Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005, Directed by Shane Black) English 6

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen, Larry Miller

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(6-Good Film)

Funny. Slight. Clever.

Private detective mysteries aren’t like Agatha Christie mysteries. The plot doesn’t need to be airtight. Roger Ebert argued that the plot doesn’t matter at all in his review of The Big Sleep, one of the best of its kind. He’s right to an extent, but I think the plot needs to feel like it matters at least for the course of the movie, or else there’s no suspense. Case in point, the very funny but mostly meaningless Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Robert Downey Jr. is Harry Lockhart, a minor league thief that stumbles across an opportunity at acting in a Hollywood movie in a major role as a detective. This leads him to study Gay Perry (Kilmer), an actual detective, on a case that coincidentally involves Lockhart’s childhood sweetheart, Harmony (Monaghan). The film barely cares about its plot and instead becomes a series of comic setups based on other films of this subgenre. I don’t mind too much. Downey Jr., Kilmer, and Monaghan are excellent and there are several memorable scenes. I do think there was an opportunity to be more, but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a pretty cool, clever film as it is.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(585)

Set it Up (2018, Directed by Claire Scanlon) English 6

Starring Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Taye Diggs, Lucy Liu, Joan Smalls, Pete Davidson

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(6-Good Film)

Satisfying. Familiar. Enjoyable.

This rom-com follows two overworked, little-respected assistants-one, an aspiring writer, Harper (Deutch) working for an influential sports journalist (Liu), and the other, Charlie (Powell) working for a tyrannical finance titan (Diggs). After meeting randomly, the two assistants, out of self-interest, attempt to set their bosses up, hoping that having love in their lives will make their own lives easier. Generic would be an easy complaint, but unfair, since the rom-com conventions are ultimately always satisfying if done well, and Set it Up is a good romantic comedy. The actors are effortlessly funny and have the requisite chemistry to make you care. Well-written, clever enough comedy.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(583)

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990, Directed by John Patrick Shanley) English 8

Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis, Nathan Lane, Amanda Plummer

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Unique. Whimsical. Fantastic.

“Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG… thank you. Thank you for my life.” So says Joe (Hanks), once just a worker ant, pondering the big questions with a bad case of hypochondria. After being diagnosed with a “brain cloud,” and given six months to live, Joe is offered by a kooky millionaire, Graynamore (Bridges), an opportunity to jump in a volcano for the good of an island tribe; essentially sacrificing himself for their well-being. He accepts, and goes off on an adventure led by Graynamore’s daughter, Patricia (Ryan, in one of three roles). Wonderful, wonderful movie as far as I’m concerned. Beautifully strange, mixing the profound with the bizarre, but always witty. Hanks and Ryan are great together, and give the film a rooting interest beyond all of the offbeat antics, and the dialogue is peerless.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(582)

High Society (1956, Directed by Charles Walters) English 6

Starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, John Lund, Louis Calhern, Sidney Blackmer, Louis Armstrong

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(6-Good Film)

Sparkling. Snappy. Misguided.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) is one of Hollywood’s most popular classics. I’ve never been really taken with it. On paper, it’s a glamorous romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. You can’t beat that combination, and yet I have only ever been mildly interested in their tangled love triangle and have gone nearly a decade now without rewatching it. Perhaps it’s due for another viewing. To be fair, I was underwhelmed by The Awful Truth (1937) my first time watching it, but years later found it to be charming and marvelous, watching it several times since. Seeing High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly in lieu of the previously mentioned trio, however, hasn’t made me question my earlier judgment. High Society is entertaining, certainly, lovely to look at with its elegant technicolor visuals, but held back in the end by Grace Kelly’s character, if not her performance. It’s reminiscent to me of a much later picture, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), which too had everything going for it but couldn’t escape its disappointing leading lady. Like Andy MacDowell in that film, Grace Kelly is beautiful and alluring and we can definitely understand the men running after her, but she never proves herself to be truly worthy of any of the male characters’ affection. Is she supposed to be a “modern woman?” Independent, strong, and intelligent? Because to me, she’s the Daisy Buchanan character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby published thirty years earlier except with a happy ending. Also like Andy MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the charming male lead had a better option. Hugh Grant had Kristen Scott Thomas and Bing Crosby and Sinatra should be fighting over Celeste Holm here.

Kelly plays the wealthy socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord. On the eve of her wedding, where she’s to be married to a George Kitteridge (Lund), a nice enough man but bland of course, her ex-husband, C.K Dexter Haven (Crosby) shows up with eyes on sabotaging the engagement and reconciling with her. He still loves her, he admits. Later, two employees of a tabloid newspaper, reporter Mike Connor (Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Holm), arrive to cover the event. Connor, initially convinced that he doesn’t like Tracy, soon falls for her and becomes Dexter’s rival in stealing her from George.

Bing Crosby is cool and as appealing as ever. Musical numbers between him and Sinatra and Louis Armstrong are the film’s real strength, as you’d imagine they would be. Armstrong narrates the film and backs Crosby up on one or two snappy numbers, but High Society, as fine as the supporting cast is and as impressive as all the auxiliary details are, is dependent on its stars. I don’t blame Kelly as much as I do the character. We’ve seen Grace Kelly in other films; magnificent films like: To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, and Mogambo. She was magnificent in them, but in High Society, she’s asked from the beginning to be a spoiled brat for much of the movie, and though she’s humbled in the end, it doesn’t erase the fact that she was a brat for the majority of the “romantic” scenes. As a result, High Society really isn’t romantic at all (hence me putting romantic in quotation marks). That’s a huge limitation. As a romantic musical, High Society only delivers on the musical aspect, which is good enough to make it worth watching, but probably not more than once.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(580)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Directed by Nicholas Stoller) English 7

Starring Jason Segel, Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Russell Brand, Bill Hader, Jack McBrayer, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill

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(7-Very Good Film)

Attractive. Scattered. Winning.

Crappy t.v composer Peter Bretter (Segel) is left by his perfect girlfriend, television star Sarah Marshall (Bell), for a bohemian rockstar, Aldous Snow (Brand). Wanting to get away from her and all things that remind him of her, Peter takes a vacation to beautiful Hawaii, but she turns out to be there as well. Dealing with that awkwardness, Peter meets several characters at the Hawaiian resort, one being the lovely receptionist, Rachel Jansen (Kunis). Segel is such an affable personality that we feel for him through each humiliation, and cheer for him in his moments of triumph. Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, and Russell Brand (before the persona became stale) provide a lot of laughs in the supporting cast, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a rock-solid romantic comedy.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(579)

Always Be My Maybe (2019, Directed by Nahnatchka Khan) English 6

Starring Randall Park, Ali Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, James Saito, Vivian Bang, Casey Wilson, Michelle Buteau, Keanu Reeves

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(6-Good Film)

Simple. Likable. Funny.

       Girl meets boy. Girl loves boy. Boy blows it at some point. Girl gives him another chance, usually because of some terrific speech. Romantic comedies really haven’t evolved at all in cinema’s 100-plus year history, but they haven’t dipped in popularity at all either. People like their rom-coms one way and are perfectly fine to tread that oh-so-familiar territory an infinite amount of times.  There are few truly great movies in this genre over the past fifty years, but there are dozens of very good ones and even some mediocre films you watch on occasion precisely because they are undemanding.

Always Be My Maybe is Netflix’ newest original romantic comedy. Netflix has done a nice job for the genre over the past few years, and the one thing they really have going for them is their focus on representation and reaching all audiences. Always Be My Baby stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, two Asian-Americans, in the lead roles. We are still in a time when having Asian-American leads in something as light as this movie is tremendously significant, but you hope the film doesn’t rest on its cultural importance. On the one hand, outside of its fresh faces and perspective, Always Be My Maybe offers few surprises and doesn’t do anything to reinvigorate its well-worn trappings. On the other hand, I’ve already mentioned how those trappings never seem to get old, and this film is both funny and appealing. Plus it has a fantastic cameo from Keanu Reeves.

Wong plays Sasha, first appearing in the film as a neglected 12-year-old who befriends the boy next door, Marcus (Park’s character). They spend all of their time together, and Sasha feels closer to Marcus’ parents than her own. Fast forward a few years, Marcus’ mother dies, and, partly influenced by grief, but also partly inevitable, the two hook up. In the awkward moments afterward, Marcus blows it, and over a decade goes by without them seeing or speaking to one another. Pick up in present day, Sasha is an immensely successful chef opening new restaurants all over the country and on the verge of marrying the handsome and wealthy Brandon (Dae Kim). Marcus, however, still lives and works with his dad. He has a band that does well locally but is reluctant to branch out. The two reconnect when Sasha returns to San Francisco after breaking up with Brandon and her friend hires Marcus and his father to set up the air conditioning at her new home. Initially combative, it’s not long before Marcus realizes that he’s in love with her, but not before she’s swooped up by Keanu Reeves, playing himself, giving a very funny and self-deprecating performance.

Written by its leads, who have worked together on the fantastic sitcom Fresh Off the Boat (2015-), Wong as a writer and Park as the star, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, that show’s creator, Always Be My Maybe never quite feels cinematic. Like other Netflix movies, this one feels more akin to old television movies than it does the Hollywood romantic comedies given big movie theater releases, and I do think it goes beyond its method of distribution. The actors are very good, the plot is predictable but compelling, the writing is funny, and yet there’s a slightly sitcommy and not cinematic quality about the proceedings that is hard to put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the shots. The majority of the film is a series of conversations and they are almost entirely made up of over the shoulder shots that are fine but uninspired and a little stiff at times.

I feel like I’ve seen every rom-com Hollywood has put out since its inception. I like watching something easy while I eat, and the assurance that the likable, attractive couple will turn out alright in the end. I like it even better when the couple is a little antagonistic towards each other for most of the movie like Sasha and Marcus are in this one. Films like this are as easy to condescend to as they are to watch, but, ultimately, my bottom line is that I’ll probably watch this one more than a few times. Among Netflix’ growing slate of films, Always Be My Maybe ranks with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as probably the two best.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(575)

 

 

 

Operation Petticoat (1959, Directed by Blake Edwards ) English 7

Starring Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Arthur O’Connell, Dick Sargent, Dina Merrill, Joan O’Brien

(7-Very Good Film)

Vibrant. Undemanding. Comical.

Saddled with a crew of stranded army nurses, Lieutenant Commander Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) leads a group of sailors aboard the USS Sea Tiger during World War II. That includes new shipmate Lieutenant Nick Holden (Curtis), whose habits as a con artist prove useful in getting their ship to safety. Old Hollywood fantasy in a lot of ways (the army nurses are gorgeous, the officers handsome), but it’s also very knowing in other ways (the way the enlisted men react to the new officer for example). Plus, it’s a well-crafted, entertaining spectacle.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(572)