Life of the Party (2018)

Life of the Party goes in some unexpected directions but doesn’t always end up where it maybe should. The film, the third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, tries a different approach with the college comedy, opting for something gentler instead of your typical rude and raunchy house party. The result is both fresh and surprising, but it’s also not very funny. McCarthy and Falcone, who serve as writers and producers with the latter taking on directing duties, seem to have their hearts in the right place, but that’s hardly enough in this case. The meandering plot doesn’t give the story or comedy much structure, and the movie fails to live up to its promise.

McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, bubbly wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) and mother to Maddie (Molly Gordon). She is living her best life until she drops her daughter off at college and Dan drops the news that he is filing for divorce, selling the house, and marrying realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). Seizing the opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade, as one character puts it, Deanna joins Maddie to complete the remaining two semesters of her archaeology degree.

You can imagine how this could turn into a nightmare scenario, and it looks to shape up that way at first. Deanna intrudes on Maddie’s social life, giving herself an open invitation to her daughter’s sorority house. Meanwhile, her fondness for mom humor makes her the target of a couple of mean girls in her class. Another film would turn Deanna into the butt of all jokes and find a multitude of ways to tear her down. Maddie would be at odds with her embarrassing mother, a rift that would drive her into the arms of a useless coed.

To my shock, however, Life of the Party does none of these things. Instead it makes Deanna, or “Dee Rock,” well, the life of the party. Maddie’s sorority sisters, not exactly the cool kids but not misfits either, immediately embrace her as their surrogate mother. The group includes Helen (Gillian Jacobs), an older student who was in a coma for eight years, and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), who is always a step or two behind. Both are delightfully offbeat but have no qualms about showing off their new friend. They even take it as a point of pride when she goes out with them. Deanna, likewise, draws inspiration from the young women around her and gains confidence because of their support. It’s not often we see this type of generational divide used as a source of strength rather than division, common and natural as these relationships are in real life.

A novel concept does not make a movie though, and the film isn’t as self-assured its characters. There are a handful of minor conflicts, none of which are important enough to shape the narrative. Sometimes it seems like Deanna and gang are just hitchhiking along to their own story and stumbling from one spot to the next. The divorce and Dan’s general assholery are persistent background noise rather than major plot points while Deanna’s classroom nemeses are put in their place with a brief but wicked 80s dance battle. On the plus side, she has a college fling with Jack (Luke Benward), a fellow student and friend of Maddie’s boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang in a surprising bit of anti-Hollywood casting). The relationship is sweet I suppose, but it’s not all that sincere, and I suspect it’s played more as a response to the typical narrative of the middle-aged dude romancing a fawning college girl. The role reversal provides some laughs, but like most other ideas in this movie, it isn’t that compelling.

Released: 2018
Prod: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Henchy
Dir: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Luke Benward, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner, Jimmy O. Yang, Chris Parnell, Debby Ryan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019


Calendar Girls (2003)

If we’re compiling a list of pinup models for a charity calendar, Helen Mirren would definitely be on my list. So it makes sense to me that she should take the lead on Calendar Girls, a film about women of a certain age who decide to pose nude to raise funds for a cancer charity. Based on a true story, it recounts how a group of Yorkshire women, namely the ladies of the Knapely Women’s Institute, went from housewives to international stars after daring to show some skin.

British folks aren’t going to get their kit off that easily though, at least this is the lesson I learned from The Full Monty. For Chris (Mirren) and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), the death of Annie’s husband (John Alderton) from cancer is enough motivation. Both are members of the local women’s group, Chris reluctantly so, and are inspired to take a chance on their own tastefully nude calendar. This fundraising idea is not just an alterative to the group’s traditional Yorkshire scenes calendar but also a much needed diversion from the WI’s scintillating lectures on broccoli, tea towels, and the like. Of course, some of the more conservative members prefer gazing at country bridges than at wrinkled navels, and Chris and Annie face pushback from the local chairwoman (Geraldine James).

The film offers up plenty of devilish moments, and it’s funniest exactly where you’d expect it to be. The women, who also include Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie, and Linda Bassett, enlist a skeptical hospital porter (Philip Glenister) to take the photos. Unfortunately, they also don’t want him anywhere near their naked bodies. Things get tricky when he has to direct them from afar, instructing them just how to angle a pair of pruning shears or a set of glazed buns to hide their lady parts.

The laughs ease up once the calendar goes into production, and national and international media get ahold of their story. Fame starts to take its toll, bringing out Chris’s diva tendencies. Her need to be at the center of attention strains her relationship with Annie, whom she accuses of being too much a martyr for the cause. Chris’s family life suffers too as she leaves her husband (Ciarán Hinds) and son (John-Paul Macleod) in her wake.

The tone of this third act isn’t enough to overwhelm the rest of the film, which remains a hilarious and light-hearted movie. It helps that the women are all top class, a gorgeous, cheeky set that I wouldn’t mind shadowing, well, forever. Mirren might not have a regal bearing here, but she’s still a dizzying force. It’s no wonder Hinds’s character, a true feminist, is utterly smitten. Imrie’s saucy streak was a highlight as well. The movie probably reinforces everything casual American viewers think about England. It certainly seems like a land of Knapely-esque villages where no problem is so big that it can’t be solved with a picnic on the Moors and a fulsome rendition of “Jerusalem.” But damn, what a fun place to be if only for a while.

Released: 2003
Prod: Nick Barton
Dir: Nigel Cole
Writer: Tim Firth, Juliette Towhidi
Cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Geraldine James, Philip Glenister, Ciarán Hinds, John Alderton, George Costigan, John-Paul Macleod
Time: 108 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Forever Plaid (2008)

There’s something about boy bands that will get me to the day I die. Whether its Boyz II Men or ‘N Sync or Big Bang, I just can’t shake a group of harmonizing dudes with synchronized dance moves. And so it is with Forever Plaid, a deceased 1950s quartet killed after their cherry red Cadillac crashes into a busload of Catholic teens (or “slammed by parochial virgins” as one guy puts it) on their way to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Now, thanks to some funny business in the astral planes, they’ve been granted one last performance on earth before going to that big cocktail lounge in the sky.

The movie, a filmed performance of the popular Off-Broadway revue, isn’t as flashy as some of the live versions of musical shows you see today. In fact, the production has a slight home video quality to it, albeit with privileged front row access, but that doesn’t take away from the show’s humor or the impressive talent of its stars. For about an hour and a half and with no intermission, Sparky (Larry Raben), Smudge (David Engel), Jinx (Stan Chandler), and Frankie (Daniel Reichard) settle in for their last hurrah. They sing their cheery hearts out to classics like “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the opening and closing numbers respectively, while regaling the audience with stories about how the group came to be (the high school AV club) and where they held their practice sessions (the basement of a cleaning supply store).

This was the first musical I ever saw onstage, and a quarter century later, I’m just as delighted by the four lads who make up Forever Plaid. They have a earnestness about them that transcends time and even death. Their premature end seems to have preserved their optimism, and they young-ish men have convinced themselves that things were and always will be on the up and up, never mind that they would likely have been eclipsed by groups such as the Beatles. Their lack of perspective, however, keeps the show light. These are just four dudes happy to be here and with a jaunty set list to match.

The actors all do their parts justice, not only nailing their harmonies but also the group’s tight bond. Raben, as the aptly named Sparky, shows off his character’s skill as a natural performer and the Plaid’s leader. He gently encourages his shyer stepbrother, Jinx, who comes into his own mid-song in “Cry.” Smudge has a similar show-stopping moment when he belts out his feature solo in “Sixteen Tons/Chain Gang.” Both Engel and Chandler are original cast members while Reichard originated the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys. Reichard, as the young Frankie, gets the show’s most pensive monologue. As their show comes to an end and the Plaids wax lyrical about what might have been, Frankie seizes the moment, imploring them to take pride in what they have accomplished.

I almost wish more somber touches could have been added in between the humor. These days, you can probably take out the Caribbean medley (“Day-O,” “Kingston Market,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Matilda Matilda”), which cobbles together embarrassing accents and props from a cruise ship gift shop. Instead, maybe the Plaids should ponder their cosmic fate a bit more. I care too much for them to wait until the final minutes when they really open up.

Released: 2008
Prod: Barney Cohen, Benni Korzen, Suren Seron, Christopher Gosch
Dir: Stuart Ross
Writer: Stuart Ross
Cast: Stan Chandler, David Engel, Larry Raben, Daniel Reichard, David Hyde Pierce
Time: 90 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Dog Days (2018)

It’s much better to enjoy a film you thought you’d trash than to trash one you thought you’d enjoy, and so it is with Dog Days. Taking a cue from those schlocky holiday ensemble films from Garry Marshall, the movie features a diverse set of Angelenos who experience growth and setbacks in their personal and professional lives thanks to help from their pooches. It’s sentimental, predictable, and surprisingly fun and touching. I guess the maxim holds that dogs do make everything better.

Not all the stories are created equal; some are stronger than others here. Vanessa Hudgens and Jon Bass have the sweetest and most relatable storyline. She plays Tara, a barista with big dreams of, well, not being a barista while he plays Garrett, a guy with average looks but a very generous heart. I only comment on his appearance because dreamy vet Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy) has an office across the street, and Tara and every pet-owning woman in Los Angeles seem to have eyes on this guy. When Garrett’s dog shelter is in sudden need of a new home, Tara finds purpose by helping him to organize a fundraiser, an event that in turn brings the rest of the dog-loving characters together.

She crosses paths with Dax (Adam Pally), another tenant in her building. A musician who subsists on a diet of Del Taco and disappointment, he has to care for his sister’s giant dog when she gives birth to twins. He might get kicked out of his pet-free apartment as a result, but the trade off is fair because she pays for his life. At the opposite end of the respectability scale is Walter (Ron Cephas Jones), a retired UCLA professor and widower. He befriends upstart pizza boy Tyler (Finn Wolfhard) when his wife’s beloved dog, Mabel, goes missing.

Meanwhile, Tyler’s teacher, Kurt (Rod Corddry), and his wife, Grace (Eva Longoria), are struggling as new parents to adopted daughter, Amelia (Elizabeth Caro). I’m not keen on the way the couple try to earn Amelia’s trust. Rather than seeing a child who is going through real trauma, they think entertaining her with song and dance numbers will help her open up. They get the most heartwarming conclusion though, proving that I’ll forgive a lot of things if cute kids and dogs are involved.

Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) and Jimmy (Tone Bell) also have a satisfying story but one in need of a rewrite. She is an uptight TV personality and he is her new cohost brought in to add some spontaneity to their morning show. Dobrev and Bell are sizzling together and I’m a fan of the couple, but it’s an erratic relationship. They’re either throwing daggers or doing double dates with their dogs, and it’s never clear how things have progressed from one point to the next.

Nevertheless, the movie is a tidy little production with everyone in the cast pulling his or her weight. It satisfies those looking for light romance and comedy, and dogs. The pups aren’t the stars but facilitators for their human, and their selfless, loyal natures rub off. This is one where predictability is a reasonable price to pay for the emotional dividends. There’s the added bonus of Jasmine Cephas Jones, Hamilton’s OG Peggy/Maria, whose voice would be the soundtrack of every movie if my wishes came true.

“Made of Gold” by Jasmine Cephas Jones:

“Sweet Love” by Jasmine Cephas Jones:

Released: 2018
Prod: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe
Dir: Ken Marino
Writer: Elissa Matsueda, Erica Oyama
Cast: Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Adam Pally, Eva Longoria, Rob Corddry, Tone Bell, Jon Bass, Michael Cassidy, Thomas Lennon, Tig Notaro, Finn Wolfhard, Ron Cephas Jones, Jasmine Cephas Jones
Time: 113 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Overboard (2018)

Nobody asked for an Overboard remix, so maybe it was right that the movie got dragged by critics. I already did a number on the original, but hating the idea of this movie is one way to be pleasantly surprised by some of the story’s retooling. It turns out the flipping the script and reversing gender roles can improve things. My main problem with the 1987 film is that the insufferable socialite who’s tossed overboard finds herself exploited by the man she’s cheated. He takes advantage of her vulnerability and then justifies that behavior by pointing finger at her and not himself, all of which is played for laughs and a sense of karma. So what happens when the one in need of his comeuppance is a man? Well, something a little more nuanced.

Kate (Anna Faris), for one, is a lot more sympathetic than the Kurt Russell character she is based on. She actually feels guilty about fooling Leo (Eugenio Derbez), the playboy bachelor and now amnesiac, into thinking he is her husband. It’s a last ditch move by a young widow who knows she can’t continue to juggle three girls, two jobs, and a nursing exam, especially after her mom’s popped off to do some community theater. Revenge is not the aim so much as it is a simple need to keep her life from falling apart. She sets the unsuspecting Leo up with a punishing construction job so that she have money for the mortgage. She enlists his help to cook dinner and get the groceries so she has more time to study. At no point does she abdicate her own responsibilities towards work or family.

Crucially, the power dynamics shift. Kate manipulates Leo, and criminal behavior is criminal behavior, but she doesn’t have complete control over him. He gains independence through his ability to work, and that in turn gives him a network of friends and coworkers. Leo takes cues about how to be husband and father, but he has a lot more room to shape his new identity. He is not trapped at home or at the mercy of people who could take advantage of him physically or sexually, and this telling change makes all the difference. In fact, it’s Kate who must remain guarded. She comes up with an excuse to keep him out of her bedroom and, having seen the way he used to demean women, is wary of letting him alone with her/their daughters. So it is that even a woman who seems to have all the power still does not.

I’ll own to be one of the few people who enjoyed this movie, certainly if we’re comparing it to the original. Its better hold on gender also extends to supporting characters. Kate’s kids each have a distinct personality, and Leo’s two sisters are a riot. Responsible, business-minded Magdalena (Cecilia Suárez) has her eye on the family’s company, but their father favors Leo despite his life of debauchery. I can’t say she’s entirely wrong for pretending her brother was devoured by sharks.

Most of my criticism is directed at the humor, which could be dialed up several notches. Though the laughs are consistent, they’re never very strong. Faris is delightfully neurotic, per usual, and keeps things funny while also being the adult in the room. She and Derbez aren’t always tuned to the same comedic wavelength though. They’re an odd couple not only because of age but also because he tends to be more deliberate and over-the-top in his delivery. In his eagerness to get laughs, he just doesn’t get many. I hope we’ll see more of Derbez and the other Mexican actors regardless. This kind of mainstream cross-production is the kind of cinema I want more of, where large chunks of Spanish dialogue is just a natural thing.

Released: 2018
Prod: Eugenio Derbez, Benjamin Odell, Bob Fisher
Dir: Rob Greenberg
Writer: Bob Fisher, Rob Greenberg, Leslie Dixon
Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Anna Faris, Eva Longoria, Mel Rodriguez, Hannah Nordberg, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Peyton Lepinski, Fernando Luján, Cecilia Suárez, Mariana Treviño, John Hannah, Swoosie Kurtz
Time: 112 min
Lang: English, Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019