Reel Opinions

Monday, June 29, 2020


During his stint on The Daily Show from 1999 to 2015, Jon Stewart routinely proved himself to be one of the funniest and smartest men on television.  Now, with his new political comedy Irresistible, writer-director Stewart proves that he can make a likable satire of our current electoral climate (as if there was any doubt), but that he needs to tell his story with a slightly less obvious tone should he go back to the genre.  There's a fine cast and some good points made, but he's playing it a little safe here, and not being quite as cutting as I know he can be. 

The point that Stewart seems to be making here is that both sides, Republicans and Democrats, are guilty of the exact same dirty tricks, and will do just about anything to win.  Don't alert the media on that one, folks.  He takes aim at the current culture of politics, and how it is all about "talking heads" on the TV spinning the story, and how money controls everything.  Again, not exactly new revelations, but you keep on hoping that Stewart might have a trick or two up his sleeve.  There's an early scene where two strategists, one for the Democrats (Stewart's former Daily Show alum Steve Carell) and the other for the Republicans (Rose Byrne, sharply funny here), break from their usual talking points, and flat-out tell the media that they are lying to the American people on a regular basis.  Carell even signs off his speech by saying, "F-you, America".  We get what Stewart is trying to say and do with this scene, but it's a bit awkward, as the scene doesn't fit anywhere in the movie.  Is it a fantasy sequence?  A dream?  It just plays out, and then the movie completely forgets about it.  It's like an unconnected sketch from the rest of the film.

Once the movie settles into a consistent tone, things improve, though again, the movie is never quite as biting as the audience might be expecting.  Carell plays Gary Zimmer, who after spiraling into a depression from the results of Election Night November 2016, is ready to be back on his game in preparations for 2020.  Gary is looking for a non-traditional Democratic candidate, someone who can appeal to the small town rural communities who routinely vote Republican.  He thinks he's found his man when one of his staff shows him a viral video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a former Marine, single dad and farmer from the small Wisconsin town of Deerlaken.  In the video, Jack is making an impassioned speech about freedom and doing what's right when it looks like the town's Mayor is going to make it more difficult for immigrants to vote in the next election.  To Gary, Jack looks like the very model of what he's looking for.  Someone with Americana charm, but ideals that appeal to the Left.  As Gary says, "He's a Democrat, he just doesn't know it yet".

Gary flies over to Deerlaken, where he hopes to woo Jack into running for Mayor.  Cue the expected gags of the guy from Washington D.C. trying to fit in with the simple, small town folks, and not doing a very good job of it.  When he tracks down Hastings at his farm, the steely and firm man is reluctant about Gary's proposal, but eventually agrees only if Gary will run the campaign from top to bottom.  The town that Jack hails from is the kind of place that has seen most of its jobs disappear over time, and desperately needs a shot in the arm.  With Gary's help, Jack's campaign gains national attention, which of course is the whole point.  Gary wants the Republicans to notice what he's doing.  Naturally, they do, and they send their own strategist Faith Brewster (Byrne) to the town in order to take over the incumbent Mayor's (Brent Sexton) campaign.  It turns into a competition of who can raise the most money, get the most donors, and basically use every facet of the town to their advantage in the battle for votes.

Though flawed, Irresistible comes to vibrant life every time Carell and Byrne share the screen to the point that you wish they did it more here.  They're hilarious whether they're trading barbs on live TV, or doing the same thing from their hotel rooms, which are right next to each other and have paper thin walls.  Cooper is also excellent as Jack, who seems to hold an old-fashioned American spirit, and only wants to make things better for his adult daughter (Mackenzie Davis).  Everyone is great here, you just wish that Stewart's material was a bit less on the nose.  He throws in some small laughs (I liked it when Carell and his team have to resort to sitting in a car outside of the high school in order to use their computer equipment, because it's the only spot in town with WiFi.), but not the big or biting ones that we have come to know from him.  He's making a nice little comedy here, and that's fine.  But with this kind of talent, I kind of wanted him to aim higher. 

Still, what's here does work well enough.  I guess I had bigger expectations walking in because I know what Stewart is capable of.  During his years on his comedy news show, he shook up a lot of politicians and political norms.  Here, he's making a likable but kind of obvious take on political greed.  It's nice and all, but I personally expected more than just likable. 


Monday, June 22, 2020

The King of Staten Island

Director Judd Apatow, for better or worse, always tries to find the pain behind the laughs in his comedies, and in his latest film, The King of Staten Island, he really dives deep into the life and past of his star and co-writer, Pete Davidson.  Best known for being the youngest member of the current Saturday Night Live cast, Davidson loosely based the screenplay on his personal struggle of trying to find his place in the world, and moving on beyond the death of his father, who was a firefighter who was killed on 9/11 when Pete was just seven-years-old.

Even though not everything in the movie is based on real life, you constantly feel that Pete Davidson has lived through a lot of the struggles that his character experiences.  These include a general sense of aimlessness (he spends a majority of his time on the couch, watching TV or smoking weed), mental illness, and even suicidal depression, such as in the opening scene where he is driving down the road with his eyes closed.  This is a movie that offers plenty of big laughs, but is also not afraid to explore the darker reaches of its main character, and it's all the more successful because of that.  With this film, Davidson not only proves himself a comic leading man, but a fine actor in general.  Just watch his face in the scene where he's in the back seat of his car, listening to other people talking about how life has passed him by.  It's a genuinely fine performance.

His character, Scott Carlin, is a 24-year-old layabout who openly admits there's something wrong with him, but he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to turn his life around.  His goal is to be a tattoo artist, with the ultimate dream being to open the world's first tattoo restaurant, where people can dine while they get fresh ink on their bodies.  Just like Davidson in real life, Scott has never recovered over the loss of his firefighter dad when he was a child, and is not afraid to share his opinion about his father and his line of work with others.  In Scott's mind, firemen should not have children, in case they don't come home.  That way, nobody has to go through the feelings that Scott has had to deal with.  He spends most of his time with his small gang of friends in a basement, getting stoned while watching The Purge or playing video games.  Scott sees nothing wrong with this life.  As he says, "I like it here.  It's safe".

It's a common theme in Apatow films for the main character to be suffering from some kind of arrested development, and for their main pastime to be smoking pot.  After all, he is the filmmaker who made Seth Rogen a star.  But The King of Staten Island obviously comes from a much more personal place, so it doesn't feel quite so rehashed.  Yes, the filmmaker is covering material he's mined before, but just like always, there's a lot of truth and genuine heartfelt emotion behind the crude laughs.  Scott lives at home with his mother Margie (a wonderful Marisa Tomei), who is having a hard time dealing with the fact that her youngest daughter (Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd) is heading off for college, as well as with the fact that Scott is probably never going to move on and get his act together.  She puts on a brave smile when her son tells her that he will never leave her side.  Margie has had to put her life on hold to raise these kids on her own, and now she fears that she's going to be just as stuck as Scott seems to be.

That all changes when she meets Ray Bishop (Bill Burr), a firefighter himself who comes bundled with a sarcastic ex-wife (Pamela Adlon), two young kids, and a possible gambling problem.  They connect over a string of dates, and soon Margie is toying with the idea of a relationship.  Scott makes his hatred of this idea and of Ray in general well known from the moment she tells him.  In fact, seeing his mother around the guy only intensifies the memories of his father.  In a smart move, the film follows Scott's eventual maturing and thawing of his emotions, but in a way that does not seem forced, nor does the movie end with everything tied up.  We see Scott bond with Ray's kids during the walks he takes with them to school, and he even eventually warms up a little to Ray and his fellow firefighters, one of whom (played by Steve Buscemi, a former real-life firefighter) helps Scott understand that his father was more than just a tragic hero.

I appreciated the honesty and the respect that the screenplay had for these characters.  This is a movie made up of little victories and moments, not grand reconciliations and conquering of personal past demons while the music swells on the soundtrack.  Like a lot of Apatow's previous films, this movie gives his entire cast moments to stand out, both comically, and in this case, dramatically.  It's also not afraid to show us the flaws of its characters.  Scott is aimless and immature at times, Ray has a temper and maybe his ex-wife despises him for a reason, Margie has probably let her son get away with too much over the years.  The fact that this movie is able to focus on both the pain and the humor of these kind of situations, sometimes both in the same scene, is its strongest aspect in my eyes.  I also greatly appreciated the tone that the film ends on, with general happiness, but a lot of doors open and questions about where these people will go remaining.

The King of Staten Island does run a little too long at 135 minutes, which is another trait most of Apatow's films share.  But this time, it didn't bother me as much.  These are people that I wanted to spend a lot of time with, and was happy for the opportunity to do so.  It's definitely the director's best film in a while, and it also marks Pete Davidson as a strong leading man who is not afraid to show the worst of his character (or himself) to an audience.


Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Lovebirds

Michael Showalter's The Lovebirds tells a familiar story, but it does so with a lot of comic energy and fresh dialogue.  It's also the best work that star Kumail Nanjiani has done since his breakthrough big screen leading role in 2017's The Big Sick (which Showalter also directed), and gives his co-star Issa Rae (from The Photograph) a great opportunity to show off her strong comedic timing. 

Nanjiani and Rae play a couple named Jibran and Leilani, who were deeply in love when they met four years ago, but years of living together have allowed them to drive each other crazy.  In one of the smart moves the screenplay makes, when we see their argument that opens the film, it's not the usual disagreement over commitment issues that we see in sitcoms and romantic comedies.  They are arguing over petty things, like whether or not they would be able to win if they managed to be on The Amazing Race together, and the value of reality television in general.  This is an early sign that the movie is going to be smarter and wittier than you might expect, and luckily it does not betray this early promise.  Their disagreements continue as they drive to a friend's dinner party, and the two soon come to realize that maybe they're not as right for each other as they initially thought four years ago.

Before they can contemplate this much further, their car suddenly strikes a man on a bike (Nicholas X. Parsons) that is on the run from another man (Paul Sparks) who claims to be a police officer, and commandeers their vehicle in order to chase after the bicycle man.  Not only does the officer catch up to the fleeing man, but he manages to run him over numerous times with the couple's car, and then gets out and shoots him dead.  The cop is forced to make a hasty exit, leaving the bewildered couple behind to take the rap for the murder.  Now Jibran and Leilani must race around New Orleans, trying to uncover the connection between the bicycle man and the killer cop, which naturally leads to much bigger things, such as a bizarre sex cult and possible political blackmail.

The Lovebirds
streaks on by at a brisk 85 minutes or so, which is really the perfect length, as it doesn't let the audience linger too much on its loopy and hole-riddled plot, and instead focus on the funny dialogue that has a definite edge, as well as the wonderful comedic chemistry that the lead stars bring to the project.  They're clearly having a blast playing off of each other, and the smart dialogue they're given is not only often genuinely funny, but sometimes surprisingly cutting.  I especially loved the moment where the couple are nervous when a police car driven by a white cop slows down as it drives by, with the officer staring at them.  The car just passes on by, however, and Jibran is relieved that the cop was just "a normal racist" giving them a suspicious glance.

Unlike a lot of movies of this type where innocent or unlikely people find themselves on the run, this movie doesn't try to distract us with a bunch of subplots or bizarre side characters.  And when it does fall back on these tropes, it does so with a lot of energy, such as their run-in with the crazed wife of a local senator who seems to have a passion for unconventional torture techniques (a very funny Anna Camp).  There are also no big action set pieces where the main characters are forced to suddenly become stunt drivers or action stars.  It's a low key movie with some great dialogue, and a pair of lead actors who are up to the challenge of delivering it.  I kind of love it when a movie has total confidence in its lead stars to carry the entire film on their own, and that's what happens here.

The Lovebirds
has a lot to be confident about.  It's simple, escapist entertainment that has been made by smart people, and carries a lot of energy.  It's a great reminder that a simple idea can still work, as long as that idea has been given the proper care and attention, as well as attracted the right people to tell it. 


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

An Update on Myself and This Blog

Hello, everyone!

I know that it has been a while since I posted anything new.  As I mentioned, I recently was laid off of my job, and I needed some time to rest and get myself together.

Well, the good news on that department is that I do have a path set toward a career.  I'm going to be taking an at home training program that comes highly recommended in order to study to be a court reporter.  It will take between 1 to 2 years to complete the course, but I am determined, and I have a lot of support, so I know I will be okay.  I am both excited and nervous to start the program in early July, but the program allows me to go at my own pace, and I will have a lot of help. 

Now for the movies.  My local theater has still not set a date as to when they will reopen.  They've announced that they will be showing classic movies for a while, but as I said, I do not know when they will reopen.

So, naturally, I'm not going to be doing reviews every week until new films start going into wide release.  Until then, I do plan to review some movies that I will be watching On Demand, similar to my review of Scoob! a few weeks ago.  The reviews will likely be scattered, so for a little while, I will be updating with new reviews when I can, not on a weekly basis like usual.

I appreciate your understanding and support, and please check back regularly for new reviews.  I plan to have my first new review up this weekend.  I'll try to update fairly regularly, that's for certain.

I promise to continue to update you all when needed, and not to keep you too much in the dark.  Just bear with me as I start this new path in my professional life.  I love writing these reviews, and I do not want to stop, so once the movie schedule is back to normal with regular wide releases, you will probably see weekly reviews here like before.  Again, I will update if anything changes.

Thanks again, and I hope everyone is safe and enjoying the early summer.


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