Friday, September 28, 10:45 a.m.-ish: It used to be said, and maybe still is, that those wanting to sell film scripts during Hollywood pitch meetings were required to describe their potential projects in 25 words or fewer. That always sounded a little restrictive to me. Yet as I headed into my latest quadruple feature, I was pretty sure I could effectively nutshell Friday's lineup using only four words per title: “abominable snowman discovers humans,” “amusement park serial killer,” “Louisa May Alcott – again,” and the day's jump-starter “Haddish schools Hart, bitches!”
That latter précis would be for director Malcom D. Lee's Night School, which finds Kevin Hart's Teddy a comically excitable high-school drop-out hoping to earn his GED through the aid of Tiffany Haddish's comically brash instructor Carrie. I suppose those descriptors aren't necessary; it's not like, in any movie, Hart isn't going to be comically excitable and Haddish isn't going to be comically brash. But while everything about the film's publicity screamed “It won't be as funny as you hope!”, and the publicity didn't lie, Lee's sentimental slapstick actually delivers more laughs than I anticipated. That's partly due to the unexpectedly robust crew of second bananas. As Hart's fellow classmates, Rob Riggle and Mary Lynn Rajskub are more entertaining than they've been in years, Al Madrigal (despite his proclivity for Hart-like mugging) is broadly funny as a wannabe pop star with a major grudge, and Romany Malco – whose paranoid ramblings as a sci-fi-minded conspiracy theorist no one quite understands – is inspired enough to make you wish he were being sent a few of the scripts that wind up in Keegan-Michael Key's hands. Saturday Night Live veteran Taran Killam, meanwhile, steals several scenes in his one-joke role as the school principal – a man all too influenced by Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, baseball bat and all.
This bearded dweeb also speaks in one of the whitest black voices you've ever heard, which he does to the continued annoyance of Teddy and Carrie – and Hart and Haddish, thankfully, are sensational when playing annoyed. I wish that the latter had been given more to do in the film, especially considering Lee directed Haddish in her Girls Trip breakout last year, and that the former would curtail his too-familiar comic apoplexy that almost always feels out of character. (I swear, Hart could get cast as the Dalai Lama and still find an opportunity to switch into teary-eyed-shrieking mode.) But Night School's leads are beautifully paired in tempo and temperament, and whenever they're trading quips – with Haddish delivering the best insult by calling Teddy “a burnt leprechaun” – the movie is a fast and funny delight; the stars' rat-a-tat badinage is so enjoyably speedy that editor Paul Millspaugh seems barely able to keep up with them. To be sure, I winced at the spine-cracking physical gags and lamented the formulaic plotting, and wound up really bummed by the poor handling of the film's dyslexia angle. (This reveal that could've lifted Lee's comedy beyond the cookie-cutter norm is instead used as an excuse for Carrie to don boxing gloves and pound the crap out of Teddy until he wills himself out of his learning disability.) For what it is, though, Lee's latest slides through with a passing grade … though why it took six screenwriters and “story by” contributors to fashion a solid “C” remains a mystery.
12:45 p.m.-ish: By contrast, it only took five credited authors to come up with the script for the slasher flick Hell Fest, and I guess you could argue that one more might've done the trick. That theoretical scribe, however, would've had to have been solely responsible for the movie's character building and narrative shocks, because Heaven knows there aren't any to be found here. Boasting a simple premise to make Night School look like Proust, director Gregory Plotkin's horror trifle sends a sextet of interchangeable college kids into a touring Halloween carnival at which an actual murderer is on the loose, with the killer's mask – one also worn by festival employees – like what you'd grudgingly accept if your local costume retailer was all out of the Leatherface and Michael Myers visages you really wanted. Plotkin's whole movie, meanwhile, is like an underwhelming Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween rip-off, its numerous “Boo!” moments fundamentally unsurprising and its lumbering cat-and-mouse game deathly repetitive. (David Gordon Green's impending remake might prove disappointing, too, but at my screening, the trailer for the new Halloween featured more legitimate tension in three minutes than Hell Fest elicited over 85 minutes.)
Plotkin's film isn't entirely without merit. Cinematographer José David Montero provides some arresting splashes of color (not all of them crimson), a couple of early slayings are satisfyingly grisly, and a terrific pop-culture reference lands after our heroine gets covered in a sticky, pukey substance and her friend notes, “You've been Brundlefly-ed!” (A line that clever makes you grateful that at least one of the movie's writers wasn't working on autopilot.) Plus, the makeshift amusement park itself is genuinely unnerving – a terror-themed renaissance fair featuring all manner of mazes, attractions, and wandering extras on a tract of land roughly the size of Rhode Island. It was a cool place to visit. But I not only wouldn't want to live there; I didn't want to see it employed for a fright film with this little personality, either. The imperiled youths are really only noteworthy for their resemblances to other, more accomplished actors – the Ellen Page-looking one gets killed right before the James Marsden-looking one but well after the Freddie Highmore-looking one – and even a genre presence as iconic as Tony Todd gets buried in the blandly executed grimness. Here, the former Candyman is cast as a carnival barker who speaks like a depressed Baptist preacher and looks like an impoverished Willy Wonka, and while it's a scary sight, I doubt it's the kind of scary Hell Fest's producers were aiming for.
2:30-ish: Time now for Little Women. Yes: Little Women. Even though Louisa May Alcott's classic has already inspired a number of fine film versions, and a BBC miniseries that aired only a few months ago, and a Greta Gerwig adaptation set for next year. (Personally, I'm still haunted by the 1978 TV movie that cast Eve Plumb as Beth, because no nine-year-old should ever be made to watch Jan Brady die on-screen.) So maybe it was just overexposure to the material that made me one of only two patrons present for the new version's mid-afternoon screening – that, or the desire to simply wait for Gerwig's forthcoming take starring Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep. (All together now: Damn.) Whatever the reason, the absent Little Women fans didn't miss much; writer/director Clare Niederpruem's offering is mostly a dud.
It's certainly a well-meaning dud, with Niederpruem and co-screenwriter Kristi Shimek including just about every memorable Alcott moment into the mix, from Jo accidentally burning off Meg's hair to Jo earning much-needed money by selling her own hair. It also takes serious, laudable moxie to set Alcott's 1868 novel in the present day, a decision that sometimes plays beautifully – especially when the March sisters chat with their overseas dad (the humanely stalwart Bart Johnson) via Skype – and sometimes not at all. (Jo sells her flowing brunette locks, alas, to pay for a broken gumball machine.) But setting the movie in the 21st Century apparently also meant, in the way of all current YA dramas, ladling montages with goopy acoustic ballads on the soundtrack, none of which expresses emotions that Alcott's clear prose hadn't already.
And there's another, unexpected downside to modernizing the material: The March family now seems deeply, distractingly odd. Meg, thankfully, says as much when recounting how her friends laugh at the “weird homeschooled girls” of which she's a part. But despite its fidelity to Alcott, I wasn't reminded of Little Women in this adaptation so much as The Virgin Suicides – most definitely not the tome I want in my head while spending time with Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy, and their beloved Marmee. Now, the March girls' inventive, seemingly innocuous attic shenanigans seem less lovely and touching than kind of isolating and creepy, and the family's self-reliance begins to feel like a form of wrong-headed resistance. When Amy has her near-tragic accident and appears to be suffering from head and spinal injuries, why doesn't her family get her to a freakin' hospital?!
I could probably have ignored the movie's frequently uncomfortable tone if the portrayals made it irrelevant, and there's some solid work by Melanie Stone as Meg, Allie Jennings as Beth, Ian Bohen as older suitor Freddy, and Elise Jones as young Amy. (Taking over the role as a young adult, Taylor Murphy looks uncannily like Juno Temple, but without the inner fire.) Lea Thompson, though, has nothing but saintliness to play as Marmee, Barta Heiner is an afterthought as Aunt March, Michael Flynn sends out unfortunately rapey vibes as Mr. Laurence, and while he's endearing in his way, it maybe wasn't the wisest move to have Lucas Grabeel play Laurie. With absolutely no aspersions on Grabeel's character meant, watching High School Musical's loud-and-proud Ryan Evans attempt to pull off Alcott's bashful young suitor is … challenging, to say the least. Most disappointing of all, sadly, is Sarah Davenport as Jo. Although cast as one of American literature's all-time-great drama queens, Davenport still manages to overplay nearly everything, her Anne Hathaway eyes on constant ultra-pop, and her petulant, entitled, hyper-emotional readings delivered with such unvarying force that Jo is rarely less than a royal pain to be around. (This is the first version of Alcott's tale I've seen in which I was silently begging for Amy to toss Jo's writings into the fire.) Niederpruem's Little Women is unusual, for sure. I, for one, would've been happy with a bit more usual.
4:20-ish: I wind up a couple minutes late to the animated comedy Smallfoot, which I blame less on my personally misjudged screening schedule than on Little Women's unnecessary, time-killing acoustic numbers. (An unfair deflection, I admit, but still … yeesh, those acoustic numbers … .) But I arrive just in time for a full-scale musical number with Channing Tatum on vocal lead as a happy-go-lucky Yeti, so the experience is immediately way more fun than the Alcott. And for the most part, it stays that way.
The movie is directed by Karey Kirkpatrick, who also helmed 2006's Over the Hedge, a movie I really only remember for its obnoxious, high-decibel shrieking (most of it from Steve Carell as an over-caffeinated squirrel). Smallfoot, too, is lousy with obnoxious, high-decibel shrieking, even if its employment in one scene – with Channing's abominable snowman Migo falling, seemingly forever, from a mountaintop in the sky – winds up delivering the film's biggest laugh. No matter. Kirkpatrick's tale of a Yeti who befriends a human (James Corden's wildlife-show host Percy) is filled with lovely little grace notes, from the gags stemming from a roll of unused toilet paper to Migo trying to slap Percy awake and accidentally knocking out a tooth. The conceit that involves Migo and Percy not being able to properly communicate – Percy hears only rumbling growls, Migo only mouse squeaks – is unfailingly winning, as are Channing's and Corden's having-a-blast vocals and the offhanded visual gags that include a God's-eye view of earthbound activity that more accurately resembles a game of Pac-Man. The musical sequences are unexpectedly charming, the finest being Common's expository rap as the Yetis' ruler and Corden's car-free-karaoke take on Queen's “Under Pressure.” And just when it looks like Kirkpactrick's outing will ultimately emerge as pleasing yet traditional business, the film's moral (unless this is pure projection) turns out to be “Don't trust the lies you're being systemically fed.” When Migo tells a horde of his fellow Yetis, “The truth is complicated and scary, but it's better because it's the truth,” his sentiment can easily be read as a disguised attack on our government or on Fake News. I prefer to think of it as an advertisement for honesty. The goofy, mostly inconsequential Smallfoot may not make anyone who sees it a better person, but these days, I'll happily take a movie that at least wants to try.
6:05-ish: Driving home, and realizing my entire quadruple feature could also be handily summarized in four words: “It coulda been worse.”