comedy drama

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

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

Bottle Shock (2008)

Americans might not be in the mood to stick it to the French these days, now that we’ve moved on from “freedom fries” and into a slow-motion constitutional crisis. If you’re itching for a throwback though, Bottle Shock will take you to that time when America was looking to achieve better things, when it was a real underdog, at least in the wine world, and you could feel good about cheering them on, in the wine world.

The film is set in 1976, before California wine was a thing on the international scene. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) owns Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, but is struggling to keep it afloat. He could use the help of his son, Bo (a shaggy Chris Pine), but the latter’s hippie lifestyle renders him useless in most matters, except when it comes to fighting racist truck drivers. Things occasionally get so heated between father and son that they resort to boxing matches in the vineyard. Both get a chance at redemption though when a stranger comes to town.

Well, two strangers. One is Sam (Rachael Taylor), the intern who knows a hell of a lot more about enology than the Barretts. The other is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a self-proclaimed wine snob and Brit living in France. Spurrier’s wine shop is also struggling, and his only customer on any given day is his American neighbor (Dennis Farina), who slurps up free samples. In order to bring in business and earn some notice from the even snobbier French wine circle, he decides to host a blind tasting, pitting French wines against American ones. No one doubts that the French will win, but first Spurrier needs to get his hands on some of that sweet American grape juice.

The story is predictable because it’s based on real events and follows the classic underdog formula, but that doesn’t make its feel-good moments any less rousing. In fact, some of the most enjoyable scenes are the ones that play out just as you’d expect. The last few scenes are like a roller coaster, albeit a milder one. You can see what’s going to happen to Jim’s batch of brown wine and who will emerge victorious in Spurrier’s blind tasting, but it’s still exciting to watch the events unfold.

The build up isn’t as strong as that ending though. The script is in need of a major rewrite or two with some important storylines half-formed. In particular, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), Bo’s friend and one of Jim’s hired hands, struggles to get off the page. Rodriguez gives his character plenty of emotion, but there’s not enough background about his father and relationship to the Barretts to figure out how he fits into Chateau Montelena. Even important plot points, like Spurrier’s initial proposal for the tasting, are oddly missing. It’s as if the filmmakers expect us to infer the details of his plan based on a sly smile with a fellow sommelier.

Bottle Shock offers many positives, but overall, the film is more miss than hit. The only constant is Rickman, who is delightfully foreign whether he’s drinking by himself in France or navigating his Gremlin through California. Napa Valley is occasionally pretty to look at, but then again, you could point a camera in any direction for breathtaking views. Like this story though, it lacks the texture you’d expect and fails to truly draw you in.

Released: 2008
Prod: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Brenda Lhormer, Marc Lhormer, J. Todd Harris, Marc Toberoff
Dir: Randall Miller
Writer: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz
Cast: Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina
Time: 110 min
Lang: English, some French and Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Choosing Signs (2013)

There’s leaving things to fate and then there’s Jennifer (Jessica Lancaster), a woman who’s so wary about her own decision-making that she lets fate decide almost everything in life. Whether it’s moving from her home in New York to live with her boyfriend in Ireland or which direction she’s headed off to in the morning, Jennifer always needs a little assist. Sometimes that’s flipping a coin and other times it’s slinging a rubber band across the room, whatever’s handy.

It’s extreme, but Choosing Signs is not Serendipity, which is to say it’s not an infuriating case of a woman who fails to seize the moment and then makes a big ado about resetting the chain of events she’s set in motion. This is a quiet film more along the lines of Once and resting somewhere in a space that is romance, comedy, and drama without embracing any one of those.

The story is set in Cork, where Jennifer lives with Marc (Stephen Wyley), a guy with big ideas about how to best exploit the immigrant housing market, and their pregnant Ukrainian housekeeper Svletlana, (Betsy Douds). Her brother, Matty (Jeremiah Ocanas), has mental health issues and stays at a nearby nursing facility, which is how she meets Eamon (Owen Dara), one of his caregivers. Eamon is immediately attracted to Jennifer and wastes no time setting up a date. She’s nice, doesn’t know anyone, and happens to have dinged a bell on her wall when he called, so she agrees to meet up.

A friendship develops by steps, but that doesn’t necessarily bring more stability into her life. If anything, her feelings for Eamon complicates things, adding more variables to her relationship with Matty and Marc. As she juggles her obligations to her brother, she also wrestles with a growing unease over her boyfriend’s plans to subdivide flats into oblivion. Leaving things to fate, it seems, is as much of a gamble as just making a decision and hoping for the best.

The film is far from the silly, magical romp I thought it would be. Lancaster is splendid in this role, emphasizing all her character’s vulnerabilities without making her into an oddball. I’d call Jennifer’s penchant for tossing stones and scarves more of a quirk than anything; it’s enough for others to comment on but not so much of a distraction from the rest of her personality. Writer-director Dara also turns in a charming, low-key performance. Eamon is inviting and of course eager, but he strays from the stereotype of a love-struck loner when necessary. Of the supporting cast, Douds is the strongest, not least because she has the most interesting character in the film. Svletlana knows much more than she lets on, often safeguarding her wisdom and observations behind her flinty stare.

Released: 2013
Dir: Owen Dara
Writer: Owen Dara
Cast: Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremiah Ocanas, Stephen Wyley
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Golden Years (2016)

Golden Years doesn’t map out the ideal retirement plan, but you could keep it on the backburner. Or don’t since this slight comedy of errors about pensioners with a vengeance doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The heist film offers a daffy plot and a veteran cast to match, but it also suffers long pauses slowing the overall momentum. Those inclined to rage against the system may find in this movie some poetic justice, but it’s not as satisfying as say levying a seventy percent marginal tax rate on millionaires.

Arthur (Bernard Hill), a generally content retiree, has his life turned upside down when his pension is wiped out. Besides the utter indifference of financial services representatives, he faces the more pressing concern of paying for his wife’s medication. Martha (Virginia McKenna) is kept in the dark while Arthur tries to figure out how they’ll make it through the next few months, never mind the next few years. He comes upon an age-old plan, the one everyone gets when they’re really hard up for cash, and decides to rob a bank. He doesn’t scheme so much as fall into the idea, and his first robbery of £75,000 is finely choreographed if chaotic and unexpected bit of handiwork.

The story hits national news and attracts the attention of two police detectives, Sid (Alun Armstrong) and Stringer (Brad Moore). Stringer, a hard-charging officer who imagines himself the hero of every scenario, is convinced that the series of robberies is being carried out by highly trained young men with a meticulous attack plan. Sid is more circumspect, his years of experience telling him that something doesn’t add up but he’s not sure what.

Heist films operate on the premise that one’s luck is always about to run out, and there are some humorous if predictable close calls here, one of which involves eating the evidence. There’s not enough of these moments though, and Golden Years doesn’t follow through on the formula. Instead of each side ratcheting things up, the tension subsides the more Arthur and Martha get away with it. They become so comfortable in their new line of work that they even enlist a few friends (Phil Davis, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas) to keep up with their ambitions. The expected showdown between them and the law fizzles, however, and instead turns into a counseling session for Sid and his unhappy wife (Sue Johnston).

The film could have made bigger impression if it had padded the story with more humor and less of a feel good attitude. It tries to have it all ways, taking the real hardships and the indignities suffered by the elderly and pairing it with goofiness of a heist plot. That dichotomy can work, but this film takes the easy way out with every resolution instead of confronting its somber feelings. When the only consequence seems to be a good one, it blunts the emotional impact, and the story goes from looking at real injustice to a game some old folks play because it’s a step up from bingo night.

Released: 2016
Prod: Mark Foligno
Dir: John Miller
Writer: John Miller, Nick Knowles, Jeremy Sheldon
Cast: Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna, Sue Johnston, Phil Davis, Brad Moore, Mark Williams, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas, Simon Callow, Alun Armstrong, Richard Cambridge
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019