REVIEW: The Brothers Grimsby

2 09 2016

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen wrote and starred in “Borat,” one of the most prescient and hilarious satirical films of the millennia. Fast forward to 2016, and he has stooped to the level of taking elephant ejaculation to the face in “The Brothers Grimsby.” There’s no context that makes this sound smart or redeemable. The film is just giddy about the idea of a sight gag involving a giant pachyderm penis.

It has been quite frustrating to watch Cohen evolve backwards over the past decade, growing less socially engaged and more juvenile with each successive film. “The Brothers Grimsby,” admittedly, might have some more local flavorings lost on American audiences. Cohen stars as Nobby Butcher, a low-class British football (soccer) hooligan with little intelligence and a high blood-alcohol level. His long-lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) leads a completely opposite life as an MI6 agent, a suave operator who fashions himself a real-life James Bond.

The two improbably link up as Sebastian investigates a crime syndicate intent on launching a bioweapon and end up on the run together. Their misadventures take the duo to South Africa and South America, but no matter the location, Nobby manages to run amuck of the rules of engagement – as well as common sense. It’s a role imitated by Cohen outside the film, too. He’s proving once again to be the master of the gross-out moment, though it feels like he’s only intent on proving this to himself. The disgusting humor produces a quick groan at the given scene and never gets rerouted into a larger concept or idea that should draw a more existential disgust.

Everyone knows Cohen can do so much more than “The Brothers Grimsby.” Why he seems intent on doing so little just baffles the mind. C2stars

REVIEW: How to Be Single

10 02 2016

Far too often, Hollywood rom-coms problematize singleness. This genre portrays the lack of a romantic partner as a condition to be fixed – or even a disease to be cured. In many ways, coupling is somewhat of a biological imperative. But with lifespans getting longer and the nature of connectivity changing our expectations for others, singleness is becoming a more permanent fixture of the life course.

How to Be Single,” adapted from a novel by Liz Tuccillo (and seemingly loosely), provides many different avenues to explore just what this special period might mean. There’s the romantic monogamist type in Dakota Johnson’s Alice, the free-wheeling and fun-loving hedonist with Rebel Wilson’s Robin, and the maternally instinctual but careerist in Leslie Mann’s Meg. Each finds a path that is right for them as the film goes on, a refreshing change of pace from the “one size fits all” solution offered by far too many films.

The ride towards these conclusions gets a little turbulent, though, as the film plays into a few of the double standards or traps it wants to decry. It mostly just sticks to archetypes, which works just fine once each character finds themselves within one. Ironically, “How To Be Single” finds its biggest successes in the moments when someone’s archetype leads them to a moment of self-actualization.

The one character who does not fit this mold is Alison Brie’s Lucy, an algorithmically-obsessed serial online dater. Her connection to the core trio in the film is only tangential; the link comes from a neighborhood bar that Alice and Robin also happen to frequent. Lucy’s presence just clutters up “How To Be Single.” She feels like a shameless ploy for topical relevancy rather than a well-imagined addition to the story. Brie’s fire-tongued portrayal makes Lucy’s scenes fun, but they detract from the real core of the film. Her constant need to find herself in someone else clashes with the message offered by the rest of the film, which posits that extended time for solitary self-reflection can produce worthwhile discoveries. B-2stars

REVIEW: Pitch Perfect 2

16 06 2015

While I was a repeat listener of the “Pitch Perfect” soundtrack, I most certainly had no desire to return to the film itself.  In my (admittedly harsh) review of the first film, I dubbed it “a comedy that inspires more groans than laughs and thinks it has a whole lot more insightful things to say about growing up than it actually does.”

So color me surprised to count myself a fan of “Pitch Perfect 2,” the rare Hollywood sequel that actually learns the correct lessons from the success of the original.  The music is tighter and catchier than before; the message, more potent and impactful.  The characters, too, are more relatable and hilarious the second time around.

Writer Kay Cannon, returning to script the series’ follow-up, cuts down the “aca-nnoying” pun humor to much more reasonable levels and finds great hilarity in just having the Barden Bellas interact with each other.  At times, she does this to the point of fault, as the many subplots of “Pitch Perfect 2” often overpower the main narrative of the group trying to regain their former glory after an ignominious display at the Kennedy Center.

That preoccupation with the personal hardly does harm to the movie, though, as these scenes are the highlight of the film.  Watching Anna Kendrick’s Beca attempting the tricky balance of professional exploration at a music company with her duties to the Bellas rings so true, and it also gives the actress a chance to showcase her vibrant range of emotions beyond the scowl she was limited to in the first “Pitch Perfect.”  Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy is another undeniable highlight, given a hysterical romantic arc with Adam DeVine’s Bumper; the two play off each other with remarkable comic intuition.

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REVIEW: Pitch Perfect

4 10 2012

It took three years for the “Glee” high to trickle down into film? Surprising that Hollywood didn’t milk the a capella pop song earlier because now that goose is no longer popping out golden eggs … and now we’re left with “Pitch Perfect.”  It’s a movie happy to riff on the vocal talent Ryan Murphy assembled but wants none of the social responsibility.

It takes swipes at minorities, overweight people, homosexuals … really anyone who doesn’t fit in.  “Pitch Perfect” is stuck in the old normal, which may be gleeful fun for some but just makes me wince.  (I have to have set some kind of record for Ryan Murphy series wordplay there.)  If the film’s humor isn’t knocking down the little guy, it’s making some HEINOUS pun on the word a capella.  If you cringe at the thought of hearing someone say “A ca-scuse me?!” with a straight face, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

I guess it’s also trying to adhere to the old normal of high school/college movies, trying to fashion itself as the new “Mean Girls” … which itself was trying to be a new John Hughes film.  “Pitch Perfect” even goes as far as to blatantly self-reference and name drop these movies!  I’m not entirely opposed to trying to make lightning strike the same place twice.  However, if you are going to so patently harken back to a classic, you have to be prepared to face the an apples-to-apples comparison.

And “Pitch Perfect” is no “The Breakfast Club.”  Heck, it’s more like a “Jennifer’s Body,” a comedy that inspires more groans than laughs and thinks it has a whole lot more insightful things to say about growing up than it actually does.  Not even the presence of Anna Kendrick, who won my heart in “Up in the Air,” can salvage this movie.  The only worthwhile segments in the bloated two hour duration were the well-orchestrated a capella pieces, but you can just listen to those on YouTube or Spotify or however the kids listen to music these days.  There’s no reason you need to see the whole rest of the movie just to get to those.  C- 

REVIEW: Bachelorette

8 09 2012

When “Bachelorette” begins, it’s easy to see the structural similarities to “Bridesmaids” … and then just totally laugh them off due to the two films’ vast tonal differences.  Kristen Wiig’s comedy is like being tipsy on wine: wild, but also controlled and somewhat classy.  Leslye Hedland’s movie, on the other hand, is like what I imagine being high on cocaine would be like: messy, strung out, and utterly chaotic.

The three bridesmaids here have little in common with the Wolfpack of “The Hangover,”  rather, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to Mavis Gary, Charlize Theron’s protagonist of “Young Adult” whose mentality is stalled in high school.  The mean girls of the ’90s are back to wreak havoc on the wedding of poor Becky (Rebel Wilson), a girl that they didn’t really seem to run with then and don’t seem to care any more for her in the present.  I wouldn’t want anyone who called me “Pigface” at my wedding at all, much less as a bridesmaid!

But for a while, I was willing to overlook the plot holes and strap myself along for the drug-fueled shenanigans of harlot Katie (Isla Fisher), sassy Rashida Jones placeholder Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and their seemingly sober-ish ringleader Regan (Kirsten Dunst).  The humor is at first stingingly acidic and bitingly true in a way that recalls Lena Dunham at her most sour.  Caplan is the scene-stealer of the bunch, lighting up every scene even as she drains it of a significant portion of happiness.

Once again for the record, I’ve never been on cocaine, but I’ve been led to believe the high is followed by a big crash.  And like I said, “Bachelorette” is like a few lines of cocaine, so for all the fun it brings, it comes down with a large thud.  All the energy gets sapped out of the film’s second half as it veers away from a significant look at relationships and takes a turn down Formula Lane.  By the end, I had all but tuned out of the three bachelorettes’ stories, which is disappointing.  The characters were relatively interesting, but Hedland fails them with a predictable script that tantalizes with promise at the beginning.  C