Posts Tagged comedy

Frozen II

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.  Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Evan Rachel Wood.

The relationship with a sister is something to be cherished. That was the driving force behind Frozen, and it continues to be so for this originally unplanned sequel. The relationship between Anna and Elsa (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel reprising their roles) receives more attention here, as the bond between them is once again tested in a journey into an enchanted forest, as fears of change, isolation, and issues of trust threaten to ruin their relationship once again.

If you’re saying, “didn’t they resolve those issues at the end of the first film,” yes, they did. However, since when has anyone just stopped a destructive habit after doing it for a lifetime? The unconditional love between the two sisters remains, and how they navigate threats with that as their foundation is where the sequel places its focus.

I loved Frozen when it came out. I saw it back to back days in the theater. At the time, I admitted that the secret villain twist was obviously an afterthought that didn’t work at all, but I thought everything else was fantastic, except for a couple clunker songs such as “Fixer Upper” and “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.” It was frustrating when Disney put all their promotions toward “Let It Go” as the best song, when it clearly was (and is) “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”—a song about one sister begging the other for a relationship, which is the heart of the film. I can’t even hear the first notes of it without tearing up.

Some of the weaknesses have become more noticeable over time. I still enjoy Frozen immensely, although not quite as much as I originally did.

I love and appreciate this sequel more than I ever cared for the first one. The score is more uniformly excellent with fewer standout numbers, but a higher caliber of songs overall. None of them are as good as “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” But almost all are on par with “For the First Time in Forever” and “Let It Go.” I really appreciated the way the songs set up one another and connect to the main themes of isolation and trust in the midst of life’s changes.

“All is Found” is a lullaby that sets the mood for the film that follows, promising a story of mystery and fantasy that also has a sense of tenderness in the midst of fear. “Some Things Never Change” functions similarly to “For the First Time in Forever,” but it introduces several subplots and grounds the characters in what’s most important to get them through the subsequent journey in which things will obviously change.

Elsa’s big “I want” song this time is “Into the Unknown,” which seems to be where Disney is (correctly) placing its Oscar hopes. For my money, it’s a stronger song than “Let It Go,” not only musically, but also for being the instigation of the plot and for having a satisfying dramatic answer in “Show Yourself,” which occurs in the second act of the film. Idina Menzel once again belts the demanding range with authority, transitioning from the insecurity of the verse to the confidence of the chorus.

“When I Am Older” continues the carefree shuffle from “In Summer” into another Olaf solo about learning to make sense of the world, while searching for Samantha, even if you don’t know anyone named Samantha. Josh Gad is every bit as funny as he was in the first film, and his new song here is at least as good. Olaf’s philosophical crisis is not only great comic relief, but ties into the plot nicely as well.

Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, returning) gets a longer solo than “Reindeers Are Better Than People” with “Lost in the Woods,” which is the power ballad ending the first act of the film instead of “Let It Go.” This is a brilliant idea on several levels. For most of the film the characters are literally lost in the woods and struggling to prevent themselves from becoming lost emotionally from one another. Taking the focus briefly away from the sisters appropriately heightens the conflict at the narrative center of the movie.

Anna has her own solo this time as well. Strongly emphasizing the heart of both this film and its predecessor is the relationship of the two sisters, it follows both of Elsa’s solos, indicating she cannot complete her journey without the aid of her sister. “The Next Right Thing” is also a powerful testament to finding your way out of depression and helplessness even when it doesn’t seem possible. Kristen Bell certainly does not have the voice Menzel does, but the intimacy and tenderness of her performance is a haunting complement to the virtuosity of Elsa’s songs.

As I said, “Into the Unknown” is the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. After Elsa hears a voice reminding her of her mother, she accidentally wakes up the four spirits of enchanted forest (earth, wind, fire, and water), endangering the lives of the people of Arendelle. She, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf set off to the forest to find out what has upset the spirits and appease them before it’s too late. The main plot points are fairly obvious well in advance, but that plot is primarily a backdrop for the relationship between Anna and Elsa, which takes forefront here more powerfully than the first film.

Similar to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the sins of the proper, civilized court are exposed and atoned for in the wild fantasy of the woods. Anyone who has seen any recent family films will probably be able to guess who committed the unatoned for sin, but once again, that’s not the main focus of this movie. The bond between sisters and friends forms the film’s center, and when people we trust betray us, monsters chase us, or any unknown confronts us, it’s those bonds that hopefully remain constant, and they form the roots from which we grow.

In the midst of his philosophical musings, Olaf asks if the enchanted forest will transform them. He then wonders what a transformation is. There’s a small one just after that when Elsa confronts the fire spirit with calmness and acceptance, making what was first seen as a monster into a cute harmless lizard. It’s a small act of kindness, which in turn foreshadows greater acts of compassion and love that allow the fears of the unknown to be a source of transformation and not destruction.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

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Cats

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Tom Hooper.  Starring Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Jason Derulo, James Corden, and Rebel Wilson.

To answer the most important question regarding Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats: does Jennifer Hudson have the vocal chops to pull off “Memory,” yes, she most emphatically does. Is it enough to save a train wreck of a movie that, with few exceptions, is a series of mind-bogglingly bad decisions? For that matter is “Memory” enough to save the show itself which is likewise a series of (less) bad decisions?

Before I brand myself as a hater of Cats the stage show, which is a more or less enjoyable two-plus-hour dance recital if you can accept it for that, let me sincerely say that it has several decent songs and the choreography is fun to watch. The songs I particularly enjoy from the show are “Memory,” “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat,” and “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” The song (yes, singular) that I enjoyed in this presentation was “Memory,” in spite of Hooper’s attempts to sabotage it.

Hudson lands the one big showstopper that’s far more difficult to sing well than most people give it credit for. Hooper then follows it with a reaction shot of two humans imitating cats that elicited deserved howls of laughter in my theater. If following the one earned moment of pathos in the movie with that wasn’t bad enough, Victoria (Francesca Hayward) then sings the desperate Oscar attempt for best original song, cowritten by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift: “Beautiful Ghosts.” It’s the equivalent of a figure skater nailing the triple axel and then twice falling flat on her face while trying to turn around at the end of the rink.

I understand that the truncated act I version of “Memory” is followed with the full version of “Beautiful Ghosts,” so following the full version of “Memory” with a shorter reprise of “Beautiful Ghosts” could make structural sense. This ignores several important points. First, “Beautiful Ghosts” is lyrically a watered-down version of “Memory.” No musical needs to a new song to repeat the emotions of the song immediately preceding it. Second, “Beautiful Ghosts” stands out structurally and musically like a sore thumb from the rest of the score. Finally, it’s an okay song at best, so placing it next to the most famous song in the show is a particularly bad idea.

Speaking of bad ideas, possibly the worst one plaguing this movie is the decision that the paper-thin plot tacked onto the original needed more explanation. As a result, ridiculous and redundant expository dialogue has been introduced to the originally completely sung musical, explaining at the end of the Jellicle Ball, one cat, chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), gets to go to the Heavyside Layer to be reborn. A seven-year old could have told you that from watching the stage show without it being explained to them, but apparently Hooper and screenwriter Lee Hall think the average movie goer in 2019 is less intelligent than the average seven-year-old. It doesn’t make the plot more sensical—that’s not possible—it just makes the stupidity of it more apparent.

Even more mind-numbingly, all of this is being explained to Victoria, the youngest and newest cat attending her first Jellicle ball. In the stage show, the performing cats break the fourth wall, addressing the non-feline audience to explain the “Naming of Cats” and who the various cats are. It makes no sense at all that this needs to be explained to a cat, an animal with one of the best instincts. Inconsistently, the movie also doesn’t entirely abandon the fourth-wall breaking. For the final number, “The Addressing of Cats,” Old Deuteronomy looks right at the camera, presumably forgetting about the audience-surrogate Victoria standing right next to her. Or maybe it’s because Victoria has now become a Jellice cat, which is the one unexplained aspect of the stage show that the movie insists on keeping a mystery.

I’ve been negative long enough. Francesca Hayward is a very good dancer and singer, and from the little bit she has to act, presumably a good actress too, knowing how to emote with her body and eyes. Ian McKellen’s 110% commitment to mimicking a cat is more enjoyable than almost anything else in the movie, and of course there’s Hudson. Taylor Swift is also in the movie, and she performs “Macavity the Mystery Cat” with surprising skill, even if her breathy singing style doesn’t quite have the aggressive edge the song needs.

As a groupie of Macavity (Idris Elba, playing a smaller version of Shere Khan), it’s weird that Swift’s Bombalurina is the only female feline to have a noticeably not-flat chest, which the camera creepily draws attention to. If I wanted to think about this movie more than I do, I might say it’s an example of slut-shaming by making the most sinister female cat the only sexual one, as contrasted with Jason Derulo’s flirtatious Rum Tum Tugger. But I really don’t want to think about it that much. I especially don’t want to think about Rebel Wilson in a CGI fat cat suit spreading her legs and scratching the inside of her upper thighs, but bad ideas plague this movie in truly incredible ways. However, writing those sentences back to back just made me realize that when this movie focuses on cat bodies, or human ones thanks to CGI cat fur, the focus is almost always female and always unflattering.

I haven’t even talked about Hooper’s bad camera choices here. He apparently learned the lesson from his dumb single-take song idea for Les Misérables, but he’s overcorrected, cutting so frequently that, for the most part, we barely get to see the dances. Steven McRae’s tap dancing as Skimbleshanks is one of the few nice exceptions, even though Andrew Lloyd Webber decided the song need to be updated, cutting the bridge and re-orchestrating it, as he does to the detriment of several songs, such as “The Old Gumby Cat” and “The Addressing of Cats,” although the latter may have been because Judi Dench doesn’t have the voice to sing its enormous range.

I also need to mention the human faces on the mice and cockroaches that Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) keeps in line and occasionally swallows whole. Since the entire set was designed for human-sized cats, shouldn’t mice and cockroaches be proportionately larger than they are in real life, and not the same size? It’s a strange disconnect, much like the shots of human cats crawling on all fours and then randomly deciding to walk on two legs that plague most of “Jellicle Songs for Jellice Cats,” but clearly not something that mattered to anyone making Cats or anyone who will enjoy it, which can probably be said about most of this movie.

 

Personal recommendation: D+

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Knives Out

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Rian Johnson.  Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, LaKeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer.

Between Looper and The Last Jedi, as talented as Rian Johnson clearly is, it was beginning to seem that he would overthink his film plots, writing himself into a corner with no completely satisfying resolution to all the threads and themes he was tying together. Therefore, when I saw the trailers for Knives Out, a comedic whodunnit, I was intrigued, knowing it would be a riveting mystery with plenty of twists, but I was also concerned it would suffer from the same drawbacks that I thought hurt his previous two films.

I don’t know if it was juggling the large cast of characters, having one central twist that everything leads to, or just a case of the third time being the charm, but Knives Out has no such shortcomings and is one of the most clever and enjoyable films of this year.

Johnson knows the expected beats of a murder mystery, and he respects his audience enough to assume they know those beats too. Predictable guesses are quickly subverted, and Johnson is a master of using our expectations as a means of misdirection. Recaps and standard expository material are briskly presented to focus on the driving forces of the movie—the eccentric characters portrayed with juicy flare by the all-star cast and the not particularly subtle but fittingly biting social commentary.

At the head of the cast is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a cross between Columbo, Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and even a touch of Clouseau. He references Conan Doyle’s detective stories and humorously strikes one piano key as if he knows when someone is lying to him. The eccentric accent is some sort of cross between French and Southern American, and it’s a fitting cultural blend in a movie that wants to exalt the meek and humble immigrants while casting down the mighty white nationalists.

The meek and humble immigrant is Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who serves Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) as a nurse and friend after coming to America from Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, or whichever South/Central American country pops into the mind of one of Harlan’s family members at the current moment. Most of the family wanted her to attend Harlan’s funeral, but they were all outvoted.

Marta is equally honest as she is meek, and Blanc refers to her inability to lie as a “regurgitatory reflex to un-truthing.” Therefore, when Harlan is found with his throat slit by apparent suicide, Blanc enlists her as his Watson to learn the truth about each family members’ secrets, especially since Blanc received a large sum of cash from an anonymous source to investigate foul play in regards to Harlan’s death.

Most of the family obviously has a motive for wanting Harlan dead, and Johnson spins those motives into a farce of the family politics common at most large family gatherings. It’s especially fitting and comic given then film’s Thanksgiving release. At the same time, Johnson continues his twisting of the tropes one would find in an Agatha Christie mystery with developments that connect the politics and the intrigue as apparent altruism quickly turns into more selfish motives.

In addition to the three main characters, each cast member is given enough material that they make a memorable impression in their supporting roles—all nine members of the family, the maid, the family lawyer, and the two police officers assisting Benoit Blanc. As Harlan’s two surviving children Linda and Walt, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon both display the entitlement of spoiled rich adults. Their children Ransom (Chris Evans) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) have taken that to further extremes. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) fits right into the family’s arrogance and materialism. The scene where and he and Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s deceased son, spar is probably all too familiar to most Americans. Joni and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are the liberal black sheep of the family, at least as long as it’s convenient to be so.

I’ve avoided saying as much as possible about the plot, and it is definitely best to avoid reviews which discuss any of it in detail. The best surprises are not only the mystery reveals and the insignificant details that aren’t, but the ways in which Johnson makes sure every character gets what they deserve.

Knives Out is a film that understands the value of entertainment, and Rian Johnson delivers that in spades on multiple levels, from the thrill of the mystery to the social justice themes. The final scene masterfully ties everything together not only narratively but visually as well, closing a highly worthwhile murder mystery.

 

Personal recommendation: A

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The Dead Don’t Die

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Jim Jarmusch.      Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, and Tilda Swinton.

“This is going to end badly.” That line quickly becomes a recurring punchline from Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), whose last name might be a subtle reference to the previous collaboration between Driver and Jim Jarmusch. In a film overflowing with meta jokes, it’s difficult to overlook such a similarity. It’s also a bold choice for a repeated line, since it will give plenty of fodder to critics who dislike The Dead Don’t Die.

According to IMDB trivia, Tilda Swinton gave Jarmusch the idea for a zombie film while they were working on his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. Much like that film redefined the conventions of vampire films in service of a story focused on the role of art and relationships in a polluted world that does not value the good, true and beautiful, The Dead Don’t Die redefines the conventions of zombie films in service of a story focused on surviving in a world that is literally turning into Hell.

The Dead Don’t Die is certainly more cynical than Only Lovers Left Alive, but it is an apocalyptic film taking place in a world that has dug too deep down the rabbit hole of its own destruction. It also was made five years later than Jarmusch’s earlier film, and the world has now seen a racist, bullying fascist use his office to roll back environmental protections, lock children in cages, and peddle countless lies as “facts” every day.

If there’s any question as to whether Jarmusch intends to skewer America’s current administration and its supporters, Steve Buscemi plays a racist farmer who wears a red baseball cap with the words, “Keep America white again.”

Jarmusch is clearly disgusted by the state of American politics, but he doesn’t let his disgust give way to anger. Instead he channels it into brilliantly exploiting the fine, fine line between horror and comedy, ruthlessly highlighting the absurdity of a world choosing to endanger its own existence. Similar to Aronofsky’s Noah, which showed an apocalypse that resulted from humankind’s destruction of all creation, The Dead Don’t Die shows an apocalypse that results from polar fracking, which knocks the earth off its axis, changing its rotation, which in turn alters day and night lengths, which enables the dead to rise. How could such a scenario end other than badly?

The inevitably of the movie’s conclusion enables Jarmusch to play the resigned, deadpan, matter-of-fact humor for all it’s worth. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth a lot, especially with Chloë Sevigny’s everywoman Officer Mindy Morrison anchoring the normal human reactions to the horror. When Driver’s Officer Peterson tells Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) that the gruesome attack on the local diner owner was perpetrated by zombies, ghouls, the undead, the suggestion is as calmly met as if it were as common as a pack of wild animals.

The omniscience of Officer Peterson serves another greater purpose beyond the hilarious running punchline throughout the movie. Driver’s banter with Bill Murray whenever they’re driving is hilariously self-referential, and it culminates in a fantastic scene that underscores the purpose of art and the role of the artist. Even at its darkest, art holds a mirror up to the world, as the artist guides his creation down a path that hopefully gives us some understanding of the world as it as and as it should be.

Jarmusch homages other works of art as well, from Nosferatu to Night of the Living Dead to Star Wars, all of which highlight in one way or another that this version of Centerville, PA is very much not as it should be. The person best prepared for the zombie apocalypse is Hermit Bob (another frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Tom Waits) who lives in the local woods and provides a running commentary on the action. His detachment from worldly materialism is his saving grace. Science fiction and samurai films both receive a tribute (and hilarious conclusion) through the town’s new mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Caleb Landy Jones plays a nerdy gas station attendant whose extensive horror film knowledge helps him and Hank (Danny Glover) fare slightly better than most of the other characters.

However, because the dead don’t die, as the theme song by Sturgill Simpson says, the film is obviously going to end badly. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of hope. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its head. Whether that is intended as a call for impeachment or completely cutting off our dependence on fracking and other environmentally detrimental procedures is debatable. Either way, the metaphor clearly suggests the difficulty and necessity of ceasing the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants.

With a large cast of quickly developed characters, bizarre and extremely dry humor, strong political overtones, and deliberate avoidance of any zombie film tropes, The Dead Don’t Die is obviously going to be a strong cup of coffee that not everyone appreciates. Perhaps the best litmus test for enjoying it is this. We hear the title song play over the opening credits; two minutes later it comes on the radio, and Adam Driver explains it’s the theme song, so it’s familiar. If that strikes you as hilarious, the rest of Jarmusch’s self-aware, environmentally conscious zombie apocalypse should as well.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Missing Link

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chris Butler.        Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.

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Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.

With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.

Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.

The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:

  1. It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
  2. It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
  3. The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
  4. There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
  5. Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
  6. It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
  7. It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
  8. The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
  9. It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
  10. It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
  11. It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.

The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.

Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.

Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.

Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.

Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor.                   MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment

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