May 2019 Round-Up

Long Shot(5/5/2019)

Putting out any movie the week after Avengers: Endgame was bound to be a rather fraught choice and it would seem that the producers of the new Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron comedy were hoping they could pull it off as a counter-programming move and it doesn’t look like the gamble paid off for them at all.  The movie was basically marketed as a romantic comedy, which it basically is in terms of basic formula, but it also has a lot more R-rated Seth Rogan comedy than its advertising would have you think.  The film focuses on an unlikely romance between a youngish female Secretary of State and an out of work journalist who makes a habit of walking around in windbreakers but nonetheless has a certain charm to him and strong political convictions.  The basic premise of the film is of course reminiscent of Rogan’s breakthrough film Knocked Up, which was another hybrid of crude and romantic comedy about how Rogan is not exactly the most likely physical specimen to be the partner of a beautiful and successful career woman.  That basic premise did grate on people with the earlier film with the view being that it was a sort of wish fulfilment fantasy that forgave male mediocrity.   I get why people would see it that way, but if you think about it a lot of traditional romantic comedies also focus around career women falling for salt of the earth losers, the only difference is that in Rogan’s films they aren’t being played by hunky Matthew McConaughey and the screenplay actually acknowledges and makes funny jokes about how unlikely such a pairing would be.

For their part I think Rogan and Theron do have some genuine chemistry and the movie does a fairly good job of making the audience understand how Theron would at least be intrigued by Rogan.  Where the movie really stumbles for me is less in its romantic comedy than in its political comedy.  The plot is based around a strange contrivance where the current president is a dumbass played by Bob Odenkirk who is planning to step down after his first term in order to pursue a career in Hollywood acting… which feels like a bit of absurdity out of a different movie.  The movie never makes mention of what party Odenkirk is in, but given that he’s being heavily supported by a news channel that is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Fox News one would assume that he is a Republican and yet absolutely everything about policies that Theron is advancing screams Democrat so it’s unclear why she is in the same administration.  The movie seems to want to walk some kind of line where it never called the parties by name (except in one scene late in the movie where it rather jarringly does) but that approach simply does not make sense to me in the hyper-partisan world we live in.  Like a lot of political movies it wants to exist in a sort of fictional world where everything didn’t go crazy after 9/11 and the dream of the 90s lived on.  I just don’t think you can get away with that anymore.  Still, if you’re able to set that aside and you’re able to get behind the Rogan and Theron relationship there is a lot of funny stuff in Long Shot and I would recommend it over most of the weak-ass comedies that have been in theaters lately.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Shadow(5/18/2019)

Zhang Yimou is a director who was once quite the critical darling and while he’s never exactly gone out of favor he has lost some of his edge as he’s become increasingly commercial since the international success of his 2003 film Hero, which is I believe the only foreign produced subtitled movie to debut at number one at the American box office.  He never quite had the same success despite some of his follow-ups like House of Flying Daggers being quite solid but he does still have the clout to make movies on a pretty large budget and while many of them are not profound works of art they usually are quite beautiful.  His latest film, Shadow is a return to his work making period epics and like a lot of his work it is quite pretty.  The film is sharply shot and would be very worthy nominee for best costumes if given the chance by the Academy.  However the movie has a bit of a darker streak than a lot of his other movies.  The story concerns a man who is being used as a decoy/double for a powerful general who is waylaid by illness and in the midst of a power struggle with the local king.  That business with doubles brings to mind Kurosawa’s Kagemusha but the film also brings to mind Ran in that it seems to be trying to invoke a sort of Shakespearian tragedy in the way everyone is kind of messed up and acting at cross purposes and aren’t necessarily going to have things go well for them by the end.  It is however, a bit too silly to live up to all of that.  This is the movie’s ultimate Achilles heel: it’s not really a martial arts movie and isn’t able to be carried by its action scenes but the drama doesn’t necessarily stand on its own either and the action scenes that are in it involve these sword umbrellas that look kind of ridiculous.  There’s enough here to be worth a look and some of the visuals are indeed quite strong but I wouldn’t call it a must-see.

*** out of Five

 

Booksmart(5/23/2019)

Set Rogan’s Long Shot opened as counter-programing to Avengers: Endgame and was not particularly well rewarded at the box office, now two weeks later the Rogan-inspired comedy Booksmart is opening opposite the Aladdin remake and is not expected to do much better.  When Blockers failed to gain any real traction last year I was pretty much resigned to the fact that this wave of post-Apatow R-rated comedies were kind of dead at the box office, but I still like them and will keep going to them as long as they’re being made and Booksmart is a pretty good one.  Focusing on two high achieving teenage girls who, upon discovering that the slackers they’ve been sticking their noses up at have also gotten into Ivy League universities, decide they’re going to use the last day of high school to let loose and party for the first time but must go on something of an odyssey in order to figure out the address of the cool kids’ party.  I can definitely relate to that same frustration at seeing people who do dumb stuff coasting to success, so this was in some ways a movie that was made for me and while I liked the film a lot I will say there were a couple of things keeping it from being as funny as it could have been.

I think one of those was that Beanie Feldstein’s character is painted a bit too broadly as a stuck up bully a bit too quickly and you sort of see her character arc and eventual conflict with Kaitlyn Dever coming from a mile away.  A version of the film where you really come to like the character before realizing her dark side might have been a bit more effective especially since Dever’s character is rather adorable throughout, making the contrast in likability between the two really stand out.  Aside from that I just felt like the jokes just weren’t quite as consistent as they could have been.  Parts of it are extremely funny but other stretches are a bit short on laughs, and not necessarily intentionally so.  In some ways first time director Olivia Wilde seems a bit more adept at the coming of age character-based material than with the comedy and I would be curious to see what a version of this which isn’t trying so hard to be the Gen Z Superbad would have been like.  Ultimately though the film’s strengths are much more prominent than its occasional shortcomings and it proves to be one of the better made if not necessarily funniest films of its kind.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Brightburn(5/26/2019)

The James Gunn produced horror/superhero movie Brightburn certainly had an intriguing premise: copy the famous Superman origin story, almost to the point of copyright infringement, but posit as a “what if” that instead of being a kid predisposed to truth, justice, and the American way he ended up being more like a creepy Columbine kid who ended up using his powers for evil.  I’ve heard people describe this as a refutation of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, but if anything the movie would seem to be vindication of the strict disciplinarian tendencies of the father from that movie because the loosey goosey millennial parenting on display here is plainly the wrong approach to raising a kid who’s faster than a locomotive.  Granted, the movie basically lets the parents here off the hook by making it so they weren’t aware of the kid’s powers (despite knowing he was an alien) and it also basically sidesteps the psychology of how the kid is driven mad by power by essentially making that the result of his communicating with his alien pod.  As it played out it became pretty clear that the movie was less interested in the idea of how these powers would corrupt the mind of this kid than it was in coming up with the gory ways in which the powers would be used for evil.  That focus isn’t entirely without its rewards, the scenes where the kid goes full supervillain are creatively gory and entertaining, but the movie isn’t really “scary” per se and I feel like the movie could have done a lot more with this premise than it does and that makes it pretty disappointing.

**1/2 out of Five

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