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.

Rubbish.

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

"YOLO POLE THO!"

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 Skarsgård, hilariously playing against type).

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

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


Thursday, April 25, 2019

'Avengers: Endgame': No Safety Or Surprise

This image may or may not contain a spoiler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 12, 2019

'Little' Big Woman

How many schoolbooks can fit inside a Birkin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, April 5, 2019

'Shazam!', Gaaahh-lee!

Drinking that famous "COLA" Beer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 8, 2019

'Captain Marvel' Doesn't Have To Prove Anything To You

The dream of the 90's is alive in Carol Danvers

When Wonder Woman opened in 2017, there were numerous reports of women breaking down into tears during the scene where Diana takes to the World War I battlefield, dodging bullets and saving lives, because all the men around her had given up. I was one of those crying women. Finally, finally here was the DC hero I cherished the most growing up, saving the world in a mediocre DC movie, just like all those male superheros had been doing for decades before.

Captain Marvel is the first Marvel movie focused on a female superhero, and if you're thinking "It's about damn time," you're right. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe does have its share of heroines, none have been allowed to carry a whole film until now. And as, essentially, a prequel to Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel also seems poised to carry the entire franchise.

But she's kind of a weird character to set up for that, because while Wonder Woman is quite literally a goddess, Captain Marvel is, most of the time, very much down to Earth, and, as the people around her have made sure she understands through each step of her life, just a girl.

As the film opens, our Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is known as Vers, and she's a Kree, an alien warrior race at war with the Skrull, shape-shifters who are encroaching on Kree territory. Vers has a mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) with whom she spars both physically and verbally. He's always telling her she needs to control her emotions, while she sarcastically tells him he needs to stop worshiping her. After all, she's got photon blasters for fists, who wouldn't worship her?

After a capture by the Skrull and an escape that has her crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster in 1995 Los Angeles, on a planet she knows as C-53 (a real "shithole" according to her fellow Kree), Vers starts to realize the past she can never remember may have a beginning on this very planet.

This is a Captain Marvel origin story, but it's also a Nick Fury (Samuel. L. Jackson) origin story as well, because in 1995, he and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are two very smooth faced agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (CGI de-aging effects work better on Jackson than on Gregg, who I just assumed was some kind of android imposter for at least five minutes.)

Brie Larson brings an effortless breeziness to her character. Perhaps heeding the advice of her mentor, when Vers first lands on Earth C-53, she seems to be keeping her emotions in check, not letting much phase her, from the agents who want to question her, to the aliens who want to capture her, to the asshole on a motorcycle who tells her to smile (nice). This lightness also feeds into her scenes with Agent Fury, allowing Jackson to bring some comedy to his character. They have some great moments together. (Though none are as great as Jackson's moments with a cat named Goose, who basically steals the whole movie.)

The Marvel movies have been superior to DC movies in a number of ways, but the biggest reasons for me have always been their humor, perfect casting, and character authenticity. Captain Marvel has all three down, with much help from Annette Benning as a spooky AI god, Lashana Lynch as Carol Danver's best friend Maria, and Ben Mendelsohn as a very funny Skrull in a turtleneck. As tends to be the case with most of the Marvel movies, the big battles are never as entertaining as the quieter moments.

If you're a Gen X'er, the film's 90's setting is going to hit all your nostalgia buttons, from that Blockbuster, to the flannel shirts, to the music, which is heavy with girl bands like Garbage, Elastica, and No Doubt (though the use of "Just a Girl" is a little too on the nose). Misogynistic fan boys have had a field day hating on the movie, for a variety of "reasons," and that made me realize the 90's is the perfect era for Captain Marvel to land in. It was the last time women could make noise without having to immediately hear a response from a dozen men screaming about their own alleged suppression. (The Internet ruined everything.)

I'll be honest. Carol Danvers is an endearing and admirable character, but Captain Marvel is not the most exciting superhero. When she comes into her full powers (which happens too late in the film), she's basically unstoppable, and as a result, there's not a lot of tension in those later battle scenes.

And that in itself is fine. Just because Captain Marvel is the first female led Marvel movie doesn't mean it also has to be flawless. Both Thor and the Hulk were allowed to have their own meh movies, and go on to become beloved characters in the universe. The same should be allowed of Captain Marvel. She's here, and she doesn't have to prove anything to anyone.


Friday, March 1, 2019

'Greta' Isn't Great, But Isabelle Huppert Is

She still has CDs. Clearly she's nuts.

Greta is a pretty standard stalker-centered horror film that does nothing new, and yet, because of its pedigree, almost feels fresh. Isabelle Huppert, who has, apparently, never met a crazy lady character she didn't like, stars as the titular Greta. Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan films it like one of his dark fairy tales, setting it in a calm, dark, and quiet New York that's home to mysterious carriage houses with secret rooms, and young women who, when they come across a lost handbag on a subway, don't pocket the cash and toss it away, but instead track down its owner, all the way to picturesque Brooklyn.

Chloë Grace Moretz is the naive Frances, bag finder. Originally from Boston, she's living with her rich friend Erica (Maika Monroe) in Manhattan, working as a waitress, and trying to get over the recent death of her mother. When Frances returns the handbag to Greta in her Brooklyn carriage house, she finds a lonely French widow who misses her daughter, who is close to France's age, and away studying music in Paris. Both women have very obvious voids in their lives that they're aching to fill, and their meeting seems like a fortuitous accident.

Frances offers to help Greta get a dog, joins her on lunch dates, and takes joy in the friendship, all while her friend Erica tells her it seems a little...weird. Of course, Erica is right, and Frances soon learns her meeting Greta wasn't really an accident, and Greta is not the type of woman who takes France's attempts at ghosting lightly.

If you've ever seen a "Crazy Lady" movie, you can guess what follows. Crazy lady won't be ignored! Animals won't fare well. She'll have an uncanny ability to show up everywhere, silently. One sequence has Greta stalking Erica while texting photos of her to Frances, a thrilling bit of filmmaking that's both a modern take on Rear Window, and a sly nod to Maika Monroe's previous appearance in the horror movie It Follows.

Isabelle Huppert has excelled at playing unhinged women for decades, and compared to someone like Ericka in The Piano Teacher, or Hélène in Ma Mère, Greta may seem downright tame. In fact, it is when Greta is at her most calm that she is scariest. Watching her stand silent and still outside a restaurant window for hours is much more chilling than her screaming and flipping tables.

All the performances in Greta are better than the material deserves, including Moretz's kindly and then terrified Frances, and Stephen Rea (it's a Neil Jordan movie, after all) as a very tired detective for hire. (If they ever do a live action version of the Droopy Dog cartoons, he's your man.) As the story gets more and more ridiculous, enjoyment comes less from the surprises of the plot, and more from the continuing surprise that is seeing an actress like Isabelle Huppert in a slasher movie. It's almost like watching one of those commercials movie stars will film in Japan but never in the U.S. You wonder what the hell they're doing that for, and yet, you can't stop watching.




Friday, February 15, 2019

'Happy Death Day 2U' Makes A Birthday Wish Come True


In an alternate universe, that shirt says "FML"

Last year's Happy Death Day was a charming surprise, a horror comedy that ultimately turned into a romantic comedy, cleverly using horror movie tropes in a Groundhog Day-inspired loop of murder, survival, and blossoming love. So how could a film that centers on repetition not spawn a sequel, that genre of film that almost always relies on repeating those things that made the first film a hit?

And indeed, Happy Death Day 2U, does just that, much to the absolute exasperation of heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe) who, at the end of the first film, thought she had finally survived her never-ending birthday/death day. 2U begins where that film ended, with Tree and her new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) celebrating a day that is finally not the 18th only to find Carter's roommate Ryan (Phi Vu), seems to be experiencing the same time-looping Tree just survived.

Turns out Ryan has been working on a science thesis that centers on a quantum reactor nicknamed Sissy. It was this reactor that set off Tree's original time loop, and when Ryan and his fellow science nerds attempt to correct his own looping by firing up the reactor again, it sends Tree back into her loop, but this time, in an alternative universe. So now while Tree is still fated to be killed at the end of each of her never ending days, the killer appears to be someone different. Also different? Her relationship with Carter, and the fate of another very important person in her life.

Just as characters in the first film openly compared what they were going through to the film Groundhog Day, this time they see their dilemma as more akin to Back to the Future II. Happy Death Day 2U also pays as much tribute to John Hughes as the original did, but this time it's Weird Science, not Sixteen Candles that you'll be nostalgic for.

And just like Weird Science, it's best not to overthink the science behind that reactor, and its multiple "algorithms", which require multiple tries, and thus require Tree to die multiple times so she can reset the day and they can try over. (These multiple deaths result in a peppy suicide montage that features Tree gleefully jumping out of a plane without a parachute, drinking poison, and leaping into a wood chipper, all painful forms of death I'm not sure I'd opt for, even if I knew I was going to wake up alive.) And as nonsensical as the scientific explanation for the time loops and multiverses may be, interjecting science fiction into the plot is a great way to keep the sequel feeling fresh.

Also, of all the movies 2U brings to mind, I think the closest match this time may be 2015's The Final Girls, another slasher comedy that was able to use the tropes of the genre to generate both thrills and genuine, tear-inducing drama. (Go stream it now!)

I was worried at the beginning of Happy Death Day 2U that Jessica Rothe was going to take a backseat to a new character and his time-loop story, because it was Rothe's comedic timing, rage, and her relationship with Broussard's Carter that were probably the best things about the first film. Thankfully, the beginning is a bit of a MacGuffin, and 2U is very much Rothe's movie. As long as she returns, I'll gladly repeat the experience for the Happy Death Day 3(D?) that is promised by film's end.


Friday, February 8, 2019

'What Men Want' Is The Usual


"I predict...I'm going to steal every scene of this movie I'm in."

Of all the supernatural powers a bonk on the head might give you (and apparently, that's a very common side effect for women with head trauma), hearing people's thoughts is both the one I'd least like to have, and least like to be in the presence of. Both scenarios seem like a living nightmare, so it always perturbs me a bit when the set-up is used as the basis for a comedy.

What Men Want is a remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, about a Chicago advertising executive who uses his newfound power to try and take down his female boss. The updated scenario moves the story to Atlanta, and a sports agency where Ali (Taraji P. Henson) is the firm's only female agent.

Working twice as hard as all the men in her office doesn't land her the promotion to partner she'd been hoping for, and when her boss (Brian Bosworth) tells her it's because she hasn't landed a client from the big three (NBA; NFL; MLB), and also because she doesn't "connect with men," she vows to land the next big basketball star by winning him and his eccentric entrepreneur father (Tracy Morgan) over.

If all that sounds a little conventional, it is. What Men Want follows every comedic beat and plot resolution you'd expect it to; nothing about it is very surprising, including the private inner lives of men.

When a combination of a psychic's drug-laced tea and a bonk on the head (partially caused by a collision with a giant inflatable penis), lands Ali in the hospital, she awakens hearing her doctor's thoughts, which are centered on his drinking and drugging problems. Once she leaves the hospital she realizes she can hear all men's thoughts, and, no comedic surprise here, those thoughts are usually centered on things like sex, food, or self doubt.

Henson has some deft moments of physical comedy, and is suitably sympathetic when she needs to be, but the cliched plot forces her character to learn some kind of lesson (which ultimately seems to center on her being less selfish, especially in bed), and that just gives credence to the idea that it wasn't sexism (and racism) that had been holding her back at work. It's a muddled message.

Ultimately, there are really only two reasons to see What Men Want. One is Tracy Morgan, whose inner thoughts are actually less weird than the things that come out of his mouth, and the other, much bigger reason, is Erykah Badu.

Her performance as the psychic/pot seller named Sister is a comedic tour de force, and a revelation. I had no idea the woman was funny! (Turns out, she studied theater in college and one of her first jobs was working for Steve Harvey.) Every moment she's on screen is a gem, and director Adam Shankman knows it, devoting half of the ending credits to her outtakes and improvisations. Turns out, I don't care what men want. I just want more of her.


Friday, February 1, 2019

'They Shall Not Grow Old' Brightens A Dark Past

Pictured left: Not Walt Disney

When I was in college, I saw the short film A Trip Down Market Street for the first time. The mini documentary is a real time, unedited look at pre-quake 1906 San Francisco. The camera is mounted to the front of the cable car as it captures people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages weaving and bobbing out of the frame before it reaches the end of its journey, when the cable car, and camera, does a 180. Newsboys then gather in front of the cable car, mug for the camera, and the film ends.

Watching it was a revelation; it felt like the closest thing to time travel we'd ever be able to experience. Because there's nothing staged about the footage, it captures the feeling of life at the time better than most photographs and film reels from the era can. I had a similar feeling watching Peter Jackson's World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, as if I were seeing a part of history with clear eyes for the first time.

Jackson is able to capture this time travel feeling in ways that are quite different from A Trip Down Market Street. This is not a real time, cinema vérité, glimpse into the past; it's very carefully constructed. Jackson and his crew took over 100 hours of archival footage from the British Imperial War Museum, edited it into a rough narrative, cleaned it up, colorized it, and time corrected it, getting rid of the jerky motion inherent in early 20th century film. Sound effects were also added (the din of artillery fire and bombings is a constant), as well as some dialogue (lip readers were utilized to figure out what was being said in the silent footage). Add 3D to the mix, and you've got perhaps the most immersive look into the Great War that's ever been produced. (Archival black and white footage filmed off the battlefield, in England and the French coast, bookends the film.)

The process is not, however, flawless. CG techniques are sometimes used to define soldiers' faces that have likely blurred and softened in the original old film stock, and the effect is often uncomfortably cartoonish. And it has to be said, there's something slightly ghoulish about meticulously colorizing the wounds on a dead soldier so that the blood is just the right color of darkening red.

What helps the film rise above mere visual effects spectacle are the voices of over 100 WWI veterans that narrate it. The humanity of those voices paired with the reality of the soldiers, marching, fighting, and goofing around like any modern solider might is a powerful reminder that they were indeed real men and boys, and not just silent faces lost to history.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Unbreakable 'Glass' Splits

Just give me some metal to bend and we could end this here!


Beware the ides of March, and the films of January, especially if said film comes with the label "from M. Night Shyamalan." No good can come of that, and the proof lies in Glass, Shyamalan's third film in what can only loosely be called a trilogy, one that began with 2000's Unbreakable, and was followed up by the thinly related Split in 2017.

Split centered on serial killer Kevin Crumb, (James McAvoy), a damaged man with multiple personalities, or DID (dissociative identity disorder). One of his personalities is known as The Beast, and he's a snarling mass of shirtless, sinewy muscle with super-strength and possible indestructibility.

Glass takes place a few weeks after the events of Split. Kevin has evaded capture and has four more teenage girls chained up and ready for the slaughter. (Kevin's torture and murder of teenage girls is never given the gravitas it warrants; it's cast aside as just an unfortunate side effect to his disorder, which is obviously far more interesting than some female victims.)

One of those victims was Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Split's Final Girl, who returns in Glass, seemingly none the worse for wear after her stay in Kevin's basement a few weeks earlier. We're to believe that since she came from an abusive home, she can recognize the pain that fuels Kevin, and may be be able to save him. So what if he murdered two of her schoolmates! He had an abusive mother!

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has less sympathy for the killer. In the 19 years since his encounter with Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), David has lived the life of an undercover superhero, donning his cape rain poncho to fight crime, garnering nicknames that range from "the Tiptoe Man" to "the Overseer." (He prefers the latter.) His hunt for Kevin, who has been nicknamed "the Horde" by the press, results in a wall and window smashing fight in an abandoned warehouse, and eventual capture by the authorities.

These "authorities" are actually headed up by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist "specializing" in delusions of grander. She's determined to prove that both David and Kevin are not as super as they think they are, and what better way to do that than to lock them up in the same facility Mr. Glass has been sitting in, basically comatose, for almost two decades?

She's such a calming presence, with her cream colored sweater dresses, and soft spoken demeanor, that you can almost buy that she merely wants to save these men. (Although, again, one of them is a serial killer, so maybe he doesn't really deserve saving?) But her whole premise, that they didn't really do the superhuman things they think they've done, could so easily be proven wrong--just have David bench press 500 pounds!--that I wouldn't blame you for thinking there might be something else going on. Because of course there is. This is an M. Night Shyamalan movie!

To be honest, I never really understood why Shyamalan became such critical darling, even if it was short lived. The Sixth Sense, which is almost universally recognized as his best film, was a solid enough supernatural thriller that it didn't need to rely on its twist ending to save it (which is good, since I saw that twist coming halfway through). And Unbreakable was a serviceable follow-up, with an intriguing concept--superheros are real, and comic books are their coded history--and an ending that wasn't so much a twist as a sucker punch.

But following those two films, twists and gotcha endings became Shyamalan's thing, to the detriment of story. If you start to think about the plots of Signs or The Village--at all--they become completely laughable. Badly written dialogue and overwrought performances didn't help, and a string of even worse films became the ultimate plot twist in Shyamalan's career: from critical darling to cinematic pariah.

I'll give Unbreakable this: it's succinct. I dare you to watch it now and not be a little surprised at the abrupt appearance of intertitles explaining the resolution. Glass is not so tight, depending on Jackson to spend most of the film's second half on exposition, detailing (again) his theory about comic books and superheros, his ultimate plan, and, in the film's only real bit of comedy, the tropes both comic books and the film we are watching depend on.

There's some satisfaction in seeing the Unbreakable characters again. How can you not root for Mr. Glass, just a little bit, once that side-parted afro, iridescent purple suit, and white ascot returns? And Willis's understated David Glenn, a character who does not scream "superhero," is ultimately just a nice guy trying to do the right thing. (Spencer Treat Clark also returns as David's son Joseph, as does Charlayne Woodard as Elijah/Mr. Glass's mother, in old-age makeup so heavy I was afraid it was going to plop off her face at any moment.)

And both Unbreakable and Glass contain an intriguing concept at their centers: what if there were superhumans and mastermind among us? How would that really play out in real life? But this is a concept that has been tackled more than once in numerous superhero movies that followed Unbreakable, and Glass's take on the subject now feels neither fresh nor subversive.