Monday, August 21, 2017

Blindness

1/4

Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Gael Garcia Bernal, Maury Chaykin, Danny Glover

Rated R for Violence including Sexual Assaults, Language and Sexuality/Nudity

"Blindness" has one idea, and it keeps hammering it home for two hours: without the conventions of modern society, we turn into animalistic monsters who will lie, cheat and kill to satisfy our own needs and desires.  Not only is this idea as old as the hills, it's a very limiting one.  Which is why "Blindness" gets really old, really fast.

A man (Yusuke Iseya) has suddenly been stricken blind.  He goes to a doctor (Ruffalo) to find out what happened and how to fix it, only for the good doctor to be afflicted too.  Soon it becomes an epidemic and those afflicted are quarantined.  That's when things go to hell.

This is a thought experiment, not a medical thriller like "Contagion."  Director Fernando Meirelles wisely doesn't bother explaining how and why this disease works.  Such things are irrelevant to the film's plot and themes.  What matters is the dehumanization of otherwise normal people.

There's a problem, however.  Since the film doesn't cover any new territory, Meirelles must find an alternative to keep the audience's interest.  Strong character development?  Nope.  He keeps them at an arm's distance to make the audience impartial observers (that none of the characters are given names further emphasizes this).  An involving narrative?  Not that either.  There isn't much of a plot.  Meirelles creates a situation and watches it play out.  It isn't a pretty picture, but neither have other pictures that covered similar ground.  "The Road" comes to mind, which had an energy and immediacy that "Blindness" could only dream of.

The strong performances from the cast help, but since Meirelles doesn't want us to become attached to anyone in this movie, it's tough to appreciate them.  Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo do what they can, but they're misused by a screenplay that doesn't require them to do any acting.  Alice Braga acts motherly and Gael Garcia Bernal makes for a decent, if not especially memorable, psychopath, but that's it.

Fernando Meirelles is the man who directed "City of God," which is unquestionably one of the finest films ever made.  To say that this is a step down is hyperbole of the highest order.  All throughout this movie I kept thinking to myself, "That was a bad decision," or "That scene fell flat."  He directs the film in such a way that the plot holes are magnified.

This is an ugly, corrupt film with very little in the way of insight, suspense or humanity.  Don't bother.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Collateral Damage

2/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cliff Curtis, Elias Koteas, Miguel Sandoval, Francesca Neri

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

"Collateral Damage" was one of many casualties of 9/11.  Originally scheduled to be released on October 5, 2001, Warner Bros. re-edited the film and delayed its release until February 2002, correctly believing that no one on Earth would want to see a movie about terrorism so soon after the worst terrorist attack in human history.  Even if it's a silly yarn starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  This little factoid is the only thing worth noting about this bland action movie, since it has nothing else worth mentioning.

Gordy Brewer (Schwarzenegger) is a fireman, husband and father.  After his wife and son are murdered in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a Columbian rebel known as "The Wolf" (Curtis), Gordy sets out on a mission of revenge.  It won't be easy, since just about everyone from a sleazy CIA operative named Brandt (Koteas) and the Wolf himself want Gordy kidnapped or dead for their own purposes.

"Collateral Damage" is not a terrible movie.  It's just that its impossible to take any of it seriously.  It wants to be an intelligent thriller about terrorism, but it's constantly pandering to an audience with an IQ in the double digits.  There are so many leaps in logic that it boggles the mind.  Gordy's quest only happens because both Brandt and another agent, Phipps (Sandoval), give him information that any normal agents wouldn't tell each other, much less a civilian.  It's also hard to care about the plot since so little time is spent developing its foundation.  There's little context given to the motives of the Columbian rebels, which makes the film lack immediacy.  We're given no reason to care about anyone in this movie.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is miscast.  The action movie legend doesn't have a lot of range; he's best in roles that emphasize his screen presence and comic timing.  Playing the everyman is not something he can do.  He's too imposing a figure.  And he certainly can't handle heavy drama.  His nemesis, Cliff Curtis, isn't much better.  Curtis is a solid enough character actor, but The Wolf is written so badly that he comes across as cartoonish.  He's about as threatening as a Labrador Retriever.  The obligatory woman, Francesca Neri, is just awful.  Rarely is she ever convincing.  Elias Koteas is in full "take the money and run" mode on his way to his next project with Atom Egoyan.  Brief appearances by John Turturro. John Leguizamo, Jsu Garcia (from "A Nightmare on Elm Street"), and in a very small role, a pre-famous Jane Lynch.

This movie doesn't even succeed as stupid fun.  The action scenes, the few of them there are, are muted.  Director Andrew Davis (who made "The Fugitive" movie with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones) can't decide whether he's making a brainless action flick or something along the lines of "The Siege."  The plot is serious but dumb, and the action scenes are muted and lacking adrenaline.  And for a budget of $85 million, the special effects are unacceptably cheesy.  They're awful.

At least its watchable, which is more than can be said for a lot of bad action movies.  The scenes following the bombing are eerily credible, and the climactic twist, ludicrous as it is, works.  Ultimately though, it's just a forgettable action movie that is only worth remembering because of its unfortunate association with a terrible tragedy

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Requiem for a Dream

3.5/4

Starring: Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, Ellen Burstyn, Christopher McDonald

Not Rated (MPAA rating was surrendered after it was given an NC-17, probably for Graphic Drug Use, Strong Language and Sexuality and for Disturbing Images)

Of "Requiem for a Dream," the late great Roger Ebert said that it "plays like a travelogue of hell."  I couldn't have put it better myself.

Movies about addiction are fairly common place.  However, they usually don't get this visceral.  In order to portray the mindset of a quartet of addicts, director Darren Aronofsky made his film appear to be told by an addict.  It is energetic, it is raw and it is maddening.  This is by intent.  "Requiem for a Dream" is unflinching in its depiction of four people who lose everything in the desperate need of a fix.

The film follows four people who are addicts of various substances.  Harry Goldfarb (Leto), his girlfriend Marion Silver (Connelly) and his best friend Tyrone (Wayans) are all heroin junkies.  Harry's mother Sara (Burstyn) is addicted to the TV, specifically a snake oil salesman by the name of Tappy Tibbons (McDonald).  They all have their lives together, or at least enough to where they can get by day by day.  All are dreamers with simple goals: Harry and Tyrone want to make one big score to set themselves up with enough cash to live on easy street.  Marion wants to open up a dress shop.  And Sara wants to lose weight so she can appear on TV with Tappy in her favorite red dress (to do this, she goes to a doctor to get amphetamines).  By the end of the film, all four of them will be living a nightmare, one that may not end after the end credits.

The four lead performances are superb.  All of them submerge themselves into their roles with no thought of vanity.  None of them are spared from Arnofsky's vision of despair and degradation; we se the ugly, the uglier, and the downright horrific.  Of the cast, the flashiest performance is given by Ellen Burstyn.  Sara does not have all her mental faculties intact when the film starts, so she's easy prey for false promises of appearing on TV and dieting quick-fixes.  She's the most tragic character; taken advantage of (willfully or not) by everyone around her and losing her mind as a result.  Leto, Connelly and Wayans are all excellent, but Burstyn is the one everyone remembers.  Burstyn considers her performance here her greatest accomplishment.  As well she should.  This is arresting work, and she was awarded an Oscar nomination for her efforts (losing to Julia Roberts for "Erin Brockovich").

Darren Aronofsky is clearly drawn to characters who are losing their minds.  His debut film, "Pi," was about an obsessed mathematician.  "Black Swan" was about a delusional ballerina.  Here, in his most famous film, he takes an unsparing look at four people whose entire existence becomes about acquiring a certain substance.  To show this, Aronofsky uses film and storytelling techniques to get us inside the minds of the characters.  Flash edits, cutaways, dividing the screen into sections each with their own image, and blurring the line between fantasy and reality.  I know I've used this term a lot recently and I hope not to make it a cliché, but in this case it is warranted.  "Requiem for a Dream" is an experience.  We vicariously live the trials and tribulations of the characters without physically doing it.  It is something that few people can shake.  The physical impact of watching the film is brutal, which is a good thing since it covers some (but not all) of the film's plot holes.

The MPAA, in its infinite wisdom, gave the film an NC-17.  Aronofsky appealed but lost.  Fortunately, the distributor refused to cut it, believing (correctly) that the film's message and impact would be diluted by doing so.  At first glance, their stance makes sense.  There is a lot of strong stuff here, with many scenes causing even me, who has a strong stomach for this stuff, to flinch.  But considering the context (this is just about as anti-drug as you can get), should there be a line in the sand for a movie that is certain to prevent a lot of people from trying drugs?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

0.5/4

Starring: Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Rated R for Horror Violence and Terror

"Annabelle: Creation" is shit.  I realize that that's not the most polite or professional way to say how awful it is, but sometimes being polite and professional just won't do.  This movie is so bad that it makes me rethink my review of "Split" earlier this year.  It's not as aggravating as the M. Night Shyamalan disaster (which somehow made enough money to warrant a sequel...don't ask me how), but its almost as bad.

Twelve years ago, Bee (Samara Lee), the daughter of Samuel (LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins (Otto) was tragically cut short when she was hit by a car.  Now, they've turned their house into an orphanage for six other girls and a nun.  Things seem okay until Janice (Bateman) finds that Bee's room is unlocked (which she was expressly forbidden to go into) and finds a creepy doll hidden behind a locked door.  Now she's acting strange and mysterious things are going on.

This movie is bad on so many levels it's impossible to count them all.  It's boring, moves at a sloth's pace, and is about as scary as Winnie the Pooh.  The one scene of tension, which involves an unbelievably big well, is less scary than "Monsters Inc."  Even worse, it takes forever to get going.  I think the idea was to build the characters, but while the acting by the three leads is solid, none of them are given anything to work with.  They're props.  The two name actors, Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto, are even worse.  LaPaglia looks as if he was forced to appear in this movie under threat of death while Otto has almost no screen time.  One would hope that they were well paid, and considering that someone spent $15 million on this shit fest, they should have been.  It certainly didn't go into anything behind the camera.

In addition to being boring as hell and seemingly never wanting to end, the film is sadistic as well.  Apart from the reasons I listed.  The things done to and by pre-teen girls are violent, and considering their age, reprehensible.  If writer Gary Dauberman and director Daniel F. Sandberg could have actually made me care, I might have been angry.  But they're so inept that I was merely bored.  The film has such charming things as girls being attacked by a very angry demon/poltergeist/something and scared out o their minds, and the ending is essentially a slasher movie between two pre-teen girls.  And this isn't the case of people in their twenties playing dress up.  They are that young.  Which makes it, in addition to being terrible, reprehensible.

I know people are going to flock to see this because they liked "The Conjuring" and its sequel.  And judging by the box office numbers of "Annabelle," they liked that too (I didn't).  But please, please, PLEASE, don't see this crapfest.  If you do, you have no right to complain about how Hollywood only makes sequels.  Because you are then part of the problem.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Detroit

4/4

Starring: Algee Smith, Jacob Lattimore, Will Poulter, John Boyega, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray, Ben O'Toole, Anthony Mackie

Rated R for Strong Violence and Pervasive Language

"Detroit" is absolutely riveting.  Like "Dunkirk" earlier this year, this movie pulls no punches.  It is violent.  It is intense.  It is utterly ferocious.  This movie grabs you and won't let go.  Its impact is difficult to shake.

July, 1967.  The racial demographics of the U.S. have been changing since World War I, and now are just as divided.  White people have moved out to the suburbs while black people stay in the cities.  Racial tensions are on the rise, particularly in Detroit.  Not least of which is because of a mostly white police force.  It's a tinderbox waiting to explode, and the spark is lit when the police bust a party for a Vietnam vet.  The city erupts into riots and the National Guard is called in.  Meanwhile, five friends, hoping to make it big as Motown stars, find their shot at stardom ruined after the show is cancelled due to the riots (adding insult to injury, it's right as they're about to perform...ouch).  They take refuge at a hotel called the Algiers.  It looks to be a fun way to ride out the mayhem; drinking at the pool and hoping to score with a couple of girls.  One of the men staying there decides to stick it to the cops by firing a starting gun (that can't hurt anyone even at close range) at the National Guard.  That's when things descend into violence, where everyone staying at the hotel is brutalized by a trio of trigger happy cops on a power trip, led by the sadistic Krauss (Poulter).  By the end of the night, a group of men and women will be traumatized and three innocent men will be dead.

Director Kathryn Bigalow does two things: one, she brings to light a shameful event in our past that few people know about but should, and she presents it as an allusion to current events.  It isn't hard to connect the actions of the characters here (especially the police) and the motivations behind the Black Lives Matter movement.  This is a wake-up call to people, especially those who seek to undermine the reality by counterclaim that "All Lives Matter."  Which is true, but still a way to stick your head in the sand and ignore the real problem.  "Detroit" refuses to let that happen.

The film's central event is the hostage situation in the Algiers annex.  No matter how you look at it, this is an abuse of power.  It's the blustery, "don't fuck with me" mentality taken to murderous extremes.  While all three of the officers are complicit in what happened at the hotel, it's Krauss who is the leader.  For him, it's a power trip.  He wants to put them in line and show how much power he has over them.  Yet, he knows all the lingo and how to cover his ass; he knows what he did is wrong but he's unrepentant.  Ostensibly, it's about to find the gun that was shooting at officers.  But listen to his words and observe his actions.  This is a power play.  This is the kind of behavior that gives all the good cops a bad reputation.  Those who think that this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore are deluding themselves.  Don't believe me?  Look at Joe Arpaio, the man who boasted about being "America's Toughest Sheriff" and defied a court order to stop racial profiling (in a turn that the filmmakers probably found bitterly ironic, no mention was made of the fact that he forced "inmates" to live in shabby tents in the desert and wear pink underwear).

"Detroit's" weakest portion is the set-up.  Bigelow has trouble setting all the pieces up and the film's foundation is shortchanged.  Character development is minimal, but that's okay since, like "Dunkirk," this is about the event rather than the people, so such problems that result from this are minimal.

Weaknesses aside, this is filmmaking at its most visceral and brutal.  This is one of the year's best and most important films.

The Little Hours

1/4

Starring: Allison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon

Rated R for Graphic Nudity, Sexual Content and Language

I'm about to write off every movie that is mostly or entirely improvised.  They're all awful.  True, there are some actors and filmmakers who do well with improvisation, like Bill Murray, Christopher Guest and Mike Leigh.  But they had a method to their madness.  Bill Murray rewrites existing material.  Christopher Guests starts with a concept and shoots hours and hours of footage and edits it all together in the end.  Mike Leigh does the same thing, only he has his cast go through extensive preparation including actors' workshops and intense rehearsals.  But I guess no one wants to take that amount of time and effort these days.  They just pitch a concept, the studios cast bankable stars, and everyone jumps in front of the camera and shoots their mouth off.  To expect this will result in something that works in any way, shape or form is just plain demented.

This movie has zero plot.  It has a set-up, I guess, albeit one that would have trouble sustaining a five-minute long SNL skit.  It involves a serf named Massetto (Franco) who needs to get out of dodge after he's caught diddling his lord's wife.  He meets up with a drunken priest named Father Tommasso (Reilly) who promises him safekeeping in a nearby convent as long as he promises to pose as a deaf mute, since the sisters have a habit of driving the male workers away.  Hilarity ensues.  Allegedly.

This movie is like Seth Rogen doing "Masterpiece Theater."  As bad a concept as that sounds, it's worse in execution.  It's not the central idea that sucks, since the idea of a man pretending he can't hear or speak entering into a convent filled with some randy nuns has comic potential written all over it.  But as is par for so-called "comedies" these days, this movie did not have a script.  Even worse, writer/director Jeff Baena apparently used the first take of each shot.  The performances and shot selection have such an amateurish feel that its evident that no one has the slightest clue as to what they're supposed to be doing.  They're all trying to fill up dead air, and when there's a 30 second long debate over quiches, you know you're in trouble.  Unless you're Quentin Tarantino.

The acting is awful.  No one here is a newbie, which begs the question why they all look like deer caught in the headlights.  Even able comedians like Aubrey Plaza (who is one of the producers), John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon are struggling.  This is a movie that I suspect none of them will want to admit was on their resumes.

Naturally, the Catholic League is putting up a fit about this movie.  But they whine whenever there is a religious official who isn't 100% perfect.  Or even has the appearance of being flawed based on the concept (anyone remember "Dogma?").  While it's certainly not bawdy enough to provoke such a fuss to anyone who isn't a total snowflake, I can hardly blame them in this case.

If I saw a movie about gay men that was this bad, I'd complain too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dead Again

3.5/4

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight

Rated R for Language and Violence

Sleight-of-hand is essential for a thriller to work.  What I mean is that the director must show us something important, but in such a way that we don't recognize it until it becomes important later.  Or that we don't see the twists coming.  It's tough to pull off, but when it happens, it's worth mentioning.  "Dead Again" contains two twists that blindsided me.  Although I freely admit that I'm bad at guessing whodunits in movies, this isn't what I'm talking about.

In 1949, classical pianist Margaret Strauss (Thompson) was murdered by her husband Roman (Branagh), a composer and conductor from Germany.  Six months later, he was executed for his crimes.  This information is splashed on the screen in newspaper headlines during the opening credits, so this isn't a spoiler.

Cut to present day.  Private dick Mike Church (Branagh) has been assigned what appears to be an open and shut case.  A woman (Thompson) had clambered into an orphanage where he grew up with no memory of who she is.  She doesn't speak and suffers from violent nightmares.  His task is to find out who she is and return her to her husband or family, whichever that may be.  It appears to be an open-and-shut case, but when an antiques dealer named Franklyn Madson (Jacobi) shows up and starts talking about past lives and such, things get weird.  Mike thinks the guy is a swindler, but through him, the woman (whom Mike dubs Grace) reveals some startling details about the old murder.

The good thing about this film is that it's smart.  It takes our obvious observations and accepts them.  For example, it is not a spoiler to say that Mike and Grace are reincarnations of Roman and Margaret Strauss.  Anyone looking at the poster could see that.  We know it, Branagh knows it, and Branagh knows that we know it.  He doesn't waste our time trying to fool us on something that we have accepted as a given before we have pressed play.  He uses this as a jumping off point.  If only other directors could have as much respect for the audience as he does.

The performances are solid, if unspectacular.  Kenneth Branagh is a little difficult to accept as a motormouth private eye, but he's solid.  No one is going to mistake him for Bogie, though.  Emma Thompson is always a delight, and here is no different.  Derek Jacobi, Branagh's inspiration and frequent collaborator, is quite good as the hypnotist; I wouldn't be surprised if anyone got hypnotized when he talks.  Andy Garcia doesn't embarrass himself as a bored journalist, which is nice, although another actor could have done it better.  Wayne Knight and a truly creepy Robin Williams provide solid support.

Critics have likened this film to Hitchcock, and its an apt comparison.  While not an imitation or even a love letter, it has some of the same feel.  No one will mistake this for a ripoff, but I have no doubt that if Hitch had been alive to see it, he would have been pleased.

"Dead Again" is a little too disjointed to be labeled as a masterpiece, and not everything holds up once the end credits roll, but that's to be expected.  This is, as Hitch called it, a "refrigerator movie."  And a damn good one at that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Abyss: Special Edition

2.5/4

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Kimberly Scott, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff

Rated PG-13 for Language and Some Scenes of Action

"The Abyss" is a departure for James Cameron.  While he is famous for romance ("Titanic") and science fiction (everything else...save for "True Lies"), "The Abyss" is more philosophical and low-key than his other pictures.  All of his films have included a lot of action, to some degree, and while there is some here, it's more restrained.  Cameron is really telling a love story here, albeit one with mixed success.

A U.S. nuclear submarine has gone down in the middle of the ocean after reporting an impossibly fast moving ship.  The US thinks that it's the Soviet Union playing hardball, so they increase their defenses.  They hire an oil rig led by Bud Brigman (Harris) to find out what happened and if there are any survivors.  To aid them, a team of Navy SEALS led by a no nonsense man named Coffey (Biehn), boards their rig.  Also along is the designer of the rig, Lindsey Brigman (Mastrantonio), Bud's soon-to-be ex.  As international tensions rise, it becomes clear to those on the rig that they are not alone.

James Cameron doesn't know what he wants his film to be, and as a result isn't much of anything.  It makes plays for romance, science fiction and action, but Cameron has not assembled them in a way that works.  Considering his immense talent and obsessive drive for perfection, this is surprising.

At its heart, this is a love story.  As such, Bud and Lindsey are at center focus.  Harris and Mastrantonio have some chemistry, but it takes nearly the entire film to catch fire.  These two are no Jack and Rose.  Further, the development of their relationship is fitfully developed, so our investment in their romance is weak.  Michael Biehn is adequate as the increasingly deranged villain, but he's almost a non-entity.  Or at least he feels like it.

If nothing else, "The Abyss" has become infamous for its brutal shoot.  James Cameron is a notoriously difficult director, with a fiery temper and a demanding personality.  Working conditions were also miserable, with much of it being filmed underwater.  Ed Harris nearly drowned while filming one scene, which lead him to punch Cameron for continuing to film.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a physical and emotional breakdown and Ed Harris had to pull over his car because he spontaneously burst into tears on his way home.  Cast and crew called it nicknames like "Son of the Abyss" and "The Abuse," and many of the cast and crew refused to work with Cameron ever again.  Ed Harris still refuses to talk about it entirely.

Two versions of the film exist.  The theatrical cut runs at two hours and twenty minutes, and was tepidly received.  The special edition, which is the one I saw, has an additional thirty minutes of running time.  That may have been too long, since the middle portion of the movie sags interminably as the characters sit in the dead rig pondering what to do next.  Ten or fifteen minutes could have been cut with little lost.

There are some good moments, to be sure, like when the rig is flooding or the final 15 minutes.  But as it is, "The Abyss" is more a curiosity than a title worthy of James Cameron's otherwise impeccable name.  Pity that all the suffering the cast and crew went through didn't add up to more.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Girls Trip

3/4

Starring: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Mike Colter, Kate Walsh, Larenz Tate, Deborah Ayorinde

Rated R for Crude and Sexual Content Throughout, Pervasive Language, Brief Graphic Nudity and Drug Material

"Bridesmaids" opened the door for women in raunchy romantic comedies.  It broke through the cultural mainstay where women were expected to be either Catherine Trammell or June Cleaver.  That's a good thing, since women have long since proved that they can be just as much at home in rude, crude and vulgar movies as the men.  And while "Girls Trip" doesn't break any new ground, it's a hell of a lot funnier than anything Seth Rogen and the other Frat Packers have done in years.

Ryan Pierce (Hall) is living the dream.  She's married to a wonderful guy, an ex-baseball player named Stuart (Colter), and has become the self-help queen of the US.  She's agreed to speak at the Essence Expo in New Orleans, and has invited her estranged best friends, once dubbed "The Flossy Posse," to come with her.  They've all changed since their college days (mostly); Sasha (Latifah) now runs a celebrity gossip website, Lisa (Smith) is an divorcee who hasn't let her hair down in years and has become wound way too tight, and Dina (Haddish) is still a live wire whose foul mouth and antics just got her fired.  Things get off to a bad start as soon as they land, which Sasha gets a tip that Stuart has been cheating on Ryan with an Instagram model named Simone (Ayorinde).  Needless to say, this trip will not go down without a few crazy escapades.

"Girls Trip" works because its well crafted.  All the actresses sell their characters (if not much else), and they understand the concept of comic timing.  There's no awful improve like there would be in a Will Ferrell or, god forbid, a Seth Rogen comedy.  Director Malcolm D. Lee understands that comedy comes from situation and character, not simply being crude.  Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of off color humor to be found here, including a bit with a grapefruit and a banana that has to be seen to be believed.  But the characters don't just stand around smoking pot and shooting their mouths off.

Like the aforementioned "Bridesmaids," this is really two movies in one.  The first is, obviously, the wild weekend of old friends reconnecting through sex, drinking in debauchery.  This part of the film contains more than a few scenes that are worth the price of admission alone.  The second is a melodrama about friendship, girl power, and female independence.  This stuff isn't bad, in fact it's pretty involving.  It's just that the writing isn't strong enough for it to be on an equal playing field with the drunken shenanigans.

Those who are familiar with F. Gary Gray's underrated 1995 heist thriller "Set it Off" will recognize the fact that this is the first time in 22 years that Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah have shared the screen.  It's great to see them again, especially considering that neither one of them gets the recognition they deserve.  They're not as strong as they have been in other, better movies, but that's okay, considering that they're such appealing actresses.  Actually, Latifah and Smith are in supporting roles.  The real star of the film is Regina Hall, who ably handles the comedy and drama required of her.  She's certainly come a long way from "Scary Movie."  Up and coming actress Tiffany Haddish steals her scenes as the politically incorrect and unfiltered Dina.  She's obviously been inspired by Megan from "Bridesmaids," but she's unlikely to get an Oscar nomination like Melissa McCarthy.  The supporting characters are adequate, although Kate Walsh is unbearably annoying as Ryan's agent.  She acts like she's in the ugly stepchild of "Neighbors" and "The Office."  Larenz Tate, who has never really impressed me with his acting abilities, is surprisingly charming as the old friend who may just be the one Ryan needs.

"Girls Trip," in addition to having a totally forgettable title, runs on too long.  In general, a comedy can only sustain itself for 90 minutes before it runs out of steam.  This one lasts just a hair over two hours.  Lee clearly wants the drama and the comedy to be balanced, but it doesn't really work.  The writing just isn't there and because of how Lee handles it, it feels clunky and maudlin rather than touching and moving.

There are definitely some times when the film drags, but they're offset by scenes that left me roaring with laughter.  Fair trade.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Kevin Conroy, Dana Delaney, Mark Hamill, Hart Boechner, Stacey Keach

Rated PG for Animated Violence

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is somewhat of a cult classic, and after seeing a rave review by Siskel and Ebert, I was intrigued.  I'm not a fan of superhero movies, and this one is about as good as the most mediocre entries in the MCU and Justice League canons.  It's not awful, but it's not all that great either.

A mysterious figure is killing mob bosses.  Batman, aka Bruce Wayne (Conroy) is on the case.  Meanwhile, an old flame by the name of Andrea Beaumont (Delaney) is back in town to visit her new boyfriend, the sniveling city councilman Arthur Reeves (Boechner), who blames Batman for the killings.

The problem is not the story, which deals with violence, guilt, and how the sins of the past can literally come back to haunt someone.  The problem is that it's poorly told.  Warner Bros. commissioned it based on the success of "Batman: The Animated Series," and it was originally going to be direct-to-video.  But the studio changed its mind and set it for theatrical release.  Unfortunately, no one rewrote the script or recast the acting talent.  Both are flat, and hamstring what could have been a great movie.

Kevin Conroy is adequate as the lead character.  Usually, he's okay, but whenever he reaches for grand emotions, it comes across as being similar to whenever "Family Guy" parodies William Shatner.  Dana Delaney is better, but she can't save the dialogue or the overly expressive character movements.  Hart Boechner is dislikable enough as the jerk and Mark Hamill has a great time as the Joker.

The animation, which was singled out as praise by Siskel and Ebert, is mixed.  The backgrounds and cityscapes are gorgeous.  They're an art deco style that is perfect for this sort of comic book epic.  However, the animation of the people is hopelessly over-exaggerated like in a trashy cartoon.  The subtler moments are fine, but when you have a character wave his arms like a gorilla to express something, it takes you out of the moment.

Perhaps the film just hasn't aged well.  It would be unfair to compare this to something like "The Dark Knight" or "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," two films that bear similarities with this one, but perhaps their breaking of new ground spoiled it for me.  Maybe as a kid I would have liked it more.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mighty Mike's Raging Reviews: Why Being Gay Sucks

I first realized I was gay at the end of my junior year of high school.  I came out to my family, one by one, that summer.  I came out to friends in college during my senior year.  I grew comfortable with it after college.  Now, I'm completely comfortable with it, so believe me when I say this: being gay SUCKS.

There are so many articles and theories and whatnot regarding homosexuality that a person could read them all in a lifetime and still not have read half of them.  One that was circulated a lot around the gay community was called "The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness" by Michael Hobbes.  It examined the stressors of being a gay man and gave some theories.  The picture it painted was, to put it lightly, bleak.  It contained the usual suspects of such articles: constant cries of sin and what not by religious fundamentalists like Kim Davis and James Dobson, minority stress, the fact that social networking apps have been as much a hindrance to a guy's self-esteem as they are to meet other guys, and that men in general are culturally programmed to be shitty to each other.

That's all well and good, and probably true.  The theory that the constant second-guessing of whether or not the way I moved my hand or inflected a word alerted someone that I was gay (even though they likely didn't notice anything) caused PTSD sounds eerily convincing.  But I think the article missed some key things that I've noticed but the writer and psychologists didn't.

The sense of alienation in the gay community is omnipresent.  I used to frequent gay bars.  The sense of cliquishness and exclusivity was everywhere.  Combined with the gossipy nature of the people there and the cattiness in which they interacted, it felt like middle school.  No wonder I stopped going there.  I go to straight bars now for a few reasons, not least of which is because I can't stand that crap.  That my being groped by a drag queen before I even said hello to him is controversial is indicative of this.

Perhaps the LGBT community's best known quality, which is being lively and colorful, is also its Achille's Heel.  Just about anything goes in the LGBT world, and I do mean anything.  While that's all well and good for certain people, it becomes a little much for someone like me.  Gay pride was fun for a while, but a parade of overly sexualized men and women dressed in ridiculous outfits (or skimpy ones) and singing mind-numbing showtunes has become part of the LGBT identity.  I like musicals as much as anyone else, but in this world, there's no such thing as too much.  And some people take it way too far.  I think that people should do what they want, but I know I'm not the only one who isn't into guys who have colored hair, ear gauges and eyeliner.  Or that talk and act like women.  According to the article, that's because masculinity is viewed as being accepted or whatever.  I disagree.  There are plenty of feminine men who find partners, and more power to them.  It's just not my thing.  Straight guys and girls don't settle for people they aren't attracted to because of a subconscious reason.  Why should I?  Do you really think that every gay guy is into that sort of thing?  Well, are you attracted to a member of the opposite sex who acts contrary to what you'd expect in every way possible?  Or dresses up like a character from a punk rock band or an anime TV show?  Didn't think so.

I go to straight bars now for a few reasons.  One, my friends go there.  Two, I'm so sick of the drama and trademark kitsch that the thought of going to a gay bar is enough to make me want to vomit.  And three, the guys at straight bars act like...guys.  Sure, they're straight, but at least I can see someone who is pleasant to look at rather than the walking definition of "quirky for the sake of being quirky."

People tell me all the time that not everyone who goes to a straight bar is straight.  That's true, without a doubt.  But that's the problem.  People a lot of gay men (closeted or not) have become so adapted to blending in (through fear or personal style), that they're impossible to find.  And I'm sure that a lot of closeted gay men are afraid to come out because they're not into drag shows and Madonna karaoke sessions.

Part of the problem is the media.  Both LGBT and mainstream cinema are guilty of this.  It makes sense; they want to cater to the interests of their target audience.  That's what keeps the cash registers singing.  But by doing so, they play to stereotypes.  In fact, the more outrageous they make them, the more audiences love them.  In both cases, gay men are portrayed as feminine and obsessed with shopping, make-up and sex.  For women, it's acting masculine, and being obsessed with weight-lifting and sex.  However, although they are meant as ironic comedy, the more we hear and see them, the more we believe them to be reality.  Comedies these days, hugely popular with Millennials like me, are filled with "ironic" gay jokes.  Meanwhile their movies exist only to sell the fantasy about being with your "bros."  Where your life exists to get drunk/high and score with women while your friends look on.  As for the other side of it, well I'm not a woman and contrary to the stereotype, I've never seen "Sex and the City."  None of the gay characters, if there are any, have a lot of screen time and even less development.  They exist long enough to gain LGBT cred but short enough that they can be edited out for certain markets.  And when they do show up, they play to stereotypes and simply utter "cute" one-liners that reinforce what everyone believes about gay men and women.  Since there's nothing else to go by, I'm sure plenty of men and women reflect that to fit in or "own" it, in some sense.  Filmmakers think that they can get away with it by having LGBT characters in it, but when you have the two main characters repeating "I love you but in a totally hetero way" over and over again and then have a gay character come on as a stereotype offering socially acceptable sitcom punchlines, that doesn't cut it.

Forgive me, I'm dawdling.  No, what no one mentions is not fitting in anywhere.  As I've clearly established, I avoid the traditional gay scene.  It's not my style and it's toxic.  But the alternative, hanging out with straight friends, has its downsides as well, and in some ways, they're even worse.

Yes, it's pleasing to see a guy that's good looking and gives me heart palpitations.  If I have enough courage, I'll say hello.  But that's risky.  Rarely, he'll be cool enough to have a conversation with me.  Usually, I'm ignored in favor of them scouting out girls and hoping they can look cool and disaffected enough to "magically" attract them to come over and flirt (as opposed to doing the hard thing, which is to go over and talk to them).  About a quarter of the time, they're hostile.  Either their passive-aggressive, or they assume I'm trying to get in their pants and tell me to back off.  Speaking from experience, it's hard to blame them.  "Converting" attractive men and women to gay sex is an inside joke, and while I'm sure it's funny to a certain few assholes, I don't.  It's creepy and it makes guys like me, who are just trying to be nice, look bad.  I remember one time I was with my ex-best friend, and we had to go to a few different bars to avoid a couple of guys who were all but stalking him.

So yes, that sucks, since by the influence of the fat ginger with glasses (aka Seth Rogen) and his "bros" and the reputations of a certain few creeps and losers, I have that reputation by default since I "might" be one of those people.  And god forbid that a "chick" thinks a guy is gay simply because he's talking to another guy.  Never mind that, with every single girl I've talked to, they think such an assumption is so absurd that they're legitimately shocked when I bring it up.

Another reason it sucks is that it makes it impossible to fit in anywhere.  I don't fit into the traditional LGBT community by choice, if I didn't establish that clearly enough.  But I also don't fit in with straight guys either.  When they talk about girls they think are hot or sexual escapades they've had, I nod and laugh appreciatively and in support, but I can't relate.  No matter how badly I want to or how hard I try, I'm never one of the guys in that oh-so-crucial "bro-ish" sense.

I certainly can't bring it up with my friends.  My friends know I'm gay and are totally fine with, which believe me, means a shit ton.  But at the same time, I can't talk about it with them.  It's not that they can't relate.  It's that, for them, it's like taboo or something.  Or weird.  I don't know, you'll have to ask them.  But they get all stiff and awkward when I bring it up.  Even if I mention that a certain guy is gorgeous or even just my type, they get all weird.  I mean, hell, my ex-best friend would say "I love you, bro" and then desperately add "No homo" repeatedly.  Even after seven fucking years.  It's more than a little insulting.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, girls have absolutely no problem talking about guys with me.  The obvious suggestion is to have more girlfriends (my mom has talked my ear off about this), but despite what pop culture tells you, I'm not a Casanova.  When it comes to flirting with women, I'm more clueless than most straight guys.  I'm dead serious.

So what was the point of this self-indulgent little essay?  Hell if I know.  I'm sure I've touched a few nerves and will get a lot of indignant comments on Facebook, but to be honest, I'm long past caring.  Gay culture holds no appeal for it and those who view it as a way of life and are threatened by what I've written have no interest for me.  That's not who I am.  I'm attracted to the traditional man's man.  A bro.  A jock.  Whatever you want to call it.

I guess I just hope that I can tell people who are like me that you're not the only one.  And the "bros" who think I'm "flirting" with them that I have no interest in "converting them to the other side" or something.  That I'm just being a nice, social guy.  That's who I am.  Not a queen, a flamer, a hipster, a bear, an otter, a pansexual or demisexual (whatever those are), or any other clique/stereotype I haven't heard of yet.  I'm just a normal guy who happens to like dudes.  THAT is par for the course.

I hope.

The Devil's Double

3/4

Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi, Phillip Qast

Rated R for Strong Brutal Bloody Violence and Torture, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Drug Use, and Pervasive Language

Latif Yahia has everything.  Luxury clothes, classic cars, beautiful women, luxurious homes, and more money than he can possibly spend.  Normally for someone who was suddenly granted access to this lifestyle it would be a dream come true.  For Latif, it's a nightmare.  Everyone has to pay the price, and for Latif, it's being the body double of Uday Hussein.  Considering this means living under the constant threat of death (for him and his family) and watching someone commit atrocities at a whim, it's not a good trade-off.  But that's just me.

Actually, Latif (Cooper) wants no part of it either.  Not least of which because it would mean completely abandoning his former life.  He would exist only as Latif's double; ostensibly a bodyguard and bro to the son of the equally brutal Saddam, but he's really just a plaything to a psychopath whose narcissism and taste for cruelty know no bounds.  Uday (Cooper) is the traditional rich brat taken to an unbelievable level of insanity.  He can have anything or anyone at will, and he is untouchable.  For Latif, life has become being a witness to the Jerry Springer show from hell.  Uday is Caligula to the extreme, and he has a front row seat.

The problem with this movie is that director Lee Tamahori plays it straight.  There's no stylish spin on anything that goes on in this movie.  The thing is, Uday is such a larger-than-life character that such a direct, no frills portrayal detracts from the story.  This isn't a knock against Dominic Cooper, who is fabulous as the out of control maniac, but the character never becomes memorable.  It's a lifeless presentation of an unbelievable character.  The telling doesn't do him justice.  Think what "The Wolf of Wall Street" would have been like had Scorcese not built the film around Jordan Belfort's extravagance.  It was over-the-top because it had to be.  By not building the film in the same way, Tamahori robs the film of some much needed energy.

Of course, the real subject of the film is Latif, but that's exactly the point.  Tamahori should have highlighted Uday's extravagance to overload in the way he filmed the character and his actions.  It would have given a greater contrast between the monstrous Uday and the meek Latif.  Cooper is wonderful, always convincing as both characters (Cooper should have gotten an Oscar nomination, but the film was too low profile for the Academy to notice).  As Latif, he's watching a horror show in person, and no matter how much he'd like to, he can't stop Uday or leave.  He's trapped.

The other performances are fine, although special mention has to go to Raad Rawi, who plays Munem, Uday's butler/babysitter/caretaker what have you, and the only one that Latif can express his shock and disbelief to.  "You're a good man in a bad job," he says to Munem.  One gets the sense that he has spent his entire life watching the madness and cleaning up after it.  Ludivine Sagnier is adequate as Saraab, Uday's favorite squeeze of the moment.  But she's not memorable, and her romance with Latif is as unbelievable as it is unmemorable.

The film leaves out a lot.  Particularly Uday's close relationship with his mother.  She appears, but has no lines and functions more as a prop.  Likewise, Saddam (Qast) shows up for a few scenes, but his only purpose is to be intimidating.  No mention is made of his relationships with them, and since they were important figures in his life, it's a big oversight.  I'll give it some credit since the veracity of Latif's story is heavily disputed, but more should definitely have been done with them.

"The Devil's Double" isn't a great film, but it does do what it accomplishes.  Barely.