REVIEW: The House

3 07 2017

A government official yanks away a college scholarship promised to a local girl, deeming it “an indulgence we can no longer afford,” in the same breath as he rewards wealthy townspeople with luxurious new facilities. Is this a scene in Andrew J. Cohen’s comedy “The House,” or just another day on Capitol Hill? Show audiences in 50 years, and they will likely be unable to discern any difference.

As a series of gags loosely tied together by a hair-brained concept – Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s would-be empty nesters opening an underground casino to pay their daughter’s college tuition, the film leaves a lot to be desired. Like most studio comedies, “The House” throws together big comedic stars, a winning logline and a few stabs at thematically and socially relevant humor. The latter works when satirizing police surveillance in the smartphone era and stumbles when attempting a few jokes about date rape.

Ferrell and Poehler tend to take movie roles written for them, or at least well-tailored to their strengths. Nothing about “The House” indicates the screenwriters penned the film with them in mind. Ferrell’s outsized physicality and Poehler’s acerbic verbal wit go sorely underutilized.

Yet, on the other hand, they’re great avatars for the kind of well-off urban angst “The House” so deftly sends up. These are people who, for the most part, have achieved prosperity but still feel let down. “We tried to play by the rules,” laments Poehler’s Kate Johansen, “and it got us nowhere.” This disappointment and dissatisfaction leads them towards criminal enterprise, fight clubs for soccer moms and insurance fraud. It’s worth considering why this premise does not collapse immediately.

Oh, and “The House” takes place in this imaginary, fairy tale world where public officials face consequences for stealing money from the public! Must be nice. B-

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REVIEW: The Boss

6 04 2016

Picture this: a highly successful businessperson, who augments the public’s perception of their wealth by doubling as a skilled entertainer, needs to bounce back after suffering some public humiliation.

This person enters a field knowing little about the profession but finds a way to prosper by exploiting complacency, deriding rivals with unwarranted personal attacks and even inciting violence.

The captain of industry boasts about cruel implementation of shrewd business tactics and remains unfazed when compared to totalitarian rulers.

(Oh, and this individual’s distinctively styled hair never gets dented.)

Did I just describe Donald Trump or Michelle Darnell, the lead character of the new film “The Boss” played by Melissa McCarthy?

The two larger-than-life figures share quite a few similarities, though McCarthy (along with co-writers Ben Falcone and Steve Mallory) could not possibly have known that her burlesqued portrayal of a corporate mogul would hit the marketplace at the same time as an equal ludicrous figure marched towards the nomination of a major political party. Literally, production ended on “The Boss” two weeks before Trump made the infamous escalator announcement. The ill-fated timing of its release makes it play like an inverse of “Zootopia,” this year’s most fortuitous arrival.

The odd parallel here and there between the fictional and the absurd business tycoon is not necessarily bothersome. And, in the interest of fairness, Donald Trump did not spend five months in jail for insider trading like Michelle Darnell. But a line feels crossed when she declares, “We’re participating in the American Dream!”

Out of context, this might seem harmless. However, Darnell utters it right before an all-out brawl takes place between her group of entrepreneurial thugs and the Girl Scout-like troop from which they disaffiliated. How can one find humor in the perversion of the American Dream on screen when a demagogue is ushering in a national nightmare in reality? Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dicator” showed that comedy had a definite place in a time of bullying leaders, though it ought to contain some confrontational element if it is to be anything more than a diversion. “The Boss” comes across as oblivious in regards to the implications of its dull satire.

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REVIEW: Zoolander 2

2 03 2016

Decades-delayed sequels from “Anchorman” to “Scream” and even “Monsters University” tend to fall into some trap of relying on nostalgia for or nodding towards the original film. To some extent, if the makers do not strike while the iron is hot, they have to remind people that the iron existed in the first place. And, not to overload the metaphor, but by employing a heavy hand with said iron, they can burn a hole through the cloth of the new creation.

Given the fashion origins of the “Zoolander” series, it would only make sense that the 15-years-in-the-making second installment would hew all too close to its predecessor. In many ways – and perhaps in the ones that count – it does. But multi-hyphenate Ben Stiller does have a few new tricks up the sleeves for his old character, and even more than just a new signature look to go alongside Blue Steel and Magnum.

In another delightfully absurd caper, the pretty, dumb Derek Zoolander once again gets caught up in a tale of international intrigue. This time, it involves a conspiracy to murder good-looking celebrities and bring the fashion elite of the world to the slaughter. And, once again, it sidetracks so Derek can resolve some familial issues as well as tension with fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson). Oh, and there’s a music montage

All in all, however, “Zoolander 2” breaks enough from the original to make the team’s efforts worthwhile. Much of the fun comes from the new characters like Kyle Mooney’s Don Atari, a pitch-perfect parody of über-trendy hipsters, and Kristen Wiig’s Alexanya Atoz, an en vogue fashion designer with enough Botox in her face to rejuvenate an entire school’s worth of soccer moms. (It’s best not to mention Penelope Cruz’s Interpol agent Valentina Valencia or Benedict Cumberbatch’s transphobic punchline All.) The whole affair is predictably stupid, though anyone who remembers the first “Zoolander” ought to expect just that. Nostalgia sometimes makes people remember things as better than they really are, and “Zoolander 2” is essentially a chip off the old block. B2stars





REVIEW: Sleeping With Other People

4 10 2015

Sleeping with Other PeopleThough the first two words in the title of writer/director Leslye Hedland’s “Sleeping With Other People” are a polite euphemism, that semantic choice probably represents her most cautious choice regarding sex.  Unlike so many others dealing with romance and courtship on screen, she leans in to the thorniness that most choose to sugarcoat.  She embraces the mess created by the libido’s interference with the heart.

Her two main characters, Jason Sudeikis’ Jake and Alison Brie’s Lainey, are even admitted sex addicts.  Early on in the film, the two even reunite after a collegiate one-night stand at a meeting for those struggling to rein in their urges.  “Shame” this is not, but it’s at least a more nuanced portrayal of sexuality than 2011’s pair of hookup movies, “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached.”

Yet sadly, Hedland also seems to borrow one too many plot points from said movies.  Even as she resists reducing love into sex, Jake and Lainey’s drifting back towards each other as they try to push apart feels like a page ripped right from the rom-com playbook.  There’s at least some good humor as Hedland blends in some battle of the sexes humor a la “When Harry Met Sally,” but Sudeikis and Brie lack the chemistry to sell their relationship beyond a few choice scenes.  The two always feel like they are operating on different comedic frequencies.

Despite a winning ensemble that includes fantastic actors like Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne and Amanda Peet, “Sleeping With Other People” just never coheres its parts into a satisfying whole.  I suspect the only time I’ll ever think about this film again is when taking an overview of films that show how technology inhibits intimacy – Hedland does include one powerful split-screen shot of Jake and Lainey texting each other from their own beds.  Though they look and connect as if they were right next to each other, their phones still make them worlds apart.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Welcome to Me

8 05 2015

Welcome to MeSeeing as how she got her start on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig is certainly no stranger to satire.  While her work on that topical comedy show often brilliantly pointed out human error and ridicule, most of it pales in comparison to her scathingly incisive new film, “Welcome to Me.”  Eliot Laurence’s script cuts deep to probe some of our society’s deepest insecurities and fears.

He pinpoints that these collective anxieties find assuaging in the self-help gospel preached by daytime talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey.  Take away the free car giveaways, though, and the program really just sold herself as a product.  (Who other than Oprah has ever graced the cover of O Magazine?)  “Welcome to Me” takes this narcissism to its logical extreme, following Wiig’s Alice Klieg as she uses her millions in lottery earnings to mount a show about her, for her.

Her talk show/broadcasted therapy session is not made by her, however.  To get on the air and look impressive, Alice requires the talents of producers at a local television studio.  At Live Alchemy, she finds the perfect blend of dead airspace, crushing company debt, and morally bankrupt executives willing to indulge her every desire.

Led by the slimily obsequious Rich (James Marsden), the station caters to each of Alice’s increasingly bizarre whims, even when they cross the line into literal slander and figurative self-flagellation.  It’s not hard to imagine similar board room meetings taking place at E! debating the Kardashian family.  Alice suffers from a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and manifest her symptoms rather clearly, yet no employee seems willing to protect her from herself so long as the checks keep cashing.  Consider it a less violent first cousin to “Nightcrawler” (or dare I even say, the golden goose that is “Network”).

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REVIEW: Get Hard

7 04 2015

To be fair to writer/director Etan Coen, I did enter “Get Hard” with knives at the ready to draw.  I am currently enrolled in a sociology course on race and ethnic relations, and a film that appeared chock full of vast generalizations seemed like a great potential paper topic for unit focusing on explanations for enduring racial inequality.  Because of that, I perversely did not leave the movie disappointed.

“Get Hard” is not actively, avowedly racist, although Coen does perpetuate some troubling stereotypes.  He can try to hide the film under the protection of satire and exaggeration, yet those labels hardly excuses the underpinnings and assumptions that come with wading into such territory.

Not to mention, he also tries to turn topics of concern into an invitation for laughter. Making an educated guess that a black man has been to jail, as Will Ferrell’s James does, based on their disproportionate rates of incarceration is a sad truth.  It ought to inspire genuine reflection, not a quick giggle.

But the only cause for concern in “Get Hard” is gay panic.  Everyone in the film seems to be in agreement that any sort of oral or anal sex is a punishment infinitely worse than systemic racism (never mind that any heterosexual person could engage in either act).  The homophobia that runs rampant through the movie made me wonder if the script was secretly written by Dr. Ben Carson, the Republican presidential hopeful who uses prison as an example for why homosexuality is a choice.

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REVIEW: The Lego Movie

31 07 2014

Back in 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” gave audiences a pulse-pounding conclusions as it showed SEAL Team 6’s bold mission to kill Osama bin Laden in stunning detail.  Yet even as gripping as that was, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when I saw who they cast as the finger behind the trigger: Chris Pratt, who I knew and loved as Andy Dwyer (and his FBI alter ego Burt Macklin) on the TV comedy “Parks & Recreation.”

Well, as it turns out, Kathryn Bigelow was as right about Pratt as an action star as she was about Jeremy Renner as a fine dramatic actor.  And now it’s Pratt who’s laughing all the way to the bank.  “The Lego Movie” proves that Pratt doesn’t even have to be present in the flesh to lead a movie towards some very fun adventure.

Pratt is like the world’s oldest 7-year-old, a lovable, innocent kid that you can’t help but root for because he reminds you of all the naive optimism of a simpler state of mind.  When his plastic Lego teddy bear of a character, Emmet Brickowoski, chants the film’s theme “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s hard not to smile a little bit.  He’s not just singing from a place of pure naïveté like Selena Gomez on “Barney,” but also from a position of contagious optimism that makes Emmet quite irresistible.

Thankfully, the writing/directing dynamic duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they who blessed us with the gift of “21 Jump Street“) matches Pratt’s enthusiasm throughout “The Lego Movie.”  They bring a boundless imagination to the project, resembling the kind of creativity that Legos themselves spark in children all over the world.  What they ultimately construct is wild, wacky, and quite inspired. Read the rest of this entry »