Friday, September 30, 2022

Blonde (2022): A Review (Review #1651)

 

BLONDE

I think it is absolutely important to remember that Blonde is not, I repeat, not a biographical film about Marilyn Monroe. It is an adaptation of a Joyce Carol Oates novel that imagines Monroe's life. As such, one can look on Blonde as a work of fiction inspired by real-life figures. Far too long and artsy for my tastes, Blonde is elevated by a dynamic central performance. 

Norma Jean Baker has been haunted by the absence of her father ever since she was a little girl. After leaving the orphanage she was forced into and after her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) is institutionalized, the now-rechristened Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) aspires to be an actress.

To achieve this goal, Marilyn must endure anal rape by studio head Mr. Z (David Warshofsky), a threesome between her, Charlie "Cass" Chaplin, Jr. (Xavier Samuels) and Edward G. "Eddie" Robinson, Jr. (Evan Williams) where she is anally raped again and a forced abortion. She also manages to fall in love with Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale) who beats her after she films her Seven Year Itch scene where her skirt flies over her knees before screaming men. Another marriage to The Playwright (Adrien Brody) results in her losing another baby.

Finally, she is forced to both fondle and give head to The President (Caspar Phillipson) before dying alone.

I can see why there are those outraged by how Monroe is both portrayed and treated in Blonde. A lot of Blonde is hard to watch: the at-least two rapes (the ménage a trois appears to be voluntary until one of the Juniors starts going at her from behind), the President pushing her to suck his penis. As I kept watching this nearly three-hour film, I thought that compared to Monroe, Blanche DuBois was downright rational. 

These elements were already hard enough, but what really pushes Blonde down is its length. At two hours and forty-six minutes long it drags and ends up a bit boring. Her childhood takes up nearly twenty minutes and I imagine that writer/director Andrew Dominik could have either shortened or cut this section altogether. 

If only to remove the scene where Gladys attempts to drown Norma Jean in the bathtub. Yes, Blonde can be fairly accused of being misery porn.

What elevates Blonde, what makes this very long, sometimes dry film worth anyone's time is Ana de Armas' turn as our bombshell. She is, in short, remarkable, brilliant, exceptional as Marilyn Monroe. Her performance is extraordinary. In the scene where she is auditioning for the female lead in Don't Bother to Knock, de Armas has to give two performances: one as Monroe, the other as Nell, the character Monroe is auditioning for.

It is a simply beautiful moment, the complex layers of playing Monroe and playing Monroe playing Nell is deeply moving. De Armas brings that pathos and haunted quality to the tragic portrait Blonde paints of Monroe. The scene where she begs to reconsider an abortion is heartbreaking (though again, whether this actually happened to Monroe is like a lot of Blonde a question of debate).

There are quite a few recreations of Monroe's filmography in Blonde, and it is to both de Armas and Dominik's credit that they come across almost seamless. The film recreates scenes from All About Eve, Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot

Ana de Armas so captures Monroe's performances from these films that each section comes across less as mimicry and more as semi-authentic. She also, however, when the script allows, shows us Monroe's intelligence.

The Playwright, for example, seems slightly amused and confused when Monroe mentions Chekov, but then is convinced of how well she understood his character when she remarks on The Playwright's creation of the female role. It is a pity that Blonde did not show us Monroe's triumph when playing the Playwright's lead. I figure though that by this part, the audience has accepted that Ana de Armas is playing Marilyn Monroe to absolute perfection.

Earlier, Monroe with her soft voice was able to express anger that her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes costar Jane Russell would make more money despite her being "the blonde" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As she looks around what is meant as her success in the film, she sadly says in voiceover, "For this you killed your baby?"

I think Brody did quite well as "not Arthur Miller", showing his love for this Hollywood star. Less successful was Cannavale as "not Joe DiMaggio", though to be fair he was given less to work with. Other roles, like Toby Huss as her gay makeup artist/confidante Whitey or Dan Butler as her agent Mr. Shinn were underused. Curiously, the real Jack Lemmon's son Chris played his father in a brief moment from Some Like It Hot.

The shifts from black-and-white to color and even sepia were not intrusive and barely noticeable. I did not care for the artsy manner of the ménage a trois, finding it over the top in its imagery. 

I imagine that the real Marilyn Monroe would be at least displeased and at most disgusted and appalled at how she was portrayed. She would, perhaps, agree that men did take advantage of her. However, I do not think she would like having herself shown performing oral sex on the President or on anyone. 

Ultimately, Ana de Armas was sensational but Blonde is both far too long and artsy for my tastes.

DECISION: C-

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Butterfield 8: A Review (Review #1650)

BUTTERFIELD 8

For audiences at the time, it might have been difficult to separate Elizabeth Taylor the person and Gloria Wandrous, the good-time girl from Butterfield 8. Released after the scandal over Elizabeth Taylor's affair with Eddie Fisher and the resulting breakup of Fisher's marriage to America's sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, Butterfield 8 runs the risk of "art imitating life". That it's remembered at all is due to Taylor winning her first Best Actress Oscar, one that she insisted she got because she almost died when making her next film, Cleopatra.

Now with the gift of hindsight, we can see Butterfield 8 separate from the sordid backstage drama. Melodramatic, a bit camp, Butterfield 8 is nothing for Taylor to be particularly ashamed of, though perhaps not her high point.

First, a brief explanation. "Butterfield 8" refers to the telephone exchange service that Gloria used to receive any messages.

Gloria Wandrous is ostensibly a model, paid to be photographed wearing fine clothes in the most chic of restaurants and bars. In reality, she is a woman of very easy virtue, going from man to man with literally naked abandon. She, however, prides herself on never taking money or anything else for her charms.

One man who is besotted with her is wealthy Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey). He is simply mad for Gloria, but he still keeps to his marriage to Emily (Dina Merrill) even if he makes clear how much he hates his life with her. Gloria's best friend Steve (Eddie Fisher) can only comment on Gloria's wanton ways. His friendship with her drives a wedge between Steve and Norma (Susan Oliver), his girlfriend.

Eventually however, Gloria finds herself in love with Wes, embarking on a true romance. She now confesses to her mother Annie (Mildred Dunnock), "Let's face it! I WAS THE SLUT OF ALL TIME!" but now she is reformed. However, the issue with a fur coat that Gloria had taken in a pique threatens to create chaos and heartbreak for all concerned, leading to tragedy and death.

Taylor, for the rest of her life, was adamant that Butterfield 8 was total trash. She was forced into it by the studio, MGM, to whom she owed one more film before she could take the million dollar salary for Cleopatra, a record at the time. 

Butterfield 8 did not enhance her personal reputation either. Here she was, playing a virtual nymphomaniac at a time when she had become "the other woman" and "the black widow", luring her late husband's best friend away from his sweet and wholesome wife. I imagine people thought they were watching something closer to a biopic than a film adaptation of John O'Hara's novel.

Finally, there is the Best Actress issue. Butterfield 8 was Taylor's fourth consecutive Best Actress nomination, but her win was seen even by Taylor as a sympathy vote. While filming Cleopatra in London, she had developed a violent case of pneumonia that almost killed her. Only an emergency tracheotomy saved her life. The public, having scorned her as a shameless homewrecker, now forgave and sympathized with her. 

In terms of acting, Taylor had some good moments. Very late in the film she has a monologue with Steve where she recounts being molested by one of her mother's suitors when she was 13, only to admit that she loved every minute of it. However, there seemed to be less Gloria Wandrous and more Elizabeth Taylor here. The brazenness and anger to near contempt Taylor plays seems more a reflection of her actual mood than the character's. 

There is almost something hilarious in her infamous "SLUT OF ALL TIME!" line. The film as a whole veers if not crosses into camp, but Taylor is right there, throwing herself into the hysterics with a mix of abandon and anger.

Most of the acting is a bit broad. Taylor insisted on a role for her then-husband, and Eddie Fisher proved himself a particularly bad actor. His efforts to be the voice of reason came off as flat and monotonous. Most everyone else seemed too forced, particularly Oliver and Betty Field as Frances, Annie's best friend. Whenever they threw veiled insults at Gloria, they pushed the remarks to make it too obvious. Taylor did the same, making things less throwing shade and more throwing the kitchen sink.

In her few scenes, Dunnock did well as the willfully blind mother.

Laurence Harvey kept to his angry patrician manner, though his drunken anger at Gloria did come close to making Butterfield 8 close to parody. Harvey seemed to specialize in bitter, entitled men, forever angry with the world. Here, he keeps to that manner, as if Wes Liggett were the American version of Room at the Top's Joe Lampton. However, he on the whole was better as Wes, this unrepentant heel who simultaneously desired and tormented Gloria. 

The film does have some good elements. Bronislau Kaper's score is quite good, jazzy and tragic. Director Daniel Mann also has some excellent moments, such as when the blinking lights of the motel marquee signal the Wes/Gloria tryst, which then transition to them at a diner. 

Butterfield 8 though is a bit camp but not horrible. Entertaining in its overdramatic tawdriness, Butterfield 8 is not a bad enough film to dislike, but not a good enough film to celebrate. 

DECISION: C+

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Don't Worry Darling: A Review

 


DON'T WORRY DARLING

It is unfortunate that Don't Worry Darling arrived in movie theaters already surrounded by controversy and scandal. Director and costar Olivia Wilde traded accusations against actor Shia LaBeouf over whether he was fired from the film or that he left voluntarily. Don't Worry Darling's star, Florence Pugh, appears to be in a feud with Wilde as well. Their feud perhaps came to be due to how Wilde began an affair with LaBeouf's replacement, pop star Harry Styles, ten years her junior. The Wilde-Styles liaison broke up her long-term relationship with her fiancée of nine years Jason Sudeikis, father of her two children. That breakup in turn led to a surprising moment where Wilde was served with legal papers while on stage to discuss and promote Don't Worry Darling

Now at last we have the film itself. While Don't Worry Darling creates an interesting premise, it is not until it reveals its shocking twist that it becomes a muddled mix of The Stepford Wives, The Village and The Matrix

Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) live a bucolic life in Victory, a planned community with a very 1950s manner. All the men go off to work at the mysterious Victory Company while all the women stay at home. The women clean house, care for kids and have martinis waiting for their men, who pleasure them with oral sex on the kitchen table.

The citizens of Victory are enthralled with Frank (Chris Pine), the mysterious cult-like leader of both Victory the business and Victory the city. However, Alice soon starts seeing strange things in her pristine world: eggs that are empty when cracked, the walls literally closing in on her, and her friend and neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne). Margaret appears to go bonkers, insisting there is something wildly amiss here. Margaret eventually slits her throat on her roof, witnessed by a horrified Alice. Alice's BFF Bunny (Wilde) insists there is no there there, but can it be true? 

More odd goings-on come to fruition: airplanes crashing that only Alice can see, Victory insisting that no one can go beyond a certain point, all the community members having the same types of origin stories and vague memories involving Busby Berkeley-type numbers. What can it all mean? Simply put: Alice is trapped in a world of Jack's creation, and now she much break free.

Don't Worry Darling might have worked if not for the twist, one that is both predictable and illogical. At the risk of providing spoilers, we learn that Alice and all the other women save Bunny are trapped by their husbands/male partners in a simulation. Here, the men live out their patriarchal fantasies while the women live unaware. It is only when they do become aware (as Margaret and Alice do) or come voluntarily (as Bunny does so that her dead children can be alive in this simulation) that things start going loopy.

As a side note, intentional or not, the "Bunny is living out her motherhood fantasies in an imaginary world" has some very unfortunate similarity to the whole of WandaVision. I think it would be near-impossible for Don't Worry Darling viewers to not think that this plot point is similar to WandaVision. I am sure that Katie Silberman's screenplay (from a story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke) did not intentionally copy WandaVision, and this reveal comes almost as a blank revelation from Wilde-as-actress, but even I thought Bunny was Wanda, and I never saw WandaVision.

One gets the sense that Don't Worry Darling wanted to say something about the evils of the patriarchy and the oppression of women (it should be noted that the "real" world has Jack as unemployed, generally scuzzy and deep into the online theology of Frank-as-leader). Also, it is curious that we do not see same-sex couples here: no lesbian taking her partner into being held prisoner or gay man feeling isolated from his potentially more successful partner. 

I mention this because Don't Worry Darling does good in having a more multicultural community, though that does raise the question as to how African and Indian Americans can exist on an equal footing with their Anglo counterparts if this is a Levittown-type universe set in Eisenhower Era America. Even the Stepford Wives remake had a gay couple in it. 

Even if one accepts the twist (though given the laughter that erupted at the screening I went to, that's a big if), the film keeps going long after the twist is revealed. As such, things get more and more muddled. In this world, when a man dies in the simulation, he stays dead. 

What about when a woman does so? Margaret slit her through and fell off the roof, so she seemed not just merely dead but most sincerely dead. Is she actually dead? The town doctor Collins (Timothy Simons) suggests that she is not dead and later on puts Alice through electroshock therapy. Granted, we do not see Margaret after her fall, no doubt in part by the red-suited goons unleashed at the first sign of dissent. However, we pretty much forget about her, and the question as to who can live or die after we see them killed is never answered.

Many questions are never answered and some pop up as the film rolls around, making things odder. If Alice was abducted or held prisoner by Jack (and I figure there is some symbolism in that idea) why did her coworkers never appear to notice? Why was the Busby Berkeley-type musical number used to hypnotize the women? Could men be victims? 

As a side note, that would make for a more interesting film. Moreover, the use of the name "Alice" strikes me as a bit too on-the-nose, a mythical figure wandering through her own Wonderland.

Leaving aside all the problems within the plot, we now go to the performances. Don't Worry Darling is held together by Florence Pugh. She is in another film altogether, where Alice's disintegrating world is frightening. Pugh gives her all as this woman who senses something is wrong but cannot quite put it together. Her face-off against the arrogant Frank is a performance of quiet but growing rage, where she builds up her courage and is the lone prophetess of truth, a Cassandra in this seemingly wonderful world.

Pine, though not on screen often, does well in his quiet yet ruthless guru. He comes across as a cult leader, who is aware of the malevolent power he holds over the community while presenting a vaguely caring exterior. Wilde was a bit too harsh as Bunny, the woman who is content in her glamourous world. To be fair, she is the only woman aware of what's going on, so I cut her some slack.

Now, as for Harry Styles. I enjoy referring to him as his generation's Gene Kelly, but behind that mockery is a serious point. Styles is a pop star, best known for his work in the One Direction boy band and now his solo career. Now someone in Styles' camp or Styles himself has decided he is an actor of depth. Don't Worry Darling won't convince anyone that he is either serious or a serious actor.

The laughter that also erupted when Styles' Jack breaks down when Alice is taken by the red-suited goons does not bode well for a future as a dramatic actor.

Kelly had had years of experience on the Broadway stage before entering film. He started in musicals before segwaying into more dramatic work. Frank Sinatra similarly started in secondary roles where his singing was instrumental. He too took small steps before going into straight dramas.

Now, we have people like Harry Styles, who think or have been told they can shift easily from selling out concerts with their pop music to acting in straightforward dramas. One needs an incredible amount of talent and skill to move from music to acting, and Styles does not have either. Throwing him into something as dramatic as Don't Worry Darling was a terrible mistake. His blankness cannot be masked by his pretty face. I can give a grudging respect that he tried. 

My sense is though that Styles genuinely thinks the transition from Britain's Got Talent to the new Laurence Olivier is as smooth and easy as his quick cameo in Eternals. It is wrong to throw him in (or to throw himself in) to straight leading dramatic roles. He is simply not a good enough or strong enough actor to carry either a film or this character.

That he has a dance number is already bad enough. That we get shots of his feet and torso but few if any shots of him complete compounds how bad Harry Styles was. If you cannot showcase what he can do, why push him into showing what he cannot do, which is act?

To be fair, Don't Worry Darling does have a strong visual style (even if I found the constant spinning of the camera more grating than anything else). It does work hard to capture the 1950s aestetic, though the film drowns in the soundtrack. Did we really need two renditions of Sh-Boom (which brought up memories of, of all things, Clue)?

If not for Florence Pugh, Don't Worry Darling would be a total disaster. She saves the film from total shambles, but the film simply tries far too hard to be intelligent when it ends up coming across as goofy to laughable. Don't Worry Darling ends up silly as it is, and As It Was

DECISION: D+

Thursday, September 22, 2022

See How They Run (2022): A Review

 

SEE HOW THEY RUN

As of this writing, apart from an enforced pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic/panic, the Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap continues to run triumphantly, defiantly, on London's West End. It's as much a tourist attraction as the Tower of London or St. Paul's Cathedral. As no film adaptation of The Mousetrap can be made until six months after it closes in the West End, See How They Run is as close as perhaps an adaptation we may get in our lifetimes. A film that is so thoroughly convinced it is funny despite massive proof to the contrary, See How They Run apart from some of the performances is almost a sad affair.

Celebrating The Mousetrap's 100th performance, loutish American film director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) is murdered, with his corpse placed on stage. Kopernick fully expects to direct a film version of The Mousetrap, though he finds the adaptation by elitist playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) rather dull. 

No killing in the first reel, no major explosions or shootouts at the end.

Mervyn, along with his Italian "nephew" Gio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) are now suspects in Kopernick's murder, but there are many suspects among The Mousetrap's cast and crew, along with film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith). Even the play's stars Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and his wife Sheila Smith (Pearl Chanda) are not above suspicion.

Investigating the case are Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and eager Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). Stoppard is a bit of a lush but is surprisingly effective in the investigation, though if we are fair the more sensible yet inexperienced Stalker is more aware of things. As with any good Christie case, there is at least one more murder and a twist involving none other than Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson). The murders revolve around the real-life case that inspired Christie's play, a case that puts the various cast and crew and even Christie's husband Max Mallowan (Lucian Msamati) in danger. Will Stoppard and Stalker be able to solve the case and bring things to a resolution? Will we too be asked to keep the identity of the murderer secret?

Murder and mirth are no strangers in the Agatha Christie universe if we go back to the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film series (which Dame Agatha hated). The nadir of the "Christie as Comedy" to my eyes was The Alphabet Murders, though the Peter Ustinov Poirot films kept more humor than perhaps they should have. Now with See How They Run, the filmmakers opted to go all-in on the comedy. I think a comedy could have been had with The Mousetrap being the site of a literal murder, but I think everyone was too obvious, too forced to be plausible let alone believable.

Everything in See How They Run played like it was fully aware it was a comedy. Separate from the performances, Daniel Pemberton's jolly, banjo-tinged score indicated that See How They Run was meant to be a lark. However, so much of the film became almost smug in how it thought itself hilarious.

Mark Chappell's screenplay was far too self-referential that it ended up becoming insufferable. Mervyn in his interview bemoaned how Kopernick wanted a fiery conclusion to The Mousetrap adaptation. When he comments how lazy flashbacks are to fill in information, you already know that we will immediately follow that with a literal flashback. What next, Mervyn indignantly asks, a title card that reads "Three Weeks Later"?

You can guess what we get.

There is simply too much winking at the audience for us to fully get invested even in the stabs at humor. There were, for example, seemingly endless split screens that became too distracting, though to be fair these multi-scenes worked well when various characters leave a Mousetrap performance simultaneously for various reasons.

Director Tom George apparently told his cast to camp it up to the Nth degree, making things more inadvertently smug. So many of the cast seems to overplay things that they behave as if they are knowingly playing things as farce. Yes, See How They Run could have been farcical, but since so many were so deliberately over-the-top it made things slightly cringe-inducing.

The clear standout is Ronan as Stalker. She was wise in playing things straighter than everyone else, which made her punchlines land when others failed. She was still farcical, but unlike almost the rest of the cast, she was not just in on the joke but did not play it as if Stalker was aware that it was all a joke. Her delivery was straightforward and sincere, and that is what made her funny.

Take the scene when they are starting to question The Mousetrap theater and potential film version suspects. She calls Mervyn "overrated" with a straight face, then when Mervyn corrects her by saying he's "celebrated", she apologizes, saying she misread her notes. Stalker's sincerity and Ronan's delivery sell that, and that made me laugh. 

Sam Rockwell, I think the only American in the cast who played a Brit, seemed to mix playing a trope (the troubled alcoholic detective) with playing a comic drunk, sometimes unaware of things. Brody, who played an American, had some strange moments (such a dream sequence where Kopernick and Stoppard meet in a bar apparently located in Narnia), but voiceovers from dead men don't work for me. 

Even while Oyelowo was deliberately overplaying things, he showed he can do comedy (hopefully better than this). He also made me think he'd be perfect for a Little Richard biopic given how Mervyn looked so much like the rock & roll legend. Dickinson's future Sir Dickie was also on the less obvious side of the mocking. 

Too much of See How They Run is so overtly obvious that it grows irritating. I know the film is farce and gleefully ahistorical (how else to explain having a black man play Christie's second husband Sir Max Mallowan, though to be fair Msamati was terribly underused in his brief screentime). However, since the film was so deliberately jokey, it took me out of both the comedy and the mystery. Murder By Death was more restrained than See How They Run.

 I do not know if the Christie estate agreed to participate in the film, but if they did, I wonder why. That would be a more involving mystery than the hijinks in See How They Run.

DECISION: D+

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Woman King: A Review

 

THE WOMAN KING

How to judge a film that is a work of fiction, but which is apparently presented as historic fact? The Woman King is, to quote IMDB, "a historical epic that is based in alternate history", that of the Dahomey nation in Africa. There are some good performances and elements that do work, but The Woman King's script fails history though slightly better as art. 

West Africa, 1823. The Dahomey nation, forced to pay tribute to their overlords the Oyo, has something of a secret weapon. They are the Agojie, an all-female warrior group who raid Oyo settlements to free captives bound for the slave trade. Their leader Nanisca (Viola Davis) is all business, forever fighting against neighboring nations to keep her people and her king, Ghezo (John Boyega) safe.

Into her group of Amazons comes Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a girl thrown to the Agojie due to her refusal to marry an older, abusive man. Nanisca is not fond of Nawi, seeing her as willful and disobedient. Her second-in-command, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), however, seems fond of this girl. Rigorous training takes place for her and the other girls. As time goes on, however, Nanisca discovers a connection between herself and Nawi, a shameful secret from Nanisca's past. This motivates Nanisca to undertake her most daring mission, defying King and Country to save Nawi. 

For her part, Nawi is willful, even more so when she finds herself attracted to Malik (Jordan Bolger), a biracial Brazilian who works for Santo Ferreria (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a Portuguese slave trader. He has no issue selling Nawi and her fellow captive Agojie to the horrors of the peculiar institution, but he did not count on The Woman King.

The Woman King has been called out for its dubious historical accuracy. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood's take on pre-colonial Africa portrays the Agojie as fierce freedom fighters. The opening battle scene involves them rescuing women captured by the Oyo who were bound to the slave market. Once the Oyo men were defeated, they bring the women (even those not Dahomey) under their protection, while sending the men to slavery only as punishment.

Nanisca is at the forefront of opposing the slave trade regardless of whether the potential slave was Dahomey or not, and King Ghezo takes the ultimate stand at the end to not just defeat the Oyo but to stand against "the Europeans and Americans" when it comes to ending the subjugation of all Africans. This last bit is one of the strangest sections in Dana Steven's screenplay (from a story by her and actress Maria Bello). 

The Woman King has no American characters, and from what I remember the United States was never mentioned by anyone. Moreover, Ghezo's primary interactions with Europeans were the Portuguese though there were brief mentions of the French and British. Add to that the fact that the United States was a mere 47 years old at the time The Woman King is set. For context, the War of 1812 had ended eight years prior to The Woman King's setting and the U.S. was not considered a major world power then.

Therefore, it seems bizarre to insane for Ghezo to care about the Americans, let alone mention them in his declaration to fight against them. I can leave a little leeway in perhaps his mention of "Americans" extended to the whole of the New World, but that's a stretch. 

If Wikipedia, Fount of All Knowledge, is to be believed, the Dahomey Amazons were not freedom fighters but instrumental in sending their fellow Africans into slavery in the Americas. For his part, Ghezo was extremely reluctant to end the lucrative slave trade. It was a source of wealth for him, and I figure King Ghezo would not lose sleep if neighboring Mahi or Oyo people were sent off to be slaves as they would be foreigners to him.


The Woman King, however, opts to present a highly fictionalized version of the Agojie and Dahomey as a whole, and that is troubling. There is a strange irony that the descendants of Dahomey victims are now cheering those who sent their ancestors into slavery as heroines. If Stevens' script had created an evolution in Nanisca's thinking to where she came to see the evil of her work in capturing her fellow Africans for the Europeans, we might have had a genuine movie.

Instead, what we have in The Woman King is what the film's closing credits admits is fiction. I personally am troubled by how many critics dismiss the film's historical presentation as "some inaccuracies". All historic films have inaccuracies, and despite the saying I suspect even documentaries are not one hundred percent accurate. Those who called out films like Braveheart and Green Book for their oddball takes to facts (rightly and fairly in my view) should also be more upfront about The Woman King's wild liberties with fact. 

There were other aspects that I thought weakened The Woman King. The dialogue seemed rather elevated and grand, which to my ears did not come across as people actually speaking. The twist connecting Nanisca and Nawi comes if not out of nowhere at least highly illogical and unnecessary. Why not have Nanisca play a mother figure/mentor to Nawi versus what the film gave us? That subplot did not work for me, but it was much better than the Malik/Nawi romance, which was the weakest part of The Woman King. It went nowhere and frankly either could have been cut or should have been beefed up. Instead, it was just there as an afterthought, making the film feel even longer than its already two-hour-fifteen-minute running time.

Boyega is so unimportant to The Woman King one wonders why he is there other than to look good and because even this alternate take on history requires him to be there.

That is not to say that The Woman King is a bad film. There are elements that I thought worked quite well. Mbedu and especially Lynch are standouts in their roles. Mbedu's Nawi at times is a little insufferable, but that is more the character than the actress. She makes the most of Nawi's fear, loyalty and curiosity about Malik. It is, if not a star-making performance at least one that will hopefully get her more work.

Like Mbedu, Lynch also shines as Izogie. I think it is because like Mbedu's Nawi, Lynch has a character to play. Izogie is not comic relief but someone who comes across as a genuine person. She is fierce and strong as one of the Dahomey Amazons, but Izogie is also playful, both amusing and amused. We see this early on when the Agojie march back to their capital. A boy is told he cannot look upon them, but he cannot resist a quick peek. Izogie spots him and comes at him. A brief standoff results in her smiling at the boy and teasingly playing with his hair. 

I do not understand the praise Davis has been receiving. Her character was one-note, forever glum and serious. The film did try to give her a backstory and thus more shades of humanity, but I thought it was too little, too late. Moreover, it came out of nowhere and I was not convinced. It is nice to see Davis in an action role, but I think her talents could have been put to better use. Her permanent scowl and pursed lips brought back memories of The First Lady, where even fans of the now-cancelled anthology series thought Davis' Michelle Obama came across as perpetually pissed off. 

Terence Blanchard's score was appropriately rousing, and I thought the action scenes worked well as did Polly Morgan's cinematography.

I might be more generous when it comes to The Woman King if not for its revisionist take on history. No historical film should be taken as completely accurate. However, when you take a group that was deeply involved in the slave trade and transform them into anti-slave freedom fighters, that goes a bit beyond "historical inaccuracies". If it were upfront about it being "alternate" history or even "inspired by true events", I might be more disposed to like it more. Separate from some of its other failings such as some subplots that go nowhere, The Woman King falls just a bit short. 

There is a story to be made on the Dahomey Amazons, warts and all. I hope to see it someday.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Coming 2 America: A Review

 

COMING 2 AMERICA

You can't go home again. Those words of wisdom should have been heeded by Eddie Murphy and everyone else involved in Coming 2 America, a dismal, disastrous sequel to his brilliant 1988 romantic comedy. 

Prince Akeem of Zamunda (Eddie Murphy) is celebrating 30 years of marriage to his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) along with his three daughters. However, therein lies the problem: only a male can inherit the throne of Zamunda. With his father King Joffery (James Earl Jones) dying, Zamunda risks invasion and conquest by its next-door neighbor, Nexdoria.

Yes, the nation bordering Zamunda, which can be called its "next-door neighbor", is called "Nexdoria". Meditate on that for a moment. Now, let's move on.

Unfortunately for the Zamundan monarchy, Nexdoria's dictator General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) threatens the nation unless Akeem's oldest daughter marries his son. Fortunately for the Zamundan monarchy, Akeem had while in Queens, under the influence of drugs, lost his virginity to a woman who bore him a bastard son.

Now let us meditate on the idea that a major plot point of Coming 2 America revolves around Akeem being raped. Akeem had sex with someone he did not know while drugged and without consenting to having sex with her. It is rape, pure and simple. Now, let's move on.

It is back to America to find his bastard son, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler). He and his boorish, trashy mother Mary (Leslie Jones) go to Zamunda so that Lavelle can be trained to succeed the throne as Crown Prince. While Lavelle struggles with completing his tasks to show his worth, he forms a bond with his hairstylist Mirembe (Nonzamo Mbatha). Lavelle, aided by his father figure Uncle Kareem "Reem" Junson (Tracy Morgan), now must rise to the task of kingship.

That is, unless Lavelle finds true love and King Akeem finds feminism.

My mother (RIP) had an expression when she saw people behaving shamefully, "Que no les da verguenza?", which I translate as "Do they not feel shame?". Watching Coming 2 America, I felt genuine embarrassment for everyone involved, an embarrassment that everyone involved should have felt for him or herself.  I was not even twenty minutes into Coming 2 America and could see that it was a disaster. That there was another hour to go in this cringe-fest fiasco filled me with pure dread.

I do not think that I have seen a worse film than Coming 2 America. Perhaps The Hangover Part II or The Green Hornet, but those films made me genuinely angry. Coming 2 America just made me sad. It boggles the mind that the original writers of Coming to America (Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield) along with Kenya Barris, could have worked on a script and thought naming the bordering country "Nexdoria" was in any way clever or funny.

Every single thing about Coming 2 America should offend any person with an ounce, a milligram of intelligence or decency. The movie trades in wildly offensive stereotypes that if not for Murphy's involvement would be accused of being flat-out racist. The most overtly racist character is Calvin Duke (Colin Jost), the grandson of the original Duke Brothers. 

As a side note, it should be noted that the Duke Brothers were from Trading Places not from Coming to America. Their whose cameo in Coming to America was a nice in-joke from Murphy's filmography. They were not essential to Coming to America, but somehow, we needed a Duke to interact with Lavelle. Having Jost (who may be the literal poster boy for "white male privilege" as I find no genuine talent to justify his success) say such things as telling Lavelle that Neil deGrasse Tyson is "your guy" is bad enough. However, Jost did not act in this film. He spouted words.

Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan traded in stereotypes as the trashy woman and uncouth man respectively. Jones' character was more than just a boorish idiot. She was also loud, abrasive, arrogant, sexually voracious and unapologetic about having raped Akeem.

Again, that plot point is something I cannot get over. Semmi drugged Akeem and brought this vulgar woman to take advantage of someone incapacitated, who was not able to consent to sexual intercourse and who clearly was so drugged he thought the whole incident was a dream about a large boar riding him. If the genders were reversed and Semmi had drugged Mary with Akeem getting on top of her to have sex without her consent, people would have been outraged.

There would have been protests. Demands to fire the writers and director Craig Brewer. Loud condemnations from women's rights groups. Feature stories on news networks. I would argue rightly so. However, because it is a woman taking advantage of a man, somehow it is meant to be funny.

Akeem did not consent to have intercourse with Mary. He was incapacitated by drugging. He was raped, and that Coming 2 America thought that this was necessary, let alone funny, is disgusting.

Not that Jones' performance made anything of this better. Her whole career, at least from what I know of it, consists of playing a stereotype of a vulgar, uneducated woman. Clueless and insulting, I cannot believe Jones was proud of her work here, though her MTV Movie Award for "Best Comedic Performance" says more about MTV viewers (and perhaps the whole of Western civilization) than about how good she was.

The effort to make Morgan and Hall enemies transcended cringe. A scene where they are debating on ZNN with Daily Show host Trevor Noah as a Zamundian news host was lazy and stupid. Seeing Uncle Reem move from the split screen to strangle Semmi showed that they were in the same room, making the entire sequence illogical. 

Eddie Murphy looked pained at times to be there. Perhaps he was aware that Coming 2 America was bad. He has been in film too long to not realize that the film was monstrous. He also should have been aware that Coming 2 America was trading in terrible African American stereotypes of the black community comprising of poor, uneducated buffoons. 

He has done much good in trying to elevate black characters in film. Coming to America was a celebration of black life, with successful, well-educated and well-rounded characters. Both the African and African American characters were elegant, wealthy and humorous without being boorish or vulgar. 

Coming 2 America, conversely, felt like a massive step backwards. What I was thinking was, "Why couldn't Lavelle be highly educated but frustrated by his lack of upward mobility" or his mother be successful or at least reformed from her early party-girl days to becoming a strong woman working to support her son. Instead, we got Lavelle be a ticket scalper for his uncle (albeit a reluctant one), his mother still trashy, stupid and vulgar and his uncle crude and equally vulgar. Seeing Wesley Snipes do bizarre dances and be a parody of a parody of an African dictator was just sad. 

Only Mbatha and Fowler to a lesser extent gave anything close to decent performances. Mbatha had at least a decent character to play (though seeing her recite the plot of Coming to America was depressing even if she had no control over things). Fowler showed promise as Lavelle early on, though the bad sitcom-like script kept him down. 

Above all else Coming 2 America is not funny. I laughed once, when barbershop owner Clarence called Akeem "Idiot Amin". Apart from that, Coming 2 America was an exercise in horror, a cringe-worthy nightmare that should never have been made as it was. Bringing back bits that reminded one of the original just made things worse.

Coming 2 America will be in the pantheon of "Worst Sequels Ever" if not "Worst Movies Ever". 

Que nos le da verguenza?

DECISION: F-

Friday, September 9, 2022

Coming to America (1988): A Review (Review #1645)

 

COMING TO AMERICA

Long before Wakanda was the great and uber-wealthy African nation ruled by a powerful, benevolent absolute male monarch, there was Zamunda. Coming to America is a delightful romantic comedy with a dynamic Eddie Murphy performance (or rather, series of performances) that has not lost its power to entertain and delight. 

Zamundan Prince Akeem (Murphy) is pampered by his parents, King Joffery (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair). He, however, does not want to be pampered but to be his own man. Moreover, he does not want to have an arranged marriage, wanting a woman who will love him for himself and not his royal status. King Joffery, believing Akeem's delay is a desire to "sow his royal oats", allows Akeem and his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) 40 days of freedom. Akeem decides to search for his future wife in America. Where to find a woman to rule beside him?

Queens, New York City of course. 

With that, Akeem and Semmi go to NYC, where they masquerade as simple African students, Akeem delights in doing menial labor, much to Semmi's horror and disgust. They eventually find jobs at McDowell's, a small fast-food restaurant that bears much more than a striking similarity to McDonald's. Cleo McDowell (John Amos) likes his African boys, and Akeem finds himself enchanted by Cleo's daughter Lisa (Shari Headley). Like Akeem, Lisa is being pushed into marrying someone she clearly does not love, hair-product heir Darryl Jenks (Eriq LaSalle). Will Akeem be able to win his fair maiden over? Will the Zamundan Court discover what he's up to and put a kibosh on the whole matter?

Coming to America is hilarious thanks to the situations that the characters find themselves in. Right from the start the melding of grand statements to oddball situations as well as how some situations are played out. As King Joffery attempts to dissuade his son from going against tradition to marry someone of his own choosing, the king remarks how nervous he was when meeting his intended. "There is a very fine line between love and nausea," Joffery remarks in Jones' stentorian tone. 

The fact that he speaks this bizarre line with his distinct voice and with a straight face makes it all the funnier. Here is one of the film's successes: no matter how silly things are, everyone plays it straight. 

At the heart of Coming to America's success is the sweetness the film has. Akeem is an innocent in many ways, unaware of how odd his actions and behavior come across to others. After two Zamundans recognize him and pay homage with one of them particularly worshipful, Lisa asks who he was. "Just a man I met in the restroom," is his reply. He clearly does not get that this statement could have different interpretations, and that makes it all the funnier.

The performances are all top-notch, everyone playing things straight but with just enough humor to make the film fun as well as funny. Coming to America is one of Eddie Murphy's best roles, or rather multiple roles. He not only plays Prince Akeem, but also Randy Watson, the highly untalented lead singer of the band Sexual Chocolate and two men at the nearby barbershop: the owner Clarence and most surprisingly, Saul, the longtime Jewish customer. To flip seamlessly from one to another is a credit to Murphy's skills.

As a side note, Rick Baker's makeup work is masterful. Granted, you could tell that either Murphy or Hall were the characters, but Baker did such great work that Murphy could possibly pass as an old Jewish man. 

Hall also donned makeup as the loutish preacher Reverend Brown, another barbershop employee Morris, and as a particularly unattractive and aggressive potential date. His performance is also pretty good, not as naive as Akeem but also not able to do anything to stop the prince. They made for a good double act, making the on-screen friendship sincere.

Headley is beautiful as Lisa, though at times a bit weak. Amos' Cleo, forever stubbornly insisting McDowell's and McDonald's were quite different only to see that they were not, was hilarious. Having him call Akeem "Kunta" is a nice in-joke. It probably is not as appreciated as the Trading Places in-joke where Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy recreate their Duke Brothers bit for a funny cameo, but there it is.

LaSalle showed a different side in his arrogant and bigoted Darryl, showing he can play comedy even if it is as broad as the others. 

It is interesting that save for Louie Anderson as a McDowell's employee, the entire cast was African American (Anderson being the token white guy). It proves that Americans of all backgrounds can enjoy a predominantly black film if the material is there. Coming to America does not trade on stereotypes, though the sleazy preacher and loquacious barbershop denizens do dive into the African American experience.  

Coming to America does such a good job in how it shows its characters. It has overall positive portrayals of almost all the characters. Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, working from Murphy's story idea, set up situations for our characters, which allows the characters in turn to act or react in straightforward ways even in the silliest of situations.

Coming to America is a sweet and more important funny romantic comedy. It is perhaps a bit long with occasional tangents (I don't think we need so much Sexual Chocolate or barbershop ramblings). On the whole though, I think people will like this fish-out-of-water film where love and laughter are greater than all the gold in Zamunda.

DECISION: B+