Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Troop Zero

A little girl named Christmas (Mckenna Grace) is fixated on the stars, in part because her mother died and now belongs up there, among the comets and the black holes. When she learns that the winners of the upcoming Jamboree will have the opportunity to record a special message to be sent into space, she’s determined to win. But first she has to assemble her very own Birdie Scout troop to compete.

Recruit #1 is her best friend Joseph, who will choreograph the winning dance. But with her short list of friends thus exhausted, she has to choose among the bullies to round out the numbers. Her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a mostly unpaid lawyer and busy dog owner and single father, so he appoints his long-suffering assistant Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) as their den mother. She prefers criminals and murderers to little girls, but she’s getting paid, allegedly, so Troop Zero is born.

I could watch this for Davis alone. I’d watch a spin-off show of her character reacting to courtroom dramas all day long. Or her going head to head with Allison Janney playing rival troop mother, Miss Massey. But you know what was a nice surprise? Because Davis and Janney excelling is on-brand and totally expected. But the kids in this are actually interesting little characters. It’s an underdog-outsider story, as many tales about childhood are, but screenwriter Lucy Alibar has some tricks up her sleeve and directors Bert & Bertie know how to make a mark.

Christmas longs to break away from what’s expected of her, but the lessons learned here are more like pride and dignity. Owning who you are and realizing we all contain multitudes. And of course there’s always value in shelling out for a well-placed Bowie tune. Charmed the pants right off me. In fact, by the end of this little film, it gathers enough steam to laugh a sneak attack on my emotions. There’s a cosmic feel-goodness to it that’s hard to resist.

Speed of Life

June (Ann Dowd) is nearly 60 but hasn’t yet filled out the obligatory paperwork for relocation after 60. So says her house. Not in a weird way. The year is 2040 and her house is wired with a bunch of monitors and an Alexa-like voice tells her when her bills are due or the pH in her urine is less than desirable. June rips out all the monitors and buries them in her garden but you can’t really keep Big Brother out.

June has a good reason for not wanting to leave her home. Well, depends who you ask. A good reason to June sounds perfectly crazy to everyone else. You see, back in 2016 she and her boyfriend were having a fight. She’d just found out that David Bowie was dead and Edward, as usual, wanted to crack jokes. His inability to take anything seriously was a pretty big sore point in their relationship and they were on the verge of a blow-out fight about it when Edward disappeared. Like, a rip in the universe opened up and he went through it and was gone. Gone forever. Gone for the past 24 years.

But guess what? One night, Edward (Ray Santiago) reappears. He hasn’t aged a day. He doesn’t know that he was missing, presumed dead, mourned. Doesn’t recognize this older woman as his girlfriend June.

Speed of Life, written and directed by Liz Manashil, is interesting on a few levels:

a) The wormhole: where did he go, where has he been?

b) The relationship: is everything still there 24 years later, when June has changed so much and Edward not at all?

c) What happens in a few days when June turns 60 and “The Program” takes over?

The Program is a very interesting aspect; seniors 60 and over are given mandatory government housing where they no longer go outside, or socialize with other age groups. They are medicated, zombie-like. It’s a little funny because the old people in 2040 are Millennials. Old Millennials. It’ll happen to all of us. And I realize that Baby Boomers are sort of ruining everything just by reaching retirement age in such voluminous numbers. It’s crushing to the generations underneath them. So I get why you would want to deal with the problem. And yet Baby Boomers are also proving that 60 is hardly old at all. It used to be. Now it’s practically the same as 40. I know lots of Baby Boomers who are fit and busy and contributing in many ways, even outside employment (in fact: perhaps particularly outside employment). They are redefining old age even as they seem to reach it. They are living longer, yes, but also, I think, better. There are many more healthy years after retirement than ever before. So think of June (again: Ann Dowd) as somehow so old that she is now irrelevant to society…it’s jarring. It feels very Atwood. God I love sci-fi/ speculative fiction when it’s written by women.

Midsommar

After suffering the tragic loss of her parents and sister, Dani (Florence Pugh) decides to tag along on a trip to Sweden planned by her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his roommates. They are attending the Midsommar festival in a tiny northern town, a nine day celebration involving white robes and dance circles. On the surface, the festival appears to be harmless hippie nature worship but even from the start there are signs that something dark lurks just underneath. Then, one by one, the visitors start going missing.

midsommar4.0When Jay is not feeling well, I have this awful habit of subjecting her to movies she would not watch in her own. Star Wars and Indiana Jones come to mind as films I have foisted on her. Today I decided to add Midsommar to the list, and it actually went pretty well!

Midsommar is deliberately slow paced, and quite beautiful to watch as it unfolds and devolves into a creepy mess. There is a simple lesson here: when invited to a cult meeting, do not drink the Kool-Aid. And if your friends start disappearing, don’t just brush it off, get the hell out of there. Because if you don’t, odds are you’re going to be an unwilling part of the ceremony.

Midsommar is an unsettling movie and most definitely a horror film, but it’s not reliant on jump scares at all, so Jay isn’t even that mad at me for making her watch it. Rather than relying on cheap tricks, Midsommar aims to disturb, to creep you out, and to teach you to never, ever visit Sweden. Ever. It succeeds on all counts.

 

 

Young Adult

Mavis is immediately identifiable as a character who’s a little stuck. She wakes up in her Hello Kitty tshirt, drinks a Diet Coke breakfast, watches a lot of bad reality TV when she should be working. Maybe her stunted growth is what makes her so successful; Mavis writes a young adult series and maybe she’s a little TOO good at putting herself into that head space.

Anyway, Mavis (Charlize Theron) has a tight deadline, so she does the rational thing and focuses all of her energy on obsessing over an email sent from the current wife of her ex-boyfriend, Buddy. It’s a baby announcement. They’ve just had a baby. Mavis assumes that Buddy’s miserable, trapped in their scuzzy hometown by a wife and now a kid. So she drives to said hometown to test her theory.

Mavis is kind of pathetic and kind of unlikable, and yet we’ve all been her, at least a little. She’s 37 but hasn’t let go of her past – perhaps the last time she felt like a whole, complete person. She peaked in high school: ugh. Gross. But the good news is, when she arrives in crap hometown, she hits a wall named Matt (Patton Oswalt). She doesn’t remember him from high school – she wouldn’t, she was popular, they didn’t exactly run in the same crowds – but he provides the little voice of reason that she clearly lacks. Not that she’s going to let a little thing like reason dissuade her; she reaches out to Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and to our communal chagrin but not surprise, he responds. To his ex girlfriend. Who I’m pretty sure he knows is trouble. While he’s dealing with his wife’s breast milk.

Anyway, Charlize Theron is disturbingly good in this. Disturbingly. Even when Mavis is being so hateful we can hardly keep looking at the screen, Theron manages the all-important drop of humanity that keeps us from throwing in the towel. She finds and celebrates Mavis’ flaws. Without her, this movie could have come off as seriously bitter. Young Adult is dark and dour, but director Jason Reitman plays to Theron’s strengths and pulls off a serious mood.

Wild Rose

We meet Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) the day she’s released from prison and she doesn’t exactly strike us as the picture of reformation. She’s greedy, selfish, a bad mother, a bad daughter, a terrible employee, and doesn’t have an ounce, not one ounce of contrition or personal responsibility for the crime she was put away for. Rose-Lynn cares for only one thing: an escape to Nashville, where she’ll be able to pursue her dream of country singing. But Rose-Lynn lives in Scotland, born in the wrong corner of the world, she thinks. Who ever heard of a country singer from Glasgow?

Rose-Lynn is an anti-hero of sorts, hard to like, harder to root for. But you cannot deny her talent. Not even you don’t like country music – stripped down, “three chords and the truth,” raw and unfiltered, Rose-Lynn is a Voice and Jessie Buckley a real revelation.

Julie Walters really props her up as a long-suffering mother and grandmother tired and weary of her daughter’s constant excuses. Sophie Okonedo¬†is luminous as a supportive employer turned friend and booster, playing 50 and looking not a day over 28. Even the kid actors manage not to fuck up the good vibes going on in the film. But the truth is, this is very much Buckley’s movie to make or break, and she proves that she isn’t just a great singer but a talented actress. Her expressions are as good as entire country songs written onto them, just unguarded heartbreak.

The script is very good, taking a circuitous route to where it’s going but enjoying the journey there, and making sure we do as well. The structure is as admirable as almost anything else, everything falling into place as if this was the only way it ever could. A bit of genius, really, in a movie that already contained genius of another sort.

I wasn’t always sure I was going to like this movie, and then I fell violently in love with it.

Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has a clear feminist point of view when retelling the classic tale Little Women. She doesn’t deviate much from the novel penned by Louisa May Alcott (two novels in fact – more on that later) and doesn’t need to. Alcott was surprisingly modern unconventional for her time (1832-1888), writing about domesticity and women’s work but making it clear that they all had minds and passions and ambitions of their own, even if society was set up to constrain their use.

The novels are largely classified as autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction, with Jo March standing in for Alcott herself as she pulls stories from her own life to illustrate herself and her sisters transitioning from childhood to womanhood. The first novel was such a success that Alcott quickly wrote a follow up which she titled Good Wives, telling more about her characters are their lives as grown women. An avalanche of fan mail had poured in, much of it demanding a happy ending for Jo, happy meaning married of course, so Alcott wove that into her own story, but bucked against the traditional and created a second option for Jo, one she hoped would appease readers (she was, after all, needing to support her family on the earnings from her work) but would still honour the true spirit of the character she and so many others had come to love. But 150 years later, Gerwig restores Alcott’s true intentions, bending the ending just a bit, leaving it not a little ambiguous so that we may choose which of the paths was truly more important to Jo.

As a writer with 3 sisters myself, who often put on plays together in the basement (we had no attic) of our home, you can probably guess why I loved this novel from a young age. It wasn’t its radical (for the time) point of view, it was the wonderful bond of sisterhood so deeply felt within its pages. Even as the sisters fight (sometimes physically, as illustrated in the film), their attachments are secure, their love never wavering. Modern sisterhood is often portrayed as catty and competitive but we too were a home of Little Women with big personalities and are close to this day, as our Snapchat can attest.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the writer, not just of their childhood productions but also evidently of this retelling. Big sister Meg (Emma Watson) is the actress, Amy (Florence Pugh) the dreamer and youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the sweet, shy musician. Marmee (Laura Dern) presides over her family with unending patience and affection even as she spreads the family’s resources thin taking care of others in the community. The next door neighbours are almost as rich as they are irresistible; Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) cuts a sad figure from the window of his large but empty house, and young Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) clearly feels stifled as its only other occupant. Both men will get folded into the March family home in their own ways. Mr. Laurence is fond of young Beth, who reminds him of his own departed daughter, while Laurie and Jo get on like a house on fire, often to the exclusion of Amy who feels on so spurned.

The brilliance of Alcott is that even as some of these sisters settled into marriage and domesticity, the work never seems to judge them. Their paths are held in equal esteem to that of Jo’s. Alcott, who remained unmarried herself, was revolutionary in her thinking, in painting love and career in equal measure and equal worth. 151 years later, we still haven’t truly caught up, still trying to balance those wants and needs in a way that feels satisfying and right. Although I loved the spirit of this adaptation, I suppose I thought Gerwig might have a little more to say on the matter. I imagined that she might have stamped just a bit more of herself into the proceedings.

Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are the stand-outs among the cast; as this is the seventh movie adaptation I suppose by now we know these are the plum roles (Jo having been played by the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, and Amy by Elizabeth Taylor and Kirsten Dunst). All great directors have their muses and it seems Ronan may be that for Gerwig, playing her leading lady twice now, and likely to secure an Oscar nomination. Pugh has already had a dizzyingly successful 2019, and she certainly makes the most of her scenes in this. As Gerwig must, she trims many of the novel’s excesses, choosing scenes for plot and character development and losing many of the fun and funny anecdotal ones that make the novel feel so lively and warm. But Gerwig’s adaptation is both faithful and wise. It’s only that I admire her unique voice so much that I wish she had respected her source material a little less and allowed her own perspective to shine through a little more. If it is possible to love something while being just the tiniest bit disappointed, then that’s my verdict. Gerwig gives Little Women 100% but I unfairly hoped for 110%. Still, it’s a pleasure to see a female story be so lovingly preserved through the years, in timeless and timely ways.

Dinner for Schmucks

I was literally up to my elbows in cookie dough, had been for at least 6 hours, and we’d already listened to all my Christmas records. I was craving something funny, but more importantly, something easy to watch – something that wouldn’t suffer from my inattention or oven checks or frosting mishaps. Solution: 2010’s Dinner for Schmucks, a movie I’d seen and enjoyed when first released but not since.

And honestly: why the heck not? It’s actually FUNNY. I mean funny. But also wacky, an offbeat kind of film where Paul Rudd plays chronic good guy Tim who’s up for a big promotion at work but will lose it unless he plays along with a weird office tradition wherein the high ups try to impress their boss by bringing the biggest idiot the can find to a dinner party where the idiots will be secretly judged and one of them awarded the top prize (which, if you’ve been paying attention, is not compliment).

Tim is not normally the kind of guy to condone such disrespectful shit but he’s real desperate for the promotion. And the universe basically drops an idiot right into his lap. Barry (Steve Carell) is a weirdo who misinterprets almost all that life has to offer and he spends all of his free time searching for dead mice to taxidermy and pose in intricate dioramas inspired by his fantasy life. It would be hard to out-schmuck this guy. Tim’s got it in the bag.

His girlfriend, meanwhile, is losing all respect for him. But while his relationship circles the toilet, we the audience are beyond entertained by their antics – heightened by memorable turns from Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement. There’s layers of insanity in every single corner of this movie, and that’s before we even get to the dinner, which is peopled by extravagantly bizarre characters by the likes of Chris O’Dowd and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.

This was a delight to revisit. A sheer, full-figured delight.