Friday, March 31, 2023

Angels in the Outfield (1951): A Review (Review #1703)



Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews' Annual Opening Day Film, where I review a baseball-related film to coincide with the AAA Minor League Opening Day for the El Paso Chihuahuas. This year, I look at the original version of a well-loved film.

I imagine that if you mentioned the film Angels in the Outfield, most would think of the 1994 film. Few people are aware that the 1994 film is actually a remake. The original version of Angels in the Outfield is a sweet comedy anchored by strong performances, though a subplot does stretch credulity.

Cantankerous, foul-mouthed Pittsburgh Pirates manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) is tearing into everyone that comes in contact with him. It's no surprise: the Pirates are falling behind for the pennant race. Helpful hints newspaper columnist Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) is assigned to cover the Pirates and McGovern to get a woman's perspective. Said perspective is a sharply negative one, and she makes it perfectly clear in the newspaper.

One night, while searching for his lucky charm, he hears the voice of an angel who tells him someone has been praying for him and the Pirates. The archangel Michael has taken a personal interest in this case, and this guardian angel is unhappy about his assignment. He cuts a deal with Guffy: if he cuts out the swearing and bullying, the angel will get the Heavenly Choir Nine (angels who may have been former baseball players themselves when alive) to help the Pirates win.

With a lot of struggles, Guffy keeps his word. To his surprise, the Pirates soon start advancing. Unfortunately for him, a little orphan girl named Bridget (Donna Corcoran) can clearly see the Heavenly Choir Nine and tells everyone she sees. Sister Edwina (Spring Byington), the Mother Superior of her orphanage, does not believe Bridget but does not dismiss her ideas either. Guffy soon takes a liking to both Bridget and Jennifer. However, Guffy is pursued by Fred Bayles (Keenan Wynn), a reporter with a long rivalry with Guffy. Will Guffy be able to keep his pledge to the angel as the pennant race heats up? Will this cranky man find true joy not in victory but in life?

Angels in the Outfield is cleverly ambiguous about the angels themselves. We get hints that they are former players, but it is never flat-out stated that they are. The unseen angel at one point tells Guffy that there are many ballplayers in Heaven, but few managers (a nice witty line from screenwriters Dorothy Kingsley and George Wells). We do not see the team make their miracle plays. At the end, as Guffy looks onto the field with Jennifer and Bridget with them, he speaks out a list of baseball greats that were all dead by the time Angels in the Outfield premiered.

Walter Johnson. Christy Mathewson. John McGraw. Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth. Eddie Collins (who had died a few months prior). Why Guffy spoke these particular names is open to interpretation. He could have merely been reciting a list of baseball giants. He could also have finally seen the players that only Bridget could see prior to the end of the film (and whom more than likely she would not have recognized). Mathewson was known as "the Christian Gentleman", so him being an angel is highly likely. Ruth would not be seen as an angel, but given he was among the greats, who would exclude him from a heavenly lineup?

Angels in the Outfield also has cameos from Joe DiMaggio, Pirates part-owner Bing Crosby and even Ty Cobb, all of whom add nice quips about whether angels were helping the Pirates. 

As Angels in the Outfield is a comedy, we do not take things seriously. It does not take away from the performances, which are universally delightful. Douglas is excellent as Guffy, this cranky, boorish man who slowly evolves into a genuinely caring individual. His vulgar language is covered up with gibberish, in keeping with the limitations of the time. You do get hints that Guffy is not all bad (he keeps a parrot that he's fond of). The film lets the evolution of the character grow. Of particular note is when in his halting manner, Guffy inquires about Bridget.

At first he wants to know what Bridget knows, but as the scene goes on, we see Guffy's softening. By the end of the scene, we see that Guffy's heart has been genuinely moved, more so when he sees that Bridget is the one who has been praying for him and the Pirates. Attempting to hide his face from the Mother Superior when asking about Bridget's future, we see thanks to Douglas' performance that Guffy is a genuinely changed man.

Guffy is not completely reformed: he still uses curious phrases such as when he tells reporters, "Sure, you want to find out if I'm wacky". It keeps to his character, and by the end of the film we genuinely like this gruff but loveable man. 

Leigh is charming as Jennifer, able to stand up to Guffy but also finding him a curious being. The suggestion of romance between them is laughable, but they played it well. They never flat-out stated they were in love, but the characters did not reject the notion that perhaps in the future they could be romantically involved.

Corcoran is delightful and endearing as Bridget. The film does have a bit of Miracle on 34th Street to it: the little girl who believes the supernatural, with the adults not keen on the idea yet befuddled when it is the only logical explanation. 

Angels in the Outfield wants nothing more than to entertain and charm. It succeeds very well, and while the remake may have eclipsed the original, the first version is worth giving it a look-over. 


2022 Opening Day Film: Bull Durham

2021 Opening Day Film: Alibi Ike

2020 Opening Day Film: Mr. 3000

2019 Opening Day Film: Ladies' Day

2018 Opening Day Film: Fear Strikes Out

2017 Opening Day Film: Eight Men Out

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Champions: A Review


Champions is a crowd-pleaser based on the reaction I witnessed at the screening I attended. Whether you see it as the decline of discernment or a break from a slate of poor films is up to you. I found it tolerable but barely that.

G-League assistant basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is depressed and miserable. This is compounded by his desire to go to the NBA itself, but a mix of roughing the Iowa Stallions coach Phil (Ernie Hudson) and a drunk driving crash with a police vehicle make any such idea hard. Given the choice between 18 months in jail or 90 days community service, Marcus still comes close to bungling things.

The community service is to coach The Friends, a small basketball team at a Des Moines community center. There is something of a hitch: the team is made up of people with special needs. He is dismayed by some of their behavior and at times refusal to follow instructions. However, the various members soon start affecting Marcus' worldview.

One of them, Johnny (Kevin Inanucci) has grown fond of Marcus. He, however, is unaware that Marcus had a one-night stand with Johnny's sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson). Alex, a cantankerous Shakespearean actress, is always ready for quips at Marcus' expense, with Johnny being the only person who gets a softer side of her acerbic personality. As the Friends start jelling and advancing, it is not long before they qualify for the Special Olympics in Winnipeg. Will Marcus find his way to the NBA? Will his romance with Alex move forward? Will the Friends take down the Beasts?

Perhaps the selling point in Champions is that it is centered around those with special needs, with them acting in the film. It is to the film's credit not used in a cheap ploy. Granted, some sections, such as Johnny's fear of water to where he refuses to shower and has to be tricked into it, might come across as using disability for laughs. However, Champions does allow some of the characters a chance to be more than props.

At the top of the list is Madison Tevlin as Cosentino, the brash, bossy and sassy sole female basketball player. She does more than stand up to Marcus. She tells him off and lets him know who is the boss. At a major point in the season, she orders Marcus and Sonny (Matt Cook), the assistant coach out of the locker room for a "players only" meeting. If Marcus does not stay out until allowed to come in, Cosentino says, she'll "Me Too" him. She then goes after Johnny, who has so far refused to play due to Alex and Marcus' sexual relationship. Again, in her almost belligerent manner, she lets Johnny know his sister is an adult and can do as she pleases.

It is unfortunate though that because Champions wants to give all of the players a bit of a backstory and their individual moment, they soon start blending into each other. The film begins to struggle in keeping everyone's specific story going. As such, the film veers between focusing on Johnny or Cosentino or Darius (Joshua Felder) and trying to bring back other characters. All these subplots come in, but the film tries too hard to focus on all the characters. 

There's a subplot about Benny (James Day Keith), who unlike most of his teammates is able to live by himself and has a job at a restaurant. His boss repeatedly keeps him from going to games and even fires him when he asks for the time. This does provide a way for Marcus and Alex to essentially shake down the restauranteur (and a chance for Woody Harrelson to try and pass himself off as "Officer Sanchez"); however, it seems as if that could be a film onto itself. 

Instead, this and other curious moments (such as another player saying he had been in a threesome) make the film feel longer than its two-hour running time. Mark Rizzo, adapting the Spanish film Campeones had a lot of balls in the air. Too many, really, for the film to hold.

Champions' length makes things unnecessarily hard for the film. It is a bit out of focus, with story elements that could have been trimmed or cut altogether. Why, for example, did Sonny seem so eager to be Marcus' BFF? We forgot about Sonny for long stretches of time, and only past the midpoint of Champions did he serve a purpose. If Alex's Shakespearean trailer was available to take the kids to an away game, why not ask her first rather than have a bus scene that ends in vomiting? Was the montage to Sweet Georgia Brown (better known as the Harlem Globetrotters' theme) necessary? 

In terms of performances, Champions is serviceable. Harrelson's droll manner works for this angry man who slowly becomes better through his interactions with the Friends. He and Olson work well together as this version of Benedick and Beatrice, forever insulting each other while desperately trying to get a little action. The special needs actors did well, though again it soon became hard to remember who is whom and what story they had.

Champions hits all the familiar beats that you expect from the story: grumpy man finds redemption through learning about others, the players start poorly and end with greater success. There is nothing particularly original or special about Champions. However, it is serviceable and crowd-pleasing. The audience I saw it with loved it, and I can see why. It is harmless entertainment, not deep, whose predictability may be its greatest strength. I do not look down on films that do not pretend to be anything other than what it ends up being. 

Champions is fine, but it is no winner. 


Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone: A Review



Imagine having enough money to finance your own film. You create the story. You can hire known names to appear. You can even star in the film and give yourself not one, not two, not even three but six screen credits. Well, imagine no more, for behold Green Ghost and the Masters of Stone, which may be the Citizen Kane of vanity projects. 

Struggling car dealer Charlie (Charlie Clark) moonlights as a lucha libre fighter known as "Green Ghost" (a play on "gringo"), though to be fair his unofficial brother Marco aka "MexiCan" (Kuno Becker) does most if not all the actual wrestling. Charlie, the unofficial son of a Mexican family, has been deliberately kept in the dark about a deep adoptive family secret.

He is part of a Mayan prophesy on the Apocalypse. Marco and his sister Karina (Sofia Pernas), along with their beloved Nana (Renee Victor) are the Trio of Light, who must stop the embodiment of the Apocalypse from destroying the world. That will be difficult as the Apocalypse is their cousin. Nana's sister Lechusa (Elpidia Carrillo) has birthed the Apocalypse, whose name is Drake (Marko Zazor). Yes, Drake.

With Nana temporarily out of commission, the Trio of Light needs a third. Enter our Gringo/Green Ghost, who needs a crash course in training to fight evil. Among his three trainers are Master Gin (Danny Trejo), who has mastered the drunken part of "drunken master" but not much else. Now all three must join together to stop Apocalypse Drake and save the world.

Reviewing Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone is difficult for me for one major reason. 

I find Charlie Clark annoying.

First, a little background.

Charlie Clark, twice-credited star, producer, executive producer, story by and cowriter of Green Ghost, is a literal used car salesman*. Many used car salesmen need gimmicks or schtick to separate themselves, and Mr. Clark's schtick is that of "Anglo white guy who is really more Mexican than tequila". He speaks Spanish fluently! He grew up watching Lucha Libre and Chapulin Colorado! He says "ORALE!" a lot! He likes carne asada!

Some would call such behavior "cultural appropriation". Charlie Clark clearly would not, and to be fair his Spanish is strong (the film is peppered with multilingual dialogue). Maybe he thought the sight of him flinging tortillas at the villains would be funny. Even if it were, why give us the villains' POV on said tortilla flinging? 

I am vaguely aware of who this man is and am not impressed with his schtick. I was therefore stunned to find he was starring in his own feature film. Even now, I still cannot believe it. Everything about Green Ghost is so self-aggrandizing, like a middle-aged man having the financial resources to live out oddball childhood fantasies. That a man clearly incapable of acting had a large enough ego to cast himself as the lead is already bad enough.

As a side note, as the film progresses, I think Clark didn't even bother trying to act. It makes those moments where Charlie the character has some kind of dramatic moments all the more eye-rolling. 

That he was so egocentric that he was almost delightfully unaware that Green Ghost made no sense, even by its low standards, makes things more cringe than funny. When we get flashbacks to Charlie's early years, young Charlie is around Marco's age if not younger. As adults, Charlie looks at least a decade older than Marco. Granted, Kuno Becker looks younger than his 44 years in Green Ghost, but Clark is clearly older. Sometimes he looks like Marco's father, yet we're asked to believe they grew up together or more bizarrely, that Charlie is even younger than Marco!

Not since Lucille Ball tried to pass herself off as a mid-30- to 40-year-old at age 63 in Mame has the screen seen someone far too old to play the title character try to make anyone think they were age-appropriate and fail so spectacularly.

The script, co-written by Clark, Brian Douglas and director Michael D. Olmos, could never decide if Charlie was an adult or a mental child. He is the head of a struggling car dealership, with adult issues and desires, but he also repeatedly asks "Are we there yet?" like a 6-year-old as they seek out the hidden temple. 

A younger actor would have been a better choice as Charlie/Green Ghost. A genuine actor would have been a better choice as Charlie/Green Ghost. You can find blonde, blue-eyed Mexican actors or American actors who speak Spanish fluently. Clark, too wrapped up in his loving tribute to his Mexican nanny, did not seem to notice or I imagine, care.

Green Ghost was, for good or ill, somewhat self-aware with the actual actors. Becker and Zaror are just cashing a check and attempting to escape their cash grab with some dignity. They did not play their roles as straight camp, but as more "we know this is a vanity project for some Texas car salesman so let's just have some fun with this". 

Trejo is the highlight of Green Ghost. He knew this is beneath anyone who called him/herself an actor but still rose to the occasion, bringing life to the film whenever he was on screen. There is even a nice in-joke when Trejo's Master Gin is offered a machete. "Machete? I don't need no sticking machete!", he replies. I will give them credit for that, though one wonders if the children that I figure are the target audience would get the joke. 

Green Ghost at times looked cheap, even for something as silly as this. The opening scene with its cheap sets made it look like they had wandered onto the Legends of the Hidden Temple set. A lot of money seemed to have been spent on both the many animated sequences and music licensing. 

As a side note, Raiders of the Hidden Temple to my mind sounds like a better title. 

Yes, one should be a little lenient with something like Green Ghost given it does not have the budget that an MCU catering service would. Still, it still is bad to see something so amateurish. If you make a film just so that your car dealership employees can have some fun seeing themselves on screen, it be better to just take them to a sports stadium and have them pop up on the jumbo-sized screen. 

Perhaps the worst part of Green Ghost is that its full title Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone suggests there will be more adventures of our automotive superhero. I suppose Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone might, possibly might, entertain children. 

Dumb children. 

Whether Charlie Clark (who again credited himself six times, with two separate credits as "Charlie" and "Green Ghost") will mount another jaunt remains to be seen. Given this production, he might better use of his money on charity versus vanity.

Finally, one last technical point. "Green Ghost" is a play on "gringo". For Charlie Clark, who celebrates his faux-Mexican heritage to an almost cartoonish level, would he not know that Mexicans would use "gabacho" rather than "gringo" for an Anglo-American like Charlie Clark?  



* Technically, he sells used and new cars, but I don't know if new car salesmen also have gimmicks or schticks.

Monday, March 27, 2023

John Wick: Chapter 4. A Review (Review #1700)


I come to John Wick: Chapter 4 without having seen any prior John Wick films. I did get a brief recap to what had come before, so I did not go in blind before seeing Chapter 4. John Wick: Chapter 4 is very long, but I surprisingly did not feel the length often. With some surprisingly innovative sequences, I think John Wick fans will enjoy this latest installment.

With everyone eager to kill formerly retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), Wick seeks out revenge. His killing of an Elder unleashes greater hell, with The High Table (the council that oversees assassins) determined to bring Wick down. This search brings out the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard), who has been given carte blanche against both Wick and his mentor/friend Winston (Ian McShane). 

The Marquis brings in Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and frenemy of Wick's to bring Wick down. That requires a bit of doing, as Wick is almost unkillable, the Citizen Kane of assassins if you like. Wick also has loyal friends, such as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishbourne) and Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has been sheltering Wick at the Osaka Continental. Caine has his own motivations for bringing in Wick: his daughter is in danger unless he succeeds in his mission.

Wick and Caine now play this cat-and-mouse game, with a wild card in the form of a Tracker (Shamier Anderson), the deadliest of the myriad of assassins chasing after the growing bounty. Journeys to Berlin lead to Paris, where both John Wick and Caine can be released from their obligations to the High Table via a duel between Wick and the Marquis, with Winston and Caine respectively serving as their seconds. Taking no chances, the Marquis attempts to keep Wick from his appointment at the Sacre Cour Church, leading to mass confrontations and a deadly end.

I have never been interested in the John Wick franchise. I know my pastor has conflicting views on the films: he enjoys them but also finds them "murder porn". Perhaps my own threshold for violence has expanded, or perhaps I was not paying much attention. For me, John Wick: Chapter 4 was not as violent as I thought it would be. 

This is not to say that the film skimps on violence: we do get to see people get axes thrown at them and lots of shooting and killings left right center. However, director Chad Stahelski gives them an almost balletic quality. Almost all of the massive fight and battle sequences are filmed to be close to visually beautiful, aided by excellent production design and cinematography.

For some sequences, the score and music selections made them more memorable. In the Berlin club sequence, Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richards' techno score pushed the fighting and slaughters to be more thrilling, almost poetic. In the fight to get to Sacre Cour, the use of Nowhere to Run and Paint It Black (the latter in French) emphasize the situation while adding to the organized mayhem.

As a side note, it is a pity no one thought to use Get Me to the Church on Time when John fights his way up the summit of Montmartre, but I digress. 

The highlight of Chapter 4's battles is his escape from an onslaught of mercenaries before heading to the Sacred Heart. We get a massive almost uncut overhead shot of Wick, the Tracker and the Marquis' men blasting away hither and yon. The pacing is deliberate, slow enough to give the viewer a bird's-eye view of the massive battle. In a film full of visually splendid fight sequences, one is rather spoiled for choice.

John Wick: Chapter 4 also has nice nods to cinema past. Of particular note is in the beginning, where we get a Lawrence of Arabia callback. That an action film can echo one of the greatest films ever made shows a level of intelligence and craftsmanship that is unexpected and welcome.

The film has strong moments of subtle storytelling, such as when Winston visits the Marquis to offer the challenge for a duel. Both paintings shown prominently in the background (Liberty Leading the People and The Raft of the Medusa) reveal elements about the other characters without being overt.

The film is also blessed with strong and witty dialogue, mostly from McShane's acerbic Winston. After the Marquis accepts the duel (which have benefits for Winston), he calls out to him, "I'm going to miss you when you're gone". Without missing a beat or turning to face him, Winston replies, "I wish I could say the same". 

Almost all the performances were excellent. McShane's dry, self-serving but loyal Winston gives the standout performance, but Skarsgard's sleazy and camp Marquis played the role precisely as it should. Yen also did well as the blind Caine, friend and foe. As for Reeves, one has never accused him of being a great or even good actor. He is more action star and does best in those roles (Speed comes to mind). John Wick: Chapter 4 limits his screen-time to the bare minimum, and it is probably for the best. His line delivery sometimes reads as if he is discovering English for the first time. 

It is a curious thing that if I quibble about something, it is the film's length at two hours and forty-nine minutes. The curious thing is that while the film is long, I cannot find many places where to cut. It is not bloated, but perhaps a bit overweight. 

Grand, visually arresting, giving John Wick fans what they want and a bit more, John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers in this latest entry. Will I see the previous John Wick films? Doubtful, as I still have little interest in them. That being said, I can with few reservations (the violence, the length) offer up Chapter 4 as a strong film. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

Shazam! Fury of the Gods: A Review



I was surprised while going over my review for the first Shazam film that I actually gave it a mildly negative review. More surprising, though, is how Shazam! Fury of the Gods somehow managed to be worse. While I doubt anyone will pick the first as one of their favorite films (let alone favorite comic book film), Fury of the Gods will more than likely find a place among the Worst Films of 2023.

It's been a few years since Shazam (Zachary Levi) and his foster siblings have become superheroes. It is irrelevant that they sometimes do not get things right in their efforts, earning them the sobriquet "The Philadelphia Fiascos". It is, however, vital that they pull themselves together for a new enemy.

The three daughters of Atlas have come for the Wizard's staff that will allow them to restore their own world. Shazam's alter ego, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is worried about aging out of the foster care system and losing his family in the process. He is especially miffed about his BFF/foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who has been doing solo superhero work despite Billy's insistence that it is all or none.

Freddy has other things on his mind, such as the beautiful new student Anne (Rachel Zegler). In truth, Anne is Anthea, the third Daughter of Atlas, who is working with her sisters Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) to restore their world. That, at least, is Hespera and Anthea's plan. Kalypso has her own secret agenda, one that will bring forth total destruction to Earth. Shazam and his family, along with the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to stop Kalypso's mad scheme.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is two hours and ten minutes long including mid and post-credit scenes (for the record, feel free to skip them). There is no need for the film to be two hours and ten minutes long. I am not even sure that it needs to be an hour and ten minutes long. There is such a massive bloat to Fury of the Gods that it sinks the film. The entire Benjamin Franklin Bridge sequence should have been cut. 

As a side note, it does not help that it is reminiscent of the 2005 Fantastic Four film. Certain elements in Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan's screenplay attempt to give some of the characters more depth (Billy's fear of abandonment, another character's homosexuality), but they are undercut by the almost crazed desire to be funny. Take one of the foster siblings, Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand). Chosen to be the LGBTQ+ representation, he chooses the worst and most predictable time to officially come out. His sexuality is irrelevant to anything in Fury of the Gods, not just plot-wise but character-wise. 

We get near-endless scenes involving self-writing pens named Steve and a truly bizarre dream sequence that is a cross between bad CGI and Djimon Hounsou in drag that looks horrifying.

Granted, not as horrifying as seeing schoolteacher Mr. Geckle (Diedrich Bader) commit suicide under Kalypso's spell. For a film targeted at families, I was startled at seeing someone kill themselves. Even worse, the subject is never brought up again. It seems like a strange decision on so many levels. Mr. Geckle is there for one scene to give words of encouragement to Freddy, then the next he's killed. Technically, he's in two scenes, but in the second he's background (and curiously, having lunch in the school cafeteria with other students).

Fury of the Gods has a simply awful script, shifting from predictable to stupid. From seeing Helen Mirren speak the confused words of idiots to Shazam insisting he did have "the wisdom of Solo-Man" (meaning Solomon), Fury of the Gods leaves one almost aghast about how bloated and horrible it is. It is bad enough when you have a character state that Skittles is the closest thing to ambrosia to feed unicorns. However, when she literally says, "Taste the rainbow", the laughter that I already had thanks to audience members whispering the line just exploded.

I look at the performances and wanted to cover my eyes. I cut Zachary Levi some slack in that I think he was directed to play a 12-year-old in a 40-year-old man's body. We, however, come to a point of logic. In Shazam, Billy Batson was between 12 to 14, so his behavior made sense. In Fury of the Gods, Billy Batson should be almost 18. Why then does he still act like he's 12? There's a subplot about him aging out of foster care, but this is not a major drive in the film. This is a serious situation, but Shazam's entire behavior is too childish to make it important.

As a side note, Shazam tells Hespera that he is ready for her because he's seen every Fast & Furious film. Was that some kind of in-joke given that Mirren is part of that franchise? 

Shazam also has a major issue in that, like Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, he is a supporting character in his own film. A lot of the focus is on Freddie Freeman, which is such a strange choice. Adam Brody (curiously looking older than his 41 years) and Jack Dylan Grazer are hit-and-miss, the former more miss. For reasons known only to the filmmakers, Fury of the Gods focuses more on Superhero Freddie and his evolution from cocky to humble than on Shazam. 

Shazam! Fury of the Gods does not take its premise seriously. If it cannot bother to take the premise seriously, we cannot either. The DC Extended Universe is a shambles, and Shazam! Fury of the Gods should kill off the hopes for more films with this character. 


Friday, March 10, 2023

65: A Review



The term "Syfy Channel movie", I understand, is a bit of a pejorative, a suggestion of cheap effects and bad plots. 65 is what I imagine a Syfy Channel movie to be. 

"Prior to the Advent of Man, in the Infinity of Space, Other Civilizations Explored the Heavens" we are informed via on-screen text. On the distant planet Somaris, space pilot Mills (Adam Driver) takes on "one last job" to transport a group of Somarians to another planet. He does this to help pay for his daughter's medical treatment, though it means being away for two years.

On their way to whatever planet they are destined for, Mills' ship is hit by a small meteor, and he crashes onto a strange new world. "65 Million Years Ago a Visitor Crash Landed on Earth", more text informs us.

Mills believes himself to be the sole survivor, but he finds someone else in their cryogenic chamber. This is Koa (Ariana Greeblatt), a young girl who does not speak English. There is an escape pod on the other side of the mountain they have crashed onto, so Mills and Koa must travel across this mysterious planet to get to it and rendezvous with a rescue ship. This planet, however, provides many dangers, specifically with dinosaurs which menace them at every turn. That, coupled with an impending end to the terrible lizards, makes it a race against time.

If 65 has one positive, it is its brief running time of 93 minutes. As such, one can watch 65 without worrying too much about spending a lot of time with Mills and Koa. 65's running time, though, also gives it a curious problem. 

As it is so short, there is no time for anything like character development. We get bits early on with Mills (he has a wife and daughter, the daughter is sick, he needs to take a job he doesn't care for to pay for treatment). However, writers/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods apparently went through all that trouble to give us no payoff.

In a curious set of flashbacks, we learn the fate of Mills' daughter. The way it was set up though is at times confusing: is he remembering or imagining what became of her? It is a bit muddled, but that is how most of 65 is.

It is as if the film never quite decided what it wanted to be, so it tried to be everything. An action/adventure? A sci-fi thriller? A mix? It wanted so much to put a new spin on time travel by putting essentially futuristic characters in a prehistoric setting, but somehow it did not jell. 

Perhaps Beck and Woods tried to be too clever by half with their story. A much simpler storyline where either they were from the future and traveled to the past or were from Earth and found themselves in the past or even that strange new world may not be original. However, it is less needlessly complicated. 

It does seem disingenuous to try something original when 65 hits practically every cliche possible. The informal father/daughter bond. The various escapes from dinosaur clutches. The "race against time" elements. Perhaps I can give some credit to not having Mills and Koa speak the same language. I could also throw a bone to the idea that they were from the past but with futuristic overlays. However, it was almost a waiting game to see what other familiar beats 65 would hit.

It is not through the fault of the two main actors (Mills' wife and daughter appearing in only one scene and in flashbacks respectively). Adam Driver does his best to sell the premise and make Mills interesting. He is not written that way, but I admire Driver's solid determination to play the role with whatever depth he can bring to it. Greenblatt had a harder task in making Koa both interesting and in a foreign language. I would say she too did her best. Whether that best is any good, I cannot say for certain.

65 can, I suppose, be given some credit for having an effective early jump scare and a sense of place. It also allows Mills to be physically hurt, which is a change from many action characters who are almost impervious to physical pain and injury. 

However, none of the ideas that 65 has really works. It reminds me of what I have said about other films: 65 feels like a season recap of a television series I have never seen. It barely seems able to hold its story together for its 93 minutes. Worse of all, 65 feels as if it is 93 minutes long to allow for commercials to fill in a two-hour late-night television slot. 

I doubt anyone going into 65 expected a deep, introspective film. I think most expected action and adventure. Perhaps a few expected a bit of camp. It did not give anyone either. While not the worst film I have seen this year, 65 crash lands to be a not terrible but not good way to use up the time.


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Women Talking: A Review (Review #1697)



The world of Women Talking is a very isolated, very still one. The film, for better or worse, reflects this world. Far too stage-bound and serious, Women Talking keeps the viewer forever apart from the traumas and fears these women face.

Via voiceover from Autje (Kate Hallet) we learn that a group of Mennonite women have been drugged and violently attacked and raped by the men. While some of the men have been arrested, the other men have gone to town to bail them out. The women now gather in a hayloft to decide what they collectively will do. 

As they cannot read or write, they require the help of schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), the sole male who is not attacking women. August keeps notes as the women consider the tie between two of the three options: stay and fight or leave (doing nothing losing). Over this night of talk, the various women consider such topics as the state of their souls, the undercurrent of romance between August and Ona (Rooney Mara), and what (and whom) to carry off should they opt to. Decision made, the women stop talking and start doing.

Someone I know made a cynical joke about Women Talking; he quipped that with a title like "women talking", did the filmmakers want to drive people away from seeing the film? While a bit harsh, I can see how the mere title could put some people off. As for the film itself, my major issue with Women Talking is that the overall experience is like watching a filmed play. The limited setting, the somewhat theatrical nature of the performances all conspired to make Women Talking a filmed play.

That is odd given that Women Talking is an adaptation of a novel. Over and over the film loves to tell but not show. I do not think we need to see the violent assaults that the women suffered. However, because we do not see them interact with the men save August, we also do not get that sense that the women are in danger. 

To a certain point, one can appreciate writer/director Sarah Polley creating this extremely hermetically sealed world. Apart from when we hear a 2010 Census vehicle playing Daydream Believer calling for them to literally be counted, Women Talking does not look or feel like it is taking place in contemporary times. That world-building, however, also works against the film because none of the women or their plight come across with the force that both could have.

Everyone in Women Talking is so caught up in being serious to be sincere. Since we do not know who the women are, the various women start melding into one. A lot of Women Talking is very still, which is another issue. A chance to show the various women as distinct personalities is lost in the rush to emphasize the seriousness of their plight. 

Why could not the women make individual choices to leave or go? If you had one or two women advocating for one or the other, we might have had a stronger film. As it stands, the speeches all spoken the same way never build the crisis. If more time was spent in building this world, we could have believed that the women faced a spiritual and physical crisis. It simply did not come through, and no amount of telling us can make it so.

Sometimes Women Talking is heavy-handed with its message on the dangers of toxic masculinity. "Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals. And it is men who prevent us from achieving those goals," one of the women states. For a religious community, the women have no issue with one of the rape victims, Nettie. Nettie, apparently, is so traumatized by the men that Nettie becomes one, using the name "Melvin" (August Winter). Melvin interacts with children only, refusing to speak to any adults.

That is, until one of them gets through Melvin's hand gestures that the men are coming. "Thank you, Melvin," she says. Melvin finally speaks, saying "Thank you for saying my name". If there was some kind of transgender message popping out, it seems a curious place to put it in. Also, does the film inadvertently suggest that people turn transgender due to traumatic experiences?

Women Talking does have some positives. The cinematography does bring out some beautiful visuals, and the score is quite strong. There are some good performances as well. It is unfortunate that because I genuinely not remember who played which character, I cannot single out specific people. I dislike the voiceover which narrates to an unborn child. 

Women Talking is too talky, more interested in telling than in showing or being. Mistaking somberness for seriousness, Women Talking will not have many people listening.