Friday, April 28, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Renfield, Mafia Mamma

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

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

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

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

Renfield is now playing in theaters.

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

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

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

Mafia Mamma is now playing in theaters.