Atomic Blondes

Bombshell

by Hope Madden

Bombshell, Jay Roach’s depiction of the unrepentant sexual harassment that poisoned the work atmosphere at Fox News, is equal parts cathartic and depressing.

Buoyed by strong lead performances in a trio of unerring talent—Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie—the film also leans on an incredible and sizable ensemble to deliver a surprisingly nuanced look at the shades of grey, of complicity and responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment.

“It’s no one’s job to protect you,” Theron’s Megyn Kelly tells newbie Kayla (Robbie).

“It’s all of our jobs,” she disagrees.

No surprise the script comes from The Big Short scribe Charles Randolph. Roach’s film benefits from the same kind of thoughtful, informative, funny and “can you believe this?” approach, but Bombshell lacks much of the rage and outright comedy of an Adam McKay film.

Like McKay, Roach left comedies behind in favor of headier, sharper, more political material. Also like McKay, his comedic sensibilities breathe some life into the efforts, helping this film serve the dual purpose of entertaining and informing. And, like McKay, Roach knows how helpful a well-placed comedian can be.

Kate McKinnon actually does a lot of the film’s narrative heavy lifting. (Is it wrong I wanted her to play Rudy Giuliani as well?) As a Bill O’Reilly producer who befriends Kayla and helps her better understand the Fox New world, she allows Roach to make salient points about the network and the way it’s run, but because McKinnon is naturally funny and incredibly talented, it feels organic.

Her character’s position when it comes to rocking the boat also offers a clear-eyed take on why toxic work environments can go unchecked for so long. Since McKinnon’s character is in many ways the one the audience will most relate to, this is a sly and successful maneuver to keep us from feeling too superior and enabling us to better empathize with characters we may not like as well.

Enough cannot be said for the work of Roach’s makeup department, especially that of prosthetic make up designer Kazu Hiro. Theron’s imperceptible prosthetic—along with her own posture and voice work—turn her into an alarming replica of Kelly. Ditto Nicole Kidman, and John Lithgow, whose performance as Roger Ailes also delivers a wallop.

Not that any of this matters if the three central performances lacks in any department. They don’t. Characteristically, Theron, Kidman and Robbie deliver exceptional work, each willing (as they always are) to depict a woman who is not always (or, in some cases, is rarely) likable but who deserves respect and empathy for her suffering and courage.

Wisely, Roach and team don’t get swept away by the bracing change and empowerment of victory. Indeed, Bombshell’s final act is a smack I still feel. But its power is its honesty.

Ghost Writer

Yesterday

by George Wolf

Hey, baby boomers (yes, my hand is up), thanks for still buying CDs!

Now please enjoy the latest installment in your Musical Movie Memories Tour, Yesterday.

We’ve already jammed to Queen and Elton, Bruce is set for August, so how about remembering how much we love the Fab Four by envisioning a world where they never existed?

It’s a conceit so instantly charming director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) passed on the project, thinking it had already been done. He was convinced otherwise and jumped on board, bringing the script from Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) to life with a breezy, unabashed fandom.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, easy to root for) is a struggling musician in Suffolk who’s ready to give up on the dream. His longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) protests, but Jack rides his bicycle off into the English night unsure of his future.

Fate intervenes with a brief worldwide blackout, which brings an accident, a hospital stay, and Jack waking up in a world without his two front teeth.

Or the Beatles.

That second one is pretty advantageous for Jack’s career, though the film is at its most likable early on, when Jack is trying to remember lyrics, getting nowhere on Google and chastising anyone who doesn’t instantly realize how life-changing “his” new songs are.

Of course, his protests only resonate because we’re still in the old world with him. It’s a credit to the simple genius of this premise that Yesterday can tell without showing and still pull us in. And surprise, it’s also a wonderfully organic way to strip down these songs we’ve heard for decades and remind us how truly great they are.

Jack’s star rises with a move to L.A, getting tutelage from Ed Sheehan (nicely self-deprecating as himself) and an apologetically shameless record label rep (perfectly slimy Kate McKinnon). It’s in America where Yesterday starts to drag a bit, wanting from the absence of spunky James and will-they-or-won’t-they rom that balances this com.

How that turns out, you can probably guess.

As for the musical fantasy, credit Curtis and Boyle for avoiding the easy cop out. Buy in and you’ll be rewarded with an entertaining take on life choices that’s fun to sing along with, occasionally slight but often downright fab.

All In

Family

by Hope Madden

On occasion, film reps send us links to preview their film for review. Often, these links are password protected. Once, the password was bouncehouse.

Yes, please.

The film in question is called Family, writer Laura Steinel’s directorial debut, and it plays like a fun update of Uncle Buck with Juggalos.

That’s right!

We open on an uptight executive sprinting, face painted, through an Insane Clown Posse gathering and reflecting, “It’s kind of like a fun county fair where you could also, potentially, be stabbed.”

That reflective exec is Kate, and Kate is maybe Taylor Schilling’s best cinematic character. She takes to Steinel’s dialog with a flat affect that’s entirely, awkwardly enjoyable.

Kate is Uncle Buck, basically. Only she’s not. She’s a driven businessperson who actually got where she is because she has literally nothing else in her life to draw her attention or energy. And then she has to babysit her 11-year-old niece Maddie (Bryn Vale, spot on) and next thing you know—right, life lessons. We’re all familiar with the John Hughes handbook, but Steinel updates it with less schmaltz and more belief in nonconformity. And juggalos.

When Maddie says, “Magic is my passion,” I had to hit pause because I was afraid my snorting would drown out the next piece of comedy gold.

There are problems with Family (besides that inanely generic title). It is funny, and its comical scenes are delivered by an entirely winning cast (which includes the unreasonably hilarious Kate McKinnon and the unreasonably talented Brian Tyree Henry). That’s not the problem.

Steinel also inverts and subverts the tropes of the genre. There are two upended “makeover” scenes that are both funny and insightful. It’s also just a savvy look at being socially awkward.

No, the problem here is that the many colorful and fun scenes are strung together more than they are foundational to a whole. And the keen insight Steinel uses to sharpen individual jokes softens when the time comes to finish the story.

She John Hugheses it.

But a well-placed “sorry for your loss” is surprisingly funny and there are at least a dozen scenes here that I kind of love. Family is smart, R-rated comedy that ultimately caves to the pressure to conform, but its struggle to be itself is laudable.

Plus, those juggalos. They have hearts of gold.

PS, this is what all my sisters thought I would be like as a parent. And I wasn’t. Entirely.

Katie Galore

The Spy Who Dumped Me

by George Wolf

As late summer comedies go, we’ve done worse than The Spy Who Dumped Me. And like so many secret agents with a “particular set of skills,” this film has one.

It’s name is Kate McKinnon.

That’s not to throw shade on Mila Kunis, who flashes fine comic timing in the straight woman role, giving McKinnon plenty of space to do that thing she does. Be weird and funny and sometimes hilarious.

McKinnon is Morgan and Kunis plays Audrey, her longtime best friend who just got “text dumped” by boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux). Just as the girls are setting fire to the stuff Drew left at Audrey’s place, they find out he was a spy, and that “2nd Place Fantasy Football” trophy of his is valuable enough to get them killed.

Director/co-writer Susanna Fogel cooks up the usual elements for a spy spoof, with amusing hijinx, scattershot action, globe-trotting locales, and a little touch of raunch to earn that R rating.

There’s also a couple quirky side characters (like the agent who keeps reminding everyone he went to Harvard) and some familiar faces (Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, Gillian Anderson).

But Fogel’s MVP is McKinnon, and it’s pretty clear she knows it. McKinnon may not get a script credit, but it isn’t hard to imagine some of the pages saying little more than “have Kate do something funny.”

And she does, particularly skillful enough to make The Spy Who Dumped Me a goofy, enjoyable time-waster.

 

 





Seeing Red

Ferdinand

by Hope Madden

I’m thrilled to announce that Ferdinand, the new animated feature from Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Rio), did not ruin my childhood.

Whew!

The story of a peaceful if enormous bull who’d far rather sniff flowers than fight matadors was my favorite book as a little kid, but to stretch these 32 or so sentences into a 90-minute feature-length film, there would have to be padding.

I worried about the padding.

Credit a team of six screenwriters for finding—for the most part—organic ways to develop the story. We meet Ferdinand as a young bull being raised with a handful of other bulls specifically to fight in the ring. Then we follow him on his adventure to freedom from the ring and back into the sights of the matador.

That doesn’t mean the film never feels padded. It definitely does. But a slew of vocal talents including John Cena, Bobby Cannavale and Kate McKinnon helps to keep the film afloat.

Rarely laugh-out-loud funny, a bit bloated and a tad dark at times, Ferdinand still manages to entertain. It looks good, bears a social conscience and remains more or less true to the simple “be who you are” core that made Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s picture book so lovely.





More Bad Things

Rough Night

by Hope Madden

I did not have high expectations for this one, I’m not going to lie. Though the raunchy trailer offered a couple chuckles, I couldn’t help but think two things.

1) What is Scarlett Johansson doing in a “girls weekend” movie?
2) Isn’t this the same premise as Peter Berg’s 1998 black comedy Very Bad Things?

That first one is tough to answer, but the second is a very loud yes.

ScarJo plays Jess, wholesome politician lured into a bachelorette weekend with her college besties. She’s hoping for a quiet night, but she’s quickly guilted into binge drinking, casual drug use and, of course, a stripper.

Things get dark after that.

Yes, cinematic bachelor/bachelorette party zaniness is beyond tired. Still, there’s reason for hope. This cast, for instance.

Johansson is among the most talented and versatile actors working, as at ease with comedy as she is drama. Zoe Kravitz is strong as well, but the real reason for optimism is the rest of the party.

Kate McKinnon – flat out hilarious and able to steal scenes at will from anybody.

Ilana Glazer (Broad City) – effortlessly wrong-minded and hilarious.

Jillian Bell (Workaholics) – maybe the wrong-mindedest of them all.

The trio delivers, McKinnon in particular. Boasting that crazy-eye thing she does, as well as a ridiculous Aussie accent, her every moment on screen brings with it a “what exactly is she doing” quality that can’t help but infuse even flat scenes with a little electricity.

And there are flat scenes. Lucia Aniello makes her feature directing debut, working from a script she co-wrote with fellow Broad City alum Paul W. Downs (who also co-stars as Jess’s fiancé). Too much feels borrowed and several of the longer bits go nowhere.

But she and DownS are blessed with performers who know what to do with the material. Each creates a distinct and memorable personality. And the whole film has some fun at the expense of the state of Florida’s questionable laws.

There’s nothing new here. Honestly, nothing. But What Aniello and her talented cast do with a variety of set-ups is sometimes inspired and often very funny.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYkgQuqvaBg





Not So Secret Santa

Office Christmas Party

by George Wolf

They say bad things happen when the copier goes down.

When it’s fully operational at the Office Christmas Party …well, those aren’t TPS reports.

Clay (T.J. Miller) is the Chicago branch manager at a big tech company who wants to throw a Christmas party like his Dad did back in the days when employees “got drunk before noon.” Trouble is, since Dad died Clay’s sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is CEO and she wants to fill Clay’s stocking with budget cuts.

In fact, Carol might close the entire Chicago operation down unless Clay, Chief Tech Officer Josh (Jason Bateman) and IT wiz Tracey (Olivia Munn) can find a way to land the multi-million dollar account of Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance). Their standard pitch to Davis is less than persuasive, so what’s left to do but impress him with office camaraderie at an epic holiday bash?

Despite warnings from an HR head (Kate McKinnon) who wants a non-denominational mixer and hangs up “think of your family” signs, the staff naughty list starts getting crowded.

The premise (from the guys behind The Hangover) seems a perfect fit for this talent-laden ensemble. It might fit too well, as even the steady amount of laughs the film lands feels a tad disappointing.

I mean, if you need a wisecracking nice guy, a mean-spirited boss with sarcastic bite, and a Tommy Boy for today, Bateman, Aniston and Miller should be on speed dial.

Plus there’s a break room full of winning side characters. From Karan Soni’s guy-with-an-imaginary-girlfriend to Rob Corddry’s embittered lifer to Jillian Bell’s curiously polite pimp and beyond, entertaining impressions are mined from limited screen time by people clearly trained to do just that. And McKinnon? There may not be a better scene-stealer around, and you’re afraid to look away for fear of missing even the subtlest of gags.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) and their team of writers manage some passing nods to cutthroat corporate culture and political correctness, but thankfully don’t try to overthink things. Just let these ponies run. And though I’m guessing there was plenty of inspired improvisation (stay for the in-credits gag reel), even their best peaks can’t hide some valleys in the script.

But hey, it’s the holidays, be of good cheer and ride out them out for the payoffs. Office Christmas Party supplies them, even if, like that end of the year bonus, you were hoping for a little more.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 





Cash Money Homies

Masterminds

by George Wolf

Does Masterminds carry the stench of death? Let’s go to the evidence.

This film has been on the shelf for over a year despite impressive comic talent, and that cast may be the only thing keeping the film from straight-to-video status. It finally opens this week, with little fanfare in a crowded field, and features a blooper reel that can’t wait to push the actual film out of the way and get going.

In other words, we doubt you laughed much for the previous 90 minutes, how ’bout some funny outtakes as you leave?

Strong case, counselor, but in the words of master litigator Jules Winfield, “Allow me to retort!”

Masterminds is not horrible.

It’s actually based on the true events of a 1997 bank heist that scored 17 million dollars (2 million of which is still missing). If you think the director of Napoleon Dynamite is an odd choice to direct this story, you’re correct, and Jared Hess delivers a very odd, haphazardly funny movie.

Zach Galifiankis is a trailer-park livin’ armored truck driver engaged to Kate McKinnon (their announcement shots are a riot) but pining for his co-worker Kristin Wiig, who becomes the bait in Owen Wilson’s scheme to get the cash. Once the job is pulled, Zach waits south of the border for Wiig to join him (“I had to get a disguise, I look like Gene Shalit!”), while Wilson dispatches hitman Jason Sudeikis to hunt Zach down in Mexico. Meanwhile FBI agent Leslie Jones looks for clues and a jealous McKinnon attacks Wiig with a giant tube of feminine cream.

Long stretches where you aren’t laughing are suddenly broken up by a randomly uproarious gag (see tube of feminine cream above), and the veteran cast always makes it watchable despite the extreme absurdity. McKinnon steals scenes with facial expressions alone while Zach and Sudeikis engage in battles of improvised strangeness.

So ladies and gentlemen of the jury consider: this film will sink quickly and quietly from the multiplex, then slowly grow once it hits the video and streaming market.

As Zach says, “Brace your boobies,” Masterminds may be a cult favorite in waiting,

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 





Whom Might You Telephone?

Ghostbusters

by George Wolf

Just weeks ago, Dan Aykroyd set the trollosphere into a stage 5 tizzy when he dared to suggest the new Ghostbusters just might be scarier – and funnier – than his 1984 version.

He’s not really wrong.

Simmer down, I’m not saying this new one is a better. It doesn’t match the freshness or overall attitude of the original that, when combined with generational nostalgia and Bill Murray’s ascension to beloved icon, has propelled the film to a slightly more lofty pop culture perch than it deserves.

But, the 2016 GB’s do battle more frightening ghosts and do deliver a solid amount of laughs.

Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is chasing tenure at Columbia University, and trying to forget her days chasing ghosts. A report of a local haunting reconnects Erin with old partner Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and her new tech wizard Jillian Holtzman (a scene-stealing Kate McKinnon). The trio gets a close encounter of the slimy kind, brings the feisty Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) on board, and sets up shop in modest digs above a Chinese restaurant, which somehow still doesn’t help them get lunch any faster (delivery guy: “I have bad knees.”)

Director/co-writer Paul Feig gives each actor both the material and the space to carve out distinct characters, and it isn’t long before casting that smelled like a gimmick feels not only inspired, but perhaps the most sensible way to reboot such a classic team.

Giving the ladies an air-headed piece of beefcake named Kevin for a secretary (Chris Hemsworth, having a charming bit of fun with his own image) isn’t a bad move either. The comic benefits are obvious, but it’s also one of the devices the film leans on to throw subtle shade at the misogynistic vitriol that’s been spewing since the female leads were announced.

Stars from the ’84 film make effective and well-placed cameos (extra points for the clever way the late Harold Ramis is included), but eventually the amount of homage feels excessive for a film blazing its own trail. A similar penchant for excess bleeds into the finale, as our heroes face off against a number of spectacular ghouls in a fireworks-laden battle, but can’t wrap it up before an unnecessary serving of schmaltz creeps in.

McCarthy and director/co-writer Paul Feig again prove to be a reliable comedic team, but can’t quite match the sustained hilarity of Bridesmaids or Spy, which is actually a bit ironic. Similar expectations dogged Ramis and Murray after the successes of Caddyshack and Stripes, but initial concerns about their ghost-chasing epic got vaporized in a New York minute.

Can the new look GB’s repeat? They’re off to a solid start, and be sure to stay through the credits for a clue about who they ain’t gonna be afraid of next.

Verdict-3-5-Stars