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Films I Neglected To Review: Mothers & Children
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of Bad Moms, The Fits, Microbe & Gasoline and Viral

Although 2016 hasn't exactly been a sterling year for movies so far, it has proven to be a bit of a boon for female-driven comedies thanks to such genuinely amusing works as Love & Friendship, Ghostbusters and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. Alas, that streak has not been extended by Bad Moms, a film that wants to do for overworked mothers what The Hangover did for moronic douchebags and unfortunately succeeds. Mila Kunis plays a harried mom who is driven to the edge by unappreciative kids, punishing school schedules, a jerk boss, a philandering husband and, worst of all, the demands of the local PTA chapter and its president (Christina Applegate), a snobbish autocrat determined to ruin the lives of anyone who refuses to kowtow to her rules and regulations. At the end of her rope, she finally decides that enough is enough - she gives the husband the boot, she stops doing full-time work for part-time pay, tells the kids to do their own homework and bolts on the PTA in order to hang out and party with two similarly frustrated moms - stay-at-home wreck Kristen Bell and suburban slattern Kathryn Hahn. It is all fun and games for a while full of cheap wine, whippet hits and a hunky widower (Jay Hernandez) but when their activities begin to threaten the social order, the PTA bitch and her two aide-de-camps (Jada Pinkett Smith and Annie Mumolo) are determined to nip it in the bud by any means necessary.

It sounds like a promising idea for a movie - or at least a trailer - but Bad Moms suffers from the slight problem of not being funny at all, either as a flat-out raunchfest or as something trying to put a comic spin on the panic of mothers who struggle to keep up with the ideal vision of what a perfect mom is supposed to be. I think that a large part of the problem is that while the other recent female-driven comedies that I cited actually had women who were at least partially in charge of the writing, this one was written and directed by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, whose previous credits include the screenplays for such blazing works of feminist genius as Ghost of Girlfriends Past, The Change-Up and all three Hangover films, and let it be said that they are more comfortable with the scenes involving wild parties than in the ones that require something more than the sight of Martha Stewart distributing Jello shots. I am sure that they think that by having female characters acting wild, they are somehow breaking new ground but at its heart, this film is just as sexist and limited in its vision as anything else out there - it is a film that starts with a woman rebelling against the traditional symbols of motherhood and ends with a PTA election. Kunis, Bell, Hahn and Applegate are all actresses I like but not even their combined talents can do much to elevate the tired material that they have been given here. In fact, the only genuine laugh in the entire thing comes during the end credits sequence in which the actresses and their real-life mothers talk about their own motherhood experiences and Applegate tells how her mother took her along to the movies when she was nine because she wanted to see the new Al Pacino movie, which happened to be none other than Cruising. That story is funny and shocking while based in a reality that we can all identify with - all the things that Bad Moms as a whole is not.

At a time when even independent films are becoming just as banal, stupid and formulaic as their big-budget brethren, it is a relief to see a film like The Fits come along to challenge and provoke viewers. As the film opens, 11-year-old tomboy Toni (Royalty Hightower) is training at her local gym located in Cincinnati's west side when she becomes fascinated by the sight of an all-female dance team conducting their own practices. She soon joins the troupe and begins channeling her spirit and energy into a group concern in which she is now a part of a bigger whole instead of being an individual. Soon after she joins up, however, the members of the group are one by one struck by a bizarre malady that finds them succumbing to mysterious fainting spells. While the adults (who are largely kept off-screen for most of the film) struggle to find some explanation for what is happening, more of the girls fall victim to it but Toni remains unscathed. Is she just one of the lucky ones or is it her presence and the wild energy that she represents that is somehow responsible for the physical collapse of the once tight-knit group?

Those looking for clear-cut answers as to what is going on are likely to come away from The Fits feeling frustrated - although many theories are posited (including, most provocatively, the suggestion that there is something wrong with the drinking water, a notion that is all the more prescient as the film was made before the scandal involving the water in Flint, Michigan came to light), no firm conclusions are set forth - but it is readily apparent that debuting writer-director Anna Rose Holmer is not so much interested in answering the questions as she is in using them as a gateway for the real subject at hand, the challenges of entering adolescence and the pressures of trying to fit in with a group while still maintaining one's individuality. The result is a slightly hallucinatory coming-of-age drama that reminded me at times of the brilliant Australian cult film Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which a group of adolescent schoolgirls who fall victim to a mysterious event. Holmer does an impressive job of creating a tale that traffics in emotions that many viewers will immediately recognize while at the same time adding a mysterious spin to the material. She also gets a stunningly focused and effective performance from Hightower, who proves in her very first film that she has the capability to carry an entire film on her shoulders. From its instantly gripping opening frames to its knockout of a finale, The Fits is a one-of-a-kind movie that is worth seeking out.

With the expensive failure of The Green Hornet (not a great film but not nearly as bad as its reputation might suggest) evidently souring him on trying to push his decidedly unique cinematic style through the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus, French filmmaker Michel Gondry - who will be forever enshrined in the cinematic firmament for the trip masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - has concentrated on smaller projects such as the adolescent drama The We and the I, the animated Noam Chomsky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? and the romantic fantasy Mood Indigo. In his latest film, Microbe & Gasoline, he presents us with a coming-of-age story with just a hint of his trademark whimsy tossed into the mix for good measure. The film centers on two outcast boys - Daniel (Ange Dargent), who is dubbed Microbe because of his small stature and often mistaken for a girl because of his long hair, and new kid Theo (Theophile Baquet), a mechanical genius who is nicknamed Gasoline because of the smell that is permanently on his clothes - who become instant friends and decide to build themselves a car and drive off on their own. When their creation fails to pass the necessary road inspection, they hit upon the genius idea of disguising it as a house and pulling over to the side of the road when cops are around in the hopes that they won't notice. The gambit works and the two are off on a series of misadventures that include encounters with a friendly but lonely and decidedly overzealous dentist, some tough kids and the girl that Microbe has a not-so-secret crush on.

Upon hearing this description, one might assume that Gondry has chosen to overindulge in his penchant for the quirkily fantastical, as he did in such films as The Science of Sleep and Be Kind, Rewind. Aside from the car itself - which is a fairly inspired contraption - he has wisely chosen to keep this aspect of his artistic personality under control in order to concentrate more fully on the aspect to the film that clearly inspires him the most here, the friendship between the two kids and how it changes and evolves over the course of a few weeks. Dargent and Baquet both do excellent jobs of suggesting the extremes that an adolescent friendship can take - veering from giddy inseparability to absolute rage and despair at the drop of a hat - as they bop along the oddball trail that Gondry has in store for them. Devotees of Gondry's more outre efforts may be disappointed at first by the lack of overt stylistic flash but those that stick it out will find that Microbe & Gasoline tells a smart and recognizable story that they can embrace even without the tricks.

Viral is the latest film from the directing duo of Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, the guys responsible for such idiocies as Catfish, the third and fourth Paranormal Activity films and this week's Nerve, but it is the first time that one of their efforts has more or less bypassed theatrical play entirely (save for a few face-saving engagements) in order to concentrate on the VOD marketplace. This is kind of ironic because while it is far from being what any rational person might consider to be a good film by any means, it is probably the closest that the two have come to such a thing in their careers to date. Following a bit of family turmoil, teenage sisters Emma (Sophia Black-D'Elia) and Stacey (Analeigh Tipton, have moved to a new suburb and are just settling in when a mysterious new illness, dubbed “worm flu” for reasons that you don't really want to know, that has been causing trouble in far-off places turns up in their town. Stuck at home and separated from their parents when the town is placed under quarantine, the girls sneak out one night to attend a party - not even a deadly communicable disease will keep kids from a truly epic rager, after all. Inevitably, a couple of diseased kids arrive and before they can escape, Stacey gets a face full of unsavory fluids and becomes infected herself. With the help of her not-so-secret crush (Travis Tope), Emma tries to keep Stacey and her worsening condition under wraps in the hopes of figuring out a way of saving her. As time goes on, however, it seems more and more inevitable that Stacey will completely succumb and Emma has to come to terms with whether to continue to protect her sister at all costs or to do what she has to do to survive.

Viral is pretty dumb but there are parts of it that work well enough to make you think for a while that it may actually turn the corner and become a decent movie. For example, while Black-D'Elia and Tipton may not exactly be the most convincing teenagers, they do a very good job of portraying sisters who may seem like total opposites at first glance - one shy and timid and the other brash and outgoing - but who are nevertheless there for each other when the chips are down or the apocalypse is nigh. In fact, if the film had concentrated entirely on this aspect - as is the case with the current and superficially similar release Into the Forest - it might have turned out to be a fairly satisfying drama. Alas, there is all the stuff involving the epidemic and that is where the film goes all to hell in an orgy of faulty plotting, characters acting like idiots, cheesy special effects and a climax that all but shoves what should be the emotional climax to the side in order to blow some stuff up. Because of that, I cannot recommend Viral but if you happen to stumble upon it on cable sometime, it might be worth lingering on for a few minutes to check out the two performances and to speculate about how much better it could have been in the right hands.

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originally posted: 07/30/16 01:55:38
last updated: 07/30/16 04:49:49
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