Monday, May 27, 2024

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. A Review

 

FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA

Mad Max: Fury Road is beloved on Film Twitter/X, held as some kind of turning point for cinema. I would call it the action movie approved by film nerds. While I gave Fury Road a positive review, I have not seen it since that first time. Moreover, I now feel that I was essentially bullied into giving Fury Road a positive review, almost like it was a requirement to hail it as this unimpeachable masterpiece. That second look is for another day. Instead, let us look on Furiosa, the prequel that tells the origin story of one of Fury Road's characters. Furiosa is not a horrible film, but I will not be pushed to lavish it with praise. Longer than it should be, at times boring, Furiosa never makes its case that this character is worth our time.

Split into five parts, Furiosa covers the early years of this character. Little Furiosa is a child living in the Place of Abundance until a group of marauding bikers comes upon it. They abduct her when she tries to raise the alarm, but her mother Mary (Charlee Fraser) manages to hear it and pursue the abductors. Fleeing from the Green Place into the Wasteland, Mary does manage to free her daughter but is herself captured. The leader of our biker gang, Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) kills Mary in front of Furiosa. He also takes her on as his unofficial daughter (though I did wonder if she was meant to be a child bride for him).

Dementus wants power, and he is able to force the powerful Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme) into submission. While his plans to overthrown Immortan Joe fail, he at least is able to take control of Gastown as its ruler, a vassal for Immortan Joe. He also is forced in exchange for control of Gastown to surrender Furiosa, who will be added to Immortan Joe's harem. One of his sons, however, takes a liking to our tween female, but she manages to escape and hide in plain sight as a mute male.

Now, Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) focuses her attention to avenge herself against Dementus. She gets help from Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), one of Immortan Joe's henchmen impressed by her war skills. Becoming her mentor, she and Praetorian Jack work to destroy Dementus, who is crippling Gastown and Immortan Joe's control of it through his incompetence. However, Dementus has plans of his own to overthrow Immortan Joe. Will Praetorian Jack and Furiosa survive to destroy Dementus and for Furiosa to find her way, metaphorically and literally, through the Wasteland?

As I watched Furiosa, I realized that at heart, prequels have a problem. No matter how often you put your title characters in danger, you know that they will survive. If they didn't, you would not have the movie where the characters began. You can have a prequel that works, such as Rogue One, because there the focus is on new characters building to the familiar situation, not to the characters themselves. Perhaps that is a reason why the Star Wars prequels of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are flawed. No matter where Anakin Skywalker lands, we the audience know that he will survive, or we wouldn't have Star Wars (or A New Hope). You can't kill Anakin off before he shifts into Darth Vader, so even in the most seemingly dangerous situations, he'll be all right.

As a side note, I said "A reason". There is a myriad of reasons why the Star Wars prequels do not work, but that is for another day.

Like the Star Wars prequels, Furiosa opted to tell an origin story to this particular character. However, Furiosa is wildly miscalculated on many levels. First, I do not know if there was that much interest in the character from Fury Road to have people wait almost ten years to get one. Was she that interesting as to merit her early years chronicled? Second, for a film about Furiosa, we hardly get much of her. The first hour of this two-and-a-half-hour film is mostly about Dementus to where someone walking in a few minutes late might have thought the title was Dementus. Once we get to the third section, The Stowaway, I had pretty much forgotten Furiosa was even in the film.

Third, there is no justification for Furiosa being two and a half hours long. You could have cut down the punishing first two sections (The Pole of Inaccessibility and Lessons from the Wasteland) into at most a fifteen-minute section. All the political machinations of Dementus and Immortan Joe with Joe's sons Scrotus and Rictus Erectus (dear God, those names) is really boring and uninteresting to what should be Furiosa's origins. Furiosa is hardly a Furiosa origin story. My mind wandered a bit into wondering what ever happened to Furiosa's sister Valkyrie. Did those in the Green Place just say, "Well, your Mum and sister are gone, so good luck to you"? Director and cowriter George Miller (writing with Nick Lathouris) introduced this character and forgot about her. I hope she wasn't being held back for a sequel to a prequel. 

We now go to the performances. I have heard that Anya Taylor-Joy has 30 lines in Furiosa. I kept my own count, and I found a more generous number: 49 lines, though I did count one-word utterances as lines. I might have also split a sentence into two, raising the overall number. Little Furiosa (Alyla Brown) had eight lines that I counted. That means that, using my count, the title character had 57 lines altogether.

That is 57 lines. For the title character. In a two-and-a-half-hour film. It should be noted that we do not hear Furiosa speak until 15 minutes into the film. 

As Furiosa is not focused around Furiosa, we can pretty much skip Anya Taylor-Joy's performance. It was not a bad performance, and every so often we saw glimpses of what could have been. Her final confrontation against Dementus was not bad, though like much of Furiosa drawn out. 

Perhaps I can praise Hemsworth in saying that he devoured the scenery like an orphan from a Charles Dickens novel. I do not consider Hemsworth an actual actor, so I won't say he gave a performance here. I will say that he was so manically over-the-top that he seemed almost crazed. Granted, that was the role, so I cannot fault him for being gonzo in Furiosa. Still, it was pretty hammy, so take that as you will. It, perhaps, takes a certain skill to play calm when you've had your nipples ripped off. 

I understand that Burke is supposed to be a major character as Praetorian Jack, but I barely remember him. Take that as you will too.

Now, there are some good parts in Furiosa. The costumes were clever (one suit was made out of bullets). The music was not bad either. So, there are some good things in the film, I suppose. 

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga had very little to recommend it, apart from a near-fanatical devotion to Fury Road among cinema intelligentsia. If I can say one positive about it, however, it is that at least it's better than Argylle

DECISION: D-

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Next Goal Wins (2023): A Review (Review #1815)

 


NEXT GOAL WINS

I had the great fortune to see a great sports film: Breaking Away. I think I got spoiled, for that Best Picture nominee was followed up in my viewing by one of the worst sports films I have ever seen: Next Goal Wins. Based on a true story, Next Goal Wins is so convinced that it is funny that it ends up being anything but. 

The American Samoan soccer team is the worst team to ever attempt to qualify for the World Cup. In 2001, the Australian Socceroos team did more than demolish the American Samoans. They won over them in a shocking 31-0 score. Since then, the Football Federation of American Samoa continues to struggle with an abysmal team. Now in 2014, there is a chance for FFAS to redeem themselves to the world and themselves.

Down on his luck coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) has been fired by his estranged wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) and her new boyfriend Alex (Will Arnett). He also has been sent by them to American Samoa on this mission of mercy. A bit of a lush with a tragic secret, Thomas cannot enjoy the beauty of American Samoa as he endures this motley crew of inept footballers. 

He also struggles to tolerate the quirky nature of the American Samoans. Of all the players, the most dominant in terms of story is Jaiyah (Kaimana), who is "fa'fafine", biologically male but really female. A bit of a distracted player, Jaiyah is only aggressive when you call Jaiyah by the birth name "Johnny". How will Rongen, this white man sent to be the team savior, be able to get his team to achieve FFAS' one task: get the team to score just one goal? Will the American Samoans rise to the occasion and show the world that they are not a joke?

Next Goal Wins works if and only if (and that is a big if) you see it as an inept parody of those inspirational sports film like Breaking Away or Hoosiers. You can make a good parody out of the concept, but Next Goal Wins appears to want to hedge its bets on that concept. If it was meant to be sincere, it ended up being an almost mean-spirited take on these characters. Everything in Next Goal Wins is so self-consciously broad that even in the parts that may be true to what happened come across as dreadful farce.

Director and cowriter Taika Waititi (writing with Iain Morris) never wanted to settle on whether Next Goal Wins was sincere or cynical. This almost crazed confusion comes a great deal from how the actors play the parts. It is almost sad to see good actors playing things so overtly broad that they looked as if they knew they were giving bad performances. In Fassbender's first scene, he attempts to justify his poor record. "You can be riding high in April, shot down in May," he tells them. I sat there absolutely shocked that Rongen was literally quoting the song That's Life when his job was on the line. Fassbender's delivery did not help. He is an exceptionally talented actor but throughout the film, he looked slightly crazed and with no growth.

Throwing in almost at the last minute a tragic story from his past crushes any sense of the forced wackiness Next Goal Wins was pushing. You cannot take any of this seriously when Rongen is ambushed at the airport by a camera crew for Who's on the Plane?, which we are told is the most popular show on the island. Every time, every single time, that Next Goal Wins wants to push how wacky and quirky everyone was, it ended up making everyone look either stupid or insane.

How do you take seriously a film where FFAS head Tavita (Oscar Kightley) literally sounds out the acronym as if it were literally what the organization is called?

A good chunk of Next Goal Wins revolves around Jaiyah, a curious decision on a number of levels. Jaiyah can technically play on the American Samoan team because Jaiyah is still listed as male. If we went with the idea that Jaiyah is female, does that mean that women can play with men in the men's league? There is a women's World Cup, so it is a bit confusing why Jaiyah is not with that team. Granted, there is no American Samoan women's team, but given that Next Goal Wins makes clear Jaiyah will transition, it seems close to having a woman on the men's team.

Moreover, nothing in Next Goal Wins suggests that Jaiyah in particular is a good-to-great soccer player. The film actually makes the case that in Jaiyah's flighty, distracted manner, Jaiyah should have been cut. Why the film focused so much on Jaiyah at the expense of someone like Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), the 2001 goalie who wants a second chance to redeem himself, one does not know. It certainly does not help that Waititi opted to give himself a part as a local minister who opens Next Goal Wins. Why an ostensibly Protestant minister would wear a robe with Mary, Mother of Christ on it again one cannot explain.

We are told that the American Samoans are very religious. That religious aspect is played for laughs, such as their habit of literally stopping whatever they are doing when the bells rings. It does not make them look reverential. It makes them look like they are being summoned by the Morlocks. Given how big some of the American Samoan teammates are, the Morlocks could feast on them for months on end.

Next Goal Wins is more delusional than anyone who thinks the American Samoans will ever hoist the World Cup. I figure everyone aimed for another film of a group of athletes unsuited for their chosen sport. The Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings however were in a funny film that did not make them look stupid.     

DECISION: F

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Breaking Away: A Review


BREAKING AWAY

It is a curious thing that despite receiving five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and winning for its screenplay, Breaking Away is not as well-known today. That seems a terrible shame, for Breaking Away is a beautiful film that celebrates the underdog and will have you cheering on our characters despite yourself.

In Bloomington, Indiana, nineteen-year-old Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) has become thoroughly obsessed with cycling, particularly Italian cycling. He has convinced himself to become Italian: learning the language, singing opera, even shaving his legs. This drives his father Ray (Paul Dooley) thoroughly bonkers while his mother Evelyn (Barbara Barrie) is quietly more tolerant, if perhaps puzzled, by Dave's Italian fixation.

Dave has cycling as his passion; his close friends, however, have nothing to really look forward to. They are not eager for jobs, if any are to be found. They also have resentment against the affluent college students at Indiana University, who dismiss them all as "cutters" (referring to the quarries where their families would have worked). The unofficial leader of these cutters, Mike (Dennis Quaid) has a perennial chip on his shoulder. The more casual Cyril (Daniel Stern) really has nothing in terms of prospects or family. Mooch (Jackie Earle Haley) is the smallest of the group who is quickly angered when called Shorty.

Dave is thrilled when he learns the Italian Cinzano group will be racing near them, seeing it as a chance to compete with and against his idols. He also, adopting an Italian identity of "Enrico Gimondi" starts romancing pretty I.U. sorority girl Katherine (Robyn Douglass). Whether he is deliberately faking his Italian identity or genuinely believes it is an open question given his Italian fixation. 

Things don't go as Dave wants when he races against Cinzano. Devastated, he returns to his American nature and is in danger of drifting towards a cutter destiny. He has one potential spark for life: the Little 500 bicycle race. Will his generally unapproving but still loving father guide Dave back to finding that he can rise above his own lowered expectations? Will the four Cutters be able to take on and take down the snobbish Sigma Tau Omega fraternity? Is there hope in bloom for our Bloomington Four?

What Breaking Away has is something similar to what made two other sports films, Rocky and Hoosiers, exceptional and beloved. Peter Yates' Oscar-winning screenplay (which he also directed) does not focus on the big competition itself. Instead, like with Rocky and Hoosiers, it focuses on the characters, these flawed but relatable and mostly likeable characters whom you end up rooting for. This is for all the characters, not just the four friends. Katherine, for example, is not a dumb bimbo or snob but a genuinely nice girl who is understandably upset when she learns "Enrico Gimondi" is anything but. Dave's parents too are neither brutal nor saintly. They are instead average parents who want to be supportive but are also exasperated by what they see. 

As we get to know them, we get to understand them and more importantly, care for and about them. It is a credit to Yates' directing and screenplay that we look at some of their questionable actions and in Dave's case at-times bizarre behavior as more endearing than dangerous. The film takes its time to build up these characters, so by the time the big race comes, we want them to have that moment of triumph.

I will not lie: by the time the race reached its climax, I was at the edge of my seat. I was cheering them on to win. Once the race was over, I pumped my fists in the air and even had a small tear or two. It is because everyone in Breaking Away is again likeable and/or relatable. One understands how these young men could see themselves as somehow inferior, especially compared to the preppies at Indiana University. 

Breaking Away also manages to balance nicely comedy and drama. Most of that is with the Stohler family. Brilliantly played by Paul Dooley, Breaking Away shows Ray as cantankerous but never truly harsh. Forever bemoaning his forced diet, he rails against both his healthy food and Dave's Italian cuisine. Criticizing the various "inis" Evelyn makes (zucchini, linguine, fettucine), he ends by barking, "I want some American food, damn it! I want French fries!". Dooley's delivery is perfect: a blend of frustration and quiet resignation. You can see, however, in Dooley's performance the genuinely loving father Ray is. As he walks with Evelyn one night, you get hints through Ray's words that he does not want his son to be a used car salesman and wants better for Dave. Later on, Ray takes Dave to a walk at the University, where he tells him of the pride that he felt in making the limestones that were used to build the University but still feels out of place there.

Again, it is subtle, but one can read between the lines that Ray loves Dave, even with all of his son's eccentricities. The final shot involving Ray ends Breaking Away in a delightful and amusing manner. 

It is surprising that Dooley was not nominated for his performance and Barbara Barrie was. It is not to say that she did not deserve one as the tolerant mother who finds Dave's dolce vita aspirations secretly joyful. There is a wonderful moment when she shows Dave, who at this time has lost that Italian spark, her passport. She tells him she carries it with her all the time, with the hope to show it as proof of her identity to any new A&P checkout girl who asks for identification. Yet again, the suggestion is subtle but clear: she supports her son moving forward. We do see again subtlety in the film about her character: she is seen in bed reading Valley of the Dolls. Make of that what you will.

Even Katherine, who at the end reconciles with Dave (though not romantically) gives him encouragement.

She tells him that she is going to Italy with her parents in the summer, no doubt inspired by "Enrico". Katherine adds that he might go too. "I'm not going anywhere," he sheepishly tells her. She looks at him and replies, "I don't know about that". It is clear there's a double meaning, but it is so well done. 

Breaking Away also has four standout performances by the four Cutters. Christopher is charming and winning as Dave, a young man so immersed in his dream that it is genuinely unclear if he just wants to be Italian or really thinks he is. He puts great charm and humor when serenading Katherine with opera (albeit not with the best voice). You like him, feel for him, root for him. 

Quaid and Stern got big boosts out of Breaking Away as the tough but vulnerable Mike and quietly lonely Cyril. Quaid has something of a monologue as they look down on the I.U. football practice, aware that he too had football skills but was destined to be anywhere but on the gridiron. In his hostility to the world which masked a fear of it, she showcases a charm and sincerity that wins you to want his success. Stern's final scene, where there is no one to share his success with, is comically moving. Haley is the only one with something of a subplot: a romance with an A&P cashier. While not a major plot point in Breaking Away, we do see how Mooch is how he is: a fighter who won't be kept down by others, though perhaps by himself. 

Breaking Away, while not as well-known or remembered as I think it is or should be, is a treasure. It ranked eighth in two American Film Institute's Best List: Best Sports Film and Most Inspirational Film. Putting this small film with such established classics as the aforementioned Rocky and Hoosiers shows that Breaking Away is, like the Cutters cycling team, going the distance and making the most of its chance. Breaking Away will win you over with its mix of heart and humor, a delight and a film that will indeed have you cheering. 

DECISION: A+

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Fall Guy (2024): A Review

 

THE FALL GUY

I think most of the audience who ventured to The Fall Guy were unaware of the 1980s television series on which it is loosely based. Very loosely based. So loosely based that it bears no resemblance save for the name and two quick cameos. The Fall Guy thinks it is an action romantic comedy. It fails spectacularly at each of those elements. 

Colt Stevens (Ryan Gosling) has been the primary stunt double for action star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for six years. Colt enjoys his job. He also finds himself drawn to Jody (Emily Blunt), a camerawoman on Ryder's latest film. A freak accident, however, has injured Colt both professionally and personally.

18 months later, Colt is essentially a recluse, working as a valet and withdrawing from everyone. Megaproducer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham) finally tracks him down. She pleads with him to go to Australia and come out of retirement to double for Ryder on Metalstorm, his newest film. He reluctantly goes after learning that Jody, who is directing Metalstorm, personally requested him.

Once in Australia, he finds out two things. One: Jody not only did not request his services but was unaware that he had even been hired. Finding it too late to find anyone else, she reluctantly and somewhat bitterly accepts him. Two: Gail actually brought him to find Ryder, who is missing after a drug and alcohol bender. Soon, Colt finds himself escaping various drug dealers and is horrified to find a dead body in Ryder's room. Could it be Tom Ryder himself whose corpse is somehow missing?

Attempting to balance escaping various attempts on his life and solve this mystery while also working on his relationship with Jody and keep her cinematic dreams alive, Colt continuously dodges hits all over Sydney. With help from his friend, stunt coordinator Dan Tucker (Winston Duke) as well as Alma (Stephanie Hsu), Ryder's personal assistant, and even Ryder's French-comprehending dog, Colt discovers Ryder is not only very much alive but involved in nefarious business. Will Colt live to return in triumph as the Unknown Stuntman? Will Jody's movie be saved? Will Colt and Jody Moreno get back together?

I understand that The Fall Guy was crafted as a love letter to stunt men and women who go unrecognized by even filmmakers (there is a jab about there being no Academy Award category for Stunts). After seeing The Fall Guy, I would say it is less love letter and more poison pen letter. 

As a side note, I continue to firmly oppose a Best Stunts or Stunt Directing category. I also oppose a Best Casting category, but I digress.  

Drew Pearce's screenplay is shockingly disjointed and bloated. For example, once Colt arrives for location filming, he is put through take after take while Jody, directing for the first time, goes over their thwarted relationship as "direction" to her stunt man. I put aside for the moment the idea that a stunt man needs motivation for the character. What we could have wrapped up in one "take" instead goes to four "takes". That means we have to keep going on and on, seeing the same thing over and over while these two are openly talking about their troubled romance. Worse, in this section, we are getting flashbacks to something that The Fall Guy never built up.

We saw in the opening scene Colt and Jody being mildly flirtatious with each other. However, in this section, we were treated to scenes of what supposedly was their great love affair (or at least their fling). The audience would not have such information prior to this, so there is little emotional investment in seeing Colt and Jody together. Moreover, given how Metalstorm is the big break for "visionary director Jody Moreno", her taking up time in this expensive production to bemoan getting dumped by this himbo makes her out to be unprofessional.  

As another side note, I do wonder how this very British woman can be "Jody Moreno". Is she Rita Moreno's London cousin? Maybe Alfred Molina's niece? How this daughter of Britain has a Hispanic surname The Fall Guy is never going to bother answering. I also do not get how anyone can be declared a "visionary director" on her/his debut film. Yes, it is a minor point to be fixated on, but there it is.

Director David Leitch, who started out as a stuntman himself, does not appear to understand that maybe less is more. We get, for example, a scene where Colt has a hard time with a hotel room key. We have all been there, and it might have worked if made into a quick montage. Instead, we have to have two long scenes of Colt struggling to use the malfunctioning key until he literally breaks the door down. 

I am asked to believe that Colt can get thrown into Metalstorm and perform elaborate stunts on almost a minute's notice. The chariot race sequence in the 1959 Ben-Hur took a year of preparation and a combined five weeks to film. One or two cameras were accidentally destroyed during the filming. I am aware that technology has improved in these 65 years, but I doubt they have improved so much that any stuntman can jump in for big stunts almost right off the plane. 

The Fall Guy is very disjointed as I mentioned earlier. We have more than one section where two events are going on that do not mesh. In the opening, we see Colt's encounter with someone he worked with and his call with Gail. The way it was edited, it was unclear when the valet's revenge took place: whether it was that very night or some time before. Later, we get what is supposed to be a major action sequence underscored by Jody, forever pining for Colt, belts out Phil Collins' Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) to reveal how upset she is at Colt not showing up. At one point we see Colt literally passing by the karaoke bar where everyone is singing along to this power ballad. It is dumb.

Not that seeing a guy singing Genie in a Bottle is any less cringe-inducing. 

There is another scene where it is a split screen between Jody and Colt where she consults him about using a split screen for Metalstorm. I figure this was meant to be meta, but it came across as far too clever for its own good. This constant self-referencing is maddening.

The worst is when we finally see a clip from Metalstorm. Jason Momoa in a cameo takes the Tom Ryder role. One would think it is because Ryder was arrested for the crimes he committed. No, in a mid-credit scene we find that the moron got himself blown up, then see Alma suddenly arrive and call for Momoa's agent. If that set up had been switched (we see Ryder's end and then seen Momoa), it would have worked and been funny. As it is in The Fall Guy, the joke loses its bite because we heard the punchline before we got the setup. 

Hsu's entire character is emblematic of the shambles that is The Fall Guy. She just pops in, drops her MacGuffin, then disappears until the very last moment. Same for Iggy Starr (Teresa Palmer), Ryder's girlfriend who attacks Colt when he enters Ryder's apartment. Leaving aside for the moment how dim Jody is by never inquiring where her star is or Gail going through such machinations to frame Colt when anyone on set would have done, Iggy's attack is bizarre on so many levels.

Who is she? Why is she flinging swords at Colt? Is she Ryder's costar as well as lover? Is she unaware of Ryder's actions? Where did she go after this alleged bit of action comedy? 

The Fall Guy has just such abysmal performances from almost everyone. The more I see of Gosling, the more I am becoming convinced that he not only cannot play comedy, but he pretty much has contempt for the genre. Every time he has played comedy, Gosling comes across as too self-conscious of how it is a comedy. I was not impressed with his comedic turns in Crazy Stupid Love, La La Land or Barbie, and in The Fall Guy he has the same issue Katharine Hepburn had when she played comedy. 

Hepburn could do comedy: The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, The African Queen. Granted, she had brilliant directors behind those films (George Cukor, Howard Hawks, John Huston), a list David Leitch has not been added to. However, when Hepburn played comedy poorly such as in The Iron Petticoat, she was always too aware that it was "funny", so she ended up forcing the humor. Similarly, Gosling too continuously makes one aware "this is FUNNY" and it ends up being anything but. There is a blankness in his eyes, a sense that his heart is not in it. He may be funny, but in The Fall Guy he is simply trying too hard. At one point he screams "You JINXED IT!", and in his performance, it seems he cannot decide to be serious or not.

Same with Blunt. To be fair, her character is a terrible one: the woman forever fixated on the man who never got back to her. Jody is not an independent and strong female, but a lovelorn fool who would sink her big break just to work out her relationship issues with a stunt man. The Fall Guy seems such a strange follow-up to their Oscar nominations for Barbie and Oppenheimer respectively. They have no chemistry together, making the romantic relationship between Colt and Jody ridiculous.

I can give grudging praise to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, channeling Matthew McConaughey accent and all as the whacked-out Tom Ryder. It was by no means a great performance, but it was not a great character, so I cut him some slack.

The Fall Guy is just terrible. I do not remember the television show (despite the cameos from The Fall Guy's Lee Majors and Heather Thomas). I will wager, however, that the television show is better and more entertaining. 

DECISION: F

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Boy Kills World: A Review

 

BOY KILLS WORLD

I am not big on violent films, finding graphic depictions of death very distasteful. That being said, I found that Boy Kills World is surprisingly entertaining, even if on familiar ground.

Boy (Bill Skarsgard) has been trained for years by a reclusive figure named Shaman (Yayan Ruhian) in the art of killing. Boy's task is to avenge the deaths of Boy's mother and sister at the hands of the villainous Van Der Koy family. The murderous matriarch, Hilda (Famke Janssen) murdered them in cold blood and left Boy to dangle to his death until Shaman rescued him. Boy, despite being deaf & mute due to the Van Der Koy's evil ways, is able to read lips. 

Boy may not be quite ready to take down the Van Der Koy dictatorship, but into the breech he goes. With help from forced labor Basho (Andrew Koji) and Bennie (Isaiah Mustafa), whose lips he cannot read and thus not fully understand, Boy begins his bloody takedown of the Van Der Koys. That means going after such figures as Glen Van Der Koy (Sharlto Copley), deranged television show host whose program broadcasts the annual killings. There is also his crazed wife Melanie (Michelle Dockery) and her brother, Gideon (Brett Gelman), whose artistic vision is perpetually thwarted by his in-laws. As more mayhem and blood goes around, Boy discovers his true identity as that of June 27 (Jessica Rothe), the masked hitwoman who is tied to all.

Will Boy manage to lead the revolution? Will shocking twists bring a crisis for him? Who will triumph in this battle royale?


I respect, even admire, films that are fully aware without being self-aware. Boy Kills World is such a film. It does not pretend to be a deep exploration of the human condition. It is not even a deep exploration of Boy's condition. Instead, it is about bloody, over-the-top action. In that respect, Boy Kills World delivers. Sometimes the violence was a bit shocking to me (Glen's bloody end took me so much by surprise that I literally gasped). I also may never look at a cheese grater the same way again.

However, while Boy Kills World was at times a bit more gruesome for my tastes, I also see that the film worked to be serious in its deliberately looney manner. It embraced its outlandishness without winking to the camera or mocking the viewer. I would go as far as saying that Boy Kills World actually has respect for the viewer, giving him/her what they want without talking down to them.

Director Moritz Mohr, who cowrote the screenplay with Tyler Burton Smith and Arend Remmers, all know the tropes of something like Boy Kills World. You even have Boy's voiceovers in an exaggerated manner mimicking a video game narrator (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin). You are given an explanation for this, and initially I thought the voiceover would become a distraction. Instead, it blended well with the overall tone of the film.


As Boy has to rely on his internal voice to give us some insight into him, we have to rely on Bill Skarsgard's face to express more. He does quite well in giving us Boy's mindset. Skarsgard gives us everything from Boy's determination to confusion on what he cannot understand. A running gag involves his inability to read Bennie's lips, thus making what he thinks he says bizarre. Each misinterpretation is hilarious, and Skarsgard's performance reveals that mix of befuddlement and frustration.

It is almost shocking to see Dockery, the embodiment of posh Downton Abbey, so fully committed to this wild and whacked out murderess hostess. She was for me a highlight of Boy Kills World: though her role was small, she made the most of it. Gelman too shone as Gideon, far more interested in the theatrics of things than on human life. To be fair, I thought the initial argument between him and Copley was a bit too hammy for the overtly wild goings-on, but that was a minor matter. 

Rothe, perhaps the most serious of the performers, makes for an excellent hitwoman. Koji is a standout as the outrageous Basho, leader of this revolution, crazed but loyal. Quinn Copeland did well as Mina, Boy's vision of his late sister. She actually provided the few moments of drama, though having her spout off vulgarities is both old hat and something I am not big on.

As everyone was meant to be over-the-top to downright hammy, I cut them some slack.

This is not to say that Boy Kills World is idiotic. Far from it. Instead, it is knowingly aware of its premise. As such, everyone adopts the outrageous and rapid-fire manner of Boy Kills World without making things stupid. There is a fine line between ridiculous and stupid, and the film keeps to it. Fun, outlandish but never idiotic, Boy Kills World knows what it is, does not pretend to be anything else and gives the viewer what he/she came for. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Never Too Late to Celebrate: A Hallmark Television Movie Review

 

NEVER TOO LATE TO CELEBRATE

Is it? Is it really Never Too Late to Celebrate? I have heard of how some Jewish men at 83 have a second bar mitzvah, but a Mexican woman celebrating a second (or even first quinceañera) at 30? This is what Hallmark will answer in Never Too Late to Celebrate, which is surprisingly entertaining, even amusing, if not particularly great. 

Camilla Lopez (Alexa PenaVega) is a busy dentist with no time for anything other than teeth. Still mourning the death of her Mexican father three years ago, she has time only for her Anglo mother Sherri (Sherry Miller) and her BFF Maren (Marissa McIntyre). She manages to squeeze in a Career Day presentation for Sherri's elementary school class before having to rush to her job. At Sherri's school though, she hears the singalong of Javi (Carlos PenaVega), the pretty long-term substitute teacher whose refrain of "colorin colorado, este cuenta se ha acabado" (loose translation, "this story has ended") to the kids brings back a Proust-like memory for her.

Wanting to reconnect with her Mexican heritage as well as finding Javi quite pretty, she agrees to go to his adult Spanish class. She also agrees to attend his niece's quinceanera, which she finds delightful and fun. With a little persuasion, Cami decides to go all-in on a double quince, using her 30th birthday to grow more Latina. That means a dress and a hall and salsa lessons with Sherri, who finds the instructor Rafael (Xavier Sotelo) a nice pair of hips.

Cami loves Javi's family. She is also clearly in love with Javi. Javi seems to be in love with her too, but he is still a prisoner of his past. Will he be able to overcome that heartache to be with our new Hispanic heroine? Will Camilla accept the offer to take over the dental practice or go work in Mexico? Will her dress work?

As a Mexican-American, I appreciated many things in Never Too Late to Celebrate. It was very respectful of elements of Hispanic culture, such as the importance of family and a struggle with how much assimilation is good. John Bellina and Talia Gonzalez's screenplay mostly resisted the temptation to have Cami doth protest too much when it came to having little to no background about her heritage. 

I enjoyed the relationship between Javi & Camilla with Javi's extended family, like his brother Manolo (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) and their grandmother, who speaks almost only Spanish. Brings to mind, again, my own family that had a similar dynamic. 

Never Too Late to Celebrate is different from the few Hallmark Movie films that I have seen in that it is the male lead who is if not weak at least less defined. Javi, to my knowledge, never got a last name. He is the one with the tragic romance story. He is also the one who at the end is willing to give up his career for hers. It is so rare for the guy to give up a sure job to follow the girl, especially in these stories. Camilla, for her part, is in a surprisingly good place in life. She has a robust job, a good relationship with her mother, a wacky but not obnoxious friend and no relationship baggage. Instead, it is the male love interest who needs rescuing.

Moreover, Never Too Late to Celebrate introduces a potential love match between Sherri and Rafael. Their dance lesson veered very close to being Dirty Dancing: The Senior Years. They were all but having sex on the dancefloor. It is almost enough for me to want either a sequel focusing on Sherri and Rafael or even dumping the Javi/Camilla story in exchange for one about a widow, reluctant to retire, who falls for the swiveling hips of an older Latin salsa king.

I say this because frankly, Javi and Camilla are not that interesting either separately or together. Camilla's main issue is that she feels a desire to connect to her Mexican heritage because while her father was an immigrant, he assimilated so strongly that he rarely spoke Spanish to her and never thought of giving her a quinceanera. Javi, mostly likeable, was clearly so besotted with Camilla from the word go that it is a wonder why even the ghost of his failed engagement would stop him from pursing her. For most of Never Too Late to Celebrate, he was pretty persistent. Now, however, why does he pull back from her? It was probably for the drama, but it did not hold well. 

Carlos and Alexa PenaVega are, I believe, one of the few if only married couples in these Hallmark Movies that work together. To my knowledge, their commitment to both each other and their faith keeps them from venturing into other projects with other actors even among the Hallmark stable of stars. They did combine their surnames into one upon marriage after all (he was Pena, she was Vega). As such, there is something nice about seeing a married couple play a courting one. However, at times they do look bored and boring together. Knowing that they are in love in real life takes away from the idea that they are starting a romance in their films.

As a side note, it is amazing how tiny physically both of them look. Carlos is listed as 5'6" and Alexa as 5'1". When you see them together or with others, you cannot help noticing how small they look compared to almost everyone else. 

Carlos and Alexa PenaVega were fine in Never Too Late to Celebrate. They did not excel but did not embarrass themselves either. I thought Carlos's singing voice was a bit high and did not have a great character to play, but it worked as mild entertainment. Same goes for Alexa, though she had something of a conflict late in the film about staying in her town or going to Mexico. The other actors, however, outshined them. Miller and Sotelo worked well together to where I did want to see more of them. McIntyre managed to stay barely outside the "annoying best friend" mold to be tolerable. Her subplot about her boyfriend Evan (whom we never see) was unnecessary. Her character is Jewish (she mentions memories of her bat mitzvah), but fortunately we'll never see Never Too Late to Celebrate II: Hebrew Hijinks as that would require Maren to be 83 for her to have a second bat mitzvah. 

I think once Camilla decides to have her quince, Never Too Late to Celebrate starts lagging. We get the usual "dress is a disaster" tropes. We get typical Hallmark Movie confusion: why did Cami opt to have the quince at Manolo's Mexican restaurant instead of the ballroom she looked at? Who exactly is footing the bills for all this? To be fair, the "dress is a disaster" trope did have one line that made me laugh out loud. "I look like Little Red Riding Hood skipped Grandma's house and went to Prom". I did wonder how Camilla never saw the double quince dress or just explain to the dressmaker that she was 30, not 15, so maybe cut down on the ruffles.

As a side note, having been to a few quinceaneras, I can say that the ones we saw in Never Too Late to Celebrate were surprisingly mild and restrained. I have been to totally over-the-top events that make the Met Gala look like a backyard bar-b-que. I also note that, in a curious criticism, there was too much Latin music. While we do have salsa, cumbia and traditional Mexican/Latin music, we would also have what teenagers of today listen to. You will have Selena, but you will also have Bad Bunny. 

Never Too Late to Celebrate was surprisingly touching and entertaining. Credit to the writing and director Felipe Rodriguez for keeping things on track and moving. While not perfect, Never Too Late to Celebrate was a good Hallmark film. 

Take that for what you will. 

One last note. Personally, I hate horchata (reminds me of spoiled milk). While I'm not a big fan of tres leches cake (I find it sometimes too watery), it is sometimes good. I do, however, love mole.  

6/10

Monday, May 6, 2024

The Final Conflict: Omen III. A Review

 

THE FINAL CONFLICT (OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT)

Going by The Final Conflict (also known as Omen III: The Final Conflict), people can rest in the knowledge that Lucifer will not conquer this world. Sometimes unintentionally hilarious, The Final Conflict has some beautiful imagery amidst the sometimes odd acting and story.

Damien Thorn (Sam Neill) is now a powerful industrialist, eyeing a Senate run and manipulating his way to being appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a post once held by his late father. Why the great interest in these posts?

Damien is fully aware that he is the Antichrist, heralding in a new and glorious Dark Age where his true father the Devil will reign over the earth. Damien especially wants to prevent the return of "The Nazarene", his sworn enemy. To battle against Damien is an order of monks, led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi). These seven holy men have acquired the seven daggers needed to kill the Antichrist and have gone to London to complete their mission.

Caught in all this is Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow), the Barbara Walters of the United Kingdom. Drawn to Damien, she still senses something is off. She at first welcomes his interest in her son, Peter (Barnaby Holm), but the strange goings-on around Damien, such as an assassination attempt, trouble her. Peter, for his part, has fallen under Damien's spell, a willing teen manservant Hecubus to his Sir Simon Milligan.

Damien is aware that The Nazarene has been reborn, so he must recreate Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents to assure that He is eliminated. A series of strange infant deaths of baby boys born on March 24 start to occur in Britain. How will that affect Damien's loyal henchman, Harvey Dean (Don Gordon), whose wife Barbara (Leueen Willoughby) just had a baby boy on March 23 or March 24? Will DeCarlo convince Reynolds of Damien's Satanic background before Damien schtups her? Will Damien and the Nazarene face off in the Final Conflict?

It might be good to focus on the positives in The Final Conflict. The production design and overall look of the film is quite nice. There is a montage where we meet the merry monks that is impressive in seeing their various personalities without them speaking. Oddly, the opening section where the seven blades of Megiddo are rediscovered, sold and brought to the monastery is also mostly silent save for Jerry Goldsmith's score. Damien's black mass lair where he mocks the image of "The Nazarene" also looks nice.

Andrew Birkin's script also gives some of the actors, especially Neill, a chance to speak surprisingly articulate words. As Damien mocks the figure of his enemy, he speaks of the new Satanic kingdom, where we will see "the grandeur of melancholy, the divinity of loneliness, the purity of evil and the paradise of pain". 

However, Birkin's script also has some howlers in terms of dialogue and plot. When Damien states in a half-bark half-blank statement, "Liquidate the Nazarene!", it sounded oddly funny. As he addresses his coven, the Disciples of the Watch, it was hard to suppress the giggles as he goes on about the importance of their mission to kill the Christ Child. 

More hilarity comes courtesy of the Order of St. Keystone Cops, forever botching the simple job of killing the Antichrist. Let's put aside for the moment how in The Omen, we are told that it takes all seven daggers to kill the Antichrist while The Final Conflict only one is required. These inept clerics constantly botch things in more and more laughable ways. I'm not sure if the first stab at Damien (pun intended) was the funniest. The monk, who managed to enter the television studio where Damien will be interviewed, comes close until Harvey sees him and calls out to Damien. He then falls and manages to set himself on fire as he swings back and forth before the cameras.

Somehow, I figure Birkin and director Graham Baker expected this to be shocking. Instead, it somehow ended up funny, more so with Neill's thoroughly disengaged manner. Try as they might, these monks can't kill Damien. The Final Conflict never firmly establishes whether all the various hit jobs were planned, organized and/or approved by DeCarlo or whether they were just rogue monks going their own way. The attempt on Damien's life at the fox hunt is a case of poor planning. Despite knowing Damien's powers, two monks were unaware of how he could control animals, leading to grisly ends for both. 

Even that was not the worst one. As three are climbing up to an abandoned castle, Damien fools them into killing the wrong person. To be honest, I expected this only due to the film's runtime.

The Final Conflict is not big on logic either internally or in the overall Omen timeline. Again, there is the number of daggers needed to kill Damien. There is oddly no mention that Damien Thorn will rise to the same position that his father held. Harvey has been a willing henchman for Damien, but somehow he did not think his child would be in danger? It never makes sense why Harvey, who appears to know Damien is the Antichrist, suddenly opts to try and run from his influence. It is a bit muddled.

Kate, despite receiving DeCarlo's warnings and surviving almost drowning in front of Damien, shortly afterwards has sex with him. Again, a bit muddled. 

Damien orders his henchmen to kill the baby boys, but he apparently can get someone to kill her baby with mere mind control. That begs the question why didn't he just do that with all the newborn parents rather than have a priest kill one baby at that baby's baptism.

As a side note, how the priest managed to do the Devil's bidding in a church but couldn't go into one in The Omen will be left unexplained. 

Add to that, Damien's age seems to be in final conflict with what has come before. He says he plans to run for the Senate in 1984, making him at least thirty. The Omen and Damien: Omen II pretty much establish that Damien is about 13 in 1983 (Omen II taking place seven years after The Omen, where he is around 5 or 6). 

Bless Rosanno Brazzi for taking this seriously and giving the best performance in this oddly loopy film. Sam Neill appears to have been directed as if The Final Conflict was Hamlet, his soliloquy against the Nazarene coming across as too serious where it shifts into camp. Harrow's Kate came across as a bit dim and sometimes bored. I will give Holm some credit as young Peter, the young worshipful and doomed teen. While not a great performance, I put it down more to Graham's directing than Holm himself.

The ending should be uplifting, but it feels almost anticlimactic, as if just had to end as it did. 

There are some good points in The Final Conflict. Some of the visuals are impressive and the score is quite strong. However, disjointed, unintentionally funny and at times illogical, you cannot give this devil his due. 

Damien Thorn & Peter Reynolds: The Remix


DECISION: C-