What Men Want

WHAT MEN WANT

What Men Want takes the 2000 movie What Women Want and casts it with black lead actors, moves it from Chicago to Atlanta and rides with an R rating. (The Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romcom was PG-13.) The R is mainly for language but there’s also a bit of sex. However the sex is comedic, not erotic.

Taraji P. Henson as sports agent Ali Davis has tons of charisma. And talent. Her smile lights up the screen. Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame plays her dad. Tracy Morgan shows no signs of damage from the wreck a few years back that nearly killed him. Morgan plays the father of a college basketball star who the agency is trying to sign.

Ali’s romantic interest is bartender Will (Aldis Hodge). In a well-worn Hallmark Channel trope, he is a single dad, a widower with a cute kid.

Ali has a group of girlfriends (Phoebe Robinson, Wendy McClendon-Covey and Tamala Jones) who hire a psychic (Erykah Badu) for a party. The seer offers Ali a cup of tea, which Ali thinks is the cause of her new ability to read men’s minds. Ali’s friends are key figures in a wedding ceremony where Ali can’t keep her thoughts to herself. (Badu returns for a coda during the film’s closing credits.)

What Men Want plays for laughs but it is also a story of a black woman trying to achieve success in a man’s (mainly white guys) world. A script that with a few more laughs might’ve made What Me Want a slam-dunk smash. It’s a fun film but one that maybe should’ve been just a bit funnier.

As the setting is a sports agency, a handful of sports personalities have cameos: Shaq, Grant Hill, Mark Cuban, Adam Silver and Devonta Freeman. Also in the cast are Max Greenfield and Jason Jones as Ali’s agency co-workers.

 

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They Shall Not Grow Old

theyshallnot

World War I is not exactly a forgotten war. But it has been eclipsed by WWII, Korea, Vietnam and recent Mideast action in popular U.S. memory. Even the long ago Civil War is more familiar to most Americans than WWI, thanks to Gone With The Wind, Ken Burns and recent statue controversies

They Shall Not Grow Old may elevate WWI’s profile just a bit. The film focuses on British troops from their enlistment through their return home from battle with the German enemy.

The technical achievements used to make archival film footage from a century ago appear realistic are impressive. But it is the faces and the voices of the young men who endure the horror of war that make this documentary a must-see.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord Of The Rings fame and his team have added color, speed correction and ambient sound to take the viewer into the trenches and onto the battlefield. The actual hand-to-hand combat is presented via illustrations, but the damages of battle—dead and injured soldiers—are impossible to miss.

Over a hundred men who fought in the war narrate the film. Their recollections, recorded in mid-century, are edited into brief soundbites to tell the story. Some of the British accents are harder to decipher than others. A captioned version of the film would be welcome.

They Shall Not Grow Old reveals the stereotype of bad teeth among Brits to have been a particularly acute problem back then. The few men shown wearing kilts and knee socks to the frontline seems odd. The pleasantries between British troops and some of the Germans they have captured are surprising.

“Man’s Inhumanity To Man” is timeless and unending. To see it up close and personal with real people, not actors, arouses multiple emotions. Among them, empathy for the young men in this film, as well as every other soldier who has seen combat action in every war.

Because of its graphic depictions, They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R.

 

 

 

 

Vice

Vice

Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian

The musical performances in Bohemian Rhapsody are brilliant. Exciting. Thrilling. The biopic that surrounds the music is okay but not as special as trailers might have suggested.

Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) story follows that familiar showbiz path: obscurity, success, excess, debauchery, downfall and, finally, redemption. Whether it’s vital that an actor resemble the real-life person he/she is portraying can be debated, but Malek does look like Mercury, especially with the moustache.

But his prosthetic teeth eventually become distracting, almost like the ones Mike Myers wore in the Austin Powers movies.

Speaking of Myers, he plays a record exec who snubs the song Bohemian Rhapsody because of its length. Interestingly, the song is not performed in its entirety in the movie. Too long, maybe? (Snippets are heard.) The depiction of the recording of the song is one of the film’s highlights.

Myers’ casting appears to be payback for his giving the song new life in the 90s by using it in Wayne’s World.

I like Queen. I played their music on radio. I appreciated that they delivered a variety of sounds and styles in their tunes. The song Bohemian Rhapsody stands tall among the mostly tired and overplayed music genre known as “classic rock.”

Hardcore Queen fans will find much to like here. Boomers and Gen-Xers who thrived on Queen’s music will enjoy the nostalgia and may pick up unknown or unremembered tidbits about the band’s time in the sun. Millenials and Gen-Zers who adore Malek in Mr. Robot will want to check him out in this role.

With all those constituencies already titillated by the preview trailers, Bohemian Rhapsody should be a gorilla at the box office. Enjoy the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

canyoueverforgiveme

Lee Isreal (Melissa McCarthy) is not an easy person to like. She lacks the social graces. She drinks to excess. She is a bit of a slob.

She does have writing talent. She’s a published author. When her career hits the skids, she turns to another kind of writing.

One might be prone to feel sorry for her. However, as her agent (Jane Curtin) and her ex-partner (Anna Deavere Smith) point out, her off-putting behavior is of her own doing. Isreal even admits she like cats more than she likes people.

Isreal’s scheme is to produce notes and letters she claims were written by now deceased literary figures. “Can you ever forgive me?” is the tagline on a note she crafts and presents as having come from Dorothy Parker. She sells these letters to bookstores who sell them to collectors.

[Sidebar: I went to my first baseball card show in Willow Grove PA in 1981 and saw autographed photos of big league ballplayers for sale. I noticed the signatures all looked alike. In 1998, Mark McGwire went into card shops around the US and found items alleged to have been autographed by him. He said they were not authentic. Two conclusions, which Isreal also reached: People are suckers and there is a lot of fake stuff out there.]

Isreal buys vintage typewriters and consults old printed matter to crib material for these letters. But she and her drinking buddy Jack (Richard Grant) make a couple of errors that lead to her getting caught by the feds for her fraudulent practice.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? features a different Melissa McCarthy. She’s not completely unfunny. Her character has a nasty sense of humor. But the energetic, vibrant, fearless McCarthy from her comedy roles is dialed way, way down. Her look is muted, plain. And her character is, as mentioned, a sad sack of a human. Is this a role that can net McCarthy an awards nomination? Stay tuned.

There’s a flash of the more familiar Melissa McCarthy when Isreal makes a statement to the judge during a court proceeding.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a crowd-pleaser type of film. But for all who have appreciated Melissa McCarthy’s comedic work in movies and TV, this movie reveals that she definitely can handle a wider range of roles.

 

 

 

Mid 90s

mid90s

Jonah Hill is a good actor. Two Oscar nominations! His directorial debut Mid 90s, however, is a tedious slog. Run time is a mere 80 minutes; it just seems longer.

Mid 90s is a coming of age story centered on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old who is physically abused by his older brother (Lucas Hedges) and mostly ignored by his single mom (Katherine Waterston).

Stevie is small and shy. He finds acceptance by a group of older teens who hang out at a skateboard shop. They become a sort of surrogate family for Steve. Stevie becomes a more skillful skateboarder. The older boys introduce Stevie to tobacco, weed, booze, sex and other temptations.

The aftermath of a climactic event reveals the gang’s true feelings for their younger friend. And that’s about it.

For some reason the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Narrow screen. Like certain old TV clips look on Youtube. Original music is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Jonah Hill also wrote the script. A meatier story line might’ve made Mid 90s a more memorable movie. The characters Hill has created are good. They deserve a better narrative.

Here’s hoping Jonah Hill polishes his directing talent and his next effort achieves some of the heights he’s reached with his acting ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born

The surprising thing about the new A Star Is Born is how fresh it feels. It is a thrice-told tale, but this version does not scream: “retread.” The film’s stars and (especially) its music energize the storytelling and make A Star Is Born truly satisfying.

Even moviegoers who have zero familiarity with the previous iterations of this plot can guess early on where it’s going. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a big rock star with booze and pill addictions. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a food service employee who sings for kicks in the gay bar where Maine just happens to stop in for a drink.

He gives her a leg up into the music biz and, as they fall in love, their careers move in separate directions: one up, one down.

If you had doubts that Lady Gaga could handle the female lead, well, those doubts were mistaken. She has two killer musical numbers that bookend the film and several other songs in the film, including duets with Cooper. And… her acting beyond the music is solid. This film marks the birth of her movie stardom.

Cooper is an Oscar-winning actor but his musical chops are also impressive. He wears many hats here: he directed the film and is one of three credited screenwriters. His speaking voice in the film is deeper than in his prior films. It accurately sounds like that of a man who has been a lifelong boozer.

Daddy issues play a role in this A Star Is Born. Maine’s dad—also a heavy drinker—died when Jackson was 13. His older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) helped raise him, got him into performing and still works to keep the younger brother in line. Their relationship is not just brotherly but also a bit father/son.

Ally’s dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) points out that talent alone is not enough to be successful in showbiz, that looks matter. He says this to soften her disappointment as her musical aspirations stall. But when Maine offers her the chance to join him on tour, her dad encourages to go for it.

Along with the inspired casting of Clay, director Cooper brings Dave Chappelle to the role of Maine’s old chum who rescues him after a binge.

Sometimes the early positive buzz on a movie, often fueled by those who attend the late summer film festivals, fizzles when the movie finally appears on local screens. A Star Is Born (2018) lives up to the buzz. Strong box office is a sure bet. And this may become one that gets repeat viewings.

 

Allied

It is not Rick’s Café Americain that Max (Brad Pitt) walks into shortly after the beginning of Allied. But it is in Casablanca in the period of German occupation during World War II. Inside this gin joint, Max meets, for the first time, his “wife” Marianne (Marion Cotillard).

Like Casablanca, the classic Bogart film of 1942, Allied features an impassioned request for a specific tune played on piano and has a climactic scene at an airport.

In this latest film from director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Polar Express and Back To The Future I, II and III), Max and Marianne pretend to be a married French couple working for the Germans. But they are on the side of the good guys.

While waiting to accomplish their mission in sweltering Casablanca, they maintain the charade and live together, pretending to be man and wife. It’s no spoiler to reveal that they become attracted to one another. Consummation occurs in a raging desert sandstorm, a fitting metaphor to connote passion. (The tryst happens inside a car with the windows rolled up, so nobody ends up with sand in his/her navel.)

They escape Casablanca to England where they marry and have a child. Max, a Canadian spy, continues to work for the allies. Marianne, a native of France, becomes a housewife and mom. But is that all she’s up to? Could she be a double agent, working for the Germans?

When Max’s superiors mention their suspicions, he is stunned by the accusation. But soon he begins to have doubts. He even flies into France to query a Resistance leader about her history.

In Allied, Max and Marianne’s relationship is allowed to evolve gradually. Early on, the film trudges slowly between its few sequences of real action. The film seems however to sprint toward its resolution in its final half hour.

While Allied is unlikely to approach the classic status of several of Zemeckis’s other films, it has an engrossing story performed by a strong cast. The two leads, Pitt and Cotillard, are talented pros who carry the movie. Even though Brad may be a bit too old for the role—he turns 53 in December—his performance is likely to please all Pitt fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hacksaw Ridge

Going into combat without a gun at Okinawa during World War II? This would appear to be a bad idea. But there is a reason Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) refuses to tote a weapon.

It seems odd that Doss’s true story has not been widely shared in the 71 years since his heroic actions occurred. After seeing depictions of WWII’s key events (Pearl Harbor, D-Day, etc.) on film over and over again, it’s refreshing to learn about this previously lesser-known episode.

Hacksaw Ridge delivers all the gruesomeness of heavy combat but also provides the enjoyable backstory of Desmond Doss.

Doss is a redneck from rural Virginia whose family life is turbulent. His father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is the worst kind of alcoholic. He is abusive to Desmond’s mom. When Desmond and his brother fight, dad encourages them to have at it, even unto the point of serious injury.

When the U.S. is forced into the war, Doss sees other young men from his area join the effort and he, too, enlists. But with one condition: he refuses to carry a gun. He says he is not a “conscientious objector” but is a “conscientious cooperator.”

His military leaders, including his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and his captain (Sam Worthington), are baffled by his refusal. When court martial punishment is waived, Doss’s training continues and he becomes a medic within a combat unit. Armed not with a weapon but with morphine to relieve pain, he is part of the attack on Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge.

Director Mel Gibson opens the film with a brief montage of bloody combat violence and death before returning to Virginia and Desmond’s story. Doss meets and marries nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before he ships out. An hour or so into the film, the climb begins up Hacksaw Ridge to overtake Japanese troops.

The action is fierce. Doss sees friends die. He sees men suffer serious wounds. When his unit retreats, he stays and pulls to safety many men left behind to die.

Andrew Garfield’s wide grin is well suited for his role as the likable hayseed. But his big hair is a bit distracting. Wouldn’t a WWII inductee have been given a buzz cut in basic?

Hacksaw Ridge brings to mind the 2014 film Unbroken about another WWII hero, Louis Zamperini. I prefer Hacksaw Ridge because Gibson’s storytelling focuses as much on the central character as on the events.

One more thing: If you choose to skip this film because of director Mel Gibson’s alcohol-fueled unsavory behavior a few years ago, consider that he now claims to have ten years of sobriety under his belt. As a longtime fan (going back to The Road Warrior), I hope he stays clean.

The Girl On The Train

Emily Blunt is good. Her title role in The Girl On The Train as a sad, damaged soul is the kind that often nets awards nominations. She manages the role well, avoiding the temptation to overact.

But it is the storytellers—novelist Paula Hawkins, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor—who make TGOTT a compelling, suspenseful mystery. The unfolding of the film’s set-up is accomplished smoothly, revealing characters and situations in a manner that grabs one’s attention and doesn’t let go.

When Rachel (Blunt) mentions her vivid imagination in an opening voiceover, it’s a clue that what is seen through her eyes may not be accurate. Factor in the alcoholism that rules her life and she becomes an unreliable source for certain plot elements. She does, however, have voyeuristic tendencies, so she is highly observant.

Two other key female characters, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett), are women that Rachel has watched from her seat the train that takes commuters into Manhattan from the suburbs. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Megan is Anna’s neighbor who helps care for Anna and Tom’s baby.

Rachel often sees Megan embracing her husband on the upstairs deck of their home located not far from the tracks. She also sees her ex and his new wife—the woman he had an affair with while married to Rachel.

One day she notices Megan is on the deck with a different man. Soon after, Megan disappears. Rachel’s recollections may be of help to the lead police investigator (Allison Janney) determine what happened but the time in question is a blackout period due to her excessive drinking.

Among the talented cast are two favorite former sitcom stars. Martha (Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame) is a woman from Rachel and Tom’s past. Cathy (Laura Prepon of That 70s Show) gives Rachel a place to stay when her drinking problem is at its worst.

You may be able to solve this movie’s puzzle before the big reveal, but a lingering question remains unanswered after the end titles: is Emily Blunt’s performance awardworthy? Director Tate Taylor’s 2011 film The Help resulted in three acting Oscar nominations and a win for Octavia Spencer.

Blunt is a solid pro. Depending on what comes down the cinematic track during the next few weeks, that girl on that train may not be on the inside looking out come awards season.