My Little Pony: The Movie

I was once a My Little Pony playing girl but the truth is, My Little Pony left fans like me behind a long time ago. It was rebooted in 2010 and found a surprise demographic: not just the expected little girls, but grown men as well. What the heck? These fans, who call themselves by the shudder-worthy nickname “bronies”, were brought to my attention in the 2012 documentary, Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Ponies.  It’s fascinating to watch in a train wreck kind of way and if you have to choose between it and this animated film, definitely definitely go for the documentary.

Anyway, whatever these adult fans see in the series is beyond me. And though I’ve now racked up 11 nieces and nephews between the ages of 2 and 9, there is not a single My Little Pony fan between them. To whom does this series appeal?

The film opens up with The Go-Go’s We Got the Beat playing – or is it? In fact, the lyrics giphy (1)have been tampered with. What I thought might be an appeal to our inner 80s kid turns out to be just an extended pony play on words. The song plays as Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship (the horse community has a stunningly high proportion of royalty vs subjects), is preparing Equestria for a festival of friendship when the party’s invaded by a dark force, led by Tempest Shadow and The Storm King, who encase the upper pony echelons in rock and prepare to do some evil, conquery thing to the happy go lucky ponies.

So the “Mane 6” (Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Rarity go on a journey that I suppose the creators have sold as “exciting” and “unforgettable” but in actual fact, My Little Pony: The Movie has no discernible difference in quality between its theatrical release and whatever passes for acceptable on early-morning kids programming. It feels like an extended episode of something really shitty, with bland, cornball songs thrown in for good measure, spouting predictable lyrics about working together and how anyone can do anything if only the put their mind to it (actual song titles: We Got This, I’m the Friend You Need, Time to Be Awesome). The main characters are all voiced by the same no-names who do the morning cartoons but new characters developed strictly for the film are voiced by the likes of Emily Blunt, Zoe Saldana, Sia, Taye Diggs, Liev Schreiber, Uzo Aduba, and Michael Pena, which in no way makes the film even remotely more watchable, and in fact, Emily Blunt isn’t even doing her own natural accent, so she’s easy to miss.

The ponies pay lip service to the sharing and caring type shenanigans you’d expect but when the chips are down, some pretty entitled bullshit really drives the plot. The good news is, you’re only likely to be subjected to this if you’re a parent, and there’s truly no other reason to watch it except under duress. And any road trip longer than an hour with kids under 10 counts as duress. The hard part is, I know that in lots of houses with young kids, certain movies get stuck on repeat. At my sister’s house, it’s currently “Woody” (Toy Story) and “Choo Choo” (The Polar Express), which aren’t too bad all things considered. But even Oscar winning fare gets tedious after its eleventh straight viewing. If you’re currently living through a similar My Little Pony scenario, may Pegasus help youo.

 

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Goosebumps

20151007fdGoosebumps.6c5f8Turns out, it’s Jack Black week around these here parts. Today’s instalment is Goosebumps, a movie written for (and possibly by) people a third of my age or less. And those damn tweens must have seen this one a LOT of times because a sequel is coming out this fall just in time for Halloween.

First things first: Goosebumps is not scary at all. Planet Earth II is more harrowing.  Though in fairness, the Planet Earth segment with the snakes chasing an iguana is one of the scariest things ever:

There is no chase sequence in Goosebumps that even comes close to that level of terror, but that’s by design. Goosebumps is completely non-threatening right down to its protagonist, who you might recognize as the non-threatening guy from 13 Reasons Why if, like me, you watch too much Netflix.  He is perfect for Goosebumps because in his spare time he is a singer/rhythm guitarist for a band that got its break at a social inclusion and autism awareness concert (that’s right, two non-threatening causes at once)!

There are monsters in Goosebumps but they are the kind that chase you with a smile on their face. The kind that Jay would adopt and make me build a shelter for in our backyard. The kind that I can watch with my nephews and not get dirty looks from their parents. The kind that must make Goosebumps author R.L. Stine pat himself on the back for being as non-threatening as the guy from 13 Reasons Why (it helps immensely that Stine has written dozens of joke books and G.I. Joe choose-your-own-adventures under the pen names “Jovial Bob Stine” and “Eric Affabee”).

The only way Goosebumps will give you goosebumps is if you watch it while your furnace is broken. But I’ll take that over nephew nightmares any day of the week.

 

The Polka King

Jan Lewan, Polish immigrant, is a hard-working polka enthusiast. He works 18 day time jobs just so he can afford to keep touring the Pennsylvania polka circuit. His band, however, isn’t content to work for peanuts. In a bid to fatten their paycheques, he recruits some of his elderly fans to become “investors”, and he writes promissory notes guaranteeing a 12% return on investment. His investors are quite happy: Jan always finds new investors, so he can always cover generous quarterly payments. But then the FBI finds out.

polka-kingThe FBI gets one whiff of this and feel it must be some sort of Ponzi scheme. They shut Jan down, but since he promises it was an honest mistake, and to pay back his investors, problem solved. Except, in order to pay back his investors, he ends up creating a second, bigger scheme.

The thing about our Polka King is that he’s very, very charming. Jack Black is perfect to play him: guileless, open-faced, enthusiastic. Even when he’s dirty, his heart is squeaky-clean. Jenny Slate appears as his beauty queen wife, Jacki Weaver as his scowling mother-in-law,  and Jason Schwartzman as his best friend and bandmate, Mickey Pizzazz. The film bubbles with energy thanks to its cast, and Jack Black’s eyes are never not dancing. Black’s been honing his indie acting chops these past few years, and it shows. But it never hurts that this wacky guy is exactly in his wheelhouse. It just so happens that this wacky guy is a real person, and if you were a polka fan in the 1990s, especially around Scranton, you may have caught a performance. But even if you didn’t, now all you need is a Netflix subscription. The screwball energy is infectious…although it must be said: directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky seem to love their protagonist a little too much. But heck, I love him a little too much too. The Polka King is endearing and entertaining.  He may be conning his way into our hearts, but he’s there.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

636866-jumanji-dwayneThe trailers for this movie set the bar so unbelievably low that I thought Jumanji could not possibly disappoint. The only surprise this movie has to offer is that it is a sequel not a reboot. Otherwise, it is completely by-the-numbers, including lots of CG animal stampedes and even more cliched character growth. In short, it is the perfect counter-programming for liberal propaganda like Spielberg-Streep-Hanks snoozers about fake news. More on that later.

The rules of Jumanji were well-established in the first film and Jumanji so compulsively follows those rules that it’s scary. The only difference between the two movies is that Jumanji 2.0 takes the form of a video game rather than a boardgame. That way, there can be lots of jokes about video games, which comes in handy because the main character is a video gaming nerd so when he becomes the Rock we can be reminded that he is still a nerd and he can explain to the other characters and the audience how video games work.

I can’t remember if Jumanji 1.0 had as much explanation about board games but I feel like even it aimed slightly higher than this. I guess that’s why it is a “classic” that has now spawned a “franchise”. Putting those words in quotes is the only thing keeping my head from exploding.

I hate to play the movie snob card and honestly, I never imagined I would be this guy, but there are a ton of really good movies in theatres right now, it being Oscar season and all, and Jumanji is not one of them. Nonetheless, Jumanji is by far the biggest box office draw right now. That’s not surprising, North America, since we are just the worst right now (LIKE, THE WORST), but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s resolve as a continent to stop making bad decisions in 2018. Let’s do things differently. Let’s stop dumbing things down. Let’s start thinking critically. Let’s challenge ourselves. Let’s watch films like The Post, The Shape of WaterLady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, instead of mindless, vapid and soulless fare like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Saying no to Jumanji is one small step toward a better world.

 

The Post

In 1971, Kay Graham was the first of her kind, a female newspaper publisher, but she was never supposed to have the job. The Washington Post was part of the family business but her father passed it down not to her, but to her husband. But when her husband committed suicide, she stepped into shoes that had always been loafers, not heels.

Then, something amazing happens: someone leaks top secret documents that detail the Vietnam cover-up that spanned 4 U.S. presidents including the current one, Richard Nixon, who’s kind of a dick. The NY Times gets ahold of them but gets shut down by Tricky Dick and his cronies. The papers then filter down to The Washington Post, and Kay Graham has to decide whether she’s going to risk her little empire AND a serious prison sentence.

Interesting facts about Mrs. Graham: she was not a powerful business person, or used to MV5BMTg5Nzg3NjUzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTY5NzA1NDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_being in charge. She’d never had another job. She was naturally meek, and kind of nervous. She was surrounded by assertive men, some of whom weren’t crazy to have her among their midst and certainly didn’t see her as an equal never mind a boss, and none of whom were shy about voicing their opinions. She was, however, an accomplished socialite, which in the city of Washington, means she counted many prominent politicians among her friends – and the particular politician at the epicenter of this scandal was among her closest. These facts are not to diminish her but to illustrate just how courageous she truly was to take the stance she did.

Newsflash: Steven Spielberg is a good director. Yeah, we already knew this, but this film had me noticing all kinds of little details that I admired greatly. This movie has the feel of a smart and sharp little indie; it’s taut and thrilling and lots of fun. It gets a little heavy-handed at times but its best moments are when it’s showing, not telling.

Maybe Spielberg’s greatest asset is his incredible ensemble cast. Tom Hanks is the fevered editor, and he’s flawless. Bob Odenkirk is stupendous as a hard-working investigative journalist. But of course it’s Meryl Streep who steals the show as Kay Graham. It’s not a showy role. Mrs. Graham is never the biggest personality in the room. She’s not commanding, but we are nevertheless riveted by Ms. Streep. Her shaking hands, her tremulous lip – we see how hard this for her, and so we admire her all the more for doing it.

You are not contractually allowed to write a review of this film without using the word “timely”. About a year ago, Nixon was down-graded to only the second most douche-baggiest president in history. Truth matters. The press belongs to the governed, not the governors. Support journalism. Subscribe to a newspaper, even if you read it online. One day they’ll be making movies about this time. But this is not just a news story, it’s also, of course, a nod to feminism. Mrs. Graham walks through a sea of secretaries before she’s admitted to the all-male floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She faces a Supreme Court that has never had a female Justice and wouldn’t for another decade. When someone says that Mrs. Graham’s father willing the family business to Kay’s husband says a lot about the man, Tom Hanks replies that actually, it says more about the time. So yeah, this is the movie we all need right now. It’s essential viewing. But even if wasn’t so “timely”, it’s so thoroughly peppered by exceptionally talented people that The Post is an easy recommendation and a damn fine film.

Crimson Peak

Having somewhat of a crush on Guillermo del Toro’s movies, I watched Crimson Peak soon after it came out, despite my being a huge chicken. But I refused to review it because I was sure I didn’t really get it: the film had gotten tepid reviews, but my initial reaction was anything but lukewarm. On a recent del Toro kick I’ve rewatched it and came to the same conclusion: Crimson Peak is kind of great.

Okay, it’s not epic story-telling the way The Shape of Water is, but it’s a visual master piece that succeeds in both creeping us out and sucking us in.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman both relatable but maddening hero_Crimson-Peak-2015because she spurns the favour of her childhood friend, a mild-mannered, handome doctor who cares for her (Charlie Hunnam) in favour of the mysterious badboy newcomer (Tom Hiddleston). Even the brutal murder of her beloved father doesn’t stop her from flitting off to England to a crumbling old mansion atop a mountain that oozes blood-red clay with new hubby Thomas (Hiddleston) and his wicked sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as her only (living) roommates.

Del Toro has crafted an ode to gothic ghost stories. The story is simple but the visuals a sumptuous feast, with every inch of his Victorian sets crammed with macabre detail that are never without meaning. He couldn’t do it without some talented help. Thomas E. Sanders (Braveheart, Hook, Star Trek: Beyond; Oscar nominated for Saving Private Ryan and Dracula), who died earlier this year, was responsible for the incredibly rich production design. The mansion was built in its entirety on a sound stage, its layered look reflecting the generations of the Sharpe family who would have lived within it. Although inspired by period architecture, this being a del Toro film, everything was amplified and magnified. The details are familiar but the effect they create it startling and rather lavish. It helps to create a world in which the supernatural feels like a natural fit. Kate Hawley (Edge of Tomorrow, Suicide Squad), costumer extraordinaire, used a lot of the same principles on her end. Every single piece in the film was hand-stitched specifically for it. Though styles and silhouettes were inspired by the fashion of the time (circa 1901), every piece is elevated and la-ca-hc-guillermo-crimson-peak-20151011made more moody, more dramatic. Weeks and weeks were spent stitching an intricate detail onto one of Chastain’s dresses that gets a lot of screen time. And this being a haunting ghost story, every costume had to look just as meticulous from behind, for those eerie shots down darkened hallways.

Tom Hiddleston I can generally take or leave (well, preferably leave) but Jessica Chastain continues to impress with her versatility and restraint. And interestingly, it’s del Toro staple Doug Jones who packs a major wallop. A classically-trained mime and contortionist, most of Jones’ best work is done under heavy layers of prosthetics, but embodying several of the ghosts in this film, he reminds us just how creepy a mere movement of the arm can be.

Guillermo del Toro is a master orchestrator of aesthetic and imagination. Crimson Peak’s script doesn’t quite hold up to its incredible production design, but it chills your bones when it wants to and sets your blood pumping overtime when it needs to. There are twisted monsters hidden in the depths of the Allerdale mansion, but like his crowning achievement The Shape of Water, they aren’t always who you expect.

 

 

 

 

 

Band Aid

Once in a blue moon, Netflix offers up a rare gem. Band Aid is a Netflix diamond.

Written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones (who you may already love from Life In Pieces!), Band Aid is a little piece of indie cinema genius. It’s about a married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (king of indies Adam Pally, who you may already love from The Mindy Project), who on their last legs, relationship-wise. Even their therapist claims she’s moved to Canada just to avoid them. The fights are vicious, and cyclical. But while high as a couple of kites at a child’s birthday party, they discover the one thing that can still bring them joy: music. And so they start a band where they sing their fights back and forth in front of their sex addict neighbour (Fred Armisen), who conveniently is a drummer.

band-aid-2017-adam-pally-zoe-lister-jonesIn fact, music alone is not enough to save them. Turns out they’ve suffered a tragedy that neither has fully grieved, and singing about it is going to be very difficult since talking about it has been impossible for years. They’re still a broken couple, now they’re just putting all their dirty laundry on the stage for the consumption of others. A particularly ambitious dream of them getting a record deal never seems all that impossible because actually, their music is good, and fun (so long as you are currently in a good space with your loved one). Sean and I found ourselves communicating in that subtle hand squeezy way that some couples have when they are relating a little too well to the awkwardness on screen.

Now brace yourselves for a cool fact: for her first movie, Zoe Lister-Jones insisted on an all-female crew. Like, Adam Pally was the only man for miles and miles. Truly all female. And the thing is, the movie is so good that I buried the lead. It doesn’t need any gimmicks. Because when a normal film would just throw out the old male-female sick couple cliches, Lister-Jones keep asking why. Why do couples drive each other crazy over time? Band Aid might not have all the answers but it confronts the questions honestly, while still being an entirely entertaining movie.

 

Fun Mom Dinner

Usually the mere fact of a “mom movie” makes me cringe. Bad Moms make Bad Movies. I’m not a mother and I think more highly of the ones I know than to buy this whole “constant need to complain about the hardships of motherhood” bullshit. Which is not to say I think it’s easy. I just think it’s a choice. And that most of the mothers I know do a little bit of complaining and a little bit of boasting and a whole lot of being a regular person. If you hate your life so much, the LAST thing you should do is make a whiny movie about it so the rest of us are subjected to it too.

MV5BMTYwNzk5MzQ5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDQ1ODE5MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1347,1000_AL_When Sean reluctantly fingered this title on Netflix, we did the math: I love Toni Colette + I like Katie Aselton + I hate Bridget Everett + I really hate Molly Shannon = an uncomfortable tipping toward the negative side. Not a great start. But the movie’s not a total write-off.

The Fun Moms go out for Fun Mom Dinners not to complain about being mothers but to complain about being wives, which is a fun twist. And it turns out that I don’t hate Bridget Everett in movies, I just hate her stand-up persona (she was in Patti Cakes too). Anyway, the fun  part is a in kind of short supply, and inconsistent. The movie kind of wavers between a bit of a good laugh and utter predictability. If I never see another girls-night karaoke montage, I’ll have lived a good life.

Bottom line: mothers deserve better from us, better than this “behaving badly” reputation we’ve lately given them in the movies. They’re women, and I guarantee you they have more going on than shitty diapers and dirty dishes. This movie, under the direction of Alethea Jones and the pen of Julie Rudd, actualy gets closer to normalcy, and to comedy, than most in its crummy little genre. This is one of the best Moms movies I’ve seen in a while, but that’s an unforgivably low bar.

 

Beatriz At Dinner

Beatriz is a “healer” which is what people call themselves when they branch out from straight up massage. If you offer any two of the following in addition, you too are a practitioner of “holistic medicine”: meditation, yoga, reiki, consulting crystals, reading tea leaves, speaking to auras, tasting colours. Beatriz is all of the above (probably) and proud of it. And so when poor Kathy (Connie Britton) has had a long, stressful mid-afternoon of instructing servants on how to throw this evening’s dinner party, she of course calls her old pal Beatriz (Salma Hayek) to come cure her of tension and aching muscles by honouring the age-old method of rubbing them down with massage oil.

MV5BMzgyYmNkZDAtOTEyYi00YjJkLTljZWMtYTgwNTYwNDczYjgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjk1Njg5NTA@._V1_That would have made for a boring movie had Beatriz’s car started up as it should and allowed her to drive away afterward, but no. Beatriz’s piece of shit car did not start, and her friend can’t come fix it until much later, and presumably she’s too poor to  have it towed, so Kathy extends a shaky, not-really invitation to dinner party since they’re “practically friends” and Beatriz accepts.

The dinner party is to celebrate some recent success in business: Doug (John Lithgow) is a titan of business and Jeana (Amy Landecker) is his third or fourth wife; Alex (Jay Duplass) is the young lawyer seeing his first taste of real money with this deal, and Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) his wife who could get used to this; and Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is the guy who put them all together. Now, there are two reasons this dinner and therefore this movie is interesting to watch. First, Kathy and Beatriz are not really “friends” and they’re both going to discover that in highly awkward ways. Second, Kathy and her dinner guests are conservatives who maybe sometimes think of themselves as better than that but really aren’t. It’s business (by which I mean money) first. And Beatriz is no wallflower. She’s pretty much the opposite of the kind of seventh wheel you’d want crashing your party. She’s not only going to speak up, she’s going to scream and shout, and maybe even cry.

It’s a pretty timely movie for the Trump era but it IS not a guide on how to survive. Beatriz blows shit up. She’s incendiary. Salma Hayek is fantastic. John Lithgow is fantastic. The only thing that’s not fantastic is the end. You’ll see.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie is convinced this film will change your mind about Tonya Harding. Is she a villain or a victim? Abused or abuser? The truth is, your opinion doesn’t really matter and truth doesn’t really exist. What does exist: a wholly funny film that never fails to entertain.

{In the unlikely event you’re in need of a refresher: Tonya Harding was an American figure skater in the 1990s, and competed twice in the Olympics. She was known for two things: for being the first American female to land a triple axel in competition, and for bashing in her Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.}

Margot Robbie is well-cast as Tonya Harding. She’s still just a little too pretty to play elm120117intelmovies-007-1512400299white trash, even with the poofy 90s bangs, but she comes down low and it’s pretty glorious. Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s good for nothing husband, Jeff Gillooly, and he disappears into the role of dumb fuck. Jeff’s dumb ass best friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) pretends to be an international spy even though he’s a grownup who lives with his parents. Not exactly criminal masterminds, but this is the trio that brought us the most delicious scandal of 1994 (until OJ Simpson that is – if you thought Lillehammer was competitive, try being a celebrity fuck up). But for my money, I’d have to say that the real cast stand-out was Ms. Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s mother LaVonam who, by sheer comparison, makes bathtub scum look appealing. She’s the dirtiest of dirts with not a kind word or intention in the world. If being a crummy mother was an Olympic sport, she wouldn’t have to resort to breaking any kneecaps.

The first thing that may surprise you about this film is that it’s funny. Actually funny, though pretty dark – the kind of laughs you feel slightly guilty about succumbing to, but you’ll need to just embrace the absurdity. It is farcical, in the way only a true story can be when it’s populated with idiots.

The second thing that surprised me anyway, was that it actually does dredge up sympathy for our poor Tonya. Her guilt (or innocence) is not really the point. This is Tonya’s story, hers alone from beginning to end. No one’s trying to excuse what happened, but putting “the incident” within context is actually very interesting.

I, Tonya is funny, dramatic, pumped full of energy, and even the sports angle is well-done. Certainly Margot Robbie can be commended for all the hard work she put in getting skate-ready, but she gets a lot of help from choreographers, stunt people, and CGI – effects that are pulled off almost seemlessly. But it’s the camera work that makes the figure skating extra exciting – you really get a sense of the speed and athleticism, two hallmarks of Harding’s style in particular. No matter your experience of “the incident” at the time, I, Tonya turns tragedy into triumph.