Thursday, June 23, 2016

No Brownie Points: The Boss (2016) Review



THE BOSS

If you want to see a textbook example of a 'comedy' where you can see people whom I suspect know better and realize they are in an awful film but gamely try their hardest to just get through with it, then I would recommend you watch The Boss.  A comedy is suppose to make you laugh, and I won't lie: one or two moments in The Boss did make me chuckle. 

Most of it, however, literally horrified me.  How else to describe a film that suggests you can get laughs out of assaulting children in particularly violent and gruesome ways and suggesting that straight men perform oral sex on another man (and being as visual about it as possible without slipping into Pornhub territory)?  At one point in The Boss, I literally put BOTH hands to my mouth in sheer horror, stunned that someone with genuine comedic talent as Melissa McCarthy would imagine that scenes of preteen girls getting body-slammed by women old enough to be their mothers would be funny.  The Boss might be the nadir of McCarthy's career (which after her Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids, has sputtered).

Michelle Darnell is an orphan who is sent back to the orphanage every five years, and despite the best intentions of Sister Agnes (Margo Martindale, looking terrible embarrassed to be in even this pre-credit scene), Michelle grows up determined to be the top.  As an adult, Michelle (McCarthy) has become "the 47th wealthiest woman in America" (her words) and leads her cult of devotees to believe in "the power of one".  She has her man Friday, Tito (Cedric Yarbrough) and her very harried assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell, looking desperate to just say the lines and go home).  Michelle's bitter ex-lover Renault (Peter Dinklage, vamping it up for all it's worth), tips off the SEC about her inside trading, and off she goes to prison.

With no one to turn to (because everyone she knows apparently hates her), Michelle is astonished to find that there is no town-car to pick her up from her luxury prison (this is one example of how clueless Michelle is).  Wandering the streets of Chicago, she turns to the only person who might tolerate her existence: Claire, who has a daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) that Michelle was unaware existed despite not just Claire's many years of devoted service prior to her imprisonment but the numerous times Michelle was told about Claire.

This being a brain-dead comedy, Claire reluctantly takes Michelle in and Michelle soon turns Claire and Rachel's lives into nightmares.  Michelle has no problem taking up the bathroom to self-tan (including exposing both her vagina and ass to Claire AND Rachel, not comprehending why any of that should bother either), but somehow she is given one small task while Claire is in her dead-end job: take Rachel to her Dandelion Girls meeting (think Girl Scouts minus the copyright infringement).  While there, Michelle gets into an argument with Helen (Annie Mumolo), an uptight woman with a daughter in the Dandelions (which given that Rachel is a tween and Helen's daughter is clearly high school age, makes me wonder exactly what the age range for Dandelions are). 



Michelle sees the money the Dandelions make in selling cookies and decides this is her way back to the top.  With Claire's delicious brownies as the bait, Michelle comes up with her own rival organization: Darnell's Darlings.  Unlike the Dandelions, this will be a for-profit company.  The brownies are a huge success, though they lead to a massive physical fight between Darnell, Helen, and their rival thug girls. 

Among the highlights here are one teenage girl getting hurled to the side of a car, Darnell using her arm to hit another girl's throat, and Darnell shoving cookies up Helen's ass.

Hilarity, I'm sure, ensues.

Soon Renault gets wind of this, and manages to get Darnell to literally sell out Claire (especially after Rachel presented Michelle with a framed picture of the three of them, offering that they made up the weirdest family).  Wonder what her motivations were...

Well, as Claire has quit her dead-end job to go all in to the brownie business, she has only her ex-coworker/current boyfriend Mike (Tyler Labine) to turn to.  Feeling something she's never felt before, guilt, Michelle attempts to make amends by getting the contract back from Renault (whose real name is "Ronald").  Part of Michelle's elaborate plan involves Mike giving the security guard at Renault's headquarters a blow job, which is demonstrated in a montage.  The fact that sucking dick is completely unnecessary to the whole plan escapes Michelle.

In the end, Michelle Darnell learns to love and share.

Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of The Boss (apart from who exactly thought any of this was remotely funny) is Melissa McCarthy's choice of wardrobe.  For reasons known only to her, her cowriter/director/husband Ben Falcone, and the third writer Steve Mallory, Michelle's neck was always covered up.  The effect was to make her look like she was wearing a neck-brace throughout the film. 

Why exactly was her neck ALWAYS covered up (even in the shower scene more horrifying than in Psycho)?  Falcone and McCarthy (who are fast becoming the anti-Powell/Loy, Day/Hudson, and Bogart/Bacall of film...their teaming up leading to horrors like The Boss) never I figure gave any thought that Michelle looked like she was trying to hide something about her neck.  Throughout the entire film I kept wondering why she was covered up, and when you start wondering why a character goes through great lengths to hide a part of the body that few of us even care about (and never get an actual reason for this elaborate act) then said film just sinks further and further into idiocy.

More than just McCarthy's perpetual neck-brace (seriously, why did she feel the need to wear collars that went up to her ears) is how The Boss wants us to care about someone who has no redeeming value.  The entire pre-credit opening was made to give Michelle motivation (she was rejected, so she'll reject everyone and not care about people), but this cannot explain her cluelessness, callousness, indifference to others and sheer grotesqueness.  Michelle does not understand why getting into Claire's bed would bother Claire (especially if Claire is in bed too).  Michelle feels fine telling Helen's daughter that her mother probably experimented with lesbianism and that she would grow up to be a lesbian herself...in front of her Dandelion troop.  Michelle has no problem telling a former protégé that his late wife was a whore who 'screwed all the members of the IT Department' (despite having no proof of any of it) even after being informed that the woman was dead.  The film made no case as to why Helen had such antipathy for Michelle to lead to such violent extremes. Michelle feels justified in hitting a tennis ball at the throat of her lawyer (Falcone in a bit part) when he delivers bad news.

Well, maybe in that last part, it was a subconscious message from the audience to Falcone/McCarthy about how bad The Boss was, so I'll let that one slide.

In short, The Boss went out of its way to make Michelle Darnell such a repulsive figure that you wanted her to fail, so the predictable (and not-real) last-minute change into someone a little softer felt totally fake.

I haven't seen Tammy (and The Boss makes me less likely to do so), but I think Falcone should stop directing...period.  Not just his wife, but anyone really.  Just about everyone in The Boss looked as if they were reciting words with no real meaning, fully aware that they were in a turkey.  Bell looked pained, as if she was almost a hostage that had to get through it in order to be freed.  There was simply no enthusiasm to her, appearing to be fully aware of how monotonous and thankless the entire thing was.  Dinklage just wanted to remind people he wasn't just the guy from Game of Thrones and could do funny stuff...even if there was nothing funny, period.  

The ONLY good things in The Boss were Labine and Anderson.  In the case of the latter, she made Rachel a likeable figure (even if she was a stock character).  The real standout was Labine, who brought an everyman quality and believability to Mike.  He behaved as if Mike were a real person, not a brainless sketch figure who moved.  Interestingly, the scenes with him and Bell were the most pleasant and real because it looked as if real people were involved.  Even Bell appeared to perk up, relieved she had a semblance of an actual story to work with.

I'd like to see a movie about THEM, about their courtship, with McCarthy's character in the background causing innocent chaos.  THAT would have been a good movie, one where Michelle was clueless but not malicious or monstrous...but a minor character.  In short, a film where Michelle plotted her way to the top with Claire's brownies...not have Mike try to perform a sex act on another man despite his heterosexuality. Pity McCarthy and Falcone opted against that, opting instead to focus their attention on a character that perhaps works in small bites, but not in a whole feature.

If not for Anderson and especially Labine, The Boss would have been simply intolerable.

A few more films like The Boss and she might just as well go back to television, where at least she'll be reigned in and Falcone (hopefully) won't indulge his wife's penchant for being unlikable onscreen.  Oh well, at least she's got the Ghostbusters remake coming up... 



DECISION: D- 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gotham: Azrael Review



GOTHAM: AZRAEL

You can't keep a dead man down on GothamAzrael gives us some wild moments, some bits of comedy, action and some simply fantastic moments where all the various threads of Season Two are coming together.  It's another wild hour on Gotham, and leaps above the struggles of Season One.

At last, the demonic experiments of Dr. Hugo Strange (B.W. Wong) have come to fruition and he has managed to bring someone back from the dead.  It is Patient 43, formerly known as the late former Gotham Mayor Theo Galavan (James Frain, who I wish would play a comedy after playing villains here and in The Cape and The Tudors.  Yes, I consider Thomas Cromwell a villain).  His memory all a blur, he goes into hysterics trying to remember who he is.  Mrs. Peabody (Tonya Pinkins) wants Patient 43 put down as too unstable but Strange will have none of it.

"Strong as an ox.  Fast as a snake..." Strange comments on seeing Galavan.  "Mad as a hatter," is Mrs. Peabody's retort.

In any case, Galavan has come at the most opportune of times, as Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is closing in on proving that Strange was behind the Wayne murders.  Strange convinces Galavan that he is Azrael, an ancient knight in the Order of St. Dumas, and his new mission: kill Jim Gordon.

Meanwhile in Arkham Asylum, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) suspects that Strange and Peabody are up to something and is determined to find out what it is.  By the end of the episode, he does discover what is Indian Hill.

As Azrael hunts Gordon down, he, along with Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) tries to convince Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis) of Strange's involvement with the Wayne killing, who should pop in but some crazy cape-wearing figure who is out to kill Gordon!  Azrael fails to kill Gordon this time, fleeing into the night and astounding Young Master Bruce.

Well, it's off to the GCPD for Gordon for his 'protection', but as we all should know by now, the GCPD is the WORST place to take someone in order to protect them.  This would be the what, third or fourth time it has been attacked.  Again, Azrael fails to kill Gordon, but after fighting with Barnes, he is unmasked to see that it is Galavan, shocking the almost-always unflappable Barnes. 

Azrael flees again, but not before crashing onto a police car on live television, where it seems everyone in Gotham is watching.  That includes Theo's sister Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) and her two lovers, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) and Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell), as well as Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), still wandering around the house with the corpse of his late stepmother at the dining room table.

There are at least two things that push Azrael down for me.  The first is the entire 'take someone into the GCPD HQ to protect them' business.  As I stated earlier, this is probably the third time the GCPD has been attacked, making it the most inept police department in history.  The Keystone Kops have a better track record.  There was when The Electrocutioner attacked the police station, there was when the Maniax stormed the GCPD and killed Commissioner Essen, and now this.  For being the center of police in Gotham City, it looks like the cops need the protection. 

The second is the incriminating photograph that names Dr. Strange as "The Philosopher".  Not only does it strike me as rather convenient to have his nickname there (and that he would use that name as his nom de assassin), but it looks so fake I could never shake the idea of how bad it looks out of my head.

Yet, apart from this, Azrael is one of if not the finest Gotham episodes we've had, with only three more to go before wrapping up the season.  You have a whole cacophony of great performances that cataloging them seems to be more a credit listing than anything else.

Frain has never been better as the completely out-of-his-mind Galavan/Azrael.  He had that menacing, murderous manner, but he also brought Galavan's genuine confusion and fear into play (such as a scene when he sees an old Galavan for Mayor poster and puzzles over it, struggling to remember something about it that relates to him).  He even has a moment of comedy while killing someone.  Dr. Strange has brought his "Sword of Sin" to the demented knight in a case.  He tells Galavan/Azrael to use it to kill...and he ends up using the case, unaware that he was to open it.

Even though he had one scene, Robin Lord Taylor continues to astound as The Penguin, his sense of righteous fury (more than genuine shock at seeing his hated archnemesis return from the dead) chilling, yet making us intensely curious how he will bring down the man who murdered his beloved mother. 

More prominently featured is Cory Michael Smith as Nygma, still not yet The Riddler, but a shrewd figure who is dangerous due to his intelligence.  He too has a bit of comedy when he assembles his minions to bring him things to help him search out Arkham incognito. 

Mazouz is quickly coming into his own as Bruce Wayne (and may in fact be setting the standard as to how to play a pre-Batman Wayne).  His astonishment at seeing Azrael leap about in his cape makes us wonder whether Bruce is getting inspiration from Azrael about adopting a persona to be that crime-fighting masked vigilante; he also exhibits confidence when he tells Barnes off (informing him he finds Barnes' attitude flippant...how WASPy is our Bruce).   

We also get nice bits of foreshadowing that don't come across as forced like when Gordon replies to Barnes' flippant attitude that maybe Gordon ought to be running the GCPD with "Maybe one day I will" (since we know he will) or when Barnes decries this idea of a 'loose cannon vigilante' in front of Bruce Wayne.  The cinematography continues to be simply brilliant and the editing, particularly when we see Galavan's jumbled memories or our various players discovering Galavan's demented resurrection.

Azrael does just about everything right, and justifies the idea that Season Two of Gotham is more focused and leaps and bounds better than Season One (even though I thought that season was pretty good too).   As we come closer to the end of Season Two, Azrael is another in the 'win' column.

9/10

Next Episode: Unleashed

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Anton Yelchin: A Brief Remembrance



1989-2016

"You're not guaranteed tomorrow".

Charlie Arellano, the Men's Ministry Leader at my church, said that this morning in the Father's Day sermon when discussing the importance of legacy. 

These words came to me a few hours later when I learned that Anton Yelchin had died in a freak car accident at the age of 27.

I think no one thought that someone so young would die, particularly in such circumstances.  If the news had spread that Olivia de Havilland or Kirk Douglas had died, this would have been sad news indeed, but since both are 99 years old it would not have been a shock. 

Someone at age 27 however isn't expected to die unless they had been suffering through an illness.

I was quite saddened by Yelchin's death because unlike so many other young stars, he had the goods.  I considered him to be a bright light in cinema, one with an extraordinary talent that came through in all his performances.  Even in films I did not care for, films that were downright awful (like Odd Thomas or Terminator: Salvation), Yelchin was always a standout, a positive in even the worst films.  He had the incredible ability to make the characters real, to make us genuinely care about them and their situation.  Anton Yelchin had something so many people in Hollywood his age lack.

Anton Yelchin had actual acting talent and ability.

In short, Anton Yelchin was one of the best young actors around, who consistently rose above his material, who had simply so much more to give in his acting career, and to have it lost now is sad beyond words.

His death is truly tragic for many reasons.  We are now robbed of 'what could have been', a great career where we would have seen his talent flower into something wonderful.   His death is tragic because, if early reports are an indication, it was so totally unnecessary.  His car was apparently parked in neutral and left running, and what appears to have happened is that the car rolled down and pinned him to a brick mailbox and security gate, which I figure crushed him to death. 

If only he had turned the car off. 
If only he had put it in brake.
If only he had managed to jump out of the way.
If only he had not gotten out of the car at all.
If only....If only...



It's these terrible 'if onlys' that push us, prod us, puzzle us, and make us realize that this young man, simply by making a few different choices, might have been preparing for the Star Trek Beyond premiere rather than have his family prepare for his funeral.

His death is tragic because his parents have lost their only child, and the experience of having to bury your child is an intense and painful one.  I have not had to bury a child, but have seen parents who have.  It is so sad, so painful, that those who manage to go on have extraordinary internal strength.  As much as I, someone who never met him but was impressed by him, feels his death, I cannot even imagine what his parents must be going through, particularly his father on Father's Day. 

The words of my church pastor, Dr. Larry Lamb, come to mind.  He says we are all one phone call away from having our world turned upside down.  How true that is.

His death is tragic not just because his career has been so brutally cut down.  His death is tragic because it came at such a young age.  No 27-year-old expects to die.  I'm sure Anton Yelchin did not consider death a possibility, particularly when his career and life were going so well.

We are not guaranteed tomorrow.

I for one mourn the young man himself, one who by all appearances was not floundering in scandal or self-absorbed tantrums, who appeared to be a nice young man, a nice Jewish boy, a pleasant, professional person.  I mourn for that catalog of great performances that he will not get a chance to give,  that ability to bring characters of all types to life.  I mourn for those Star Trek fans who face the prospect of having Chekov either recast or quietly retired, especially since he was so good in the franchise and was in real-life Russian like the character (albeit he left Russia when he was six months old).

That last aspect, to me, is not as important as the fact that a young man, one with great talent, is dead. I pray that Anton Yelchin is not forgotten: as a man and as the great actor he was.

Dasvidaniya, Anton... 


 
IN MEMORIAM 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gotham: Pinewood Review




GOTHAM: PINEWOOD

I think Gotham, with Pinewood, has done more to push the idea that David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne will become the future Batman than most other episodes (certainly than last season, which while good did have an odd habit of bouncing around from story to story).  Pinewood was a Bruce-centered story, deftly handled to where both the return of a great villain (Hello, Freeze!) enhanced the story and the absence of another (Pengy, where art thou?) didn't affect it. 

Now that Bruce has become devoted to finding out the cause of his father's death, with a little help from Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk), he comes across something with the innocuous name of Pinewood. Like all things involving Wayne Enterprises, Pinewood is hardly benign.  Instead, it is a freak factory: the genesis for the work of mad scientist Dr. Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong).  Bruce, Lucius, and Bruce's valet Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) discover that before his murder Thomas Wayne was to meet with a Karen Jennings (Julia Taylor Ross).  Bruce and Alfred track her down to be shocked to discover she has a claw as one of her hands.

They discover through Karen that Pinewood was begun to help people with genetic issues (she had suffered from a crippled arm).  However, the altruistic elements of Pinewood soon degenerated into more nefarious endeavors thanks to Dr. Strange, who performed sinister experiments (hence, her claw hand).  She has been on the lam since being convicted of murder, with Thomas protecting her by providing a hideout.  They go to the remains of Pinewood, but Dr. Strange, having learned of the investigation, sends goons after them.  They are captured and Karen is arrested.  With some help from Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), Bruce and Alfred decide to break her free.

Gordon for his part has his own issues.  At the top of that list is Bonkers Babs (Erin Richards), now out of Arkham Asylum.  She's playing some sort of long game with her ex, attempting to convince him of her sanity and eagerness to help.  He will have none of it, but as it turns out, she does help.  Gordon is tracking down The Lady (Michelle Gomez, better known as the illegitimate version of The Master on Doctor Who). When he does track her down at the Artemis Club, he cannot get in due to it being a women's only facility.  Babs sweeps in, offering to help.  She keep shifting sides to where no one is sure where she stands, and though she does help get valuable information about who put the contract on the Waynes (a shadowy figure called "The Philosopher"), Gordon wants nothing to do with her.

The story stories now collide when Strange sends his newest weapon to go after Karen and stop her from giving more information.  That new weapon is one Victor Fries aka Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow).  Freeze is more than apt for his nefarious work, attacking the van that is carrying them and freezing Karen (who sacrifices herself to save Bruce, Gordon, and Alfred).  Despite Strange's best efforts, in the end it does not help for Bruce discovers that a Dr. Hugo Strange, who was once Thomas Wayne's good friend, went by a particular nickname...the Philosopher.

That said Philosopher is too involved in the success of Patient 44, one of his many experiments that for once has worked.  He has brought someone back to life, and that someone is none other than former Gotham Mayor Theo Galavan (James Frain).

In certain ways, this whole story seems a bit mad (even for Gotham), yet it all works so incredibly well because the actors did one of the most important things: they took it seriously.  Everyone plays things as if they were real, and on this episode, the acting is some of the best I've seen.

Of particular note is Mazouz as Bruce.  He is starting to be commanding as the future Dark Knight, one who is using his intelligence to track down Karen.  He brings the sadness of seeing her die along with a great sense of self-confidence.  We can see how this version of Bruce Wayne can indeed grow to become Batman. Guest star Ross similarly brings sympathy to Karen, and it's a shame she died within the hour. 

Another simply extraordinary turn is Richards, who seems to have been unleashed from Season One.  In that season, her Barbara Kean was the most hated figure, with many fans demanding she be let go.  Now, as Stabby Babs (or as I call her, Bonkers Babs), Richards is making Barbara's insanity a frightening thing.  Pinewood gave her the best script, as throughout the episode we can never really tell which side she's on, whether she's really crazy and evil, or maybe truly trying to help Gordon (and get in good with him) or maybe just playing a long game we can't quite put together.

As much as McKenzie's Gordon at times has been a bit one-note is his gruffness, Pinewood did what I thought wasn't going to happen: show him to go really dark in his pursuit of extra-legal justice.  His interaction with Richards is some of his best work on the show.

I am so looking forward to more of Darrow as Mr. Freeze, who is becoming a personal favorite (second only to the absent Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin).

One final aspect I have to congratulate Pinewood for is on the craftsmanship.  The cinematography continues to be among the best I've seen on television: as Karen talks about Thomas Wayne, she seems bathed in an almost heavenly light, and when Mr. Freeze comes upon them, the dark blues compliment him in an almost ice-like vision.  The music too is really first-rate: when Bruce realizes Dr. Strange's connection to his parent's murder, it is almost Dark Knight sounding.

Pinewood is another example of how a more focused Gotham, with a longer story arc that allows for other stories to come in and out when necessary, makes for a better show.  It seems like everyone has upped their game from Season One, and I for one am so thrilled about it.

8/10

Next Episode: Azrael

Friday, June 10, 2016

Street Walking After Midnight: Midnight Cowboy (1969) Review



MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)

It must have been a surprise when Midnight Cowboy, a tale of a male prostitute and his sleazy buddy, won Best Picture.  We went from the first (and so far only) G-Rated film to win Best Picture (Oliver!) to the first (and so far only) X-Rated film to win Best Picture.  Granted, that if the film were released today, Midnight Cowboy would probably be classified as R, though given what I've seen of teenage audiences, I think a PG-13 is more realistic.  Midnight Cowboy might be a bit dated today, but with two fantastic performances and a heartbreaking story, it is still a worthwhile feature.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a Texas cowboy who is shaking the dust off his shiny new shoes and headed up to the Big Apple, where he will follow his dreams to be a premiere male hustler (read, male prostitute).  Once he arrives in NYC, he finds that hustling isn't as easy as he thought it would be.  He does get one woman to take him home, Cass (Sylvia Miles), but after their tryst, he ends up paying her when she becomes all but hysterical when asked to pay, pleading she needs money for cab fare. 

Sometime later, he meets Enrico Rizzo, better known by his nickname of Ratso (Dustin Hoffman).  Rizzo tells Joe he can set him up with a pimp, but that turns disastrous when said pimp ends up being a religious fanatic trying to get people out of the business.  As Joe has given Ratso the last of his cash, he now is all but destitute, and loses his hotel room.  Joe ends up trying a little gay hustling, which also turns out disastrous when the young student who gives him oral sex cannot pay.  Joe, angry, tries to take his watch but when the kid begs him to spare his watch, Joe relents.

Joe does end up finding Ratso and roughs him up, but with his limp and generally poor help Ratso finds himself a pathetic figure.  Soon, despite each other, Ratso and Joe end up as friends, especially since Ratso offers Joe shelter in the condemned building he has been squatting in.  In a turn of events, Joe and Ratso get an unexpected stroke of luck when they are invited to an avant-garde party (think Andy Warhol-like), probably due to Joe's eccentric outfit of the cowboy.  At said party, Joe tries marijuana (thinking it was just an odd cigarette) and meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a socialite who agrees to go home with Joe.  By this time it's obvious Ratso's health has taken a turn for the worse but Joe, despite his fondness for Ratso, knows this could be a step to getting back into hustling (which would provide for both of them). 

Shirley agrees to be Joe's madam, thrilling Joe, but when he returns to their condemned building Ratso is clearly dying.  His great wish is to go to Florida, and Joe goes to desperate measures to get the money for tickets: beating up a repressed gay man that had picked him up (whether Joe actually killed him or just left him bloodied we don't know).  Miami-bound on the bus, along the way Joe abandons his cowboy gear while Ratso shivers in the Florida heat.  As they enter Miami, Joe realizes Ratso has died, but there's nothing that can be done except continue the journey, with Joe tenderly cradling Ratso's body.

Midnight Cowboy hangs on the performances of the two leads, and both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman deliver simply outstanding performances as Joe and Ratso respectively.  Voight makes Joe into a very endearing character despite (or perhaps because) of his mixture of swagger and innocence.  In many ways, Joe Buck (a perfect name for a hustler who uses a cowboy persona) is a very innocent figure.  He truly believes women in New York will push each other aside for a chance to sleep with him.  He truly believes he will make massive amounts of money for his sexual services.  Joe is also a very trusting and ultimately decent person who was not cut out to be a male hooker.

We see this whenever he does manage to turn a trick.  Any other man, especially a rampantly heterosexual one who is reduced to procuring other men, would have taken the watch.  However, Joe simply could not take it from this scared high school or college student (who at one point offers him his schoolbooks as payment), this kid who was obviously still in the closet, terrified of both being beat up and of being exposed.  Joe's basic goodness and kindness comes through, so when he does end up savaging another trick, we know by now thanks to Voight's performance that it's due for his love of Ratso and not for any maliciousness.

Voight makes Joe a naïve innocent, not an idiot, and this clever balance is what makes Voight's performance one of his best.

Much has been made of Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo, and I join in the chorus.  It isn't just the physicality of Hoffman's performance, with the limp and the slightly hunched manner.  It isn't even that nasally twang he has (which he loses to speak in his actual voice in the famous "I'm WALKING HERE!" scene (which I understand was unscripted and due as a result of a real NYC taxi inadvertently interrupting the first good take Hoffman had for this scene).  It's in Hoffman's way of making Ratso an equally sympathetic figure in his brokenness (physical and spiritual).  Like Joe, Ratso has his own dreams of escape.  We see this in Ratso's great dream of Miami.  Just as Joe imagines New York as the paradise of easy money through easy women, Ratso sees Miami as this paradise of retirees and endless supply of food and sun. 

In their own way, Ratso and Joe are two peas in a pod, dreamers with vague ideas of how to get where they want to go but not realizing they chase wrong dreams.

Director John Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt (adapting James Leo Herlihy's novel) show us the character's evolutions to their true selves in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  For most of the movie, Joe has his 'costume' (a very elaborate cowboy ensemble) that he never takes off unless bathing or servicing.  When they get close to Miami, Joe has changed clothes to fit the area and without great drama or some grand scenario throws the hat, vest, and boots into the trash.  Schlesinger doesn't have Joe linger or pause over discarding his garb, which would have been tempting to make the audience focus on Joe's renunciation of the cowboy way.  It's done quite casually, almost without thought.

The not-so-subtle way was during the elaborate Warhol Factory-type party, which in 1969 would have been contemporary but today looks almost kitsch and dated.   Part of me felt this scene lasted way too long, and the fact that almost fifty years have passed has lessened the shock value of this 'den of decadence'. 

In truth, Midnight Cowboy has lost much of its shock value due to the immense changes in film and society since 1969.  The few scenes of homosexual acts (which were merely suggested) are flat-out tame given the openness of 'the love that dare not speak its name' now being comically referred to as 'the love that won't shut up'.   In fact, a lot of the sex in Midnight Cowboy is through suggestion, which begs the question as to why the film got an X rating.  My thinking is that it was due to the suggestion of oral sex and male-on-male hustling (though nothing is overtly scene...even in the sexual liberation of the late 1960s there were some things you simply couldn't do on film versus today).  

In other performances Miles earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance (though given it was approximately five minutes long again I wonder why it was singled out).  This is especially true when given that Vaccaro was probably on screen longer and gave an equally good performance as Shirley, the potential madam.  However, in fairness Miles leaves you guessing whether she was genuinely hurt that she was asked to pay for Joe's services or was merely playing him to get out of paying.  I'm not saying it was a bad performance, but perhaps a bit short to have potentially won an Oscar for (she disappears after that ill-fated tryst and is never seen again). 

Midnight Cowboy is ultimately a heartbreaking film about two lost men finding a sense of family with each other despite their wild differences.  In the seedy world they live in, Joe and Ratso's genuine friendship and love for each other is a sign of hope.  Midnight Cowboy is a bit dated and tame by today's standards (the extended psychedelic party now looking either flat-out weird or silly), but in terms of performances (especially by Voight and Hoffman) and as a study of two people you end up caring about, it will have everyone talking.



DECISION: B+ 

1970 Best Picture: Patton

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Deadpool: A Review


DEADPOOL

The rapturous notices Deadpool has received has me wondering whether people genuinely think this film is the Second Coming of the comic book film genre.  My thinking is that the title character would find the term 'second coming' a sex joke.  That's the kind of humor Deadpool delves in: juvenile, raunchy, immature (I figure the description of its audience).  Both mocking and adhering to the 'superhero origins' story that are ripe for parody, Deadpool really wants to have it both ways.  Right from the opening, with Angel of the Morning playing over a scene of gruesome violence while throwing silly credits (God's Perfect Idiot, A Moody Teen, The Hot Chick), right to its ending scene spoofing an added scene, Deadpool revels in its own idiocy.  Mocking the conventions doesn't make the movie as smart as it thinks it is, however, and both the violence and the unoriginality of Deadpool hamper the film. 

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) narrates his own story (sometimes addressing the audience directly, making snarky remarks along the way).  A mercenary (hence Deadpool's nickname of "The Merc With the Mouth") with a hint of goodness in him, he is pretty quick with the quips with his best friend, Weasel (T.J. Miller).  It's in Weasel's den of iniquity that Wade meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), the hooker who is as adept at the quick comebacks as Wade is.  Soon a very raunchy, downright perverse sexual relationship commences, with genuine love floating thereabouts between oral and anal sex.

Things appear to be going well, until Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He wants to spare Vanessa of seeing him die, but she wants to stay with him.  Wade soon gets contacted by a mysterious figure he calls "Agent Smith", who can get Wade into secret experiments that can cure him. Agreeing, he gets involved with nefarious experiments by Francis, also known by his nom de mutant, Ajax (Ed Skrein), and his henchwoman, Angel Dust (Gina Carano). After much work, Wade is cured of his cancer but is horribly disfigured (or as horribly disfigured as Ryan Reynolds can get).  He manages to blow up the secret lab and almost kill Ajax until Ajax tells him only he can cure him of his disfigurement.  With that, Ajax 'kills' Wade, but of course, being now a mutant himself, Wade won't die.

Taking on the name of Deadpool (after the Dead Pool List that Weasel's denizens bet on), Deadpool goes generic.  Our snarky super-but-not-hero spends the rest of the movie going after Francis/Ajax while at first avoiding, then attempting to rescue Vanessa.  Into this mix come two other mutants, Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapisic) and Negatron Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hidelbrand), a moody teen at Charles Xavier's School for the Gifted.  Colossus in particular wants to bring Deadpool into the X-Men fold, but Dead has no interest in being a Boy Scout.  Ultimately, the final battle between Pool/Colossus/Negatron and Ajax/Angel Dust ends with, well, take a guess.

It isn't as if I didn't understand what Deadpool was going for.  From the little I know about the character, Deadpool is suppose to be highly snarky, obnoxious, and one who makes the most juvenile quips about everyone and everything.  I don't see anything particularly wrong with a main character whose irreverence is his central characteristic. What I found, however, was that Deadpool went overboard with the whole 'we know we're in a movie so let's show you that we know we're in a movie' shtick. 

Sometimes it worked (like when Deadpool wryly comments to no one in particular that despite the school being rather large, he seems to find only Colossus and Negatron there...as if the studio couldn't afford another X-Men character).  Most of the time, however, it didn't at least for me.  Moving the camera to avoid showing one act of violence, trying to be clever about the fourth wall breaking the fourth wall (making it sixteen walls, according to Deadpool) struck me as taking the irreverence the film wanted one step over.

I know that saying that one of Deadpool's flaws being that it didn't take things seriously sounds like an odd complaint, but hear me out.  All these characters exist in their own universe where mutants are real. With Deadpool, the film goes to great lengths to make note (and make light) of how all this is fake.  What I ask, however, is what will happen if and when Deadpool the character is found in another Marvel Cinematic Universe film or if and when another MCU character shows up in a Deadpool sequel.  We can't go back to what they did with Deadpool (say, note that Spider-Man the character is in a movie) because it will take away from another Spider-Man film.  At the same time, we can't go straight with that crossover because it will mean that Deadpool will have to work within the confines of another franchise's internal logic.

In short, how can we take any of it seriously when the film insists we recognize that it is all fake?  Should Spider-Man for example, pop up in another Deadpool film, will the Merc With the Mouth remind Spidey that he's an actor (and thus, rob audiences of the idea of even bothering with the story if we're told it's all a fake)?  Can we really conversely make Deadpool 2 one where we don't keep winking to everyone when the first one did nothing but?  

 

What astonishes me on a personal level is the rank hypocrisy of Deadpool's audience.  At the screening I went to I saw a father and mother take their child, circa five or six, to this very R-rated film.  The sight of people being beheaded caused laughter from the boy, and the parents were fine with that, yucking it up with the rest of the audience (save for me, who was downright horrified at the intense nature of the killing spree).  When we got to the strip club scene and had a couple of boobies thrown our way however, the father quickly covered up the boy's eyes.  In other words, we need to shield our children from what they sucked a few years back but should let the little tykes enjoy the fun of mutilations. 

I guess these folks would have no problem with me showing little Junior the newest ISIS video?

Deadpool makes no apologies for the extremely graphic violence, and that troubles me personally.  I am not fond of films where we get to see beheadings, three heads blown up with a bullet, and the jokey nature of the comments underlying how we should delight in the gruesomeness of it all.  I did not like the graphic nature of the violence, or the extended sex scene between Reynolds and Baccarin.  One should know that this is not a film for teens, let alone children.  Parents, at least the responsible ones, should not take their kids to see Deadpool, period.  The guy cuts his hand off for goodness' sake!  Sometimes, one should leave things to the imagination.  We don't need everything spelled out.

Now, in terms of performances I cannot dislike Reynolds' take on Deadpool.  I'm not going to say that Deadpool is a stretch (I'm old enough to remember Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place, where his Berg was a kinder, gentler variation on Wade Wilson's type of snark).  A particular high point was Baccarin as Vanessa, at least in the early part where she matches wits with our sardonic anti-hero.  Once she gets sidetracked by the script and later becomes a damsel in distress then she is reduced to a stock character in the kind of film Deadpool wants to mock.

Ultimately, where Deadpool fails is precisely because in the end, it falls into the same trap it wants to ridicule, namely the same story we've seen before.  We have 'the comic relief' (and Miller is good, though I wasn't laughing at his own quips).  We have the 'evil British guy' (though Skeins' character just had to be evil and nothing more, with Carano's Angel Dust having nothing interesting about her).

As I think of it, I know I will be in the minority on Deadpool.  I know many, many people loved it: finding it hilarious, crude, gleefully violent and irreverent. I think those are all the reasons I disliked it (particularly the violence).  Then again, I've seen worse.   

DECISION: D-

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass: A Review



ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

I cannot recall much if anything from Alice in Wonderland, apart from the fact that I absolutely hated it.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise in what is turning out to be the worst year in film in recent memory, that a sequel to a very bad film is what audiences actually want.

Then again, given that same audience also voted to have either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton be the next President of the United States, they might actually have wanted an even worse sequel to an already bad film (American taste and logic having left long ago).  Alice Through the Looking Glass decided that we needed a giant case of 'the feels', to be sad for such characters as The Mad Hatter and even the Red Queen.  It's not their fault they grew up to be what they became...they were made that way by this cruel, cruel world.  We need to CARE about them, the film says. 

Pity the film makes no case for us doing so.

It's been three years since Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska, aka My Secret Love) sailed and became one of the most successful ship captains in private business.  Oh sure, why not...makes perfect sense for a woman and seamen to mix.   Her latest journey to the Orient ended, she yearns to make one final journey, but her mother (Lindsay Duncan) has bad news.  Alice's company has been taken over by her ex-fiancée,  Lord Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and he intends to sell her ship, the Wonder, in exchange for the Kingsleighs to get their home back.  At the Ascot mansion, Alice, in her Mandarin-inspired ensemble, is distraught over all this.  However, there is hope, as the caterpillar-turned-butterfly Absolem (Alan Rickman, in his final role), leads her to a room in the estate, where she goes through the looking glass back into Underland.

There, she meets all her old friends: Queen Mirana (Anne Hathaway), Tweedledee & Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the White Hare (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor).  They give Alice an important mission: save The Hatter (Johnny Depp)!  He's been sad and a bit out of it (even for him apparently) ever since he found a tiny hat he had made many years ago.  He's convinced that since his hat survived, so must have his family, whom he believed dead at the hands of the Jabberwocky and the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).  Alice can't convince him of the impossibility of this, so now she has to go back in time to prevent the Hatter's family to die.

I already smell timey-wimey idiocy coming down the pike.

First though, she must get the Chronosphere, the device that controls time, from Time Himself (Sasha Baron Cohen).  Time isn't about to hand that over to anyone, let alone Alice.  He's turned down the requests to have it from his girlfriend, the Red Queen herself.  Time cannot be rewritten (which goes against all Doctor Who theology, but that's for another day).  Alice decides to steal the Chronosphere anyway and head on back to that fateful day, with Time in hot pursuit to set things in order.

On that fateful day, she learns how the Red Queen (real name Iracebeth) got such a big head (and how the Hatter got on her bad side PLUS shamed his family).  The young Mirana recalls that Eracebeth hasn't been the same since "that day".  Well, Alice figures that is she changes whatever "that day" was, things would change for the better for everyone.

Timey-wimey strikes again!

She goes further back to stop whatever happened at the stroke of six, only to discover rather than stop it, she caused it!  A quick sojourn to her world (where she's diagnosed as suffering from 'female hysteria') causes her to escape from the looney bin and go back through the looking glass, where she discovers that the Hatter's family weren't killed, but merely captured by the Red Queen...and turned into the size of ants.

Exactly WHY the Red Queen opts to hold the Hatter's family hostage for what I imagine must have been twenty to thirty years without ever doing anything with them (or threatening the Hatter over them) is just one of the many questions Alice Through the Looking Glass never bothers to answer, but there it is.

Eventually, while Time is weakening, a rescue attempt is made...which not only fails but lets the Red Queen get the Chronosphere.  She uses it to go back to the day of her accident, to confront her younger sister who lied about eating tarts and framing Iracebeth for the crime.  Pity that in her anger the Red Queen didn't realize what would happen if she met her younger self.  Soon all Underland starts going under, and it's a race to get the Chronosphere back to its rightful place or the world will end.

Back in the present, Alice's mother tells Lord Ascot off and ends up joining her daughter at sea, with First Mate James Harcourt (Ed Speleers) to join them in more adventures.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a sheer mess of a movie: bombastic, overblown, frenetic, incoherent, and so convoluted I think most people will leave with a slightly puzzled reaction, wondering what exactly this...thing, was. 

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton has studied in the Steven Moffat School of Screenwriting, because the story so wildly depends on you a.) caring about 'feelings' over plot and logic, and b.) going back in time to get things right.  Alice Through the Looking Glass stubbornly insists that we really care about how sad the Hatter is, or how the Red Queen is just a misunderstood person and not just a loud, evil Queen who likes to lob people's heads off just because she likes it.

Moreover, as much as it tries, Alice Through the Looking Glass fails spectacularly to make us care about any of them.  The film never made a case as to why we should care anything about the Hatter's pain over the loss of his family (and as a side note, I think it would have been better if they had died and Alice led him to accept that and move on rather than have them magically come back).  Same goes for the loud, obnoxious Red Queen.

I doubt Underland would have fallen apart if the Hatter had died of a broken heart, or things improved if the White Queen had confessed to eating the tarts (for Iracibeth was pretty 'irascible' to begin with, with or without a head injury and tears).

I truly feel for the actors in this dreg, for the film is cluttered with genuine talents (and Sasha Baron Cohen).  I have never subscribed to the idea that SBC is a comedic genius, and while I wasn't puzzled as to why Time had a Germanic accent (a nod to Swiss watches? a comment on German efficiency?), I found him highly mannered and excessively idiotic.



I really don't want to go into Johnny Depp's performance.  Suffice it to say he made a nice chunk of change and has no interest in his artistic reputation.

Oh, Mia...I still love you, even when you're in horrors like this.  I think you try, you really do, to make things work, but director James Bobin's singular task was to get out of the way and let Alice Through the Looking Glass be about how big, how loud, how CGI everything could be.  As we race frantically through one odd sequence to another (the entire hospital scene was pointless, unless it was to give Andrew Scott something to do while he waits for Sherlock to bring Moriarty back...again).

Going back to the Steven Moffatization of Alice Through the Looking Glass, IF Alice interacted with the Underland characters when they were younger, wouldn't they have some memory of it all?  Did restoring the Chronosphere erase what had apparently happened in the past (and/or wiped out their memories of having met Alice in the past)?  How exactly did the Hatter's family survive all those years in the ant farm with no food or water?  Being so small, how'd they see the Hatter and make a sign to him? Like in any Moffat-Era Doctor Who episode, logic is irrelevant...so long as you cried.

It's not as if there were things I didn't actually enjoy in Alice Through the Looking Glass.  At the Tea Party that Time crashed, some of the time-related puns were funny (the Cheshire Cat appearing on top of him and declaring, "I'm right on time", and the Hatter taking Time's hand and telling everyone, "I've got Time on my hands").  I liked that the Kingdom was called "Wit's End".  I like that Iracebeth had this Duchess of Windsor-type hairdo. 

Honestly, Alice Through the Looking Glass is just a terrible film: loud, overblown, nonsensical (in a bad way versus Lewis Carroll's good nonsense).  It isn't even the story Carroll told (no Walrus, no trial, nothing really).  It's just a waste of everyone's time and talent.  I say smash this glass and throw it in the trash.



DECISION: F