Saturday, March 23, 2019

This is “Us:” Jordan Peele’s Bonkers New Nightmare is an Instant Horror Classic

One this is most definitely true of Jordan Peele’s “Us:” it demands that you see it a second time. And I’m ok with that because it’s completely outstanding; it’s creepy, scary, intense, funny, and, best of all, flat-out insane. The preview for “Us” tells us all we need to know to get us to want to see this bizarre new follow up to his Oscar-winning hit “Get Out:” a family on vacation in their summer home begin to be terrorized by another family who look exactly like them. Sold. And yet there is so much more to “Us” as a film that I almost feel like I underpaid for the fantastic experience of it all. The film is a smart and funny horror flick that has a much bigger scope, fun twists and turns, perfect performances, and has a lot to say about society once you begin to discuss the film afterwards. In fact, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Jordan Peele is a genius.

The film is a reunion of sorts for “Black Panther” supporting actors Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke who play the Tylers, a middle class couple who set out to their vacation lake house with their two kids. We learn through flashbacks that Adaelaide (Nyong’o), as a child, had a traumatic experience in a carnival fun house. She seems to generally gotten over it though she’s a bit overprotective of her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and especially her younger son Jason (Evan Alex). Her husband Gabe (Duke) is your typical goofy, funny dad who likes to tease and slightly embarrass his kids. Seems like a normal family to me. But all is not what it appears to be on this supposed idyllic summer vacation. There’s definitely something wrong. And later that night a family of four shows up in the driveway – all wearing red jumpsuits and clutching menacing golden scissors – who seem to want one thing: to get in their house. Oh and they literally look just like them (they’re even played by the same actors).

It would criminal to say much more as the fun of it all is determined by how little you actually know going into the film. Peele has crafted a really fun and scary film that’s part home invasion thriller and part – well he mixes lots of genres and inspirations. Essentially a full length bonkers “Twilight Zone” episode, “Get Out” was a modern take on “The Stepford Wives” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” but “Us” doesn’t feel quite as definitive. I felt the influences of lots of films. Everything from “Funny Games” to “Jaws” to “The Birds” and “The People Under the Stairs.” Throw in a bit of zombie movie, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and - once again - a “Twilight Zone” and you get somewhat of what to expect in “Us.” Peele always has a message – his choices in his script and direction are never just coincidence. It was obvious what he had to say in “Get Out.” But with “Us” it’s slightly more challenging and vague and open to interpretation (and, for the record, arguably much scarier). In fact “Us” isn’t just the simple home invasion film that the trailer sets up – this movie will facilitate a post-viewing discussion that could take weeks to unravel. I can’t remember a mainstream film doing that since the controversial “mother!” but that film was far less digestible.

Peele is a master filmmaker, even at only two feature films into his career. His movie is so well crafted you’d think it was a veteran filmmaker 30 years into his career. Technical merits are solid. The film’s visuals are beautiful and telling – an overheard shot of the family as they make their way across the sandy beach with the sunlight casting large black shadows is one of the most seemingly innocuous but menacing shots of foreshadowing in quite some time. The music score from composer Michael Abels is just as menacing and simply outstanding. The film’s third act is simply bonkers and a complete showcase for the wonderful and Oscar-worthy Nyong’o who kills it in two terrific performances. Also great in a supporting role is Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as the Tyler’s friend also on vacation with her family

Do me a favor? Go see the film, laugh and scream, and then talk about with those you saw it with. Talk to the woman sitting in front of you who seems confused. Facilitate discussion. I don’t think there’s exactly a wrong or right way to interpret Peele’s film. He has a lot to say about class, race, and American society in general. The movie’s trailer insists we are our own worst enemy and I think that’s a great jumping off point. God I can’t wait to see this again.  GRADE: A

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Marvelous Ms. Danvers: “Captain Marvel” is a Solid and Overdue Addition to the MCU

There’s been plenty of great female characters in the twenty Marvel films that have preceded “Captain Marvel.” But none of them have headlined their own film. There’s no reason twenty films in, there has not been a Marvel film centered around a female protagonist. Why is this such a big deal? Well it wouldn’t be if they had made a female centered superhero film years ago. Audiences have waited a long time for Captain Marvel to show up and she’s in glorious form. “Captain Marvel” is definitely one of the most flat-out fun films in the MCU; sure it may not carry the emotional weight of the years preceding “Infinity War” but it stands fine on its own two feet, featuring fantastic visuals, an interesting story, a fun nostalgia streak, and likable characters. This is definitely solid mid-tier Marvel. And it even features one of cinema’s cutest cats.

“Captain Marvel” is sort of “Guardians of the Galaxy” lite. The film is set in the same general universe as that film and even has some crossover characters and races of people. We’re introduced to Brie Larson’s character as Vers who is a Kree and suffers from weird visions that feature Annette Bening. Who wouldn’t want to have weird visions of Annette Bening?? After a mission involving infiltrating the evil shape-shifting Krulls goes awry Vers crash lands on Earth. In Los Angeles. In a Blockbuster. Did I mention the film takes place in 1995? There she meets young versions of SHIELD agents Samuel L. Jackon’s Nicky Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson. There, she must help fight off some invading Skrulls and figure out what’s the deal with her bizarre memories and the fact that she may in fact be a former US Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers.

The film could have easily gone down the “fish out of water” plot hole but that was done in “Thor” and even DC’s “Wonder Woman.” The film instead centers around a mystery involving our fantastic lead with welcomed bits of comedy. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – who come from the indie world of films like “Half Nelson” – imbue the film with a wonderful intimacy and also 90s nostalgia much in the way “Guardians” was an ode to the 80s. Conceiving the film as a prequel to the other Marvel films also gives the filmmakers the freedom to do their own thing while also eventually connecting the film to the rest of the MCU, much in the same way “Captain America: The First Avenger” was essentially all a setup for “The Avengers.”

Technical merits are top-notch. The visual effects are fantastic. The music score from composer Pinar Toprak is solid if not particularly memorable like most of the Marvel films (she’s also the first female composer in the MCU). Nothing has really come close to the “Ant-Man” theme and Black Panther’s Oscar-winning music. All of the performances are great. Brie is likable in the title role and she really kicks ass even if her performance is a tad understated. Her mysterious story works pretty well and thankfully doesn’t need to include a love interest. Jude Law is good as Vers’ commander/mentor, even if he does too much mansplaning. And how fun is it to see someone like Bening in this? At this point it feels like if you haven’t done a Marvel film are you really even an actor? I previously mentioned the film introduces a cute kitty and that darned cat pretty much steals the movie.

There’s not much to complain about in “Captain Marvel.” Maybe it a take a little time to really get going but the film is just as exciting, the action is just as well-done (including a great sequence on an elevated train), and the characters as just as well drawn as any other solid Marvel film. Is it the best? Of course not. The film isn’t nearly as unique at some of the other entries but Marvel’s overdue take on a feminist storyline is quite good and I can’t wait to see what Brie has up her sleeve in the next Avengers film.  GRADE: B+

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Something to Stalk About: “Greta” is a Fun, If Standard, Campy Stalker Thriller

Call me disheartened but I refuse to believe anyone in New York City would take the time to travel to a complete stranger’s home to return a lost purse. At least not alone. And yet that’s exactly the premise of “Greta,” a movie in which no one really acts like a real human being. Thankfully “Greta” devolves into a campy stalker thriller so that’s ok in my book. It stars recent Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert doing her crazy worst as a woman who baits naive people with “lost” purses around the city hoping to form a friendship and then going all “Misery” on them. “Greta” reminds me of the early 90s stalker dramas; your “Single White Females” your “Hand That Rock the Cradles” and I’m all for it. It does very little to be all that unique or different, but it’s well-paced, entertaining, and features a wildly fun to watch Huppert who chews up and spits out the scenery around her, sometimes even flipping tables over in process.

Enter Chloe Grace Moretz’ Frances McCullen who takes Greta’s bait hook line and sinker. Frances is a nice girl from Boston. She just moved to Manhattan where she’s living with her friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose father bought her an apartment for graduation. At least they try to explain why two young twenty-somethings have a killer pad. Frances finds a purse on the subway, tries to drop it off at the lost and found – which has nobody working there – and takes the purse home. She decides to be a good Samaritan and return the bag to its owner. When she arrives to a cute little offset apartment building, she finds an even cuter older French woman named Greta (Huppert) who is thrilled to see her purse and offers Frances some coffee. Don’t go in there!!

The two women are obviously lonely people and quickly find a connection. In real life, these people would never see each other again. But we’re watching a crazy stalker thriller so naturally the two women exchange phone numbers and continue to meet up and hang out. Erica who seemingly spends all her time doing yoga in her huge apartment things Frances is insane for hanging out with a woman she doesn’t even know. And then one night when at Greta’s place for dinner, Frances fines a cupboard full of the same purse she found and returned to Greta. It freaks her out naturally and she promptly leaves without giving Greta much of an explanation. And then soon Greta wonders why Frances refuses to answer her texts or calls. And then it gets crazier from there.

The film is surprisingly directed by Neil Jordan who gave us such cinematic classics as “The Crying Game” (a film I can’t say I’m a fan of) and “Interview With the Vampire” (which is campy enough itself). His last real impact in mainstream film was the Jodie Foster starring the NYC-set “The Brave One” which followed its own worn out vigilante storyline. Jordan also co-wrote the film (he shares credit with Ray Wright who wrote the story) and it he has certainly crafted a beautiful movie (it was shot by Seamus McGarvey) but besides some tense moments it doesn’t quite offer anything new or all that surprising. I find myself wondering what someone like Jordan saw in this well-worn material. I think one of the biggest flaws from my point of view is Moretz who isn’t given that much to do with this character and comes off a tad bland. She’s lonely because she’s recently lost her mother but she’s mostly reactive to all the crazy stuff that Greta is doing to her. Stalking her at work, following her friends around, and being a general nut bag. This is Isabelle Huppert’s show and she’s insanely good. Literally. The film’s final act isn’t very original but it’s surprisingly satisfying.

In the end, what’s the point of all this? It’s just a somewhat over-the-top thriller about a crazy woman. But it’s entire existence is predicated on the fact that Frances would even return a purse she found on the subway. I believe that there are good people in the world. But turn you gotta turn that stuff into the police. Otherwise you might end up starring in a crazy bitch thriller.  GRADE: B

Friday, February 22, 2019

Oscar Forecast: “Roma” With a Chance of “Green Book” and Five Other Movies. Yikes.

Update: Well Green Book pulled it off. It's somewhat surprising and yet not all that surprising as well. It's definitely a movie a majority of people liked and therefore worked wonders with the preferential ballot. Is it even close to the best filmmaking of the year? Hardly, but it's a fine movie. I'm sure it'll be remembered as an oddity in Oscar history when we look back on this bizarre year of solid films. But there is so much more to celebrate than Green Book's questionable win. Black Panther took home 3 Oscars - somewhat surprisingly - including Best Score. All three well deserving wins. A Spider-Man movie won an Oscar over Disney juggernauts and the night was filled with diverse winners of many colors. Every Best Picture nominee won something. Lady Gaga won her Oscar... but Glenn Close didn't. In what was totally a Marion Collitard moment, Olivia Colman was announced the Best Actresses surprising almost everyone. I think it came down to the fact that Olivia was too hard to ignore considering Close's film had only one nomination and was a mediocre film at best. This was the right decision. Besides, there are lots of Brits in the Academy, remember that. Spike Lee finally won an Oscar after decades of being ignored. The controversial Bohemian Rhapsody was actually the biggest winner of the night with 4 wins including Rami Malek's worthy Best Actor win, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Film Editing. It only lost one award it was nominated for: Best Picture. Take that, haters. In a night of surprises and bad picks (I got 15 out 24 correct) I'm glad I saw the win for Free Solo coming and I'm glad I changed my Editing pick to Bohemian Rhapsody from Vice at the last minute. Also getting 2 of the 3 short categories right is always a win. Til next year... See the winners here

On Sunday, second Christmas arrives in the form of the 91st annual Academy Awards. Let’s get into it. Fair warning: the following write-up contains gratuitous amounts of Oscar nerdiness.

I’ve been wrong the last three years in a row and it would be nice if I could get this right again. It seems like only yesterday I had a seven year stretch of correctly predicted BP winners (The Departed through Argo). And then something… funny happened. The Academy’s tastes began to shift, there was a whiff of change in the air, and they became - dare I say - unpredictable. I couldn’t even correctly predict last year’s win for “The Shape of Water” which actually makes the most sense in hindsight. It makes for an exciting show but for someone who spends the winter months trying to decipher which way the Academy will go, it’s anxiety inducing. And yet again here we are in a wacky year where “the rules” – ie, SAG noms, “requisite nominations” - that used to be very helpful - will be thrown out the window yet again. For several years it seemed like the SAG Best Cast category was the unofficial bellwether as to what could eventually win the Best Picture Oscar. Gravity, The Revenant, La La Land – all failed to get a Best Cast nomination at SAG and all failed to win Best Picture at the Oscars. So how could The Shape of Water possibly win BP without that same nomination? But it did! It did win. I maintain that Three Billboard’s lack of a directing nomination was telling. Sure, Argo pulled it off just a few years ago but there was a rallying cry behind Ben Affleck’s snub; no one seemed to care that Marin McDonagh got shafted.

And that is why I am somewhat hesitantly predicting a win for Roma. A film that was not nominated at SAG but still received two somewhat surprising Oscar acting nods for two of its actresses. I won’t even get into Roma’s lack of an editing nod – Birdman didn't get one and still won. But I think it’s because the Academy didn’t want to nominate Alfonso Cuaron literally 8 times. Some are predicting a victory for “Green Book.” But it’s lack of a directing nomination is telling, not to mention its SAG nomination snub. However, with the way the preferential ballot works a lot of these “rules” feel more less and less helpful. A legitimate argument could be made for ALL EIGHT BP NOMINEES. That is unprecedented. It was so much easier when it was The King’s Speech vs The Social Network or Birdman vs Boyhood or Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan. Ok bad example. So I’m officially going with Roma, which just triumphed at BAFTA and its hard to predict a BP/Director split to I’m sticking with it. Unfortunately, it seems like A Star is Born is just happy to be nominated.

Will win: “Roma”
Should win: “A Star is Born”
Should have been nominated: “A Quiet Place”

If the “rules” I speak of have become less predictive the last few years there’s one that has truly stayed the course: DGA. This award has a tremendously predictive history. Alfonso Cuaron won at DGA and is not surprisingly on his way to claim his second Best Directing Oscar. And that’s fine and all but what a great opportunity it would have been to reward Spike Lee (which will probably happy in Screenplay).

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma”
Should win: Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Should have been nominated: Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”

Controversy aside, I’m pretty certain that Rami Malek is going to take this for Bohemian Rhapsody. Even people who hate the movie say he’s the best thing about it. He won the Globe, SAG and BAFTA. It would be an upset if he lost at this point. Bale or Cooper could win but I’d be shocked if Malek loses.

Will win: Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Should win: Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Should have been nominated: John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”

What a crazy trajectory the ladies in this category have had. Another young vs old, newbie vs veteran narrative took shape this year as it became Gaga vs Glenn. Yes Glenn Close has yet to win an Oscar but does she really need it for The Wife? It’s a mediocre movie and she’s fine in it but to think Gaga and Colman will lose a deserving award to a lifetime achievement honor is just sad (though Gaga is really in third here considering she’s a lock for a win in the Song category). At this point after Close’s surprise Globe victory and powerful speech it’s hers to lose.

Will win: Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Should win: Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Should have been nominated: Toni Collette, “Hereditary”

I don’t hate “Green Book” as much as other people do and Mahershala is fine in the film. But I don’t quite get the need to give the guy another Oscar so quickly after winning for Moonlight. A win for Ali feels like another lock even though this category sometimes ends up rewarding veterans: your Christopher Plummers, your Alan Arkins, your George Clooneys, your James Coburns, etc. So a surprise win for Sam Elliott wouldn’t be the craziest thing to happen.

Will win: Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Should win: Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Should have been nominated: Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”

What a weird category this year. Regina King feels like the front runner but she wasn’t strangely not nominated at SAG and at BAFTA. It’s very rare for a performer to win an Oscar after being snubbed at SAG but it has happened twice: Marcia Gay Harden and Christoph Waltz. (Fun fact: Harden’s never even been nominated at the Golden Globes for any role). If King doesn’t win it’ll probably go to Rachel Weisz, who has already won in this category (against Amy Adams I might add). Adams could win I guess but it feels like no one really seems to care much about Vice these days. I thought she was fine in the film and wouldn’t mind her finally winning her first Oscar.

Will win: Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Should win: Amy Adams, “Vice”
Should have been here: Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”

Even if Spike Lee isn’t going to win for Directing BlacKkKlansman he’s most likely to triumph for helping to write BlacKkKlansman. This isn’t quite a slam-dunk – Can You Ever Forgive Me? surprised many by winning the WGA – and there’s a lot of affection for If Beale Street Could Talk and its source material. Having said that, it feels increasingly difficult for non-BP nominees to win in the screenplay categories (the last time a non-BP nominee won in this category was 1998’s Gods & Monsters)

Will win: “BlacKkKlansman”
Should win: “BlacKkKlansman”
Should have been nominated: “Black Panther”

This category is a tad more welcoming to non-BP fare (The last time a non-BP nominee won in the Original Screenplay category was 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I think this comes down to Green Book vs The Favourite. This will be a very important category to watch. If Green Book wins it could very well win Best Picture. If The Favourite wins it’s highly unlikely that Green Book will take the cake. I’m guessing The Favourite since it feels like the most Original of these nominees and it doesn’t help that one of Green Book’s screenwriters (Nick Vallelonga) has been in some hot water recently.

Will win: “The Favourite”
Should win: “The Favourite”
Should have been nominated: “Eighth Grade”

I’d be surprised if Alfonso Cuaron doesn’t win for lensing his own film. It’s certainly unprecedented. The Cinematography guild wasn’t having it (Cold War won at ASC) but I think the Academy will reward the film here.

Will win: “Roma”
Should win: “Roma”
Should have been nominated: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

It’s period vs. fantasy. Usually it’s dumb to bet against a flashy period piece drama featuring royals but the costuming in Black Panther is also gorgeous and unique. Flip a coin really, but I think The Favourite will probably win out. And if Black Panther surprises with a win I’ll be happy to be wrong.

Will win: “The Favourite”
Should win: “Black Panther”
Should have been nominated: “Crazy Rich Asians”

Another bizarre category filled with nontraditional nominees. Where’s the random action movie? Where’s the war film? There’s nothing too flashy or obvious about any of these nominees; they’re all fine. I think Vice, which won at BAFTA, will probably win because it arguably has the “flashiest” editing of the nominees, with lots of insert cross-cutting scenes. Bohemian Rhapsody could win here as music films tend to do well in this category and everyone knows that the troubled production of this film was truly saved in the editing room. So don’t be shocked if Bohemian Rhapsody pulls it off.

Will win: “Vice”
Should win: “Vice”
Should have been nominated: “A Star is Born”

Vice will probably win for transforming Christian Bale into Dick Chaney. The academy loves a good transformation (there’s a reason why films like The Iron Lady, Darkest Hour, La Vie en Rose have won here). Anyone who looks at stills from Border would be impressed with that work but have enough people seen the film or even know of it?

Will win: “Vice”
Should win: “Vice”
Should have been nominated: “Black Panther”

With “First Man’s” gorgeous score shockingly left out, this race literally comes down to race: the three front runners feature predominately African American casts: If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther. I think Beale Street will take it but wouldn’t be shocked to see any of these three win.

Will win: “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Should win: “Black Panther”
Should have been nominated: “First Man”

The only real sure thing of the night besides Best Director. Lady Gaga, half way to her EGOT.

Will win: “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”
Should win: “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”
Should have been nominated: “Ashes” from “Deadpool 2”

A lot of times this award is tied closely to Costume Design. So this is another battle between Art Directors Guild winners & front runners Black Panther and The Favourite. The Academy has been known to embrace worlds created with the help of computers so a win for Black Panther wouldn’t be unheard of, but I won’t be surprised if The Favourite wins this if they also win for Costumes. Flip a coin.

Will win: “The Favourite”
Should win: “Black Panther”
Should have been nominated: “Ready Player One”

This category isn’t very welcoming to non-BP nominees as I’ve recently come to find out. Skyfall won in 2013 but it tied with Zero Dark Thirty. But there’s a reason A Quiet Place was nominated for this award. It’s the film most reliant on sound effects. However, it’s not just sound people voting so I wouldn’t be shocked if something else, like Bohemian Rhapsody takes this one. I’m totally going out on a limb here.

Will win: “A Quiet Place”
Should win: “A Quiet Place”
Should have been nominated: “Ready Player One”

I think it’s a race between the two music-based films. Flip a coin, but don’t count out First Man.

Will win: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Should win: “First Man”
Should have been nominated: “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

Generally, in this category Best Picture winners tend to win. Of course “Ex Machina” beat several BP nominees that year. Usually the movie that wins is the film most likely to be a BP nominee, ie “Blade Runner 2049” and “Interstellar.” That film this year would be “First Man” (it’s also the only film of the five with multiple nominations) but the film’s effects are more subtle so I think the Academy will finally embrace the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a win for the effects-heavy Avengers. Though they really should be rewarding “Ready Player One” which has some of the most impressive full sequences of CGI since “Avatar.” (It’s also crazy that no Spielberg film has won this award since 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”)

Will win: “Avengers: Infinity War”
Should win: “Ready Player One”
Should have been here: “Black Panther”

It’s rare for a non-Disney or non-Pixar film to win here, but I think considering the Disney films are sequels don’t really help their cause. Sure “Toy Story 3” pulled it off, but that was a Best Picture nominee. I think “Spider-Man” will prevail since it has been winning every other top animation award but don’t be too shocked if there’s an upset. Remember when “Brave” beat out “Wreck-It Ralph?” That still hurts.

Will win: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Should win: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Should of been nominated: They actually got this category right this year

How does a film in this category that is also a BP nominee not win here? There is some consensus that those voting for Roma for BP would be hesitant to also vote for it here but that’s nonsense. Having said that, a surprise win for “Cold War” wouldn’t be the craziest of upsets.

Will win: “Roma” (Mexico)
Should win: “Roma” (Mexico)

A win for RBG would be rightfully politically motivated which I have no problem with and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has literally been everywhere lately (mostly in the hospital recovering actually but she’s a tough old broad). Having said that, the film itself while completely enjoyable isn’t necessary a feat of magnificent non-fiction filmmaking. That would be Free Solo, a big scale, nail-biter of a film about a man who attempts to climb Yosemite’s 3,000 ft El Capitan Wall without any ropes or safety gear. Either film has a decent shot.

Will win: “Free Solo”
Should win: “Free Solo”
Should have been here: “Three Identical Strangers”

Will win: “Period. End of Sentence.

Will win: “Bao”

Will win: “Marguerite”

Monday, February 18, 2019

Rebel Without a Cause: The Satirical “Isn’t It Romantic” is a Rom-Com With Considerable Bite

A meta movie like “Isn’t It Romantic” couldn’t exist if there weren’t decades worth of romantic comedy cliches built over time. “Isn’t It Romantic” is a satire of the traditional rom-com that has permeated the American cineplex for years. Of course it’s not the first film to spoof the genre and it certainly won’t be the last. But it does so in a clever enough way – even if it’s all a bit too obvious at times – to make it a rather enjoyable experience.

Aussie funny lady Rebel Wilson stars as a frumpy woman living in a “realistic” version of modern NYC. The film opens with Natalie as a kid watching “Pretty Woman” and her mother insists that movies like that aren’t real life. Anyone with half a brain knows that. Natalie grows up knowing that as well – movies are make believe after all. One day she’s mugged in the subway and knocked unconscious but when she wakes up everything is… different. Her hospital room is as gorgeous as her doctor and New York City no longer smells like garbage. Her apartment is now twice the size and she has an entire walk-in closet filled with every pair of shoe imaginable. Her creepy neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) is now her flamboyantly gay sidekick, Her nerdy work assistant and friend Whitney (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) is now bitchy, steely, and her sworn enemy. But one thing remains: she still crushes on her guy friend Josh even though she doesn’t think he’d date her in a million years. Enter the dashing, and second best-looking Hemsworth brother Liam as Blake as a company client who also apparently has a thing for Natalie. It’s not long before Natalie realizes that she’s trapped in some kind of Twilight Zone romantic-comedy dimension where she can’t even drop an F-bomb, even though PG-13 rated films allow at least one.

“Isn’t It Romantic” is directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and that’s no surprise because his last film was the equally meta “The Final Girls” which featured a reworking of slasher movies. That film didn’t quite work for me in the way that this film does. “Isn’t It Romantic” isn’t perfect though; for all its charm and wit, it hits all the basic notes as found in the script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman. It announces all the cliches of the rom-com genre but then just sort of follows them anyway. But that’s sort of the point because ultimately the film does take it’s own turn in the final act which was refreshing. The film is essentially a “best of” rom-com and yet you actually begin to care about Natalie and her plight.

Strauss-Schulson and his cast have such a fun time creating this fantastical world of perfection that it’s hard not to buy into it. The humor is pretty biting and Wilson makes for an absolutely perfect leading lady equally capable of being both sarcastic and charming. Even if the film is heavily influenced by famous rom-coms, I got a heavy “Wizard of Oz” feel. The opening scenes are gritty, filled with washed out colors, and shaky camerawork. After Natalie wakes up the film is brighter, more colorful, and the Steadicam makes itself known.

“Isn’t It Romantic” isn’t without faults but it’s a really fun time and offers plenty of laughs. The premise is rather clever even if it hits most of the beats you’re expecting. The film does feels like it offers universal appeal: Those who love rom-coms will enjoy the rom-comness of it all, and those who find the genre eye-roll inducing will still get a kick out of it. Wilson is matched with perfect material here, she gets to be physically funny and offers plenty of wit herself. Oh, and there are musical numbers. Did I mention the musical numbers?  GRADE: B

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Live/Die/Repeat: The Ridiculous “Happy Death Day 2U” Makes No Sense But is Fiendishly Fun

Where does one even begin? Put simply “Happy Death Day 2U” is an utterly ridiculous and preposterous sequel, one in which they try to explain the events the first film with “science” that hardly makes a lick of sense. But you know what else this movie is? FUN AS HELL. This is one of those movies where the intellectual me is telling me “This is so stupid and ridiculous!” and yet I couldn’t help but just go with it and have some fun. Everyone involved in “Happy Death Day 2U” is having an absolute blast and it completely comes across onscreen. They totally embrace the goofy premise and the actors, especially lead Jessica Rothe, are completely selling it. The film is way more focused on humor and the campiness of it all and if you’re willing to accept the nonsense you’ll have as much fun as you did watching the first film.

Jessica Rothe is yet again fantastic in the role of Tree. In the first film Tree was a bitchy sorority girl who wasn’t very likable. By the end of the film I wanted to be friends with her. That is a testament to the great arch the character goes through and the likability of Rothe as a performer and her innate ability to sell an insane storyline. To me, she was “Happy Death Day.” And she’s thankfully back in this even more bonkers sequel and she nails it yet again.

Taking place the day after the events of the first film – Tree and Carter (and equally charming Israel Broussard) are now a couple – but Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) begins to experience the same time loop that Tree experienced in the first film. It turns out Ryan and his nerdy science buddies have made some kind of experimental quantum reactor (because of course they have) that has created weird rifts in time. When the thing goes off again, it sends Tree back to the day before to experience the same day over and over that we saw in the first film that results in Tree being murdered by someone in a baby mask. Except this time, there are some major differences, some of which have emotional and life altering consequences. In other words, it’s all pretty stupid and absurd but as you get into it, like the first film, you begin to buy what their selling and I bought a whole lot it.

Director Christopher Landon, who directed the delightful first film has also written this adventure and it really just goes for it (there’s an entire suicide montage ala “Groundhog Day” that finds Tree jumping out of planes, into wood chippers, etc). Seeing him just embrace the strange premise and actually making it work somehow is a testament to how likable these characters truly are. He has also wisely beefed up some of the roles of secondary characters from the first film and given them much more to do. For instance, Danielle, Tree’s even bitchier sorority sister, (Rachel Matthews) has her own movie stealing performance in the film’s third act that is as offensive as it is hilarious and relies solely on amazing physical comedy. Also, the film explores more of the drama surrounding Tree and her mother offering a surprising emotional dimension to the proceedings that may have even brought a tear to my eye.

The sci-fi bent “Happy Death Day 2U” will either lose you or hook you within the first 20 minutes. I say you should stick it out to see how everything plays out. The plot certainly doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. You can’t quite make sense of some of the preposterous story elements introduced – and those expecting anything resembling a slasher film will be severely disappointed – but it almost doesn’t matter. The film is a fun conglomerate of “Groundhog Day,” “Back to the Future Part II” and “Sorority Row.” If that doesn’t sound like a good time I don’t know what is.  GRADE: B+

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Drive Me Crazy: “Uber Ex” is a Funny, Romantic Ride

Is there anything more awkward than romance? Prepare for a perfectly awkward ride in “Uber Ex” another wonderful comedy short from director Matt Braunsdorf and his frequent collaborator screenwriter/actor Jonathan Marballi. Their last film, “This is That Night,” was shot in beautiful black and white and featured a blossoming new relationship. “Uber Ex” is another fun play on romantic comedy conventions featuring gorgeous color digital cinematography.

David (Marballi) and Kate (Paige Lindsay Betts), the woman he’s dating, are about to take a wild ride. He orders an Uber and what should be an uneventful ride home after attending an engagement party turns into something he wasn’t quite expecting. You see, the Uber driver is coincidentally Kate’s ex-boyfriend Lev (Jeremy Michaels) and the three adults find themselves in a delightfully uncomfortable pickle.

First of all, in every romantic comedy the leads must have chemistry and Marballi and Betts are fantastic together. Betts has something fresh and funny about her as if she could easily fit into the wild antics of Abbi and Ilana from Comedy Central’s “Broad City.” Marballi is a wonderful leading man and has all the perfect facial expressions as Kate and Lev slowly begin to rekindle their failed relationship right before his eyes. This is funny stuff.

Braunsdorf has accomplished a lot with a 16 minute short about three people riding in a car. The production value is pretty impressive for a small indie film. Andy Bond’s cinematography is scrumptious; the lighting is bright and colorful. Jared Dymbort’s original music is fun. The film even features original songs by Michaels. Marballi’s script is light and breezy and funny and real. The actors are all in top form; especially the charming Marballi whose reactions are pretty priceless during his hellish car ride home. After watching the bitterly sweet “Uber Ex” you’ll want to fall in love all over again, or at least crave a really good omelet.  GRADE: A-

Uber Ex - Trailer from Jonny Marbles Films on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Attack the Blocks: “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is a Solid Follow-Up

Fair warning: there is a song in “The LEGO Movie 2” that is called “Catchy Song.” It’s a catchy song. It contains the lyrics This song will get inside your head. It did. And I’m ok with it. I’d also be ok if the Academy nominates it at next year’s Oscars and opens the show with it whether it’s nominated or not. In fact there are many new songs in this second LEGO film and they’re all fantastic and fun tunes. It’s probably because the film’s story while still pretty fun and original has a bit of a been-there-done-that feel after the astonishing originality of the first film. There are sequels that are better than the first film but they’re never quite as original. “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” does pretty much hit it out of the park thankfully.

If you recall from the end of the first film, everything is awesome again in the world of LEGO and Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) are happy together. Until the Duplo toys show up. In a uniqe reveal in the first film, the animated world we’re witnessing is actually a live action boy playing with his LEGOs. In the end he’s forced to allow his younger sister to play which is where the second film picks up. Now these jumbo, pastel blocks begin attacking Emmet and his friends until they’re living in a desolate “Max Max” post-apocalyptic wasteland. Then a mysterious general shows up to kidnap Batman as he’s gonna be forced to marry Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish).

As much as things in this sequel feel like “oh we’ve seen this clever meta humor before” (and for the record this is now the fourth theatrically released LEGO movie) there is still plenty of unique material to be had here. Haddish lends her delightful and memorable voice to Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (and even sings!) and is one of the most unique and fun characters to come out of this entire franchise. She’s a really cool shape-shifting alien creature that is really cleverly designed. I’ll credit co-writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, writers and directors of the first entry (Mike Mitchell took directing reigns this time around) who must be two of the most creative people working in Hollywood today. The clever things they’re able to stuff this film with is pretty amazing. They don’t quite outdo the first film but there is certainly no sophomore slump to be found here. If anything doesn’t work it’s because there’s a lack of sheer surprise that we got the first time around. But there’s so much good material here – story-wise and character-wise – including expanding the role of the live action characters in a really fun and meaningful way.

“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is a fantastic sequel. All the returning and new voice actors are great. The songs are fun. The animation is gorgeous. And even if its just “a cartoon”, adults will probably love it even more than their kids. Seeing the first film is probably a must before moving on to this entry but who hasn’t seen the first film at this point? That film, like everything, including this far out sequel, is awesome.  GRADE: A-

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Catch Me If You Can: Melissa McCarthy Shines in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“Can You Every Forgive Me?” is a great movie on several levels and for several reasons. The performance from Melissa McCarthy – in a year in which she gave us “The Happytime Murders” - is a genuinely great piece of work. And yes Melissa, I will forgive you for that horrid puppet disaster. Featuring a rare dramatic performance from the usually silly star, the film forces us to care about a person who does horrible things and befriends a horrible person. That other horrible person is played by Richard E. Grant in a wonderful, scene-stealing performance. Despite the fact that this is a film about a writer who forges letters from other famous writers – which frankly sounds like a bore, it is anything but- it’s gripping, funny and sad. It’s not so much a story about a writer so much as it is a story about a con artist who we root for to get away with crime after crime as she tries to turn her crappy life around. It was enthralling.

Set in the early 90s, Melissa McCarthy players writer Lee Israel who wrote several biographies. The film is set several years after the release of her failed book about Estee Lauder. Stuck in a rut of financial woes and writer’s block Israel begins selling some of her possessions including a letter from Katherine Hepburn. While researching for an upcoming book about Fanny Brice, Israel happens upon a letter written by Fanny and before she knows it Israel begins forging letters from other dead writers to sell to collectors who are completely fooled by their seeming authenticity. Israel spends most of her time writing in bars where she converses with her eccentric friend Jack (Grant) who she confides in about her forgery.

Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have crafted a pretty well-done script considering we’re pretty much watching a woman write most of the time. Marielle Heller’s direction is also superb. They dare to make Israel an unlikable antihero – she’s nasty and snippy to almost everyone she comes in contact with – her apartment is a disgusting mess – and she’s generally unkempt – but somehow those involved obviously McCarthy make the character even a bit relatable and sympathetic. For instance, when her cat becomes ill and she can’t even afford the vet bills Israel is obviously at wit’s end. McCarthy and Grant also have a naturalist chemistry together – the banter given to them by the screenwriters is really fun to watch. And it’s really amazing how quickly you get caught up in what Israel is doing – and how seemingly easy it is for her to do. Of course it’s not all a piece of cake, one sequence involving her stealing actual documents from an archive is as suspenseful in anything in a “Mission: Impossible” movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was a sheer joy from start to finish. The film has been nominated for three Oscars and it’s this reason I even checked it out. I’m so glad I did – further proof that the Academy does actually make good choices sometimes if you’re willing to seek out some of smaller films that are equally deserving of finding the right audience.  GRADE: A-

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Cape of Water: The Rollicking “Aquaman” isn’t the Water-Logged Mess It Could Have Been

It’s become way too easy to poo-poo the DC films that have come out in the last six years. They’re not very good and pretty hard to defend. Of course there have been some bright spots and her name is Diana. “Wonder Woman” is easily the best entry but finally a film has come along that is just as entertaining and visually stunning: “Aquaman.” It’s not nearly the dreadful experience as the other DC films. And to be frank, I didn’t absolutely hate any of them except for “Suicide Squad” and even that trainwreck had a few bright spots (or at least one; thank you Margot Robbie). Thankfully, this latest entry, about the water-dwelling metahuman Arthur Curry is an absolute delight from start to finish. Filled with colorful, fantastic cinematography, moments of campy humor, ridiculous drama, a fun retro-infused film score, and well-choreographed action scenes, “Aquaman” easily stands out as one of the best DC films. While it’s not quite as good, this is easily the “Thor: Ragnarok” of the DC extended universe.

Yes, “Aquaman” is kind of silly and that’s because the character Aquaman is kind of silly. But director James Wan makes it all work somehow. The man, who began his career making solid horror films has recently extending into bigger budget action films (like the incredible Furious Seven) proving that even with a huge budget you can make a fun, CGI-filled adventure that isn’t overwrought and stupid. Wan brings a much needed sense of color and wonder to this usually drab DC universe. While the film still has its serious moments of Shakespearean drama, the film relies more on fun visuals, humor, thrilling fight sequences and breathtaking action. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Bealls generally hokey and bloated script is simply an excuse to film awesome fights and action. And at this point in the world of DC I’m ok with that. And it’s mostly because it’s all staged rather well; and the actors are good enough that we somewhat care about them.

There are so many positives here that this movie sort of feels like the “Citizen Kane” of the recent DC films. It’s visually wonderful – the colors, the computer generated environments are beautifully realized. The film makes me excited to see what James Cameron has in store for his underwater world in the next “Avatar” film. The computer works is actually quite remarkable. Sure some shots of characters darting across the screen like bullets are a bit silly, but generally this stuff works. Hair flows realistically underwater and the characters actually sound like they’re underwater. And considering a majority of the time they’re riding around on sharks and other sea monsters, I pretty much bought into it.

In the role of Aquaman, Jason Mamoa - for all his exotic good looks - is actually quite a charming screen presence much in the same way Gal Gadot was in total control of “Wonder Woman.” Whether his sort of sidekick/love interest Amber Heard has the same presence is debatable (She doesn’t). Half the time I kept thinking Scarlett Johansson had wandered into the film from the MCU. Patrick Wilson is fine as Aquaman’s villainous half brother. And if you ever wanted to see Willem Dafoe or Dolph Lundgren ride around on sea creatures here you go. The script doesn’t quite know what to do with a secondary Power Rangers-like villain that eventually shows up named Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but the entire Sicily sequence, most of which doesn’t take place in water, is impressively well-staged and directed. These playful side adventures were right out of Indiana Jones and were a welcomed treat in a series of film known more for doom and gloom that sheer fun. And I can’t say enough great things about Nicole Kidman who kicks utter as as Arthur’s Atlantean mother.

“Aquaman” is a surprisingly fun adventure – maybe it goes on a bit too long – but the film is a massive improvement on everything that came before it. This and “Wonder Woman” are fantastic pieces of popcorn entertainment. The movie is beautifully realized but the supremely talented James Wan – I can’t wait see what adventures await him. He’s the rare director who made the jump from smaller films to big budget extravaganzas with impressive ease.  GRADE: B+