Irresistible

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Cultural diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright Focus 2020
Jon Stewart swings for the fences with “Irresistible,” and you’ve got to respect that, even if he only hits a double. He has taken a whole bunch of what bothers him the most about our political system, not the fumbles, pettiness, missteps, and corruption of the individuals but the more systemic problems of money and messaging and he has tried to create a Preston Sturges/Armando Iannucci-style movie that uses humor to illuminate. Sharp one-liners and a top-notch cast come close to making the characters human enough to be interesting but they are still two-dimensional. And some uncertainty of tone throws the movie off-kilter when it shifts from slightly heightened to over the top. When it leaps so far outside the bounds of the real, it undermines its best scrutiny of what is actually happening. I live inside the Washington DC beltway and exposes of political abuse are my jam, so I enjoyed it, but even I thought it made some unfortunate blunders.

The opening is promising, with Steve Carell as Gary, a Democratic political strategist and Rose Byrne as Faith, a Republican political strategist, in the post Clinton/Trump “spin rooms,” where each team tries to explain to reporters why their candidate was brilliant and definitively trounced the other side. But what we get to hear is what’s inside their heads. Gary says he will persuade them “as long as I say it repeatedly and with confidence,” and Faith concludes, “I look forward to lying to you in the future.” We get it. They’re there to win, not to be honest. But Gary was probably being honest when he predicted that Clinton would win. He was just wrong. And so for his professional future and possibly for the good of the country, he has to get his credibility back and he has to figure out how to communicate with the “rust belt blue wall” he thought was “impenetrable” until Trump got a lot of those votes and won the electoral college.

He sees a chance to prove himself when a video of a Deerlaken, Wisconsin city council meeting goes viral due to an impassioned speech by a local farmer, a retired Marine named Jack (Chris Cooper), speaking out plainly but eloquently on behalf of immigrants in his community. Gary tells the Democratic party leaders that “this square-jawed paragon of Americana is our key back to the Forbidden City. He’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet.” He thinks if he brings his national-level political expertise to a small town in Wisconsin, he can persuade Jack to run for mayor, get him elected, and “road-test a more rural-friendly message” in a place he refers to as “the middle of nowhere” he can re-invigorate progressive messaging and, by the way, his own career. So, he fires up the private jet and checks out what Wikipedia has to say about Wisconsin. In real life, he would have a ton of data in a briefing package, but it’s more fun to make him look like a big city doofus.

Jack agrees to run, the race gets some national media attention, and so Faith arrives, to make sure that they do not break the city’s record of not electing a Democrat since Robert LaFollette (Governor 1901-1906). In Stewart’s view, the only issue anyone cares about is the power of the parties; any specifics are about leverage, with no more focus on reproductive health or even the immigration issue that Jack spoke about in the viral video than on gaffes and embarrassing secrets about opposing candidates. It’s just about votes. The weakest part of the film is the blaming of the consultants who are the symptom (okay, a truly unpleasant one), not the disease. The movie very briefly touches on the funding issue, with stand-ins for the Kochs and a generic, literally high-tech billionaire with just one issue literally half a world away from Wisconsin and a scene at a Manhattan fund-raiser but barely addresses the real and most democracy-destabilizing problem of dark money and Citizens United. The small reference to super PACS, with a winking nod to “non-coordination” deserved more attention.

It’s fun to watch because it has a great cast and clever dialogue and more substance than most feature films. But it is a disappointment that someone who has such a deep understanding of American politics goes for cheap laughs about clueless big city folks not understanding the folks in the heartland instead of looking at the less-examined obstacles at least equally rich in potential for satire. The movie has at least four different endings, and at least three of them seem to undercut the point the film is trying to make. Stewart makes the same mistake Faith and Gary do; he condescends to his audience.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and very crude sexual references.

Family discussion: Which candidate would you vote for and why? Would you ever run for office? What changes in the system is this movie promoting and what changes would you suggest?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Slay the Dragon” (about the fight against gerrymandering in Wisconsin and other states) and “Primary” (about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning against each other in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for President) and “Welcome to Mooseport,” with Gene Hackman as a former President who runs for mayor in a small town in Maine.

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Trailer: Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*, Season 2

Posted on January 15, 2019 at 11:20 am

I signed up for YouTube Red to see the first season of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*, and am really looking forward to Season 2, which starts January 30. It is smart, fresh, and very funny, with great guest stars, a lot of sharp, knowing, meta-commentary on pop culture, and a lead performance by Hansen that is so resolutely self-involved lesser-Hollywood bro it is almost impossible to believe it isn’t real.

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I Do…Until I Don’t

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:27 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017
Copyright 2017 Ways & Means

Hopes are high for Lake Bell after the delightful “In a World….,” which she wrote, directed, and starred in.  A terrific cast, a peek at the unfamiliar world of voice actors, and an endearing heroine made it an exceptionally promising debut.  Unfortunately, her sophomore effort retains only the superb casting and the affection for title ellipsis. “I Do…Until I Don’t” is more like an r-rated episode of the cheesy anthology series “Love American Style” than it is like “In a World.”

Bell clearly wants to explore the challenges of monogamy and marriage, a topic well worth exploring because most movies about romance end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” to be imagined.  Where “In a World…” benefitted from the sharp, vivid observations of a person who thoroughly understood a world that the audience had never seen before, in “I Do…Until I Don’t,” the barely-out-of-the-newlywed-stage Bell (she and her husband were married in 2013) is trying to explain marriage to an audience who have all literally lived in or with the experience of marriage as husbands, wives, children, and family members.  Her portrayal of three different couples is immediately apparent as superficial and unrealistic.

The entire premise is artificial.  Bell imagines a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) who is determined to expose the essential impossibility of the idea of marriage.  Her theory is based on the tired theory that the idea of lifelong monogamy was developed in an era when the average lifespan was less than four decades and is therefore unrealistic when we are living twice as long.  Of course when the lifespan was three decades marriages were more likely to be based on alliances of property and money than romantic love, which might have played into the expectations of the participants, but that has nothing to do with Vivian’s premise.  And of course she has a villainous British accent just to remind us that she’s the bad guy.

Three couples become the focus of her film.  Two of them are so unpleasant it is impossible for us to care very much whether they prove Vivian wrong, except to keep them off the market so they can’t marry someone nicer.  All three of them are so thinly conceived that even the very able work of an outstanding cast cannot give them any depth or reality, even in a heightened comic setting.

Bell plays Alice, married to Noah (Ed Helms).  Their business is failing. So are their efforts to become parents.  Alice tells Noah Vivian will pay them a lot of money to be in her film. It is a lie. She has to find the money somewhere, so she agrees to provide “happy endings” at a massage parlor run by Bonnie (the terrific Chauntae Pink).

Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) are middle-aged and constantly snipe at each other, especially Cybill, who puts real effort into it while Harvey is mostly playing defense.

The third couple is not married and has an open relationship because why not.  They are Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), free-wheeling hippie stereotypes.  Alice thinks Noah is into Fanny for no particular reason other than her own insecurity over not being honest with him about pretty much anything.

These people are not interesting and their realizations are completely unfounded.  My advice: don’t.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and explicit language, explicit sexual references and situations, prostitution, drinking, and marital problems.

Family discussion: Why is it so important to Vivian to be right about marriage? Which couple changes the most?

If you like this, try: “In a World…” from the same writer/director/star

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The Dressmaker

Posted on September 22, 2016 at 5:29 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for for brief language and a scene of violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and tipsiness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, murder, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2016

Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios
Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios
Kate Winslet plays Tilly Dunnage, a woman with secrets who returns to the tiny Australian town that threw her out as a child. She has become an accomplished couturier, working in London, Paris, and Milan. And she is a master of the bias cut, pioneered by Vionnet, whose photograph she carries with her for inspiration. This film, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham is also, in its way, cut on the bias, alternately wildly funny, wildly romantic, wildly satiric, and, at the same time, dark and tragic. Some will find that disconcerting; others will find it refreshing.

It is 1951. Tilly arrives home in the dust-covered town, her stylish heels stepping off the bus onto the dirt road. She goes up the hill to her mother’s shack, when there is a question from the local sheriff. “Is that…….Dior?” It is not; it is one of Tilly’s own designs. But she acknowledges the Dior inspiration. Sargent Ferrat (Hugo Weaving) is dazzled by the bold colors and sumptuous fabrics of Tilly’s designs. He’s a secret cross-dresser.

Winslet is marvelous as Tilly, who has come home to see her mother, known as Mad Molly (Judy Davis of “My Brilliant Career”), to find out the true story of what led to her exile, and to extract some revenge, both of the “living well is the best” variety and of the old-fashioned “make them suffer” variety as well. Tilly, then known as Myrtle, was abused by her teacher and the students in her class because she was poor and because her mother was not married. After an incident that resulted in the death of a boy in her class, she was sent away. The experience was so traumatizing that she cannot let herself remember exactly what happened, and worries that she was responsible, as everyone thinks. “Am I a murderer?” she asks of her mother.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse and editor Jill Bilcock bring a vibrant energy to the storytelling that suits the theme of Tilly’s force and focus having an impact on the insular little town, and it is a lot of fun to see assumptions challenged and relationships in upheaval. There is a woman crippled by her wife-beating husband, a pharmacist who seems to be suffering from ankylosing spondylitis as he is bent over parallel to the ground. A civil leader gives his wife, agoraphobic and germophobic since the death of their son, knock-out medicine and then rapes her when she is unconscious. There are vicious gossips and snobs. And there are a few kind-hearted people, Ferrat, who regrets his treatment of Tilly and Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, clearly relishing the chance to speak in his native accent and very swoon-worthy when he removes his shirt). Molly becomes less mad and more feisty under Tilly’s care. Ferrat is not the only one who cannot resist the chance to wear something spectacular. “A dress never changed anything,” a local girl longing to be noticed by the town’s most eligible bachelor says to “Tilly.” “Watch and learn, my girl. Watch and learn.” And we know a Cinderella at the ball moment is coming — when it does, it is breathtaking. Soon, the tiny backwater is populated with ladies wearing haute couture. This has to be a dream assignment for a costume designer, and Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson (Winslet’s clothes) rise to the occasion with fabulously gorgeous and entertaining dresses.

The heightened quality of the story makes the darker turns unexpected and disconcerting. It is not as much of a feel-good movie as it originally promises. But it has its odd pleasures, and one of them is that, like its heroine, it has style to space.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong language, drinking and drunkenness, sexual references and situations with some nudity, adultery and questions of paternity, domestic violence, murder, and very sad deaths.

Family discussion: What did Tilly want from her return home? Why was Teddy different?

If you like this, try: “Strictly Ballroom” and “Muriel’s Wedding”

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Comedy Drama Movies Romance Satire

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Posted on June 2, 2016 at 5:37 pm

Copyright Universal 2016
Copyright Universal 2016
Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone are masters of the music video parody, and their SNL shorts “D*** in a Box,” “Jack Sparrow,” and “I’m on a Boat,” all featuring genuine music stars, followed the first true viral video, the classic “Lazy Sunday.” They are gifted at composing catchy hooks, writing silly lyrics, and nailing the music and look of genres from rap to pop to R&B. With appealing targets and a three-minute running time, they did very well. Now they’ve produced, written, and starred in a feature length parody of music documentaries with “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” So, instead of comparing them to the performers they take on with their video shorts, they are going up against films like “This is Spinal Tap” and “Walk Hard,” both of which managed the daunting challenge of being more over-the-top than the acts they were parodying. “Popstar” is pleasant enough, but does not quite meet that challenge, getting most of its energy and most of its laughs from an endless parade of celebrity cameos, mostly winking at the audience.

Samberg plays Conner, once part of a popular band called Style Boyz with his childhood friends Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), and now a hugely successful solo performer known as Conner4Real. Owen is now reduced to serving as DJ. Taccone provides the film’s rare subtle charms, making Owen so endearing he deserves his own movie. On stage, he sits behind an impressive high-tech set-up, but as he explains in one of the film’s comic high points, everything is set up on his iPod, which also has room for the audio books he listens to on the road. He makes the best of his relegation to the sidelines, even when Conner decides that he should have to wear a huge, heavy electro helmet/mask that shoots a zillion-watt light beam out of the top, so powerful it could probably disrupt the navigation system of the space station.

Lawrence is furious with Conner for stealing the credit he felt he deserved for one of his biggest hits. He has retreated to a farm in Colorado, where he makes terrible wood carvings and broods about the unfairness of it all. That hit, by the way, in a shrewd jab at the recording industry and its fans, turns out to be a brief rap segment in a song by a superstar (a blink-and-you’ll-miss her Emma Stone). Connor tells us that most rap artists do catchphrases, but his innovation (actually Lawrence’s) was to do a lot of catchphrases.

Conner is, of course, dating a starlet (Imogen Poots) and decides to distract the press from the terrible reviews of his new album by proposing to her in a stunt that goes terribly wrong. When ticket sales for his tour lag, he brings on an opening act, an up-and-coming rapper (Chris Redd) who “All About Eve”-style begins as a fan and then starts to take over the show.

The trio gets able support from SNL veterans Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, and Joan Cusack, and there are some funny cutaways to a TMZ-style sleazy “news” organization, but at a brisk under-90 minute running time no one is on screen for very long. The musical numbers are hilarious and the film is never mean-spirited about its characters or the real-life celebrities it is parodying. And by the time you figure out a joke isn’t working, two more have gone by, the pace itself enough things bouncing along. It tries so hard to entertain you, it would be hard-hearted not to give in.

Parents should know that this film includes very explicit nudity, very strong and crude language, sexual references, some comic violence, drinking, and drugs.

Family discussion: What celebrities does this remind you of? Why did Conner decide he wanted someone to be honest with him?

If you like this, try: “This is Spinal Tap,” “Walk Hard,” “Gentle and Soft” (the brilliant Bill Hader/Fred Armison mockumentary about a 70’s soft rock duo) and the Lonely Island videos

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