Month: September 2018

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Having never seen a version of Miracle on 34th Street, I figured now, when I’m in my late 30s, would be the perfect time to catch up. I still believe in Santa Claus, or at least the spirit of Santa anyway, and that’s more than six-year-old Susan (Mara Wilson) can say. She thinks we’re just a bunch of gullible fools, and she’s not impressed when her mother, Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), the head of events for a large department store, hires a very realistic Santa (Richard Attenborough) for the holiday season. Despite his efforts and those of Dorey’s boyfriend, Bryan (Dylan McDermot), she just can’t seem to get in a Christmas mood.

I can see where Susan is headed, and it’s straight for the Hallmark Channel. She’s going to grow up into one of those women who hates Christmas because of a traumatic childhood, only to rediscover its joys after a hot guy enters her life. Mara Wilson, the cutest girl onscreen in the 90s, has a soulful sadness to her in this film, and Susan looks like a girl who’s been having an existential crisis for some time. She worries that Cole’s, the department store where her mother works, is going to be bought out and turned into a junk store, and when Bryan starts asking her about getting presents from Santa, she gives him a hard stare that says, don’t talk to me like a six year old.

I love little Susan and pint-sized Mara. Susan wants to believe in Santa so badly, but her cool, practical mother just won’t have it. Dorey even puts her relationship with Bryan on the line by insisting he stop encouraging such fanciful thinking. But Bryan is a dreamboat and all-around good guy and does what he can to give Susan a more magical Christmas experience, including a visit to Santa where her skepticism starts to fade. She concedes that the Cole’s Santa does look like the real deal and is bewitched by his beard and costume, but she really starts reconsidering when she spies Santa sharing a touching exchange with a deaf girl.

The movie is far less holly and jolly than I expected, and it seems more like a film for cynical adults than it is for bouncy kids. It doesn’t have the energy of Home Alone or the adventure of Arthur’s Christmas. Some will surely be bored by aspects of the plot, like when a competing store schemes to kidnap Santa and turn a profit. This results in the arrest and trial of Kris Kringle, and his release depends on a legal argument about the abstract concept of belief. If I was a kid, I’d much rather watch A Christmas Carol, any of them.

Miracle on 34th Street has its appeal though, and it’s thanks to the actors who really inhabit their roles. To this day, I think of Attenborough when I think of Santa Claus. McDermott is the perfect boyfriend and the perfect complement to Perkins. The movie is as much about Dorey as it is about Susan. The latter knows what she wants – a childhood filled with family and wonder. It turns out that Dorey wants that too; she just doesn’t realize it yet.

Released: 1994
Prod: John Hughes, William Ryan, William S. Beasley
Dir: Les Mayfield
Writer: George Seaton, John Hughes
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson, J.T. Walsh, Simon Jones, James Remar, Jane Leeves, William Windom, Robert Prosky, Joss Ackland
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Hall Pass (2011)

Hall Pass is like the guys it depicts – ridiculous, overconfident, and dull, and unless you have a hankering to watch every Owen Wilson movie ever, there’s no need to see this one. Wilson plays Rick, a bored husband and father, who along with his best friend, Fred (Jason Sudeikis), gets a one-week hall pass from his wife. The hall pass has nothing to do with school and bathroom breaks and instead is a get-out-of-jail card. For one week, the guys are released from their marriage vows and are free to do whatever they please while their partners are out of town.

I’m not the type of person who would know or care if this is a real thing, nor are Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate), that is until they decide they’ve had it with their husbands’ wandering eyes. They consult their psychologist friend (Joy Behar) who suggests the hall pass plan, reasoning that it’s a chance for the guys to get it out of their system. If Rick and Fred get to follow through on their fantasies, or at least try to, then they’ll stop resenting their wives for holding them back from all the beautiful, available women out in the world and they’ll actually commit to their marriage. Maggie and Grace think this sounds reasonable, and, throwing away all common sense, they agree to give it a try since honestly, they’re a little bored with married life too.

It’s a man’s dream come true, so Rick and Fred think. Their unbridled optimism and inflated sense of self soon fades when on the first day it becomes apparent that they’re not quite up to the task of meeting women and having loads of sex. Whether they’re stuffing themselves at Applebee’s or stoned off their rockers on the golf course, no one seems interested. But as the week wears on and just when it looks like their hall passes have been all for naught, things start to look up. Rick pursues his regular barista (Nicky Whelan) and Fred, with the help of perpetual bachelor Coakley (a blinged-out Richard Jenkins in either a genius casting choice or an epically horrible one), has his own pleasant, unexpected run-in.

It doesn’t need to be said that this movie is written, directed, and produced by a bunch of dudes. The Farrelly brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal) are at the heart of this. They try to couch their characters’ juvenile and misogynistic behavior in a story about guys who come to appreciate what they have. Sure, Rick may pick Jenna Fischer over Alexandra Daddario, but he also tells an extended joke about floppy boobs and large mouthed vaginas. Meanwhile, Fred gets his comeuppance and is beat up at a bar but only after he verbally abuses women. This kind of humor doesn’t work both ways, and I’m not laughing.

Of course that could also be because the script simply isn’t that funny. It’s an amusing idea about a couple of men, and women, who aren’t all they imagine themselves to be. Even Maggie and Grace get a taste of the hall pass life when they get friendly with a local baseball team. Most of the jokes are tame and predictable though. It must be comedic law that a fortysomething who hasn’t had a pot brownie in awhile is bound to take a dump in public or that he who writes and studies bad pick-up lines will get slapped down. We don’t need to see that, or this movie, again.

Released: 2011
Prod: Charles B. Wessler, Bradley Thomas, Benjamin Waisbren, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, J.B. Rogers, Mark Charpentier
Dir: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Writer: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Pete Jones, Kevin Barnett
Cast: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Joy Behar, Nicky Whelan, Bruce Thomas, Alexandra Daddario, Alyssa Milano, Derek Waters, Kristin Carey, Tyler Hoechlin, Stephen Merchant, J.B. Smoove, Larry Joe Campbell, Richard Jenkins
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Annie (2014)

Annie might not have been well loved by the real critics, but I’m not a real critic and I thought it was grand. A bright, cheerful production that doesn’t feel trapped by tradition, this latest version of the popular musical does what remakes are supposed to do. It gives its audience a new way of seeing and appreciating a familiar story and does so by distinguishing itself from the films that have come before. This Annie feels very much of its time and place with its diverse cast of characters navigating the streets of a lively, contemporary New York to an up-tempo soundtrack. It may look sleek and flashy, but at its heart, it’s still an old school story about love and family.

Quvenzhané Wallis is the undisputed star of the film and my favorite Annie so far. She’s as plucky as they come, and her Annie shows confidence beyond her years. She infects everyone with her optimism, with the exception of foster mother hen, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), and the clerk at child services (Stephanie Kurtzuba). Yet there’s also a streak of melancholy in her, and she doesn’t try to hide that she’s a young, lonely soul. She’s the natural leader in Miss Hannigan’s home, where a half dozen foster girls stay while they wait for a permanent placement. I’ll forgive the fact that a boozy 90s band groupie is responsible for vulnerable children and that Diaz’s singing is slightly better than it was in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Miss Hannigan does have a moral compass; she just doesn’t quite remember where she placed it.

Daddy Warbucks, however, gets a remake, or an upgrade, depending on how you want to look at it. He’s still wealthy as hell but he’s daddy in a whole different way. The character, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), wants to parlay his business success as a telecom titan into a political one. He’s running for mayor, and when he happens to save Annie from getting flattened by a car, his public relations team decides he should foster her to improve his image. Will, selfish, self-assured, and pretty damn ambitious, has no idea what to do with a kid. He’s manipulated by Guy (Bobby Cannavale), a political adviser who only cares about public perception, into using Annie to boost Will’s election chances. Thankfully, there’s Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne). She’s the Will whisperer, the calming influence in Will’s life who helps him refocus his attention on other important things, including matters of the heart. Foxx and Byrne are magnetic and charming, and I’m so invested in their characters’ relationship that I don’t care that they don’t have much chemistry together. It works for me, and I’m loving it.

What also works are the revamped musical numbers that give this movie its joyful beat. Most of the popular tracks are there and all are recognizable, but what’s changed is that the songs feel a part of their surroundings, as if they’ve absorbed the city’s sounds. “It’s the Hard Knock Life” moves with these girls on the go and is familiar to anyone still channeling Jay-Z. Wallis takes control of “Tomorrow,” the musical’s most famous number and thus the easiest one to bungle. She shows her character’s contradictions with a version that is gentle but defiant. The showstopper, however, is a new song, “Opportunity,” also sung by Wallis during a black tie affair. Annie, alone in the spotlight and wearing a signature red dress, belts out her song with a singular clarity. Jaws drop all around, and it’s not clear whether the audience is in awe of Annie or Wallis. Probably both.

“It’s the Hard Knock Life” by Quvenzhané Wallis and Miss Hannigan’s girls:

“Tomorrow” by Quvenzhané Wallis:

“I Think I’m Going to Like It Here” Quvenzhané Wallis and Rose Byrne:

“Little Girls” by Cameron Diaz:

“The City’s Yours” Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis:

“Opportunity” by Quvenzhané Wallis:

“Easy Street” by Bobby Cannavale and Cameron Diaz:

“Who Am I?” by Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, and Quvenzhané Wallis:

“I Don’t Need Anything But You” by Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Rose Byrne:

Released: 2014
Prod: James Lassiter, Will Gluck, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Caleeb Pinkett, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Jay Brown, Tyran Smith
Dir: Will Gluck
Writer: Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba
Time: 118 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Wing Chun (詠春) (1994)

I was on a Crazy Rich Asians/Michelle Yeoh high when I remembered I had this gem collecting dust like nobody’s business. Yeoh takes on the decidedly working class Asian role of Yim Wing Chun, the legendary founder of the martial art named after her. The film hedges closer to slapstick comedy is about the characters more than it is about Wing Chun, but those hoping for something with a martial arts pedigree will enjoy the performance of Donnie Yen, who also serves as the action co-director.

The story goes, as they often do, that during the Qing Dynasty, there was a beautiful tofu seller who needed to defend herself against men. Wing Chun trained with Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun who developed the fighting technique, and she used the new form to keep guys with bad intentions at bay. The general legend is preserved in here, and Wing Chun is well known throughout her mountain village as a fierce fighter. She pushes back against unwanted advances and marriage proposals but also against the bandits who regularly attack and raid the village.

One day, a woman named Charmy (Catherine Hung) arrives seeking help for her sick husband. When he dies, her only option is to prostitute herself, but Wing Chun is having none of that abusive, patriarchal bullshit. She tricks one of her suitors, the cowardly Scholar Wong (Waise Lee), into paying for Charmy’s expenses, and later Wing Chun’s aunt, Abacus Fong (Kingdom Yuen), hires the young woman to work at their tofu shop. Things are rolling merrily along, save the occasional banditry, when Leung Pok-To (Donnie Yen), appears. Wing Chun’s childhood best friend, he is pleasantly surprised when he spots Charmy at the shop. His heart melts because Charmy is gorgeous, but also because he thinks she is Wing Chun.

There’s nothing like a little cross-dressing to confuse things, and mistaken identity is the source of a lot of the comedy. Wing Chun has taken to men’s attire since it suits her fighting persona and discourages ogling, but Charmy inherits her wardrobe, to the delight of the shop’s male customers and the disappointment of Pok-To, who comes to realize that the Wing Chun he knew and loved before has changed.

The film has a surprisingly strong feminist spirit, and I found this to be the most appealing aspect of the movie. Wing Chun and Abacus Fong alone make a formidable team. Although they differ in temperament, they both take charge and command respect in their own ways. Wing Chun is the first and really only person the villagers turn to when there’s an attack and in one battle, she defeats the bandits singlehandedly. Abacus Fong, meanwhile, is opinionated and blunt, earning her the disdain of men who don’t like that kind of honesty and forcefulness in a woman. However, she knows how to navigate a man’s world and does so because she can and must. Sometimes that means exploiting female sexuality, and while I don’t agree that that’s the best way to go about things, even Charmy is on board. She knows that without Wing Chun’s fighting talent or Abacus Fong’s entrepreneurial skills, she can still play the bashful, naïve Miss Soy Bean in order to sell more tofu and increase business for all three women.

The movie’s feminist appeal is reflected in the fight sequences as well. Cheng Pei-pei cameos as Wing Chun’s master, who prepares her for the final battle in the bandit’s village after they’ve captured Charmy. Now dressed in women’s clothing, she is joined by Pok-To and together they fight it out with Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu). Word on the internets is that there is not much actual Wing Chun in this or any of the fight scenes. I can’t tell, but I do love the tofu fight between Wing Chun and a martial arts master (Xu Xiangdong) who wants to teach this little lady a thing or two. They spar over a large block of tofu, trying to break each other but not it, and it becomes clear that the ever elegant and capable Michelle Yeoh will not suffer these fools.

English trailer:

Tofu challenge:

Released: 1994
Prod: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Action Dir: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Yuen Shun-Yi 袁信義, Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Writer: Elsa Tang Bik-Yin 鄧碧燕, Anthony Wong Wing-Fai 黃永輝
Cast: Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Waise Lee Chi-Hung 李子雄, Kingdom Yuen King-Tan 苑瓊丹, Catherine Hung Yan 洪欣, Norman Chu Siu-Keung 徐少強, Cheng Pei-Pei 鄭佩佩, Chui A-Fai 崔亞輝, Xu Xiang-Dong 徐向東, Jin Mao-Heng 金懋恆, Guo Jia-Qing 郭家慶
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

The Boss (2016)

One of the reasons I loved Spy, Melissa McCarthy’s uproariously funny and feminist spin on the secret agent film, was because it mocked male Hollywood without imitating the crude behavior that goes along with so much of it. The Boss looks in another direction, and although it doesn’t celebrate the vulgarity that is the basis for a lot of male-centric humor, it does settle into a more aggressive tone. McCarthy has enough charisma to offset some of that, but the movie, which she co-wrote with Steve Mallory and her husband and director, Ben Falcone, (and which is produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay) still comes across as needlessly mean-spirited.

That’s not to say it isn’t funny. The movie is filled with sharp one-liners, and the supporting cast do their bit to elevate the star. McCarthy, however, plays her part with such gusto that she pushes everyone to the wayside. Michelle Darnell is a personal finance guru turned felon who finds redemption when she partners with a girls’ scouting troop to sell brownies. Few people like her though, not her spurned lover, Ronald (Peter Dinklage), who ratted her out for insider trading, nor her assistant Claire (Kristin Bell), a single mother who’s done with the low pay and the lack of respect, nor an opposing scout leader (Annie Mumolo) who frowns upon Michelle’s lack of protocol.

And they’re not wrong; she can be a hideous creature. Michelle strides into the film on a golden eagle, cloaked in an orange sateen pantsuit and bragging about her book, Money Talks, Bullshit Walks, to an arena full of acolytes. After her release from prison, she all but forces herself back into Claire’s life, somehow winning the affection of Claire’s daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). The woman is full of bombast, the kind that can fill a stadium but that overpowers a normal-sized room. As a result, many of the supporting characters end up just reacting to her outrage. Dinklage, who seems to be having way too much fun as the smarmy, rebranded Renault, could do with a bigger role. I know he has third billing, but his character still has it bad for his former lover, and he and McCarthy are deliciously inappropriate when they’re together.

There’s only room for one jerk though, and Michelle is a pro. She doesn’t just threaten violence, she takes action, leading a street brawl between her band of Darnell’s Darlings and a troop of equally militant Dandelion girls. When she’s not feeling so pugnacious, she’s content with hurling obscene insults mixed with a bit of homophobia and dispensing business advice that encourages greed and dishonesty. I suspect we’re looking for kinder humor these days, like one of the few laugh-out-loud funny scenes in the film when Michelle chides Claire about her clothing and undergarment choices.

The film is strongest when Michelle is at her most vulnerable. She tries to reconnect with her business network after her release but they all shun her, in part because she’s a felon and because Renault is directing them to but also because it’s a boys’ club from the looks of things. (It’s also a white club, like the movie.) Even after she rebuilds, her selfishness and lack of trust cause her to risk losing what matters most, something she has never had before – a sense of belonging. McCarthy shines in these moments, reminding us that she’s managed to make us hate and pity and love her character all at once.

Released: 2016
Prod: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Chris Henchy
Dir: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Steve Mallory
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Timothy Simons, Annie Mumolo, Kristen Schaal, Cecily Strong, Cedric Yarbough
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018