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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

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

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

There’s a new Disney sequel or remake every quarter it seems, with at least five slated for release this year (Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Lady and the Tramp). While hopes are high for Beyonce’s The Lion King, as we call it in my house, Disney’s track record isn’t promising when it comes to these recycled classics. They may generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the studio, but most have been greeted with indifferent reviews and audiences.

The one that stands out from the bunch is Pete’s Dragon, which succeeded by embracing a new vision inspired by but not beholden to the original. Elements of the 1977 film are present in the 2016 movie, namely a magical dragon and a boy named Pete, but almost everything else, from the story to the style to the look, is its own. Instead of exhausting itself trying to find clever ways to work in the source material, the movie creates a unique vision with breathtaking results.

I’m guessing this sequel to Mary Poppins might have fared better with a similar approach. Delightful to look at and brimming with top notch talent, this film is one I really wanted to enjoy. However, director Rob Marshall strains to make something new out of the old, leaving us with a movie that looks shiny and familiar but that never truly ignites the imagination.

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to Cherry Tree Lane to tend to the Banks family, only now young Michael and Jane are all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw), a recently widowed father of three, is also in danger of losing the family home. With a week to pay off his loan, he scrambles to find certificates of some bank shares while the bank president, Wilkins (Colin Firth), counts down the hours. In these desperate times, he could use some help from his magical nanny, if only to calm his frayed nerves.

In floats Mary Poppins, not a moment too soon, and so another adventure begins. Except it doesn’t really. The story moves along, winding its way through London as the new generation of Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) tries to be helpful, either by staying out of their father’s way or getting very much in it. They are joined by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary’s friend who fancies Jane (Emily Mortimer).

The main conflict is not enough to bind the story together though. Every non-house related thing, whether taking a trip to mend their mother’s old bowl or washing up for the night, seems incidental. It’s as if the plot is serving the flashy, YouTube-ready set pieces instead of the other way around. Even Mary gets sidelined, an observer along with the children rather than the source of their wonder and adventure. Emily Blunt is the understudy peering from the wings, waiting for a moment to break through. There just isn’t much for her character to do. And what she does do fails to match the excitement of, say, digging through her bottomless carpetbag or piecing together or a torn nanny advert.

I could forgive the story’s bland execution if the musical numbers turned out to be real show stoppers, but the film disappoints here as well. Each is a flight of fancy on its own, with Blunt and Miranda bearing down to deliver the razzle dazzle, but I couldn’t remember a single song if I tried. There is one about the Royal Doulton Music Hall and something about a cover not being a book, but I can’t even say if they are parts of the same piece or not.

The problem with the music is really the problem with the whole movie. Mary Poppins Returns is too reverent of and reliant on the past. Every song, every character, every detail references the 1964 original. The dance spectacle “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a perfunctory homage to “Step in Time.” There’s Mary dancing with penguins, the admiral firing off canons, the kids ambling through the animated countryside. Sometimes the movie does a simple swap – labor organizers for suffragettes, lamplighters for chimney sweeps. With each nod to the classic, the story loses more of itself, becoming a facsimile of the first film but without its heart or imagination.

The best example of this is “Turning Turtle,” in which Mary takes the children to visit her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep). They happen to call on her on the second Wednesday of the month at precisely the time her entire home and workshop turn upside down, leaving everyone to hang on for dear life. It’s an amusing sequence and echoes a similar physics-defying scene with loopy Uncle Albert. His uncontrollable laughter causes him and his guests to levitate whilst taking tea. But whereas “I Love to Laugh” combines whimsy with the characters’ emotional ups and downs, Topsy mostly sings about how crazy things look when flipped around.

The cast does its best to outshine the material though and wring every drop of tenderness out of the script. They infuse their otherwise bland characters with plenty of charisma, which is to be expected when the likes of Blunt, Miranda, and Whishaw get together. The art department also deserves special praise. The film’s look is absolutely sublime, and I could wallpaper my house with the paintings from the opening credits. Nineteen-Thirties London never looked so dreamy and inviting. The bold, crisp sets have the confidence the film lacks, and I only wish the visual richness carried over to the movie’s other aspects.

“A Conversation” by Ben Whishaw:

“Can You Imagine That” by Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“The Royal Doulton Music Hall” by Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“A Cover is Not the Book” by Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” by Emily Blunt:

“Turning Turtle” by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, Tarik Frimpong, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Nowhere to Go but Up” by Angela Lansbury and cast:

Released: 2018
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, David Warner, Jim Norton, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Noma Dumezweni
Time: 130 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)

Like a moth to a flame, I just can’t help myself when it comes to Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Maybe it’s my childhood affection for the cartoon or my love of small, furry critters, but I’ve somehow managed to watch all four films and, with the exception of the last one, actually like them. This fourth installment is the best one yet, succeeding where the others have failed. The acting and story are greatly improved, especially now that David Cross’s grating character is out of the way. The filmmakers have also scaled back the gimmicky pop culture references, giving us a family film that isn’t overloaded with slang and all the latest radio hits. The franchise could do with a bit more charm though. Four movies in, it still feels motivated by the novelty of talking chipmunks run amok, but Road Chip has enough of an emotional center for a heartwarming story to take shape.

Brothers Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are joined by Miles (Josh Green), son of Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), their dad Dave’s (Jason Lee) new love interest, in this cross-country adventure. An unpleasant first meeting at the mini-golf course leads to bad blood between the Chipmunks and Miles. The situation worsens when the siblings discover an engagement ring amongst Dave’s shopping and realize Miles might soon be their new brother. When Dave takes Samantha, and the ring, to an album launch in Miami for one of his artists (Bella Thorne), the Chipmunks have to find a way to Florida and stop the proposal, even if it means teaming up with their chief tormenter.

At least the enemies are on the same page when it comes to wanting to break up their parents’ relationship. Miles agrees to the plan, and volunteers his mom’s credit card, and the four set off to Miami. Trouble is never far behind though, and the Chipmunks find themselves on the No Fly List after they cause an incident involving chinchillas and goats. Not only are they stuck in Texas without any money, but they are also pursued by Air Marshal Suggs (Tony Hale), who has a personal vendetta against the singing rodents.

The “road” part of this trip is relatively short but it’s enough to squeeze in a boozy stop in New Orleans. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore join in a street carnival rendition of “Uptown Funk,” an enjoyable musical interlude precisely because there are so few of them in this movie. That the brothers don’t take center stage makes the scene even better. Instead of computer generated chipmunks flying around, desperate to grab our attention, the trio get to just groove to the music. Keeping the Chipettes’ role to a cameo also cuts down on the audio and visual clutter. The girls fly in for a glittery musical finale but are otherwise preoccupied as judges for American Idol.

A stripped down Chipmunks story allows Road Chip to really get to the heart of things, and that is the relationship between the brothers and Miles. If they make a fifth movie, and I’m not suggesting that they do – but if they do – I’d hope Miles rejoins the gang. Green is a fresh presence, even if I can’t figure out how old he’s supposed to be (young enough to be grounded yet old enough to traipse around the country alone apparently). He takes great care with his character, embracing every part of Miles, from the would-be bully to the traumatized son and protective older brother. Unlike so many of the actors in this series, he plays his part with seriousness and sincerity, and that’s what makes this a feel-good film.

The same is true for Hale, who gives a class on how to be a proper kids’ movie villain. Unlike Cross, the actor never feels like he’s phoning it in. His character is sneering, over-the-top, and foolish but purposely so. Also, Suggs is mean without being mean-spirited, which is one of my main gripes about the previous movies. This script keeps things light-hearted and avoids the franchise’s cynical streak. That seems to have elevated even Lee’s acting. He still looks disconnected half the time and never gives off any warm, fatherly vibes, but he has no choice but to perk up alongside everyone else.

“Uptown Funk” by the Chipmunks:

“Home” by the Chipmunks and the Chipettes:

Released: 2015
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Walt Becker
Writer: Randi Mayem Singer, Adam Sztykiel
Cast: Jason Lee, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Josh Green, Tony Hale, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Kaley Cuoco
Time: 92 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019