‘Sing 2’ Sure Features a Lot of Singing! Is it Too Much? Let’s Find Out

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Sing 2 (CREDIT: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Canavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Halsey, Pharrell Williams, Nick Offerman, Letitia Wright, Eric André, Chelsea Peretti, Bono, Garth Jennings, Adam Buxton, Jennifer Saunders, Peter Serafinowicz

Director: Garth Jennings

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: PG for Threats of Grievous Bodily Harm

Release Date: December 22, 2021 (Theaters)

In Sing 2, Bobby Canavale voices wolf/media mogul Jimmy Crystal, who’s basically the lupine version of the studio executive that Graham Chapman played in Monty Python‘s “20th Century Vole” sketch. He says that he wants to see something “big” and “different,” but really that’s just code for “I’m impossible to please!” When we first meet him, he’s auditioning a menagerie of potential acts for his next live show, and they all look pretty unique to me. I mean, have you ever seen a lemur sing Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend” while doing gymnastics or a trio of ducklings nailing Eminem’s “My Name Is” while dressed like Dick Van Dyke-style chimney sweeps? Maybe Jimmy Crystal has, because he immediately dismisses them with a “been there, done that” attitude. So what does he want? Guaranteed cash flow, I assume, because just about the only thing that excites him is the mention of legendary lion Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono), a rock icon-turned-recluse who nobody’s heard from ever since his wife died. And for some reason, plucky koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) has promised that he can book Calloway.

Moon and his musical crew are basically in the business of putting on the sort of live musical spectacular that you’d see at Las Vegas. They perform a jukebox medley of all sorts of hit songs along with a vague storyline. At the beginning of Sing 2, they’re putting on something inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but they’re eventually told to come up with something original, so resident librettist pig Gunter (Nick Kroll) crafts a space opera about traversing the planets of War and Joy. That sounds like a pretty great show to me! They don’t need a giant cat voiced by one of the most famous rock stars of all time to make it work. I mean, I’m not saying that they should get rid of Bono, but I understand the over-the-top theater kid appeal of this endeavor with or without him.

The other major thought about Sing 2 that I want to express has to do with its inclusion of U2 songs. Quite a few are featured, and the implication seems to be that in the Sing universe, every single U2 song is a Clay Calloway song, which suggests a whole host of metaphysical implications that I’m not sure writer-director Garth Jennings is prepared to grapple with. (Or maybe he is! And if so, I’d love to hear his thoughts.)

Anyway, this is all pretty lightweight, but I can’t deny that my ears pricked up and my heart swelled at some key moments. The voice cast has been assembled for good reason. Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, and Taron Egerton all know how to sing. And I’m particularly invested in Tori Kelly as nervous elephant Meena, because she’s a 100% Certified Cutie (Kelly, that is, not Meena, although I don’t judge if you’re into cartoon pachyderms). Halsey joins the fun with a full-on Joisey accent, while Kroll, Eric André, and Chelsea Peretti deliver an acceptable amount of funny. It’s bright, it’s buoyant, and my only major disappointment is that the Minions didn’t show up again after they appeared for the Illumination production logo.

Sing 2 is Recommended If You Like: Relentless soundtracks, Cartoon characters embodying clichés about evil media moguls, Elephant trunks holding ice cream cones

Grade: 3 out of 5 Big Leagues

21st Century ‘Black Widow’ Movie Review

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Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, William Hurt

Director: Cate Shortland

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: July 9, 2021 (Theaters and Disney+ Premier Access)

“Plug it in, plug it in.” That’s the classic slogan of the famed Glade air freshener line of products. I currently find myself revisiting it in light of having recently watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero film Black Widow, as my primary reaction to that movie was, “Well, that character has now been plugged into the MCU.”

Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova? She’s been plugged in. David Harbour as the Red Guardian? He’s certainly been plugged in. And Rachel Weisz as Melina Vestokof? Yet another character that’s been plugged in! Yes indeed, they plugged ’em all in.

Grade: 4 or 5 Tasks out of 1 Taskmaster

Best Film Performances of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

Back in April, I revealed my lists of the best podcasts, TV shows, TV episodes, albums, songs, and movies of the 2010s. I declared that that was it for my Best of the Decade curating for this particular ten-year cycle. But now I’m back with a few more, baby! I’ve been participating in a series of Best of the 2010s polls with some of my online friends, and I wanted to share my selections with you. We’re including film performances, TV performances, directors, and musical artists, so get ready for all that.

First up is Film Performances. Any individual performance from any movie released between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019 was eligible, whether it was live-action, voice-only, or whatever other forms on-screen acting take nowadays. For actors who played the same character in multiple movies, each movie was considered separately.

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Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Scarlett Johansson/Niall Horan

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CREDIT: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

Let’s take a moment to recognize how much Christmas cheer Saturday Night Live manages to regularly contain. On most seasons, there are three new episodes in December, and all three of those year-ender outings typically have a significant percentage of holiday-themed sketches. In the middle of that snowy sandwich in 2019 we’ve got Scarlett Johansson hosting for the sixth time, and Niall Horan is providing the tunes for the first time without his former bandmate bros.

Let me set the scene of my viewing for you: I made myself a couple of pancakes for breakfast that went down easy, the day after I ran a 5K race. Yum!

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‘Jojo Rabbit’ Never Met Any Tonal Disparity It Wouldn’t Embrace

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight

Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Children Getting in the Line of Fire and Witnessing Victims of Public Hanging

Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited)

If a ten-year-old boy declared that his best friend is Adolf Hitler, would his story be embraced by the masses? Apparently so, apparently especially if he hangs out with an imaginary version of the Fuhrer played by Taika Waititi, seeing as Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I first heard the premise of Jojo, I thought, “Wow, really? Okay.” Now, that initial bit of shock is by no means a dismissal. I encourage all filmmakers (and indeed, all people in any profession) to embrace a challenge, and this is certainly A CHALLENGE. The potential pitfalls go beyond the difficulty of trying to make a mockery out of the Nazis. That really isn’t a problem, as there have been numerous memorable spoofs of Hitler over the decades, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks, and comedy can be one of our most potent weapons against hate. Ultimately, the possibility for trouble comes in the form of the whimsical tone, which does not promise to mix so easily with the deadliness of the wartime setting.

My verdict is that Jojo Rabbit does not fully overcome its inherent tonal disparity, though I appreciate its audacity. There is something to be said for the value of presenting a violent world through a child’s perspective. However, it’s a little harder to justify constantly placing preteen characters in the path of gunfire and explosions (while insisting on drawing out consistent guffaws), which Jojo Rabbit does a distressing number of times. And on top of that, the adult actors are so uniformly goofy. Their performances indicate that this is a straight-up parody, while the effects work counter that no, this is actually supposed to be harrowing and realistic.

I’m almost willing to forgive, or at least overlook, that tonal whiplash, because the inner conflicts at the heart of this film are actually rather affecting despite the tightrope they must walk. Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) fully embraces Nazism, though he does not really grasp what that means. He buys into the nastiest stereotypes of Jews, believing that they are horned, scaly creatures who hang upside-down like bats. But it turns out that while his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has enthusiastically been sending him to a Hitler Youth camp, that’s all a ruse, as she’s secretly been working against the Nazis, even hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her house. Jojo discovers her and naturally develops a crush, as he gradually realizes that his anti-Semitism is not sincere but rather based on some fanciful lies that were attractive to a kid with an active imagination. If Jojo Rabbit is trying to teach us that hate can be cured if the disease is detected early enough, and especially if the antidote is love, well, that’s true, but no great revelation. But if it’s trying to remind us that a childlike perspective of the world is chaotic, but also somehow fun, and weirdly revelatory, well, that’s a useful reminder. Although, maybe sometimes movies should be less messy than real life.

Jojo Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: Life is Beautiful, Monty Python crossed with Schindler’s List

Grade: 3 out of 5 Grenade Explosions

Avengers: Endgame First Thoughts

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

Maybe some movies should be reviewed in parts over the course of months, or maybe even years. That’s how I’m feeling about Avengers: Endgame. So I’m going to go ahead and talk about what’s striking my fancy about it now and maybe talk about it some more later.

The closest comparison I can think of for the premise of Endgame is The Leftovers. The opening scenes for the two are eerily similar in terms of both tone and function. But of course they then head in very different directions. I didn’t stick with The Leftovers because I just wasn’t hooked by how its particular characters responded in their particular ways to the disappearances. But with Endgame, I already know the context, so I’m already in, baby. And no doubt about it, I am happy that the ultimate focus is on Tony Stark’s beating heart, and everyone keeping things right with their families. That emotional resonance is enough to buoy the whole affair along for three hours. And it’s also enough to prevent me from getting too angry about the characters who don’t have much meaningful to do or the moments that make me go, “But why?”

Also important: how about those end credits? It’s not very often 50-plus above-the-line cast members have to be assembled in some sort of appropriate order, so we must cherish it whenever it happens. And I’ve got to say, it appears that for the most part, there was no rhyme or reason to the assembly. But we shall, and must, investigate whether or not that is true for as long as we can. The cursive credits for the core Avengers are great, though.

I give Avengers: Endgame A Handful of Snaps to the Beat.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Isle of Dogs’ is an Adorable Allegorical Adventure About the Dangers of Fascism

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Dog-on-Dog Violence and Dictatorial Tendencies

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Nothing, right? We human beings still love dogs, and that cannot possibly ever change! But what if something so terrible happened that it could make us turn on them? One of the functions of fiction is training ourselves to handle horrible hypotheticals. Thus, with the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has delivered an invaluable how-to guide for if the world should ever turn so severely on our furry companions.

Twenty years in the future, Japan has banished its entire canine population to the bluntly literally named Trash Island, due to a widespread outbreak of snout fever and dog flu. The two conditions appear to be connected as how HIV can lead to AIDS. In this dystopia, the fear from those in charge that the disease could spread to humans is enough to override any bounty of puppy love, despite promising progress for a cure. So intrepid folks must step up on their own to save the dogs, like the young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphaned ward of the state adopted by his distant uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). Atari ventures to Trash Island to save his canine protector Spots (Liev Schreiber), who also happens to be the outbreak’s Dog Zero. Joining up with him in his quest are a group of other cast-off dogs with variations on the same sort of name – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – as well as Chief (Bryan Cranston), the fiercely independent stray who has always lived on his own.

An island entirely populated by dogs might sound like the pinnacle of Wes Anderson giving into his most indulgent instincts, but the darkness of the premise is enough to assuage any of those concerns. Plus, the animation does not hold back from the more aesthetically displeasing elements. These pups are mangy, with fur falling off and distorted pupils. They are also fairly irritable; one early standoff results in an ear getting bit off. Isle of Dogs works as an adventure film as well as it does because it does not back away from the danger, while still bringing plenty of fun to that peril. Fight scenes are portrayed in cartoon chaos clouds, while an accidental trip through a trash incinerator is met with droll acceptance. The set pieces are whimsical, but the stakes are life-or-death.

Isle of Dogs could easily be appreciated just for its surface level sensations, but like so many talking animal flicks, there is an allegory lurking not too far below. And considering current worldwide political trends, Wes Anderson’s anti-fascist storytelling is profoundly welcome. Quarantining a contagious population is an understandable disease control tactic, but what happens to these dogs is more banishment than quarantine. And when a solution appears to be possible, Mayor Kobayashi hides that development for the sake of retaining power, trotting out clearly fraudulent election results in the process. BoJack Horseman-style anthropomorphic dogspeak (“my brother from another litter”) helps it go down easy, but these are heavy ideas that deserve and are granted careful consideration.

A few more items worth noting: even though the setting is Japan, the dogs just about exclusively speak English, even when communicating with humans speaking Japanese. In fact, there is a good deal of American and Japanese cultural mixing. All the political machinations are translated by an interpreter (Frances McDormand), apparently for American and other English-speaking audiences, and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) leads a revolt against Kobayashi. The bilingual setup feels woven together mostly seamlessly, though I do wonder if Asian audiences might have a different take on the matter than I do. And I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score, pounded along by unrelenting taiko drums, keeping the tension both constantly uneasy and delicious.

Isle of Dogs is Recommended If You Like: Wes Anderson Symmetry, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Animal Farm, Zootopia, The Goonies, BoJack Horseman

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Puppy Snaps

 

SNL Review March 11, 2017: Scarlett Johansson/Lorde

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2017.

Jeffrey Malone watches every new episode of Saturday Night Live and then organizes the sketches into the following categories: “Love It” (potentially Best of the Season-worthy), “Keep It” (perfectly adequate), or “Leave It” (in need of a rewrite, to say the least). Then he concludes with assessments of the host and musical guest.

Love It

Ace and Jake – The “Day Without a Woman” protest happened earlier this week, and – just as the people demanded – Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett have written a female-centric sketch in response! The joke here is obvious – the guys fight institutional sexism by passionately listing every example of it but neglect to actually give the women a chance to speak. These two are miracle workers, somehow making thoughtlessness totally adorable.

That canine actor in the Dog Translation sketch is not having that helmet on his head; the fact that he is also a Trump supporter is also kind of funny…The Olive Garden Commercial shoot has it all: fake orgasms, casual racism, and Kenan Thompson sticking his face flat in a bowl of pasta!

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SNL Recap May 2, 2015: Scarlett Johansson/Wiz Khalifa

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SNL: Wiz Khalifa, Scarlett Johansson, Cecily Strong (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2015.

In the time between her last and this (her fourth) hosting stint, Scarlett Johansson has had quite the career bump, carving out a niche of otherworldly, occasionally robotic, often kickass heroines. Still, she has never been that strong a fit for the demands of “SNL.” With this episode, she was more confident than ever, though not especially accomplished. But the cast and the concepts were better-than-average, with some routine-busting sketches providing the highlights.

Mayweather/Pacquiao Fight – The biggest match in decades has revealed the surprising number of people who are legitimate boxing fans. “SNL” cleverly latched onto that widespread fanaticism with this sketch that playfully conceded the show’s relevance on this particular night. Normally, admitting your own shortcomings is inadvisable, but that was overridden by such a strong commitment to the second-rate aesthetic. The narration acknowledging the obvious artifice here made the sketch fluid in a way unusual for “SNL.” B

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This Is A Movie Review: Lucy

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scarlett-johansson-lucy

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an unwilling drug mule who becomes infected with the cargo (known as CPH4) that she is meant to be transporting, thus enabling her to use more than the ten percent of the brain that humans are typically capable of using.  Of course, the idea that humans only use ten percent of their brains is a myth.  That misconception is not necessarily a problem with a Luc Besson movie, as it is not striving for realism.  But a legitimate idea can be used for absurd ends, and Lucy does not make it clear if it believes that the ten percent myth is illegitimate and is just rendering it unrealistic or if the lack of realism is meant to expose how foolish the ten percent perception is.

The reason why that remains unclear is because, weirdly, Lucy is not as crazy as it could be.  Sure, there are plenty of idiosyncratic touches – the initial kidnapping of Lucy is intercut with a leopard hunting a gazelle, there are 2001-style appearances by prehistoric man (hence the title) – but Lucy’s increased brain powers come off as a little mundane in a cinematic age saturated by superheroes.  The plot stakes are lowered considerably as she becomes more powerful – it is fairly clear that she cannot be defeated, except perhaps by an overload of CPH4, but with her cranial capacity increasing, one could assume that she is smart enough to know when to stop in that regard anyway.  But her essential invincibility is used as an excuse to have her just show off for the sake of set pieces, such as one moment when she leaves a crew of Korean gangsters stuck writhing in mid-air.

Despite all these problematic elements, Lucy is right up my alley: it takes a bunch of disparate parts and re-fashions them together for a new context and improves upon those that didn’t work in their original iteration.  Lucy is a combination of just about every one of Scarlett Johansson’s roles from the past year: the drive to understand all human knowledge (and beyond), like operating system Samantha from Her; the droning, quizzical outsider’s perspective like the alien from Under the Skin (Lucy also shares the inky black against white visuals of Skin); and the swaggering, action-star bravado of Black Widow from The Avengers and Captain America.  As for non-Scarlett Johansson influences, Lucy also works as the more insane, and therefore more successful, version of Transcendence, regarding uploading humanity onto computers.  Then there are the dawn of man sequences, which set themselves apart from 2001 by being shot in the sleek style favored by the entirety of Lucy.

Lucy avoids failure by being all over the place with its philosophical mumbo jumbo, but it cannot quite reach transcendence because it is too caught up in that mumbo jumo. B+

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