Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

The Farewell

[4.5 stars]

The Farewell has been quietly saying, “Hello” to cinemas around the country, expanding each week to new audiences. It’s a greeting you should answer. Lulu Wang has created a deceptively simple film that is wonderfully honest, funny, and complex while remaining delightfully entertaining. From the opening moment of the film, you know that is going to be something a little bit different.

Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) lands a great performance of a young woman finding herself and navigating a family crisis. And Wang helps her navigate it wonderfully and shed her typically over-broad delivery. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and, as the beloved Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhao. Lin and Zhao, in particular may end up in conversations come awards time along with Awkwafina and Wang. And this film should be in that conversation.

But even if I’m wrong on the awards front, and it gets forgotten or snubbed, you should make time for this unexpected treat. It certainly touches on strong emotions, but its overall impact is a positive one; its messages (however you interpret them) and moments sticking with you long after the credits have faded.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein

[2.5 stars]

For the title alone, I had to check out this silly satire, and clear vanity project, by David Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) on Netflix.

The short film is full of nods and winks to the History Channel, Dark Shadows, and Documentary Now among other shows. It also takes many hilarious slams at the acting craft generally. Against this background Harbour explores his family’s fictional past in search of… well, that would be the problem overall. We never really understand why he’s doing this, what “questions” he has to answer. And, in the end, we don’t know what he’s discovered or embraced. Perhaps the open ended aspect was part of the satire, but it left me as a viewer wondering why I’d spent the half hour.

Given director Daniel Gray Longino’s background with Portlandia, and both he and writer John Levenstein’s involvement with The Kroll Show, the sensibility of this 30 minute distraction shouldn’t be a surprise. Mainly, it’s just disappointing, or was for me. But at 30 minutes, it isn’t a huge chunk of your life to lose for some funny moments. Just don’t expect it to hold together or pay off in a great way and you’ll be fine.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

[4 stars]

Watching the animus between Dwayne Johnson’s (Fighting With My Family) Hobbs and Jason Statham’s (The Meg) Shaw through the Fast & Furious franchise has always been entertaining, but it also got a bit tiring. It was just so forced and so over-the-top. This latest installment to the franchise gives the characters space to breathe. Sure the one-liners and fights barely stop between the two, but the story actually builds a relationship between them that allows the jokes and slams to continue, but now in a more believable way. “Believable” is, of course, a relative term in the world they’ve created, but compared to other stories in the franchise, this one felt more complete amidst the insane fights and stunts.

Part of the reason is that it is hyperfocused on only two of the characters we follow. And, added to that mix for tension, they found a great female lead to join them in Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and a great villain in Idris Elba (Luther). There are also several surprise cameos to help tether the story to the main franchise.

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed at this point in my summer. It is a great popcorn film with just enough story and character to allow me to enjoy it without having to forgive it. I wish more of the F&F films had as much meat on them, but they’ve become thin excuses for huge stunts, bad jokes, and little else. Whether this latest becomes a bridge for the plot there, which appears a possibility, or perhaps elevates the stories a bit more remains to be seen. For that matter, whether these characters return to the franchise proper or not is still not known, but it was great to see them on their own adventure.

As you can imagine, yes, you should see this on the big screen if you have any interest at all. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) continues to improve his directing skills without losing his stunt edge. And Chris Morgan (The Fate of the Furious) who has helped turn the F&F franchise from pure car show to something more with his scripts is exploring his characters more. We’re still talking just serious summer fun, but that’s fine. And, should you go, watch through to the end of the credits. There are several front-loaded scenes and one at the end of the roll.

 

Veronica Mars (series 4)

[4 stars]

You just can’t keep a good detective down….or at least an obsessed one. We all thought the fan gift of the Veronica Mars movie was the end of the line for the intrepid investigator. But having left High School behind, Mars Investigations continues on in this engaging bridge season that maintains the wonderful noir sensibility of the original series, for all the good and bad that can bring.

The good is very much in the dialogue and twisty plot. Kristen Bell (How to be a Latin Lover) is as acerbic, witty, and broken as always. She and  Enrico Colantoni (Travelers) continue the father/daughter love and comedy in style. The return of Jason Dohring (iZombie) adds some character evolution and fun, while the addition of Izabela Vidovic (Wonder) provides some reflection on the once and future past.

And then there are the new characters bouncing around. Patton Oswalt (Nostalgia), Max Greenfield (What Men Want), J.K. Simmons (The Front Runner), not to mention the Pulp Fiction-esque Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry), Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos add plenty of pop to Neptune’s known residents.

Where it is weak is where it has always been weak. Procedural accuracy isn’t a top concern of noir, never has been. And Mars has always played loose with the rules and the realities for the sake of the mysteries. We trade that for the rest of the fun, though I’d really like to see what Rob Thomas could do with that added aspect. But all those aspects that may have brought you to Mars in the first place are still there, though admittedly not much more. But if you liked what came before, you’ll enjoy this latest expansion. And do make sure you watch the opening credits through the whole season for a subtle, small extra.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.

22 Hot Zone Heroes, or More Streaming Fun

The Hot Zone
This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor)  just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.

Catch-22
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.

MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.

Jessica Jones (series 3)
Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.

Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2)
This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.

Runaways (series 2)
Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Yesterday

[5 stars]

Yesterday delivers one of the best films of the summer so far. It embraces the kind of sweet magic that Mamma Mia delivered (if not its sequel), but with a more adult and wry edge. It is funny, romantic, honest, and not a little subversive in its way, offered up with care and love by two of the best story tellers out there behind the camera: director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting 2) and writer Richard Curtis (About Time).

Boyle (Trainspotting 2) is one of the most diverse directors out there, often slipping between genre without missing a step (Sunshine aside). And with Curtis (About Time) laying the trail, the two take us on a journey that is both nostalgic, current, and toe-tappingly hypnotic.

Himesh Patel, basically an unknown in the US though a constant on Eastenders for 11 years, carries this story solidly. Opposite him, Lily James (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) is the sweet embodiment of missed chances. There are a slew of other players, too many to mention, but Joel Fry (Requiem) and Kate McKinnon (Leap!) are among them. And watch for several credited and uncredited appearances throughout the film, most notably one by Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting 2).

As a side note, I have to say that McKinnon surprised me. While talented, she usually goes way to far with her comedy, destroying reality for the laugh. Boyle kept her very restrained, making it one of her best and most believable performances…edgy and out there, but within the bounds of the story till near the end.

This is must see film for the summer for anyone who enjoys music, comedy, and romance… and it’s the cure for CGI and action-laden madness that crowds the screen through the hot months. That kind of film can certainly be fun, but Yesterday proves it isn’t the only reason to catch a film on the big screen. And, for all its silly fantasy and sweet romance, there is a point to Yesterday. It starts to crystallize near the end, with a hint in the credits if you miss it. Honestly, it turns the whole idea on its head and gives you one last smile as you leave the theater. But even if that slips by, the journey and the resolution are worth your time. Don’t miss this one.

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?

To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.

The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection.  I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.