Tag Archives: Comedy

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

Despicable Me 3

[3 stars]

Remember that threequel conversation from a couple nights ago? Well, here we are again and the result is mostly meh. As much as I enjoyed the previous installments, the brother relationship that drives this entry in the franchise just doesn’t hold the emotional punch the young girls did. The movie really only exists as a bridge to a new direction…rather than actually taking a new direction…and it has all the impact that weakness implies.

The shift in focus even pulled away from the Minions, who are the real stars of this series. They, at least, got one truly brilliant sequence in stripes. There are moments for the other characters, but not enough to carry even this 90 minute trifle. This installment is probably good to distract your youngsters, but it really missed the mark for me as hybrid adult entertainment, even with all the nostalgia-themed material.

Despicable Me 3

Pitch Perfect 3

[3 stars]

Threequels are a conundrum. Unless the trilogy is planned in advance, the subsequent stories feel like random, episodic silliness. For all its entertainment value, Pitch Perfect 3 is pretty much in that category. It manages to give all the characters a nice round-up and send off, but they really had to stretch to find a new storyline. At least having the continued involvement of Kay Cannon as one of the writers kept the characters consistent.

But you don’t come to a movie like this for great film making, you come for the music and the comedy and there is a lot of both. Overall, it lands somewhere between the first and second movies in quality. The humor remains pretty slap-stick, but it seems to come to more of a point than in the other two films. Oddly, the singing has less of a point or plot focus, though it is just as good and toe-tapping as ever.

If you enjoyed the first two films, you’ll like this third. There are some fun surprises and performers to keep it fresh and alive, and there is even some action to liven it all up.

Pitch Perfect 3

How to be a Latin Lover

[3 stars]

When you’re in the mood for a broad (and I do mean broad) comedy, this will fill an evening. Eudenio Derbez (The Book of Life) is comfortable slipping between farce and emotional truth. No matter how outrageous his actions, he seems to be able to pull you back to his side with a simple look of remorse or self-deprecation.

Salma Hayek (The Hitmam’s Bodyguard) and Rob Lowe (The Orville) back him up well, while Kristen Bell (The Boss) provides some background humor that just keeps building through to the end. The two younger actors also do a great job. Raphael Alejandro (Once Upon a Time) and  Mckenna Grace (Gifted) act as a nice counterweight to the adults. And, as a special treat, Linda Lavin (The Intern) and Raquel Welch (Myra Breckinridge) each get to have some truly special fun.

Ken Marino (In a World…), better known for being in front of the camera, directed this trifle reasonably well, if a little unevenly. Not bad for a first feature. Even the script was a first feature by Spain and Zack. Handicapped for these aspects, it is an impressive delivery…again, when you’re in the mood for it. I struggle with overly broad comedy at times. But, even unready for it, I enjoyed the romp thanks to its willingness to pull back on the accelerator rather than just getting more and more out of control.

How to Be a Latin Lover

Paris Can Wait (aka Bonjour Anne)

[3 stars]

Dang but its nice to see truly adult characters on screen in a comedy. Diane Lane (Trumbo) turns in a wonderful performance in this odd (sort-of-romantic) comedy. Her character is utterly compelling and in control while also being just a bit mischievous and aware of Arnaud Viard’s intentions. Watching the dance of these two, in a waltz of seduction-by-proxy via food, wine, art, and landscapes is quite a bit of fun to drool over.

Writer/director Eleanor Coppola (yes, wife of THAT Coppola, but with a cv all her own) helms this bit of diversion. Paris, however, is her first time directing a piece of fiction. She very cleverly structures the film so that we are also pulled into our own side trips as we gawk at the food and art and landscapes ourselves, forgetting the movie (the intention) for the moment, just like Lane. She captures Lane’s awakening and joy by making us, if not feel it too, wish we could. She delivers that sense even as she ratchets up the tension between the characters. And that is the “sort-of-romantic comedy” comment; it is more about Lane’s love of herself than it is about the men in her life, but the men do figure into the drive of it all.

As a movie, Paris Can Wait is, itself, a wonderful diversion for an evening. The performances are nicely understated and believable. The emotional intent is sweet without feeling too forced. The result, while not perfect, is a strong delivery out of the gate for Coppola and another great notch for Lane’s reel.

Paris Can Wait

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

[4 stars]

OK, I admit it, I was surprised. Seriously surprised. This long-coming sequel (third if you count Zathura: A Space Adventure) wasn’t really something I felt I would need to see, but I ended up going on a lark.

There are multiple things that really made this movie succeed. First the script is very clever, even if it missed hitting some obvious jokes for the geek crowd. But mainly it is thought through and uses just about everything in clever ways, especially near the top in showing us how the new Jumanji works.

Jake Kasdan’s direction is also nicely done, keeping the adults on an even keel and focused on their particular realities. Well, most of them anyway; and this is the last critical piece that makes this film a great romp. These are the kinds of parts that play directly to the acting and comedic strengths of Dwayne Johnson (Baywatch) , Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) , and Jack Black (Goosebumps). They embraced their teenagehood and awkwardness and managed to get us to see enough of a ghost of the kids inside to enjoy their discoveries. Nick Jonas ( did fine with his role; it wasn’t complex or brilliant, but it certainly met the needs. And Bobby Cannavale (The Fundamentals of Caring) got to chew up some serious scenery as their nemesis. Only Kevin Hart (The Wedding Ringer), drops the ball on the acting. He is funny and, at turns, very real, but he kept falling back on his shtick… shtick that didn’t really match his IRL counterpart.

OK, yes, the “life lessons” are slapped on with a heavy hand. And, yes, it is sometimes a little too easy, but it is a video game after all. Ultimately, though, there was enough time in this movie to allow it to breathe and be more than just slap-dash action flick. Even when some of the effects get a bit cheap, the story and characters carry it along nicely.

This is a guaranteed crowd and family pleaser with enough PG humor to keep it interesting for anyone above the age of 15 and with enough risk and action to keep it from being too predictable. Go and have some fun with this. It isn’t the best film you’ll see this year, but it is way better written than latest Star Wars and, frankly, entertained me more.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Leap!

[2.5 stars]

If you’re between the ages of 5 and 9 you might find this very juvenile bit of animation fun. The ideas and messages are good, but the script, voice acting, animation, and sound engineering are all barely Saturday-morning level. It also gets a bunch of history wrong but, in the scope of things and the clear level of audience they were targeting, I was willing to let that go.

When you look at the cast, the lack of good voice acting is even more surprising. Elle Fanning (The Beguiled), Nat Wolff (Death Note), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), and Mel Brooks (Hotel Transylvania) aren’t small talent to snag. But whatever effort they put in was lost thanks to the sound levels, which were really just a sound “level,” without nuance or change.

Unless you are entertaining a bunch of youngsters who are dancers, don’t put yourself through the annoyance of watching this. Animation has improved over the last 20 years thanks to Pixar, Laika, and others. There is a place for less grandiose efforts, but good script and voice are no longer optional. And this mishmash of a plot and technology is, generally, best avoided.

Leap!

The Librarians (series 3)

[4 stars]

The Librarian movies weren’t brilliant pieces of fantasy adventure, but there was something wonderful about the concept and the characters in the franchise. The first movie, in particular, struck a chord. Then it began a long slide into silliness and, frankly, weaker and weaker writing. Entertaining, but not memorable.

When it was reimagined into a series, it carried that sensibility with it and, through sheer energy, overcame the overly simplistic, Nickelodeon-style approach to the tales. Nothing brilliant, but some fun distraction that I certainly took part in, being the geeky book collector and lover of genre that I am.

With season three, the show found its footing again. The story plots are full of short-cuts on the order of Scooby Doo, but the subject matter is, at its core, stuff adults can appreciate too. It has fun while being entirely self-conscious of its intentions. Much like a good library, the goal is to pull in younger viewers and excite them to learn more about all the stories and history. I don’t really classify this as educational TV, but it certainly plants seeds and introduces those who are curious to ideas and facts that could take root later.

The cast have always worked well together but, like their characters, they’re cooperative energy has gelled in their third season. Christian Kane (Leverage), Lindy Booth (Kick-Ass 2), and John Harlan Kim are more a cohesive unit and Rebecca Romijn (X-Men: First Class) more of the leader she needed to become as Noah Wyle (Falling Skies) has stepped further away from being the overriding authority. And, of course, John Larroquette (Me, Myself, & I) always brings a fun energy and delivery. Each season has its particular arc, and this one brings in Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) to provide the friction. She provides a nicely myopic antagonist and walks a good line for younger and older viewers alike.

The writing and directing are less bombastic this season, which has helped its sensibility. Sure there are prat falls, but far fewer. And the scenery is only mildly chewed upon by the cast, and only on occasion. It is a fun run and suggests a stronger season to follow if they can stick to their creative guns and direction.

The Librarians

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco