Tag Archives: Comedy

Knives Out

27 Nov

 

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“Knives Out” is a good, old-fashioned whodunnit with a healthy serving of droll comedy. Yes, comparison to classics such as “Murder by Death” (1976) and “Clue” (1985) are apt. That first film had Truman Capote, Peter Sellers and Peter Falk (not to mention the voice of Fay Wray) among its eye-grabbing cast; here we have Chris Evans trading his “Captain America” duds for J.Crew gear as a slack, spoiled preppy, as well as Michael Shannon – who, as General Zod in another universe, could have been Cap’s foe, Jamie Lee Curtis, dandy Don Johnson, Toni Collette and the impeccable Christopher Plummer. The real centerpiece, however is Bond boy Daniel Craig as a private gumshoe named Benoit Blanc who, while not quite Clouseau wacky, is imbued with scads of quirk, overconfidence and a twangy, near-Southern drawl. It’s such a radical departure, you can’t stop gawking at Craig in every scene he’s in.

The film, shot in and around Boston, marks something of a changeup too for director Rian Johnson, who’s done everything from quirky indie (“Brick” and “Looper”) to big budget blockbuster (“Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”). Living in a quaint New England manse, renowned murder-mystery scribe Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) celebrates his 85th birthday and then dies when his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling’s comely virtual love interest in “Blade Runner 2049”) gets his medications mixed up. Is it suicide, an accident, Harlan acting out one of his plots or something more nefarious? 

That’s the game afoot, and while it’s not particularly grabbing in its own right, there’s a rich potpourri of bloodsuckers who stand to benefit from Harlan’s departure and are thus prime suspects, be it his snarling son, Walt (Shannon), in charge of the publishing empire; his sister, Linda (Curtis), married to the self-righteous Richard (Johnson); their aloof son, Ransom (Evans); or Joni (Collette), wife of Harlan’s late son, who still holds a prominent perch. It’s not the plot providing the fun as much as the rubs of the twee and the entitled coming off with biting satire. Harlan is so dignified and magnanimous you can almost hear him bellowing from his grave as his blood squabbles around the remains.

As the crew stays around to hear the reading of the will, Craig’s Blanc sleuths about with varying degrees of success, but endless dry wit. The script by Johnson does what it needs to,. with just the right amount of red herrings, plot twists and deft humor. The best is the family’s insistence on the inclusion of Marta as “one of them,” yet none can remember if she’s from Colombia, Ecuador or Nicaragua. It underscores the absurdity of the insincerity of the well-off. In consumption, the film may be a touch overbaked – in length, and holding itself a little more grandly than it should – but still, as served, it’s great holiday entertainment if you just want to feast, fill up and let someone else take the wheel.

Being Frank

28 Jun

‘Being Frank’: Hiding a whole second family, you’d think that by now he’d be a better dad

 

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It’s a kid-eat-dad kind of a world out there in “Being Frank,” a duplicitous daddy comedy, but hey, sometimes dad doesn’t know best and might even deserve a bit of comeuppance. Set in the early ’90s (you can see cellphones and the Internet ruining some of the narrative ticks), Philip (Logan Miller from “Love Simon”) wants to attend art school in New York; dad (the aptly named Frank, played by comedian Jim Gaffigan) wants him to stick closer to their small-town home – “Stay in state,” he says. Frank himself is never around, always off on business trips to Japan for a ketchup company. In a mini act of rebellion, Phillip runs off during spring break to a nearby lakeside town where he learns dad’s not in Japan, but settling in with his second family. That’s right: Dad’s got big love and two well-seeded clans. Surprisingly, Phillip doesn’t blow the lid off the polygamous do-si-do, but instead uses it to get what he wants. He even helps Frank perpetuate the charade.

Directed by Miranda Bailey, whose credits as a producer include indie comedies that similarly go to places few would (“Swiss Army Man” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), “Being Frank” in execution feels a bit staged and ham-fisted at times – think “Meatballs” if it tried to play it straight. Inconsistent lurches between romp comedy and soap opera melodrama detract as the plot noose tightens and the truth closes in on Frank. The one heartfelt light in all the household-shuffling madness (talk about multitasking) is the bond that forms between father and son. Granted, it’s not born from traditional roots such as golfing or an investment club, but at least it’s a common goal and the two forge a secret language to keep it all clicking along.

You can’t fault Bailey for going after such ripe comedic fruit, and Gaffigan goofs it up enough to make his lout empathetic, but overall “Being Frank” feels underdone – like some of the jokes and situational comedy needed to be hashed out more, or perhaps required a second or third take to get right. It’s worth acknowledging the supporting cast, which includes Samantha Mathis as one of the wives, Alex Karpovsky as Frank’s stoner buddy with gonzo suggestion and a sassy Isabelle Phillips as one of Frank’s daughters. They do their part to hold the leaky dramedy afloat.

Late Night

14 Jun

‘Late Night’: Writers’ room full of white guys just isn’t working, but now Mindy Kaling is

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For a wispy-light, sitcom-ish comedy with some dark edges, “Late Night” covers a lot while getting guffaws and even some well-earned, teary-eyed moments. Lurking in the wings are the specter of Trump and #MeToo; more upfront are issues of white privilege, diversity hiring, ageism and sex scandals as “Late Night” takes us into the drama unfurling behind the scenes of late night TV.

The film benefits from an agile script by locally reared Mindy Kaling (“The Office” and “The Mindy Project”), no stranger to issues of race or trying to hold a show together as a woman. The other galvanizing infinity stone here – and there are “Avengers” jokes, I promise – is the chemistry between Kaling as a chemical plant engineer turned comedy writer and Emma Thompson as the notorious queen of mean of late night TV. Her Katherine Newbury, the lone female face of late night, is both menacing and engrossing, something of an improbable hodgepodge of Johnny Carson, Anna Wintour and Leona Helmsley. Ever in glamorous pantsuits and sporting a frosty cropped do, Katherine’s held her spot for decades, but recent years of poor ratings from her shunning of millennials, social issues and social media has the brass (Amy Ryan, great in small strokes as a “Network”-esque TV exec) considering a replacement. It doesn’t help that the show’s phalanx of writers are all white men, working obsequiously within the confines of their star’s narrow construct.

One such writer with a second child on the way asks for a raise and is fired – Katherine, while married (John Lithgow gives a nuanced and compassionate performance as her husband) does not have children, having poured herself into her show, and demands the same devotion from her staff. Desperate, and against her better instincts (she leans toward “national treasures” such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, while Jimmy Fallon slays her in the ratings by washing a sheepdog with “Avengers” star Robert Downey Jr.), Katherine books a YouTube sensation – a sassy female comedian whose MO is to sniff her dog’s butt. “What could go wrong?” The next move is to bring in a woman of color. Enter Molly (Kaling), who wins a corporate essay contest. Turns out the parent company that owns the chemical plant also owns the network (shades of GE and NBC). Yup, it’s that kind of light “dreams come true” fantasy, totally forgivable considering the smartly portrayed friction that ensues.

The delivery of “Late Night” overall is fairly predictable, with audience-cued reactions. Thompson is riveting throughout, and sure to be in this year’s Oscars conversations; she holds it all together, especially when her Katherine moves beyond commanding and demanding for a few vulnerable moments. Kaling’s Molly rides along in her wake, and together the two conjure up something akin to what Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep did in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). Together they make “Late Night” a sweet, serviceable fairy tale with a crisp acrid bite.

Booksmart

25 May

 

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To say Molly’s a bit of an overplanner would be an understatement, but to date things have mostly worked out – she’s in at Yale. We catch up with the library-loving pair on the eve of graduation, when reality comes crashing in on their four-year abstinence. Molly, in the pleasant surroundings of a coed bathroom, learns that many of the partying jocks and popular girls also got in at their first choices – Stanford for the handsome A-Rod clone, and a much-scorned “easy” girl is also heading to Yale. Talk about a bucket of ice water, let alone a water-filled condom hurled in the hallway that finds its viscous mark. A quick re-eval and Molly decides that the two must hit the most hip and happening party that night to notch “a seminal fun antidote” and that smooch for her BFF who has her eye on a certain someone. 

Directed by actress Olivia Wilde (“Beer Buddies”) making her feature filmmaking debut, and imbued with sharp, witty dialogue by a quartet of female writers (usually not a good sign when there’s a phalanx of penners, but that’s not the case here), the film rides the rails of many a teen comedy that’s come before – the seminal works of John Hughes, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and recents and darker films such as “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” – namely that amid all the teenage hijinks, it’s really about friendship and support during the throes of those angst-filled, defining years.

Even if “Booksmart” pushes a few gags too far, it’s pleasantly smart and silly from start to end. Some of the best moments play off the young ladies’ yen for different genders. Take Amy’s wide-eyed Christian parents who think Molly and their daughter might be an item: Molly seizes just about every opportunity to play up the angle, mostly in the form of overzealous hugs that include conspicuous breast cupping. Then there’s the goofy reveal of self-pleasure items (not all treasured childhood toys remain in their innocent past) and Amy perusing porn in a Lyft driven by the moonlighting school principal for “educational purposes” (what to do with another girl). Add to the mix Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo as the school’s two super-rich eccentrics (Gigi, the ubiquitous teenage acid queen, and Jared, a yacht-owning loner and wayward romantic) and you have a rich potpourri that’s full of pop and zing. The romance takes some unexpected turns too, and in the end “Booksmart” is as much of a heart warmer as it is a tummy tickler. It’s not entirely polished, mind you, but the rough edges are small and easily forgotten with the infectious and palpable chemistry between Dever and Feldstein. Not enough can be said about their value to the film’s success – their dynamic duo and Wilde, playing it all just off-center, have made familiar tropes new and wickedly relevant again.

Stella’s Last Weekend

26 Oct

‘Stella’s Last Weekend’: Home for a dog’s day, but brothers’ love triangle is more interesting

 

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Opening this week exclusively at “bargain deal” Apple Cinemas in Fresh Pond is “Stella’s Last Weekend,” a curio of a movie that, while not exactly fully formed for the big screen, keeps the viewer involved throughout. The “Stella” of the title isn’t anyone as rich as Tennessee Williams’ delusional grand dame, but a furry four-legged beast and perhaps the most regal and kind entity drawing oxygen in the film. Stella’s a squat, salt-and-pepper pit bull mix with a tumor large enough to ensure she won’t make it through the weekend. The growth’s been known about for some time and Stella, as we’re told over and over, has been such an integral part of the family that there’s going to be a weekend passing party for her. That’s why Jack (Nat Wolff) returns home from college. On the way back to Queens he spies a comely young woman across the subway platform (Paulina Singer). They make brief yet intense eye contact – and that’s it, neither acts; only regrets. Until Violet shows up at Jack’s door for a date with his younger brother Oliver (Nat’s real-life bro, Alex).

A love triangle blooms, with Violet seeming attracted to both and conflicted, but that’s the least intriguing aspect of “Stella’s Last Weekend.” What’s more interesting, in a sadistic, train wreck sort of a way, is the lads’ antagonistic relationship with their mom’s live-in beau, Ron (Nick Sandow) making fun of his combover and asking pointed questions about their mom in the “sack.” These testosterone-propelled puppies when in pack mode are hyenas, soliciting random senior women on the street for sex advice and so bold as to drop the B-word at a formal affair. They’re loose, shaggy-headed dudes, and you get their pent-up sexual energy, but in motion they’re class clowns. Thankfully, the script – written and directed by ubiquitous TV actress Polly Draper (“Thirtysomething” and “The Good Wife”), who plays mom and is the Wolff brothers’ mom in real life – imbues the boys with vulnerabilities and injects moments of doubt and reflection. It’s in these moments that the film finds a pulse and Draper, as the slightly progressive, neo-hippie Sally, brings a matronly gel to the all-too male homestead.

Draper and her sons were also all part of Nickelodeon TV show “The Naked Brothers Band” back when Nat and Alex Wolff were tweens. Since then, Alex played Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in “Patriots Day” and an incarnation of the dark prince in “Hereditary.” He’s not given as much to work with emotionally as his brother, but the actors find a nice, brotherly balance when the film’s not playing for sitcom-esque laughs. Singer’s fine too, but like Alex Wolff, her performance feels less finely tuned. Smartly, the film makes nothing of the fact that Violet’s black (and the boys are white). It’s there on the screen, but it’s not. Throughout it all Stella breathes heavily and looks occasionally sad. The five-second cutaways to her heavy weariness carry the most weight, but no one on screen seems to notice. Like Stella, we observe and shake our head at the silly human folly unfolding before our eyes.

Crazy Rich Asians

19 Aug

 

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There’s been much ado about “Crazy Rich Asians” being the first all-Asian film to hit English screens since the screen adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” back in 1993. While that sentiment holds largely true, it’s not wholly accurate; those behind the labeling likely forgot about “Better Luck Tomorrow,” the 2002 curio from director Justin Lin (of the “Fast and Furious” and “Star Trek” franchises) about overachieving high schoolers. (Granted, it was made for only $250,000, so maybe it doesn’t qualify, but it did earn more than 1,400 percent that at the box office, which is crazy by any standard.) And “Crazy Rich Asians,” like “Tomorrow,” orbits around the tip of the social spire – the very tip of the top in this case, as it concerns the one-percent of all one-percenters.

If that sounds like a tough sell – trying to invoke empathy for the wildly entitled – that would be fair (the don’t-haves here have doctorates) but keep in mind, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a comedy, and one that revels smartly in the excess of its subjects without being trite, superficial or dismissive. Also, the problems the folks face along the way are universal people problems, not rich-people problems, though class does play a major factor. You could think of its as something akin to “Sex and the City” by way of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” with a fuller body, greater nuance and a twist of zest. What makes the whole thing fly is Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, a New York City econ prof who’s dating Nick, the hunky history prof (Henry Golding) from down the hall. She’s the one out of her class element when Nick invites her to attend a wedding in his homeport of Singapore. What she doesn’t know until she boards the luxury airliner and they’re led to a suite with beds and room service is that Nick is slumming it in academia: His family basically owns half of Singapore and his mother (a very regal Michelle Yeoh) is no fan of the poor-bred interloper. (Rachael was raised by a single mother – and worse, she’s American.) 

That’s the primary rub, and several of Nick’s old girlfriend’s are sent in to perform mean-girl stunts that at times feel more like a mafia hit. In short, the odds are stacked against Rachel, but Nick, ever calm, suave, loving and by her side, holds the boat steady – he’s Prince Charming and then some. Also in Rachel’s corner is rapper Awkwafina as Rachel’s bestie from college and Ken Jeong, her friend’s dad. They both try too hard, but provide the necessary comic relief. The one who really walks away with the scenes is Nico Santos as Nick’s cousin Oliver, imbued with barbed wit and a wicked sense of “Queer Eye” makeover panache. 

Wu, best known for her tiger-esque mom on the wonderful “Fresh Off the Boat” TV series, slides into the rom-com format with the same ease as Jennifer Aniston; as with Aniston, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, but also something that endears. Yeoh commands every frame she’s in, but the big winner here is Golding, who has the demurring charm of Hugh Grant, with square-jawed good looks and kindness and intelligence in every glimmer. He’ll be a household name and bankable star before the next presidential election. 

The other stars of “Crazy Rich Asians” are the city of Singapore itself – plush, clean and eternally inviting as framed by director Jon M. Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul – and the food porn rendering of the banquet spreads and dumplings. It’s not on par with “Babette’s Feast” or “Eat Drink Man Woman,” but it will make you lick your chops. Also a nice touch: The American pop tunes sung in Mandarin, including Madonna’s apt “Material Girl.” It’s just another neatly placed garnish that takes the old and known and gives it zing. It’s a thing.

Cafe Society

22 Jul

True to the “post-‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ law” that every third film’s a winner, Woody Allen rings the bell (after the stinkers “Irrational Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight”) with “Café Society,” a nostalgic nod to growing up a Jew in New York City and the dawn of the Hollywood studio era. It’s a return to the director’s roots and a clear bit of personal therapy. At the core, however, burns idealism, longing and the modulation of one’s own personal views over time.

072116i Cafe SocietyOur protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), an impassioned nebbish from the Bronx with dreams of grandeur, possesses the right seeding of an Allen alter-ego. Given he’s a young man living in a cramped post-Depression apartment with a yenta-lite mom (an excellent Jeannie Berlin), Bobby heads to Tinseltown, where Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent to the stars and hobnobs with the likes of Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Errol Flynn. We never meet any of these icons like we did in “Midnight in Paris,” but Phil talks to them often on the telephone as Bobby sits longingly across from him in Phil’s big office, hoping his mother’s brother will toss him a bone and give him a job.

Being extremely in demand but obliged to family, Phil asks his assistant Vonnie (Kristin Stewart) to show Bobby around. The first thing the two do is tool around town and gaze at the stars’ mansions – namely Joan Crawford’s – and it’s quickly obvious that Bobby, who’s just recently notched an awkward experience with a Jewish call girl and is clearly not skilled with women, is smitten. Problem is, Vonnie’s already spoken for by a man of stature who, for all his admirable reputation, isn’t around much. As this is heartless Hollywood, it doesn’t take long for revelations and complications to upend the applecart and send Bobby back in New York. Eventually he regains his footing by running a nightclub with his brother Benny (Corey Stoll), a feared gangster with a warm demeanor. In short, Benny’s a lethal blend, smart, loyal and a master at strong-arm tactics. The irony here is that Stoll recently played a straight-laced prosecutor who helps take down Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.” It’s also a stroke of casting genius, as whenever Stoll (as with Berlin) is on the screen, the radiance of the film shines that much brighter. Continue reading