Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

[3 stars]

As his first feature directing and co-writing (with Luke Matheny) Rob Meyer put together a sweet coming-of-age tale. It isn’t particularly better than many others of its genre, but it is certainly enjoyable and has some very good moments and humor.

The story centers around Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Apocalypse) and his struggle with his father and soon-to-be step-mother. The parents are played nicely by Daniela Lavender (Learning to Drive) and James LeGros (Nostalgia) but the script doesn’t really help them much. The situation and conversations are a little forced, and the parenting skills suspect, at best.

Smit-McPhee is joined by a motley collection of, well, nerds. Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Katie Chang get some nice stories of their own. While Michael Chen is little more than a sad cliche.

The best, smaller role is unsurprisingly brought in by Ben Kingsley (The Jungle Book). Kingsley, with barely 5 minutes on screen, puts together the most memorable character of the film.

When this released in 2013, it was more unique and interesting. But a lot has happened in the intervening years. The world is more stressed and the expectations for films about young love have shifted. But, while it may not be best in class, it is certainly 90 minutes well spent. You won’t be sorry you got to know these characters, but it isn’t a movie you’re likely to come back to again.

Mirai

[3 stars]

Mamoru Hosoda’s (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) latest is hard to pin down. Despite the trappings of a children’s movie, this is an adult film about raising children through the eyes of a child. But the tight perspective of a two year old isn’t exactly complete. The result is somewhat mixed as it whips back and forth between a very honest look at parenting, intense sexism, and the tantrums and fantasies (maybe) of the older sibling when their new, baby sister is brought home.

The American voice cast is actually a seamless substitution, so I stuck with that this round. John Cho (Searching) and Rebecca Hall (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) deliver a believably strained couple that are still devoted to one another and their family, despite obvious issues. There are also a number of smaller roles. Daniel Dae Kim (Insurgent) has the most interesting, if brief, appearance and effect on the tale. And Jaden Waldman, as the tantrumming todder in question, drives it all believably in his first major role, if a bit shrilly at times.

I’m not really sure who the audience is for this movie. It will strike chords for many. It will make others cringe. And even with the multiple fantasy sequences, I can’t see it really holding the attention of children, who would find the story more than a little obscured. The animation itself is also a mixed bag, with computer generated moments conflicting visually with more traditional looking animation. It is an interesting story, if not as gripping as Hosoda’s previous offerings, at least for me. The sum total of all that left me not unhappy that I saw the film, but not overly enthusiastic with recommending it. For those with young children, or had them recently, it will probably resonate best. But if you’re in the mood for a new and magical animation experience, wait till you’re ready for more of a family drama with a bit of fantasy.

Instant Family

[3 stars]

Instant Family is probably exactly what you expect. Humor, forced emotion, and light entertainment in an attempt to tackle a serious subject and encourage more family’s to foster and adopt. It is entertaining, but while Mark Wahlberg (Mile 22) and Rose Byrne (Juliet, Naked) are the stars, it is really Isabela Moner (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) that carries the film and comes across as anything close to real and honest.

The tone and result shouldn’t be too surprising with Sean Anders at the helm and also penning the script with long-time collaborator John Morris (Daddy’s Home 2). Subtle is not this duo’s forte. In this case is sort of works, though a bit more reality may have served the greater intention better. It didn’t have to be Short Term 12, but I would have liked it a little less broad at moments where it often busted the seams of the film.

Smaller supporting roles by Octavia Spencer (Shape of Water), Tig Notaro (Tig), and Margo Martindale (The Hollars) definitely keep it all humming. Martindale comes on a force of nature while Notaro and Spencer actually make a great comedy pairing, though you’d never really expect it.

For a sort of sweet, with a bit of bite, evening you can curl up with this. It doesn’t break any ground and it is utterly unrealistic far too often, but as a light entertainment and a slight propaganda film, it isn’t a total loss.

Isn’t It Romantic

[3 stars]

This is a movie for cynics, cynics who secretly harbor a romantic heart, and romantics tired of the same-old story, even though they constantly order it on the menu. It isn’t a great movie, but it is a diverting one. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson takes the same wry look at this genre as he did with horror in Final Girls.  He skewers the romance genre while also delivering exactly the kind of movie you expect. It isn’t as smooth or complete as his previous offering, but it is certainly entertaining.

Primarily the success of the approach here is down to Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect 3, Night at the Museum). Her energy and cranky wit stand in for our incredulity and hopes. She is this film. Of course, she has some good talent to play off of as well.

Adam Devine (The Intern), her off-time comedy other-half, comes through nicely. He even gets to be more restrained in this completely unrestrained romp. Liam Hemsworth (Independence Day: Resurgence) gets to expand on the family Hemsworth tradition of gorgeous hunks making fun of themselves. And Betty Gilpin (Glow) and Brandon Scott Jones (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) each get to have some nice transformations.

Most of the issues in this silly story are down to script. As an early film by the triumverate of writers on the project, it isn’t at all bad, just a little unpolished and uneven (and weirdly neither American nor Australian in its feel and execution). It is still very funny and, at times, even insightful as it embraces and makes fun of the genre and its audience.

For a silly distraction, and a bit of heart-felt warmth, give this one a shot when you’re ready for it. That could be to make fun of it or to cheer it along. Part of the smarts of this film is that it works for either sensibility.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

The Bookshop

[3.5 stars]

One of the things I love most about independent British cinema is that even when they are following formulas, they never quite get there as you expect. And with The Bookshop, well, it isn’t even the formula you think it is…not entirely. While it is a romance, it is also a look at small town politics, reputation, privilege, and personal values. And, yes, books.

There are many tropes in Isabel Coixet’s (Learning to Drive) adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. Each trope is loaded with expectations and given just enough rope to make it complete through her careful direction. How each resolves, or might resolve, is part of the journey. And the journey certainly intrigued a number of festivals and awards juries.

Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) drives the story with an odd but powerful presence. She never quite fully gels for me, but is still compelling. Bill Nighy (Ordeal by Innocence), Patricia Clarkson (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), James Lance (The Look of Love), and even the young Honor Kneafsey (Crooked House) are also all equally gripping but somehow not quite real. Since the entire film is framed with a forced narration, turning it into a story on its own, that seems about right, if a little unexpected in feeling.

Whatever you think this movie is going in, or even while watching it for that matter, just let it take you where it wants. It is a journey worth taking though it may not be quite the journey you expected or even quite at the level of believability in tone as you’d like. It works, and it is full of wonderful moments and prompts for your own, personal consideration, just like the good book it aspires to be.

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

[3 stars]

A new Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) movie is always reason to celebrate, or at least to take notice. They are responsible for some of the weirdest and most wonderful cinema of the last 30 years. And they have garnered nearly 300 award nominations, winning nearly half of them. Their work is idiosyncratic and uneven, but always inventive and intense. Buster Scruggs is no exception.

So what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? It is a collection of six shorts held together only by the Western theme that binds the framing book that opens the film. If you are a lover of subversive westerns (think The Dressmaker or Pale Rider, though thoughts of Blazing Saddles probably aren’t out of order), this is probably for you. The stories are organized to become increasingly dark and reserved, but, honestly, the first half of the anthology is much more interesting and effective than the latter half. And it never really came together as a whole for me.

It opens with the eponymous segment, which is a hilarious send up led with real talent by Tim Blake Nelson (Colossal). From there, things begin to shift and take a very dark turn by the wonderful third segment, Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) steals the screen from Liam Neeson (Widows). The remaining segments aren’t bad, but become more about what the West really was than how we picture it. And the latter three stories drag a little for my taste. In many ways, thanks to the dose of reality, they are closer to real Westerns despite their moments of satire and commentary. I’m not particularly a Western fan, so it isn’t surprising that they left me a little nonplussed. Certainly, like all Coen brothers films, the are all loaded with recognizable and talented faces.

All that said, I’m not entirely sure how this particular offering garnered three Oscar nominations, even if they were for song, costume, and screenplay. I don’t think it really has a chance at any of them given the competition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, it is. And, nicely, you can exit it at the end of any one of the sequences and probably feel satisfied though I’m sure the Coen’s would argue you aren’t going to get their point. But I didn’t really get their point and I did watch the whole thing. Or perhaps I did, but got it early and didn’t need to be hammered. Regardless, there are moments through to the end that are worth seeing, if you’ve the patience, and performances are all very entertaining.

Now to the bigger question, is Netflix really a player in cinema now? Between Roma and this movie, they’ve got more than two fist fulls of Oscar nominations, not to mention all the other noms and wins this season. But what is more important to the art of the industry is that Netflix offered both movies the chance to be what their creators envisioned, without the obligation to create something to be a “hit.” In an odd way, Netflix, and other services, are reinvigorating the idea of artistic vision in a way that the studios have crushed in their search for tentpoles and only tentpoles. The success of Roma in particular is challenging the idea that streaming and theatrical releases can’t co-exist. They Shall Not Grow Old has also had a huge theater run, though initially through TV, then Fathom Events, and now broader release. The rules are definitely changing and maybe it’s time for Hollywood and the theater chains to catch up.