SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Shaft-2019

Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

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SHAZAM! (2019) – Comedic Superhero Tale Only Half Works

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Shazam!

And just like that, just by saying that one word, young Billy Batson can transform himself into an electrically charged Herculean superhero! Woo-hoo!

That’s the premise in SHAZAM! (2019), the latest superhero movie from DC, the comic book company whose movies have been struggling to compete with its rival’s, Marvel, over the last decade. SHAZAM! is a light and funny film that gets all the comedy elements right, which is a good thing, because its story of magic and family ties or the lack thereof is nothing to write home about.

Fourteen year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been searching for his mother without success since being separated from her at a young age. As such, he’s been bounced around from foster family to foster family, experiences which all end the same, with Billy running away.

Now in a family led by foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) that includes five other children, a home filled with positivity and good humor, Billy still resists being there. But one night he’s summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins and whose powers are waning. He needs to give them to someone who’s pure at heart, and up until now his search has been fruitless, but he’s out of time, and so he gives his powers to young Billy.

When Billy says Shazam! he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Knowing little about superheroes, Billy turns to his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, and the two spend much of the film having fun with Billy’s newfound powers. Everything is great until supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes looking for Billy, intent on destroying the newfound superhero so he can be the only all-powerful dude on the block, along with those seven deadly sins, of course, who are personified here as statues who come to life at Sivana’s bidding.

As I said, the story here is nothing to write home about. It’s all rather silly and ridiculous, and since the tone of this one is light and humorous, that’s not really a problem. However, I did find it to be a distraction. I mean, couldn’t the writers have made this story just a tad bit more realistic? Magic and wizards and statues that come to life, it’s all pretty childish. I can’t say that liked the story all that much.

What I did like was the humor. When Billy transforms into Shazam, and he’s a fourteen year-old inside an adult body belonging to an all-powerful superhero, the story is fun, and the movie is extremely watchable. Basically, it’s BIG (1988) but with a cape. In fact, when Shazam runs onto a giant piano keyboard inside a toy store, that’s a direct nod to the classic 1988 Tom Hanks comedy.

Zachary Levi is hilarious as Shazam. The scenes he shares with Jack Dylan Grazer are the best in the movie. Grazer’s Freddy helps Shazam learn about his powers as together they find out what he can and cannot do, which provide some uproarious results, like when Freddy suggests he try to “leap a tall building with a single bound” and Shazam doesn’t quite make it, crashing through a skyscraper window.

Other scenes have fun with the “fourteen year-old inside an adult body” theme, like when Shazam tries to buy beer for him and Freddy. Both of them promptly spit it out upon tasting it, disgusted by the taste, and in the next shot they depart the same store with arms full of junk food instead.

Levi, who played Chuck on the well-regarded TV show CHUCK (2007-2012) channels an exuberant Jimmy Fallon-like vibe throughout, and his scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Jack Dylan Grazer is equally as good as the nerdy superhero geek Freddy who gets picked on at school and so naturally relishes his time with Shazam.  Asher Angel is also enjoyable as Billy Batson, and he has some fine moments as well, although he unfortunately misses out on the films liveliest scenes since they feature his alter ego Shazam.

Young Faithe Herman delivers a scene stealing supporting performance as the younger sister Darla in the foster family, and Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews (who plays the King’s right hand man Jerry on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD) both do a nice job as amiable foster parents Rosa and Victor.

Mark Strong, an actor I like a lot, is okay as villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, but it’s not anything I haven’t seen Strong do before. In fact, he was much better as Frank D’Amico, the villain in KICK-ASS (2010).

Director David F. Sandberg handles the comedic scenes with ease, but the rest of the film with its magic subplot, family themes, and generic superhero fanfare is all rather standard. Sandberg previously directed a couple of horror films, LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie, and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second and better of the two Annabelle movies. In fact, the Annabelle doll appears briefly in a store window in this movie.

The screenplay by Henry Grayden is a mixed bag. The comedy works. The rest doesn’t. Its message regarding family is that family is who you are with, not necessarily blood relatives, and it does this in a way that shows some pretty awful families. Billy Batson’s mom abandons him because she feels overwhelmed, and in a weird opening sequence, we meet Dr. Thaddeus as a young boy and witness his dad and older brother treating him horribly and cruelly. This is juxtaposed with the happy foster family run by Rosa and Victor.

There’s nothing wrong with this take on family, except that the examples of bad families are so over the top they’re difficult to take seriously.

The magic storyline along with the Seven Deadly Sins personified is, simply put, pretty ridiculous.

Shazam is only mentioned here by this one name. He’s not referred to at all by his other name in the comics, Captain Marvel, since Marvel Studios owns the rights to the name for their own character who of course just appeared in her own movie a few weeks ago, CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), even though the DC character appeared in the comics before the Marvel character did.

Where does SHAZAM! rank with other recent DC flms? While it’s quite the different movie from AQUAMAN (2018), I liked it about the same, placing it below WONDER WOMAN (2017) but above BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).

I loved the comedy here, and really enjoyed watching Zachary Levi as Shazam whenever he was on-screen, but the rest of this film was pretty childish and phony, not the best criteria for a superhero movie.

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FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) – Wrestling Movie Fun, Comedic and Inspiring

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Not only is FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) a lot of fun, not only is it a “feel good” movie with an inspiring story to tell, but it has a lot to say about those who fight for their dreams and lose, and who in turn use their talents to teach others, the message being they haven’t really lost at all as they are the reason others win.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is based on the true story of a family from Norwich, England who lived and breathed wrestling. As Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia Knight (Lena Heady) tell it, their lives were going nowhere when they met, and as other people find religion, they found wrestling, and they made it a centerpiece of their family.

Their oldest son tried to make it professionally but failed. He couldn’t handle his failure and ended up in prison. The story focuses on their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) and their younger son Zak (Jack Lowden) who are primed and ready to try out for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Saraya is chosen, while Zak is not.

The film then follows Saraya on her trip to the United States, where she trains under the grueling coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) who works her and the other recruits incredibly hard, so much so that Saraya comes to believe that she won’t make it. During this time, she chooses her wrestling name, Paige. Meanwhile, back in England, Zak struggles with his sister’s success and his own life, as he increasingly views himself as a failure.

Until one day when his older brother is finally released from prison. He tells Zak that he always knew Saraya would be the success that he himself couldn’t be because she had something he didn’t. When Zak asks his brother what that something was, he points to Zak and says: you. And it’s at that moment Zak realizes that all the work he does teaching wrestling to the neighborhood kids means something, and it has just as much value as going pro in wrestling. And as Saraya points out to her brother, “You’re teaching a blind boy how to wrestle. Who does that?” Once Zak comes to understand the value of his true talent, he turns towards helping his sister achieve her own professional dreams.

While FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is the story of both Knight siblings, its main focus is really on Saraya, aka Paige, as she’s the one member of the family who did succeed as a pro in wrestling. As such, most of the movie falls on the shoulders of Florence Pugh who plays Paige, and Pugh does a great job. She’s known for her work in LADY MACBETH (2016), she was in the Liam Neeson actioner THE COMMUTER (2018), and she had the lead in the AMC mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018). Here, Pugh does a fine job capturing Paige’s feelings as an outsider, as someone who feels she doesn’t belong, which is what drove her to wrestling in the first place, that it gave her the ability to block out real life troubles while she was active in the ring. It also gave her something to belong to.

Jack Lowden is very good as Zak Knight as well, although the film does tend to focus on him less than Pugh. He plays Zak as a man who is nearly crushed by the failure of his dreams. Indeed, one of the most painful scenes in the movie is when Hutch tells Zak point-blank to give up, that it’s not going to happen for him. And Lowden is just as good later when Zak experiences the light bulb moment that his work with the youth in his neighborhood is his real talent.

Nick Frost , who has co-starred with Simon Pegg in British comedies like THE WORLD’S END (2013), HOT FUZZ (2007), and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) is as expected very funny as the lively patriarch of the Knight family. He gets most of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the film, like when he answers the phone and doesn’t believe he’s really talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on the other line, when in fact he is. But he also enjoys some key dramatic moments as well, like when he takes Paige aside and tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to continue training for the WWE, that he’s not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Lena Headey rounds out the main players as Knight matriarch Julia. She works well with Nick Frost, and the two play a couple whose passion for wrestling is plain to see, and as such, it’s easy to understand how their children are so inspired to participate in the sport.

I have to admit. I’ve never been a Vince Vaughn fan,  but he’s really good here as wrestling coach Hutch. Sure, you can argue that you’ve seen this character countless times before, that he’s just another variation of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the ROCKY movies, but there’s an added element that makes him stand out, and it’s this added element which Vaughn nails. Hutch’s story ties in to Zak’s, as he too once had his dreams shattered, and he too found that his true talent was in helping and teaching others to achieve theirs. And there’s a key moment near the end, when Hutch gives Paige a quick wink and then walks away. He’s not about sharing in her glory. What drives him is inspiring other to achieve theirs.

Of course, the biggest name attached to FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is Dwayne Johnson, who does appear as himself in the movie, and while he has a couple of memorable scenes, this really isn’t a Dwayne Johnson movie. It’s an ensemble piece, led by Florence Pugh.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY has a first-rate script by writer/director Stephen Merchant. While the main plot comes right out of any ROCKY movie— underdog makes it big— the tone of this film is anything but, as the humor is all very British, and as such, you’ll spend a lot of time laughing throughout the movie, which comes as no surprise. Merchant worked as a writer for both the British and American versions of the TV show THE OFFICE.

Merchant’s also an actor, and he appears here in a memorable supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend. Merchant also starred as Caliban in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman

Here, the script is lively and comedic, and better yet, it does a fine job tying its themes together, its stories of youth fighting for their dreams, of how to react when you fail, and the value of teaching others, and how that’s also something that not a lot of people can do, and if you have this gift, use it.

Merchant also succeeds as a director here. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY wastes no time getting into the heart of its story, as within the first few minutes of the film the audience has already joined Zak and Paige on their quest to become pro-wrestlers. The pace remains brisk throughout, and the film does a comprehensive job telling the story of the Knight family, people who at the end of the day you are glad you met and spent a couple of hours with.

The messages that come out of this film are good ones as they have less to do with competition and more to do with how to be a winner, as it’s not about stomping on those around you to reach the top but lifting up those around you to reach the top together. People do not succeed alone. You need others to help you, and this film is both about those who give help and those who receive it, and it shows how both groups are intertwined. People who receive help give it back, and vice versa. No one gets without giving.

I really enjoyed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. This one’s not getting a lot of hype, but it’s definitely a movie worth checking out at the theater.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY fights the good fight, and its message on the value of teaching and inspiring others to achieve their dreams is a welcomed one in this day and age which all too often glorifies a winning-at-the-expense-of others mentality.

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THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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VICE (2018) – Ambitious and Somehow Comedic Look into Life and Legacy of Dick Cheney

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in VICE (2018)

Everything you need to know about the tone of VICE (2018) is handed to you in the film’s opening minutes when the words “Based on a true story” appear on-screen, followed by a disclaimer citing that Dick Cheney is one of the world’s most secretive leaders, followed by a final line “But we tried our f*cking best.”

Yep, VICE, a movie about Dick Cheney’s rise to power and what he did with it, is presented here largely as—- a comedy. And believe me, you’ll laugh, even as you cringe at Cheney’s view of power and his ensuing actions wielding it.

This comes as no surprise because VICE was written and directed by Adam McKay, the same man who brought us THE BIG SHORT (2015), his brilliant comedic take on the U.S. mortgage crisis in 2005, which somehow got us to laugh about corruption in banks and the housing market.

Here McKay takes his wild and witty style and applies it to the story of Dick Cheney, one of the most unfunny and serious figures in politics in recent memory. The idea of turning this guy’s story into a comedy seems ludicrous.  It’s certainly a bizarre marriage.  As such, some of it works.  Some of it doesn’t.  Most of it does.

VICE is also blessed with an A-list cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell. Bale’s amazing transformation into Dick Cheney, a role for which the actor gained forty pounds, is reminiscent of the work Gary Oldman did last year as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017). Both actors disappear into their roles. When Bale is onscreen, you’ll forget you’re watching a movie and believe you’re seeing the real Dick Cheney.

VICE introduces us to Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in the 1960s when he seems lost and without ambition. He has a drinking problem, he’s been kicked out of college, and is working a thankless job putting up telephone wires. His girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him an ultimatum: either change now or she’s leaving him. He tells her he won’t let her down again, and according to this movie, he doesn’t.

Cheney makes his way to Washington D.C. as a Congressional intern, and he latches on to the charismatic Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). He even becomes a Republican because he wants to be like Rumsfeld. Cheney works hard, and soon he’s Rumsfeld’s right hand man. The two work for the Nixon administration, and then the Ford administration, with big plans for the future, but their plans are derailed when Ford loses the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

But in 1980 Ronald Reagan is elected, and the two men are back in the White House again. After Reagan and Bush, Cheney himself eyes the presidency, but because his daughter Mary is gay, he decides he doesn’t want to put her through the scrutiny that would go along with his seeking the nomination on the conservative Republican ticket, and so he chooses not to run, for all intents and purposes in his mind, ending his career in politics.

But in 2000 George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) seeks out Cheney to be is running mate, a decision Cheney is not comfortable with at first, but then he begins to look ahead, and he realizes that as Vice President especially under an inexperienced political leader like Bush, he’d be in the unique position of wielding incredible power and doing it all while flying under the radar, covered by the protective veil of the vice -presidency, traditionally a “nothing” position.

Which is exactly what he did.

Adam McKay’s screenplay for VICE is very similar to his screenplay for THE BIG SHORT, in that it breaks the fourth wall, uses all kinds of weird and wacky ideas to tell its story, and become extremely creative in breaking down complex situations and explaining them to the audience.

For example, the narrator here, a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons) about halfway through the film asks the audience that they’re probably wondering who he is and what his connection is to Dick Cheney, to which he says he’ll explain later. And he does, and his relationship with Cheney is quite unique, and worthy of both a dark laugh and a tear. It makes for very clever storytelling.

This style worked better in THE BIG SHORT mostly because the complexities of the mortgage industry lent themselves better to the over-the-top style of having various people break the fourth wall to explain things to the audience.  While government is also complex, the perception of it is that it’s not as much a mystery as the banking industry, and so the various explanations of what’s going on inside the inner workings of the government are not quite as astute.

But you can’t blame McKay for trying. His efforts here are pretty impressive.  I mean, how can you fault a movie that at one point has Dick and Lynne Cheney speaking to each other in Shakespearean sonnets? Or that pulls off the bold stunt of rolling fake credits midway through the movie after Cheney accepts his political career is over, only to pull back when suddenly the phone rings and it’s George W. Bush on the line?

The comedic strokes used here by McKay are a lot of fun, but to be honest, the juxtaposition between the fun McKay is having with the film and his subject, the dour Dick Cheney, is quite jarring. Part of this is McKay’s fault, because the other strength of his screenplay is he nails all the serious stuff. His interpretation of Dick Cheney’s reign as vice president is right on the money, so much so that at times I wished he had played this one straight and just told the darn story.

I’m sure Christian Bale will be noticed come Oscar time. It’s a fabulous performance which goes above and beyond the obvious make-up job on him to look just like Dick Cheney.  He captures Cheney’s mannerisms and way of speaking as well.  But even just doing this would only make his performance a caricature, and Bale goes beyond that. As best he can, he gets inside Cheney’s head and motivations.  With a minimum of words, he conveys to the audience what it is Cheney is thinking and feeling.  It’s a great performance by Bale all around.

I also really enjoyed Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Like Bale with Cheney, Rockwell also captures Bush’s mannerisms and style of speaking, and also  like Bale, he goes beyond the caricature. He doesn’t play Bush like a hapless buffoon. He plays him the way he’s often been described by people who know him, like someone you’d want to have a beer with, even while disagreeing with him.

Rockwell definitely makes Bush green, a man who desperately wants Cheney’s experience by his side, and who seems only too comfortable with all the changes Cheney made to the vice presidency, like having additional offices in the House of Representatives and at the Pentagon, seeing National Security briefings before the president, and even being the one to assemble the cabinet when Bush first won the election.

Amy Adams adds fine support as Lynne Cheney, the woman who saw Cheney as her ticket to success, since she knew in the 1960s that women had no future in politics, so she did all she could to support and help her husband achieve his political dreams.  Likewise, Steve Carrell is excellent as Donald Rumsfeld.

VICE ends the way it begins, with moments that define the entire movie. At the end of VICE, Cheney is being interviewed about his years as vice president, and he turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall as he addresses the audience and says he’s not going to apologize for his actions.  He says he was elected to serve the people, and that’s exactly what he did, in order to keep them safe. In effect, he vowed to do whatever it took to prevent another terrorist attack from happening during his watch.

The fact that his policies enabled the U.S. government to overstep its bounds in terms of surveillance, torture, holding suspects indefinitely without allowing them access to lawyers, and other human rights abuses meant little to him. He was doing what he believed needed to be done. And right after 9/11, most Americans agreed with him.

But what they didn’t agree with was the administration’s position on Iraq. When it was proven that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not connected to 9/11, people asked and rightly so, then what the heck are we doing in Iraq? Why aren’t we going after Osama Bin Laden?

The movie makes its opinion clear. Folks like Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted to attack Iraq long before 9/11 for reasons that had to do with oil.

Our current president, Trump, likes to blame faulty intelligence agencies for the Iraq weapons of mass destruction snafu, but the film also makes clear that our intelligence agencies got it right: they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, but Cheney ignored their briefs and latched onto one obscure report that listed one terrorist living in Iraq.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) addressed the United Nations when told to do so by George W. Bush, outlying the U.S. belief that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, and mentioned this terrorist by name, several times, it gave the guy name recognition, and he went on to gain considerable power in Iraq and eventually formed an organization known as —- ISIS.

The scene where Powell addresses the United Nations is one of the best in the movie, as it’s evident how uncomfortable Powell  was having to say things he pretty much knew were not true. Powell has called this speech the worst moment in his life.

And there’s an after-credit scene as well, which also hits the mark. A group of people are being interviewed by a reporter, when one man says he’s upset that this film has a liberal bias, and the man next to him takes offense. They get into an argument, Trump is mentioned, and suddenly there’s a physical brawl.

The point? Well, here we are today, and things are arguably worse, and for right or wrong, the way things are today started because of the policies of one Dick Cheney.

VICE is a very ambitious movie, both light and serious, although strangely it’s mostly light. A lot of it plays as if Michael Moore had decided to direct a feature film rather than a documentary. That being said, it doesn’t really diss on Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.

And that just might be the film’s greatest strength, that in spite of the harm which the film states Cheney has caused, it finds in its heart humor and makes us laugh, and in doing so, portrays Cheney as nothing short of an honorable man.

Will this be how history views Cheney? Time will tell.

—END___

 

 

 

 

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018) – Not Such A Happy Time

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the happytime murders poster

The idea sounds funny enough: an R-rated raunchy Muppet comedy starring Melissa McCarthy.

I like Muppets, and I like Melissa McCarthy, and the notion of foul-mouthed Muppets sounds just refreshing enough to make this one something special.

Now, I realized this movie was getting dreadful reviews, but Melissa McCarthy’s previous film, LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018) also got poor reviews, but I actually thought it was pretty funny. So, I headed off to the theater to catch this adult puppet comedy.

And it is a puppet comedy.  I know I called it a Muppet comedy, but they’re referred to as puppets here, even though, yes, they look exactly like Muppets, and the film is directed by Brian Henson, the son of the late great Muppet creator Jim Henson, and director of two Muppet movies himself.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS takes place in a world where puppets and humans co-exist, but not equally. In fact, humans treat puppets rather poorly. What a surprise!

Puppet private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) finds himself at the center of a murder investigation when the former cast members of an 80s puppet TV show, including Phil’s brother and some of his friends, are murdered one by one. Phil is a former LAPD officer, and his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is on the case.

Phil left the force under tragic circumstances when he failed to make a shot against a fellow puppet and his stray bullet shot and killed an innocent bystander. The notion became that puppets couldn’t be police officers because they couldn’t be trusted to shoot their own kind.

When Phil himself becomes a suspect in the Happytime murders, he and Connie work together to help Phil elude the police and find the real killer.

The biggest problem with THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is that the script doesn’t hold up. For starters, the story here is structured like a million other cliché private detective storylines with the Bogart-like private eye gloomily commenting on the proceedings with a film noir voice-over. For such an overused trope like this to work, the script would have to be incredibly good and creative, and sadly, it isn’t. So, the story becomes boring long before the film’s 90 minutes are up.

Admittedly, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS gets off to a pretty funny start. Watching crude vulgar puppets swear at each other and worse, is hilarious at first, but without enough jokes to sustain it, the novelty of the whole thing wears off fast. That being said, there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, one involving an octopus and a cow in one of the wackiest sexual images you’ll ever see, and another involving an obscene sex sequence that takes advantage of the fact that you’re watching puppets. It shows things you wouldn’t see outside a pornographic movie but since the figures on-screen are puppets, the filmmakers can get away with it.

The film definitely earns its R rating. The jokes are lewd and crude, and they’re funny.

At first.

But then strangely they disappear. The first half of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is definitely the best half.  The second part of the movie simply isn’t as creative, and the laughs become pretty nonexistent.

It’s simply not a very strong script by Todd Berger. The jokes aren’t there, and neither really is the story. For the whole puppets in a human world storyline to work, there has to be some depth. We see humans being cruel to puppets, for instance, but only briefly and the whole thing comes off as incredibly superficial.  I didn’t believe anything about this puppet world at all.

The film only works when the jokes are funny, and this only happens early on. And the jokes are all of the vulgar variety, which I didn’t mind, but if you’re not into very raunchy humor, especially humor that is sexual in nature, you’ll want to avoid this one.

The cast doesn’t really help either.

The story is built around the main puppet character Phil, and he is a complete bore, which really drags the film down. Bill Barretta does an adequate job voicing Phil, and most of the time he comes off sounding like Robert De Niro, which only made me wish the real De Niro was playing the role.

Melissa McCarthy does her thing, but she’s simply not that funny here. She has a couple of okay scenes, but having seen a lot of her movies, this is one of her least comedic performances. I definitely enjoyed her more in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018).

But I’m still a fan. She was hilarious in BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), to name just a few of her movies, and she’ll be back again in top form I’m sure. Here in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS she was simply okay and really didn’t have much of an impact in this movie.

Elizabeth Banks is stuck in a thankless role as Jenny, Phil’s former love interest and the one human star of the Happytime TV show.  Maya Rudolph, who has co-starred with McCarthy before, in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018)  and BRIDESMAIDS (2011) admittedly does enjoy some humorous moments here as Phil’s secretary Bubbles.

The rest of the human cast is rather dull, and the puppets don’t add much either.

In spite of the potentially clever concept, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is pretty bad. In fact, it just might be the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

The film starts off funny, if you don’t mind your humor crude and rude, but then the jokes pretty much disappear, and the second half becomes a monumental bore.

In spite of its title, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS isn’t much of a happy time.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK CLUB (2018) – Boasts Considerable Star Power with Fonda, Keaton, Bergen, and Steenburgen

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Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen in BOOK CLUB (2018)

First of all, even if this movie had been bad, I still would have been impressed with its star power.

I mean, you have Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen sharing equal time as the four lead characters in BOOK CLUB (2018), a charming tale of four lifelong friends who still get together once a month for their book club meetings and who decide to spice up their lives by reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

But I’ll cut to the chase and get to the good news, which is BOOK CLUB is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  It’s a really good movie.

Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) are all feeling old. They decide to shake things up a bit by reading the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James for their monthly book read, and soon their conversations turn to sex. It’s a subject that’s on all their minds, but at their age, they simply don’t feel comfortable talking about it or even thinking about it. Reading the novel changes all that for them.

Carol tries to spice up her love life with her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) who has only just recently retired and just doesn’t seem himself lately. The sequence where Carol secretly slips some Viagra into his drink and their subsequent argument in their car which leads to them being pulled over by the police is one of the funnier bits in the film.

Vivian becomes reacquainted with an old boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson), while Diane, whose husband had recently passed away, meets a pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia) who’s very much interested in her. And Sharon, a federal judge who believes she’s way past the age of dating, is egged on by her friends to get back into the game, especially when she learns her ex-husband is marrying a young woman who’s the same age as their son. Sharon enters the world of online dating, which leads her to meet a friendly accountant George (Richard Dreyfuss).

All of these stories work well, which is no surprise when you consider the quality of the actors involved here.  But BOOK CLUB is more than just fine acting.  It also has a very good screenplay by Bill Holderman, who directed, and Erin Simms.  It’s witty and honest, and the comedy here isn’t ridiculous or silly, but sincere and heartfelt.  And you definitely will laugh while watching this one.

But having four amazing actresses in the movie certainly doesn’t hurt, and all four are well worth the price of admission.

First of all, Jane Fonda looks absolutely amazing. She’s 81 years old, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She looks twenty years younger.

I’ve had a crush on Diane Keaton ever since ANNIE HALL (1976) and after seeing BOOK CLUB I think I still have a crush on her. She exudes intellectual sexiness. Her story in BOOK CLUB is probably the one that is most developed of the four.  The sequence where she first meets Mitchell on a plane is laugh out loud funny,

Once they start dating, they have strong feelings for each other, but Diane feels like she needs to be committed to her two adult daughters, and she feels if she were involved in a relationship so soon after their father’s death it would hurt them, but Mitchell makes the case that it’s okay for her to be happy.  Keaton and Andy Garcia share some of the movie’s best scenes together, and they enjoy a strong onscreen chemistry.

One part of Diane’s story that didn’t work for me was her relationship with her two adult daughters.  They treat Diane like she’s 90 years old, as they worry about her living alone and want her to move to Arizona to live with them.  This seemed unrealistic to me since Diane seemed quite capable of living on her own.

Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson succeed as the long married couple Carol and Bruce who in spite of their recent difficulties really do still love each other, and this comes out beautifully in their performances.

Candice Bergen’s scenes are also very funny as she tries to navigate the world of online dating, like when she inadvertently takes a photo of herself with her computer camera while she’s wearing a facial mask. Her scenes with Richard Dreyfuss are also quite good.

In addition to Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen there’s also a very strong supporting cast.

Andy Garcia is excellent as Mitchell, the pilot who falls easily in love with Diane.  It’s probably the best Garcia performance I’ve seen in years.

Craig T. Nelson is equally as good as Carol’s husband Bruce. One of his best scenes is when he explains his recent moods to Carol, saying that his retirement left him very scared about what there was left to do in his life, and it shook him badly, which is another good example of the sincerity of the screenplay.

Don Johnson enjoys quality screen time as Arthur, and Richard Dreyfuss makes the most of his very brief screen time as accountant George.

I really enjoyed BOOK CLUB, from the acting of all involved, to the funny and sincere script, to the cinematography, as there are some very picturesque shots of the skyline around Mitchell’s home in Arizona.

The film also does well with its theme, that we are not meant to be alone.  It’s Jane Fonda’s Vivian, probably the most successful of the four, who continually tries to make the argument to the contrary, citing that she knows how all relationships end, and so she is perfectly happy to ignore them and live her life without them. But when she meets Arthur again, she realizes that in spite of all her success as an independent woman, she’s missing something in her life.

For Diane, it’s the validation that it’s okay to be happy, that she doesn’t have to stay in mourning over the death of her husband in order to respect her daughters’ feelings.

Sharon learns that it’s never too late to start dating, and Carol discovers that being married to the same man for years upon years doesn’t have to take away from their sex life.  It just takes communication.

I laughed a lot during BOOK CLUB, as did the decent sized audience I saw it with.

BOOK CLUB is a witty look at four successful senior women who start off having some fun talking about sex for the first time in a while and then find themselves using these conversations as a springboard to re-connect with members of the opposite sex, something they didn’t think was still possible for women their age.

It tells an uplifting and very funny story that will have you laughing throughout in this very amiable comedy by Bill Holderman featuring four powerhouse actresses, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

That’s some impressive star power.

—END—