(On Cable TV, December 2017) Nearly twenty years ago, I had the misfortune of catching a free advance screening of Very Bad Things, a film so vile in its black humour that even a certain competency of execution couldn’t shake the stomach-churning reprehensibility of its subject matter. I bring it up because, for a horrifying moment, Rough Night seemed to be headed in more or less the same distaff direction, as a group of bachelorettes accidentally kill what they think is a male stripper and then try to cover up the crime. Despite the combined comic talents and good looks of comediennes such as Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz, the film seems intent of revisiting the same awful places—how are you ever going to get laughs out of that situation, with a guy bleeding to death on the floor? Fortunately, writer/director Lucia Aniello isn’t quite so sadistic and misanthropic, and as Rough Night advances, it ends up clarifying that the death was actually preemptive self-defence and so we can all have a good laugh about it. Whew. I have no qualms blowing part of the film’s third act revelations in those circumstances, as knowing how it turns out may help a few viewers make it through the film’s middle section. It will help that the actors are doing what they do best—Jillian Bell is the flamboyant centre of attraction, while Kate McKinnon brings a recognizable dose of absurdity to an eccentric character. Scarlett Johansson chooses to play her character as the level-headed one. In smaller roles, Demi Moore and Ty Burrell show up a sex-crazed neighbours. While the film does suffer from the usual excesses of contemporary R-rated comedies (far too much profanity substituting for wit or actual comedy) and loses itself in scattered subplots that could have been tightened up, my opinion of Rough Night at the end is far more positive than it would have been at the dull start or the far-too-violent middle. As an entry in the “girl comedies can be R-rated” subgenre that sprung up in the wake of Bridesmaid, it’s passable but forgettable.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I may be overdosing on criminal comedies featuring idiots, explaining my tepid reaction to Masterminds. On paper, it does sound promising: What if an idiot working for an armoured car company found a way to steal a considerable amount of money … only to be stalked and targeted by equally idiotic accomplices? Throw in a cast including such notables a Zach Gallifinakis, Owen Wilson, Kirsten Wiig, Leslie Jones or Kate McKinnon and you’ve got the making of a good-enough comedy. But it takes more than comedians and a premise to make a film, and as Masterminds lurches from one mildly amusing set-piece to another, there’s a feeling that director Jared Hess is up to the kinds of tricks that made his previous films (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) so divisive. Masterminds makes the classic blunder of keeping an unfunny gag running for as long as possible, sapping audience goodwill at periodic intervals. There are clearly attempts at making something amusing in this film, and some of them even succeed. But the overall result is not particularly funny, and the criminal plot of the film really isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Owen Wilson seems a bit lost in a role that robs him of his usual genial nature, and Wiig is up to more or less the same kind of awkward comedy that either works or not. This being said, Gallifinakis is not bad, and comic-chameleon Kate McKinnon continues her prodigious streak of disappearing in the roles she’s given. Masterminds doesn’t exactly deserve a spot on worst-movie list, but it certainly disappoints.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I’m not that much of a Ghostbusters (1984) fan, so the news of a gender-swapped reboot didn’t trouble me much beyond my usual “eh, I’d much prefer if they did original movies”. The reactionary nerd rage at the film’s release was troubling insofar as was a reflection of the current unhealthy outrage culture—but let’s face it: people who get worked up about a female Ghostbusters movie are exactly the kinds of people who wake up every day being offended at anything that makes them uncomfortable. Given the track records of movie reboots, it was almost a given that the end result would be a mildly entertaining piece of fluff. So it is: This Ghostbusters (2016) is a technically accomplished but far more mechanistic version of the 1984 original. Both Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play up to their persona in the movie, although McCarthy seems thankfully more restrained in a movie in which entire sequences are storyboarded for special effects. Wiig is up to her usual neurotic persona, which works relatively well here. The same can be said for Leslie Jones, likable in a stock role. The real surprise here, though, is Kate McKinnon, stealing nearly every scene as an eccentric scientist—again, it’s not an original character, but she makes it work. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth probably gets the biggest laughs as a scatterbrained hunk. Director Paul Feig keeps getting better every movie, and if his style is still generally bland, he’s able to keep up with the demands of a special-effects-driven production. His conscious decision to avoid glamorizing his character works well, even if some other intentions—such as limply incorporating original 1984 cast members—end up being more irritating than anything else. The upshot is a generally watchable film, even if it never steps too far away from the original film or from the basic special-effects-driven comedy template. This Ghostbusters is all surface and flash, with minimal character work and even shallower thematic concerns. It’ll do for an evening’s worth of entertainment, but I have a hunch that the original will remain the definitive edition.