Friday, May 5, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

I'm one of those people who does their best to avoid spoilers before seeing a movie, especially when it comes to genre films. That means I don't watch trailers (unless I'm forced to at a theater), avoid reviews, and stay away from internet chatter as much as I can before watching something that's bound to be filled with surprises.

But man alive, I wish someone had spoiled Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for me, because if I had had any prior knowledge of what happens in this movie, I probably would have skipped it entirely. Consider this review the kind of warning I wish I'd had, while being as spoiler free as possible.

Vol. 3 takes places after the events of the The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, and the gang's attempt to cheer up the depressed Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) apparently didn't stick, as the movie opens with Quill drinking away his sorrows on Knowhere, still mourning the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who, while no longer dead, is not the Gamora Peter once loved. Like the first two films, this opening involves a tracking shot set to a pop song, though in this case, it's not a peppy classic. Instead, it's an acoustic version of Radiohead's "Creep", and it's being listened to by an equally depressed looking Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, a fact that never ceases to amaze me). The tone for this sequel is set early.

Shortly after, Rocket's life is put in danger, and the remainder of the film is centered on a quest to save him, paired with flashbacks to Rocket's origin story, and as has always been suspected, there's a reason why he's never wanted to talk about that. It's because it's. Fucking. AWFUL.

I'm one of those people who has to check Does the Dog Die whenever I see there's an animal in a film, so I can make sure they make it out OK, or if they don't, so I can at least be prepared for it. Call me a pussy, but I just can not deal with seeing animals tortured or killed on screen. And I'm here to tell ya, that happens in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. A lot. And it is absolutely brutal to watch.

I'm not even sure if the rest of the movie that does not feature cruel experiments on cute animals, some of their deaths, and outright genocide is any good, because every time the film would jump from the horrible to our beloved gang of Galaxy Guards bantering and acting heroic, I was too distracted by the tears I had to wipe dry and the sobs I was muffling to really notice. 

Yes, I did laugh several times, and took particular pleasure in Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). I'd watch a spinoff focused on them in a heartbeat. But the drastic whiplash changes in tone made it hard to really appreciate the more lighthearted aspects of the movie. This is director James Gunn's final entry in the series, and perhaps his leaving explains some of the story choices he makes. The Guardians films are the Marvel movies I have probably enjoyed the most up until now, watching the first two more than once. But I don't think I can ever watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 again, and would only recommend it to those who really, really, really feel the need to complete the series. 

But don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Weekend Screen Seen: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Polite Society

Like many a Gen X gal, I was a huge Judy Blume fan growing up, reading many of her books more than once (and some, like Forever, and Wifey, at an age I probably shouldn't have). And, like many of her fans, I was worried when I heard an adaptation of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was set for the big screen. Would it be modernized? How could that even be done? And would it be watered down for an era where even being able to talk about periods is under attack?

Those fears were unfounded. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is a charming period piece (sorry) set firmly in the early 1970's, complete with training bras, maxi pads, and games of spin the bottle. And while I am not sure how well it may play with today's pre-teens, it will definitely please adults who grew up loving the book.

The way I remembered it, the book was centered on the anxiety Margaret feels about puberty and her changing body. But in actuality, religion plays just as big of a role in the story (which, given the "God" in the title, should not have come as much of a surprise). Margaret's interfaith parents (her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish), chose not to raise her without any religion, allowing her to decide for herself what she wants to believe in. We see Margaret attend Synagogue with her beloved grandmother Sylvia (a perfectly eccentric Kathy Bates), confusedly confess at a Catholic church, and confront the Christian grandparents who disapproved of her mother's marriage. The story presents such a measured approach to religion that I'm pretty sure it, and not the period stuff, is the real reason the book has been consistently banned over the years.

The cast, for the most part, is perfect. The aforementioned Kathy Bates steals every scene she's in, but Abby Ryder Fortson's Margaret is complicated and lovable. As Margaret's mother, Barbara, Rachel McAdams is able to convey the rebellion brewing within a housewife who is beginning to question her decisions. It's only Benny Safdie, as Margaret's father, Herb, who feels like odd casting. He spends so much of the film with a strange half-smile on his face that I wondered if he was playing him as a secret stoner. (Definitely not something I remember from the book.)

Director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a movie that I have to call "pleasant," but not in any derogatory way. There's nothing wrong with pleasant, and sometimes it comes as a damn relief. I spent the whole movie relishing the nostalgic sets, soundtrack, and costumes, laughing, occasionally tearing up, and just appreciating that these beloved characters were finally brought to the screen in a way that would make Judy Blume proud.

I wouldn't have thought periods would be a thing to tie Margaret and the action comedy Polite Society together, but mentions of a woman's "time" and "heavy flow" are used more than once in the film to get uncomfortable men to do what the women want. (Want to freak a guy out? Tell him to look for something in your purse and then say "ignore all the tampons." He'll jerk his hand out of that purse like you told him there was a cobra in it. Do they think we carry used ones around???)

Aside from that connection, Polite Society also centers on a teenage girl and her relationship with her family, with the underlying theme that girls should be able to carve out their own futures. Ria (Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a stunt woman, and spends her spare time filming her practices, with the help of her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya). When Lena decides to give up art school after falling in love with a doctor, her Pakistani parents are pleased, but Ria is sure something just isn't right with her sister's fiance and over-bearing mother, and vows to save her from that horrible fate: marriage.

It takes a little while to adjust to Polite Society's meshing of genres, which include romantic comedy, Bollywood musical, martial arts actioner, and even horror, but writer and director Nida Manzoor knows how to balance them all, resulting in a film that is just pure fun, from start to finish.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Renfield, Mafia Mamma

"What if Renfield were a superhero?" is the underlying premise of Renfield, the new horror comedy starring Nicholas Cage as the famous count, living in contemporary New Orleans, and Nicholas Hoult as his long-suffering familiar, Renfield, who has grown tired of a lifetime of servitude, even if the perks involve immortality and the ability to always win a bar fight.

It's surprising to realize Nicholas Cage has only played a vampire once before, in the dark 1989 comedy Vampire's Kiss (and whether or not he really is a vampire in that movie is open to debate); a vampy, over the top, blood sucking, narcissistic character seems so right up his alley it almost feels like type-casting. And even though Dracula is really a supporting player in this tale, Cage makes the most of his limited screen time. Even when he's reduced to a blackened, smoldering char, he can deliver a line like no one else.

Nicholas Hoult's Renfield is a sympathetic killer; a pale, sad-sack loner in a threadbare wardrobe who uses his toxic relationship support group as both therapy and hunting ground. This Renfield doesn't just eat bugs for fun, instead, bug-eating is the source of his superpowers, which include strength, immortality, and acrobatic fighting abilities.

The violence in Renfield is absolutely ridiculous, and for the most part, hilarious (I mean, at one point Renfield impales one bad guy with an arm he's just ripped off of another), even if by the time the climactic finale arrived, I was a tad tired of the fighting. The movie packs a lot into its scant running time, and I found it most amusing when it focused on its characters, including Awkwafina as a sardonic, second generation NOLA cop, and less on the plot involving a crime family and an attempt to take over the world. I thought I was over superhero movies. Turns out I just needed mine to be a little more goth...and gory.

Renfield is now playing in theaters.

Over-the-top violence also plays a part in Mafia Mamma, a new gangster comedy starring Toni Collette as a suburban mom who finds herself the head of an Italian mafia family, a plotline that can only happen in the movies. Which is fine! I just enjoyed a movie about a man who gets superpowers from eating bugs! I'd just prefer my stupid movie plots to come with some good jokes. At least.

Listen, I don't blame Toni Collette for signing on to a movie that required her to travel to Italy, eat a lot of pasta, and make out with hot Italian men, no matter how terrible the script may have been. Sometimes the good time she's so obviously having results in a few minutes of entertainment, maybe even a smile. She's always a charismatic performer. But it's not enough. Instead of genuine laughs we get a running gag about her never having seen The Godfather, gangsters who spit every time a rival family is mentioned, and a woman with a metal leg everyone seems to forget she has. (That woman is played by Monica Bellucci, who deserves so much more.)

That the violence is often played for laughs would have worked a whole lot better if the rest of the movie veered more often into the realm of outright parody, or even fantasy. But director Catherine Hardwicke just can't seem to stick to a tone, and the result is DOA.

Mafia Mamma is now playing in theaters.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: A Man Called Otto, Women Talking, The Pale Blue Eye

At first glance, A Man Called Otto feels like a predictably lovable story about a cantankerous old man who Learns to Live Again with the Help of an Unlikely Friend™, especially when you see that ultimate nice guy Tom Hanks is playing that cantankerous old man. But the story actually gets pretty dark pretty quickly, giving what appears to be a predictable story an uneasy edge.

Casting Hanks as a grumpy old man may seem like an odd choice, but it works. Otto is a grieving widower who's decided he's had enough of the idiots that seem to be taking over the world, and isn't quiet about it. Quite bluntly, he's an asshole, and watching an asshole for two hours would likely be intolerable. Tom Hanks knows how to balance the sweet and the sour. Mariana Treviño is also an absolute delight as that Unlikely Friend™ who gets under Otto's skin.

 A Man Called Otto is now playing in theaters.

Sarah Polley's Women Talking, based on the novel by Miriam Toews, feels very much like a stage play; instead of Twelve Angry Men, we have Eight Angry Mennonites. These eight angry women live in a religious colony and are coming to grips with the knowledge that for years, men in the colony have been drugging them and raping them in their sleep. They gather together to discuss their options: Leave. Stay and fight. Or stay and do nothing. 

Women Talking is indeed a talky movie, but what talking! And what women! The key thing Polley does to remove the film from the confines of its inherent staginess is to focus closely and intently on the faces of the women doing all of that talking. It feels as if all of the actresses, devoid of obvious makeup, hair under scarves, are able to convey the truth of their characters instantly. All of the cast is excellent, but Claire Foy as the angry Salome and Rooney Mara as the beatific Ona stand out. If I have one complaint it's with the distracting choice to completely wash out the film of any real color, without going full on black and white.

Women Talking is now playing in theaters.

At this point I'm not sure it's possible for Christian Bale to make a movie where he doesn't look like complete hell and The Pale Blue Eye is no exception. Set in 1830, Bale plays a detective who is hired to investigate a murder at the West Point Military academy. His grizzled and grieving sleuth pairs up with an academy student named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), and at this point you can probably guess that things get weird. The film's eerie and atmospheric setting and cinematography does a lot of the heavy lifting until the ultimate twists that you will either go with, or roll your eyes at. Gillian Anderson and Toby Jones also star.

The Pale Blue is now streaming on Netflix.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Weekend Screen Scene - Blonde, Don't Worry Darling, Catherine Called Birdy

I was extremely skeptical Ana de Armas could pull off playing Marilyn Monroe after hearing her speak in the above trailer. She just couldn't mask that accent. But I'll admit my reservations were unfounded; for the most part, the voice works.

But her performance, which is excellent, deserves to be in a better movie than Blonde, a relentlessly bleak film that, while based on a "fictionalized" account of Monroe's life, may still have you coming away believing that her life was nothing but an endless series of traumas. It's no mystery at this point that Monroe had a tragic life, so concentrating on nothing but that is not bringing anything new to her story. 

Director Andrew Dominik does an amazing job recreating some of her most iconic screen moments, and it had me wishing there were more of them, because at least those scenes are kind of fun. Monroe's career is filled with way more comedies than dramas, and while she was a fine dramatic actress, she was a genius at comedy. But I can imagine someone who's never heard of Marilyn Monroe coming away from this film having no idea why she's supposed to be so famous, aside from her being pretty.

Which, again, is why it's a shame de Armas's performance, which really does, at times, capture some of Monroe's preternatural charisma, is wasted here. Trying to convey the magic of a cinematic icon with an actress that doesn't have anything near to that kind of magic is why so many Marilyn biopics have failed. Finally, we have an actress that is able to get closer to that than anyone before her, and she's forced to spend the majority of the movie crying.

That said, I was never bored watching Blonde, even at 165 minutes long. But I was frequently annoyed; by its nonsensical switches between black and white and color; by it's intrusive score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis); and by a story that turns the life of a multi-faceted legend into just another cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame.

Blonde is in select theaters now and will stream on Netflix starting September 28th.

I'm not sure Don't Worry Darling could ever live up to the drama that is its publicity tour, but if that somehow gets people curious enough to go to the theater to see it, I'm fine with that, because it's also not as bad as the surrounding buzz would have you believe.

If mid-century Palm Springs aesthetics are your jam, then you'll probably be sucked into it as instantly as I was. If you're a Harry Styles fan, I'm a little less sure how you're going to react to it, as I saw it in a theater full of Harry Styles fans, and they were laughing. A lot. It was very confusing! But if you're a Florence Pugh fan, I promise you'll still be one by the time the movie ends.

And yes, I'm avoiding talking much about plot here, because I don't want to give anything away, even if anyone who has ever seen any film set in a utopia can probably guess pretty early on that something is going on. Director Olivia Wilde definitely wants this film to speak to ideas of modern gender roles, toxic masculinity, and female autonomy, but she lingers in that perfect world just a little too long. Not that I can blame her.

Don't Worry Darling is currently playing in theaters

Speaking of female autonomy, let me present you with Catherine Called Birdy, the story of a teenage girl in medieval England who is doing all she can to avoid being married off by her desperate, near destitute father.

Lena Dunham, who has adapted the book by Karen Cushman, and also directs, may not seem like a natural fit to tell the story of a medieval teen, since her output until now has been firmly set in the now. And some may take umbrage with the use of modern pop songs peppered throughout, as well as the more modern sensibilities espoused by Bella Ramsey's Birdy. But, much like Don't Worry Darling, and, in a way, even Blonde, the film is using the past to comment on the present, and how much women have had to, and still have to, fight for the basic right to exist as they want to.

Catherine Called Birdy is currently playing in select theaters and will stream on Prime Video starting October 7th.