Comedy

Stuber

First Hit: Poorly conceived and acted, there were some funny moments, but that’s all.

The concept could have been good. Policeman hires an UBER driver and car to help him solve a significant crime.

The opening sequence attempts to establish that Detective Victor “Vic” Manning (Dave Bautista) and Detective Sarah Morris (Karen Gillan) are ready to capture Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais) a ruthless cop killer and drug trafficker. Entering a large downtown LA hotel, they go up to Oka’s room to make an arrest and are met by Oka’s bodyguards. Fisticuffs and gun battle ensue between Sarah, Vic, Oka and his men.

This opening scene struck me an unrealistic because there wasn’t any backup police and because Sarah and Vic were wearing bulletproof vests with “Police” imprinted signage, this appears to have been a planned raid and should have had a backup.

The impressive battle moves from the hotel room to the lobby, to the street and the firing of pistols by the police in crowded public areas was probably not realistic. Then Sarah gets killed by Oka and Vic is devastated.

Then we meet Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) who works at a goods store and to make extra money he drives for UBER. His longtime friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) and he are working together to open a women’s only cycling exercise studio called “Spinsters.” It’s evident that Stu has more than just friendship on his mind with Becca.

The story moves six months into the future and Vic is getting Lasik surgery, where he is told that he’ll have a hard time seeing for a few days and he’s not to drive a car. This is the set up for him to hire an UBER to get around. His daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) sets it up on his phone so that he can get to an Art Opening featuring her sculptures. On the afternoon of his daughter Nicole’s opening, he gets a call from an informant that Oka is going to be getting a new shipment of drugs and he can nail him.

Scrambling to his car, he tries to drive, but the car ends up in a construction hole. He calls an UBER, and this is where Stu and Vic meet up.

They are opposite types of people. Vic is brutish, pushy, and very aggressive in his behavior. Stu is focused on pleasing people, he wants 5 Star reviews, and is very accommodating. He’s also unassertive and is unable to tell Becca what he wants out of their relationship and hopes to just sneak into her life somehow.

From here the Stu and Vic spend their time together pursuing the whereabouts of Oka so that Vic and get his revenge.

Added to this story is that Vic’s boss Captain Angie McHenry (Mira Sorvino) is not one of the good guys and hinders Vic’s capturing the terrorist Oka.

As one might expect from sticking two very different types of personalities together, there are out loud funny moments during their escapades. Although predictable, the ending scene when Vic shows up at his daughter’s house for Christmas was sweet. Also, using the reference to the UBER pool feature as an issue in their chase was cute.

I thought the fight scene in the sporting goods store to be of little value to the film. The hot sauce warehouse scene almost as bad.

Nanjiani’s acting was overwrought and overdone. There was a constant smirk on his face, which made this film seem like it was a joke for him as well. Bautista was overzealous in his brutishness towards Stu. The well-worn trick of not using Stu’s correct name (kept calling him “Steve”) as a way to demean him, lacked punch or relevance. Sorvino’s role as the crooked cop was uninspired and had no background to make it realistic. Morales was a bright spot in the film as her even-keeled approach made her role work. Gilpin as Stu’s love interest was good as well. She was able to make me believe her. Uwais was okay as the uncaring, ruthless drug dealer and cop killer. Tripper Clancy wrote this script and its failings as a cohesive story showed up in multiple places. There was little need to have the manager of the sporting goods store change from jerk to longing for a friendship with Stu during the fight scene in the store. There are many such scenes in this film. Michael Dowse directed this with little concept of how to put together these scenes into a story that is believable, funny, and interesting. It didn’t engage well.

Overall: Stuber was stupid.

Yesterday

First Hit: Thoroughly enjoyable film and story, especially if you like “The Beatles” music.

In my sophomore and junior years of high school, Jim Golden and I sat in his or my bedroom playing Beatles songs over and over again. Jim was one year younger than me and much better on guitar and singing. However, I knew how to harmonize, and together, we sang the shit out of those songs.

In my junior year (1967), Jim and I joined a band and one week after the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album came out, the group sang three songs from this album in the second of our band’s total of three public performances. My contribution was singing lead on “A Day in the Life,” and I’ll never forget it. The proof is that today, I can still play and sing this song.

In this film, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wanted to play his music in front of people. His manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), met him and fell in love with him at age 17 when he performed Oasis’ Wonderwall song during a high school performance. From that time, she worked tirelessly to get him gigs in local bars and establishments near their small English town of Lowestoft. When he’s not performing his songs at these joints, he’s working in a food warehouse.

When he plays, most people in the audience talk or just go about their business, and no one really listens except Ellie and a small group of friends that request their favorite Jack Malik songs.

One day Ellie brings him good news and bad news. The good news is that she got him a gig at a big-time music festival. However, the bad news is that it’s in a remote music tent. When we see Jack perform in the tent, his most attentive audience appears to be four children, Ellie, and a couple of other friends. It’s at this moment he decides to give up on his music career.

While riding his bike on the way home, there is a worldwide blackout, and during the outage, he gets hit by a bus. Waking up in a hospital with two missing front teeth, Ellie is there by his side. Getting out of the hospital, she gives him a new guitar because the old one got run over by the bus. While testing out the guitar, he sings, The Beatles “Yesterday.”

The three friends sitting with him ask him when did he write that song? And he says, he “didn’t, The Beatles did,” and they say who? This is a hilarious scene, especially when they bring up Coldplay. But the fantastic thing about this scene is that the audience, at least I did, hears this song as if it were really a new song. The focus is on the words, and they reflect Jack’s current situation, just as they reflect the circumstances in our own lives.

This then becomes the setup of the film. Did The Beatles exist? Did they ever exist? Jack goes home and searches the internet for The Beatles and finds nothing, except beetles.

Thinking that no one knows The Beatles songs, he begins to recall them and begins to write them down. When he performs them, the audiences love the songs and believe that these songs are Jack’s songs. Through the greatness of the songs, he becomes the new world singing and songwriting sensation.

He records the songs and with the help of Ed Sheeran and a new obnoxious agent who is appropriately named, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). She gets him all caught up in the demands of the music business, including how he looks. The scenes of the marketing team coming up with album titles and imaging are hilarious.

Meanwhile, Ellie tries to tell Jack that she’s more than someone who used to manage him, she’s in love with him and has so since she was seventeen. She asks him to make a choice.

This story is about making choices about the love of a person or a career. It is about honesty through the songwriting. It is about fame, money, and the downsides of all of it. However, for me, it was mostly about the songs I grew up playing with Jim Golden. I loved singing The Beatles songs then, and I loved lip-syncing the songs while watching the film. “I Saw Her Standing There” (She Was Just Seventeen) had extra meaning because of Ellie. The background music as Jack was hit was the music crescendo from “A Day in the Life.” Watching Jack work on remembering the words to “Eleanor Rigby” along with the remembering of the other songs shared in this film was exquisite.

The film had so many out-loud funny bits. Including that “Coke,” Oasis (the band), and cigarettes didn’t exist, were both entertaining and amusing each time they came up. I thought the pacing and sequencing of the scenes were divine, and when Jack drives out to a lonely beach house and meets an artist who tells him what is important in life, I wept silently.

Patel was fantastic in this role. I felt him in his character through my own experience as a young boy in a band wanting to sing songs. James was beyond wonderful. I loved her attempts to share her feelings with Jack, but it’s her looks when she just watching him that made her perfect. Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s old friend, and roadie after he gets discovered was hilarious. McKinnon slightly overacted her role at times, but overall was good. Sheeran as himself did an excellent job of acting in a role he would know. Richard Curtis wrote a fantastic screenplay from a story co-authored with Jack Barth. Danny Boyle did a superb job of creating a thoroughly enjoyable version and filled my heart with memories and joy.

Overall: This is a feel-good film.

Men in Black: International

First Hit: Certainly not as good as the original, but at least we’ve got “women” involved.

I never thought of the “Men in Black” as a domestic only group, but I guess I was wrong. I mean, how could aliens be on earth and only lived in the United States? So for me, the premise in the title was weak.

We begin with young Molly (Mandeiya Flory) looking out her window witnessing her parents being neuralysed by Men in Black (MiB) agents because of a commotion in the house. The uproar came from a young alien the agents were tracking, and Molly thinks it’s cute, so she helps the alien escape, but not before learning a word from the alien. You know that this will mean something later in the film.

We jump some twenty years into the future and Molly (Tessa Thompson) is still focused on becoming a MiB agent to work with aliens because she likes the alien she met and saw what happened to her parents after they were neuralysed. We are meant to believe that the single early childhood event has become her singular whole life focus.

Attempting to find where MiB headquarters is located in NYC, Molly sets up computers to track incoming aliens. Finding a MiB encounter, she follows the agents back to their offices. Slipping into the building, she gets caught and quickly tells them, she wants to become an agent carrying a neuralyser. After extensive interviews, she’s given a chance to prove herself as a probationary Agent M.

Her assignment takes her to London (hence the International in the title), where she meets High T (Liam Neeson) who assigns her to work with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth).

Agent H is shown in several scenes to be a play-boyish rogue of sorts, loving to gamble, and drink taboo elixirs. Agents H and M are assigned to meet Vungus, the Ugly of royal alien family heritage. But during this meeting, Vungus is killed by evil twins who can manifest themselves as pure energy.

Because Vungus gives M a secret weapon before he dies, she and H are being tracked by the twins who want this weapon to destroy Earth. Will M and H save the world?

This is the short version of the plot. There are other aliens in the mix as well as a storyline that High T has been protecting H since their encounter with the Hive who tried to destroy Earth many years earlier.

What didn’t work for me was that the plot felt too manufactured to be engaging. It lacked a flow to it, and therefore, it pulled me out of engaging with the story. I’m not sure why the writers needed the character of Riza as the recipient of the weapon. Yes, she was an arms agent, but it seemed like it was created as yet another plot device and character. Additionally, some of the acting (Neeson in particular) felt stiff and done for the money and not for the story. Many of the visuals were fun, like when M and H test the weapon Vungus gave M. The twins when they changed to pure energy was fun to watch.

Tessa Thompson was engaging and fun to watch. Her character made the story work. Hemsworth was a bit too silly and laissez-faire for the critical role as protector of the Earth from aliens. The part was built this way, and I thought he could have toned down some of the silliness. Neeson appeared too disengaged from the story and role. The heavy makeup and powder, as seen in the closeups, didn’t help. Rafe Spall as Agent C was very good as the one who wanted to be seen as having more power and engagement in the London MiB office. Emma Thompson as Agent O was good as the authoritarian in-charge person. Rebecca Ferguson (as Riza) was attractive in a role I didn’t think was needed. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum wrote the screenplay that seemed too manufactured as a way to use the MiB name. F. Gary Gray directed this film.

Overall: Not sure this film added any greatness or enhancement to the MiB franchise.

Shaft

First Hit: Simply, this is Samuel L. Jackson’s film through and through.

It’s hard to take this film seriously, and it is seriously fun to watch. Jackson, as John Shaft, is still the king of the neighborhood, has a stern attitude, and rollicks through this story taking full ownership.

This story begins when he and his wife Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) are arguing in their car. JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), their baby, is in the back seat. As usual, where Shaft is, there is trouble, and a shootout will more than likely commence.

Maya has had enough and, with JJ in tow, leaves Shaft and tells him to stay away forever. The film rolls through the years quickly, with funny vignettes showing the birthday presents Shaft sends JJ (box of rubbers on JJ’s 10th).

In current time JJ is now an FBI data analyst, and he stumbles on to a possible crime because his best friend, Karim Hassan (Avan Jogia) dies of what the police say is an overdose.

At work, he doesn’t get assigned to the FBI probe into the local mosque, although he’s an outstanding analyst, and he thinks Karin was involved in the mosque’s activities.

He locates and waltzes into his dad’s office, looking for some help in finding what really went on in Hassan’s death. Meeting for the first time in twenty plus years, the reunion is filled with John Shaft ego and bragging moments and advice that is contrary to JJ’s beliefs. This is the moment when the audience knows we’re going on a Samuel L. Jackson E-Ticket (for those who remember Disneyland long ago) wild ride.

Going to visit Manny (Ian Casselberry) the local Bronx heroin dealer, they run roughshod, over his group of thugs. And here is where JJ starts to re-think that his passiveness and begins to see some value in his dad’s way of resolving problems.

Some of the amusing parts of the film include JJ’s attempts to share his romantic interest for his longtime friend Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp). When John Shaft first meets Sasha, when she pulls a gun out of her purse at a restaurant, and how she dreamily looks at JJ when he jumps into action during a dinner they have.

The story goes on, and eventually, we get introduced to John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), and this completes the cycle. The original Shaft, the current Shaft, and the upcoming Shaft.

Don’t go to this film if you are looking to watch a serious movie. This film is tongue-in-cheek, and it’s fun.

Jackson is this film. He’s the reason you laugh and are engaged in the story because you wonder what he’ll do next. Hall is excellent as Shaft’s estranged wife. Her quips about Shaft’s focus are hilarious. Usher is wonderful as the passive smart FBI agent who finds his roots through meeting his father. Shipp is excellent as JJ’s friend and later girlfriend. Her shift in attitude towards Shaft’s lifestyle was subtle and fun. Roundtree was great to see, and as a reminder of the original song and film, I smiled. Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow wrote an entertaining active script. Tim Story knew that he needed to let Jackson run roughshod over this film because Samuel will make it work, he always does.

Overall: If you’re looking for action entertainment and don’t mind a lot of swearing, this is a film for you.

Late Night

First Hit: I thought Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, was excellent and engaging in this role, but the rest of the film flopped along.

The overall story premise was good if looking at it from 100,000 feet. Young aspiring comedy writer who is a woman of color breaking into the all-white male writing team for Katherine Newbury who is a successful twenty-five plus year veteran late-night comedy talk show host.

But the failure is that there is little meat on the bones of Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) finding her way from being a quality inspector at a Pittsburgh chemical producing plant (“the factory”) to being hired, with no experience just because she’s female of color.

This old part of Patel’s story is set up with a few lines of dialogue and fewer sparse scenes that hold no reason or inclination as to why she thinks she could even interview for the job as Newbury’s writer, let alone get the job.

Granted, the hiring and firing of her staff writers by Newbury is illegal and problematic, but they do try to be funny and point out weaknesses in people, companies, society, and specifically Newbury. But this isn’t the film’s message, or at least we hope it isn’t. What are the lessons?

Lesson One: If you’ve got a dream, work hard at it, get good at it, don’t just point out negatives of someone else’s work, provide input about changes, make your information excellent, and maybe you’ll make it. This was Molly’s path to getting seen and heard. However, its failing is that we never learn why she felt she could be a comedic writer in the first place. I think she believed that because this may be Kaling’s own story, it would come across, it didn’t.

Lesson Two: The second message is about forgiveness of past deeds and waking up to a changing world. But it’s about making changes to stay relevant that is the primary focus of lesson two. This was Katherine’s lesson. And how it plays out publicly with one of her young guests, what she has to let go of, and her long ago affair was rather good.

I thought the scenes in the writing room were weak and of little impact. The film could have dug into how difficult it is to create comedy by leveraging the characters and writers; #’s 1 – 8. The numbers relate to how Newbury labeled her team instead of using their names. Realistically, this was a device to prop up Katherine’s meanness. The heartfelt scene when she thanked everyone and uses everyone’s name except #6’s, was OK until she forgot his name. Another plot device to say, Newbury has learned something but still has more to learn.

What I’m saying is that every scene was a manipulation for the benefit of the two lessons mentioned above.

Thompson was strong focused and powerful as the aging talk show host who gave up everything to be in her position. She carried the right tenor and clarity of purpose. Kaling seemed lost and lazy in this role. I know little about her in other characters, but this one just fell flat. It was more about the situations she found herself in that were interesting, but the two major crying jags were not necessary and seemed like another plot device to manipulate other characters and the audience. John Lithgow, as Katherine’s husband Walter, was excellent in his limited role. Hugh Dancy as charming and seductive writer Charlie Fain was Okay. Again, he was a distinct plot device and not a real good character with history or background. Reid Scott as monologue writer Tom Campbell was better. There was an engagement in the role which came through. Denis O’Hare as Newbury’s right-hand person Brad was very good. His frantic ways of fixing all of Katherine’s problems was engaging and like a people pleaser. Ike Barinholtz as Newbury’s designated replacement Daniel Tennant was suitable. His facial expressions when being interviewed on Newbury’s show, and she re-directed the intent was perfect. Kaling wrote a mediocre screenplay that meandered and lacked solid footing. Nisha Ganatra directed this and got some excellent performances and also weak scenes mostly due to script failings.

Overall: This film failed at delivering all that it could, and this was mostly due to Kaling’s script and acting.