BABYLON (2022) – Exceptional Movie Has Much to Say About Film Industry and Movies’ Relationship with Fans

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BABYLON (2022), the latest movie by writer/director Damien Chazelle, the man who gave us LA LA LAND (2016), my favorite movie that year, and starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, is not getting great reviews or performing well at the box office.

But I loved it.

It speaks to the magic of movies, and what it has to say about how important movies are to people is spot on, and it does this with a story about just how cruel and unforgiving the business is to those who work in it, creating a perfect storm of opposites: how can a medium so magical and which brings such joy to people the world over be built on such depravity and callousness? And the answer the movie offers by film’s end is that in the end, it’s all worth it— all of it, the pain and suffering and loss—none of it matters in the long run, because movie makers create high art that is seen in theaters around the world and that connects to fans forever.

BABYLON takes place during the 1920s, during the era of silent movies, and opens with an extravagant, decadent Hollywood party/orgy filled with drugs, sex, music, and even an elephant! This opening pre-credit sequence goes on for over 30 minutes and might have viewers wondering if this is the point of the movie? One long party sequence to show how Hollywood partied in the 1920s? The good news is that this is not the point of the movie. Instead, this sequence serves as an introduction to the three main characters in the story.

We meet Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican American who is employed by the famous party host, and we first see him trying to transport the elephant to the party mansion, but it’s at the party where he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) a vibrant young actress who crashes the party in the hopes of getting discovered. Manny comments to her that she wants to become a star, and she replies that she is already a star, that you’re either born a star or not, and she is. We also meet Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) who at the time is the silent screen’s biggest leading man.

When the party finally ends, Manny is told to drive a drunk Jack Conrad back to his home, and he does. Jack enjoys conversing with Manny, and the next day tells Manny that he wants him to join him on the set of his movie as his personal helper, and since Manny is dying to break into the movie industry, he agrees. Meanwhile, when an actress at the party overdoses on drugs and nearly dies, the producer picks Nellie on the spot to replace her. It’s a bit part, one scene, but Nellie is more than up to the task.

On Jack’s movie, after a brutal on location battle sequence, the director finds himself out of cameras, and Manny is sent to find replacement cameras and get back on location before sunset, a job is he is determined to complete.

The movie then follows Nellie’s rise to stardom, Manny’s triumphant climb to the director’s chair, and Jack’s slow decline from box office star to Hollywood has been as he struggles to make the transition from silent movies to sound pictures. But don’t expect A STAR IS BORN. As Jack learns in a conversation with tabloid reporter Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the industry is bigger than all of them, it doesn’t need any of them, and it will continue when they are dead and gone. And so, Nellie’s and Manny’s success is also fleeting.

Getting back to the aforementioned scene, it’s one of the best written in the movie, in a film that has a lot of well-written scenes. Reporter Elinor goes on to tell Jack that while he may be broken now by his lack of success, because of the magic of movies, he will be immortalized. That fifty years after he has died, young fans born after his death will discover him on film, like him, and even believe they know him, all because he has been captured on film. It’s a wonderful conversation, mostly because it is true. This is exactly what happens to actors in movies of old and describes perfectly the relationship fans and moviegoers have with these actors decades after they walked the Earth.

I absolutely loved the screenplay by Damien Chazelle, as it has so much to say, and in a visually stunning well-acted movie, the screenplay was my favorite part.

On the surface, the screenplay speaks to the hilarious mania involved in making movies, especially during the silent era. In the battle sequence of Jack’s costume movie, for example, a man dies when stabbed in the heart with a spear, and the crew stands around his body and comments that he struggled with alcohol, and he probably stabbed himself. Riiight. Manny is tasked with finding an additional camera before they lose daylight, and he eventually commandeers an ambulance to race the camera back to the set before the sun goes down. And then there’s Jack, drunk and barely able to walk, after drinking all day waiting for the camera to arrive, painstakingly making his way up the steep hill in order for the director to get the shot.

There’s also a hilarious sequence chronicling Nellie’s first attempt at a sound movie, and how nearly impossible it was to get the sound right. This sequence calls to mind a similar sequence in Gene Kelly’s classic musical SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). More on this connection later.

Beneath the surface, the script has a lot to say about the discrepancies about the lives of the people who make the movies juxtaposed with the magic they make on screen, as the players often live in poverty, and then once they break into money, their lives spiral out of control due to alcohol and drugs. It’s not a pretty picture. And in Nellie’s case, her gambling problem leads her to cross paths with some very deadly people.

The screenplay also touches upon racism, social status inequities, and gender inequality in the making of movies.

There’s also an ongoing argument that Jack has with his wife about movies and art. Jack argues, and eventually becomes convinced, that movies are high art, and that they matter more than any other art form in the country. He argues that rich people go to Broadway, but everyday people go to the movies, and these films are so important to people’s lives; and, Jack argues, Broadway plays reach thousands of viewers. But movies reach millions upon millions of viewers. It’s a point well taken. It’s also true.

Behind the camera, Damien Chazelle scores almost as highly. While there are so many sequences with expert editing that really bring these moments to life, the film has a three hour and nine-minute running time, and so sure, it could have used some overall editing to cut it down some. Some of these moments could certainly have been shorter. But they’re all so good, it’s difficult to complain.

For example, the long sequence near the end where Manny attempts to pay off Nellie’s gambling debts to the mysterious and deadly James McKay (Tobey Maguire, in a scene-stealing performance), and McKay invites Manny to an underground area of Los Angeles, is horrifying and disturbing. You can make the argument that at this point in the film, the movie goes full-blown horror movie. It’s terrifying.

While Brad Pitt gets top billing, the story is mostly about Nellie and Manny, and as such Margot Robbie and Diego Calva get most of the screen time, and they are both terrific. I’m a huge fan of Margot Robbie, and she delivers here yet again. We just saw her in AMSTERDAM (2022), another top-quality movie which also featured a superior Margot Robbie performance. Here, as Nellie, Robbie is wild, unpredictable, and a force to be reckoned with.

Diego Calva is equally as good as Manny, the young man who will do whatever it takes to work in the movies, and as such, he develops a reputation for being a go-to guy on set, a reputation that continually earns him more and more responsibility. He is also in love with Nellie, and he is always there to help her, even when the situation she finds herself in turns deadly.

Brad Pitt, in what turns out to be a quiet understated performance, anchors the film with his portrayal of silent film star Jack Conrad. At first, Jack is the confident lead man, never meeting a problem he can’t solve or a movie he can’t lead, but when he fails to make a successful transition to sound movies, he realizes that while his visage on screen may live on, he is forever stuck making mediocre sound movies because he’s just not as good in them as he was in the silent films.

There are other notable performances as well. Jovan Adepo as trumpet player Sidney Palmer, Jean Smart as columnist Elinor St. John, Olivia Wilde as Jack’s wife Ina, Lukas Haas as Jack’s manager George, Li Jun Li as the erotic Lady Fay, and Tobey Maguire as James McKay are all terrific, as are many others.

As I said earlier, there’s a strong connection between BABYLON and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. The plot of SINGIN’ IN THE RAY is all about Gene Kelly’s character trying to make the transition from silent movies to talkies, and since it’s a 1950s Hollywood musical, it’s all in good fun and has a happy ending.

Events in BABYLON mirror events from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Heck, Brad Pitt’s Jack even sings “Singin in the Rain” as part of a musical number in one of his talking movies. The difference here is that BABYLON also shows the dark underbelly of the industry, complete with sex, drugs, blood, and death. And Manny, who lived it, buys a ticket to see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN upon its release, some thirty years after the events of his movie making experiences, and the last shot of the movie reveals Manny’s thoughts as to whether it was all worth it or not.

BABYLON is an ambitious and near brilliant movie. I’m tempted to say I loved every minute of it, but at 3 hours and 9 minutes long, that wouldn’t be true. Yes, it could have used some editing to cut it down some. But other than this, BABYLON is a phenomenal movie that has so much to say about the movie industry, its place in the world as an art form, and its relationship with it adoring fans, the world over.

I give it three and a half stars.

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Ratings System

Four stars – Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars – Fair

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

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AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’├ętat to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022) – Playful Murder Mystery Comedy More Amusing Than Funny

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SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022) brings together two of my favorite actors working today, Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan, and pairs them as Scotland Yard detectives in a playful mystery/comedy that is full of spirit and gumption yet has a script that only partially delivers.

And while Rockwell and Ronan do share some onscreen chemistry, it’s Adrien Brody who delivers the film’s best performance. Unfortunately, Brody’s character is killed off before the opening credits, and it’s his murder that the detectives have to solve. Now, we do continue to see Brody’s character in flashbacks, and while SEE HOW THEY RUN obviously isn’t on the same level as the classic SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), in which the story was told by William Holden’s deceased character, Brody even in flashbacks pretty much dominates the film.

The opening pre-credit sequence, which just might be the best sequence in the whole film, introduces us to Hollywood film director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) who is in London in the early 1950s to prepare for a film version of Agatha Christie’s hit play, The Mousetrap, and in this lively sequence, we learn of Kopernick’s contempt for the murder mystery trope which he views as cliche, and we also see that he is pretty much a complete jerk, insulting or getting on the wrong side of nearly all the players involved with The Mousetrap, and so it’s no surprise that someone jumps out of the shadows and kills him. Just before this happens, he laments that somehow, he unwittingly has become a victim in the type of story he disdains!

Enter Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) who are assigned to the case, and Stoppard has also been tasked with training the very green Stalker. It’s their job to solve the crime, and pretty much all the suspects are the folks involved in both the play and film versions of The Mousetrap, making this a mystery within a mystery.

Sam Rockwell, who has been brilliant in so many different roles, from George W. Bush in VICE (2018) to the racist cop Dixon in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), to, going way, way back, the whiny “red shirt” crew member Guy Fleegman in the hilarious GALAXY QUEST (1999), to name just a few. Here, he has the thankless role of playing the straight man to both Ronan’s character and the rest of the supporting players, who are all over-the-top larger than life suspects. His take on the sad, dour Stoppard is of a man deep in melancholy and in need of a drink. While the other actors all appeared to be having a fun time playing their roles, Rockwell here was playing the heavy. He’s convincing, as you would expect. And we are spared any voice-over narration from the depressed detective.

Saoirse Ronan fares better as Constable Stalker who takes things so literally, she often seems like a bumbling Inspector Clouseau, but she’s no fool, and her meticulous notes actually help crack the case. But she is a source of a lot of the humor here, as she does take things literally, like when one of the characters steps up to Stoppard and says, “I did it!” in reference to something she just did, but Stalker misinterprets that as a confession and announces, “I arrest you for the murder…!” Ronan gets most of the laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. The only issue I had is most of these moments were shown in the film’s trailers, and they didn’t save all that much for the movie, so her best bits, I had already seen.

Still, it’s another terrific performance by Ronan, who has wowed me in such movies as LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and LADY BIRD (2017). This is the most fun performance I’ve seen her deliver.

And other than Adrian Brody’s scene stealing performance as a deceased director, it’s the best performance in the movie.

The rest of the cast is fine, although none of these folks, in spite of their eccentricities, really come to life as much as expected. David Oyelowo plays annoying screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris, and Ruth Wilson plays the arrogant theater owner. My favorite Ruth Wilson role remains her recurrent role as the explosive Alice Morgan on the gritty Idris Elba cop TV series LUTHER (2010-2019).

Director Tom George holds nothing back and has made a murder mystery that pokes fun at the genre and looks fabulous while doing it. However, the screenplay by Mark Chappell, in spite of going all out in an attempt to not be the genre it’s spoofing and doing creative bits like breaking the fourth wall at times, simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. Briefly put, the laughs simply aren’t there. SEE HOW THEY RUN is far more amusing than it is funny.

I loved the cinematography, and it nails the 1950s London look. I enjoyed all the characters, although with the exception of Brody’s Leo Kopernick and Saoirse Ronan’s Constable Stalker, they don’t really come to life. They remain caricatures of the characters they are playing. Even having Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) herself show up doesn’t cut through the surprisingly wooden characterizations.

There’s a lot to like about SEE HOW THEY RUN, even as a lot of it doesn’t work. I wish the jokes had been sharper. Let’s put it this way. It’s not Mel Brooks or Neil Simon. It’s not even Agatha Christie. But it sure tries like heck.

It does have a snappy music score by one of my favorite film composers these days, Daniel Pemberton, who wrote memorable scores for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017).

SEE HOW THEY RUN is fun and entertaining and doesn’t take itself too seriously. In a way, I wish that it had. It may have resulted in a stronger, tighter, and ultimately funnier script.

I give it two and a half stars.

—END—

DAY SHIFT (2022) – Horror/Action/Comedy at Its Worst

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The mindless action/comedy tour continues, and with DAY SHIFT (2022), you can throw horror into the mix.

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the plethora of mindless action comedies at the movies these days, films filled with clever rapid-fire banter between main characters but with stories so ridiculous and over-the-top that they possess no semblance of truth and are about as interesting as watching someone else play a video game. Yawn. These movies have become absolutely wearisome, but since they continue to make money, they aren’t going away anytime soon.

They run the gamut from generally entertaining and fairly well-written, like BULLET TRAIN (2022), to not-so-well written and too-ridiculous-to-be-believed-and-enjoyed, like THE GRAY MAN (2022), to the horribly dreadful and uber boring because not only is the action mindless but the characters as well, like UNCHARTED (2022).

DAY SHIFT, a new horror/action/comedy which premiered this weekend on Netflix, falls into the latter category. It’s pretty bad.

The movie opens with swimming pool cleaner Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) entering a home and immediately being attacked by an old lady who in reality is…. a deadly vampire! We learn everything we need to know about the rest of this movie in this opening action sequence. It goes on for a while, the stunts and action are impeccably polished, and it’s generally entertaining for an opening scene of an action movie, and when it’s done, Bud wins, and he makes a wisecrack.

And that’s what DAY SHIFT is all about. See, Bud’s not really a pool cleaner. He’s a vampire hunter! And in this movie, Los Angeles is crawling with vampires, and so Bud is plenty busy! The gimmick here is that Bud’s ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) has threatened to move to Florida with their young daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) because they can no longer afford her private school which costs $5,000, or her need for braces, which will cost $6,000, so in order to keep his family in L.A. with him, he has to come up with $11,000 real fast! So, he has to get extra aggressive with the vampire hunter gig. However, this plot point is a head-scratcher. Moving to Florida isn’t going to remove Paige’s need for braces or the expense that goes with it, and private schools in Florida are just as expensive as private schools in California, so Bud, if he took two minutes to think about things, should have realized he has other options for keeping his daughter with him in California. But that would suggest some intelligence here, which is something that the script lacks.

Bud is paired up with the dorky Seth (Dave Franco) who has been tasked with making sure that Bud follows all the rules of the vampire hunting company, something that Seth isn’t interested in doing because he likes his desk job and isn’t interested in working in the field. And the main villain here, a female vampire named Audrey (Karla Souza) is intent on two things, populating the city with vampires, and exacting revenge on Bud since the old lady he killed in the film’s opening was her daughter. Don’t ask. The explanation doesn’t make sense. So, eventually Audrey goes after Jocelyn and Paige, and it’s up to daddy Bud to save the day.

As stories go, this one is very lame.

DAY SHIFT reminded me somewhat of another Netflix action/horror/comedy movie, ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021), only in that movie, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Dave Bautista, the good guys were battling zombies, not vampires. This similarity comes as no surprise as screenwriter Shay Hatten wrote both movies. Here, Hatten shares screenwriting credit with Tyler Tice.

It’s a pretty ineffective screenplay. The dialogue and banter is neither funny or clever, and there’s nary a laugh to be found. There is one amusing conversation between Bud and Seth about the TWILIGHT series, but that’s about it. It tries to be clever and creative with the vampires, as Seth offers an explanation into the different types of vampires, but the movie never makes an effort to make this part of the film’s lore, and so it’s quickly forgotten. The characters are shallow, and the plot forgettable. Vampire Audrey has the upper hand once she captures Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and the only reason she doesn’t succeed is she went to the Dr. Evil School of Villainy and talks about all her plans but never acts on them. It’s pretty stupid. And finally, the story embraces one of the worst plot contrivances in the movies, where after the dust settles, mommy realizes that her ex-husband and daddy of their child really isn’t so bad after all since he’s a vampire hunter hero, and they decide to get back together. Gag! That simply is not how people act. This plot point is almost as bad as the “it was just a dream” shtick.

DAY SHIFT was directed by stunt man J.J. Perry, and the result is what you would expect. The action sequences are really well done and slick, and they are the best part of the movie, but that’s pretty much all DAY SHIFT has to offer. The horror and comedy are pretty nonexistent.

Jamie Foxx is pretty much hit or miss with me. Sometimes I enjoy his work, and other times I don’t. I really enjoyed him in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and RAY (2004), but he did little for me in another recent Netlix actioner PROJECT POWER (2020), and he was rather ineffective in BABY DRIVER (2017). Here, he’s okay, but it’s a terribly written role.

But he fares much better than co-star Dave Franco who plays one of the most embarrassingly pathetic characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. Seth is a disaster. Let’s put it this way: the running gag in the movie is that every time Seth gets scared, he pees himself, and so after each action scene, we get to see Seth humiliate himself, and the other characters plus Seth himself make jokes about it. I can’t believe Franco would even play this role. It’s so bad. And then once you think he’s been put out of his misery, after he is turned into a vampire, and Bud beheads him, it turns out he can put his head back on to survive and become a “good” vampire.

Your guess is as good as mine.

One of the best performances in the movie belongs to Natasha Liu Bordizzo in a small role as Bud’s neighbor who also turns out to be a “good” vampire, and late in the film, she helps Bud and Seth. She’s fun to watch, and she makes for a better action hero than either Bud or Seth. We just saw Bordizzo play a very different character in the thriller THE VOYEURS (2021).

Also making an impact in a small role is Eric Lange, who plays a shady character who buys goods from Bud. It’s the kind of role Lange is good at, having played a similar shady type in the TV series NARCOS (2016-2017). He was also memorable in a dark role in the effective horror movie ANTEBELLUM (2020).

But Karla Souza is ineffective as the one-note vampire villain Audrey. She holds all the cards, yet she loses in pathetically stupid fashion.

Rapper Snoop Dogg is on hand as experienced vampire hunter Big John Elliott, but he, like everyone else in this movie, is let down by the script. He has nary a memorable line.

DAY SHIFT is not only the most recent example of the action/horror/comedy movie trope that is already passe and cliche, it’s also one of the worst examples.

If I were you, I’d request the night shift instead.

—END—

EMERGENCY (2022) – Exceptional Eloquent Drama About Racism Intense Yet Funny

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My favorite movies often are the ones in which the script is spot on and honest and taps into truth, so that regardless of where its story goes, it’s believable and clicks, because the audience knows where its coming from and understands what’s going on.

EMERGENCY (2022) is such a movie, with an exceptional script by K.D. Davila that speaks to race relations in the here and now, specifically the treatment of black men by the police, and it does so in a way that not only isn’t overbearing and heavy-handed, but instead is wild and insane and even funny.

EMERGENCY, now available on Prime Video, tells the story of two black college students, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), who on the eve of spring break, are on their way to an epic night of partying, but first they return to their campus apartment and there discover the door open and an unconscious body of a white girl lying on their living room floor. Their video game playing dorky roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) is in his room playing on his computer and doesn’t even realize there’s a girl sprawled out on their floor.

Kunle wants to call 911, but the streetwise Sean stops him from doing so, explaining that if they call the police, no one is going to believe them that this girl just showed up on their doorstep. They will suspect Kunle and Sean of foul play, and worse, things could get out of hand quickly and they could be shot. This plot point isn’t hard to believe because… it’s true.

Kunle, who is responsible to a fault, eventually convinces his two friends that they should drive this girl to the hospital, as she definitely seems intoxicated or perhaps worse, drugged, and needs medical attention. Sean and Carlos agree, and they covertly carry the girl out to Sean’s car where they hope to drive her across town and leave her at the emergency room.

And thus begins an odyssey of a night that gets crazier and more intense by the second, as what could go wrong does go wrong, and then some.

While director Carey Williams obviously seems to have been influenced by the work of Spike Lee and Jordan Peele, two other films come to mind when describing how EMERGENCY plays out. In terms of sheer intensity and frenetic stress, I was reminded of brothers Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (2017), the film which told the story of the harrowing efforts of a bank robber played by Robert Pattinson trying to spring his mentally challenged brother from a hospital before he was transferred to prison. EMERGENCY also calls to mind the original THE HANGOVER (2009), the insane comedy starring Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, where three men awake after a bachelor’s night out to find the groom missing and their lives in complete disarray, and their attempts to locate the missing groom only make things worse. THE HANGOVER of course was played completely for laughs, whereas EMERGENCY isn’t, but the two films share the zany unpredictability of the best of intentions gone awry.

EMERGENCY captures that same HANGOVER- type journey blowing-up-in-your face vibe as things continue to unravel for these three young men as they try to do the right thing, even as they remain afraid of the simplest solution, calling 911, fearing it could cost them their lives.

Things that go wrong include the girl becoming more intoxicated when Carlos offers her a sports drink which he doesn’t realize is an alcoholic concoction created by Sean; the tail light on their car isn’t working, something that could get them pulled over by the police, and so they try getting another car; they learn that the girl, Emma, is underage, and Emma’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) is hot on their trail with her friends, as she is tracking Emma with her cell phone.

I really enjoyed EMERGENCY. As I said, the script by K.D. Davila is as real as it gets, and it makes its points while also telling a compelling and entertaining story. Carey Williams’ direction is equally as good. The in-depth characterizations do not come at the expense of plot, as the film moves quickly through one ordeal after another. This is a high energy tale that does not sacrifice storytelling for poignancy.

Donald Elise Watkins is excellent as Kunle, the student with a bright future, described as the Barack Obama of the science world by his buddy Sean. Watkins plays Kunle as a young man who disagrees with his friend’s Sean’s take on the world and wants to call 911 and do the right thing, but ultimately, he doesn’t.

He also gets one of the best moments in the movie, the moment where his view of the world changes. When they are finally stopped by the police outside the hospital and are ordered at gunpoint to get out of the vehicle, Kunle is shoved to the ground after having a gun pointed directly in his face, even after he says that he is only trying to save the girl. The most interesting aspect of this scene is that the police do not overreact, but there is still a marked difference between the way Kunle is treated and the way the other students who are all white, are treated. It’s almost imperceptible, since this isn’t an overdramatic “shoot first ask questions later” scene, but it’s there. The experience not only frightens Kunle but traumatizes him, as shown by the last shot of the film, when he hears a police siren in the distance, and his expression goes cold.

RJ Cyler is also excellent as Sean, the street wise friend who knows a bit more of the real world than Kunle does. Sebastian Chacon as Carlos largely serves as the comic relief, and he’s very good at it. And although she spends most of the movie unconscious, Maddie Nichols makes her mark as Emma, and when she’s not vomiting and gets to speak some dialogue, has some key moments. Likewise, Sabrina Carpenter is explosive as Emma’s older sister Maddie, who is guilt ridden over bringing her sister to a college campus and then losing her. She has her own issues with racism which come out over the course of the movie, even as she pushes back and claims she’s not racist.

K. D. Davila’s screenplay provides first-rate dialogue throughout.

EMERGENCY is a superior movie, a film that tells a story of our time that as a wild and oftentimes funny vehicle is about as far removed from a preachy sermon as one can get. Yet, it makes its social and racial points as eloquently as any well-written speech or diatribe.

It’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

—END—

THE BUBBLE (2022) – New Netflix Comedy Amusing but Uneven

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What happens when a group of actors filming the sixth installment of a popular action movie series are forced to quarantine together at the outset of a pandemic?

Mayhem. Pure mayhem.

And hopefully some hilarity.

That’s the high concept in THE BUBBLE (2022), a new Netflix movie comedy by writer/director Judd Apatow, the man who gave us THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (2005) and TRAINWRECK (2015).

And while there is indeed plenty of mayhem throughout, there’s not all that much hilarity, as the crazy shenanigans don’t always translate into laughs. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, and so THE BUBBLE, while not a laugh fest, isn’t a total misfire either.

The screenplay by Apatow and Pam Brady struggles because it too often overplays its hand and goes over the top when it doesn’t need to. Many of the situations, while grounded in the reality of a pandemic, which is fresh in our minds since it is still ongoing, don’t stay real for long and many of the situations deteriorate into unfunny goofiness. That being said, the script throws a ton of gags and jokes at the audience. Most don’t work, but the bits that do are often very funny. So, you have mixed bag of a comedy that is more amusing than it is laugh-inducing.

It also has a fun cast who do their best with roles that aren’t exactly fleshed out, but the talent here makes the most of the material.

Karen Gillan plays Carol Cobb, the actress in the series who left the previous installment to make a different movie, and so when she returns to the set of this latest flick she faces the ire of some of her castmates who are upset that she abandoned them. If there’s a main character here, it’s Cobb, as she gets ample screentime. The ongoing gag of her reasons for quitting the previous movie goes on too long, but the flashback sequence where we see the movie she did make is good for a laugh, which is how THE BUBBLE plays out. You have to get through lots of unfunny bits before you enjoy a payoff.

Gillan is fine here, although I enjoyed her much more in the lead role of last year’s GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE (2021). Probably my favorite bit here for Gillan is having Cobb, a character in her 20s, having to argue that she’s not old to the young TikTok star in the cast.

Leslie Mann and David Duchovny play formerly married actors who get back together during the quarantining. Their fiery on-again-off-again relationship is good for a few laughs, but more often than not misfires. Duchovny’s better bits are when his character, who sees himself as the protector of the series, constantly fights with the director over re-writing the script. Mann is a wonderfully comic actor, memorable in such films as THE OTHER WOMAN (2014), for example, but the material here doesn’t give her a lot to do.

Pedro Pascal, the Mandalorian himself, gets one of the best lines of the movie, late in the game when the actors are all at their wits end, and Pascal’s actor Dieter Bravo says, “There are no answers. But there are drugs.” Which sets up one of the funniest scenes in the movie, one of the few where I actually laughed out loud, where they all get high, which is kind of a low brow way to get a laugh, but the sequence is rather creative and definitely funny.

Pascal currently plays the lead character on Disney’s STAR WARS TV show THE MANDALORIAN (2019-2022), where he’s terrific. He was equally as good as DEA Agent Javier Pena on the Netflix TV show NARCOS (2015-17), which goes a long way to helping us forget his less than stellar performance as the main villain in the dreadful Wonder Woman sequel WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020).

Guz Khan plays Howie, a sex-starved high-strung actor who gets some laughs in his brief screen time. Keegan-Michael Key plays Sean, an actor who is constantly positive, trying to get his fellow actors on board with his quasi-religious beliefs of positive thinking, until he reveals himself to be a fraud. The gag where he only learns to fly a helicopter to go up and not forward is about as unfunny as it sounds.

Peter Serafinowicz is very good as the onsite producer who is tasked with keeping everything together. His cool, calm collected persona makes him the perfect straight man to all the insanity. Fred Armisen makes his mark as the inexperienced director who shot his previous movie while working at Home Depot.

Iris Apatow, the daughter of Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow, is on point as the young TikTok star Krystal Kris.

And Kate McKinnon delivers a scene-stealing albeit brief performance as Paula the Studio Head, the icy cold venomous studio boss who is so cutthroat she hires a security detail that actually shoots any of the actors who try to leave the bubble.

The cast his huge. There are a ton of characters I haven’t mentioned, which is part of the problem with THE BUBBLE. There are so many characters here, each enjoying a small moment or two, but no one really carries this one. There are also many cameos, including Daisy Ridley, John Cena, and James McAvoy, but none really have much of an impact.

One of the funnier parts of THE BUBBLE is when we get to see the actors actually filming their movie, CLIFF BEASTS 6. Their series, CLIFF BEASTS, is about our heroes taking on these mammoth flying monsters. The dialogue is spot on here. It’s awful and sounds a lot like dialogue we’ve heard over the years in the types of action flicks this movie is spoofing.

I had some fun watching THE BUBBLE, but not as much as I had hoped for. The film runs just over two hours, which is a long time for a movie that doesn’t fire on all cylinders. It’s the type of movie where you have to sit through four or five unfunny gags before you get to one that works. A 90-minute version would have been more welcome.

While I found THE BUBBLE amusing, there were just too many misfires in this one for it to be a successful comedy.

I had high hopes, but you might say, it burst my bubble.

—END—

I WANT YOU BACK (2022) – Romantic Comedy is Sincere, Honest, and Very Funny

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Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a romantic comedy that gets nearly everything right.

I WANT YOU BACK (2022), a new Amazon original movie, works because unlike a lot of other recent comedies, it doesn’t get bogged down with over-the-top vulgar humor or lose its way with unrealistic situations for the sake of trying to be funny. The script by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger in spite of its comedic shenanigans remains rooted in reality which results in a surprisingly fresh take on love and relationships in the here and now.

The movie opens with two break-ups. Noah (Scott Eastwood) breaks up with Emma (Jenny Slate) after a six-month relationship, as Noah feels like Emma just doesn’t have her life figured out, and he wants to move on to someone who does. Anne (Gina Rodriguez) breaks up with Peter (Charlie Day) after a six-year relationship because she feels he is stuck, and she wants to pursue her hopes and dreams, but feels she won’t be able to as long as she is with Peter.

Shortly thereafter, Emma and Peter happen to meet in the stairwell of their office building, as they work for different businesses on different floors inside the same building. They’re both in the stairwell crying over their break-ups, and they strike up a conversation. Later they agree to go out for drinks, and they get plastered as they commiserate. They agree to become each other’s “sadness sisters,” meaning that to help each other resist the urge to call their exes, they will call each other instead. Later, when they learn that both Noah and Anne are seeing new people, they come up with a plan to break up each relationship, hoping that this will lead to Noah and Anne “coming to their senses” and returning to Emma and Peter.

So, Emma volunteers at the middle school where Anne teaches English to insert herself in between Anne and her new crush, the drama teacher there, Logan (Manny Jacinto). Meanwhile, Peter joins the gym where Noah works and allows Noah to become his personal trainer in the hopes of becoming best buddies so he can help guide Noah away from his new girlfriend Ginny (Clark Backo) and back to Emma. Let the comedic games begin!

And while Emma proves very adept at being the seductress and getting in between Logan and Anne, Peter finds his job more difficult as Noah turns out to be an incredibly nice guy, and the two become real friends, and most importantly, Noah is really in love with Ginny.

I WANT YOU BACK is full of so many moments that work, from genuine sincere moments, like Emma’s friendship with a troubled middle school boy, to hilarious comedic ones, as in the sequence where Peter and Noah allow themselves to be picked up by a group of women at a club. Or the scene where Peter finds himself trapped in the bedroom when Noah plans to propose to Ginny. Everything plays out in satisfying fashion, including the climax, which takes place at a wedding on a river boat which brings Peter, Anne, Emma, Logan, Noah, and Ginny all together, and the ending, which the film gets right.

I really enjoyed I WANT YOU BACK, and I was probably most impressed by the screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger. First off, I laughed a lot during this movie, which is the true indicator of how good a comedy is. The writing and dialogue were spot on. The conversation between Peter and Emma, for instance, over whether you should put on your own oxygen mask first or put the mask on your loved one first on a plane is a keeper.

Director Jason Orley makes sure we get to know all the characters well, especially the four main ones. The film takes its time fleshing out these folks, and the movie is better for it. Part of the reason the comedy works so well is that we know the characters, and what they are thinking and feeling. The situations are also genuinely amusing.

Charlie Day is very funny as Peter, the nice guy who Emma says is the type of man someone could fall in love with… over a long period of time. And while he’s not sure how to take that, she says it’s a compliment, that the “slow burn” guys are the best. What I liked best about Day’s performance here is it never becomes too over-the-top. He keeps Peter grounded in reality which actually makes the guy even funnier.

Jenny Slate is equally as good as Emma. She has the arduous task of playing a quirky character who most people just don’t understand, but she succeeds in getting the audience to understand Emma. And as Emma, she gets most of the best scenes in the movie.

Scott Eastwood exudes sincerity as Noah, and it’s one of Eastwood’s best performances yet. Noah could have been such a cliche character: the dumb hunk, the handsome guy who tries to be loving but sucks at it, or the complete jerk. But Noah is none of these things. He really is a decent, insightful person. The scene at the club where he says he can’t go too far because of Ginny but gets drunk anyway and goes home with the women along with Peter, is ripe for him to fail at keeping his word, but things don’t play out that way. He even has a poignant conversation later with Emma saying that she never seemed happy with him and that they had so little in common, and so he asks her point blank why she thought he was her true love? And Emma answers that she just wanted the process to be over, she wanted to have found somebody so badly. It’s a wonderfully sincere and honest moment, and I WANT YOU BACK is full of similar moments just like this.

Gina Rodriguez draws the short straw with Anne, as she is probably the least likable of the four characters, as she seems the shallowest. But she still gets to enjoy some sincere moments as well.

Manny Jacinto also enjoys some fine moments as Logan, the middle school drama teacher who really wants to be working on Broadway. And Luke David Blumm is very good as the middle school student who Emma befriends and helps out with.

I WANT YOU BACK is that rare comedy which understands that realistic, honest situations can be just as funny as over-the-top exaggerated ones, sometimes even more so.

If you’re looking for a satisfying romantic comedy this Valentine’s Day, look no further than I WANT YOU BACK.

It’s the perfect match.

—END—

DON’T LOOK UP (2021) -Adam McKay’s On Point Satire Is One of the Best Movies of the Year

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If the human race survives long enough, and we’re able to look back years from now at DON’T LOOK UP (2021), the new movie by director/writer Adam McKay, a satire which asks the question what if an extinction-event asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, and nobody cared because they were told it wasn’t really happening, we might say, “What was that all about? I don’t get it.

And if not for the times we now live in, and the absurd shenanigans of the prior Trump administration, I wouldn’t get it either. I certainly wouldn’t believe it. But the events depicted in DON’T LOOK UP while supposedly meant to be satiric and funny are in reality terrifying because of what happened during the years of 2016-2020.

Some people have complained that DON’T LOOK UP isn’t as funny as it should be. I disagree. The humor is definitely there, but more importantly, so is the truth, and the truth is, as ridiculous as this movie plot sounds on paper, it’s not any more ludicrous than what has happened in real life. I found this story frightening.

And that’s why I loved this movie. It scared the sh*t out of me and made me laugh while doing it. I hope we survive long enough to be able to look back and laugh at this one, at these insane times. I imagine it’s how audiences felt after first viewing Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satire DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), a film which poked fun at a possible nuclear holocaust.

In DON’T LOOK UP, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Ph.D. doctoral candidate assistant Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make the shocking discovery of an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth and that upon impact will destroy all life on the planet. Their findings are corroborated by NASA scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). Because this is an obviously dire situation, they are granted an audience with the President, President Orlean (Meryl Streep), but their meeting doesn’t go as expected. They are met with doubts and skepticism and are told to sit tight and wait for the president to get her own people to check into the situation, even though they know with near absolute certainty that the cataclysmic event will indeed happen in six months.

Try as they might, Mindy, Dibiasky, and Oglethorpe just can’t get their message out, and eventually, when the asteroid does get close enough to become visible, the political lines become drawn, and the president’s party’s rallying becomes “don’t look up!” which people at her rallies continually chant, the argument being, the opposition party “just wants to scare you. You are free not to look up.” Sound familiar?

DON’T LOOK UP is sharp satire with a lot to say about where we are right now as a society, and Adam McKay is able to make his points successfully because he shakes things up just enough to prevent any obvious political lines being drawn. The fact-avoiding president is a woman, and so while many of the criticisms are aimed at the prior Trump administration, the president in this movie is not a white conservative male. Political parties are never named or mentioned. Even traditional conservative/liberal divisions aren’t identified. Streep’s President Orlean has a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton on her desk, for example. What McKay aims for with DON’T LOOK UP is what happens when you play fast and loose with the truth, and he mostly hits his mark with a satire which doesn’t quit.

McKay has done this before, with films like THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018), where he mixes humor with sharp hard-hitting points.

DON’T LOOK UP is full of so many on-point moments, from little ones like the news host on an unnamed news network who even as the asteroid is hitting the earth refuses to give the event any airtime, instead talking about “the big news event of the day, topless urgent care workers.” Again, years from now people might raise an eyebrow and wonder WTF? But you only have to watch news coverage today to see that the same things happens every day.

There are larger moments. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy finally loses it near the end, and on a national news magazine TV show goes off on a “mad as hell” rant that is obviously reminiscent and inspired by the classic Peter Finch scene in NETWORK (1976). It’s no less upsetting.

The cast is spectacular.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a role he doesn’t often play, a neurotic nervous type who can barely get a cognizant word out when first on the national stage. It was fun to watch DiCaprio play someone who wasn’t cooler than cool. It was also eye-opening to see him playing someone his own age or older, with adult sons. DiCaprio is a terrific actor, and I’ve been a fan for a long while. He nails this role, which comes as no surprise.

It was good to see Jennifer Lawrence back on screen again. While she’s a bit more subdued here than we’ve seen her in the past, her Kate Dibiasky is still a fiery character and fun to watch. Because she is outspoken, she gets considerable pushback from people in power and also from viewers at home, and she gets pummeled in real time on social media, which is another target of McKay’s satire. What he depicts happening on social media is absolutely insane. It’s also true. Dibiasky also has to endure her boyfriend breaking up with her on a social media platform.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and she nails President Orlean, keeping her from being just a caricature. Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park as TV news host Brie Evantee, who finds Dr. Mindy attractive and initiates an affair between them. She is so on point she makes her character almost nauseating to watch.

Jonah Hill, while once again playing a role that is within his comfort zone, nonetheless enjoys many fine moments as Orlean’s son Jason, who’s also Chief of Staff. His “prayer” near the end of the movie for “all the stuff we’re going to lose” is priceless.

Mark Rylance delivers the most inspired and disturbing performance in the film, as Peter Isherwell, one of the richest men on the planet who is also something of a feel-good digital age techno guru. It’s Isherwell who convinces President Orlean to ignore Mindy’s science and follow his own, which of course has not been verified by other world scientists.

Rob Morgan is solid as Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perlman is hilarious as Benedict Drask, the foul-mouthed astronaut of “another generation” who is chosen to lead the mission to destroy the asteroid. The cast also includes Tyler Perry, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande.

Director McKay wrote the screenplay, based on a story by David Sirota. It’s a fabulous screenplay, as nearly everything about it works.

I loved DON’T LOOK UP, and while it’s showing up here late in the year, it just might be my favorite movie of the year. It’s a Netflix movie, and right now is showing both at theaters and on Netflix.

Check it out. This is one you definitely do not want to miss.

And unless you’ve had your head in the sand the past several years, you’ll get exactly what McKay is talking about. He’s giving us DON’T LOOK UP as both a frightening look at where we are and a wake-up call. The asteroid hurtling towards Earth is a perfect metaphor for any major problem we face in the world today and what happens when those in charge decide not to tell the people the truth but instead feed them lies.

DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy’s final few lines are chilling and come after he and his family are enjoying a last dinner together, reminiscing about their happy memories and what they’re thankful for. He says, in effect, we really had everything, didn’t we?

We too have everything. And that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

There’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. You can see it if you just look up. Or you can listen to those who tell you that looking up is a sign of weakness, that it’s politically motivated, and that you need to stand up for your rights and not look up, and that the threat isn’t as dire as others say.

But it is, and to see for yourself, all you have to do is look up.

Do you?

—END—

IRRESISTIBLE (2020) – Cynical Political Tale by Jon Stewart Depressing Statement of the Obvious

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Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in IRRESISTIBLE (2020)

IRRESISTIBLE (2020) is anything but.

Written and directed by Jon Stewart, of THE DAILY SHOW (1996-2020) fame, IRRESISTIBLE tells the tale of a Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) who travels to a small Wisconsin town to help a folksy farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) win a mayoral election.

Why is a national Democratic strategist from D.C. who led Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign interested in a rural mayoral election? Your guess is as good as mine! Actually, the movie makes it clear. He’s interested because he believes the only way to save the Democratic party is by winning back the heartland, one small section at a time. I guess. I just found this central plot point to be a stretch and not very believable.

Anyway, since IRRESISTIBLE was written by Jon Stewart, you can expect biting cynical commentary on the current state of politics, and to this end Stewart doesn’t disappoint. However, none of it is all that insightful or anything we don’t already know. The film is billed as a comedy/drama, and the drama stems from that commentary, but the comedy is seriously lacking. The film has its moments of levity, but mostly the cynicism here keeps things from being all that fun. As such, IRRESISTIBLE is a strange title for this one. It’s about as irresistible as a Trump/Biden debate.

So as Gary assembles a team of mostly locals to work on Jack’s campaign, led by Jack’s daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), he attracts the attention of his biggest rival, Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) who arrives in town to use her political machine to re-elect the Republican incumbent, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). The battle lines have been drawn. Let the mudslinging begin!

Part of the problem with IRRESISTIBLE is that it constantly reminds us that the current state of U.S. politics is a complete sh*t show, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, this isn’t exactly something we need reminding of. It’s evident every single day. And so without anything new to add, IRRESITIBLE comes off as rather depressing statement of the obvious.

It works best when it allows itself to go the route of the goofy, like when the volunteers on Jack’s team mix up the voters’ list with the volunteer list, and as they hit the phone bank, all their own cell phones start ringing and they all start talking to each other, to which a frustrated Gary has to admonish them to stop gabbing and use the right list!

The sequence where Gary is introduced to small town America as he is flabbergasted when the next day everyone in town already knows his name is a good one. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you have certainly had this experience!

But more often than not, the humor just isn’t there.

Steve Carell does what Steve Carell does, and you’ve seen this shtick before, from THE OFFICE (2005-2013) to his latest Netflix TV show SPACE FORCE (2020). Incidentally, IRRESISTIBLE isn’t much funnier than the lackluster SPACE FORCE. I prefer Carell when he stretches his acting chops more, as he has done in such films as BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and THE BIG SHORT (2015).

I’m a big fan of actor Chris Cooper, having enjoyed his performances in such films as LITTLE WOMEN (2019), A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019), and way back when as Jake Gyllenhaal’s dad in OCTOBER SKY (1999). Strangely, he doesn’t have a lot to do here as Jack Hastings. Most of the film focuses on Steve Carell’s DC Gary. I was hoping Cooper would be going for a Jimmy Stewart vibe, and he does have a couple of key moments, but for the most part the screenplay ignores the character, which doesn’t do the film any favors.

Mackenzie Davis, who’s been making big impressions in films like BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), TULLY (2018), and TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019), is solid here as Diana, the daughter who wants to do well by her dad and her town, although ultimately, it’s a role that never quite rises to its potential.

Rose Byrne delivers a one-note performance as the icy cold Faith Brewster, a role that has cliche written all over it.

The supporting cast is impressive and features Brent Sexton, C.J. Wilson, and Topher Grace, among others, in small roles.

IRRESISTIBLE has its moments and makes the social commentary it wants to make, but it simply isn’t clever or funny enough to work. It also, strangely, features a major plot twist towards the end which I found to be a head-scratcher. I get what the film is saying about what’s wrong with politics these days, and the twist speaks to that, but I couldn’t help but find it to be contrived and phony.

I can’t say I enjoyed IRRESISTIBLE all that much. And judging by what writer/director Jon Stewart had to say about politics in this one, that may have been the point.

Nonetheless, you don’t have to watch IRRESISTIBLE to understand what’s wrong with politics, and that’s my biggest issue with the movie. It adds little that is new to the conversation, and it’s simply not creative enough to make a lasting impression.

At the end of the day, it’s as painful to watch as the political campaigns it’s mocking.

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