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‘Isn’t It Romantic’

If 2018 was the year that resurrected the romantic comedy, it was only a matter of time before the beloved genre was parodied by those who know it best. “Set It Up” writer Katie Silberman has teamed up with “How to Be Single” writer Dana Fox and co-writer Erin Cardillo for this twist on the rom-com, “Isn’t It Romantic,” directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and starring Rebel Wilson. Forget Valentine’s Day, this is the perfect movie for celebrating Galentine’s Day.

Three makes a trend, and “Isn’t It Romantic” does fall into the rather unfortunate high concept subgenre we could call “the head injury attitude adjustment” (see also: “I Feel Pretty” and “What Men Want”). Natalie (Wilson) is a New York architect whose life is far from glam, and whose defensive attitudes about romance and rom-coms are nihilist at best. Her assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), suggests she might try to be more open to opportunity and take a bit of inspiration from the films she so reviles. This leads to some subway eye contact that could either result in a mugging or a meet-cute. In Natalie’s grimy, dangerous world, it’s a mugging.

Thanks to her resultant head injury, Natalie wakes up in a rom-com. The streets are picturesque and spotless; dashing real estate investor Blake (Liam Hemsworth) takes an instant shine to her. Natalie keeps tripping — adorably — and every time she swears, some random ambient noise blares it out. Her grouchy neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) becomes her gay best friend and makeover montage maven. And her best friend, Josh (Adam Devine), even happens upon a gorgeous model/yoga ambassador, Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), who instantly falls for him. For Natalie, this overly shiny and beautiful world of huge New York apartments and dream dates is pure hell, but she realizes the only way out is through — she’s got to love and be loved.

“Isn’t It Romantic” walks the line between subversive and sendup. It gleefully makes fun of the well-known tropes of romantic comedies, while also satisfying our desire to delight in said tropes. While Natalie joshes and jokes, needles and nudges at the stereotypes, the film still offers up The Kiss, The Musical Number, The Slow-Motion Run to Stop a Wedding the audience craves. This makes it feel a bit defanged — the film could have gone deeper to really unearth some of the more problematic issues of the genre. “Isn’t It Romantic” tackles the representation of gay men, and the problematic idea that women in the workplace are often enemies in these movies. But it doesn’t get at some of the more problematic and frankly creepy behavior by leading men that’s been normalized in rom-coms. The two male leads are harmless here, but there are some missed opportunities to really deconstruct the genre.

However, what’s positively refreshing and radical about “Isn’t It Romantic” is when Natalie finally decides who to love, it’s not one man or the other, but herself. It’s a simple but revolutionary notion within a world that wants to profit off our insecurities, fears and anxieties. It takes an overdose on rom-com sappiness for Natalie to see the solution that’s been in front of her all along. And hopefully, for the audience, it won’t take a blow to the head to embrace the idea too.

(PG-13, 2 ½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 28 min.)

-- Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘Happy Death Day 2U’

Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day” was one of the nicer surprises of 2017, an unabashed rip-off of “Groundhog Day” and “Scream” in which a college girl, Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, must relive the day of her murder until she kills the killer. It shouldn’t have worked, but the movie wisely downplayed the blood and cranked up the YA appeal, focusing on its youthful cast, romantic subplot and dorky sense of humor. Horror movies are rarely endearing; this one went so far as to include cute, animated end credits.

The sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U,” offers diminished returns, but it’s not completely unrewarding. Plotting, pacing and logic are weak points, and the source material — this time it’s “Back to the Future” — seems like a less inspired theft. The good news, though, is that the original movie’s strengths are all here as well.

They include Jessica Rothe, of television’s “Gossip Girl,” who gives Tree a late-’90s, post-Gellar aura — blond hair, delicate features, eyes brimming with emotion. Carter, the calm yin to Tree’s chaotic yang, is played once again by a likable Israel Broussard. Phi Vu returns as Ryan, a minor character now elevated to the role of catalyst: It’s his lab project on quantum mechanics, a pulsating machine named SISSY (after the endless rock-roller Sisyphus), that caused Tree’s initial time-loop.

It takes many false starts and much wheel-spinning just to get Tree to her central dilemma: She’s now trapped in an alternate universe, one in which her dead mother is still alive but Carter is dating someone else (Rachel Matthews as the snotty sorority sister Danielle). Which of these deeply flawed realities will Tree choose?

If that sounds complicated, don’t forget: There’s still a murderer on the loose. I haven’t even mentioned Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis), a tyrannical administrator straight out of “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.” There’s also a climactic heist sequence that recalls just about any movie with a heist sequence.

What saves the movie is the hell-with-it attitude of returning director (and now writer) Landon, who goes for broad slapstick, sick humor, teen drama, telenovela shockers, sit-com silliness, you name it. Once again, stay for the end credits. The final sequence may be a tossed-off joke, or it may point this budding franchise in an entirely new direction.

(PG-13, 2½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 40 min.)

– Rafer Guzmán, Newsday

'Donnybrook’

Writer/director Tim Sutton’s “Donnybrook” opens with a strange trio on a strange trip. A young man (Jamie Bell) and a young woman (Margaret Qualley) make their way down a misty river on a boat piloted by an older man. Where they’re going, they need an entrance fee. How did the young man get it? “The only way I know how.”

In this adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel, the only way Jarhead Earl (Bell) knows how to accrue enough cash to fill a plastic grocery bag is armed robbery, the first moment of violence that sets the tone for his odyssey in this bruiser. He needs the cash for his entrance fee to the Donnybrook, an underground brawl around which the details remain murky until we’re thrust into the center of it. The winner of the Donnybrook takes home a hefty purse. Earl needs that money and that money is what drives Earl’s every punch.

After he retrieves his wife and kids from the clutches of sibling meth-cooking duo Delia (Qualley) and Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), the chase is on. Earl makes his way, dragging his sick wife and plucky kids with him. Chainsaw gives pursuit, with law enforcement following the trail of bodies he and Delia leave in their wake. There are pit stops and pitfalls during this journey, in a plot that loops around and in on itself, with a script that doesn’t care to tell you too much about who these people are, beyond a few crumbs. We know Earl is a veteran, and that Delia is not so much an accomplice of her brother, but his miserably abused hostage.

The greatest strength of the lyrical, meandering “Donnybrook” is the cast. The actors melt and disappear into the characters, communicating with few words. Subtext and emotion is read through their bodies and eyes, through a scowl, a swing or a smile. Bell is transformed as a man who is feral yet noble, simultaneously a protector and a killer. Grillo brings a seductive slickness to the terrifying psychopath Chainsaw, who grows more ominous as he makes his way across the landscape, moving closer and closer to his prey. James Badge Dale is committed — but just this shy of showboating — as Whalen, a cop on the hunt of the trail of violence, but too caught up in the druggy underworld to see anything clearly.

The truly surprising and illuminating performance belongs to Qualley, however. She plays the indubitably traumatized Delia as if she’s almost in a daze, sleepwalking through life, just trying to survive with an eerie half-smile on her face, her behavior erratic at best. We can guess at what the men want, what they’re moving toward, but you can’t ever predict what Delia’s going to do.

At times, “Donnybrook” can feel frustratingly opaque — it withholds more information than it grants, which is both effectively intriguing and somewhat baffling. But the film is a mood piece more than anything else. It privileges atmosphere over plot, stirs emotion more than story. Anchored by a quartet of fierce performances, “Donnybrook” is an intense, visceral tone poem, a rumination on money and drugs and bloodshed as a means of making ends meet in the heartland of modern America.

(R, 2 ½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 41 min.)

-- Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘Alita: Battle Angel’

It’s been five years since director Robert Rodriguez’s last feature film, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and he makes his return in a big way with the outlandish, over-the-top manga adaptation “Alita: Battle Angel.” No one can say the film is not a big swing — it truly goes for it, and does so with jaw-dropping vim and vigor. But does it connect? Somewhat. Second question — who is this massive $200 million blockbuster film for? It’s unclear, as the film is incredibly violent, with a main character that espouses a decidedly innocent worldview.

It was obvious from the early glimpses at the film’s main character, Alita, that Rodriguez and company were not holding back with the aesthetic. Actress Rosa Salazar’s eyes have been digitally enlarged to mimic the look of the 1990 cyberpunk manga “Battle Angel Alita” by Yukito Kishiro. But the character’s entire face exists in a digital uncanny valley. It signifies she’s not like the rest of the citizens in the post-apocalyptic Iron City — she’s a cyborg, scooped up from the trash heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who implants her core into a robotic body salvaged from his dead daughter.

Despite the apocalypse, it’s all right in Iron City. It’s a multicultural melting pot of cultures and robotics, where humans rely on biomedical tech. Cyborgs and humans come together to cheer on the wild professional sport that is Motorball, a cross between speed-skating, Nascar and Quidditch. The grand champion gets the lucky chance to ascend to Zalem, “the last of the great sky cities,” which floats above Iron City and sucks up factory goods through a giant tube.

Alita is a blank slate and experiences everything in Iron City with a childlike wonder, from chocolate to Motorball and to her first crush, on a street scavenger named Hugo (Keean Johnson). She remembers nothing of her past, but she possesses unique fighting skills, which she puts to use defending her loved ones, and eventually as a “hunter warrior” bounty hunter. In her most perilous moments, she receives a memory from her past — ninja fighting on the moon, ascending the giant tube to Zalem.

Eventually, Alita finds the robotic body that fits her skills, a foreign piece of tech that’s essentially an alien weapon, all the better to violently dismember robots with. Co-writer James Cameron has embarrassingly described “Alita: Battle Angel” as a metaphor for female puberty, and the filmmakers execute that symbolism in truly bone-headed fashion with her new fighting body. Like the rest of the film, it’s so insane it has to be seen to be believed.

Alita isn’t like the cinematic warrior princesses and action heroines we’ve seen before. She’s emotionally a child, wide-eyed and filled with naive selflessness. But it’s easy to get frustrated with Alita, especially as she pours her talents into her dopey, good-for-nothing boyfriend. As a director, Rodriguez brings a go-for-broke sense of world-building and wildly fantastical style that can be intoxicating, but the film is failed by the weak script co-written by Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis. Character motivations are sloppy, storylines dropped, details muddy. With tonal inconsistencies and poorly written characters, any awe inspired by “Alita: Battle Angel” is replaced with a profound sense of confusion.

(PG-13, 2 of 4 stars, 2 hr. 2 min.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘What Men Want’

There’s something so wonderfully ironic about a black woman taking over the sequel to a Mel Gibson vehicle. The effervescent Taraji P. Henson stars in “What Men Want,” the gender-flipped reboot of “What Women Want,” the 2000 Nancy Meyers film starring Gibson as a playboy who can hear the inner monologues of women after a freak accident. But director Adam Shankman is no Nancy Meyers. And though Henson gives her all to this performance, a bungled script (by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck, Alex Gregory and Jas Waters) and half-baked execution undermine the message the film wants to convey.

In “What Women Want,” it was easy to believe Gibson’s Nick was a self-centered jerk who needed a turn inside women’s brains to develop his compassion and empathy. “What Men Want” asks us to imagine the same thing of Ali (Henson), a hard-charging Atlanta sports agent. But sometimes identity-flips in reboots simply don’t work because they don’t reflect the power dynamics of the real world.

Ali is ambitious, determined and good at her job. She can give it and take it when it comes to bantering with the boys, but she’s passed over for a partner position in favor of a younger male colleague. She shows up for her friends, appreciates handsome men, and while she may be a bit hapless and arrogant, she has good intentions. It seems likely Ali did miss out on the promotion because her workplace is an all-white boys club roiling with “locker room talk.”

Thanks to a psychedelic tea from a psychic (Erykah Badu in a, frankly, inspired performance) — or was it the head injury at the club? — Ali is gifted with the blessing and burden that is a portal into an unfiltered stream of male consciousness. Most women would love to know what men are thinking, and Ali finds it’s mostly sex and bodily functions.

Along the way, Ali pulls her new love interest, Will (Aldis Hodge), and his son into a scheme to sign the client, and bears the responsibility of knowledge about every infidelity in town. What she ultimately learns is honesty is always the best policy. A good lesson for anyone, but in the film’s race to resolve its conflicts, it tries to retroactively suggest Ali needed to learn these lessons to get over her ego and treat men better. It’s impossible to buy this when it’s never sufficiently established that she’s a jerk or terrible person in the first place. The film doesn’t take the time to make us believe Ali deserves the reality check.

Henson is a gifted actress and physical comedian, managing to hold together “What Men Want” with the sheer force of her powerful charisma, but the film around her is harried, messy and woefully underwritten.

(R, 2 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 57 min.)

-- Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

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