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Film Review: Stranger than Fiction

Beneath the Charlie Kaufman-lite surface of Stranger Than Fiction lies a pair of compelling stories, one of which is clear to the eye and one of which is not.



Beneath the Charlie Kaufman-lite surface of Stranger Than Fiction lies a pair of compelling stories, one of which is clear to the eye and one of which is not. With only one of them in mind you will most certainly enjoy the film, which itself is a wonderfully astute, sincere and accessible piece of grown-up entertainment, the kind of which has been sorely lacking all season long. Only when you come to discover the other, however, will you catch its third dimension and truly come to appreciate its truthful, direct observations on modern life.

The visible story regards the plight of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a buttoned-up, highly symmetrical human being who works, very appropriately, as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. Through visual and narrative cues we learn that Harold keeps a tight rein on everything in his life, from the number of brushstrokes he uses while brushing his teeth, to the single Windsor knot on his tie and the precise time he walks onto the arriving bus every morning. He’s automatic when it comes to doing otherwise difficult multiplication in his head. Even when Harold wakes up one day to find his life being narrated by an unseen voice (which he mentions to a psychiatrist “has a better vocabulary” than he), he initially seems more genuinely puzzled than just plain freaked out. 

Across town, reclusive, chain-smoking author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) finds herself failing in efforts to fend off a monster case of writer’s block. So bad, in fact, that her publisher has sent along an assistant (Queen Latifah) to keep tabs of the situation, who glibly mentions that she’s never failed in an assignment to help an author finish a book. Eiffel has been stifled in her attempts to find a manner in which to kill off her protagonist, her literary signature, attempting to find inspiration by hanging out on roofs, lingering along canals near bridges and hanging around hospitals, to no avail.

Harold, meanwhile, employs the assistance of professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who takes up his case only when Harold mentions that the unseen voice following him around used the phrase “for all he knows,” which implies the presence of a third-person omniscient, or a storyteller. They set out to determine whether the story that Harold is living is a comedy or a tragedy, which comes quickly to a head when Harold finds himself in the most unusual of situations, falling for an auditee, free-spirited baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), visibly and philosophically his complete opposite.

This is the setup for a sweet, charming trifle of a movie, with a dash of quirk included to keep things from falling into a conventional groove. The inherently curious, though, will find a deeper and more satisfying subtext waiting to be uncorked.

Emma Thompson, playing Karen, yet another author who bears even the slightest resemblance to J.D. Salinger (stick the words “reclusive” and “author” in the same sentence and you’re bound to think the same thing every time), very nimbly keeps her portrayal from descending into parody. You aren’t going to see her character go all Sean Connery and start spouting modernist silliness like, “you’re the man now, dawg.” Whether you are more inclined to create art or to consume art is irrelevant; either way you feel for her plight as the creator of her own work, and that her inability to resolve the conflict facing her eats away at her emotionally, much like a more conventional conflict would eat away at someone in a more conventional line of work. Like Harold Crick. Or Ana Pascal, for whom Harold is the conflict. We see it in Karen’s face, with the bags under her eyes and the perpetually panicked expression on her face, and her neurotic manner of smothering her cigarettes in a napkin. Which, as much as she smokes, happens a lot.

Will Ferrell also engages us as Harold, but from the other direction. He’s a cipher, an exaggerated everyman, a caricature of the 21st Century servant. Reliable to a fault, but also as spontaneous as a doorstop. His only friend, Dave (Tony Hale, whom many will recognize from his role as bespectacled brother Buster Bluth of the late Arrested Development), is a co-worker, albeit one who takes him in after an unusual accident displaces Harold from his own apartment. Harold is jarred from his repetitive, run-of-the-mill existence by the unseen voice, a phenomenon that forces him to resort to answers outside his regimented, systematic existence. Ferrell is refreshing here, being that he finally doesn’t seem to be playing Will Ferrell playing someone else. He’s unconventionally handsome, with a built-in awkward charm that may help him gravitate toward more roles like this in the future.

Harold’s relational conundrum and general confusion may be the audience’s surface connection for a large part of the film, but in the end it is Karen’s struggle as the author that embodies the artist’s constant battle to create something that is both artistically honest and commercially viable. Everyone wants their efforts to be recognized, and artists are especially vulnerable to getting hung up when they realize that their artistic vision may have to be compromised in order to be seen. In this case, her solution not only involves wriggling out of her own quandary, but it is also paramount in bringing Harold’s journey to fruition. 

Stranger Than Fiction is a warm, crisply written movie that thankfully wastes very little of its potential, thanks in large part to a capable and very entertaining cast that are just eating this high concept piece up. Screenwriter Zach Helm, with his first feature film script, and Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland)wind up the cast and just let them go to town. It works equally well on multiple levels, so regardless of your emotional investment you will be rewarded. It’s funny, it’s mature, and it knows that the most honest brand of comedy is that which is based in real life.

Directed by: Marc Forster
Cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans



The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion



Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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