Happiest Season (2020)

Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between.  Abby (Kristen Stewart) plans to propose to her live-in girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) while at Harper’s family home for the holiday. On the way to their annual Christmas party she discovers Harper hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) and Ted (Victor Garber). Underachiever but dutiful sister Jane (Mary Holland) is Ted’s tech dogsbody while he’s running for mayor and every move the family makes has to be Instagrammed to make them look normal. Overachiever basic bitch Sloane (Alison Brie) turns up with her husband Eric (Burl Moseley) and two nauseating children who get Abby arrested for shoplifting at the mall. Abby meets Riley (Aubrey Plaza) who is Harper’s high school girlfriend and they quickly make friends as Abby tries to avoid embarrassing Harper in public. She contacts her best friend John (Dan Levy) for advice and he counsels her from a distance while she begins to crack under the pressure of not being part of Harper’s proper family, still living in their closet as Harper avoids coming out. Then John visits just as Ted is about to impress the local dignitaries at their annual party … Just because Harper isn’t ready doesn’t mean she never will be, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you. Co-written by actress turned director Clea DuVall with Mary Holland, this is LGBTQ up the wazoo. We’re in a movie with a Mommie Dearest-type called Tipper so we’re probably nodding to the days of Parental Guidance on vinyl records. A smoothly run surprise-free but enthusiastic entertainment beautifully performed (by all but Davis, who looks very out of place in this ensemble) that was publicised as making gay inroads into festive films. But that was done years ago with the brilliant The Family Stone which is a very amusing well written equal opportunities offender, unlike this, which is really about undoing straight thinking. It’s no accident that the only person speaking common sense is Levy, the token camper; and the father who learns a lesson is gay in real life. The married sister has a black husband which is probably a far bigger issue in reality than the fact that they’re Ivy League law grads who sell hampers and live in an adulterous relationship. There’s more going on here than these family secrets in this clumsy Meet the Parents knock off. The big romcom reference structurally is My Best Friend’s Wedding but we never have the kind of release supplied by that classic although Levy is a breath of fresh air, clearly expressing the film’s true point of view. The earnest virtue-signalling screenplay never seems to explore the real elephant in the room leaving this feeling naggingly incomplete. Maybe it’s a lesbian thing. Ho ho ho hum.  I want you to break out of that closet!

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Aka WW84. Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think. As a young girl, immortal Amazon demi-goddess and princess Diana (Lily Aspell) competes in an athletic competition on Themyscira Island against older Amazons. She falls from her horse, misses a stage, and is disqualified after trying to take a shortcut. Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who is general of the Amazon army lecture her on the importance of truth. In 1984 adult Diana (Gal Gadot) works as a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. She specialises in the culture of ancient Mediterranean civilisations and studies languages for fun. She continues to fight crime as Wonder Woman, albeit while trying to maintain some anonymity, rescuing people from a botched jewellery heist in a local mall. Diana meets new co-worker, gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) an insecure woman who idolises Diana and tries to befriend her. Aspiring businessman and charismatic TV huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) visits the museum to try to acquire a mysterious Dreamstone which grants wishes to anyone who touches it. It is one of the artifacts found as part of the black market the jewellery store engages in and both of the women unwittingly use it for their own desires: Diana wants to be reunited with her dead WW1 pilot lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine); while Barbara wants to be like Diana. She gets a makeover at a local boutique and Lord turns up at a Smithsonian gala and manipulates her in order to retrieve the stone. Once it’s in his possession he wishes to become its embodiment and gains its power to grant wishes, while also able to take whatever he desires from others: he’s been selling shares in oil without striking it yet and in a matter of days becomes a powerful and influential global figure leaving chaos and destruction in his wake. Barbara, Diana and Steve try to investigate the Dreamstone’s power further, and discover it was created by the God of Treachery and Mischief; the stone grants a user their wish but takes their most cherished possession in return, and the only way to reverse the condition is by renouncing their wish, or destroying the stone itself. Steve realises that his existence comes at the cost of Diana’s power. Both Diana and Barbara are unwilling to renounce their wishes, and try to figure out another solution. Maxwell, upon learning from the U.S. President (Stuart Milligan) of a satellite broadcast system that can transmit signals globally, decides to use it to communicate to the entire world, offering to grant their wishes. Barbara/Cheetah joins forces with Maxwell to prevent Diana from harming him. Steve convinces Diana to let him go and renounce her wish so that she can regain her strength and save the world. She returns home and dons the armour of the legendary Amazon warrior Asteria, then heads to the broadcast station and battles Barbara, who has made another wish with Maxwell to become an apex predator, transforming her into a cheetah-woman. After defeating Barbara, Diana confronts Maxwell and uses her Lasso of Truth to communicate with the world … Does everybody parachute now? What a great welcome this film deserves: a charming, heartfelt feminist superhero sequel with a message of peace, love and understanding – but not before the world comes close to annihilation. Adapted from William Moulton Marston’s DC Comics character with a screenplay by director Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, this starts out very well but tellingly goes straight from a prehistoric setpiece into an Eighties mall sequence and the first half hour is fantastic. Then … there’s character development when the klutzy Barbara arrives and her transformation to Cheetah takes its sweet time while odious businessman Lord is also introduced with his own backstory. The wheels don’t come off, exactly. The scenes are fractionally overlong and the two villain stories don’t mesh precisely with excursions into politics (the Middle East and a bit of an anti-Irish scene in London) which then escalates when Lord introduces himself to the US President (Reagan himself though he’s unnamed) at the height of the Star Wars policy (and we don’t mean sci fi movies). The winged one then learns the beauty of flight from her reincarnated boyfriend; while Barbara becomes more feline and vicious, an apex predator as she puts it. And Lord gets greedy while alienating his little son. So there are three somewhat diverging narrative threads. This is a structural flaw in an otherwise rather wonderful story. An exhilarating pair of back to back introductory setpieces followed by a Superman tribute that is exceedingly pleasant but doesn’t capitalise on all the characters’ considerable potential, this is a half hour too long (like all superhero outings) with scenes that need to be cut and political commentary that doesn’t sit quite right. Some of the jokes about the Eighties (in Pine’s scenes) get a little lost (directing or editing issues?) but the costuming is on the money and given that Diana lives in the Watergate Complex it’s a little surprising more wasn’t made of this or that it wasn’t set a decade earlier. Otherwise DC is nicely established in terms of geography and obviously it’s plundered for story. There are jokes that land rather well, like the Ponzi scheme; and when Steve gets into a modern aeroplane and Diana suddenly remembers that radar exists. In effect, this is a movie about the conflict in using your powers – there is a time and a place and it’s not always appropriate to get what you want because there are consequences and making a choice implies potentially terrible consequences and sometimes loss of life. It also engages with rape culture, sexism and the dangers of TV, taking down cheap salesmen and televangelists. Witty, moralistic and humane this has everything you want in a superhero movie and it looks beautiful courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen and production designer Aline Bonetto. There’s a neat coda in the end credits. And how nice is it that the late great Dawn Steel’s daughter Rebecca Steel Roven is a producer alongside her father Charles Roven? You go Gal! You’ve always had everything while people like me have had nothing. Well now it’s my turn. Get used to it

Eighth Grade (2018)

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The topic of today’s video is being yourself. With weeks left before entering high school, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) realises the upbeat motivational videos she is posting online do not reflect who she truly is – an insecure 14-year old daughter of an overly concerned divorced father Mark (Josh Hamilton) who has to be invited to the cool kids’ parties by their parents. She falls head over heels for Aiden (Luke Prael) but gets turned off by his desire for a blow job and freaks out when high schooler Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) offers to give her some real life sexual experience.  She settles for friendship with nerdy Gabe (Jake Ryan) … The topic of today’s video which is supercool is how to be confident. Yet another film that proves the hoary old adage that only occurs to you when this period of your life is past:  youth is entirely wasted on the young. Writer/director Bo Burnham mines the dreadful narcissism (medicalised as ‘anxiety’) that plagues a generation seemingly terminally unable to function without nailing the most fleeting of silly thoughts to the interweb where their shadow haunts them to the death. If I had a social media channel I’d use it to advise this kid, See an orthodontist.  And, as she figures out, Fake it till you make it, which is the ironic lesson here but it doesn’t come from the wussy dad (I mean…). There is a fantastic film about a girl adopting a contrary personality and sex history to suit the gossip mongers winging her way through the peer pressure Hell that is school and it’s not this humourless navel-gaze of misery, it’s Easy A, a hilarious satirical exercise that also critiques Hawthorne with an upturned finger. Watch that instead. What is it, when society has come to this? Goodness only knows. Millennials suck. Whatever happened to homework? Exams? Like. Etc. Growing up is really scary and weird

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011)

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You have a good job, you make good money, and you don’t beat your wife. What more could a Latino father-in-law ask for? Wall Street broker Harold (John Cho) is asked to look after a Christmas tree by his father-in-law (Danny Trejo) who objects to the faux monstrosity in his suburban villa,  but he and his ex-roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) end up destroying it with a giant spliff from a mysterious benefactor.  The two then set out to find a replacement for the damaged tree and embark on a chaotic journey around New York City with their BFFs Todd  (Thomas Lennon plus his infant daughter) and Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) while scoring drugs, having sex, trying to avoid being murdered by a Ukrainian ganglord and making babies … The tree is a cancer, Harold. We have to get rid of it before it kills Christmas. The stoner dudes are back apparently unscathed after a sojourn in Gitmo, rampaging and raunching about NYC in as tasteless a fashion as humanly possible. With a toddler off her trolley, a claymation sequence, a song and dance feature starring Neil Patrick Harris who isn’t really gay, every ethnicity and creed mocked and a penile homage to A Christmas Story, this is the very opposite of woke. A laugh riot intended to be seen in 3D but we’ll take an egg in the face whatever way it falls. Almost heartwarming! Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Oh, great. Now we’re getting tinkled on

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

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I can’t do this shit sober. Under-appreciated and overburdened suburban moms Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) rebel against the challenges and expectations of the biggest day of the year: Christmas. As if creating the perfect holiday for their families isn’t hard enough, they’ll have to do it while hosting and entertaining their own respective mothers (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon) when they come to visit early, unwanted and uninvited, thwarting all the ladies’ plans for a laidback break from all of this as they start redecorating, competing and bitching about their useless daughters …  Please God no more pussies. The ladies are back – with a vengeance. And their moms are here too, bringing a psycho(logical) dimension to the antics which are more scatological, bittersweet and episodic this time round as the mother-daughter dynamics are explored in their varying levels of possessiveness, competitiveness and sluttiness. It’s not particularly focused and falls between the three stools of the individual dramas but the cast are excellent. Instead of a PTA election we have a carolling competition; instead of a celebrity cameo from Martha Stewart we have Kenny G the godfather of soulful jazz, as Baranski intones; and Wanda Sykes makes a welcome return as the seen-it-all therapist. Other than the innuendo and the work-related seasonal sexploitation (courtesy of the very picturesque Justin Hartley), it’s fairly anodyne entertainment but a spinoff with the Bad Grandmas seems likely courtesy of some very shrewd casting.  Written and directed again by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. You shouldn’t have to see your mom kiss your boyfriend’s nipples

 

 

From Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.

Certain Women (2016)

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It’d be so lovely to think that if I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say, Okay. Three strong-willed women in the Northwest try to make their way. Lawyer Laura (Laura Dern) finds herself contending with office misogyny and a hostage scenario involving a betrayed client (Jared Harris) injured in a workplace accident.  Wife and mom Gina (Michelle Williams) finds herself at odds with men including her own husband (James Le Gros) over a house addition using sandstone from the olden days owned by a future neighbour (Rene Auberjonois). Young lawyer Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) forms a bond with a woman rancher (Lily Gladstone) in the night class she drives four hours to teach... My mom works in a school cafeteria, my sister in a hospital laundry. So, selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family’s supposed to get. Auteur Kelly Reichardt has carved out a very particular niche in American filmmaking with small stories, beautifully minimalist yet expressive, and mostly made in collaboration with Michelle Williams. The siege scene is misleading;  everything that follows is on female terms, and subdued. The misunderstandings, betrayals and disappointments are of the purely quotidian variety. Adapted from Maile Meloy’s collection of short stories Both Ways is the Way that I Want It, the characters here aren’t quite cyphers but they’re not fully rounded either: perhaps they’re aspects of femininity, subsisting in small lives that nonetheless have their effects – Dern is the lawyer whose private agreement may have implications for another client, and the man with whom she’s having an affair carries his guilt into his own marriage. Stewart’s student clearly has a thing for her but Stewart simply hasn’t the time and is non-plussed at the woman’s appearance in her workplace.  Williams is in a sense the missing link between the three separate stories bringing matters sexual and domestic to their logical place – home:  Gina’s husband has been carrying on with Laura. The opposite of showy entertainment, this somehow has a spiritual link with Meek’s Cutoff in its depiction of women trying to forge their own paths in that tough territory also known as life. The only Indians here are dancing for their supper at the local mall. Each of the women’s stories can be encapsulated in something elemental:  for Laura it is the law and guns;  for Gina it’s land and motherhood;  for the nameless rancher it’s horses and unrequited love. Elizabeth remains unknowable (a good parsing of Stewart’s place in American as opposed to European cinema). The film opens on a train breaking frame:  this is perhaps a western.

Book Club (2018)

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 If women our age were meant to have sex God wouldn’t do what he does to our bodies. Four friends in Los Angeles, widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), hotel owner Vivian (Jane Fonda), divorced federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) and married chef Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have had a book club for thirty years and this month’s choice is Fifty Shades of Grey. It causes them all to re-evaluate their unhappy sex and romantic lives. Diane agrees to a date with a pilot (Andy Garcia) she meets on an aeroplane journey which offers a pleasing diversion from her two daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) nagging her to move to their basement in Arizona (bizarre).  Vivian hooks up with Arthur (Don Johnson) the radio producer she didn’t marry forty years earlier.  Sharon goes on dates with men she meets online.  Carol hasn’t had sex with newly retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) in six months and their dance classes fizzle out. As the women read the next books in the trilogy their lives become more complicated … There are some frankly strange story issues here and I don’t just mean E.L. James’ source books: Diane’s daughters’ behaviour is literally unbelievable, even for a comedy (and the pregnant one doesn’t even give birth by the end, probably a good thing);  Sharon’s second date doesn’t actually materialise (with Wallace Shawn); and we never see any of them doing the deed (part of the thesis about ender relationships).   However there are pluses:  there are great innuendo-ridden exchanges, particularly in the first half, when sex really is on the table. Fonda makes a meal of them: I don’t sleep with people I like, you know that. I gave that up in the 90’s. As in life, when emotions get in the way the dialogue dips a lot which is ironic considering this is about book lovers, as it were (insert your own Fifty Shades joke here – and E.L. James and her husband even make a short appearance).   The production design (Rachel O’Toole) and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) enhance a film fuelled by female star power (the men are mostly useless) with some very nice shots of the Santa Monica Pier and the Painted Desert to liven up your ageist horizons.  Written by debut director Bill Holderman with Erin Simms who presumably wanted us all to experience some kind of late life fake orgasm.

The Freshman (1990)

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I had been in New York nineteen minutes and eleven seconds and I was already ruined. Kansas/Vermont/Montana boy Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) is robbed moments after arriving in New York to study film at NYU. When he sees his mugger Victor (Bruno Kirby) through a window several days later during a meeting with his tutor Fleeber (Paul Benedict), he confronts him. Victor promises to return his property and get him a job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando), who turns out to be a Mafia boss. Clark can’t help but notice his uncanny resemblance to The Godfather. His first job (for $500!) is to pick up a komodo dragon from a lot in New Jersey which escapes at a gas station when his roommate Steve (Frank Whaley) opens the car door to smoke. The dragon runs amok in a mall. When Clark tells his mom on the phone about his new job his environmental activist stepdad Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) overhears. Carmine has lined up his daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) to marry Clark. As Clark continues his shady work for Carmine, he discovers an elaborate underworld that has caught the attention of the authorities. He’s chased by men from the Department of Justice who are particularly interested in the wildlife Carmine is importing and he’s persuaded to become an informer. As things come to a head, not everything is what it seems. The endangered species are being prepared for a deluxe meal at a gourmet club where Carmine fleeces the rich for millions … I was once asked at a dinner party what I thought of Bergman. I responded, Ingmar or Andrew? Because that’s the kind of all-round entertaining dinner guest I am! In truth I’ve always enjoyed Andrew Bergman’s movies – they never fail to engage or amuse and this is no different. In fact I’d forgotten just how hilarious this is. You ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen Brando on ice skates. This is a genuinely funny spoof with lots of endearing performances and a couple of artfully chosen excerpts from a certain pair of classic Mafia movies serve as commentary on the narrative that pastiches them. And if you have ever taken a film studies class you will get a kick out of Benedict’s painfully apt role as the self-obsessed lecturer. Brando is quite brilliant parodying himself and Broderick even out-Ferrises himself in some scenes. Great fun.

Arlington Road (1999)

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What are you doing? How many people are you going to kill? You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is recently widowed history lecturer Michael Faraday who discovers that his new neighbours Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins) and his family might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington. I’m a messenger Michael, I’m a messenger! There’s millions of us, waiting to take up arms, ready to spread the word… millions of us!