LATE NIGHT

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

Late Night starts off a little pat and corny, as it rushes a bit through the introduction of its characters, late night talk show host Katherine Newbury delivering a monologue on her show to an audience laughing plenty, even though the monologue jokes aren’t actually all that funny. Within about five minutes, however, we find Katherine in her writers’ room exclusively full of white guys who treats with either dismissiveness or contempt, and then things get genuinely funny, and remain fairly consistently so through the rest of the movie.

The jokes in Late Night are always best when part of the banter between the show staff, the actual writing they do that we see Katherine perform never quite as good. Thankfully this movie takes place mostly behind the scenes, in a fantasy world where Katherine Newbury is a female contemporary to late night talk show titans like Jay Leno or David Letterman — neither of whom are ever named; we just know that Katherine has been doing the show since 1991, and has won a ton of Emmys for it.

One neat trick, among many, of Mindy Kaling’s script is that it presents a world in which a woman star talk show host is believable, even though no such thing has ever actually happened. If it did, though, it’s easy to see it looking like this, with a white English woman filling the role as a casually cruel perfectionist who doesn’t even realize how little she herself cares for other women.

Emma Thompson is perfectly cast in this role, giving it unique nuance that makes it difficult to imagine anyone else doing it. Pairing her with Kaling, who also stars, doesn’t seem like the most intuitive choice at first, but they have real chemistry together. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Kaling herself has charisma to spare.

Her script, though, is what truly drives Late Night’s undeniably winning sensibility, because Kaling’s Molly Patel so clearly loves television, and that is a clear extension of Kaling herself. Late Night somehow manages to be the least offensive movie to anyone while also acheiving everything it aspires to, which is simply to be a light, entertaining story that touches on industry issues — lack of diversity, sexism — without ever coming even close to being judgmental of the people working in it. In this universe, anyone benefiting from systemic problems is doing so unwittingly.

It’s a smart move from the standpoint of a light comedy, as it acknowledges industry (and cultural) challenges without ever getting mired in it. There’s a certain unbridled joy to Mindy Kaling in particular, which she infuses into all her work. They way she writes her characters — and the way Nisha Ganatra directs the actors playing them — you can’t help but find ways to root for them all, privileged background or not.

There are moments where the amount of detail thrown into the story does feel a little overdone, and certain moments are almost distracting in their oversimplifications. There is no real romantic element to this story, although it gits hinted at in a way that feels it would be better either fleshed out more or done away with altogether. The overall charm of the story, and especially the performances of Kaling and Thompson (who has never been better), more than make up for it.

I wish more could have been done with John Lithgow as Katherine’s ailing but supportive husband, and even Amy Ryan as the network president planning to cancel the show, both of whom do great with what little they’re given. You can’t have everything. The ensemble supporting cast is large enough just with the guys in the writers’ room, which includes Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, and John Early, not to mention Ike Barinholtz as the boorish comedian presented as Katherine’s potential replacement. There’s some irony to a movie so much about female voices rounding out its cast with so many white men, but even more satisfaction to the two leads being women who get a combined majority of the lines and screen time.

Far more importantly, and as always with comedies, this movie made me laugh — and if a movie is being sold as a comedy, that’s what it should do. Mindy Kaling has a unique comic sensibility, and Emma Thompson a unique comic voice. Late Night didn’t just make me chuckle consistently, as is far more common with most “comedies.” It genuinely made me laugh at a pretty consistent clip, with clever and sophisticated humor that could easily fall flat in lesser hands. It’s just plain a lot of fun, with a large cast of characters who are all enjoyable to be around. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this movie.

To borrow a line, this movie is “a splash of color on the gray canvass” that is all comedy currently in cinema.

To borrow a line, this movie is “a splash of color on the gray canvass” that is all comedy currently in cinema.

Overall: B+

BOOKSMART

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

God damn it, people! You need to go see Booksmart! It’s no surprise that this Memorial Day Weekend box office was dominated by Aladdin, which also opened this weekend; the same goes for the top four being rounded out by smash hits John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (in its second weekend), Avengers: Endgame (still on track to be the biggest box office success in history — in unadjusted dollars), and Pokémon Detective Pikachu (the first-ever live-action movie based on the most profitable franchise ever). Still, Detective Pikachu is in its third week, and honestly, Booksmart deserves to be at least competitive as a top-3 placeholder.

Ten years ago, it very well might have been. Now, it barely squeaks into sixth place, taking in a paltry $8.7 million. Less than a million tickets have been sold to see this movie, and it’s getting lamented in headlines as being crushed by the competition. And why? Because we live in a world now where going out to the movie theatre is reserved, by most, for spectacle. Aladdin is all spectacle. So are those other movies mentioned. Booksmart, by contrast, is about laughs, and fun, and character, and heart. Just without special effects. Who wants that!

Well, I do. And you should too! Scrolling through Twitter, excuses can be found regarding how going to the movies is just too expensive anymore. You know what? Barely more than twenty bucks for an AMC monthly subscription that allows for seeing up to three movies a week is not that expensive. Okay, yeah, a movie outing for a family of four gets pricey. This is an R rated comedy that is not intended for those audiences.

But, the argument goes, the audience this movie does have is far more prone to watch this movie later on a streaming service, at a fraction of the cost, in the comfort of their own home. It’s entirely possible I’m just being a grouchy old geezer about this. I love the movie-going experience. Even if I don’t know anyone else in the theatre, I love the communal aspect of it, getting a sense of how much everyone else is enjoying it compared to me. And I can tell you this much: Booksmart gets a lot of laughs.

It’s never cheap laughs, either, never low-hanging fruit. This is smart comedy, from a uniquely joyous script that offers a truly diverse array of characters who are to a person well-rounded, a rare case of a movie about teenagers that highlights the best of them as they exist in 2019, rather than the worst of them. These are kids who can make a mess of things — sure, they make mistakes. But in this movie, their peers are generally kind, and quick to forgive, or at least move on and offer second chances.

Now, to be fair, the gags and punchlines aren’t completely consistent in how well they land. I kind of wanted the sequence in which Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlin Dever) get high and hallucinate themselves as Barbie dolls to be funnier than it really was. But, two key things make up for such semi-lulls in the narrative. Firstly, the laughs otherwise come far more steadily than they do in 90% of the other comedies that get released in theatres. This is a comedy that will make you laugh out loud. Second, Molly and Amy are supremely endearing as these over-achieving super dorks, who suddenly realize the night before graduation that they wasted time focusing only on school work and never having any real fun.

And so, Booksmart is the story of their pursuit of such fun, spending about half the movie in search of one particular kid’s party, and making pit stops at two other poor excuses for parties along the way. Once they get to the destination party, it becomes about how they figure out how to have a good time there. Unlike in other movies, where the antagonists would be other kids who are bullies, the conflict in the end becomes how they antagonize each other — and, of course (spoiler alert!), reconcile.

This movie has a lot in common with last year’s 🐓 Blockers, the key difference being that this one relies less on gross-out humor, and also somehow that one made $20 million its opening weekend. So, it’s not like anyone can blame this one’s underperformance on the fact that it’s got female leads. Also, in semi-contrast to 🐓 Blockers’s lesbian supporting character, in this movie one of the two leads is gay, and that fact is completely incidental — her pursuit of a love (or lust) interest played no differently than it would be if this were about two guy high school seniors who were best friends. I would argue that Booksmart handles these themes even better.

There is just so much I like about this movie, not least of which is that the story is about friendship, between one girl who is straight and one who is gay, and there is no sexual tension between them; their relationship is entirely platonic. I can’t think of any other movie I’ve seen, at least not in recent years, that was about such a relationship. Instead of playing up any other kind of “other-ness,” director Olivia Wilde plays up their lovable dorkiness. I even hesitate to say “quirkiness.” Amy and Molly are dorks.

And the supporting cast is wonderful too, from the spacey girl (played by Billie Lourd) whose running gag is that she keeps popping up inexplicably every place Amy and Molly find themselves; to the melodramatic gay guys (Austin Crute and Noah Galvin, both of them crushing it) whose party is all drama performance; to the eccentric but lovable rich kid (Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo), among plenty of others. There are even some comfortably familiar faces among the adults in the cast, including Lisa Kudrow and a nearly unrecognizable Will Forte as Amy’s parents; and Jason Sudeikis as Principal Brown.

In any case, the journey of Booksmart is very much its own thing, very much of its time, and it’s mostly a blast, as well as occasionally touching. It’s a journey worth taking, and not enough people are hopping on its train. Maybe it’s a victim of its release date, who knows? Sometimes a smaller movie just gets eaten alive by too much razzle-dazzle in its competition. My hope is that this movie proves resilient, and finds its way to wider audiences one way or another. It’s just as worthy as pretty much anything playing out there right now.

We’re going to have a good time if it takes us all night! Or at least 102 minutes.

We’re going to have a good time if it takes us all night! Or at least 102 minutes.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: BANANA SPLIT

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

Here’s a fresh take: a recent high school graduate breaks up with her boyfriend, and when she meets his new girlfriend, instead of becoming rivals, they become friends. Banana Split, in fact, is in its own way a love story — a platonic one, about a budding friendship between two girls under unique circumstances.

Director Benjamin Kasulke, former cinematographer for local Seattle productions (Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Brother’s Sister), here works with a script co-written by Hannah Marks, who also plays April, one of the young women. Marks is 26 years old, and shows clear promise, even though the opening sequence in Banana Split, detailing the rise and fall of April’s romance with Nick (Dylan Sprouse), is a little bit clunky. It lacks a natural narrative flow, and I found myself worrying that this might be one of those movies with a nice concept but a bit lacking in execution.

But, then the title card comes up (in a lovely neon design of an actual banana split), and then the story settles in. We get to see April in a more straightforward way, not just in an introductory relationship montage, and see her interacting with her loving, single mom (Jessica Hecht) and her sassy 13-year-old sister (Addison Riecke, who is delightful). April is depressed, in a pretty typical 18-year-old girl way, and soon enough she’s running into Clara (Liana Liberato), Nick’s new squeeze, at a house party.

Why isn’t Nick at this party? Clara is asked this very question but her answer is not very memorable. In order to launch this plot, I guess. Clara and April have a few awkward exchanges, and then they hit it off, and before long they’re doing shots. These soon-to-be college kids drink a lot, as such kids are wont to do.

As their friendship develops, both Clara and April keep it from Nick, who is very much a secondary character in this story. Even though he is the guy between them, this story is never about him, which is really what elevates it. It’s always about Clara and April, a shining beacon of female friendship that has very little in the way of melodrama, bucking stereotypes at every turn.

It certainly helps that Hannah Marks and Liana Liberato have a natural chemistry together. Neither of them particularly do with Dylan Sprouse as Nick, or even with Nick’s best friend played by Luke Spencer Roberts, who also happens to be childhood friends with Clara, and develops his own connection with April, and thus gets somehow stuck between every other relationship around him. Roberts does have a quirky charm about him, though, and is fun to watch.

I found myself thinking about the “Bechdel test,” the flawed but useful idea that at least two women be in a work of fiction, and they talk to each other about something other than a man. Banana Split passes this test with flying colors, as Clara and April talk to each other about all manner of things — even though the thing hanging unsaid between them is a young man.

Nick is just what brings them together, though. And of course they make a mess of their lives in myriad definitively useful ways over the course of the summer, as the specter looms of colleges pulling them away from each other, to all corners of the country. Even with the angst, though, I quite liked how honest Clara and April are with each other, if not with, you know, Nick.

It’s also nice that really no character in this story is a horrible person. They’re all just regular kids who make mistakes and learn how to dig themselves out from misunderstandings that breed resentments. It’s a reflection of real life, just with a lighter touch. It’s nice to see a so-called “teen movie” come along that is both this relatable and just a bit of fun. Banana Split isn’t out to be profound, but if you look closely you might find some profundity in the details.

Unlikely friendships can be the most fun.

Unlikely friendships can be the most fun.

Overall: B+

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

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

Fairt warning right up top: I literally know nothing about Pokémon, aside from its immense global popularity, the fact that it features an array of adorable and ugly creature characters, and it was very much part of a zeitgeist-defining mobile game about four years ago, which I never played. I’ve never watched any show or any other motion picture based on the property. I didn’t even know there had been more than twenty animated feature films released before the current live action one until checking the list on Wikipedia. I do know that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first of them to be a live-action release, with American characters speaking English and featuring bona fide movie stars, most notably Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu.

The point is, I am about as far from an authority on anything Pokémon as I could possibly be, so I have no means of appreciating how well (or how poorly) the film reflects the world of the multimedia franchise, which, until now, I have effectively ignored. But that’s not stopping me from reviewing the movie anyway!

I guess, if you are well versed in this fictional world, and you have any interest in a critical take on it, maybe find a review by someone else who also knows it well. You’ll likely find little to no satisfaction here. That said, as I have always said, any movie should always work on its own merits. So, does Detective Pikachu work on its own merits? Generally speaking, yes it does.

I have heard it said that it doesn’t reflect the true nature of Pikachu as a character to have him voiced with a snarky personality. Well, in the end Detective Pikachu actually has a fairly clever means of simultaneously sidestepping and correcting that problem, if you really want to call it a problem. Based on what little I have seen of Pikachu in his genuinely original self and form, personally I prefer him as voiced by Ryan Reynolds. It’s kind of as though a family-friendly Deadpool found himself trapped inside the body of this little furry creature.

As for how he fits into the overall story, which here presents a planned “Rhyme City” where humans and Pokémon live together harmoniously and are disallowed from any kinds of battles, it should come as no surprise that it offers little in the way of depth. Why would anyone expect depth in a movie based on a video game property, anyway? No fan of Pokémon is going to care. Nor is any casual fan of fantasy-adventure movies.

And to give Detective Pikachu credit, it is fairly imaginative in its world building, with Easter eggs of all sorts peppered throughout the film’s run time, without ever everdoing it or overwhelming those of us who don’t have any familiarity with all these creatures. By and large, they’re all fun, in myriad ways specific to individual ones. There is nothing cutting edge about the special effects, but they are serviceable and do work to further the story, so far as there is one. Director Rob Letterman keeps the spectacle at a manageable level when it could otherwise easily get out of hand in a movie like this.

The human characters are on average pretty bland, starting with our hero, young Tim (Justice Smith), who learns of his estranged father’s mysterious death and heads into Rhyme City to investigate. It continues with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), the aspiring reporter Tim runs into there. One could argue the blandness stops with Ken Watanabe as Tim’s dad’s detective partner, or Bill Nighy as the mogul mastermind behind the very existence of Rhyme City — except those two in particular are phoning it in, playing parts as pat as any ever put into another movie even remotely like this.

The story arc is patently by the numbers, but the joy is in the details, and often with the many cameos of different Pokémon creatures. You don’t have to have any familiarity with this universe to find them entertaining — and, in many cases, cute.

Which brings me to the most salient point about Detective Pikachu: the title character himself, and more specifically, his design. He’s adorable! So much so that when a passing lady on the street said exactly that about him, I thought, Yes. Yes, he is. You would be hard pressed to find another character cuter than Pikachu, and Ryan Reynolds’s fun-loving banter is a natural fit. If any one thing makes this movie worth seeing at all, it’s him. And he’s in most of the scenes, thankfully — because, without him, the movie gets comparatively dull. Reynolds may not be the true essence of this creature who otherwise only squeaks “Pika pika!”, but I could watch that version of him all day. As such, whatever other imperfections Detective Pikachu might have, it does offer a pretty solid 104 minutes of fun.

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Overall: B

LONG SHOT

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

Long Shot is the kind of movie that can easily be criticized on many merits, in ways that I could even probably agree with, but whatever, I enjoyed it!

The greatest defense I can give it, which is perhaps equal parts fair and lame: this movie delivers on its promise, which is simply that it’s a fun, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. It certainly has a premise that sets it apart, with Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field, who falls for the speech writer she hires who she also happened to babysit as a kid, Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). Granted, it’s not new to set a romantic comedy in the upper echelons of Washington politics (see The American President (1995)), but I can’t recall any other that revolves around the most powerful woman in the world.

Now, okay, yes, it is a bit of a trope to see the stunningly beautiful woman falling for the shlubby man — hell, Seth Rogen himself already did it twelve years ago with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, which was about as good as this movie is. And truly, nothing in Long Shot is even remotely realistic.

But, after some introductory scenes that set all the pieces of the plot into position with pretty clumsy contrivances, Long Shot totally won me over. The movie and its audience both get its sea legs, and the charisma of its lead actors, as well as the surprising chemistry between them, conspire to sell the movie as a good time for a couple of hours.

I’ll still nitpick, of course. I like to assume that’s what you’re here for! I didn’t love the character of Maggie (June Diane Raphael), one of Charlotte Field’s key staffers, playing the part of the resentful bitch, going out of her way to sabotage the relationship. I don’t fault June Diane Raphael for taking the part — we’ve all got to pay the rent, and she does well with what bullshit she has to work with — but truly, what purpose does that serve?

And then there’s Fred Flarsky’s best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who seems little more than a pawn in an exercise in pandering “both sides-ism.” A black conservative Republican who exists to teach his white best friend about empathy and “seeing things from other people’s point of view”? Are you kidding? I’m not saying no such black people exist — but the idea that he would be best friends with a character like Fred, whose very purpose as a journalist exists to expose the seedy underbelly of Republican corruption and hypocrisy, is a bit more of a stretch.

Okay, so Long Shot is far from perfect. It works, and works well, when it focuses on the relationship between Charlotte and Fred, and how they handle the special political circumstances surrounding them. This includes Charlotte working for a president (Bob Odenkirk) who got the job with no political experience and used to be a TV star. Sound familiar? The clever twist here is that President Chambers, instead of being a reality show host, was previously the star of a TV drama on which he played . . . the president.

There are some elements of the story which, in a pre-Trump world, would have pushed the limits of believability. But, love it or hate it, we now live in a world in which a movie can show a hacked video leak involving semen on a beard does not ruin political career, and you can still think, Yeah, I can see it. (Side note: thankfully, that’s the only bit of gross-out humor involving bodily fluids in the movie.) Now, such a thing not ruining a woman’s political career? That might just still be a little too unrealistic.

But who watches these movies, particularly romantic comedies, for realism? Nobody! That these are fantasies is in their DNA, literally in the script. Long Shot does want to have things both ways in multiple contexts, from its only-occasional nods to rampant sexism in American politics while presenting an arguably sexist story arc, to its eagerness to be accessible to audiences of all political persuasions. These aren’t things that have to tear a movie down, however. I mean, why shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy this movie?

And really, that’s what makes Long Shot work — unchallenging in spite of being set in the world of American politics, it’s basically the very definition of escapism. Generally speaking, it’s escapism done well. I found my heartstrings getting tugged by it, anyway.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

Overall: B

LITTLE

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

If I weren’t so OCD about seeing any movie from beginning to end if I am going to write a review of it, I would have gotten up and left Little halfway through. This movie has elements that elevate it — most notably the performances — but, unfortunately, really nothing redeems its truly awful script.

Directed and co-written by Tina Gordon, whose only other directorial feature credit is a 2013 film I never saw (or heard of) called Peeples, Little is written in a way that suggests Gordon herself was never actually a child, or maybe she’s of an alien race that never experiences childhood, and is now making her best guess as to what it’s like. The premise is essentially a rehash of the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big, just inverted in several ways: the protagonist is a black woman instead of a white man; and instead of wishing to be “big,” a sassy preteen girl with magic powers she doesn’t even know she has wishes for a horrible woman to be “little.”

So far so good, right? Anyone in their right mind would be on board so far. This sounds fun! And, to be totally fair, it must be noted that the principal actors are great. Regina Hall plays the grown Jordan Sanders, an uber-successful businesswoman who owns her own business developing apps. She lends a relatable charm and vulnerability to her hardened nastiness, even if it’s patently undeveloped in the writing.

And that’s the fatal flaw in this movie, really — none of the characters have any true dimension. The script, packed wall to wall with painfully corny platitudes about “putting up walls” and “being yourself”, is downright embarrassing. But, Issa Rae brightens every scene she’s in as April, Jordan’s assistant. And Marsai Martin is so great as “little” Jordan, she almost makes this movie watchable. Almost.

This ineptly executed story is not the fault of any of the actors, however — and Marsai Martin leaves the deepest impression. I sincerely hope to see more of her in other, better movies. It’s no less than she deserves. We already know Regina Hall and Issa Rae are great. If Little were a better movie, Marsai Martin would break out as a revelation.

But, it’s not often that I am in a movie theatre and literally find myself thinking, Oh my god, this is bad. If it weren’t for the undeniable charisma of the actors, I would freely expect this to qualify as the worst movie I saw all year. It may yet retain that distinction. Its ignorance of how humans actually interact and how life really goes is kind of breathtaking. Sure, you expect a certain level of such things in light comedies. But this one has a level of moralizing so clichéd it might put you to sleep. In fact, it did literally that to one guy in the theatre I was in. I envied his unconsciousness.

The very title is weirdly misleading, incidentally. “Little” Jordan is a grown woman in the body of a 13-year-old. Little has this alternate-dimension idea that any kid in middle school would actually refer to themselves as “little.” The title might work if the kid were, say, six years old. Not even adults in the real world call 13-year-olds — literal teenagers — “little kids.”

In other words, nothing in Little makes any sense. It has occasionally enjoyable moments, and surely plenty of people will enjoy it far more than I did. That doesn’t change how fundamentally dumb it is. One scene after the next strains suspension of disbelief, distracting in its contrived “cuteness.” It can’t even pick a tone, or decide whether it’s a kids’ movie or meant for adults, veering between Jordan “learning how to be nice” as she deals with the middle school she has to go back to, and Jordan otherwise dealing with very adult concerns.

Little is a big mess.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

Overall: C

SHAZAM!

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

Let’s get real: if you’re the type who is interested in any and all of the countless superhero/comic book movies now in existence, and you have an affinity for the lighter-hearted ones, you’re going to have a great time watching Shazam! You have no reason to read any more of this review. I mean really, why are you even here?

But, for the rest of us? Shazam! is still a pretty great time — for the last three quarters of its run time. Otherwise, it’s tonally inconsistent, has an under cooked plot, and would have benefited from greater depth.

I say all this with the full understanding that most of this movie’s fans won’t give a shit about such things. So what if I’d say I found it a worthy matinee, but feel no need to recommend anyone else rush out and see it? No one’s going to decided not to see it based on my recommendation.

I still have to pick it apart a bit anyway. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

It could easily be said that Shazam! is one of, say, the two best DC Comics films of the modern era — the other being, of course, Wonder Woman. The two movies are of roughly the same level of quality, but for different reasons. It is, of course, easy to call them the best of recent DC output because, well, that’s a pretty low bar.

Shazam!’s biggest problem is a pretty big one: the first quarter of it unfolds in a strangely inorganic way, never quite achieving the tone of wide-eyed delight that the rest of the movie manages. This is kid of a long way to get to that point, especially when we’re introduced to 14-year-old Billy Batson (16-year-old Asher Angel) as a foster kid who, while he amuses himself with pranks involving the theft of police cars, is perpetually sullen and resentful, consumed with finding the mother who abandoned him as a small child.

So, when Billy suddenly finds himself randomly given the superpowers of an ancient order of wizards (and to say the backstory with the wizards has no meat to it is an understatement), it doesn’t naturally follow through that the grown-man superhero he becomes (played by Zachary Levi) would be more giddy about it than anything else.

That said, it is that giddiness that makes Shazam! so fun to watch, as Billy figures out through trial and error what his superpowers are, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, giving the best performance in the movie). Billy has been re-homed into a large host family with a group of kids that are diverse in both age and ethnicity. One of the great running gags is the brain of a child — or teenager — inside the body of an adult. It’s kind of the superhero movie of the old Tom Hanks movie Big, where you find adults behaving like kids, but in funny and charmingly innocent ways.

This being a superhero movie, though, there must always be a supervillain, here in the form of Mark Strong playing Thaddeus, who we meet as a child in the movie’s oddly uncompelling opening sequence. He meets the wizard who is waiting for the person who is “pure of heart” who can take on his powers and guard against the demon monsters who represent the seven deadly sins (why? you got me!). He is deemed not pure enough of heart; the rejection becomes a lifelong obsession; he finds a way to become possessed by said seven “sin demons,” who represent one of the several plot points of the movie that don’t really work.

When Shazam! focuses on Billy, his delight at suddenly being superhuman, and his totally realistic 14-uear-old way of handling it, the movie works quite well, and makes for a lot of witty entertainment. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi both pair well with Jack Dylan Grazer as the foster brother, and the evolution of their familial friendship makes for good storytelling. The same cannot quite be said of the subplot of Billy’s search for his birth mother, or certainly of the ancient wizard with no particularly clear backstory, or smoky sin-demons terrorizing a Philadelphia holiday carnival. Who has a full scale carnival at Christmastime, anyway? That’s weird.

Much of the movie is well shot, though. The superhero and the supervillain can both fly, and there are some battle scenes both far above the city of Philadelphia and following them as they fly past downtown skyscrapers which are pretty cool to look at. Incidentally, this movie exists in the “DC universe,” which means the characters are aware of both Superman and Batman, the latter of who gets a couple nice references and punch lines. Apparently in the DC universe, there is no New York City, only Metropolis for Superman; Gotham City for Batman; and for Shazam . . . Philadelphia.

In short, Shazam! is not as good as it could have been or as I wanted it to be, but enough of it is uniquely entertaining to keep it from being a waste of time.

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Overall: B

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

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

Fighting with My Family opens by thrusting us into the local Norwich, England wrestling world of the Knight family, playing up how passionate this foursome is about the profession. It’s based on a true story, and the actual Knight family is from a town called Penzance in the southwest of England, but maybe the filmmakers thought that would remind too many people of Gilbert & Sullivan? Now I’m imagining the overlap in a Venn diagram of Gilbert & Sullivan fans and World Wrestling Entertainment fans. It’s probably at least a little wider among Brits.

Anyway, the family consists of middle-aged parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey, about as far from Game of Thrones’s Cersei as she could get), running a local business of small-time wrestling performances. With their eldest in prison, their star players are son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh). To a person, they are well cast, a playfully vulgar, tight-knit family with working-class charm to spare.

This movie does not shy away from the ins and outs of the wrestling industry, and early on Ricky finds himself explaining that “it’s not fake, it’s fixed,” and the job can result in serious injuries. Not since Darren Aronovsky’s gritty The Wrestler (2008) has anyone presented so honest a look at wrestling; the difference now is that writer-director Stephen Merchant moves away from self-destruction for a feel-good movie about triumph of will and moving beyond the limits of initial circumstances.

It’s a pretty standard Hollywood story arc, but you know what? Fighting with My Family works rather well on its own terms. I suspect at least one secret to its success is the British angle; Merchant himself is English, and thus offers a vital perspective. It seems less likely this movie’s sweet sincerity would play the same way in the hands of an American filmmaker.

And yet, it also stays true to the sensibilities of wrestling, and in particular wrestling fans. In spite of some subtle jabs here and there (“Our fans can’t read anyway”), this movie has no contempt or judgment of those who love and participate in wrestling. It gets a nice couple of scenes with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a decent supporting performance by Vince Vaughn as an American wrestling coach.

The basic story focuses on young Zak and Saraya’s dream of becoming professional wrestlers — together, but difficulties must be overcome when only Saraya gets chosen to move on in the selection process. It’s relatively transparent how much of the story here is embellished for dramatic effect: Zak must deal with boiling resentment; Saraya must look past her own judgments of other, prettier women wrestlers and learn to make some friends.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie that I would not immediately expect to like, due to my own admittedly unfair biases. I was super into a movie like The Wrestler, but that was a movie about obsession and self-destruction in deeply nuanced ways, with wrestling as the backdrop. Fighting with My Family is a very different movie, the kind that is heartwarming by design, and is also clearly made by and for genuine fans of wrestling.

I’ve never been a fan of wrestling. I am, however, a fan of solid storytelling, and charismatic performers, both of which this movie has plenty of. It makes it the rare kind of movie that, for instance, both my more populist-leaning family members and I can enjoy. You could say this is a movie for everyone, a great choice for mixed company with people who can rarely agree on what to watch. At least, as conventional as its storytelling is, it has a subversive streak to it. I wouldn’t quite call it wholesome, but I would call it great entertainment for the whole family.

The family that body slams together stays together.

The family that body slams together stays together.

Overall: B+

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC

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

Isn’t it Romantic wants you to think it’s a meta-send-up of typical romantic comedies, when really it’s a straight-up typical romantic comedy itself. In a way, it’s to its credit that it’s basically unapologetic about it; that’s kind of the point. This is a movie that has it both ways, has its comic cake and eats it romantically too, and basically gets away with it.

There’s also a strange aspect of Isn’t It Romantic, where it has some delightfully irreverent quips that made me laugh surprisingly hard, mixed fairly evenly with an almost slavish devotion to the very romantic-comedy tropes it’s ostensibly poking fun at. It all comes out to an average of general blandness in the end: the gut-busting quips barely falling short of being memorable; the tropes not quite overused enough to bog down the story completely.

To be sure, it’s fun to see an actor like Rebel Wilson as a leading lady, and kind of a kick to see the likes of her learning her lesson about shallowness when she initially pursues a relationship with the gorgeous Liam Hemsworth as opposed to everyman Adam Devine.

Wilson’s character, Natalie, gets mugged on the New York City subway and knocks herself in her attempt to run away. When she wakes up, after having spent most of the work day complaining to her assistant (Betty Gilpin) about how much she hates romantic comedies, she now finds herself in the middle of one. She figures out along the way that she must play the part of a romantic comedy leading lady, right down to her apartment suddenly becoming posh and huge, and being romantically pursued by a beautiful billionaire.

Before Isn’t It Romantic plunges Natalie into this fantasy universe, we are introduced to her living in her crappy Manhattan apartment, with a borderline mangy dog that won’t obey commands, and working in a dingy office as an architect with disrespectful colleagues. Natalie’s “real world” is just as much a part of the fantasy as the movie we’re watching, full of background and back story details that are all just as contrived as any romantic comedy.

The slight bummer of Isn’t It Romantic is its lost potential, and how, when it comes down to it, several of the very romantic comedies referenced by this three-writer script come to mind as definitively superior films to this one. Great romantic comedies are hard to come by, but this one doesn’t try all that hard to be one of them. It thumbs its nose at them with a wink, while riding on their coattails.

The players are all pleasant enough, at least, even if a lot of the scenes come across as a tad under-rehearsed. One thing this movie very much has in its favor is how brief it is — historically, a movie that clocks in at under ninety minutes is a bad sign, and this one is 88. For a movie like this, though, that turns out to be perfect, as far too many romantic comedies drag the story on for two hours and then some, with the humor spread thin as a result.

Isn’t It Romantic has its fun right out of the gate, with an opening scene featuring Jennifer Saunders as Natalie’s mom, who gets one of the funniest lines in the movie. It was apparently inevitable, though, with this movie following a by-the-numbers story arc, for it to sag a bit in the middle. The quips and gags start to dry up; there’s a slight bit of a slog; and then there’s a delightful song and dance number in a karaoke bar.

This movie isn’t quite revolutionary, but it works on its own terms. I just wish its terms aimed a little bit higher.

It’s not as hard to figure out as Natalie thinks it is.

It’s not as hard to figure out as Natalie thinks it is.

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-