Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Irishman

Movie Name: The Irishman
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham, Jack Huston, Gary Basaraba, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Kathrine Narducci, Jim Norton, Daniel Jenkins, Kevin O'Rourke, Paul Ben-Victor, Patrick Gallo, Jake Hoffman, Barry Primus, Jonathan Morris
Genre: Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Martin Scorsese is back, following the wonderful "Silence", which was another one of his long gestating projects (much like his "The Last Temptation of Christ"). "The Irishman" which he opted in 2004, had an equally long process of getting to the screens, with Netflix finally producing and releasing the big budget feature. The film is based on the novel by Charles Brandt, and follows the story of Frank Sheeran, a war veteran who gets ingratiated into the ranks of organized crime in the 50s, and soon becomes a protege of Russell Bufalino, whom everyone reveres and abides to. As their collaborations unfold throughout the years, Frank is placed as second in command to Union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa, with his large polarizing personality, also uses Frank to get his agenda ahead (or unblocking possible friction points). When Jimmy becomes the target of a Federal investigation, and is eventually arrested/incarcerated, for tampering with the trial/jury of his case, his downward trajectory begins, something Frank witnesses and tries to diplomatically avoid from happening. Jimmy's colorful personality however rubs multiple people the wrong way, forcing Frank to make some hard decisions, which impact his friendship with Jimmy himself, but also his family life altogether.
Much has been written on the topic of "The Irishman", particularly on such items as being the longest film directed by Martin Scorsese to date (it's 209 minutes), and also because it's the first reunion with one of his muses, Robert De Niro, since they worked together in 1995's "Casino". "The Irishman" is in a way, a recap/digest of the world that Scorsese brought forth in his seminal "Goodfellas" from 1990. The film tracks the lives of Frank Sheeran, and those in his periphery, which included the iconic Russell Bufalino and the maligned Jimmy Hoffa. Unlike "Goodfellas" and Francis Coppola's "The Godfather" series, "The Irishman" focuses almost exclusively on the dealings these characters have with each other, and how society around them changes as a result of their dealings, without these individuals themselves, not changing that much. It doesn't particularly dwell that much on their family lives, giving very little insight into the women that populate this world. It's a film that feels very much as a direct descendant from the features of the 70s, in style (particularly evident in the impeccable production design and costumes), rhythm, but it does provide a third arc where most of these characters come to terms with their own mortality and what happens as you age and fade from memory. It's the particular part of the film that makes it the more memorable, the indication that everyone has to live with the consequences of their actions, that everyone is deeply human, flawed, no matter what life you led. It's also a film that isn't as immediately polished as some of the director's previous features, with some scenes with Robert De Niro failing to convince particularly when he has to be more physical, whereas the lack of any depth to any female character is also a dramatic flaw in this universe ("Casino" had the memorable Ginger, played by Sharon Stone, and "Goodfellas" had Karen Hill, played by Lorraine Bracco, bringing at least a somewhat different point of view to a male centric storyline). The central performances are wonderful, with a complicity between the three central actors which is wonderful to witness. For all its resources and powerful storytelling, this is a somewhat unbalanced feature in a career from a tremendously gifted storyteller. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Report

Movie Name: The Report
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Dominic Fumusa, Douglas Hodge, T. Ryder Smith, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Scott Shepherd, Matthew Rhys, Jennifer Morrison, Kate Beahan, Lucas Dixon
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
Celebrated screenwriter (and frequent collaborator of the fantastic Steven Soderbergh), Scott Z. Burns makes his feature directorial debut with the impeccable "The Report". The film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and then followed suit by going through a slew of Film festivals in the fall, details the investigation which surrounded the CIA's post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program. The film focuses specifically on the work handled by Daniel J. Jones, who is tasked by Senator Dianne Feinstein, with leading a small team of researches and  investigate the practices of Detention and Interrogation conducted by the CIA, which occurred following the events of 9/11. The investigation lasts for 5 years, across a multitude of documents and sources, finally producing a report of over 6000 pages. When that report becomes known to different parties, a power play of different stakeholders begins, all with the intent of keeping some information buried. Some of these forces stop at nothing, including accusing Jones from being a hacker and gathering information improperly. All these setbacks force everyone to question their standing, and what they ultimately want to move through.
"The Report" is a film that inherits the spirit of the late Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" and to a more recent extent, James Vanderbilt's "Truth". It traces and details a thorough research process, into a topic that is controversial and brutal, something that was alluded to in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty", torture of prisoners. It's a film that is less concerned with character development, and more with the process of uncovering the truth, the hurdles that exist in making sure that same truth is unearthed and showcased to the public. The director manages to create a film that is engrossing, detailed, portraying the near endless journey experienced by Daniel J. Jones, uncovering everything pertaining to that program. It's a film that smartly showcases different points of view, different perspectives of the narrative, allowing for a better understanding of what was actually at stake. The film is obviously not a documentary, but there's a layer of didacticism, that is relevant and quite well staged. The cast is superb, with great performances by Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Ted Levine, while Adam Driver in the central role, creates a character that has integrity and intensity,  but is otherwise a solid and discrete professional. A very good film from a great writer. 

Little Monsters

Movie Name: Little Monsters
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Abe Forsythe
Starring: Lupita Nyongo, Alexander England, Josh Gad, Kat Stewart, Diesel La Torraca, Nadia Townsend, Marshall Napier, Glenn Hazeldine, Charlie Whitley, Mason Mansour, Ava Caryofyllis
Genre: Comedy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review:
Actor, Writer and Director, Abe Forsythe has followed his directorial debut, "Down Under", with a different take on the zombie genre. The film follows the story of perpetual man-child Dave, who after a fallout with his girlfriend, moves in with his sister and young nephew. Dave is selfish, self-centered, and unable to help in any productive manner. He maintains the dream he's a professional musician, though his band dissolved a while back, and he basically now lives from playing on the streets (just barely). After an ultimatum from his sister, Dave is forced to wise up, and start helping around the house. When he drops off his nephew at school, he meets the elementary school teacher, Ms. Caroline, who is professional, kind, and devoted to her students. He's immediately infatuated with her, and in order to ingratiate himself with her, goes on a field trip with her and the students. The trip however goes awry when the camp they're visiting is suddenly invaded by zombies who escaped from a nearby military base. Caroline and Dave have to unite their efforts to battle the ever growing horde, and save the children. 
"Little Monsters" is in essence, the rite of passage of Dave, the man-child protagonist of the film, into fully adulthood, while in the context of a zombie/comedy mix. For a large part of the film, Dave is presented and embodied as a heartless loser, only focused on himself, and as the events dramatically shift, and as his focus of attention move to Caroline and his nephew, we witness a process of maturing under duress. It's a rather speedy maturing process, since the events take place in a two day interval, during which all the characters battle a zombie outbreak, find inner strength, and have a few epiphanies about the true meaning of life and love. It's a somewhat thinly layered film, without much nuance to it, featuring some comedic moments, and largely wasting a deeply committed performance from Lupita Nyongo, who at times demonstrates a ferocity and intensity that this film could have leveraged far more. As is, this is a quickly forgettable endeavor, largely anemic in style and energy, save for the always fantastic Nyongo. 

Knives Out

Movie Name: Knives Out
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Frank Oz, K Callan
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
The wonderfully talented Rian Johnson is back, after his experience with the "Star Wars" industry/universe, tackling a decidedly smaller feature in scope, but nonetheless an entertaining endeavor. The film follows the story of the family Thrombey, who is largely dominated by the figure of the patriarch, the well known crime/thriller author Harlan Thrombey. After celebrating his 85th birthday with a lavish party, he suddenly appears dead. The family comes together to mourn him, but also to learn of the inheritance and division of assets. Among the mourners are his children, grand-children and also, his caring and loving nurse Marta. However, on top of all of this, the Police is also involved, since even though the death has initially been ruled as a suicide, there's the need to eliminate any possible suspicion of fowl play. The Police comes to the mansion, aided by the well known detective Benoit Blanc, in order to uncover if there was indeed some hidden motif behind Harlan's demise. As they question each of the family members, some secrets, resentments and frustrations emerge, clearly establishing multiple motivations for the offing of the patriarch. 
"Knives Out" is a well done whodunit type of feature, calling to mind some of the adaptations of author Agatha Christie, with sprawling casts and lavish production values, such as Sidney Lumet's "Murder On the Orient Express". Rian Johnson smartly introduces the cast of characters, with just enough insight in order to deftly and with a few broad strokes, showcase their motivations, quirks and possible secrets. In other hands the film could possibly fall into Poirot territory, which in itself wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but the director manages to provide enough twists, and embed the film with enough humor, in order to make it distinct and with a personality of its own. The film really manages to elevate itself, thanks to an impeccable cast, particularly Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and Chris Evans, all of whom really steal the show, while on the opposite side of the spectrum, there's a seriously miscast Daniel Craig, as the central detective, whose southern accent seems to come and go at times (it would be fantastic to see someone like Ralph Fiennes tackle a role such as this). The cinematography from Steve Yedlin is impeccable, as is the score from Nathan Johnson. An entertaining suspense film worth watching.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Simple Favor

Movie Name: A Simple Favor
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Linda Cardellini, Dustin Milligan, Andrew Rannells, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Sarah Baker, Roger Dunn, Bashir Salahuddin, Lauren Peters, Nicole Peters, Ian ho, Joshua Satine, Eric Johnson
Genre: Crime, Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Paul Feig followed his version of "Ghostbusters" with a tonal difference in genre, with the adaptation of the book by Darcey Bell, which favors more of a thriller than the previous (and successful) comedic endeavors of his career. The film follows the story of a young widowed mother, Stephanie, who lives in Connecticut, living off from the insurance money her late husband left for her and their son. While picking her son from school, she meets Emily, a beautiful and sophisticated woman, mother to a friend of her son's, who works in the city, lives in a stunning house, and whose husband is a professor at a nearby college. Emily quickly creates a friendship with the eager and helpful Stephanie, and the relationship sails on, until Emily suddenly disappears. Her disappearance forces Stephanie to start poking around, but events take a darker turn when Emily's body is found in the bottom of a lake. While mourning her passing, Stephanie and Sean, the widower, become intimate and a relationship blossoms. However much to Stephanie's surprise, events start occurring that suggest that Emily may not be dead after all.
She embarks on a journey to find out who Emily actually was and what actually happened to her.
"A Simple Favor" marks a tonal shift in direction for Paul Feig. Whereas "Spy" and "Ghostbusters" were markedly solid comedies, this feature goes for a thriller type of approach. It has a bit of Hitchcock in it, though the result reminds at times what Damian Harris did with "Deceived" (a Goldie Hawn vehicle from 1991), some of Joseph Ruben's efforts from the early 90s (for instance, "Sleeping with the Enemy") and even Yves Simoneau's "Mother's Boys" (a vehicle for Jamie Lee Curtis which premiered in 1993). That is to say, this film has a bit of a saucy thriller aspect to it, showcasing these different women, with interesting pasts, coming together, and how eventually one of them weaves a web of deception in order to get ahead (a la Bob Rafelson's "Black Widow"). This relationship, filled with complicity, but also seduction, is what makes the film have some extra interest. Sadly that is quickly discarded in detriment of the pulpier side of the narrative, with the unveiling of the dark secrets that were held by the fascinating and captivating Emily (though the whole wearing a suit and a cane prop for that character, is a bit too on the nose). Anna Kendrick is wonderful as the wholesome mother who has been by herself and who is dazzled by this new friend, whereas Blake Lively while lovely to look at, barely registers as someone with a personality. It's a film that tries to inject some comedy moments into some predictable thriller archetypes, but it's a film that needed a slightly different point of view, with further edge. Forgettable.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Movie Name: Brittany Runs a Marathon
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Paul Downs Colaizo
Starring: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Kate Arrington, Esteban Benito, Dan Bittner, Patch Darragh, Jennifer Dundas, Gina Costigan 
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
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Synopsis and Review:
"Brittany Runs a Marathon" is the debut feature from Paul Downs Colaizo, and made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, and quickly got bought for distribution by Amazon. The film follows the story of Brittany, a 28 year old young woman, originally from Philadelphia, currently living in Queens and barely making a living with her job in Manhattan. Brittany parties frequently, has lost most of her ambition, and in the pursuit of some extra party enhancers, visits a doctor, who warns her she has the potential to have some serious health problems. Brittany decides to change her life, lose 50 pounds and train for the New York marathon. Along the way she inspires and becomes acquainted with a few running friends who become a good support system for her. As her life choices change, some of her friends are less impressed by her newfound self esteem, and though Brittany has issues of her own with relationships and even friendships, she eventually comes to terms with opening up to others. 
"Brittany Runs a Marathon" is a romantic comedy, where our heroine goes through a journey of self discovery, which includes of course, hitting rock bottom, only to come to terms with loving herself, and embarking on a journey to reinvigorate herself and her life. The film, and its formula, aren't profoundly different from everything else that has been done or seen in this genre, however, the film has a charm mostly derived from the eclectic cast that the director has assembled, alongside the fact that it doesn't attempt to overly glamorize life in a big metropolis. Whereas Todd Strauss-Schulson's "Isn't It Romantic" attempted to deconstruct the clichés of romantic comedies, this one paints them with just enough of a broad stroke to make the film balance the feel of romance with a dash of reality, namely of the difficulties (and costs) of living in a big city. Jillian Bell plays Brittany perfectly, with enough humor, but also defensiveness, due to her past, her own insecurities, giving the character an arc where Brittany learns to accept herself and others in her life. It's a sweet film, that while not profoundly original, is still entertaining and well acted. Worth watching. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Earthquake Bird

Movie Name: Earthquake Bird
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Naoki Kobayashi, Jack Houston, Akiko Iwase, Kiki Sukezane, Ken Yamamura, Yoshiko Sakuma 
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
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Synopsis and Review:
Another week, another release from the streaming platform Netflix. This time around it comes from the talented hands of director Wash Westmoreland, who previously directed the great "Quinceanera" and "Still Alice" (these two with his late partner Richard Glatzer). Following his recent "Colette", Westmoreland tackles the adaptation of a novel by Susanna Jones, which follows the story of Lucy Fly, who in 1989 is working in Japan as a translator. She's originally from Sweden, and carries a certain sadness with her, due to a series of traumatic past events. While walking to work, she meets the handsome Teiji, who works in a noodle shop, but takes photographs of whatever captures his attention. Even though she's closed off, they eventually start an amorous relationship. Into this somewhat peaceful existence comes an additional player, in the shape of an American expat, by the name of Lily. Lily is in Japan, working as a bartender, even though she doesn't know the language, and her training is in the medical field (she previously worked as a nurse). Lucy starts getting progressively more jealous of the interest Teiji develops for Lily. When Lily suddenly disappears, Lucy is called out by the police to help them unravel that mystery. 
"Earthquake Bird" is an interesting film, in the sense that with all the talent involved, it's remarkable the paltry results it showcases at the end. It's difficult to assess if the film is trying to be a mystery, or a dramatic exploration of a character who carries within herself a lot of trauma, and who as a result of that, can't fully embrace mature relationships. There are nuances and hints of what this film could have been, particularly as the relationship between the three leads goes into a sexual territory, but that is quickly abandoned. It's a film that could have gone in so many different directions, and so many opportunities arise to probe deeper into certain characters motivations, but those topics are merely sketched out, and not fully explored. What indeed saves this discrete endeavor is the talent of both Alicia Vikander, who always manages to bring melancholy and sadness alive in all her roles, and the potent energy Riley Keough displays in all her performances (which are a mix of sexiness, discovery and ennui). The camera work of Chung-hoon Chung is impeccable, but this film is a quickly forgettable endeavor.  

Destination Wedding

Movie Name: Destination Wedding
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Victor Levin
Starring: Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Writer/Director Victor Levin made a name for himself on television (he was one of the writers and producers on "Mad About You" to name but a few of the shows he's been involved in), and previously directed the well received "5 to 7" with the late Anton Yelchin and Berenice Marlohe). "Destination Wedding" follows the story of an unlikely couple, Lindsay and Frank, who are brought together when Frank's half brother, who is also Lindsay's ex-fiancée, invites them both to his wedding. The wedding is in a somewhat remote area, forcing these two individuals, who knew of each other, but didn't know each other, to suddenly get acquainted, and immediately dislike each other. They travel together, get to the hotel where they're right by each other's rooms, and both partake in a dual bickering, disputing and constant squabbling fest, one that eventually sparks something. 
"Destination Wedding" is a film with a rather simple premise. Two people who are basically against the idea of romance, with a lifetime of squabbles and issues of their own, eventually find within them an ounce of truthfulness about who they are and who they want to be with. It's a film that it's overly verbose, but that in essence lives from the chemistry and complicity that exists between the lead actors. Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, who played a married couple in the past, more specifically on Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula", spar, bicker and throw zingers at each other, yet it's clear that these characters belong together, and the pleasure here lies in partaking on the journey they take to get there. If anything, the film falters in not allowing them to have other characters to effectively support their journey, and give a better idea who these individuals truly are. It's a two hander type of journey, highly focused on figuring out who's letting their guard down firstly. Winona Ryder is her typical self, with a character who suits her self mockery perfectly, whereas for Keanu Reeves, is welcoming to see him playing a character that is grounded and almost bitterly irreverent. It's a smallish endeavor, but nonetheless not without its charm. Worth watching. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Doctor Sleep

Movie Name: Doctor Sleep
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Alyn Lind, Zahn McClarnon, Selena Anduze, Carel Struycken, Catherine Parker, Zachary Momoh, Jocelyn Donahue, Robert Longstreet, Carl Lumbly, Thomas Downing, Roger Dale Floyd, Alex Essoe, Michael Monks, Henry Thomas
Genre: Drama, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Mike Flanagan continues his winning streak of adapting/directing interesting material. After his successful show "The Haunting of Hill House" and the Stephen King adaptation, "Gerald's Game", his most recent project is another Stephen King adaptation, in this case the direct sequel to "The Shining". The film focuses on the life of Danny Torrance, now an adult, dealing with ghosts of the past, which he tries to numb using alcohol. Trying to escape a series of bad decisions, Danny finds himself in a small town in New Hampshire, where with the help of new friends he starts putting his life back together. He starts utilizing his powers to help those in hospice, transitioning into death in a more peaceful manner (therefore his nickname, "Doctor Sleep"). He suddenly also gets acquainted with a young girl by the name of Abra, who is possessed of the "Shine", much like him, only far stronger. She has become aware of a group of supernatural creatures, under the guise of "The True Knot", who roam America, and have done so for centuries, consuming the shine from children (and killing them in the process). Danny is thrown into this situation where he has to help Abra escape the dangerous focus of this group, lead by the menacing Rose the Hat.
Mike Flanagan has made a career by smartly defying the conventions of what horror films are about: he privileges context definition, character building, over gratuitous gore and the habitual horror films trappings. In "Doctor Sleep" however, he has the huge legacy from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" to tackle, which is coincidentally where this film loses some of its momentum. The film is a solid yarn, where we progressively learn about Danny, his life choices, and how the burden of carrying the ghosts from the past has alienated him and led on to a life of drinking. This universe is deftly explained, as is the introduction of the creatures who feed off from those who have the Shining. It's a film that could have easily lived on its own, but it opts to weave in the mythology of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation, veering off the original book. In trying to build these bridges with the previous film, there's a definite sense of trying to recapture what Stanley Kubrick did, so iconically, and those parts are simply not as effective as they were in the 1980 film. It's nonetheless a smartly written, acted and well realized adaptation of the book. Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson and Carl Lumbly all have an opportunity to create compelling characters and deliver solid performances. It's a film that while it doesn't soar as the original "The Shining" did, it's a solid endeavor from a very good director. Worth watching.

Isn't it Romantic

Movie Name: Isn't It Romantic
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Starring: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alex Kis, Jay Oakerson, Rao Rampilla, Zach Cherry
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis and Review:
Director Todd Strauss-Schulson who has made a name for himself, mostly with shorts and TV series, has made a foray into feature films with primarily comedies (he directed one of the "Harold and Kumar" features). "Isn't it Romantic" follows the story of Natalie, a young woman, who is an architect working in New York City (and living in a tiny apartment). Natalie learnt from a young age, and from her mother, that romantic comedies are only destined to be just that - dreams concocted with a series of formulas, but that have little to no bearing with reality. Natalie has issues affirming herself and her point of view, and constantly shoots down the attention that Josh, her coworker, sends her way. After a particularly dastardly mugging experience, Natalie finds herself in a hospital, and upon waking up starts realizing she's literally inside a Romantic Comedy reality. Her apartment is suddenly gigantic, she has tons of shoes, everyone bursts into choreographed dance styles, and she has the attention of a man, she lusted after. However the longer she stays in that reality, the more she suddenly realizes that her own life, and the people in it, weren't that bad to begin with.
"Isn't It Romantic" has an interesting concept at hand, and a cast game for it. It plays with the clichés of romantic comedies, addressing them right on the nose, even if at the end, it embraces all of them full on. It's a typical set up, of the young woman learning to assert and love herself, and who in the process finally sees all that surrounds her, including her long pinning co-worker. It's a film that has some fun with the clichés that it represents, particularly with Rebel Wilson taking center stage and really making the best of her character. It's also a film that could have gone so much further, that could have been much more acidic, but that ultimately renders itself innocuous. Rebel Wilson, Betty Gilpin and Jennifer Saunders deserve a better film, but there are still a few instances where this elicits a chuckle. Ultimately is passable.