Tag: comedy

The Hitman’s Bodyguard


The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Considering the sheer talent and great comic timing of the leads, it is most disheartening that “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” written by Tim O’Connor and directed by Patrick Hughes, is not a better movie. Instead of presenting us a breezy, balanced action-comedy, it is a limp death march, nearly absent of any big and lasting laughs, to the finish line—quite literal because the plot involves a bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) escorting an assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) so that the latter can testify against a dictator (Gary Oldman) at the International Criminal Court. Naturally, the dictator’s goons attempt to prevent the bodyguard-hitman duo from reaching their destination.

One gets the impression the script is barebones. Casting a pair of charismatic motormouths as co-leads is a good decision because the two have different approaches to wring laughter out of the audience. But relying on the duo to ad lib in order to plug holes in the script is a critical misstep. Notice that as improvisation unfolds, we begin to lose sight of the characters. This strategy is executed too many times and so during the latter half, it is a challenge to care about the story and whether Bryce and Kincaid would make it to their destination. The picture does not seem to understand how buddy comedies work since it is all behavior, no substance.

Action sequences unfold in beautiful open spaces, particularly one in Amsterdam, but a film can have the most eye-catching shootouts but ultimately amount to nothing if everything else around it is a bore. Such is the case here. It does not help that the villain is stuck in a courthouse and not one of the hired guns is genuinely threatening or memorable. Imagine if there had been two minions who have equally recognizable faces as Reynolds as Jackson. Cast performers who do not typically appear in comedies but turning out to have comedic chops. Now, isn’t that more exciting, more creative, more inspired that what is shown here? It certainly would have surprised the audience.

There are romantic subplots forced into the plot which do not work on any level. Reynolds and Elodie Yung, an Interpol agent who happens to be Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, share desert-dry chemistry. There is not one instance in which the viewers recognize what they see in one another. On the other hand, Jackson and Salma Hayek, playing Kincaid’s wife, do share some chemistry, but the screenplay’s lack of substance reduces the relationship into an unfunny, tired caricature. The picture struggles to get basic emotions and relationships right.

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is a disastrous action-comedy because it lacks inspiration and imagination. Numerous awful comedies tend to have jokes on paper first and a semblance of story is built around them. Here, however, one gets a sneaky feeling that there is neither jokes nor story in the first place. It goes to show that just because the right actors are booked it may not necessarily translate, especially if there is nothing to support them. It is a waste of precious two hours that feels like four.

Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Jesse (Josh Radnor), working in New York City as a college admissions officer, is invited by his former undergraduate professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend a retirement ceremony in Ohio. Unhappy with the way things are going in his life in the city, Jesse welcomes the opportunity to return to the university he loves. Through Dr. Hoberg, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore majoring in Drama. They hit it off right away, but there is a problem: Zibby is sixteen years Jesse’s junior, an age gap that is not easy to overlook.

The tone of the first half of the film is relaxed—too relaxed to the point where it is almost boring. As a result, there seems to be an absence of a central conflict. Although Jesse hopes to get to know Zibby in a more intimate way, both in an emotional and physical aspect, he begins to feel that it is wrong for him to take their friendship further because she is far too young despite how mature she presents herself. There is a funny scene that involves the college admissions officer writing on a notebook and comparing their ages. When Jesse was sixteen, Zibby had not been conceived yet.

Couple Jesse’s romantic struggle to his fears about becoming old and feelings of disappointment with how his life has turned out, the two almost cancel each other. While the latter feels more important, the screenplay does not spend much time exploring it. Instead, focus is spent on cutesy scenes of Zibby and Jesse writing each other letters and smiling as they read them—with voiceovers, no less. While Radnor and Olsen look good together, the only scene that works completely is when their characters’ opinions are pit against one another. After Zibby admits that she likes to read vampire novels, Jesse looks at her disbelievingly, for not having better taste.

It gets better somewhat in the second half, but the characters most worthy of attention are not given enough dialogue. Jesse meets Dean (John Magaro), a student on a full scholarship but happens to be on all sorts of medication due to an emotional disorder. He confesses to the alumnus that he is “aggressively unhappy” in the university. At one point Dean asks, “Why did you love it here so much?” There is impact because for the first time we see Jesse scrambling for an answer. As a college admissions officer, he has gotten used to asking the difficult questions during interviews. With Dean, he finds himself on the other side. That is interesting.

And then there is Dr. Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse holds her in high regard since he loved her class so much. Despite many compliments he sends her way, she gives him a look of disdain, almost disgusted by a pining former student. Dr. Fairfield’s story is touched on but never delved into. It is unfortunate because there are morsels of truth in her cynicism.

But it all goes back to what Jesse and Zibby have. I just could not buy it. This may sound like an odd critique but I felt Olsen is more intelligent than the character she plays. It is distracting. The script forces her to say words like “whatever” and “like” but it comes off forced, a constant reminder that she is still very young. Now, if Zibby had been written as smarter and more insightful than Jesse, the situation might have been more complex, more interesting. However, that is not what is up on screen.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul


Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Despite the picture being plagued with would-be humor involving various bodily functions, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” based on the children’s book series by Jeff Kinney, will likely fail to appeal even to its narrow age demographic. This is because the material is not in touch with the core of the series. That is, pre-teen Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker) feels like a loser and so he goes on great lengths to shed what he believes others perceive him to be. In reality, however, he is a good kid who just so happens to get in trouble sometimes—and he need not change a thing about himself. It is not about gross-out and slapstick humor.

It is strange because the screenplay is helmed by the book series’ author along with director David Bowers. One gets the impression that in order to commercialize or make the picture more accessible to non-book readers, a lot of the main source’s heart were cut out. Perhaps this decision is driven by a plot involving a road trip where shenanigans are expected to unfold consistently in order to establish a semblance of fast pacing. In reality, however, the film moves quite slowly because the viewers grow tired of the highly repetitive formula of silliness and high jinks. When it does get to the supposedly heartfelt moments, it falls flat. Deep emotions and realizations are not earned at all.

I take no pleasure in pointing out child performers coming across as rather mismatched to the roles they play. However, it must be mentioned that Drucker is not a good fit to portray Greg Heffley. The character is supposed to command a balance of slyness and sweetness, often during the same scene, but Drucker, even though he emotes the best he can with the material he is provided, does not yet have the range to reach such a balance. He pales by comparison to Zachary Gordon who played Greg in the first three “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies. Perhaps Drucker just needs more time to grow accustomed to Greg’s shoes.

The film is completely let down by the writing. This time around, Greg’s parents (Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott) have bigger roles in the story and so it is a perfect opportunity for Greg to learn a bit more about his parents, perhaps even connect with them on a level that the protagonist did not expect prior to being on the road. And yet the screenplay insists on delivering the same old tricks: portraying parents as uptight and lacking the ability to relate to their children. While the picture can have these elements, turning them upside down or inside out once in a while could have paved for more interesting and challenging avenues. Playing it safe is death to comedy.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” lacks freshness as well as a certain verve required to entertain children beyond gross-out jokes. I have a deep dislike toward children’s movies that are adamant in treating their target audience as not intelligent. Kids deserve better than this boring, nonstop barrage of lowest hanging fruit. A better alternative is to allow children to play outside than to have them sit through this incredibly disappointing misfire.

Lady Bird


Lady Bird (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who’ve grown up poor will likely find more than a handful of truths in “Lady Bird,” a strong directorial debut from Greta Gerwig who is known for starring as quirky but highly relatable characters in independent comedies. Here, our heroine named Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who calls herself Lady Bird in order to assert her independence, is an extension of the type of characters Gerwig has played, but she is also an original creation because the screenplay defines her needs and yearnings through her numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. She may not be likable all the time but she is endlessly fascinating.

A mother-daughter relationship holds the center of the film. It is appropriate that each time Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), share a scene, there is a fiery energy flickering underneath their interactions. Although they tend to point out one another’s differences—sometimes differences so superficial we wonder why one bothers to bring them up at all other than to incite something—they are more alike than they realize or care to admit. Notice that even when they agree about a particular topic in general, Lady Bird and Marion find one perspective from which they disagree which leads to either ferocious arguments or deafening silences.

Despite these clashes, however, the screenplay manages to underline the love shared between parent and child without coming across syrupy or soap-like. Relationships that Lady Bird forges throughout the picture may change but we are certain right from the opening scene that the title character’s bond with her mother, as dysfunctional as it is, will remain unchanged, for better or worse.

A stark difference can be noted in how Lady Bird chooses to interact with her peers in Catholic school. She is readily able to try on new skin, is occasionally vulnerable to what they might say or think about her, and so badly wishes to be accepted in some way. This is where Ronan’s intelligent performance comes in. Less experienced performers might have painted the character in extreme brushstrokes depending on whether she is at home versus school. Instead, as the picture goes on, Lady Bird’s contradictions begin to bleed into one another in a way that makes sense and specific to a character who thinks she knows it all but one who is actually just trying to figure it out as life unfolds before her. This is a story about a teenager about to learn how it is like to put on the mask of being a young adult.

Moving at a breezy pace with numerous snappy dialogue, the picture has a certain glow about it that makes one think of coming-of-age movies from the ‘70s. Strip away references to September 11 terrorist attacks, Alanis Morissette playing on the radio, and bulky cell phones, the story could have been set in any decade post-‘60s. The writer-director’s goal might have been to create images that would pass as if one were looking inside an important memory, events that have great influenced a person’s perspective or lifestyle. Or it might be the filmmaker’s attempt to capture a dreamy, sunny, suburban area of Sacramento. It works either way.

“Lady Bird” understands the hardships of being an ordinary teenager who yearns for more—more love, more acceptance, more money, more freedom. Captured beautifully is the every day of being reminded consistently, sometimes not so subtly, that she will likely fail to do anything spectacular or noteworthy. Yet despite an ordinary protagonist who thinks she can do better than those who have become merely byproducts of Sacramento living (“the Midwest of California,” as she claims), the writer-director treats her with love and respect anyway. Clearly, the picture has affection for young people.

C.O.G.


C.O.G. (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Some audiences will claim that “C.O.G.,” based on the essay by David Sedaris, is surprisingly bleak for a comedy. But I say it is a matter of perspective. Taking into consideration the character’s evolution from a post-grad who has a tendency to romanticize rural life to someone who is a little wiser about how people might actually be like out in the world (as opposed to fictional characters he encounters by reading the classics), I think the film ends on a positive note despite dramatic hues in plot development. This is because the character has come out of the other side more enlightened than before. In the beginning, he thought he knew how the world worked. But by the end, he’s had practical experience with the people and the work he could only romanticize about.

Jonathan Groff plays David with such magnetic charm that it is difficult to look away from him despite the various colorful characters on screen. His approach is interesting in that even though at times he is not the focus of the scene, he remains in character while in the background. David is the kind of person who tends to overthink and Groff has found a way to communicate that his character is thinking even when he is apparently doing nothing. Not many performers can pull this off but Groff manages to do so with elegance and grace. Another layer of challenge is that for a while we are not certain whether David is someone whom are supposed to like based on how he exercises his privilege.

This comedic picture is not about big laughs. The laughs come in a form of sharp criticism. At times these criticisms might hit the viewer directly and trigger a bit of soul-searching. In other words, the comedy is specific and one that takes chances. So many comedies are broad, harmless, often to be forgotten the moment the jokes are seen or heard. In this film, I found myself thinking about certain character interactions that have occurred thirty or forty-five minutes prior based on later scenes designed to highlight or establish a set of patterns directly tethered to human flaws or shortcomings.

For instance, just about every person that David encounters is lost in some way—even though it appears these people have found their passion, their calling, their God. It makes a statement that perhaps no one really has it all figured out even though it may appear otherwise on the surface. The story, I think, is about putting a magnifying glass on insecurities, how people react when these insecurities are triggered or challenged. David is, appropriately, the center of the film because, essentially, he ends up being the punching bag.

Indeed, tonally, the film is all over the place and the plot meanders. It could have been a more concise picture by trimming at least fifteen minutes. It might have improved its flow. While these technical shortcomings are present, I can almost overlook them because I enjoyed how the movie made me think and feel. I often wondered and lamented why or how people can be so cruel to one another over petty or trivial things.

Written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, “C.O.G.” is certainly an acquired taste, but I do recommend it marginally because of what it chooses to say about the human condition. It is a kind of comedy that makes fun of every character while at the same time pointing out that there is a disgusting side to each one of them. It is the antithesis of mainstream comedy.

Landline


Landline (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is a scene toward the end of the film that perfectly showcases the effects of the many events we have seen. Indirectly, a boy asks a girl if they should officially label themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. Even though it is apparent they both really like one another, the girl insists that they remain friends. To the boy, even though the girl gave a reason for her refusal, the reasoning behind the reason isn’t exactly clear. It sounds like a lame excuse. But because we are witnesses to her recent experiences, it is crystal clear to us. The story is complete.

Based on the screenplay by Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre, directed by the latter, “Landline” is a perceptive picture about infidelity and how it threatens to derail family bonds. Although a comedy with a rather familiar template involving the children finding out that one of their parents has had or is having an affair, the material rises above the template because the moments of honesty are painful, real, and relatable. Those who have been betrayed one way or another will be able to look into the characters’ eyes and understand precisely what they are going though. The picture commands quiet power.

Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn play the elder and younger sister, respectively. Although the siblings have opposite personalities, the performers are able to build a rapport not through words written on the script but through minute gestures, how Dana sits just so right next to Ali (sometimes to annoy her) or how Ali gives a certain look imploring Dana to stop talking immediately (because one or both of them may get in trouble). We believe they are sisters not only because they look alike from certain angles but also due to the fact that Slate and Quinn are able to capture the essence of what being siblings mean. When the sisters function on the same wavelength, they are very funny together. And when they do not, we still acknowledge the comedic situation yet we are also reminded that although they are sisters, they are individuals first. The film is surprisingly intelligent at times.

The story takes place in ‘90s New York City. Although the setting is not crucial to the plot, since the story is about family first rather than where the family lives in whichever era, some of the amusing moments involve old school computers, having to use a payphone, and brightly colored power suits. To make the work stronger, I felt the screenwriters ought to have found a way to incorporate these nostalgic items to each family member’s idea of traditionalism—what it means to them as a unit, individually, and moving forward.

Mainstream comedies tend to end with a neat bow designed to make the audience feel good. “Landline” is different in that it wears its scars like badges of honor. I enjoyed that subtle communication of strength. In the beginning, the vase is unscratched, untainted in any way. Somewhere in the middle a discovery of infidelity smashes the vase into pieces. By the end, the vase is cobbled together with superglue but the imperfections are readily apparent.

City Island


City Island (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Vince (Andy Garcia), a corrections officer, gets the surprise of his life when he recognizes the last name of one of the new transfers. Tony (Steven Strait) is the son he had abandoned twenty-four years ago and had since started his own family in City Island, an old fishing village in the Bronx. Although Tony is eligible for temporary release, he has no family member to claim him. So, Vince decides to take responsibility for Tony and welcomes the unsuspecting young man into his home.

Given that the recurring theme in “City Island,” written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, is secrets, big and small, it is only a matter of time until all the dirty laundry is exposed. It is an amazing feat, however, that even though we know what to expect in the third act, the material remains fresh and exciting for two reasons: there are enough small twists in the screenplay to keep a potentially tired material afloat and the performances, especially by Garcia, are surprisingly heartfelt.

The picture does not try too hard to be funny. For instance, Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) having a penchant for feeding large women crazy amount of food could have been most sleazy, not to mention mean-spirited, if pushed too much. Instead, the subplot involving the youngest son is executed with a gentleness despite his rather crude—but nonetheless hilarious—personality. In addition, the only daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), tries to hide the fact that she had been kicked out of school, lost her scholarship, and since been working as a stripper. Although less amusing and equally underdeveloped as Vince Jr.’s subplot, we still care about her and how her secret will be digested by the parents.

Surprisingly, the heart of the picture comes in the form of the patriarch’s shame of really going for his ambition. That is, Vince so wishes to pursue acting, pretending to attend poker games with his buddies when he is actually taking an acting class, but he thinks his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), would laugh in his face if she knew. Garcia is excellent as someone who seems tough on the outside but is actually emotionally wounded. Each time the camera captures only his face, I could feel Vince’s sadness from having to hide a big part of himself from his family. It is a silly situation, perhaps even sitcom-like, but the writing is able to discern between the reality that we—as the audience—and the characters see versus the reality in someone’s mind. Good comedies work as a drama.

I loved it every time the Rizzo household gets really loud because it reminded me of my family. It didn’t matter if they were trying to annoy each other playfully or yelling out of sheer rage. There is a love that can be felt through the walls and the sharp words. It feels like a real family, not some boring group of automatons where everyone insists on holding it all in until the script forces them to explode. Therefore, when the rather typical third act comes around, it is easy to embrace the reactions incited by awkwardly presented revelations.

“City Island” has a most tender layer involving Vince and a woman he has met in the acting class. Their instructor (Alan Arkin) gives them an assignment about secrets. Vince and Molly (Emily Mortimer) often meet at night and quickly discover that they are attuned to each other’s needs. In a way, she becomes his secret. A lesser screenplay and direction might have turned the whole thing into a dirty affair. What they share proves to be more romantic.