Tag Archives: Comedy

Sylvia Scarlett

Way back in 1935 Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember) were to meet for the first time on screen. The results were not what you’d expect given their better remembered history. In fact, there is no romance between the two.

The object of Hepburn’s attention is not Grant but rather Brian Aherne. She and Grant are really more intended as comedy duo along the lines of Abbot and Costello or William Powell and Myrna Loy. But the movie really doesn’t work very well. Even Edmund Gwenn, who plays Hepburn’s father, is wasted in this film as he flails about and attains no sympathy from us, starting with the first scene. 

So, why watch this film at all? Well, it has three interesting aspects to it. Primarily, Hepburn is dressed as a boy for a good part of the film. It is intended to lead to hijinx and hilarity of mistaken intentions and confused sexuality (all with a laugh, of course). It didn’t work then. It works a little better now as gender roles and societal norms have relaxed. A little better. Hepburn is, mostly, a strong character in this story. But there are no guts to the script and barely a good joke, though Hepburn does a game job of jumping back and forth in her makeup and movement. And with Mel Berns make-up, Hepburn almost passes, looking like a young David Bowie in her drag.

The second bit of trivia for this film is Grant. It was, essentially, his breakout. Not with the film itself, but it was the first time his trademark personality on screen was exhibited and noticed. It led to his subsequent stardom.

The final interesting aspect of this film, especially given this summer’s misfires at the box office, was that Sylvia Scarlett was a massive bomb (losing about 350,000 or over 6M in 2017 dollars) when it released. It almost cost Hepburn her career. 3 years later she would return triumphantly, and with Grant again, in Bringing Up Baby (followed in quick succession by Holiday, Philadelphia Story), and then Woman of the Year.

You don’t often get to see what didn’t work from years past. For good reason they tend to fade and be forgotten. In this case, the star power kept it alive until it found an audience, however tenuously. You’d never expect that George Cukor, who would go on to direct My Fair Lady, Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib, just to name a few, was at the helm of this damaged ship. But he did see the spark in the pairing of Grant and Hepburn and got to use it later on.

Sylvia Scarlett is not a great film, even in retrospect. But it is a fascinating piece of film history, with some moments to recommend it. I have to admit, I had to skip a small chunk of the film near the beginning because it was just so uncomfortably bad. But curiosity had me finish it. I also wonder if, in title and nod to theme, they weren’t playing on the previous year’s Marlene Dietrich success: The Scarlet Empress, but I don’t think anyone is left to ask that one anymore.

 

 

Going in Style

This is more Tower Heist than Hell or High Water, which is a bit of a shame as the talent in the film is pretty stand-up. Top lining are Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Alan Arkin (Love the Coopers), and Michael Caine (The Last Witch Hunter); three guys who have massive presence on screen and can still share it with others.

And this bouncy comedy, with a tinge of seriousness, has a great supporting cast as well. Ann-Margret, John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island), Joey King (Independence Day: Resurgence), Matt Dillon (Wayward Pines), and some extra silliness by Christopher Lloyd fill out the lives of our main characters with some nice color.

The thing is, the story had more potential than that. Much like a ton of other options like Now You See Me, Stand Up Guys, Lavender Hill Mob, Topkapi, there were depths to be plumbed. It starts off more serious and on a note that will resonate with much of the audience out there. But that note, instead, is just a MacGuffin that has little bite and barely any threat.

A better script would have helped. Writer Melfi (St. Vincent), despite some good moments, really fell into cliche and obvious choices. Some of that blame, though, has to go to the director, Zach Braff (Scrubs), who has little sense of subtlety and who clearly played this for broad laughs rather than something, potentially, richer. It still could have been fun and funny, but it could also have had a bit more grounding to raise the stakes and involve the audience rather than solely using cheap tricks, like kids and hospitals, to win our affections.

I’m not saying don’t watch this movie. It is diverting. It is funny. It is relatively satisfying. But, much like eating a single Cheeto, once it dissolved I found I was still hungry.

Going in Style

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate

The Lego Batman Movie

Yes, you probably saw this ages ago, but I wasn’t going to go pay for it in theaters. The Lego Movie was amusing, but not brilliant, at least for me. I am mainly writing this up as a measurement of my comedy preferences so you can judge my other recommendations.

My biggest question by the time I got to the end of this latest block adventure was: Why had they trusted such a lucrative franchise to the writer of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and first-time feature director Chris McKay? Perhaps they thought the series was bullet-proof? It isn’t.

While it has a solid overall structure and story ideas, the result is uneven, at best, when it comes to flow and dialogue. It also lacks the layers that the original Lego had, trying instead to riff off of the absurd Batman character and relying on shots at Marvel and, even more often, DC and the overall history of Batman since the 60s in media. Cause, let’s face it, it has had quite the meandering road starting with Adam West and ending, for now, with Ben Affleck.

But it wasn’t just the execution and editing of the tale that was off, it was also the voices. They just didn’t quite ever feel right. This was especially true for Zach Galifianakis’s (Birdman) Joker for me, though many others didn’t quite fit either. The movie is loaded with voice talent…some surprising, but none brilliant. This really felt like a money grab by the studio and supported by the late night party game of a lot of actors who just did it for a lark. To be fair, Will Arnett, Michael Cera (Sausage Party), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) all did fine in the main roles, but not memorably so.

Basically, if you need a distraction, you could do worse than this mostly empty confection. But, that also means you could do way better.

The LEGO Batman Movie

A Dog’s Purpose

Sometimes you just hate a movie for making you like it. This film is in that category. It is a near bullet-proof collection of puppies, romance, comedy, and life lessons. It isn’t a great movie, but it knows how to pull heart-strings. I have a love/hate relationship with being emotionally manipulated by a flick in that way. Sometimes it is just what I’m looking for, but I always feel dirty afterwards.

The primary success of this tale is down to a very few actors. K.J. Apa (Riverdale) and Britt Robertson (Space Between Us) in the primary section make a great couple. [For the record, this confluence of Robertson movies was  unintended and unexpected and there is still one more to come.] Robertson makes her moments seem almost improvised. Her naturalness and charisma are necessary to make the whole movie make sense. She has to become a true “love of his life” so that Dennis Quaid’s (The Words) resolution of the tale makes sense. And I also give props to Quaid for capturing some of Apa’s mannerisms to let us feel he is the older version.

And, of course, the voice of the various dogs by Josh Gad (Angry Birds Movie) creates the entire emotional level-set of the piece. Gad is kept at a very even energy, allowing the situations to speak mostly for themselves. He never goes to his extremes, which keeps it all at just the right sensibility with a loving and slightly baffled dog viewing the world through a very narrow lens and a pretty small brain.

Director Lasse Hallström (Hundred Foot Journey) is very comfortable in this arena and he keeps the script moving along. He lingers on the darker moments just long enough to allow another dive into the comforting light of reincarnation, which keeps him from having to keep raising those stakes past credibility.  I will admit that the handling of the transitions between segments was handled pretty well on those lines. The cadre of 5 writers on the script managed to merge their voices to something cohesive, but not something overly memorable. There were also some definite gaps in research on their part around K-9 dogs and police procedure.

See this with someone you care about or when you just need a sugary drink to raise your spirits. Or see it for Robertson, if you’re following her career. Or see it if you’re a dog freak and love pretending you know what’s going on in their furry brains. There is entertainment to be had here… not a lot to return to, but enough to snack on once.

A Dog

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Oh yeah, summer is here! James Gunn (Super) gave it a heck of a kick-off with GOTG Vol 2. If it isn’t quite as surprising as his first, it is still one crazy roller-coaster of a tale, retaining its unabashed and unapologetic sense of fun. The original movie was the origin of the team. This second go round is about fixing all the relationships and tying up the loose ends as we head into the Infinity War. In many ways it is what Fast & Furious wants to be, but has never had the writing and acting to match.

From the moment the movie starts you are set up to understand that the action will always be secondary to the characters and the fun this round. While not nearly as perfect as the opening to Deadpool, it comes close in its intention for setting the first frame. Admittedly, the rest of the movie tries just a bit too hard on all counts, but I suspect it will even out with rewatching. And, yes, I will be back watching this again.

In an effort to keep my promise and avoid spoilers, I can’t really go into much. I will say there are a couple fun cameos, such as Ben Browder (Farscape) who pop up. And Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) did  a very credible Tilda Swinton/Cate Blanchette as one of the many challenges the Guardians face this round.

However, I will say, nay beg, Gunn to get rid of the Howard the Duck references. They are really jarring at this point and, frankly, pull me out of the movie every time. I get it is an 80s nod, but who really cares anymore?

Start your summer off right. I have no idea how the rest will go, but I’m glad it began with the crazy, psychedelic joy that is the Guardians. Sure it is sugar for the brain, but sometimes, that’s just fine!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Why Him?

Why Him is, at times, hysterical. But between those moments it is clunky and almost unwatchable. The result is a like a rosary of humor, moving from one bead to the next as the touch-point to get to the end. Of course, I knew this was a gamble for me as it was from the writer of Zoolander 2 and Little Fockers, John Hamburg. Neither of these were on target for me. Even with the addition of his more adept co-writer, Ian Helfer (The Oranges), I probably should have known to run away.

Comedy is hard. This is a truism in entertainment. Hamburg is more often a writer and TV director. It really is more the directing than the writing I object to in this tale. He should have taken pause before diving into this stew. Another truism: Comedy is also highly personal. So, yes, I should have taken a pause as well.

Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some) is the thread that keeps all the beads of this comic rosary from rolling away; she remains grounded through the whole tale. Without her I would have turned this film off in the first 10 minutes. The rest of the cast all have their moments, but none ever felt entirely real to me. James Franco (True Story), Bryan Cranston (Power Rangers), Megan Mullally (Hotel Transylvania 2), Griffin Gluck (Red Band Society), and Keegan-Michael Key (Don’t Think Twice) are all talented comedians. But they are all also talented actors, though you’d never know that from their roles in this movie.

In a weird twist, the best comedian of them all never shows her face: Kaley Cuoco (The Wedding Ringer). Much like Emma Thompson in Men, Women, Children, she gets to have a sort of running commentary in the film and does it well.

If you want some broad humor and don’t really care how well it is packaged, you’ll enjoy this. I don’t judge, but, really, you could find something better to waste a couple hours on.

Why Him?

Carrie Pilby

Pilby is a balancing act of coming-of-age and romance in about equal measures. While not perfect, it is very sweet and funny and doesn’t quite fit into any particular box thanks to its plot; Pilby’s age, combined with her intellect, helps it bridge a broader audience than you’d typically expect.

Now, I do have to admit that I may just be crushing a bit on Bel Powley (Equals). Powley’s characters are intelligent, witty, charismatic, vulnerable, and honest. Carrie Pilby is no exception, and she carries the movie admirably. She reminds me of a young Emma Stone or a less-edgy Ellen Page, though entirely her own persona.

Into Pilby’s life comes Colin O’Donoghue (Once Upon a Time), Jason Ritter (The East), and William Moseley (Chronicles of Narnia). Each has their qualities, but they are all really there for her to respond to as she finds her way. And while Ritter has some depth, and O’Donoghue is a recognizable rake, only Moseley feels entirely whole.

Amusingly, this film also matches up Gabriel Byrne and Nathan Lane again, close on the heels of No Pay, Nudity. And with Byrne in the lineup, almost all of the main characters in this comedy are from the UK, though only half are putting on an American accent.

As director Susan Johnson’s first feature, there is a solid sense of character. Johnson’s empathy is touching and her love of the character is clear. Indications of time passage still needs some honing, but there are enough clues to keep it all working. Find someone to share this with and make some couch time.

Carrie Pilby