Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: "Isn't It Romantic"

“It’s like the Matrix for lonely women!”

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a snarky, fairly smart sendup of the romantic comedy genre that still manages to gleefully indulge in every trope and cliché.

Rebel Wilson plays an unappreciated girl who gets conked on the head and wakes up in a romcom fantasy world, where New York City is a happy place that doesn’t smell like doo-doo. Every man she meets looks her in the eye and offers compliments, and at any moment a musical number is in danger of breaking out.

It’s like hell, and she can’t wait to escape.

Wilson has a lot going for her as a star. She’s been playing sidekick roles for about a decade now, and starting to get into a bit of a typecast as the chubby girl who likes to party and get sassy. Now she finally has a chance to break out as the main attraction, and employ her real Australian accent to boot.

She plays Natalie, a young architect who feels ignored in every aspect of her life. She’s got a crummy apartment and a standoffish neighbor, she’s derided and/or ignored at work and feels like no man is willing to give her the time of day because she’s not model-thin and girly.

“They don’t make movies about girls like us,” Nat’s mom chides in a flashback where she’s relishing Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

Of course, just a few cubicles away sits Josh (Adam Devine), a goofy but loveable guy who would, quite obviously, love to get her attention. But Nat has “friend-zoned” him because part of her can’t accept the fact that a man could adore her. Even having her assistant/best pal (Betty Gilpin) point this out doesn’t convince her.

When a guy flirts with her on the subway, Nat can’t believe her luck. Turns out he was just luring her out onto the platform to rob her, and after a scuffle receives a helluva concussion. When she wakes up, the whole world is changed: every man she meets is gorgeous and attentive. Every street is lined with flowers. Her apartment is suddenly five times as big and chic. Even her dog looks like it’s had a bath and several months of obedience training.

She’s nearly run over by the limo of Blake (Liam Hemsworth), the gorgeous billionaire who she made a design pitch to the previous day, though he blew her off as the coffee girl. Suddenly he’s entranced by Nat, calling her “beguiling” -- over and over again -- and somehow has even acquired his own Aussie accent in the meantime.

They soon begin a torrid affair, but alas! Because romcoms are always rated PG-13, there’s no sex since as soon as they start to get busy it cuts to the next morning. She can’t even curse her frustration because every swear word gets bleeped out by car horns, alarm buzzers, etc.

Meanwhile, Josh finds himself romanced by a gorgeous swimsuit model/yoga ambassador (Priyanka Chopra). And her next-door neighbor has morphed into a swishy gay sidekick (a terrific Brandon Scott Jones) who seems to have no life of his own other than showing up everywhere to support his favorite girl.

“Isn’t It Romantic” bends the satire as far as it can go without popping the bubble of the fact that the prime audience for this movie is those who love romcoms. It’s the sort film movie that has just enough ambition to make fun of a thing while also reveling in being it.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Starship Troopers" (1997)

As a teen I really loved "Robocop" and Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction book, "Starship Troopers," so I remember being very excited when it was the announced that Paul Verhoeven, the director of the former, was tackling a screen adaptation of the latter along with screenwriter Edward Neumeier.

Then the movie came out and I (along with not a few others) thought it a total piece of garbage.

It was an expensive flop and, along with the failure of "Showgirls" two years earlier, knocked Verhoeven off the A-list of directors after a decade-long run noted for pushing Hollywood's boundaries for violence and nudity. He's since returned to his roots of European art films ("Black Book," "Elle") and I think we're all better for it.

Turns out the project was not actually launched with the Heinlein book in mind. A spec script called "Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine" had a lot of similarities to the Heinlein novel -- perhaps too many to be a coincidence -- so the studio bought the rights to the book and the script was rewritten combining elements from both.

Verhoeven hated the book and even confessed he was never able to finish reading it. It's been controversial since Heinlein published it in 1959 because of its embrace of an overtly militaristic, and some would even argue fascist, future. In the novel only those who have served in the military, aka Federal Service, are eligible to become "citizens," endowed with full status and the right to vote. Things like extreme corporal punishment (whipping, etc.) and preemptive attacks are looked upon favorably.

I was particularly dismayed that the power suits worn by the intergalactic soldiers in the book were jettisoned. These allowed them to make leaps of tremendous distance and even drop mini-nuclear bombs, essentially turning each of them into a low-grade Iron Man. Instead the movie just has regular field infantry with body armor and machine guns, not terribly different from what the modern U.S. Army wears.

It's understandable why the filmmakers did this. It would have made the $105 million budget, already bloated for its time, even bigger and forced them to hide all their beautiful actors behind helmets and armor. It does make you wonder, though, how hundreds of years into the future humanity has managed to conquer space travel but still relies on an M-16 clone.

In this vision humanity has been united in their opposition to the "bugs" -- insect-like aliens that fly toward Earth on massive meteors. So far all the experts have regarded them as mindless drones, though in the course of the story we discover otherwise.

(I still wish somebody could've come up with a better moniker than "brain bug.")

I have no doubt in my mind that 1979's "Alien" and other films were inspired by the book, and in turn those movies helped shape the chitinous, bulb-headed look of the "Starship Trooper" bugs.
Seeing the movie for the first time in two decades provides a moment for reassessment. I still don't think it's a very good flick. But it's interesting how much of the social satire of "Robocop" carried over into this movie, especially the cringe-worthy TV newscasts, as well as its prescience about how digital communication would come to dominate our society.

There are a number of fake ads to join the military spread or updates on the war spread throughout the movie, always ending with the query of, "Do you want to know more?" It's quite possible that "Starship Troopers" was the very first cultural artifact to envision clickbait. There's also video conferencing, tablet computers and other tech that we now take for granted.

Verhoeven, who knew something of actual Nazism, made what is essentially a spoof of both fascist tendencies and science fiction. It goes through the motions of celebrating these soldiers blasting aliens apart while at the same time making the entire undertaking seem utterly preposterous. Of course, the irony flew right over the heads of many who saw it. 

The movie's essential weaknesses, though, remain. It has a cast of gorgeous, then-unknown actors who are given a bunch of ridiculous dialogue to say, which they issue with varying degrees of sniggering and/or woodenness. It's notable that of all of them, only Neil Patrick Harris as psychic/intelligence officer Carl was the only one to break out into a high-profile career.

Perhaps that's unkind; showbiz is fickle and anyone who can continue to work as an actor for decades already sits toward the top of a very steep heap.

Denise Richards (as ambitious hotshot pilot Carmen Ibanez), Dina Meyer (sexually aggressive tomboy soldier Dizzy Flores), Jake Busey (goofy fiddle-playing comrade Ace Levy), Seth Gilliam (bully-turned-lackey Sugar Watkins) and Patrick Muldoon (full-of-himself antagonist and competitor for Carmen's affection Zander Barcalow) have all enjoyed busy careers doing TV, voice work, video games and B-movies.

Gilliam might contest Harris' crown for top alumnus, going on to play the formerly fraidy-cat preacher in "The Walking Dead" and a prime role on "The Wire," aka the GOAT TV series.

And, of course, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside were already grizzled veterans playing crusty officers who whip the kids into line as, respectively, Private-nee-Sergeant Zim and Rasczak, the recruits' former high school history teacher and wartime leader of the howling Rasczak's Roughnecks. Brown and Ironside are both science fiction/horror immortals.

At the top in terms of billing but at the bottom of the totem pole talent-wise sits sad Casper Van Dien as protagonist Johnny Rico. It seems clear Van Dien was chosen more for his looks than any innate acting ability. His Rico is so clean-cut and sharp-featured that he practically seems molded out of plastic.

Imagine James Dean, but with good posture and straight from an aggressive barber. (Indeed, Van Dien had just played Dean in a television movie.)

As a main character Johnny is a total zero. He joins the Mobile Infantry because that's what Carmen wants, only to find them separated when she has the math scores to make it into the Federation Fleet, essentially the Navy of this story. They eventually rejoin, though now separated by the enmity between the military branches. "M.I. does the dying. Fleet just does the flying!" Johnny says, echoing a common refrain.

It should be noted that the book and the movie posit all the youngsters as coming from Buenos Aries, and I don't think there's a legitimate Latino in the bunch.

The special effects looked cheap even in 1997, and are comically outdated now. The nascent CGI for the bugs isn't awful, just stiff and superficial-looking, but the space travel stuff was already at least two decades past its prime.

Of course, Verhoeven opted for his usual all-you-can-stand buffet of gore and violence, with literal rivers of viscera -- human and alien -- splashed across the screen.

Interestingly, probably the most talked-about scene at the time was not any of the many bloody battles but the coed shower shared by the M.I. recruits. It's a throwaway scene of little value other than to show off the bodies of the actors. According to lore the cast refused to film it unless Verhoeven would also get nude, and he readily complied.

"Robocop" actually predated this with its police locker room shared by both men and women, with the gals nonchalantly showing their upper-body wares. "Troopers" goes one better with a fully nude open-air shower room where everybody enjoys a comradely chat about their budding military careers while sudsing up their nethers. The camera is carefully framed not to show too much, and the whole thing is so goofy and jovial that it turns into a (literal) ass-slapping yuk-fest.

I'm not sure how such a scene would play today, with our fretting over who's using which public restroom and some feminist insistence on an omnipresent threat of rape. Beyond the leering voyeurism of the scene, though, it contains a hopeful message about the genders being able to relate to each other as true equals without the burden of always-on sexual dynamics -- a future I fear will remain a pipe dream.

Twenty-plus years on, "Starship Troopers" still plays as an ill-thought bit of escapist gore porn, but with a subtext of social satire and insight that I perhaps didn't appreciate then. I'll say this: the movie has more ambition than I had credited.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Video review: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Is “Bohemian Rhapsody” too entertaining of a movie to win Academy Awards? We’ll find out in a couple of weeks, but I think people have been overlooking the film’s excellence precisely because it’s such a crowd-pleaser.

The film has been up and down in the awards race. I don’t believe it’ll win the Oscar for best picture, but it deserves at least stalking horse status. Rami Malek is a revelation playing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who had the voice and strut to make people stand up and take notice.

Directed (mostly) by Bryan Singer from a screenplay from Anthony McCarten, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is more than your standard rock ‘n’ roll biopic. It takes us on a journey with Freddie and bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) as they quickly rise from college bar band to one of the premier pop acts of the 1970s.

The story primarily focuses on Mercury’s tale, a buck-toothed foreign kid who had a hard time assimilating into British culture -- especially as he became more aware of his attraction toward other men. He had a years-long relationship with a woman, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), that provided the sort of stability he needed but did not satisfy his romantic urges.

And the rest of the band does not get lost in the story. They push back against Freddie’s egomaniacal behavior and artistic impetuousness. They have lives and relationships of their own going on in the background.

Mostly this film is a celebration of one of the greatest bands in popular culture -- what it took to get to the top, and why that sort of success is so rare. It may not take home Oscar gold, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the best films of 2018.

Video extras are a little disappointing. There are three documentary shorts: “Rami Malek: Becoming Freddie,” “The Look and Sound of Queen” and “Recreating Live Aid.” There is also complete footage of their famous Live Aid performance in 1985, which marked a return to glory for Queen.



Friday, February 8, 2019

Oscar-nominated shorts films -- live action


Two French ragamuffins of about age 12 are horsing around at an industrial site -- plunking rocks off pipelines, climbing on dilapidated trains, etc. They play a running game: first one to make the other laugh wins a point. Things take a fateful turn when they flee from workmen into a massive, filthy but hauntingly beautiful dump site. A little too pleased with its own visual spectacle, but there’s a good story in there.


“Marguerite” is about a relationship not often depicted cinematically – an elderly person suffering from physical or mental handicaps and the caregiver who supports them. Beatrice Picard plays the title character, a woman who has severe diabetes and possibly dementia. Sandrine Bisson is Rachel, the home healthcare worker who comes every day to bathe and feed her. They start to open up about their love lives, past and present, which brings about a moment that will feel like a healing moment to some, or crossing over of a critical line.


Troy is a kid of about 7 who seems to have a good life -- a mom and dad who love him, good friends. Problem is his people are racist white trash. When his father and his buddies beat a black man nearly to death in a grocery store parking lot for no reason, it sets off a spiral of revenge and resentment, with Troy’s counterpart as the victim’s son. A troubling tale of how hate regenerates itself.


A Spanish woman and her mother are scurrying around her apartment, snapping at each other. They get a call from her 6-year-old son, Ivan: he is all alone on a beach in France, and his father (estranged from the family) has left him there. The tension mounts as they try to find help, or even discover exactly where he is, as the boy's phone battery slowly dies. Fraught and human.


This often-riveting drama looks at the true story of two English boys who were accused of kidnapping and murdering a smaller lad. Recreated from witnesses and recordings by the police, they at first deny everything, from petty crimes committed at the mall to even encountering the victim. But a cascade of lies comes tumbling down, revealing an underbelly of violence behind angelic faces.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: "What Men Want"

I’m not sure if you’d dub “What Men Want” a sequel, a remake or a reboot of “What Women Want” from nearly 20 years ago. Let’s call it a spiritual inheritor.

It’s about a successful, not-particularly-nice person who gets conked on the head and finds themselves able to hear the thoughts of the opposite sex, which leads to lots of zany hijinks but also helps them become a better person.

The first film was a huge hit but wasn’t well-liked by critics, and I suspect this one won’t be, either. But it’s got heart, laughs and more than a little sass.

Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a hard-charging sports agent at the powerhouse Atlanta firm of SWM. Anticipating being named partner, she leases a Porsche to flaunt her success. (Like anyone who’s spent time in The ATL, I chuckled at the scene showing her driving downtown at rush hour with absolutely zero traffic. Talk about Hollywood fantasies!)

But she doesn’t get the gig, as she’s again passed over in favor of some lunkhead young dude. It’s a boys’ club, and they’ll let her play but not take home the trophy.

“You do great in your lane, so why don’t you stay in your lane?” her smarmy boss (Brian Bosworth) says.

As she’s raging against the injustices of her environment, we also learn that Ali is not a very well-rounded person. She treats her assistant, adorable gay dweeb Brandon (Josh Brener), like dirt. When she seduces a gorgeous bartender named Will (Aldis Hodge), we even learn that she’s pretty lousy in bed.

Redemption lies in the person of Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), who will soon be the #1 NBA pick for the hometown Hawks. Land Jamal, Ali’s boss offers, and she’ll get her prize. But that also means negotiating around Jamal’s unbalanced control-freak father, Joe “Dolla” Barry, played by Tracy Morgan in a portrayal that is totally not a sendup of LaVar Ball.

The cast is rounded out by Jason Jones and Max Greenfield as adversarial fellow agents; Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson and Wendi McLendon-Covey as Ali’s lady crew; Pete Davidson as a donut-pushing office denizen; Erykah Badu as Sister, the kooky psychic/weed dealer who gives Ali the tea that sparks her newfound power; and various sports celebrity cameos by the likes of Lisa Leslie, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Karl-Anthony Towns and Mark Cuban.

Richard Roundtree also turns up in a nice, sensitive role as Ali’s patient father.

There’s a lot of things to like about “What Men Want.” Henson oozes a sort of anxious charisma playing a woman who’s never slowed down enough to consider whether she’s making a positive impact on those around her. There’s some good snaps in the dialogue, and a crazy wedding scene that looks like something out of a reality show meltdown.

The movie isn’t terribly insightful about the differences between the genders. And the mostly-male creative team strives mightily to clean up men’s thoughts from the cesspool I’d guess they’d really be.

My guess is what men want most is for women to never find out just how gross we are on the inside.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: Oscar nominated short animated films

One Small Step

Wow, this little space story will get your right in the heart. Told wordlessly with simple animation, it’s the tale of a daughter and her father. Knowing her love of space and science, the dad encourages her with astronaut boots and helmet. As the years pass she grows into a determined young woman who keeps him at arm’s length. A tailor, he expresses his love through food and repairing her shoes. Timeless and evocative.


This ambitious Pixar short caused some controversy when it came out due its portrait of a sensitive subject – a mother’s cloying relationship to her son. Upset about continually being pushed away, she creates a surrogate in the form of a dumpling that comes to life. But the same dynamic grows between them, a young man anxious to cut the apron strings and a mother whose love can sometimes be an intrusive burden.

Late Afternoon

Yes, another short film about the relationship between parent and child. In this case it’s the tale of Emily, an old woman living with dementia. With the assistance of her helper, Kate, she spends the afternoon flitting in and out of the past, recalling her childhood playing on the beach, trying to catch a train, taking a bike ride, etc. Earnest and exquisite


A little boy spends weekends with his dad in his heartstring-pulling look at a fractured family. Things are fun and cool at dad’s: he lives in the city, is into video games and Japanese samurai stuff. Meanwhile, mom’s place is dull and she’s studying to be an accountant. But as time passes the boy comes to see the value in both parents’ environments, as well as the shortcomings.

Animal Behavior

Points for being the one short that’s not about the animator working out their parental hang-ups. A bird, a cat, a leech, a pig and a praying mantis are having a group therapy session with Dr. Clement, a dog psychiatrist. They’ve each got issues -- the leech has abandonment issues, the mantis has a tendency to kill her boyfriends -- but then an angry ape shows up and things really get wooly and wild. Fun, funny and smart.

Review: "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part"

There’s a moment that arrives for each of us when we first truly feel old.

Maybe it’s flailing at some athletic endeavor that barely made you break a sweat back in the day. Or it’s a cultural disconnect, when you realize you not only don’t like the music that’s popular right now, but you can’t even name a top artist or song.

For me it was 2014’s “The Lego Movie.” My then-3-year-old found it to be wonderfully zippy, colorful and fun. Although I liked the film, I spent most of it mentally shouting, “Please slow down, this movie is going way too fast for me to follow!!”

Though it’s more palatable on subsequent viewings -- especially on video where you can pause and rewind -- the movie throws so much visual and verbal information at you at once, it can be an overwhelming experience for us past-young folks.

The sequel, “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part,” doubles down on the blazing incomprehensibility. My son, now 8, declares it even better than the original. My eyes and brain, now five years older, had an even harder time keeping pace.

Though there are certainly some enjoyable sections and throwaway jokes aimed at adults, this is a movie strictly for the kids.

The story picks up exactly where the last left off. If you’ll recall, the LEGO figurines were acting out a version of the playtime of a human father and son, in a very “Toy Story” kind of way. Dad finally learned to let go and allow his son to mess up his elaborate LEGO sets, but since he was letting him play with the stuff it was only fair to bring in his kid sister, too.

Turns out the siblings (Jadon Sand and Brooklynn Prince) did not get along. The utopian LEGO wonderland created by the fall of Lord Business has morphed into a Mad Max-like wasteland dubbed “Apocalypseburg” in which the sullen inhabits fight off near-daily invasions by cutesy aliens courtesy of sister’s more bedazzled imagination.

Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), the everyman hero whose quest was all about finding out whether he was special -- hint: we all are -- is now seen as hopelessly out of touch. Even his lady friend, Lucy/Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), tells him he needs to grow up and get grimmer. Batman (Will Arnett) is their new savior since he’s already sufficiently dark and brooding.

The trio and a few other key team members -- robot/pirate MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day) and bipolar unicorn/feline Unikitty (Alison Brie) -- are whisked away to the Systar System where they must face off with their counterparts. But it turns out their leader, shapeshifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (say it out loud), voiced by Tiffany Haddish, is proposing an alliance.

Another newcomer is Rex Dangervest, a dashing adventurer also voiced by Pratt who gives Emmet advice about growing up and being more manly. The joke is that Rex is a mash-up of Pratt’s other big-screen roles as a raptor trainer, space hero and cowboy.

There are a few fun musical sequences, with a new earworm to replace the “Everything Is Awesome” song from the last movie, which also gets a somewhat moody reprise. Haddish gets her own tune, and turns out to be surprisingly more mellifluous than you’d think based on her comedy persona.

“The LEGO Movie 2” is pretty much more of the same. If you’ve seen any of the other LEGO movies you know what you’re getting, and that your kids will undoubtedly like it, and you’ll feel a little dazed after watching it. Take heart that this will be them someday.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Video review: "At Eternity's Gate"

A lot of people were surprised when Willem Dafoe earned an Oscar nomination for “At Eternity’s Gate,” a tiny art film about the last days of painter Vincent van Gogh. But for those lucky few who’ve seen the movie, they know the accolade is well-deserved indeed.

Previous cinematic portraitures of van Gogh have focused on his turbulent life, especially his relationships with his brother, Theo, and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. And, of course, there’s the infamous time he cut off his own ear.

What “Gate” brings to the mix is indelibly linking van Gogh’s mental instability with his art. Director Julian Schnabel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, include lots of examinations of his paintings, including less famous ones like the one from which the movie takes its title, “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate).”

The camera follows van Gogh around the countryside as he looks for scenes to capture, seeing the world through his eyes.  Dafoe portrays him as a woman for whom painting is his whole life, because he’s disturbed and thrilled by what he sees and wants to share it with everyone.

It portrays the ear incident and its aftermath, but as simply one more step along the unstable path he trod, instead of a fetishistic totem of self-hatred.

Gorgeous, haunting and insightful, “At Eternity’s Gate” is a harrowing portrait of a mad who embraced both beauty and madness, and joined the two on canvas.

There’s a tendency for small video releases like this to have very skimpy bonus features, but this one is the pleasing exception. There’s a feature-length audio track by Schnabel and Kugelberg (who also edited the film), and three making-of documentary shorts: “Made by a Painter,” “Channeling Van Gogh” and “Vision of Van Gogh.”