Movie Review ~ DC League of Super-Pets

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the Justice League is captured, Superman’s Labrador forms a team of shelter pets who were given superpowers to save his owner and Superman’s friends.
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon, John Krasinski, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz, Keanu Reeves
Director: Jared Stern
Rated: PG
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  When Warner Bros. Pictures released the first trailer for the DC League of Super-Pets in the later months of 2021, I was left scratching my head at who precisely the film was targeted. Younger kids would likely spark to the animation and comic shenanigans of the piece, but what value would they have in the overall tie-in to the more extensive DC comics line? For the older crowd who may remember the original comic book Legion of Super-Pets, first introduced in 1962, would they respond to their beloved superheroes being reduced to sidekicks for a new crew of the four-legged (or otherwise) variety? Unless they had a tyke in tow, could they justify the trip to theaters in that pivotal 45-day theatrical window before its streaming premiere on HBOMax?

I had seen so many previews for this new endeavor from the Warner Animation Group before other summer films that it was almost a relief as the lights went down when I was in my seat for the screening. I’d throw it a bone, though, and give it a fair shot. Turns out I didn’t need to warm up my pitching arm because for as much blowback as the live-action branch of the DC Extended Universe has received from critics and audiences alike, this lively computer-animated entry has real zip. Hailing from the same team that developed The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie, both in 2017, this is a project with an appeal to multiple generations.

Nothing if not accessible, the film opens with a scene that’s hugely familiar by now. The planet Krypton is facing destruction; parents Jor-El and Lara make the difficult decision to send their infant son Kal-El on a spaceship to Earth, where he will grow up to become Superman. Turns out, in all the tale-tellings over time, we never knew that a Labrador Retriever that hopped into the ship at the last minute, licking away Kal El’s tears as they sped away from the imploding planet. Years later, Krypto (Dwayne Johnson, Jungle Cruise) and Superman (John Krasinski, A Quiet Place) have formed quite the famous partnership in Metropolis, but a growing relationship with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) is starting to infringe upon the downtime Krypto craves.

Hoping to help Krypto branch out with friends of his own, Superman (as Clark Kent) investigates adopting a rescue animal from a local shelter. There, we meet a misfit crew of hopeful adoptees and one scheming hairless guinea pig who escaped from a lab owned by Lex Luthor. Instead of resenting her time at Luthor’s facility, Lulu (Kate McKinnon, Bombshell) is plotting to get back in front of the supervillain by causing trouble of her own. Spotting Superman and his canine companion, she devises making trouble for them is the perfect way into Lex’s good graces. In short order, Lulu has imprisoned the entirety of the Justice League (including Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and a female Green Lantern) and taken Krypto’s power away with a bit of orange Kryptonite…but help is on the way.

While taking super-gifts away from the powerful, Lulu inadvertently distributes them to the other shelter pets. Ace (Kevin Hart, The Upside) is a loner mutt and counter-point to Krypto with a backstory illustrating why it’s hard to put trust in lasting relationships. A myopic turtle named Merton (Natasha Lyonne, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) may not be as slow anymore but isn’t above pausing to enjoy a good snack, while plump porcine PB (Vanessa Bayer, Office Christmas Party) gets multiple size upgrades based on her mood. An electrified squirrel (Diego Luna, If Beale Street Could Talk), a weaponized kitten, and an amusing variety pack of genetically changed schoolroom guinea pigs fill out the roster of pets battling. At the same time, the human counterparts sit imprisoned in a giant hamster cage.

While the film gets points for the heart and humanity that shines through, it’s first and foremost an action-adventure, clearly where its main interest lies. Parents should be aware that the film is a little scary and overly heavy on the artillery used in battle. Even though it is all comically pitched, it’s not far removed from the live-action version of the DC Comic films. I also think it has a lot of characters to juggle, several that feel extraneous (Lex has a purple-haired second in command we barely meet that becomes important later) when it could have tightened its focus without losing anything of lasting value.

Branching out its franchise favorites to this medium was a smart move, and DC League of Super-Pets makes a strong case for future installments with the gang. I appreciated much of the IP was included in this, from scores of previous films to having the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves (Toy Story 4) as a moody Batman, poking fun at how super-serious the character has been played previously. There’s a lot of fun to go around, and I think audiences who have tired of traditional superhero summer films might find DC League of Super-Pets to be a fresh and often high-flying approach.

Movie Review ~ The United States vs. Billie Holiday

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics launches an undercover sting operation against jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Stars: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Melvin Gregg, Natasha Lyonne, Tyler James Williams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Rob Morgan, Miss Lawrence, Evan Ross, Tone Bell

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: When jazz singer Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 on July 17, 1959 she left behind a personal and professional history that seems like it was written for the movies.  A tumultuous upbringing that saw her bounced around between relatives and winding up in the workhouse at 14 with her mother led to her origins as Harlem nightclub singer.  From there, her career took off thanks to her beauty, unique voice, and the way she could interpret a song and hold the attention of audiences that would pack the house.  By the time she began singing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society in 1939, she was a bona fide star, which made her struggles with alcohol, drugs, and affairs of the heart fodder for gossip columnists and government officials alike.

The life of Holiday has already immortalized on screen in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues for which Diana Ross nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination and onstage with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill that began life in 1986 before debuting on Broadway in 2014, winning star Audra McDonald the final Tony Award she needed to be the first person ever to win the top theatrical award in all four acting categories (Play and Musical).  Countless books have been written, documentaries have been made, recordings have been remastered (Amazingly, she won all four of her Grammy’s posthumously), and in 2017 the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame inducted Holiday into its ranks.

So what’s left to tell of the brief but bold life of Lady Day?  Why are we here in 2021 reviewing The United States vs. Billie Holiday which Hulu is releasing on February 26?  According to the production notes, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks has adapted Johann Hari’s 2015 novel Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs but from the homework I’ve done it appears that Holiday is but a small part of that larger novel.  So it sees that what Parks and director Lee Daniels (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) have done is taken that passage and used that as the jumping off point to cover a certain swath in Holiday’s later life when she was in the thick of her addictions, putting a bullseye on her back for the FBI to silence her.

Had the virtuoso Parks been left to her own devices, I’m fairly certain a case could be made that The United States vs. Billie Holiday would have been a worthwhile endeavor for those involved and, eventually, the viewer.  Sadly, something has been severely lost in translation.  Under the tragically overworked direction from Daniels, not only is the movie uniquely bad as film in general (casting, editing, cinematography, you name it), from the standpoint of the basic language of filmmaking there’s a disquieting level of, let’s just say it, incompetence on display.  Anyone aiming to tell the story of the doomed singer is obviously coming from a place of respect, so why did this movie wind up so laborious, gratuitous, skeevy, humorless, and boring?

I can tell you one place you most definitely cannot place the blame and that’s with the film’s mesmerizing star, musician Andra Day.  While Ross drew strong reviews for her interpretation of Holiday, even her most ardent fans knew it was just that…an interpretation.  Day goes a step further and convincingly channels the late singer in body, mind, spirit, and voice and the results are stunning.  A successful transition from the concert stage to the big screen that’s every bit as on par with the work Lady Gaga did in 2018’s A Star is Born, Day is so exemplary in detailing Holiday’s high and low points that even in the best circumstances everyone else sharing the screen with her would have had to work that much harder to be noticed.  The performance is huge in size but never steps over into the deadly temptation of arch showiness — Day is truthful in each second, each breath as Holiday.  If only she had the same support around her.

That’s where we start to run into rough waters in the aimless sea Daniels has set Day adrift in.  Despite the appearance of strong character actors that have made excellent contributions to films in the past, like Da’Vine Joy Randolph for instance, it doesn’t feel as if anyone knows exactly what the tone of the film is supposed to be.  Is it the tell-all biopic a fey gossip monger played by Leslie Jordan in the first of several hideous wigs and hastily applied bald caps the cast hopes you’ll gracefully forgive?  Or is it the insider’s view of the FBI’s continued targeting of Holiday by a bigoted federal agent played by Unbroken‘s Garrett Hedlund, tall and sporting a Brylcreem ‘do, looking hysterically nothing like his short, squat and very bald real life counterpart who we see in the end credits.  Perhaps it might travel into a doomed love story between Holiday and the series of men that never have her best interest in mind and showed their love for her via violence and rough bedroom relations?

Whatever the thought-process was, what we never get is substantial insight into Holiday that’s any deeper than your standard fact sheet.  In its place, Daniels opts to show Holiday at her worst and Day at her most exposed, hardly missing the opportunity to feature the star without her clothes on or in a compromised state.  When the screenplay does diverge from the wallow, it offers a brief glimpse into her brothel-reared childhood, but the acting is so unconvincing and forced that it hardly seems worth the time spent.  Leading up to this scene is one of the movie’s three most impactful moments and it comes from an unscheduled pit stop Holiday makes while on tour and the horrifying scene she finds in a field.  This leads her into a nightmare sequence and, eventually, this poorly played childhood memory but up until then there’s a flash of creative energy where it comes across as if she’s entered a haunted house in her own mind.

The centerpiece of the film is Day’s performance of “Strange Fruit” and it will make the hairs on the back of your neck on end.  Up until that point Daniels, cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Bodyguard), and editor Jay Rabinowitz (Irresistible) have covered Day’s full length performances with a lot of useless camera tricks and other distractions that are kind of appalling but here they just let their star sing, often directly to us out in the darkness of the crowd and the results are chilling.  Holiday’s final days were anything but peaceful and Day plays these increasingly grotesque scenes with a masterful touch, refusing to be bullied by the law that continued to hound her until the end nor let the men in her life (including an oddly detached Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight and The Predator) dominate her like they did when she had the strength to fight them off but didn’t.

The life of Billie Holiday deserves a better telling than this and a performance like the one Day is giving is owed a better movie to house it.  A film of this size needs more care from a director that will take it seriously but not weigh it down with unnecessary excesses of their own design.  Several graphic sex scenes feel overly gratuitous and don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know; all they serve is to take us out of the moment and feel as if Day and her costars were exploited somehow by Daniels.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that the film is, well, ugly to look at.  The production design might look good in person, but you’d hardly know it since the movie is so poorly lit and, at times, out of focus.  Several stock reels used as inserts look like they were rescued from underwater in a basement storage room and the bizarre and incongruous ending credits truly must be seen to be believed.  It’s just a poorly constructed film from a filmmaker that should know much, much better.

It pains me to no end to say it, but I still think you need to see The United States vs. Billie Holiday because Day’s performance alone is so good it outweighs the simple truth everything else about the movie is so extremely bad.  Try not to think about what could have been when you see how skillfully Day moves through each scene and handles difficult material, both in the script and what is just being asked of her physically.  If you can’t commit to the bloated 130-minute run time, at least track down a clip of Day singing “Strange Fruit” because that’s really the pinnacle of the movie.

Movie Review ~ Irresistible


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Democratic political consultant helps a retired Marine colonel run for mayor in a small Wisconsin town.

Stars: Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Rose Byrne, Topher Grace, Mackenzie Davis, Natasha Lyonne, Eve Gordon, Brent Sexton, Will Sasso, Debra Messing, Alan Aisenberg

Director: Jon Stewart

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: About a month ago, I shut down all my social media for about two weeks because I just couldn’t  take it anymore…things had gotten so ugly in all aspects.  Everyone hated everything and there was nothing nice that could be said about anything happening in the world.  What was the point in reading page after page and tweet after tweet of negativity?  Eventually, I had to give in and get back into the swing of things if I wanted to promote my reviews and, let’s face it, see what the celebrities were up to on Instagram.

This brief respite was nice but I know it’s only going to get worse as we head toward the election in November.  Political comedy has changed from what it was during the time Saturday Night Live was spoofing Gerald Ford, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. and the humor has morphed from eliciting belly laughs to grimaces because it is a little too on the money.  The reality of our current administration is so spoofable that it should be funny…until you realize that it’s no laughing matter with lives and livelihood on the line.  It’s hard to joke about a heightened politicized climate that is increasingly volatile and hostile.

That’s what makes a movie like Irresistible such a strange beast to approach.  On the one hand, writer/director Jon Stewart (Rosewater) has delivered a pleasantly serviceable comedy aiming to address topical issues concerning the way government can be manipulated and in that way the film is a success.  However, if you look at it through the lens of where the country sits at the present within its release platform, the message being received feels out of touch and off key.  In his sophomore outing as a director, Stewart’s film almost instantly casts a shadow on itself, categorizing it squarely as a decent effort with sadly little impact.

Political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) still feels the sting of the 2016 election where he saw his Democratic candidate win the popular vote but ultimately not emerge victorious in the general election.   After one of his staffers shows him a video gone viral of a retired colonel (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) defending the rights of immigrant workers in a small town in Wisconsin, he decides to travel to the Midwestern town and convince the conservative veteran to run for Mayor…as a Democrat.  Initially hesitant, Jack agrees to enter the race and with Gary’s help begins a campaign to oust the current Republican mayor (Brent Sexton) who is taken off-guard but this late-breaking opponent.

Gary’s plan is bigger than a Wisconsin mayoral race, though, and that’s when political rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, Like a Boss) enters the picture.  Arriving in town to serve as the strategist for the mayor, she comes with Republican money to pour into the campaign in order to hold their ground.  She knows as well as Gary that if he can flip this heartland community from conservative to Democrat, perhaps he can use that to his advantage in the 2020 cycle.  Soon, Faith and Gary are circling each other like the sharks they are and readying their dirty tricks as the townspeople and Jack’s daughter (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049) watch from the increasingly forgotten sidelines.

As a straight up comedy, Irresistible has its moments of clarity and hilarity and Stewart mines the gold in the comedic hills of Gary’s big city ways clashing with the homegrown support of the townspeople.  It’s when the movie walks the line of balancing itself out as a political satire that things begin to get a bit hazy.  There’s a good deal of fun to be had at the expense of both Democrats and Republicans and Stewart has his talking points clearly laid out to drill home again and again.  We understand he thinks the current system is designed to fail the small and benefit the large but it’s packaged in such a transparent framework that the message doesn’t come off feeling as clever as he thinks it is.  That’s especially true for a rather cuckoo twist he unwraps at one point and it’s then you see the entire movie was designed around this gotcha moment.

If Stewart can’t quite nail the narrative of the piece, at least he’s cast the film with commendable effort.  Carell is nicely pitched in the lead and I’d be interested in hearing a commentary track for the film where the two men discuss the process of Stewart pitching the project to his old corespondent at The Daily Show and how they worked together making it.  I like that Carell didn’t play to the usual lunacy of the fish out of water tale but laid off the gas pedal for a more reserved reaction to everything that came his way.  Speaking of laid back, Cooper exerts the exact amount of energy required for the role and then sort of coasts…that’s not a negative per se, it works for what he’s trying to accomplish in any given scene.  I consistently like what Davis does on screen and while Stewart doesn’t really develop her character until the end, Davis is smart enough to use what she’s given in early scenes to make what transpires near the end come off better than it should.  She’s not in the movie as much as the poster and trailers make you think she is, but when Byre is present she’s the best thing happening and easily steals her scenes.

If Irresistible had been released five years ago would we feel differently about it?  I think so.  There’s just too much bad going on in politics right now to be able to stop and find the satire clever or the pointed importance in the small potatoes mash Stewart puts on the plate.  Viewed solely as a comedy about a man in limbo needing to learn a lesson about himself, I think it’s enjoyable on the whole but the moment it has to be classified in the political arena the frivolity of the affair becomes less appealing.

Movie Review ~ Hello, My Name is Doris

1

hello_my_name_is_doris
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A self-help seminar inspires a sixty-something woman to romantically pursue her younger co-worker.

Stars: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Peter Gallagher, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tyne Daly, Beth Behrs

Director: Michael Showalter

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Some people watch scary movies peeking out from behind their hands covering their eyes. I do the same thing for movies with socially awkward people trying and failing to be heard. There’s something inherently not enjoyable about seeing a person already uncomfortable in their own skin being put through an emotional ringer. For the masochists out there that love a good grimace, you need look no further than Hello, My Name is Doris, a whiffle of a dramedy that ultimately finds success in its lead performers.

Sally Field is Doris, a data processer at a hip New York ad agency that has kept her around for politically correct reasons rather than necessity. Mourning the recent loss of her mother and avoiding the urges of her brother and his wife to sell their family home, she finds a ray of sunshine when John Fremont (Max Greenfield, The Big Short) joins the company. Newly relocated from Malibu, John is everything Doris is not…young, current, and confident. Doris develops a fixation on John and daydreams about him saying sweet words before locking her in a passionate embrace.

There’s more to the story thought, with a hoarding subplot that seeks to explain a little more about why Doris acts and reacts the way she does. Her friends (Tyne Daly, Caroline Aaron) chalk up the obsession to another wild fantasy Doris has dreamed up, before realizing too late that she’s doing more damage to herself in the process. When John starts dating another woman, Doris drinks away her sorrows and innocently sets into motion events that lead to an inevitable denouement.

You’ll wince through a lot of the movie; only because it’s hard to see a character so clueless learn such difficult lessons late in life. Shielded somewhat from the outside world and dreams of romance after caring for her mother for so many years, Doris sees John as a chance to reclaim some of the years she’s lost but can’t see that they’re on two different journeys running parallel to each other.

As usual Field (Steel Magnolias) is a treat, coloring Doris in a way that makes you feel for her even when she’s making a wrong move. I feel like every character in the film has at least one moment where they have a ‘poor Doris’ look on their face and Field earns those melancholy stares. Her best moments come near the end of the film, especially in one dialogue-free scene where the buttoned up woman literally lets her hair down and sees herself for the first time as she really is underneath all of her accessories.

Field is well matched by the appealing Greenfield, who manages to take a role that could have been your standard unattainable dreamboat and show some nuance to him as well with writer/director Michael Showalter (adapting this from a short film by Laura Terruso) making sure that John isn’t the image of perfection. At one point John tells Doris that he worries he’s boring…and you can see it’s a genuine fear of his. Because like Doris, he just wants to be noticed for who he is.

At 95 minutes, the film is well-paced and ever so slightly rough around its independent edges. More thought seems to have gone into Doris’s thrift store wardrobe and headscarves than continuity. Like Doris, it’s a bit thrown together and flat out drops certain central characters without much fanfare. A rather impressive roster of familiar faces pepper the supporting cast but their appearances are so brief that they become even more inconsequential to a film that only wants to focus (rightfully so) on the leads.

If you can muscle through an hour and a half of squirming uncomfortably every time Doris rocks out to electronic dance music or is caught embarrassingly daydreaming of romantic interludes, this might be the movie for you. It’s surely worth it for the performances Field and Greenfield turn in…but it’s not an easy watch.