Sunday, February 5, 2023

Strange World: A Review



Before humanity accepted that we are on a massive rock that revolves around one star, people thought all sorts of things about the planet we lived on was. One theory was that the world was being carried on the back of a giant turtle. Strange World draws, intentionally or not, from this idea to create a world that is strange, albeit perhaps not in the way intended. 

Big-time explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is determined to find what is outside the insurmountable mountains that surround Avalonia. His more squeamish son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) would rather not. During their joint explorations, Searcher notes a strange glowing tree. He is convinced that this plant can provide fuel for Avalonia and that they should concentrate on that. Jaeger would rather keep exploring. Searcher finally refuses to go further, leading to them parting ways. 

A quarter-century later, Searcher lives a humble life as a farmer, though Avalonia hails him as a hero for bringing the plant, now known as Pando, to the world. Pando fuels all their needs, powering their cities and farms. Happily married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and with an openly gay son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), things seem to be going well. That is until Avalonian President Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) flies onto the Clade Farm on her ship, the Venture. 

She informs Searcher that Pando is starting to fail. They have found the literal root of the problem and she asks him to help in this expedition. Ethan and their three-legged dog Legend stowaway on the ship, shortly to be followed by Meridian who was in search of her son. They go into Avalonia's core to find Pando's root. Instead, they find Jaeger, who has made a life here while attempting to cross an acid sea. With the ship now available, the Clades join forces for their own agendas.

It is not until they cross that they make a shocking discovery: Pando is literally killing the creature Avalonia resides on! A conflict between saving the creature and saving Pando means a battle between the Clades and the Venture crew. Ultimately, the right choice is made, and a year later Searcher & Meridian are back on the farm, Ethan and his love interest Diazo (Jonathan Melo) are on their own farm, Jaeger is getting back to civilization and Avalonia discovers new, cleaner alternate fuels.

Despite glowing reviews, Strange World bombed big-time when released. I cannot fathom why the disconnect between my fellow reviewers and the general public, but I can share why I think Strange World failed. There are so many things in Qui Nguyen's screenplay (he co-directs with Don Hall) that are sadly, quite dull. None of the characters are interesting, and some of them are quite horrid. How else to explain Jaeger abandoning his family almost in a pique?

Even the stabs at having cute creatures such as Splat, a big blue rubbery thing, fail. that Splat is both an overt stab at having a cute creature and that it sounds like The Addams Family's Cousin Itt does not help. Over and over again, Strange World wants to have a sense of wonder to it but it has nothing there. Granted, some of the images are pretty, and when the Venture lands on the Clade Farm it does look visually arresting. 

However, the strange world in Strange World has little to offer. There is a sluggish nature to the adventure, throwing characters into things with little interest. What could interest viewers about an Alpha Male, his Beta son and openly gay grandson?

As a side note, it is surprising that Jaeger, who has met his grandson for the first time in his life, has absolutely no issue with said grandson being gay. There's no pushback, no sense of shock, no disappointment that he will have no future heirs to his legacy. Strange World wants us to believe they are bonding, but nothing in the film suggests that either would be interested in the other. 

If we need to touch on the gay element in Strange World, let us do so now. The film congratulates itself on how it has the first openly gay character in a Disney animated film. That is fine, but it does not play a role in Ethan's story apart from flirting with Diazo (who openly flirts with him). I imagine that even now, teens coming out to their family is fraught with concerns. It might be pleasant that it is a non-issue in this world, but if you are going to only mention it, why bother having that at all? Perhaps if Diazo played a role in the story apart from "same-sex love interest", we could have had something.

Instead, Diazo is safely relegated to one scene, where his whole purpose is to be the object of Ethan's affection. It plays no part in the story, so why is he there? I do not know if it is a good or bad thing that no one pushed back. Jaeger, meeting his grandson for the first time ever, accepts his grandson's homosexuality with ease. It seems strange that there is no pushback, no shock, no struggle.

Granted, the guy did abandon his family to pursue his own goals, but it still seems curious that Jaeger wouldn't be surprised by the news. 

People upset about having a gay biracial teen is one thing. Strange World, however, is not subtle at all about its environmental message. Pando can be read as "oil", which suggests that Strange World has a message targeting the kids: abandon oil and go to renewable. Was that the point of Strange World: to promote a particular agenda? That I cannot say, but when your characters say, "This world we live in is a living thing", it opens you up to accusations of being less interested in story and more interested in using the medium to send messages.

Perhaps, though, Strange World had little if anything else to it. The characters weren't interesting, and neither were the performances. I don't think Jake Gyllenhaal has the most distinctive voice, but I quickly figured out who he voiced. Same with Quaid. 

The story was not interesting, a terrible thing for the film. What is meant to be thrilling when they cross the Acid Ocean seemed to be tackled rather easily and quickly, with outside forces conveniently coming in. There was a lot of easy conveniences in Strange World, which takes the adventure out of things.

Strange World has nothing apart from some pretty pictures. The story is not there. The characters are not there. Having a biracial gay teen is not enough to lift a movie that offers no excitement, lurches from one thing to another. I think kids will be bored rather than excited to follow the Clades. 


Saturday, February 4, 2023

Knock at the Cabin: A Review



It's the end of the world as we know it, but no one feels fine. Knock at the Cabin takes a good premise and keeps it mostly grounded.

Wen (Kristen Cui) is collecting grasshoppers when a large man comes upon her. Leonard (Dave Bautista) is a soft-spoken but massively built man who tells her that he has an important mission that involves her and her two adoptive father, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and his partner Andrew (Ben Aldridge). Terrified, she rushes to the cabin where they are staying, begging them to hide. However, the cabin by now is besieged by Leonard and three others, one man and two women. 

They take Eric (who got a concussion during the struggle) and Andrew prisoner. However, Leonard informs them that they will not kill them. Instead, Leonard along with his cohorts Sabrina (Nikki-Amuka Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) are there to prevent the apocalypse. Each of them has had visions of death and disaster, leading to the death of all humanity. The only way to save the world is for Eric and Andrew to kill someone in their family as a sacrifice. It cannot be a suicide and the home invaders cannot choose or kill one of them themselves. 

Andrew, the more rational and belligerent of the two, rejects the entire premise and is convinced this is a hate crime. Eric too refuses to make a choice, though he is less confrontational. Their refusal to choose leads the members to, one by one, sacrifice themselves instead, declaring that a part of humanity has been judged. After the first ritualized death, Leonard puts on the television where Andrew and Eric can see the news reports verifying the oncoming wrath.

Over the two days of the siege, Andrew and Eric do what they can to save themselves and Wen, while the surviving home invaders keep working to convince them that they are not crazy. As this battle continues, death comes all around them. Will Eric, Andrew and Wen live, and better yet, will humanity survive?

Based on The Cabin at the End of the World, Knock at the Cabin keeps things simple in terms of plot. We start almost in media res and end when the plot has a resolution. The film has a simplicity and directness that I found effective.

That is not to say that Michael Sherman, Steve Desmond and director M. Night Shyamalan do not stumble during the film. In between the siege at the cabin, Knock at the Cabin has flashbacks to Eric and Andrew's relationship. We get flashbacks to when Eric's parents meet his partner, their deception in adopting Wen from China, and a drunken attack that may or may not be related to the events they are enduring. 

These flashbacks interrupt the flow of Knock at the Cabin and apart from one do not seem to relate to the events of the film. Moreover, the one flashback that does appear to tie one of the cult members to Andrew and Eric appears more coincidental than intentional. Apart from this flashback, the others seem there to lengthen the film, which is rather short at 100 minutes. 

As I said, the premise is quite interesting and the film, to its credit, does not slip into farce or deliver some kind of major twist. However, I think what pushes Knock at the Cabin down is due to style. Shyamalan has a very deliberately grand visual style that calls out its artifice. From its intense closeups to the almost comically ritualistic mannerisms, the film's overall look is at conflict with its straightforward story.

There are various shots that blatantly call attention to themselves. Of particular note is when Leonard is repeating the report shown on television, with him a few seconds ahead of the broadcast. Leaving aside whether his accuracy is the result of his visions (as he attests) or it being prerecorded, (as Andrew insists), the overall look is so dramatic it is done only to be noticed. I was not won over by this style.

The performances were quiet with one exception. Rupert Grint was so over-the-top as Redmond as to be almost parody. It is as if he opted to go big when everyone else was going small. It also brings up a point for me at least in terms of casting. I kept thinking what Knock at the Cabin would have been like if Grint and Bautista had switched roles.

Perhaps screentime was a reason behind the decision to cast Bautista and Grint in their respective roles. However, I could not help thinking that a second-grade teacher would not be so heavily tattooed. Then again, teachers nowadays look far different from when I went to school, so perhaps I am wrong. 

I was surprised that despite the R rating, Knock at the Cabin is surprisingly devoid of much on-camera violence. There is violence in the film, but some of the killings are nowhere near as graphic as they could have been. Moreover, and to the film's credit, everyone on camera and behind it worked hard to have the child not see or participate in the violence. 

I give credit to Bautista for attempting something different in his quiet, almost meek Leonard. While not convincing me that he is a genuine actor, I acknowledge that he is making the effort to show more range. Bird and Quinn too did well, though not great, as the fretful nurse and almost every-woman Adriane. Groff and Aldridge, both openly gay, were also good in their roles. The more conciliatory Eric balances the angrier, more cynical Andrew. 

I mention that they are both openly gay because here they play openly gay characters. I am not convinced that openly gay actors should be the only actors to play openly gay roles (would that not prevent them from playing straight roles and pigeonhole them). It also brings to mind whether or not the metaphorical if not literal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse targeted them because of their sexual orientation, using the end of the world as a rationale. 

They make clear that their visions said nothing about being a single-sex couple and that had nothing to do with it. However, one of them has a connection to Eric and Andrew's past that opens the door to a possible hate crime. From what I saw, it looks less like a genuine hate crime and more like a random attack. It fudges a bit on that point, but I digress.

Knock at the Cabin is short, simple and holds up well. Some parts were frustrating (why not just kill the intruders when they had the chance given it would be justifiable homicide). However, if you don't examine it too thoroughly and can endure a somewhat inflated view of itself, Knock at the Cabin is acceptable and not taxing in terms of viewing and time. 

Friday, February 3, 2023

80 For Brady: A Review (Review #1690)



Perhaps it is serendipity that NFL quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement the day before 80 For Brady was released. Given how Brady is a shrewd manager of his brand, however, one would be forgiven if he/she thought it was intentional. Having four film and television legends team up for a fun comedy should be an easy field goal. Pity that 80 For Brady has the accuracy of a Dallas Cowboys kicker.

Four women share a longtime friendship and a passion for then-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Their de facto leader Louella (Lily Tomlin) has recovered from cancer, though it might have returned. Man-hungry Trish (Jane Fonda) falls in and out of love and has a sideline writing erotica focused on tight end Rob Gronkowski. Recent widow Maura (Rita Moreno) opts to stay at her late husband's retirement home instead of her own home. Sensible Betty (Sally Field) recently retired from teaching college, but her husband Mark (Bob Balaban) is extremely dependent on her for his own educational needs.

Lou decides that they should go see Brady in person when the Patriots face the Atlanta Falcons at Super Bowl LI. Having apparently won four tickets to the game, our gal pals are off to Houston. There, Trish finds a new fan in former player Dan (Harry Hamlin), Maura and Betty accidentally get high (and the latter winning big at a poker game). Lou hears and sees Tom Brady give her messages of hope and encouragement whenever she sees him be it on television or bobbleheads. 

A few twists and turns later with missing tickets and impromptu dance numbers, our Senior Fangirls manage to get inside NRG Stadium. Here romances are rekindled, and our glamorous girls find Gronk, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Brady too. They also learn the true power of friendship.

I, perhaps, can give grudging respect to the cast for making as solid a go as possible in 80 For Brady. However, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins' screenplay is one of the laziest that I have seen. So much of 80 For Brady either doesn't make sense or is idiotic that you sometimes cover your eyes to avoid even metaphorical eye contact. When Maura is given two medications, one for blood pressure, the other for sleep, you pretty much know where this is going. It is a pointless way to make these women look stupid and/or crazy.

Other elements felt added to lengthen a surprisingly short film (at a mere 98 minutes). Sally, ostensibly the demurest one, enters a Spicy Hot Wings contest at the NFL Experience hosted by Guy Fieri. She did this because it was the only way she could eat. Leaving aside the illogic of how she could not find any other food truck at the NFL Experience, how she managed to win said contest is never explained, let alone given a logical explanation. 

Delving further into the NFL Experience, one is amazed that Trish's Gronkowski-centric erotica is sold there. Add to that the fact that no one apparently thought to invite the author to a book signing/reading. It seems strange that this is a more rational explanation to get the women to gain entry to the Super Bowl than all the hoops and ladders they went through. Wouldn't it have been simpler to have "Virginia La Rue" be an NFL Experience guest to promote Between a Gronk and a Hard Place and have her friends join her there? 

As a side note, we find that Rob Gronkowski has a copy of Between a Gronk and a Hard Place in his locker. Apart from being surprised that Gronk is able to read, one wonders how large his ego is that he would read erotica centered around him. 

Ah, but logic is one thing that 80 For Brady cares absolutely nothing about. It's all about the hijinks our four sassy seniors can get into. You want to see Sally Field call a fanny pack a "strap on" repeatedly and be oblivious to what "strap on" means to others? How about Rita Moreno in a drug-induced hallucination seeing endless Guy Fieris and managing to not just enter but win a poker match (which she was unaware was for charity)? How about seeing Tom Brady speak to Lou directly through jumbo screens? 

Don't bother asking why the women opted to take their very expensive Super Bowl tickets to the free NFL Experience rather than keep them at the hotel or a hotel safe. Don't bother asking why Lou keeps her winning Super Bowl tickets a secret from her daughter Sara (Sara Gilbert). Don't bother asking how their instant friend Gugu (Billy Porter) can coordinate a quick dance routine to convince a security guard that these women are part of the Halftime Show. 

80 For Brady depends on too many outlandish and flat-out idiotic coincidences and circumstances to function. I sat there in puzzlement over how four seats could be conveniently available for them to use sans tickets. That was already built on a pretty useless plot point about the veracity of the tickets themselves, but no worries: Dan would get them onto a suite from which they could enjoy the game.

Up to a point, I get that 80 For Brady is meant as something of a lark. I can even accept how it hits clichés (such as how Lou's inspirational speech managed to rally Brady himself to make a comeback). However, it all seemed too convenient, too pat, even insulting for me to accept. To be fair, I did laugh a few times. Security guard Chip (Ron Funches) finds them sitting in seats after denying them entry for fake tickets. "Let's go, Golden Girls", he tells them as he starts escorting them out. 

The film also has other issues. Apart from the core four, the other characters are so uninteresting. The subplot of Mark being so weak and oblivious that he had to be told to put on pants and had to ask his wife to decide which paper to present was annoying. Balaban's performance is embarrassing, and his character is unnecessary. We got two Patriots broadcasters (complete with Boston accents) for no reason (the contest story being concocted). Maura's budding relationship with Mickey (Glynn Turman) is undeveloped. Sally Fields' Betty apparently hitting on a much younger man she accidentally smacked in her drug-induced dance is not funny (the dance itself is only mildly amusing if more in a cringe way).

As a side note, why the Patriots Nation podcast opted to pick the "Tom Brady Support Group" as the winners when it was clear that the four men who were also named "Tom Brady" clearly did not want to be there is dumb. Then again, losing the fake Super Bowl tickets kept in a "strap on" at a Spicy Hot Wings eating contest is not exactly rational even in something as fluffy as 80 For Brady

To be fair, the four leads are entertaining to watch and work well together. They are much better than the material and make the friendships between Lou, Trish, Maura and Betty believable. They go all-in on the characters. Tomlin, for example, is able to transition from asking the confused party audience if they have any requests as she holds the microphone to the drama of telling her daughter she will open the doctor's letter later. They all shift from the silly to the serious quite well. I think they had a good time being in 80 For Brady. Good for them, I guess. 

80 For Brady might also entertain football fans who might enjoy seeing Super Bowl LI highlights which to be fair are well-edited into the film. 

I should be more forgiving of something like 80 For Brady. I know it is meant as a goofy romp, fluff to not take seriously. However, I have often said that "Mindless is fine. Brainless is not". I can go for something silly if it is self-aware. 80 For Brady is aware, but it also tries too hard to simultaneously be too goofy and clever. Its celebration of Tom Brady too does not help. Then again, given he produced 80 For Brady, it isn't a surprise that it is something of a celebration of himself. 

Yes, Tom Brady will be listed among the greatest football players of all time. However, I do not have to sit through a film that comes close to seeing Tom Brady masturbate to images of himself. 80 For Brady is very loosely based on a true story. I hope the truth is better than what inspired the film. 


Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Harry & Meghan: The Netflix Docuseries



Let us start our fairy tale with that oft-used line, "Once upon a time". 

Once upon a time, there was a handsome young British prince. He was beloved and adored by the people, with fame and fortune and everything that goes with it. An eligible bachelor, our Prince of the Realm was the object of many a pretty young thing's affection. Yet, he remained unmarried. Seeing his brother happily married to a popular Duchess, with children of their own, only highlighted his own empty albeit privileged life.

Then, he came upon The One. He was besotted with Her, possessed body and soul by Her, the Woman who could explain everything. She was fount of all wisdom, all truth. Sexual, emotional, psychological, spiritual gratification and liberation he found in Her. She was not just lover but Mother, Friend, Confidante and Confident. She and only She could soothe his soul, spark his erotic desires, love him for himself separate from his title and position. She was light of his life, fire of his loins, his sin, his soul.

She was also, alas, not the type of woman who usually married into monarchy. She was a divorcee and American too. She spoke her mind freely, much to the horror of the Establishment. Would such a woman make for a suitable wife to our Prince? 

It did not matter to him. He must have Her by his side, no matter what the cost. His love for Her was so great, so intense, that he willingly gave up all that was Royal to be with "the Woman he loves". Their love would have to make up for titles and riches, though it would mean a life outside his homeland and separation from his family. They would spend the rest of their lives in luxurious exile, shimmering yet fading lights among the glitterati, faraway yet so close to the British throne.

I would not blame you for thinking I was writing about Edward & Wallis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In reality, I was writing about Harry & Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Harry & Meghan is the six-part docuseries recounting "their truth" from their moment of birth to their new lives in Montecito. The aim of Harry & Meghan appears to be of a loving pair that makes some serious allegations against the House of Windsor. It also reveals Mr. & Mrs. Mountbatten-Windsor to be a remarkably boring couple.

Through six episodes, we see their lives then and now. He is the second son to Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales. His mother's early death when he was twelve was one of the two turning points of his life. The other turning point is when Harry met Meghan.

She is the mixed-race daughter of a California couple, ambitious for an acting career and a desire to be a positive force in the world. 

They met, Meghan Markle unaware who he was. A whirlwind romance began, and at last, they fell in love, and he fell at her feet to propose marriage. Being the newest member of the House of Windsor, however, was a jolt to the big-time television star. The notion of curtsying to her fiancée's grandmother was comical to her. Realizing that her future sister-in-law and Queen didn't hug her back when Meghan greeted Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was a bad experience. 

To be fair, the Windsors were nothing compared to the Markles, the latter creating so much drama as to rival anything the royals could do compared to the white-trash version of Dynasty. Windsor wives have faced intense scrutiny before, but Meghan faced the added layer of overt racism. The entire House of Windsor, in fact, has yet to face a reckoning on their role in upholding white supremacy through the Commonwealth, or as one of the Harry & Meghan interviewees called it, "Empire 2.0".

The press intrusion, the Royal Family's refusal to defend the Sussexes, the feeding of negative Harry and Meghan stories to promote and prop up positive press for the other Windsors (and Cambridges as well), all conspired to drive Harry and Meghan out. Despite the Sussexes' best efforts to find a compromise, it was either all in or all out. They chose freedom and a new life in America, where they can be activists for a better world.

Harry & Meghan reminds me of when one of my cousins invariably breaks out the vacation photos and videos. Now, I love my cousin dearly. However, there is something difficult about seeing my niece in essentially the same pose but from different angles. We get to see Harry and Meghan as victims and survivors, heroes and role models, speaking truth to power. At least, that is how they see themselves.

Unfortunately, Harry & Meghan reveals more about themselves than what even, I suspect, the Sussexes thought short of posing for Playgirl and Playboy respectively. As a side note, I think people have already seen the Duke & Duchess of Sussex in various stages of undress already, but I digress.

The couple we encounter has one positive: they appear to be loving parents to their children Archie and Lilibet, who are seen just enough to there but not enough to reveal their faces. Apart from that, Harry & Meghan holds up a bizarre self-worship that veers close to parody. There is a lot of footage that the Duke and Duchess shot of themselves (we even start with a video diary from Harry, who more often than not literally does not know what day it is). We see photos of their first AND second dates, posts of his proposal and video of Harry declaring he's on a "freedom flight" when they leave Canada to slum it in Tyler Perry's mansion.

Granted, perhaps it is a generational issue, but I am forever perplexed by people's desire to chronicle every aspect of their lives for others to see. Moreover, the wealth of footage provided by the Sussexes makes one openly wonder if they had planned to use said footage for such a thing as Harry & Meghan. I cannot say that there was such a plan. I merely offer that if they didn't have that plan, why film and photograph themselves ad nauseum?

Some revelations are damning, some quite banal, all of them unpleasant. We learn that their nicknames for each other are "H" and "M", which I find rather odd terms of endearment. That is more on the boring side. For those interested in scandal, Harry and Meghan state that they were sacrificial lambs to The Firm, lightning rods to spare other Windsors from bad press. "We were being more than thrown to the wolves. We were being fed to the wolves," Meghan states. In short, the Duke & Duchess allege that the House of Windsor collaborated with the British press to portray them in the worst light so as to portray the Cambridges and the now King and Queen Consort in the best light.

Those of very serious allegations, but there is no proof of it. Harry and Meghan do not have to provide any proof of collusion and conspiracy, particularly in Harry & Meghan. This, it should be remembered, was coproduced by their production company, Archewell Productions. As such, we would never get anything other than their side of the story. Harry & Meghan would never contradict or dispute anything the Duke & Duchess, their friends, allies or Doria Ragland (the Duchess' mother) said. 

Their other major allegation (that criticism towards the Sussexes was motivated in part or whole due to racism) is also hard to pin down. Episodes Two and Three are the most "criticizing Meghan is racist" heavy episodes. However, I do not think that having people such as British commentator Afua Hirsh talk about the history of colonialism and calling the Commonwealth "Empire 2.0" is proof that the Royal Family, their handmaidens the British Press or any random outsider is racist towards a very wealthy woman.

Sometimes though, one is left almost in awe at the Sussexes narcissism and almost clueless nature. Hearing Harry bemoan the poor conditions of Nottingham Cottage on the Kensington Palace grounds is a bit bizarre given that it is still a pleasant, comfortable and posh home (if perhaps a bit small for a tall man like Harry). Meghan, for her part, references "that old movie, Princess Diaries" to indicate what she thought her royal training would be like. The Princess Diaries is as of this date twenty-two years old. For context, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is as of this writing, 41 years old. 

Over and over throughout Harry & Meghan, the portrait they themselves paint is that of a pair of self-important figures, convinced of their victimhood and rightness on everything. Episode Four ends with Leslie Gore's You Don't Own Me playing it out. Why they selected this particular song, I can only guess.

It is not my place to fact-check everything Harry & Meghan say. My job is to review the product presented, not the veracity of said product. There is, however, one point which raised my eyebrows. In Episode Five, Harry states that they were willing to relinquish their titles to make living in self-imposed exile work for them and the Royal Family. However, when asked by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes why they didn't give up their titles, the Duke of Sussex replied, "And what difference would that make?" 

To my mind, it strikes me as strange and contradictory to offer to renounce a title before only to state later that it would not make a difference now. It did then, so what changed?

One now-infamous moment is when Meghan finds the idea of curtsying to her-then fiancée's grandmother hilarious. Comparing it to Medieval Times, she makes an exaggerated curtsy while her husband watches, she barely able to suppress her laughter. Somehow, her husband apparently failed to explain that said grandmother is also the Sovereign and that until Meghan came along no one questioned bowing or curtsying to The Queen regardless of familial connection. There is a look of horror mixed with uncomfortableness at how Meghan ridicules showing deference to The Queen.

Perhaps that one moment crystallizes the dynamic of the Sussex's worldview. 

Ultimately, we learn nothing about the Duke & Duchess of Sussex that the public did not already know. Listing a laundry list of complaints about the Royal Family, their alleged collusion with the press to smear the nobility (regal and spiritual) of Harry and Meghan is not worth the time Harry & Meghan took up. Hearing someone say, "Their departure felt the death of a dream" is hilarious in its grandiose worldview. One wonders, after finishing Harry & Meghan, if this is how the Duke & Duchess saw it as well.  

Harry & Meghan is a puff piece masquerading as a no-hold-barred exposé on the inner workings of the House of Windsor. It ends up revealing the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as almost bitter and resentful towards everything and everyone apart from themselves. 

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor literally cavorted with Nazis, yet they at least never openly trashed the Royal Family. It takes great skill to make Edward & Wallis look dignified, even regal, but Harry and Meghan and Harry & Meghan managed that extraordinary feat. 


Monday, January 23, 2023

A Man Called Otto: A Review (Review #1689)



Is there such a thing as a loveable curmudgeon? Apparently, there can be, as A Man Called Otto attempts to prove. It was a nice effort, but it looks like something got lost in the translation from the original Swedish novel and film to what we got.

After his forced retirement and recent death of his wife, Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) wants nothing more than to enforce the most mundane of rules and kill himself. He does the former with an almost manic venom. The latter though is harder, primarily due to his wacky new neighbors from across the street. Mexican immigrants Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and her pleasant but dimwitted husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) have two girls, and together they keep interrupting Otto's various suicide attempts with their various requests for help.

Otto marches on through life, helping Marisol (who appears to be the only person he does not have disdain for). He also helps his frenemy's wife Anita (Juanita Jennings), in danger of being removed from her house along with her husband Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones). As Otto contends with life, we see flashbacks to young Otto (Truman Hanks) and his life with Sonya (Rachel Keller). There is their meeting, first date, proposal and tragic loss of their child before her own death.

Eventually, Otto's gruff manner melts with immigrants, children and cats. Fortunately, his crabby ways and early botched suicide attempt lead to using social media to shame those attempting to railroad Anita and Reuben. In the few years Otto has left, they will be generally happy ones with those who love him despite himself.

For the life of me, I am astonished that no one, as far as I know, has come up with the nickname "Otto the Grouch" to describe our irascible faux misanthrope. While A Man Called Otto is based on the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, which in turn is based on a novel of the same name, I felt I had seen this story before. The film reminded me, curiously enough, of the animated film Up. It is as if, with some changes, A Man Called Otto was the live-action version of almost everything that happened in Up's opening montage.

It is not that A Man Called Otto did not try to reach my heart. I know that the audience I saw the film with were touched. For me though, there was something slightly calculated about the whole thing. I never believed Otto was as cranky and unlikeable as the film wanted me to believe. Hanks' performance made Otto more curt than truly angry or depressed. Anyone who genuinely wanted to kill himself would have done so regardless of whether they were knocking on his garage door. A Man Called Otto wants desperately to balance whacky with morose, grief among the guffaws. It is a strange blending that does not work.

To be fair, having Otto read a children's story called I Feel...Angry is a clever bit. At least I will put it as a clever bit versus screenwriter David Magee and director Marc Forster's being too heavy-handed with the material.

A major issue is in the editing. For example, we get a scene where Otto watches Marisol and Tommy's girls while Tommy is in the hospital. At the hospital waiting room, a clown comes upon them to entertain them. Very reluctantly, Otto gives the clown a quarter that means a great deal to him (the film reveals why later). We then go to Marisol going outside the hospital and surprised to see Otto coming close to being arrested. After that, we shift back to the hospital where we see Otto going after the clown for not returning the exact quarter that he gave him.

The editing was bizarre. Forster could easily have just edited the scene to go from Point A to Point B and Point C versus what he did: Point A to Point W to Point B.

Same goes for the various flashbacks where we see Otto and Sonya's love story. There is something curious about how we go back to a singular turning point in their life together. It does not undercut the story, but it is something we would have already guessed at.

I think Trevino did the best as Marisol, the pert neighbor who genuinely likes Otto and seems mostly oblivious to how cantankerous he is. Garcia-Rulfo had a smaller role as the dimwitted Tommy, but he did well. A Man Called Otto has the novelty of having Hanks' son Truman play the younger Otto. I say "novelty" because the younger Hanks, unlike his half-brother Colin or brother Chet, is not known to have an established acting career. I think this is Truman Hanks' second film overall. He did OK in the film, but his performance suggested, at least to me, that his heart really is not in it. 

As a side note, I do not know if featuring Chet Hanks' White Boy Summer blaring from a minor character's car was meant as a tribute or a way to get the other Hanks son in the film, albeit vicariously.

A Man Called Otto aimed to make us care about this irascible yet ultimately caring man. It did not quite hit the mark, but it should appeal to Hanks' generation. Not a terrible film but not as life-affirming as it wants to be. 


Monday, January 16, 2023

House Party (2023): A Review



In 1990, a small film featuring a rap duo became not just a big hit but a beloved film, so much so that it was inducted into the National Film Registry. The original House Party was a light, charming affair. Its 2023 remake is anything but. Trading in cringe-inducing stereotypes, with a cavalcade of cameos that might puzzle anyone outside of hip-hop circles, House Party is insulting on a myriad of levels.

House cleaners Kevin (Jacob Latimore) and Damon (Tosin Cole) find themselves in financial straits. Kevin wants to make enough money to pay for his daughter's schooling from pre-K through college. Damon fancies himself a major club promoter but owing to their own incompetence (and being caught on camera literally smoking weed and apparently dry-humping statues), they are fired from their cleaning jobs.

However, there is hope for them both. Damon comes up with the brilliant idea of having a massive house party at their last job site. That mansion just happens to be LeBron James' home. Putting out an APB to party at the King's house, the more eager Damon and more reluctant Kevin have a party that eventually involves crazed koalas, random hip-hop, R & B and basketball stars popping in, a trio of thugs threatening Damon and even the Illuminati. All things, however, end well for all concerned.

I am loath to compare the original film with a remake because both should stand on their own. I know that the remake may throw in some nods to the original, and I don't object to having cameo appearances from the original cast. It also helps that my memories of the original House Party are not the strongest. What I do recall is that the plot was nowhere near as dumb or insulting as this version.

I think a large part of that is due to how the remake House Party duo is at least a decade older than their original counterparts. Kid & Play were playing high school characters. Latimore and Cole are playing characters who are pushing if not already past 30. As such, we have a wild imbalance between goofy but innocent teen hijinks and grown men (one already a father) who do not shrink from irresponsible to illegal acts. Worse still, the trio of thugs from the Young Threats are just awful, awful stereotypes that are there merely to provide some kind of threat.

Damon and Kevin come across not as lifelong friends but as buffoons who are awful on so many levels. House Party trades in nothing but stereotypes, diving in headfirst into some truly grotesque ideas and acting that in our-post George Floyd/Black Lives Matter era are terribly shocking, even a bit depressing.

Early on, we learn that Kevin's parents are retiring and selling the house to move to Florida. When he asks if he could at least keep some of their kitchen machines, they laugh it off. "Half of this stuff we got in the riots," they chuckle. I do not know if screenwriters Jamal Olori and Stephen Glover thought that was funny, let alone how they thought that was funny. Strange flashbacks to bad DJ jobs by their unreliable DJ come out of nowhere and don't advance the plot.

Perhaps the worst element was on how Kid Cudi, who somehow is a party guest, takes our duo to a gathering of the Illuminati to get a replica of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers' championship ring. It shows how House Party was out of ideas with nowhere to go. It was not going to bother trying to have Kevin and Damon attempt to find this one-of-a-kind ring. Instead, we were going to have this Eyes Wide Shut parody that similarly proved itself pointless. 

It even somehow ended up being gruesome, with some person's head being cut off quite graphically. I am absolutely astonished that there is more graphic violence in House Party than there was in M3GAN

House Party is already at a disadvantage for being dumb before the Illuminati get into the picture. Venus (Karen Obilum), the more sensible, upwardly mobile character, would never agree to help these two essentially break and enter as well as put her own job at risk. Yet there she is, dancing up a storm and helping them at nearly every turn.

What was surprising is how lethargic House Party is (and no, that is not a reference to all the pot smoking going on in the film). There doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency or anticipation when they are setting up the actual party. At one point Kevin tells Damon that the party is "out of control", but from what I saw the actual party was remarkably restrained. Did we really need that basketball battle between Damon and LeBron? 

My own sense is that no one involved in House Party thought it was any good and knew it. The acting was nonexistent. The various cameos were pointless (though to be fair, I had only the vaguest idea who some of the cameos were and was completely lost on others). The token white character, neighbor Peter (Andrew Santino) was there for no reason apart from providing the koala into the film. 

Again, I dislike comparing the original film to its remake. However, it is hard when you have something as wildly divergent as the original House Party and its remake. The original was charming, funny, sweet and openly silly. Its remake is crass, crude, insulting, dumb and unpleasant. There is no joy, no pleasant aspect to it. It is unfunny and a waste of time. Let's call the party off.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Plane: A Review


I do not expect the American Film Institute to offer its Lifetime Achievement Award to Gerard Butler anytime soon. Then again to be fair, it did present one to George Clooney, whose cinematic output makes me genuinely wonder what he's done to receive such lofty recognition. Yet, I digress.

Plane is fully aware of what it is. It is a film where Butler saves people. It takes its premise, if not seriously, at least without winking at its audiences and attempting to be goofy. 

On New Year's Eve, a Trailblazer flight carrying originally 14 passengers attempts to fly from Singapore to Tokyo despite a storm. Captain Brodie Torrence (Butler) is not particularly worried, given his years of experience as both a civilian and military pilot. He is more concerned about the two new last-minute passengers: Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter) and Officer Knight (Otis Winston). Gaspare is a convicted murderer on the lam who has just been captured and being repatriated. This was the only available flight, so off they go.

The storm they were ordered to fly over still causes the flight issues, whereupon Captain Brodie and his greenhorn copilot Sammy Dele (Yoson An) still manage to land on a remote island. They find that they are on Jolo island in the Philippines. The hope of rescue fades quickly as Jolo is held by separatist who profit off hostages, hostages whom they kill if the ransom is not paid out. Brodie and Gaspare sometimes join forces, sometimes not, to save the passengers and stewardesses.

They are aided by mercenaries brought in by Scarsdale (Tony Goldwyn), a fixer Trailblazer Airlines has brought in to help in this crisis. As Scarsdale and the Trailblazer board look on from New York, Brodie and Gaspare fight on, though not all survive.

I freely admit that I have enjoyed the Has Fallen series that Bulter has managed to transform into a franchise. I find many of his films to be good fun, not intelligent but entertaining, filled with sometimes over-the-top action but never skimping on said action. Plane is fully aware of itself, putting in so many cliches that it might as well have taken them from a playbook.

There's the daughter Torrence has to get to. There's the reluctant man of action who has to team up with a seemingly menacing figure. There is the disparate group of passengers that get little in way of personality. We even have villains who have little in way of personality.

With all that, Plane never bothers to be anything other than what its viewers want it to be: a fast-flowing story that gives us simple characters, lots of gunplay and a film that runs quickly. 

Something like Plane is now old hat to Butler, who at 53 still manages to be a credible action star. He hits the necessary beats that the script gives him. He even manages to make his Scottish accent part of the plot. 

As a side note, has Gerard Bulter ever made a film where his brogue hasn't managed to either pop up or identified his character's origin?

Something like Plane does not bother to go beyond a few basic bits when it comes to the other characters. You have the Instagram girls, the obnoxious passenger, the competent head stewardess. It gives us little bits to get us somewhat invested (such as how Dele has a young family) but apart from that I do not think we need to learn or know much about them. Midway through the film, we see a video of missionaries making their hostage video. We also see a wall splattered in blood. Plane trusts us to put two and two together.

There is an element in Plane that I do not think enough people have commented on. Brodie Torrence is by no means a superhero. Here, Torrence is injured, tired, at times confused. It is nice to have characters that at least have vulnerability, who are not indestructible. Granted, the daughter element seems attached, but one rolls with it.

I think Colter gets the short end of the stick, as Gaspare is presented as both hero and heel. He appears and disappears almost at random, with little to understand his motivations. The plot point about Scarsdale and his mercenaries seems too like an easy way out of situations. I do not know if such a figure as the shadowy Scarsdale could be available to airlines to hire or rent whenever they needed hostages rescued.

One part that I did find amusing was in how one of the passengers, who despite being on an isolated island still managed to get good internet service livestreamed his plight. When questioned on it, he replied "You know what they say, no video, it didn't happen". That is similar to what I say in jest, "If it's not on YouTube, it never happened". 

There are parts of Plane that did make me think things were a little peculiar. When, for example, Brodie manages to get hold of Trailblazer Airlines, he's asked for his badge number. He tells them that he left it on the plane, but I wondered how he after years with the company still did not know his badge number. Some of the angles that director Jean-Francois Richet opted for with the fights seemed odd. I will also add that at times, there seemed to be a bit of lethargy to things. From the airplane descent to the mercenary rescue, at times the cast and crew seemed to know it was not urgent. 

Is that a bit of a nitpick? Perhaps. On the whole though, I found Plane to be smart enough to know what it was and to give audiences a good time. If I enjoy a film for meeting my expectations, I cannot fault it for that.