Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Release: Friday, November 23, 2022 (limited)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rian Johnson

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Daniel Craig; Edward Norton; Janelle Monáe; Kathryn Hahn; Leslie Odom Jr; Dave Bautista; Kate Hudson; Jessica Henwick; Madelyn Cline

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

The elite and entitled once again take it on the chin in Glass Onion, the sequel to Rian Johnson’s highly entertaining 2019 murder mystery Knives Out. Set in the era of COVID and inspired by the director’s own cabin fever during the lockdown period, this new installment, the first in a two-sequel Netflix deal worth upwards of $460 million, may not be as sharp as its predecessor but it still has the engaging characters and plot to make it a worthy follow-up.

With the exception of Daniel Craig reprising his role as the brilliant Detective Benoit Blanc, Glass Onion is a complete reset, luring a fresh cast of characters into a new, unrelated web of deception and backstabbing, and establishing a lavish, borderline Bezosian setting to match the more exotic ambition of Johnson and company. Thankfully what also returns is the crisp and dynamic pacing of Knives Out, returning editor Bob Ducsay sewing together the many moving parts to create another intricately designed puzzle that also happens to be narratively fleet-footed — even at two hours and twenty minutes in length the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome.

While everyone else is locked down, tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) decides to open his doors to some of his closest friends — his fellow “disruptors” — by hosting a murder mystery party on his private Greek island. Apparently the gathering is an annual event but this year the vibes are a little different, for reasons that are obvious and some that are festering below the façade of pleasantries. The guest list includes Connecticut governor and aspiring Senator Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), cutting edge scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), controversial fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), men’s rights streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and Cassandra ‘Andi’ Brand (Janelle Monáe), the recently ousted co-founder of Miles’ company, Alpha.

While the latter’s attendance causes a stir amongst the other guests, and Monáe floats through her scenes with an aura of mystery that’s hard to ignore, it’s the presence of the world-famous detective that seems to throw things off balance from the get-go; unlike Birdie’s high-strung assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) and Duke’s sidekick of a girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) Benoit hasn’t actually been invited (despite passing through the same comical screening process all attendees must, including spending the time just trying to figure out how to open the invitation). But hey, the more the merrier for Miles’ evening theatrics, which of course don’t go to plan when someone actually ends up dead.

The ensuing chaos, exacerbated by a power outage as well as good, old-fashioned paranoia (not to mention the sudden disappearance of a loaded weapon), is nothing if not the product of a filmmaker who likes to take risks. If Johnson doesn’t quite manage to outsmart his previous whodunnit, he certainly gets bolder toying around with conventional wisdom — the already divisive writer/director pulling off a reveal that has no right to work as well as it does. Unlike Craig’s genteel detective, whose job is to distill the simple truth from the noise and nonsense, Johnson delights in obfuscation. His screenplay is a delicious layer cake that simultaneously props up genre conventions and subverts them with style and humor.

While the comedy may end up overriding the drama, and the tension never gets as high as it maybe should, the time is well-spent thanks to the efforts of a dedicated cast, some of whom really stand out in atypical roles: Bautista bros out hard and is counterintuitively entertaining with his caveman attitude, while Hudson is a hoot as a tone-deaf tweeting fashionista who can’t be trusted with her own phone. Norton, as per usual, brings his A-game and threatens to steal the show from everyone. Ah but wait, the cherry on top is another terrific turn from Craig, whose joy in not being burdened with the Bond role any longer is obvious, practically worn in his summer fabrics here.

Bigger, louder and flashier, Glass Onion turns out to be a sequel that’s more playful than substantial. Look no further than the curation of needle-drops and A-list cameo appearances throughout, or the title itself which contains layers of meaning (particularly if you know your Beatles lyrics). And it’s probably for the best Johnson takes broad swipes at COVID-era politics, and instead drills deeper into the interpersonal tension that unfolds between these hypocritical, self-absorbed buffoons. The collective thematic burn may not leave much of a scar, but in the moment Glass Onion, with all its attendant distractions, is undeniably good fun.

Whine and dine

Moral of the Story: Though I found it bizarre and a little frustrating the film only spent a week in theaters before heading to Netflix, Glass Onion is a movie that will probably reward repeat viewings, perhaps not as much as Knives Out, but there are surely little nuggets to be found a second (or more) time around. And what better way to peel back the layers of Johnson’s creative — and at times audacious — approach to the murder mystery thriller than by having it sitting right there in plain sight on a prominent streaming platform, begging to be watched and rewound. Probably multiple times over. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins. 

Quoted: “Buttress!”

“Yeah, I’m trying real hard to buttress, but this sounds nuts.” 

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Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Release: Friday, November 4, 2022 

👀 The Roku Channel

Written by: Al Yankovic; Eric Appel

Directed by: Eric Appel

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe; Evan Rachel Wood; Diedrich Bader; Toby Huss; Julianne Nicholson; Rainn Wilson

Distributor: The Roku Channel

 

 

***/*****

Love him or just weirded out by him, there is no denying “Weird Al” Yankovic is a success story. Anyone who has survived four decades in the music business must be doing something right. The mop-topped accordion player who became famous for humorously rewriting other people’s lyrics has exploited a niche to the tune of five Grammy wins, six platinum records and well over 12 million albums sold — more than any comedic act in history.

Now there’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, an appropriately whacky and over-the-top comedy that pokes fun at fame and films (specifically the musical bio-pic) with almost reckless abandon. Rather than offering a straightforward account of what created and sustained Yankovic’s career as a song parodist, Eric Appel’s directorial début instead takes a satirical approach, producing a movie that, like its namesake, more often than not hits the sweet spot by being both ridiculous and clever.

Daniel Radcliffe continues to reinvent himself by stepping into the shoes and loud Hawaiian shirts of the “Weird One,” again taking to the eccentric like it’s his second language. Co-written by Yankovic, the story broadly deals with a creative person’s struggle to win the approval of his conformist parents. When Al’s love for polka is exposed one night at a party a major rift in the family opens up, prompting him to leave home as soon as he can. Weird embraces tropes like these and exaggerates them to comedic effect.

Living with his roommates Steve (Spencer Treat Clark), Jim (Jack Lancaster) and “Bermuda” (Tommy O’Brien) Al finds himself in a nurturing environment. Then the bologna sandwich scene happens, setting the stage for a wild and often very funny ride that sees Al ascending on one of the most unlikely trajectories in music history, becoming a hit sensation overnight and shooting up the Billboard charts. His rendition of The Arrows’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (“I Love Rocky Road”) catches the attention of his childhood inspiration Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson).

His quick wit and extemporaneous style earn him a record deal with the Scotti brothers (portrayed by Will Forte and Yankovic in hilariously terrible wigs) but with greater success comes greater complication. In saunters a perfectly-cast Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna, a bubblegum-chewing diva who seduces and manipulates her way into Al’s heart and back to another career high. The filmmakers take the “Yankovic Bump,” a real phenomenon which saw renewed commercial enthusiasm for the original songs he parodied, and create a whole new paradigm wherein Al develops full-blown egomania, determined to make it even bigger by coming up with his own original tunes.

A tale of two halves, the first much stronger than the second, Weird is nothing if not a showcase of personality. As the production threatens to come off the rails late you can’t help but admire its go-for-broke attitude. Radcliffe’s sincere performance may be the only thing you can afford to take seriously, but the cumulative effect of the weird makes for an experience that’s easy to enjoy.

Great acoustics, terrible smell

Moral of the Story: Though it would undoubtedly help to find “Weird Al” entertaining, being a long time fan of his is not necessary, especially considering how little truth there is in the way the story is told. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a pastiche of the peculiar that falls in line with the likes of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and This is Spinal Tap — so if you like those movies, good chance Weird will be right up your alley. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins. 

Quoted: “You think you’re going to stop me from playing? You’ll see. One day I’m going to be the best. Well, perhaps not technically the best, but arguably the most famous accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music!”

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Slumberland

Release: Friday, November 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: David Guion; Michael Handelman 

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jason Momoa; Marlow Barkley; Chris O’Dowd; Weruche Opia; Kyle Chandler; India de Beaufort 

Distributor: Netflix

 

**/*****

Slumberland is another one of those adaptations where ignorance really is bliss. You could watch this entire spectacle of Look How Much Money Netflix Has and have no idea it is actually inspired by an early twentieth century comic strip created by famed American cartoonist Winsor McCay. That’s because this expensive-looking but cheaply told fantasy adventure merely uses the iconic weekly sketch as a springboard for Jason Momoa-related shenanigans and a whole boatload of pretty but vapid CGI.

Comparisons are almost rendered pointless given how little the Netflix original, directed by The Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence, actually resembles the comic. The latest attempt to adapt the property is a visual adventure that flits between wild dreamscapes and waking-world tediums. The premise is loosely based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and its protagonist’s penchant for drifting off into crazy adventures only to awaken in his own bed in the final panel of each strip. Here the vignettes are discarded in favor of a simple tale of a girl trying to reunite with her father in her dreams.

In a gender-swapped role newcomer Marlow Barkley inhabits the lead character of Nemo with natural confidence. She starts off the movie living an idyllic life just off the mainland in a lighthouse with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler), who regales her nightly with tales of his adventures at sea chasing after elusive magical pearls. This all comes crashing down when Peter one day does not return and Nemo is forced to move to the city with her socially awkward uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a doorknob salesman. We come to learn Peter and Philip were once thick as thieves, having epic adventures as kids. But after a fall-out Philip retreated into himself and has since lived a dreary and robotic existence.

As a story about learning to deal with grief and accepting change Slumberland has the potential to be a real winner, especially when you have a good lead performance from Barkley that helps foster sympathy. There are a couple of poignant moments along the way but whatever sense of growth and maturity there is supposed to be takes such a backseat to the eye-popping landscape across which Nemo traverses — at first accompanied only by her plush toy pig, creatively named ‘Pig’ (parents should not be surprised to see this one pop up on Christmas lists this year) and, eventually, the colorful and buffoonish outlaw Flip (Momoa), who has been in Slumberland for so long he can’t remember who he is in reality.

Not that he seems to mind. In the dream world there are rules and Flip seems to have violated several of them simply by hanging around and crashing other people’s dreams. Agent Green (Weruche Opia), representing the Bureau of Subconscious Activities, is determined to lock him up once and for all, giving rise to a cat-and-mouse action caper inside a dream-state (something that sounds way more interesting written down). Momoa is clearly having a field day going full-blown Johnny Depp, his garish wardrobe a combination of Captain Jack Sparrow and something out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He brings an energy that may wear a little thin after two hours for the older-than-pre-teen crowd, but also makes such a routine plot feel somehow more exciting.

The world-building is undoubtedly picturesque, despite some awkward moments where you can actually see the actors standing on their marks on a big slab of concrete in a sound stage. Away from these, Slumberland unfolds into a vast network of surreal imagery and outlandish ideas in which nuns fantasize about being salsa dancers in rooms made entirely out of butterflies and Canadians are reduced to dreaming of geese the size of small airplanes. At its center, the Sea of Nightmares — a dark and forbidding region concealing the very pearls Nemo’s father had been describing. Pearls that give the possessor whatever they desire. And as we learn along the way, the alluring gems aren’t the only thing that actually exist in the real world.

Despite some genuinely nice moments, you can’t help but feel like Lawrence misses the opportunity to extract a more interesting plot out of such an idea-rich concept. To his credit he isn’t attempting to remain faithful to the comic. It just would have been nice if what he chose to do instead was something more inspired. As a visual director, it sort of makes sense what he does with Slumberland but his flashy approach doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest movie. 

Next-level waterbed

Moral of the Story: I would describe it as Inception for kids, but that might oversell the amount of thinking this movie requires. Elements of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland combine with the modern slickness of Stranger Things. The selling point is not the comic strip (Winsor McCay doesn’t even get credited) but instead Jason Momoa, who gets along great with kid actors apparently. If nothing else it’s nice to see him playing to a younger audience. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Did you ever figure it out? What the lighthouse is for?”

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Day Shift

Release: Friday, August 12, 2022 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Tyler Tice; Shay Hatten 

Directed by: J.J. Perry

Starring: Jamie Foxx; Dave Franco; Meagan Good; Natasha Liu Bordizzo; Eric Lange; Karla Souza; Snoop Dogg

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

A stuntman of many years, J.J. Perry sinks teeth into his first directing effort with Day Shift, a fun but forgettable vampire-themed action/comedy. For the most part this cartoonishly violent send-up plays the way you would expect from someone whose experience lies more on the technical side of things. Day Shift is mostly style over substance with a few clever spins on vampire mythology thrown in.

The goofy story revolves around Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx), a cash-strapped family man who cleans pools in sun-drenched SoCal as a cover for his real job as a vampire hunter. A protracted and vicious fight sequence early on proves he’s highly skilled and capable of defending himself. But he also seems to prefer doing things his own way. His off-the-book methods have led to his dismissal from the Union, which operates by a strict code of conduct, and his odd hours and constant excuses have created a rift in his family. Ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) is giving him a week to come up with $10k to cover their daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax)’s private school tuition and braces or she is putting Bud in her rearview once and for all. 

Meanwhile Audrey (Karla Souza), a powerful vampire posing as a real estate agent, has infiltrated the local market with plans of restoring the balance of power between her fellow bloodsuckers and the humans who now hunt them for their fangs. Souza is a game participant, chewing the scenery as a hammy villain who laments how the mighty have fallen. Sadly the script reduces her grand ambition to a predictable and boring revenge plot. When Audrey gets a whiff that Bud’s recent kill is none other than her daughter, she makes it her life’s work to draw even.

Unsurprisingly, like the vampires in this brave new world, it is the stunts that rule the day as well as the night. Brutal confrontations come thick and fast, whether it’s a one-on-one beatdown with an elderly woman or a tag-team effort in bringing down a stronghold. However not all of the stunts pulled are over-the-top fight sequences in which the dead and the living alike are tossed across the room like rag dolls. Supporting characters are their own spectacles, be it Eric Lange adorned with the world’s worst wig as grouchy union boss Ralph Seeger or Snoop Dogg busting out the snakeskin boots as Big John Elliott, a vaunted union member whose get-up hints at a myth never fully explained.

The union is Bud’s best chance of making the money in time, and Big John has the kind of clout necessary in getting him reinstated. But of course there are caveats. The rogue cowboy will have to work the less profitable day shift while being chaperoned by union rep Seth (Dave Franco), who will report directly to Seeger any and all code violations his partner is sure to commit. If only the avid rule-abiding accountant can avoid developing a conscience and/or devolving into a mess of involuntary bodily functions when things get real.

The pairing of Foxx and Franco is a curious one but it is let down by the hackneyed script from Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten. The odd-couple dynamic feels forced and never allows the actors to build convincing chemistry together. Franco is sentenced to making a fool of himself while Foxx gets to look stoic and heroic busting heads (or severing them in this case). Though the ultimate gag may be the very idea of casting the notoriously intense alpha male actor in a movie this absurd. The guy who once portrayed Ray Charles to Oscar-winning effect may not get turned into a comedic punching bag, but he does at one point get to experience that unique sensation of being thrown up a flight of stairs.

Day Shift certainly is colorful, and in more ways than one. Toby Oliver’s cinematography bathes the San Fernando Valley in an exaggerated color palette and like Souza’s super-vamp and her sense of fashion it calls just a bit too much attention to itself. The action pops, as do various joints and limbs thanks to the radical new vampire concept — think street contortionists, not so much Dracula. I guess you have to appreciate the little things here. The milieu is whacky (I love the idea of a pawn shop trading in vampire teeth, and treasured character actor Peter Stormare being the guy behind the counter). In the end Perry’s vision has spurts of imagination but rarely at a storytelling level.

Please don’t get all bent out of shape but I have to re-kill you.

Moral of the Story: Knowingly silly, Day Shift plays up the vampire mythology to mildly entertaining effect but with a smarter script it could have been a Zombieland, which is already what it feels like it’s going for. It has that same kind of hyper energy. Unfortunately it lacks the strong characters that could have made it more memorable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “So you just gonna light your finger on fire, huh?”

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Uncharted

Release: Friday, February 18, 2022

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rafe Judkins; Art Marcum; Matt Holloway

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Tom Holland; Mark Wahlberg; Antonio Banderas; Sophia Ali; Tati Gabrielle; Rudy Pankow

Distributor: Sony Pictures

 

 

**/*****

For the uninitiated, Uncharted is a popular series of video games that debuted on Playstation 3 in 2007. Hate to say it, but the 2022 movie adaptation starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg will not be considered the standard-setter its source has become heralded as. Hardly anything in the movie qualifies as bad, but just as much is actually worth remembering in the end.

Relying on good, old-fashioned movie star power to provide some sense of personality, Uncharted follows adventure-seeker Nathan Drake (Holland) on a quest to find out what happened to his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) who disappeared from his life when circumstances forced him to leave the Boston orphanage they grew up in. Whip ahead 15 years and Nate, now a bartender in New York who pickpockets patrons for minor thrills, is given an opportunity to put his specific skillset to better use.

A sleepwalking Mark Wahlberg plays fortune hunter Vincent ‘Sully’ Sullivan. More loyal to money than to people, Sully is as basic a character as they come and the portrayal does not exactly go above and beyond. He is after a massive treasure chest stashed away by famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan. He thinks he knows its general location but needs Nate’s help in pinpointing it. More valuable to Nate however is what Sully may know about his brother’s fate.

So they reluctantly team up, a career opportunist and a naive newbie working together about as well as oil and water as they assemble various valuable pieces (a key, a diary, a map) in an increasingly complex puzzle. However some of the pieces require further assistance to access, and so an already awkward partnership is further destabilized when they rendezvous with Sully’s contact Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) in Barcelona. Mysterious and shifty, she’s a veteran of Sully’s game of deception and will do whatever it takes to ensure history will not repeat itself. 

In the villainous camp we have Santiago Moncado (Antonio Banderas) who, as the last living descendant, is desperate to restore the Moncado name in view of the historical embarrassment of his ancestors having lost the treasure. Banderas brings some menace but ultimately he’s outshined by the striking-looking Tati Gabrielle, who dials up the intensity as Jo Braddock, a ruthless mercenary who has her own designs on Moncado’s long lost loot.

All these competing interests theoretically make the movie more involving, especially when you have a dysfunctional group of good guys to keep an eye on as well. Because everything is so safe and routine the competition is not as exciting as it should be. However Uncharted comes more to life in the stunt work, which is kinetic, often inventive and infused with a decent amount of comedy. Peter Parker’s Cirque du Soleil moment at an art auction and the grand finale where everything is literally up in the air are memorable passages in a voyage that’s content to skim the surface of its themes and ride almost entirely on the likability factor of its in-demand leading man.

There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM. But there is a ‘ME’ if you move the letters around

Moral of the Story: Uncharted is an undemanding escape in which the compass always points to the wreckage of superior adventure films. The title is a misnomer for a film that is the very definition of average, one that shows the challenges of translating active participation of gameplay into the passive entertainment of movie watching. It’s entirely inoffensive and easy to get along with but if you’re looking for a more robust adventure, check out a younger, pre-Spidey Tom Holland in 2016’s underrated gem The Lost City of Z

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Nuns. Why is it always nuns?” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Release: Friday, November 19, 2021 (limited)

👀 Hulu

Written by: Radu Jude

Directed by: Radu Jude

Starring: Katia Pascariu; Olimpia Malai; Claudia Ieremia; Nicodim Ungureanu; Andi Vasluianu

 

 

 

****/*****

If you are someone trying hard to block out the noise of the last few years of heightened enmity, this confrontational tragicomedy out of Romania is not going to be your friend. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s friend; it’s more like a troll in movie form, designed to trigger and infuriate. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is not always an easy watch but in getting under your skin, it’s one you are going to struggle to forget.

Yes, it’s a silly title — there’s some nuance lost in the translation from the original Romanian title into English — but the subject matter is serious and the atmosphere tense and uncomfortable. Set in the nation’s capital of Bucharest and filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the award-winning Bad Luck Banging holds up a mirror to our current times. It harnesses all the emotions and energy that have been bottled up inside and directs almost all of it toward a lone woman, a history teacher named Emi (Katia Pascariu), whose sex tape that she makes with her husband ends up circulating around the internet and causes an uproar at the well-to-do secondary school where she works.

It isn’t just the subject matter that makes this a challenging and sometimes maddening experience. Writer/director Radu Jude plays with form in a way that’s both fascinating and frustrating. He deploys a familiar three-act structure but really this is a self-contained, day-in-the-life style narrative interrupted by an interminable middle section. Here, the filmmaker free-associates every single pertinent concept and symbol in a montage that distills humanity down to its base functions. Though not without purpose, the second act is so cynical it eventually becomes off-putting. There’s a lot of national identity and rage tied up in this sequence but the criticism of society is so encompassing it feels like an unfocused rant.

However what lies on either side of this creative intermission is a modern social satire with serious teeth. Marius Panduru’s camerawork plays a large part in shaping what and how much you feel as the story evolves. What begins as objective, an observation of a woman going about her day doing errands and trying to figure out how to get the video removed from a place it was never supposed to be in the first place, steadily grows more opinionated, more vicious, more ridiculous.

In the first segment Panduru follows the actor from a distance as Emi makes her way through the busy city toward the parent-teacher conference that will soon determine her fate. Moving like a tourist, or perhaps a child trying to make sense of the circus around them, the camera occasionally, and suggestively, comes to rest on the immovable and inescapable objects of a world where sex sells everything from books to Barbie dolls. 

Eventually though, and like her fellow educators who purport to be morally and intellectually upstanding (despite their liberal use of offensive epithets, particularly to women and ethnic Romani), the camera too turns on her and settles in with the hecklers. The climactic confrontation is a spectacle worth the wait. Indeed, it won’t be the eyebrow-raising opening scene that will have people talking — cleverly-placed graphics serve as a running gag throughout, the more racy content suited and tied under the guise of decency. Rather, it will be the combustible third act which chains Emi to the whipping pillar as the accusations and insults fly.

As humiliating as the scene is, it’s also galvanizing and weirdly thrilling. Without divulging all the gory details, there are yet more surprises in store in terms of the way Jude experiments with traditional narrative delivery and subverts your expectation of where things go from here. It’s not that any of the hateful rhetoric being thrown around is funny but as the animosity intensifies it becomes almost impossible not to let something slip out; a nervous chuckle does the same job as the Xanax Emi is denied in a drugstore. You need some relief from the stress.

Bad Luck Banging embraces taboo in a way that will draw only passionate responses, not just from those who endured it but from those who have only heard things about it and want to dismiss it out of hand. That’s understandable, but the movie doesn’t end up as exploitative as the title sounds. Some of the artistic choices annoyingly delay what could be a more streamlined narrative, but as the tension builds in the final stretch there appears to be a method to Jude’s class(-less) madness.

Yummy.

Moral of the Story: Not for the faint of heart, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is caustic, bizarre and features elements so heavy you kind of wonder whether this even qualifies as comedy. This is my first experience watching a film from Romania (I think) and while it’s not one I will necessarily return to, it is a breath of fresh air away from Hollywood, a bold film barely able to contain its righteous anger. (Dialogue is in Romanian with English subtitles and captions.)

Rated: NR

Running Time: 106 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Hustle

Release: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Taylor Materne; Will Fetters

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar

Starring: Adam Sandler; Juancho Hernangómez; Ben Foster; Robert Duvall; Queen Latifah; half the NBA

 

 

 

****/*****

When you’re passionate about something it tends to show, and that’s what happens with Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle. The actor’s well-documented enthusiasm for the game of basketball bleeds over into his work here, which turns out to be some of the best of his career. Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore may have given us some good laughs, but Sandler is more compelling when he isn’t playing a cartoon.

In Hustle he shows that passion by bringing attention to the sidelines rather than center court. The behind-the-scenes role of the NBA scout is highlighted in a way that evokes the esoteric space of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019), which told the story of a sports agent navigating an NBA lockout. The emotional beats however hew closer to the traditional underdog narrative of perennial hardwood classic Hoosiers (1986). Sandler is a recognizable face but here he effortlessly blends into the crowd as a family man, a hard-working Philadelphian who loves this town, this game and being this close to it. His authentic portrayal is largely why something so familiar works so well.

A bloodshot-eyed, fast-food-slurping Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a top scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has devoted years to traveling the world over in search of the next big talent. More familiar with airport terminals than the hallways of his own home, he’s looking for a promotion that will further challenge him and also keep him closer to his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Luckily his dedication and eye for detail have built a lot of credit with team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who finally gives him a more active team role.

But then Rex unexpectedly passes away and, in a baffling development — one of a few head-scratching moments in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay, another being the weird decision to prop up the NBA Combine as if it has playoff implications — ownership is transferred not to his competent daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner) but rather to his inexperienced and vindictive son Vince (Ben Foster), who promptly 180s on his father’s decision and banishes Stanley back to the road. In Spain, he comes across a streetball game being dominated by a young phenom named Bo Cruz (NBA reserve Juancho Hernangómez) and immediately identifies him as a potential franchise-changer.

It’s already an uphill battle convincing the higher-ups to take an unknown as the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. It certainly doesn’t help when an emotional outburst during an exhibition game exposes Bo as a potential liability and triggers an unfortunate narrative in the media, one that Stanley has trouble getting in front of considering the omnipresence of Vince and his natural disdain for everything he does. The crux of the drama finds Stanley in damage control mode, trying to save his reputation while proving to his young prospect he actually cares about his future.

Hustle may shortchange the talented Ben Foster with a one-note corporate bozo role, but it’s the two leads whom we are here to see and they form a really likable team. Though each are impelled by love of family to compete at a high level, they couldn’t be more different in background and upbringing. The story doesn’t exactly shy away from sports drama tropes. Cue the obligatory training montage, where comparisons to Rocky are inescapable and feel almost intentional, and the evolution of a partnership into genuine friendship.

What helps offset the film’s many cliches is director Jeremiah Zagar’s commitment to world-building. Hustle has production design so authentic you might actually think Zagar snuck inside the Wells Fargo Center and filmed guerilla-style. Fans of the game will have a field day spotting all the names that come through the scene, with former and current players, coaches and front office staff all getting some camera time (while sneakily supplying the production with its quota of product placement). Yet it’s Anthony Edwards (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) who gets to actually leave an impression, stealing the show for a moment as a trash-talking hotshot who’s also a top candidate for the team. 

In the end, Hustle (and by extension, Sandler) isn’t trying to dazzle you with how much it knows about the X’s and O’s. It’s all about the game within the game, the psychological aspects that make pro sport so challenging. Don’t call it a classic, but the fourth quarter rally is very fun to watch. Because the performances are so earnest and believable, what’s routine ends up feeling rewarding.

“Look, I had this Rocky montage set up especially for you. Don’t blow it, kid.”

Moral of the Story: Perhaps more for NBA fans than casual viewers, Hustle is a modern-feeling sports drama that is also worth watching for another outstanding turn from the erstwhile King of Bad Comedy. (Do we start petitioning for Sandler to star in more basketball related movies? He seems to do those pretty well.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Guys in their 50’s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares . . . and eczema.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

Release: Friday, May 27, 2022 (limited)

👀 Hulu

Written by: Loren Bouchard; Nora Smith

Directed by: Loren Bouchard; Bernard Derriman

Starring: H. Jon Benjamin; John Roberts; Dan Mintz; Eugene Mirman; Kristen Schaal; Kevin Kline; Larry Murphy; Gary Cole; Nick Kroll

Distributor: 20th Century Studios

 

***/*****

The Bob’s Burgers Movie is a summer breeze of an adventure that may not be remembered for long but is nonetheless an entertaining extension of the Emmy-winning series that began in 2011. Whether this flirtation with murder and conspiracy deserved the big screen treatment is up for debate.

Whether it deserved to be dropped into theaters quite so unceremoniously is probably the better question. One of the defining qualities of the show is the underdog status of the Belcher family and how humble Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) just can’t get no respect. So it is apropos that whatever hope this little upstart had of doing business got crushed by the big boys of the box office — eaten alive by Jurassic World: Dominion and choked out by the lingering contrails of Top Gun: Maverick. Like the store front, did anyone passing through the cineplex actually see the sign?

You can just add this real-world scheduling snafu to the plate of general misfortune that Bob has been handed through 12 seasons and counting. Stoically he endures, empowered by his mustache and the enduring love of his eternally optimistic wife Linda (John Roberts). And there’s never a dull moment with three children — socially awkward Tina (Dan Mintz), musically inclined Gene (Eugene Mirman) and rabbit-ear-wearing Louise (Kristen Schaal) — constantly having misadventures.

After being denied an extension on a bank loan, Bob and Linda have one week to come up with the money or the lights go out permanently. But then a water line bursts and a sinkhole opens in front of the store, putting a damper on summer sales. With a (questionable) assist from their longtime friend and loyal customer Teddy (Larry Murphy), they go mobile in an attempt to keep operations going, taking to the nearby Wonder Wharf where they inadvertently cause further problems.

Meanwhile the kids are trying to get to the bottom of a mystery involving the murder of a former carnival worker named Cotton Candy Dan. Apparently the sinkhole isn’t just an inconvenience for business; it’s a crime scene, one that may even implicate their landlord, Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline). Louise in particular is keen to figure out what’s going on, motivated to prove her bravery following an incident with bullies at school. The ensuing investigation finds the trio hopping all over town, confronting strangers while overcoming their own worst fears and insecurities in the process.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie doesn’t present the greatest threat the Belchers have ever faced, it’s merely the next one. Granted, the danger element is slightly more elevated than the average episode and there are a couple of heartfelt moments that bring the family closer together. As a movie based on a niched show, it was never going to be a hot seller in theaters. As a movie about embracing individuality and not giving up hope, Bob and his never-quitting family might just find themselves with a new lease on life on streaming, where people can stop in for as long (or as short) as they like. 

Let’s ketchup on a steak out

Moral of the Story: Even though it doesn’t skimp on the ingredients that have earned the show a devoted following, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is more likely to play better in front of audiences who haven’t spent much time around this grill. There are some revelations along the way but overall there just isn’t enough going on from a character standpoint to call this a significant chapter in the Belcher family legacy. (That being said, I have been known to binge-watch the heck out of minor little movies like this.) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Hello, is this the police? I want to report a . . . a thing happened!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Release: Friday, March 25, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinert

Starring: Michelle Yeoh; Ke Huy Quan; Stephanie Hsu; Jamie Lee Curtis; James Hong; Jenny Slate

Distributor: A24 

 

 

***/*****

No one makes a movie like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, nor does anyone dare try. Relatively unknown as the guys behind viral music videos such as DJ Snake’s Turn Down For What, the writer/directors etched their shared first-name moniker into audiences’ minds forever with their supremely strange feature film debut Swiss Army Man in 2016. Now they return with a proposition that makes their first effort seem unadventurous by comparison.

With a fatter budget and increased confidence Daniels take massive swings for the fences with their own indie flavored multiverse movie. Everything Everywhere All At Once is undeniably the product of two of the most inventive and unapologetically odd filmmakers running around Hollywood at the moment. It is also a rare casualty of production company A24’s artist-friendly approach. Unfettered weirdness mutates from exhilarating to eventually exhausting over the course of two long and chaotic hours.

In the off-kilter and unpredictable world of Daniels nothing is certain except death, taxes and this pesky thing called Jobu Tupaki, an anarchic entity intent on destroying literally everything in existence. The story centers on a Chinese-American family whose matriarch is unwittingly pulled into a confrontation with this threat. In acquiring all kinds of abilities and insight jumping in and out of the various lives she might have lived she becomes the only one who can stop it. However, her ability to succeed may well hinge on her willingness to make amends with those closest to her.

The simple yet heavy question “what if my life went differently” is at the heart of this highly cerebral and often ridiculous journey. When we first meet her, Evelyn Wang (a dynamic Michelle Yeoh) is not exactly living the high life. Struggling to make ends meet with her laundromat, she is preparing for an audit by the IRS (represented by an amusingly frumpy Jamie Lee Curtis) while nervously awaiting the arrival of her intimidating father Gong Gong (James Hong). All is not well on the home front either as husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), at wit’s end trying to make their life happy, trails her around with divorce papers. Meanwhile daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) wants to introduce Gong Gong to her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) but Evelyn doesn’t think that is a good idea.

There is enough tension and acrimony in the early going to serve a compelling family drama on network television. But this is Daniels, not This is Us, and so the film with all of its fantastical elements takes a rather circuitous route in elucidating what really matters. When we arrive at the IRS building the story takes on an entirely new life — The Matrix meets Boots Riley — and it’s as though Daniels have bailed on their early suggestion of more intimate drama. In an elevator, a transformation occurs and suddenly Evelyn’s pushover hubby becomes a kung fu master brimming with charisma. Like Morpheus, this more assertive Waymond from the “alpha-verse” has searched far and wide to find the right one for the job.

As it was with Swiss Army Man, the established rules and mechanisms that enable the action to tick forward can be challenging to accept. Here you’ll receive a crash-course in “verse-jumping,” learn what “mind-splintering” is (and perhaps, like me, experience it yourself) and encounter bagel-worshipping cults and people with hot dogs for fingers. Absurdism is part of the filmmakers’ appeal, but Everything Everywhere takes liberties with your goodwill — a moment in which a man flings himself across a room for the specific purpose of impaling himself on a sex toy seems like an easy cut to make.

Fortunately the performances are really good, particularly the dynamic between Yeoh and Quan. Together they imbue the narrative with just enough humanity to make the insanity relatable. Yeoh is a force to be reckoned with as she multitasks as both hero and an everywoman. Semi-retired actor Ke Huy Quan makes a triumphant return to the screen, falling toward the center of emotional devastation as a man who can’t imagine any version of his own life without his wife. As the daughter, Hsu fits in nicely as well, creating a character full of believable torment — a young woman caught between cultures who never seems to measure up to expectations.

Everything Everywhere toes the line between artistic freedom and pretentiousness. For all that this swirling mass of energy and ideas does differently and at times movingly, the cumulative effect is not entirely satisfying, the payoff frustratingly minimal for all the energy required to keep pace.

Gonna take this to another level.

Moral of the Story: Kung Fu Bagel. Enter the Bagel. Big Bagel in Little China. Whichever way you want to slice it, this crazy visual feast is unlike anything you’ll see this year. Personally, I don’t think the film’s messaging is particularly original or profound, but there’s certainly stuff here to strike an emotional chord. And I also do appreciate how the film’s conflict revolves around imperfect people vs chaos, rather than pure good vs pure evil. The villain(y) is refreshingly nuanced. 

Rated: R (for rocks!)

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun)

Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray; Owen Wilson; Adrien Brody; Benicio del Toro; Léa Seydoux; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Timothée Chalamet; Jeffrey Wright; Mathieu Amalric; Ed Norton; Steve Park; Elizabeth Moss; Willem Dafoe; Saiorse Ronan

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

 

****/*****

Trying not to laugh in a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to suppress a sneeze. All the little absurdities he is synonymous with are those constant tickles that build toward something you can no longer contain. Of course, his movies aren’t pure comedy and so you’re fighting a battle of needing that sweet release and being stifled by the seriousness that sits right beside the silliness.

The French Dispatch (etc, etc) is yet another example of that uniquely entertaining struggle. But it might be a struggle in another way, for this is the most ambitious project Anderson has yet undertaken. As such it isn’t a great starting point for a newcomer (I highly recommend beginning with his début Bottle Rocket — it’s low-key but full of the elements that would later make him an auteur). In some ways, early Anderson might be the best Anderson as you see raw talent more than the money. Post-Royal Tenenbaums, the intensifying style and increasing magnitude of cast represent an elitist form of repetition, with his exacting precision and obsessive-compulsive control over all elements remaining forever the things you remember more than story beats.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m a fan, and if he so chooses to make a movie that somehow tops this level of complexity, consider me there. But I also wonder about the sustainability of the future — can Anderson just keep drilling down into more and more complicated narratives or does something eventually give? His tenth film is a doozy, at one point a post-World War II musical (that’d be something to see!) now turned into a detail-laden love letter to journalists that unfolds as though one is watching a magazine come to life on screen. For Anderson, the way a story is told has always been tantamount to the subjects of those stories and in drawing inspiration from The New Yorker he’s found an ideally idiosyncratic space in which to run wild with his obsessions.

It’s the end of an era for the staff of the titular paper, a foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas publication based in the delightfully made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom-upon-Apathy). The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Usually it’s no news is bad news but this is bad news for his underlings, a tight-knit group often coddled by Howitzer — a character loosely based on The New Yorker founding editor Howard Ross. As per his wishes, Howitzer’s death means the end of the paper. The overarching plot, manifested in a prologue and epilogue, revolves around this bittersweet development as the loyal staff gather themselves, without crying, to reprint a series of stories for the paper’s final issue.

Sporting an insane cast The French Dispatch all but demands a second viewing if you want more than the basic shape. The first segment, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece,’ is relayed to us by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), an art aficionado prone to personal digressions at the lectern. Her presentation describes a strange relationship between incarcerated, tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). Adrien Brody complicates the scene as an art dealer who intends to sell Rosenthaler’s provocative abstracts to the highest bidder. The buyer’s persistence sets off a chain of amusing events that becomes impressively convoluted considering the confinement of the scene.

From a physical altercation we pivot into social unrest in ‘Revisions to a Manifesto,’ which centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a lonely writer who emphasizes professional objectivity yet develops an intimate relationship with a student protestor (Timothée Chalamet) as she helps him formalize his complaints in writing. The righteous cause in this case is getting campus rules rewritten so that boys can visit girls in their dorms. As the movement evolves, the town of Ennui becomes ensconced in greater conflict, in what becomes known as The Chessboard Revolution. The tableau is constructed as farce but finds real-world roots in the May 1968 student-led protests that snowballed into nationwide strikes and even prompted a temporary government shutdown. It’s a tricky area in which Anderson’s unbridled whimsy could easily feel inappropriate, but he avoids unfunny facsimile by keeping the focus almost exclusively on the (intentionally inappropriate) dynamic between writer and subject.

Finally we arrive at ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,’ which, for now at least as my brain tries not to overheat, is at risk for being remembered only for the breathtaking action midway through, an Adventures of Tintin-style animated sequence down narrow French streets that effects a New Yorker comic strip in moving picture form. During a television interview, forlorn foodie Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts the kidnapping of the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric)’s son by members of Ennui’s seedy underbelly, represented by Ed Norton‘s Chauffeur. The kidnapper’s motive (and fate) prove far less significant than the recollection itself, which encompasses his painful backstory of how he, an openly gay writer, came to be hired by the Dispatch.

Each of these stories are works of art unto themselves. Although some are more memorable than others, it’s not crazy to imagine any one of them being stretched into a full-length film of its own. Details matter more here than they ever have. In a story overflowing with minutiae perhaps this is no small thing, but it’s important to note the way Anderson regards journalists — at the very least, his journalists — not as unassailable heroes incapable of doing harm but rather emotional beings who have egos, biases, habits, neuroses. The French Dispatch is not a lamentation of clickbait or a yearning for the days when long-form journalism didn’t need to be qualified as ‘good, old fashioned.’ This is a satire of writerly sensibilities, of insecurities and imperfections, ironically delivered by a veritable perfectionist. 

While the laughs may not come as easily on the first try, the layered narrative approach and copious relationships ensure The French Dispatch will be a piece worth returning to time and time again. 

If you mention block-editor to me one more time . . .

Moral of the Story: The French Dispatch is a movie that finds Wes Anderson pushing his iconic style and atmosphere to extremes, such that style and substance become one and the same. The subject matter is more esoteric than something like the romantic escape of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and more complex even than the history of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but the good news is that you don’t need to be aware of all the homages and references that are made to enjoy what Anderson is doing here. As with so many of his films, what you put into it is probably what you will get out of it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins. 

Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.rogerebert.com