Monthly Archives: May 2019

Lit Chicks

Olivia Wilde’s riotously funny directorial debut is a grrrrrl-power breakthrough

Booksmart IMDB_(72)

Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever cut loose in ‘Booksmart’

Booksmart
Starring Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever
Directed by Olivia Wilde
R

Hollywood loves high school.

That’s why it always keeps returning, in movies like Dazed and Confused, Easy A, Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, The Breakfast Club, Superbad, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Duff and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

In the riotously funny, wildly entertaining Booksmart, two high school over-achieving seniors, Amy and Molly, realize they’ve spent way too much time with their noses in books, and not nearly enough having fun. On the eve of their graduation, they decide to take some corrective measures, cramming four years of cutting loose into one wild, raucous night.

In other words, these good girls are gonna go bad.

Their quest is an unsupervised bacchanalia thrown by their studly classmate Nick (Mason Gooding). But getting there won’t be a simple task…

This is basically a high school, coming-of-age buddy-adventure movie with a brainy, bawdy, fem-centric spin. Beanie Feldstein (from Lady Bird and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) plays the savagely competitive Molly, the class president and valedictorian who’s already set her sights beyond Yale to a spot as the youngest female judge on the Supreme Court. Kaitlyn Dever (she’s Eve Baxter on TV’s Last Man Standing) is Amy, her openly gay best friend, who’s headed to Botswana after she gets her diploma to help the locals make eco-friendly feminine hygiene products.

BOOKSMARTAmy and Molly’s odyssey sets them off on a quirky, rapid-fire comedic romp that becomes a multi-hued celebration of sisterhood as they careen from one manic, mapcap situation to the next. The movie is rich in colorful supporting characters, most of whom are fleshed out to become more than simply background props.

You really feel like you get to know—and like—the rich, misunderstood, terrifically funny Jared (Skyler Gisondo), who’s spent his high school years trying (unsuccessfully) to buy his way into popularity; he laments that “no one in this entire school knows me at all.” His kooky, crazily hyperactive girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd, who plays Lieutenant Connix in the Star Wars film trilogy) spices up the evening by showing up everywhere. Real-life skateboarder Victoria Ruesga is Ryan, the androgynous skater girl on whom Amy has a stupefying crush. You’ll find out why Amy and Molly’s classmate known as Triple A (Molly Gordon, who played Nicky Belmont on TV’s Animal Kingdom) hates her boy-toy nickname.

Comedy veterans Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis and Lisa Kudrow add some mature seasoning to the young cast. Jessica Williams plays “cool” teacher Ms. Fine.

Stacked and packed with vibrant youthful actors, Booksmart crackles with boisterous, unpredictable Gen Z energy and a zesty embrace of diversity and inclusion. Characters discuss, experience—and explore—sexuality in refreshingly frank and candid ways, but it never feels smutty, smarmy or exploitative. Hormones rage and roar, but here the laws of attraction can’t be found in any textbooks, or plotted along gender lines.

Credit goes to the creative team, starting with four female screenwriters, three female producers and continuing through Olivia Wilde—yes, actress Olivia Wilde, here making her directorial debut. After appearing in numerous films, including Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Love the Coopers and Rush, she seems to have truly found her calling behind the camera instead of in front of it. And the whole project reflects, and projects, a progressive, pro-female sensibility—and sensitively—that never sacrifices, soften or supplants any of the story’s savagely funny, righteously raunchy comedic bite.

In Hollywood, where the “celluloid ceiling” for women working in the movie industry is well-documented and much lamented, Booksmart’s top-down arsenal of female talent scores a  commanding breakthrough.

Booksmart poster

The movie belongs, though, to Amy and Molly. They’ve got the mojo-spark of Girls, the crisp comedic chomp of Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, and they totally sweep you up, up and away in their crazy, intoxicating, swirling rush. Feldstein clearly has some of the same DNA of her brother, Jonah Hill, and Dever (who previously played the drug addict Lauren alongside Timothée Chalamet in the critically acclaimed 2018 film Beautiful Boy) is a star on the rise.

“Nobody knows that we are fun!” Molly tells Amy early in the movie. Thanks to the best, brightest coming-of-age comedy in years, we know it now!

I don’t ever want to go back to high school, but I’d gladly return to this movie. Booksmart gets an easy A+ from me.

In theaters Friday, May 24, 2019

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Doggie Do (Over)

Dennis Quaid takes the lead in another canine-reincarnation furry-tale 

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

A Dog’s Journey
Starring Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau & the voice of Josh Gad
Directed by Gail Mancuso
PG

He’s been many things—a U.S. president, an astronaut, a baseball prodigy, an Alamo fighter, even piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis—but Dennis Quaid’s career has sure gone to the dogs.

The versatile actor, whose movie and TV resume spans almost 100 roles and weaves through almost every genre, here returns to the canine comedy-drama franchise that became a modest hit in 2017 with A Dog’s Purpose.

A Dog’s Purpose was about the “soul” of a loyal pooch, recycled and reincarnated several times in various dog bodies over the decades as it bonds—and continually reconnects—with a boy, Ethan, who eventually grows into adulthood (and is played by Quaid).

Dogs, of course, don’t live as long as humans, and the heartrending “hook” of A Dog’s Purpose was how each adorable mutt had to die, one way or another, in order to move the story along. That signature plot device is very much intact in A Dog’s Journey, which picks up where the first movie left off.

Film Title: A Dog's JourneyAnd again, it’s based on the source novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who had a hand (with three other writers) in the screenplay. And although the doggie Grim Reaper has to do his thing, the powerfully sentimental tone is (oddly) kid-friendly throughout, thanks mainly to a generous dollop of poo, pee and butt-sniffing gags.

We reconnect with Ethan (Quaid), who’s now a farmer in Michigan with his wife (Marg Helgenberger, who played Siobhan Ryan on the soap Ryan’s Hope in the 1980s), and his faithful sidekick, an aging Great Pyrenees named Buddy. (As in the previous movie, all the dogs are voiced by Josh Gad.) Soon enough, and sure enough—about 20 minutes into the film—we have to say goodbye to Buddy, and we’re off to the next dog, and the next phase.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Emma Volk takes a lickin’, with Marg Helgenberger

But before Buddy dies, blissfully journeying into canine afterlife, Ethan asks him to always look after his precious granddaughter, C.J.—played as a toddler by Emma Volk, then by Abby Ryder Fortson (young Cassie Lang in Ant-Man and its sequel), and finally by Kathryn Prescott from TV’s The Son. That means Buddy’s spirit will be funneled, over the years, into curs of various shapes and sizes, all on a mission—and all sounding like Olaf the Snowman from Frozen—to find and protect C.J., wherever she is.

C.J.’s gonna need some shepherding, for sure. Her mom (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) is a major screwup, neglecting her daughter, hating dogs and soaking her frustrations in alcohol. Leaving home and striking out on her own as a teenager, C.J. has a scary brush with a scruffy, abusive bad boy (Jake Manley, from TV’s The Order) before finally reconnecting in New York City with her childhood best friend, Trent (Henry Lau, a singing/rapping pop star in China and South Korea).

There’s a lot of melodrama—and a lot of dogs. Buddy’s reincarnations include a Yorkshire terrier named Max and a female beagle, Molly, and he/she meets others along the way. “What happened to you?!” a bewildered Max asks an ultra-pampered poodle in New York.

The first movie was a bit of a dog, so to speak, with critics, and put Swedish director Lasse Hallström, a three-time Oscar nominee, in swirl of controversy about animal abuse. This time around, the leash is in the hands of director Gail Mancuso, whose previous experience is mostly in TV sitcoms. A Dog’s Journey won’t get any Best in Show awards, but it also likely won’t raise any hackles with PETA.

Film Title: A Dog's Journey

Kathryn Prescott with “Max”

Prescott (another British actress who can play American characters flawlessly) carries much of the movie and makes the story strongly fem-centric as C.J. struggles with finding her voice as a fledgling singer-songwriter. And the talented Gilpin (Emmy-nominated for her work in Netflix’s female-wrestling drama GLOW) turns her role as C.J.’s mom into something more, and more dimensional, than you may first expect.

Dog lovers will likely love A Dog’s Journey, a fanciful, wholesome, feel-good furry-tale that offers an easy, pat answer to an age-old, existential question: What happens when life’s journey is at its end? In the case of dogs like Buddy, Max or Molly, they run through an Elysian-like wheat field in slow motion and get a doggie do-over. It’s a curious kind of Fido-tailored Buddhism that leaves a thousand questions unanswered. Where are all the other dogs? What about cats? When my dog is barking at nothing, is he really barking at Dennis Quaid?

Warm and fuzzy but a bit lacking in substantial bow-wow-wow, this franchise nonetheless feels like it’s turning into a faithful movie companion that’s figured out its own secret to coming back again and again. What’s next? A Dog’s Mission? A Dog’s Tale? Gad-zooks: All Dogs Go to Heaven (But Only For a While)? Sit. Stay. Wait. I have a feeling another do-(r)over could already be in the works, somewhere in a golden wheat field, up there, out there, in Holly-woof.

In theaters May 17, 2019

Cheers!

Diane Keaton ‘brings it on’ in benchmark cheerleading flick

POMS_0976.NEF

Poms
Starring Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver
Directed by Zara Hayes
PG-13

Cheerleaders sure are a versatile, adventurous bunch.

Of course, they rah-rah, sis-boom-bah, dance, entertain and perform, at sporting events and competitions. And in the movies, they’ve also sidelined as witches, zombies, ninja warriors, bank robbers, vampires—and—remember Buffy?—vampire slayers. In Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, one grows into a giantess.

“It’s our moment of glory!” proclaims a character in the 1971 cheerleader cheese-fest Satan’s Cheerleaders. “Hail, Satan!”

Poms marks another moment of glory, of sorts, for cheerleader flicks. The first mainstream movie focused on cheerleading grannies, it breaks new ground for the genre with its tale of a group of residents of a retirement community who decide to form a cheer squad.

They’re not witches or vampires or ninjas, just older gals who each have various reasons for picking up a pair of pom-poms at an age when most of their peers—and neighbors—are playing shuffleboard or canasta.

Diane Keaton stars as Martha, the newest resident of Georgia’s Sunshine Springs, a sprawling independent-living complex with picture-perfect swimming pools, hundreds of activities—and lots of rules. Though she’s not officially a grandma, Martha is a bit of a rule-breaker; she’s already decided to break off her cancer treatments, sever ties with her Atlanta physician, and let life’s mortal coil unwind on its own.

Sunshine Springs’ welcome-wagon committee is a bit taken aback when she flatly tells them that she’s come there “to die.”

Martha’s sprightly next-door neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), is a live wire, however, who reignites Martha’s youthful passion for something she gave up long ago: cheerleading. Together they decide to start a group to “bring it on” in an upcoming talent competition…

Keaton has top billing, but it’s Weaver who steals the show. The ever-dependable Australian actress, whose resume includes dozens of TV series and movies (including Silver Linings Playbook, The Disaster Artist, Bird Box and Animal Kingdom) is a 1,000-watt bulb that brightens up every scene in which her character appears—and wisely, she appears a lot. Keaton may have the Oscar (for Annie Hall, 1977), but Weaver gets the laughs.

There are other familiar faces, too, especially for audiences “of a certain age.” Rhea Pearlman (she was Carla on TV’s 1980s sitcom Cheers) is Alice, newly freed from her domineering husband. Pam Grier, the cult “blaxploitation” star of such 1970s fare as Foxy Brown, Coffy and Blacula, plays Olive, who admits her new activities as a cheerleader fulfill some long-repressed fantasies of her hubby.

POMS_1046.NEF

Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver

Bruce McGill trades in his roaring chopper from his memorable role as D-Day in Animal House (1978) for a whirring electric golf cart as the community security guard with not a lot to do—except try to keep the crime codes for “rape” and “noise complaint” straight. South Carolina native Celia Weston (who had a recurring role on TV’s Modern Family as Barb Tucker, Cam’s mother) is a natural as Vicki, the Southern-belle foil of Martha and Sheryl.

Poms is obviously geared toward the AARP crowd, but a couple of younger actors (Ozark’s Charlie Tahan, 20, and Alisha Boe, 22, one of the stars of the teen-suicide series 13 Reasons Why) set up a “young love” subplot. It’s a bit of awwwww, cute-kids, added-value for more seasoned audiences—and a calculated push to edge the viewership demo a few clicks “downward.”

Hollywood has discovered that mature viewers buy movie tickets, too, a trend made apparent when The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought in a respectable $46 million at the U.S. box office in 2012. Several years later, Book Club, starring Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen, took in more than $68 million. Those aren’t Avengers numbers by any stretch, but they indicate a market too valuable to neglect.

Director Zara Hayes, making her first feature film after working in the documentary field, keeps things basic and doesn’t ever dazzle, and sometimes the story sags when you want it to soar. You really yearn for these gyrating grannies to bust out, cut loose and fly. They do, mostly, but I kept wishing there was a bit more rah to go with the sis-boom-bah.

But the movie’s heart is in the right place. It’s funny, sweet—sometimes bittersweet—and it has an uplifting message about teamwork, friendship and not letting age be a barrier, of any kind.

The Sunshine Springs squad performs their rousing finale on a stage with big, illuminated letters that spell out “Dance” and “Cheer.” Their bit—to a hip-hop version of “The Clapping Song”—makes everyone do just that, in the audience and beyond, in the viral, internet world.

And it will probably make you want to do that, too. Shake your poms and hoist your popcorn. These age-defying cheerleaders are a cause for celebration—because they’re not devils, vampires or giants, just ordinary women enjoying life and doing their thing.

Everyone can cheer for that, right?

Hail, Keaton!

In theaters May 10, 2019

Odd Couple

Seth Rogen & Charlize Theron make strange bedfellows in political rom-com

Long Shot 2 (72)

Long Shot
Starring Seth Rogen & Charlize Theron
Directed by Jonathan Levine
R

He’s the actor king of stoner schlubs. She won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster.

You’ve heard that politics make strange bedfellows. In Long Shot, in which a bombastic, gonzo, out-of-work liberal journalist (Seth Rogen) is hired as a speechwriter by an elegant, globetrotting female presidential candidate (Charlize Theron), strange bedfellows make pretty interesting politics.

Turns out that the two knew each other—sort of—back in high school. Before she was America’s youngest (and sexiest) secretary of state, Charlotte Field was a slightly older babysitter for little Fred Flarsky, who crushed on her from afar.

How Charlotte and Fred reconnect, all these years later, and the sparks that fly when they do, is the story in Long Shot, a smart, sharp, frequently hilarious, often raunchy odd-couple rom-com loaded with clever political barbs, packed with fun, pop-cultural riffs and buoyed by a raft of familiar faces in supporting roles.

Fred comes on board as Charlotte’s campaign wordsmith, but ends up serving the secretary in more “personal” ways.

“Could you not tell anyone about this?” Fred asks one morning-after when he’s surprised by one of Charlotte’s ever-hovering security guards (Tristan D. Lalla). Don’t worry, says the special agent with a smile. “They wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

Rogen and Theron are immensely likable, with a crackling, whip-sharp chemistry that sometimes takes you by surprise. The movie makes you believe in them, root for them, pull for them, even when others try to yank them part—like Charlotte’s image-obsessed advisor (June Diane Raphael, who plays Brianna on Grace & Frankie). Driven by popularity polls, she compares Fred to a combination of Guy Fieri, Danny DeVito and a potato dressed in a windbreaker.

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Bob Odenkirk

Bob Odenkirk is the comically dunder-headed President of the United States, whose decision not to run for a second term leaves the door open for Charlotte. Andy Serkis plays the mogul at the head of a right-wing media empire. Alexander Skarsgård puts on a poofy brown wig to play the Canadian prime minister, who still has a soft spot for his one-time, international fling with Madam Secretary. O’Shea Jackson Jr. (he was young Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton) brings a mega-dose of supporting-cast juice as Fred’s best friend, Lance; he’s the rare actor who can consistently steal scenes from Rogen, who tends to bellow and barge his way to the top of anything with a punchline. But he energizes the screen whenever he’s on it.

The movie isn’t a parody, or a satire. But you’ll see shades of real people in certain characters, easily. There’s a lot of Hillary Clinton in Charlotte—an idealistic secretary of state running for the nation’s highest office. And Odenkirk’s POTUS, a former television actor still re-living his best roles, will likely remind you of Ronald Reagan, who moved into the White House after a long career in Hollywood—or perhaps the current occupant of the Oval Office, who once famously “starred” in his own reality-TV franchise. Serkis’ media magnate is clearly a Fox in the TV henhouse; he thinks “hurricanes [are] caused by gay marriage.” For guaranteed chuckles, the movie keeps returning to a Fox & Friends-like morning talk show, where the panel of two doofus men (Paul Scheer and Kurt Braunohler) and a woman (Claudia O’Doherty) make eye-rolling commentary about Charlotte—alongside other networks’ more “serious” coverage.

There are plenty of laughs in Long Shot, and many of them are proud to hoist the movie’s R rating high. Drugs? Check. Sex? Yes. Self-gratification joke that becomes a major plot point? Ewwwww, yeah.

But there’s also a serious streak embedded in the humor about gender inequality and the challenges a woman faces in a man’s world. “Would you be asking a man about what kind of products they use in their hair?” Charlotte politely queries an interviewer. There are messages about compromise, taking risks and the art of politics at the highest—and lowest—levels.

We’ve been inside the Beltway many times before, with TV shows like Veep and Madam Secretary and movie comedies including Dave, Wag the Dog, Bulworth and The American President. Long Shot serves up a new cinema combo platter to the mix, a bawdy political-tinted escapist-fantasy romp with two stars who synch so naturally that you hope they’ll align for another project again soon.

Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) and Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) in FLARSKY.

Fred urges Charlotte to reconnect with the idealism and fire of her high school years, when she was running for student council president, and channel some of that passion into her platform. A soundtrack of retro 1980s pop—plus an appearance by Boyz II Men—also helps set the stage, and the mood, with well-placed tunes by Blondie, Cameo, Bruce Springsteen and Roxette.

When Fred and Charlotte share a dance to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” it’s a throwback to how significant that tune was in another movie—Pretty Woman—about two other people from wildly different worlds coming together and falling, improbably, in love against the odds. What a long shot it was, as well, for Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, back in 1990.

Sometimes a long shot hits the mark, even when the odds are stacked against it. Rogen and Theron sure do, Fred and Charlotte do, and this Long Shot assuredly does. How to explain it? As Roxette sings, “It must have been love.”

In theaters May 3, 2019