Friday, May 18, 2018

'Book Club': Sex And The Creaky

Movie still? Or a photo shoot for Town & Country?

When I found out there was an advance screening of Book Club scheduled on Mother's Day, I immediately thought what they wanted me to think: a perfect opportunity to take mom to the movies! But then I realized I actually love my mother, and shouldn't subject her to such dreck, especially on Mother's Day. Still, I mentioned the option to her, and she jumped on it. I guess mother knows best because it turns out, Book Club isn't that bad.

It's not that great, either, but as a vehicle for four stellar actresses of a certain age, it manages to hit all the mature lady buttons you'd expect it to. And if that sentence sounds dirty, it's because you can't walk away from a viewing without a bad case of innuendo-itis; the club's selection, as the movie begins, is Fifty Shades of Grey.

That the majority of them wouldn't have already read it may seem a little unbelievable, especially since their monthly book club started during their college days in the 1970's, with Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. But I'll allow it, especially since most of them have had things other than sex on their minds for a long time. Aside, that is, from Vivian (Jane Fonda), a wealthy hotelier, and the Samantha of the group, who recognizes a profound lack of gettin' any in her friends, hence her choosing the bestseller as that month's pick.

None of the book club members is particularly excited by the choice. Not Sharon (Candace Bergen), a federal judge who hasn't had a date since she divorced her boring accountant husband (Ed Begley Jr.), 18 years prior. Not Carol (Mary Steenburgen), who has been married to her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), for decades. And definitely not Diane (Diane Keaton), who is recently widowed and dealing with two adult daughters who are convinced she's so feeble she should move to Arizona to be closer to them. But the book, or more accurately, the discussions the women have as a result of reading the book, lead to realizations for all of them, mostly centered on the men, or lack thereof, in their lives.

I have no love for the Fifty Shades series, but I've long maintained that if it somehow leads to unsatisfied women finally getting what they want in the bedroom, more power to them. What I take issue with is how the series makes an abusive and cold man seem like some kind of prize. And with that in mind, Book Club is kind of depressing. At its heart, it's a movie focused on four successful women in their later years who all seem to believe their lives would be much better if they either had a man, or could at least get more attention from the man they have.

Vivian, who has long believed in no-strings-attached sex, begins to question her lifestyle when an ex-flame (Don Johnson, father of Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson) shows up in town. Sharon, supposedly a powerful federal judge, is still hung up on an ex-husband she never even liked, while trying to build up enough courage to finally get out there by joining a dating app.

Diane's arc is the most entertaining, mainly because it's Diane Keaton at her most Diane Keatonish, paired with a surprisingly witty Andy Garcia, as the independently wealthy (because of course) airline pilot Mitchell. He is a prize, and they have a believable chemistry; you can totally buy their meet-cute romance.

All of the women are given scenes that display both their comedic and dramatic chops, but it's the moments that feature just them, screen legends, together and talking, away from any men, that elevates the film above your basic rote, multi-storied rom-com.

You may be shocked to hear this film is NOT from Nancy Meyers, the director behind "women of a certain age" hits like It's Complicated and Something's Got to Give. With its very white cast and perfectly manicured settings (every home is worthy of a magazine spread), it certainly looks like one of her films. The presence of Diane Keaton, playing someone named Diane, surely adds to the confusion. But no, this one comes from first-time director and screenwriter Bill Holderman (with a screenplay co-written by Erin Simms). And really, that's fine. There should be more than one filmmaker in Hollywood making movies for and about older women.

And if you're wondering which of the film's stars has the best plastic surgeon, my mother has a strong opinion on the matter: It's Don Johnson.

Friday, May 11, 2018

'Life Of The Party' Isn't

"Ben, honey, I love you. But I need my I can go make Spy 2."

I'm sure Melissa McCarthy loves her husband Ben Falcone very much, but the bottom line is she has to stop making movies with him. Life of the Party is the third film they've made together, with Falcone directing and co-writing (Tammy and The Boss being the others), and it just solidifies the fact that McCarthy succeeds much better when she's away from the creative influences of her husband. (Her best starring vehicles, Spy and The Heat, as well as her breakout supporting role in Bridesmaids, were all directed by Paul Feig.)

McCarthy stars as Deanna, a middle-aged mom who, immediately after dropping her daughter off at her senior year of college, is informed by her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce because he's fallen in love with a realtor named Marcie (Julie Bowen). Dropping her child off at the same school Dan forced her to drop out of when she became pregnant during their senior years sets the wheels turning in Deanna's head. She decides to take "lemonade and turn it into lemons" (as a future sorority sister tells her later) and go back to school to finish her archeology degree.

There's some obvious comedy to be had having Deanna enroll in the same school as her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon), but after some initial horror, Maddie is mainly delighted by her mother's presence. In fact, most of the students she encounters are delighted by her, (except for a couple of mean girls who would be considered too cartoonish for even the worst '80s teen movie).

So then what's funny about a middle aged woman going back to school, having a great time, making friends, and achieving a life goal? Not much! Even Deanna's frumpy mom looks are done away with pretty quickly after a makeover from her daughter. The result is a perfectly lovely looking, slightly older woman, who is able to attract the attentions of the nearest hunk and fellow chardonnay lover, frat boy Jack (Luke Benward).

There were some groans from the audience when Jack and Deanna eventually hook up (though aside from some kissing, we don't see them get physical), but I appreciate that their relationship isn't used as a tool for shaming Deanna in any way. There's no scene of Jack pretending he doesn't know her with his buddies, or showing any embarrassment over his infatuation with her. (At one point he deems her his "Sexual Dumbledore," to which she replies that no woman ever, ever, wants to be compared to a grizzled wizard.)

But again, since that relationship isn't really played for laughs, it's another aspect of the film that And since McCarthy isn't allowed to do much more aside from being perfectly lovely and pleasant, it's up to supporting players like Gillian Jacobs, as a fellow college student who recently came out of an eight year coma, and Maya Rudolph as Deanna's devoted BFF, to supply a majority of the laughs, and they aren't given nearly enough to work with.

As the movie progressed, I began to tick down in my notes the number of times I actually laughed out loud, and emerged with two ticks in that notebook--and I can't for the life of me even remember what it was that made me laugh. And when a movie includes Maya Rudolph as a high strung best friend with an aggressively flippy hairstyle and you only laugh twice? You know it's a failure as a comedy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

'Tully': Maternity Left

Motherhood, Such a Blessing!

The way director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody's Tully is being sold, with a series of perky trailers, and a poster that brings to mind Lisa Frank, you'd think it was a lighthearted comedy about the toils, troubles, and ultimate rewards of motherhood. And sure, it is about that. But it's also something much darker, and in many ways universal, going beyond the experiences of motherhood, and into the pain of losing your youth forever to the curse of irreversible adulthood.

Charlize Theron's performance as Marlo, mother of two young children with another due any day, is raw, emotional, and free of vanity. She's won an Oscar for an un-glamorous role before, in Monster, but she's even more believable here, not just because she reportedly gained close to 50 pounds for the film, but because everything about her feels authentic and lived in. When she wearily takes off a stained shirt in front of her children, only to have her daughter ask, "Mom! What's wrong with your body?!" you don't doubt for a second that motherhood can wreck even an Amazon like Theron.

Marlo is 40 and this third pregnancy was not planned, though she's quick to label it, without much enthusiasm, "a blessing" when its commented upon. She's just beginning maternity leave from her HR job, so her days are centered on shuffling her kids to school, and dealing with son Jonah's special needs and her daughter Sarah's growing insecurities. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), has a job that's too boring for even him to explain, and it often requires him to travel. He does enough around the house and with the kids to be able to say he and Marlo "share" responsibilities, though of course that's not really true. Marlo knows once that baby comes, only one of them will be waking up in the middle of the night to feed it.

Marlo's wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) offers her the gift of a "night nanny," a service he and his wife used after their third child was born. "They're like ninjas," he says, coming in at night allowing the new parents to sleep, only waking mom when it's time to feed. Marlo doesn't like the idea of someone else bonding with her child, and dismisses the offer.

But when the monotony, sleep deprivation, and pressures of caring for three children take their inevitable toll--illustrated with an expertly done montage of neverending late night feedings, diaper changing, and breast pumping, driving home the idea that hell is nothing if not the endless repetition of parenthood--she makes the call, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives.

Davis's Tully is both ethereal and earthy; Mary Poppins in a belly shirt, espousing little words of wisdom about motherhood ("Kiss your baby goodnight; she'll be different in the morning...we all will!"), while also complaining about romantic entanglements with her female roommate. She cleans in the night, bakes cupcakes for the kids, and shares sangria and confessions with Marlo. The relationship and the relief it brings helps Marlo break out of her growing depression; "It's like I can see colors again!" she tells her husband

Screenwriter Diablo Cody's writing has often exhausted me in the past, with her apparent need to make every single line of dialogue clever. But with Tully she's calmed down a bit, allowing the unspoken to do some of the heavy lifting, while still inserting moments of her patented acerbic wit. (In a conversation with her sister-in-law about an upcoming school talent show, Marlo asks her what her daughter's talent is. "Pilates," she replies.)

Tully slyly becomes more than just a story of mother and nanny bonding, building up to a resolution that is surprising, and I imagine some may be bothered by it. But as watched it play out, I appreciated how subtle it actually was. Miss a line and you may miss that resolution altogether, and it's a testament to the film that it would fare no less for that.

Friday, April 27, 2018

'Avengers: Infinity War': Dust In The Wind

Wakanda Forever!

Ten years ago I saw the first Iron Man movie a week after seeing the first Sex and the City movie. It was an interesting contrast to see two films with equally eager, albeit demographically opposite audiences. Imagine an opening-night Iron Man crowd where everyone is dressed as their version of Tony Stark, and you'll understand what that Sex and the City opening night was like. I couldn't help but compare the two films, as they were both among the top movies of the summer. Ultimately, I decided I preferred Sex and the City's version of a New York fantasy (better shoes), but I could certainly understand the appeal of Iron Man and its new kind of comic book movie.

After the first Avengers film in 2011, I realized that I enter a viewing of most new superhero movies, especially those with multiple heroes, like it's going to be the last. Maybe this time, the big battle will end with the world being saved forever, and everyone will get to enjoy a life full of relaxation, sunsets...and a different kind of summer movie.

And in its own dark way, Avengers: Infinity War, an event Marvel has been building up to for the past decade, does satisfy that fantasy. One could walk away from it never needing to see another Marvel movie again, though I seriously doubt anyone who sits through its almost three hour running time isn't going to watch the sequel, due out next year.

And that's the thing; Infinity War deals some extreme blows, and some devastating losses. Moments made me tear up, and I left the theater genuinely sad. Of course, I've come out of superhero movies depressed before, but that depression was usually centered on disappointment (and OK fine, has only really happened after viewing a DC movie).

After a while, that feeling of grief was paired with a bit of anger. Marvel films rarely have true consequences, and what's the point of grief if the stakes aren't as high as they seem to be? How dare they dick me around just to insure I buy a ticket to part two? AND WHEN WILL THOSE TICKETS BE AVAILABLE??

It's ironic that one of Marvel's darkest films is also one of its most fun, with the character banter and personality clashes that have made so many Marvel movies memorable in full abundance. All the fan favorites get some screen time, some more than others (unless your favorite Marvel hero is Hawkeye, in which case, sorry, in so many ways), with multiple franchises coming together to fight Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Marvel Universe's ultimate big bad.

Thanos has been after six powerful "infinity stones" since the first Avengers movie, and as Infinity War opens, (immediately follwing the events of Thor: Ragnorak), he's gotten his giant purple hand on one more. Once he finds them all, he'll have the power to wipe out the universe with the mere "snap of his fingers."

One of my biggest gripes with comic book movies is villains whose goals never really make sense. They're usually centered on a desire to destroy the city/country/world/universe/whatever, with no real sense of why, or just what kind of existence they expect to have after that. All right big guy. You've destroyed the world. Now what?

But Thano's goals are very clear. He doesn't want to destroy planets or eliminate entire populations. He only wants to wipe out half of the universe's populations, indiscriminately, in an attempt to restore order to it all. With half of everyone gone, he believes, there will be no more fighting over resources, and those who remain will never want for anything again.

To Thanos, this is a noble goal. He chillingly rationalizes the destruction of half of the universe's population as necessary, as I imagine every perpetrator of a genuine genocide probably has. And he even earnestly presents a vision of his post-destructo life, which includes sitting on a mountain top, enjoying a sunset, satisfied with the knowledge that he's restored order to the universe.

Keeping the remaining stones out of Thanos's hands becomes the work of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, the nation of Wakanda, and some assorted cameo players, and for the most part, directors Anthony and Joe Russo do a good job of plate spinning. It's only near the end, as battles begin to take place at multiple locations, that the cross cutting becomes a little ridiculous. Nothing kills the excitement of a battle at Wakanda like cutting to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) crying on a planet in another part of the universe.

But really, it isn't the epic battles or fights that have made Marvel movies such pleasurable experiences, and the same holds true for Infinity War. What makes it memorable is seeing Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads with the equally egomaniacal Tony Stark; it's hearing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) try to convince his fellow Guardians that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn't the ultimate specimen of manhood; and it's seeing Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) come down with a serious case of Hulk-itile dysfunction. It's the charm of all of these heroes that has made Marvel movies what they are, and it's the fear of losing even some of that--as unfounded as that fear may might be--that will keep us coming back for more.

Friday, April 20, 2018

'I Feel Pretty' Normal

Have you met my good friend Maria/The craziest girl on the block?

I Feel Pretty is the story of  Renee, an attractive woman who does not believe she is attractive, who wishes with all her heart that she were "undeniably pretty" and, after a bonk on the head at a SoulCycle class, wakes up to find her wish has come true.

It's important to realize that Renee isn't supposed to be some hideous troll, and casting Amy Schumer, a comedian and actress who has never been afraid to poke fun at her very normal, though certainly not "Hollywood beauty" level looks, is actually perfect. Renee is not an ugly woman, but she is a woman with extreme esteem issues. She is so convinced she doesn't stack up against the beauties that surround her in New York that she slinks through her life, apologizing for her very existence.

The fact that she works for Lili LeClare, a cosmetics company, certainly doesn't help with those esteem issues, especially since she's also stuck in the company's online division, which is just a two-person office buried in a Chinatown basement. She has two besties (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips, both wonderful, if underutilized), and the three of them do single girl things like bar hopping, and posting a profile on a group dating web site, but none of this is enough for Renee. She can't help feeling her looks are preventing her from finding true happiness.

Which brings us to that SoulCycle class, a concussion, and her metamorphosis.

I Feel Pretty comes so close to doing something unexpected with Renee's transformation, but doesn't have the guts to follow through. I so wanted the movie to push the idea that Renee's head bonking merely changed her own perceptions of herself, so that when she looks in that mirror she sees not a completely different woman, but herself, and the magic lies in the fact that she no longer has any reason to believe she is anything less than beautiful.

But this isn't the route the movie takes. It's clear Renee thinks she looks like someone else because she's convinced her friends are never going to recognize her, (a joke that grows old quickly, especially since a few sentences from her friends could quickly prove to her that she hasn't changed at all). As a result, much of the comedy that follows is centered on the idea that someone who looks like Renee shouldn't be acting the way she's acting.

With her newfound confidence, Renee is free to apply for a front facing position at Lili LeClare, believing it's a stepping stone to a modeling career. That she gets the job owes less to her chutzpah and more to the fact that company boss, Avery LeClare (Michelle Williams, who basically steals the movie with her hilariously pale and motionless face, and self-consciously squeaky voice), believes someone who looks like Renee will be able to offer her insights into the "normal" women she hopes to sell her lower-priced "diffusion" cosmetic line to.

After meeting and essentially picking up a guy named Ethan at a dry cleaners (Rory Scovel, endearing as an insecure, Zumba-loving, beta male), they go on a date to Coney Island, where Renee decides to enter a bikini contest at a divvy boardwalk bar, and it's during scenes like this that the movie truly loses its footing. Renee, with her improvised t-shirt and rolled-up shorts "bikini," commands the stage like she's Henny Youngman in the body of Gisele Bundchen, cracking wise with the audience before grinding on stage. (In other words, she's not unlike the real Amy Schumer.)

In Ethan's eyes, she's to be envied, as she appears to be the least self-conscious, bravest person he's ever met. But the comedy is supposed to come from watching a perfectly normal looking woman roll around on stage, twerking, and pouring water on her chest. How ridiculous!

The movie also makes the mistake of eventually turning Renee into a narcissistic monster who tries to change her friends before abandoning them for prettier ones. Because of course it is impossible to be both confident and a nice person.

I Feel Pretty's ultimate messages, as clunky and ham-fisted as they may be, are at least good ones, even if they aren't particularly profound. Yes, all women have their insecurities, even supermodels. True beauty does, indeed, come from within. And most importantly, self-confidence can be the key to happiness.

If only it were as easy as banging your head on the floor to get it.