Monthly Archives: April 2018

Pretty Funny

Amy Schumer comically confronts beauty bombardment head-on

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I Feel Pretty
Starring Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel & Tom Hooper
Directed by Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein
PG-13

Who hasn’t wanted to be thinner or taller, look younger, banish those zits or age spots, get smoother skin or whiter teeth, have more hair or change something else about their appearance?

In Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, she plays Renee, a New Yorker who’s obsessed with the “beauty” that bombards her every day on the streets, in magazines and on television.

Pretty much everyone, especially girls and young women, feels that bombardment, almost all the time. It’s created a gazillion-dollar industry of products, diets, fashion, fitness fads, plastic surgery—and a toxic tide of eating disorders, bullying, body shaming and self-loathing.

I Feel Pretty 2 (72)cRenee doesn’t feel pretty, despite all the effort she puts into her hair, her makeup and her clothes. She’s a few pounds overweight; she’s invisible to guys; babies burst in tears when she even looks at them. More than anything else, she wants to be pretty, to know what it’s like to be beautiful and have that “world” open up to her, a place she’s only imagined from the outside. She tosses a coin into a fountain and makes a wish—to be pretty.

Then Renee bumps her head in a SoulCycle spinning class, passes out and wakes up thinking she’s a total babe. When she looks in the mirror, she sees something wildly, impossibly hot-stuff gorgeous where her dumpy, doughy old self used to be.

Her wish has “magically” come true.

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Schumer (right) with Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips

No one else sees anything outwardly different about her, though, especially not her standby BFFs (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, and Busy Phillips, from TV’s Cougar Town) or Mason (familiar character actor Adrien Martinez), her coworker in the dingy basement office where they toil over the website of a cosmetics corporation, Lily LeClaire.

But Renee, beaming with the newfound self-confidence that accompanies her perceived self-transformation, finds a whole new world unfolding before her. She meets a charming guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel, who plays principal Geoffrey Quinn on truTV’s sitcom Those Who Can’t), and lands her “dream job” as a receptionist at the gleaming, high-rise corporate office of the cosmetics company.

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Rory Scovel (right) plays Renee’s nice-guy boyfriend.

Soon she’s become part of the Lily LeClaire inner circle, giving no-nonsense marketing advice to the firm’s top tier, including its founder (supermodel icon Lauren Hutton) and the CEO (Michelle Williams), as the high-end company prepares to roll out a line of less-expensive products for “bargain” shoppers.

Tom Hooper (from TV’s Game of Thrones and Black Sails) plays Grant LeClaire, the hunky, globetrotting playboy brother of Williams’ character, who is likewise captivated by Renee’s straight-up poise and self-assured personality.

Schumer, who rose to prominence as a standup then with her Emmy-winning comedy series Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, has always walked a sharp satirical edge. Her R-rated movies, Trainwreck and Snatched, were raunchy-ride riffs on romantic relationships and motherhood.

I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silversteen (the team behind the movies Never Been Kissed and How to Be Single) has a lot to unpack, including themes of body image, self-esteem and self-confidence, dating and relationships, appearances, the messages of advertising and the importance of friends. Schumer, who’s spoken publicly about the many potshots she’s taken about her looks and her body—many of them disgustingly, disturbingly nasty—here boldly confronts them head-on.

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Michelle Williams

Emily Ratajkowski plays Mallory, a drop-dead gorgeous woman Renee meets in her spinning class, who admits some surprising insecurities of her own. Michelle Williams, a four-time Oscar winner (for Manchester By the Sea, Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain and My Weekend With Marilyn), steps outside her usual dramatic comfort zone with her character—who talks in a cartoonish, baby-girl squeak—and finds some delightful shades of comedic nuance as her icy-cool fashionista is warmed by Renee’s fearless, down-to-earth charm.

Depending on how you slice it, the movie gets lots of laughs as Renee goes about living her “pretty” dream-come-true life, unaware that nothing has really changed—except her attitude about herself. It’s impossible to miss, though, that more than one person thinks she’s crazy, and someone even mentions she might need “mental health” counselling. There are a lot of people walking around in the world who think they’re someone they not, or whose view of reality has been somehow altered. Is that really funny?

I Feel Pretty 8cComedy is highly subjective and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, especially when it hits too close to home. What makes you laugh might not make someone else laugh, and vice versa. I Feel Pretty made me laugh, but it also made me a tad uncomfortable, like Ethan, when Renee—wanting to show off her “hot,” sexy bod—enters a Bangin’ Bikini Contest in a bar and does an impromptu performance on stage. Was I laughing at Renee, or at Amy Schumer?

But the main message of the movie is solid: “We are real women,” Renee tells a crowd in a climactic scene. “What a great thing to be!”

In this particular moment in time, when women and girls need all the positivity and encouragement they can get, Amy Schumer and I Feel Pretty deliver the message…pretty well.

In theaters Friday, April 20, 2018

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The ‘Truth’ Hurts

The scares are lite in Lucy Hale’s would-be shudder-fest

Film Title: Blumhouse's Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare
Starring Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey & Violett Beane
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
PG-13

Scary movies make the familiar frightening. Remember how Jaws terrified people about going into the water? How Friday the 13th changed the way we looked at a hockey mask? Or what Poltergeist and The Ring did to spook-ify TV screens?

In Truth or Dare, an innocent-enough childhood game takes a deadly, demonic twist as a group of college friends on a spring-break fling in Mexico are lured into some late-night partying by a charming young stranger (Landon Liboiron, who stars on the Netflix series Frontier). Hey, he suggests, how about a friendly game of Truth or Dare?

 

That’s not exactly what these kids came to Mexico to do. “Is this a second-grade sleepover?” one of the spring breakers scoffs. They eventually come around; it is the title of the movie, after all.

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Lucy Hale

But the stranger has a horrible secret: The game is cursed, and so is he, and the only way he can survive—at least for a while longer—is to pass on the curse by bringing in more players. Major buzzkill!

The rules are simple: Tell the truth or you die. Do the dare or you die. Refuse to play and you die.

That’s the setup. This is the latest from the Blumhouse little shop of horrors, the production house that brought us five Paranormal Activity flicks; four chapters of Insidious; three Purges; two installments of Sinister and Creep; Ouija and its prequel; plus Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit; and Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

The Blumhouse formula is typically low-budget/high-profit; most of their movies are made on a relative shoestring and make a profit at the box office. They’re usually geared toward teens and young adults, often rated PG-13 instead of R to attract a younger crowd, and packed with attractive, young-ish actors.

Are they any good? Sometimes—Get Out was lauded as one of the best films of 2017, and nominated for four Oscars (it won for Best Original Screenplay). But does it matter? They make money. And young audiences—who’ve outgrown “family” films and animated movies—have embraced these creepshow flicks as part of their adolescent experience.

In Truth or Dare, it’s a carload of TV stars in trouble. Literally, a carload: The spring-break vehicle to Mexico includes Lucy Hale (formerly on Pretty Little Liars and now Life Sentence); Tyler Posey (from Teen Wolf and Scream: The TV Series); Violett Beane (she’s Jesse Quick on The Flash); Sophia Ali (Grey’s Anatomy, Famous in Love); Nolan Gerard Funk (Counterpart); and Sam Lerner (Geoff Schwartz on The Goldbergs).

The cast is game but the scares are lame, the dialogue is weightless and dumb and the movie’s big effect—the leering, demonic “smiles” on faces that a player sees when he or she gets a turn in the game—looks like results of extreme Botox, which I suppose is pretty scary.

Writer-director Jeff Wadlow—who also directed the superhero comedy Kick-Ass 2 (2013)—has a couple of original ideas, like how an ancient curse can coexist with the modern era of social media. But the plot is a muddled mess of a soap opera in which characters anguish over secrets (the “truths” they’ve kept hidden from each other). The fact that someone has died doesn’t seem as weighty as the idea that someone might have lied.

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Lucy Hale, Hayden Szeto, Tyler Posey & Violett Beane

And too much of Truth or Dare, too much of the time, simply reminds you of too many other, better movies in which we’re waiting to find out which teen dies next, and how. Characters remark that the game “followed” them home. Did none of these kids see It Follows? I’ll venture most of the audience has. There’s an old crone, a cryptic message, a crazy homeless man, a crumbing church mission and a police officer who advises the kids, “Don’t take any more vacations.”

Perhaps more specifically: And stay out of haunted church missions!

At one point, the ever-dwindling pool of players figures a way to beat the game is to “always choose truth.” That seems like a pretty good tack—until it’s not. The game, it turns out, isn’t as clear-cut as they thought, and the movie gets impossibly tangled in its own knot of changing rules.

Truth or dare: I dare you to seek out really good, original scary movies. Director-star John Krasinski’s The Quiet Place is still in theaters, and it’s a new classic. Check out Get Out and It Follows if you haven’t seen them already.

And the truth: This movie scores low in scares and it retreads too much ground already covered by other horror flicks. But hey, in the true spirit of the Friday the 13th, this unpretentious, bottom-feeding boo! ride reminds us that nothing—including the games of our childhood—is safe from being plundered and yanked into a place of nightmares.

So, who’s up for a little game…of Truth or Dare?

In theaters Friday, April 13, 2018

Let’s Play

Spielberg’s spectacular ode to pop culture’s glorious past

READY PLAYER ONE

Ready Player One
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cook, Mark Rylance & Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by Steven Spielberg
PG-13

On your mark, get set, geek out!

The race is on, from the opening scene, in director Steven Spielberg’s deliriously dazzling cinema sonnet to pop culture and everyone who loves it.

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Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in The Stacks.

Based on the award-winning 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is about a teenager, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), living in a bleak pile of mobile homes—“The Stacks”—in Columbus, Ohio, in 2045. Like most everyone else in the dystopian times, Wade spends his days strapped to a virtual-reality headset and escaping—as his avatar, Parzival—into the sprawling game called Oasis, a dream-like theme park for the senses where anything is possible.

In Oasis, you can be anything or anyone, do anything, go anywhere. As Wade points out, you can climb Mt. Everest with Batman, ski the pyramids, or race the virtual streets of Manhattan in the DeLorean from Back to the Future while dodging King Kong and the T.rex from Jurassic Park.

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Mark Rylance

The Oasis is great fun, but Wade’s in it for more: He’s looking for the three Easter-egg clues left behind by the game’s late, great creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a gamer guru who promised that whoever finds them all will win it all—the trillion-dollar rights to his Oasis kingdom.

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Olivia Cooke

He’s joined by a dashing, pixie-like female gamer, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, who starred in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), who has her own reason for wanting to win the game.  Lena Waithe, who played Denise on TV’s Master of None, provides the voice of Aech, pronounced “H,” a hulking, gentle-giant warrior avatar and Parzival’s best friend in Oasis.

READY PLAYER ONE

Ben Mendelsohn

But a scheming corporate weasel, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants control of the Oasis, too—to take it over, charge people to play and turn it into a massive income stream with virtual advertising. And he’ll do anything to get it. When it looks like Wade/Parzival is making headway finding the eggs, Sorrento calls in his army and his orc-like hit-man, I-R0K (comedian T.J. Miller, who gets some of the movie’s best laugh lines) to stop him.

The movie is a spectacular, geek-centric explosion of fanboy references to classic films, videogames, music and props, mostly from the late 1970s and ’80s. There’s the Iron Giant… and the creature from Alien… I spy a Devo hat! Hey, isn’t that the space pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey? And the winged Winnebago Chieftain camper from Spaceballs? Didn’t I just see Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft at the bar? And Harley Quinn and The Joker? And there’s the devil doll Chucky!

Tunes from Joan Jett, Van Halen, Blondie, the Bee Gees and Tears for Fears cue up at just the right moments to synch with something happening onscreen; Atari gets a particular shout-out; and an iconic 1980s horror movie becomes the sprawling, surprising extended centerpiece for one of the Easter egg clues.

There are so many things jam-packed on screen, so many times, there’s no way you can absorb everything, especially in one viewing. And if you didn’t watch a lot of movies, and play a lot of videogames—like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Joust and Gundam—in the 1980s, well, just sit back and let it all wash over you anyway, and bask in its roaring river of nearly nonstop pop nostalgia.

Ready Player One is a thrilling treasure hunt, a sensational salute to our not-so-distant pop-culture past and a potent proclamation about the boundless power of imagination—from a director who, not coincidentally, has himself been responsible for creating some of the most stirring movie moments of all time during the past 40 years.

Although it spends most of its time in the Oasis, with its characters’ avatars, Spielberg brings the story—and the message—home when they all meet and interact and get to know each other in the real world. As a director, he’s always known the heart of any story is with characters we care about, who care about each other, who laugh and love and hurt and hug.

Reality may be a pain and drag sometimes, Rylance’s character, Oasis creator Mark Halliday says, “but it’s the only place to get a decent meal.”

That may be true, but the effusive escapism of Ready Player One is the perfect snack—a bountiful, overflowing buffet of just about everything a movie lover would ever want, served up by a superstar director who loves movies just as much as we do.

In theaters March 30, 2018