Film Review: Murder Mystery (dir by Kyle Newacheck)


There are actually two Adam Sandlers.

First, there’s the Adam Sandler that everyone knows.  This Adam Sandler is the comedian who has won multiple Razzie awards and who has produced and starred in some of the most critically derided comedies of all time.  This is the Adam Sandler who often seems to make movies specifically so he can either take a vacation or give some work to the less successful members of his entourage.  This is the Adam Sandler whose movies were cited as a tool of patriarchal oppression in the “cool girl” speech during Gone Girl.

And then there’s another Adam Sandler.  This Adam Sandler is a sad-eyed character actor who is probably one of modern cinema’s best portrayers of existential malaise.  This is the Adam Sandler who starred in movies like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Funny People, Spanglish, The Cobbler, Men, Women, and Children, and The Meyerowitz Stories.  Some of those films were very good and some of them, admittedly, were very bad but what they all had in common was that they featured Adam Sandler giving a surprisingly good dramatic performance.  In fact, if someone only saw Adam Sandler’s dramatic work (and not his work in films like Jack and Jill or Grown-Ups, to cite just two examples), they would be justified in assuming that Sandler was one of the most acclaimed actors around.  (One reason why we get so much more annoyed with Sandler’s bad comedies — as opposed to all the other equally bad comedies out there — is because we actually have evidence that Sandler’s capable of doing so much better.)

Unfortunately, almost all of Sandler’s dramatic films were box office disappointments.  Punch-Drunk Love is now widely viewed as being a classic but, when it was first released, it failed to even recoup its production budget at the box office.  Audiences consistently indicated they preferred silly Adam Sandler to dramatic Adam Sandler and so, Sandler continued to make silly theatrical films until even those started to bring in less money than they had before.

As of now, Sandler does most of his work for Netflix and the results have been mixed.  His performance in The Meyerowitz Stories was rightfully acclaimed while his comedies have been considerably less celebrated.  And then you have the just-released Murder Mystery, which seems to straddle the line between the two Sandlers.

On the one hand, Murder Mystery is just as silly and implausible as a typical Adam Sandler comedy.  Sandler plays a New York police officer named Nick Spitz.  Nick has failed his detective’s exam three times but that still hasn’t stopped him from telling his wife, Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), that he’s been promoted.  Nick’s living a lie and he deals with his guilt by taking Audrey on a long-promised trip to Europe.  On the flight over, Audrey meets the charming and wealthy Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) who invites Audrey and Nick to a party on his family’s yacht.  The yacht is owned by billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terrence Stamp) and, when Malcolm’s murdered during the party, it’s up to fake Detective Nick to figure out who is responsible!

Was it the glamorous actress, Grace (Gemma Arterton)?  Or the handsome race car driver, Juan Carlos (Luis Gerardo Mendez)?  Or how about the genocidal warlord, Colonel Ulenga (John Kani)?  Of course, the local Interpol detective (Dany Boon) thinks that it was Nick and Audrey and he even threatens to reveal that Nick’s been lying about his job!  Can Nick and Audrey solve the murder and rekindle the romance of their stalled marriage?

As I said, it’s all pretty silly.  Most of the film’s humor comes from just how out-of-place Nck and Audrey are in the world of high society.  Audrey is excited because the murder mystery is just like the plot of one of the paperback novels that she likes to read.  Nick spends most of the movie trying to keep his wife from discovering the truth about his job.  While everyone else is scheming and plotting and trying to kill one another, Nick and Audrey are literally searching Wikipedia for information on all the suspects.  It’s dumb and occasionally amusing and it’s also rather innocent.  If your grandmother ever wants to watch a comedy with you, Murder Mystery would probably be the one to go with.  There’s nothing to offend grandma but, at the same time, the shots of Monaco and Italy are nice to look at and the film is occasionally amusing enough to hold your attention.

Interestingly, even though the film’s a silly comedy, Sandler gives one of his more grounded performances.  There’s no silly voices or sudden yelling or any of the typical Sandler shtick.  Instead, he’s rather subdued and it works for the film.  He and Jennifer Aniston (another performer who often seems to settle for material that’s beneath what she’s capable of) make for a likable and believable couple and they both play off each other well.

Murder Mystery is a likable, lightweight comedy.  It’s not necessarily something that you’re going to remember much about after you watch it, of course.  It’s not that type of film.  Instead, it’s a perfect Netflix film.  It’s entertaining but you can do other stuff while you’re watching it without having to worry about accidentally missing a brilliant moment of cinematic history.

As for Adam Sandler, he’s following this up with Uncut Gems, a crime drama from the Safdie Brothers.  The Safdie Brothers worked wonders with Robert Pattinson in 2017’s Good Time.  So, who knows?  This time next year, Adam Sandler could be the new Superman….

Sundance Film Review: The Big Sick (dir by Michael Showalter)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 2017’s The Big Sick.

Until the very end, I had hope.

I really and truly believed that The Big Sick, a charming comedy that premiered at Sundance last year and which was one of the best reviewed films of the summer, would manage to pick up an Oscar nod for best picture.  I was actually expecting it would get three nominations, best picture, best original screenplay, and best supporting actress for Holly Hunter.  I knew that the film wasn’t really flashy enough to pick up a best director nomination for Michael Showalter.  And I knew that, despite giving a really good performance, Ray Romano would probably not be nominated for best supporting actor because … well, because he’s Ray Romano and he’ll always be thought of as being primarily a sitcom actor.

It’s true that, as a romantic comedy, The Big Sick would not have been a “traditional” nominee.  But, honestly, the Oscars haven’t been traditional for a while.  If the Oscars were still traditional, Mad Max: Fury Road would not have been nominated.  Not only was The Big Sick critically acclaimed but it’s story — about a Pakistani comedian getting to know his American girlfriend’s parents — seemed tailor-made for the current cultural moment.  The film got some attention during the precursor season, mostly for Holly Hunter.  It picked up a best ensemble nomination from SAG.  The AFI and the PGA both named it one of the best of the year.

But then, this morning, the Oscar nominations were announced.  The Big Sick was nominated for best original screenplay and that was it.  Not even Holly Hunter was nominated.  And again, I don’t buy the whole “it wasn’t a traditional Oscar film” argument.  Neither was Get Out.  I would happily trade The Post for The Big Sick.

In The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of himself.  Zoe Kazan plays Emily Gardner, a version of Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon.  (Nanjiani and Gordon wrote the screenplay, which is based on their life.)  Kumail is a stand-up comedian in Chicago.  His parents are devout Muslims and want Kumail to marry a Pakistani girl.  Kumail isn’t sure what he believes and is more comfortable watching Night of the Living Dead than praying.  The first half of the film deals with Kumail and Emily’s relationship and they’re an adorable couple.  You really do what them to stay together.  Unfortunately, they don’t.  When Emily discovers that Kumail hasn’t told his parents about her and that he isn’t sure their relationship can survive their cultural differences, Emily breaks up with him.

A few weeks later, Kumail learns that Emily is in the hospital.  She’s in a medically induced coma, with an infection creeping towards her heart.  Kumail goes to the hospital, where he meets Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).  It’s awkward, at first.  But as they wait for word from the doctor, it becomes obvious that all three of them have at least one thing in common.  They all love Emily and want her to wake up.

The Big Sick is a sweet-natured comedy about love, dating, culture clashes, and health care.  It’s a pleasant and heartfelt film.  There’s only one negative character in the entire film, a heckler who interrupts Kumail during his act and who, in one of the film’s best scenes, get a verbal beatdown from Beth.  Perhaps if the film had a little more melodrama, it would have picked up that best picture nomination.  But it wouldn’t have been as good a movie.

The Big Sick works because it rings true.  You care about Kumail and Emily and, as the film progresses, you care about Terry and Beth as well.  All four of the lead actors — Nanjiani, Kazan, Hunter, and Romano — gives excellent performances and, with the help of a genuinely witty script, create truly unforgettable characters.  It’s a sweet movie and it’ll probably be remembered longer than some of the film that were nominated in its place.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice

Playing Catch-Up With Four Biopics From 2017: All Eyez On Me, Maudie, A Quiet Passion, and Victoria and Abdul


Continuing with my efforts to get caught up on the major films that I saw in 2017, here are my reviews of four biopics!  Two of them are very good.  One of them is so-so.  And the other one … well, let’s just get to it…

All Eyez on Me (dir by Benny Boon)

All Eyez On Me is a movie that I think a lot of people had high hopes for.  It was a biopic about Tupac Shakur, who died over 20 years ago but remains one of the most influential artists of all time.  Starring Demetrius Shipp, Jr. (who, if nothing else, bore a strong physical resemblance to Tupac), All Eyez on Me followed Shakur from his youth as the son of activist Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), through his early stardom, his political awakening, his time in prison, his eventual association with Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), and his still unsolved murder in Las Vegas.  Along the way all of the expected people pop up.  Kat Graham plays Jada Pinkett and tells Tupac that he’s wasting his talent.  Someone who looks nothing like Dr. Dre is introduced as being Dr. Dre.  Another actor wanders through a scene and says his name is Snoop Dogg.  The film last 2 hours and 20 minutes, with some scenes feeling oddly rushed while other drag on interminably.

The main reason why All Eyez On Me fails is that, unlike Straight Outta Compton, All Eyez on Me never figures out how translate Tupac’s legacy into cinematic form.  For instance, when I watched Straight Outta Compton, I probably knew less about NWA than I knew about Tupac Shakur when I watched All Eyez On Me.  But then there was that scene where NWA performed “Fuck That Police” while surrounded by the police and, at that moment, I understood why NWA deserved their own movie.  There’s no comparable scene in All Eyez On Me, which gets so bogged down in going through the usual biopic motions that it never really comes to grips with why Tupac is such an iconic figure.  Combine that with some less than stellar performances and some amazingly awkward dialogue and the end result is a film that is massively disappointing.

Maudie (dir by Aisling Walsh)

Maudie tells the story of Maud Lewis, a Canadian woman who found fame as a painter despite suffering from crippling arthritis.  Working and living in a one-room house with her husband, a fisherman named Everett (Ethan Hawke), Maud Lewis’s paintings of flowers and birds eventually became so popular that one was even purchased by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

Maudie is a very special movie, largely because of the incredibly moving performance of Sally Hawkins in the role of Maud.  As played by Hawkins, Maud may occasionally be meek but she never surrenders her dream to create something beautiful out the often harsh circumstances of her life.  Hawkins not only captures Maud’s physical struggles but she also captures (and makes compelling) the inner strength of this remarkable artist.  Ethan Hawke also gives a remarkable performance as the gruff Everett.  When you Everett first appears, you hate him.  But, as the film progresses, Hawke starts to show hints of a sensitive soul that’d hiding underneath all of his gruffnes.  In the end, Everett is as saved by Maud’s art as is Maud.

Directed by Aisling Walsh, this is a low-key but all together remarkable and touching film.  If Sally Hawkins wasn’t already certain to get an Oscar nomination for Shape of the Water, she would definitely deserve one for Maudie.

A Quiet Passion (dir by Terrence Davies)

You would be totally justified in assuming that this film, a biopic of poet Emily Dickinson, would have absolutely nothing in common with The Last Jedi.  However, believe it or not, they actually do have something very much in common.  They are both films that, on Rotten Tomatoes, scored high with critics and not so high with audiences.  When last I checked, it had a 93% critical score and a 51% audience score.

Well, you know what?  Who cares?  The idea that you can judge a film’s worth based on an arbitrary number is pure evil, anyway.

Personally, I’m not surprised to hear that audiences struggled with A Quiet Passion.  It’s a very challenging film, one that is more concerned with mood than with traditional narrative.  The film is much like Dickinson herself: dark, uncompromising, sharply funny, and, on the surface, unconcerned with what people might think.  Much as how Dickinson retreated into her Amherst home, the film retreats into Dickinson’s head.  It’s not always the most pleasant place to hide out but, at the same time, it’s so alive with creativity and filled with such a sharp wit that it’s tempting never to leave.

In the role of Emily, Cynthia Nixon gave one of the best performance of the year, bringing Emily to uncompromising life.  Neither the film not Nixon ever make the mistake of sentimentalizing Dickinson.  Her pain is just as real as her genius.  Ultimately, though, both Nixon’s performance and A Quiet Passion stands as a tribute to Emily’s own quiet passion.

Much like Emily Dickinson’s poetry, A Quiet Passion will be appreciated with time.

Victoria & Abdul (dir by Stephen Frears)

If there’s ever been a film that deserves to be known as “generic Oscar bait,” it’s Victoria & Abdul.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad movie or anything like that.  Instead, it’s a very respectable film about Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian Muslim.  While the rest of the royal court is scandalized by Victoria’s close relationship with the foreigner, Karim teaches the Queen about the Koran and encourages her to enjoy life.  The royal court is played by the usual collection of distinguished actors who always appear in movies like this: Simon Callow, Tom Pigott-Smith, and Michael Gambon.  Victoria’s heir is played by Eddie Izzard, which should tell you all you need to know about how the future Edward VII is portrayed.

As I said, it’s not a bad movie as much as it’s just not a very interesting one.  You know that Abdul and Victoria are going to become close.  You know that the Royal Court is going to be a bunch of snobs.  You know that Victoria is going to get a chance to express anti-colonial sentiments that she must surely never actually possessed.  Indeed, whenever the film tries to make any sort of larger statement, all of the characters suddenly start talking as if they’re from 2017 as opposed to the late 1800s.

This is the second time that Judi Dench has played Victoria.  Previously, she played the Queen in a film called Mrs. Brown, which was about Victoria’s friendship with a Scottish servant.  Apparently, Victoria got along well with servants.