ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET.
Are you there, Rachel? It's me. Mike.
We've never met, Ms. McAdams. I've heard great things about you. I've also seen great things from you, dating back to your Slings & Arrows and Mean Girls and Wedding Crashers era of nearly 20 years ago, and continuing through Spotlight, Game Night, and your these-days-inevitable appearances in a couple of Marvel movies. (It's got legions of fans, so is it okay if I leave out The Notebook? Thanks.) I was all set to compose a traditional review of your latest, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., which is somehow the first-ever screen version of Judy Blume's beloved coming-of-age novel from 1970. There's so much to praise in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig's adaptation: the ideally cast young actors; the exquisite comic mortification; the tween angst handled with the lightest of touches; the pitch-perfect period details … in all senses of the term. Yet in reflecting on Craig's achievement, I couldn't stop thinking about you, Rachel McAdams – or rather, your transcendent turn as Margaret's mother Barbara Simon, whose role has been significantly, and smartly, expanded from what we're given in Blume's original text. Don't get me wrong: The scenes with Margaret and her pals are lovely. But the scenes with Barbara are sublime.
In truth, I doubt my response to Craig's Are You There God? would have been so mom-centric had I been the age, and maybe the gender, of the movie's protagonist Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), the sixth-grader who returns from a wonderful summer-of-'70 spent at camp to some devastating news. As you know, Ms. McAdams, the elder Simons (with Benny Safdie playing Margaret's dad Herb) have decided to trade their two-career existence in New York City for the comforts of the New Jersey suburbs, where Barbara will be a full-time homemaker and her only child will grapple with the challenges of attending a new school, making new friends, and suffering the perils of adolescence. Were I watching the film as an 11-year-old, especially one as anxious about impending puberty as Margaret herself, it would probably have been easy to glide past the bits with the adults, no matter how charming I found you, Safdie, and, as Margaret's paternal grandmother, Kathy Bates – who, I must say, looks sensational, and has the hilariously passive-aggressive-guilt-mongering act down pat. But pre-teen me would almost certainly have gotten a bigger kick out of the kids, and under Craig's expert guidance, they're quite the kick indeed.
I hope, Ms. McAdams, that you had as good a time working with the now-15-year-old Abby Ryder Fortson as she seems to be having on-screen, because even when Margaret is miserable, this gifted youth radiates undeniable performance pleasure. Fortson, who was Scott Lang's daughter Cassie in the first two Ant-Man flicks, is already an evident pro, and her timing and reaction shots in routines involving Margaret requesting her first bra, practicing her bust-building exercises with friends, and following a cute jerk to the closet for the party game “Two Minutes in Heaven” are blissfully comedic. She's also, however, a radiantly naturalistic talent who never pushes Margaret's frequent melancholy and confusion, and the girl's soul-searching quest to find meaning in religion, any religion, is legitimately touching. Like Craig throughout, Fortson approaches her dramatic material with delicacy yet welcome emotional candor – a claim that could also be made for any number of schoolmates in Margaret's periphery.
Well, not the boys so much. Although Aidan Wojtak-Hissong is intensely sweet as Margaret's curly-haired – and, as the girl blushingly notices, armpit-haired – crush Moose, and Landon Baxter and Zackary Brooks are terrific as two very specific types of bullies-to-be, Craig's adaptation isn't terribly interested in them, nor on the pre-teens adorably played by Simms May and Jecobi Swain. It also shouldn't be. Instead, the focus is rightfully fixed to the females, with Katherine Kupferer and the delightful deadpan comic Amari Price marvelous as Margaret's respective friends Gretchen and Janie, and Isol Young gently moving as the fully developed grade-schooler Laura Danker.
Meanwhile, the best of Margaret's bunch is Elle Graham as next-door bestie Nancy Wheeler, the neighborhood's self-appointed “It Girl” and president of the super-secret club in which everyone must wear a bra and no one is allowed socks. (I did wonder, though, if a scene from the film went missing, because after a meeting or two, without our being told, socks were evidently back in fashion.) At first, Ms. McAdams, it seemed as though Graham was going to deliver a full-out reprise of your iconic Mean Girl Regina George – and as haughtily funny as the young actor was, that would've been just fine with me. But Graham also turned into the subtlest of heartbreakers, with Nancy's reactions to losing the boy she liked and experiencing her first period (at a fancy restaurant, no less) vividly reminding us that this prematurely confident tween was, at heart, as routinely sad, scared, and self-conscious as Margaret.
Everything about Craig's rendition of Blume's peerless YA is winning. In all honesty, though, I missed the complexity and notes of youthful bitterness and cruelty that permeated her debut feature: 2016's exceptional high-school comedy The Edge of Seventeen, which boasted rougher language but situations no more emotionally fraught, for the most part, than those in Are You There God? (And Hailee Steinfeld's Edge of Seventeen lead didn't have to buy her first box of sanitary napkins from a dead-eyed male cashier at a 1970s drug store.) Craig's sophomore outing deserves to be commended for its honesty about the trials of adolescence, as well as the writer/director's facility in making so many of those trials comedic without resorting to tastelessness, and scene for scene, I wasn't distracted by any obvious flaws, Yet while this consistently pleasing entertainment isn't precisely timid, it is fundamentally safe and unsurprising, and the only real thrill I got from the movie, Ms. McAdams, came from your luminous portrayal of Barbara: a beautifully reconsidered figure who brought to this familiar Judy Blume landscape – dare I say it? – a sneaking hint of Wifey.
Not the sexually experimental Sandy Pressman from Blume's decidedly adult-skewing 1978 novel, mind you, and definitely not the obviously topless one who graced the cover of the Wifey paperback that was routinely shared amongst my fellow junior-high students in the early '80s. But like that bored New Jersey homemaker, your Barbara Simon offers fascinating insight into suburban ennui, and also makes a successful argument for a completely different, equally compelling film running concurrently with the one Fortson is starring in. For we longtime fans, it's no shock that you're instinctively, unobtrusively hilarious throughout the movie, never more so than in your genius-in-miniature reactions to unexpected requests: for the purchase of Margaret's training bra, say, or, at the girl's school, for the hand-crafting of just a few thousand felt stars that'll be glued to the gymnasium ceiling. This Are You There God?, however, gives you so much more to chew on than merely serving as a parental second banana.
Due to your remarkably openhearted, emotionally translucent work, we understand fully, and without unnecessary dialogue, Barbara's fears about giving up her NYC career as an art teacher for stay-at-home motherhood and her hesitancy about potentially buying the “wrong” living-room furniture. We relate to Barbara's frustration as she can't give her child the assurances or problem-solving quick fixes she wants. And through some extraordinarily well-written sequences that aren't anywhere in the book, we ache via a subplot that Blume only previously implied: Barbara's inner turmoil as the Protestant child of parents who disavowed their daughter for marrying a Jew. In Blume's novel – which, of course, is told from a first-person perspective – we know about Barbara's family history through Margaret's narration but don't experience the girl's initial learning of it. Here, we do. And the segment in which you quietly, haltingly explain to Margaret why she has never met her maternal grandparents – making sure to offhandedly apologize and turn your face from her (and the camera) so no one will see just how deeply upset Barbara is – might be the single-most affecting piece of acting in your entire screen career to date. Or maybe the second-most, because I'm just now remembering, and welling up at, Barbara's overwhelming every-emotion-at-once response to Margaret's climactic entry into womanhood.
So allow me to thank Kelly Fremon Craig for this fantastic take on Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And to thank Judy Blume for the inspiration. And Fortson and her young co-stars for the invention and heart. And Safdie and Bates for the grown-up realism and wit. And the reams of designers for the accuracy. And most of all, allow me to thank you, Rachel McAdams. As personally destabilizing as it is to contemplate you now being old enough to play the mothers of adolescents, I can't think of any screen tween lucky enough to have such a radiant, substantial, magnificent mom. Thankfully, by the film's end, Margaret and her portrayer both seem aware of it.
To which I can only say …
JUDY BLUME FOREVER
If you know what the author looks like and don't blink at the wrong time, you may notice the actual Judy Blume making a cameo appearance in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., walking alongside her real-life husband and presumably real-life dog on a suburban street not long after Margaret first moves into her New Jersey home. Quick pop-ins of this sort are common in movie adaptations, but this one really tickled me, slyly suggesting that Margaret Simon left New York City and landed smack-dab in the middle of a Judy Blume book. If, however, you find that second-and-a-half with the novelist not nearly enough Blume for your buck, you're highly advised to check out directors Davina Pardo's and Leah Wolchok's new documentary Judy Blume Forever that debuted on Prime Video a week before Kelly Fremon Craig's film hit cineplexes. I was delighted to catch the film mere minutes after coming home from my Margaret screening. I'd recommend doing the same … though I imagine viewing them in reverse order would be awfully satisfying, too.
Because most movies, even documentaries, are notoriously weak at demonstrating the fundamentals behind artistic greatness, you won't receive much insight into the “how” behind the author's books – how, for instance, Blume so successfully, and prodigiously, entered the minds of souls of her young (and, later, not-so-young) protagonists. Maybe Blume herself doesn't quite know how she did it. What you will get, however, is a gorgeous cornucopia of biographical tidbits, chronological achievements, controversies, and more, with Blume – the now-85-year-old almost unspeakably beautiful and magnetic – speaking directly to the camera and proving to be a fabulous raconteur who's about as engagingly welcome company as you could want for an hour and 37 minutes. Process stories aside, no stone is left unturned here, from Margaret to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Blubber to Forever... to Wifey to Superfudge and beyond. As you would hope she would, Blume also has plenty to say about the sad, ridiculous banning of her books that was initiated in the 1980s and, astonishingly, continues to this day. Plenty of notable others – Molly Ringwald, Samantha Bee, Lena Dunham, PEN15's Anna Konkle – have a lot to say, as well, as do adults who have been pen pals with Blume since childhood, and whose moving testimonies left me a happily sobbing wreck. In terms of presentation, Judy Blume Forever is a largely standard talking-heads doc. Thanks to its subject, though, it's also Blume-in' awesome.
Despite the surprising ubiquity of its trailer – I seem to recall seeing it before everything from John Wick: Chapter 4 to The Super Mario Bros. Movie – I'm not sure what I expected from writer/director Nida Manzoor's genre-hugging action comedy Polite Society. But whatever it was, I'm confident that it wasn't a bizarre, and bizarrely entertaining, amalgam of Tarantino, John Hughes, Jane Austen, James Bond, martial-arts extravaganzas, spaghetti Westerns, My Best Friend's Wedding, and the Bollywood of your choice. The moods and stylistic tenors of this thing shift almost scene to scene. What remains constant, however, is the silly amount of even sillier fun provided, as well as the sense that, with Manzoor making her feature-film directing debut, a thrillingly imaginative auteur is being born before our very eyes.
Set in present-day London, the film finds British-Pakistani high-schooler Ria (Priya Kansara), an aspiring stuntwoman, incensed that her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is willing to give up her potential career as a visual artist to join the rich, handsome Salim (Akshay Khanna) in an arranged marriage. What Ria doesn't see because of her blind rage is that Lena deeply loves Salim, and he loves her. What Lena doesn't see is … . But I've maybe already said too much, as one of the greatest joys in Manzoor's outing is never quite knowing where your alliances ought to be. Ria seems to only have her sister's best interests at heart … but how are we to feel when she goads her pals (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri) into manufacturing dirt on Salim in order to discredit him, and – in a riotously sex-ignorant touch – fills the young man's bedroom with condoms overflowing with hand lotion as proof of his infidelity? And Lena seems to have nabbed a legit Dream Guy as her intended … but can we so quickly ignore the Satanic grin of Salim's mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha), who enjoys watching late-night TV with her son's head snugly nestled in her lap?
Every time you're convinced that you know where Polite Society is heading, Manzoor comes through with a weird, giddy switcheroo, and beyond the enjoyably broad comic performances across the board, the slapstick scenarios are continually inventive and wildly funny. (Kansara is excellent, especially in her physicality, when Ria is required to disguise herself as a dude to gain entry into a men's locker room.) I did find a few of the PG-13 hand-to-hand combat sequences distractingly, unnecessarily brutal – so much so that, on two or three occasions, I was momentarily pulled out of the film's profoundly, unrepentantly make-believe world. (The structural damage caused by the sisters' ugly battle in their upstairs hallway could only be paid for through several decades' worth of allowance money.) Still, Polite Society is a hoot, and my only truly angering complaint was the result of that aforementioned trailer, which, in retrospect, blatantly gives away the movie's denouement, and for an only-half-solid punchline, no less. Movies as good as Manzoor's deserve better. Memo to trailer creators: Crap movies deserve better, too.
Interestingly, like Polite Society, the gory action thriller Sisu is also divided into specific chapters, the chapter headings for both movies plastered on-screen in big, mustard-yellow title cards with accompanying, intentionally portentous music cues. There endeth the films' similarities. Because while Nida Manzoor's offering is a cheeky, amusing tale of love and revenge, Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander's is a ghastly, irredeemably repetitive tale of revenge and revenge – a movie that sucks all the fun out of watching Nazis being gruesomely annihilated for nearly 90 minutes.
It's the tail end of World War II, and gold prospector Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) has just hit the mother lode. Ambling back home to Finland with his bounty, his horse, and his devoted sheepdog, Aatami is stopped by Nazi troops, whose leader Bruno Helldorf (Askel Hennie) discovers the man's newfound riches. After much bloodshed, the Nazis steal the gold. After even more bloodshed, Aatami steals it back. Adding the half-dozen kidnapped (and, presumably, repeatedly raped) Finnish women sequestered in a Nazi truck, that's Sisu in full, and might've made for queasily enjoyable cinematic retribution if done with a modicum of wit. Yet while the unremitting viscera is believable enough, almost none of the violence is unanticipated, and none of the actors' motivationally empty readings convince you that anything real is at stake. Helander's one-note spectacle isn't the last 15 minutes of Inglourious Basterds so much as the first 15 minutes of Surf Nazis Must Die. And even that deliberately stupid “cult classic” was preferable to this one.
For Aatami, you see, is no ordinary gold prospector. He's also a legendarily unkillable blend of John Wick and John Rambo who, as we're repeatedly told, will never give in and never die. And although Tommila cuts an intimidating middle-aged figure, he can't overcome the essential ridiculousness and dullness of watching this vicious human deity continually enact impossible retaliation and survive impossible beatings and, naturally, cauterize his own bloody wounds … . He's not a character; he's a boring video-game avatar, and so desperately uninteresting that he makes Johns Wick and Rambo look like members of the Algonquin Round Table. For those who only want to watch Nazis meet intensely disgusting ends for 90 minutes – and I kind of thought I was one of those people – Sisu might prove satisfying enough. For my money, however, the film just reaffirmed that it can sometimes be incredibly wearying to get what you think you want, without variance, for an uninterrupted hour-and-a-half. As an opening title card informs us, “sisu” is an apparently undefinable Finnish term roughly translated as “perseverance in a task that may seem hopeless.” What's Finnish for “exhausting waste of time”?
BIG GEORGE FOREMAN
Few sports figures would seem to have lives as ready-made for the movies as boxer George Foreman, and that's the chief pleasure and drawback to writer George Tillman Jr.'s Big George Foreman, which, in its full title, is actually Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once & Future Heavyweight Champion of the World. Thank goodness area movie theaters no longer have marquees displaying their auditoriums' releases, or the multiplexes wouldn't have available space for anything else – and that title doesn't even include “Preacher,” “Adulterer,” “Father of 12,” and “Grill.”
Anyone already aware of Foreman's astounding life history knows the terrain that Tillman's film is sure to cover: his determined rise from poverty; his speedy escalation to professional grandeur; his legendary defeat of Joe Frazier; his legendary defeat to Muhammad Ali during the “Rumble in the Jungle”; his retirement, and fervid turn toward Christianity, following a near-death experience; his considerable weight gain during his years as a spokesman; his astonishingly successful return to pro sports; his ingenuity in removing the fat from cooked meat. And with the exception of the latter brainstorm, which (disappointingly) doesn't get more mention than its five referenced seconds in the trailer, Tillman and co-screenwriter Frank Baldwin hit on each of these – and numerous other – touchstones in just over two hours of screen time. But while I'm generally all for expediency, the events that unfurl in Big George Foreman feel so rushed as to imply that Tillman was directing with a stopwatch, and studio-mandated to not spend too much time on any one aspect of Foreman's life no matter how riveting. In his decades-spanning title role, Khris Davis is spectacular, wholly believable as a young, angry tyro, an endearing sweetheart in late middle age, and every developmental stop in between. (He also nails George's signature laugh, which makes you grin every time he unleashes it.) Yet it doesn't feel as though Davis is being allowed to give one complete performance so much as a whole bunch of randomly effective little ones. Big George Foreman is by no means bad, but given more breathing room – as in, say, a six-episode limited-series presentation – it might've been phenomenal.
Still, despite the traditional bio-pic blandness and dialogue that can most charitably be labeled “perfunctory,” there's a lot to admire here. Even though I was never unhappy to have Davis around, the strongest section of Tillman's film is arguably its first 20 minutes, which details the future champ's impoverished childhood in Texas and is overflowing with sad, specific details – particularly the grade-school taunts and insults he endured – that are delivered through something akin to visual poetry. There are loads of topnotch supporting performances, ranging from Forest Whitaker's as conflicted mentor Doc Broadus to John Magaro's as Foreman's shady money man. The boxing sequences, while not in any way novel or (à la Scorsese's Raging Bull) revealing of character, boast the necessary power and immediacy. And like the recent Sweetwater's exploration into the basketball career of noted barrier-buster Nat Clifton, the film's biographical details are juicy enough to survive an even weaker presentation than the sturdiness that Tillman provides. Big George Foreman is just good enough to be good enough. And it handily transcends that minimal praise whenever, in a ticklish cameo, Matthew Glave's Howard Cosell appears, and even more enjoyably, whenever Sullivan Jones' Muhammad Ali shows up to offer some beautifully executed, usually rhyming smack talk. I'll continue to look forward to a lengthier examination of this movie's subject. But if Tillman wants to recruit Davis and Jones for a two-hour, bio-pic remake of 1996's deservedly Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, by all means, bring it on.