Friday, December 20, 2019

'Cats,' I Have Questions

That way madness lies; let me shun that. No more of that.

I spent the entire screening of Cats with my brows furrowed, though for different reasons. Sometimes it was because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. At other times it was because I really didn't understand what the hell was going on. But most of the time it was just because I had so many questions.

I'll skip the obvious first question, which is just an incredulous "Why??" because I know the answer. It's the pervasive idea that anything popular that isn't a movie has to be turned into one. I believe Cats may be definitive proof that this should not always be the case.

I haven't seen a staged production, so I can't make comparisons. But I have seen the costuming--I think most people at this point are at least vaguely familiar with it, since the show ran on Broadway for decades--so I can at least compare the presentation of the cats in both, and let's just say one is a campy interpretation of feline physicality, and the other is the kind of thing you might see if you were having both a bad acid trip and a nightmare at the same time.

So that leads to another question: How could anyone think that was OK? The actors in the stage version don't really look like cats because realism isn't the goal; it's campy entertainment. But the cats in the movie don't look like cats either, yet it's pretty obvious a lot of time was spent on making their fur look real, even if nothing else about the cats does. They aren't shaped like cats! They're either painfully skinny (even the well-kept cats), or ridiculously fat (for "comedic" sake and the comedy that never materializes, despite those fat cats being played by Rebel Wilson and James Corden).

I also have absolutely no idea what size the cats are supposed to be. Sometimes they're seen on top of statues looking human sized, and at other times, they're wearing human wedding rings around their wrists. (I challenge you to fit a ring around a cat's paw. I'll wait.) Mice (with human faces!) are as tiny as mice would be next to an adult human, and cockroaches (also with human faces!!) are as big as mice. IT'S MADNESS.

What did the cast think they were getting into? Was there ever a point where they saw some digital mock-ups of their characters and thought "I've made a huge mistake"? I literally gasped in shock when the first cat appeared on screen, I can't imagine the reaction I'd have if it were my face on one of those freakish felines.

But enough about the cats, how's the music, you may be wondering. Fine? I guess? The quintessential 80's synthesizers remain, as does the inherent silliness of the songs. It's a musical where most exposition is given via song, and I'm not going to rehash the minute details of the plot, because I only half understood it. I think it involves the Jellicle cats (I don't know what that is), meeting for the once yearly Jellicle ball (which is maybe part talent show?), so that Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench!) can select the cat who will descend to the Heavyside Layer (which is maybe cat heaven, or maybe reincarnation, but apparently you get there via hot air balloon and chandelier). There's also a villain in the form of "Macavity" (Idris Elba! What are you doing?!) who can transport cats to a barge in the Thames, which seems like a pretty amazing talent for a cat to have, but for some reason he'd prefer to die go to the Heavy Side Layer? Or something?

Cats is a physical musical, with lots of dancing, and indeed there is a lot of dancing in the movie. Francesa Hayward, the newcomer playing the kitten Victoria, is actually a ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet. But there is so much digital manipulation going on with every performer in the film, you have no idea if the dancing you're watching is real, or digitally enhanced. Director Tom Hooper's insistence on cutting every two second doesn't help matters. (Which made me wonder if his maniacal editing choices are centered on a desire to never let the camera linger too long on the cats, because therein lies insanity.)

There is only one memorable song in the musical, despite Taylor Swifts attempts to usurp it with her addition, "Beautiful Ghosts," which is actually performed by the film's ingenue. Instead, Taylor Swift, as the only cat with both visible boobs and an hourglass figure, performs "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" with a bad British accent.

The good song is, of course, "Memory," sung by the aging, ostracized and bedraggled Grizabella the Glamor Cat, here played by Jennifer Hudson. This is the musical's showstopping number, and Hudson definitely has the chops for it. And yet...her vocals during the song are muddled, with lyrics hard to decipher at times. Her performance is definitely an emotional one, with lots of tears, but also lots of mucus, which lingers on her upper lip for the majority the song. They gave her digital whiskers, could they not digitally erase the snot? Or at least let her wipe her nose?

By the time Old Deuteronomy is addressing the audience, telling us "cats are not dogs" (!) I just had to put my face in my hands and close my eyes. At that point, the unintentional laughter in the audience had reached its peek, but I commend them for their restraint through most of it. (Judi Dench's introduction seemed to illicit the most chuckles).

This summer, while on vacation, I watched the trailer that shocked a nation, and I've joked that watching it almost ruined my trip. Now it's Christmas, but I'm not going to let Cats ruin that. The dread arrival is over. Cats is here, and now we can ignore it, and go back to living in a world where cats, while not dogs, are also not freaks.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Oscar Bait Lightning Round: Knives Out, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, The Irishman

As I'd feared, the amount of time I have had to spend watching movies--over 40 in the past month!--has meant I have had precious little time to actually review any. That doesn't mean I don't have opinions about them, because of course I do! So allow me to spew some thoughts about these currently playing Oscar contenders.

I'm not sure a movie as fun as Knives Out will get the Oscar attenton it deserves, but with the Academy nominating up to ten films each year, there's no reason it shouldn't. Every member of the knockout cast has their moments to shine, but standouts are Jamie Lee Curtis as the de facto family matriarch, Toni Collette as the flighty but savvy daughter-in-law, and Ana de Armas as the nurse at center of the mystery.

Like many a classic Whodunnit, the death takes place in a mansion filled with the usual suspects, with almost everyone but a butler represented. Rian Johnson's clever screenplay goes back and forth from a Did Someone Do It? to a They Said They Did It! to a Wait, Did They Do It?, and for the majority of the movie you may be wondering if you're watching a Whodunnit at all.

If the film has any flaws, I'd say it's Daniel Craig's Foghorn Leghorn-accented Detective Benoit Blanch, but I just chose to pretend his awful accent was a long con and the detective's real identity will be revealed in a coming sequel. Fingers crossed.

Had Dark Waters come from any other director than Todd Haynes, it would be your standard "based on a true story" drama about the little guy fighting the powers that be. And in all honesty, it is that, with the added puzzlement that comes from knowing this came from Haynes, and yet contains none of his trademarked attention to setting or style.

It could be argued that this story of a corporate lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who decides to go after DuPont, the type of business he usually represents, makes a good companion piece with Haynes's 1995 drama Safe. Both deal with the impact of environmental pollutants. But the subject matter is basically where the similarities end. Where Safe felt weird and unpredictable, Dark Waters isn't innovative in any way. Which isn't to say the story isn't important. I just think you'd get just as much entertainment value reading the New York Times Magazine piece it was based on, and without the obligatory "wife yelling at her husband for doing his job" scene from Anne Hathaway.

When I was a kid I saw Kramer vs Kramer and loved it, mainly because it was an adult story with a child at the center, and being an only child myself, I often felt like a child living in an adult's story. But that's pretty much where the identification ended, since my parents weren't in the middle of divorce (and are still married; congrats!).

Marriage Story, like Kramer vs Kramer, is actually the story of a divorce, with a young child at the center, but in this case, a little less focus is put on the kid. It's his parents' story, and at times, it broke my heart. It's certainly one of the best acted movies of the year (though Adam Driver's performance is a little stronger than Scarlett Johansson's) with one tour de force argument so intense and cathartic it brought me to tears.

I've often felt a little distanced from Noah Baumbach's films. They can be as stiff as Wes Anderson movies, but without the beautiful production design that can warrant the "these aren't actors, they're dolls" feeling. Marriage Story is the first Baumbach movie where the characters feel completely real and fully alive.

Through this awards season my main complaint has been that movies are too damn long, and then Martin Scorsese, one of my favorite directors, has to come along and release a three-and-a-half hour epic.

But here's the thing. It's on Netflix, and I'm not going to begrudge the length when its available via a medium I've spent six hours or more in front of when binging a series. Which actually leads to a common complaint lodged against The Irishman: that it should have been even longer, and a Netflix series.

Ah, but then it wouldn't be Oscar Bait, would it?

I was never bored through it's three plus hours, and in fact watched it in one sitting. I feared the CGI de-aging might be distracting, and perhaps on a big screen, it is. But I got used to it pretty quickly (less so Robert De Niro's freaky blue eyes). One thing they couldn't de-age is the fact that these guys are all in their 70s, and try as they might to look like spry 40-somethings through half of it, they don't always succeed, still beating up guys like the 70-somethings they are.

Scorsese doesn't have to make another gangster movie ever again as The Irishman is the perfect coda to his wise guy oeuvre. It's both a greatest hits album and a melancholy meditation on mortality, guilt, and regret.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Oscar Bait: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

No, seriously, PLEASE won't you be my neighbor?

Based on Tom Junod's 1998 profile of Fred Rogers, or more accurately, based on the writing of that profile, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is more about the emotional journey of a journalist than it is about Mr. Rogers.

And I suppose that's fine, if the movie wasn't being marketed like it's some kind of biopic, which it definitely is not (not of Rogers nor of Junod, since his story is highly fictionalized). If you want to learn about Mr. Rogers and really understand what he was all about, just watch Morgan Neville's brilliant 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?. If you want to see Tom Hanks doing a serviceable impersonation of Fred Rogers, albeit one with limited screen time, see A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood.

Matthew Rhys plays the fictionalized journalist, now named Lloyd Vogel. He and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) are new parents. After bringing the baby on its first family outing to Lloyd's sister's (third) wedding, Lloyd has a run-in with his estranged and alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Jerry wants to reconcile; Lloyd wants to hold on to his resentment; things turn violent.

Naturally, Lloyd's editor (Christine Lahti) decides this is the perfect time to send Lloyd on an assignment: write a profile about Mr. Rogers for Esquire's issue about heroes. (A bitter cynic meeting Mr. Rogers? Why, that should be the plot a movie!)

As cliched as that set-up is, director Marielle Heller at least frames it in a unique way, echoing the tone of the original magazine piece by setting up the film like it's a long episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, complete with that familiar living room and closet, a miniature version of New York City, and appearances from Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin.

Tom Hanks, who could perhaps be seen as the most "Mr. Rogers" of actors because of his reputation for decency and niceness, is probably the perfect choice to ably portray Fred Rogers' guilelessness, even if sometimes he comes off more eccentric than simply earnest. (Though I suppose in a world filled with cynics like Lloyd Vogel, earnestness can be seen as the ultimate eccentricity). A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood isn't a bad movie, it's just a predictable and common one that doesn't do justice to a person who turned out to be one of world's most uncommon heroes.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Oscar Bait: Ford V Ferrari

Wait, I thought YOU wrote down where we parked the car.

Here's something I never have to see again and yet have seen in no less than three movies in the last week: A scene where the wife of the hero chews out the hero for doing the very thing the hero will be known for doing. Typically, it's the wife of a cop, or a doctor, but in Ford v Ferrari it's the wife of race-car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

And in this case, it is such a contrived bit of drama because when we're introduced to Mollie Miles (Caitriona Balfe), director James Mangold makes it very clear that she's into the whole car thing, and clearly knew the type of man she had married. That introduction gave me hope this very dude-centric movie had at least tossed us a token cool chick. Alas.

And Ford v. Ferrari (better titled Le Mans '66 abroad) is definitely a bro-fest, with bellowing performances from Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby (what's with Matt Damon and characters named Carol/Carroll?), Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, and Josh Lucas as weasely Ford executive Leo Beebee.

As much as I love that era of muscle cars, I'm way less interested in the sports cars and auto-racing of the time. And that's probably why I had never heard the story of how then VP of Ford Motor Company Lee Iaccoca (Jon Bernthal) decided in the mid 1960's that the company should win the 24 hour Le Mans race to help boost sales, and if that meant buying Ferrari to do it, so be it. When that scheme crashed and burned, they decided to make their own race car, roping in racer and car designer Carroll Shelby (he of Shelby Mustang fame), who in turn recruited racer and engineer Ken Miles to help build it.

For a movie about fast cars, it drags, and at two-and-a-half hours long it could have used some serious trimming (might I suggest a certain scene involving a screaming wife?) That said, the performances are solidly entertaining, by both the cars and the actors (though sometimes the cars overshadow the stars). I'll also say Christian Bale, an actor who has always annoyed me in some way or another in every movie I've ever seen him in, gives what I think is his most enjoyable performance ever. Director Mangold films the racing scenes well, thankfully not resorting to nausea inducing shaky camera work, and for the most part, the action is indeed exciting and crowd pleasing. But anyone who has watched a race, especially a long one, can't deny it can get monotonous. The same holds true for Ford v Ferrari.

Friday, November 8, 2019

'Doctor Sleep' Bids Good Day To Mr. Kubrick

"Yeah but where's MY Dr. Sleep when I need him?"

Stephen King's 2013 novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining. It is most definitely not a sequel to Stanley Kurbick's 1980 movie The Shining, a movie King famously hated, and the book makes no real nods to Kubrick's interpretation of his story. King's Doctor Sleep exists in a world where the evil Overlook Hotel burned to the ground, and there was no such thing as a hedge maze.

But you can't make a movie sequel to The Shining and pretend Stanley Kubrick's version never existed, especially if you want to sell a lot of tickets. So director and writer Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep is hybrid of both. It's King's story set in Kubrick's universe.

To accomplish this, Flanagan doesn't simply use original footage from The Shining. When it comes to incorporating moments from that earlier film into this one, he recreates and recasts, so that the film opens with young Danny Torrance riding his tricycle through those familiar hallways, passing a familiar doorway, and seeing a familiar bather in a familiar bathtub.

But we quickly see that this isn't the Danny we remember. He's been recast, along with his mother Wendy (by Roger Dale Floyd and Alex Essoe, respectively). And I'll admit I had a visceral negative reaction when I saw those new actors, even as I marveled at the masterfully recreated costumes and sets; I went in expecting a sequel, not a remake.

But that slavish recreation of The Shining is only a fraction of the film's (bloated) 151 minute running time, and the majority of the film centers on a grown up Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) who has learned to silence the very real demons that haunt him, through a combination of booze and mental lockboxes, the latter a trick taught to him by Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly).

After hitting rock bottom he finds friendship and AA, settling down in a small New Hampshire town, taking on shifts at a hospice, where his psychic abilities lend themselves well in leading the dying into that good night. This skill earns him the nickname "Doctor Sleep."

The moments Dan Torrance spends with the dying, along with scenes of him at AA and embracing friendship, are all heartfelt and authentic, and imbue the film with a tenderness and sadness that is a welcome change of pace for a horror film, as is the inclusion of a young girl of color as the story's heroine. Teenage Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is also gifted with "the shine," and she develops an unlikely, sight unseen friendship with Dan. But her supernatural gifts are like a beacon to the band of baddies that are the film's villains.

Lead by a beautiful woman known as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the "True Knot" are a gang of vampiric gypsies who gain immortality from the "steam" the emanates from people like Abra and Dan, though steam from children--especially frightened, dying children--is the most powerful; they suck that shining out of their victims like bong hits.

Their murder of a young, "gifted" boy is perhaps the film's most horrifying and disturbing scene, and it's a reminder that much of The Shining was centered on the terrorizing of a child. And perhaps that's part of why that film has had such a lasting impact. We've all been scared children (the most unlucky being children scared of their own parents), and for adults who become parents, knowing their child might be in danger is perhaps the scariest thing of all.

Doctor Sleep delves into areas centered on the effects of trauma and the heredity of addiction, with Dan Torrance literally coming face-to-face with the spectre that was his murderous and alcoholic father, Jack (Henry Thomas, playing yet another creepy father character in a Mike Flanagan movie, fills in for Jack Nicholson), and it's when Dan is facing those kinds of demons that the film is its most effective. The trip back to the haunted Overlook, while certainly fun, in a pandering-to-the-fans kind of way, is just a Halloween attraction compared to the knowledge that you might grow up to be exactly like the person you most loved, feared, and hated.

Doctor Sleep is too long, and relies a bit too much on what Stanley Kubrick created before it. But it also did something The Shining, a scary but classically cold Kubrick movie, never could. It made me scared and sad.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Oscar Bait: Motherless Brooklyn

Is Oscar?

Edward Norton is no stranger to the Oscars, albeit thrice as a nominee, but never a winner. His latest drama, Motherless Brooklyn, seems like the ultimate in Oscar bait, in that he wrote, directs, and stars in it, and his role, as a low level detective with Tourette syndrome, is the kind of showy performance the Academy loves.

Alas, it's likely Norton won't even make it to nominee status this year, because while Motherless Brooklyn is beautifully shot and entertaining, it's also too long, and aside from its tic-ridden protagonist, doesn't do much that hasn't been done before, and often better.

Apparently this has been a passion project of Norton's ever since the Jonathan Lethem novel it was based on was released in 1999. That's odd to learn since Norton has changed much of the book's plot, moving it from its then contemporary setting to the 1950's, and changing the central mystery to an investigation into the racist and corrupt development of modern New York City.

The movie is pure film noir. It opens with the murder of Norton's boss and friend (Bruce Willis), leads to a case with a mysterious woman at its center (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and ends with the hero facing a villain (Alec Baldwin) and uncovering more than he ever planned to.

For the most part, Norton captures the era well. That the detective agency he works for also doubles as a car service means plenty of gorgeous 1950's automobiles are utilized throughout. It being set during the winter means lots of women in era-appropriate heavy coats, hats, and gloves. (He's a little anachronistic when it comes to background storefronts, and his use of the word "weed" when talking about marijuana, which, while certainly used at time, just doesn't sound right.)

At two-and-half hours long, Motherless Brooklyn drags terribly in the middle, which is frustrating, because with a little editing it could have been a tight throwback to both the classic noir of the 1950's, and the neo-noir of the 1970's and 80's. Noir fans willing to have their patience tried will likely find it worth their time. For the rest, it will be a case of so close, yet so far. Just like Norton and the Oscars.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Oscar Bait: Jojo Rabbit

Komm, gib mir deine hand grenade

The final three months of the year are always a mad rush to awards season. It's when studios release their "prestige" films, AKA Oscar Bait, but it's also the time of year when those same studios do their best to remind critics and academy members of other movies and performances they may have forgotten, via what seems like an endless stream of screeners and screenings.

If you're a full time critic, there's not quite as much catching up you have to do at the end of the year, as it's likely you've already seen most of the movies that are vying for those accolades. But if, like me, this is a part time gig you have to balance with a full time job, it can be overwhelming, and time for actually reviewing all those movies can be scarce.

Last year, I basically gave up writing about anything I was watching at the end of the year. But this time I'm going to do something different, and try my best to offer up some capsule reviews of those Oscar Bait films that are flooding my eyeballs.

And first up is the "anti-hate satire" Jojo Rabbit.

Now, if anyone could pull of a Nazi comedy, it's writer, director, and actor Taika Waititi. What We Do In the Shadows is one of the funniest movies I've ever scene, and Thor: Ragnarok is easily the most enjoyable movie in the Marvel universe.

And indeed, he does pull it off. Jojo Rabbit is both very, very funny and truly heartbreaking. I just don't know if it's as profound as its marketing might lead you to believe because its heart it's just another story of a bigot who learns to see past his own prejudices when he befriends someone he's been told he should hate. What makes Jojo different is that bigot is a ten-year-old boy, and Hitler is his buffoonish imaginary friend.

Set in the final years of the Second World War, Jojo Rabbit follows young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, a delight), as he ventures to a Hitler Youth camp, befriends the Nazi Captain (Sam Rockwell) who runs the camp, and devotes his life to the Fuerer, who also makes frequent appearances as Jojo's imaginary friend. (Hitler is played by Waititi, and who knew Waititi-as-Hitler would look so much like Fred Armisen?)

Jojo lives alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, both angelic and tough as nails). His sister has died, and his father is somewhere in Africa fighting for Germany. Or so he's been told. And while Rosie loves Jojo, she doesn't exactly agree with his zealotry, ascribing it to his youth, or, as another character puts it, "You're not a Nazi, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club."

Indeed, the film equates the zealotry bequeathed to Hitler with the youthful exuberance of Beatles fans, setting the opening credits to the Beatles' German version of I Want To Hold Your Hand, Komm, gib mir deine Hand; other anachronistic music flourishes pepper the film, giving it a Wes Anderson vibe. But the anachronisms also drive home the point that the past is present, and those who cannot laugh at the absurdity inherent in our world's history of hate are perhaps doomed to repeat it.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Things Will Be Great When You're 'Downton Abbey'

“At my age, one must ration one’s excitement."

I'm no Anglophile, so Downton Abbey the series wasn't something I felt an immediate need to view. I believe it was well after the second season had premiered in the U.S. that I, on a rainy day, decided I needed something suitable to watch while cozying up with some tea and knitting, and binged the first season on Netflix.

It was easy to get sucked in. It certainly looked like a stodgy PBS Masterpiece Theater series, but it was a pure soap opera at its heart, complete with tropes like treachery, sibling rivalry, and illicit sex. By the third episode, when Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) super vagina killed a Turkish diplomat, I knew I'd follow this show wherever it went.

And it went to some pretty stupid places! Miraculous paralysis recovery! Imposter cousins! Pointless murder trials! The introduction of Lady "Scrappy Doo" Rose (Lily James)! Downton Abbey may have presented as posh, but it was actually the best kind of trash, at its heart merely a fantasy predicated on the fairy tale notion that the English aristocracy were benevolent and loving, and their devoted servants wanted nothing more than to please them. Forever.

And it may very well go on forever, if the hints laid out by Downton Abbey the movie are any indication. I'm sure existing fans will have no problem with that, but I find it hard to believe anyone who hasn't seen the show will have any burning desire to see this movie. Which isn't to say it's inaccessible--the royal visit plotline is simple enough--but I can't imagine a newcomer giving a flying fig about the developing romances of characters who only get about 15 minutes of screentime.

And that's a general problem when you spin off a movie from a TV show. Somehow you've got to convey years of character development into two hours for those who are just coming aboard. This shorthand can thus reduce a character to their most identifiable trait--which is often their most annoying. (Looking at you, sour Mary.)

Taking place mere years after the series finale, the story finds things at Downton pretty much where we left them, though some characters have inexplicably returned after making a big show of leaving. (Daisy (Sophie McShera) is back in the kitchen, and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has apparently given up on that new start in America.) A letter informs the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) the King and Queen will be touring Yorkshire, and they plan to stay overnight at Downton. I guess that's how the royals make a reservation.

(I had no idea who the King of England was in 1927, and it's never explicitly stated in the film--and why should it? I am sure the majority of Downton fans know this stuff. Still, I had to look it up. It was King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the current Queen Elizabeth.)

This news of course sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy. Will the staff actually be able to serve the King and Queen? Or will they be cook-blocked by the royal entourage? Will Irish Tom be able to control himself in front of the royals? Will Edith's (Laura Carmichael) dress arrive in time for the ball? This is the kind of drama all Downtown Abbey fans have come to expect.

Also expected and delivered: lots of period costume porn; plenty of fancy food porn; and of course the ever present interior design porn that is Downton Abbey itself. The transfer from television to the cinema has its advantages. There are some nice aerial shots, and the big screen can better convey the sheer size and grandeur of Downton Abbey. And yet, the movie still feels like a television episode, albeit perhaps more like one of the series's standalone "Christmas specials." Scenes rarely last more than a few minutes, with a constant need to pop between the many character's and personal dramas.

This means that, as always, there's never enough time spent with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, the comedic heart of the series, and really the only thing that has remained consistently entertaining throughout its whole run. She and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Whilton) continue to toss the kinds of pointed barbs that can only be shared by people who actually love and respect each other. (Comparisons to both Machiavelli and Caligula are made of each other, over after dinner port in the drawing room. Downton Abbey in a nutshell.) If turning the show into a movie garners Smith an Oscar for the same role she won an Emmy for--twice!--then it will have been worth it.

Friday, August 30, 2019

'Brittany Runs A Marathon' Is Healthy Junk Food

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...And a Burger Shack shake

As someone who has gained, lost, and gained weight her entire life, I can safely say, losing weight is not a ticket to happiness. And for the most part, the comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon knows this, too. Still, it's a tricky thing these days to base a comedy around a woman's weight loss goals, and I'll admit when I first heard about the film, my knee-jerk reaction was, "haven't we grown past this?"

But then I reminded myself I gleefully consume shows like The Biggest Loser and Fit to Fat to Fit like the televised junk food they are (and yes, hate myself for that consumption, just like I would after eating a pint of ice cream), so who am I kidding? I'm here for it.

Comedian and actress Jillian Bell, who has been relegated to sidekick and comic relief roles in the past takes on the lead role of Brittany with aplomb. Brittany is in a rut. At one point, she was aiming for a career in advertising--specifically, jingle writing--but is now barely getting by with her job at a small theater company. She's also outwardly hilarious, always the first to make a joke at her own expense; the funny, fat sidekick to her more conventionally beautiful girlfriends; the low-esteem girl who gets far more requests for blow-jobs than she does for her phone number.

Her life is a loop of clubbing, drinking, drugging, hangovers, and people who won't hold that subway door for her rushing-and-late-to-work ass. What she needs, obviously, is Adderall. Unable to convince her doctor it's because she "has a hard time focusing," he chooses to focus on her actual health, letting her know her BMI is too high ("I feel like you're totally missing the point of those Dove ads"), her blood pressure is elevated, and she's at risk for fatty liver disease ("Oh, even my liver is fat!"). He tells her to lose 45 to 55 pounds, or as she puts it, "the weight of a Siberian husky. You want me to pull a medium-sized working dog off of my body."

She ultimately recognizes this is the kick in the ass her life needs, and after a thwarted attempt to join a gym with rates that start at over $100 a month, she decides to try running, since that's, you know, free.

The early running scenes are both funny and painful. Funny because Bell sells the agony (at one point she's running so slow she's convinced she's going backwards) and painful because of the fat prosthetic she's forced to wear.

Because the filming schedule was only a month long, they weren't able to incorporate the weight loss Bell went through in preparation for the role into the actual film. By the time they started shooting, Bell was down 30 pounds, so they had to illustrate her "before" state with padding and a fake double chin that's distracting in its overly-freckled make-up job and the stiffness it adds to Bells movements. It also adds a weird dynamic to watching the movie: you hope she loses weight, and fast, so you don't have to look at that creepy chin anymore.

As Brittany moves through her running journey, she makes new friends, including Catherine (Michaela Watkins), a rich neighbor she had previously despised, and Seth (Michah Stock), a gay father who is trying to get into shape so he can stop running out of breath when he's playing with his son. Together they decide to tackle the New York City Marathon, a year long training goal. She also takes on a house/dog sitting job, where she meets Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the "night shift" dog watcher who has decided to just squat at the house full time. She hates him immediately, so you know what that means.

There's a tightrope to be walked with these kinds of stories, and Brittany Runs sometimes slips. We are given constant updates on how much weight she's lost, and we are consistently shown the changes in her physical appearance as he admires herself in the mirror. But not as much attention is given to the state of those medical issues that drove her to make changes in the first place.

On the other hand, the film also recognizes that an obsession with that number on the scale never, never, leads to anything good, and can actually be dangerous, and that physical changes mean nothing if you don't address your mental and emotional issues at the same time. This is illustrated most painfully in a scene where Brittany projects all her built up insecurities onto an overweight woman she meets at a family party and treats horribly. Because while there may be some debate about whether skinny is a worthy goal, skinny bitch never should be. I may have some issues with the central premise of Brittany Runs a Marathon, but its heart, humor, and central performance from Jillian Bell turn it into something I didn't feel guilty about consuming.

Friday, August 16, 2019

'Where'd You Go, Bernadette,' And Why Should I Care?

"Manjula, I need to order a black scarf, decidedly less itchy than the monstrosity currently around my neck."

Unless it's a genre I actively dislike, I can usually find something in a story to glom on to, even if it's just the setting, or the music, or the costumes, especially when the central character is a woman, roughly my age, living a life I may not be living, but can certainly recognize. But Where'd You Go, Bernadette has to be one of the weirdest works of art I've ever experienced, because in both its book and now movie forms I wasn't able to connect with it at all. And I really have no idea why.

When the book was a best seller, I tried to read it, more than once, but I just couldn't get past the first dozen or so pages. I assumed it was the epistolary format, and maybe the satirical tone that I didn't find particularly funny, but sitting down to watch director Richard Linklater's film version, I was faced with the same feeling of disconnect. I wanted to become engaged with the film, sat there waiting for that happen, and never felt it.

And this time, I can't really blame the format (although translating that epistolary storytelling technique does lead to a lot of monologues and people talking, uninterrupted, for a lot longer than they naturally would). Cate Blanchett as Bernadette, along with Kristen Wiig as her nemesis neighbor Audrey, certainly bring the right level of comedy to their roles, and they both almost save the movie. But for almost half of its running time I kept asking myself, "What is this movie even about?"

I suppose a big answer can be found in the title itself. While Bernadette does "disappear" towards the end of the story, the truth is the real Bernadette has been missing for years. She lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and their 15-year-old daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), in a huge, dilapidated former girls home called Straight Gate, which sits on a hillside overrun with blackberry bushes.

You can catch bits of whimsy throughout the home, like wall decorations made out of old school books, and a door in a crumbling room may open up to a beautifully restored bathroom, but you get the sense the house is a project long ago abandoned. Why the family lives there, and why some of it is stunning and innovative while the rest is a disaster is a mystery for way too long, which is one of the screenplay's (by Linklater, Nina Jacobson, and Brad Simpson) biggest problems.

Facts about Bernadette's past, and just what made her a curmudgeonly, insomnious, misanthrope are doled out too slowly, so that you spend the first half of the movie wondering if you're actually supposed to think she's off her rocker, or if she's just reacting as anyone might to a "gnat" of a neighbor who fakes injuries for sympathy, a husband who works too much at his Microsoft job, and a daughter who has decided to leave for boarding school. This is the most crushing to her, as Bee is the only person who seems to understand her.

Removing what is essentially the central mystery of the novel turns the story into more of a character study, and while Cate Blanchett's Bernadette can be certainly be an entertaining asshole to watch, I needed to see more of the supposedly stifled creative genius in her if I was going to garner any real sympathy for her situation, which, on the surface, certainly doesn't look too bad.

Bernadette spends most of her days puttering around her home, driving Bee to and from school, occasionally falling asleep on pharmacy couches, and dictating long emails to her virtual personal assistant Manjula, who takes care of things like refilling prescriptions, ordering fishing vests, and booking travel. The travel, vest, and prescription are all needed for the family's upcoming trip to Antarctica, a reward for Bee's perfect report card. Bernadette is, as she tends to be with most things, not exactly excited about the trip, but it isn't a spoiler to say she does get there. Her kayaking among the glaciers is the film's opening shot.

The film's final stretch, centered in Antarctica (actually Greenland) is definitely beautiful, and may have you contemplating your own treacherous sea voyage to get there. It almost had me buying that Bernadette could actually "find" herself there. I could buy it. But I still couldn't feel it.

Friday, August 2, 2019

'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw', Deck's Redemption

"Has anyone scene my motorcycle, Fido?"

Every time I see a movie in the Fast & Furious franchise, I have to remind myself that I have, indeed, seen every single movie in the series. And then I realize I don't remember a goddamn thing about any of them. In theory, that shouldn't come as a surprise. They're fast paced action films, the cinematic equivalent of a thrilling car ride, and when was the last time you came away from one of those experiences remembering every detail?

The thing is, the Fast & Furious universe is as complicated as a Tolkien saga, with way more plot than they'd ever need, numerous heroes who become villains, and villains who become heroes (with their own movies), and so many sisters and brothers marrying their best friend's/worst enemy's brother or sister I still need to remind myself Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez are married in the series, and not siblings. (Though who knows, maybe that'll be another twist in a future film.)

Trying to remember and catch up on this stuff never seems to work for me, so I tend to just go into the films like they're all stand-alones, and for the most part, that can work out fine. Of course, there's probably more enjoyment to be had when you can watch and piece it all together, going back five movies, but when there are also enough car chases, explosions, and fights to enjoy, why bother trying to think?

Which brings us to Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, the first "spin-off" from the series, which implies it was designed so you wouldn't need to know too much about the other movies to enjoy it. And in fact, coming in cold may be help. That way you wouldn't know that Jason Stathams's Deckard Shaw was once a cold blooded killer who murdered a lot of people, including one of the franchise's favorites. (And no, I didn't remember that; a friend had to remind me.) But no matter, he's a hero now, paired up with Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs, the retired DSS agent and former prison mate he loathes.

You might be wondering who thought it was a good idea to pair two people who fantasize about bashing each others skulls in every time they're around each other to help save the world, and I am too, because despite seeing the movie this week, I can't remember. What is it with this franchise and my instant amnesia?!

This I do remember: they're sent on a mission to retrieve a deadly virus, one that could bring about the end of humanity (well, at least the end of weak humanity), which was apparently stolen by rogue MI6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby). Yes, Hattie Shaw is Deckard Shaw's sister.

Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), another former MI6-agent-gone-bad, is also hot on that virus's trail. He's got history with Deckard Shaw (because of course), and has now teamed up with a terrorist organization that goes by "Eteon." Thanks to them, he's mechanically enhanced, bullet proof, and in possession of a self-driving motorcycle that shows up like an eager puppy when summoned. (Great. Will those now replace rentable e-bikes all over the country?)

While we know Hattie was actually framed, it takes Hobbs and Shaw a little while to figure that out, and a little longer to realize the virus she "stole" is still on her person, literally, having been injected in capsule form into her palm. The majority of the film is then a race against the clock to figure out how to get the capsules out of her before they dissolve and she becomes the Walking Black Death. (Cutting off her hand never seems to occur to them, and she certainly doesn't seem to be protecting that palm during all the fist fighting she goes through.)

But really, Hobbs & Shaw succeeds or fails based on three things: car chases, fighting, and banter. I was definitely entertained by the former, a little less so by the latter. Too often the barbs they toss at each other come off as lazy and too juvenile (I think at one point Hobbs jokes about doing the "sexy hula hula" with Shaw's sister). Much funnier are scenes between Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, who makes an appearance as a former co-worker and "best friend" of Hobbs, but that's probably because Reynolds has much more natural comedic talent than Jason Statham does. (That Ryan Reynolds shows up isn't much of a surprise when you consider director David Leitch also directed Deadpool 2.)

And while there might not be quite as many elaborate car chases as your average Fast & Furious film, what's there doesn't disappoint, particularly the one involving a bunch of trucks, a helicopter, and the side of a cliff. Is Hobbs & Shaw a good movie? Does it matter? The important thing is, in a year or two, when the next entry in the franchise inevitably comes out, I'll have forgotten this one completely, and I'll be ready and eager for that next exhilarating car ride.

Friday, June 28, 2019

I Don't Believe In 'Yesterday'

"But I don't get how a guitar can 'gently weep,' Jack."

Would I Want to Hold Your Hand have been a hit if it had been sung by one guy? Would Eleanor Rigby have felt so revolutionary if it hadn't been proceeded a few years earlier by I Saw Her Standing There? Danny Boyle's new film Yesterday would have you believe that the songs of the Beatles are such powerful entities apart from their creators that they'd rock the world even if they were just performed by one charismatically challenged and mediocre musician with a guitar.


Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malick, a singer and songwriter with too many years playing local pubs and children's birthday parties. After his manager and longtime friend Ellie (Lily James) gets him a gig at music festival that turns out to be on a stage in an an empty tent, he decides to give up the musician's life for good, something Ellie, his biggest fan in more ways than one, begs him not to do.

That night the world experiences a 12 second total blackout, which also results in Jack getting hit by a bus while riding his bicycle home in the dark. When he wakes up he's missing two teeth, and the world is missing something much greater.

Recovered and out of the hospital, Jack picks up a guitar again, and plays Yesterday for his friends. Visibly moved, they ask him when he wrote it, and he tells them, duh, he didn't, Paul McCartney did. You know? From the Beatles.

They have no idea what he's talking about.

Jack's frantic Google search reveals that in this post-blackout word, the Beatles never existed. The Beatles albums he once had in his collection are now missing, and Jack is the only person in the world who knows their songs. Or at least, some of them. (A scene where Jack tries to remember the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby is the only time director Boyle truly gets playful with the whole idea.)

So Jack gives up retirement, and starts to perform as many of the Beatles songs as he can remember. His small audiences love them. Someone offers to record a demo. Jack starts giving the CDs out at his warehouse job. He gets interviewed on local TV. And then Ed Sheerhan (who plays himself) shows up at his front door.

From there a predictable trajectory is followed: Jack tours with Sheerhan. Sheerhan's manager (Kate McKinnon) sees a possible cash cow and signs him on. Greedy music execs want to package Jack in the most commercial way possible, so of course the album title Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is tossed out the window. And Jack becomes increasingly uneasy at the idea of gaining stardom via plagiarism, even if there's no way anyone could ever prove that.

And floating on top of all this is the romantic subplot in which Ellie finally confesses what should have been readily apparent to Jack for years: that she loves him, and, you know...he should be glad! Instead, Jack wavers, and Ellie who has been pining for him for years, is once again relegated to the "friend column," with no real explanation as to why.

It doesn't make sense to her, and it certainly doesn't make sense to us, because the script from romantic comedy veteran Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) does a piss poor job of selling that conceit. For one, Jack is a self-centered drip who deserves to be single, so why would Ellie even care? And for another, Ellie is cute, devoted, and for years, his only real fan, so what the hell is Jack's problem?

That the film was once titled All You Need Is Love may give some indication as to which path Jack decides to take: love or fame, and that that decision becomes the center of the film is disappointment, with a grand romantic gesture that feels more creepy than heartfelt.

The whole "a world without the Beatles" concept isn't really investigated beyond how it affects Jack's life. I'm sure there have been late night conversations in pubs that had more insight into what our modern pop culture landscape, let alone the whole world, might look like had the Fab Four never formed. Yesterday relegates that philosophical topic to a joke about Oasis never existing either.

Which brings me back to those songs. Himesh Patel has a serviceable voice, especially when he's singing an acoustic ballad. But there is otherwise nothing special about his versions of the Beatles songs, and, in fact, some arrangements are unnecessarily aggressive. Yesterday will definitely have you coming out of the film humming the Beatles songbook, and then desperately rushing to listen to real deal, because a world where only Jack's version of those songs exists would be a sorry world indeed.

Friday, June 21, 2019

'Toy Story 4,' Like Many A Toy, Is Fun But Unnecessary

"Yes, I know we're on the side of the road, but that doesn't mean we're trash."

There are few movie trilogies in history where one can easily say all three entries are classics in their own right, and even better as a trio. The Toy Story trilogy was one of them. So it was a bit of a universal head scratcher when Pixar announced Toy Story 4. It smelled a bit like a money grab, although when you look at its origins--John Lasseter had planned on directing it himself--it makes a little more sense. The last film Lasseter directed, Cars 2, didn't charm the critics, and definitely didn't take home any Oscars, while Toy Story 3 was hailed as a masterpiece...

But, as you might have heard, things at Pixar changed, and the Toy Story 4 we're getting now was directed by Inside Out co-screenwriter Josh Cooley, from a story with no less than nine contributors, including Rashida Jones and writing partner Will McCormack. And while the resulting film doesn't feel like an addition anyone needed, it's certainly not one that deserves to be thrown in the trash.

Speaking of trash, that's kind of a recurring theme in the Toy Story universe, with the entire gang of toys at the end of TS3 almost meeting the ultimate sad end of many a child's plaything, as trash on the way to an incinerator. Its every toy's fear that they'll be lost or abandoned, and Woody (once again voiced by Tom Hanks), is far from immune. As the film opens, he's fallen a bit out of favor with Bonnie, his new kid, and he's often relegated to the closet to collect dust bunnies during her playtime.

Determined to prove his usefulness, and, sure, also be there for some support, he sneaks into Bonnie's backpack on her first visit to kindergarten, and ends up clandestinely helping her make a new friend. Literally.

Crafted out of a Spork, a Popsicle stick, clay, a pipe cleaner, and some googly eyes, Bonnie names her new toy Forky, and they are instantly inseparable. Problem is, Forky (voiced to perfection by Tony Hale) doesn't really understand that he's a toy, and not trash, and in fact, would much prefer the warm comfort of a garbage can to Bonnie's embrace.

So Woody, ever the do-gooder, does his best to make Forky understand his role, while also constantly removing him from the various trash receptacles he flings himself into. This proves even more challenging when Bonnie and her family go on a road trip that ultimately brings them to a small town carnival, and an antique store that might hold Woody's long lost love interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

All of the usual toys are there, including Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Hamm, and Mr. Potato Head (still voiced by Don Rickles, despite his death in 2017). And sure, having all those beloved toys featured in the movie relies on accepting that Bonnie's parents would allow her to BRING THEM ALL on a road trip, but we're talking about sentient toys here, so I'll let it pass.

And it's the new toys that take center stage this time around. Along with Forky, there's Ducky and Bunny, who, next to Forky, are the film's funniest characters (they're voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a defective talking doll from the 1950's who's only slightly less creepy than the ventriloquist dummies that act as her bodyguards.

With each Toy Story, the animation only gets more beautiful and impressive; Ducky and Bunny could be stop motion, their fake fur looks so realistically...fake. But I was most impressed by the backgrounds, with nighttime scenes that were never murky, and a colorful and energetic carnival that serves as backdrop for much of the action.

And there is indeed a lot of action. The story this time isn't much different, plot wise, than the other Toy Storys or, frankly, a lot of Pixar movies: someone gets lost, and needs to get home. But what's different is that our usual hero Woody is relegated to the sidelines through much of the rescue, with Bo leading the charge (she's learned a lot since she escaped being a child's lamp). It was nice seeing some girls' toys as both heroines and villains this time around.

But I can't help but come back to Toy Story 3, and just how perfect a finale it was. And it's not just that it managed to reduce me to a quivering and sobbing mess at the end, since this one is not without its tear-jerking moments. It's that Toy Story 4 just never feels as vital, which is a problem considering some of the drastic choice one of the most beloved characters makes.

And really, all of this comparison could have been avoided if they just hadn't called the movie Toy Story 4. It's not like the whole franchise ended with the third film. Pixar has been releasing Toy Story related shorts for a number of years, and one, Toy Story of Terror, has even joined the ranks of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown as a perennial Halloween TV favorite.

Instead of trying to tie this film into the series, it could have been the start of an endless number of off-shoots featuring our favorite toys befriending new toys, and having new adventures. That's likely the route they're going to take anyway, should this one become a hit. But because of that title, Toy Story 4 will always be the Forky of the series: a thoroughly lovable but slightly weird creation that never quite fits in.

Friday, June 7, 2019

'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' Is Home

Home is where you left your heart

As a San Francisco native who has never lived anywhere else I'm not going to pretend I can give a purely objective review of The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film that moved me more than any other film set in the City ever has.

Before I saw it, I had a broad understanding of its plot and themes (gentrification; displacement; the City's shrinking minority population), and as I got off the shuttle from my tech job to attend the premiere (yes, I am not immune to the irony), I couldn't help but wonder, as I sometimes do these days, if I was part of the problem. Do I get a pass because I've lived here my whole life? Does it matter that my (inconsistent) career in tech is one of the only reasons I've been able to stay here? Does that fact that I will always live with the fear of possible eviction absolve me from any blame for the City's gentrification?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco didn't give me any clear answers (even if the closest thing to a villain the movie has is a white San Francisco native), and I was actually thankful for that. It's a plus that it cleverly avoids casting any outright dispersions against any particular group, while also slyly acknowledging the City's extended history of displacement.

Debut director Joe Talbot co-wrote the script with Rob Richert, from a story by Jimmie Fails, who also stars as....Jimmie Fails. Jimmie, who works in a nursing home, shares a room with his best friend, artist and aspiring playwright Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), in a house owned by Montgomery's blind grandfather, Allen (Danny Glover). Many of their evenings are spent watching old noir movies together with Montgomery describing the action to his grandpa.

But Jimmie's passion centers on an old Victorian in the heart of the Fillmore. The house used to be his family home, with the story passed down that it was built by Jimmie's grandfather in the 1940's after he had come to San Francisco to work in the shipyards. He didn't want to take over one of the many Victorians that were abandoned in the neighborhood after its Japanese residents were forced into camps during the war, so he instead painstakingly recreated a Victorian mansion, right up to the roof's corner witch's hat. (The house seen in the film is actually located in the Mission on South Van Ness, and has a pretty interesting history of its own.)

While Jimmie's family lost the house years before, he still longs for it, and sneaks onto the property to repaint, garden, and make the minor repairs the current (white) owners don't want to make (and certainly don't appreciate him making). But when those owners, not immune to displacement themselves, are forced out, Jimmie reclaims the house, and works on making it home again.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco certainly wasn't what I was expecting, which was perhaps something closer to Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You; something broader, and taking aim at obvious targets. Instead, it more closely resembles the lyrical work of Barry Jenkins, who also tackled being black in a changing San Francisco in 2008's Medicine for Melancholy. It's a movie that lives and breathes San Francisco, featuring local actors and characters like the aforementioned Danny Glover, as well as Jamal Trulove, Jello Biafra, and a naked Castro street dude.

It's also gorgeously shot, with breathtaking sequences that pan across neighborhoods that will be familiar to some, and wholly new to others, particularly in an opening sequence that took my breath away, and is a sole reason to watch the movie more than once. Paired with Emile Mosseri's haunting soundtrack, scene after scene becomes straight up poetry.

I won't deny that seeing it at a packed Castro Theater, with a vocal San Francisco crowd that included the cast, creators, and local legends, gave me a lot of feels, perhaps more than the film alone could have mustered. This was especially true when, over the closing credits, Mike Marshall gave a surprise live performance of the song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) (which is also memorably featured in the movie). Suddenly, a song that had always made me cringe now made me cry, its hippie dippy lyrics taking on new meaning filled with nostalgia, reassurance, and hope.

Near the end of the film, Jimmie overhears two transplants on a Muni bus complaining about San Francisco, and how much they hate it. He interrupts to ask them "Yeah, but do you love it?," which stumps them a little. And then he tells them, "You don't get to hate it unless you love it."

Amen, Jimmie.

As well as being one of the best movies of the year, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic anecdote to the recent proliferation of doom and gloom profiles of a supposedly soulless San Francisco past the point of saving. Its very existence is proof that the City is still capable of wonderful things.

Friday, May 31, 2019

'Ma' Ma Mia!

Ma loves you. A LOT.

Classic slasher movies tend to follow familiar formulas: teenagers getting knocked off by a mysterious stranger who is eventually revealed to be someone with some kind of grudge, usually having to do with neglectful or mean teenagers in their past. Ma follows a bit in that vein, but omits some of the mystery. There's no doubt Ma is nuts, and doesn't have her teenage posse's best interests at heart. But the why is revealed slowly, as is the extent of her insanity.

Set in an unnamed southern town (though filmed in Natchez, MS), the film establishes our Final Girl immediately. Maggie (Diana Silvers, recently seen in Booksmart), and her single mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) have recently moved to town, but it doesn't take long for Maggie to make friends with the cool kids: party girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and a trio of boys, including insta-boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

The group's go-to fun time is drinking at the Rock Pile, which is, literally, a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere. Getting booze for these jaunts requires hanging outside a liquor store and begging an adult to buy up for them.

Enter Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). At first adamantly against it, she eventually gives in, for reasons that are very obviously ulterior, especially after she makes sure the kids get caught that evening. When she conveniently runs into them again, she tells them they can drink in her basement. After all, it's better than them driving around drunk, right?

She quickly earns the nickname "Ma," and before her complimentary Pizza Rolls are even finished, her basement is the new hot ticket, although there are rules: there has to be a designated driver, and no one is allowed to go upstairs.

While partying in a middle-aged stranger's basement doesn't seem particularly odd to the teens at first (because, one, drunk, and two, dumb teenagers in a horror movie), when Ma starts to send them incessant texts and video messages, practically begging them to keep showing up, they get wise, and spread the word that Ma is a little weird, and they should probably stay away from her party den.

Which gets back to Ma....

At first, we just assume Sue Ann is a lonely woman who gloms onto the kids out of a combination of concern and lonely desperation. But flashbacks reveal Sue Ann has a history at their high school, and with some of their parents. But the pace at which those flashbacks are scattered throughout the film is off, both slowing things down, and remaining annoyingly enigmatic for the majority. We know something bad happened to her, but when they finally get to it, the event loses much of its impact.

Pacing in general is a big problem, as there's nothing gradual about Ma's turn from creepy to completely psychotic. In fact, her break is so sudden it ends up being one of the film's biggest laughs, which the movie could use more of. And indeed, there are clues that this is all being played for camp, the biggest being the presence of Allison Janney as Sue Ann's veterinarian boss, who spends all of her extremely brief screen time glaring or yelling at Sue Ann ("Sue Ann! Why isn't that dog shaved?!"). But Ma never truly commits to the camp.

(I'll also add that the fact that Ma works with animals had me tense throughout the whole thing, fearing she was going to murder everyone's pets. Happy to spoil it for the similarly nervous and say no dog dies, though one does get hurt.)

Director Tate Taylor worked with Octavia Spencer previously on the film The Help, which was firmly set in the south, and dealt with historical race relations. Ma is also centered on a black woman in the south, and yet race plays almost no part in the story. The flashbacks reveal she was the only black girl within her social group, and everyone she deals with as an adult is white. (Aside from one of the partying teenagers, and at least that doesn't go unnoticed or without comment)

By ignoring the topic, the film falls into the camp of unsurprising crazy killer stories, offering no real nuance, commentary, or subversion to the genre. It had me imaging what someone like Jordan Peele could have done with the same story. Perhaps he could have given us a film actually worthy of the all-in performance from Octavia Spencer.

Friday, May 24, 2019

'Booksmart' Schools The Teen Comedies That Came Before It


Booksmart, actress Oliva Wilde's directorial debut, is the first film of 2019 I immediately wanted to see again, both to catch the jokes I missed when they were drowned out by laughter, and because it just made me so...happy.

A ribald, raucous, and revelatory comedy centered on female friendship, it manages to firmly entrench itself into the annals of great teen comedies, while also flipping cliches, and avoiding the tropes that often make us look back at our teenage faves thinking, "Really? Really, now."

The story centers on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Deaver), two high school seniors on the last day of school. Both have gotten into Ivy League schools, though that's not something they can brag about since class president Molly instituted a rule that seniors can't talk about their college admissions, lest it make lesser students feel bad.

You would expect two overachievers like Molly and Amy to be the butt of many a joke, and they are. But they also deserve some of the derision they get because they're a bit insufferable. And that's what makes them perfect heroines. They aren't just nerdy outcasts. They also have a tendency to be condescending and dismissive of their more carefree classmates. Which is why it comes as the most tremendous of shocks to them when they learn that a lot of those classmates also got into good colleges (aside from the one slacker who repeated a grade and is heading straight to a coding job at Google).

"How?!," screams Molly, "You guys don't even care about school!" "No, we don't only care about school," replies the girl known as AAA for reasons related to rumored roadside hand-jobs.

Realizing they spent four years needlessly devoted to nothing but school, Molly and Amy decide to pack four years of fun into one night. This means going to a house party thrown by Molly's underachieving but very cute student council vice president, Nick (Mason Gooding), if they can only figure out where it is. (Unsurprisingly, they weren't invited.)

The resulting evening is filled with both the things you'd expect from a teenage comedy, and surprises. While Molly and Amy are looking to possibly hook up with the objects of their affection, that's not the sole purpose of their evening, which is instead a broader YOLO smorgasbord of shenanigans. (That Amy is gay is nicely presented as long established fact, and only her Christian parents, played by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, who are comically over-accepting of it, ever seem to give it much thought.)

There are plenty of times where we laugh at Molly and Amy, but also plenty of times when we laugh with them. And what I found most refreshing is that not once are Molly's or Amy's looks the object of derision. There are no jokes centered on weight, or their level of attractiveness. At one point, a student even talks about how he'd totally get with Molly, if he could only put a paper bag over her "butter personality."

And yes, perhaps that's not a realistic portrayal of high school life in the age of the bully-in-chief. But it sure is a nice break from stereotypical cinematic mean girls who always seem to pop up in high school comedies to do nothing but be mean and pretty. Instead we get girls like Gigi (Billie Lourd, perfection) a rich party girl with an almost shamanistic supply of insight and hallucinogens, and Hope (Diana Silvers), who is, yes, mean and pretty, but also...well, I won't give it away.

Director Wilde perfectly weaves the film's raunch and warmth, perhaps best demonstrated during Molly and Amy's conversation about masturbation and the involvement of a beloved stuffed animal, while also throwing in some truly gonzo bits of surrealism (animated Barbie dolls are involved). It's rare to see a comedic debut so masterfully assured.

And Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Deaver are so, so good as the BFFs, I almost assumed they actually did know each other for years in real life. They didn't, but apparently Wilde suggested they immediately become roommates once they were cast in the film. It worked. That familiarity paired with the script by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, gives us the most believable pair of besties since...well, since Ilana and Abbi bid us farewell a few months ago.

Booksmart is being compared to 2007's Superbad, both because of the subject matter and because Beanie Feldstein's older brother Jonah Hill starred in it. And while I liked Superbad just fine, I ultimately came away from it feeling like it just wasn't a movie made for me (and that period shaming scene wasn't the only reason why, though it was a big part). Booksmart had the opposite effect. It's the teenage comedy I wanted as a teenager, and as a young adult, and now, and forever.

Friday, May 10, 2019

'Poms': Diane Does Death

"Is that Angelica Huston twerking?!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 3, 2019

'Long Shot' Comes Out Ahead

Note: the hats are not hiding head wounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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