Month: September 2019

Poms (2019)

Poms charges forth with the determination of a high school cheerleader at the season’s first pep rally. It has a message, proclaims it loudly and proudly, and strives to hit every mark. But as sometimes happens, an angry principal commandeers the mike, the trombone player throws up, Becky’s uniform comes undone. Or maybe that was my high school. In any case, this film about retirees forming a cheer team is as routine and predictable as they come. Diane Keaton leads an outstanding cast, but there are few chances for them to shine with this lackluster script.

Keaton plays Martha, a retired school teacher who is not long for this world. It isn’t because she’s getting on in years but because she has cancer and refuses treatment. She plans to sell her stuff, drive down to a retirement community in Georgia, and die, which isn’t the sunniest way to go but then Martha’s not a sunny person. She has no interest in joining a requisite club and passes up the chance to befriend the community’s security chief (Bruce McGill). Her hopes of slipping away quietly dim too when she meets her neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), known for dropping by uninvited and hosting rowdy poker games in the middle of the night.

A shared disdain for petty regulations and the resident mean girls brings the two together though, and they propose to start the community’s first cheerleading team. It’s not well received, and queen bee Vicki (Celia Weston) takes particular issue with the group, which she finds ludicrous and a tad obscene. That doesn’t stop them from recruiting members and yes, via a graceless, mildly comic try-out montage. Some are like Martha, there to satisfy an unfulfilled dream, some enjoy the workout and still others just want to stick it to their overbearing husband. Needless to say, coordination is a bit off and they decide to stick to moves that don’t send them airborne.

The feel good factor is certainly present in Poms, and it’s hard to root against the women for doing whatever they want, critics and less-than-limber knees be damned. The veteran cast bring a joy that projects even when their moves and the script do not. Keaton grounds the film, but Weaver is the real spark. Sheryl is wild without being silly. She substitute teaches for kicks and attends strangers’ funerals for the free food. It’s no wonder even the staid Martha would be attracted to her.

Outside of Weaver’s performance and a ringing message that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, however, the film doesn’t have much to show for. Martha can be a frustrating character, admirable for her tenacity but also confusing in her decision-making. We don’t know why, for example, she’s set her sights on this retirement community in Georgia when she loathes so much about it. Her reason for seizing this particular opportunity to be a cheerleader also seems thin. Other characters don’t fare better. I was excited to see Pam Grier in the cast, but apparently she’s just here to show off a leotard. Chloe (Alisha Boe) is frustrating as well, a teen cheerleader who switches allegiances whenever it suits the plot. I would have liked a more honest film, one willing to indulge in feelings of loss and fear that go deeper than seeing oneself in a viral video.

Released: 2019
Prod: Rose Ganguzza, Celyn Jones, Sean Marley, Kelly McCormick, Ade Shannon, Andy Evans
Dir: Zara Hayes
Writer: Shane Atkinson
Cast: Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Celia Weston, Alisha Boe, Charlie Tahan, Rhea Perlman, Phyllis Somerville, Pam Grier, Patricia French, Ginny MacColl, Carol Sutton, Bruce McGill
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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The Amazing Adventure of Marchello the Cat (2008)

The wonderful thing about libraries is that you never know what you’ll discover. Sometimes you come across great gems, stories that excite the imagination and inspire real wonder, and sometimes you come across The Amazing Adventure of Marchello the Cat, a movie to be sure but not at all what I expected when I checked out this feature film.

At least it is true to its description and delivers on a story about “a sheltered indoor cat [who] escapes and is forced to face the mean city streets in order to find his way home.” There’s a plot, which is more than you can say for some kids’ movies, and it proceeds in logical fashion. Marcello (Troy Garity), a coddled black and white furball, ventures outdoors when his human mom goes off to meet her boyfriend’s family. Blame it on his kitty hormones. He attempts to flirt with outdoor cat Jujube (Michelle Rodriguez), but his efforts are cut short when he’s catnapped by a rollerblader. Naïve to the ways of the world, he is easily taken advantage of by animals who either wish him harm or who just want a laugh. All Marcello wants though is make it back home, wherever that is.

I can see someone embarking on a remake and turning this into a movie worth watching. It has cats, and I’m not going to turn down a cat movie. I did watch Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and Nine Lives after all, so there’s no bottom line for me. Marcello encounters some interesting characters, like Pinky and Blackie, who have quite touching stories. Pinky is under the illusion that her human mom will come back to their palace any day, except she’s just an abandoned cat who sleeps in a dump. Blackie, meanwhile, is a do-gooder trying to find new homes for the strays who cross his path. The crows are a different story. They control much of the animal-to-animal communications and love nothing more than to stir up trouble.

The problem, however, is that this plays like someone’s home movies from the 1990s. You’re honestly going to get better production values by sticking your iPhone on a tripod and capturing the neighborhood pets. Writer and director Susan Emerson, who has a handful of credits to her name, pieces what I assume are the best bits of her grainy, zoom-happy footage and still ends up with something that looks like amateur YouTube. In addition, the perspective is all over the place, which I guess is what happens when you take a handheld camera and chase a few animals around. Sometimes we get shots from Marchello’s point of view and sometimes we’re just creepy voyeurs from afar spying on him and his furry friends. If you must watch this, I’d recommend muting the sound, but really, just stick with the cute cat videos already populating the internet.

Alt Titles: Cats: The Movie!; A Cat’s Tale
Released: 2008
Prod: Paul Williams
Dir: Susan Emerson
Writer: Susan Emerson
Cast: Troy Garity, Michelle Rodriguez, Mara Lane, Dominique Swain, Troy Hall, Jeremy Sisto, Shannon Conlon, Jeremy Piven
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald (2018)

The last time I was this devastated by the imaginary happenings of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World was due to the death of Sirius Black. The Crimes of Grindenwald compounds that trauma since pretty much no one gets out of this film unscathed. Critics and fans might include themselves in that number too. This second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series received a frosty reception by those who took issue with its sloppy writing and convoluted plot, fair points on both accounts. For what it’s worth though, which is not a lot, I’ve spent more hours with this movie than with all the other films and books combined.

Sure, I’ll cop to being superficial and acknowledge that the cast is partly the reason. Former Burberry models Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner are fucking snacks in their woolen three-piece suits. Then there’s Jude Law, a man who can do smoking hot pope and smoking hot wizard prof. Zoe Kravitz holds it down for the ladies. I’ve never wanted to be an emotionally tortured witch from the 1920s as much as I do when I see her, and her wardrobe. In fact, the whole costume department can come over and outfit me for the day, or forever. The handsome period clothing is also matched by the film’s sumptuous design, with Europe proving a far lusher playground than gloomy post-war America.

The malcontents are not wrong about the film’s faults though. The story, which takes place a shortly after the events of the first movie, is slow to come together. Magizoologist Newt Scamandar (Redmayne) is back in London after tearing up New York. He briefly reunites with his former Hogwarts teacher, Dumbledore (Law), who seeks his help on another errand that will likely get both in trouble with the Ministry. Events soon force Newt and the others to travel to France, where everyone is pursuing the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who tried to protect him in America, follows the young man to Paris, keeping an eye on those who seek to kill or corrupt him. Grimmson, a bloodthirsty bounty hunter employed by the British Ministry of Magic, and Yusef Kama (William Nadylam), a shady Frenchman with a grudge, both want him dead, while the dark wizard Grindenwald (Johnny Depp), aided by his band of pureblood acolytes, hopes to use Credence for his own ends.

With no book as a guide, there’s a lot to piece together, and even the film’s 134 minute run time seems too short to do its story and characters justice. Director David Yates works with a script penned by Rowling, but they don’t filter out which of the many details are most important for this particular movie. Whereas the first film was largely about Newt and Tina’s efforts to protect Credence, Crimes of Grindenwald is missing a similar overriding narrative. At times, it is focused on Credence’s search for his true identity, and at others, it is about Grindenwald’s attempt to upend the world order, replacing it with one in which witches and wizards reign superior. Leta Lestrange (Kravitz) also finds herself at the center of things. Newt’s best and only friend from Hogwarts, Leta is now engaged to his brother, Theseus (Turner), and remains haunted by a past that she’s reluctant to revisit.

The lack of strong relationships is one reason why the film seems so disjointed. The movie conspires to keep everyone apart, creating a certain amount of tension but also scattering the characters across different ends of Britain and Paris. We know Newt and Tina grow closer, but we don’t even see her for a good half hour. Meanwhile, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, and her no-maj baker boyfriend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), part in anger after crashing at Newt’s flat. She’s left wandering the streets of Paris by herself. The two men then travel to France to pursue their significant others, but it turns into a real downer of a trip. Newt is too distracted by everything else to pay much attention to his best bud, and with no one as his foil, Jacob ends up looking deflated. There are good reasons for his pessimism, but the camaraderie between the two was something I was looking forward to. Fogler is great with a wry one-liner or a flummoxed stare, and he doesn’t get many chances to flex that humor here.

The actors do their best to make up for gaps in storytelling though. Redmayne and Miller ease back into their roles, finding new points of turmoil for Newt and Credence, and Sudol reveals a different side to Queenie, one in which her good and trusting nature leads to desperation. Queenie and Jacob share only a few scenes this time around, but they capitalize on them with some truly heart-wrenching moments. Likewise, the script doesn’t reveal much in the way of Newt and Theseus’s strained relationship, and we get just a few flashes of the ill will that’s been brewing for years. As Grindenwald’s threat grows, however, the brothers are forced to come together in a raw and pained confrontation.

Yet the actors’ committed portrayals in the final act are a reason why I was a little disappointed. The emotional gut punches come mostly at the end, making the rest of the film a long waiting game. The first two-thirds of the movie aren’t as stirring as they need to be and leave too many of these rich, dynamic characters hanging. Of the neglected characters and storylines, none is more underserved than Leta and Theseus’s relationship. A burning love story exists somewhere, but we hardly get to see it. That’s a shame because not only are Kravitz and Turner sexy beasts, their romance also informs so much of Newt’s character. There’s a lot of unpacking to be done regarding Dumbledore and Grindenwald’s relationship as well, work left to the remaining three films. Similarly, Nagini (Claudia Kim) is overlooked. Best known as Voldermort’s serpent companion, she still exists in human form and befriends Credence after they meet in the circus. Kim has about two lines in the whole movie and spends most of it looking very worried. If we don’t see much more of her as the series progresses, then Rowling might as well have left her out.

This brings us to a major criticism of Crimes of Grindenwald and one that I hope is corrected in the next film. The treatment of women, from lead character Tina to Newt’s fawning assistant, Bunty (Victoria Yeates), isn’t flattering. With the exception of Queenie, most are secondary to their male counterparts. Vinda (Poppy Corby-Tuech) does the bidding of Grindenwald, Nagini comforts Credence, and Bunty can’t seem to get a handle on any fantastic creature without Newt around. Even Tina is sidelined. The tenacious auror who proved all of the Magical Congress of America wrong, she does one thing of actual consequence – zapping Theseus, who is in hot pursuit of his brother, with a spell. Most maligned, however, is Leta. The embodiment of the tragic mulatto, she doesn’t get her due; rather than coming into her own, she is defined by her relationship to other men, be it Newt or Theseus or Credence. Nevertheless, I found Kravitz’s performance most moving, and having just seen the film for the nth time, I’m still picking up the pieces of my broken little heart. If Crimes of Grindenwald is an opening act for what’s to follow, then I’m very open.

Released: 2018
Prod: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Dir: David Yates
Writer: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Time: 134 min
Lang: English, some French
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Mouse Hunt (1997)

A little Money Pit and a little Ratatouille, Mouse Hunt is a mostly forgotten 1997 film that made a reappearance on network TV last weekend. Always one for children’s entertainment, I gave it a try and liked it just enough to recommend it – that is, after your standard options have been exhausted. Kids will get a kick out of the zany story about a mouse that wreaks havoc on a crumbling mansion, even if adults don’t. Fronted by Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, the film generates enough wacky energy for an afternoon laugh.

The actors play estranged brothers, heirs of string titan Rudolf Smuntz (William Hickey). Rudolph’s death brings together Ernie (Lane) and Lars (Evans), who have inherited dad’s string factory and mansion, both of which have seen better days. Ernie, a chef, hopes to sell his share and make a buck or two. The extra money couldn’t come at a better time; he needs to salvage his reputation after the mayor accidentally dines on a cockroach at his restaurant, leaving him a persona non grata in town and at home with his greedy wife. Lars, on the other hand, hopes to keep everything intact and resurrect the factory, thus reviving the Smuntz name and fortune.

The brothers agree to work together to save the mansion when they discover it is a lost masterpiece by architect Charles Lyle LaRue. They have just one week to renovate it before it goes up for auction, a mighty task under the best circumstances but an impossible one when a tenacious mouse gets in their way. The tiny rodent taunts the brothers at every turn, and they respond with every overly complicated mouse trap available. The efforts only hasten the home’s deterioration, which is the fun part if you are a child.

As I live in a house that is literally breaking apart, it pains me to see this sort of wanton destruction, but kids are kids and collapsing staircases and entryways sprayed with sewage are funny. Never mind that Ernie and Lars could easily work around the little mouse, the most benign squatter there ever was. They have to make things worse by hiring maniacal cat and, when that doesn’t work, Christopher Walken. There’s no end to the madness, and the mouse hunt escalates into an existential battle.

Writer Adam Rifkin throws out non-stop shenanigans and occasional weirdness, e.g. Belgian hair models, but it gets tiresome after awhile. I would have liked more mouse, as in an actual character. We get a few peeks from his point of view as he exercises his cunning, but his personality is pretty thin for a primary antagonist. Likewise, Ernie and Lars are too busy running around for us to explore their relationship or that with their father. This is a mostly fun and sometimes wild trip but also one without much heart.

Released: 1997
Prod: Bruce Cohn, Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche
Dir: Gore Verbinski
Writer: Adam Rifkin
Cast: Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Vicki Lewis, Maury Chaykin, Eric Christmas, Michael Jeter, Christopher Walken, Debra Christofferson, Camilla Søeberg
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Chronicle Mysteries: The Deep End (2019)

After a punchy three movie premiere for the Aurora Teagarden series, Hallmark takes it down a few notches with the latest Chronicle Mysteries film. A slow burner that fails to catch fire, this fourth installment is one you can skip. Neither the case nor the players offer much excitement, and I struggled to keep my attention on the film, preferring to take care of the more pressing matter of newly hatched flies swarming my dining room.

The body count in The Deep End turned out to be much lower (RIP, flies), with Elliot Burke being the single fatality. He is found in his pond by friend, Jeremy, and neighbor, Leonard, but it’s his wife who is arrested for his drowning. Circumstantial evidence points to Stephanie, whom the prosecution paints as an angry, greedy soon-to-be ex-wife. Podcaster Alex McPherson (Alison Sweeney), however, thinks differently.

Her connection to the case comes via her best friend, Stephanie’s defense attorney. For some reason, Alex has taken it upon herself to exonerate the suspect and enlists the rest of the Barrington Chronicle gang to help. By gang, I mean three others – society columnist Eileen (Rebecca Staab), reporter Drew (Benjamin Ayres), and Drew’s curiously adult daughter Kendall (Olivia Steele Falconer). Each has a unique set of skills for this job. Eileen works her contacts and effortlessly extracts gossip from everyone, Kendall, being the young, hip one, marshals her tech know-how, and Drew just hangs out with Alex a lot. Together, they dig into the deceased’s life, trying to figure out who had better motive than Stephanie to kill Elliot and whether that person had the opportunity.

The case isn’t anything different from the many others you might see on Hallmark Mysteries, but this story also doesn’t attempt to stand out in any way. None of the characters related to the crime are treated as serious suspects and thus are forgettable. The questionably rich caddy and the grumpy neighbor, for example, are fishy but nothing more. Instead, Alex and Drew take us on a slow crawl for information about some shady finances and a call on a missing flip phone. Though there’s a sense of mystery here, that’s not balanced by a sense of excitement for the chase.

Alex and friends fail to elevate the story too. I had previously written about wanting Hallmark to highlight a team of crime solvers to liven up the dynamic, and it looks like we have that here. Rather than just amateur sleuth and her romantic interest, the Chronicle staff are contribute in smart and efficient ways, but at least in The Deep End, they’re not a group I’d want to spend extra time with. Maybe it’s because we’re missing Chuck, the sunny press manager from the previous films. Hopefully he’ll return for the next case and inject some life into the series.

Highlight for spoilers: Jeremy killed Elliot over debts from a high stakes poker game that the latter had been running. Elliot didn’t need the money and seemingly organized the gambling ring for kicks. He was considerate of people’s situations though and would cut off anyone who was in too deep. Jeremy was one of those who was massively in debt. He wanted to continue playing though, and when Elliot refused to loan him more money, Jeremy bashed him with the golf club in a fit of anger. He still couldn’t find the key to the ledger or Elliot’s cash though, which would have allowed him to scrub his motive and his debts.

Released: 2019
Dir: Nimisha Mukerji
Writer: Melissa Salmons
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Benjamin Ayres, Olivia Steele Falconer, Rebecca Staab, Chelan Simmons, Robyn Bradley, Chenier Hundal, Edward Ruttle, Karen Holness
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019