Movie Review ~ The Starling

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman adjusting to life after a loss contends with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden — and a husband who’s struggling to find a way forward.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn

Director: Theodore Melfi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After settling into watching the new Netflix dramedy The Starling the other day, I had a pretty good idea why the initial buzz I had heard after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was fairly lukewarm.  This is one of those movies that film snobs hungry to feast on spoiled leftovers just hate with a red-hot passion because it doesn’t wind up tasting all that bad.  It’s SpaghettiOs® in a season where fine Italian pasta in a rich, velvety sauce is sought and before you say that I’m knocking that canned bit of gold, I consider it a fine meal any day of the week.  Without a carcass to gnaw on, it could be easy to simply dismiss the emotions brought forth as overly sentimental TV-movie of the week junk, but in doing so you’d miss the bittersweet lead performances playing grieving parents still processing a profound loss.

Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) have big plans for their newborn, plans they discuss in the film’s opening moments as they paint her nursery with an elaborate mural of a tree with inviting branches.  Flash forward to a time in the future after their daughter has died when Lilly is a zoned-out worker at a small-town grocery superstore and Jack is spending time at a mental health facility an hour away.  She makes the trip once a week for a visit that doesn’t seem to help either one of them deal with a pain they can’t share with each other.  Resentment from both parties is strong; she doesn’t understand why he has to work through this life altering event alone and away from her, he believes she’s moving on too quickly and can’t forgive himself for the loss of their child.

On the suggestion of Jack’s group leader, Lilly seeks out the town vet, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Beauty and the Beast).  A former respected therapist, he gave up working with people and devotes his time to animals because they talk back less.  Resisting the unorthodox set-up, it’s the appearance of a persistently territorial starling in her garden that brings her back to Dr. Larry after the bird dive bombs her and draws blood.  As Lilly begins to open up, she exposes a wound she’d done a good job of bandaging up and in doing so it makes her more emotionally available to her husband as well as her new avian neighbor.  As Jack’s depression worsens, Lilly faces her anguish head on.  The stages of grief are accelerated after being pent up for so long and eventually the relationship between the husband and wife is put to a huge test.

Reteaming with her St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi, McCarthy demonstrates again why it’s so important for her to make films apart from her husband.  The married duo have made a string of movies together that they have collaborated on and produced and while they occasionally find a winner (The Boss actually improves with age) they also have their share of stinkers (remember Tammy?  Better yet, don’t.).  It’s clearly demonstrated that when she’s working with other directors and screenwriters, see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Spy if you don’t believe me, she really has a chance to shine. 

The lack of chemistry between McCarthy and O’Dowd is mostly attributed to the separation of their characters for a large part of the movie.  I never totally bought them as a couple so deep in love that they were being completely tested by this tragedy, but it’s not for McCarthy’s lack of try to instill some warmth O’Dowd’s way.  I liked O’Dowd as well, but he seemed to get too lost in the sadness and/or anger of his character and the shifts were jarring instead of understandable.  The real head scratcher is why Melfi cast so many familiar faces and then gave them nothing to do.  Timothy Olyphant (Mother’s Day) has two or three scenes total and they’re so insignificant it could have been played by anyone.  Same for Daveed Diggs (Soul), Loretta Devine (wasted even more here than in Queen Bees earlier this year), and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who gets a high billing but may not even have any lines in the film if I’m remembering correctly.

A few years back I was in NYC and saw Kevin Kline’s soon-to-be Tony Award winning performance onstage in Present Laughter.  It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed watching him watching other actors.  He’s always listening and providing the kind of reaction that helps create a full character without having to say much.  It’s often wonderful to see him and he’s impressive here as a guy that resists getting too attached to his new patient, even though he has a hunch he can find a way to unlock what’s been holding her back.

Speaking of that, what’s difficult about the movie is what it holds back and that’s a lot of key details.  It’s never expressly stated how Lilly and Jack’s daughter died or how old she was.  I suppose it’s doesn’t really matter in the long run because the loss is the loss but it’s these finer points that help to round out the character arcs being put forth.  The starling also is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t come into play much until the end of the film after making several stealth appearances (with some iffy CGI) in earlier scenes.  I understand that writer Matt Harris is trying to fast-track the narrative, but it can’t come at the cost of the finer points.

It’s interesting to see Netflix rolling out The Starling for a week in theaters before it arrives on the streaming service for the majority of its customers.  I don’t find the film strong enough for an awards run (though if the Golden Globes were a thing McCarthy would probably be a likely nominee for Best Actress) but perhaps they’re going for Kline…they’ll certainly want to push for any number of songs that were contributed by Brandi Carlile , The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Nate Ruess.  I think it’s best to just keep The Starling handy for a day/night when you require a little comfort food film, some warmth from the overstuffed and stodgy succession of movies that are coming down the pike.

Movie Review ~ Thunder Force

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world where supervillains are commonplace, two estranged childhood best friends reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them powers to protect their city.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Melissa Leo, Marcella Lowery, Kevin Dunn, Melissa Ponzio, James H. Keating, Braxton Bjerken, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Sarah Baker

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When the promos for the new Netflix comedy Thunder Force directed by Ben Falcone and co-starring his wife Melissa McCarthy started running, I had to go back and check some dates.  Wasn’t it just in late November that Superintelligence, their last collaboration arrived on the airwaves of streaming competitor HBOMax, having skipped a theatrical release due to the pandemic surge?  Turns out audiences have been without a new Falcone/McCarthy comedy for a little less than five months, so the biggest question I had going into Thunder Force didn’t have much to do with how well the duo could pull off a comedic twist on the superhero flick but if there was an appetite for another round quite so soon.  After all, though Superintelligence felt lighter than their other features (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party), it was still plagued with their brand of specifically tuned laughs and tendency toward lengthy bits that leaned into their own amusement rather than one for a broader audience.

What’s good to report about Thunder Force is that like many superheroes, this film has a secret weapon and it happens to be the Oscar-winning actress who beat McCarthy for the top prize at the Academy Awards the year both were nominated for Supporting Actress.  Lifelong friend of the Falcone/McCarthy family Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) helps give the movie some balance when it sorely needs it, grounding it less in the normalcy of reality but more in plausibility filtered through the lens of wild flights of fancy.  That’s due to the way Spencer conveys such inherent trust; you easily buy what she’s selling and it plays as a perfect ying to McCarthy’s bull in a china shop yang. 

Beginning in 1983 and leaping through the kind of complex origin story Marvel or DC would have taken 12 movies and four television series to tell in full, Thunder Force brings us up to speed quickly on how cosmic rays struck Earth and genetically transformed a select few into superhuman villains.  Turns out these were people were always bad but the interstellar blast brought out their most evil side and gave them powers to keep on being wicked.  Known as Miscreants, they terrorized the city while the world watched and world leaders subsequently tried to find a way to combat their seemingly unstoppable super powers.

It was a Miscreant attack that leaves studious Emily (who grows up to be Spencer) an orphan and attending an inner-city school where she quickly becomes the target for bullies.  She finds a protector and best-friend in Lydia (played by McCarthy’s own daughter as a youngster before handing the reins to mom) until a silly fight separates them for the next two decades. (Side Note: I always find it amusing in these films that childhood best friends, while still actively in high school, just stopped talking to each other entirely and never made up ever. Doesn’t that say something about the friendship to begin with?)  Years later, Lydia is a blue-collar worker in Chicago while Emily has finally found the answer to defeating the Miscreants after years of study, which is why she has to miss her 25-year high school reunion.  Intending to finally make-up with her estranged friend at the reunion, Lydia decides to force the make-up to happen no matter what and finds Emily in her lab…only to press the wrong button and receive an injection meant for her ex bestie with a formula for super strength.  However…that’s only half of the solution and under the watchful eye of an all-business former CIA operative (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and Emily’s daughter (Taylor Mosby, Breakthrough), Emily also undergoes a transformation of her own (find out what it is for yourself!), eventually joining Lydia in training to become the city’s only hope in overcoming a horde of rogue criminals.

In the press notes for Thunder Force, I read that writer/director Falcone came up with the basic plot of the film on a walk to work and that the script was one of the fastest things he’d ever written.  At times, this shows, because while there are plenty of inspired moments throughout the film (a dinner at Emily’s grandmother’s house is quite fun as is a musical fantasy sequence that pops up out of nowhere) a number of ideas and characters are introduced for effect only to be tossed aside and never heard from again.  The film is filled with loose ends and unanswered questions and not all of them can be saved for a sequel.  That leaves a viewer feeling like they get something with flavor in the moment but nothing that truly lasts.  While Superintelligence seemed like it had more focus than previous Falcone/McCarthy outings, Thunder Force veers off course early on and it’s most often when McCarthy is left to her own devices, something I’m realizing isn’t always the wisest choice.

There’s no denying the best scenes in the film are when it’s just McCarthy and Spencer and not even when there’s comedy involved.  We already know what Spencer can deliver but it says something that we have to continue to be reminded that McCarthy has depth as well.  The two actresses are so good at what they do that as entertaining as they are together in Thunder Force, at the same time they are absolutely resting on their laurels and not exhibiting much stretch either.  If Falcone, McCarthy, or Spencer had really wanted to shake things up, they would have had the women switch roles and see what could happen when Spencer was permitted to really (no, really) let her hair down and if McCarthy would step aside and be the straight person for once.

Falcone also has a strange penchant for featuring himself or friends in supporting roles that steal precious time from the characters we want to see more of.  Countless henchmen pop up for one liners that are just this side of not funny, not to mention a number of everyday workers are gifted one or two lines which always left me wondering who they were related to on the crew.  The villains of the piece are a little on the “eh” side and feature Bobby Cannavalle (Lovelace) as a crooked mayoral candidate out to suppress more than just votes, Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as The Crab, sporting crab claws for arms after a wince-inducing radioactive accident, and Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the psychotic Laser who loves to dryly announce her plans for her prey before carrying them out. 

While it starts strong and begins to lose major steam as we cross the halfway mark, Thunder Force takes a weird downturn of energy the longer it goes on, ending oddly with a disappointing coda.  It’s still worth watching to see McCarthy and Spencer work up some sparks and sing a few tunes en route to kickin’ bad guy butt; if only we had more of these moments and less of the schtick that has proven time and time again to not dependably hit the target for Falcone and McCarthy.  They’ve got a series and a Christmas movie in the works for Netflix so let’s hope they keep on taking two steps forward and resist the urge to go one step back.

Movie Review ~ Superintelligence

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When an all-powerful Superintelligence chooses to study the most average person on Earth, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, James Corden, Bobby Cannavale, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Michael Beach, Karan Soni

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  On a late-night last week it was getting close to one in the morning and the internet went out at my home and you’d think the stone age had started anew.  Nothing worked.  I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t access the internet and instead of, y’know sleeping, I spent about thirty agitated minutes trying to figure out what the problem was because I just couldn’t go on not knowing if I’d once again be hooked up to the net.  It’s tiny incidents like this and full-scale freak-outs such as when YouTube or another major website goes down that shows you just how much the public is relying on computers and artificial intelligence as well as how much of our information we put in the hands of non-human entities.  I’m not easily sucked into doomsday conspiracies but that’s something to be worried about should anything happen and we lose all of that data in some catastrophic event.

Thankfully, I’m not reviewing some Gerard Butler-esque movie where just such an event occurs but Superintelligence, a genial comedy starring Melissa McCarthy arriving on HBO Max just in time for Thanksgiving.  The film, written by Steve Mallory (Life of the Party) and directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone (Office Christmas Party) who also has a small supporting role, is another theatrical casualty of the pandemic now making its debut on a streaming service.  I actually only heard about its existence a few weeks back, it wasn’t even on my radar until the premiere on HBO Max was announced but then again, marketing on films sort of stopped all together back in April.  While several titles bypassing a run in cinemas would certainly play better on the big screen, this is one I think might have actually benefitted from this type of modified rollout.

Former corporate bigwig Carol Peters (McCarthy, The Boss) left her high paying job that felt unfulfilling in favor of work with non-profits that she could do some good for.  At the start of the film, she seems a bit aimless and unsure of what to do next, a state of affairs that confuses her close friend Dennis (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) and perplexes a former co-worker (Jessica St. Clair, Like a Boss) who offers Carol a job at a brainless dating corporation.  Things take a strange turn when Carol wakes to the voice of James Corden (Into the Woods) speaking to her through a variety of different devices within her home and self-identifying as an artificial intelligence who prefers to be referred to as Superintelligence.  Controlling not just her electronics but stoplights, ATMs, cars, and ambient sound in restaurants, Superintelligence has chosen Carol as a case study because it has deemed her the most average person in the world.

From its short scope, Superintelligence has seen the destruction the world has caused and thinks there is no hope for humanity and wants Carol to prove it wrong.  Speaking in the voice of James Corden (and occasionally appearing as him in TV monitors) is meant as a way to come across as non-threatening and the AI even hilariously changes to a voice of an Oscar-winning actress for Dennis when Carol lets him in on her newfound follower.  It has given Carol three days to prove things aren’t as bad as they seem before it saves, enslaves, or destroys the world so for the next three days we ride along with Carol and Superintelligence as they give Carol a make-over and try to get her back-together with her ex-boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) that she rather mysteriously broke up with.  They’ll also continue to avoid federal agents authorized by the President (Jean Smart, A Simple Favor, looking quite Hilary Clinton-y) to quarantine this virus.

About as good-natured as any McCarthy film has been, this is a welcome PG addition to her list of titles on IMDb and one that is likely fine for family viewing.  There’s no real villain in the piece and the stakes are never high enough to ramp up any palpable tension or suspense.  While that may leave Mallory’s script a little on the shallow side, it does give Falcone and McCarthy room to breathe and find their sweet spot to be, well, sweeter than normal.  There’s far less of the tendency to make McCarthy’s character the physical manifestation of a crude punchline by tossing her down a flight of stairs or some other painful-looking fall we’re supposed to laugh at.  The one bit of physical comedy we do see is used to good effect, showing the husband and wife team are learning less is more.

One still wishes for a bit of surprise at some point in the movie.  There were moments throughout the final act where I kept waiting for some twist or readjustment of the narrative that would alter where we thought we were headed but, alas, Mallory’s script is just a straight line from start to stop without any creative detours.  I guess that’s what allows McCarthy to shine the brightest (and she’s wonderful here, looking great and at her most relaxed) while at the same time piecing together her relationship with Cannavale who I liked but often feels like he’s attempting to match McCarthy’s goofy charm and comes off just goofy.  He works better when he’s simply sincere…anything more than that and it feels staged.  You’d think a movie on this scale with this type of talent would have something in the way of a ending to match such a high concept so the curious lack of that full bodied feeling of storytelling is noticeable.

This is the fourth film McCarthy and Falcone have worked on together and it’s their most effortless to date.  Considering where they started, the rancid Tammy, and then looking at Superintelligence it feels like a totally different duo.  Though overlong in my book, this is light entertainment that is easily watched and enjoyed with little to be gained in the process.  Sometimes, that’s totally OK.  It would pair nicely after your Thanksgiving meal when you’re full and need to rest in the glow of family togetherness.

Movie Review ~ Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella

Director: Marielle Heller

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I know we’re always supposed to be able to gaze beyond the actor and see them for more than their past roles but there was a moment in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that I looked at its star Melissa McCarthy and marveled that this was the same actress that frantically pooped in a sink in her Oscar nominated turn in Bridesmaids.  Though McCarthy has spent the years after her nomination in mostly comedic roles (Tammy, The Boss, The Heat, Life of the Party), she takes a striking detour for this true story based on the autobiography of author Lee Israel.  Gone (mostly) are the overzealous line readings desperate for laughs and the physical humor that had her laughing before we could.  In its place is an honesty McCarthy hasn’t yet showed on screen but is wholly appreciated.

In 1991 Lee Israel was a struggling writer of biographies.  Though she was a New York Times bestselling author, she’s suffering from a serious case of writer’s block and her agent (a brilliantly sardonic Jane Curtin) finally levels with her that ‘no one wants a biography on Fanny Brice’.  If Israel can’t find another topic to write about (and fix her brusque personality at the same time) her agent can no longer advocate for her with publishing houses.  Faced with unpaid rent and a sick cat, Lee resorts to selling a personal letter she received from Katherine Hepburn to a local collector, Anna (Dolly Wells, Bridget Jones’ Baby). When she comes across several letters stashed away in her materials on Fanny Brice and then nabs some more cash for those, Israel comes up with a plan.  She can use her own literary talents to falsify personal letters from celebrities and sell them to the collector willing to pay cash.  Soon, she’s writing in the style of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Marlene Dietrich and seeing her bills disappear.  Looping in sometime friend and drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) to her scheme, her ambitions get loftier even while her grand plan starts to crumble around her.

Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) really gets the aesthetic of the material and creates a rather sad view of New York in the early ‘90s.  There’s little color to the film and it’s mostly played out in bars, bookshops, and apartments that have the kind of authenticity often difficult to convey on film.  She’s aided by the marvelous script from Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) who hone in on the personal problems the otherwise verbose Israel kept packed away.  There’s hardly one false or extraneous line of dialogue here, the hallmark of a well-crafted screenplay.  Adding to the atmosphere is Nate Heller’s jazz infused score that manages to mirror the inner thoughts of our characters and sets them to orchestral music.

In her mousy brown bowl cut and dull clothes that feel like constraining armor, McCarthy totally disappears into Israel and turns in her most accomplished work to date.  Israel was an out lesbian unlucky in love (largely by her own doing) and the mature unexpected flirtation between Israel and Anna will have you rooting for her not to mess it up.  By all accounts Israel kept most people at an arm’s length and a conversation with her former lover (the fantastic Anna Deavere Smith) gives great insight into what it was like to be her partner.  All of these nuanced moments are handled expertly by McCarthy.

As Jack Hock, Grant also has several brilliant moments to shine. Whether its smooth talking his way into Israel’s inner circle of one or sweet-talking collectors into buying Israel’s fake letters once they refuse to buy from her directly, he’s utterly captivating.  With his purring voice and steely eyes, Grant’s Hock is always playing either for fun or for his own benefit.  When Hock makes an honest mistake and gets upbraided by Israel for it, you can see the hurt and embarrassment he feels at failing a person he considered a friend.

In fact, Can You Ever Forvgive Me? doesn’t have one bad performance in the bunch.  Even the smallest roles are cast to perfection and many familiar character actors pop up in small parts.  I especially liked Curtin’s beleaguered agent who is maybe too nice to fully give Israel the boot but doesn’t hold back when giving her honest advice.  Then there’s Wells as the sensitive Anna who takes a liking to Israel, willing to look beyond the rough exterior and hoping to get a glance at what’s underneath.

I went into the movie not totally sure what ended up to the real Israel and I’d advise you to do the same.  Not knowing creates some genuine tension and I found myself unbelievably rooting for her to get away with it all because McCarthy has moved us to be squarely on her side.  This is a crowded year for acting recognition and while Grant is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn it’s not a sure thing that McCarthy will be on the final list for Best Actress.  That would be a shame because, like Bridesmaids, this is a chance to reward an actress for bringing an unexpected performance to the screen.

Movie Review ~ The Happytime Murders


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When the puppet cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begin to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Leslie David Baker, Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Klash

Director: Brian Henson

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Continuing the entertainment industry’s penchant for turning the sweet and cuddly into rude and raunchy, The Happytime Murders comes from none other than the son of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. Brian Henson grew up in Muppet-land and even directed Muppet Treasure Island and the enduring chestnut that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Like a former child star that decides to pose in Playboy, Henson wants to show us all how grown up he is by pandering to the lowest common denominator, not just in jokes but in filmmaking. The results is a gross, stupid movie that elicits a few shocked laughs but more often than not earns a somber silence.

At the screening I attended for The Happytime Murders there was a problem with the projection and they had to stop the film about five minutes in. This turned out to be a blessing. Not only did it get rid of the foreign language subtitles that had been mistakenly turned on but it also gave audiences a chance to see what a second viewing of the movie might be like.  And it wasn’t pretty.  The first time a puppet swore, there was a huge reaction from the crowd. When a female puppet said something repulsively filthy, you could hear shrieks of stunned cackles. Then the movie stopped to fix the issue and they started it from the beginning. The next time these same jokes came around not ten minutes later, there were light titters but the odd feeling we knew it wasn’t truly funny the first time.

Aping on the classic film noir, the film follows disgraced cop turned private investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta, Muppets Most Wanted) as he teams up with his former partner (Melissa McCarthy, The Boss) to solve a series of murders. All the victims were members of a popular kids show, the first of its kind to show puppets and humans on equal ground, even though in reality puppets are seen as second-class citizens humans can do whatever they want with. At the same time, Phillips gets tangled up with a femme fatale client (voiced by Dorien Davies) being blackmailed who has more than her fair share of skeletons in the closet.

The set-up is not so far afield from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett but I doubt either writer could have ever thought they’d be mentioned in a review about trampy puppets that secrete, excrete, and swear like sailors. Screenwriter Todd Berger’s weary script resurrects ‘90s-era groaners in between languid exposition and tired twists. Any audience member that’s watched a police procedural in the last three decades will be able to spot the killer and figure out their motive long before our hero does.

There’s probably no point in poking holes in the logic here but I’m going to give it a go. The way that Berger and Henson see it, puppets are little more than socks filled with fluff so it’s easy to watch them get torn up, blown up, or wrung out without cringing too much. Yet at the same time we’re led to believe that a human can receive an organ transplant from a puppet that supposedly isn’t made of any kind of tissue and just how are these puppets popping out Easter eggs when frightened or ejaculating silly string when excited? If they aren’t more than stuffing, where is the glitter pee coming from? I won’t even get into the scene set in a sex shop that features an octopus doing terrible things with their eight arms to a ecstatic cow.

Poor McCarthy, she’s regressing right back into the gutter humor that did her no favors in films like This is 40 and Tammy. While she’s made a bid in the last few years for respect with Spy and Life of the Party, here she’s slumming it once again and apparently without much arm-twisting. This is a tired performance from an actress that usually shows boundless energy. The same sorrow can be felt for Maya Rudolph (Inherent Vice) who gives great moll but is stuck delivering her lines to a puppet – it’s a lot of energy being spent for absolutely no result. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 3) another actress like McCarthy that has experience with ribald comedy, deserves some sort of award for sportsmanship for the scene where she peels a carrot in order to sexually excite a trio of rabbits.  Proving he’s definitely no movie star once and for all, Joel McHale (Blended) pops up as a grimacing FBI agent and manages to miss every potential laugh.

The most shocking thing about the movie is that, based on the audience I saw the film with, parents actually are considering it OK to bring their kids. This is nowhere near an acceptable film for anyone under 17 and this is coming from someone who saw a heap of inappropriate films in the theater before I was old enough to drive. Parents…please, don’t bring your kids to this. YOU don’t even have to go…and, in fact, you shouldn’t.

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.

The Silver Bullet ~ Life of the Party

Synopsis: When her husband suddenly dumps her, longtime dedicated housewife Deanna turns regret into re-set by going back to college – landing in the same class and school as her daughter.

Release Date: May 11, 2018

Thoughts: The smartest thing the makers of Life of the Party did was refrain from including the phrase “From the folks that brought you Tammy!” in their marketing materials.  Yes, Melissa McCarthy (Spy) has reteamed with her husband Ben Falcone (Office Christmas Party) on another comedy but this one looks considerably less revolting…so there’s a glimmer of funny hope to be had.  Reteaming for the third time (2016’s The Boss was another step in the right direction) Falcone directs a script he and McCarthy co-wrote and while it may seem a bit like the sorta-classic Rodney Dangerfield 1986 comedy Back to School, McCarthy has put her own shine on things.  No McCarthy vehicle is complete without a scene of her getting knocked down and the trailer gets that one out of the way immediately so…spoiler alert!  McCarthy’s been absent since the female-led Ghostbusters fizzled in 2016 but if Life of the Party is as lively as it looks it could get her back in Hollywood’s good graces.

Movie Review ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following a ghost invasion of Manhattan, paranormal enthusiasts Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann, and subway worker Patty Tolan band together to stop an otherworldly threat.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, , Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: I feel like every review of this female-led reboot of Ghostbusters should start out with a few honest admissions just to make sure we’re all on a level playing field.  To admit a bias or pre-conceived notion is not only helpful in understanding where someone is coming from but it allows readers to trust that their friendly neighborhood movie critic is a straight-shooter.  So…here we go.

  1. I’m not a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters from 1985 and even less so of its goofy 1989 sequel. Watching the film again last year for its 30th anniversary, I was struck by how slow the it was.  Enlivened by, ahem, spirited performances from Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl) and Rick Moranis (Parenthood), it just didn’t have the same effect on me it did when I first saw it as a five-year old.
  2. I am a huge fan of Kristen Wiig (The Martian) and have even almost forgiven her for that dreadful 2013 entry Girl Most Likely, which happened to land on the top of my Worst of the Year List.
  3. Though she almost lost me for life with Tammy, I’m converting back to being pretty fond of Melissa McCarthy thanks to her stellar turn in Spy and holding back just enough in The Boss.
  4. In my book, Leslie Jones (Trainwreck) can do no wrong and I’m waiting for her to headline of movie of her own.
  5. Kate McKinnon (Sisters) is the unquestionable VIP of the current cast of Saturday Night Live and I perk up every time she appears on that show.
  6. I had zero qualms about this film, its cast, its trailers, or its marketing.  I was looking forward to it.
  7. I went in rooting for it, choosing to brush aside the early bad buzz as the slime fueled so-called “Ghost Bros” jumped to tear it down at every turn.

And the most honest admission of all…

  1. This is not a great film or even, sad to say, a very good film. Is it watchable?  Yeah, for the most part.  Is it funny? Sporadically but it flops more than it flies. It’s not the worst reboot we’ve seen but it may be the most disappointing because the potential was there for something great.  How the extremely talented roster of Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon wound up teaming on something so flat, awkward, and stupid is the biggest mystery of the summer.

While a pre-credit opening feels like a nice nod to the original film, it’s saddled with a heap of clunker jokes that don’t inspire any laughter, much less any kind of confidence in what’s to come. Wiig is back to playing her favorite character…Awkward Lady in Heels but this time she’s added a stylishly bad haircut with bangs to cap off the look.  Her tenure-seeking professor is reluctantly brought back into the paranormal antics of her former colleague played by McCarthy.  McCarthy is eerily restrained here, like she’s been given a tranquilizer that renders her potty mouth squeaky clean and her boisterous comedic timing nonexistent.  While she does manage to fit in a few funny bits of physical comedy, this is McCarthy is full pod-person mode.  When she stares down a ghost and says “Aw, shoot!” my heart broke a little for the actress I’m positive had a profanity-rific alternate take for the same scene.

McCarthy’s character has teamed up with an eccentric nuclear engineer (McKinnon) to continue her study of the supernatural and drags Wiig back into the mix when they discover a crop of ghost sightings that may be brought on by a sinister force.  McKinnon is full-on Looney Tunes and what she’s doing may be just odd enough to distract you from the larger problems of the script from The Heat collaborators Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, it winds up being a performance extracted from another movie all together.  It’s a shame because for her first stab at mainstream popularity Feig has allowed McKinnon too much room to play and the movie suffers greatly from it.

By the time Jones shows up as a subway worker with a knack for NYC history, it just seemed too little too late. Even though Jones gets the best moments of the movie (most of which you’ve already seen in the trailer) she, like McCarthy, feels held back by an invisible force field.  Perhaps these magnetic ladies just repelled when they were brought together because while the film had some impressively rendered special effects, there’s little magic or chemistry to be had.

Evidently scared of alienating its male ticket-buyers, Sony decided to plop Chris Hemsworth (Vacation) on the poster with the four leads and that’s a bit of a puzzlement.  While Hemsworth has a substantial role as the dumber than mud bit of receptionist eye candy, he’s barely required to do more than struggle through a series of painfully unfunny scenes and lead a host of extras to a badly cut dance sequence that plays over the end credits.  Hemsworth, bless his Australian heart, has absolutely no comic timing and it left me wondering if the role wasn’t written with Channing Tatum in mind.

It’s no spoiler to say that most of the cast from the ’85 film pop up at some point playing different roles, even the late Harold Ramis makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance.  While these appearances trigger some nostalgia, the actors are plopped into roles that don’t seem respectfully tailored for them in the least.  It’s like they told director Feig when they could show up and just took whatever part was available that day.  Surprisingly, Annie Potts gets one of the biggest audience reactions while Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson) makes a frightfully terrible presence in his two scenes.

Ghostbusters has taken a lot of early heat for what is perceived as male bashing.  True, every male in the film (living or dead) is portrayed as a combination of dumb and misogynistic, morally reprehensible slugs that just get in the way of these female Ghostbusters.  Hemsworth is seen as such a piece of meat it’s amazing he wasn’t covered in steak sauce.  So yeah, the men aren’t shown in the best of light but who cares?  Women are treated far worse in film and I guess some credit should go to Feig for making a career out of putting actresses in the power positions of his movies.

I can only imagine what this could have been had it not been so stripped of the kind of slam-dunk laughs that all parties involved could probably find in their sleep.  It was never going to be a profanity laced R-rated wonderment, not when there were kids to pander to and adults to not offend.  So instead of Feig and company truly rebooting the franchise and doing something new, this female Ghostbusters has just as many fart jokes, bad humor, and, for those that stay until the very end, a “God I hope they greenlight a sequel” desperation as any other male-driven studio film that gets released.

Movie Review ~ The Boss

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A titan of industry is sent to prison after she’s caught for insider trading. When she emerges ready to rebrand herself as America’s latest sweetheart, not everyone she screwed over is so quick to forgive and forget.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Kathy Bates, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Cecily Strong, Timothy Simons

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I think I’ve finally figured out what makes a Melissa McCarthy movie good…humanity. After grimacing through The Heat and fighting the urge to flee from Tammy, I started coming around to McCarthy again in 2015’s Spy. Now comes The Boss and though early previews were, I admit, fairly entertaining with some laughs on a level that few trailers can drum up, I was still mighty suspicious. McCarthy was re-teaming with her husband, Ben Falcone, who would direct her in a film from a script the two of them wrote with Steve Mallory. Could it be another Tammy waiting to happen?

Thankfully, it’s not and it’s largely because, like Spy, McCarthy’s isn’t playing a dim-wit monster that growls and gnaws her way through the film. No, she’s playing an actual human being that’s drawn with some fairly nuanced broad strokes. Though it’s far from being the kind of solid material that earned her an Oscar nomination in Bridesmaids, The Boss finds McCarthy continuing her ascent into figuring out what kind of roles she not only succeeds with, but that audiences respond favorably to. As in Tammy, she’s playing a fairly irksome character, but it’s one grounded in a kind of savvy reality that Tammy never could capture.

Abandoned at birth and by several adoptive families along the way, Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) has risen to the top as a motivational guru that prides herself on empowering women to take what they want without apologizing for it. Her past disappointments in people have kept her cold though, and she’s brazenly rough with anyone that tries to get close. Her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell, Frozen) is tired of her antics but as a single mom she needs the job, no matter how frustrating her employer is.

When an old-flame now business rival of Michelle’s (Peter Dinklage, Pixels) turns her over to the government for insider trading, Michelle loses everything as she spends six months in jail for her crimes. After she gets out, she moves-in with Claire and her young daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) and before long has started her own empire to rival a Girl Scout-like troupe.

Performance wise, as I said before McCarthy resists the urge to snarl her way through the movie in favor of showing that Darnell’s nastiness comes from a place of personal protection…if she makes sure people know she doesn’t give two hoots, then they can’t hurt her.  As is typical, McCarthy isn’t afraid to throw herself into the physical comedy bits, which means that Darnell trips and crashes down stairs, gets tossed into a wall by a sleeper sofa, and brawls with a gaggle of young girls and their mothers.

Bell does exasperated well and plays nicely as second banana and straight woman to McCarthy.  The actresses have a nice rapport and during the gag reel at the end of the movie they seem like they genuinely like each other as well.  There’s nice supporting turns from Anderson as one of the rare child actors that can actually act without being obnoxiously precocious and Tyler Labine (Monsters University) makes for a nice romantic interest for Bell, though the film really doesn’t need the extra distraction.  Kathy Bates (Titanic) shared the best scene with McCarthy in Tammy and parlays that into a brief but memorable cameo as a former mentor of Darnell’s. I feel like there was more of Bates performance left on the cutting room floor, but I guess we’ll have to wait for some deleted scenes to see if it was wise to excise them.

I’m going to go on record now and say that I do not now and have not ever liked Dinklage.  His mock seriousness only goes so far and while I gave him some slack in Pixels, he’s easily the worst thing about The Boss.  Playing a mix of Derek Zoolander and Dr. Evil, Dinklage is in a totally different movie and doesn’t seem to care. Seeing the impish Dinklage fawning over the large and in charge McCarthy is more of a sight gag than anything else and it’s one that wears off almost immediately.

Though the film doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, it could be 15 minutes shorter and exist as a much tighter comedy…but too often McCarthy, Falcone, and Mallory don’t know when to quit or cut as gags go on too long and some conflated dramatic tension is introduced for no real reason other than because the Screenwriting 101 book must have said so. When the film hits its target, it’s a solid bullseye for laughs but when it misses it’s mark it starts to be the worst thing a comedy can be…boring.

The Boss isn’t as fun as Spy but it does have its moments where the time spent feels worth it. If anything, it shows that McCarthy is capable of writing herself a character that’s from planet earth.  It’s silly entertainment…but it’s entertainment all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.

Release Date: July 15, 2016

Thoughts: When 1989’s Ghostbusters II failed to materialize big bucks like its 1984 predecessor, plans for future Ghostbusters installments were put on hold.  An animated series or two and almost two decades later, Ghostbusters is revved up and ready to be rebooted.  Though I wasn’t too enamored with The Heat, the last time director Paul Feig, screenwriter Katie Dippold, and star Melissa McCarthy (Spy) teamed up, our first look at the all-female team of Ghostbusters looks fairly fun and quite promising.  Enlisting the stellar talents of Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones was a smart move so the comedy doesn’t rely solely on McCarthy’s pratfalls.  If all goes as planned, rumor has it that a second set of Ghostbusters will be involved in another series of films that run parallel and overlap with the gals…but let’s take one thing at a time, shall we?