Monday, January 23, 2023

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, January 16, 2023

House Party (2023): A Review



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Plane: A Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, January 14, 2023

M3GAN: A Review



I, perhaps unsurprisingly, have never seen a Child's Play/Chucky film. I have heard many compare M3GAN the character to Chucky. I cannot offer a view on that. I can say that Megan (I'll stop using the stylized title and go for its phonetic pronunciation from now on) knows exactly what it is, does not cheat its audience and moves quite well.

After her parents' death, young Cady (Violet McGraw) is placed in the care of her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma has absolutely no skill with children, so Cady continues to struggle with her grief. Fortunately, Gemma also works for Funki Toys, where she and her team Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez) and Tess (Jenn Van Epps) have created a new robot/doll they name M3GAN: Model 3 Generative Android. 

Gemma essentially uses M3GAN to care for Cady and well as to test its marketability. The doll is a wild success: Cady starts bonding with the doll and Gemma finds success in the eyes of her employer David (Ronny Chieng). However, it is not long before M3GAN starts becoming more and more menacing. Dogs, neighbors, bullying boys all should beware of M3GAN's total devotion to Cady. For her part, Cady appears to not see how M3GAN is dangerous. As the robot is about to launch, she decides she can do better than everyone else, leading to a murderous conclusion.

Megan leans in on the camp elements, but at least it didn't go all-in until the end (how else to justify Megan's bizarre dance before pursuing David). It is not as if Megan already did not have strange moments, such as her singing Titanium to Cady as a lullaby. By the time we have Megan menacingly playing Martika's Toy Soldiers on Gemma's piano, we left what little semblance of reality there ever was.

That, however, is not a criticism. Screenwriter Akila Cooper (who created the story with James Wan) and director Gerard Johnstone knew that the premise was already a bit familiar (machine going murderous). Therefore, we do not go deep into such things as Cady's grief or how Megan keeps going haywire. David's firm belief that people would pay $10,000 for one doll is almost amusing.

Megan embraces its premise by not trying to be smarter than the material or drowning the film in any kind of message. Instead, we get what we came for: a robot murdering people who get in her way. Unlike other films, Megan opts against being graphically violent. I know many people who wanted a lot of gore and blood. However, I think we got just enough to get things across. I actually think the lack of on-screen violence works better for the film, leaving things to our imagination.

I will say that there were elements that I was not comfortable with. Even if Megan going after bully Brandon (Jack Cassidy), both his language and ultimate end did bother me. I give Megan credit for not being as violent as it could have been. Still, seeing or imagining kids put in mortal danger does not sit well with me.

While Johnstone should be commended for keeping things flowing (Megan runs a brisk hour-forty-two minutes) he could not get good performances out of his cast. Williams looks bored, regardless of the situation. Granted, perhaps a little leeway could be given to when she struggles to interact with Cady, but her obliviousness to Megan's danger seems strange for someone meant to be intelligent. I doubt there was much emotion from Williams, as if she just wanted to move on.

I dislike bashing child actors because they are, after all, children. I think McGraw was serviceable but not strong. Most everyone else was acceptable. Chieng and Stephane Garneau-Monten as the bullying boss David and his seemingly meek assistant Kurt did stand out in a good way. Almost made me want to see a movie about them.

While Megan is not deep, it is entertaining. It gives audiences what they want, moves things along well and keeps the violence down. It also has a logical opening to the inevitable sequel (here's a hint: Kurt's secret files). Megan was a film that the audience that I saw it with enjoyed. I enjoyed it as well. It is not a great film, but I would put Megan above what is called "great art". 


Thursday, January 12, 2023

Babylon: A Review (Review #1685)


I remember reading with surprisingly great pleasure the Kenneth Anger Tinseltown exposé Hollywood Babylon. Learning that Marlene Dietrich was a "chubby chaser" who allegedly had an affair with Hattie McDaniel was not something I would ever think plausible, but there it is. Babylon, the newest film from cinema wunderkind Damien Chazelle, may have drawn inspiration from the dubious Anger tome. The film does put Hollywood Babylon to shame in terms of gaudy, tawdry elements. Babylon has more than earned its divisive reputation. Some worship it as a turning point in cinema if not human history. I fall squarely on the opposite side: chaotic, incoherent and insane, Babylon is a nightmare of arrogance. 

Covering the transition from silent to sound, Babylon goes through various lives that intersect with each other. Young Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is enamored of the glitz and glamour of early Tinseltown. Eager to get in on the action figuratively and literally is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a starlet who wants to be a star. Already a star is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who is a box office draw and a lush. 

Their lives first connect at a massive bacchanalia high on the Hollywood Hills: Jack as an invited guest, Nellie as a party crasher and Manny delivering an elephant who serves as a distraction to smuggle out a dead woman. Also at this party is chanteuse and intertitle writer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), black trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart). Over the course of Babylon, our multicultural Oscar-qualifying cast sees their characters rise and fall.

Manny rises from gopher to film executive. Nellie breaks out in film as "The Wild Child". Jack stays high upon the stars, but then The Jazz Singer comes along. The introduction of sound sees this land of decadence swept away.

Jack sees his career fade once sound comes in. Sidney gets to make films via "race" shorts where his trumpeting is a wild success. Unfortunately, he is also black, so there is only so much he can do film-wise. Nellie struggles with the demands of King Microphone and starts sinking into more drugs and gambling. Elinor attempts to make her more posh with disastrous results that literally lead to vomiting. Manny, forever in love with Nellie, attempts to help her, going so far as to deal with psychotic mob boss James McKay (Tobey Maguire), who revels in perversions that would make Caligula blush (to misquote Morrissey).  

Ultimately though, time and tide stop for no man. All our characters have tasted fame and found it a bitter and empty thing. Some characters die, some go into self-imposed exile. Manny survives, but now in 1952, a screening of Singin' in the Rain brings him back to those heady days, and the tears along with a love letter to cinema come.

Surprisingly, my Babylon overview is more compact than the film itself. I figure it is because unlike writer/director Damien Chazelle, I cannot afford a 35 minute sequence that plays like the junior version of Gore Vidal's Caligula. I sat in genuine puzzlement as to why we were flooded with this wild, chaotic party involving midgets on pogo sticks that look like dildos.

As if that was not already tawdry enough, this sight gag was, I believe, meant to distract the viewer from a conversation between Sidney and another member of his band. 

Babylon floods the viewer with such frenetic, over-the-top madness and perversion in the first half hour that is far too much. Yes, one can establish decadence and debauchery in less time. By the time we get to Lady Fai belting out My Girl's Pussy, I think there would be some viewers struggling with motion sickness (the film does enjoy flying all over the place). 

Over and over, for I would argue almost all of Babylon, Chazelle made the decision to have so much going on there was hardly any time to focus on a story, let alone the myriad of them. The opening orgy, the chaotic and rushed filming of Jack Conrad's newest epic, Nellie's rise and spectacular fall, McKay's tour of the literal underground of horror. 

A film that features among other things elephant dung flying at Manny, a fight between a woman and a rattlesnake and a man eating a rat hardly seems like a celebration of the magic of cinema. 

Babylon is the most chaotic, disorganized film I have seen. Story elements are brought in that are never mentioned again. Moments such as Nellie taking Manny to visit her institutionalized mother, how Lady Fai is both a star and mere intertitle writer, the descent into a literal hell all add up to nothing. The lengthy scene where Nellie is attempting her first sound film runs far too long, especially given that Babylon suggests the entire shoot took a mere eight takes. 

They must have been very long takes, because someone ends up dead. Again drawing from a similar scenario in Singin' in the Rain, the film goes through a nightmare of early sound film technical issues that with sharper editing could have been finished much sooner. Another scene where Nellie (whose career was built as the ultimate flapper) is trying to play things posh comes across as attempting to remake the Singin' in the Rain film within a film The Dueling Cavalier.

Thank Heaven that Chazelle opted not to make The Dueling Mammy

To be fair, having his black character be made to put on blackface does come close. Yes, there is an explanation for this very unnerving moment. Yes, Babylon wants to make a statement about how African-Americans were pushed into unnerving moments in film (and to an extent are still pushed into such moments). However, Holiday Inn also gives us an elaborate, almost apologetic rationale for its use of blackface. It is curious, at least to me, that the same people who condemn Holiday Inn for its use of blackface appear to see Babylon doing the same as a major cinematic turning point. Yet, I digress.

Babylon is all over the place script-wise. You could make three or four films from its cavalcade of stories that come hither and yon. I'm not sure that Jack and Nellie had any interactions after the Caligula-like orgy. As such, when either is off the screen, one soon forgets they were in the film. Manny has so few scenes with Nellie, one is left wondering why he pines so desperately for her. 

The same fate of forgetting about people happens to Lady Fay and George Munn (Lucas Haas). He's supposed to be Jack Conrad's BFF, but his sole purpose is to show how he is forever unlucky with women. Informed much later on that he committed suicide, Jack mourns, but the question is "why"? They do not appear that often together, and Chazelle never directs Pitt or Haas to show that they even know each other casually, let alone lifelong friends. 

The entire segment with Maguire where he takes Manny to what he calls "the asshole of L.A." is sickening and pointless. Manny's end was reminiscent of, of all things, Pulp Fiction. Albeit unintentionally, Nellie vomiting all over William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper) brought back bad Triangle of Sadness memories. 

I figure Chazelle was attempting to make a grand statement about how even the most debased freak shows can be entertainment, but Bill Sampson's speech about "the theater" from All About Eve did a better job of that. Again, Chazelle knows much of film history but that does not help Babylon from any standpoint.

Even the few positives I could find, like Justin Hurwitz's score, were tinged with badness. While Voodoo Mama is a great earworm, copying Ravel's Bolero does not help me think Babylon is this masterpiece so many of my brethren insist. 

A meandering plot that has a literal elephant in the room, unmemorable to memorably bad performances and a nightmarish length damn Babylon. Some insist Babylon is a love letter to cinema. It is, in reality, a poison pen to film.


Saturday, January 7, 2023

I Wanna Dance with Somebody: A Review



*Author's Note: The title was changed from I Wanna Dance with Somebody to Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. In my view, it is a nonsensical decision and I have decided to keep the original title. I will, however, submit it under its official title.

After one is dead, people tend to remember the positives of and about the deceased. Such is the case with I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the WHITNEY! biopic. While there are some good things, even entertaining, within the film, I Wanna Dance with Somebody fails to show us anything about WHITNEY! herself.

Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) has an almost divine singing voice. It shouldn't be surprising given that her mother is gospel singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), and that Dionne Warwick is Whitney's first cousin. Cissy is loving but firm, forever training and pushing Whitney to develop her voice. Whitney, however, wants to do her own thing.

Her own thing includes Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who goes from best friend to friend with benefits to unofficial girlfriend to personal assistant. None of this sits well with Cissy or John Houston (Clarke Peters), Whitney's father. Nevertheless, Whitney is heard by Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), head of Columbia Records. He is instantly won over by Whitney's voice and looks, and soon transforms her into a star.

We see her record some of her big hits, the music videos for them, concert performances including her legendary rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner and her feature film debut in The Bodyguard. We also see her marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), her role as a mother to Bobbi Christina, and hints of her drug use. Ultimately, despite going into rehab, Whitney Houston cannot break her drug habit, leading to her death.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody was written by Anthony McCarten. He is an old hand with musical biopics, having written Bohemian Rhapsody. This is important, because all the criticism the Freddy Mercury biopic received easily apply to the WHITNEY! biopic.

Use of one of the performer's best-known songs for the title? Check.

Excellent recreations of their musical performances? Check.

Subtle suggestions of the biopic subject's sexual orientation? Check.

Deliberately downplaying the tawdrier elements of the biopic subject's life to where the thing that killed them is concealed? Check.

Just as Bohemian Rhapsody was, as I called it, a warts-and-all biopic of Queen and Freddy Mercury minus most of the warts, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a warts-and-all biopic of WHITNEY! minus most of the warts. Nowhere in I Wanna Dance with Somebody is there the demanding diva, the crazed drug-out harpy, the self-destructive woman. Houston was famous (or perhaps infamous) for her increasingly eccentric public behavior, her crazed devotion to her husband and downright loony antics. 

The woman who made a public spectacle of herself by screaming KISS MY ASS! directly into the camera for the "reality show" Being Bobby Brown does not appear in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The woman who literally leaped onto her husband when he was released from jail in an act of misguided devotion does not appear in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The frighteningly thin woman performing at the Michael Jackson tribute concert does not appear in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The woman who dismissed allegations of crack use by insisting that she "make(s) too much money to ever smoke crack" and that "crack is whack" does not appear in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The singing diva who was so out-of-it and with a wrecked voice that people walked out of her concerts does not appear in I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Instead, all we kept getting were the positive moments. The lengths I Wanna Dance with Somebody goes through to downplay Houston's notorious drug use is downright comical. If one judges by the film, the most Houston ever did in terms of drugs is light marijuana use. We see her buying what I presume are harder drugs hidden within a pen (her supplier easily identifiable because he was the only white man "asking for her autograph"). However, if memory serves correct, we never saw her actually use any drugs. I'm not sure we even saw her drink alcohol. 

There is not a hint of a suggestion that Houston was entitled, arrogant and completely out of control. Anyone unaware of WHITNEY!'s reputation would think she was almost reluctant to use drugs. When she was sent to a drug rehabilitation center, I actually asked my friend why she would go given we didn't see her use anything of note.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody is an authorized biopic (both Clive Davis and Houston's sister-in-law Patricia Houston served as producers). However, in attempting to downplay if not erase the less-than-glamourous elements of WHITNEY!'s life, I Wanna Dance with Somebody only ends up coming across as shamefully deceptive. The most scandalous element allowed is the less-than-subtle implication that WHITNEY! and Robyn were lovers. This is done by having them kiss repeatedly. They also have a domestic fight when she tells Robyn that she has fallen in love with a man and reverts back to her Baptist roots.

It is curious that I Wanna Dance with Somebody struggles to so much as suggest WHITNEY! had a drug problem but has no problem outing Houston as bisexual or lesbian. It hides what is public knowledge and reveals what is probably not. It just seems such a bizarre decision. 

It is not as if I Wanna Dance with Somebody is not trying to be good. Kasi Lemmons is a good director, and she manages to recreate many of WHITNEY!'s best moments. Of particular note is the reenactment of her It's Not Right but It's Okay music video. The sets, visuals and Ackie's performance all combine to make it very close to the original. Lemmons also got some good performances, particularly from Ackie as Houston, at least as far as the script lets both of them work. 

Peters and Tunie were also strong as John and Cissy Houston, and Tucci got Davis' voice and mannerisms down. All the actors did what they could with the material they got and bless them for doing all they could to make it work. Sadly, Sanders' Bobby Brown was lost in the shuffle, where both actor and character were barely in the film. 

All that work and effort to recreate WHITNEY!'s greatest moments, however, come across as shallow. We got to see WHITNEY! at her best. We just never got to see Whitney Houston, the woman behind The Voice.

Playing more like a "Greatest Hits" long-form music video that whitewashes the less savory aspects of WHITNEY!'s life, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is great for the music but gives us nothing about the diva. Just as Reelz Channel's The Great Pretender was a better Freddy Mercury biopic than Bohemian Rhapsody, their Whitney & Bobby: Addicted to Love was a better and more insightful one for WHITNEY! Come for the music, but leave learning nothing about this talented but troubled, self-destructive woman.



Friday, January 6, 2023

Avatar: The Way of Water. A Review



Thirteen years after Avatar took the world by storm, we get another journey to the magical world of Pandora. Avatar: The Way of Water is very pretty, but it has nothing there apart from its prettiness. 

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his Na'vi wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have three children (two boys and a girl), as well as an adopted daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver again). Who exactly Kiri's father is or how she came to be conceived we know not.

Humans or "Sky People" are still trying to take over Pandora, which forces the Sully family to take refuge with the Metkayina, seafaring Na'vi who are a lighter shade of blue. The Metkayina are not thrilled to have the Sullys with them, but nevertheless give them asylum.

The Sky People are headed by the avatar of Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is technically dead but now not only is still alive but has a son, Spider (Jack Champion), who has lived with the Na'vi due to him being too young to join the other Sky People forced off the planet. It becomes a battle between Jake and Quaritch, with the various beings being taken hostage and fighting to save or destroy Pandora. It is a battle where not everyone will survive.

Avatar: The Way of Water is unashamed of running almost three hours and fifteen minutes as it is convinced it is this sweeping epic, rich and deep. Out of all those, I would say it is rich visually. The Way of Water is a very pretty film, with some pleasant imagery that should keep you entertained. 

Pretty pictures, however, do not a good film make, and The Way of Water suffers from the same issues plaguing the previous jaunt around the fields of Pandora. I was not surprised to see three credited screenwriters (Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and director James Cameron). I was, however, astonished to see that there are five "story by" credits (the screenwriters plus Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno). A lot of The Way of Water feels so padded, a case of someone loving something too much.

The entire opening could have been cut or trimmed, summed up in less than fifteen minutes versus what I think was close to an hour. There was no need for the Sullys to take that long to get to the Water Na'vi. The same goes for the ending, which to my mind brought back memories of Titanic. THat Tuk got captured twice seems close to parody. Other elements, such as who Kiri's father and Spider's mother are, I suppose, will be touched on in future Avatar films. Yet, you are left wondering things like "who and when could either have been conceived?"

There are two other elements in The Way of Water that left me less than impressed. First is how forgettable the characters were. Once Jake Sully or Colonel Quaritch disappeared, I completely forgot they were in the film. It might have been better to have let both Jake and Quaritch die altogether. It would have allowed for the next generation to take center stage. Instead, the film bounces between the old and new group. The end result is that you do forget whom is who once they are off screen.

The second is in the strange shift between elevated and common speaking. We shift from grand statements such as "The Sea is around you and in you. The Sea is your home before you were born and after you are gone" to "Don't be a wuss, bro" and "It's called a punch, bitch!". You go from eloquent (if pompous) words about The Sea to hearing things that stereotypical teenagers would say. 

The best example I can think of to use for this criticism is in how one character says "Father" when referring to her male parent, while the other says "Dad". That, I figure, sounds like a strange criticism. For me though, the tonal shifts between eloquent and idiotic speaking were maddening.

I do not think people see an Avatar film for great performances. Sam Worthington apparently has not learned how to act in the thirteen years between Avatar and The Way of Water. To be fair, I did not recognize Kate Winslet as Ronal, the Water Na'vi Warrior Queen. Whether that is a good or bad thing, I cannot say. As for the younger cast, to be honest I could not tell who played what role. I don't even think I could recall almost any of their names. They were all pretty much interchangeable and indistinguishable. 

Curiously, even passionate supporters of The Way of Water could not tell you the names of the Sully Brothers. Like me, they know them only as "the older one" and "the younger one". 

Avatar: The Way of Water is a very pretty looking film. I concede that. I, however, cannot go by "pretty" alone. If you like looking at pretty pictures, then I might recommend watching Avatar: The Way of Water in the largest screen possible. I would also recommend not bothering to think about things like "plot", "performances" or maybe even "logic". Just drown in the pretty world, and you will leave satisfied. 


Monday, January 2, 2023

Still Walking: A Review (Review #1682)



Sometimes the simplest of films, of stories, are the richest. Still Walking is simultaneously uniquely Japanese and universal, touching on elements of grief, regret and potentially hope.

Doctor Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada) and his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) are having their children and their own families over for the weekend. Their daughter Chinami (You) and younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) are there, but while Chinami, her husband and kids seem fine, Ryota is not. He is ill at ease there, especially with his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), a widow with a young son.

The reason for them reuniting now is to commemorate the death of Junpei, the older and favored son. Junpei was going to follow in Kyohei's steps to be a doctor, and Ryota's work as an art restorer is not what the father dreams of. As the weekend goes on, we see that the elder Yokoyamas, outwardly pleasant and respectful, still struggle, as does their son. Weekend over, with vague promises of seeing each other more, we learn that time stops for no one.

Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda shapes this story not with big moments, but with small ones. The closest we have to a big moment is when Kyohei attempts to talk his step-grandson Atsushi (Shohei Takana) into the positives of medicine when Ryota walks in. In their tones, we clearly hear that neither father nor son is pleased with the other. Perhaps other productions would have made this a more bombastic, rage filled section.

Instead, Still Walking reveals only their disappointment more than their anger. Almost all of them carry this sense of regret mixed with the grief for Junpei, all of that blending together to impact their current lives. For his parents, Junpei is still the mythical golden child. For his siblings, he is a source of pride and frustration. 

Again, in other productions perhaps we would have made the parents more villainous. There are touches of that when they invite the man whose life Junpei saved at the cost of his own. He is a wastrel to them, squandering his life doing nothing. However, when Toshiko becomes convinced that a butterfly that has come into the house and sits on Junpei's picture is Junpei coming back, it is hard to not sympathize with the parents' own grief and disappointment.

Each performance is excellent, primarily because they are all so quiet. Kiki and Harada excel as the parents, direct and perhaps gruff but also still struggling. As Toshiko recalls their love song, Blue Light Yokohama, we hear in her voice a sense of strained love as Kyohei appears dismissive of the memory. Could those be masks to hide their mix of love and private resentments? 

Abe also does very well as Ryota, who carries his resentment over Junpei's shadow mixed with his genuine fears over his marriage and career. Koreeda wisely does not have him or anyone else explode. Again, he gets the actors to convey so much with a quiet method, simple, straightforward. 

I think this simplicity and straightforwardness might make Still Walking feel a bit slow, perhaps too quiet for some. Even if it is under two hours, it can feel longer. Nevertheless, one sees in Still Walking a sense that this story is one we can all relate to. The loss of others, the sense of failure or not measuring up, the lost opportunities that we can't get back. These are universal themes.

"We live, with regret, but we live," Ryota recalls when he pays respects to his dead with his new family. For those of us among the living, we remain Still Walking