Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Pops Saw a Movie: BRATS

 Actor Andrew McCarthy’s new documentary, BRATS (streaming on Hulu) spends the first fifteen minutes showing the actor merely trying to set up this film, which gives an indication of just how thin, self-indulgent, and meandering a project we’re about to endure.

McCarthy’s premise is that his career—nay, his entire life—has been negatively impacted by a 1985 article in New York Magazine by David Blum entitled, “Hollywood’s Brat Pack,” a tag the actor feels prevented him from being taken seriously by the film industry forever afterwards (never mind the fact that McCarthy is barely mentioned in the piece). Insisting that he’s “never discussed” how it felt to be part of that fraternity (a claim I find hard to believe, particularly as this movie is based on a memoir he published in 2021), McCarthy sets out to reunite with his Brat Pack brethren and discuss the term and its impact on their lives. it’s a pretty flimsy basis for a documentary, and what follows is an abject lesson in hubris, self-delusion, and petty self-pity.

From the get-go, McCarthy comes across as, well, a whiny BRAT, blaming his relative lack of success (at least the kind he desired) on everyone but himself. The fact that he gets almost no support for his thesis from the people who actually agreed to talk to him doesn’t seem to crack the facade, even if he waffles—depending upon to whom he’s talking—between hating the idea of the Brat Pack and agreeing that it was something wonderful and important of which he was lucky to be a part. The whiplash-inducing wishy-washiness would snap Charlie Brown’s neck.

While Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson wisely refused to participate, McCarthy does talk to a handful of actors who came of age with him in an era where (according to a number of interviewees) for the first time, movies were made ABOUT young people FOR young people (I guess they never heard of James Dean or the surf films of the ‘60s, and while yes, those were more about teenagers than twenty-somethings, remember the Brat Pack made a bunch of teen films as well). Emilio Estevez seems so uncomfortable having the conversation that he can’t even bring himself to move from the kitchen island and sit down. Ally Sheedy just thinks it was neat to have friends. Demi Moore seems like she never gave it much thought (she was only in one of those films, and was already a recovering alcoholic at the time). And Rob Lowe (arguably the most successful of the Brat Pack) laughs off any negative connotations to the tag, healthfully suggesting that perhaps McCarthy put things in perspective, embrace being a part of something people still remember after thirty years, and move the fuck on with his life.

Other actors who were Brat Pack-adjacent such as Lea Thompson, Timothy Hutton, and Jon Cryer (who shocks McCarthy by suggesting that Blane was not the hero of PRETTY IN PINK, which kind of shows the delusion at work in the protagonist’s psyche) try to humor their old pal Andrew, but not a one of them agrees that their lives and careers were seriously impacted by Blum’s article.

And when McCarthy talks to non-actors about the Brat Pack, they have even less time for his suppositions. Directors, producers, and writers mostly think it was a good thing because it kept the actors in the public eye and made them bankable, not to mention becoming a zeitgeist that helped to define an entire era, something most actors would kill to be able to say. Writers Susannah Gora and Ira Madison III are such fans of the era and its films that it almost feels like they think they’re in a documentary about how awesome John Hughes movies were (side note: The legacy of John Hughes is a topic I’ve looooong been meaning to tackle, maybe someday soon. Spoiler Alert: It’s not good).

Author Malcolm Gladwell, who seems more than a little bemused, tries to put the entire youth culture of the early ‘80s into a sociological context and discusses the etymology of the tag McCarthy so despises, offering, “It’s also funny, the rat pack and the brat pack in sensibility are polar opposites; One is anxious and immature and trying really, really, really hard to figure out their place in the world and the other group doesn’t give a fuck,” to which McCarthy defensively responds, “WE didn’t find it funny.”

Which is part of the problem: Andrew McCarthy doesn’t seem to find ANYTHING funny, his hyper-seriousness throughout the film displays not just a lack of perspective, but a complete dearth of a sense of humor. McCarthy goes so far as to repeatedly ask, “Where were you the first time you heard the term, ‘Brat Pack?’” as if it were a cultural moment as traumatic and consequential as the Kennedy assassination (for the record, nobody remembered).

The dramatic climax of the movie is a confrontation with the man who coined the term in the first place, journalist David Blum. Sadly, Blum comes off as narcissistic and delusional as McCarthy, insisting that what he wrote was not just fine, objective reporting, but was an act of youthful rebellion as important and era-defining as the Brat Pack itself. The two alternately spar and express affection for each other, contradicting themselves constantly trying to justify their respective takes on the article and its legacy. It’s ultimately a pointless conversation, much like the rest of the movie. Hell, the movie even ends with a phone call from Judd Nelson that allows McCarthy to finish with a tonally-bizarre and pandering clip of Bender’s climactic fist pump from THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

Ultimately, BRATS is… well, it’s sad. For McCarthy, anyway. You get the feeling that, despite claiming to have gained perspective and peace with this albatross he’s been wearing around his neck for four decades, he exits the film as desperate for the recognition he felt was so cruelly denied him as he was at the beginning (even comparing his experience to Al Pacino’s lifelong reluctance to be defined by THE GODFATHER). But not for one second of the film does Andrew McCarthy entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe he was held back by a lack of… talent? Or charisma? Perhaps both? Maybe?

But aside from being sad, this movie is also pretty fucking infuriating. Poor, poor Andrew McCarthy! Weep for the actor who’s been working pretty much constantly since he entered show business over four decades ago! Pity him!! For he has received neither the career trajectory nor the accolades he feels he deserved! Love him!!! As he is surely the victim of a cruel and heartless industry that, um, paid him more money than any of us will make in a lifetime and made him famous and allowed him the freedom to make this kind of absolutely repugnant narcissistic waste of 92 minutes that I could've spent wallowing in my OWN feelings of inadequacy and regret! 

Also, Blane was NOT the hero of PRETTY IN PINK. He was a major appliance.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Pops Saw a Movie: CIVIL WAR

Alex Garland’s CIVIL WAR could have been a powerful film. It could’ve been a chilling indictment of blind allegiance to an autocratic President. It could’ve talked about the ever-increasing divide that threatens to rip this country apart. It could’ve been a smart satire about the kind of apathy and ignorance that allow great democracies to crumble. Alas, CIVIL WAR is none of that. It’s actually little more than a rote action film with cardboard-thin characters, almost no plot to speak of, and worst of all, way too many unanswered questions. 

I was actually stunned at how flat this film is (and warning, there are spoilers coming, so stop now if you want to see it and make up your own mind). Garland’s at least tinkered with inscrutability before, and it’s obvious that his priority as a filmmaker is crafting memorable imagery over a cohesive narrative, but this movie isn’t exactly science fiction… it’s more speculative horror, and I wanted… no, I NEEDED it to tell me more. 

The gist is, America (this one) is in the midst of a Civil War incurred by a dangerous President who’s lurched into a despotic rule (he’s in his third term), which there are numerous factions, the major ones being the Loyalist States (comprising the entire northeast and stretching across the Midwest all the way to Nevada) and the Western Forces, being a teaming of Texas and California. No, for real. We are supposed to believe that CALIFUCKINGORNIA and TEEEYAHHHXAS team up to battle the evil autocratic government. Never has a creative decision made for purely commercial reasons (being, of course, not wanting to alienate potential Red or Blue viewers) had a more detrimental impact on a screenplay, as not for one second can anyone possibly believe this unlikely team-up.

But even if I could accept the WF as it is in the film, it’s just one of way too many unexplained things. Exactly what’s else did President Nick Offerman (the character isn’t named) do besides give himself a third term? What’s happening in the rest of the country? Why are there zero cars on the highway besides the press vehicles (is this a Hanna-Barbera cartoon?)? Why is New York okay with all of this? How has this impacted culture? And who designed the WF’s logo? 

Nothing in the film is earned. Thinly-developed characters don’t evolve, they just suddenly change. Hardened, grizzled journalists (played by Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura) and one wide-eyed wannabe photographer (Cailee Spaeny) just suddenly swap behaviors in the third act seemingly based on one traumatic event, leading to a climax that’s utterly predictable and carries no weight. 

Then again, nothing in this film carries weight. It teases depth, but never delivers. It’s like Garland had the idea to make a movie about America in the midst of a new Civil War, but wrote the screenplay without doing any hard work to make it feel believable. Unless the message of the film is simply, “Images are important,” CIVIL WAR fails to live up to its vast, urgent, and important potential.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Pops Saw a Movie: MADAME WEB

 When I saw that MADAME WEB had dropped on Netflix, I got way too excited. As much as I dislike rubberneckers, I just had to experience this train wreck of a film for myself. I say this as a superhero nerd who—like all of you—is suffering superhero movie fatigue. But this is the first time that THE MOVIE ITSELF exhibits symptoms of said malady, to the point of almost completely excising superheroics in favor of a lot of scenes of running away from things.

MADAME WEB is one of Sony’s flailing attempts to milk their rights to the Spider-Man universe (following two Venom films and MORBIUS, along with the upcoming KRAVEN THE HUNTER), loosely basing this film on a handful of Marvel Comics characters, including the titular Cassandra Webb. In the comics, Madame Web is an old lady, but of course, the movie has to make her an attractive young woman (played by Dakota Johnson). Stir in three different teenage girls who will one day become their own distinct Spider-Woman (all before Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, apparently), an obscure Spidey villain, and a young Uncle Ben as a paramedic, and you’ve got box office gold! Er, lead.

What little plot exists here (after much reported rewriting) is serviceable, I guess, but the whole endeavor is so rote, so weighed down with movie clichés (the overly art-directed journal, the pristine, un-gooey newborn baby, distracting product placement, the sassy black girl who’s flippant in the face of danger, to name a few), shitty CGI, and cardboard performances that absolutely nothing sticks. That’s a spider metaphor, and about as clever as anything in the movie.

If MADAME WEB can have any kind of legacy, perhaps it’s that no movie has ever better laid bare the fact that filmmaking is, to the bulk of its participants both in front of and behind the camera, just a job. Not every actor gives a shit about the story or has any connection to the character (Dakota Johnson notoriously couldn’t name one recent SPIDER-MAN movie, and may have thought her film was part of the “actual” MCU). And that’s fine. Nobody’s pretending that MADAME WEB is art. But it fails even as product (despite the constant presence of Pepsi imagery).

MADAME WEB is just lazy. It’s another movie with no opening credits (the title drops in the midst of a “Marvel” production logo that includes not one recognizable character, and even a full card at the end flashes for a half a second, as if the film is embarrassed by itself), that drops pop culture references (shitty ones at that) to wake the audience up and remind them that this is a period piece (it’s set in 2003, despite a ton of anachronisms), that tries to be clever by slightly altering familiar tag lines (“When you take on the responsibility, great power will come” … no, seriously), that reuses visual gags such as broken windows that splinter like spider webs so Dakota Johnson can pose behind them.

It’s kind of amazing to me to think that there was a time not so long ago that as a card-carrying fanboy, I felt obligated to not just see, but OWN every superhero movie that was produced, even ones I didn’t like (eg, BATMAN & ROBIN and DAREDEVIL). I think I realized that endeavor was not only pointless, but unsustainable by the time Andrew Garfield’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN came out in 2012. But I never dreamed that the day would come where there’d be SO MUCH OF THIS STUFF that not only would I not want to see all of it, but I’d wish it would stop. Or at the very least, stop being squirted out with all the creative care of a chicken McNugget.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Pops Saw a Movie: UNFROSTED

I’m not sure why I was trepidatious about Jerry Seinfeld’s UNFROSTED (and no, it had nothing to with the Seinfeld Backlash), perhaps simply because I’ve been burned by so much modern comedy; Most of it just doesn’t work for me. But I gotta say, I loved it. This (mostly) apocryphal tale of the race between Kellogg’s and Post to get a shelf stable breakfast pastry to the public is a broad satire of mid-century pop and corporate culture that hits way more than it misses. For me, anyway. 

Going into the film, it’s important to remember that supermarket shelves were very different in 1963. There weren’t a hundred kinds of Oreos, powdered “Kraft Dinner” was the only Mac & cheese anyone knew, there were two or three varieties, tops, of any specific snack item (Fritos came in one flavor: Fritos). High-fructose corn syrup had yet to find its way into every single food product (there’s a joke about that in the film, too). Adult foods did not often come in dayglo colors or dipped in chocolate. There was no candy-flavored vodka or beer. For the most part, kid stuff was kid stuff, and it had its time and place. And that made it special. 

UNFROSTED only really works if you’re someone who came of age when Saturday Morning Culture was still a thing (if you don’t know what I mean by that, then it’s not you). The movie is overflowing with mid-century pop and political characters and references, but not in a lazy, non-sequitur kind of way that dominates so much comedy today. Still, if you don’t get why Walter Cronkite being wowed by Silly Putty or the notion of Tom Carvel being ridiculed for being his own spokesperson is amusing, then yeah… you’re not going to dig ‘em… er, it (that’s another old cereal reference). If you ARE old enough to get it, you’re gonna wanna pause some scenes with the plethora of food mascots to try to see how many you can name (that blue giraffe was on the box of Kellogg’s TRIPLE SNACK, a short-lived breakfast cereal with PEANUTS!). 

But the movie is more than just 1960s references. The actors (so many, but not as distracting as OPPENHEIMER’s all-star cameos, because, you know… it’s a ridiculous comedy) all seem to be having a great time. Hugh Grant is terrific as a supercilious Thurl Ravenscroft (a very real person best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger and the singer of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"), a disgruntled mascot who rallies other food mascots to storm Kellogg’s in protest of the new product (a direct January 6 riff, unusual for Seinfeld’s usually apolitical style, and perhaps a bit too much of an anachronistic turn). Christian Slater as a milk mafioso, Melissa McCarthy as the scientist tasked with creating the fruit filling formula, Jim Gaffigan as the head of Kellogg’s, and even James Marsden playing Jack Lallane are all hilarious. Hell, I even liked Amy Schumer as the president of Kellogg’s rival, Post, and I’ve NEVER been able to say that about any other performance of hers. And (spoiler alert), Jon Hamm and John Slattery’s MAD MEN reunion scene is a pitch-perfect (sorry) cameo that adds rather than distracts.

The only real beef I have with UNFROSTED is, in a movie with otherwise stellar art direction, a scene depicting failed Kellogg’s products has some really bad fake packaging. I don’t understand how this can be a thing in 2024, but it pulled me out of the carefully-constructed world for an aggravating minute. 

Again, and as always, your mileage may vary. Comedy is perhaps the most subjective film genre, and I totally get why this thing fell flat for most people under the age of, say, 40. But if you’re someone who remembers when breakfast cereals had actual prizes inside, give UNFROSTED a shot.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Pops (Re-)Read a Book: HEY KIDS, COMICS!

 There was a period in my life when comic books weren't that important (two, if you count birth to age 5)... in the mid-90s, I had just moved to Hoboken and started working for Warner Bros. Records, I was newly-single and ready to mingle, and, frankly, mainstream comics sucked at the time.

That waning of my geekiness didn't last too long, and over the years, the medium that defined me more than any other has returned to prominence as a source of comfort, diversion, and inspiration. But it's the comics I grew up with, not modern iterations that hit the spot.

Rob Kelly's HEY KIDS, COMICS! (a re-read) is an anthology of essays about the impact of comic books, mostly from the age when they were plucked off of drug store spinner ranks. It's an often bittersweet collection that anyone who's ever dismissed comic books and superheroes should be forced to read. Maybe they'd stop being judgmental pseudo-intellectuals and understand the transformative and cathartic power of a cheap, disposable periodical full of ridiculous stories populated by impossible characters (particularly to people for whom real life had its share of challenges).

To millions of people.... this stuff matters.

Originally posted on social media, Aug. 29, 2021

Pops Watched TV: Three Netflix Stand-Up Specials

 I took some time at the drawing board yesterday to catch up on a few Netflix stand-up specials, with predictably mixed results. 

Patton Oswalt's WE ALL SCREAM is another example of how this once-mighty comic voice has fallen into a predictable rut of tiresome self-depreciation and almost rote absurdist similes. A really sad bit of crowd work (in a big theater? No, Patton) just feels like a forced attempt to stay true to his roots, but when one of your bits is about a case of mistaken identity with your groundskeeper, you're really not a man of the people anymore. There are a few good bits, but at this point, it feels like the guy should just stick to voiceovers (even though I find those distractingly annoying as well). 

Iliza Shlesinger's HOT FOREVER is another frustrating example of how this smart and fearless comic simply refuses to step out of her comfort zone of "elder millennial" talking about dumb dating and relationship shit. When she started discussing mating rituals like she was still in college (describing guys' disgusting bedrooms with no bedding other than a crusty sleeping bag on the bed), I gave up and tuned out. I have to assume that the last half of the show was about her recent motherhood, a topic I never need to hear a comedian discuss again. It's a shame because I really like her, but I just can't do the "men are like this / women are like this" stuff anymore. 

Finally, Nick Kroll's LITTLE BIG BOY is hands down the best of the three. While mining some of the same self-deprecating ground as Patton (they both even discuss bouts with diarrhea, if that's your bag), Kroll's work feels more organic and less self-serving than Oswalt's. A bit about everyone being annoyed by their mother is the kind of stinging but hilarious insight that Patton's lacked for many years. I highly recommend at least checking out this bit (it comes in around the 40 minute mark). 

Take these reviews with even more of my "it's all subjective" caveat than normal, as I really can't abide 99% of what passes for comedy. But here ya go.

Originally posted on social media, Oct. 22, 2022

Pops Watched TV: POKER FACE "Rest in Metal"

 First of all, I really like POKER FACE (streaming on Peacock). It’s a fun throwback to 1970s detective shows (right down to the credits which directly homage COLUMBO), and Natasha Lyonne is delightful as Charlie Cale, a woman on the run who can tell when anyone’s lying. You have to suspend disbelief that she happens to stumble upon a murder everywhere she goes, but hey, that’s the show. I can go with it. 

However, episode 4, “Rest in Metal” pushed it a bit too far for me. Chloë Sevigny plays the singer of a washed up heavy metal band who had one giant hit decades ago, but still hits the road every year, playing dive bars and desperate to regain wealth and fame. When their Craigslist-found touring drummer writes a song that they KNOW will put them back on top, they orchestrate an onstage “accident” for him so they can steal “Sucker Punch,” and quickly become a viral sensation (until Charlie, working as their merch girl, figures everything out). 

What makes the episode a fail is that it’s yet another TV show that gets rock and roll wrong. First of all, Doxxxology doesn’t seem like a metal band to me… and “Sucker Punch” is absolutely not metal, it’s a pop tune, which, given its provenance—no spoilers if you haven’t seen it, it’s the episode’s best moment—makes sense, but why make them a metal band? Why not just a rock band? But what’s even tougher to swallow is that within days of performing their stolen song at a dive bar, Doxxxology is being lavished with caviar, champagne, and lucrative contracts by stereotypical record label folks… it’s the fastest music industry rise since Bud Eagle (and cheers to you if you get that reference without Googling it). Again, it could’ve worked without playing into music industry tropes that are about as dated as Doxxxology (what record label is champing at the bit to sign a rock band comprised of 40-something metalheads?!?). It’s just too over the top to feel even remotely believable. 

Anyway. Not every episode is great, but it’s always fun.

Originally posted on social media, Feb. 26, 2023