The War with Grandpa: And the Mamaluke of the Year award goes to... Robert De Niro!
The copyright that trails Robert De Niro’s first theatrical release since The Irishman reads 2017. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that the picture swept cinemas in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States before holding its DVD premiere last month in Germany. The actor hasn’t appeared in anything even remotely suitable for the entire family since Stardust, a film so putrescent that it occasioned a rare early exit. Thankfully, The War With Grandpa did not merit a similar fate.
Age has not withered the actor’s fiduciary duty. In his latest run for the paycheck, De Niro stars as Ed, a retired architect whose impudence — a dispute over an automated checkout system leads to his kickboxing a grocer — almost ends in a robbery arrest. Remember when De Niro and Uma Thurman were lovers in Mad Dog and Glory? A mere 27 years later finds their 27-year age difference put to more practical use in a father-daughter relationship. It’s at Sally’s (Thurman) insistence that the reluctant Ed moves in with her family.
The story is based on Robert Kimmel Smith’s bestselling children’s novel; the family it presents is strictly standard issue. There’s husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), genial until pushed, which is generally around the point when Ed starts calling him “Artie.” Each grandchild gets carved off a unique character trait and an individual slice of subplot. Little Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon), the apple of Ed’s eye, is a Christmas addict; she has a reindeer on her back. The B-story involving sister Mia (Laura Marano) finds the teenager in a constant state of denial after getting caught in mid-makeout with her boyfriend. But it’s young Peter (Oakes Fegley) whose anger kicks off the so-called conflict. In an effort to make room for pop-pop, this boy’s life is upended: a grudge match begins between the little focker and dirty grandpa after Ed inadvertently causes his grandson’s resettlement from bedroom to attic.
Admittedly, the upstairs loft could have used a visit from the Orkin Man. (Is the appearance of a bat in the rafters a tribute to America’s foremost grandpa, Al “Munster” Lewis?) But putting myself in Peter’s place, the privacy and added space the attic affords make it a much more desirable location. Still, there’s a plot in need of motivation. No matter: in the lad’s eyes, grandpa took something from him, and he wants it back. What begins with a mini-beat box attached to a remote control car and foam sealant made up to look like shaving cream soon escalates into drone attacks and what could be the most memorable round of dodgeball ever staged before a green screen. Poor Thurman spends most of her time caught in the crossfire; fortunately, De Niro has brought a few other friends in to play along: Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Walken, all of whom appear to be having the time of their life as they square off with Peter and his pals for a game of whammies. And you’re going to have to trust me on this: it’s worth the price of admission just to hear Walken say, “Of course I do.”
Look for a brief cameo from Goodfellas’ Jimmy Conway: while drawing up the rules of war, Ed cautions Peter to always keep his mouth shut and never rat on his gramps. On another note, an exchange of condiment squirts to the crotch and a running gag involving Arthur spying Ed’s junk may find parents covering youngsters’ eyes and film critics looking at their watches. By way of compensation for all the aggressive behavior, an anti-war message is added even though the one who stands to profit the most from this film is De Niro’s stunt double. ★★
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The Swerve — High school teacher Holly (Azura Skye) appears to command the respect of her students, her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is set for a promotion at work, and their two sons seem to be relatively well-adjusted. That makes it even harder to shake the close-up on her bloody hands tightened around a steering wheel that greets us. One look in Holly’s worn-down eyes, and it’s a good bet her pursuit of the American dream is killing her. Also that the nuclear family she works so hard to hold together is about to go atomic. Darkness falls quickly as both husband and wife trade infidelities: Rob with an employee, Holly with a (gulp!) student. The titular road maneuver is executed by Holly on the ride home from a particularly humiliating confrontation with her mother and sister. A pair of young thugs pull alongside, tossing beer cans and invectives her way. In an instant, the headlights fade to black, leaving the car and its contents silenced in a ditch. A relentlessly unshakable (albeit unpleasant) ride, particularly when filmmaker Dean Kapsalis slaloms around audience expectation, something he skillfully accomplishes for the first two-thirds of the picture. And even when a predictive power swerves the conclusion in the direction of foreseeability, Skye’s redoubtable presence is there to guide us. If there’s been a better performance this year by anyone, male or female, please point me in its direction. 2019 — S.M. ★★★
This is Paris — Hers might not have been the first celebrity sex tape leaked to an eager public, but credit media personality Paris Hilton for holding the title “Architect of the Selfie.” A 24/7 walking fashion show — she’s to blame for the Kardashians’ “reality world” despoiling — Hilton’s road to success is paved with runways and catwalks, a practice on display every time she exits the house. (If you thought Jerry Lewis’ refusal to re-wear socks and underpants made him a clothing wastrel, brace yourself: our celebrity hotel heiress has never been photographed in the same outfit twice.) Hilton’s goal is to keep working until her bank account tops $1 billion. Her current job as globe-trotting DJ to the masses proves she’s no dummy — she’s the #1 female DJ in the world. If someone is goofy enough to pay the famous-for-being-famous eternal debutante $1 million to mix live, she’s smart enough to know the road to Fort Knox is paved with belly-laughs. She insists that the character we see on TV is just that: a character; yet all the whining, drama, and boundless “pay attention to me” appeals suggest the contrary. Not until the conversation shifts to reckless years of teenage insurrection (and the grievous comeuppance it wrought) do glimmers of compassion begin flashing through the cracks of her public persona. (Having lived a life before a camera, frequently the one in her phone, it’s no surprise that Hilton follows a similar digital path when it comes to therapy.) Remember when bad behavior resulted in mom and dad threatening to ship you off to military school? What slipshod process of elimination did Kathy and Richard Hilton consult when making good on their promise to send their daughter to the Provo Canyon School, an “Emotional Growth School” aimed at helping rich families looking to discourage rebellion among their offspring? The film ends with a reunion of sorts between Hilton and several of her abused classmates. Filming began in October 2019, and the cynic in me couldn’t help but chuckle when Hilton opened the pic with, “When I first started this film, I honestly don’t even recognize that person anymore.” One year, and the person you once were is suddenly out of focus? Ha! The joke’s on me. This tour of Paris was a necessary journey after all. Alexandra Dean (Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story) goes 2 for 2 with another captivating celebrity biodoc. Watch it free on YouTube. 2020. — S.M. ★★★