: “Garden Party.”
Most pundits seem to be picking Kobe Bryant’s cute but short and self-indulgent “Dear Basketball” but I’m going with the dark-themed, lifelike animated frogs. Pixar’s in the mix with “Lou” but I don’t think it’s strong enough to prevail.

Best Short Film – Live Action
Will Win: “Dekalb Elementary.”
A timely film about a school shooter. “The Eleven O’Clock” is the only comedy in the group which gives it an edge.

Best Sound Editing
Will Win: “Dunkirk.” They went sci-fi last year with “Arrival” so I’m thinking they’ll check off the war film this time.

Best Sound Mixing
Will Win: “Dunkirk.” Sometimes these sound categories are split between two films and sometimes they’re given to the same film. Usually because many members don’t even know the difference. If there’s a spoiler look to either “Blade Runner 2049” or even “Baby Driver” whose sound design was integral to the film’s success and even figured into the plot.

Best Visual Effects
Will Win: “Blade Runner 2049.” The Academy has been shamefully neglectful of the new Planet of the Apes series. The effects in these films are jaw-dropping and have improved with each entry. It’s mind-boggling that they’ve never been rewarded. But if they didn’t before I don’t think they will now (though it COULD happen as many are predicting). This award tends to go to a Best Picture nominee when there is one (there isn’t this year) and “Blade Runner 2049” feels the most like a Best Pic nominee with 5 nods total. Besides, the film recently won at the BAFTAs as well.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ready Player Gun: The Twisted “Game Night” is a Winning Dark Comedy

It has been way too long since I’ve seen a truly fun, dark comedy. “Game Night” thankfully fills that void. Genuinely great comedies are so rare nowadays, so it feels like a miracle when a good one sticks the landing. Taking a cue from the recent boom in table top gaming, “Game Night” follows a group of friends who get caught up in a violent mystery during one of their traditional game nights. Of course these friends aren’t exactly hardcore gaming nerds, we’re talking Charades and Scrabble which is why the movie works so well. It’s about non overly intelligent people getting caught up in a ridiculous situation that goes from bad to worse. And it’s completely hilarious to watch them so close to serious injury or death and untangle themselves from the clutches of mortal danger. It also helps that the sometimes clever direction and witty script is pretty observant about human behavior and relationships which imbues the film with a surprising legitimacy. Also, it’s funny as hell.

“Game Night” follows a married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachael McAdams who should be in more films together) who original met during trivia night. The extremely competitive pair continue weekly game nights with friends and are also having trouble conceiving a child. Max’s more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up and offers to host his own game night in which he’s initiated a “realistic” mystery game in which the prize will be his fancy new car. There for the game are Max and Annie’s friends another married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and then there’s hunky but dimwitted Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who has brought along his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan). An actor playing an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) shows up to begin the game and coincidentally two armed robbers break in and attack him and Brooks. The group assume it’s part of the game and that’s when things really start getting good.

“Game Night” mostly works for three reasons. And these are reasons why most successful comedies work. The script by Mark Perez is fresh and funny and offers plenty of fun twists and turns. Even if in the third act things get utterly preposterous. You could tell it’s one of those fun scripts producers were dying to get made. The film also works because of the chemistry of the actors. Bateman and McAdams are delightful together. And it’s been a disturbingly long time since McAdams has been in an outright comedy. The former Oscar nominee and Mean Girls breakout needs to read more comedy scripts. Bunbury and Morris’ running joke about Michelle having slept with a celebrity is milked for all its worth. Magnussen, who plays dumb brilliantly, and Horgan as his older, Irish boss work wonders in their scenes including fun bit with the owner of the game company Brooks used, cleverly called Murder We Wrote.

And lastly, and this is something rarely brought up when it comes to comedy films, is the direction. The guys (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) who wrote the equally clever “Horrible Bosses” and previously directed the underrated “Vacation” redo work their comedy magic here. The film’s introduction is well done, the second unit shots featuring cinematography that makes the scenery look like fake game boards, and an extremely impressive and well-choreographed tracking shot later in the film are some of the fun highlights to be found here.

“Game Night” is certainly a welcome surprise. It’s fun, dark, and has guaranteed laugh. Raunchy and clever in equal doses with some really surprising twists make this one to remember. All of this and I haven’t even had time to mention the scene-stealing performance from Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons as Max and Annie’s creepy, police officer neighbor. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous in the best possible way, in other words, it’s a winner.  GRADE: B+

Friday, February 23, 2018

Love & Breadth: “This is That Night” is a Short and Sweet Rom-Com

So it turns out “This is That Night” is that movie Woody Allen would have made early in his career. Most Hollywood films can’t establish well-drawn characters in 2 hours let alone thirteen but writer and star Jonathan Marballi is certainly up to the task in his cute rom-com short that is seeing a digital platform release after a successful film festival run.

The simple film observes a man (Marballi playing Jon) and woman (Kris Wiener playing Kris) as they embark on the fourth date of their relationship. Things are going well as the couple appear to be hitting it off, joke around, and chit chat in Kris’ city apartment. Shots of empty plates, wine glasses, and candles burning signify the passing evening as the couple eventually realize that this is the date where they stay up all night talking; and then they hit a rough patch. At that point I’m pretty sure I would of just turned on the TV in a desperate attempt to cut through the awkwardness but the couple is determined to overcome their abrupt conversation block.

Shot in contrasty black and white and filled with old timey music on the soundtrack, this funny and observant short is artistically realized by director Matt Braunsdorf. He directs his actors well; they give perfectly naturalistic performances. It’s obvious Braunsdorf and his actors come from a background in improv (Upright Citizens Brigade to be specific); you feel like you’re just hanging out with friends who enjoy talking in silly voices and having awkward conversations about Christopher Columbus, abortion, and Chinese food. The humorous, dialogue driven film feels inspired by the relationship comedies Woody Allen has wowed film nerds with for decades.

The film captures the clumsiness of new relationships in a way many feature length films barely attempt to do. For what is essentially a short film about two people talking in an apartment “This is That Night” really gets human behavior right. It helps that the performers have a natural chemistry and even if the funny film isn't any sort of visual masterpiece Braunsdorf knows how to make a single location feel like its own character. I really wanted to know where these people ended up. I’m anxiously awaiting “This is That Morning." GRADE: B+

This is That Night (trailer) from Jonny Marbles Films on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Out of Africa: The Thrilling “Black Panther” is Just the Movie We Need Right Now

I tend to be a bit hesitant when it comes to some of the lesser known Marvel characters. But in reality these lower tiered folks turn out to be just what audiences deserve. A slight break from the routine. And “Black Panther” is just that film. A blockbuster in every sense of the word, this fantastical action adventure pushes the boundary of big budget movie making in really fun and creative ways. And the fact a film that pushes for diversity and representation is coming out now shows that even if Hollywood is sometimes behind on the times its good to know they’re at least taking the right steps. “Black Panther” shows Marvel at the full height of creative prowess by giving us a diverse cast of fascinating characters with real motivations and superior production quality from a director in full creative command. A fun conglomerate of various genres from Shakespeare melodrama to spy thriller to fantasy, the film works on multiple levels and hardly requires any previous knowledge of the seventeen (!) other Marvel films that have come before it. In other words, even after ten years of Marvel Studios films, these people still know how to make a darned good piece of popular entertainment.

Ryan Coogler. How does a filmmaker go from such small, indie roots as “Fruitvale Station” which first got both him and breakout star Michael B. Jordan noticed, to the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s because the studio is willing to take a chance. But don’t forget that Coogler proved he could play with a bigger budget with the tremendously well-received “Rocky” spin-off “Creed.” His impressive cinematic eye was impossible to ignore. The director brings a much-needed fresh perspective to the MCU as the big budget comic book films are dying for a little bit of diversity. And diversity is just what audiences crave. Just look at last year’s fantastic female-driven “Wonder Woman.” It’s step in the right direction that is sure to attract new talent and a new audience as well. Sure “Black Panther” is diverse, with a predominately Black cast of well-known and little-known actors. And they are all glorious.

We were first introduced to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in “Captain America: Civil War” where we see his father fall victim to a terror attack. T’Challa becomes the king of the fictional African country Wakanda. Wakanda is a special place; it posses as a third world country but is actually the home to powerful, advanced technology in form of “vibranium.” T’Challa is not only king but possessed the power of the “Black Panther;” a guardian for Wakanda. Of course it isn’t so simple. Enter some complicated family dynamics and you’ve got yourself a fantastical African-set Shakespearean drama that is truly absorbing. Meanwhile there are car chases, fight scenes, and flying ships that will likely make “Star Wars” fans salivate on cue.

What’s so particularly special about “Black Panther” is how well the film balances a handful of different genres and how smoothly it transitions from comedy to serious drama. And it works as an all-too familiar reflection of our troubled times. T’Challa insists on protecting the people of Wakanda from outside forces but in so doing he’s leaving other decedents of the African continent to live in poverty stricken communities. Coogler’s protege Jordan plays N’Jadaka a former US soldier who seeks to use vibranium in a malicious way and is intent on overthrowing T’Challa and make Wakanda his kingdom. Notes of “The Lion King” don’t exactly go unnoticed, but let’s not forget that that animated classic is really just a retelling of “Hamlet.” The dynamic between T’Challa and N’Jadaka are not unlike historic real life civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X who each had radically different ideologies for essentially same cause. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole’s script is well aware of the time and place this film is existing in. The fact that Cole also wrote for Emmy-winning miniseries “The People vs. OJ Simpson” is not coincidental.

Sure it’s a super hero film with a message. But it’s also wildly engaging and supremely entertaining. T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright in a scene-stealing performance) is essentially the Q of Wakanda with all her fascinating vibranium-forged gadgets. The film features an awesome car chase that rivals anything seen in a James Bond film. The costume design and set design is exquisite and colorful. And the music score from Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson is simply beautiful with its African-inspired cues. The performances are truly great from an impressive ensemble cast (with Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya, 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, Andy Serkis, and Martin Freeman all in memorable roles), the direction is suburb, and it truly feels like none of the other 17 MCU movies that have come before it. “Black Panther” is ground-breaking art disguised as popcorn entertainment and it is certain to push the boundaries of the comic book genre forward in exciting new ways.  GRADE: A

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Frock & Awe: The Inert “Phantom Thread” is Only Sew-Sew

Once known for his quirky and sprawling, ensemble based Robert Altman-influenced dramas, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has gone over to the dark side of pretentious, arthouse films that dare to challenge audiences. And that’s fine. It shows an artist maturing as he grows into himself, but I can no longer really count myself as a fan. His latest work “Phantom Thread” is expertly crafted; nothing in the frame seems to be out of place as it’s impeccably staged, but it’s emotionally hollow and offers very little in the way of a rewarding experience. Even Jonny Greenwood’s score feels like an artist going beyond what made him so enjoyable in the first place. “Phantom Thread” is a bizarre love-hate story about annoying people and how they learn to deal with each other. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to care about them, but even if the film is a little slow and stodgy it at least offers bright bursts of humor to help us stay awake.

Set in lavish 1950s London, Daniel Day-Lewis, allegedly in his last film role before he calls it quits in the film industry, “Phantom Thread” follows renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) who has a very lavish and rigid life. He lives with his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) who keeps his life orderly and consistent. She's easily the most interesting character in the film. He woos a sweet waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who eventually moves into his flat with him. Cyril immediately considers this a terrible idea since Reynolds has never had successful relationships because of his controlling personality. What comes next is a sort of battle of wits between the pair as Cyril looks on. Alma butters her toast too loudly and it pretty much ruins Reynolds day. He’s THAT sort of person.

So basically what you have here is one of the most ridiculously lavish romantic comedies every put to screen. And you’ll either love it or find it dreadfully pretentious. I sort of fall into the latter category. I find much to appreciate in the films’ artistry. The performances are fine, but the characters are hart nuts to crack. I found myself rooting for Cyril who is really just the awkward third party. While Anderson has been influenced by Robert Altman in the past, he seems now to be influenced by the melodramas of the 1950s and 60s. The film has a sort of Hitchcockian feel to it. Shots of eyes through peepholes and themes of obsession were not lost on me. In the end the film leaves you feeling hollow. Though that was probably the intent.

“Phantom Thread” works as an art house piece. You sense an artist at work. But not every piece of art is for everyone. I prefer Anderson’s more digestible earlier work. Even when he’s being bizarre just to be bizarre (ie Punch-Drunk Love) there’s an energy that undeniable. That energy has been replaced by sluggish, stuffy character drama. Unfortunately, the film’s artistry fails to capture much of my intention leaving me the worst question an audience member could ask. What’s the point? GRADE: C+