(On Cable TV, July 2018) Considering the stress and obligations that the Christmas season places on mothers, it’s no wonder that A Bad Moms Christmas would take on the season to be merry as its follow-up excuse to show moms behaving badly. (It’s even a mini-trend, considering that Daddy’s Home 2 mines the same holiday and intergenerational issues.) While Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn remain the lead trio of the film, the added interest here comes from seeing their moms (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines, and Susan Sarandon) descend upon their hometown for the holidays. The themes of the film consequently shift from women/men relationships to mothers/daughters, magnified by the pressures to make Christmas as perfect as possible. A Bad Moms Christmas is formulaic, uncomplicated, intensely predictable in at least two ways (following the conventions of both R-rated women’s comedies and Christmas movies) and not particularly difficult to watch thanks to the actresses involved. The direction zips by, relying once again on snappy editing and pop music. There really isn’t much more to say about it—fans of the first film will be fine with the follow-up, enthusiasts of women-behaving-badly R-rated comedies will get their six-month fix, and nobody will remember the film next year. (Even as a Christmas movie, I don’t see A Bad Moms Christmas as having any staying power—it’s far too dependent on the non-Christmas prequel.) I watched it, I laughed a few times, and that’s it.
(Video on Demand, November 2016) Being a mother has always been hard, but it’s even more impossible today given the weight of expectations that society place upon them. Be a good mom, a caring wife, a valued member of the community, etc. all at once! Bad Moms takes on a premise of “what if one of them suddenly stopped caring?” Freed from expectations, a husband or even the ability to care, our protagonist (Mila Kunis, decently funny but arguably not frumpy enough) allies herself with two other moms and goes on a rampage of indulgence. It’s sometimes very funny (the highlight sequence is a raucous grocery store mayhem to the tune of Icona Pop’s “I Love it”), sometimes a bit annoying (don’t get me started on the clownish Bad Dads of the film) and usually at the limits of believability. Unfortunately, the last act of the film is hampered by a sudden excess of sentimentality, the unsatisfactory resolution of a few romantic plotlines and a general lowering of energy. But when it works, it’s not bad—Kunis is often overshadowed by Kirsten Bell as a mousy bad mom, and especially Kathryn Hahn as an uninhibited divorcee. (Further adding to Hahn’s deviant screen persona.) While Bad Moms doesn’t quite take advantage of its own opportunities, it feels grounded in some kind of current reality, and does hit a number of high notes on its way to a middling conclusion. Plus: Social topical relevancy alongside the cheap intoxication jokes.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) After seeing many comedies so grounded in realism that they only qualified for the genre label by virtue of not killing off anyone, it’s almost refreshing to see a comedy so unapologetically dedicated to letting big laughs as Ted. From the high-concept opening (boy wishes for his stuffed bear to become alive; bear obliges), Ted is shameless in trying for the maximum number of laughs in the time it has. Alas, this usually means going for the lowest common denominator, so don’t be surprised at the film’s crass and unsubtle humor: Much of Ted is about seeing a cute teddy bear swear and behave badly, and while that works for a while, it’s a strategy with limited potential. Mark Wahlberg is quite good as an ordinary guy trying to find a way between adult life and the remnants of his childhood, with a good voice performance by writer/director Seth MacFarlane and a fine supporting performance by Mila Kunis. (Nora Jones’ cameo is also pretty funny.) Some of the jokes work well (ie; the hotel room fight), and when they don’t (ie; much of the specific pop-culture references –who else can be so fascinated by Flash Gordon?) there’s usually another mildly-funny gag a few seconds later. Boston also has a nice role playing itself, with enough picturesque checkmarks to make the local tourist board happy. Still, this is a film aimed at blue collar guys, and those with low tolerance for penile jokes (some of them bordering on homophobia and others on misogyny) may want to lower their expectations. While Ted definitely has some thematic potential in the way it literalizes the process letting go of one’s immaturity, it’s not in itself mature enough to commit to a satisfying conclusion: I was actually disappointed at the feel-good no-changes conclusion, mostly because the film demands otherwise (and tries to have it both ways as well.) While Ted is well-made enough, and occasionally charming in its relentless attempt to be funny, it’s not quite the film it could have been with just a bit more wit and depth.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) If you believe in the idea of Hollywood as one big giant conversation during which the same group of people build upon each others’ ideas in order to make genres “evolve” (acknowledging that evolution isn’t always progress), then Forgetting Sarah Marshall now seems like an essential piece of 2000s American comedy. It’s from well-known comedy producer Judd Apatow; it features early feature-film appearances by a number of performers who would earn further notoriety in other films; and it fits in the revival of the raunchy R-rated romantic-comedy-for-boys sub-genre that stretches from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to counter-exemplar Bridesmaids (so far). In short, Forgetting Sarah Marshall has become an essential piece of the conversation about the comedy genre over the past ten years, and I had to see it after missing out on its inauspicious release four years ago. Fortunately, it lives up to the hype: It’s biggest enduring legacy is bound to be writer/actor Jason Segel’s break-out performance as a relatively more charming man-boy character than the Will Ferrell type. Forgetting Sarah Marshall also remains noteworthy for bringing Russell Brand to the movies; something that would lead directly to Bring Him to the Greek. Otherwise, there are good performances here by Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Jonah Hill, all of whom would go on to star in other high-profile comedies. The film itself is decently funny, if sometimes over-long and almost repetitive at times. The ending clearly shows the way to 2011’s The Muppets, as a further piece of evidence of Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s crucial link in the Hollywood comedy conversation. You don’t have to see it for what it set in motion: the film is successful enough by itself. But it’s far more interesting as part of a genre than as a film completely disconnected from its context.
(In theaters, December 2010) The difference between genre horror and “psychological drama” is often that in the latter case, much of the monsters can be explained away by the narrator being completely crazy. That’s certainly one plausible interpretation for Black Swan: In this high-class horror film, a ballerina driven mad by the pressures of performing the lead role in Swan Lake gradually lets themes of repression, doppelgangers and mirror images get the better of her. It doesn’t end well… or does it? This murky conclusion is only one of the ways in which Black Swan acts as a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler: Same grainy flat cinematography, same fascination for the psychological impact of intense passion, same look at a performance-driven sub-culture. Visually, Black Swan looks ugly (with exceptions whenever the performers are on-stage), but it constantly reinforces the visual themes of opposite doubles: the grainy super-16mm cinematography has enough depth to sustain a film-school paper. It also strips all glossy moviemaking glamour away from Nathalie Portman’s mesmerizing lead performance, instantly credible as a ballerina with enough issues to sustain a film’s worth of delusions. Mila Kunis also acquits herself honourably in her third significant role of 2010, whereas Vincent Cassel is as deliciously slimy as ever. But the star here remains Portman, and if Black Swan works, it’s largely because of her dedication to her craft. As for the ending, well, it grows with time: If, initially, it seems as if the film stops about thirty seconds and a coroner’s report too soon, it also fully commits itself to its unreliable narrator, and eventually lends itself to about three interpretations spanning the entire length of the genre horror / psychological drama spectrum. Aronofsky may never direct a comedy, but his dramas are growing ever-more finely tuned to their subject, and viewers may as well endure the ride.