Director Dean Fleischer-Camp’s novel stop-motion meets live-action dramedy Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (B) is an often entertaining sass menagerie, the A24 Films indie improv build on the likes of Aardman Studios’ Wallace and Gromit clay-making charm with a mix of Pixar-style pathos to punctuate the proceedings. This mockumentary style slip of a story is based on a series of online webisodes and stars the voice of Jenny Slate as the titular anthropomorphic animated character. Marcel lives with his grandmother (dialogue by Isabella Rossellini) in a vacation rental home occupied by a human filmmaker, played by the actual director. Viewers are treated to the one-inch-tall protagonist’s misadventures, gallant gadgetry and droll quips inside the house as he prepares for a newsmagazine TV show to chronicle his quirky life and possibly reunite him with his conch kind. Enjoyment of this movie depends on how captivated you are by Marcel; and while this shell without a filter is indeed hella funny, an elongated series of his outtakes do not a full-fledged story make. The film gets high originality points for its pleasant change of perspective amidst flashier fare. If you listen closely, you may hear tremendous tidal tidings washing over you, but some of the time it’s just treading water.
The central character is a whirling dervish of a “party starter” who, behind the scenes of his admittedly small-time New Jersey public persona, is experiencing his own struggles to launch his personal life at the beginning of his twenties in a sweet, thoughtful and unpredictable movie. The second feature film written by, starring and directed by Cooper Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth (B+) is a cerebral and celebratory triumph of emotion and characters; and even when some of the plot strands coalesce as awkwardly as the protagonist’s philosophical search for career, romance and meaning, the journey is a winning and watchable high-wire act. Raiff is captivating and charismatic as the extremely talky lead whose so-called motivational dancing is the least of his charms, but it’s two women who steal the show: Dakota Johnson as a mysterious mother who attends a series of bar and bat mitzvahs where Raiff is holding court and Vanessa Burghardt as her autistic daughter whose droll deadpans are a welcome yin to Raiff’s yangs. Johnson in particular has rarely been better as she plays shy vulnerability and gets to open up in some very engaging scenes including one signature discussion over vintage blue raspberry and lemon-lime popsicles. Among the many pleasures of the film is the intermingling of generations: Raiff riffs with the likes of his curious teen younger brother (Evan Assante), his supportive mom (an excellent Leslie Mann) and a variety of characters his junior and senior with plain spoken and plaintive exchanges about the nature of happiness and romance. The music is also a propulsive, delight ranging from the title party tune and familiar works by the likes of Lupe Fiasco to gems by bands such as Homeschool and Harmony House. This isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy nor is it a conventional romcom, but it will reward those who enjoy a tug at the heartstrings and a good “I’m still coming of age” film. Sometimes no matter the station or season in life, a little bit of party pep can put a spring in one’s step.
Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island (B) is a new take on Pride and Prejudice centered on a group of D-list friends and their encounters with an elite household in the titular famed gay vacation destination. Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the screenplay, and SNL comedian Bowen Yang are authentic and witty in the lead roles (based on Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Jane Bennet characters, respectively) supported by a warm, winning and understated Margaret Cho in the Mrs. Bennet role. Conrad Ricamora and James Scully are the Darcy and Charles updates of the literary reimagining and are also committed to their performances. It’s actually uncanny how well the Austen archetypes translate to the LGBTQIA+ milieu, and the update is also a coup for Asian representation. The film has fun with remixing both literary and romcom conventions while sending up the devil-may-care attitudes of the inlet getaway, including some cautionary subplots in the statuesque form of Zane Phillips as a charming rogue in the ensemble. The melodrama is a bit uneven at times but the repartee between the co-leads is consistently strong and appropriately sentimental. There are also some pop confections on the soundtrack including covers of Wonka tune “Pure Imagination” and “Sometimes” by Britney Spears. It’s an elevated escape.
This is a movie in which a very small cast rises to the occasion. Sophie Hyde’s dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (B) tells the story of a retired school teacher and widow (Emma Thompson) who hires a twentysomething sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to help her catch up on what she’s been missing during years of the marriage and motherhood routine. Most of the story take place in one single hotel room, which sometimes feels like a two-hander stage play, but the themes and acting elevate the material considerably. Thompson is superb, all nerves while striving to be proper amidst a situation she didn’t imagine herself engaging. In the thankless role opposite such an acting titan, McCormack holds his own and gets a chance to open up as well. There are some dubious choices adding tension to the final act, but ultimately this talky film is a delight. The movie does a good job exploring what it’s like to achieve intimacy, even when everything one has learned up to this point builds up walls around close relationships. It’s a poignant and often funny tale and tackles issues which aren’t often addressed onscreen.
It’s “who framed ribald rodents” as a slew of Hollywood’s top comics provide an often uproarious tribute to the cartoons of their youth in a new Disney+ live-action/animated action comedy film. Akiva Schaffer’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (B) is a throwback thrill with funny friends John Mulaney and Andy Samberg as the odd couple Disney duo most prominently featured in a ‘90s TV adventure. The movie is chock-full of unexpected cameos as the estranged pint-sized pair reunites three decades after their heyday to solve a co-star’s disappearance in a human and toon filled modern L.A. From the central conceit that one of the hand-drawn chipmunks has received a CGI glow-up to a hilarious sin city of animated bootleggers, the film throws inspired madcap mayhem at every corner. It’s a dad joke paradise with animated Will Arnett getting in the action as a child actor turned villainous adult and Keegan-Michael Key as part of a Muppet-inspired crime syndicate. Alas the film short shrifts both KiKi Layne as the perfunctory human character, a fangirl policewoman, and the west coast metropolis itself, which could have provided some cleverer sites for high-profile gags. The film’s novelty runs out a bit in the final act, but it’s hard to fault a film so crammed with such singular hilarity and homage. This film is fun for all ages with nuttiness and cheekiness galore.
After his stunning work in last year’s dramatic Pig, a wonderful new comedy is another reminder Nicolas Cage is truly a national treasure. The notoriously always working actor plays an amped up version of himself opposite Pedro Pascal as a wealthy fan who pays him a million dollars to attend his birthday in Spain in Tom Dormican’s smart buddy comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (B+). Through a series of unexpected events, “Nick” finds himself channeling his most iconic and beloved characters as part of a metaphorical and literal redemption story. The funny bits are top notch, and Dormican has a deft touch in hopping genres to serve the needs of the story, sometimes talky but with its share of car stunts and pratfalls as well. Cage is an utter delight and a wonderful sport fully committed to the circuitous ride, and Pascal is sensational as the funny foil fanboy. Lily Mo Sheen and Sharon Horgan also hit the right notes as Cage’s daughter and estranged wife, respectively, managing the well meaning diva dad in their family. While funny, Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz don’t get much to do as additional plot catalysts but are always appreciated. This is essential viewing for Cage fans but also great fun for anyone. It’s a well made comic romp with a hilarious double bromance at the center, between actor and fan and the actor and himself. More than an ego trip though, everyone’s in on the joke, and moviegoers are again the beneficiary of Cage’s underrated if not sometimes ubiquitous talent.
Although largely a by-the-books action comedy, Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City (B) is handsomely produced and features Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum each doing what they do best. It’s a lot like Romancing the Stone with a novelist who gets embroiled in one of the types of exotic anthropological excursions ripped from her own fiction. Bullock is appealing in both her physical humor pratfalls (she performs several sequences while tied to a chair and many in a glittery jumpsuit) and in her authorial interplay with Tatum’s dim witted character who is cover model of her elevated bodice rippers and unexpected co-adventurer. Daniel Radcliffe feels like he’s cameoing in a different movie as a caricatured villain whose best sequence involves a whirlwind of charcuterie; meanwhile Brad Pitt is a delight in his brief sequences as a charming mercenary, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph also hilariously steals her scenes as a publicist at wit’s end. This movie handily delivers on its populist fun and sometimes transcends its formula, even as its pacing sometimes misses the mark. Both the leads utter some pretty funny lines under their breath that hopefully won’t be missed in all the activity. Bullock’s character finally gets out of the house, which is an apt metaphor for movie audiences seeking escapism amidst the almost post-pandemic zeitgeist.
We’re all in on the joke, right, that he’s not making these movies for critics? The prolific writer, director and actor at the heart of Tyler Perry’s A Madea Homecoming (C-) brings the streaming Netflix service a madcap dose of his patented brand of crass humor mixed with dollops of melodrama. The irreverent “Madea” character is back for her twelfth feature film appearance, and this time the sassy matriarch is holding sway over a family gathering as her great-grandson who is harboring a secret (Brandon Black) prepares to graduate from college. Director Perry doesn’t seem to mind saying “that’s a wrap” to his very first take of a scene, regardless of his own line readings as actor, nor does he give a good “hallelujer!” if the screenplay’s tone veers wildly from soapy sentiment to cartoonish caricature to full-throttle Red Lobster commercial midway into the narrative. A crossover with another drag comedian, Brendan O’Carroll as “Agnes Brown” doesn’t quite give the parallel mothers story any additional gravitas. Gabrielle Dennis and Isha Blaaker are standouts of the serious parts of the story, and Perry upstages himself with the uproarious antics of his wildly inappropriate “Uncle Joe” character as well as flashbacks of “Young Madea” in an inexplicable feud with Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks!). Still, this is comfort food for the soul with some wild-eyed characters skimming the surface of social commentary amidst some pratfalls and pathos.
The W.C. Fields admonition to never work with children or animals gets a hard pass when those stars are one of the screen’s charming rejuveniles and a canine companion trained for war but imbued with empathetic instincts. Dog (B+), the feature film co-directing debut of Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin, is a rare breed of heady human/animal bond pictures with a dramatic undercurrent about the aftermath of war and just needing someone to talk to about it. The film stars Tatum as an Army Ranger who must escort the Belgian Malinois military working dog of his fallen commander down the Pacific coast to her handler’s funeral. It’s packed with funny and dramatic road trip elements, some slapstick sequences and some moments of profundity along the journey as both man and dog overcome emotions for which they were never trained. This is an ideal vehicle for Tatum’s wry, affable Everyman demeanor, plus the animal is ever a winning screen partner. There’s definitely some content in the film not appropriate for younger kids, but the portrayal of a duo facing PTSD as they attempt to move on in civilian life makes this an unexpectedly moving story.
Those seeking truth in advertising will find very few ghosts here of note, but this sequel is quite definitely a bust. Director Jason Reitman continues the film series of two groundbreaking ‘80s special effects centric comedies helmed by his dad Ivan in the tonally muddled Ghostbusters: Afterlife (C), and this next generation entry is a spectral slog. Only the committed performances of young protagonists Mckenna Grace as Phoebe (the late Egon Spengler’s precocious granddaughter) and Logan Kim as her witty classmate Podcast plus a brief fantasia of animated mini-marshmallow men enliven the lethargic story. The film’s action moves from Manhattan to Middle America with teens who plug and play with the old wraith-warring artifacts in a momentum-free plot. Reitman builds very little atmosphere specifics, introduces few compelling apparitions and simply never finds his comedic stride despite game attempts by Paul Rudd and others. It doesn’t help that a good third of the film is a complete retread of the “Gozer” narrative from the original film. There is neither enough of a nostalgia trip nor an entertaining adventure in its own right to warrant a recommendation.
The latest lark by a gifted director is modern artifice without much of a meaning. Wes Anderson’s wry and literate anthology The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (C) contains within its whimsical sampler a bunch of half-baked ideas beautifully rendered. The director continues his tradition of focusing on madcap minutiae and summons a game and familiar journeyman cast to mostly pose in oddball characterizations without actually being characters. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and others make the most of their brief moments but are criminally underused in serving Anderson’s vague vision. All vignettes are very loosely connected via the framing device of a literary news magazine. The story of a “tortured artist” featuring Benicio del Toro is by far the strongest entry; a take on “journalistic neutrality” less so; and a meandering morsel on “delicious irony” fails to satisfy. There’s a lot on display but not much to see here.
You might find yourself with resting glitch face after all the stimulation of Shawn Levy’s video game comedy fantasy Free Guy (B), a film that actually gets better and richer as it progresses and reveals superpowers in some of the most supporting players in society. A bit of a riff or revival of The Truman Show set in an open-world video game, this film places Ryan Reynolds at the center as a “non-player character” who learns he can start making his own choices. There’s interplay among the denizens of the game, plus a plot about a diabolical dudebro executive (a hilarious Taika Waititi) trying to manipulate the gameplay to line his pockets and a duo of developers (Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, both earnest) helping steer the situation to a better resolution. The passiveness of the main character is a problem for the first half of the movie, despite Reynolds’ considerable charms and penchant for physical comedy. But the film gains a bit of soulfulness at the half-way point and proceeds to surprise and delight. If you can bear the clang and clamor, you’ll find Levy and company have something to say about community, about taming toxic masculinity and about choosing your own adventure. It’s a bit better than expected, with funny asides, clever effects and a timely lesson about the power of world building.