Friday, May 10, 2019

'Poms': Diane Does Death

"Is that Angelica Huston twerking?!"

In a recent interview promoting her new film John Wick: Chapter 3, Angelica Huston threw some major shade at Diane Keaton's latest women-of-a-certain-age comedy, Poms. To wit:
Quite honestly, I’m looking for movies that impress me in some way, that aren’t apologetically humble or humiliating like, “Band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah,” you know. An old-lady cheerleader movie. I don’t like that kind of thing. If I’m going to be an old lady — and I’m sort of touching old lady these days — at least I want to be a special old lady. I don’t want to be relegated to some has-been making a comeback. I hate comebacks.
Yikes! Did Diane Keaton murder Angelica Huston's puppy or something? Is there some kind of longstanding feud between them since they both dated Jack Nicholson? Or did Angelica just see the Poms script, and couldn't help herself? (She has since apologized. Kind of.)

Because the truth is, she's not wrong about the movie. It would be more fun to watch a passive aggressive exchange between Angelica Huston and Diane Keaton centered on anything than it would be to watch Poms.

Now, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with an old lady cheerleader movie, or an old lady comeback movie, or just an old ladies being old ladies movie, if done well. But Poms is nothing but (a blissfully brief) 90 minutes of wasted opportunity and talents.

In a lot of Diane Keaton movies, Keaton essentially plays Keaton, her quirkiness filling in for character development as needed. But in Poms, her quirk just isn't equipped to do that much heavy lifting. Within the first five minutes of the movie, we learn basically everything we're ever going to know about her character, Martha: she's unmarried, never had kids, is not seeking treatment for a recent cancer diagnosis, and is moving from some unnamed city to a retirement community in Georgia.

Why's she giving in to death? What was her life like? Was it a good one? Why Georgia, of all places? Does she have any friends or family to speak? We never find out the answers to any of those questions. There's plenty of time to show Martha puking into various toilets as her illness progresses, but apparently not enough to develop her into anything resembling an actual person.

Except, of course, for the cheerleading thing, which is either a missed opportunity that has haunted her her entire life, or just something she's reminded of because she finds her old cheerleading uniform in a moving box. Really, either could be true, as it's nothing but an inelegant plot point stuck in the movie so it can get to the old ladies trying to start a cheerleading squad.

Of the pompon squad, Jackie Weaver gets the most development as Martha's outgoing and randy next door neighbor, Sheryl, while Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman, and Phyllis Somerville get painfully few opportunities to shine. The rest of the squad are relegated to background players.

Which leads me to wonder, if the film isn't going to bother using the acting talents of those other actresses, why not just hire older dancers instead? That way, the cheerleading scenes would actually be executed well, instead of the painful and ineptly choreographed routines director Zara Hayes tries to convince us are rousing and worthy of viral popularity. While Poms would like us to believe the cheerleading is some kind of metaphor for dancing in the face of death, the inspiration falls as flat as a drunken sorority girl on top of a pep squad pyramid.

Friday, May 3, 2019

'Long Shot' Comes Out Ahead

Note: the hats are not hiding head wounds

While Long Shot does open with a scene in which journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) suffers a blow to his head (and, well, his entire body), that accident does not lead to some kind of head trauma-created alternative reality in which women like the beautiful and powerful secretary of state Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) find him irresistible; I guess that conceit is reserved for the ladies. Instead, we're to accept this is a romance based in reality.

And that's fine! Beautiful people fall in love with shlubby people all the time! I just wish when it came to Hollywood, that scenario wasn't relegated to the realm of fantasy for one of the sexes.

Following that slapstick-filled opening, the alternative weekly Brooklyn paper Fred Flarsky writes for is bought by a right wing media conglomerate owned by the Roger Ailes/Rupert Murdoch-esque Parker Wembley (a heavily made up Andy Serkis). The very liberal Flarsky quits in disgust. His best friend Lance (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) attempts to cheer him up with a day of debauchery, and because Lance is rich (though it's never made clear exactly what he does), the night ends at a fancy benefit featuring Boys II Men, and a guest list that includes Secretary of State Charlotte Field.

Flarksy and Field have a bit of history. When he was 13, she was his 16-year-old babysitter, and he made his crush on her embarrassingly obvious. While he's never forgotten her, he's kind of hoping she's forgotten him, or at least, the more embarrassing parts. But she does recognize him, and their conversation helps her remember the idealist she used to be in high school.

Field is a skilled--and youngest ever--Secretary of State to an imbecilic president (Bob Odenkirk, nailing it) who seems to have been elected simply because he played the POTUS on a popular television show; (it's not unheard of!). She's set her sights on succeeding him, and needs to improve her public image a bit to boost her numbers. This means hiring an advisor (Lisa Kudrow, in a killer cameo), to help her improve things like her wave, and punching up her speeches with humor.

Enter newly-unemployed Fred Flarsky. Field's chief of staff (June Diane Raphael, in what would normally be a villainous role, but is thankfully more nuanced), is steadfastly against the hiring, but Field is adamant. So before Flarsky can even change out of his painfully ugly neon windbreaker, he's jet-setting around the world as Field's new speech writer.

Flarsky spends as much time as he can getting to know Secretary Field, in between her 10 minute, eyes-wide-open power naps, and during the seven minutes she may have between phone calls, and Rogen and Theron have a believable chemistry together. For the most part. When they end up having sex that results in simultaneous orgasms after 20 seconds of intercourse, I kept waiting for Secretary Field to roll over, laugh and say, "Ha ha, but seriously, get back here and help me finish."

And certainly, Rogen and Theron do look like an unlikely pair. Rogen is playing a pretty standard Seth Rogen man-child character, but his pairing with Theron as both his straight man and a comedic partner, helps make him more likeable than he has been in years. Their escapade taking molly at a Paris nighclub is funny. But Theron's scene handling a national crisis while still high is funnier than anything else in the admittedly pretty funny movie.

You can't have a romantic comedy with roadblocks, which include the belief Field's staff has that voters won't accept someone like her paired up with someone like him. They're convinced they'd be more accepting of a romance between her and the handsome but milquetoast Prime Minister of Canada (Alexander SkarsgÄrd, hilariously playing against type).

But it's a potential scandal with Flarsky at the center that is set up as the true roadblock forcing Field to choose between love and career. While the screenplay (by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah) does acknowledge just how difficult and unfair Field's being a woman has made her rise to power, it also exists in a world where Donald Trump as president doesn't, and never did, exist. In some ways this is problematic, as we're all too painfully aware that scandals aren't enough to convincingly bring down a presidential candidate any more, so why would they even worry about it?

But on the other hand, it also broadens the romantic fantasy. Sure, it's nice to imagine a happy ending between a seemingly mismatched couple. But isn't it even nicer to imagine a world where the last three years never even happened?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

'Avengers: Endgame': No Safety Or Surprise

This image may or may not contain a spoiler.

Last year, I walked out of Avengers: Infinity War equal parts despondent and irked. The grief I felt over the deaths of multiple beloved characters was tempered by my annoyance at Marvel's manipulation. Of course all those characters didn't really die. So what was I crying for? In a year we'd all have proof we had shed those tears for naught.

It's exactly one year later and indeed that proof has come with Avengers: Endgame, the ultimate culmination of ten years of juggernaut franchising that brought us 22 movies and Marvel/Disney almost 20 billions dollars. And in many ways, Endgame is even more about loss than Infinity War was, since it means the end of an era, and whether characters really die this time or not, the franchise will never be the same.

And in Endgame, the remaining Avengers are truly living up to their title, hoping to avenge and ultimately reverse the deaths of their friends (and oh also, millions of other people and beings across the universe, but whatever). You didn't think they'd just accept defeat and retire, did you?

Although, for the first 30 minutes or so, many are doing just that, and man, it's an emo spectacle. There's so much gloom, doom, and clinical depression among the remaining team you'd think you were watching a DC movie. If you thought those final moments in Infinity War were a bummer, just wait and see what survivors' guilt has done to the gang.

The only hero this age of depression has a remotely amusing affect on is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), as it turns him into a pot-bellied, perpetually drunk Norse god version of the Dude, drowning his despair in beer, pizza, and video games. He's the film's comedic soul. Considerably less funny are Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) who begins the movie painfully skinny and on the verge of death, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who is the only one truly trying to keep the Avengers team alive (after all, she's barren and has nothing else to live for, right?).

But, unlike a DC movie, it isn't ALL doom and gloom, and thankfully, the majority of its three-hour (THREE!) running time is devoted to the kind of banter, camaraderie, and action that has made this decade long franchise the crowd pleasing money maker it is. All the characters get emotional arcs and big moments (some more crowd pleasing than others); I cried (genuine, earned tears this time) more than once. And as much as I'd like to discuss the specifics of those moments, or even some more general plot points, I completely agree with the studio's request to keep the film's surprises under wraps. If you're a fan of the franchise, you deserve to see it as unsullied as possible. (And if you aren't a fan, uh, what are you even doing here?)

So, instead I'll end this with a selection of likes and dislikes, as spoiler-free as possible:
  • As a fan of any post-apocalyptic story (and destroying half of all life is nothing if not apocalyptic) I was disappointed that the film really doesn't show us what the new 50%-offed reality looks like around the world, or across the galaxy. What we do see is only within the Avengers' purview, and that's a pretty narrow purview.
  • One character gets such a satisfying ending--it was one of many tear-inducing moments--that I didn't even mind that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too hard. (Actually, a lot of the movie has that same problem, but at least they acknowledge several of those logical leaps, and even joke about it.)
  • The somewhat disappointing treatment of one female character is softened by the addition of one moment that will clearly piss off a certain segment of Marvel fans while making another segment burst into tears. (If you cried when Wonder Woman took to that battlefield, bring a whole box of Kleenex.)
  • Speaking of female characters, yes, Captain Marvel is in the movie. How you feel about just how much she's in the movie will likely depend on where you fall in the segments mentioned above. (I will tell you this though: she doesn't come back to Earth, fly super fast around the planet to make it spin backwards thus turning back time like I was hoping she would.)
  • Man, 2019 is a tough year to be a nerd, with the ends of Game of Thrones, The Avengers, and the Star Wars saga to contend with. But if each of them has taught us anything it's that nothing ever truly stays dead, does it?

Friday, April 12, 2019

'Little' Big Woman

How many schoolbooks can fit inside a Birkin?

I've often had the fantasy of going back in time to junior high or high school, with all the knowledge I have now, and then basically doing everything different. But what I never fantasy about is suddenly being 13 now, and having to traverse the modern world as a middle-aged woman in a teenager's body. That's a scenario likely to land someone in jail, not to mention I wouldn't last a week against today's social media-wielding mean girls.

It's that latter scenario which  is the premise of Little, a gender and age flipped version of Big, which, yes, means it's a comedy and not the nightmarish horror movie such a set-up brings to my mind.

Marsai Martin, who reportedly, at age 10, pitched the movie to her Black-ish boss Kenya Barris, stars as the movie's little heroine, and she also serves as an executive producer on the film (the youngest in Hollywood). Seeing the movie, its origins make perfect sense, as too often Little feels like a clever concept not fully realized.

When the film opens, Martin is Jordan Sanders, a smart and eager 13 year old in 1993 junior high. After suffering a humiliation (and frankly, an assault) at the hands of the school's mean girl, she vows to no longer be a victim, and grows up to be the very rich and very mean head of a tech company in Atlanta.

Regina Hall plays the big version of Jordan, and she is so convincing and entertaining as the boss from hell it's hard to believe that just a year ago she was the benevolent and almost angelic boss in the under-appreciated Support the Girls.

Issa Rae co-stars as April, Jordan's long suffering assistant, who must always be available to take Jordan's calls--which inevitably include screaming--and make sure everything in Jordan's life is to her meticulous liking, such as arranging slippers and coffee cups within very specific parameters. (Rulers are involved.)

Jordan's employees scatter and hide when she enters the building and require anti-anxiety meds to get through team meetings. April can't bring herself to share any of her ideas with her as she's seen what disappointing Jordan can get you. (Slapping; shoving; the tossing of your bagels into the trash).

Obviously, Jordan is in need of some lesson learning. Enter the magic wand wielding daughter of a local food truck owner, who wishes Jordan were little. And the next morning, she is.

Young Marsai Martin is preternaturally gifted, and scarily good on Black-ish, and there's no doubt she's got a movie career ahead of her. She's got the grown woman trapped in girl's body swagger down perfectly, mimicking Regina Hall's walk and mannerisms so well that it never feels like you're watching a teenager just pretending to be a woman.

Which is why it's so disappointing to see three such funny females in a movie that doesn't live up to their performances or talents. Little is afraid to go big, perhaps too beholden to its PG-13 rating and too reliant on its comedic premise to actually flesh out some solid humor.

And I'll admit I was a little nervous about how the movie would handle the whole "horny older woman trapped in a kid's body" thing in the scenes with her middle school teacher, played by Justin Hartley. It does manage to skirt the issue before it gets too far into ick territory, but that's also the problem with the movie as a whole; it skirts too much, never really pushing any boundaries, which results in a lot of awkward and flat jokes.

For instance, there's a scene where little Jordan and April are having dinner, and what Jordan wants more than anything is a glass of wine. April, obviously fearing both the optics and legal aspects of allowing Jordan a drink, refuses to give it to her...Awkward cut to Jordan singing along to a Mary J. Blige song while laying on top of the bar.

Wait a minute. Did she get that wine? Is she drunk? What's happening? The movie kills the joke with confusion by avoiding a shot of Jordan drinking that wine.

Issa Rae, so funny on HBO's Insecure, also feels stifled because the movie is torn between two protagonists. Is it April's story? Or Jordan's? But perhaps the film's biggest loss is that, because of its concept, Marsai Martin and Regina Hall never get to share any screen time together. That is something I know would be worth seeing. Someone get that movie rolling! Marsai, you're a producer now! Do it!

Friday, April 5, 2019

'Shazam!', Gaaahh-lee!

Drinking that famous "COLA" Beer.

For those excited for Shazam! because they think it's the long-awaited re-release of that genie movie starring Sinbad, you're going to be disappointed. And for those excited for the big-screen debut of the Whiz/DC superhero once known as Captain Marvel, well, I've got good news and bad news.

The good news: Shazam! is not another emo-filled, murkily filmed, depressing entry in the DC universe. It's light, both in its visuals and its story, includes a superhero that doesn't take himself too seriously, and at times it reminded me a bit of the 1977 Superman, back when comic book movies weren't a genre we were expected to revere.

The bad news: it's way, way too long, strives to be funnier than it actually is, and saddles an already lackluster villain with a gang of truly uninspired monsters.

Both hero and villain have an origin centered on a meeting with an aging wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), in set-ups that take way too long, and never truly make sense. This aging wizard, the last of a council of seven, is looking for his champion, someone "pure of heart" to take over his duties and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins, which are, for now,  safely frozen in stone in his chamber.  When a young Thaddeus Sivana  is chosen (for reasons never explained) but fails the test, he grows up pretty bitter about it, spending his life trying to track down that wizard (when he isn't dealing with his extreme daddy issues).

Enter orphaned Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid on the constant search for the mother who disappeared years before. He's street smart, and always on the run, but willing to try out a new foster home, headed up by the saintly Vasquezes (Cooper Andrews and Mart Milans) and filled with five other foster kids of varying ages and ethnicities, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero aficionado. (He has a certified bullet that bounced off of Superman, who, don't forget, is real.)

The wizard Shazam, who after 40 years, still hasn't found a champion, summons Billy (just why Billy is chosen is, once again, never made clear) and decides to make him his heir, granting him the power to turn into an adult superhero (played by Zachary Levi) whenever he says the word "Shazam!" (And yes, Billy thinks that's pretty silly, too.)

What follows is a superhero version of Big, with Billy confiding in Freddy, and the duo teaming up to figure out just what powers Billy has, and just what they can do with them. Unsurprisingly, early choices include buying beer, going to a strip club, and busking for coin like a Times Square Elmo. The scenes between Levi and Grazer's Freddy owe an obvious debt to the aforementioned Big, though too often I just wished they were funnier. A lot of gags are tossed off like lightning bolts, but not many land.

But the movie's biggest sin is its Seven Deadly Sins. Why, why was the decision made to create completely generic "monsters" that look like rejects from a cheap 1990's film, and are completely indecipherable from each other? They're supposed to represent seven sins (which, why? If Shazam's power comes from Greek gods?), but I couldn't point out Sloth from Lust to save my life. They aren't interesting or scary; they're just loud and brown.

Shazam! is definitely better than the majority of DC's recent cinematic offerings, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing the character teamed up with other DC characters in future films, but as a standalone movie, it had my inner 14-year-old dreaming of the ability to speed up time, or at least hit a magic fast forward button in the IMAX theater.