WHERE'D YOU GO, BURNADETTE

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

Every once in a while, it seems Richard Linklater gets inspired to take a step away from his indie cult movie roots and take a stab at Hollywood mediocrity. Sometimes his Hollywood offerings are actually pretty good, as in 2011’s Bernie or even 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Compared to the greatness of his earlier work, though, Where’d You Go, Burnadette has Linklater basically phoning it in. It’s only because his name is attached that the film does not get written off as basically forgettable.

It’s too bad, especially for fans of the runaway hit novel, by Maria Semple, on which it’s based. That goes double specifically for Seattleite fans of the novel, who appreciated Semple’s humor and satirical look at local culture in the Pacific Northwest, through the eyes of a transplant Los Angeles architect (here played, quite well, by Cate Blanchett) who rather dislikes the city. Only a little of that sentiment makes it through in the adaptation to motion picture, really confined to one ranting monologue by the title character.

Sometimes a sensibility just works in prose and doesn’t translate to the screen. And as always, a film should succeed on its own merits. Where’d You Go, Burnadette does’t exactly fail, it’s more like it coasts, gliding along with no real resonance.

That said, as a longtime Seattle resident, there are some frustratingly cliché things about the depiction of Seattle in this movie (which definitely were not part of the novel). As always, it rains way too much, and every time it’s raining, it’s raining too hard. Linklater and his two co-writers attempt to give themselves an out by having it mentioned that it’s “the wettest winter on record.” It’s still an inauthentic representation of Seattle weather, long an overused crutch in movies set in the Pacific Northwest.

On the upside, the performances elevate the material, at least a little bit. Cate Blanchett remains the consummate character actor, every bit as much as she is a movie star, slipping into true specificity as she channels Burnadette Fox. Billy Crudup is all exasperated bemusement as her husband, Elgie, deals with Burnadette’s erratic behaviors. Emma Nelson is lovely as their 15-year-old daughter, Bee. And Kristen Wiig is perfect as Burnadette’s snooty neighbor, at the end of her rope regarding the invasive blackberry bushes from Burnadette’s yard.

Lawrence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally show up in much smaller parts as Burnadette’s past colleagues in the architecture profession, and although they all show up well for what they’re called on to do, it’s all brief enough that it kind of feels like wasted talent.

The story takes at least half the movie’s run time to get to this point, but Burnadette disappears out her bathroom window in the middle of an attempted intervention wrapped around her mental health. Before long, Elgie and Bee figure out she has left without them on what had been a planned family trip to Antarctica. How this trip got planned to begin with is a little oddly contrived, but whatever: Elgie and Bee go after her, spending a fair amount of time just behind her on other tourist vessels, and the action movies from Seattle to Antarctica. There was no filming at the bottom of the planet, but production did move to Greenland as the closest approximation, and if nothing else, it makes for some very pretty scenery to look at.

Beyond that, Where’d You Go, Burnadette doesn’t even try to be much of an actual mystery, and is more of a hang with these barely-odd characters, and it’s pleasant enough most of the time, when it’s not being ridiculously unrealistic, particularly regarding how Burnadette half-cons her way onto vessels in Antarctica that would be far more careful than this in the real world about unauthorized personnel. But, sure, I’m just nitpicking now. Still, there is a feeling of a great lot of unrealized potential here, a lack of electricity in the dialogue, a sense that there should be some kind excitement. No part of this story is exciting or electric; it is merely adequate at entertaining as long as the movie goes on. It’s fine but nothing special, when it clearly could have been something special.

She went to the Seattle Public Library, apparently. Mystery solved.

She went to the Seattle Public Library, apparently. Mystery solved.

Overall: B-

THE KITCHEN

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I guess DC Comics should be given some credit here — The Kitchen is originally a graphic novel published by them, written by Ollie Masters and drawn by Ming Doyle. This film adaptation, written and directed by Andrea Berloff, thus qualifies as a cinematic offering by DC that’s a tad better than the abysmal “DC Cinematic Universe” of superhero films of recent years.

That said, “tad” is perhaps the operative word here, as The Kitchen gets to be a little on the nose with its “female empowerment” themes, rendering them trite at times, occasionally even hypocritical, as these women evolve into even more ruthless monsters than the mobster husbands they take over for when they are sent to prison in the late 1970s (also the setting of the graphic novel). Perloff has previous co-writing credits on such films as World Trade Center (2006) and Straight Outta Compton (2015), and if The Kitchen proves anything, it’s that Berloff is better off as a team player. There is plenty to like about The Kitchen, but unfortunately Berloff’s direction and her writing are easily its two weakest elements.

How close is this movie to the story in the graphic novel, I wonder? I don’t read comic books. I can only hope this graphic novel in its original form is better, and doesn’t stumble so much over its own feminist themes. This movie is trying to hard, and in the end lacks narrative clarity.

It’s not to a fatal degree, at least. This movie isn’t bad — certainly not nearly as bad as a sore of 35 out of 100 at MetaCritic would suggest, or a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes. The B- by audiences at CinemaScore seems much more reasonable, although by industry standards that’s a very low score. It’s as though this movie is a crushing disappointment. It’s not terrible! It just . . . isn’t great.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I? This is one of those movies that falls into the gray-area category of not feeling like a waste of my time, but not something I’m going to go out of my way to recommend to anyone else. If it has any selling point, it’s the actors — specifically, the women in it: Melissa McCarthy as the one housewife with a relatively decent husband; Tiffany Haddish as the black woman who never gained the trust of the Irish family she married into; Elisabeth Moss as the woman with a physically abusive husband; even Margo Martindale in the (as always) character part of a monster matriarch who is a no-nonsense bit. Among the many men with much smaller parts, the only standout is Domhnall Gleeson, who sheds his natural Irish accent in favor of a New York accent so convincing it takes a minute to realize it’s even him.

The film is also decently edited, and has several nice flourishes of cinematography as the camera moves through a Manhattan converted to look like it did in 1978, but I don’t know how many people besides me will care about that much. None of that really means anything without the strength of the performances, with three lead actors who have a workable onscreen chemistry. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss all have wide appeal, their only moderate crossover spreading out the appeal quite widely between the three of them. They have all been on better projects, but together here they lift the material so it doesn’t quite buckle completely under the weight of its own narrative contrivances.

I did get to a point where I struggled to understand whether I was supposed to be rooting for these women. The moral compromises they make are plain and obvious, and yet Andrea Berloff never really makes them part of her themes, of which The Kitchen is in short supply. It’s long on plot though, with a bit of a twist near the end that doesn’t quite make it all any better. All of that notwithstanding, the lead performances command attention, and reveal some of these actors, especially Tiffany Haddish, to be capable of better and richer things.

Three people who can stand the heat.

Three people who can stand the heat.

Overall: B-

KATHY GRIFFIN: A HELL OF A STORY

Directing: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

As a general rule with these reviews I write, as has been the case ever since I began posting them in late 2004, I would only write them for movies I have seen in a theatre in their original theatrical release. The documentary / comedy special Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is kind of a different beast, or at least a middle-ground one: I did indeed see this in a theatre, but only as a one-time-only Fathom Events screening. It doesn’t matter what I say about it, you won’t have any opportunity to go to a theatre to see for yourself.

In the end, it hardly matters. Presumably this standup movie will eventually be available some other way soon enough, if not streaming then available digitally somewhere for purchase. And the only relevant information there is for a reader right now is this: if you’re a Kathy Griffin fan, you’ll likely have a great time watching this. If not, you won’t be missing anything by skipping it. And that last part is not even directed at the deranged Trump supporters who have sent her countless death threats; their propensity to either ignore or hate-watch her goes without saying. I’m even talking about the neutral observer, who might even agree that she was given a raw deal. Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is straight up fan service, through and through.

The film features a long prologue that lasts maybe twenty minutes, itself much more of a short documentary about Kathy Griffin and her career immediately following her infamous 2017 photo holding up a fake, bloody Donald Trump head. It depicts Griffin’s world tour she took when she could not book any U.S. gigs, and frankly, this portion of the film is insanely contrived.

It pains me to have to say this. I count myself among Kathy Grffin’s longtime, loyal fans, and that’s what makes the beginning of this film all the more disappointing. This is a woman who has never made any bones about the hustle that has always been her career, and I still respect her for it; I don’t fault her for milking everything she can for all it’s worth. But there are moments here that just plain feel disingenuous. Does she really need to turn the camera on herself when she’s supposed to be emotionally at rock bottom? Does she not realize that when a move she makes is transparently in the service of a money-making venture, the “emotion” on display rather loses its impact?

Griffin occasionally has her boyfriend holding the camera, talking behind it. In one scene, she’s broken down crying, apparently on an airplane between cities, and he consoles her from behind the camera. It’s entirely possible what he says to her was not rehearsed — or at least the product of being directed — but, his delivery sure makes it sound like it was.

I did not realize as I watched this that most of it was just a film of one of Kathy Griffin’s standup theater gigs, basically a film version of yet another one of her record-breaking number of standup specials. Watching this extended documentary prologue, I expected most of the whole movie to be this, perhaps intercut with clips of her stage performance. I really began to worry about how good this movie was really going to be. The overall quality — the cinematography, the editing in particular — is really not of the caliber of a theatrically released film. It immediately became apparent why this was a one-time-only theatrical presentation. It would have been far more appropriate on cable, but of course Griffin mentions at every opportunity how she still has no bidders for TV standup specials anymore.

But! Much to my relief, the documentary portion ends, and A Hell of a Story moves into straightforward standup footage of a performance at a single, Santa Monica venue, and in Griffin’s own, spectacularly singular way, she does just that: tell a hell of a story. And she does it incredibly well.

The “standup special” portion of the film is a hard turn from the documentary stuff, where Griffin may be much more obviously rehearsed, but now in her element, she comes across as genuine. She’s also very funny, and she gets into all manner of detail about all the crazy shit that’s happened to her. It’s this part, which lasts much longer, which makes it required viewing for the loyal Kathy Griffin fan. She is a comic whose many signature traits include rambling, and yet she always manages to circle back to the point or the story at hand. Her complete set is a lot more structured than it might seem at first glance.

She even gets into a significant bit about hanging out in Sydney with Stevie Nicks — a star I have personally long idolized — and Chrissie Hynde. It’s one of the most delightful stories she tells, among many delightful stories included here. It does include bits about Stevie Nicks being among the few people to come to her defense, as a whole lot of this show does — and it’s well known how far more people Kathy Griffin thought were her friends either abandoned her or actually went out of their way to twist the knife.

Kathy Griffin is transparently a born performer, and it’s plain to see the stage is where she is meant to be. Hopefully it will continue to be for decades to come — even though she’s already 58 years old at the time of this recording. It’s genuinely a joy to watch her doing both what she loves and what she does best, which is making people laugh through observations of the ridiculousness of our world. When it comes to A Hell of a Story, though, what she clearly is not born to be is a documentarian. Or perhaps to be more fair, director Troy Miller isn’t. This film starts like a TV special lower-mid-level quality, with some things onscreen that are strangely suspect. Thankfully, getting through it is well worth the wait, because the complete standup show that follows, for anyone who has gone out of their way to watch it, is something that truly delivers everything you could want from it.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

Overall: B-

HALSTON

Directing: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

It’s a curious exercise, watching a film that clearly expects sympathy for a rich man with ridiculously lavish spending habits.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I even know who Roy Halston Frowick was before seeing this movie, which merely looked compelling to me when seeing the trailer. I could count on one hand the number of fashion designers I know by name. My fashion choices are limited to Christmas gifts from family, thrift stores, and bankrupt department store liquidation sales. Funny that one of those department stores currently rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, JCPenney, was once part of Halston’s first failed business venture, when he attempted to take his brand mainstream in the early eighties and it tarnished his brand with all other high-end fashion retailers.

In writer-director Frédérik Tcheng’s telling of the story of the Halston company being taken over after an acquisition by Esmark Inc., Tcheng brings in many people close to Halston to lament the plummeting amount of control over what had once been his own company. These include several models who once worked for him, a couple of his secretaries, his niece he hired to work for him, even his best friend Liza Minnelli. A couple of them mention an executive from International Playtex (also owned by Esmark) who was brought in to be a new managing director of Halston. One of the interview subjects literally refuses to say his name.

Well, you know what? The guy’s name was Carl Epstein, and based on his interviews for this movie as well as the choices he made regarding Halston Enterprises at the time, I am a fan. Halston’s close friends and family clearly, and okay understandably, resent Epstein for being so intricately involved in Halston’s ultimate downfall. But so far as I can tell, Halston’s personal downfall was really his own doing. This was a man who was not used to anyone saying no to him, and the in comes someone who says, hey wait a minute, you can’t spend a hundred grand just to fly your entire staff to an event abroad, or have your dinners flown on a private jet from New York City to Montauk. Not when you’re not actually in a position to afford these things, anyway, and you’re not even the one truly in control of the company besides.

These things are just common sense. I don’t feel bad about some insanely rich fashion designer, who doesn’t realize his tastes ultimately far exceed his income, being told he can’t keep blowing through cash at the same rate anymore. This movie seems to think I should, and I beg to differ.

Therein lies the underlying issue with Halston, which honestly could have worked harder to make me sympathize with this guy. I have no doubt it actually could have been done. Halston was a gay man born in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1930s who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 57, on the day of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Surely that context informed how his personality developed, coming into riches and fame from humble beginnings and in the end having at least some level of struggle with substance abuse.

I want to know more about that. And Tcheng touches on it, with a brief interlude showing a fascinating old clip of paranoid propaganda about homosexuals and showing negative-film footage (to protect identities) of gay men on a beach, doing literally nothing more salacious than being a little swishy. Footage of Halston included in this film reveals him to have been refined and sophisticated, and also a little effeminate. What was it like growing up for him? What did his parents, his siblings think about him when he was a child? What were his personal relationships like and how do they fit into his getting HIV, and when was he even diagnosed? Halston can’t be bothered with any of these questions, even though they would make for a far more compelling film.

Instead, the arc of the story here is mostly focused on Halston’s rise and fall as a superstar businessman with a taste for excess both in ridiculous business expenses and in entertainment, hanging out with Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor at Studio 54. And plenty of this actually is fascinating, if less personal. It’s just that Tcheng leaves so much out it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in an obsessive (and apparently sometimes bullying) member of the one percent struggling with becoming less rich.

halston.jpg

Overall: B-

YESTERDAY

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

A movie whose premise hinges on the entire back catalog of The Beatles should really be more clever than this. What we have instead is something written by the writer of Love, Actually (Richard Curtis) and directed by the director of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), to create a product of combined influences that is shockingly tepid for something featuring such historically vital material.

The strangest rub is, in nearly every aspect except the story, Yesterday has ample charms. It’s clearly made by competent people, very well shot, and the acting almost elevates the spoken material. Almost. Himesh Patel, as Jack Malik, evidently the only person in the world who remembers The Beates from an alternate reality apparently lost during a 14-second global blackout, gives a winning performance. He’s a talented singer and he plays The Beatles songs well. And the songs, the music — of course, those are always a blast to hear. The movie is really only particularly fun when Jack is playing Beatles songs.

That’s of no fault of Lily James, who is also lovely as Ellie, Jack’s longtime local manager and subject of unrequited love. It’s just that their backstory isn’t that interesting. Before the aforementioned blackout, Jack is a struggling musician who writes his own songs, and his songs are entirely forgettable. The result of being introduced to them as such characters is that, until Jack starts singing “Yesterday” and discovers no one has ever heard of it, their story is entirely forgettable too.

Honestly, even the use of Beatles songs is a hugely missed opportunity. There is so much contextualizing, and investigating of how the meaning of these songs of unparalleled influence might be changed by their never having existed until 2019. Instead, Yesterday keeps it’s focus on how they are widely regarded as the best songs ever written, and on that basis alone, even in 2019 it results in Jack becoming an overnight superstar. I have my doubts as to whether it would really play out that way, and particularly so quickly.

I don’t suppose that matters, for some. If the movie is fun then it’s fun, right? And surely, casual fans of The Beatles will find this movie fun, people who don’t think much about the history and import behind them. But I would consider myself a casual fan of the Beatles, but also a pretty hardcore fan of movies, and I prefer movies make some sort of sense. I don’t require and explanation for every little thing; this movie provides no information whatsoever as to how or why this global, 14-second blackout happens, and I’m fine with that. But I am also aware of the broader history of pop culture and the place The Beatles have in it, and therefore have a desire for an alternate universe in which it doesn’t exist to interrogate more than just how that music brings fame and fortune. That seems to be the only thing about The Beatles that this movie is interested in.

Sure, it has its cute moments. Ed Sheeran plays a significant supporting role as himself, the guy who discovers Jack’s “talent” and helps launch him into fame. Kate McKinnon is an easy satire of money-hungry Hollywood agents. Jack keeps discovering random other things this no longer existing in this alternate reality: Coca-Cola, cigarettes. And to be fair, for many viewers it will be easy to appreciate what this movie is, as opposed to what it should or could have been. I still wouldn’t tell even those people it needs to be seen in a theatre — you can enjoy it just as easily on your streaming service of choice in a couple of months. But I fall firmly in the camp that can only see this movie’s unrealized potential. In a better writer’s hands, it could have been something great, something actually worthy of the buzz it generated when the trailer first started appearing.

You might wonder why that buzz never lasted. Those of us who have seen the movie can easily see why. It’s because even though Yesterday is fine, no movie based on the hits of The Beatles should ever be just fine. They deserve better.

Otherwise wonderful Lily James and Hamish Patel cannot be saved by The Beatles in an alternate reality.

Otherwise wonderful Lily James and Hamish Patel cannot be saved by The Beatles in an alternate reality.

Overall: B-

DUMBO

Directing: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.

And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.

One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.

That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.

The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?

There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.

It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.

And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.

There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.

It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

Overall: B-

WHAT MEN WANT

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Well, Mel Gibson is nowhere to be found in it, so What Men Want certainly has that going for it. Honestly, that being a point in its favor should not be underestimated.

Now, to be fair to everyone else who made that movie released in 2000, What Women Want was made far before anyone had any idea what a douche Mel Gibson would reveal himself to be. It was also slightly more realistic about how people think — although there should be an emphasis on slightly. In a male-dominated world, there’s arguably more to be learned by a man gaining the ability to learn what women are thinking, rather than the other way around.

In What Men Want, sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, gleefully making the best of the role) is presented as a woman with her own lessons to learn about “connecting with men.” She’s self-involved and often selfish, although to this movie’s credit, she’s still presented as “likable.” That said, by and large, the men she comes across after bashing her head and then gaining the ability to hear everything they’re thinking, are themselves presented as innocent and pure of heart by default. In other words, this movie is pure utopian fantasy from every angle.

Sure, there’s a couple of men who are villainous. But these men exist only for that purpose: to be specific adversaries to Ali, as plot devices. If this script made any attempt to be at all realistic, probably half the men whose thoughts Ali heard thinking would be aggressively disgusting, somewhere on the spectrum of misogynistic to racist, and often both in equal measure. But then, that wouldn’t make for the fun, light-hearted movie director Adam Shankman (a white guy, incidentally) was going for here.

Now, some of these utopian elements are maybe not so bad — “be the change you want to see,” and all that. There is a couple of hints of real-world struggles we all know a woman like Ali Davis would face; in one scene, she challenges her boss to fire her, after he references “me too” and she suggests he’s only afraid to fire her because she’s a black woman. The fact that virtually none of her coworkers, <i>all</i> of them men in a male-dominated field, have any overtly bigoted thoughts about her, still places this story squarely in fantasy land.

I even have mixed feelings about Ali’s gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener — who is straight, though he’s fine in the part), who seems pointedly presented as a gay person who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about sports and is therefore qualified to be a sports agent. I like that the character is still relatively effeminate even within that otherwise “bro culture” context, although it does feel a little like the filmmakers are patting themselves on the back for how “progressive” they’re being. But as long as we’re talking about tokenism, I did like that among Ali’s core group of close friends, instead of there being one token black lady, there’s a token white lady (Wendi McLendon-Covey), although the running gag about her being a foul-mouthed Jesus freak is a little odd.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem in What Men Want: none of its supporting characters particularly ring true, with the possible exception of Ali’s dad (Richard Roundtree). Ali herself comes closest of everyone in the film, but she otherwise lives in a universe of two-dimensional characters. This movie gave me a fair number of semi-consistent chuckles, but that’s not exactly the ringing endorsement a “fun comedy” would want. Ultimately this is just another throw-away, moderate amusement that no one is going to remember by next week.

And it’s too bad, because it does have some winning performances, and certainly a great lading lady in Taraji P. Henson. It gets bogged down in its script-by-committee: aside from the three writers of the 2000 film receiving credit on this one, this updated script was itself written by another four people (two white guys, two women of color). And although the diversity is necessary and to be commended, it’s not enough on its own to make this movie particularly great.

It’s not exactly awful either, though — What Men Want is palatable for as long as it’s in front of you, in spite of its tendency toward over-the-top diversions. It does seem to represent a transitional time in Hollywood that reflects some turns in the right direction, broadly speaking. That just means there will be more near-misses that get an E for effort. (Or, I guess in this case, a B-.)

what men want.jpg

Overall: B-

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-
Music: B+

The zombie genre has been so overdone for so long. now even “funny takes” on the zombie genre are overdone — from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to Zombieland (2009) to Warm Bodies (2013) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). Even television shows are getting in on the “funny take on zombies” action, from The CW’s iZombie to Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.

The point is, there really is no original take on zombies at this point. Even the idea of a genre mashup has been done, with roughly the same amount of middling success, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which, if you can believe it, worked better as a novel). Honestly, I should have known better. Anna and the Apocalypse is clearly trying to hark back to the original “edgy comic take” on zombies, Shaun of the Dead, being a low-budget British production with clear affection for the American productions it emulates.

I could be said this film is a mashup of four different genres, if you want to consider “Christmas” a genre. Anna and the Apocalypse is a horror-comedy-musical Christmas movie. The thing is, director John McPhail blends these genres fairly well, all things considered. Most strikingly, the music and songs are good — they’re catchy, the performers have fantastic voices, they often have irresistible beats. The actual zombies don’t show up until maybe a third of the way through, and there are several songs prior to that, as though this story is a perfectly straightforward musical about kids in school. A British High Shool Musical with a slightly quirkier sense of humor.

And to be fair, I did laugh pretty hard a few times. Still, McPhail can tend to linger on the same gag just slightly too long, until the joke runs out of steam. Perhaps the relative earnestness of the songs themselves is part of the joke. But if that’s the case, then that part of the humor is slightly too high-minded to work for a production that basically amounts to “scrappy.”

When the songs aren’t going on, the dialogue in Anna and the Apocalypse is not particularly concerned with wit, which is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot of pretty forgettable stuff said in this movie. There are some memorable moments, such as the beheading of a zombie in a snowman outfit.

Anna and the Apocalypse is mostly fine, which is about as glowing a review as it deserves. It would find a comfortable home on any streaming service; there is absolutely no reason for anyone to go out of their way to see it in a theatre. It seems strange that any effort should be made to give movies like this a theatrical release, and such cinematically visionary work as Roma get a single week in theatres before being disseminated on mobile devices.

So, Anna is fun enough, and good for a few laughs. But it does have a key thing in common with all these other comic takes on the zombie genre: it’s okay, not great. The only one that comes within spitting distance of greatness is the original comic British zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead, and one could even make the case that that one’s overrated. Why do we need all these “zombie comedies,” anyway? The endless stream of zombie horror movies wasn’t enough?

Well, it will be eventually. Maybe even with Anna and the Apocalypse, which is about as entertaining as it looks (as in: moderately), and pretty much guaranteed not to make a whole lot of money. Especially if, curiously, it apparently has some kind of promotion deal with MoviePass — making it literally the only movie available to users on the day I went. (I showed my MoviePass card to the cashier and he said, “Yeah, you better use that while you can before the bottom falls out.”)

Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience here. I went to see this movie only barely convinced to: because the critical response was slightly better than average; I had free access via MoviePass; there was nothing better playing at the moment; I love Christmas. I’ve been bitching about there being too many movies about zombies for ages — since before I started bitching about superhero movies (and now also Star Wars movies) over-saturating the market. Tonight, I literally settled for Anna and the Apocalypse. It proved to be a movie that can work if it’s something you’re settling for. It has well-sung, toe-tapping music, at least.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Overall: B-

MARIA BY CALLAS

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

I’m in a curious position when it comes to any critical response to the documentary Maria by Callas, and I have mixed feelings about it — although I suspect I would have mixed feelings even had I known who the woman was before this year.

Okay, so she was apparently arguably the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. What if you’ve never been particularly into opera? Or more specifically in my case, I was all of one year old the year she died, of a heart attack in 1977? It follows that I would have known little to nothing about her.

How many people alive in 2018 do, I wonder? In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that I was the only one in the theatre where I saw this movie who did not qualify for the Senior Discount. And even for those who do: billing this film as the story of Maria Callas “in her own words” is a little misleading. It’s not exactly an autobiography. Although, sure, everything said about her in the narrative is either Callas herself in archive interviews, or her own words as narrated by Joyce DiDonato, there’s something to be said for editing.

Maria Callas, quite obviously, had no part in making this movie. Other people cobbled the story together using her words, which brings along with it their own biases. It’s directed by Tom Volf, his sole directing credit; edited by Janice Jones; all of this done 41 years after Callas’s death. How much can we trust this as an accurate representation of her life, really? They certainly linger on several of her performances, showcasing her undeniable talent while still making the film perhaps 15 minutes longer than it needed to be.

Well, we can regard it as a collection of insights into the woman’s life, at least — and it must be said, even for someone who has never heard of her, there is much to be fascinated by. For one thing, the old footage reveals that Maria Callas was a woman of unparalleled charisma, memorably beautiful and expressive, even in interviews, for many years. There definitely was something special about her, as an individual as well as a talent. She lights up the screen with her face, even in old, grainy, television footage.

It would also seem as though she embodied the essence of a “diva” in very much the old-school sense of the word. Callas was evidently not much of a feminist in her thinking, stating plainly that a woman is best placed at home in service of a husband. She never had children, though, because first her mother and then her first husband pushed her to focus on her singing career, not to waste her incredible voice. She spoke in interviews as though, as opposed to ever being particularly ambitious, she simply sacrificed the traditional woman’s role in favor of “destiny.” As if she just resigned herself to this fate, of a singer adored literally around the world.

One short sequence in particular really stands out. Reporters are interviewing ardent fans who have been waiting in line since the day before, to see Maria Callas in New York City, performing for the first time in seven years. The interview subjects are nearly all young men, and I found myself wondering not just how many of them were gay (pretty much all of them seemed to be), but how many of them even know it themselves. This was a time half a century before the evolution of queer vocabulary we know today, after all, and it occurred to me that perhaps Maria Callas was a gay icon long before the term was coined. She was only one year younger than Judy Garland, and thus one of her contemporaries.

These are the details I found most compelling, but Maria by Callas is far more concerned with controversies regarding high-profile performance cancellations (sometimes mid-show), and in particular her off-and-on relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who left Callas for Jackie Kennedy, then left Jackie to return to Callas again.

Maria by Callas offers a window into a world-famous, stunningly talented opera singer in the 20th century, and it has its insights, but might be most appreciated by those who are already fans of her. In which case, might not it have been better to make this movie in, say, 1978?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Overall: B-

THE FRONT RUNNER

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

If The Front Runner is any indication, Jason Reitman’s directorial ambition is to be a low-rent Robert Altman. From the opening sequence, we get elaborately choreographed sequences with a lot of low-volume chit chat, overlapping dialogue that is ultimately without much substance.

In this case, it begins with Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) conceding his loss of the party nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The moment comes after the camera pans through media vans and new anchors and packed crowds with political signs outside hotels, then tips up to the window to the room housing the Hart Campaign. This whole pre-credits sequence ends with a similar shot of campaign staff drinking away their disappointment at a bar, which is where Hart declares that winning wasn’t “what it was about.” What was it about, then? “Now they know who we are.”

Jump four years later to the 1988 election campaign, and The Front Runner depicts the three weeks immediately preceding Hart dropping out of the race. We know it’s three weeks because the title card says it specifically: Hart is the Democratic front runner by a large margin, but, “A lot can happen in three weeks.”

In the end, I rather wish this movie did a better job at showing us who the people in it were. Instead, it is far more concerned with the procedural depiction of how the story of Hart’s infidelity made it into the press. There is particular focus on The Miami Herald (with staff played by Kevin Pollack and Bill Burr) and The Washington Post (with an editor played by Alfred Molina), and this is really where The Front Runner stumbles.

This is a movie, more than anything, about how the downfall of Gary Hart marked the end of privacy for politicians in mainstream media. Presumably whether this was the definitive turning point could be debated. The disingenuous thing about The Front Runner is how it depicts journalists who are, to a person, each of them conflicted about the moral dubiousness of what they are doing. Not one reporter here is unscrupulous about this kind of work, which is patently ridiculous. Our country in 2018 being run by individuals who attack a vital free press is one thing; depicting all journalists as somehow being forced to compromise an inherent nobility is not a whole lot better.

Then there is the couple at the center of it, Gary Hart and his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga, elevating the material with her performance as always). Reitman observes his characters with a consistent detachment, offering a macro view of the media circus as well as the campaign chaos hardly kept under control by a campaign manager played by J.K. Simmons. He never truly gets into the heart of these people, rather settling for a surface reflection of how they handle the media crisis. There is very little in the way of character development.

Granted, Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart is a guarded man, that being a big part of his downfall. It’s easy in retrospect to declare that there’s no reason to give a shit about what a politician does with his private life, especially after the likes of Anthony Weiner or, god help us all, the Trump Era. Gary Hart’s problems look positively quaint by comparison. Maybe he simply should have learned to be as nakedly shameless as the politicians we have today. On the other hand, I still found it difficult to feel any sympathy for him. He knew very well what world he lived in in 1988, and this was what being a conniving liar got him.

But, okay, Jason Reitman clearly isn’t making any attempt to make the man sympathetic anyway. The Front Runner’s purpose is to show us how we got to where we are today, with Hart’s story as the starting point. But if that’s the only purpose, it might as well have been a documentary. The Front Runner succeeds as an intermittently engaging procedural about media interference, but with a couple exceptional scenes, it fails as a drama.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Overall: B-