Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Magic Mike's Last Dance: A Review (Review #1696)



What could be more romantic than having a 42-year-old man dry hump a 56-year-old woman? Magic Mike's Last Dance is a sheer embarrassment for all concerned, where not even what semi-nudity we got was worth suffering through this dull, idiotic venture.

Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) has fallen on hard times, his furniture business failing as a result of the pandemic. Now bartending for fancy parties, he is spotted by Maxandra "Max" Mendoza Rattigan (Salma Hayek Pinault). One erotic lap dance later, Max whisks Mike to London to direct her new vision for Isabel Ascending, a Regency play at the family-owned Rattigan Theater that she feels needs updating.

Max and Mike come up with the idea to rebrand it as a female-empowerment play with male strippers living in her fantasy. While enduring the quips of Max's acerbic chauffer/valet Victor (Ayub Khan Din) and the woke sarcasm of her daughter Zadie (Jamalia George), our himbo and his girl boss struggle to create Isabel Descending as well as their attraction to each other.

I know I am not the target audience for the Magic Mike franchise and have never seen either Magic Mike or Magic Mike XXL. I was dragged kicking and screaming to Magic Mike's Last Dance (I was assigned the film for review), so I cannot offer a viewpoint of whether Magic Mike's Last Dance develops the character as much as his body. I can judge only by what was presented. What was presented was a ludicrous plot, simply terrible performances and an erotic-free film.

Right from the start, Magic Mike's Last Dance insults the viewers' intelligence. We are asked to believe that Maxandra would pay $6,000 for a lap dance from a total stranger. This is already idiotic, but Mike had asked for $60,000 for this erotic exercise. Once we get to the actual dance, the choreography is so extravagant that one almost expects Alvin Ailey or Twyla Tharp to take a bow. From that point, it all sinks into idiocy.

Sure, Mike has nothing else to do, so he'll gladly fly off to London. He'll agree to direct a one-night-only stage show that introduces SEX and strippers to a Jane Austen/Oscar Wilde mashup. 

There is no drama. There is no comedy. Worse, there are no performances.

With his beady eyes and perpetually confused expression, Channing Tatum can barely get his lines of dialogue out. I suppose I can acknowledge that he moves well, though I never found him erotic or physcially appealing. He says his lines with no conviction, and whether the scene is comic, dramatic or romantic, Tatum speaks them in exactly the same way.

Madame Pinault can act, but this is the worst performance Salma Hayek has ever given. She looks genuinely confused, forcing Reid Carolin's dialogue out of her mouth but somehow refusing to suggest these are thoughts or ideas a living person would utter. For some reason, I found Madame Pinault's accent to be the strongest and most indecipherable in Magic Mike's Last Dance. I genuinely did not know at one point whether she said that something would fulfill audiences' "wildest" or "wettest" dreams. I hope it was the latter, so that it could have a more outlandish conclusion. 

Jemila George's Zadie was an insufferable know-it-all, talking about "systemic economic inequality" and smugly telling Mike that she was "writing a novel". Why Carolin or director Stephen Soderbergh opted to have her serve as narrator is inexplicable. 

The only genuine performance was Ayub Khan Din as Victor. In his snarky manner and dismissive nature, Victor was able to stay above the fray. I kept fantasizing about a Victor-centered film, where this sensible man has to endure three idiots who do idiotic things.

It is curious that, from what I understand, Magic Mike wanted to humanize these hot bodies who serve as erotic vehicles for women, but Magic Mike's Last Dance ended up dehumanizing the "trained dancers". I do not think the various hunks got names, or at least names that were used. I think only one had anything close to a backstory: an especially skilled dancer who flew in from Italy. Apart from that, this collection of himbos had no purpose other than to take their shirts off and show their physiques. 

Perhaps this is in keeping with the faux-feminist themes Magic Mike's Last Dance was aiming for. Early on, Mike tells Max, "You say jump, I say 'Which bed?'". At another point, our Isabel/MC said that one of her fantasies was "a sexy CEO who pays his women more than his men". I do not know if strippers are one of the few industries where women are paid more than men (modeling is). The beauty standard, it appears, is not about equity.

Magic Mike's Last Dance has perhaps one good moment: a scene where the men do a choreographed dance on a bus to attempt and win over a fussy bureaucrat (which unsurprisingly succeeds). Even that though is couched in idiocy. Bad acting, a terrible story, surprisingly dull and tame dance routines.

Jerry Herman once wrote a spoof song about strippers called Take It All Off, where the joke is that the dancer was so unappealing that the audience started screaming "PUT IT BACK ON!". I got the same feeling when watching Magic Mike's Last Dance, the worst film I have seen this year. 


Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Big Scary "S" Word: A Review (Review #1695)



It is a truth universally acknowledged that despite constant efforts, real socialism has never been tried. The Big Scary "S" Word does its best to convince the viewer that socialism (or Socialism) is not only the best thing in the world but as American as apple pie. It does not but bless its heart for trying.

Focusing on three figures, The Big Scary "S" Word makes its case on how socialism has both American roots and is still a viable, if not necessary, element in American life. Teacher Stephanie Price, overwhelmed by having to pay for her own supplies and lack of pay, joins the Oklahoma striking teachers. Delegate Lee J. Carter is proudly the only openly socialist member of the Virginia General Assembly. DiCarlo Johnson is one of many owners/workers of the Evergreen Cooperatives, a Cleveland laundry which is both operated and owned by the workers.

We also hear from a bevy of college professors, all of whom inform the viewer of such things as how the Republican Party started out as a socialist party, that five men own more wealth than 3 and a half billion people combined, how the Bank of North Dakota is a socialist success story and how "The biggest cost now that we confront with capitalism is, it might actually destroy the possibility of human life". 

As the year goes on, Ms. Price is elected Vice President of her union and Delegate Carter is reelected to the General Assembly.

The Big Scary "S" Word is quite interesting insofar as gives us a mix of original and archival footage. While director Yael Bridge touts interviews with such socialist figures as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, they themselves were not specifically interviewed for the film. Like any person in love with the subject, The Big Scary "S" Word will not be critical of the subject. Instead, it will go out of its way to say how wonderful it all is.

Perhaps I should be open on how I am not a socialist or Socialist, nor sympathetic to this theology. I am among the last generation that remembers the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which Delegate Carter does not. "I was born in '87. I don't remember the Berlin Wall falling," he states. As such, the former Marine does not see socialism as a threat but as a promise of a better world.

This one line, curiously, reveals more about the state of the younger generation and its positive views on socialism than anything in The Big Scary "S" Word. Those born post-Cold War may not have experienced the hysteria of a potential Soviet takeover of the U.S. (such as the miniseries Amerika). However, they also cannot remember the bread lines, poor governance and the massive wealth and prosperity gap between the members of the ruling elite and the masses. 

The absence of memory and personal experience colors the views of both the filmmaker and the subjects. For people like Carter and Price, socialism equals equality financial and political. Socialism will give people better healthcare, better education and pay. The potential that it could expand inequality is simply not possible.

The various college professors will only support the socialist viewpoints. The Big Scary "S" Word, like all good (or bad) advocacy films that masquerade as documentaries, will not find anyone who disagrees. An exploration of socialism's faults and failings will not be explored here. 

I am surprised that The Big Scary "S" Word opted not to focus on more interesting topics. I would have loved to see and hear more about the Evergreen Cooperatives from the owner/workers. What do they think socialism is? Do they think their small-level socialism (something similar to a monastery) would work on a larger scale? Why has it not expanded to other communities? We also hear about the Bank of North Dakota, a state one would consider highly conservative (it has not cast an electoral vote for a Democrat since 1964). However, we do not hear how this socialist success story has melded with the overall conservative nature of the Roughrider State. 

We do see how some socialists can be a bit prickly. At one point, a fellow delegate is briefly shown to display a hammer & sickle behind Delegate Carter while the latter speaks. When he learns about it, Carter is highly upset to enraged, angrily stating how that is now part of the public record. Truth be told, I found it quite amusing. Not as amusing as referring to Karl Marx as a mere "philosopher", but there it is.

The Big Scary "S" Word will not convert anyone one way or the other. For those who embrace socialism, the film will reenforce their views. For those who do not, it will not convince them to take up the cause. Still, I think it is good to at least learn what others believe, right or wrong. The Big Scary "S" Word is brief, sincere but not convincing. 


Saturday, February 11, 2023

Armageddon Time: A Review



I am far too young to remember the 1980s, a time that so many either love or hate, depending on worldview. Armageddon Time is squarely in the latter, but that alone should not make it bad. A serious of poor decisions do all that.

In 1980 New York, the Jewish Graff family is struggling to balance life with school and work. The youngest son, Paul (Banks Repeta) goes to public school while his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) goes to private school. Paul has befriended Jonathan (Jaylin Webb), a black boy who inspires ire from their teacher.

Paul dreams of being an artist, an aspiration encouraged by his grandfather Aaron Rabinowicz (Anthony Hopkins). Paul, however, cannot stay away from both Jonathan and the trouble he brings. Leaving a field trip to the Guggenheim and smoking marijuana are a couple of highlights. Frustrated with Paul's actions, his parents Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway) opt to send him to Forest Manor Preparatory School. 

Paul finds nothing good there, even with the financial backing of Fred Trump. He also encounters openly racist students exercising their white privilege. Jonathan for his part has been hiding out at the Graff's storage shed. Paul and Jonathan dream of going to Florida, and the best way to finance it is to steal a computer. That theft will have repercussions for all concerned, but with no guidance available from Grandpa Aaron, Paul must not just face life among racists, but under the evil that is Ronald Reagan.

Armageddon Time comes from how the Graffs believed Reagan's election would lead to nuclear war. Do people look upon the hysteria Reagan's win caused with a hearty laugh or with a wince of regret? Obviously, there was no nuclear war, so Armageddon did not come.

What pushes Armageddon Time down is how despite the film's best efforts, the Paul/Jonathan friendship was rather toxic. The expression "bad company corrupts good character" came to mind repeatedly. Jonathan is a pretty awful person: verbally abusive towards the teacher, introducing Paul to pot, talking him into ditching a field trip. It is highly unlikely that Paul would have committed breaking and entering if not for his loyalty to Jonathan. Armageddon Time may want to push Jonathan and Paul as these close friends, but I'm with Irving and Esther on this: Jonathan was a corrupting force. 

As so much of Armageddon Time is built around Jonathan and Paul, we end up with two unlikeable characters doing mostly awful things. It does not help that the performances were a bit forced. I can only hope that Repeta and Webb were weak due to James Gray's writing and directing. There was a certain unbelievability to them, a "we are acting" mode in how they came across.

To be fair, I think Gray's script did not help. Sometimes Armageddon Time went in strange directions, such as when Paul fantasizes about being seen as a great artist with his own work at the Guggenheim. This flight of fancy seems wildly at odds with what is meant to be a serious drama. 

I think throwing in Trump was, if not a mistake, at least a bit curious. It might be historically accurate, but it still comes across as trying to drag present-day anger into a film set long before Fred Trump's son reached the Presidency.

The only real bright shining spot was Hopkins in his small role of Grandpapa Aaron. In his scenes he connected the past antisemitism he faced and fled from to the present-day racism and intolerance Jonathan faced when he comes to visit Paul at Forest Manor. 

Armageddon Time does not make one nostalgic for the 1980s. However, it also does not have much to offer the viewer. Feeling longer than its almost two-hour run time, people will soon tire waiting for Armageddon Time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

War on the Diamond: A Review



There are many heralded sports rivalries: Cowboys vs. Redskins (Commanders), Yankees vs. Red Sox, Dodgers vs. Padres. However, only one came to exist due to a literal death. War on the Diamond covers a lesser-known sports rivalry whose genesis was a tragedy. Made with love and sincerity, War on the Diamond is sadly jumbled in its execution.

Ostensibly, War on the Diamond chronicles the only death resulting from playing baseball. That was on August 16, 1920 at the Polo Grounds. The then-Cleveland Indians were playing against the New York Yankees. At bat was Ray Chapman, recently married and rumored to be in his final year of professional baseball. On the mound, Carl Mays, a surly pitcher not known for kindness or sentimentality.

At the time, pitchers would use the same baseball throughout the game. As a result, the ball would get dirtier and harder to see. Mays' pitch struck Chapman on the head so hard that Mays initially mistook the sound of Chapman's head-bashing for a hit. Chapman died the next day from his head injury.

Ever since then, War on the Diamond suggests, the Indians (now Guardians) and the Yankees have been bitter rivals. That rivalry grows stronger when Cleveland native George Steinbrenner buys the New York Yankees. The blend of Cleveland bravado and New York attitude drives Indians/Guardians fans up the wall.

War on the Diamond may use the tagline, "The Deadly Pitch That Launched a Rivalry", but oddly, it does not focus on said pitch. Instead, War on the Diamond wanders hither and yon from that story to the Steinbrenner story and back again for no discernable reason. Director Andrew Billman and the documentary's producers adapted the nonfiction book The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell for their story.

The question remains, "What story were they interested in?". War on the Diamond oddly suggests that this purported Yankees/Guardians rivalry was more due to Steinbrenner than it was to Mays. It does not help that for Yankees fans, Cleveland is at most an afterthought. The Red Sox, that is a rivalry. The Indians/Guardians? Nothing.

At least twice I noted during the 90 minute running time how odd it was that War on the Diamond shifted from recent days to 1920. How Chapman's tragedy connects to that of Herb Score, an Indians pitcher bound for greatness until, strangely enough, another Yankee (Gil McDougald) hit him in the head the film does not say.

The Chapman and Score stories might connect (though a bit of a stretch), but how to make sense of the inclusion of what was dubbed "the Midges Game" in a documentary film supposedly about an event from 1920? Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series was 1-0 for the Yankees at the 8th inning when a sudden infestation of midges overwhelmed the New York players. The Indians/Guardians ended up winning, in part due to the distraction and chaos the midges played on their supposed rivals.

War on the Diamond cannot make the claim that the Midges Game somehow connects to the Chapman tragedy as part of a long-running rivalry. It can't even prove there is a rivalry. 

It is not as though there are not interesting elements in War of the Diamond. Seeing an archival interview from Ray Chapman's elderly sister Margaret Chapman Joy is a treat, giving us her unique firsthand knowledge of both her brother and the tragedies that befell him and his wife Kathleen. A brief snippet of an interview with Carl Mays too is fascinating, as is a tidbit that Mays became so despised that even Ty Cobb hated him, calling him a killer.

The film also has an interesting bookend story. War on the Diamond opens and closes with the story of the Ray Chapman Memorial Plaque, which had mysteriously been lost when the team moved stadiums only to emerge decades later in a storage room. The plaque was restored and given a place of honor at Progressive Field.

Apart from those points, War on the Diamond sadly flounders, more so with a toxic mix of reenactments, incessant music and rather dull narration. It reminded me of a locally produced series of El Paso-centered documentaries. The quality is not top-notch but serviceable for viewing. Likewise, War on the Diamond might be interesting for baseball fans, specifically from Cleveland. Outside of them, it might be too hodgepodge and frankly, a bit boring, for others. 

The Ray Chapman story should be remembered. War on the Diamond is a decent primer, but the limitations show. 


Sunday, February 5, 2023

Strange World: A Review



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, February 4, 2023

Knock at the Cabin: A Review



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 3, 2023

80 For Brady: A Review (Review #1690)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Harry & Meghan: The Netflix Docuseries



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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