Thunder Force

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 12:10 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action/violence, and mild suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence, mostly comic but some mayhem and characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 9, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
Writer/director Ben Falcone likes to cast his wife, the endlessly talented Melissa McCarthy, as characters who are impulsive, not very bright, and not very good at reading the room, picking up social cues, or keeping thoughts unspoken. So, we know what we’re going to get from “Thunder Force,” with McCarthy as a forklift operator and Van Halen fan who unexpectedly becomes a superhero. I prefer their “Life of the Party,” with McCarthy in less of a slapstick role, but of course it is fun to watch. It takes too long to get going, with a not-very-interesting origin story, and three things are not as funny as they hope: references to 90s pop culture, questioning the sexual orientation of the heroines, and having the bad guys kill people.

There are two twists to the usual superhero backstory here. First, and most intriguingly, it is set in a world where the only people with superpowers are evil. Back in the 80s, a radioactive blah blah but it only affected those with a genetic predisposition to be receptive, and all of those people were sociopaths. So, ordinary humans are powerless against a bunch of selfish, conscienceless, supervillains who behave like the mean kids in middle school. Except instead of not letting you sit at their table in the cafeteria they throw electric fireballs that blow things up. They’re known as the Miscreants. (Great word!)

The Miscreants include Bobby Cannevale as a mayoral candidate who insists on being referred to as “The King” (not funny the first time or any of the subsequent times), running against an AOC-like rival named Rachel Gonzales (Melissa Ponzio), and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” star Pom Klementieff as Laser, who has the power of throwing electrified fireballs and the hobby of killing people.

Second, the superheroes here are middle-aged, plus sized ladies. Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) met in a Chicago school, when Emily, a brainy transfer student, was being bullied and Lydia stood up for her. They became friendship bracelet-sharing BFFs, and spent a lot of time together, including dinner with Emily’s grandmother, who took Emily in after her scientist parents were killed by the Miscreants. Emily is determined to carry on the work of her parents and find a way to defeat the supervillains.

Lydia and Emily become estranged in high school, when Emily says she has no time for anything but her work. Years later, as their reunion approaches, Lydia is a forklift operator in a Slayer t-shirt and Emily is the founder of a hugely successful company with a new headquarters in Chicago. Lydia goes to the the office to bring Emily to the reunion, is told not to touch anything, but is incapable of obeying that or pretty much any other cautionary direction. Suddenly she’s in a dentist chair-type thing with needles going into her cheeks. She has accidentally injected herself with the serum Emily has been working on for years to create superpowers for good guys. Her colleagues are Allie (Melissa Leo), and Emily’s super-smart daughter Tracy (a warm and winning performance by Taylor Mosby), a college graduate at age 15.

Lydia continues to get the injections, building up her strength, speed, and fighting skills. For some reason, this involves eating a lot of raw chicken. Meanwhile, Emily is undergoing a far less strenuous regimen, to give her the superpower of invisibility. Finally, they are ready to go on a trial run, stopping the robbery of a convenience store. At this point, Lydia and Emily prevent the thugs from stealing money but even these two powerhouses cannot prevent Jason Bateman from stealing the movie. I won’t spoil who or what his character is, but he is far and away the movie’s highlight. He and McCarthy spark off each other in a delicious manner, both with exquisite comic timing and unexpected and offbeat rhythms. Now that is a superpower.

Parents should know that while this is a comedy, there is some scary action with explosions, murders, and potential domestic terrorism. There are repeated references to the deaths of Emily’s parents. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol, suggestive content and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What super powers would you like to have? Why did Lydia and Emily like each other? What did Emily learn about Lydia from Tracy?

If you like this, try: “Life of the Party” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use
Profanity: Pervasive strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 26, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight
It is important to note that it is not Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who is asking for forgiveness in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It is the acerbically witty Dorothy Parker, author of a jaunty poem about the downsides of the various options for committing suicide that ends “You might as well live.” Okay, it is not exactly Dorothy Parker. It is Israel pretending to be Dorothy Parker. Lee Israel, best-selling author of popular and respected biographies of mid-century celebrities Dorothy Kilgallen and Tallulah Bankhead found herself desperate for money — and for some sense of a place in the world — when her next biography flopped and no one would work with her. The book’s failure with the critics and the public was only part of the reason. Lee Israel had become a bitter and unpleasant person and, both cause and effect, she had also become an alcoholic.

And so, instead of immersing herself in the lives of those more talented and successful to write about them, she immersed herself in the lives of famous authors to write for them. After a chance opportunity to steal and sell a genuine piece of correspondence, she began to forge others. Collectors love to own signed letters from their favorite writers, and Lee Israel loved writing them and getting away with it. She even went out and bought vintage typewriters and mastered the art of duplicating their signatures. At last, she is a successful writer again!

Well, for a while.

The movie is uneven, sometimes sordid, as Lee and her only friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) go from genteel poverty to near-squalor. Uncomfortably, the movie seems to suggest near the end that all of this had some merit as a way for Israel to find her own voice. After she was caught and after her guilty plea, she wrote another book, the basis for this film, finally in her own voice, telling her own story.

The performances are what make the movie worth seeing. Every one of them is a gem. McCarthy and Grant show us the flickers of raw honesty from near-feral people who mostly cannot bring themselves to acknowledge how far they are from where they think they deserve to be. Dolly Wells, as the trusting soul who purchases some forged letters, Jane Curtain as Israel’s businesslike but not unkind agent, and Anna Devere Smith in a knockout of a scene as Israel’s ex are all thoughtful, nuanced, committed, and compelling.

In Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letter, “Can you ever forgive me?” is coy, self-consciously self-mocking, but mocking the recipient, too. That is the voice of Israel, too, and even an actor as irresistible as McCarthy cannot make us feel sympathetic for her.

Parents should know that this film includes pervasive very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, drinking and alcoholism, drugs, and criminal activity including fraud and theft.

Family discussion: Why was Lee proud of the letters she forged? Why was it hard for her to get along with people? What do we learn from Elaine?

If you like this, try: Lee Israel’s books and “84 Charing Cross Road”

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The Happytime Murders

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and offensive language
Date Released to Theaters: December 3, 2018
Copyright STX Films 2018

A couple of minutes into “The Happytime Murders,” an adorable Muppet-like puppet says the f-word. If that strikes you as funny, think very carefully about whether it is funny enough for 90 minutes of pretty much the exact same joke to justify the price of a movie ticket. If you want to hear puppets swear and talk about porn, see “Avenue Q.” If you want to see a detective try to solve a murder in a show business community where entertaining non-human characters are second-class citizens, see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” If you want a good time at the movies, do not go to see this.

It might have made a pretty good Funny or Die video. But it is not enough to sustain even a less-than 90-minute running time. It is vastly less entertaining than the behind-the-scenes credit sequence showing how some of the scenes were filmed. And it is vastly less interesting than a movie about adults trying to trash the imperishable legacy of a legendary father, as is the case here with the Henson kids making a hard-R movie with characters from the Muppet world their father created.

Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a disgraced cop-turned private detective with a comely receptionist named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, the movie’s highlight). A beautiful new client (Dorien Davies) asks Phil to find out who is blackmailing her. Phil investigates a possible connection in a porn shop (where a puppet cow is having her udder massaged by a puppet octopus) just as a gunman arrives and kills everyone else in the store. One of the victims was an actor on a popular television show called “The Happytime Gang,” featuring Phil’s brother and a bunch of other puppets, along with a human named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), once Phil’s girlfriend.

Phil’s former partner, Connie Edwards (co-producer Melissa McCarthy) shows up, and her lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) assigns them to work together on what turns out not to be a simple robbery but a plot to kill off all of the Happytime Gang. Phil and Connie track each one down, bickering along the way, and failing to protect any of them. This is an opportunity to show many puppets engaging in extremely depraved behavior including substance abuse and prostitution and brutal murders with bits of fluff and disembodied puppets everywhere. Fun!

What makes the Muppets magical is the vivid personalities. We don’t love Kermit and Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf and Elmo and Oscar and Big Bird and the Swedish Chef and Fozzy Bear because they are puppets. We love them because they are characters, as vivid and engaging and real as any human. The puppets here, are expertly made but bland. And so, despite all the naughty talk and truly filthy behavior, is the script. It is too lazy to even think through its premise, beyond “it’s funny to have characters usually designed for children say and do R-rated things.” A human has a transplanted puppet liver. Puppets and humans apparently have sex with each other. Puppets have puppet children and, if the puppets who have children are cousins, those children do not have the correct number of eyes. Hilarious! And on top of regular old fashioned bad taste, it has the extremely poor judgment to have a “puppet lives matter” element.

A brief pause before my conclusion to mention Maya Rudolph, who almost packs a whole movie’s worth of watchability in her irresistible performance. As Bubbles, she manages to pay tribute to and slightly parody the classic hard-boiled but soft-hearted dames who used to work for detectives like Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade. The timbre of her voice, she way she holds her shoulders, the way she walks, the way she picks a lock, the way she thanks Phil for bringing her a candy bar — each moment is a small chamber piece of exquisite choices. McCarthy is great. She’s always great. But she is not always great at picking projects, and this one, despite her crackerjack timing and remarkable focus, is a big, fluffy, dud.

Parents should know that this film includes constant extremely strong, vulgar, and crude language, very explicit sexual references and situations, drinking, smoking, drugs, violence including guns and fire, and characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What parallels is this movie suggesting about today’s political issues? Why did the humans feel superior to the puppets?

If you like this,try: “Avenue Q”

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Life of the Party

Posted on May 10, 2018 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, gun, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 11, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Thank you, Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, for figuring out that what we want to see is Melissa McCarthy as America’s sweetheart, not a deranged sociopath. In their previous films, “Tammy” and “The Boss” and in McCarthy’s “Identity Thief” the brilliant comic actress with the adorable dimples was cast as weird, heartless, damaged and damaging characters. It takes nothing away from McCarthy’s considerable dramatic talent (she was outstanding in “St. Vincent” and we are very much looking forward to her performance later this year in the fact-based story of a literary fraud and forger, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) to say that she is at her very best and funniest when she is irrepressibly sunny.

And so Falcone and McCarthy have created just that in Life of the Party, where she plays Deanna, a loving mother and housewife who learns, as she and her husband (Matt Walsh of “Veep”) drop their daughter off at college for her senior year, that her husband is leaving her because he has fallen in love with another woman (“Modern Family’s” Julie Bowen).

Deanna, who wears a “Proud Mom” sweatshirt and has devoted her whole life to her family, is angry and disappointed. She decides that her biggest regret was dropping out of school when she became pregnant with Maddie (Molly Gordon), so what she wants to do is go back and get her degree. This has the additional benefit of being on campus with Maddie who is predictably a bit nonplussed, but supportive. And Maddie’s sorority sisters love Deanna’s enthusiasm and kindness. Yes there’s a mean girl (and an 80’s party dance-off! Yay!), but we don’t have to slog through the expected scenes of students underestimating Deanna just so she can show them how wrong they were.

As in McCarthy’s other best comic roles, in “Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” “Ghostbusters,” and “The Heat,” Deanna may be awkward and overly effusive, but she is also supremely capable and in most situations, confident as well. It’s easy to get a cheap laugh from incompetence and failure, and there are a few of those here, primarily from the underused Gillian Jacobs, playing an undergraduate who was in a coma for eight years and has some catching up to do. Deanna may have a problem with oversharing, she does not always make good choices, and for some reason public speaking puts her into a panic, but she is both smart and wise. She has a sustaining friendship (the invaluable Maya Rudolph) and a perpetual sunniness that everyone around her finds endearing. Her soon-to-be-ex with a skinny blonde girlfriend and a new earring tells her he needs an “upgrade.” But it is Deanna who finds herself upgrading in every category, including a handsome and devoted young beau, played by the very appealing Luke Benward. That is a satisfying starting point for some mostly-adorable silliness and a lot of heart. Deanna repeatedly says she is “down to clown,” which is supposed to be an eye-rolling mom-ism. But it is McCarthy who is truly down to clown and we are all the better for it.

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations, potty humor and crude jokes, drinking and drugs, comic mayhem, peril and violence, a gunshot, and some mild language.

Family discussion: What did the girls like about Deanna? What was the biggest change she made?

If you like this, try: More college comedies, including “Back to School,” “Sydney White,” “High Time,” and “The House Bunny”

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Cook-Off

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:16 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Take one “British Baking Show” and add a cup of Christopher Guest improvised mockumentary, a lot of processed food products, a gallon of ambition, romantic complications, sibling rivalry, and a muffin-head-wearing mascot, and let it marinate for a decade and you’ve got “Cook-Off,” a very funny movie made ten years ago but just now being released in theaters. Its stars include Melissa McCarthy, Niecy Nash, Diedrich Bader, and the late Marcia Wallace. It has all the ingredients for a tasty little entertainment.

Like Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” this is a story about middle-class Americans passionately seeking to outdo each other, with a gallery of brilliant improv actors making small fights into a cutthroat competition. It takes place at a Pillsbury Bake-Off-style cooking contest with co-screenwriters Cathryn Michon and Wendi McLendon-Covey playing sisters Sharon and Pauline Solfest, who work together selling sex toys to married Lutheran women at home but have both qualified for the competition. Sharon (Michon), whose many different hairpieces are a hoot, is outgoing and outspoken, engaged to Lars Hagerbakke (Gary Anthony Williams), who is a bit confused about his identity, in part because he is a black man adopted by a white Swedish family. Her sister Pauline (McLendon-Covey) is withdrawn and shy, but don’t count out her creamed corn.

Also in the competition are Ladybug Briggs (Niecy Nash), the wheelchair-confined mother of a part-time preacher, the very, very pregnant Patty (Romy Rosemount), and the first-ever male contestant (Dietrich Bader), who just happens to be engaged to a former contestant who, after making it to the finals three times, is no longer eligible to compete, raising questions about the legitimacy of her fiance’s entry. Amber Strang (McCarthy with her real-life husband Ben Falcone) arrives too late but wear everyone down with their elaborate explanations and get to compete as well. And a hard-driving realtor is the Mama Rose of the competition, pushing her daughter like she’s selling a house. Meanwhile, Gavin McLeod and Marcia Wallace play themselves as the celebrity judges and the sponsor’s mascot, the guy with the muffin head, is wandering around contributing to the sense of happy (at least for us in the audience if not the characters) chaos.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, some crude sexual references and drinking.

Family discussion: Which contestant were you rooting for? What’s your signature dish?

If you like this, try: “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”

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