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Geriatric Cheerleaders, Satanic Temples, and Other Weirdness in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Geriatric Cheerleaders, Satanic Temples, and Other Weirdness in TheatersPhoto still from "Poms," via IMDb.
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Man, there are a lot of movies opening this weekend. None really has a shot at unseating Endgame for the top spot, although Keanu and his dog might be eyeballing that seat for next week. In the meantime, though, studios and indies alike are taking a chance at capturing your imagination. Mostly they fail, but not entirely.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

by Hope Madden

When my son was small and we played pretend, I made believe I was Snorlax so I could lay on the couch and do nothing. Does that make me a bad parent? Well, a lazy one, anyway, but the point is, I logged countless hours on that couch watching all manner of pocket monster.

I was dragged unwillingly into the world of Pokémon. No, I am not exactly the target audience for Pokémon Detective Pikachu (read: I am in no way the target audience for this movie). But, when Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds at his Ryan Reynoldsiest) says, “Mr. Mime is the worst,” I know enough to understand that shit’s the truth.

So, there is a plot. It involves loads upon loads of daddy issues, primarily (but not exclusively) those that hang over Tim Goodman (Justice Smith). In looking for his father he falls into a mystery involving a Pikachu who is not only adorable (he admits as much himself at least twice), but is also connected to Tim. Tim can understand him.

For the uninitiated, Pokémon just repeat their own names over and over and over again in a manner that makes you want to take your own life, and yet you tolerate it because you really do love your son.

But not this Pikachu! Sure, others can only hear his cute “pika pika,” but Tim can hear actual words, and those words are telling Tim, in a humorously snarky way, that he needs to unravel this mystery and work on his interpersonal skills.

Bill Nighy shows up as an entrepreneur/philanthropist/genius. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe languishes with bafflingly limited screen time as a detective who is, let’s be honest, not very good at his job.

Kathryn Newton is a plucky would-be investigative journalist, her trusty Psyduck in tow. (Note: Psyduck is also the worst.)

Part of the entertainment value here is the genuine fondness for the content director Rob Letterman and his army of screenwriters bring to the table. Good looking CGI, committed performances and a solidly comedic but not too ironic tone also help.

The film doesn’t shoot over the heads of the youngest fans, does embed scads of references and homages for those there for nostalgia, and throws around enough kid-friendly Reynoldsisms to entertain parents who mercifully missed out on Pokémon Gen 1 and 2.

Is it a colossal waste of Ken Watanabe’s talent? Oh God, yes. Terrible.

But honestly, otherwise I don’t have a lot of complaints.

Grade: C+

Tolkein

by George Wolf

Better confess right now: the whole Hobbit, Lord of the Rings thing just isn’t my bag. God bless you if you love the books, films and all, but the whole story just leaves me cold.

That’s not to say I can’t respect and admire the incredible imagination of author J.R.R. Tolkien, or the biopic about him that’s full of so much respect and admiration.

But what’s strangely missing in Tolkien is the wonder, the spark of endless creativity so abundant in the author’s expansive literary landscapes.

Writers Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson anchor Tolkien’s pre-Hobbit life in the trenches of WW1. As Officer Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) searches the battlefield for a boyhood friend, flashbacks fill us in on his upbringing as an orphan adopted into wealth.

With an eye on “changing the world through the power of art,” Tolkien forms a “Dead Poets” – type secret society with his mates at Oxford, where he impresses esteemed language professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi in a wonderful cameo) as well as the lovely Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).

Both Hoult and Collins are committed and pleasing, but the courtship becomes just another informative but less-than-engrossing leg the film stands on.

Though director Dome Karukoski keeps things well-assembled and plenty reverent toward his subject, this film never quite conveys the spirit of inspiration it seeks to celebrate. With a frustrating lean toward safety over enlightenment, Tolkien turns an ambitious quest into a rather pedestrian journey.

Grade: B-

Poms

by Christie Robb

At a time when movies are pushing three hours, it feels weird to want one to run longer, but at just over an hour and a half, Poms feels way too short. It’s like a long SNL sketch.

A female-centric comedy about a retired teacher aching for one last shot at her childhood dream of becoming a cheerleader seems like a good option for Mother’s Day weekend—especially for the Boomers and their kids. The cast looks solid: Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Pam Grier, and Rhea Perlman. Poms coming “from the studio that brought you Bad Moms” appears promising.

But it’s all just perfunctory.

Director Zara Hayes and writer Shane Atkinson, both TV veterans making feature debuts, introduce characters via montage and then give them little to do or say.

People become strange antagonists, set on denying the senior cheerleading squad practice/performance time for no discernible reason. Folks burst into tears or have 180 degree shifts in perspective simply because the plot demands it.

Still, Keaton’s performance of a woman striving to live in the moment while hiding terminal cancer is effective. The chemistry between Keaton’s snarky Martha and Jacki Weaver’s bubbly Sheryl is cute. And when they are performing, the women look like they are having a nice time.

You just wish that there was more of a story there, more character development, more cheerleading even. The cast is way too good for this.

Grade: C-

The Hustle

by George Wolf

1964’s Bedtime Story begat 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and now, after begettin’ a gender switch, the con is on again as The Hustle.

This third time is not lucky, or charming, or funny. Mostly, it’s just painful.

Anne Hathaway is high-class grifter Josephine, who’s wary of newcomer Penny (Rebel Wilson) trying to work the same bit of French Riviera turf. Josephine’s attempts to drive Penny away go nowhere, so the two hatch a wager to decide just who will have to find new hunting grounds.

Hathaway is a worthy Oscar winner, and though Wilson’s pony could really use more tricks, she can be funny. What either one of them saw in this inane script is beyond me and beneath both of them.

The film seems overly proud of itself for the girl power wokeness, while director Chris Addison bases the updated gags on such contorted silliness that when Penny exclaims “That makes zero sense!” it feels like we just learned the identity of Keyser Soze.

If you’ve seen either of the first two go ’rounds, you already know how the con winds up, and it’s never been less fun getting there.

But if the heart of The Hustle is new to you, see steps one or two.

Grade: D

Hail Satan?

by Hope Madden

Who’s up for a Satanic Temple recruitment video?

If you’re thinking Christopher Lee and blood-drinking, virgin-sacrificing minions planning to summon demons forth and end humankind, well, you’re not alone. But you are off the mark.

And while I’m not sure documentarian Penny Lane intended recruitment with her film Hail Satan?, it’s really hard not to find yourself rooting for this scrappy group of idealists.

Lane and her subjects trace a brief history of Satanic grotesquerie in America. From Anton Lavey’s psychedelic Church of Satan (“a rat pack carnival”) to the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s through the abominable behavior inside the Catholic Church, the film notes how the devil has been used in American popular culture.

But for TST, “Satanism” is simply a way to rework a pejorative term used historically to mark the outsider—a group to which members certainly relate.

Lucien Greaves (a pseudonym) devoted himself to establishing The Satanic Temple as a simple societal outgrowth, a tumor, if you will, on the ass of a state of Christian theocracy he saw in our country. He doesn’t worship Satan. He doesn’t even believe in Satan.

Greaves believes in the religious pluralism promised by the US Constitution, and what better way to convince a state house to remove its ten commandments statue than to insist on the erection of an 8 foot statue of Baphomet on the same lawn? Because, as far as the laws of the US are concerned, if you can’t have one, you can’t have the other.

Lane documents the organization’s growth from theatrical political activist cell to global network of connected communities. Her wry delivery matches the sensibilities of the Satanists in question, but their outrage and their unexpected sense of community fuel the film.

As Lane’s investigation uncovers, The Satanic Temple’s surprising surge in popularity owes itself not just to a citizenry troubled by a sudden swing toward theocracy. It’s also due to the organization’s ability to represents a unified voice for outcasts.

Those very people most vilified by a conservative “Christian” point of view find acceptance here. And  while there may be no better way for them to stick it to their oppressors, this is also their opportunity to make a difference.

If the point of a documentary is to enlighten while it entertains, few docs have succeeded on both fronts as entirely as Hail Satan? In turns frustrating, funny and provocative, it is always a clear-eyed image of America as defined by our citizen’s imperative to challenge our government to better realize the ideals of our Constitution.

Grade: A-

Wild Nights with Emily

by Hope Madden

Here’s a fun trend in recent indie filmmaking: let’s revisit our historic “spinsters”, shall we?

Craig William Macneill gave Lizzie Borden the treatment last year with Lizzie, offering a pretty speculative and yet decidedly clear-eyed plausibility. But Madeleine Olneck has actual history to back her up.

Plumbing Harvard University Press’s stash of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, Olneck suggests a different, funnier, slyer image of the “recluse poet.”

Wild Nights with Emily plays almost like an episode of Drunk History, although no one seems to be drunk. Olneck simulcasts two parallel retellings of the life of America’s most beloved female poet, and among its most beloved poets, regardless of sex.

Wild Nights does not disregard sex, though.

One storyline—the one you’ll recognize—is dictated by Mabel Todd (a delightful Amy Seimetz in a rare comedic performance). As she stands in her cotton candy pink dress and hat, she regales a rapt audience with stories of the Emily Dickinson she knew.

Well, “knew” seems to be a strong word.

Todd was, indeed, the first to publish Dickinson’s work aside from a stray newspaper editor here and there. And why was that? Because Dickinson was a recluse who shunned publication, as Todd defined it and history was so quick to embrace it?

Or because Dickinson’s rule-defying work was ignored by the literary establishment of her time and because she shunned Todd?

The offsetting narrative explores a different view of Dickinson, warmly and beautifully portrayed by Molly Shannon. Her relationship with lifelong friend, expert reader, fierce proponent and sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), fuels a poignant and funny story.

Is a likelier reading of Dickinson’s work and letters that of a passionate, lifelong love affair with Gilbert? Olneck’s consistently entertaining narrative certainly believes so.

This is a specifically political film, one that begs with outrage that we reexamine the stories we’ve been told about women in history—this one woman, in particular.

It’s also a mash note to the breathtaking originality and talent of the poet, whose words flow through the film without burdening it by self-importance or pretentiousness. No, Olneck’s audacious wit and Ziegler and Shannon’s performances—alongside spot on comic turns from Seimetz, Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan and Kevin Seal—guarantee the film never bends toward anything remotely stuffy.

Instead, Wild Nights with Emily offers a refreshing and awfully entertaining new way of seeing an American treasure.

Grade: B+

Charlie Says

by Hope Madden

It’s been 50 years since Charles Manson and his family effectively terminated the 1960s. Filmmaker Mary Harron (American Psycho) joins Daniel Farrands and Quentin Tarantino in commemorating the anniversary.

Earlier this year, Farrands unleashed the grim and quickly forgotten The Haunting of Sharon Tate, while Tarantino’s next likely cultural phenomenon, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,  promises to shine some of its spotlight on the Manson family crimes as well.

Harron’s film, Charlie Says, follows Leslie Van Houton (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon), three years after their incarceration, as they reflect on Manson’s promises and their own actions.

The aptly titled film is as concerned with the women’s brainwashing as it is the crimes themselves, although it unfortunately provides no real insight into either.

Harron spends about half the film in the California Women’s Correctional Facility, where the trio is taught by dedicated grad student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever, portraying the author of the book that inspires the film).

The eerie chorus of “Charlie says…” greets nearly every question Wever lobs at her students, which generally spurs a flashback to time on the ranch with Charlie (Matt Smith).

Here we hit a snag, because Smith lacks the charisma, the hatred, the ugliness or the psychotic aura to pull of Manson. He is never terrifying, never seductive—never convincing.

In fact, most of the flock lacks the weather beaten conviction we recognize from police tapes. The period detail and tone lack degrees of authenticity as well.

Harron’s film opens strong, but it quickly loses its footing and never really finds it again. Working from Guinevere Turner’s screenplay, Harron brings up some interesting themes—particularly questioning the point of breaking through to these women, knowing that puncturing their fantasies only means their clear-eyed horror whether looking backward or forward.

But she doesn’t really land any punches. The film never feels particularly queasying, especially enlightening or even very memorable.

I guess we still have Tarantino. Or maybe it’s just time we all moved on and stopped obsessing over what Charlie had to say.

Grade: C

Also opening in Columbus:

Dogman (R)
General Magic (NR)
Our Evil (R)
The Professor and the Madman (NR)
Ramen Shop (NR)

Read more from Hope and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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