Friday, October 26, 2018

Melissa McCarthy Asks 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

 Third time's the charm.
  
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the third Melissa McCarthy film released this year. The previous two, Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, were painfully unfunny comedies that relied too heavily on McCarthy's charm and comedic chops to save them. But in the true story Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy gets serious, and gives her best and most surprising performance in years. (Yes Melissa, you are forgiven for those previous missteps.)

Set in a 1992 New York City straight out of a Woody Allen film, with lovingly framed shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, snow that is never anything but white, and a classic jazz standards soundtrack, it presents an aesthetic vision of New York that is the stuff of fiction, despite it being based on a true story.

But that's because this is how Lee Israel (McCarthy) envisions her New York; her reality is far grimmer. Fired from a copy editing job for drinking--though really, for just being an asshole--she's desperate for money. Her agent (Jane Curtain, who should be in more movies), refuses to give her a $10k advance on her next book--a biography of vaudevillian Franny Brice--because she knows a book like that isn't worth even a $100 advance.

At one time, Israel had a successful career as a magazine writer and celebrity biographer, penning books about Estee Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead. Her biography of What's My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen was even a New York Times bestseller. But times are changing, and Israel is getting left behind. She's no longer getting paid to do the only thing she knows how to do, her rent is overdue, and her cat is sick.

When opportunity literally falls into her lap, in the form of some typed missives stuffed into a Fanny Brice biography, signed by Brice herself, one can hardly blame her for what she does next: she stuffs the letters into her bag, tries to sell them, and when she's told they'd be more valuable if they had a little more oomph, she adds that oomph herself, and is quickly on a new career path: literary forger, composing letters as witty as the real thing. (She dubs herself a "better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.")

McCarthy's Israel is a definite misanthrope who freely admits she prefers the company of cats to people. She's a heavy drinker and demands respect from people while rarely affording it to others. But as played by McCarthy, you can't help but root for her as her forgeries increase, and her money troubles start to melt away. McCarthy is perfect casting because she's never afraid to look and act ugly, but she has that natural humor that helps the soul of Lee Israel shine through. (She actually was a pretty good Dorothy Parker.)

Ricard E. Grant is also hilarious and haunting as Lee's only friend, Jack Hock, an aging, self-proclaimed queen, who used to run in the same literary circles as Lee, until he drunkenly peed in a coat closet during a fancy soiree. His huge, hungry eyes are like a Keene painting with a hangover, and Lee, who is even poorer in friends than she is in money, allows him to latch on to her.

Director Marielle Heller clearly has a love for interesting faces. Every actor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? has a such a unique and real look, from Dolly Wells as Anna, a bookshop owner Lee develops a crush on, to Anna Deavere Smith as Lee's ex-girlfriend, to, of course, Ben Falcone, McCarthy's real life husband, who has a small role as an unscrupulous book dealer. There's not a generically pretty face in the entire movie, and I loved that, not just because it's refreshing to see, but because it helps this story of a master faker feel even more real.


Friday, October 19, 2018

'Halloween', Trick Or Treat?

I told you! My house isn't on the trick or treat map!!



If your two best friends were murdered as teenagers by a masked killer who had escaped from a mental institution, and you yourself barely made it out of that massacre alive, how do you think you'd fare in life?

There have been six sequels to the original 1978 Halloween. Three of them--Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween Resurrection--also featured final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). But this year's Halloween, coming 40 years after the original, is the first to seriously ponder how much an attack by a knife-wielding maniac can fuck up your life.

Which, sure, isn't exactly an uplifting premise for what's supposed to be fun slasher movie. But director and writer David Gordon Green, and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, manage to inject some humor into the sequel, and Jamie Lee Curtis only briefly allows her Laurie to delve into self-pity. For the majority of the film she's a fiercely competent, gun-touting, basket case; the final girl turned vengeful grandma. Curtis steals every scene she's in.

It's been 40 years since the Night He Came Home, and Laurie Strode has weathered a few divorces, and is semi-estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), though still in contact with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). She lives in a tricked-out fortress in the woods outside Haddonfield, Illinois, forever preparing for what she assumes (hopes?) will be the inevitable return of Michael Myers.

This Halloween cleans the slate, erasing all the events and myth-building of the previous sequels, including deleting any relation between Michael and Laurie, ("Wasn't that her brother?" Dave, a friend of Allyson's asks; "No, that was just something people made up," she replies), returning Michael to his mysterious, stunted roots.

Giving Michael Myers some kind of backstory, with ingrained intent, never made him scarier, and it's something the previous sequels and reboots all needlessly did. He's a guy who murdered his actual sister when he was six, and he's remained a stunted, murderous six-year-old ever since. He came home because...it was home. And he chose Laurie and her friends because she was the first girl he saw when he got there. And now? He just wants to pick up where he left off.

That's scary enough.

Director David Gordon Green has had an eclectic career, beginning with lyrical, Terrence Malick-esque dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls, before moving on to the stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness. This is his first horror film, and I think his experience with quieter movies serves him well here. While he never mimics original director John Carpenter's fluid, Steadicam cinematography, he does keep his camera blissfully still when its most important, building suspense with longer takes and quiet unease.

He also scatters tension-relieving humor throughout, letting frequent collaborator Danny McBride's comedic voice come through in some very funny offhand exchanges from characters both minor and major. This humor is also important because the message at the heart of the film is pretty bleak, and much more introspective than anything in the previous sequels: Trauma begets trauma, and it can have an affect on families for generations.

Still, this is a Halloween movie, and it knows it has the please the fans, which it does, to a point that some might even call pandering. Along with Jamie Lee Curtis's return, we've got original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle donning the mask for several scenes as The Shape, and a voice cameo from P.J. Soles. Carpenter's famous score is also reprised by the man himself.

New characters also basically mirror those in the original, from an obsessed doctor dubbed "the new Loomis" (Haluk Bilginer), to a babysitting friend (Virginia Gardner), and her wisecracking ward (an absolutely hilarious Jibrail Nantambu). I also appreciated the callbacks to some of the original's minor characters.

If I have one complaint, it's the choice to up the body count and the gore this time around. One of the best things about the original was how once Michael set his sights on his target, he never strayed. It was Laurie and her friends he was after, not any other townspeople, and certainly not any kids. (Dogs on the other hand...) And the violence was relatively bloodless. Gore wasn't the goal, scares were.

Alas, we live in different times,  and even though Michael is now a man in his sixties, he's killin' like a twentysomething, leaving a trail of blood and brain matter in his wake. Luckily, Laurie Strode's no longer fighting like a scared teenager. Welcome the grandma's house, Michael.


Friday, September 14, 2018

'Don't Leave Home' And The Creepy Tiny

Image: Cranked Up Films
Are we all just puppets in a giant dollhouse?

I saw director Michael Tully's indie horror film Don't Leave Home the same weekend I was dazzled by the elaborate circus dioramas at the now defunct Bay Area museum Playland-Not-at-the Beach (the dioramas, and almost everything else from the museum, will be up for auction Saturday!), so it was a plate-o-shrimp moment when the film's opening credits began to roll over close-ups of spooky dioramas.

Don't Leave Home is actually the second horror movie this year (Hereditary being the first) to center on artists who work with miniature dioramas, and I'm not quite sure why tiny reproductions of real things lends itself so well to the creepy. Is it the association with childhood and dollhouses? Or the idea that we might just be tiny puppets manipulated but some creator's larger hand?

Ann Margaret Hollyman stars as Melanie Thomas, an artist working on the opening of a solo exhibition which centers on depictions of mysterious Irish legends and disappearances. One of those events involves Father Burke (Lalor Roddy) an Irish priest who, in 1986, was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young girl praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Shortly thereafter, the girl went missing, seemingly vanishing into thin air. At the same time, her image disappeared from the priest's painting. While the priest was ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing, the event was deemed an "evil miracle," and he was forced to go into hiding.

When Melanie gets an unexpected art commission from the same reclusive Father Burke, via his "assistant," Shelly (Helena Bereen) she impulsively accepts the invitation to Ireland, and takes up residence in the former priest's creepy and remote mansion, where she is instantly warned that she might see some...things, but not to trust her eyes.

While what follows too often depends on the "is it a dream or reality?" trope, the film does manage to produce some scares, and several very eerie images, culminating in a party scene and art auction that rivals Get Out on the "white people be hella creepy" scale.

Along with Get Out, Don't Leave Home brought to mind Rosemary's Baby, Robert Altman's Images, and the aforementioned Hereditary. But unlike Hereditary, which I felt was done in by an unsatisfying ending, Don't Leave Home ends on an almost perfect note, with a final line that haunted me for days.


Don't Leave Home opens today at San Francisco's Alamo Drafthouse.

Friday, September 7, 2018

'Peppermint' Will Leave A Bad Taste In Your Mouth


She's mastered the arts of combat and DIY hair highlighting

As a fan of Alias, the TV show that launched Jennifer Garner to stardom, I was looking forward to seeing her kick some ass again in Peppermint, knowing it may be the closest thing to an Alias movie we might ever get. And kick ass she does, along with some throat slitting, arm and leg cracking, face punching, and nut kicking. And that's all before she whips out her arsenal of military grade firearms. 

Most Alias fans would say that all sounds pretty promising. Alas, if Peppermint were a good movie, it wouldn't be opening in September

Garner stars as Riley North, working mom to Carly (Cailey Fleming) and wife to Chris (Jeff Hephner). Chris briefly considers partaking in a shady "driving" job with a friend but backs out before it happens. That decision never reaches the bad guys, who take their revenge out on him and his family.

Riley survives the massacre, but thanks to a corrupt police department, D.A.'s office, and judge, the three easily identifiable killers (pro tip: if you want to enter a life of crime, reconsider those distinguishing face tattoos; or at least consider a mask) are set free. Thus is born Riley North, avenging angel.

Five years after the murders, Riley has returned to Los Angeles after falling off the grid. Those years allowed her plenty of time to travel the world to learn the fine arts of cage fighting, bomb making, and gun slinging. She wants to kill the men who murdered her family, as well as everyone associated with them.

That's where the whole thing gets problematic. The killers are Hispanic. The drug cartel they work for are Hispanic. Almost all of the bad guys are Hispanic, and every Hispanic is a bad guy, (aside from one cop who the film wants you to think may be a bad guy). If that's too subtle for you, a shoot-out even happens in party supply warehouse filled with pinatas. Peppermint is so obviously playing into current conservative fears over illegal immigrants and MS-13, it could be used as a wall-building propaganda film.

Now, it's not like I'm looking to a violent vengeance film from the director of Taken and The Transporter to provide some subtle commentary on race, poverty, and the circle of violence (though it would be nice), but it does make me question the ultimate intent here. I could think of no worse a time for a director and star to release a movie like this if they aren't people who believe Mexico is only sending us rapists and killers.

In other words, what's a nice girl like Jennifer Garner doing in racist trash like this?


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

'The Bookshop': Keep Calm And Smile Along

Reading is fundamental  


One of my greatest pleasures is going on vacation and finding a local bookstore; hunting down something appropriate to read, maybe from the store's curated "local reads" section. You can learn a lot of about a place via its bookstores--or lack thereof.

Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, centers on just such a bookshop in the small English seaside town of Hardborough, Suffolk, in 1959. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a war widow who decides to buy an old house that has been sitting empty in the town for years, to live in and open a bookshop, partly in tribute to her husband, who shared her intense love of reading.

It's a simple enough dream, but the small town has its objections, particularly from wealthy matriarch Violet Gamart (Patrica Clarkson), who, once that old house is no longer available, decides is the perfect place for a town "art center."

Florence's most devoted customer turns out to be the town's aging recluse, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy) who spends most of his days sitting in his drafty mansion, reading "biographies about good people, and novels about nasty people." He detests most of the town, but takes a liking to Florence, especially after she introduces him to the works of Ray Bradbury, as well as a controversial new novel called Lolita.

Mortimer's Florence appears mousy and bookish, but she's no wallflower, fighting, as best she can, for what she wants. Nighy's Mr. Brandish is an odd bird, intense and averse to eye contact, but also blunt. Their scenes together vibrate with what goes unsaid.

The Bookshop is classically British, from its salty seaside characters, to its fireplaces and knit shawls, and especially to how the central conflict between Florence and Violet simmers under the surface, behind polite words and smiles. The two only meet one face-to-face once, so their feud is inflamed through the aid of lawyers, bankers, and neighbors.

While that conflict provides the film's drama, the film's small joys come in seeing Florence open that shop, and, with after-school help from young neighbor Christine (Honor Kneafsey), stocking the shelves with classics and new discoveries, relishing the smells of old books and the colorful covers of new releases.

I recently watched four seasons of The Great British Baking Show in the course of two weeks, and at first was perplexed by my addiction to it, since I don't like cooking shows, and am in no way an Anglophile. But then I realized I was hooked because it was so soothing, with its peaceful, English countryside setting, band of Brits who support each other while also competing, and occasional shots of young lambs eating ivy.

The Bookshop broke that fantasy, reminding me there's no such thing as a country filled with nothing but nice people doing nice things for each other, and that vengeful bitterness can simmer under the most sincere of smiles.


The Bookshop is currently playing the Bay Area at San Francisco's Clay, the Albany Twin and the Smith Rafael Film Center.

Friday, August 24, 2018

'The Happytime Murders' Felt Dirty

No puppet. No puppet! She's the puppet!

When I first saw the trailer for The Happytime Murders, I feared it might be a movie that could ruin my childhood. Adult versions of kids entertainment, and seeing G-rated characters doing X-rated things is a something that will always make my inner child wince a little.

Luckily, The Happytime Murders is too far removed from the Muppets of my youth to cause any lasting damage. It doesn't live in the land of the Muppets, instead giving us a world that's a cross between the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the regrettable 1978 porno Let My Puppets Come, with way too much emulation of the dirtiness of the latter and not enough of the screwy humor of the former.

Like Roger Rabbit, the story is a Los Angeles mystery set in a world where humans and the improbable co-exist. In this case, it's puppets. They can do everything humans do, but are marginalized in society for being different. They're OK as entertainers, but don't let them share a cab with you.

The film's attempts to equate the puppets' mistreatment with actual racism are clumsy at best, and it's best not to think too hard about just how puppets are able to live, eat, have sex, and die. To delve down that hole is to face madness.

Our hero is Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a private detective who was once the first puppet cop, but was kicked out of the force after a deadly shooting. When the cast members of a popular 90's puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gang start turning up dead, Phil is forced join forces with his estranged partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to help find the killer.

McCarthy is perfect casting for this kind of role as she's always at her funniest when she's allowed to play it broad and let the expletives fly, which they most certainly do in this very, very R-rated movie. Indeed, the majority of the film's humor centers on seeing puppets doing lewd and illegal things. Sometimes I laughed because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I knew going in there was going to be a puppet sex scene to sit through, and I knew we'd see a puppet..."finish." But I didn't know it was going to last for five minutes and require the use of dozens of cans of white silly string. I had to laugh at the audacity.

But the film's biggest laughs actually come from in its smaller jokes, like Phillip's mutterings ("Looks like this mystery was brought to you by the letter P"), and its weirder moments, like Edwards discovering the inbred progeny of some first cousin puppets.

Maya Rudolph is also very funny as Phillips' human secretary Bubbles. She shares some screen time with Melissa McCarthy, and they garner more laughs in their ten minutes together than they did in the entirety of Life of the Party.

Director Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, has directed some good Muppet movies in the past, including The Muppet Christmas Carol, and he's been trying to make The Happytime Murders for almost a decade. (The behind-the-scenes moments during the end credits show just how much work was involved.) Maybe the delayed timing will work in his favor, with current audiences being too young to remember movies like Meet the Feebles and Team America: World Police that did the dirty puppet thing earlier and better.

Just as long as that new audience isn't too young. Because while The Happytime Murders didn't retroactively ruin my childhood, god bless the child who accidentally stumbles upon it while flipping cable channels. I hope their parents can afford the therapy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Crazy Rich Asians,' That's What I Want

Is that a ring on your finger, or are you just happy to see me?

Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of movie I was convinced I'd be annoyed by. I blame Sex and the City 2, and its ugly Americans set loose on foreign soil to both conspicuously consume and offend. That film managed to end what had always been an unrealistic yet enjoyable fairy tale about romance and implausible personal budgets on a sour note.

But it's next to impossible not to be charmed by Crazy Rich Asians and its version of a similar modern fairy tale, especially since there's nary a single ugly American to be seen in the entire film. In fact, aside from some very racist British characters who are part of the film's flashback opening, the cast is entirely Asian, the first major studio film to center on an Asian cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an "ABC" (American Born Chinese) who is a professor of economics at NYU. She's dating Nick Young (Henry Golding, making an impressive acting debut after a career of TV hosting), who is also a professor (blink and you might miss that fact). Though they've been dating for over a year, Rachel hasn't met most of his family, and Nick decides to change that by inviting her to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding.

Now, it might seem a tad unbelievable that a professor of economics with access to a smart phone wouldn't know that her boyfriend is from one of the richest families in Asia, even if he's never actually told her anything about them. Let's just say, she's a far better person than I, who would have been Googling the shit out of his name after our first date. But it's a scenario that works best for the film's story, so that we get to discover all of Nick's secrets through Rachel's awe-struck eyes.

Wu's Rachel is both smart and slightly naive. She's also funny, providing sardonic commentary about her new surroundings, (when they land in Singapore, she's astounded by the plethora of offerings in the airport alone, lamenting that all JFK has to offer is "salmonella and despair"), and not afraid to tease her man about his ridiculous good looks. Too often romantic comedies assume a couple being attractive is enough reason for them to be together. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli know that's never enough, giving Rachel and Nick (but mainly Rachel) endearing personalities and smarts as well.

Once they arrive in Singapore, it can be a little hard to keep track of just who all the characters are without the help of a handy family tree (something the book wisely provides), but the majority are cousins (Nick is an only child), aunties, mothers, or grandmothers. The patriarchs in Nick's family are, oddly, nowhere to be seen, but that's probably a wise choice. It gives more screen time and gravitas to the excellent Michelle Yeoh as Nick's possessive and steely mother, Eleanor.

Eleanor is the first barrier Rachel bumps up against in what appears, at first, to be an otherwise welcoming collection of family and friends, but she's more than a stereotypical "tiger mom." You can understand why she would be frustrated with Nick's wishy-washiness when it comes to their family dynasty, and her fears for his choice in life partner are not entirely unfounded, especially when we learn the rough road she had on the way to becoming the ultimate matriarch.

The film centers primarily on Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor, though some time is given to side-plots involving Nick's cousins, particularly Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her troubled marriage. That storyline ultimately feels a little thin, as if a good chunk of it was left on the cutting room floor. Frankly, I could have done without it, especially if it meant more time for Awkwafina as Rachel's college buddy, Peik Lin, who is also rich, but not crazy rich, and Nico Santos as cousin Oliver, who is the story's version of a fairy godmother.

Director John M. Chu has some experience with musicals, having directed several of the Step Up films, and he approaches much of Crazy Rich Asians as though it were an luscious musical, which is perfect for a film centered on opulence. It's not enough to know these people are crazy rich, we have to be able feel the luxury. Sure, sometimes it's all a bit eye-rolling. And yet, seeing synchronized swimmers pop up in the background of a party scene somehow feels...appropriate. He also films food almost as lovingly as he films his characters (don't go to the movie hungry).

A lot will be written about Crazy Rich Asians' importance in the annals of popular culture, and how it proves that, once again, white people don't own these popular Hollywood genres. And that's certainly true. But don't let that importance overshadow the fact that it's also one of the most enjoyable films of the year.


Friday, August 10, 2018

'The Meg': OK, I'll Bite

"Pshaw. I thought you said this thing was big."

The Meg is a movie featuring Jason Statham fighting a giant, prehistoric shark called the megaladon. For some, that will be all the information you need to know you're going to stay far, far away. For others, like me, it's all you need to know to say, "Oh hell yes. I'm watching that."
 
That said, I did go into the movie with two pretty firm expectations. First, that Jason Statham would have to take his shirt off, and it being a movie set on the ocean, he be both wet and shirtless. Second, if he didn't at least try to punch the shark in the face at some point, I'd have to consider the film a complete failure.

It was with relief that I quickly learned that Statham hadn't been miscast as some kind of scientist, or a marine biologist. Instead, he's Jonas Taylor, a... guy who's good at rescuing people who are trapped in the ocean? I guess? The Meg opens with him and his team in the middle of such a rescue, trying to save a crew trapped in a sunken submarine. When he sees something huge start to crash into the side of the sub, Jonas makes the decision to leave a man behind in order to save his team and the rest of the crew, who ultimately don't believe his big fish story.

Years later, an underwater research facility called Mana One is exploring the Mariana trench, convinced it's deeper than previously thought. When a submersible breaks through the trench's cool, creamy, thermocline (delicious!) and is attacked by something huge, leaving them trapped, there's only one man who can help.

No, not Aquaman. Jonas Taylor.
 
Now, I'll admit, everything I know about deep sea exploration I learned from watching The Abyss, so I was under the impression that along with the dangers of underwater aliens, diving at those depths can be treacherous, with the need for slow decompression lest you risk the bends, or worse. But I guess Statham's character is special because all he needs to do is hold his nose, pop his ear drums, and he's good to go.

Like many a modern blockbusters, The Meg is a co-production between the U.S. and China. This is reflected in its easily translatable, and therefore often wooden dialogue ("That living fossil just killed my friend!"), and its casting, which includes Li Binbing as Suyin, an oceanographer, Winston Chao as her father, Dr. Zhang, and Shuya Sophia Cai as Meiying, Suyin's adorably precocious daughter. (The young actress's moments with Statham are surprisingly effective.)

The international cast also includes Masi Oka, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Ruby Rose, and Rainn Wilson as the token asshole billionaire funding the Mana One. Apart from that last one, The Meg isn't short on attractive cast members, including, yes, a wet and shirtless Statham (though, ironically it happens during a shower and not a diving scene).

Pretty people and a giant shark. What could go wrong? A PG-13 rating, that's what. The Meg is seriously lacking a commitment to going--pardon the pun--overboard. The death count, for a shark that could easily eat a bay full of swimmers in one gulp, is disappointingly slim, and the lack of cringe-inducing carnage means one's mind begins to wander.

I began to ponder why the shark was even bothering with these puny people when it had a whole ocean full of whales to snack on. Did it have some kind of grudge? The research center's deep dive into the trench is revealed to be the ultimate cause of the megaladon's escape to shallower waters, but we're also supposed to believe Jonas had a run-in with it years before, which, what? And also--

Hold up....is that Jason Statham, free diving, going mano on mano with that megaladon?

All is forgiven, The Meg. All is forgiven



Friday, August 3, 2018

'The Darkest Minds' Is A Terrible Thing To Waste


At least there are no zombies

The Darkest Minds is the latest big screen adaptation of a science fiction YA book series centered on an outcast teenage girl. Let me stop right there and say, as prevalent as the set-up may seem to be right now, I'm all for it. We've had decades and decades of science fiction centered on outcast boys. We've got catching up to do.

The film has a formula, and it definitely sticks to it. You've got a post-apocalyptic landscape where youth is seen as a threat and expendable; a teenage heroine who is unique above all others; and some helpful color-coordination to help us keep track of who belongs where.

With each passing day our depressing present begins to resemble dystopian future more and more, so The Darkest Minds may benefit from timing more than actual profundity, touching on topics that include identity, sexual assault, child incarceration, and a government that can't be trusted.

In the not-too-distant future, children and teens are dying from a mysterious neurological disease. Those who survive quickly realize they have new abilities, ranging from increased intelligence, to superhero-level powers. Those with lesser mutations, (deemed levels Green and Blue) are rounded up and placed into camps. Those with deadly powers (Oranges and Reds) are killed, or used by the government as weapons.

Ruby (played as a child by Lydia Jewett and as a teenager Amandla Stenberg) is a mind-reading and mind-altering Orange passing herself off as a Green, struggling to mask her true self through six years in the camps. When she manages to escape she teams up with fellow runaways Liam (Harris Dickinson), a telekinetic Blue; Zu (Miya Cech), an Orange who can wield electricity as a weapon; and Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a Green with increased intelligence.

Their quest to find a rumored sanctuary for outcast super-powered youth bears a striking resemblance to The Walking Dead's journey to Terminus, and anyone who watched season five knows how that turned out. Then again, nothing in The Darkest Minds can be deemed original or even a superlative example of its formula.

And yet, its diverse cast managed to win me over. Amandla Stenberg's Ruby is vulnerable and appealing, appropriately terrified by her own Jedi mind trick abilities. Skylam Brooks's Chubs is the source of the film's rare comedic moments, and I wish there was more of him. I was rooting for their band of misfits the whole time, and wouldn't hesitate to watch the sequel that is clearly set up though unlikely to ever come. And if The Darkest Minds does nothing else, it will at least instill this fact into the minds of a new generation: never, ever trust a rich white boy with a popped polo shirt collar.


Friday, July 20, 2018

'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,' My, My How Can I Resist You?

Diggin' the dancing queens

I understand the appeal of jukebox musicals. Sometimes (OK, maybe most times), I much prefer going to a dive bar with a great jukebox over seeing a new band at a local club. There's comfort in the familiar, and knowing ahead of time how an evening's songs will make you feel.

One's enjoyment of the Mamma Mia! movies will, of course, depend, a lot, on one's tolerance for ABBA's musical catalog. My tolerance is pretty high, so, while I found the first film's plot a tad insipid, and the musical performances ranging from adequate (Meryl Streep; Amanda Seyfried), to excruciating (Pierce Brosnan), I still had fun watching it, if only to see which ABBA song would be force-fed into the plot next.

Of course, the soundtrack for that first film consists almost entirely of ABBA's greatest hits, which would seemingly leave Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with the choice to either rehash those numbers, or reach deeper into the ABBA catalog. It does both.

The film serves as both a sequel and prequel to Mamma Mia! In the now, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is re-vamping and re-opening the hotel in Greece her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep) spent the majority of her life working on. Will her three dads (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård) make it to the opening? Will her boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper)? Will her estranged grandmother? (Spoiler alert, she's played by Cher, and she's on the poster and the trailer). Or will weather ruin the whole event?

Since that's the extent of the drama in that plotline, the real soap opera plays out in the past, as we follow young Donna (Lily James) during that fateful summer in 1979 that led to Sophie's birth. Somehow, we're to believe someone who looks like Lily James grows up to look like Meryl Streep, which, yes, is preposterous, and we must also take the casting of the younger versions of her suitors with an equal grain of salt. It's only Jessica Keenan Wynn who is utterly convincing in the flashback scenes as the young Tanya (Christine Baranski).

Thankfully, these younger avatars have stronger voices than some of their older counterparts, which helps to justify the casting. And Lily James manages to turn a potential manic pixie dream girl into someone who feels much more lived-in and relatable. You don't doubt the infatuation of her three suitors.

One of the irksome things about the first film was how the choice of song didn't always feel organic to the plot ("Does Your Mother Know" is tied into a May-December flirtation that leads nowhere), or just features the actors singing at each other ("SOS," which is what I shouted after hearing Brosnan sing just one lyric.)

So while there are some greatest hits reprieves here, (it was hard not to sing along to "Dancing Queen" this time, especially when it turns into a dance number performed by hundreds of people on the island's docks), there are also more organic feeling numbers, like "When I Kissed the Teacher," which Donna performs alongside her pals Tanya and Rose during their graduation from Oxford, (look for a cameo by ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus in that scene), and "Angeleyes," which gets a very theatrical rendering by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters.

And then there's Cher. To say her character in the film is ridiculous (she's supposed to be Donna's mother; Cher is two years older than Meryl Streep), is to just recognize the appeal of casting her. The movie grinds to a halt for her performance of "Fernando," as well it should. You may groan at the obviousness of the number. You may role your eyes a bit. But you'll be smiling the whole time. And that goes for Mama Mia! Here We Go Again as well.




Friday, June 22, 2018

'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom': Let Them Have It


What could be more fun than a dinosaur ER?
At this point in the seemingly never-ending Jurassic film franchise, it can safely be said that humans are idiots and they should just let the dinosaurs have the planet. After all, they had it for a lot longer than we have, and if it wasn't for a big dumb meteor it's likely they'd still be around. And if we had any doubts about who deserves this planet, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom peppers the film with plenty more reasons to take the dinosaurs' side.

Three years after the disaster at Jurassic World--which itself is reason number one to let humanity die; those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it (in a series of big budget sequels)--the dinosaurs that have been left to live amongst the ruins of the park on Isla Nubar are threatened with extinction when a dormant volcano on the island starts to erupt.

Former footwear-challenged Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now heads up the Dinosaur Protection group who are working hard to convince the government to take action and rescue the endangered creatures. But the government chooses to do nothing. (Reason number two: a spineless congress).

Enter the reclusive, elderly billionaire Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to the rescue. A former partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, Sir Ben believes the dinosaurs deserve to live, and has built them a secluded sanctuary island. He just needs Claire's help to capture the smartest dino, a raptor known as Blue. Of course Claire needs someone else's help with that, roping in "animal behaviorist," and Blue's trainer, ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).

Sir Ben, who is on his last legs, has entrusted his executor Eli (Rafe Spall) to head up the rescue, and through a smile filled with supernaturally white teeth, Eli convinces Claire he loves those dinos as much as she does. (Has she learned nothing about trusting things with big white teeth?)

The scenes on the island are the only point where we get to see the dinosaurs living their lives and doing their own thing, and that's a joy that the first Jurassic Park  exploited full well, before it turned to destruction. Fallen Kingdom gives us about five minutes of that before all hell breaks loose, and the dinosaurs are running for their lives from the volcano and some pretty nasty mercenaries--headed by a sadistic Ted "Jame Gumb" Levin--brought along to aid in their capture.

At this point the film sets the tone for the rest to come, as we witness the sad plaintive wail of a brachiosaurus who is left to die as the island is quickly engulfed by lava and ash. As my eyes began to well up with tears, I began to hate Fallen Kingdom.

It gets worse from there. For the remainder of the film, many of the dinosaurs are relegated to cages, drugged up, tortured, or on the verge of death. Fun! The villains are revealed, and they're one-dimensional one-percenters, who only see the money-making possibilities of dinosaur propagation. While the inevitable use of a mutated dino as a military weapon gets the most play, we never really know what the rest of the bad guys want them for. Big game hunting?  Exotic menus? Weird sex games? Whatever it may be, it just proves that the obscenely rich are the worst, (and reason number three that humanity should die off.)

The film is big and loud (so, so loud), but at the same time it feels claustrophobic, with some of the dinosaurs charging around a spooky old mansion like errant toys in a dollhouse whose floors somehow don't collapse under their weight. There's a lot of screaming and running, much coming from Sir Ben's precocious granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon). Oakland actress and comedian Daniella Pineda has a few good one liners as dinosaur vet Zia Rodriguez. But the bottom line is a movie like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom should be fun, not a depressing slog that makes you question humanity. I mean, if you've got Jeff Goldblum in your Jurassic movie and you only give him four minutes of screen time? A decision like that is proof enough we humans deserve to die off.


Friday, June 15, 2018

'Tag', A Bad Bromance

You mean to tell me, we're in our FORTIES?  
The creators of Tag really want us to know their film is based on a true story, mentioning that fact in the trailer, the poster, and the film's opening credits. And in the broadest sense, it is. (The true story actually involves a larger, older, and whiter group of men.)

I'm not sure if knowing there actually are middle-aged men out there playing Tag makes the movie's concept seem less or more stupid, but that's one of Tag's problems. It wants to recognize the sheer bizarreness of grown men playing Tag, while also couching it in some cloying messages about friendship and the death of youth.

Hoagie (Ed Helms) is the self-proclaimed leader of the man-boys. After learning their friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is getting married, without inviting any of the Tag clan to the wedding, Hoagie sees it as the perfect opportunity to finally corner and tag the elusive and never-tagged Jerry, and ropes in businessman Bob (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker and perpetually stoned Chili (Jake Johnson), and the reliably deadpan Sable (Hannibal Buress).

The continuous game started when they were in junior high, and has a few rules. It only takes place during the month of May; there's no safe spaces, so you just might get tagged at funeral; whoever is tagged at the end of that month is "It" for the rest of the year; and no girls. That last rule is why Hoagie's ultra-competitive wife Anna (a manic Isla Fisher) can never actually play, although she's ruthless in helping and rooting for her husband.

We also learn amendments can be added to the rules, which is how the gang eventually gets themselves invited to the rehearsal dinner for Jerry and his future wife, Susan (Leslie Bibb): no tagging during the dinner, ceremony, or reception.

That still leaves plenty of opportunities to tag Jerry, and the means he goes through to avoid it are the film's better moments. Jeremy Renner may not have actually played Jason Bourne in 2012's The Bourne Legacy, but he's basically playing him here, setting up elaborate ruses, fighting off stealth attacks, and roping in utility players to act as decoys. These moments, in all their slo-mo glory, are not the least bit realistic, and in real life would likely result in, hospitalization, paralysis, or death. But Jerry's almost supernatural abilities can be fun to watch.

Also fun is some of the more relaxed banter between the guys, particularly between Hannibal Buress and whomever he may be speaking to at any given moment (and often, it's just to himself). But it's not enough. Most of the film is the equivalent of running in circles, which is the epitome of predictable. And an attempt to turn earnest near the end doesn't have the effect it should since up to that point the gag has been never knowing if anything is truth, or just an elaborate means to avoid getting tagged. Tag may be based on true story, but it fails to get real.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ocean's H8?

I'm just as stunned as you, ladies.

I usually write my reviews the week I see a film, posting on the day of release. I'm old school like that. I miss the days when you had to wait for Friday's morning paper to see if the new summer movie was worth seeing or not.

But these days, it's all about the "hot take," getting reviews out there as soon as possible. Despite that, I try to avoid reading most reviews before I've gotten a chance to write my own. As a result, when I'm done writing mine it sometimes comes as a big surprise to see that my opinion does not jibe with the majority's.

Last week I was felled by illness for a few days, unable to even look at a computer screen without being overcome with dizziness and nausea, so I wasn't able to finish my review of Ocean's 8 before my self-imposed Friday deadline. Because of that, I went ahead and checked out Rotten Tomatoes this weekend, only to find the film has a tepid ripe tomato rating. This was shocking to me because, and I'll put it bluntly, I fucking loved Ocean's 8.

It seems the general opinion is that it's good, as good as the Ocean's films that preceded it, but somehow it should have been better. That it's not enough to fill a sequel with a great female cast, a solid screenplay, and every trope that befits a good heist picture. There should've been more.

I can easily say I enjoyed Ocean's 8 as much as I did Ocean's 11, definitely more than Ocean's 12, and probably more than Ocean's 13, which I saw but have completely forgotten. It's not just a retread with a female cast, but cleverly creates a central heist that not only couldn't be pulled off by men, but is actually centered on women's frustrations, desires, and obsessions.

Along with the the fancy dresses and pretty jewels, there's a healthy dose of vengeful female rage, via Sandra Bullock's Debbie Ocean. There's also a starlet (Anne Hathaway) who is both vapidly vain and racked with debilitating insecurities; a Betsey Johnson-esque designer (Helena Bonham Carter) who fears she may have aged herself out of the industry with her latest dated collection; not to mention the presence of Rihanna herself, someone who embodies frustration, desire, and obsession. (Surely I'm not the only woman who feels that way about her?)

I'll say it again: Ocean's 8 is as good as the first Ocean's film, and better than its previous sequels. It's brisk and clever, has the twists we've come to expect from the series, ripples with wit, and is filled with excellent performances. And I don't get why, just because it's got a female cast, it has to be more than that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

'Hereditary' Chillness

Boo!...I mean, can I kiss you goodnight?

When we think about the things that really and truly scare us, it is rarely the monster-under-the-bed, serial killers, or alien invasions. It's more often things like suddenly losing your family; the inability to protect the vulnerable people you love; and maybe, losing your mind.

Hereditary is a horror movie that definitely recognizes the potential horrors of family life, and is at its best when it focuses on that.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist and mother of two who has just lost her own mother after an extended illness. Annie has mixed feelings about this death, as her mother was a secretive and often difficult woman.

Her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and pre-teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are also dealing with this loss in their own way. Peter and Steve take it in stride, perhaps recognizing it as a relief, while daughter Charlie is sadder. She and her grandmother were close, and it's clear Charlie was her favorite child, as odd as she is. Or perhaps because of that oddness.

A palpable level of gloom surrounds the family, due in part to their home, a beautiful but dark craftsman house in the middle of some wintery woods. Annie's artwork centers on detailed dioramas depicting pivotal moments in her life, and the camera often tricks the eye into seeing their home as one of Annie's dioramas. It's a creepy and great effect.

Also lending itself to the creep meter is Annie's realization that her mother had a secret life that may have been downright evil, and the mental illness that runs in Annie's family may not have skipped over her like she thought.

When a second, devastating loss hits the family, it pushes Annie to seek solace in an unconventional way, with the help of a fellow grief recovery group member (Anne Dowd), while also causing some of her long held resentments to rise the surface, fracturing the family.

Toni Collette's Annie goes through almost as many personality changes as her United States of Tara character. She's at times charmingly bewildered by the possible supernatural events that surround her, heartbreaking when she's trying to wrestle with her grief, and utterly terrifying when it appears her mind may be cracking.

At times Alex Wolf's performance as teenage Peter is woefully overshadowed by Collette, but he eventually gets some pretty intense moments of his own. Sadly, Gabriel Byrne is completely underutilized in an underwritten role.

Hereditary is definitely creepy,  and it allows its utterly shocking tragedy to permeate everything that follows. For the majority of the film, we never really know where its going, and ambiguity lends to the terror. But then it decides to stop the ambiguity, landing with a very heavy thud on one side, favoring the kinds of things that ultimately don't keep us up at night.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story


I missed the window for my hot take on Solo: A Star Wars Story a week ago, so I'm not posting a review this week. Instead, here's an AMA between me and myself. No spoilers!

Q: Did you like it?
A: It was fine!

Q: But seriously, do we really need a Han Solo origin story?
A: No, of course we don't. But if they're going to insist on churning out these "Star Wars Stories," I'll take a movie centered on Han Solo over the proposed Obi-Wan movie any day. (Also, Obi-Wan had THREE prequels already! Obi-Wan is Obi-Done.)

Q: There's no way that Alden Eheren...rich..reich.....that guy is as good as Harrison Ford though, right?
A: I'll admit something a little embarrassing here. When the original Star Wars came out, I was immediately enamored with Luke Skywalker, not Han Solo. Mark Hamill looked more like Shaun Cassidy and Andy Gibb, the subjects of my pre-teen crushes, than Harrison Ford did. Plus, Han Solo was very much an adult, and therefore kind of scary.

By the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, and Mark Hamill wasn't so pretty any more, I began to understand the rakish appeal of Han Solo. Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, a year after my mind had been blown by science fiction films like The Thing and Blade Runner, and it just felt hopelessly dated to me. Not even my burgeoning crush on Harrison Ford (thanks to Blade Runner) could negate the presence of all those damn Ewoks.

I like Han Solo. He was certainly much more *fun* than Luke Skywalker. But I never had his posters on my wall. Which might be why I came away from "Solo" amused and not annoyed by Alden Ehrenreich's take on the character.

Q: OK, what about Lando? How's Donald Glover?
A: He's great, and if they don't give him his own Lando movie, they're fools. He's also got a robot co-pilot who's one of the best droids in any of the movies EVER.

Q: Is there anything bad in it?
A: Emilia Clarke. She's pretty but maaaaaan, is she stiff.

Q: What's the key take-away/pull quote.
A: Solo: A Star Wars Story is fun space heist that both benefits and suffers from its Star Wars universe setting. And I can't wait for the all Chewbacca spin-off.

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 space...so 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 just...is. 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 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.




Friday, April 13, 2018

'You Were Never Really Here': It's Hammer Time

And the award for Best Use of Rosie and the Originals in a Film goes to...

You Were Never Really Here seems an odd venture, on its surface. It's an aggressively bleak and violent film by a female director, Lynne Ramsay, based on an aggressively bleak and violent novella by a writer, Jonathan Ames, best known for his comedic writing.

But it's actually not that surprising considering their collective of works. Lynne Ramsay's previous films include the brutal We Need To Talk About Kevin, and the exceedingly grim Ratcatcher, and Jonathan Ames demonstrated an obvious fondness for gritty detective stories with his comedic TV take on the genre, Bored to Death. And if you look close, there's some very, very dark humor to be found in the You Were Never Really Here, amidst Ramsay's unrelenting murk.

Joaquin Phoenix is at his most grizzled in the part of Joe, a middle aged New Yorker who lives with his aged and slightly senile mother (Judith Roberts). We get Joe's history in brief but visceral flashbacks. He's a veteran; a survivor, along with his mother, of domestic abuse at the hands of his hammer-wielding father; and he's been witness to the often horrific outcomes of human trafficking, a trade he fights against as a kind of vigilante-for-hire who has adopted his father's weapon of choice. (The film's marketing attempt to start a trending hashtag with #bringthehammer is a tad tone deaf.)

A senator hires Joe to help find his sixteen-year-old runaway daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a likely victim of sex trafficking, and Joe accepts the job with almost no questions asked. His one mistake.

You can never accuse Joaquin Phoenix of phoning in a role; he always throws his entire body weight at a character, and this time that body weight is bulked up, his battered dad bod on full display in several scenes. With his long grey hair and beard, cracked hands, and visible scars, just looking at him made me wince. And that was before he fights the bad guys.

The story owes much to classic noir and its tales of double crosses and corruption, but ends up straying just a little too far into the ridiculous. Maybe I've been watching too much Law & Order: SVU  lately (correction, there's no maybe about that), but the trafficking story Joe gets sucked into reeks of the kind of morbid and unbelievable exploitation and corruption you might find in a Very Special two-part episode of the series.

You Were Never Really Here almost falls into the camp of movie I detest, where bleakness is there for the sake of bleakness, and the audience is forced to witness horrible things they already know are horrible, resulting in nothing new learned, just agony. Ultimately Ramsay and Phoenix are able save the movie from that fate through the strength of vision and performance.

Ramsay fills the movie with some beautiful imagery that often belies its sad and tragic content. Johnny Greenwood's pulsating score pushes the film's brisk 90 minutes ever forward. A masterfully edited scene using night vision cameras and Rosie and the Originals' Angel Baby as its soundtrack gave me chills. And it all culminates with what I interpreted to be one of the most darkly comic endings ever (I was the only one in the theater who seemed to be laughing) with Phoenix forcing us to question Joe's commitment to never ending misery.