80 FOR BRADY
Among the quartet of living legends who star in 80 for Brady, Jane Fonda plays a romance-hungry author of steamy, football-themed fan fiction. Director Kyle Marvin's buddy comedy could hardly be called steamy, but it, too, is football-themed fan fiction, and about as winning as movies of its type ever get. Sitting next to my dad for a Chicagoland screening alongside my mom, sister-in-law, and female bestie – all three of whom were stoked for the experience and wound up having a blast – I was just praying I wouldn't hate the film … or, at the very least, that I wouldn't detest it as much as the last cineplex release I caught with my folks. (Sorry, Ma: I still think Ticket to Paradise sucks.) But when, as 80 for Brady's end credits rolled, my mother asked me what I thought, not only did I not have to lie, but my “I really liked it” response may well have been an understatement.
As I see it, there are two ways to view Marvin's debut feature. One way is literally – in which case you might easily loathe the movie, especially if you're a die-hard devotee of Tom Brady, the NFL, the New England Patriots, and/or narrative believability. With Sarah Haskins' and Emily Halpern's screenplay inspired by a real-life foursome of football-mad seniors, 80 for Brady casts Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno, and Sally Field as longtime pals who travel to Houston to watch their beloved Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl. Their road to securing last-minute tickets – to viewing much of the game from the cushy confines of a luxury suite, no less! – is, it should go without saying, ridiculous. Before witnessing that historic gridiron match, our heroines take part in all manner of logic-defying monkeyshines, the nuttiest of which involve participating in a hot-wings-eating competition hosted by Guy Fieri, enduring stoned hallucinations courtesy of live resin gummies, and passing as dancers for a halftime show choreographed by Billy Porter. (The Tony and Emmy winner doesn't play himself in the film … but also kinda does.) What will really drive the literal-minded crazy, though, is the suggestion that Super Bowl LI wouldn't have had the outcome it did were it not for an octogenarian forcibly commandeering the coaches booth and giving game strategy and encouragement to the Patriots quarterback through his helmet's audio device. Brady, who does play himself in this feature he produced, is clearly on-board with the comic notion, but will dyed-in-the-wool Pats fans feel the same?
Applying the tenets of realism to a work as profoundly, joyously silly as 80 for Brady, though, makes about as much sense as expecting cinéma vérité from a Muppet movie. And if you go along with this comedy's wild flights of wish-fulfillment fancy and its contrived scenarios that are impossible at best, you might find this outing not merely enjoyable, but downright moving. For viewers who've idolized Tomlin, Fonda, Moreno, and Field for decades (Moreno made her Hollywood debut in 1950, for Pete's sake), this is clearly a screen gathering for the ages, even if it's a tad disheartening that it took such a goofy undertaking to ultimately gather them. But the absolute finest thing about the film is that, even at its most breathtakingly farfetched, it treats these legendary leading ladies with the respect they deserve. Happily, and maybe more surprisingly, Marvin's offering treats its audience with respect, too.
Part of the reason it's frequently painful to watch Diane Keaton in 21st-century comedies is that her routines are invariably focused on slapstick embarrassment. Watch shrieking Diane trip over the furniture! Watch her pratfall into a pool! Keaton generally performs such stunts like the gifted clown she is, but there's little fun to be had in seeing her routinely humiliated. By contrast, the rare moments of physical comedy in 80 for Brady are never at their stars' expense. When the ladies are required to show off their dance moves while impersonating Porter's entourage, the joke isn't about gals of a certain age sadly failing to look hip. It's about the ingratiating joy they take in the ruse – the women (especially Moreno and Field) are having such a good time doing the twist and the jerk that they completely win over their crowd, including the grouchy security guard who demanded the choreo in the first place. None of our leads are forced to vomit while eating spicy food or trip into a three-tier cake while high, and there aren't even any bitchy second bananas around to castigate the icons for being, like, so old. Marvin and his creative team obviously understand that viewers are there, in all likelihood, because they worship Tomlin, Fonda, Moreno, and Field, and the filmmakers consequently, wisely allow the stars to retain their dignity throughout.
Yet the performers aren't the only ones afforded this sort of decency, because 80 for Brady is also smart and shrewd enough to honor the knowledge that we fans carry into the picture with us. You'd have to be blind, for instance, to not notice that Fonda has had some cosmetic enhancement over recent years, and that the coifs she sports in the movie's trailer aren't the product of her natural hair. (On a couple of occasions during that preview, I was convinced that I wasn't looking at Fonda, but rather a slimmed-down Jennifer Coolidge.) So it was wise of the screenwriters to have Fonda toss in an early crack about how much money her phenomenal looks cost, and wiser still to give us a view of her wall full of elaborate wigs, plus a peek at her real hair in its naturally short, gray state. I'm also guessing that upon first hearing the movie's title, I wasn't the only one ready for a fight: “Hey, Sally Field isn't in her 80s yet! And Rita Morena is in her 90s!” Both truths are duly acknowledged here. (I loved that the back of Field's embroidered “80 for Brady” jersey had the “80” crossed out and replaced by “70.”) The material is continually sharper and more honest than you expect it to be, and oftentimes in unanticipated places: in the tactful treatment of Field's husband (Bob Balaban), whose absent-pants sight gag is given sweet poignancy by the man's obvious dementia; in the concerned but not frantic worry of Tomlin's daughter (Sara Gilbert); in the gracious chivalry of Harry Hamlin's former professional quarterback.
If I haven't gone into detail on the portrayals, it's mostly because I don't really have to; all of the leads are traditionally wonderful, and Tomlin, in particular, delivers a gloriously heartfelt performance with a convincing East Coast dialect, to boot. But this is the rare movie in which, if you can accept the goings-on at face value, just about everything works, from the earned sentiment to the throwaway wit of the visual drops to the charming supporting turns by Glynn Turman as an abashed retirement-home resident and Rob Corddry and Alex Moffat as anxious Patriots commentators. Plus, continuing the trend that started with last month's House Party, 2023 is shaping up to be a banner movie year for pro-sports celebrity cameos. Danny Amendola scores in his quick comedic bit, Rob Gronkowski steals a scene through his grin and dimples alone, and the film's namesake demonstrates a truly elegant presence and nails this PG-13 release's requisite dropping of its lone “F” bomb. It's with great delight, and more than a little relief, that I admit to adoring every minute of 80 for Brady. It's a super ball.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN
M. Night Shymalan thrillers used to be known, and in some quarters revered, for their plot twists. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time! That 19th-century village was actually a 21st-century village! Nowadays, though, they're more frequently known for their hooks. James McAvoy has a Split personality! Resort guests hit the beach and quickly grow Old! And now, with the release of the writer/director's latest: A family vacation is upended by a scary, portentous Knock at the Cabin!
I'm probably in the minority on this, but I generally prefer Shymalan's hook-y pictures to his twist-y ones – even if, for my money, he has yet to make a truly great film of either variety. There are moments, however, in which the solid, largely satisfying KatC suggests that greatness is entirely within reach. Based on Paul G. Tremblay's 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the movie finds married dads Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) enjoying a woodland vacation with their seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), and ordered to make a harrowing decision after the arrival of the world's least likely second-grade teacher. I originally considered making that descriptor “least convincing,” but one of this outing's biggest surprise pleasures is that, playing the bespectacled, heavily tattooed behemoth Leonard, Dave Bautista is totally convincing as someone devoted to the welfare of children. Speaking gently to Wen and her tied-up parents with a hushed fervor laced with terror and unmistakable regret, Leonard calmly, methodically explains the lunatic reason he and his trio of armed associates (Nikki Amuka-Bird's Sabrina, Abby Quinn's Adriane, and Rupert Grint's Redmond) have Knocked at the Cabin. It appears that all four of these recent strangers have had an identical vision of the impending global apocalypse, and the only way to prevent it is for Andrew, Eric, and Wen, as a unit, to select one member of their family for execution by their own hands. Now that's a hook.
It's also a hook with jagged edges. For every few hours that the family fails to make a choice, one of Leonard's crew will instead be executed, leading to a rash of worldwide catastrophes: tsunamis; lightning strikes; planes mysteriously falling from the sky. Meanwhile, if all four unwanted house guests die and the family still hasn't picked a victim, all of humanity will be obliterated, with Andrew, Eric, and Wen doomed to walk the earth alone. Unless, of course, the visitors are merely insane, or sociopathic homophobes – a possibility that emerges when it's revealed that “Redmond” may not be the man's real name, and that he may, in fact, have had a violent, gay-panic encounter with Andrew years before. I haven't read Tremblay's novel, but this is a setup that has “juicy page-turner” written all over it. And at its best, Knock at the Cabin is the cinematic equivalent of one of those can't-put-it-down beach reads – a movie you stick with even through the awkward dialogue and unnecessary flashback detours and inappropriate, unfunny jokes just because you're aching to see how the madness will ultimately play out.
Without giving away the goods – and apologies to anyone incensed about my first paragraph's Spoilers regarding the 24-year-old The Sixth Sense and 19-year-old The Village – I thought Shymalan's new genre entry succeeded admirably in its narrow goals. In the end, there really isn't a lot to the movie. Those aforementioned flashbacks to Andrew's and Eric's past, their adoption of Wen, and their happy-family dynamic are the only momentary respites from the rather claustrophobic happenings at the cabin; increase the usual budget for blood-bag effects, and you can easily imagine this material working just fine on the stage of an intimate black-box theatre. But Shymalan's direction is taut and visually inventive even when the conversation (with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman as credited co-screenwriters) is lackluster, as it frequently is; his slow pan toward Leonard's chest as the teacher makes a sickening sacrifice is one of the most hypnotic set pieces Shymalan has delivered in years. Young Cui is grave and cute without being cloying, while Groff and, especially, Aldridge provide deeply fierce, emotional portrayals, the latter's turns here and in December's Spoiler Alert suggesting the long-overdue arrival of a new archetype: the openly gay Hollywood hunk.
It's Bautista, though, who handily walks away with Knock at the Cabin, and he does so through the simplest means imaginable. I don't recall the man raising his voice even once over the film's 100 minutes. Yet it's impossible to take your eyes off him, and not for the usual reasons; were I the father of a seven-year-old, Bautista's strict-yet-sensitive Leonard would absolutely be the person I'd want looking out for my child's grade-school well-being. The tats and relentless doom-saying would give me pause, of course, but you can't have everything.
THE AMAZING MAURICE
You don't necessarily expect an animated slapstick about talking cats and rodents to be educational. But I have to admire the talents behind The Amazing Maurice for giving its young demographic a bunch of speedy, necessary lessons in storytelling – particularly storytelling in regard to movies. Thanks to the spunky, chatty Malicia (excitedly voiced by Emilia Clarke), a character who routinely speaks directly to the nonexistent “camera,” kids will leave with thorough understanding of framing devices and foreshadowing and flashbacks. They'll have a firm grasp of genre clichés, from misdirected attention toward a presumed enemy to the quarreling presence of mismatched leads who will inevitably fall in love. They'll be treated to examples of The Unreliable Narrator, The Tortured Past, and The Plot Point Planted in the Movie's First 15 Minutes That Only Pays Off at the End. And they'll be reminded why, in modern kiddie comedies, fart jokes are always money in the bank. Forget New York's Tisch School of the Arts and L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University. Save the tens of thousands and just send your movie-obsessed children here.
Because this computer-animated adaptation of author Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents was so under-the-radar, and because it wasn't a product of any of the usual big-studio suspects, and because it was only receiving minimal daily screenings at our local cineplexes, I instinctively assumed that director Toby Genzel's and screenwriter Terry Rossio's British release would be prototypical family-flick crap, if decently produced crap. But this tale of the titular furry feline (a suave Hugh Laurie) and his similarly vocal and criminal rat charges was unexpectedly terrific, filled with sensational jokes, impressively involving narrative twists, and more than a few legitimately unnerving visuals. Rob Brydon's clearly demented Pied Piper was definitely one of them, as was the swaying tower of rodents in human form malevolently voiced by David Thewlis. (It looks like one of those creepy-ass sky dancers from Nope redesigned to resemble the Headless Horseman.) Between its offhandedly sharp script and additionally topnotch vocal contributions by the likes of Himesh Patel, Hugh Bonneville, Gemma Arterton, and David Tennant, The Amazing Maurice was a hoot even for this adult not accompanied by a minor. I might even see the movie again before it vanishes, because the minor who traditionally accompanies me to these things would no doubt love it.