Illumination finally gives their formula the life and respect necessary for it to succeed
After wading in the water in terms of quality for the better half of this year, Illumination Entertainment finally gets the above-average film they deserve with Sing. The sad part about a film like this - which is basically an animated variety show of animals covering yesterday and today's pop tunes - is it's more likely to fail than succeed on the simple merit that its narrative prompts for things like humor based on recognition, general unevenness, and lazy screen writing. While all of those certainly come into play sooner or later, you might just be surprised, as I was, how Sing's effervescent charm sneaks up on you well into its second act and manifests its way into becoming an enjoyable, character-centered experience.
The film revolves around the perky Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a Koala bear who owns the historic Moon Theatre and has for the past twenty-five years. In the present day, however, the theater is dilapidated, with crippled, worn infrastructure that can barely stay intact. Buster hasn't put on a show in three years, but with the help of his elderly, but well-meaning lizard assistant Ms. Crawly (director Garth Jennings), they decide to host a singing competition which will eventually pave the way for a variety show of sorts for the entire neighborhood.
Originally intending the winner of the competition to get $1,000, a typo by Ms. Crawly renders the cash prize $100,000, money that Buster doesn't have but must fake like he does until the show is over. This becomes harder to do when he sees exactly how troubled most of his talent are, and how they're all singing to escape or better themselves. There's a teenage gorilla named Johnny (Taron Egerton), who is trying to forge a path for himself unlike his father's that doesn't involve petty crime and gang activity, a mouse named Mike (Seth MacFarlane), who is in total debt with no immediate relief, a young elephant named Meena (Tori Kelly), who needs to overcome stage-fright in order to pursue his dreams as a singer, a porcupine named Ash (Scarlett Johansson), who gets accepted while the other half of her duo/boyfriend Lance (Beck Bennett) does not, and a pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), who is caught in the middle of a struggling marriage with her husband and twenty-five piglets as she tries to relive her years as a performer.
A movie where animals sing once-popular radio hits feels like the "cat video"-infested bowels of Youtube taken to the next level, so on that note, much like their film The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination has cracked the secret to getting people interested in their films on a purely conceptual (no matter how basic) level. But after insulting us with Minions and shortchanging us with Pets, the studio finally gets it right with Sing by giving us what we subconsciously expected to see, which was a bit of a story behind the characters. We'll come for the cuteness, but we'd also like to be given a reason to stay and a reason to connect to the film.
Sing features an amiable cast of characters with familiar voices - McConaughey and MacFarlane are very good, for that matter - and infuses their stories with enough interest to make them transcend the tropes they could've fallen into it quite easily. For example, the stories of Meena, Rosita, and Ash are actually kind of sad, and give way to the wonderful idea of female empowerment based on breaking out of "your place" or your comfort zone and fully becoming your own, confident person. Common, absolutely, but screenwriter Jennings infuses a bit of disillusionment into their stories to give them an emotional layer that might even echo or resonate with parents, who thought they were taking their kids to see another cute and cuddly kid movie. Maybe they might even see something in the way the Johnny character feels, as he's constantly pressured by his father to be tough and to be a part of his gang rather than encouraging him to be his own person.
Sing has moments where its lazy screen writing does prevail, such as the handful of montages we get that show a goofy pig dancing to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" or kangaroos singing the Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance." They're moments of brief amusement until you realize how entirely vapid and distracting they really are. Thankfully, where Jennings could've stopped writing, he decided to keep going, and the result is a modestly successful animated film that at least makes an admirable attempt to give us more than the internet and other movies of the like already have.
Voiced by: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly, Beck Bennett, and Garth Jennings. Directed by: Garth Jennings.
A fairly necessary reminder of a story we think we know entirely
I write this review of the documentary Addiction Incorporated as not only a casual smoker of both cigarettes and cigars myself, but as someone fascinated by the variety of tobacco and tobacco-related products in the United States. Ever since I turned eighteen, I've been a casual smoker, smoking no more than three cigarettes a day, researching on tobacco trends and specifics of particular cigarettes and cigars, while frequenting tobacco shops and lounges with my friends. It's a culture that's attractive because of its variety, history, and stigma, especially in recent time. I distinctly remember being a young child going into Red Lobster or another restaurant and having my mother, a smoker for several decades, and my grandmother, another smoker for several decades before quitting in the late 2000's, asking for a "smoking table." Now, you'll be lucky to smoke immediately outside of that same building.
Addiction Incorporated is a documentary about tobacco losing its respectable place and staple in American culture. What was once a proud staple of unabashed freedom and Americana has now become viewed as a gross habit with seriously lethal consequences, with concrete evidence and support to back up such statements. It concerns a man named Victor DeNoble, with a cool demeanor and relaxing narrative voice that was made for any documentary, who was hired by Philip Morris several decades ago to develop an equally addictive substitute for nicotine. This was during the time that companies like Morris (Marlboro) and R.J. Reynolds (Camel) were beginning to succumb to proof from studies that a correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was undeniable and prevalent. Nonetheless, even DeNoble himself confirms that they did want to develop an alternative to nicotine. After all, as stated in the documentary, dead smokers don't buy cigarettes.
DeNoble worked with a man named Bill Farone to help develop the substitute, but during this process, DeNoble worked with lab-rats as he worked to discover what nicotine really does to the brain. In DeNoble's experiment, rats were given doses of nicotine to their brain respective to their body-size whenever they pressed a button. Eventually, over the course of just a few days, the rats went from pushing the button just a few times a day to pushing it over one-hundred times a day. After this discovery, the evidence was indisputable; nicotine did dangerous things to the brain and was delivered by way of one of America's favorite social activities and passtimes.
We're told when nicotine enters the body, it directly affects a person's breathing as well as their heart-rate. It also is something that has to be introduced to the body; once acquainted, it activates nerves and emotions in the brain that weren't previously known to the body, which is what results in a sudden craving for a cigarette and the ongoing addiction. DeNoble was also one of the first people to look at acetaldehyde, a chemical that serves as one of the key factors in getting nicotine to resonate in the body and the mind. With that, DeNoble looked to present his research to the tobacco companies, who, regardless of the scientific findings, had two prime goals - sell more cigarettes and make more money.
DeNoble states that while companies like Philip Morris were selling a lifestyle, they were really engaging drug marketing. They were engaging in normalizing drug use in popular culture, where people could regularly purchase and use a legal drug while skeptically observing or writing off others perceived as "more dangerous" or "more deadly." The anomaly such a thing presents is quite striking, but DeNoble reminds us of a time where Americans refused to accept that one of their favorite, more cherished things was slowly killing them and turning them into addicts.
Addiction Incorporated covers all that and more, including the long legal battle between DeNoble and Philip Morris that famously had the tobacco company denying any prior knowledge that their product lead to a variety of diseases and resulted in a countless number of deaths. Curiously enough, I don't recall the word "cancer" being uttered once in the film; that's because the focus is largely on DeNoble, his findings, and Philip Morris's response to those findings. As a result, Addiction Incorporated winds up being a documentary that retraces well-covered steps, but nonetheless basks in an aura of importance with an engaging presence and understandable storytelling devices at its core. It doesn't predicate on fear, but on proved sentiments and winds up being thoroughly enjoyable and informative at that.
Whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is an authentic documentary, showcasing real-life events without a hint of fabrication or mockumentary-esque sentiment, I cannot say and I'm not prepared to wrap my brain around the multitude of justifications and possibilities. What I am prepared to do, however, is talk about what a visceral and entertaining experience Exit Through the Gift Shop is, and how its effective use and depiction of street art and the politics of street artists is something that deserves your attention. In a film that predicates itself off of portraying and capturing "art terrorists" in the action, and the limitless creative ways they can express themselves, this documentary works to be both an unabashed plunge inside an underground community, as well as a beautiful iteration of something many of us probably took for granted or didn't quite look at so deeply before.
Shot by an English street artist who goes by the name of "Banksy," and also assisted by Shepard Fairey, another street artist who is responsible for creating Barack Obama's animated, red/blue campaign image for his 2008 election campaign, Exit Through the Gift Shop chronicles the life of Thierry Guetta, a quirky Frenchmen living in Los Angeles who, since he can remember, shot and recorded everything that occurred in his life. No matter where he went or what he did, Thierry was always armed with a camera and collected thousands of tapes with unique footage stored on them. One thing Theirry was always fascinated with was street art, and learned that one of Los Angeles's most prolific street artists, a man named "Space Invader," who goes around tagging images around town of characters and sprites from video games, is one of his cousins.
This sparks a sudden interest in Thierry to begin documenting street artists in Los Angeles. Street artists are known as people that go around town illegally spray-painting, posting, or sticking images in public places. Often times it's taking traditional graffiti and vandalism to the next level by having enormous thirty-feet by forty-feet prints of quirky images plastered on the sides of brick buildings, drawing a countless number of eyes onto your work. Thierry winds up getting in touch with both Fairey and Banksy, and before long, after tirelessly following them around and capturing their process, gets the urge to make his own art under the name "Mr. Brainwash" (MBW), a name he gets from having the desire to infest the minds of who sees his work with his elaborate art involving everything from exaggerated images of celebrities, Warhol-style interpretations and manipulations of popular culture, to images made up of barcodes that distort and render the image into a series of parallel lines if you observe them from a close distance.
Through intense marketing by inspiring word of mouth through the Los Angeles area, and requested promotions via Banksy and Fairey, Guetta goes from an underground oddity to a mainstream sensation almost overnight, so much so that he begins crafting an art show so he can sell some of his own works. His inspiration to host a show comes after Banksy creates a storm of positive reception and sales by selling his eclectic street-art at a wild, unconventional art show of his own. This is where the politics of street art begin to conflict. Can one really say that Guetta and Banksy's work, at that point, adheres to the basic principles of underground, illegal art? When something becomes commercialized or licensed, often the authenticity and the roots of the work is compromised, and through Guetta's strives towards fame and acceptance, the concept of boasting "real" street art is almost entirely lost on him.
Banksy and crew present this progression so subtly that you might miss it. For example, when the film concluded, I felt a sort of malice and anger towards Guetta for reasons I couldn't adequately summarize. Most films or documentaries that make you detest a person leave you with the ability to summarize that person pretty cogently upon finishing the film, but with Guetta, who is so fundamentally interesting and layered, it took me a significant amount of time to pinpoint what exactly about him and his ways infuriated me. With contemplation, I realize I didn't necessarily hate or dislike him, but seriously pitied him.
Here was a person with such a passion and love for what he did, shooting countless hours of video and following around street artists, that he got so invested he wound up exploiting both for monetary and societal gain, in turn, losing the core thesis of what those ideas, particularly the latter, usher in for people and a neglected subculture.
What we're left with is Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film with a pulse and a sense of urgency. A film that reminds us of the fluidity and nonlinear capabilities of art, while showing us that it retains an inherent purity unless it is wrongfully utilized or manipulated by people. By having a clear emphasis on the eclectic and the silenced, and helmed by three truly unique and revolutionary artists, who take their voices to the streets to risk it all, real or not, authentic or fabricated, Exit Through the Gift Shop bears ideas that make it almost impossible to ignore. How many potentially fabricated documentaries can you say that about?
When a film simply can't pick a genre and stick with it
Norman Jewison's Best Friends is a hopelessly lost film, and I think I'm going to leave it at that when it comes to trying to classify this. From the looks of the theatrical poster and DVD cover, showing a happy and carefree Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn obviously engaged in romantic playfulness, one would assume it's a romantic comedy when it's anything but romantic. One could call it a drama, but there are too many incredulous sequences and silly inclusions of comedy to adequately and properly bill it as such, and finally, simply stamping the "comedy" label on it would be pretty disingenuous as well, since the film is rarely funny. It's a film with a cynical, if considerable, idea that does nothing but spit in the face of anyone expecting any one of those three things executed on a competent level.
The film follows Richard Babson and Paula McCullen (Reynolds and Hawn), a reliable screen writing duo who have worked together for years and have churned out successful, quality screenplays for many different genres. They've also been living together, with Richard suggesting the two get married and make their relationship official, with Paula being hesitant to do so, believing marriage is the root of all failed relationships. Despite her believes, knowing how important marriage is to Richard, Paula accepts Richard's advances and the two get married without telling anyone.
Their honeymoon, however, is spent traveling to one another's parents' houses in order to inform them of the news. Paula's parents in New York get to hear first before the two fly down to Virginia to see Richard's family. The result is a groggy film with a premise that slithers by at a snail's pace so we can see the reactions of each person's family to a union we're surprised they didn't see coming in the first place. Did the parents not know that the two were living together to begin with? Did the parents not expect at least some certification of commitment between the two after years of collaborating and cohabitation?
We don't know and that's one of the many problems with Best Friends. For as much as we're allowed to see, we're not allowed to know very much about the characters and their dynamics, which makes this film a very lackluster attempt at looking at marriage and the potential flaw with having so-called "best friends" marry one another. As the two wind up becoming more and more disgruntled with one another, Paula begins to resort back to her original claims that marriage is the root of the evil, which is flawed because of the fact that she agreed to the union and didn't have to if she didn't want to. With that, the fault is not marriage in itself, it's both Richard's for pressuring Paula into marriage and Paula for not taking a stand and affirming that this isn't what she wanted.
But nonetheless, we have to hear from Paula about how their disagreements and quibbles is the fault of marriage, and over the course of one-hundred and ten minutes, watch this couple fall apart and resort to domestic harassment and violence. Where's the joy in that? For a film titled "Best Friends" with two strong actors at the helm, not to mention a poster and premise that boasts a completely different story, why is the end result so melancholic and miserable? Perhaps if the film had a direction or a more credible thesis as to why it felt that marriage was such a disparaging and flawed way to bring two people together, then maybe there would've been some value. Unfortunately, this is a mean-spirited and downtrodden work for the sake of being both miserable and down-trodden, and the end result is nearly two hours of arguments and repetitive echoes of previously disclosed sentiment, all of which you can probably find at your own family's house without the need to go to the theater or rent a film.
Starring: Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. Directed by: Norman Jewison.
Again, what I do in the bedroom is all of your business
Set on the eve of the presidential election that put Richard Nixon in the oval office, Shampoo revolves around George Roundy (Warren Beatty), a successful, Beverly Hills-based hairdresser, who has ostensibly skated by in life solely on his good looks, charisma, and easygoing charm with women. Despite living and committing to his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), George still seeks sex from many other women, often his regular clients.
One thing George has consistently wanted to do is open his own hair salon; one day, he turns to Lester and Felicia (Jack Warden and Lee Grant), a wealthy, local-area couple. However, another problem emerges for George and that is the fact that Lester's current mistress (Julie Christie) is one of George's former girlfriends. Lester just outright assumes George, because of his appearance and choice of occupation, is gay, and doesn't see him as any legitimate sexual threat. It isn't until George becomes closer to Lester, meeting his wife, rekindling things with Lester's mistress, and even becoming entranced with select other women that George succumbs to furthering his pedigree as a sexual deviant.
Shampoo subtly evokes the breakdown of the limiting and often sexually regressive sexual politics and standards of the 1960's; it plays similar instruments as Paul Mazursky's brilliant and underrated Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice where the very nature of its plot is subversive because it takes a sensitive, introspective camera into characters' bedrooms rather than simply closing the door on it. It's a period of time in American cinema that I cheekily bill "what I do in the bedroom is all of your business," due to the liberal mindset and furtherance of sexual freedom, orientation, and behavior in public. In the contemporary, sex is still a social taboo in America, but with each year, be it what is accepted by the MPAA, or what is casually discussed by young people in a serious, social setting, the stigma of sex is continuing to be broken in many ways.
Shampoo looks at the social mores by picking a character who is contemptible not because he loves his sex but because of how dishonest he chooses to be. There's nothing wrong with having multiple sexual partners, nor is there nothing inherently wrong with practicing polygamy or sleeping around. There is something wrong, however, with being dishonest or deceptive about it, which is what George consistently is. With that, screenwriters Robert Towne and Beatty seem to recognize this, and Beatty himself seems to recognize it as he's playing the character. Nonetheless, he challenges you to like him largely by the quick-witted and zippy way he moves and conducts himself, as well as the way he works and entertains his clients. He may not be an easy character to like, but he's not an easy character to write off.
With that, Beatty gives an entertaining performance and effective turns an ensemble film into what could easily be mistaken as a one-man show, if it wasn't for the significant presences of Goldie Hawn and Lee Grant, specifically Grant who winds up having some strong scenes with Beatty during more pivotal moments of the film. These inclusions make Shampoo more likable throughout all the contemptible attributes of the film, and the film winds up addressing sexual politics in a way that doesn't tell the audience, but show them. It sort of walks in circles, not always coming to a clear point, but Beatty's performance and its more subtler approach to the material is enough to make it, if nothing else, a thematically and fundamentally interesting piece for the time.
Starring: Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, and Lee Grant. Directed by: Hal Ashby.
After four years of rotting on a shelf, it does nothing but further blemish great actors' careers
It's always hard to completely blast films like Get a Job because beneath an exterior of crude humor and a meandering narrative lies themes and ideas with underlying truth. The problem is that Get a Job brings such ideas to the surface but fails to capitalize on them, so it feels like they were just mere coincidences and conveniences. This wouldn't be such an issue if the film wasn't ostensibly in a hurry to go nowhere, predicating itself off of characters that feel cloyingly artificial and impractical, as well as introducing a plethora of subplots that serve no purpose other than to clutter a story with the overarching idea that life and employment in the modern world is hard, man.
The story follows Will and Jillian (Miles Teller and Anna Kendrick), a pair of recent college graduates who are looking to move in together and break out into the real-world. Will looks to have a promising gig lined up as a video-maker for a magazine, and Jillian has just taken a position in sales. Throughout his entire life, Will has heard from his father (Bryan Cranston) about his own struggle with trying to move up in the world to the position of power he's currently in, until, in a twist of events, him, Will, and Jillian are all laid off from their jobs.
This is one of the films where Will and his three deadbeat friends (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Nicholas Braun, and Brandon T. Jackson), who all appear to have no immediate goals besides getting high and playing Xbox, can somehow afford a beautiful loft overlooking the city. The only one who seems to be doing something productive with his time is Charlie (Braun), who is somehow certified to teach chemistry to grade-school children. After a long search, Will winds up finding a position as a digital marketer under the order of Marcia Gay Harden, who implements somewhat oppressive and dehumanizing standards in her workplace, so much so that Will feels limited in his creativity when he finally begins working the job.
The remainder of the film is a whole lot of nothing, with characters wandering around, but never saying anything too compelling, Jillian becoming a lazy pothead with Will's best friends, and Will's father losing his entire identity upon being canned at his workplace. For a brief time, screenwriters Kyle Pennekamp and Scott Turpel's screenplay seems like it is going to etch in some commentary about Will's father's lack of self-identity outside of his office-duties, potentially leading down a path that highlights ideas and commentary on the millennial workplace and how young people are not letting jobs define them as people.
But that part never arrives, and we're left with watching mostly strong actors aimlessly navigate through pitfalls and trappings of lame comedic conventions. For a screenplay so generic and remarkably dry given all it has to work with, it's the kind of vehicle that you can tell attracted its young actors and actresses as a means of getting their foot in the door to hopefully bigger and better projects. Justifying what Bryan Cranston and Marcia Gay Harden saw in the material, however, is a bit tougher.
Apparently, Get a Job was shot in 2012 and planned for a larger theatrical release, but it sat on the shelf for four years, at one point with Kendrick commenting how it may never get a release due to distribution issues. Finally, in 2016, it was given a very limited theatrical and video-on demand release on various platforms, ending the film's checkered history, which we'll probably never get to fully know anyway. If nothing else, this only furthers the above assumption as to why talents like Teller and Kendrick would even bother with such a subpar script, as Get a Job's belated release only works to effectively remind and blemish both actors' (particularly Teller's) iffy filmographies when they're simply trying to be tomorrow's Oscar winners.
Starring: Miles Teller, Anna Kendrick, Bryan Cranston, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Nicholas Braun, Brandon T. Jackson, Marcia Gay Harden, Alison Brie, and John Cho. Directed by: Dylan Kidd.
Does what everyone Star Wars fan wants from its friends and acquaintances
I never saw the original Star Wars trilogy until I was well into my high school career, but that didn't stop me from having several Star Wars action figures as a young kid. Specifically, I remember three - Mace Windu, C-3PO, and R2-D2. Despite not knowing a single thing about these characters, their origins, or their intricacies, I was drawn to their plastic appearances and their pristine and immaculate detail even as a young child. I didn't need their backstories to have complex, imaginative adventures with them on my ledge overlooking my street. That's the beauty of Star Wars; even if we have no background or knowledge of the characters, most of us can still pick up the toys and create adventures that are just as satisfying to that small candle of childhood nostalgia we still have lit in the back of our minds.
R2-D2: Beneath the Dome, a three-part, twenty-minute mockumentary, takes the lid off the character figuratively and literally to explore the interworkings of one of the most fascinating and intricate characters of the Star Wars universe. Told in a style reminiscent of talk show specials answering the much-asked question "where are they now?," with an aesthetic resembling VH1's Behind the Music show, we learn of "Artoo"'s beginning as an actor and a friend of George Lucas, as struggled to obtain more complex and challenging roles in feature films and TV shows. However, all it took was Lucas to have a bit of faith in his robot companion, and following the success of A New Hope in 1977, R2-D2 became a household name and a movie-star overnight.
As with many celebrities, the fame gets to one's head and a downward spiral ensues, which is what parts two and three of this film concern. In addition to "archive footage," we see interviews with people like Lucas and Artoo's co-stars Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and even his pregnant girlfriend Bitsie Tulloch. As a fun and creative exercise, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome is a real treat for Star Wars fans because it ultimately does what every fan wants out of people who view the movies - to take the events and the characters seriously. When you start subscribing a detailed history and resume for a robotic droid, in addition to giving him a girlfriend, I think it's safe to say that you've taken him about as seriously as you could.
R2-D2: Beneath the Dome is a cute film for its casual humor and the way it personifies a character that was instrumental to so many peoples' lives arguably for just being so simple, yet so immaculate. The result is a lively and spirited, with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and unwilling to move or displace it.
It's the best sequel you could've made twelve years later, and if that's good enough for you, it's good enough for a rainy day at the movies
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is probably the best sequel that could've been spawned from a largely forgotten but monstrously successful independent romantic comedy from twelve years ago. One could theoretically call it a "too little too late" sequel, something Hollywood has been good at churning out recently with sequels to "Barbershop," "Joe Dirt," and "Zoolander," but when a sequel is so similar in line with its predecessor after so many years and practically oozes the same kind of sentiment, one has to be a bit forgiving and credit it for what most sequels fail to capture.
Both sequels to "Joe Dirt" and "Zoolander" were flawed from the very concepts, and when it came time to try that concept again, over a decade later, it felt stale and desperately forced when it came to trying to modernize it for the times and the now-grown up audience. While "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" has obligatory scenes of poor Toula (Nia Vardalos) trying to teach her loving father Gus (Michael Constantine) how to work a computer, it nonetheless manages to effectively work as charming comedy of moments, even if its structure and narrative theme is about as basic as it can get.
The film reenters the lives of the characters we fondly recall from the first film, only now, well into their married lives and elder years. Toula and Ian (John Corbett) are having the typical kinds of struggles most semi-long/long-term married couples have emotionally and romantically, especially with their teenage daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) in the midst of deciding where to go to college. While she wants to go off to New York University, her parents want her to stay in Chicago and go to Northwestern University, but Paris has been constantly smothered by her borderline insufferable Greek family to the point where she wants none of it.
Meanwhile, Toula's parents Gus and Maria (Lainie Kazan) are getting well into their old age, especially Gus, who has had hip and memory problems for a while now. All is going well between him and his wife until Gus uncovers a much-repressed family secret that the priest never signed the certificate of marriage to make Gus and Maria an official union, meaning Gus and Maria aren't legally married, despite fifty years of togetherness. How this was never uncovered before, as if the two never had to file taxes or partake in any other legal activities, I'm not sure, but long story short, they're not married. Rather than doing the logical thing and just going down to the courthouse to make the marriage official, of course the family must complicate it, starting with Maria wanting not only a real proposal from Gus, but a full-blown, bank-breaking wedding. So we're back to square one, this time planning a wedding for the older couple, rather than the younger one.
The scene-stealer this time around, however, isn't so much Vardalos playing a role she can practically sleepwalk, but Aunt Voula, played by the lovely Andrea Martin. Not a hugely significant presence in the first film, it would appear that Vardalos decided to give some of the best quips and zingers to her character's aunt, whose loud presence and boisterous, if invasive, mannerisms often result in some strong belly-laughs. Also giving his all in a performance that he can probably perform at any given time of the day is Michael Constantine; despite his character, the actor can't hide his energy and Jack Lemmon-esque grouchiness when it comes time to really commit to being an enthusiastic presence. He winds up being the most commendable presence here.
The rest of the film is damn-near what you can imagine if you close your eyes and picture potential setups and events for the Portokalos family. Paris is a fascinating character, but unfortunately underwhelming because, fitting for her character and her situation, she keeps getting nudged out of the frame by her louder counterparts. It would've been nice to see a setup solely involving Paris and her decision of grappling with her parents, her heritage, and her decision of where to go to school. Instead, we get a pretty lukewarm plot involving her making impromptu prom plans with another boy (The Naked Brothers Band's Alex Wolff) after he is rejected by the prettiest girl in school. That's about as cliché as Greeks kissing each side of another person's face when they first see one another.
However, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" has some remarkably funny moments. A scene involving Gus stuck in a bathtub isn't played for the kind of bawdy and slapstick gimmicks you'd expect and a scene between all the female Portokalos members at a beauty salon is the epitome of what I wanted from this film all along: good conversation amongst people you can believe are family. Because of their general talent and the fact that they've done this before, the cast's chemistry is fun and the events of the film are lively and concise enough to assure it's never boring and always moving. It's the best sequel you probably could've made twelve years later, and if that's good enough for you, it's certainly good enough for a rainy day at the movies.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a spirited musical-comedy, resting its quality almost entirely on the weight of its performers, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, as they play two baseball players who experience the shock of their careers when they find out the new owner of their baseball team is a woman (Esther Williams). At first, with her name announced as K.C. (Katherine Catherine) Higgins, the players, including Eddie O'Brien (Kelly) and Dennis Ryan (Sinatra), all assume by default that she's a man, but after a downright awkward mix-up at the train station when it comes time to pick her up, both Eddie and Dennis vent their frustrations about their new owner to one another.
It would be a lot easier for them to stick to their simple frustrations if they both didn't find themselves rapidly falling in love with Katherine as soon as she became their new owner. Along with the difficult task of trying to get their team, the Wolves, to win another pennant, the boys must find a way to control themselves around Katherine, as well as work out some sort of cogent lines for respect when it comes to flirting and mingling with her.
Punctuating this muddled relationship triangle are the film's most enthusiastic and accomplished features - its musical numbers. One of the first involves both Eddie and Dennis singing an infectious, harmonious ballad about past lovers called "Yes Indeed" with a ravishing song and dance number to accompany it. This is where the film finds its energy put to good use being that scenes that take place on the actual baseball field are slight and the relationship drama is overall petty and largely uninteresting. Having Kelly and Sinatra serve as vaudevillian performers in addition to rather narcissistic baseball players is a nice touch that works to lift the film out of whatever drudgery it would've succumbed to had it just been about the love triangle.
With that, Williams holds her ground quite nicely in a film that's populated and controlled by men and their raging hormones and pride. Her character's snarky comments and incorruptible demeanor makes her a dominant force in the film that doesn't make her easily fazed by the multitude of sexually charged comments being spewed her way for much of the film. As a result, she becomes an admirable presence with a great deal of energy and charm to offset the frequently simple-minded behavior of Eddie and Dennis.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game was the final film directed by Busby Berkeley, but was originally supposed to be directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. With Kelly's success as a performer, he was originally contracted by MGM to direct this film, but after the studio hired Berkeley to helm the project, Kelly and Donen were shifted to a screen writing credit by their producer Arthur Freed. As part of a compromise, Freed allowed Kelly to direct some of the musical scenes he did with Sinatra, despite leaving the bulk of the directorial duties to Berkeley. The result is a film that's charming through all its discombobulation, yet always watchable thanks to its gifted performers, especially Williams, who shouldn't be overshadowed by the performers with bigger names.
Starring: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Esther Williams. Directed by: Busby Berkeley.
Grim to the point of breeding contempt, lacking in excitement, and an overwhelming feeling you've seen it all before
I may indeed be the only one who finds it fascinating that both "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" are released on the same weekend. The former is a heavily hyped film that has the ambition to finally kick off the DC Extended Universe while the universe's competitor likely doesn't even see them in its rearview mirror, and the latter is a sequel to a romantic comedy from fourteen years ago. The reason these releases are so germane is that both are highly likely not to leave much of an impact on pop culture, and that even accounts for the original "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which, despite boasting the title of the "highest grossing romantic comedy of all time," left no footprint either.
I only mention this because the idea of Batman squaring off in an epic battle against Superman, in a time where comic book movies are more popular and some are more subversive than ever, with a nine-figure pricetag is something that should've been the battle of the ages. A remarkable duel between two of society's most beloved heroes that should've enthusiastically set up a universe. However, this is a film that will come and go like few superhero films of the last decade, I predict. This is a remarkably bleak letdown of a film, grim to the point of being effectively joyless, bloated and crippled by trying to serve as too many components to the stalled development of a universe, and unexciting while boasting one of the most exciting battles in movie history.
The film takes place eighteen months after the events of "Man of Steel," another horribly forgettable picture, where Superman (Henry Cavill) has become a hot topic of debate, so much so that even Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) can't stand the very sight and idea of him after he defeated General Zod, thanks to the onslaught of chaos he brought to Metropolis. Superman, however, cannot stand Batman and works to expose him while continuing to work for "The Daily Planet" newspaper as journalist Clark Kent.
Meanwhile, LexCorp's new frontman Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) finds Superman to be the biggest threat facing humanity today and works with Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) to help him recover Kryptonite in order to defeat the caped vigilante. This would also involve working to replicate the late Zod's DNA in order to help Lex wage a battle between two of the greatest heroes in history: a battle between man and God.
Much has been made about the casting of Ben Affleck and Batman, and just to get that note out of the way, he's fine, and does a comparable amount of brooding to Christian Bale's Batman. Henry Cavill is still a relatively lesser presence mainly because, like Superman in general, his character is very archetypal and predicated upon moral good, two things that don't go over too well in a new age of superhero films based upon gloom and doom. And that's exactly what "Batman v Superman" is, two hours of nonstop gloom and doom that effectively robs the film of any conceivable excitement and momentum one had going into this picture.
The film is unbelievably murky, and unlike with Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy, where character interest and relationships were pushed to the forefront with a superhero story existing in the background, this film can't keep either one straight. There's too much clutter that makes this film a bloated work of sonic noise and narrative exhaustion, such as the repeated focus on Eisenberg's convincing but wayward performance of the loose cannon Lex Luthor, in addition to questionable and rather unnecessary emphases on Bruce Wayne's schizophrenic dream cycle. Both are just perplexing additions to a film where its title could serve as a plot description.
But the biggest problem facing screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer is how much weight they have placed on this very film. While trying to serve as a followup to "Man of Steel," Terrio and Goyer also try to make this film stand on its own while foreshadow the upcoming Justice League film. This means including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in on the chaos in the middle of the third act, as well as highlight Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash in cameos, making for a film that's crippled by a to-do list the lengthy of a grocery shopping list. I'm reminded of how "Spider-Man 3" found itself drowning in so many things to include that the only thing left to marvel was the visual scheme.
And even with that, "Batman v Superman"'s visual palette is so unattractive it winds up significantly lessening the excitement on-screen. By the time we get to the actual fight between our two titular heroes, a combination of fatigue and the idea that we've seen it all before coupled with the gray and black visuals sets in and makes for a film that underwhelms in nearly every sense.
"Batman v Superman" may indeed be one of the biggest letdowns of the year, save for a nicely handled conclusion and a memorable performance by Eisenberg, who seven months ago was a stoner superhero before becoming a psychotic supervillain. It packs everything we've become so accustomed to in superhero films, leaving nothing special for this particular installment, in addition to its grimness breeding contempt and an appalling lack of excitement and its agenda being cluttered to the point of alienation. Chalk up DC as 0-2 going into one of the biggest moves of the brand's existence.
A low-key, scuzzy oddity that demands your attention
Laurel Canyon and Cole Fury have just arrived at their vacation home for the weekend, a lovely cabin by the lake. Inside the cabin is a telescope, which allows them to sneak peeks of other couples in homes across the lake and their sexual activities. At first they notice a saucy threesome involving Tiffany Storm, F.M. Bradley, and Channel Price, which incorporates nearly every thinkable position and has Cole Fury in a complete trance. It isn't long after that escapade is over that the couple witnesses other steamy sex acts, such as Ona engaged in a total gangbang with four other men, all of whom masked and taking their turns with her. In addition, we have a passionate interracial love scene between Sade and Frank James, which has Frank James zealously plowing Sade on a hardwood floor by a fire place, in what could be the most romantic sex scene in the film.
All of this overwhelming passion leads Cole to sneak out of the house to engage in another interracial threesome with another man and woman, leading Laurel be frustrated and sexually unsatisfied. Ultimately, he can't leave her hanging, so the two indulge in a passionate and utterly mesmerizing love-scene that concludes with a memorable finish by Fury himself.
That, my dear readers, is Cheeks, which features a seriously commendable display of diverse sex acts, both physically and racially, making one of the most remarkable pornographic films of the era simply in terms of its contents. Where the film lacks is in the story; such a simple, vague outline of a film begs a further narrative explanation that is unfortunately never given. Scuzzy videography and some distorted audio, in addition, add to the real low-grade and filthy aesthetic of this film, makings its period-appropriate taboos only seem to further leap off the screen in a way that begs you watch them unfold in explicit detail.
Films like Cheeks live up to pornographic oddities because they slip under the radar, casually unnoticed by even seasoned viewers of pornos from yesteryear, and with the lively and attractive Canyon and Fury at the helm, this film simply warrants some love from those who might've walked past its generally basic - but at the same time revealing and enticing - VHS cover in the local adult superstore.
Starring: Laurel Canyon, Cole Fury, Tiffany Storm, F.M. Bradley, Channel Price, Ona, Sade, Frank James, Jesse Easton, and Don Fernando. Directed by: David Powers.
It's intriguing to note that despite My Big Fat Greek Wedding still boasting the title of the "highest grossing romantic comedy," like most romantic comedies, the impact this left on pop culture as a whole was slight and almost unrecognizable; similar to James Cameron's Avatar, still the highest grossing film worldwide, yet a film that sparks nothing but opinions that go against what people initially thought of the film. If My Big Fat Greek Wedding doesn't speak volumes about the genre of romantic comedies, I'm not sure what does.
It's not necessarily that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is forgettable, but even worse, it kind of is what it is; a one-note joke or a Saturday Night Live skit stretched out to feature-length. The result is a film that incites a few smiles, chuckles, and an interesting indie sleeper hit story, but nothing more. Couple these features with the fact that this film's ending is just about the most unsurprising and corniest ending about family, acceptance, and difference I've yet to see in film, and you have a romantic comedy that really can't measure up to its level of monetary success by proving its much different than its less-impacting counterparts.
The film revolves around Fotoula "Toula" Portokalos (Nia Vardalos), a quirky Greek woman in the middle of a fierce midlife crisis. At thirty, she is unmarried and ostracized by her parents Gus and Maria (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan) for failing to find a man and become a "baby machine" like her older sister Athena (Stravroula Logothettis) to further give her parents purpose in their elderly years. Toula states early on in the film that the three prime expectations of Greek women are to marry a Greek boy, make Greek babies, and "feed everyone until the day she dies."
Toula's parents are traditionalist Greeks in the sense that they wet guests' faces with kisses when they walk through the door, overstuff their guests with food, and, specifically Gus, try to cure every human ailment with Windex. Because of that, they seem to believe that all other people who aren't Greeks are secretly in denial of their heritage and wish they were Greeks. The family is in for a culture shock, however, when Toula meets and falls madly in love with Ian Miller (John Corbett), a handsome and kind school teacher, who just so happens to be non-Greek and lack any kind of discernible heritage, typical for many people who are fourth or fifth generation immigrants where culture is subsequently lost in the shuffle of assimilation.
Regardless, the state of the family is sent into a dramatic tailspin by Toula's traditionalist parents, who can't see how this man is capable of anything without having a Greek background. The film becomes a story of Gus and Maria needing to accept their daughter's newfound beau, in addition to a story about Ian learning to accept Toula's parents for their very conservative and sometimes narcissistic view of their own heritage.
The result is a film predicated off of lampooning, satirizing, and overblowing common conventions of Greek people, none of which so much as negative or harmfully stereotypical as much as they are pretty simple-minded and predictable. Having said that, the actors and actresses on hand make My Big Fat Greek Wedding the moderately enjoyable experience that it is, particularly Vardalos, who throws herself into the autobiographical tale of meeting her husband getting the respect that both her and him deserved. Before the big screen, which consisted of little else besides a $5 million budget from IFC Films and studio executives crossing their fingers that word of mouth would carry this picture, Vardalos conducted this project as a stage-play, in a manner that recalls the zealous energy exhibited by Tyler Perry to get noticed in the public eye. Assisted by a cast of spirited performers, particularly Michael Constantine, who knows how to tight-rope walk the fine line of overacting and emphatically portraying a brazen archetype of a character, Vardalos and her screenplay really cannot lose in the acting department.
The problem, I suppose, with My Big Fat Greek Wedding is just how simple of a film it is. When you find out the film is largely about changing peoples' prejudices, which, to be fair, aren't really harmful in an explicit or predatory sense and more-or-less exist as the kind of impulsive small talk families create over Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner, the conflict really becomes silly at best. While this kind of friction definitely exists, there are more compelling stories to be told about a lack of acceptance in a family and this film, with its dramatic depictions that ultimately wind up conveying a silly sense of screwball comedy, get rather repetitive after a while and one is left trying to rest the weight of the film's quality on the shoulders of the performers, which isn't entirely fair for a comedy.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the perfect "rainy Sunday" film in that it's simple enough where you could watch it over and over again and not get tired of it thanks to its generally upbeat and silly nature; a feel-good film, if you will, despite the fact that lead character is often made to feel bad. One could say it oversimplifies the everlasting hell out of Greeks and Greek culture, but circumventing to my point about this film leaving relatively no cultural footprint, I don't even think you could make such an argument. Save such for a film with an impact outside of the monetary sense.
Starring: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, and Stravroula Logothettis. Directed by: Joel Zwick.
A short that proves there is still gas in a fairly small tank
Tummy Trouble follows the misadventures of Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), who is placed in charge of watching Baby Herman when his mother needs to run errands. Herman instantly throws a temper tantrum that results in Roger panicking, even more-so when Herman winds up accidentally swallowing his favorite rattle. In an effort to restore sanity to Herman's home, he must comfort Herman's stomach pain, control his incessant wailing, and restore order to their home, which rapidly descends into array. Also in the picture is a doctor, who tries to help the situation, but only winds up creating a dangerous playground upon which Roger and Herman wreak havoc. The result is chaotic and reckless as can be.
The Roger Rabbit short films possess similar qualities as Tom & Jerry shorts and the Looney Tunes bits that focus on Sylvester the Cat painstakingly trying to outwit Tweety Bird. The result is a brash and hectic parade of visual gags for seven minutes before a fourth-wall breaking sequence at the tail-end of the short. Tummy Trouble showcases this brand of fast-paced, blink-and-you-miss-it humor done right, with enough emphasis on the limitless boundaries of animation to make this a favorable entry in the genre. The beauty of animation is such ridiculousness like what is shown in this short can be conceived so shamelessly, and through a loving blend of chaos and a smoothly introduced (and flawlessly executed) live-action sequence, there's little not to love here.
Voiced by: Charles Fleischer, Lou Hirsch, and Kathleen Turner. Directed by: Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall.
Rollercoasters are an ideal inclusion in animated films because they possess the ability to be devices for high-flying, gravity-defying, unapologetically ridiculous situations for the story's characters. Consider Bébé's Kids and its emphasis on misadventures at a local theme park involving a slew of toddlers. Roller Coaster Rabbit looks to have that same kind of emphasis, but its end result is a messy and fairly uninteresting blend of visual gags and routine silliness that shouldn't be so casually accepted by fans of the once-visceral and original Roger Rabbit character.
The film revolves around Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), Baby Herman, and Mrs. Herman (April Winchell), all of whom are spending their day at a fair. When Baby Herman winds up losing his red balloon, Roger goes to fetch him a new one, but not before Baby Herman attempts to get another one; here is what sets the film's plot into motion. Baby Herman escapes the company of his mother, which sends Roger into a panic and various desperate attempts to recover both Herman and the balloon. At one point, the two end up provoking a bull in a bull-riding arena, in addition to climbing aboard a roller coaster for a frightening ride, all while Roger tries to rescue Baby Herman and Baby Herman continues to escape danger just as easily as he found it, leaving Roger to bear all the battle wounds.
There is one truly great scene in Roller Coaster Rabbit and it comes when Roger leaps onto a roller coaster in order to fetch Baby Herman. During this time, for about five seconds, we see a point-of-view shot of the roller coaster's path, which sends us into a dizzying, almost hallucinatory, trance as it shows the cars of the roller coaster essentially eating up the track at the speed of light. It's a phenomenally executed scene in a short that unfortunately finds the need to settle for rather perfunctory sight gags that make this a monotonous and foreseeable Tom & Jerry skit done without any of the flair and less remarkable excitement.
Voiced by: Charles Fleischer and April Winchell. Directed by: Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall.
When a once-original commodity needs to settle for the basics in order to remain relevant
By 1993, the cultural footprint and relevance of the smash-hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had faded from the mind of the public, which explains why Buena Vista decided to attach Trail Mix-Up, the third and final short film involving the Roger Rabbit character, to a A Far Off Place, a relatively low-key, small-budget studio release that had mediocre returns. In addition, by this point, the sheer magic and originality of blending live action and animation was a novelty that went by the wayside, so the only thing that was left for Roger Rabbit to try and remain relevant was to concoct a short that went back to the basics in terms of what it emphasized; in Trail Mix-Up's case, it's the juvenile qualities of Roger Rabbit and Jessica Rabbit's assets.
The short opens with Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), Baby Herman, and Mrs. Herman (April Winchell) setting up camp at a local park, with Roger in charge of looking after Baby Herman, because he has a track record of doing so well at such a task. As one expects, Herman winds up wandering into the forest, and scaredy-cat Roger has few skills that aid him in surviving in a woodsy setting. This is where the busty, gorgeous, and unabashedly sexualized Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) flaunts into the picture. She's the forest's local ranger, as she shakes her bust and wiggles her petite waist and perfect round rump in order to "help" Roger find Herman before more danger faces him. But not before Roger can have his face flattened like a pancake and be shredded by a sawmill.
Trail Mix-Up, while sporadically funny and still admirably full of energy like the two shorts that preceded it, essentially admits defeat and shows why Roger Rabbit faded out of relevance in the public. With new, ground-breaking animation just two years on the horizon and a cry for more story-based shorts and films that didn't settle for cute dinosaurs and rambunctious rabbits, the reckless Roger, the fearless Herman, and the buxom Jessica Rabbit just didn't seem to hold the kind of ground in the 1990's as they previously held in the 1980's. The good news is that this kind of material doesn't find itself dated in terms of content, and is still just as amusing today because of its slapstick and setups as it was when it was released. Whether it directly calls for future projects, I can't say, but it does work to suggest that this serves more as a "see you later" with an unclear meaning or span of time for that last term.
Voiced by: Charles Fleischer, April Winchell, and Kathleen Turner. Directed by: Barry Cook.
Give it a shiny silver for its heart and ultimately sincere portrayal of a troubled character
"The Bronze" opens with Melissa Rauch's cranky and unapologetically vulgar character Hope Ann Greggory fiercely masturbating to a videotape of her perfectly executing a complex gymnastics routine while injured to be awarded the bronze medal at a gymnastics competition in Toronto in 2004. That is probably the most seriously any spectator has ever taken gymnastics in history. That was twelve years ago, but that fact does little to phase her. She still parades around her small, podunk town of Amherst, Ohio in her USA outfit owning her celebrity status, as she is a regular at a local mall and the diner where she never pays for anything and has drink and food specials in her honor.
Hope lives with her father Stan (Gary Cole), a geeky postman who's only companion is his goldfish Bradley. Stan is tired of Hope constantly lying around with no sense of responsibility and no prospects to get employed or seek employment. However, when her former gymnastics coach commits suicide, right in the middle of training Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), who is looking to surpass Hope in the Olympics, the offer of Hope's lifetime comes - her deceased coach offers her a will of $500,000 if she trains Maggie to as far as she can go. Appropriately, Hope smacks her gum, shrugs her shoulders, curses a bit, and goes back to her room to sulk.
Upon initially meeting Maggie, Hope decides to steer her off course of her rigorous training, by getting her to indulge in boys and an unconscionable amount of fast food. After mixing government-grade marijuana in her protein shake leads her to performing poorly in front of the coordinator, a former acquaintance and partner of Hope's, Hope winds up getting serious about training Maggie to go for gold. Some of it is because she wants to remain relevant in the eyes of the public, a small part of it is to stick it to her old flame, but most of it is for the money.
Melissa Rauch is absolutely excellent here; after riding a recurring role on CBS's "Big Bang Theory" for many years, she has the ability to break out and prove what she can do in a starring role. Her fiercely confident screen presence is noticeable from the very beginning, and her crass and vulgar seems to genuinely come from her personality rather than her momentary desire to be crude, which is so very rare, yet a subtle difference maker when it comes to comedies. Most films have actors, Robert De Niro in "Dirty Grandpa" and Rebel Wilson in "How to Be Single," as of late are thrust into these kind of compromising positions and are forced to subject themselves to mindless antics.
Maybe it's because she's a co-writer, but Rauch winds up getting a lot of strong freedom in the way of physicality (particularity during a raunchy, acrobatic sex scene) and dialog-driven humor, where she sells her ability to be both youthful and high-spirited so very well. With just one movie role, she sits comfortably alongside the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Greta Gerwig for most interesting actresses.
Because of Rauch's wonderful performance, "The Bronze" really proves that it's more about the vulgar and black comedy it so cheerfully concocts; it's about a person trying to remain relevant and, as a result, remaining stuck in a state of listlessness and no ambition. Even as unlikable as Hope can be, it's clear how unhappy she is as a person; she's not just mean-spirited for the sake of being mean-spirited. Rauch and her husband Winston, who serves as co-writer, are sure to concoct plenty of uproariously funny sequences involving Hope trying to train Maggie and operate as a responsible coach, but the underlying sadness of her character's situation isn't lost on them, which makes "The Bronze" much better than what it could've been.
Compare the film to "The Brothers Grimsby," the new, desperately unfunny Sacha Baron Cohen film, which predicates itself on gross-out humor that gets its nowhere and leaves it an empty shell of a comedy. There's no substance and no staying power after you see it. "The Bronze" cares enough about its character to give it some sort of life outside of what is expected of a silly, springtime comedy, and has enough respect for its leading actress to give her a wickedly funny showcase of her talent.
NOTE: After premiering at Sundance in January 2015, "The Bronze" was expected to be released into theaters shortly after, but had distribution conflicts with Relativity filing for bankruptcy, resulting in the film being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and Jay and Mark Duplass's production company (which is so fitting when you think about it) for a semi-wide release this month. Without the help of some loyal movie cultists and some generally optimistic souls, I'm afraid this film may not have a chance to reach the audience it deserves.
With Easter showing up a bit earlier this year, the local multiplex has once again resorted to looking like a lineup of Sunday mass topics, with The Young Messiah and now Miracles from Heaven. Despite making up the majority of believers in the United States, up until a few years ago, no studio was willing to go near faith-based property, but after the Kendrick brothers brought monstrous success to the genre, and God's Not Dead followed in its footsteps to utterly extraordinary earnings (so extraordinary you can look for the sequel in theaters on April 1st), the market is now being recognized by more studios like Pure Flix and even mainstream Hollywood.
Miracles from Heaven was apparently a story that T.D. Jakes, with his production company, and executives at Columbia Pictures found so wonderful and potential-ridden that they had to pick it up for a wide release a week before one of the biggest Christian holidays of the year. Taking a first look at the film's trailer, concept, and poster, it immediately looks like the equally bad sister film to Heaven is for Real, that nauseatingly saccharine mess that came out two years ago. However, while Miracles from Heaven essentially levels the playing field for being about as cloyingly mawkish as that film, it admirably tries to focus on the characters that make up the story, in addition to their relationships with one another during certain calamity.
The film, based on a true story, as you probably could've guessed just by the statement's ubiquity in recent years, revolves around the Beam family, a tight-knit bunch in Burleson, Texas with Christy and Kevin (Jennifer Garner and Martin Henderson) at the helm and their three girls. The prime focus, however, is on their ten-year-old daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers), who has been having extreme stomach pain and prolific bouts of vomiting for weeks on end. Repeated doctor visits diagnose relatively mild to moderate cases of lactose intolerance and ulcers, but Christy knows in her heart that this isn't something so simple. Call it mother's intuition.
It turns out, Anna has a rare digestive disorder called pseudo-obstruction motility disorder, where the body thinks there is something obstructing the intestinal tact but there is no such blockage. It comes from the body's inability to properly breakdown and digest food, with the only solution being for the stomach to vomit the food back up. Of course, there is no known cure, but out of desperation, Christy and Anna fly out to Boston to meet Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez), a doctor at Boston Children's Hospital who specializes in pediatric gastroenterology. For months, Anna is sick and in constant pain, to the point where she tells her mother she'd rather be dead.
Miracles from Heaven directress Patricia Riggen (director of last year's miner drama The 33 and screenwriter Randy Brown do a great job at conveying the helplessness that plagues both Christy and Anna throughout the entire course of the film. However, one thing that keeps both of them strong to a certain degree is their faith and connection to the Lord. While Christy's dwindles as Anna's situation looks bleak, Anna, her father, and her sisters keep that sort of faith all the way down to a truly terrifying moment that changes the course of Anna's life forever.
The incredulity is high in this film, but what would you expect from a film titled Miracles from Heaven that's also based on a true story? However, that doesn't justify the film's almost sickening emphasis on the sad and the melancholic through every scene. Even worse than sermonizing the word of God or some moral about absolute faith, Riggen and company decide to embellish every scene with a frothy musical score that practically works to extract tears and sentiment from the audience in the most unnatural way. For a 110 minute film, the result is a wearying example of what it means to really sentimentalize every little thing in movies, to the point where you imagine the film crew themselves shedding tears at the story and just wish they and the film itself would get a grip.
There is also a conflicting narrative here that disturbs me, and the fact that it's glossed over so casually is also problematic. Part of Christy disassociating herself with the church comes after a group of churchgoing ladies suggest to her that Anna's suffering may be a result of Anna or both her and Kevin sinning. The scene is sickening in the sense that it looks to emphasize one of the many reasons why so many people are so disgusted with the church - the way it casually blames victims for their own suffering and has some assuming that if their lives are good, why can't everyone's life be good? This is a very real issue that should infuriate Christy, and while it does for a little while, it also doesn't stop her from eventually recommitting her life to the church. Even if you're going to shamelessly dub Miracles from Heaven a propaganda film, which it kind of is, to be fair, talk about going against your own propaganda.
Miracles from Heaven's performances are all on-par with those commendable for basic melodrama that somehow bypassed being an Up TV favorite and got the privilege of a theatrical release, and the fantastical aspect Heaven is for Real chose to make a one-hundred minute film on, Miracles from Heaven chooses to make most of the third act about, which is another positive in that it doesn't lose focus. As faith-based films go, this one definitely realizes that the human side of things is what gets it the respectable points as a film, but forgets that the mawkish and over-sentimentalized route is another route that can make one entirely forget the important aspects of the film they just saw.
Bringing a way of life out of obscurity or further into it?
NOTE: This film was recommended to me by Daniel Baldwin for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."
You can write on an ant's genitals how much I know about martial arts or martial arts in film, so with that in mind, I'm the wrong person to review and analyze Circle of Iron right off the bat. If I needed an introduction to martial arts on film, perhaps I should've went directly to the films of the genre's master Bruce Lee or even the contemporary works of Thailand-born director Tony Jaa rather than a film directed by the same man who was the cinematographer for Annie. Or, perhaps to evoke more drastic sentiment, the relationship between me and Circle of Iron was never meant to be.
This is a tedious spectacle, glitz with some really strong cinematography (go figure, given Moore's history) but some seriously bad acting, and surprisingly unremarkable fight scenes. The film revolves around martial arts fighters who are competing to challenge Zetan (Christopher Lee), a wizard who posses a special book of untold power of enlightenment that houses all the wisdom of the world. Cord (Jeff Cooper) is a brash, arrogant man who winds up defeating all of those before Zetan, yet is disqualified for fighting dirty one too many times. Nonetheless, he winds up following the tournament's winner Morthond (Anthony de Longis), who is also searching for Zetan. Together, the two can hopefully indulge in the winner's wisdom and also find a greater purpose for themselves outside of fighting.
There's also a recurring character played by David Carradine, a blind flute-player that turns up quite frequently during their trip. Along the way, we also see character actors like Eli Wallach playing a man stewing in a cauldron of oil in the middle of the desert in hopes to dissolve the lower half of his body in order to nullify all sexual arousal and urges in order to experience enlightenment. The scene begs religious interpretation I'm sure you can subscribe for yourself.
The problem with Circle of Iron is there are too many scenes like this, that either don't need an explanation or don't really warrant one. The characters in the film are fairly flat and the dialog is spouted in a wooden manner, with echo and emphasis that reminds of the voice-over narration on a CD-i video game. The look of the film saves it from becoming a totally boring affair, largely because Moore, who has had ample experience with cinematography on films of varying genres, makes the most out of a minimalist setting. He takes the stark contrasts of orange sand and ocean blue skies and makes them kiss and produce an eye-appealing visual palette, in conjunction with the film's official cinematographer Ronnie Taylor.
While Carradine, Lee, and even Wallach, for his momentary cameo, clearly give performances that incite evidence of at least a wee bit of inspiration, our two leading men, Cooper and de Longis, aren't very engaging leading men. Their chemistry is largely elevated or brought to life when one of the aforementioned men come on screen and liven things up. Other than that, it's almost a totally cold and unmoving slog.
This is especially sad after taking note of what Circle of Iron's production history was exactly. A passion project of Bruce Lee's for many years, the film wasn't completed until five years after the man's death. Lee wanted the film to be a real segway and informative piece about the idea of Zen, communicating its principles while infusing what Lee combat, martial arts, and other things that Lee loved in addition. While we'll never quite know what the master of martial arts thought of his film, I can at least state that I'd want my legacy and my beliefs touted with a lot more confidence and substance than what is found in this particular film.
Starring: Jeff Cooper, Anthony de Longis, Christopher Lee, David Carradine, and Eli Wallach. Directed by: Richard Moore.
NOTE: This film was recommended to me by John Henry Westhead for "Steve Pulaski Sees It," and the following review is a review of the 108 minute cut of the film instead of the 135 minute cut.
The opening shot of John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie lingers on Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) as he leans against a wall that has a painted mural of a scantily clad woman, a fitting metaphor for the film that follows. Through subtle yet clear, distinct photography, Cassavetes shows that nudity and sexuality are the backbone for Vittelli and his business, a local nightclub. Without the reliance on being provocative and the presence of arousal, Vittelli's dime-a-dozen nightclub is nothing. This would all seem so obvious and self-explanatory if Vitelli wasn't so opposed to thinking that the half-naked dancers are the reason the house is jammed on a Friday or Saturday night.
The film revolves around Cosmo's descent into dirty business with a sleazy loanshark (played by the film's producer Al Ruban) to pay off longstanding gambling debts, a recurring habit of Cosmo's in conjunction with running his club. Vitelli, who is always one to make deals that benefit both parties, decides to allow his loanshark and his friends to have one great night at the club, all expenses paid, even going as far as to allow them to gamble for free. With this, Vitelli has ostensibly paid off all of his debts, so to celebrate, he begins gambling again, eventually ending the night $23,000 in the hole and right back to the same place he freed himself from moments ago.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie shows the cyclical drudgery of gambling addiction; what begins as a casual, and even carefree, bout of seeing high highs and low lows turns into a vicious, compromising addiction that too often results in the gambler discovering his worst victim/enemy is himself. Vitelli loves his nightclub, but he loves the simultaneous thrill and laidback qualities of gambling even more to repeatedly put himself and his business in jeopardy.
Vitelli is also delusional about his nightclub, not in the sense that his finances are in the best possible standing, but that people come to see the talent of the exotic dancers and not just their bodies. Vitelli and his team have the ladies put on elaborate shows with decorative set designs and costumes, and despite his team telling him otherwise, Vitelli believe it's the stories and the costumes that bring people in above anything else. Deep down, one wonders if he can regretfully admit that's not the case, but even so, that doesn't stop him from stringing together elaborate sets in the meantime.
Ben Gazzara gives a strong, subtle performance as Vitelli. His character is often quiet, reserved, and even occasionally passive as he allows his actions to rightfully damn himself instead of fighting them, and Gazzara communicates the traits largely through facial expressions and his ability to convey power through his stature and presence. Vitelli is your typical club owner rather than your average bar owner in that he's quiet and he listens; he studies things around him, as we can tell when he's intently observing the activities at his poker table. These are all very low-key, conservative traits that Gazzara needs to embody to prevent his character from becoming too bombastic or too impressionistic and he nails the challenge beautifully.
Encompassing Gazzara's performance is Cassavetes' and cinematographers Ruban and Mitchell Breit, who help detail the environment of this local nightclub. Cassavetes directs the shows with a lovely emphasis on essence and environment, showcasing the anomaly of such a medium-budget production being put on centerstage for a rather seedy nightclub. Actresses Alice Friedland and Azizi Johari, playing dancers decorated from top to bottom in fancy decor, are the stars of these lengthy scenes that do nothing but linger, like smoke expelling off of a cigarette. The result has the ability to put the most seasoned moviegoer (or Cassavetes fan, for that matter) into a deep-seated trance of admiration.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a nicely told story of disillusionment and delusion, two of the heaviest and most mentally taxing emotions a human being can bear alongside depression and stress. Embodying such lofty emotions is Gazzara at the center of a film that moves gracefully and liberally at just under a hundred and ten minutes, and encapsulating the film are lovely set designs that compliment the film's motions and interworkings. If only the film wasn't so disproportionately focused on Vitelli, even when nothing truly significant is occurring with his character, and we got more insight into the lives of his dancers could this be an all-encompassing long at a nightclub and not just the central part of it.
Starring: Ben Gazzara, Al Ruban, Timothy Agoglia Carey, Seymour Cassel, Alice Friedland, and Azizi Johari. Directed by: John Cassavetes.
Once in a while, you find a film like Cristian Cancho's La farándula (meaning "showbusiness" in English), which works to remind of you the infinite possibilities of cinema and how little you've explored. If you're still shocked by some of the experimental and avant-garde cinema you see, to the point where you cannot think of works adequate enough to describe the experience you've just witness, chances are, you have a lot more exploring to do. When a film like La farándula comes along, it reminds you of a few things - the lack of creative limits in film, the imagination that can overtake a film's concept, and finally, that there are so many people in the world, that we'll never run out of creative ideas.
Put simply, La farándula is a Peruvian pornographic film done with Barbie dolls. At just under sixty minutes, it features orgies, homosexual sex, interracial sex, bestiality, and pedophilia, all of which captured with licensed Barbie dolls and some external accommodations, such as freakishly large penises for the characters. This is simultaneously the most graphic and tamest film I've ever seen, similar to a child reading off a list of positions for sexual intercourse but not knowing what any of them mean. If absolutely nothing else, the film creates a great phrase alongside the declaration of something being so boring it's the equivalent "watching paint dry" or "watching grass grow:" as boring as watching Barbies screw.
The film revolves around a male and female characters that stick together with the common interest of having sex and discussing it in explicit detail. Every character is just as filthy as the next and few can go more than two minutes without proclaiming how horny they are or the current state of their genitalia. After Barbie winds up rejecting Ken's advances, both of them embark on a raunchy quest for sex, with Barbie engaging in orgies with her friends, which even go as far as involving a donkey, and Ken goes on to have sex with a few of his friends, one of them a black man who refers to him as "Master Ken," setting up a slew of other problems right there. Eventually, Ken winds up having sex with Barbie's thirteen-year-old daughter, leading Barbie to take him to court where she sues Ken for statutory rape, but not before a whirlwind of other sex scenes occur between the characters.
If you ever thought what was shown on Cinemax lacked the bare-basics of erotic entertainment, you have yet to see a slew of plastic dolls trying to have sex and fellate one another. The result is a strangely amusing but ultimately juvenile parade of someone having way too much time on their hands, especially when they direct a Barbies cruising in a small convertible alongside a curb on a full- sized road. In addition, when you have a smaller Barbie doll looking as if she's performing oral sex on a Ken doll, with what looks to be white cream or ointment coming out of the Ken doll's external, phallic accoutrement all over the smaller doll's face, the end result isn't arousing but downright uncomfortable.
Some of the things the characters say too are just unheard of in terms of ordinary dialog. Even if we're judging La farándula on the basis of a pornography, it's still shocking how lacking the film is in basic erotic tendencies. Characters proclaiming the vile and unheard of sex acts they will soon be engaged in and the language used makes the film almost entirely unerotic in many respects. With the erotic element of the film being virtually nonexistent and the comedic element of Barbie dolls engaging in acts that Barbie dolls wouldn't ordinarily be engaged in wearing off fairly quickly, what you're left with is a shell of a film with a solid premise but little to no competence in its execution.
In a strange way, through the racist undertones of Mandingo, the sexist ideas casually thrown around by the characters, and the downright disturbing showcases of pedophilia in such a casual manner by innocuous Barbie dolls, I definitely did get some basic amusement from the content in La farándula. It's amusement I'm not particularly comfortable with knowing that I got, but I did. However, at a certain point, I stop appreciating a wild idea and begin regarding it with subtle contempt; how quickly La farándula goes from possessing the ability to be admired to breeding contempt is pretty shocking, almost more-so than the content at hand.
Emotionally vapid melancholy triumphs human interest, yet again
NOTE: This film was recommended to me by Nenko Manolov for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."
Snowpiercer's cinematic beauty stems from two distinct places, the first being Hong Kyung-pyo's crisp, often gritty cinematography and the second being the hierarchical power structure in the film depicted through horizontality rather than conventional verticality. It's a film that's so focused on these two features that it forgets to humanize the middle-man, the men and women inside the long, ostensibly endless locomotive that is trudging along through the brutal cold, housing civilization's last batch of humans that managed to survive a catastrophic ice age produced by climate engineering. The end result is an admirable slice of ambition that unfortunately settles for the strengths of its aesthetics and symbolism to carry what should've been a far more engaging story.
The class structure of the Snowpiercer train has the wealthier, more privileged in the boxcars near the front of the train, while the poorer, more lower-class patrons ride in the caboose cars, where heating and adequate food are both in short supply. As a result, with children being taken from their families and the elderly being abused, an uprising begins to occur on the train, led by the likes of Curtis (Chris Evans), one of the lower-class passengers. Curtis decides the only way that anything will change is if him and numerous others violently charge their way to the front of the train, an idea so crazy that it just might work.
The Snowpiercer is governed by both Minister Wilford, played by Ed Harris, and Deputy-Minister Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, in a lively, Stanley Tucci/Hunger Games-style performance in that it's so bonkers that it can't help but be effective. The two are appalled by Curtis's efforts to disrupt the system that has worked in their favor for so long, which helps make this uprising a full on battle when the revolutionaries begin gaining traction. What unfolds is a bloodbath aboard a neutral vehicle of transportation that chugs along through the miserable conditions, housing ugliness all the way down the track.
Kyung-pyo's cinematography captures the dirty, claustrophobic environment of the train incredibly well. When we are occasionally blessed with glances of the outside world, we see a whole other achievement in cinematographical clarity and focus and that is the limitless whiteness that awaits us outside. Just from the look of the environment, we can almost feel are skin turn raw and red from the brisk conditions, which are evidently so bad, a man's punishment is to expose his full length arm to the outdoors, which results in it freezing and being smashed off with a battle-axe by Wilford. Such gruesome, unconscionable ugliness is beautifully captured by Kyung-pyo.
Then there's the aforementioned, ever-present symbolic presence of horizontality, which houses the structure of the class system just by its nature. This is more unique than most casual moviegoers would assume because we're so used to just accepting visions of power and status being communicated in more dense urban areas and heavily populated communities via the incorporation of skyscrapers and their inherent verticality. The horizontality present symbolizes the never-ending pursuit of a person who starts from the bottom (the caboose) and works his or her way up to the top (the leading car) through persistence and fight, only instead of a metaphorical "rise to the top" there's the grittier, more tiring "walk to the front." Director Bong Joon-ho works to profile this in a way that subverts the usual power convention by turning one of America's oldest means of transportation into a powerful, visual metaphor.
The most unfortunate thing is that both of these strong components are housed in a film that isn't always particularly captivating. Often the film's attitude and tone is just as unequivocally grim and melancholy as the outside of the train, but not in an emotionally powerful way. While Joon-ho (who also serves as the film's screenwriter with Kelly Masterson) and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo make Snowpiercer a riveting film visually, it's a film that lacks in illustrating compelling characters. Films about revolutions, revolutionaries, and uprisings are only as interesting as those involved in them, and while scenes of people being beaten, bludgeoned, and brutally killed are hard-hitting, if we don't know the characters behind them, it essentially fuels the facelessness the powerful regime intends to keep in place for its people. Despite Curtis being in nearly every scene in the film, his character is interchangeable because Joon-ho and Masterson don't seem to write one for him, in addition to most of the other characters in the film being very loose, indistinct souls with very little personality whatsoever.
Films like Snowpiercer aggravate me because they have all the components in place, yet skimp on the emotional relevance of the picture and the ultimate reason as to why we should care about these characters and their struggles as people. Even Joon-ho's tonal shakeup at the end, where the film's depiction of the interworkings of the upper class feels like a more adult version of The Hunger Games would've been more forgiving had there not been such a disconnect with the characters in the film. As it stands, Snowpiercer is a strong showcase for aesthetics, but a mediocre to average showcase for human interest.
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and Ko Ah-sung. Directed by: Bong Joon-ho.
NOTE: This film was recommended to me by Joseph Garza Medina for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."
He is a middle-aged landlord from American in the middle of mourning the suicide of his wife. She is a young Parisian woman engaged and ready to begin her life with someone whom she deeply loves. She meets him when she's looking for an apartment to rent. An illicit, anonymous sexual relationship ensues.
Both agree not to give one another their names. Perhaps that way it is sexier. For a man to sleep with a woman and not even know her name, he might be looked at by his peers as something of a true player, whereas for a woman to admit she slept with a man whose name she doesn't know would leave a permanent brand on her character by society. This is one of the many reasons they don't tell anyone. That way the arousal of the actions remain and neither party is greatly harmed anymore than they will inevitably be.
He is played by Marlon Brando, one of the finest method actors who has ever lived, who is nothing shy of greatness here. Though he is largely quiet throughout the film, his leering presence as a character speaks volumes. His sexual force and energy does too, as he is the one to frequently initiate sex with her so that the two can release the tension, passion, and unmatched desires that have been clawing at their being for so long. She is played by Maria Schneider, another wonderful character actress who establishes herself here nicely, as well.
Both characters are just minimalist enough where intentions and such can be applied to them with ease. The writing team are careful to craft recognizable characters that also have a strong element of impressionism here that can help discern both characters' intentions. For one, we can assume that he's sudden promiscuity with sex is a way to mask the pain of his late wife. The burden of pain is so strong and uncompromising for him that the only way to at least temporarily remedy it is through carnal acts that would be meaningless if they weren't so full of passion. For her, one can assume her youth and her adventurousness are leading causes of this act of promiscuity, but perhaps it is also a need to feel in a world that doesn't always want you to display your emotions.
The film shows what happens when emotions and passion become so overpowering to the human mind that the only logical thing to do is to act instead of talk or define feelings. It elegantly showcases what comes of two people who completely collapse under the weight of their own impulsive desire to have sex and the problems it sets up for the future, when the clothes are back on and the weight of reality returns in an even more burdening manner. Even through cloudy aesthetics, intimate and erotic sex scenes, lavish costumes, and a wonderful, classical score that intertwines different jazz and full-blown orchestra, the characters and their underlying motivations remain the most interesting dance in the film. Why dance solo when it takes two to tango?
Starring: Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci.
Clockstoppers begins by introducing us to Quantum Tech Corporation (QT Corporation), which has developed a new project called "Hypertime," allowing a user's molecules to reach lightning speeds, giving the appearance that everything around him or her is standing still. "Hypertime" can be activated by wearing a particular wristwatch, and despite the NSA stopping the project before it is fully completed, QT's CEO Henry Gates (Michael Biehn) still wants the watch for his own power.
Unbeknownst to Gates, one of the leading scientists behind the project sent the watch to Dr. George Gibbs (Robin Thomas), a teacher at his son Zak's (Jesse Bradford) school. Zak, who keeps pining his father for a hot new Ford Mustang, winds up getting his hands on the watch, and, upon discovering its true powers, uses it to impress Francesca (Paula Garcés), the new girl at school from Venezuela. It doesn't take long for the two of them and their other friend Meeker (Garikayi Mutambirwa) to abuse the watch's power and cross paths with Gates, who desperately wants that watch back.
Clockstoppers is simple entertainment; precisely the kind of medium-budget production you could envision Nickelodeon Movies putting out in the early 2000s. It takes a lot of similar vibes from Back to the Future, and it focuses on familiar teen tropes in order to momentarily capture the attention of pre-teens. It has an attractive lead actor with a rebellious swagger, a beautiful foreign exchange girl who sticks closely by his side after initially showing her claws, and the rowdy sidekick, who adds a more comedic spin on his buddy's serious perils.
Throw that all in a blender and you get Clockstoppers, basic cable's best friend. A film good enough to take up a two hour time-slot with commercials, but not good enough to have any retaining or lasting value outside of basic cable entertainment. Despite both Bradford and Garcés boasting enough charisma to make them worthy of the two leading roles, it's largely the way the film surprisingly handles the material in an unexciting way, right down to crafting a boring villain who feels about as uninspired and as cookie-cutter as they come. For a film about stopping time and momentarily stunning and transforming the space-time continuum, it's a film with shockingly low energy.
Bradford and Garcés do manage to be pretty charismatic screen presences throughout the film, making you wish they did more of these tween adventure films for the sake of their appealing nature. This was a time when Disney and Nickelodeon films based around brand new, live-action properties were being churned out and nearly every young, white actor was getting their shot at centerstage for whatever project the studios wanted to concoct. Clockstoppers isn't uniquely bad, which in itself is a bit of a disappointment because at least it would provide me with something noteworthy to say. Unfortunately, the film is just a simple case of fast food filmmaking, movies you can quickly watch and just as quickly forget.
Starring: Jesse Bradford, Paula Garcés, Garikayi Mutambirwa, Robin Thomas, and Michael Biehn. Directed by: Johnathan Frakes.
What happens when a once-brave comedian conforms to mainstream standards
If anyone has had a hard time adapting their schtick to the modern times, it's Sacha Baron Cohen. The fearless comedian who brought his wickedly funny, but culturally relevant, stereotypes of white rappers, foreigners, and flamboyant homosexuals to life in hilarious passion projects has found it difficult to adapt in the age of YouTube/cellphones, where similar acts of pranking the public are aplenty online. While the formula has still proved successful (IE: "Bad Grandpa"), Cohen's more elaborate methods are of a bygone era, it seems, which is why all of his characters are "retired," so he claims. Since 2012, with the release of "The Dictator," his first formally structure film, Cohen has been trying to adapt his schtick to more scripted ventures (or "real" films, some will say), with plots, characters, and actual conflicts.
While "The Brothers Grimsby" may still have the energy of Cohen's past films, it unfortunately lacks the heart, wit, and cultural significance of his earlier projects. Cohen settles for some of the lamest cheapshots I've seen from him in recent memory, almost stooping to a bargain barrel, Adam Sandler-level in order to get laughs, in one of the most desperate comedic efforts I've seen this year (and just to refresh faithful readers and inform new ones, I've already sat through "Ride Along 2," "Dirty Grandpa," "Fifty Shades of Black," and "Zoolander No. 2" this year).
The film revolves around Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen), an English man from the town of Grimsby, who, despite contentment with his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) and their eleven children, has always had an empty hole in his life - his younger brother Sebastian (Mark Strong). After being put up for adoption and subsequently adopted by different families, the two went without seeing one another for nearly thirty years, until they are reconnected when Nobby succeeds in tracking his brother down. He discovers that Sebastian is an MI6 agent, currently investigating a conspiracy theory involving the England government. The two wind up going undercover when the agency turns against Sebastian so order can be restored.
Anyone going to see "The Brothers Grimsby" for the plot is cruelly unknowing of what they should expect from a Cohen film, and while you can certainly imagine what to expect, trust me when I say there are some things in this film you wouldn't dream. There are enough gross-out sight gags and visual anomalies to make the Farrelly brothers cackle, which is all well and good for those who want a completely empty movie-going experience. However, even at seventy-four minutes (which is plenty long for this film) and featuring one of the biggest jokesters in the business today, even the most lax and easy-going audience member should demand a bit more from Cohen and his crew.
"The Brothers Grimsby" is a lazily written film, so keen on being entirely predicated off of disgusting, gross-out humor that you are practically demanded to laugh at just because you can't believe what is happening, that it gives the impression that Cohen and his team simply wanted to make a film and they didn't care in the slightest what it would be about. Even worse, Cohen subjects actors who have had a hard time getting roles, let alone serious roles, that showcase their true talents by type-casting them and further alienating them in the worst way possible.
Consider Rebel Wilson, who is the butt of more fat jokes yet again, setting her back several more films before she can even prove her worth, in addition to Gabourey Sidibe, who hasn't done much of anything since "Precious," subjecting her to such a shameful and unfunny role that it's almost unconscionable. Cohen doesn't even seem to respect Barkhad Abdi, who you might remember as the leading Somalian pirate in "Captain Phillips" a few years back, who plays a drug dealer in two scenes in the film, as well. Abdi, who has had presumably had a rough time finding quality work in Hollywood since his Oscar-nominated performance as is, is done no favors with this film, and neither are the aforementioned actresses, who continue to get the cheapest roles in the films they play.
But at the end of the day, "The Brothers Grimsby" is nothing more than a film made for prepubescent boys, obsessed with the four-letter words and vividly worded events they spew to their friends in school and through headsets on their online video games. Cohen has a lot to be proud of as a comedian, mainly because of how brave and unequivocally fearless he so often is in his films, but in this particular picture, he does nothing but conform to the level of the lesser comedians around him, so much so that the stone-faced Mark Strong even manages to outdo him more often than not. That alone should be a statement of the lack of quality in this film.
"10 Cloverfield Lane" is a unique specimen in 2016; here's a film that comes out on the heels of very little marketing buzz, so much so that only a sentence-long plot synopsis was made known to the public, minimalist trailers that, unlike most, do not air before every new release in theaters, and a week of screenings that have had many critics tight-lipped about what the film actually is. When I first heard the film was going to be released, I had to try not to shrug it off and assume it would be a mediocre, loosely connected followup to the 2008 smash hit "Cloverfield" that's main goal was quick cash.
However, after the thirty minute mark of the film, I knew I was in for anything but a cash-in, let alone a film that was trying to be a followup or a continuation of the world set forth by the aforementioned film. "10 Cloverfield Lane" not only takes the series into an alternate direction, but completely revitalizes its formula by creating a Hitchcockian-style mystery that is predicated upon heart-racing tension and immaculate aesthetics that are often so crisp and consuming, you might have to remind yourself that you're not the one trapped in the film.
Being that "10 Cloverfield Lane" is one of those films where, when describing it, there is a vague line between what is spoiler territory and what is part of the basic plot outline. To keep things decidedly simple, the story opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), driving home on a long, secluded road after a fight with her boyfriend, before she is involved in a devastating car accident that sends her flying off the side of the road. She eventually wakes up in an underground bunker and meets Howard (John Goodman), a dedicated survivalist, who rescued her from the wreck and claims that this is the safest place she can be following "what happened."
Howard informs her that a devastating attack has taken place outside that has left nearly everyone dead or contaminated with some sort of disease; the size, scale, and cause of the destruction is unknown due to the radio-tower being knocked out. In preparation for an event like this, Howard has taken the precaution of designing this underground bunker like a home, with a shower, toilet, Television set, a full kitchen, and food supplies to last years if rationed. Also in the bunker with them is Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a friend of Howard's who remembers when he was constructing this bunker. Howard will also not let Michelle nor Emmett look onto the outside world through windows without his permission, leaving the three without any contact beyond the walls of the bunker.
This kind of premise just breeds claustrophobia and fear and "10 Cloverfield Lane" is a masterclass example of such. Using some fascinating cinematographical tricks (employed by Jeff Cutter) that showcase the cramped environment of the bunker, in addition to some beautiful, sweeping long-shots in such a tight space, both Cutter and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg create an environment that startles and mystifies. The trio of screenwriters (Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, writer and director of the fantastic "Whiplash") are smart to keep us, the audience, just as trapped as the characters in this film. We don't know more than they do and we're put in a position to buy or reject Howard's simultaneously incredulous but believable story of doomsday.
In addition, the sound design in this film is layered and cut-throat, not so much heavy on the jump-scares or the abrupt synthesizers that work for a good jolt, but in terms of adding to such a congested area where every sound is ostensibly amplified to ear-shattering effect. This makes every effect and auditory accoutrement to "10 Cloverfield Lane"'s beautiful cinematography resonate that much more, and makes for a slowburn, suspense-driven delight.
Finally, let's please talk about John Goodman's career-making performance in the film, as he broods but never settles for empty fear. His gravelly, almost guttural voice makes each syllable that rolls of his tongue feel like a sucker-punch to the jaw, and such a blow lands right on the exterior of Mary Elisabeth Winstead, who is anything but a passive force of abuse in this film. Winstead's strength and power as a leading woman is communicated throughout the film, and she proves to a public that has slept on her despite strong performances in "Grindhouse: Death Proof" and "Smashed" that she's worthy of recognition. Only more likely to be slept on her is Gallagher, Jr., who does some damn-fine work as well, but sort of finds himself ostracized by the sheer power of both Goodman and Winstead.
Again, I must emphasize the fact that "10 Cloverfield Lane" is a proclaimed "spiritual successor" and "blood relative" to "Cloverfield" and not a direct sequel, prequel, or any immediately connected entity. This is probably for the best, as the pulse-pounding effects of "Cloverfield"'s found footage/shaky camera aesthetic have worn threadbare within the last eight years since the genre's revival. "10 Cloverfield Lane" goes for something different, more electric, layered, and scary, and the film manages to be one of the best mysteries in recent years.