Movie Review ~ Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

The Facts:

Synopsis: When struggling filmmaker Dean moves into an Airbnb, he quickly discovers that he is not alone. Marcel, an adorable one-inch-tall shell, already lives there with his grandmother Connie and their pet lint, Alan.
Stars: Jenny Slate, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann, Isabelle Rossellini, Andy Richter, Nathan Fielder, Peter Bonerz, Jessi Klein, Lesley Stahl
Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A decade ago, we were at the peak of the viral video heyday. Who didn’t get that email from a friend/co-worker with a link to some funny YouTube clip that was either ROTFL in its hilarity or a goofy eye roll on its way to the recycling bin? Like most nine-to-fivers working a corporate cubicle job, sometimes I needed a good laugh to make it through the workday and often thrived on these. That’s why I’m a little amazed Marcel the Shell with Shoes On never made it across my virtual desktop when it appeared on the streaming site in October 2010.

The creation of (then) husband and wife Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate, the three shorts released in 2010, 2011, and 2014 featured a squeaky-voiced mollusk filmed talking about himself and spreading small amounts of joy in the process. Marcel (voiced by Slate, Zootopia) was childlike at times but deeply wise in others, pondering the mysteries of life and putting into off-the-cuff perspective the big picture we sometimes lose sight of. The stop motion animation of Marcel in various scenarios wasn’t groundbreaking from a technical perspective. Still, something in the way it presented itself without guile or pretense spoke to all ages. Unsurprisingly, the tiny guy became a huge hit, spawning a book and now a feature film adaptation.

For total transparency, I watched the three shorts after I saw the film. I’m glad I did because the movie recreates/incorporates several of the same jokes/lines/scenarios featured before. This full-length movie isn’t just a greatest hits collection, though. Fleischer-Camp and Slate brought Elisabeth Holm (a frequent Slate collaborator) and Nick Paley to formalize and expand the story, giving Marcel a backstory and purpose above and beyond the philosophical musings that put him on the map. In doing so, they’ve made an inanimate object more human and relatable than most films in 2022 with flesh and blood actors. 

Marcel is small but mighty, no bigger than a grape, with one expressive eye and two pink accented shoes. Though he doesn’t possess hands, somehow he’s managed to create an endless playground of discarded/found items in a home he shares with Connie (Isabella Rossellini, Enemy), another shell starting to show her advanced age. The last of their “community” left behind after the owners of the house (Thomas Mann, Lady and the Tramp, and Rosa Salazar, Alita: Battle Angel) broke up and put their shared home as a rental on Airbnb, the two shells have forged a happy, if at times, lonely, existence. The newest tenant, Dean (the director himself), discovers Marcel one day and decides to make a film out of the esoteric eccentric.

Getting to know Marcel more through their interactions, Dean learns of Marcel’s wish to find his lost community and, in a meta twist, puts a collection of their filmed interviews on YouTube. Echoing that first video which took off like a rocket, Marcel becomes an overnight sensation and even attracts the attention of Marcel and Connie’s favorite news anchor, Lesley Stahl from 60 Minutes. Can Stahl help them locate the couple that left them behind and reunite them? How will Marcel react to his newfound fame, and does he even want his easy-going existence to change? 

Coming in blind to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On required a bit of an adjustment to not just the punchline style delivery of everything Marcel says but in that same rapid-fire changing of scenes as we are introduced to Marcel and Connie’s world. The writers all have a talent for sharp wit and improv comedy that result in some hilarious passages; once you move past the material that feels like it’s all set-up and punchline, the real plot kicks in, and that’s when something special develops. Fleischer-Camp and a talented array of filmmakers give the shells real personality, and the animation blends seamlessly with the live-action, creating a believable diorama. It’s a sharp improvement over the YouTube videos (obviously with a studio like A24 involved) and I wouldn’t doubt this could get some end-of-the-year recognition in technical categories.

The voices are also an essential part of this puzzle. Adding in Rossellini’s character shows a high emotional maturity rarely found in movies that viewers could otherwise think of as simplistic. (It also gives the film one of its best jokes, capitalizing on Rossellini’s thick accent.)  Already a talented voice-over actress, Slate again delivers grand work voicing Marcel with a pitch that could have quickly gone into the annoying realm if handled differently. The softness in the lilt and execution tells an emotional story without the words to express it. The creativity in the writing matches that in the voice work, creating a harmony that feels both well thought out and true to the characters.

I saw several kids at my showing of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and can see why the film would look like it appeals to them. I’m not sure the movie is made for them, though, if that makes sense. The enormity of emotions (it hits you good right when you think you’re out of the woods) and life-size scaled questions are admirable to introduce, but it feels more like a kid’s movie made by adults for adults. A big screen theatrical showing feels almost too big for a character that began life as a YouTube creation, so delaying for at viewing home would be fine when you can wonder if there’s a Marcel-like object in your house waiting to start a conversation.

Movie Review ~ I Want You Back

The Facts:

Synopsis: Newly dumped thirty-somethings Peter and Emma team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships and win them back for good.
Stars: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May, Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With Valentine’s Day racing toward us, many will be looking for that perfect movie to mark the day, one that matches with the mood they feel best fits the situation. Some may feel drawn to the weepy romance of true love lost, others prefer a madcap comedy that sends lovebirds on the run from a rogue they’ve crossed paths with, or maybe your kind of movie has nothing to do with Cupid’s biggest day of the year. February 14th might be the time you decide you finally need to check Lawrence of Arabia or Cujo off your list. Whatever your target is, libraries, theaters, and streaming services have you well covered. 

As is typical whenever a holiday is near, there’s even last-ditch effort fresh content making a play for your attention, and I Want You Back is one of those movies, and I think it’s one worth considering. Available for free to Amazon Prime Members, this Amazon Studios production features a familiar-sounding set-up that manages to rise above recognizable cliches based almost solely on the striking appeal of its two stars. While the new Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson film Marry Me is opening in theaters and PeacockTV, this easy-to-like production should find a sizable audience who spot it on the Prime Video homepage.

Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger get the awkward stuff out of the way first, with Emma (Jenny Slate, On the Rocks) and Peter (Charlie Day, Vacation) getting dumped by the respective partners, much to their total shock. Peter’s long-time girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire) is an elementary teacher longing to pursue her passion for acting but feeling like it’s Peter’s lack of ambition which is the main factor holding her back. Personal trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) has tired of his years pushing Emma to figure out what she wants to do with her life and has met someone new, a pastry chef (Clark Backo, No Running) who has her own bakery. Neither dumpee takes the split very well, and that’s how both find each other nursing their wounds in the stairwell of the generic office complex where both work generic 9-5 jobs.

Realizing quickly they are bonded when it comes to being broken up with most egregiously, Emma and Peter make a pact to support one another through this challenging time. It’s an arrangement that morphs into a plan to block their exes from being happy with their new partners. So, Peter will befriend Noah and, through that bro-ship, remind him what he gave up. Emma will, in turn, ingratiate herself with Anne’s drama teacher boyfriend (Manny Jacinto, Bad Times at the El Royale) by working on his production of Little Shop of Horrors and seduce him away. 

Going into the film, I didn’t think it would be possible to hold my interest for nearly two hours because these movies always tend to end in the same way. The question is always then how will the script keep the ones we know are meant to be together apart just long enough for them to conclude it’s not someone else they want but the person closest to them all along? That lack of suspense can make everything that happens between the first meeting and walk into the sunset feel like filler if you don’t have the right combination of actors, but director Jason Orley (The Intern) has found gold in Slate and Day. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been Day’s biggest fan so far in his film career. While I know he carries a dedicated fan base from his long run with TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day’s raspy-voiced chirp hadn’t won me over quite yet. The opposite was true of Slate, who I came into the evening enjoying quite a lot. In a strange reversal, I found Day to be the stronger of the two and responsible for more of the heavy lifting and feeling more comfortable with it. We know that Emma has issues around being serious, but a little too much of that acidity can wear an audience down.   Day applies the right amount of bite to his feelings on their situation, making his journey as detailed but allowing audiences to continue to empathize with his broken heart. 

Helping everything along are a few inspired moments of comedy supplied by both stars. Even Day’s typical nervous uncomfortable banter comes across as well-tuned to the character he’s playing, and Slate takes that and plays off it nicely. Not to be outdone, Slate gets a surreal sequence when she finds herself stepping in at a last-minute technical rehearsal of the junior high musical she’s faked her way into working on. The hilarious image of her singing a duet with a boy half her height and not nearly old enough to drive is one that will stay with me (in a good way) for some time.

Where I Want You Back cuts some corners are the supporting players. It’s not an issue with the actors, but how the exes are written. It’s much easier to root for Emma and Peter to wise up and see they don’t need the people who dumped them if the characters are sour, and that’s mostly how Aptaker and Berger have sketched them. Anne lacks faith in Peter and projects her lack of drive on him, which then causes him to question his own goals. Did Emma need Noah to remind her she hasn’t done much with her life, or did she need a supportive partner that walked alongside her? It’s bad enough in movies when one character is blinded by a love that has long since burned out, but here we have two. At least Rodriguez and Eastwood soften some of those coarser edges. Eastwood has a strong showing here, and it’s one of his best screen roles so far in a career that hasn’t been as dependable as his famous father.

I know that not everyone embraces Valentine’s Day as the happiest of holidays, and maybe it is one of those days that’s been craftily promoted through the years by the greeting card companies. There is a way to take back the day, and that’s through making Valentine’s Day about you more than any commercial product. If you find yourself single, celebrate “you.” Those with significant others should have something up their sleeve. I’m not saying that surprising them with a movie night on the couch with I Want You Back wouldn’t earn major brownie points…but a brownie couldn’t hurt either.

I Want You Back will be available on Prime Video
Friday, February 11

Movie Review ~ On the Rocks

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

Stars: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Let’s have it out right now at the start so we can move on.  I’m not a fan of Lost in Translation and I don’t get it’s appeal.  Whew.  There, I said it and I feel better.  Do you?  Sorry, but that film just didn’t land with me and I know I like a bunch of movies that may leave you wondering if I have a sane bone in my body but Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning screenplay left me freezing.  I guess I could watch it again and see if my mood on it has changed but…I just don’t think so.  Her subsequent films have been a mixed bag too, with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides being right on target and Marie Antoinette making 2005 buzz with its charisma and style.  I was marginally sold on The Bling Ring but less enthused with her remake of The Beguiled, which is all to say that I approached her new film On the Rocks (which has been playing in theaters and now premieres on Apple+) very carefully.

The story of an almost-40 New York mother of two (Rashida Jones, The Sound of Silence) who suspects her busy husband (Marlon Wayans, The Heat) of cheating on her with his co-worker could have easily been another in a long line of crestfallen big city women in crisis movies that you’d rent from Redbox and then forget about forever.  Yet Coppola has made one of the more interesting films of the year by casting one of the more interesting actors working today and giving him his best role in quite some time.  That moves On the Rocks from the watch it and forget it column to the watch it, talk about it, think about it, tell all your friends about how good Bill Murray is in it sort of deal.

At first, Laura (Jones) isn’t sure her successful husband Dean has strayed in their marriage.  A half-awake Dean has returned from a lengthy flight and when he flops into bed and she greets him, he appears surprised to hear her voice.  She actually writes off the incident and even believes the rational reason he provides when she finds the make-up bag for his co-worker in his luggage.  Then she has lunch with her retired art-dealer dad Felix (Murray, Moonrise Kingdom) and that’s when he plants the germ of a seed of doubt in her mind and proceeds to help her nurture it.  A notorious womanizer that has struggled to stay faithful himself, he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Even though Laura doesn’t want to believe the hard to believe signs, maybe her dad is right…but does she want to risk her marriage on a hunch?

Coppola’s film is mainly a drama, a family drama no-less, but there are elements of a number of different genres present.  It’s a buddy film in the way that Laura leans on Felix for support during this strange period of her life as it doesn’t appear she has any female friends she can open up to, surely not the self-involved women (including a scene-stealing Jenny Slate, Zootopia) at her children’s school.  There’s a road trip adventure quality to it as well when Felix convinces Laura to follow Dean to Mexico to surprise him on a co-workers only trip in the hopes of finding him with another woman.  It’s a mystery too, as the audience is never quite sure how allegiant Felix is to his daughter – we feel like he wants the best for her but it’s also clear that for as much shameless flirting and grandstanding gladhanding as he does, she may be his only true connection and if she remains so devoted to Dean where does that leave him?

I wish Coppola had a bit more to say about these relationships in her wrap-up because the conclusion is definitely nowhere near as interesting as the carefully laid out (and highly enjoyable) first ¾ of the movie.  There is a feeling too that had Wayans been a more dynamic actor the stakes may have been raised a bit higher.  As it stands he’s just not on the same level as Jones who in turn isn’t at the same level as Murray.  So you have three different actors all at differing levels of range – sometimes that doesn’t make a difference but in emotionally fueled movies like On the Rocks it does become part of a make or break discussion.  Murray is fantastic, easily the best and brightest he’s been in years – fingers crossed he gets some recognition for this effort – and I hope Coppola continues to explore this side of her narrative storytelling.  Just work on the ending.

Movie Review ~ Venom (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed, Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Scott Haze, Ron Cephas Jones

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: If there’s one thing really good about the recent revival and rethinking of the comic book movie, it’s that it’s giving me some new visibility to characters that aren’t necessarily who you would think about when you hear the word “superhero”. From Guardians of the Galaxy to Ant-Man to Doctor Strange, this comic-book novice is getting a taste of multiple crime fighters and super villains that don’t have familiar names like Superman or Batman. The latest deeper dive character to get his own movie is Venom, the alien symbiote that is the alter-ego of journalist Eddie Brock.   Though Venom was introduced back in 2007 for Spider-Man 3, this is a resetting of the character and yet another origin story for audiences to trudge through. Origin stories done right are worth their weight in gold (hello, Black Panther) but if there isn’t any artistry to the endeavor why even tell the story to begin with?

That’s the main problem facing Venom in its release this fall season – there’s almost no creative energy in the re-launching of the anti-hero to a new generation of theater-goers. Not from the writers, not from director Ruben Fleischer (30 Minutes or Less), and surprisingly not from a stable of interesting supporting actors Fleischer has assembled. Good thing, then, that Venom/Eddie Brock is played by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), a game actor willing to go the distance in his transformation.  It’s Hardy’s bizarre but bizarrely perfect performance that gives the film it’s best bet to hold up on repeat viewings.

As the film begins, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist given an assignment to interview Carlton Drake (Rix Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), CEO of Life Foundation, a bioengineering corporation that has been experimenting with gene technology, often with deadly results. Though Brock doesn’t know it at the time, Drake has been exploring space in search of other worlds for habitation and located symbiotic lifeforms that he plans to transport back to earth. When the vessel carrying these organisms crashes and one escapes, Drake attempts to cover up the breach at all costs. Thanks to information about test subjects dying during clinical trials within Life Foundation he steals from the laptop of his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World) Brock gets too close to the truth and finds himself dumped and fired on the same day.

The film cuts to half a year later when Brock is scrounging for any kind of work and is sought out by Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate, Zootopia), a colleague of Drake’s that has serious concerns over how her boss is conducting business. Skirth sneaks Brock into Life Foundation’s labs where he is infected by one of the alien lifeforms that Drake brought back from space. Thus, Venom is created and uses Brock’s body to roam Earth unnoticed, picking off anyone that interferes along the way. Venom is often just a voice in Brock’s head but makes the rare appearance as an extension of Brock’s appendages or as a full on CGI overlay on Hardy’s body.  Reaching out to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend (Reid Scott), Brock seeks their assistance in discovering what’s inside him and how to get rid of it before it eats him from within.

There’s a strange disconnect between the first and last hour of the film, with the early material playing like a boring retread of any number of failed early ‘90s comic back creations. It’s only when Venom takes over Brock’s body that the film begins to loosen up and inject some dark humor into the action. Working best when it’s just Hardy on screen talking to himself or tossing himself around the room during his internal struggles with Venom, the movie gets considerably less interesting almost every time another character is brought into the mix. That’s bad news for Ahmed who is regulated to the bland megalomaniac villain role and especially poison for Williams who never fully establishes herself as strong enough female presence…at least not until the film almost subconsciously remembers they have an Oscar-nominated actress that has shown herself willing to cross genres in search of a challenge. Too often Williams just stares wide eyed at what’s happening around her and chirps out her lines with less that full enthusiasm. I wish the writers had given her a better arc and kept her interesting.

With the success of films like Logan, Deadpool, and Deadpool 2, audiences have shown they’ll turn out for a R-rated comic-book film. While Deadpool and it’s sequel were a bit on the extreme side of the restricted rating, I feel like Venom could easily have eschewed it’s PG-13 bloodless existence for a more adult oriented adventure like Logan was bold enough to do. It feels like the film was severely cut to get the more family friendly (?) rating and it suffers from comings off like a watered down version of something with higher ambitions. I fully expect to hear interviews with Hardy, Fleischer, and others involved down the road bemoaning the confines of operating in a PG-13 world.

With two post credit stingers (both worth it and one surprisingly lengthy), Venom is 112 minutes from start to finish and, aside from it’s slow first hour, is a mostly entertaining re-introduction to an darker character I wanted to learn more about. As is often the case with the first outings, it fees like we’re obligated to wait until the sequel to get more of that character development…but will audiences create the type of box-office that will cement this supposed continuation?

The Silver Bullet ~ Venom

Synopsis: Plot is unknown but is said to be based on not one but two comic book storylines: ‘Venom: Lethal Protector’ and ‘Planet of the Symbiotes.’

Release Date: October 5, 2018

Thoughts: Ok…so maybe there’s room for another superhero movie in 2018.  While the upcoming year is packed with its share of Marvel entries (Black Panther, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War), DC Comics yarns (Aquaman), and Fox properties (Deadpool 2, X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Oscar nominee Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) is set to suit up as Venom which looks to continue the trend of studios adapting comics with considerably darker tones.  I’m all for something that feels different and I’m getting good vibes from this teaser trailer.  Co-starring Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Movie Review ~ Zootopia

3

zootopia_ver3
The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a city of anthropomorphic animals, a fugitive con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop must work together to uncover a conspiracy.

Stars: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Alan Tudyk, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Jenny Slate, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, Don Lake, Raymond Persi

Director:  Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here we are in the first week of March and I think I’ve found the first truly delightful film of the year. We’ve just emerged from a season of heavy dramas and a start of the year that featured a seemingly endless supply of disappointments and cheap cash grabs. So to find a film as breezy and bright as Zootopia is most welcome, it’s a place you’ll want to visit more than once.

Young Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an idealistic young bunny rabbit that stands up to bullies and dreams of moving from her country life to Zootopia, an animal metropolis where predator and prey live in perfect harmony. With her sights set on becoming the first rabbit police officer, she overcomes the adversity of being 10 times smaller than her fellow police academy trainees and lands a job in the heart of the city. Relegated to the safety of being a meter maid, Hopps longs for more than just issuing parking tickets, though, and in short order gets involved with a plot to disrupt the peace between species.

It’s a surprisingly complex plot that’s dreamed up here, giving Disney Animation the opportunity to explore a world of anthropomorphic animals with no human presence. It’s also the longest fully animated film produced by Disney since Fantasia in 1940 and carries an earned PG rating for some scary moments. The length and rating may give parents cause for pause but I’d encourage families to get out and see this one because not only does it have a typically Disneyfied message of being true to oneself and kind to others it’s wonderfully animated and, at times, hysterically funny.

I like to laugh but don’t find myself often truly breaking down in movies so I have to admit that Zootopia hit my funny bone on several occasions. From a delightfully droll spoof of The Godfather to hilarious trip to the sloth-run DMV there are also references to Breaking Bad and a visit to an animal spa that really left me rolling. That the humor feels so genuine is a tribute to the script from eight screenwriters (the film went through some tweaking/reworking several times during production) .

It’s such a sunny romp that when there are dark turns, they land with the right amount of nuance instead of stinking of a laboriously false tonal shift. Zootopia is divided into several different sections meant to recreate the inhabitant’s native habitat. The city center is your typical city setting while there are occasional detours to a rainforest, desert, and frozen tundra. Each world is designed to look and feel different and Disney animators have gone all out with fine details that keep each section separate yet still related to the others.

The voice talent used here is also one of the most enjoyable casts that Disney has put together in quite some time. Goodwin is a bundle of joyous energy as Judy, as is Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as a sly fox who teams up with Judy in her investigation. Idris Elba (Prometheus) is commanding as Judy’s superior officer and J.K. Simmons (Terminator Genisys) pairs nicely with Jenny Slate (The Lorax) as Zootopia’s lion leader and his lamb second in command. And any chance to hear Bonnie Hunt (Monsters University) onscreen is welcome in my book.

Zootopia is being released in IMAX and 3D and while I normally go for the biggest and best presentation I can find, this is one that won’t suffer from a traditional viewing and in fact may be preferred as the 3D doesn’t have the same impact as other films of its kind.