“I retain the right to be moved by those little things that nobody notices.” Cats (the movie!), Bombshell, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women (2019), The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

We were the ONLY people in the theatre. And this was Cats’ second day showing at Columbia City’s Bones Theatre

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).

“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”

The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.

Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.

As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.

“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshell depicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.

The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast

Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.

I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.

We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue One and arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.

“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women

Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.

The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.

Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …

Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.

The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.

Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.

“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell

Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.

Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.

The Man Who Invented Christmas uses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.

His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.

There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.

Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.

As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.

“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

 

2019 Holiday Collage

 

“Life is about putting it out there … and then swatting it away.” Sisters (2015)

Sisters_movie_poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s latest movie yukfest Sisters is more of a yuckfest. Ever since the seismic arrival of Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids, Hollywood has been smitten with this arguably unremarkable, though infinitely profitable, thesis: “Hey, women can be raunchy too!”

Yup, anybody can act like an 8th grader, regardless of one’s gender. The problem is that notion, in and of itself, is just not terribly interesting and, for anyone over 40 in the audience, can just seem kinda sad.

People forget that Bridesmaids and subsequent films like Anna Kendrick’s Pitch Perfect (the first one), Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, or Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck embraced debauchery with an anarchist’s glee and a feminist’s humanism. These films suggest that the great equalizer – across any number of markers: race, age, socioeconomics, faith, ethnicity, and, yes, gender – is our fundamentally base nature alongside our desire and ability to rise from the muck occasionally and do something kind or profound or, well, witty. You can poop in a sink, but you better make it matter.

Tina Fey’s Mean Girls was an early blueprint for these flicks, a sharp-edged, warm-hearted comic bottle rocket of a film in which gender meant everything and nothing, depicting the killing fields of the high school cafeteria where reductive reasoning and shallow judgment form the principle power currency. It’s a perfect film because it is a) gut-bustingly funny and b) discomfortingly trenchant.

Unfortunately, Sisters is only intermittently both, and it never fully gels. It has a lazy feel about it, as if old pals Fey and Poehler watched Risky Business and Sixteen Candles over a box of wine and thought it would be a lark to mount a Gen X mash-up tribute with middle-aged burnouts in the central roles.

As ideas go, that’s not the worst (nor freshest) high concept to come down the pike (see Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), but it sure as heck needed more work before hitting cinemas this past weekend, aspiring as Sisters did to serve as Force Awakens’ counter-programming.

Fey and Poehler play against type as the titular siblings, with Fey as a “brassy” (her words) and hard-partying beautician/single mom and Poehler as a straight-arrow and newly divorced nurse/animal rescuer. Fey exclaims at one point, “Life is all about putting it out there,” to which Poehler mutters, “And then swatting it away.”

The Poehler/Fey dynamic has always been natural and warm if dangerously “in-jokey” – and that is true here as well. They have some sparkling moments, notably as they learn that their parents (a wry and believable Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have sold the family home and moved to a pastel-hued, swingin’ yuppie condo complex without any warning to either daughter. With the kind of cracked passive aggressive logic that only occurs in movies like this, Fey and Poehler, unbeknownst to their folks, decide to have one last raging blow-out party (with all their former high school cronies) in the old homestead two days before its sale closes.

So, of course, the house gets completely destroyed in a simplistically escalating Rube Goldberg series of party hijinks. The kind of absurd crap that. does. not. happen. in. real. life. Has anyone actually ever witnessed a washing machine fill an entire home and its surrounding yard with copious bubbles because someone poured a whole bottle of detergent in the drum? No.

A rogues’ gallery of SNL and Comedy Central alums puts in appearances, to varying degrees of success. Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, and Chris Parnell all suffer from underwritten roles with lame jokes and even worse ad libs. Bobby Moynihan is just plum obnoxiously unfunny as a past-his-prime class clown. The character is supposed to be moronic, but in Moynihan’s hands he is teeth-gratingly so.

Maya Rudolph has a Teflon-like ability to rise above (and rescue) just about any material, and she soars as a suburban doyenne who at first glance seems to be an assured Queen Bee bully but whose inner life is more longstanding adolescent alienation than smug superiority. John Cena continues to surprise with comedic home-runs, after this summer’s Trainwreck, as a stoically cerebral drug dealer with a soft spot for Dirty Dancing. John Leguizamo shows up as a skeezy former high school boyfriend of Fey’s, and, while he is always a welcome presence, his talents seem wasted here. Mad TV‘s Ike Barinholtz gives the movie its sweetness as a bemused potential beau smitten with Poehler’s quirky, self-conscious charms.

The film stumbles toward a resolution that is as forced as it is predictable. Fey’s character has a daughter (a painfully mincing and whiny performance from Madison Davenport) who hates her mother’s arrested development and is forced to couch surf from friend’s house to friend’s house since Fey can’t manage to keep a roof over their heads. The inevitable confrontation of mother and daughter and sister and parents is utterly contrived, borrowing equal bits from an episode of Lassie, Animal House, and The Family Stone.

Ultimately, Poehler fares best in the film, bringing poignant bite and rag doll charm to her role. It’s a shame that she and Fey (with director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell) couldn’t have worked out a better movie to feature Poehler’s character, focusing less on the shock humor and the messily filmed bacchanalia and more on the tricky web of love and fear shared between siblings, sisters trapped by the hollow promises of high school juvenilia – two emotionally stunted Gen X Americans for whom those scruffy, mixed-up four years of public education are the alpha and omega of intellectual and social development.

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

Self-serious harmonizing…mildly irritating and always amusing: Pitch Perfect

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

I have always found the self-serious harmonizing of college glee clubs mildly irritating and always amusing – I mean any genre that yields a group called “The Whiffenpoofs”…seriously? Come on!

So I was thrilled that new collegiate comedy/musical Pitch Perfect approaches its a cappella subject matter with a healthy dose of irreverence. (My favorite episodes of Glee use, as a skewed lens through which to view our zany/imbalanced/unhinged society, the inherent absurdity of a vocal group treating, say, Britney Spears as if she were Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Yes, the film has Glee‘s pop satiric edge in its DNA. It nicely marries that concept to a sort of junior, higher ed version of Bridesmaids, with a grounded, just left-of-center enough approach to its central female characters. To their credit, the filmmakers even include Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids‘ roommate Rebel Wilson in a very funny supporting role…and to their discredit, they have shamelessly stolen the conceit of once-fresh Bridesmaids‘ poster art (see above).

Carrying the film, beyond the fun and funny (though not groundbreaking) musical mash-ups, are leads Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin. Like baby-faced versions of Tina Fey and a less obnoxious Dane Cook, Kendrick and Astin, who got their starts in Broadway musicals High Society and Spring Awakening respectively, are winning and believable as sweet, slightly dorky college kids who just really dig music. Kendrick, probably best known as George Clooney’s wide-eyed, wise-ass sidekick in Up in the Air, brings authentic wit and warmth to an at times riotously funny but also wildly uneven script. You can tell she is one of those luminous and generous actors whose mere presence has the gift of improving the ensemble around her.

NOTE: One of my personal faves, Elizabeth Banks serves double duty (off screen) as the film’s producer and (onscreen) as a sardonic fembot a cappella contest commentator who makes Entertainment Tonight‘s Mary Hart look like Mother Teresa. She is a delight!

The film does not ever stray from it hackneyed underdog structure (one of the characters even invokes Rocky at one point), but the sass and smarts of the leads and supporting players offer the enterprise a joyous uplift.