Child’s Play (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those looking for a creepy good time need not look further because this re-imagining of the 1988 horror classic “Child’s Play” is not just another slasher flick revived for the sole purpose of cashing in. In fact, right from the opening sequence it is proud to separate itself from the original by posing a technological question rather than an occult variety. In the 1988 picture, a doll is possessed by the soul of serial murderer; here, however, it is advanced technology gone horribly wrong, initiated by a mistreated factory worker in Vietnam. Yet it is not without dark but laugh-out-loud comic moments even when stabbings and slashing pervade the screen. I had a ball.
The plot is irrelevant: a tween-age boy named Andy (Gabriel Bateman) receives an early birthday present, a Buddi doll named Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill), from his hardworking mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), during a difficult transitional period of their most recent move. Andy, who is deaf, is having trouble making new friends. The screenwriter, Tyler Burton Smith, is smart to establish a relatively fast-paced exposition because it is entirely familiar. He knows that most of us are in it for the violence and the blood first and story second; at the same time, however, he is aware that the most effective horror movies must build up to bursts of violence rather than simply parading around one killing after another. It helps that Plaza and Bateman share genuine chemistry, some of their exchanges as mother and son are cute and amusing.
I am most uncertain about Chucky’s design, specifically its face. I was not scared or creeped out when, for instance, the camera fixates on the doll when a person is not around. (I was disturbed by the doll’s actions more than anything.) Perhaps it is due to the fact that it does not look like a doll that is sold in stores. It looks more like a prop. What makes the original so chilling at times is that Chucky, when sitting still and not emoting, looks like any other doll. (Followed by that killer score.) Furthermore, although this version of Chucky has a lot more expressions than its predecessors, the facial movements look too artificial or computerized at times. There is something about more ordinary-looking puppets that are far more frightening despite their innate limitations.
I enjoyed that the work bothers to show human relationships, whether it be the mother and son or the boy attempting to make new friends in the building. The neighbor (Carlease Burke) and her detective son (Brian Tyree Henry) are given a chance to shine, too. But what I think is far superior than any “Child’s Play” movies that came before is the relationship between the doll and its owner. Here, there is a short but sweet montage where Andy and Chucky are actually shown playing, laughing, getting along. We observe Chucky learning and then applying what he learned in inappropriate situations. It is so important, I think, for the work to communicate the bond between a boy and his inanimate friend first and then later smashing that connection into smithereens.
Directed by Lars Klevberg, I felt a wonderful energy from this model of “Child’s Play.” I felt it is free and full of life, not at all shackled by the past—that it is having fun with itself. This is how re-imaginings should be like. It is likely that newcomers to the series will enjoy this. For longtime fans, like myself, the work offers rewards like characters holding up certain household items or tools that previous Chucky movies had a good time with. While the gore is gratuitous at times, there is a story here worth looking into. I liked that, for example, it touches upon the defectiveness of the doll (it was returned by its original owner) and Andy’s feelings of insecurity precisely because he is deaf. I sense that a stronger sequel is in store for us should the same writer and director be given another chance and their willingness to entertain remain.
Little Hours, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Short on story but not on enthusiasm, “The Little Hours” manages to stay afloat because of the risks it is willing to take to get a laugh. Had writer-director Jeff Baena decided to tweak the script in such a way that the story commands heft and daring to make strong but objective statements about the hypocrisy of religious practitioners, it might have worked both as a farce and a satire. Instead, what results is a forgettable goofy comedy set during the Middle Ages with occasionally amusing scenes. It wears out its welcome about three-quarters through its already short running time of ninety minutes.
Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci play nuns who wish to have more in life than revering an invisible being in the sky. Equipped with different approaches to make the audience laugh, their ability or willingness to throw their inhibitions to the wind is their commonality as performers and what ties their characters together. Since each strategy to get us to laugh is so distinct, arguably jarring, at times it feels as though these characters do not belong in a single movie but of three. While this may annoy others, I found it fresh and interesting. It gives the impression that the material can go in multiple directions.
Plaza, as usual, outshines her co-stars, colorful in their own way, because she plays with the possibility that her character is mentally unstable, deranged. The decision to give off a level of danger is a masterstroke because it makes the viewers curious about the character, that perhaps she is a bomb waiting to go off. By contrast, we do not sense this alluring danger with Brie or Micucci. The other two performers play it cute or quirky, a more expected route in farcical comedy.
The story is missing a defined heart although a hint of it is there. I believe it can be found in the romance between Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon). There are small and evanescent moments when Reilly and Marea play their characters as if they were in a drama, particularly Shannon. I wished to know more about Sister Marea because those eyes give the impression that she has been trapped for so long in an institution that she may at one point believed in but believes in no longer. At least not when it comes to its strict rules. Shannon’s eyes are so soulful at times that I wondered whether the character considered the romance as path toward freedom; that if they got caught together then they would be free of their shackles.
“The Little Hours” is not for the easily offended nor is it for prudes. Sexual jokes are the opposite of subtle and the material is willing to experiment with what may be considered to be gross behavior, certainly cringe-worthy, especially from men and women of god. But that is the point, I think. It shows that, like us, men and women of the cloth have intense sexual desires, too. Prepare to spot more than a few handfuls of anachronisms.
Ingrid Goes West (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is a challenge to pull off dark comedy with people’s unhealthy obsession with social media being the subject to be prodded, but “Ingrid Goes West” manages to excel at it because it knows what it does not want to become. Credit goes to writers David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer for being aware that in order for black comedy to work, the story must have a dramatic core, not just parading a series of vignettes in which viewers must simply recognize the joke on the surface without looking within and asking what it is telling us or, even better, how it is criticizing us and how effectively. After all, movies function as a mirror of our society. Had the film been written less sharply, the ultimate joke could have been itself—being just another part of the idea or concept it wishes to skewer.
It is obvious that the screenwriters wish to communicate that there is a sickness in our modern society that cannot be solved by prayer or medicine. Ingrid is a representation of this ailment and the character is played with wonderful electric energy by Aubrey Plaza. Those saucer eyes command the screen with manic intensity. She dares you to watch her to the point where you feel uncomfortable. We stare at the screen as Ingrid prostitutes her worth.
As a comic who is aware of the importance of subtlety, even in a comedy, Plaza is in full control of every little emotion obsessive Ingrid must convey, whether she is looking at her phone for the latest evanescent trend or looking through a person because her mind is somewhere out there in the dreamscape of cyberspace. The titular character is fascinating because although she has convinced herself that she wants interesting experiences, it is ironic that she is rarely in the present moment. What is an interesting experience but a person being fully present with the very activity or person with which she is involved?
The most accessible level of comedy in the film involves Ingrid stalking an Instagram “star” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). While the situation likens that of a sitcom, Plaza and Olsen elevate the material when their characters interact. Plaza and Olsen trust that the viewers will be entertained by the situation and so they choose not to always exaggerate a line or how it is delivered. The quieter moments between them are surprisingly alluring… and yet somewhere in the back of our minds we know or suspect that their connection isn’t real since time and again both characters show, by action, that they are false. How do we connect completely with characters who appear unable to be honest with themselves?
But I admired the more dramatic moments even when these verge on silliness. Director Matt Spicer ensures that, without them, Ingrid would have been a one-note joke, artificial, robotic, detestable. I found it a strange feeling that even though Ingrid needs serious help, I still cared about her. I wished her happiness, to find a way to not get involved in one-sided friendships. In order words, the material has touched upon something real. That is, we all know how it feels like to be lonely sometimes. It’s just that some of us are lucky enough to recognize, or learn, that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be lonely sometimes because it gives us the opportunity to focus our energy, to weigh what’s important, and to plan our next action. Ordinary comedies do not bother with the more difficult emotions or states of mind.
Addicted to Fresno (2015)
★ / ★★★★
One way to pull off dark comedy to establish a specific, pointed tone but “Addicted to Fresno” is neither specific nor pointed about, well, anything. In fact, the picture, written by Karey Dornetto and directed by Jamie Babbit, likens that of a mediocre sitcom that thinks it is being edgy by introducing an unlikable character, but it is actually doomed for cancellation after about four episodes because no one cares and no one is watching.
The film relies solely on the performances of its leads. Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne play sisters, Shannon and Martha, respectively, who work as maids in a motel in Fresno, California. Although Shannon is a recovering sex addict and a registered sex offender, Martha has a great reputation at work and so she is able to pull some strings for her sister. A few days on the job, however, Shannon ends up killing a man (Jon Daly) in one of the rooms immediately after falsely accusing him of rape in the attempt to hide from Martha that she is not at all taking recovery seriously. They decide to get rid of the body.
Greer and Lyonne share watchable chemistry and they do share some scenes with extemporaneous exchanges that are far more alive than what is written on the script. They seem to have effortless sense in terms of each other’s timing and so they are able to build off one another’s ability to take risks. It is depressing then that Shannon and Martha’s severely undercooked subplots, both involving potential romances, do not lead anywhere interesting.
The stronger strand is Martha’s inability or unwillingness, sometimes a mix of both, to recognize that one of her instructors at the gym, played by Aubrey Plaza, is so into her. There is more intrigue there than Shannon having an affair with her former therapist (Ron Livingston) and current co-worker (Malcolm Barrett) because Martha’s interactions with Kelly reveal something new about the character at times. On the other hand, Shannon is almost always unpleasant—which is a mistake in a protagonist in a dark comedy. It would have been far more interesting if Shannon were written as unpredictable as opposed to tactless.
Unpredictability might have paved the way for Shannon to show heart, strength, bitterness, weakness, flaw, and many of the elements that make up a character with whom we can relate with despite first impressions that we do not have anything in common with her. Greer is a performer with range and enthusiasm so it is curious that the screenwriter had not chosen to take advantage of making the character colorful—even just within the darker hues of blues and gray. Instead, role could have been played by anybody.
Aside from two of three snappy dialogue, “Addicted to Fresno” offers nothing special and that is death to the comedy genre. Dark comedy is especially difficult to pull off because it is, in its core, a character study. Here, the writing barely scratches the surface. Because not one aspect of the screenplay is on top form before shooting, the writer fails to give the project a chance to take off.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Although starring performers that have been funny and entertaining in other projects, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” directed by Jake Szymanski, is the kind of movie that only the brain dead would find even remotely amusing. It has a semblance of a plot but offers no intriguing story—even for a comedy that is supposed to be laid back considering the beautiful Hawaiian setting. Instead, the filmmakers make a habit of relying on the actors to ad-lib which leads to a lack of flow from one scene to another. The picture, for the most part, is nonsensical; there is no reason for it to exist other than to annoy and waste the audience’s time.
The title is so because Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) are given an ultimatum by their father (Stephen Root). Dad believes that if his sons bring dates to their sister’s wedding (Sugar Lyn Beard), they would not hit on every other woman around thereby avoiding desperation and disaster. Mike and Dave are instructed to bring nice girls specifically. Meanwhile, dirty-mouthed and hard-partying girls Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) are in need of a vacation. Having come across the men’s request for dates, the best friends pretend to be the nice girls required for the task in exchange for a free trip to Hawaii.
Notice how in every other scene somebody is either yelling, screaming, or tripping over themselves. For a while we wonder if it is meant to be a slapstick comedy given the number of people falling down and ending up in all sorts of contortions. But it is not a slapstick comedy. It is supposed to be a raunchy comedy—only it doesn’t work on any level because the dirty jokes have no intelligence, wit, or shock value behind them. The rise in decibels and the acrobatics occur because something—anything—needs to happen. It gives the impression that everybody knows that the material is not at all funny and so somebody must fall over.
For a movie involving a wedding, the picture offers no genuine, touching, or even a practical human connection. Dave and Mike are supposed to be brothers who are very close but they are not written in such a way that we understand or come to realize why they need each other other than the fact that they are brothers. The same goes for Alice and Tatiana; they are supposed to be best friends, but we are not provided situations that reflect the strength of their bond. Even the two people about to get married are one-dimensional wooden planks. They are about to get married, but there is no believable romance or sweetness in their interactions.
Kendrick must be singled out for being miscast. Although I’ve always liked her presence because there is often a grounded, geeky girl-next-door feel to her performances, Kendrick is simply not a convincing hard-partying girl. Whenever she and Plaza are standing next to each other and their characters are up to no good or are lying to the people they are talking to, Plaza steals the show completely. The key is in the eyes. Plaza has this playful roughness in every single thing that she does and so we believe her character. Kendrick, on the other hand, is too much of a warm presence. Someone more convincing should have been cast in her place.
Written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is a deeply unfunny, interminable experience. People should feel insulted for being presented this level of trash since the filmmakers actually had the audacity to disguise it as entertainment with the intention of getting away with it. We deserve much better than a would-be comedy made without any convincing effort to be funny.
Dirty Grandpa (2016)
★ / ★★★★
“Dirty Grandpa,” written by John Phillips and directed by Dan Mazer, has a most infantile sense of humor and an emotional intelligence of a plastic bag. Just about everything about it does not work because it has no understanding of what makes real people tick. The so-called jokes rely solely on behavior and so there is no involving story, believable characterization, and genuine humor is created. It exists to annoy and make the audience feel uncomfortable.
It flops right from the very first scene. The setting is a funeral and the source of humor involves our twenty-something protagonist named Jason (Zac Efron) being so into his career as a corporate lawyer that we are supposed to think of him as so uncool, so boring, a square. The problem is, however, the screenplay has not gotten a chance to set up the necessary tone and atmosphere to pull off an attempt at comedy—let alone dark comedy—at this point. Instead, the would-be jokes often come across mean-spirited.
The plot involves Jason being tricked by his grandfather (Robert De Niro) to drive to Florida right after the funeral. The latter’s goal is to get his grandson to loosen up and realize that the girl he is about to marry (Julianne Hough) is very wrong for him. Although the plot is far from groundbreaking, no effort is made so that the grandfather and grandson are able to connect on a genuine level. Instead, we are bombarded with scenes where they curse at each other, get into very awkward and uncomfortable situations (it’s supposed to be funny that Efron’s character appears to be sexually molesting a child at the beach), down to a scene where they share a bed and one of them gets naked. Cue the penis shot.
The Spring Break scenes are rightly over-the-top but completely unnecessary. One might argue that the brainless middle section is very insulting to women, the LGBTQ community, and African-Americans—often simultaneously—and one would be right. I argue that it is even insulting to Spring Breakers because there is no sense of real enjoyment among new and old friends. It is so fake that notice shots where just about everyone at the beach look as though they have perfect bodies. If they did not, Grandpa would make fun of the target for having extra weight. This film is a commercial—which is not necessarily a negative quality, but it is a bad commercial because it fails to appeal to young people of all sizes, color, and creed.
I suppose if the viewer was in it to see Efron’s abs, arms, buttocks, one could recognize a whiff of entertainment. But such rock-hard things can be seen at a local male strip club, so why bother to sit through a picture that offers no value, entertainment, or entertainment value? The filmmakers—and the studios—ought to have asked themselves this question before releasing this embarrassment to the public. I felt awful that Aubrey Plaza, the best comedian in the film, is a part of this humiliation.
Life After Beth (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Grief-stricken by the sudden death of his girlfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan) spends most of his time and energy with Beth’s equally devastated parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon). Several days after Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is buried, Zach takes a peek through the Slocum’s window and sees his girlfriend walking around. Convinced that her “death” is only an elaborate hoax because she did not want to break up with him, Zach is determined to get an explanation from Beth and her family.
“Life After Beth,” written and directed by Jeff Baena, has a tolerable few first few minutes but it only gets increasingly bad as it goes on. Already light on horror compounded with barely any comedy in its bones, the picture is stuck in soporific limbo, relying solely on its potentially amusing premise to barely get by. This is another movie that proves the horror-comedy genre is tough act to pull off well.
It should have covered a spectrum of emotions. The first act could have worked as a drama given that the characters are in mourning of a life taken too soon. The middle portion could have been an effective romantic comedy that allows us to get a complete idea of how Zach and Beth were like together before her transition. And the final third could have worked as a horror-comedy, somewhere along the lines of Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” Alas, the screenplay relies only on behavior to tell its unfunny, far from amusing “jokes.”
The material appears to have no understanding of what grief is really like. There is not one character here written to respond like a human being after he or she has lost a loved one. Reilly and Shannon look as though they are aware they are in a spoof. DeHaan does not stand a chance because Zach is written like a walking checklist of someone who is clinically depressed—not someone who is grieving. There is a subtle but important difference.
DeHaan and Plaza share no chemistry, but the bigger concern is the screenplay not allowing the two of them to have a genuinely sweet moment. It is important that the audience be shown or are inspired to imagine how the couple are or might be like if the whole premise involving one coming back from the dead had been taken away completely. The relationship being grounded in reality is the only way we grow to care about the characters even if the performers do not emit spark together.
There is a subplot involving an apocalypse which is completely mishandled. It is anticlimactic instead of thrilling, quite bland and boring instead of exciting. We never get the impression that anything remotely bonkers can occur at any time so we sit in our chairs feeling confused as to why the writer-director has chosen to go down such a path. Maybe he ran out of ideas and felt compelled to attach a third act—any third act just to have one? Or it is possible, since it is his first feature film, that Baena had too many ideas but chose the wrong ones to put into celluloid.
Either way, “Life After Beth” does not work. The horror-comedy genre tends to work if functioning under extremes: It is either so funny that we welcome—and eventually crave—the unsuspected scares or so scary that when the comedy does arrive, we are not sure whether to laugh or label the situation as cruel or dark. Falling between the two extremes, however, tends to invoke frustration, anger, and boredom.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Over the years, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has learned to expect the worst. Upon first impression, she lacks an air of joviality or a zest for life. For someone so young, she looks unhappy, tired, and it appears as though she has given up on many things that should matter. Working as an intern for Seattle Magazine, it is no surprise when she quickly volunteers to cover a story that involves a man who put up an ad asking for people interested in going back in time with him. Darius considers it to be a win-win situation. If the person turns out to be crazy and article is a success, it might lead to a promotion. But if what is advertised is in fact a possibility, it will give her a chance to change her past.
While “Safety Not Guaranteed,” directed by Colin Trevorrow, is not short of ambition, it might have been a more complete and fulfilling experience by doing one of two things: to have no subplot and a shorter running time or to have a longer running time with a more fleshed out subplot. Instead, it sits somewhere in between: moving forward at a constant pace but not taking enough risks by embracing extremes. Our interest goes on autopilot after a while.
At least there is a semblance of freshness in the relationship between Darius and Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man who claims to have successfully gone back to the past. What they have is complicated given that Darius choosing to acquaint herself with the guy is essentially rooted upon deception so she can get to know him well enough prior to writing the article.
Plaza is very good in conveying a certain level of toughness in Darius without letting go of her character’s amusing quirks and acerbic sarcasm. It is easier for a performer to reduce Darius to a stereotypical angry punk rocker given her penchant for eye liners, dark clothing, serious demeanor. Instead, the protagonist is played with some insight and is allowed to react like any other person when a handed a surprising turn of events. Throughout the course of her experience with Kenneth, the subtle changes in her challenge us to catch up to her thoughts which makes her intentions a little harder to categorize.
It is unfortunate that their possible romantic connection is interrupted by a subplot involving Jeff (Jake Johnson), Darius’ superior, wanting to reconnect so badly with a former one-time flame. Perhaps its point is to relay the idea that holding onto the past and, given the opportunity, changing it to meet a fantasy is like watching—and being entertained by—one person attempting to push a five-ton boulder up a mountain. While appropriate given the plot’s themes, there is nothing much to it and other the character being a source of amusement.
In other words, most of us already know why the past should remain the past. The screenplay does not bother to further question or explore the human condition of wishing things to be different than they are. It fails as an effective and involving subplot that runs parallel to the central relationship. Worse, on a more basic level, it interrupts the flow of what is brewing between Darius and Kenneth.
Another missed opportunity involves the second intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), so severely underused that he might as well not have been a part of the investigation. Although he is given three or four funny lines to say, we do not get a chance to get to know him as well as Darius or Jeff. Why have him there in the first place?
Written by Derek Connolly, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is smart to leave its ending open to interpretation, but it is not entirely enthralling experience because some key elements that lead up to that point are a struggle to sit through at times. For a movie about a possible time travel, I kept wishing it would fast forward through its more somniferous clichés.
To Do List, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
When a movie is filled with so many people who can be—and have been—funny given the necessary material to elevate their talent, one cannot help but expect it to least have the requisite charm to keep us interested in the potential of the screenplay. I found this film repulsive, boring, and unfunny—a bottom-of-the-barrel would-be female empowerment picture with neither teeth nor spine to support a material that should have been entertaining since the basic elements that make up a competent sex comedy are present.
Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the class of ’93 valedictorian and holds the record for having the highest grade point average who has ever attended the high school. Because of her tenacity and hard work, she was accepted to Georgetown University under full scholarship. Over the summer, she is to work at a local pool with Cameron (Johnny Simmons), her lab partner, and Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a hunk she met at a graduation party while drunk. Though Brandy is an ace academic, she is completely inexperienced when it comes to sex. Not one to fall behind on anything, especially since her friends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele) seem to have more experience with guys, she creates a checklist of sexual conquests she must achieve before heading off to college.
There is nothing cinematic about the “The To Do List.” Though the story takes place in 1993, the film is neither smart nor vibrant enough to communicate why that year is particularly special. The setting could have been in the late-‘80s or mid-‘90s and it would not have made any difference. We see posters of popular bands hanging on bedroom walls and hear chart-topping songs at the time, but there is no feeling or importance behind them.
In addition, the scenes are poorly photographed, a bore to look at, and almost sitcom-like in its approach to get us to laugh. It offers nothing but a series of forced sketches and by the end of each we are handed a freeze frame and checkmark. For a story involving teenagers and sex, it is inappropriately mechanical. Effective teenage comedies command a certain level of reckless abandon despite their subjects being outcasts or members of the popular crowd. The experience of watching this film is akin to observing a fish gasping for air—not the part where it flops around but when it has given up and just waiting to die.
A major misstep of the screenplay is not allowing us to care for our protagonist on a deeper level. She is supposed to be very smart but we are not given a chance to measure exactly how sharp she is. While I understood that the character was supposed to convey a blind determination to complete her list, if she were really as smart as the material claimed, the ramifications of her actions should have occurred to her much faster—either on an emotional level or via sheer calculation in terms of where she stands in a sudden shifting relationship. I did not expect for her to be emotionally intelligent but I expected her to respond like a real person—another key ingredient of a good teenage comedy.
Written and directed by Maggie Carey, “The To Do List” tries so hard to be funny by delivering raunchiness but it is so poorly executed that those cheesy after school specials are actually more entertaining. It is so lazy, so unambitious that there is a running “joke” about Plaza’s character constantly losing her top when she gets into the water. Plaza and Simmons, two of whom I find very charming, can do so much better than this ordure.