Saturday, November 30, 2019

Missing Link: A Review (Review #1311)


As of this writing, science has yet to find the 'missing link' between man and his primate ancestors. Missing Link does not do that either, unless for some reason we are meant to think both Bigfoot and Yeti are said link. Forgettable but pleasant enough for very small children who should find the colors and world travelling of interest, Missing Link is fine enough without being anywhere near great.

Intrepid adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is desperate to join the "Society of Great Men", but his searches for mythological creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster make him a laughingstock in explorer circles. He receives a message from the United States, saying that the writer can lead him to Sasquatch (aka Bigfoot). Travelling there, he finds that the writer IS said Sasquatch, whom Sir Lionel dubs "Mr. Link" (Zach Galifianakis).

Mr. Link is the last of his kind and asks Sir Lionel for help in taking him to Link's cousins, the Yeti in the Himalayas. With Mr. Link as definitive proof that he isn't bonkers, he agrees, but needs the map of his frenemy's widow, fiery Latina Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) to get him to Shangri-La. Adelina is not about to give him anything, so after some pilfering and with pursuit by rustic hitman Willard Stenk (Timothy Oliphant), Adelina and Lionel join forces.

Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), who despises Sir Lionel and has hired Stenk to kill him, is enraged that not only has Lionel found a real Sasquatch, but that they are about to find the Yeti. Some kind of chase begins, but the snobbish Yeti are not welcoming to their 'country cousin' and 'redneck'. Ultimately, Sir Lionel finds there are more important things to life than being among not-so-great men. While he joins forces with Mr. Link, who has taken the name of "Susan", Adelina parts their company as friends, each pursuing new adventures.

Image result for missing linkThere isn't that much of a point in Missing Link. At a brisk 94 minutes the film is very light entertainment. There isn't much if any of an actual plot as there is a strange muddle of thoughts running through the film. The idea of proving Sasquatch is real is pretty much forgotten once Mr. Link asks to go to see his cousins. Why Lord Piggot-Dunceby despises Sir Lionel or works to thwart him when Sir Lionel almost always comes across as hopelessly inept is left unexplained.

However, I sense that Missing Link is less interested in a story than in its look, and Missing Link is a film bathed in pleasant images. There is a nice sense of Victorian period piece look to the film, from the opening search for Nessie to the Himalayan realm of the Yeti and the California Fortnight hacienda. The richness in detail of forests and ice palaces to Tibetan huts is extremely impressive and all that makes you forget that there isn't much there.

The film really does best in the lead voices. It's curious that Galafianakis' voice was the only one I recognized despite him not having a distinct voice in the Benedict Cumberbatch mold. He plays Susan/Mr. Link as an innocent, taking all things literally and with sincerity. He's an endearing character that children will giggle at with affection. Jackman's haughty but lovable Sir Lionel is also pleasant, someone who is more a rakish rogue than genuine villain. Saldana's Adelina was 'fiery' but also sensible. "Why am I always dangling?" she shouts at herself, aware of the silliness of it all.

Missing Link is pleasant and harmless. By no means particularly 'good', it does have exceptional animation work and a nice, sweet manner with a positive message about judging others by who they are not what they look like. I imagine small children will like Missing Link; while perhaps parents or adults may find it a bit of a chore the colors and details may be enough to pass the time. 


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Mike Wallace is Here: A Review (Review #1310)


The title to the documentary Mike Wallace is Here comes from an oft-told tale of how those four words would inspire terror into anyone caught in Wallace's reportage cross-hairs. The documentary primarily covers his work and how it occasionally collided with his life. While not a portrait of the man behind the microphone, Mike Wallace is Here does well in showing his style of aggressive investigative reporting and interviewing went from rebellious to Establishment to clones.

Using hundreds of hours of archival footage from the entirety of Wallace's career, director Avi Belkin pieces how Mike Wallace wandered around looking for something both in radio and television. Back then, broadcasters worked both in serious and light aspects, so Wallace would give news reports and voice The Green Hornet. Once he went to television, Wallace would also serve as TV game show host, product pitchman and even actor.

It wasn't until he hosted an interview show, Night Beat, in 1956 that the Mike Wallace method of interview fully formed. Before then, most television interviews were very surface-level, almost like a nice chat but Wallace wanted something akin to a police investigation.

Both his background as pitchman and lack of background as a newspaper journalist in the Murrow or Cronkite manner made him a bit of the odd-man-out at CBS, until 60 Minutes came along. Once there, he found his niche, though it was not until Watergate that people started watching the show. From there, he would look at scam artists and movie stars with equal jaded eye, though Wallace never liked having that eye placed on him. As time wore on, Wallace found himself in the hot seat a few times, until he too faded from the scene.

Image result for mike wallace is hereMike Wallace is Here covers a great deal about Wallace the Reporter, a man who seemed to have a lifelong quest to prove something to himself and others. There are mentions of his private life: the death of his son Peter, at least one failed marriage, but by and large the documentary doesn't go into who he was off-camera unless it is from an interview he gave.

Instead, Mike Wallace is Here is more a chronicle of a man who had some internal struggles about himself (he said he had a perfect face for radio) and from there found his way into being a tough but fair genuine reporter. The closest we get to a revelation about the man as a person is when he says that Peter's death shifted his goals to be a straight-up journalist versus some kind of television vagabond. He also does touch on his struggle with depression and a suicide attempt coming on the heels of the lawsuit filed against him and CBS by General William Westmoreland.

Some footage is fascinating, such as his interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose call to have the Egyptian people remove their President more than like led to President Anwar Sadat's assassination. There's also a clip of an interview with then-real estate mogul Donald Trump, who said he wouldn't get involved in politics.

We also see that Wallace, for all his bluntness when it came to others, bristled at the notion that anyone would be blunt with him. Selections from one particular interview show how irritated Wallace got when asked about his personal life. Belkin cross-edits this particular interview of Wallace dismissing questions about his marriages with that of Wallace asking Larry King about his myriad of wives.

Could Mike Wallace dish it out but not take it?

While Mike Wallace is Here does not give us much about his own life it does give us a fascinating document about his professional life: the interviews, the struggles, the methods of how he got what he was after. Perhaps this is how he would have liked it.


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Arctic (2019): A Review


The 'survival film' genre has a few tropes, one of them being the dialogue or lack thereof. Arctic is squarely in the latter, as there is not much conversation even when we have two people. Arctic is not a bad film, but its sparseness makes it a bit of a slog to sit through.

Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen) has been surviving out in the Arctic after his plane crash relatively well all things considered. His life is regimented via his watch alarm, which tells him when to eat, sleep, wake and send out his daily distress signal. One day, he actually gets a reply and even spots a helicopter.

Overgard, however, must have the worst luck in the world, as the rescue helicopter itself crashes, leaving only a young Female Copilot (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) surviving but barely conscious. He does his best to care for her but knows this young mother needs greater rescuing than he. With that, Overgard takes her across the Arctic to an isolated station the helicopter map indicates.

This is a journey of several days, not easy for Overgard even if he were in perfect shape, let alone with an unconscious woman with him. Nevertheless, he goes, encountering polar bears, falls down crevices and the brutal cold until perhaps finding the help both desperately need.

Image result for arctic movieArctic is obviously meant to be a harrowing adventure/survival story, but writer/director Joe Penna (cowriting with Ryan Morrison) could not make it either. I kept thinking that Arctic could have worked as a short film, and even at a mere 98 minutes Arctic seemed to stretch on longer than the endless vistas we saw.

I think it might be because once the rescue helicopter happened to get caught up in a windstorm I thought, "great, now it's going to crash, there'll be one survivor, probably injured, and they'll finally move". Is it fair to say Arctic was a bit predictable in what would happen?

As the film goes on, I fought my own battle to stay awake, with Joseph Trapanese's admittedly excellent score with its Music from the Hearts of Space tone not helping. I half-expected to hear Stephen Hill softly intone, "A winter's journey called Arctic on this transmission of Hearts of Space". The copilot, whose backstory is filled with just a photo of her, an infant and a man whom I figure are her child and husband, didn't have anything to say. My thinking is that at least if she had been conscious or at least not as injured they could have had something to say that breaks the monotony.

Arctic is blessed with Mads Mikkelsen's performance. We see a man who seemed quite unruffled yet steadily determined to get rescued. Mikkelsen is an actor who needs to do more, and Arctic is a good performance in a slow-moving film. In his silences and in his few bits of dialogue we see Overgard as a survivor, so that's a plus. Smaradorrit, however, didn't have much to do. Granted, that was the part but one wonders if perhaps giving her more agency could have done the film well.

On the whole though, Arctic will try audiences' patience, or perhaps not. Perhaps the dire situation will keep people wondering if they do make it. They'll leave having to wonder as the ending is a bit ambiguous on that matter, leaving the faint possibility that they barely missed surviving, maybe not. I figure that was the intention. Whether one likes it or not is up to the viewer.

Again, Arctic is not a bad film but it can be a difficult one to sit through.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Hotel Mumbai: A Review


Can a film be based on a true story yet end up coming across as fake? Can a film detailing a horrifying act of terrorism instead turn out to be both exploitative and uninteresting? Hotel Mumbai makes the case for 'yes' on all counts. The film is well-intentioned but frustrating in its bungled efforts to gin up drama with cliches and a curious disengagement.

Covering the terrorist attacks that besieged the Indian city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) on November 26, 2008, Hotel Mumbai focuses on the staff and guests at the ultra-luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. In the former category we have Arjun (Dev Patel), a young Sikh waiter with a wife, a child and another on the way. There is also Head Chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher), who runs his kitchen with a firm but elegant manner.

In the latter there's American David (Armie Hammer), recently married to Indian Muslim Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). They had a shotgun wedding with baby Cameron as a result, watched over by his nanny Sarah (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). There's also boorish Russian oligarch Vasili (Jason Isaacs).

This Indian version of the Grand Budapest Hotel/Poseidon Adventure sails on undisturbed until Islamic terrorists storm the Taj, killing anyone in sight. With this group trapped before the ill-equipped Mumbai Police or the better-equipped Indian Special Forces can storm in, the staff and guests do their best to try and survive their nights of terror.

Some of them do not survive, including the terrorists taking orders from a mysterious figure via telephone known only as 'Brother Bull'.

Related imageMy mention of both Grand Budapest Hotel and Poseidon Adventure was intentional, as Hotel Mumbai ends up playing like an odd mashup of the two. What should be and could be a tale of courage and survival ends up as some land-based Titanic, with passengers and crew desperate to get off the sinking ship.

Perhaps Hotel Mumbai's greatest flaws is that it asks, if not demands for us to care about individuals we've barely met, if met at all. Take for example backpackers Bree (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and her boyfriend Eddie (Angus McLaren). We met them literally minutes if not seconds before the terrorists start blowing up and shooting at the café they are in. Later on, Eddie and Bree, who became separated once they and others forced their way into the hotel for refuge, take different routes. Eddie jumps from the second floor to escape, injuring himself and dragged away screaming for Bree and never to be seen or heard from again. For her part, Bree ends up dead much later.

The problem here is that we could have cut them out entirely without affecting the story as a whole. Worse, for reasons I cannot fathom John Collee and director Anthony Maras' script seemed more interested in the terrorists than in the terrorized. The film took more time and interest in terrorist Imran (Amandeep Singh) than in Vasili or even Arjun. 

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From his amazement at a toilet to his struggle to look for Bree's passport by going through the dead woman's bra (and thus, touching a woman) to his tearful call to his parents asking if they had received his martyrdom money to his inability to kill Zahra as she recites Islamic prayer, one genuinely wonders if Hotel Mumbai was about those doing the killing rather than about those getting their heads blown off left right and center. The film is not overtly sympathetic to the group of boys killing in the name of Allah, but they were more complex characters than the guests and staff save for Oberai, who was a mix of haughty and sensible.

Hotel Mumbai has a remoteness, a distance that makes it look more like The Poseidon Adventure than a true-life horror. This cannot be blamed entirely on the actors, as they were more a collection of sketches than fully fleshed-out individuals. From the briefly-seen Lady Wynn (Carmen Duncan), who throws in a little imperialism/white privilege to Zahra and Arjun, fearing either or both are 'one of them' to Isaacs' arrogant Russian to Hammer's dim-witted American, they play as caricatures than people even if they are fictitious.

Patel at least had some motivation but it's not enough for us to truly care if Arjun lives or not. Hotel Mumbai thinks it is a tense drama right from the beginning with Volker Bertelmann's score, but it eventually devolves into almost torture porn.

I keep thinking that Hotel Mumbai would have been better if it had decided to focus on one or two characters primarily (say Arjun and/or Imran or even the beleaguered and overwhelmed Mumbai Police who decide to try and rescue people versus waiting for the Special Forces). Instead, it went for some Grand Hotel-like manner to where a cavalcade of characters flow in and out, throwing in some cliches like guests looking out for themselves, dying cell phones or even 'comedy' (at one point a terrorist takes a bite out of a cake then is 'fooled' into thinking it had pork).

This film is a sorry disappointment. Hotel Mumbai despite everyone's best and sincere efforts came across as remote, distant and worse off fake. It's a terrible disservice to those who were murdered during the days of terror.


Thursday, November 21, 2019

Joker: A Review


Some films I can admire, respect, even think highly of, without actually loving. Joker is such a film. It was met with controversy long before its release, with fears of mass chaos, mayhem, even murder/murders breaking out during or after debut screenings. Now, removing all the speculation Joker caused about potential violence perhaps now we can see the film itself. Joker is a dark but brilliant film, an exploration of the dark world and the man who shifted into a monster.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dreams of being a stand-up comedian in Gotham City like his idol, late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), but for now has to earn a living as a clown for hire. Living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), Arthur has a history of mental illness and a rare disorder that has him break out in laughter at moments of stress.

Things are financially dicey at the Fleck home, and not even a new girlfriend, neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) help. Gotham is a decaying city, one full of random crime and cruel people. Arthur's hold on his own sanity comes undone after he's fired for bringing a gun to a children's hospital while entertaining as a clown. Confronted by three yuppies on the subway, Arthur kills them: two in self-defense but the last in cold blood.

This is the first trigger to release him from what little bonds of morality he had, and inadvertently makes him a folk hero to the dispossessed in Gotham with reports of a 'clown vigilante'. Penny, whose own mental health is dubious, now suggests that Arthur is the illegitimate son of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), for whom she worked for decades ago and who is now running for Mayor.

Image result for joker 2019Whether Arthur is or is not Thomas' bastard son is pretty much doubtful, but an encounter with Wayne goes nowhere. Arthur's grasp is totally undone; his relationship with Sophie is a fantasy he created. His troubled childhood coming back to haunt him. His efforts at stand-up comedy not only bombed but videotape is aired to an amused Live! with Murray Franklin audience.

All this, along with police closing in on Arthur as the prime suspect in the subway shootings, culminates into a horror show of blood, chaos and murder. Arthur had agreed to be a guest on Franklin's television show after his failed routine achieved popularity. Now dubbing himself as 'Joker', the end result is horrifying, with a side effect of the chaos being the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, leaving a young Bruce Wayne alone in an alley and 'Joker' at Arkham Asylum.

In the ten-plus years of reviewing films, Joker is the first one where I left trembling after what I saw, a mixture of shock and horror blended with a respect as to how well the film worked. Joker is a film that works outside of any larger universe, where the origins of the future Batman or indeed the whole of Batman mythos is almost incidental.  Stripped of its trappings/origins in comic books Joker could be a true origins and original story. In short, it doesn't need to be tied into anything and could be seen as a movie distinct and separate from a DC franchise.

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This is because director Todd Phillips, cowriting with Scott Silver, did what a genuinely good comic book film should do: take the premise seriously. It is astonishing to think that the man who brought us a range of great to terrible comedies such as The Hangover films, Starsky & Hutch and Due Date could bring us something so dark and brilliant.

Drawing heavily from MCU fanboys' nemesis Martin Scorsese's films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker takes its time guiding us both through the dour, depressed and oppressive world of Gotham and Arthur's broken mind. Over and over we see how Arthur's world so shaped him to become the monster he became. We see how abused he was right from the beginning, and Joker brilliantly shows us how he was metaphorically and literally assaulted by poor and rich alike (one assault echoes another).

Never were Send in the Clowns and That's Life so creepy.

This is a believable world, a dark world, a cruel world with not just little to no hope but one that pushes people like Arthur into their awful and tragic end. The more frightening element is that there is some sympathy for this devil. After committing a brutal murder of one of his former coworkers, he lets the other leave unharmed, telling him somewhat sadly that he is the only one who showed him kindness.

Image result for joker 2019One sense that in Joker, both the absence of a father and the accidental and deliberate cruelties inflicted on Arthur brought about wider desolation. They may not be literal brothers, but now Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne share the coincidence of being parentless.

Joaquin Phoenix's performance is one of utter astonishment. He has a soft voice for most of Joker, and we see in his performance that of a man falling apart but making some steps to hold on to some kind of world. We see a haunted man, a tormented one, an uneducated and tragic figure (a journal entry reads "I just hope my death makes more cents than my life", clearly unaware that he used the wrong word for 'sense'). Joker has us if perhaps not sympathize with at least see how put-upon he is: from the disinterest of social workers to the physical abuse of random strangers to the hurtful words of Penny. When describing his dreams of stand-up comedy, she replies "Don't you have to be funny to be a comedian?"

Phoenix's Arthur-to-Joker transformation is slow, methodical, frightening and mesmerizing. It really is his best work and a fierce rival to if not triumph over Heath Ledger's take on the character, an exceptionally high bar to reach.

The film has a massive dose of exceptional performances, from Beetz's gentle to ultimately frightened Sophie to Conroy's delusional Penny and Cullen's dismissive Thomas Wayne. While his role is small, Robert De Niro's cocky to gruesomely ended Murray Franklin too is excellent. It is clear that De Niro's appearance is a call-back to his Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin.

Joker also has exceptional technical work from Jeff Groth's editing to Hildur Goadnadottir's score. A sequence where Arthur rehearses his Live! with Murray Franklin appearance timed to a potential live suicide is brilliantly timed. Hildur's score brilliantly captures the sadness and hollowness of both Arthur and his world.

Having praised Joker as an exceptional film (which I think it is), I also was deeply troubled and disturbed by it. It takes a lot to rattle me and I don't scare easy: I laughed at The Exorcist. However, Joker alarmed me and as I said, I left the theater trembling in shock at what I had witnessed.

My moral compass is not so broken as to almost revel in these gruesome hijinks or to enjoy the violence and uprisings the clowns were partaking in. When Arthur 'punches out' for the last time, an audience member shouted, "That was awesome". I didn't see it as 'awesome', I saw it as troubling and a descent into nightmare.

Joker is a brilliant film, exceptionally well-crafted with an astonishing lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix. However, just like its role model Taxi Driver, Joker is a film I can easy call 'brilliant'...but may never wish to see again.


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Flash Gordon Episode Three: Infestation Review


With a title like Infestation, you think that it would be a tense action/drama. The fact that Infestation revolves around laughs diminishes what should be serious material. There is nothing wrong with having a lighter episode. There is something wrong when you try to make light of a character's potential death.

Baylin (Karen Cliche) is about to endure one of the most daunting trials on Earth: a wedding. No, not her own. Somewhat reluctantly, Baylin is going with Flash Gordon (Eric Johnson) and Dale Arden (Gina Holden), as the idea of leaving Baylin alone is too dangerous. Flash's best friend Nick (Panou) is serving as best man to Nick's brother Michael, so off they go.

Advised by Dr. Zarkov (Jody Racicot) that a rift has opened, Flash and Baylin investigate at the worst time. Making matters worse for everyone, one of the 'happy bugs' that slipped through the rift has infected Nick. Baylin knows that Nick is a dead man, as the 'happy bug' kills within a day while making the victim feel joyful. Feeling sad will temporarily prolong life, but only the Omadrian Cure can save him. To get the Cure, Baylin and Flash go through the rift while Dale has to do her best to make Nick sad.

The Omadrians do not welcome visitors, especially men. These Amazonian types will only trade the Cure, but Flash has nothing to offer. Rashly, he tells them he will recover and return the Urn of Omadria, a sacred object, to them currently held by Ming (John Ralston) and stolen by Baylin at his command. Infestation then goes between Flash and Baylin's efforts to retrieve the Urn, with some help from a reluctant Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft) while Dale attempts to bring the increasingly joyful Nick down.

Image result for FLASH GORDON INFESTATIONInfestation is a curious episode in that it seems an odd choice to have something so light so soon within the series. Again, having a lighter, more humorous episode is not wrong, but Infestation might have been shuffled to play later in the season when we could have used some laughs.

It isn't as if Baylin's culture clash didn't already provide some humor. Whether finding her dress too useless for combat or at the end taking bites out of the wedding cake, we had some really good moments with the character. This is one of Infestation's best qualities, as Cliche is turning out to be a surprise: adept at handling comedy with action without making Baylin look ridiculous.

As such, a whole light episode could have been reworked around her interactions with the wedding. You could have even put in some danger, even with the 'happy bugs', but as structured here Infestation flounders.

At a certain point Nick's glee is so annoying you almost wish he would die. "I know you can't help being a bitch sometimes", he tells Dale with a smile after another failed effort to make him miserable. Bless Panau and Holden for doing their best with the material they had but both seemed forced in their performances, as if trying to make this funny when it really should be serious. Johnson did well as Flash too, managing the action and lightness.

There's a strange tonal imbalance in Infestation that I think viewers would end up puzzled. There's also a lot of hanky-panky going on with Flash either undressing or looking at Baylin or Aura with some desire and only Aura reciprocating. As they fight, Aura makes the not-so-subtle suggestion that Flash has an erection. If she only knew that earlier, the Omadrians were about to make him a eunuch!

Infestation also has a question left unanswered: there were two 'happy bugs' that came through but only one did anything? Whatever happened to Happy Bug Number 2?

To its credit Infestation does look at times fantastic with beautiful cinematography, but on the whole Infestation either could have been made into a straight drama or shifted later in the season for a few laughs. Apart from Cliche's performance Infestation is a poor stumble so early in the season.


Next Episode: Assassin

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. A Review


Now, I would call The Fast and the Furious franchise a very guilty pleasure. They have grown increasingly idiotic, outlandish and cartoonish. Despite that, I have loved them all...until now. I've seen dumb action films that I could still appreciate, but Fast & Furious Present: Hobbs & Shaw is dead-set on being insulting. I don't think there was a desperate need to have a spinoff franchise for two characters who weren't even in the original The Fast and the Furious and showed up in Fast Five and Furious Seven respectively (I'm not counting Shaw's Fast & Furious 6 cameo).

Even that I could forgive if Hobbs & Shaw were goofy fun instead of just goofy.

A team of MI6 agents attempt to confiscate 'Snowflake', a dangerous super-virus that could wipe out millions if it fell in the wrong hands. Out to stop them is Brixton (Idris Elba), an augmented human closer to a cyborg. He kills the whole MI6 team save for one female agent, who has injected herself with Snowflake to stop him taking it before fleeing into the night.

Enter Lucas Rebecca Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The American and the Brit are forced to work together to find the 'rogue' MI6 agent framed for her team's deaths. Hobbs & Shaw however, despise and loath each other, so the idea of working together, even if it to save the world, is anathema to them. Nevertheless, work together they must, especially when we learn that the MI6 agent is Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who happens to be Shaw's sister.

Now, with Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart popping in to join in the hijinks in cameo roles (Mirren the only one even tenuously connected to the Fast & Furious Cinematic Universe), Hobbs & Shaw must battle against Shaw's frenemy Brixton and ETEON, the shadowy organization bent on world domination by committing genocide via Snowflake. This takes them all over the world, ending in Hobbs' native Samoa, where between repairing relationships with his estranged family they battle Brixton's army in an epic confrontation. Fate of the world resolved, the shadowy ETEON mastermind must now await for a new champion to take down Hobbs & Shaw.

Image result for hobbs and shawAgain, let me be clear: I have loved every Fast & Furious film, even the much-derided Tokyo Drift. They are fun and frivolous, involving cool cars, hot chicks and wild action sequences with an undertone of 'family'. None of those elements, however, are in Hobbs & Shaw. The question that should be asked is, "if the Fast & Furious franchise didn't exist, would you care about Lucas and Deckard? Would anything in Hobbs & Shaw be of such interest as to want to invest time in this, let alone suggest that this spinoff to an unintended franchise should itself get its own franchise"?

My answer is a solid, firm "No". I could roll with 'dumb'. I can't roll with 'stupid', which is what Hobbs & Shaw is.

I think my main issue with Hobbs & Shaw is that for men who are 47 and 52 respectively, they behave and think like a parody of teenage boys. How can I take even the most basic element of Hobbs & Shaw seriously if the title characters won't take the premise seriously? Here is the potential death of either Hattie or millions of people in the balance, but Hobbs & Shaw would rather rattle off bad one-liners and/or pull bad jokes on each other than get the job done.

Take for example when they have to go to Ukraine to break into the ETEON secret lab for the extraction machine to get Snowflake out of Hattie. Shaw has created fake passports, and given his hated rival Hobbs the name "Mike Oxsmul", which when read out loud reads "My cock's small". To make matters worse, or at least to cause Hobbs more irritation, Shaw deliberately has Hobbs' passport trigger security, with his plan to have Deckart and Hattie storm the secret base without him.

Image result for hobbs and shawAt this point, all I could think was 'why is Shaw being so small?' (and no, that isn't a Jason Statham height joke, though officially at 5'10" he does look small next to the 6'5" Johnson or 6'2" Elba). It just seemed so juvenile for him to do something so childish, let alone do it at that precise moment.

Needless to say, Hobbs gets out of his predicament because...reasons, but throughout Hobbs & Shaw the fixation with their metaphorical dick-measuring contests becomes tedious. Some quips and snide remarks can be expected, but a nearly two-hour parade of it becomes almost boring.

As they storm the secret base, with a detonator set, Hobbs sees Shaw struggling to both take down more henchmen than he had AND struggle to open the door that requires facial recognition. Again, despite the lives of millions hanging in the balance with time not on their side, Hobbs merely looks on in amusement rather than so much as help Shaw with either. I can take a joke, but not when the characters are the jokes.

Moreover, Hobbs & Shaw can't be bothered with trying to be even remotely clever. You expect that writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pierce with director David Leitch would know better than to put in cliches, such as having Hobbs have a nice heart-to-heart telephone conversation with his daughter Sam (Eliana Sa'u) while oblivious to how Hattie is behind him in a sealed but clear-glass room beating the crap out of a poor CIA agent in particularly brutal ways. That is the level of 'witty' Hobbs & Shaw goes for.

Over and over we have a film that is too lazy to care, mistaking long bits of monologue for humor. Sure, maybe seeing Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart pop up to rattle off quips could be fun, but neither adds anything to the film. As a side note, I'm old enough to remember when Ryan Reynolds was an actual actor, not a quip-spouting animatronic figure who has an expressionless face when delivering said quips.

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Hobbs & Shaw clearly left the door open for a sequel, down to a post-ending scene of a besieged Reynolds. However, the mind boggles at exactly who would want more adventures with the Fast & Furious' version of Dr. Claw and M.A.D. I'm not trying to be funny: the ETEON director, never seen but with a digitally altered voice that appears as a sound graph, might as well have said, "I'll get you next time, Hobbs & Shaw! Next time!" with a cat's meow accompanying it.

I don't know what it says about a movie spinoff/franchise when it reminds you of Inspector Gadget.

I'm not even going to bother looking at Hobbs & Shaw when it comes to acting. I'll give credit to Johnson for having nice scenes with Sa'u when he plays the loving and slightly goofy dad. Statham is and has never been an 'actor' (though I'm sure his version of say Prospero or Willy Loman would be a lot more fun to watch than this). He's an action star, there to brawl and show off that Cockney swagger. Elba is about the only one even trying to play his Terminator-reject seriously, making me wonder whether he would have been better-served playing the actual Terminator in something like Dark Fate. I don't know enough about Kirby to make a definitive statement, though I didn't leave the theater much impressed.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is a cash-grab, riding the coattails of an accidental though quite enjoyable franchise. It gives audiences big action scenes, some of which I did find quite good such as a chase scene through London where cars slide under trucks. As much as I have enjoyed every Fast & Furious film I think I'll skip more adventures with the Oxsmul Brothers...unless Dr. Claw literally shows up and turns out to be Ryan Reynolds or Kevin Hart.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Irishman: A Review (Review #1305)


The Irishman is well-aware that Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious Teamsters Union president who achieved greater fame after his still-unsolved disappearance, is a faded figure. "Nowadays, the young kids don't know who Jimmy Hoffa was, maybe that he disappeared...", we hear our narrator/guide tell us in voiceover. The Irishman, while covering familiar territory for director Martin Scorsese, is also a film about the finality and fear of death, the regrets from the past and how everyone goes the way of all flesh.

Narrated by the title subject, we see Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) at a retirement home. He flashes back to a road trip for a wedding he took with his friend, mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), for a wedding and another visit that reveals itself. Stopping to let their wives have a cigarette break (Russell not permitting smoking in his car), Frank sees they are coincidentally at the same gas station & diner where they first met, sparking a new set of memories.

Frank, recently from World War II, made a little extra on the side running meat to gangsters. As a Teamster union member, he had protection and a good lawyer, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Frank is surprised to re-encounter Bill's cousin, Russell, a quiet man who has his fingers in many pies. Frank soon starts becoming indispensable to Russell, and he in turn offers Frank as an aide to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

There again, Frank continuously tries to keep Hoffa from causing problems for the Mob. Hoffa, however, has his own problems. The Mob helped deliver the White House to President John F. Kennedy by essentially cheating in Illinois in exchange for a 'gentleman's agreement' to get JFK to kick Castro out of Cuba and let the Mob get their casinos back. The feeble efforts at that via the Bay of Pigs flops, and meanwhile Hoffa's enraged that Jack's kid brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy is targeting him.

Image result for the irishmanThe enmity runs deep between the Kennedys and Hoffa, with Hoffa finally locked up. Hoffa's Teamster President/puppet Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) is also the Mob's puppet, letting them dive into the Teamsters pension fund.

Hoffa sees the pension and the Teamsters as his, and once he secures a pardon from President Nixon he is determined to return to power. Sheeran is advised to tell Hoffa 'it is what it is', but this half-German, half-Irish boss is not going to let some Italians tell him what he can do. He is sure that his files offer him protection.

As we go back to the road trip, Frank Sheeran is placed in an impossible and tragic situation, one that will cost him the love of his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who saw Hoffa as the only good man Frank worked with, and leaves the aging, regretful Frank to live on, knowing that perhaps absolution and people to mourn him is beyond his reach.

Martin Scorsese has been excoriated for saying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are 'not cinema'. For this blasphemy, he's been decried as a "stuffed shirt director" and "bitter and jealous" (presumably over the financial success of the MCU franchise). That take-down by the way is from someone who A) insists he's a conservative voice in film criticism (though by his own admission he's a fanboy) and B) blocked me on "the Twitter" for daring to disagree with him.

Image result for the irishman
Well, for a 'bitter and jealous' director dear Marty is still making films, with The Irishman being his latest epic masterpiece until he gets around to making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 23. The Irishman moves incredibly fast despite a nearly three-and-a-half hour running time. In that running time, we see in Robert De Niro's performance a haunted man, one who sees himself fading into death and having nothing to show for all his work.

Frank Sheeran is a reminder of what De Niro can do after floundering in things like Little Fockers and Dirty Grandpa. His performance is truly excellent: someone who genuinely wants to 'protect' those he cares about but who ends up hurting them. Frank fears the finality of death, lives with the regrets, and simultaneously yearns for and hides from the end.

In terms of performances there is not one bad one in The Irishman. I don't think Pacino looks or sounds like Jimmy Hoffa, or what little I know of him, but he plays the Teamster boss as almost a lovable tyrant. He is the only person who could be petty enough to race back into the Teamsters headquarters to have the flag raised to full-staff after President Kennedy's assassination while also spoil Peggy with ice cream. In some ways The Irishman paints Hoffa as an idiot, unaware that "Fitz" gets around Hoffa's ban on alcohol by sneaking it in with drenched watermelons (which Hoffa also dislikes but permits). However, part of you genuinely feel sorrow at his quiet but still jarring end.

Related imagePesci also surprises in how quiet his Russell is. The stereotype of Joe Pesci is of him constantly raving and screaming, but in The Irishman I don't remember him raising his voice once. It makes him more menacing in his methodical manner. A surprise too is Romano as the willfully blind lawyer. This is as far from the bumbling Ray Ramone as one can get. Romano does not play any 'gangster' type but his Bill Bufalino is no fool. Smaller performances by Paquin and Bobby Cannavale were also quite strong.

As a side note, Cannavale now has the rare distinction of having been in both a Scorsese and Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Wonder if he'll have any fallout for that.

In regards to the 'de-aging' of the three principles, at the very beginning seeing a young Robert De Niro is slightly jarring but soon it is forgotten. Credit should be given for not making the younger versions without it looking cartoonish or freakish in a Polar Express-type look. Previous Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is up to her brilliant standards, and Robbie Robertson's score has a darkness that works well with the story. Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Charles Brandt's nonfiction work I Heard You Paint Houses moves well, a rich and textured portrait of a dark world and the people that populate it.

The Irishman may lack talking trees and hunky extraterrestrials, but it makes up for those flaws with an involving, fast-paced story where old men look back not in anger but in sorrow. It may not be the final word on one of the most famous unsolved mysteries, but it wraps you in the story and grips you with its performances.

James R. Hoffa


Saturday, November 16, 2019

Five Short Film Reviews: A Million Eyes, The Confirmation, Harbor, Brotherhood, Ida

The following reviews are for short films in the following order: A Million Eyes, The Confirmation, The Harbor, Brotherhood, and Ida.

Image result for a million eyes short film
Review One: A Million Eyes

Leroy (Elijah M. Cooper) is an aspiring photographer who yearns to chronicle his world, but knows little about both the technical aspects and the art of still images. With his mother Amber (Katie Lowes) keeping to her sobriety, Leroy has his own troubles after an arrest and 30-day sentence for vandalizing a photography book. With Fern (Joe Morton) serving as both his artistic and life mentor, Leroy begins to discover the world through his own eyes, making him strong enough to take the first steps to being an artist and a man.

A Million Eyes has an elegant manner to its story of artistic and self-discovery, with strong performances from the whole cast. Chris Hyson's score is elegant and elegiac, and Curt Zacharias, Jr.'s screenplay is simple but strong in its almost mystical take on the power of creating art. We care about Leroy's life: his doubts on finding his 'muse', the pain of his mother failing to keep her word, the desire to find an outlet to explore his world.

Director Richard Raymond keeps things flowing in an almost dreamlike manner and gets excellent performances from his cast, including Cooper in his debut role.

I'm not big on voiceovers, but A Million Eyes (the title coming from his wish to have 'a million eyes' to see all around the world) works well when it uses them. It's a short film that makes one want to explore this world more, even see a feature film version. Granted, I did so not want to see Amber fall off the wagon and almost expect that to happen, but on the whole A Million Eyes is a strong film.


Konfirmanden (2019)
Review Two: The Confirmation (Konfirmanden)

It is Mathias' (Xean Peake) confirmation day in Denmark, where Mathias will confirm Mathias' Christianity and enter adulthood. What makes this confirmation unique is that Mathias was born Katrine. Mathias is transgender and Mathias' mother Susanne (Ellen Hillings) is making sure everyone keeps to the proper pronouns and names. If it means jumping up during the confirmation ceremony to shout at the priest that the name is "Mathias" not "Katrine", so be it. If it means berating a teen guest at the confirmation party when he asks Mathias about having breasts or penises, expressing irritation when another guest says 'boys will be boys' and make a general spectacle of herself, so be it too. Mathias is horrified but in the end mother and child reconcile.

The Confirmation is curious in that removing the issue of transgenderism the story itself is routine. You have the somewhat sullen teen who doesn't seem enthusiastic on much if anything, one deeply embarrassed by the parent's well-meaning effort to be supportive regardless of what said teen actually believes. Susanne comes across less as a genuinely caring parent and more as a 'woke' individual who wants to almost parade her progressiveness at the cost of her child. "The fact is that Mathias has always been Mathias. But at birth, he was given the wrong gender", she somewhat drunkenly berates her guests.

Never mind that Mathias, already facing unique issues, wants as little attention or fuss made of the situation. Never mind the understandable questions and taunts launched by Mathias' frenemy Alexander (Justin Geertsen) or the displeasure of Mathias' grandmother, who still insists on thinking of Mathias as Katrine. I don't think there is an interest in exploring the issues a transgender teen would face. The Confirmation curiously gives Mathias little to actually say, and perhaps this is because this is more Susanne's story than Mathias', but what does writer/director Marie-Louise Damgaard want to tell us?

That Susanne is clumsy in her efforts at being supportive? Does Susanne actually support Mathias' self-vision or does she do so because she thinks that is what she should do? While it is a short film, The Confirmation offers us little about the unique situation Mathias faces both internally and externally. Irv Johnson's music does not help in that it suggests a deeper drama than what we have.

The performances were fine in The Confirmation, elevating the film. However, it does seem strange that the priest would still use "Katrine" if he knew "Katrine" now or recently opted to be "Mathias". The one aspect that surprised me was to learn that Norway allows one to change one's gender at age 6 versus Denmark's age 18.   


Find harbour for a day (2018)
Review Three: Harbor (Jeter L'Ancre Un Seul Jour) Find Harbor for a Day 

On a field trip from France to Britain, English-language teacher Adele Martin (Marie Bunel) finds that an extra child has smuggled his way onto the Jean Moulin School line. Almost on a whim, and over the objection of her co-chaperone Romain (Ali Marhyar), Madame Martin brings the stowaway with them. Only obnoxious student Eliott (Victor Bonnel) knows about "Maxime". "Maxime" is essentially mute, though for reasons unclear Adele insists on speaking to him in English first before speaking to him in French. As they journey overnight across the English Channel, Adele does her best to keep "Maxime", whom she learns is really Nassim (N'Tarila Kouka), out of sight while dealing with unruly students. The hijinks cause a delay in arrival and could put all of them at risk. Fortunately, perhaps with some help from Eliott, Nassim disappears into the world of Portsmouth as they finally disembark.

The term 'white man's burden' popped into my mind after watching Harbor, and I think director/co-writer Paul Marques Duarte (writing with Blandine Jet) has a good plot to work with. What I didn't see was exactly why Madame Martin did as she did. Was she moved by Nassim's apparent shyness? Was it because she wants to be essentially a human smuggler? Her motives are unclear, and while this might be a cliche, part of me wishes Harbor had made Adele so frazzled and frustrated at this field trip from Hell that she had accidentally miscounted her students and not realized Nassim had snuck in with her group until after they set sail.

At least in that case, she would have had a conflict over turning him over or not. As it stands, why she opted to put herself, her students, Romain and Nassim himself at risk is opaque. More opaque is why she kept speaking to him in English, as if she thought English was Nassim's first/only language. Given that Nassim's origins are unknown, we don't know if he could understand either English or French let alone speak either; given the number of African nations where French is spoken, the chances Nassim would know French are higher than those of him speaking English.

Harbor seems a lost opportunity, but also a slightly well-meaning but ineffective one. I would have loved to have seen Romain's reaction as someone who was if not an immigrant himself at least descended from them. The ending of Nassim walking out with the group, apparently managing to get through customs with relative ease, also felt off. It seemed to be almost a too-satisfactory ending, with our French characters essentially patting themselves on the back for their actions.

I though well of the performances from Bunel's frazzled teacher to especially Bonnel's Eliott. He was the standout as he was in this short film the only one to have some kind of evolution to his character. While Kouka too was good as Nassim, his silence spoke volumes about how we are meant to think of the refugee/migrant: silent, almost passive, with no real characteristics, hopes, drives or fears.

Two odd notes with Harbor. When I crossed the English Channel, the journey took a few hours versus overnight, perhaps because we sailed from Dover to Calais versus from Portsmouth. Second, as I was watching, there was a scene where Eliott and Nassim were at the back of the ferry and The Pet Shop Boys' music was  playing. I was surprised at how well their music blended in...until I realized I had accidentally left a YouTube playlist on and that PSB were not part of Harbor


Mohamed Grayaâ in Brotherhood (2018)
Review Four: Brotherhood

Mohamed (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) is a shepherd in Tunisia, living with his wife Salha (Salha Nasraoui) and two of his three sons, Chaker and Rayene (Chaker and Rayene Mechergui). He finds his life upended when his oldest son Malek (Malek Mechergui) returns from Syria, bringing a woman he says is his new wife, Reem (Jasmin Lazid). While Mohamed is a devout Muslim, he has nothing but contempt and anger towards ISIS (or Daesh as it is known in Arabic). Malek denies having killed during his time fighting with his Muslim brothers, but Mohamed snaps that he has actual brothers whom he had no problem leaving. Mohamed makes a fateful decision affecting the whole family, one that will cost all of them dearly to his regret.

Brotherhood, I figure, was acted by nonprofessionals given that with the exception of Lazid all the actors and characters share the same names, and that Malek, Chaker and Rayene are real-life brothers. That writer/director Meryam Joobeur brought moving performances out of them is a credit to her skills as a director. As a writer, Joobeur is equally excellent, as Brotherhood feels authentic, giving us a rarely-seen image of Muslims and of the aftereffects of ISIS' reign of terror.

Malek is not evil, but disaffected and struggling against his father's control. He quietly tells Chaker that he regrets having gone to Syria and asks him to not follow in his footsteps. When Mohamed and Salha learn the truth about Reem, not only is it a genuinely surprising twist but it also puts Mohamed's actions (which perhaps expect don't feel unjustified) in a new light. Brotherhood does not give us clear-cut villains and heroes, but complex people with regrets and flaws.

Brotherhood is a deeply moving and impactful film, deep in its simplicity, thoughtful and well-made. It has us think of them as individuals, not symbols.


Ida (2019)
Review Five: Ida

Ida (Kerstin Jannerup Gjesin) is a sweet little 8-year-old Danish girl living with her loving mother Leonora (Molly Egelind). Ida has a fear of 'the monster', which she keeps telling herself is not real, but this seems her own genuine hangup. Ida and Mom look happy, playing, going to school and taking bicycle rides. At school though, Ida seems a trifle agitated in spelling and correcting her mistake. After a surprise gift of a blouse, Ida seems reluctant to accept it, quietly telling Mom that the illustration 'looks like the monster'. With that, Mom takes it and goes into the kitchen, where she begins to drink. Slowly, Leonora turns from bucolic to demonic, and we see the monster is real. It is Leonora's alcoholism, giving her an increasingly frightening appearance. At the end, with 'the monster' lying next to her, Ida looks up and tells herself that one day she will not make mistakes, and thus the monster won't appear. She will become an angel because angels don't make mistakes.

The issue of alcoholism, especially its effects on children, is an important yet sadly overlooked on. Ida does an excellent job in looking at it through a child's eyes. Writer/director Parminder Singh manages to put us squarely in Ida's world, one where we see the genuine love between mother and daughter but also see how, to Ida, her mother's alcoholism makes her into a monster.

Great compliment should be given to makeup artist Thomas Foldberg. He transforms Leonora into something ugly without going overboard, keeping a semblance of humanity within this secretly troubled woman. Jorgen Lauritsen's score too works in making Ida a horror film in how even the best of people can become horrible when in the grips of this disease.

The film is also complimented by two excellent performances from Gjesing and Egelind as Ida and Leonora (though to be honest I don't think the mother's name is given in Ida). Gjesing is gentle and sweet as Ida, a victim who puts this situation she lives in through very innocent eyes. Her happiness when her mother is sober, her regret and fear when she isn't work so well it breaks your heart. Egelind too shifts from loving to frightening, but she and Singh were wise in not making Leonora a raging lunatic. Instead, she is nasty but equally heartbreaking, as we know that outside the drink she is a good and loving mother.

Ida, while short at ten minutes, is deeply moving, a strong film about how alcoholism affect the most innocent.


Conclusions: It's interesting that all five films revolve around children, Harbor being the only one not involving parents. The children all face troubled issues around their parents: A Million Eyes and Ida around their mother's alcoholism, The Confirmation on the child's gender transitioning. Brotherhood's parent and child conflict is perhaps the most unique: a former ISIS fighter returning to his family, but here again there is inter-family strife.

Each adult affects the child in their care, with life-altering consequences for the kids. I think Brotherhood moved me most because there were no clear-cut villains and heroes. Both father and son did what they thought was right even though both were wrong. I could imagine the title character in Ida growing into A Million Eyes' Leroy, the child if not accepting their parents' alcoholism at least finding an outlet to let out their sorrow on it.

The Confirmation was to my mind weak because Mathias transitioning from Katrine seemed almost incidental to the parent/child conflict. The issue could have easily been, well, anything, with pretty much the same result. Harbor never established why Adele did as she did, so you keep wondering what prompted her decision to help Nassim enter England illegally. Almost makes one support Brexit.

Each film had strong performances and good plots, but I think some of the five short films I saw really do merit Best Live-Action Short Film consideration and some, while with some positives, should be reworked.

The final rankings of the short films:

A Million Eyes
The Confirmation

Friday, November 15, 2019

Flash Gordon Episode Two: Pride Review

Karen Cliche, Eric Johnson, Jody Racicot, and Gina Holden in Flash Gordon (2007)


Flash Gordon's second episode Pride does a better job in balancing things both in terms of separate stories and tone. It still has some issues when it comes to the performances, but given what the actors had to work with I feel a certain generosity towards them.

Mongo bounty hunter Baylin (Karen Cliche) is literally hiding out in a local park, able to make herself invisible. Still hunting for Flash Gordon (Alex Johnson), she in turn becomes the hunted when "The Benevolent Father" better known as Ming (the Merciless) (John Ralston) sends another bounty hunter, Tyrus (Mark Gibbon) to get Baylin.

Meanwhile on Mongo, spoiled Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft) is asked to intercede for an ice smuggler, sentenced to death. Aura, seeing that the smuggler committed his crimes to save his daughter, feels a personal impact and goes to Ming to plead his case. It almost appears as if Ming will be benevolent, but he proves himself Merciless. He offers a large ration and treatment for the smuggler's daughter...and keeps to the execution.

Back on Earth, Dale Arden (Gina Holden) is appalled that Flash has, albeit extremely reluctantly, agreed to let Baylin stay at his place. Dr. Hans Zarkov (Jody Racicot) is attempting to reopen the space rift and gets himself mixed up in the battle between Tyrus and Baylin, who are connected in more ways than one. Flash is able to outwit and save Baylin but at the cost of going through the space rift.

As for Baylin, she is still staying at Flash's place, and given her habit of 'bathing' with oil in the outdoors, he may not be as opposed as he once was.

Mark Gibbon in Flash Gordon (2007)Pride, to a certain point, is aware of its own silliness. Of particular note is the character of Tyrus, and bless Gibbon for trying to make him dangerous and menacing. As written and performed, Tyrus would easily elicit chuckles, but given Gibbon was tasked to play him as something of a wild man, he could only do so much with the part. He did well for what he had to do, even if again it seems more hilarious than dangerous.

A lot of Pride is humorous, though at times one wonders if that is what they meant to do. For example, the poor park rangers who encounter both Baylin and Tyrus are stuck with really bad dialogue and situations. When coming across this wild woodsman-like creature, the park ranger says, "Hey, don't make me get my citation book!"

You can't feel anything but sympathy for the actor who has to say that and try to make it sound serious. Same for when Flash and Dale are literally tied together. "Alien bondage makes me cranky!", Dale says, and my eyebrows raised at what I took as a curious double entendre.

Cliche is a marked improvement, where at least here showed a lightness in her Baylin when it came to working with humans. While it's a standard in having alien interactions with Earthlings played for laughs, she made it plausible. She could be strong and menacing too; however, from her tossing apple crumbs to surprised park rangers to 'bathing' au naturale oblivious to any erotic excitement that might inspire Flash, Cliche did well in her performance.

Johnson too showed a lighter manner even if he had odd lines to read. "I'm Baylin of the Verdin," our bounty hunter says when finally introduced. After a pause, he replies, "I'm Flash, of the Gordons, and you can only stay here until my Mom gets back". Johnson probably understood how odd such a statement would sound from a character who is almost 30 years old, but in his hesitancy he sells it.

The surprise is Van Hooft, who gave Princess Aura more complexity than just a spoiled princess. It intrigues the viewer that perhaps we will see Aura evolve. Ralston's Ming balances the elegance and menace of being Merciless, and Racicot is keeping to the more 'wacky' scientist, but it works for the series.

Pride is just a way to introduce Baylin and have two simultaneous stories going on. I thought it worked well, with better performances and at least deliberate silliness versus accidental silliness.


Next Episode: Infestation

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Overcomer: A Review


I have at times been highly critical of the cinematic work of writer/director Alex Kendrick in many aspects: cinematic, social, even theological. Sometimes I, the most wavering and flawed of Christians, have been appalled at what Kendrick and his brother Stephen create in the name of the Lord. I have never questioned their faith, but their creative abilities.

Having seen many of their films, I can say that Overcomer, the Kendrick Brothers' newest film, is their most polished and dare I say, professional work. It is still flawed in some respects, but Overcomer at least shows a growth in their style that should be if not applauded at least appreciated.

Christian school teacher/basketball coach John Harrison (Alex Kendrick) thinks this will be his year until the local factory closes down. Little by little his players' families decide to leave, causing professional, financial and personal strains on both John and his wife, fellow teacher Amy (Shari Rigby). The school's director Olivia Brooks (Priscilla C. Shirer) turns over the long-distance track to him over his doubts.

Making things worse is that only one girl showed up for tryouts: Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson). Making things more worse is that Hannah is asthmatic, but she is also fast. Unbeknownst to everyone save her grandmother Barbara (Denise Armstrong), Hannah is something of a kleptomaniac. Soon John starts developing a respect for long-distance running and Hannah starts being so internal.

Image result for overcomer movieCoincidentally, this is also when John meets Thomas Hill (Cameron Arnett), a hospital patient suffering from the effects of rampant diabetes. Though he is blind, he can see, having undergone a spiritual awakening prior to his hospital stay. Thomas pushes John into questioning who he is, what his own Christianity is, how it affects his world, worldview and relationship with John's two sons. This strengthens John's own faith.

John also finds that Thomas is Hannah's biological father, who abandoned her to Barbara when he and Hannah's mother went deep into drug addiction. Barbara, blaming him for her daughter's death, had told Hannah both her parents were dead. Now John and Amy struggle in how to handle this situation. Ultimately, Hannah and Thomas begin a secret rapprochement that has consequences for all concerned. There's doubt, fear, a separate embrace of Jesus Christ, and the state championship.

It's a curious thing that the first thing I notice with regards to Overcomer is that the Kendrick Brothers have certain traits in their films that they repeat. Overcomer and Facing the Giants both have Alex as a coach in a Christian school. Overcomer and Courageous both have Alex with a wife and two children (though mercifully both sons in Overcomer live to the end). Almost all their films have the Alex Kendrick character have a spiritual awakening that makes him better all-around. War Room is an exception in that Alex Kendrick was not the main character, but the male lead character had that transformation.

Image result for overcomer movieIt may appear formulaic, and there is validity in that thought; perhaps another time I will analyze the repeated themes and beats of the Kendrick Brothers' work closer. However, Overcomer is a step forward for them in that slowly, the focus of the film shifted from John to Hannah to where he began to fade. He did not leave the film entirely, but the transition to Hannah and Thomas slipped surprisingly smoothly.

Unlike their past films, Overcomer does not focus on John's crisis of faith, helped by a 'magical Negro'. Instead, it is about the transformation of Hannah, who has all these people float into her life. Surprisingly, rather than make things unbalanced it works to the film's advantage, as we see that neither the Harrisons or the Scotts are 'saving' the other.

Overcomer is probably the Kendricks' smartest film in that these characters are human. Oftentimes the Kendricks had difficulty on two fronts: social and racial. In prior films, their characters did not actually 'sin': they never drank, smoked, had premarital sexual relationships, let alone mentioned them.

Here, there is a greater openness to human frailty. Thomas admits drugs and women brought him ruin. Hannah steals, sometimes brazenly. John actually shouts at his wife. Their two sons worry about their parents' marriage and know enough to not interrupt when they are either in argument or in prayer. It's a compliment to both brothers that this very delicate situation of introducing a girl to her hereto absent father was handled with intelligence and tact.

Overcomer also moves away from the virtually all-white world they had created in past films. If Facing the Giants was to be believed, there were no black people in the state of Georgia. Here, Kendrick not only focused on African-Americans, they went one or two better. First, they were in positions of authority and two, they were not stereotypes. They were flawed but they on the whole were a massive improvement over what they have done in the past.

Image result for overcomer movie
Acting-wise Overcomer still has some stumbling blocks. This is probably Alex Kendrick's best performance in that he didn't look like he was acting. John is not a walking sermon. He even takes some stabs at dry comedy, as when he's continuously roped into judging bad drama monologues. Shirer's Principal Brooks is more believable when leading Hannah in prayer but in her small role she did quite well. Arnett's Thomas was moving, bringing the regret of his past with the joy of his salvation.

I thought well also of Wright-Thompson given this is her debut, her Hannah being appropriately detached from much. In another debut film role, Jack Sterner had good moments as Ethan, John and Amy's older son, appropriately comic when showing he could run just as well as Hannah (here's the joke: he couldn't) and appropriately wise when assuring his younger brother that their parents would be all right after a strong argument.

As I reflect on Overcomer, I can see its flaws. Even as a Christian (weak and wavering as I am), the 'salvation' scene seemed a bit heavy-handed to preachy. However, I can also see the audience's reaction. There were sobs, cheers and even applause at the climatic racing sequence. I can't fault a film for knowing its audience and making a film for them.

Overcomer may not achieve any new converts to the message of Christ, but it is faith affirming for those who already do believe. It works well for what it is: an inspirational film that should please both Christian and Christian-friendly audiences (or at least audiences that are not overtly hostile to films revolving around faith).


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hustlers (2019): A Review


The bump-and-grind of Hustlers was not enough to lure audiences into what I'm told is a tale of female empowerment. Despite being inspired by a true story, Hustlers is as sleazy as a real strip club, if at least as honest as one.

Weaving our main story with that of an interview to recount this story, we have young Destiny (Constance Wu) starting out as a novice stripper at Moves, a major strip club that caters to a Wall Street clientele. While business is good, Destiny struggles to find her footing so to speak.

In a scene reminiscent of the starstruck Roxie Hart looking upon Velma Kelly in Chicago, Destiny finds her destiny when she sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a stripper who commands the stage and the men with equal power. Ramona, in her massive chinchilla coat, quickly takes Destiny under her wing, showing her the ropes and poles.

Soon they become fast friends among a group of strippers who share in the good economic times, where even Usher comes to enjoy the ladies. Then comes the Great Recession: business dries up, the girls struggle in the economic downturn and Destiny ends up leaving, losing contact with Ramona.

A few years later, Destiny's hand is forced back into Moves, but it's a changed world where no one is enthusiastic but it's the only way to care for her young daughter and aging grandmother. A chance encounter with Ramona inspires a new plan: robbing former and new clients by drugging them and racking up their credit cards. Roping in former Moves dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the plan works with everyone making money.

Image result for hustlers movieRamona, however, in the way of life, starts getting greedy. She opts to freelance versus using Moves as a base, then starts hiring unreliable girls to be the lures over Destiny's objections. Eventually the conspiracy unravels, dragging them all down. As recounted to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), we see their spectacular fall though in the end their sentences were relatively light.

As much as I tried I could not get past the many sordid elements in Hustlers, but that was not the primary reason I was not won over by it. Rather, it had to do with the idea that the women were in any way justified in their schemes. They were drugging men into handing over their money, men with diminished capacity and thus in no position to give consent to anything. Moreover, try as the film might, I could not find the various marks to be horrible people.

In fact, the mark who blew the whistle on the whole enterprise was presented as essentially a decent man, one who lost his job and was left with no way to both pay his mortgage or care for his autistic son as a result of the fatal females' machinations. How could I see Hustlers as a 'female empowerment' film when the females were using their bodies to commit crimes, and worse, crimes against some men who were not the sleazy figures they had dealt with in the past?

Another issue with Hustlers, one that I don't think is talked about more, is the tone. At times, Hustlers almost plays like a comedy, at least judging from the audience reaction that had them laughing even in the stripping numbers. Of particular note is when Mercedes calls Destiny in a panic when one of her marks appears to be dead.

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He had apparently jumped from a balcony while in a drugged stupor trying to land in a pool and missed. Leaving apart how he managed to survive at all we had the sight of three women dragging a naked man out of his house to a hospital, whereupon arriving the women start arguing as to whether to just dump him or try to take him inside. The scene ends with Destiny 'hysterical' pretending the naked man is her husband, Mercedes running into the night in her panties, and Annabelle throwing up.

Despite writer/director Lorena Scarafia's best efforts, the entire scene played like almost a Hangover-like spoof. Same for when they are cooking up the exact concoction that will serve as their version of 'roofies'.

In retrospect I think some of the performances were good. While I'm puzzled at any potential Oscar talk for J-Lo, her Ramona is a more complicated character than I first thought. She has a dark view of the world, one where her actions are if not 'moral' at least 'right'. In her way of thinking, the men who throw money at her stole that money from innocent people, so she has the right to steal it back. By the time we get to Destiny's conflicted view on the matter, Ramona has all but lost her patience with her BFF.

As a side note, if there were any actual Oscar consideration for Lopez, it should be for Lead versus Supporting given how large and dominant her role is. It's nice to see how at age 50 Lopez still has an incredible body, but is this really the role to put her among acting greats?

Wu also gives a strong performance as Destiny, who is not really cut out for either stripping or robbery. Wai Ching Ho as Destiny's grandmother had some good moments, particularly at the Christmas party Ramona organized for her girls, though as others near me observed, her obliviousness as to how Destiny made the bushels of money makes one wonder whether she was willfully naive or just didn't care.

I wasn't convinced with Stiles' reporter, who seemed almost forced into the story. There seemed a brittle, defensive manner to her performance which I would think was at odds with her character.

Hustlers is beautifully shot film, but I found it a bit predictable in where it went. I also found the subject rather distasteful and sleazy. It is like a high-end strip club: rather cold despite the efforts at class and sophistication.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Us (2019): A Review


Us is the follow-up to writer/director Jordan Peele's horror film-cum-social commentary Get Out. I was not particularly overwhelmed with Get Out, finding it a pastiche of other stories, along with a fixation on the logic of having candles in an operating room. I was less overwhelmed with Us, a film I can appreciate for its craftsmanship while still not finding it frightening.

In 1986, young Addie is left to wander a Santa Cruz carnival unsupervised. Wandering into a funhouse, she comes upon a sentient reflection of herself.

Cut to present-day, where Addie Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) is married to Russel (Winston Duke) and with two children: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Up in their summer cabin, Addie feels ill at ease, especially with Russel's suggestion to go up to nearby Santa Cruz for a day-trip to the beach.

Reluctantly, Addie goes, finding some comfort with their friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). However, once they are back in their cottage, Addie becomes alarmed to see four figures standing on their driveway. Russel is dismissive, until the family, indeed the whole world, is plunged into Night of the Living Doppelgangers.

Image result for us 2019To their collective horror, the Wilsons find that standing before them are figures who look exactly like them, but they are far from exact copies. Dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying scissors, they are here to enact world domination. Addie's doppelganger, speaking in a raspy, halting voice, introduces her family: Abraham, Umbrae and Pluto, twisted and demented forms of Abraham, Zora and Jason respectively.

They are here for what "Red" (Addie's evil twin) calls 'The Untethering'. This Night of the Ghouls is universal the Wilsons find out. Having managed to escape (Russel even managing to kill off Abraham), they find no refuge with Josh and Kitty, they having been killed by their own doppelgangers. The night continues with the Wilsons attempting to survive, but for that to happen, Addie must confront herself...and her other self, culminating in a 'twist' that for my mind is no twist at all.

Maybe the fault lies in me, but I have never been scared in a horror film. Never. I remember laughing at The Exorcist, so most if not all horror films have no actual effect on me, let alone making me jump. Granted, when Regan stabs herself with the cross, that was creepy, but I never had nightmares after seeing it. The 'added footage' and Regan scampering down the stairs in a twisted contortion to be honest had me howling with laughter, not terror.

Again, I can appreciate the craft in The Exorcist: the directing, acting, cinematography, and can see why so many lapsed Catholics started sleeping with rosaries after seeing the film, but maybe I'm just too detached as a viewer to feel the terrors. In that same vein, I acknowledge and recognize Peele's skill and understanding of the elements of a horror film: the creepy choir in The Omen manner, the juxtaposition of sunlight and terror, flickering lights and screeching banshees.

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Having said that, I didn't find Us frightening. As with The Exorcist, I found some of it actually funny. Nyong'o's "creepy" Red voice was technically a great piece of acting, and Nyong'o is a skilled actress to essentially play dual roles. She is wonderful in her performance: the haunted Addie, the demonic Red, making both feel authentic and natural. It's a very skilled performance and Nyong'o should be applauded for it.

Credit too should also be handed out to Duke, Joseph and Alex for playing dual roles of the Wilsons and their demented, twisted doubles. Peele has a strong visual style to him whether it is in danger in the bright light or the hidden underworld of the Tethered.

However, try as I might I found a lot of Us amusing versus terrifying. At one point I did ask if this was a comedy. When Kitty and Josh's doppelganger daughters start attacking Zora and Jason, I was laughing, the screeching adding more humor to my viewing. As I've said before, it may be due to my inability to find most horror films frightening while also acknowledging they are well-made to be frightening. However, Peele does invite us to laugh at times.

After Russel and Addie reference both Home Alone and Micro Machines, Zora and Jason ask them "What's Micro Machines?" and "What's Home Alone?" respectively, which I figure was meant to be funny. Russel's continuing inability to get the danger he was facing (as well as his constant hobbling), along with an argument about who would drive the getaway car should be funny, but at times I wasn't sure if there was a joke there.

The 'twist' is not a shocker, at least to me. While the film could have ended with Addie Triumphant, the 'twist' is not unexpected, so I was not surprised. I did wonder once the doppelgangers 'took over the world', what exactly would happen? It's not as if they had any ability to make this a better place, to use a little Michael Jackson reference.

Finally, if there is any allegory on Us, it mercifully flew over me.

That I did not find Us scary is not Us' fault. I rarely if ever find any horror film scary. The film is well-made with a strong Lupita Nyong'o performance (though I don't think she gives bad performances). The film worked well for those who did find it frightening, including my mother who thought based on the title that Us was a romance. She learned the hard way.

If there were to be a doppelganger of me running around, I wouldn't worry because he looks like this...

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...and he wouldn't hurt a fly (or at least I hope so).