Life of the Party (2018)

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Once a dighead, always a dighead. When her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) suddenly dumps her, longtime and dedicated housewife Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) turns regret into reset by going back to college. Unfortunately, Deanna winds up at the same college as her less-than-thrilled daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Plunging headlong into the campus experience, the outspoken new student soon begins a journey of self-discovery while fully embracing all of the fun, freedom and frat boys that she can handle. She shocks and delights best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) with updates on her conquest of Jack (Luke Benward) who’s less than half her age but the chickens come home to roost when Dan announces he’s to marry his realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen) and Deanna and her strange ensemble of girls decide it’s time to make their presence felt … Melissa McCarthy is so nice. And this is nice. It’s not nasty and vengeful and gross which is what you might expect from a woman going through a midlife crisis when her husband cheats on her – I mean even she and her co-writer and director (and husband) Ben Falcone surely saw Back to School, never mind Animal House. It’s illogical and silly and for a comic performer of McCarthy’s ability that’s a staggering fail. She was in class with her archaeology professor and they don’t have a single conversation outside the lecture hall. She’s loud and proud yet can’t speak in public and falls over sweating in class. She embarrasses her daughter but it’s… fine? They simultaneously do the walk of shame and she doesn’t comment on her daughter’s sexual activity? Neither mother nor daughter’s reactions ring remotely true. (If this were a properly Freudian piss take they’d have slept with the same guy).  She was cool back in the day but now she wears hair clips and sparkly letter sweaters? Nonsense. And all those girls are so odd. As though every phobia and weirdly concocted affectation of millennials was assembled into some seriously strange students.  And of course Deanna seeks to reassure them. So far so snowflake.  And Christine and her husband have what is frankly an unbelievable marriage. The worst crime? It’s nice! McCarthy was brilliant in Spy – one of the best sendups I’ve ever seen which knew her value and her capacity for sharp delivery and hilarious slapstick and put it into a screamingly funny genre workout. Now? She’s just a Mom. I don’t get it.

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St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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How can I be so tired at twenty-two? I just don’t know who to be any more.  Seven recent Georgetown graduates hang out at St Elmo’s Bar.  Alec (Judd Nelson) is a political wannabe dating architect Leslie (Ally Sheedy); along with Washington Post writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), banker and party girl Jules (Demi Moore) and law student/waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) they’re waiting to find out how their friends welfare clerk Wendy (Mare Winningham) and former frat boy and reluctant new dad, sax player Billy (Rob Lowe) are following a car accident.  Kirby takes a fancy to ER doctor Dale (Andie McDowell) whom he’s liked since college… The quarter-life crisis wasn’t even a thing when this was made and the critics slaughtered it but for me I guess it pretty much looked like what would happen to me eventually! Half of The Breakfast Club love, live, have sex, split up and get high and come down again to a horrifying David Foster soundtrack that just screams mid-Eighties. I love it. So sue me. Written by Carl Kurlander and director Joel Schumacher.

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.

One Day (2011)

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Either you are on coke or you got dysentery, either way ITS BORING! On St Swithin’s Day, 15th July, 1988 which is the day of their college graduation two people from opposite sides of the tracks begin a lifelong friendship after spending a day and night together. Emma (Anne Hathaway), an idealist from a working-class family, wants to make the world a better place. Dexter (Jim Sturgess), a playboy, thinks the world is his oyster. While he makes his way through TV as a presenter she waits tables and hopes to become a writer. He marries Sylvie (Romola Garai) the daughter of a wealthy London family while she settles down with nice ordinary Ian (Rafe Spall.) Neither of their relationships lasts. For the next 20 years, the two friends reunite on the 15th of each July, sharing dreams, tears and laughter – until they finally realise what they’ve been searching for, each other… David Nicholls’ bestseller is a superficial delight – a Gen X summation of rites of passage on the road to maturity and opportunities taken and lost and the value of having a best friend. Like a lot of screenwriters he’s got ideas but he’s not a great novelist which is why there are so many holes in this film.  Don’t blame Hathaway, she’s actually good in the role of Emma.  I point the performing fingers at Sturgess, a nothing kind of actor who brings precisely that to the role. Director Lone Scherfig commits to the kind of emotionality that is in between the cracks of the book’s tricksy structure, going backwards and fowards in time (but she ain’t no Resnais folks) and there are some good moments which have the unfortunate ring of truth for those of us who remember this time in our lives. A chance wasted perhaps but only if you haven’t read any good novels in the last twenty-five years. Don’t give up on this baby.

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

A Monster Calls (2017)

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It begins like so many stories. With a boy, too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.  Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with far more than other boys his age. His beloved and devoted mother (Felicity Jones) is ill. He has little in common with his imperious grandmother Mrs Clayton (Sigourney Weaver). His father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away with a new family where he is obviously not welcomed. But Conor finds a most unlikely ally when the Tree Monster (Liam Neeson) appears at his bedroom window one night. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth that powerfully fuses imagination and reality as he confronts his bullies and the imminent loss of his mother while his mentor tells him three stories that impact on his daily actions before the final story – his – can be told … Patrick Ness’ beautiful novel – itself recreated from an unfinished book by the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd – gets a very worthy adaptation from his own screenplay and director J.A. Bayona. It’s an unpromising even clichéd concept but is so wonderfully dramatised, visualised and delicately performed that you surrender to the tough core which offers a magical solution to a perverse reality –  death and bereavement and imminent orphandom for a boy in a problematic home situation. It shuns sentiment and even permits violence (Conor’s inner monster says No More Mister Nice Guy) to eventually become immensely moving as he gradually confronts the awful truth. A triumphant study of childhood.

Jasper Jones (2017)

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It’s not my brand. It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia.  14 year old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is the son of writer Wes (Dan Wyllie) whose frustrated wife (Toni Colette) is a restless soul. Wannabe writer Charlie spends his days with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Lu), a Vietnamese boy daily confronted with race hate in a place where young men are being sent to Vietnam. Eliza Wishart (Angouire Rice) daughter of the President of the town hall becomes more and more endeared towards Charlie and they bond over their mutual love of books. On Christmas Eve Charlie is unexpectedly visited by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) an outcast due to his mixed White-Aboriginal heritage and rebellious lifestyle. Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and leads him to his private glade where Charlies is horrified to see Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, battered and hanging from a tree. Jasper, aware that he is likely to be blamed for Laura’s murder, convinces Charlie that they should hide the body, so they throw it into a nearby pond, weighted by a large rock. Jeffrey is passionate about cricket, but his attempts to join the Corrigan team are thwarted by the racism of the coach and other players. Eventually he finds himself batting in a game against a rival town, watched by Charlie, who has befriended Eliza, Laura’s younger sister. As Jeffrey wins the game on the last ball, Charlie and Eliza hold hands and embrace. A search for the missing girl is soon organised, focused on the idea that she may have run away. Jasper is interrogated roughly by the local police, but he soon escapes. Meanwhile tension builds in the town, as parents fear more disappearances, and townspeople search for someone to blame. The tension is funneled into strict curfews for the children as well as racial attacks on Jeffrey’s family. It is revealed that Charlie’s mother, increasingly disillusioned with life in Corrigan and her marriage, is having an affair with the Sarge involved with the investigation into Laura’s disappearance. Jasper believes that Laura’s murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) an old recluse rumored to have done terrible things in the past. Jasper determines to confront Lionel on New Year’s Eve, and together with Charlie, goes to his house. Lionel manages to defuse Jasper’s aggression, and the truth comes out: Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather who had ostracised his son’s family knowing that he had married with an Aboriginal woman when Jasper was a baby. His daughter-in-law then took care of him, spurring a change of heart towards her. One night, she needed medical attention, and Lionel had attempted to race her to hospital. In his haste, however, he accidentally crashed his car, causing her death. The incident has left him guilty, broken, and ostracized by the townspeople. Ever since, Lionel has been trying to reach out to Jasper and apologise for his actions. On the same night, Charlie comes to Eliza’s window. They go to Jasper’s glade. Here Eliza tells Charlie that she knows everything about Laura’s death and hands him Laura’s suicide note which explains the incestuous rapes to which their father had subjected her and left her pregnant. Eliza witnessed her sister’s suicide by hanging and then Charlie admits to her that he and Jasper got rid of her body. After exacting a revenge on her father the secret remains with Charlie and Eliza and her mother, who destroys the note but Charlie’s own family is broken up when his mother leaves the small town which cannot contain her … Craig Silvey adapted his own novel with Shaun Grant.  Director Rachel Perkins sustains an admirable atmosphere and sympathy in what is essentially a family drama enlivened by what Freud ironically termed ‘romance’ with a supposed murder mystery at its centre. The playing is excellent by actors both young and old with a canny sense of what it is to be young and trying to figure out how adults inflict damage on everyone around them – this is practically a thesis on different models of fatherhood, but it’s so well constructed you don’t understand until the final shot. The mystery isn’t really the point either although there is a deal of suspense. It’s a film that perfectly captures what it is to be young, to love books and to be loyal to your friends and the myriad ways that kids find to survive their parents.  There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me in the themes rendered here but it exists on its own merits as a complex coming of age drama with its distinctive setting and concerns.