This Is a Movie Review: Welcome to Marwen

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CREDIT: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

I give Welcome to Marwen 2.5 out of 5 Glamonistas: http://newscult.com/movie-review-welcome-marwen-odd-true-life-story-made-odder-fitting-feel-good-movie-cliches/

This Is a Movie Review: Vice

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CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Justin Kirk, Tyler Perry, LisaGay Hamilton, Eddie Marsan

Director: Adam McKay

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity in the Halls of Power and Images of War and Torture

Release Date: December 25, 2018

If I’m understanding Vice correctly, then Adam McKay believes that Dick Cheney (here embodied by Christian Bale) is directly or indirectly responsible for everything that is wrong with the current state of American politics. That actually is not as much of a stretch as it sounds. During his eight years as vice president, Cheney wielded a degree of influence that was profoundly unprecedented for the position. The conventional wisdom is that his views on executive power and surveillance now represent the status quo for whoever is occupying the White House. Thus, McKay is not so far off the reservation to imply all that he is implying. But he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew with the expansiveness of his argument. He was similarly ambitious with The Big Short, but that earlier effort is more durable to scrutiny because there he laid the responsibility on forces that were perpetrated both actively and passively by many people. It may very well turn out to be true that Cheney’s influence is as wide-ranging as McKay claims – it’s just tricky to say so about a person who is still living.

Interestingly enough, that tenuousness is baked right into the script. If not for a few key decisions, the life of Dick Cheney, and ergo America, could have played out very differently. Without the presence of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams conjuring Lady Macbeth), he could have ended up a drunk nobody. And if not for his propensity to see life like a chess match in which he is ten moves ahead of everyone else, there might be no Patriot Act, ISIS, or extreme income inequality.

The thesis of Vice is that it was all so close to going differently. Through fourth-wall breaking and formal experimentation (like playing the end credits halfway through), the message is that all that we have been living through was not foreordained. Some may find that frightening, as it indicates that we are always on the precipice of disaster. And McKay’s propensity to cut to random footage of pop culture ephemera may come off as a lamentation that we are too distracted to do anything about it. But I actually see encouragement. You don’t have to like Cheney for him to be an inspiration. If you have a problem with the way things are in the country right now, maybe you can see an opportunity where everyone else sees the masses placated by “Wassup!” commercials. I’m not sure how well Vice works as a movie, but I choose to see it as an exhortation to make things right.

Vice is Recommended If You Like: The Big Short, Oliver Stone’s political thrillers, The Daily Show, Fourth-wall breaking

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Unitary Executive Theories

SNL Review November 17, 2018: Steve Carell/Ella Mai

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Love It

Space Thanksgiving – This sketch is more of an Almost Love It than a full-on Love It, as it starts out with some wonderfully surreal 10-to-1-style wackiness, but then it kind of just ends. It checks off much of the ingredients in the formula for brilliant comedic stupidity. Space setting? Check. Minor but significant pronunciation differences? Check. Hacky special effects? Check. It’s a recipe for me getting invested in discovering whether or not the Earth astronauts will attempt to save the cornels from the kern, and whether or not they really should. But then … they just keep on eating them and Space Thanksgiving continues forward like nothing happened. The weirdness will stick with me, but the lack of follow-through is disappointing.

Keep It

Friendsgiving – Let’s take a moment to acknowledge how this episode has a striking surplus of “sequel in spirit, if not quite in fact” sketches. Here we have the first of the two Thanksgiving dinner bits, along with the aforementioned Space Thanksgiving, which was also the second outer space sketch. And then there are the two notably similar sketches with Steve Carell as a struggling, clueless dad visiting his kids in the middle of the night (we’ll get to them). Anyway, Friendsgiving is of a piece with previous attempts in the history of comedy to compose an honest-to-God Thanksgiving song. It has flashes of excellence as everyone joins in on singing a tune that appears to be made up on the spot. It’s not quite layered or committed enough to reach classic status, but it’s fun while it lasts.

This is overall an underwhelming episode, but it’s mostly filled with “Keep It” sketches that are just amusing enough to keep me paying attention. That quality is perfectly represented by The Ingraham Angle cold opening, which does not have a particularly sharp or consistent point of view, but it does have a few funny lines thrown in (like how Judge Jeanine Pirro is “Pulitzer Prize-eligible”)…Steve Carell’s old Office-mates badger him throughout his Monologue, but it’s the actual audience member (or likely rather a writer playing a real audience member) who makes the biggest impression…Dad Steve Carell tells his kids they’re Going to Disney World, but his capacity for missing all the betrayal happening right under his nose is impressive…The Message from Jeff Bezos gets a decent-sized laugh out of me when it notes that The Art of the Deal is the “only book with four Chapter 11’s”…The RBG Rap isn’t offering a particularly fresh message from SNL or comedy in general, but it’s a message we’re always happy to have around…The NASA Television sketch is ostensibly about disturbingly frozen animals, but I appreciate it more for the dad jokes (“I Apollo-gize”) and a girl called Halley saying that her name is like both the comet and Eminem’s daughter…Michael and Colin have a decent night as usual, but the moment I most remember from this Update is that delayed camera switch at the top…Kenan’s LaVar Ball has certainly given me a memorable image by mentioning a grandma filling a shoe up with spit…The Grease-style ’50s Sleepover kind of feels like a direct sequel to the Going to Disney World sketch, and I kind of wish that Steve Carell and Aidy Bryant were in fact playing the same father-daughter pair as before. As it stands, I enjoy that the joke is more about Dad Steve spending a bizarre amount of time singing to a high school dropout than it is about anything creepy…GP Yass understands drag queen terminology, but it isn’t quite fully imbued with the spirit of drag.

Leave It

Denver Riggleman – So, apparently a Congressman-elect is into Bigfoot erotica  – good for him! But Mikey Day doing an impression of said Bigfoot enthusiast that merely consists of him reading a book  – I’m going to need a little bit more than that. Look, I appreciate the commitment, and the the illustrations are spot-on appropriate (are they the actual pics from Riggleman’s books?). But there’s not much of a comedic hook here besides “just goofing off.”

RV Life is too terrifying to be funny. But Heidi Gardner saying “Did you know that a dog can punch you?” is definitely worth a laugh.

Steve Carell

On a scale of hosts I’m surprised haven’t hosted more often than they have, I still feel that way about Steve Carell, but this episode doesn’t convince me that he needs to come back as soon as possible. He shows up and is perfectly reliable, like the professional comedian that he is, but he doesn’t notch any legendary performances to add to his career highlights. He plays several middle-aged dads, which makes sense for a number of reasons, and he also plays a few spacemen, which is kind of weird.

Ella Mai

On a scale of up-and-comers breaking big on the SNL stage, Ella Mai is somewhere in the middle. She certainly looks poised and has a look down, but her whole live performance isn’t quite blow-you-away level. That’s a high standard, so let me be clear that what I know of her so far is great, I would grade this appearance above-average, and I will happily be following the rest of her career. If her SNL performances haven’t won you over completely, watch the “Boo’d Up” music video and then keep listening to it over and over again. It’s one of the best songs of the year.

Letter Grades:

The Ingraham Angle – B-

Steve Carell’s Monologue – B

Going to Disney World – B-

A Message From Jeff Bezos – B-

Friendsgiving – B

RBG Rap – B-

Ella Mai performs “Boo’d Up” – B

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B-
Denver Riggleman – C
LaVar Ball – B-

’50s Sleepover – B

Ella Mai performs “Trip” – B

RV Life – C

Space Thanksgiving (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B(+)

GP Yass – B-

This Is a Movie Review: Beautiful Boy

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/Amazon Studios

I give Beautiful Boy 3.5 out of 5 Addictions: http://newscult.com/movie-review-beautiful-boy-captures-wrenching-agony-anxiety-addiction/

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Last Flag Flying’ Hashes Out the Personal Effects of War with Endless Conversations

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Lionsgate

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

Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: R for Dropping Some Profanity with Your Buds

Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide November 17, 2017

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, but you wouldn’t know that from any of the promotional materials, which make no mention of the earlier flick. You also wouldn’t know it from looking at the character names, which are not consistent between the two films. I have not seen The Last Detail, but as far as I can gather, Bryan Cranston is playing a version of a character played by Jack Nicholson, Laurence Fishburne is doing a spin on Otis Young, and Steve Carell is updating a role by (of all people) Randy Quaid. Anyway, as for the actual narrative of Last Flag Flying, all this background info is basically just as a curiosity, as this unofficial sequel stands perfectly well enough on its own.

If you were to go into Last Flag Flying completely unaware of The Last Detail (and presumably many people will), you would possibly find yourself thinking, “Hey! There’s plenty of room to craft a prequel out of this story.” Vietnam War veterans Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell), Sal Nealon (Cranston), and Richard Mueller (Fishburne) are psychologically torn asunder but forever bound by an incident at the end of their time in the same Marine unit. Doc committed a petty crime, Sal and Mueller helped discipline him, and he spent a couple years in a military prison. There is no ill will between the three of them, but they have gone decades without seeing each other. Now they are reuniting in a way that reunions so often unfortunately happen. Doc’s son has followed his father into the Marines, enlisting for the Iraq War, where he has died in an ambush. With few close family or friends, Doc turns to his old service buddies to help escort his son’s body to the funeral.

What follows is a trip from Virginia to New Hampshire. Instead of wide open shots of the open road we get cramped moments along the heavily trafficked Mid-Atlantic and northeast United States. Also, talking. Lots and lots of talking. Doc, Sal, and Mueller shoot the shit, air out grievances, ask pressing philosophical questions about their country and life and death, and generally strengthen an eternal bond of friendship.

While it may not necessarily be their most well-known trademark, all three stars are notable for their oratory. Just consider Cranston’s deadly commands as Walter White, Carell’s wild verbal dexterity in the likes of The Daily Show and Bruce Almighty, or Fishburne’s spellbinding declarations in The Matrix. For the most part, Last Flag plays its conversations in a much more mild key than those examples, but the effects are still quite pressing. There are questions about the point of even venturing into Iraq. It’s still 2003, thus before the falsification of evidence that led to this war has fully been revealed, so these worries are not about especially particular objections, but they are no less pressing. Running through the bloodstream of this film is a very human desire for simple respect, to be told straight what is actually going on. Last Flag Flying is for anyone who values forthrightness, and for anyone who can share in the joy of three middle-aged guys buying their very first cell phones in the middle of Manhattan.

Last Flag Flying is Recommended If You Like: The Big Chill, My Dinner with Andre, Catching up with old friends.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Black Men Named Richard

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is More Than Just a Tennis Match

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CREDIT: Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox

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

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Systemic Sexism and An Eye-Opening Affair

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

The mark of a great biopic is how it transcends its time. It not only illuminates the period it is set in but also the era in which it is released and potentially remains relevant into the future. Battle of the Sexes, a dramatization of the same-named 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and the events leading up to it, is filled with social issues that are still urgently pressing in 2017. When you consider the full scope of human history, the fact that a fight to be taken seriously has lasted at least 44 years ultimately does not seem that unprecedented. But it is frustrating regardless, and it is also galvanizing enough to make a crowd-pleasing narrative out of.

As King, Emma Stone must embody a straightforward, but recognizably human, conflict. She struts around with the indomitable spirit of conviction when fighting for women to be treated equally with the men in her sport, but her personal life is searching for the right identity. She instinctively understands that the real roadblock in her professional fight is not her clownish opponent, but rather, folks like ATP Executive Director Jack Kemp (Bill Pullman), who casually reinforces the status quo with subtly aggressive comments like, “the thing about women is they find it hard to consistently handle the pressure.” But of course King can handle the pressure of tennis’ old guard. What she cannot quite handle, at least not yet as a young adult, is her path towards coming to terms with her own sexuality. The presence in this film of a tantalizing but unsettling affair with another woman is crucial, demonstrating that the political is always personal.

As Riggs, Steve Carell reveals that the trolls of today (who couch their racism and sexism with the “I’m just kidding!” defense) come from a long line of deliberate offenders. He is happy to play the male chauvinist pig, but mainly for the purpose of getting eyeballs on his stunts (though he does play the part quite convincingly). But what drives this long-since retired former world number one is not a desire to reinforce the status quo but an inability to give up the hustle. You could roll your eyes at him all you want, but it is hard not to root for him a little bit, because you can actually see how he might be able to be a better human being.

As a compelling story, Battle of the Sexes is undeniably winning. As cinema, it mostly coasts by on that strength but does not add any particularly unique techniques to the inspirational sports genre. The acting is top-notch, the understanding of the subject matter is astute, the pacing is solid, and the attitude is appropriately calibrated. It is not hitting aces with every scene, but its service game is never broken.

Battle of the Sexes is Recommended If You Like: Bend it Like Beckham, Legally Blonde, Cool Runnings, Scheduling your year around the Grand Slam calendar

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Serve and Volleys

This Is a Movie Review: Despicable Me 3

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CREDIT: Universal and Illumination

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

Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Pierre Coffin, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel

Directors: Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG for Off-Color Minionese Jokes

Release Date: June 30, 2017

“I miss the Minions,” Gru laments about halfway through Despicable Me 3. Ever since the 2010 release of the first in this series, missing the Minions could only ever be relative. But when those little yellow pills are not on screen, you feel it. They may be divisive, inspiring just as much ire as they do unbridled joy, but there is good reason why they have been the breakout characters. As much as they inspire little kids (and some adults) to babble incessantly in Minionese, they are not lacking in ingenuity. Indeed, their moments in the spotlight continue to be the most imaginative, inventive, and playful in the DM-verse. When in DM3 they stumble into a live singing competition and are forced to come up on the spot with a signature babbling version of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” their versatile ability to think on their feet is as inspiring as ever.

Alas, this buoyancy is not present throughout, as directors Pierre Coffin (also the voice of most of the Minions) and Kyle Balda and writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio commit the cardinal sequel sin of splitting up their characters into dispersed storylines. Gru (Steve Carell, having a ball as always), Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and the girls all head out to the European mash-up/Marx Brothers reference country of Freedonia to meet Gru’s long-lost twin brother Dru (Carell pulling double duty), but everyone has their own thing going on. The much more outwardly charming Dru tries to pull Gru back into a life of villainy to fulfill a family legacy, while Lucy is more focused on getting the girls (who have their own subplots that have essentially nothing to do with anything else) to really truly think of her as a mom.

The Minions’ storyline succeeds the most by following an instinct of loyalty and getting everyone back together. Dru is not the only one trying to drag Gru back to a life of crime, as his little yellow assistants commence an insurrection that results in a mass resignation. They ultimately wind up imprisoned (if you love the Minions, you will love seeing them become the ruling jailhouse gang), where they see the error of their ways and craft an impromptu aircraft out of prison toilets and washing machines. There’s that ol’ Minion ingenuity, implemented for the purpose of absurd goodness.

This is a busy movie, leaving little room for its ostensible villain to make much of an impression. This series has never really needed strong antagonists, as its most interesting conflicts have been more internal. But with the heroes all now mostly on the side of good, it would help if diamond thief Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) were more of a complementary counterpoint. Instead, he is just a bizarre presence sticking out like a sore thumb, with his defining characteristic being his fetishization of the ’80s.

There is a weird tension at the heart of Despicable Me 3. So much happens, but so much is left teased. The ending suggests that this has been one 90 minute-long trailer for the next real Dru-centric adventure. But really, the problem here is that there is not a strong enough capitalization on this series’ enduring sweetness. The girls are adorable, they love Gru, Gru’s a great dad, Lucy never needed to try so hard to be accepted, and the Minions are so, so loyal. Everyone is on the same side, thus why it is such a shame that they are not all in the same scenes as often as possible.

Despicable Me 3 is Recommended If You Like: Cramming as Many Plotlines as Possible Into 90 Minutes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Minions Blowing Raspberries