Movie Review ~ Happiest Season

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman with a plan to propose to her girlfriend while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Clea DuVall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been stuck on the same cycle of Christmas movies over the years but what I will admit is that I’ve attached myself to a select few holiday films that spoke to me as I grew older.  That’s because a number of Christmas films never really appealed to me as a person so I found it hard to relate to them, and it became more of a struggle as I got older.  I’m an only child and gay so watching movies with large family gatherings seeing everyone coming home with their husbands and wives started looking less like my life and more like a strange phony Christmas card.  So when it came to movies to watch over Christmas, I kept to the old standards and eschewed most of the newer ones, leaning toward any that focused on “different” families during the holidays.

Thankfully, as the world has evolved so have the entertainment options and that’s why a sizable shift has occurred in the offerings of the season.  Movies that show diverse families, gay couples, interracial relationships, the differently abled, autistic, etc. may not be there in droves but they are there and each year there are more of them.  Already this season we’ve had the fantastic Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey with its largely black cast appear and snuggle into the Netflix queues of many and now Hulu is presenting Happiest Season, a gay Christmas film from queer director/actress Clea DuVall (Argo).  Though originally targeted for a theatrical release, Hulu is debuting it on Thanksgiving and it should give audiences from all walks of life something to be grateful for in 2020.

Girlfriends Abby (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) have been living together for six months and Abby is ready to ask Harper to marry her.  Though not a fan of Christmas and without parents, she takes Harper’s last-minute invitation to her family’s home for the holidays as a sign that the time is right to make it official.  She has the ring and though her best friend John (Dan Levy, Admission) thinks marriage is archaic, wants to ask Harper’s dad for his blessing before popping the question in front of her family.  There’s just one tiny problem.  Harper hasn’t told her strait-laced family that she’s a lesbian and with her father about to start a run for mayor of their conservative town, she doesn’t think it wise to rock the boat during the holidays.

Against her better judgement and because Harper tells her this after they’re in the car and nearly there, Abby agrees to lie and pretend to just be Harper’s roommate for the duration of their stay.  Referred to as “the orphan” by Harper’s mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, Book Club), Abby is introduced to the rest of the family including dad Ted (Victor Garber, Sicario), and sisters Jane (Mary Holland, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, also a co-writer) and Sloane (Alison Brie, The Rental), each with their own secret or personal hang-up that will spill out over the next few days as they come together for festive gatherings.  As Abby watches Harper change when confronted with her judgmental family and their high standard expectations, she begins to question how much she actually knows the woman she fell in love with in the first place.  With Harper’s ex-boyfriend hanging around and a big family dinner approaching, can Abby still pop the question and will Harper be honest in front of her family and friends?

Fans of The Family Stone will find Happiest Season to be a not-so-distant relative in terms of style and tone and I half expected Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in that holiday film to show up in the final scene because she easily could have been a fourth sister in this tightly-wound family.  That film has its share of detractors (it took me several watches to truly appreciate it) but I don’t think Happiest Season will have trouble earning fans out of the gate.  DuVall and Holland have crafted a believable, tender, and often very funny film that applies just the right amount of emotion throughout.  It’s just serious enough to get a message on how each person’s coming out story is different and why support for that timeline is important and it’s humorous enough to land elevated comedy that isn’t your usual farce fare.

Still a rather new director, DuVall has an ease in her method that lends a grounded feel to the proceedings, helped immeasurably by a homerun cast.  I think we’ve all come to the agreement that Stewart is just bound to keep surprising audiences and she does it here again with the most relaxed, lived-in role I’ve seen her offer up in quite some time.  The naturalism is on such a different level that at times it feels like DuVall just happened to capture Stewart out and about, in her element.  If Davis comes off a little less successful, perhaps it’s only because she’s wearing several different masks throughout and we’re so on Abby’s side that every time Harper denies their relationship in public it pulls us further away from her.  Together, the two actresses create a believable picture of a couple in love and, even better, one that has settled into a flow with an ease about their interaction that comes across nicely.  That’s what makes the events while they’re at the house sting, because we can see how different Harper is acting in front of people that don’t know her for who she really is.

It’s always a gamble when a co-writer is also a significant supporting character and while Holland has given herself a character with some of the most outright funny bits in the film (and she’s quite funny, make no mistake), she knows when to point the spotlight away as well.  Garber’s role is a bit thankless, as is Brie’s, mostly because at the outset they are outwardly the most staid characters so it’s good news that Steenburgen’s chipper Tipper is such a joy no matter what she’s doing onscreen.  Both Levy and Aubrey Plaza (The To Do List) have smaller roles than are advertised and while Levy is basically doing an extension of the character he played on Schitt’s Creek (and gets the movie’s most genuine moment of clarity), Plaza blessedly is tasked with a more serious vibe that works nicely for the usually comically obtuse actress.  The only awkward moment in the movie is a very ill-advised sequence when Stewart is interrogated by two mall security officers played by Lauren Lapkus (Jurassic World) and Timothy Simons (The Hustle) – it’s totally unfunny and pointless, feeling like a favor DuVall did on behalf of two friends that needed a paycheck.

Some will skip Happiest Season because they don’t agree with what is represented within and that’s unfortunate.  Unfortunate they can’t see that love is love and unfortunate they are missing a well-constructed holiday film with strong performances and confident direction.  I can easily see this one making its way onto a rotation of Christmas films in my house and, paired with The Family Stone, a nice alternative to the overly maudlin cookie-cutter stereotypical products that are delivered yearly.  It’s time to think bigger and more inclusive and Happiest Season happily opens its arms wide to welcome all.

Movie Review ~ Child’s Play (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother gives her son a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its more sinister nature.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, Gabriel Bateman, Mark Hamill, Ty Consiglio, Nicole Anthony, Carlease Burke

Director: Lars Klevberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: I’ve heard a lot of talk lately from podcasters and film pundits about how 2019 has been a disappointing year for theatrically released films and up until I saw the remake of Child’s Play I didn’t agree. Having now seen the low-budget and low-brain cell reimagining of the 1988 surprise shocker that launched an unexpectedly lucrative franchise, I can easily point to it as the type of film that is sinking the box office and eradicating audience expectations of quality. This is a bottom-feeding exercise in how to take a valued property and dumb it down to the lowest common denominator in filmmaking and leave nothing but crude remnants of an idea that have been hastily assembled.

In the original film, the soul of a murderer was transferred into a popular children’s doll that started wreaking small-scale havoc in the life of a boy and his mother. When young Andy told his mother that the strange things that have been happening were because “Chucky did it”, it was spooky and ominous. Spawning six sequels and a television series currently in development, the Child’s Play series morphed from outright horror into a mix of comedic meta commentary in-between some gruesome bits of gore…but they were always interesting thanks to the effects team that brought Chucky to life. Add in Brad Dourif’s instantly recognizable voice of the demonic doll and you have a one-name film villain that stands up next to the likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael.

On paper, I can see why Child’s Play might seem like a good property to get an upgrade. It’s been over thirty years since the first film was released and technology has changed in the three decades since Chucky was first introduced. Why not re-imagine Chucky as Buddi, an Alexa-ish techdoll that not only would be a best friend to your kid but could also control all of your branded devices designed by the same manufacturer? And how about removing the supernatural element, while you’re at it. No more evil soul inhabiting the doll, just have him programmed without restrictions by a vengeful worker. Now his loyalty would know no bounds…he’d kill to be your friend to the end.

Having just moved to a new apartment, Andy (Gabriel Batman, Annabelle) and his single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) are still adjusting to their new environment. Karen works at a knock-off department store that is getting ready for the launch of the Buddi 2, the next generation of best-selling toys that every kid in America wants. When a first generation Buddi is returned, Karen convinces her manager to let her keep it and gives it as a gift to her son as an early birthday present. At first, the doll is fun in a kitschy weird way for Andy and it’s unfiltered vocabulary attracts the attention of several kids in the apartment building. As Andy makes more friends and loses interest in his weird-looking toy, the doll starts to get jealous of anyone that comes between him and his best friend and takes deadly measures to make sure he’s always #1.

The problem is in the, ahem, execution of Tyler Burton Smith’s hokey pokey screenplay. It just isn’t sophisticated enough to go beyond a simple logline concept that bears the fruit of a fully realized motion picture. There’s nothing in the movie that is of any value or permanence, be it character, motivation, or logic. We’re supposed to believe Karen and Andy are new to the area yet Karen seems to have a long-term boyfriend and appears quite settled in her dead-end job. Worse, the movie introduces Andy as having a hearing impairment that is barely discussed or factored into the plot unless it is the punchline for an off-color joke. One moment a detective (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk, slumming it here in more ways than one) is troubled by grisly deaths that seem to be linked the apartment complex his mom lives in and the next he’s laughing it up over dinner with a boy (Andy) he just met and invited in. I’m positive the movie was edited down from a longer cut (thank God!) but no one bothered to make sure the continuity was there from one scene to the next. A major character dies and aside from a scene showing Karen swigging a glass of wine they are barely mourned.

Then there’s Chucky himself. I don’t know how it’s possible in 2019 to have such an ugly, fake looking doll but the producers of Child’s Play have managed to make the 1988 doll look positively futuristic in comparison. The mouth crudely moves up and down, making a big O and a squished O, all while Mark Hamill’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) goofy, nasally voice of Chucky is coming forth. It’s like an awful roadside animatronic you’d find in some backwater Kentucky town. You never see the doll move independently and the few times he does move his hands in quick action the animation is decidedly questionable. The only performance worse than the doll is Plaza, who is atrocious and atrociously miscast.

Director Lars Klevberg has had some small success with his Norwegian horror entries but his big shot at a Hollywood film is a major bust. The creativity is nil and even the cinematography is frustratingly pedestrian. There’s also a major question on taste level here. Eviscerating animals, ripping off faces, spraying little girls with blood, and viciously knifing old ladies isn’t exactly the type of horror film we should be clamoring for right now. It’s like the movie got a greenlight and then no one knew what to do…though I’m not convinced any studio head actually read the screenplay for this nonsense. Usually I roll my eyes at devotees of a film that whine about a modern remake but in the case of Child’s Play I can say the fans were right to be worried. This is an abysmal effort, unworthy to carry the Child’s Play moniker.

Movie Review ~ The To Do List

1

To-Do

The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling pressured to become more sexually experienced before she goes to college, Brandy Clark makes a list of things to accomplish before hitting campus in the fall.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Scott Porter, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg

Director: Maggie Carey

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Fret not, all of you out there that have lamented the death of the 80’s screwball sex farce for a picture is coming that should get you all misty for a cinematic time long since passed.  In the grand tradition of films like Joysticks, Hardbodies, The Last American Virgin and the more ribald sequels to American Pie, The To Do List is a decidedly slight coming of age story chock full of crude humor and kooky performances.  Like those earlier films, though, there are some troubles to be had as the one joke set-up reaches its climax long before our leading lady does.

In an interesting bit of genre gender bending, The To Do List exchanges a nerdy, awkward virginal male for a nerdy, awkward, virginal female that has spent her high school hot lunch days with her nose in books rather than the crotches of her classmates.  After graduating and before heading to Stanford, Brandy (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed, Monsters University) has a summer job to look forward to and watching Beaches with her friends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele).

This being a sex comedy, of course the film has to take place in the past (1993 never looked so perfectly embarrassing), Brandy’s job is at a struggling summer pool that operates in the shadow of a larger country club and her two friends are stock character non-virgins more than happy to educate our naïve star on what she has to look forward to in college.  Taking advice from her foul mouthed sister (Rachel Bilson), Brandy makes up a list of all the sins of the flesh that she wants to commit before September rolls around.  This “To Do List” is filled with a variety of popular terms out of the urban dictionary that aren’t fit to print in a review my mom will probably read.  As Brandy goes through her list –  ‘Wow…there are a lot of ‘jobs’ here”  – the audience laughs along with the knowing nostalgia of where we were the first time we found out what a ‘shocker’ actually was.

As Brandy makes her way through the list and through several boys at her work (including a perfectly pitched performance by Johnny Simmons as an ardent devotee of Brandy) her end goal is to lose her V-Card to studly lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a bleach blonde 90’s stud that “feels like Marky Mark looks”.  Some nice turns from Porter and Bill Hader as the washed out manager of the pool do land where they need to but poor Connie Britton and Clark Gregg (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Marvel’s The Avengers) are underused as Brandy’s parental units…an understanding mom and uptight dad.  Britton and Gregg are talented enough to make their shoehorned in roles appealing but are ultimately stymied by an underwritten script.

Reportedly inspired by writer/director Maggie Carey (Hader’s wife) and her experiences before college, the movie is really just a series of the same punch lines over and  over again.  That works for a while but with a film that nearly reaches 105 minutes the laughs don’t come as often as they should and the lessons that will be learned are clear before the first reel is over

Though the dialogue is incredibly (and almost laughably) crude and there’s an abundance of bodily emissions that end up in the mouth of Plaza the film is surprisingly chaste.  The one thing that the 80’s film has on this entry is stars not quite famous enough to feel self-conscious about showing a little skin.  Even in the throes of passion everyone is covered up in the film but I’m not saying if the film had nudity it would have been more successful…just more in line with the old-school feel the more is obviously already going for.

For fans of these retro sex comedies, you’ll probably get more than a few laughs out of The To Do List but it’s a film that will probably play better on the small screen rather than in a cavernous theater where the laughs die quickly.  Though well acted by a more than game cast in an obviously low-budget production, the movie can only manage to get up to second base before losing stamina.

Movie Review ~ Monsters University

6

monsters_university_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University — when they weren’t necessarily the best of friends.

Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Dave Foley, Sean P. Hayes, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Back in 2001 when Monsters Inc. was released Disney/Pixar was riding high off of the boffo success of Toy Story 2 and looking for another megahit.  While Monsters Inc. lined the pockets of all involved, for me it was one of the lesser Pixar films (though I’d still rank it above Cars, Cars 2, A Bugs Life, and Ratatouille) and its not one I’ve revisited much in the following twelve years.

In the last decade Disney/Pixar has matured as a production company, creating and developing moving movies with a purpose and a richly beating heart that it proudly wears on its sleeve.  With films like Up, Wall*E, and Toy Story 3 the animators took just as much pride in tugging at our heartstrings as they did in tickling our funny bone.  2012 saw the release of Brave and though it went on to win the Oscar (somewhat surprisingly) for Best Animated Feature some naysayers felt that film was not so much a step back in progress but a standing of ground with forward motion.

It’s a year later and the next Disney/Pixar film is upon us and it wasn’t a film I was particularly chomping at the bit to see.  In the realm of sequels to their films I would have preferred a sequel to The Incredibles or Finding Nemo (I’ll get my wish in 2015 when Finding Dory arrives) over another visit with the scare makers who work at Monsters Inc.  I just didn’t think it was a film that was needed now.

Well it turns out I was wrong because instead of an outright sequel the filmmakers have made a prequel, following Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) in their college years as they experience a monster of a college life at Monsters University.  The uptight, studious Mike clashes with the laid-back slacker Sulley and it’s only when their future in school is threatened that the two bond together to show what they’re really made of.  Working with a fraternity of misfit outcasts, can Mike and Sulley get back into the Scare Program at school by winning the annual Scare Games?

Monsters University finds the creative minds at Disney/Pixar firing on all cylinders as they bring to life the college experience with an explosion of colors, ideas, and comedic bits that nearly all land exactly where they’re supposed to.  Taking the awkward freshman process to new heights, director Dan Scanlan works with co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson to create a fully developed array of characters that interact with our two lovable leads in a series of honestly hysterical situation.  Everything on screen looks unique and thought-out…carefully planned for maximum effect.

For fans of the original film there’s a lot of nicely placed foreshadowing in place and certain major players from the first movie pop up here and there as secondary characters.  I wished I had watched the first film again before seeing this because I feel I’d have found several more of these moments that hint at what’s to come.

Returning voice talents Crystal (Parental Guidance) and Goodman (Argo, Flight, Arachnophobia) are top notch here, conveying a youthful exuberance without sacrificing the wise charm that made them such a good team in Monsters Inc.  Oscar winner Helen Mirren (Hitchcock, The Door) is pitch perfect as the imposing dean of Monsters University that takes a dislike to Mike and Sulley and others such as Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, The To-Do List), John Krasinski (Promised Land) and Steve Buscemi (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) have solid contributions.

What I’ve always appreciated about Disney/Pixar films are how economical they are…there’s rarely something on screen that isn’t engaging or interesting and when the film needs to make a point or highlight a lesson all of that extra business is pulled back to let the story shine through.  This is a film filled with larger than life characters and big laughs…a high water mark for all involved.  I found it better than the original because it makes more of an emotional connection to the audience with its themes of acceptance and finding value in others.

In the rash of summer movies that are about to be unleashed, Monsters University was nowhere near the top of my list of anticipated flicks.  Like a recurring theme in the film though, it’s important that I acknowledge that I was wrong and to say that I was surprised that the film surprised me as much as it did.  It’s a winning combination of creativity and talent that’s certain to entertain.  Enroll in Monsters University pronto and experience college life at its funniest finest.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

glimpse_inside_the_mind_of_charles_swan_iii_ver6

Synopsis: A graphic designer’s enviable life slides into despair when his girlfriend breaks up with him.

Release Date: February 8, 2013

Thoughts:  Blech, somebody call Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) and let him know that his frequent collaborator Roman Coppola is copying his obtuse, askew style for his second feature film.  Coppola’s last film, CQ, was an absolute nightmare to sit through so I can’t imagine what A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III has in store for us.  I’m not sure what appeal Charlie Sheen has left that could be capitalized on as his disastrous last few years haven’t done him any favors, though his new TV show is amazingly doing well in the ratings.  As for this film, you can put me on the Not Interested list and pronto.  Even if the reviews of this are stellar, I’m going to have tough time making any kind of commitment to see it.