Archive for 2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on September 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Let’s be clear. The downfall of Jim Bakker and his PTL Club TV program became public in 1987. It was then that Jessica Hahn alleged that she had been drugged and raped by the televangelist and another preacher (John Wesley Fletcher) back in 1980 when she worked for the PTL Club as a secretary. Jim Bakker would later contend the act was consensual. Regardless, Bakker still paid the former employee $279,000 at the time to keep her silent. None of this is presented within The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The details of what led to their disgrace are frustratingly vague. I was more uncertain about what happened after I saw the movie than before.

True to its title, this is a story told from the (apparently cloudy) eyes of Tammy Faye. That’s not a makeup joke. I’m saying her perspective was extremely limited and that’s the point of view of the film. But how does a screenplay attempt this tale and only briefly namecheck Jessica Hahn in a random news montage? In the aftermath of the sex scandal that made headlines, all of the PTL Television Network’s finances were called into question. The misdirection of funds is his undoing in this account. Michael Showalter directs and Abe Sylvia (TV shows Dead to Me & Nurse Jackie) adapts from a 2000 documentary by filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. The five-time Emmy-winning duo co-founded the production company World of Wonder in 1991, most famous for RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye elicits compassion for a woman who initially received none. The intentions of the screenwriters are admirable. Tammy Faye (and her husband Jim) were essentially a punch line back in the late 1980s. Here however the woman exudes warmth, sincerity, and kindness. The consideration and reevaluation gives the religious figure back her humanity. Jessica Chastain is more than up to the task in the titular role. She is a compelling presence. I can understand why the actress has garnered serious Oscar attention for her role as the embattled televangelist. She could well earn her third nomination (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty). The chronicle is not charitable to her husband Jim though. Nevertheless, Andrew Garfield still manages to convey a little of what drew Tammy Faye to this deeply flawed character.

Engendering sympathy for “women wronged by the media” has captured the zeitgeist. Lorena Bobbitt, Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Pamela Smart, and Monica Lewinsky all became obsessions in the media for wildly different reasons. I don’t mean to compare their contrasting notorieties to each other. However, each woman experienced a negative burst of fame for something that some apologists now defend. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is part of this tradition. This feels like the fanciful recollections of a woman who was duped. The performances are what elevates this drama. Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s mom and Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell both add significantly to the narrative as well. I found the saga fascinating as I was riveted throughout.

09-21-21

Cry Macho

Posted in Drama, Western with tags on September 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I did laugh — a lot — so I was tempted to deem this the funniest movie of the year, if not for two things: 1) it’s burdened by a mediocre story and 2) it’s not a comedy. However, the flicks that make us laugh the most are often the ones that do so unintentionally. Cry Macho is one of those films. It verges on the absurd.

Our tale begins when broken-down bygone rodeo star Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood) is hired by his former boss, Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). Howard tasks the senior citizen to travel to Mexico and retrieve his 13-year-old Latino son Rafael (Eduardo Minett). Nicknamed Rafo, he’s currently living with his mother Leta (Fernanda Urrejola). We’re informed the boy is a wayward criminal involved in gambling, drinking, and illegal cockfighting. Rafo’s pet rooster and constant companion is called Macho. Then we meet the boy and he seems more like a waif from Oliver Twist. He’s neither convincing nor natural in the part. Anyone remember the actor who played Sylvester Stallone’s estranged son Michael in Over the Top? * Completely random reference I know, but I feel like maybe Eduardo Minett went to the same affected school of child acting.

You’ve got to hand it to Clint Eastwood. The man is 91 years old and he’s still making movies. Cry Macho is not only directed and produced by the legendary actor, but he also stars. He’s the very definition of a grizzled old man. I think it was during the 1990s when Woody Allen started to regularly cast youthful actors in the parts he would have previously played himself. Methinks Clint should have done the same thing here. And by youthful, I mean to select a man in his 50s. I counted three times when attractive younger women are barely able to contain their lust upon seeing him. This includes a widow named Marta (Natalia Traven) who owns a cafe. Luckily he rebuffs every one of them. Thank goodness! I didn’t need to see that little flirtation play out. Unfortunately, it did in The Mule so consider yourself warned if you haven’t seen it.

Clint Eastwood isn’t as spry as he used to be. Those aren’t the only moments that strain credulity. We can see Mike Milo moves pretty slowly. He has difficulty walking at this point in his life. There’s no shame in that. However to also have us believe he can easily tame a wild bucking bronco is a hilarious spectacle of pure camp. His stunt double’s hand conveniently covering his face during most of the ride. In a subsequent scene, Mike approaches the dinner table, and he’s so frail he has trouble just lowering his body to take a seat. His earlier horse-riding talents are a bewildering burst of athleticism.

Set in 1980, the period piece is a character study of aging, remorse, and regret. It speaks to recurring themes that Eastwood has explored as of late with writer Nick Schenck (Gran Torino, The Mule). Here Schenck contributes to a screenplay by author N. Richard Nash who wrote the 1975 novel of the same name. The chronicle unfolds at a genteel pace that feels like it was made in another era. I have to applaud its courtly energy, but I cannot abide the mawkish melodrama, the bad acting (not Clint), or the ridiculous leaps of faith necessary to accept a nonagenarian in the starring role. I have enjoyed many films in the twilight of Clint Eastwood’s career. This is not one of them.

09-17-21

* The actor’s name is David Mendenhall

Malignant

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror with tags on September 12, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The category is: Gonzo horror movies that entertain out of sheer weirdness. Ladies and gentlemen, Malignant has just entered the room. Uber-successful director James Wan first found fame with horror: Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring have earned billions worldwide. Over the past six years, he achieved even greater success with Furious 7 and Aquaman. Wan’s latest marks a return to the genre that made him famous. It’s too silly to take seriously and yet too bizarre to simply dismiss.

This movie has everything: psychic abilities, doctors, detectives, repressed childhood memories, imaginary friends, lesbians in jail, and evil siblings. I suddenly feel like Stefon — Bill Hader’s club-kid character on SNL — enumerating all the avant-garde features of the hippest New York clubs. Despite my long list, I haven’t given any substantive details of what happens in this crazy movie. There is so much more than meets the eye.

Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) is expecting a child. One night after a fight with Derek (Jake Abel), her abusive husband, she locks herself in the bedroom away from him and falls asleep. At night, she dreams that a stranger enters their home and violently kills him. Sure enough, she discovers Derek’s dead body downstairs when she awakes. Then realizes the killer is still there before blacking out. She regains consciousness in the hospital and learns she was attacked. Soon thereafter she continues to experience terrifying visions of horrific murders. What’s even more troubling is that the murders she’s witnesses are indeed happening. Her visions simultaneously occur in real-time.

There’s a heightened sensibility to the atmosphere right from the start. The exaggerated acting style telegraphs we’re in for some humor. Star Annabelle Wallis plays it pretty straight, but the rest of the cast didn’t get the same memo. The opening scene ends with a doctor boldly making a solemn declaration to the camera, “It’s time we cut out the cancer!” Buckle up for a fun ride. The explanation for Madison’s hallucinations will be fully explained. Trust that’s it’s an insane and unpredictable reveal. The manifestation of that development is a genuinely freakish display. The third act will either have you rolling your eyes in disgust or laughing uncontrollably at how over the top it is. I’m firmly in the latter category. Longtime readers know I am not a fan of viscera. However, when tinged with humor, it becomes cartoonish and therefore easier to take. Here I embraced the gore.

James Wan is well acquainted with camp. His entire filmography is proof of that with Aquaman being a recent example. As Susan Sontag famously wrote in 1964, “Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” That perfectly describes Malignant in a nutshell. If you’re willing to embrace that sensibility, this will be an absolute hoot. This fantastic (and bloody) saga is reminiscent of the work of Italian director Dario Argento, best known for Suspiria in 1977. Granted the narrative will not hold up to intense scrutiny. This is a convoluted mess. Nonetheless, a ridiculously entertaining fright fest with an emphasis on the grotesque is still a mesmerizing spectacle. I enjoyed it for its audacious style.

09-10-21

Val

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on September 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Val of the title is actor Val Kilmer. You know his films: Top Gun (1986), Willow (1988), Tombstone (1993), True Romance (1993), Heat (1995), The Saint (1997) are just a few. The star appeared in some of the biggest Hollywood movies during the late 80s and on through the 1990s. He perhaps achieved the apex of celebrity when he played Batman in Batman Forever in 1995. He may have never received an Oscar nomination, but many thought his role as Jim Morrison in The Doors was worthy of one.

Val is a documentary assembled from 40 years of 16mm home movies of his life shot by the entertainer himself and saved over a lifetime. This includes thousands of hours of footage, everything from time spent with his family to the on-set experiences on his many productions. This is the first-person narrative of a celebrated performer as told through his cinematography. Filmmakers Ting Poo and Leo Scott are producers, directors, and editors of the feature. What they’ve done is the impossible. They’ve scrutinized over four decades of material and put together an insider’s view of what it’s like to be him. The task had to have been daunting, but the filmmakers are successful in distilling a coherent and interesting movie from that footage.

The best moments are little vignettes that shine a light on his interactions with other people. Throughout his life, Val Kilmer has always been known as intensely dedicated to his craft. However, his reputation for being a moody and demanding personality often preceded his renown as a gifted thespian. Some labeled him difficult. In 1996, Kilmer appeared in a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau with his idol Marlon Brando. It was a notoriously troubled production. Kilmer’s strained relationship with director John Frankenheimer is captured. This is painful to watch but oh so transfixing. At one point, he refuses to act or take direction. Instead, he turns his camera on the director and videotapes him while voicing his disapproval. I wish there were more candid episodes like this. The acrimony is a rare exception.

Val is a largely sympatric portrait. It is a most heartbreaking coda that Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. Following radiation and chemotherapy treatments, along with a tracheostomy, he is now cancer-free. However, he has great difficulty speaking. The movie uses captions when he talks. His son Jack is his voice as the narrator for much of the documentary. His participation is deeply poetic. In a more recent development, Kilmer travels to Texas for a public appearance at a screening of Tombstone. He is warmly greeted by a large gathering of enthusiastic and idolizing fans. Addressing the viewer directly, he admits “I don’t look great and I’m selling basically my old self, my old career.” Yet the image of the actor today in front of an adoring crowd is so poignant. It’s scenes like this that make Val such a fascinating watch.

08-09-21

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on September 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The discussion of race and diversity within superhero movies has grown significantly over the last half-decade. Studios have expressed a desire to elevate representation within their stories. Whether this is a marketing move or an altruistic desire to be inclusive is a question you can discuss amongst yourselves. Nevertheless, Marvel Studios promoted Black Panther as their first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a black lead, and Captain Marvel was publicized as their first female warrior to get her own film. In March 2020, Marvel Comics announced its first-ever non-binary superhero called Snowflake who uses they/them pronouns. Any idea on how long that picture will take to be made?

A shift occurred in 2016 during Phase 3 of the MCU with Doctor Strange. Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was cast in the role of the Ancient One, a Tibetan. Never mind the fact that the release was a huge financial success. The social media backlash was vociferous and enduring. It continues to this day. At the time Marvel President Kevin Feige defended the decision but he would later apologize for the “whitewashing” controversy and express regret for not casting an Asian actor.

In that spirit, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Marvel release with an Asian lead. No production should have to carry the entire weight of Asian representation within the MCU but 25 films in, and that’s where we are. The best of intentions are nice but “Is the movie any good?” is the bottom line. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings delivers. It’s a solid mid-level addition to the MCU. The newest entry stands on its own and that counts for a lot.

I often forgot I was watching yet another installment of a franchise. OK, so a couple of characters do pop up that are callbacks to earlier entries. Wong (Benedict Wong ), who worked alongside Doctor Strange, is seen at a cage fighting tournament here. Ben Kingsley also reprises his Trevor Slattery character from Iron Man 3. This chapter is part of the same shared world, but thankfully the narrative doesn’t rely too much on the previous movies. In many ways, it feels like a completely separate entity. I appreciated that the drama could be enjoyed without having seen the other pictures.

Shang-Chi boasts a charismatic cast. Actor Simu Liu (Canadian TV sitcom Kim’s Convenience) makes for a likable hero as the titular character. Initially, he seems just like a normal, mild-mannered guy who parks cars as a valet. His skillful fighting abilities are a secret. They’re first revealed while traveling on a bus with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. The two share a warm friendship and their chemistry is a delight.

A group of henchmen launches an attack on public transportation. The passengers amusingly look on, stunned with their mouths agape. One villain stands out because he’s a hulking Romanian bruiser in a cast full of Asian actors. Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) brandishes a machete blade for a right hand.

The baddies turn out to be part of a nefarious organization known as the Ten Rings. Their leader is Xu Wenwu portrayed by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, Hero) making his Hollywood debut. Wenwu also happens to use a powerful set of ten discs worn like bracelets around his arms that he uses in combat. Wenwu is Shang-Chi’s father. He also has a daughter named Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Yup Shang-Chi has a sister and she’s just as much of a badass as he is.

This is a perfect time to mention the fight choreography is phenomenal. That scene on the bus is an outstanding highlight. Another takes place on the scaffolding of a high rise. Shang Chi draws on the tradition of Wuxia. The martial arts genre of Chinese fiction usually takes place in a historical setting but often involves fantasy elements. The action sequences also recall some of the stunt work of actor Jackie Chan.

These cultural details distinctly separate this superhero from previous episodes of the MCU. That’s good. The bad is that there is too much exposition that is dumped on the audience. The twisting alliances and people’s motives comprise details I won’t spoil here, but it’s a convoluted web of needless complications. The 3rd act ends up at a magical village called Ta Lo. The atmosphere suddenly morphs into a full-blown fantasy epic. The spectacle devolves into a total CGI fest with flying dragons and lots of special effects. It is nowhere near as captivating as the human drama that plays out in the first two acts. That’s the part I loved. Oh and the martial arts. The hand-to-hand combat is so cool.

09-03-21

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed

Posted in Documentary with tags on August 29, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Whenever I need to relax and unwind, I queue up an episode of The Joy of Painting. There’s nothing more therapeutic than listening to the reassuring voice of Bob Ross as he manifests one of his spectacular landscapes. It’s as if he’s talking directly to you and only you. His official YouTube channel has nearly 5 million subscribers and features all 31 seasons. Best part? It’s all free! Fun fact: “Island in the Wilderness” (Episode 1, Season 29) is the most-watched segment with over 37 million views.

If this were an appraisal of his television program, I’d give it a perfect 5 stars. I am a fan. This however is a review of a documentary that debuted on August 25 on Netflix. Bob Ross was an artist on television who did an instructional program on how to draw from 1983 to 1994. Sadly he is no longer with us, having died in 1995 from cancer. Bob was talented to be sure because he could finish a beautiful oil painting in under 30 minutes right before your eyes. What made him a personality was his unbelievable calm and placid demeanor and his soothing voice. He also loved nature and this was evident when he was rendering one of his landscapes. He charmed the audience with his artistic skill but also with his gentle presence.

The words “betrayal” and greed” in the title would imply some salacious reveal that the man wasn’t as saintly as he seemed. I’m happy to report Bob Ross was just as kindly off-screen as he was on. There are some tidbits of information about his life, but nothing uncovered here is shocking. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest bombshell — dropped less than 10 minutes in — is that his signature Afro was a perm. His hair wasn’t natural! I’m gutted.

The provocative title refers to the fact that his company — which includes his image and likeness — is now owned by people who do NOT include his son Steve Ross. This has occurred through some bewildering legal shenanigans. Some of this is a bit murky because — as the investigation points out — many people declined to participate due to the fear of being sued. Bob’s half-brother, Jimmie Cox, turned his majority interest in Bob Ross Inc. over to the people now in charge of his company: co-founders Walt and Annette Kowalski. They refused to appear as well. As such, it’s an incomplete picture.

As an admirer of Bob Ross, I enjoyed the movie because I am fascinated by the man, but I wanted to know so much more. There are some biographical details I learned, so it is indeed interesting. Bob Ross and his “happy little trees” were never taken seriously by the art world. Yet director Joshua Rofé interviews art historians who respectfully discuss his wet-on-wet approach. Also known as alla prima the technique speeds up the oil-painting process considerably by applying pigment to still wet layers. The Impressionists (among others) utilized the style.

One day a more definitive profile will decide to focus more on what made this man tick. Conversely, this feature creates more questions than it answers. Then ends on a distressing note. There’s a great documentary to be made about this individual. Unfortunately, this portrait falls short.

08-26-21

Vivo

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Music, Musical with tags on August 26, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Vivo has staying power. The release from Sony Pictures Animation debuted on Netflix back on August 6. Three weeks later and it’s still in the Top 3 of all movies on their streaming site. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a brightly colored cartoon musical with catchy songs and an original story. A family looking for convenient entertainment at home could do far worse.

Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a kinkajou that sings and dances while old and humble bandleader Andrés (musician Juan de Marcos González of Buena Vista Social Club fame) is the organ-grinder/guitarist. The charismatic duo entertains street audiences in Havana, Cuba. Then one day Andrés receives a letter from Marta (Gloria Estefan) — his ex-singing partner for whom he always carried a secret love. The Celia Cruz-esque entertainer is about to retire and requests his presence at her farewell concert in Miami. Finally! The ideal opportunity to tell Marta how he truly feels in a song he wrote just for her before they parted ways. Tragically Andrés dies that night in his sleep. Now it’s up to his pet Kinkajou to fulfill his master’s dream and deliver the tune to his unrequited love. At the funeral, Vivo meets Andrés’ widowed niece Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and her offbeat teenage daughter Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). They’re both headed back to Florida. The mammal stows away in their luggage.

Vivo is the heart of a tale that features a rather unconventional star. We the audience can understand the creature as he speaks perfect English but it sounds like unintelligible chitters to everyone else. The “honey bear” is a member of the raccoon family that is native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. So what’s he doing in Cuba? Well, he answers that question in the captivating ditty “One of a Kind” where he raps: “Maybe I fell in a shipping crate as a baby.” You see this is a musical with music and lyrics courtesy of none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Emmy-Grammy-Tony Award winner also voices the titular personality. (No Oscar yet although he came close with “Best Original Song” for Moana). This isn’t exclusively his picture though. Kirk DeMicco who gave us The Croods directs and co-wrote the movie with Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights).

Vivo has a great foundation. A flashback presented in traditional 2D animation elicits the much needed romantic nostalgia that the cold modern textures of CGI lacks. An unorthodox beginning that features the death of a beloved character is so unexpected. I was ready for something singular and bizarre. No such luck. Don’t get me wrong. It’s pleasant entertainment and the fact that this is a musical elevates my review into a recommendation.

You can best believe the creator of In The Heights and Hamilton has offered up a plethora of hip-hop and Latin music-inspired tunes. When the melodies kick in, the narrative shines. The surging “Keep the Beat” while Vivo and Gabi drift their way through the Florida Everglades is a highlight. The same goes for Gabi’s prideful declaration “My Own Drum” where she asserts her individuality.

The first half overshadows the second. Gabi’s hyper disposition grows tiresome. Seriously people who solely think they alone are distinctive (she has purple hair) while deeming everyone else to possess a cookie-cutter personality, suffer from narcissism. News flash: every single person who ever lived is a unique human being. This account succumbs to tropes and clichés as it devolves into a banal road trip adventure. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to appreciate. Those less inclined to dissect and ponder the narrative are likely to enjoy this even more.

08-11-21

CODA

Posted in Drama, Family, Music with tags on August 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The term CODA was coined in 1983 by Millie Brother while founding the support organization Children of Deaf Adults. However, the word can also describe a concluding passage or event. That meaning is equally relevant here. This is a heartwarming tale about a hearing girl named Ruby played by Emilia Jones with Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as her parents and Daniel Durant as her brother, all of whom are deaf. Writer/director Sian Heder’s picture is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier whose plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1996 German movie Beyond Silence.

Because Ruby is the only one in the household who can hear, she assists in the family fishing business as an interpreter with the outside world. She plans to do it full-time after finishing high school. However, Ruby can also sing and tries out for the school chorus. It turns out she is quite good. Choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is impressed. She’s paired up with a fellow student named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) for a duet and a sweet romance blossoms.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. CODA is a simple saga that is honest, wise, and unassuming. The chronicle concerns a girl who triumphs through different challenges by juggling her talents and interests with the demands of her family. It’s a formulaic account, but it gives the audience exactly what they want. A powerful reminder that the most enduring movies are derivative. Three Amigos, A Bug’s Life, and Galaxy Quest are all based on the same narrative. Their blueprint — The Magnificent Seven — is an inspiration which itself was a remake of Seven Samurai. The westerns of director John Ford inspired director Akira Kurosawa. It never ends. Formulas don’t negate an artistic work. It’s HOW these elements are creatively put together that matters. CODA poignantly captures the heart with sincerity — a human life artfully presented in a way with which anyone can identify.

My empathy was fully engaged. I admit I teared up at several points. In the final 20 minutes where Ruby sings the Joni Mitchell chestnut “Both Sides Now” I was on the precipice of full-blown waterworks. The screenplay is funny too. Earlier in the story, there’s a moment where the parents are discussing Ruby’s singing career. Mother is worried. “And what if she can’t sing? Maybe she’s awful,” she says and the father quickly responds, “She’s not awful.” The mother counters with “Really? Have you heard her?”

That deft mix of emotions is a big part of why this warm and earnest movie works. Also, credit goes to a charismatic ensemble. Special mention for newcomer actress Emilia Jones in the starring role. I was surprised to learn she is from the UK. Another Brit who can do a spot on American accent. She is just fantastic. CODA won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and has gotten a limited release in theaters and through Apple TV+. It’s one of the highlights of the year for me.

08-15-21

Respect

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Let’s start with the fact that the Queen of Soul herself handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her before she passed in 2018. She knew what she was doing. Jennifer Hudson is an entertainer whose life story could also form the basis of another fascinating biography. Hudson initially rose to prominence as a finalist on the third season of the singing competition American Idol in 2004. She even sang two Aretha songs on the show: “Share Your Love With Me” and “Baby, I Love You.” Despite making the Top 12, she struggled to maintain popularity with the audience and only placed seventh. Then somehow turned that relatively mediocre finish into a feature film debut as Effie White in Dreamgirls in 2006. The role garnered widespread universal acclaim. A slew of awards followed including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The accomplished Grammy-winning singer has continued to appear in films.

If it wasn’t obvious from my introductory paragraph, Jennifer Hudson is the heart and soul of Respect. She is incredibly compelling. Conversely, the production follows the rote story beats of a traditional biopic. It begins with Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner ) as a 10-year-old girl circa 1952 growing up in Detroit. We meet a domineering father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and a sympathetic mother Barbara Siggers (Audra McDonald). They are separated. The young girl performs to the delight of partygoers at her father’s behest with luminaries like Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke in attendance. It sounds idyllic, but her childhood was tainted by trauma and tragedy.

Aretha’s adult life had its share of difficulties. She gained notoriety but was also fraught by dark periods. These episodes are referred to as her “personal demons.” After a string of 9 albums with Columbia and no hits, she changed labels. At Atlantic, she meets veteran record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and eventually achieved mainstream success in 1967 with her 10th record Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. The title track and the #1 “Respect” were both smash hits. Her career would take off from there. The chronicle recounts an abusive relationship with husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans). After they break up she dates tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones). Along the way, the pressures of fame predictably drive her to drink. The trials and tribulations culminate with her biggest selling disc, the live gospel recording Amazing Grace in 1972.

Aretha Franklin would continue to have hits well into the 1980s. A string of successes for Arista Records included the classic 1985 album Who Zooming Who. A follow-up would include her duet with George Michael. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was a #1 single. That kind of achievement for women of a certain age is such a rarity. I wish the film had touched on that decade.

Respect is a conventional account that offers a smattering of wonderful numbers. Of course you’ll hear the title track, which was recorded by Otis Redding first, but you’ll also learn the genesis of the arrangement. The recreation of an iconic concert where she performs the song at Madison Square Garden is mesmerizing. There’s a host of other performances each one a joy in their own right. Aretha Franklin sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, and “Amazing Grace” among them. The vocals are so good that you’ll be fidgeting in your seat waiting for the next tune. This is a 2 hour and 25-minute movie. There’s a lot of information packed in this chronicle. Truth to tell, I didn’t know much about Aretha Franklin’s life. I did learn some things, although her Wikipedia article is just as informative. Respect is a serviceable biopic that presents the highlights of a career. This works best as a Broadway-style jukebox musical where the songs are the point. Jennifer Hudson makes it worth watching.

08-17-21

Free Guy

Posted in Action, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on August 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Give people a reason to go to theaters and they will. Audiences went to see Free Guy opening weekend. The prediction was that it would only do $15M-17 million due to a recent surge in the Delta variant. The reality is that it debuted well above expectations with $28.4 million. The fact that it wasn’t available on streaming — that you had to see it in a theater — certainly helped.

Free Guy is the story of a random bank teller that lives in a video game called Free City. He’s merely a background character, but then one day he becomes self-aware after seeing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) from afar. In the game, his best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard who works alongside him at the bank. Outside in the real world, he’s supported by computer specialists Keys (Joe Keery), Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and Millie (also played by Jodie Comer). This peripheral cipher decides to break away from his programming and make himself the hero of the game and pursue the woman he loves.

Ryan Reynolds is an actor that has made a career out of playing the talkative sarcastic smart-aleck. Here his generic personality is simply known as Blue Shirt Guy — a cheerfully upbeat nonentity with a vapid demeanor that has never thought for himself. He is a blank slate of a man whose eyes are suddenly opened. Reynolds doesn’t give a performance so much as deliver his lines loudly while mugging for emphasis. He affects the same persona he always has and this doesn’t come across as a well-rounded individual. Yet that’s exactly what the script calls for. He’s not playing a human being after all, but rather a video game character. It’s easy to laugh AT him but difficult to have empathy FOR him.

The deconstruction of one’s reality is an idea presented on the weighty shoulders of other better movies. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) is working from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. The boilerplate story even throws in a romance solely because it’s expected. The repetitive nature of the game gently evokes Groundhog Day while the themes of repression recall Pleasantville. Meanwhile, the tale about a good-natured everyman whose life is broadcast to people throughout the planet is like The Truman Show. Given their philosophy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the megalomaniacal boss of Soonami Studios (insufferably overplayed by Taika Waititi) would be friends with Christof (Ed Harris) of The Truman Show.

Free Guy is a hyper-exaggerated saga so you’ll have to warm up to the film’s tone. I did but gradually. This is a self-conscious production that is constantly winking at the viewer. The account inserts numerous celebrity cameos. Most of the “stars” are from online streaming platforms YouTube and Twitch. I was blissfully unaware of their fame. There were a couple of major personalities that I did recognize. Unfortunately, the mass media callbacks kept my emotional connection at arm’s length. This is a release from 20th Century Studios. The fact that Disney is their parent company will be obvious given several high profile pop-culture gags that are fan service and nothing more. Meta-humor and Easter eggs (insidery jokes for fans) threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times.

The highest praise I can give Free Guy is that it’s an original movie. This isn’t a sequel, a remake, based on a comic book or a pre-existing video game. The action takes place in a completely new computerized action-adventure. Although, it’s inspired by violent open-world interactive titles like Grand Theft Auto. The thing is, the chronicle is not about video games per se. It concerns the way we exist and how we aspire to break out of the rut in which we may reside. The moral is “Seize the Day!” but pitched toward gamers. Overall the message is extremely lightweight, but I appreciated that Blue Shirt Guy was a force for hope and good in a city of chaos. I can get behind that.

08-12-21