Movie Reviews - 2017 postsTuesday January 16, 2018
Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Despite the thrilling ending, that whole “Every word you just said was wrong” triptych ticked off by Luke Skywalker, which not only upends Kylo Ren’s worldview but our subtitle, since the last of the three is “And I will not be the last Jedi”—which, let’s face it, we all knew it going in, Rey being the ray of hope and the Jedi idea worth billions—despite all that, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” disappointed me. Mostly for this reason:
They had 35 years to figure out what happened to Luke Skywalker, and this is what they came up with? I vant to be alone? Sulking for a long time, at the edge of a galaxy far, far away?
Luke was my guy. And look what they did to him. Look what they did to my boy.
Most likely to succeed
In the summer of 1977, when I was 14, I must have seen “Star Wars” half a dozen times. I had “May the Force Be With You” and “Darth Vader Lives” iron-on T-shirts. And if I knew anything I knew this: Luke was going to wind up with the girl. The other dude? Han? A jerk. A hot-rodder. Besides, it wasn’t his story. It was Luke’s. He had the true heart. I knew that. Everyone knew that.
But that was before a car accident disfigured Mark Hamill’s pretty face, and before George Lucas—who had already invented something that binds his universe together—decided to tie it all up in a way-too-neat bow by making the villain, Darth Vader, Luke’s father, and the girl, Princess Leia, Luke’s sister, which created all kinds of complications for the original—the least of which is the kiss. I mean, Darth tortures his own daughter? He tries to kill his own son? Without knowing it? What good is the Force if it can’t fathom that?
But at least we got Luke’s heroic journey: rise and savior in the first movie; training and setback in the second; rescue and ... OK, so he doesn’t exactly stop the Emperor in the third. Daddy does that. He surrenders, hoping he can bring Darth back from the Dark Side, and he does, in the most-telegraphed, worst-edited change-of-heart in movie history. So Luke kinda-sorta gets credit for stopping the Empire. And by the end he’s a Jedi master. Also secondary to Han/Harrison Ford, who became the bigger star by far, and whose bad-ass ways were apparently more appealing to both men and women. Talk about your upended worldviews! “Wait, women want the jerk? All women want the jerk? Damn, this is going to be a long life."
Really, what heroic thing did Luke do after blowing up the Death Star in the first movie? He gets clocked by a wampa, whines with Yoda, loses a hand to Darth, gets trapped by Jabba, and is zapped by the Emperor. Still he’s treated as a legend, rather than someone who never lived up to his promise, so he sets up a Jedi camp to train the next generation, including his nephew, Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. And he screws that up, too. And he screws it up in the exact same way Obi-wan did.
Obi-wan took a kid, Anakin, trained him in the Jedi ways, lost him to the Dark Side, then lied about it to his next pupil, Luke: “A young Jedi named Darth Vader...betrayed and murdered your father.”
Luke took a kid, Ben Solo, trained him in the Jedi ways, lost him to the Dark Side, then he too lies about it to his next pupil, Rey, leaving out the part about thinking of killing him. Which woke up Ben/Kylo and completely turned him.
And what about that anyway? How exactly does Kylo, the student, best Luke, the Master? All we see is Luke looking horrified, falling backward, “Noooo!,” then waking up to flaming ruins. Is it that Luke was off balance by his earlier murderous thoughts, while Kylo was enraged? But OK, since it happens, here’s another one: Why doesn’t Kylo take the opportunity to kill Luke here? He killed everyone else—why not Luke? He certainly hated him enough.
That’s not even the worst of it. Imagine you’re Luke amid the wreckage and the bodies. You’re a legend, a Jedi Master, and now your nephew is the disciple of Snoke, who is rebuilding the Empire as the First Order. What do you do?
You flee to the edge of the galaxy, live like a hermit, and cut yourself off from the Force. Of course.
Admittedly there’s a kind of symmetry to it. Luke begins the saga desperate to leave the desert planet, Tatooine, and join the rebellion, and he ends it on the water planet, Ahch-To, refusing to join the rebellion. Except the latter part isn’t exactly heroic. And if he didn’t become heroic, what was that hero’s journey all about? What was my childhood all about?
Dude isn’t even wise or resigned in his hermitage. He’s bitter. He went from whining to bitterness. The wisdom we get comes from ghostly Yoda, appearing in cackling, crackling form, talking about failure. Luke can’t even burn the ancient Jedi texts; ghost Yoda has to do that for him.
Wait, isn’t this true: Yoda is to Young Luke in “Empire” as Old Luke is to Rey in “Last Jedi”? So why is Rey’s mission to recruit old Luke to battle while young Luke’s mission was to just get trained by Yoda? How come Obi-wan didn’t instruct him, “Luke, go to the Dagobah system and find Yoda and bring him back to lead the rebellion because that dude can seriously kick ass”? Why weren’t the Emperor and Darth worried about Yoda returning the way Snoke/Kylo Ren are worried about Luke? Because Yoda was super old? Because his powers were weak, old man? Maybe. But at the time, his powers were still greater than young Luke’s.
Are Star Wars’ powers getting weak, old man? We keep seeing the same movie. Once again we watch our young hero (Luke/Rey) tossed about by the wizened Sith Lord (The Emperor/Snoke), while the Dark Side disciple (Darth/Kylo) stands to one side deciding whose side he’s on. At least the editing was better this time around. At least victory was a matter of intellect—hiding your true intentions. And at least Kylo did what he did for dark reasons: power. Still, I’m curious: Didn’t Snoke know the story of the Emperor’s fall? And doesn’t this galaxy have its version of George Santayana? Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. Ditto those who have lousy screenwriters.
You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis? Where’s the pleasure in a big red empty? And what is Snoke doing while waiting for his 1:1s? Does he have hobbies? Has he tried moisturizer? Visine?
The movie does go off in some new directions—notably with Rey’s lineage, which isn’t related at all to the Skywalker/Kenobi clan. Thank god. She’s a nothing from nowhere. She’s the exceptional borne from the unexceptional. In this way, the Force is being democratized. Cf., the kid before the end credits who uses the Force to grab his broom.
“Last Jedi” also trots out the subversive—in the sense of subverting usual tropes—with its newfound feminism: Rose Tico schooling Finn; Leia and Holdo schooling Poe Dameron. But it feels like faux feminism to me.
Let me get this out of the way first: Leia slaps Poe Dameron for losing lives while destroying a dreadnought? I get the demotion, or worse, for not following orders; but a slap?
Besides, the whole “hot-dog flyboys wrong/calm women right” dynamic feels forced; it feels like the movie stacked the decks to make its “gotcha!” point. First they cast Laura Dern (never a good sign) as Vice Admiral Holdo; then they doll her up with purple hair and an odd turtlenecky dress so she looks like a cross between a “Hunger Games” socialite and an “Alice in Wonderland” sketch. Military rep aside, she seems like the unlikeliest admiral in the world. Which is why Poe leads others in a mutiny when they discover she’s abandoning ship. Actually that’s not why they mutiny. They mutiny because she doesn’t explain why they’re abandoning ship. To anyone. It would’ve been so easy, too. “Hey, let’s take these undetected transports to the rebel base on Crait so we can fight another day. Who’s with me?” But nah. And the movie doesn’t own up to this. The movie thinks Poe is a hothead, and wrong, and she’s a leader, and wise.
Doesn’t Poe also get the (dis)credit for the idiot Canto Bight subplot? But that’s a Rose Tico/Finn/Maz Kanata operation from the get-go. And how stupid is Finn in all this? The place is Vegas, full of rich, drunk, gambling fools, and he’s luxuriating in it. He needs RT to tell him look beneath the surface to find the exploitation. I wanted to smack my head—or his. That whole subplot is a longshot that never pays off. Worse, the partner in crime they pick up, DJ (Benicio del Toro, the best thing in the movie, btw), gives away Holdo’s plan and the transports get zapped like so much popcorn. Which leads to Holdo’s big sacrifice.
How come this hasn’t been tried before? Hyperspace the shit out of a giant Imperial/First Order ship? Kamikaze it. Cut it in two. Of course, for all the destruction, no main characters buy it. Fancy that. Finn and Rose are over there, as is, I believe, Rey. Not to mention Kylo Ren and Gen. Hux—the perpetual Abel to Kylo’s Cain. All survive. They don't even lose a hand.
On Crait, Finn attempts his own sacrifice. He’s going to ram his speeder down the throat of the First Order, but at the last minute Rose’s speeder comes from the side to clip his and take him out of harm’s way. A few objections:
- Attempting to rescue someone by ramming your vehicle into theirs at full speed? In the real world, the odds are pretty high both of you will die.
- How is this logistically possible?
She veers off but he keeps racing in a straight line. But somehow, taking a circuitous route, she beats his straight line and gets ahead of him? That only works if: 1) her speeder is speedier; 2) she’s a better pilot. And if it’s 2) add that to the list of things Finn can’t do. One wonders, between this, and the Vegas infatuation, and constantly trying to run away, why we care about him at all.
But at least Luke gets to go out with a bang.
I’m not the only one who had a problem with Luke’s outcome, by the way. Luke himself wasn’t thrilled. From a Vanity Fair piece on Mark Hamill:
“I at one point had to say to Rian [Johnson, director], ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.’”
That said, that final battle, with its twist, is pretty good. He gets to fight, or “fight,” but remain true to his last-act “plague on both your houses” persona. He gives the rebels the time to escape in the Millennium Falcon, which he called “a piece of junk” a long time ago, and which just keeps going. Chewie just keeps going. But he’s a bit player now, as is C3PO and R2D2. They come on, play their greatest hits—“Help me Obi-wan”; “The odds against our survival are...”—then are shown the door. They’re old tech and no longer supported by the machinery.
Anyone know why Luke buys it? Is it the strain of projecting his form across the galaxy? Or was it just time to die? For all my problem with his hermitage, they give him a good end. He gets to stare at the setting sun one last time—as a young Luke once stared at the setting suns of Tatooine, longing for adventure. He certainly found it. He’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Movie Review: Youth (2017)
In “Youth,” Feng Xiaogang’s sweeping tale of a cultural troupe in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, one of our main characters is He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), a young dancer from the provinces with a sad backstory. Her father was reeducated during the Cultural Revolution, and her mother remarried; Xiaoping has since taken her step-father’s name, but he ignores her, and village peers bully her. She’s hoping for better now that she’s in the PLA.
She doesn’t get it. Is it simply first impressions? Mean girls? When she arrives, her clothes smell (it costs to shower where she lived), and she sweats more than the other girls, and, despite her cheery demeanor, she can’t live this down. It doesn’t help that she borrows the military uniform of Dingding (Yang Caiyu) to take a picture to send back home—specifically to her father, to whom she’s loyal, and who isn’t long for this world—nor that she doesn’t own up to it when confronted. There’s also an incident with a padded bra, which is apparently scandalous. Bottom line: She’s “other” in this troupe. She’s mistreated, a punchline.
But boy can she dance. And when the group is readying to perform before cavalry officers in the mountains, the lead dancer, as in a classic Hollywood melodrama, injures herself. It’s Xiaoping, the understudy, who is called upon to save the day.
Except by this point she’s done with the troupe—less for the way they’ve treated her than the way they treated Liu Feng (Huang Xuan), a selfless, almost saintly figure, who is kicked out for indescretions. Specifically: He spent years doing good deeds for Dingding because he was hopelessly in love with her; and when he finally confesses this to her, and tries to embrace her, he’s caught (“caught”) and condemned.
So Xiaoping, done with it all, feigns illness to get out of dancing the lead role. Ah, but the political commissar realizes she’s faking, and, in his wisdom, decides to see where she’s going with it. He takes her on stage before the cavalry officers, tells them that she’s sick but has agreed to perform for them anyway. The troops chant her name: “Learn from Comrade Xiaoping!” they cry. The music wells up, and the camera closes in on her, saluting the troops, overcome with emotion.
And then she shows them what she can do.
Except that doesn’t happen. Instead we cut away, and the next time we see Xiaoping she’s working as a nurse on the front lines of the Sino-Vietnamese War. We never get the big dance number the movie seems to be building toward.
It’s even weirder than that. Because the big dance number was actually filmed. It was in the movie when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It’s even on YouTube. You can see it here. But it’s not in the movie I saw in downtown Seattle last weekend. And apparently it’s not in the film released in China on Dec. 15.
And what about that release? For a film from Feng Xiaogang, the Steven Spielberg of China, “Youth” had a really rocky time getting before the public. It was supposed to be released in late September, just prior to “National Day,” October 1, but was pulled by the Chinese government at the last minute. There’s an extremely informative article on the background to all of this by Richard Yu on the Cinema Escapist site, but even he doesn’t know why the film was pulled. He simply thinks the politics of the film, such as they are, had nothing to do with it.
So did something happen between when it was pulled and when it was released? Did Feng take some extra scissors to his project? Did someone else?
It’s the real thing
“Youth” is based upon a popular novel by Yan Geling, who was herself a dancer in a PLA troop in the 1970s, then became a journalist during the Sino-Vietnamese War. Essentially she’s Suizi (Elane Zhong), who narrates the film, and who’s part of the troup’s two unrequited love stories. Just as Liu Feng does everything for the shallow Dingding (for naught), so she does everything for the callow Chen Can (Wang TianChen) for naught. The Chinese do love their weepies. They love the scent of bitter almonds.
Me, I love this period in Chinese history. In 10 years, China went from the Cultural Revolution, when a whiff of westernism, let alone capitalism, was enough to be reeducated; to “to get rich is glorious,” when the machinery of capitalism was put into place and began to roar. The movie reflects that leap. The first thing we see is a giant mural of Mao Zedong; one of the last, a giant ad for Coca-Cola.
I admit that when the war started I went, “Wait, what? A Sino-Vietnamese war? In the ’70s?” Turns out it wasn’t much to brag about. The Chinese backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and when Vietnam desposed them, China took offense and attacked. (Most wars have suspect provenances, but starting one to keep Pol Pot in power has to be at the bottom.) The war lasted a month and cost China between 9,000 to 62,000 lives, depending on who you believe. Here, it costs the ever-helpful Xiaoping her sanity (temporarily) and the ever-selfless Liu Feng his arm (permanently). We do get a lovely scene where Xiaoping’s old troupe performs for the war’s wounded, and she, startled into recognition by the music, winds up outside, dancing on the grass under the stars.
Shortly after, amid tears, the troupe is disbanded. Economic reforms are on the way. Capitalism is on its way.
To get rich may be glorious but it’s not portrayed so here. The people who get rich are the Chan Cans of the world—the opportunists. The Xiaopings and Lei Fengs get screwed again. The last time we see them, they’re huddled together on a train station bench in the mid-90s. Suizi’s voiceover lets us know they remain together, unmarried and without children, and show up at a reunion in 2016. But she says she won’t show us those scenes. She says it’s better to remember everyone as they were when they were young.
These days are ours
This is the second international film in the last three years to use “Youth” for its English language title—after Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film—and there's some interesting differences between the two. Most obviously, the western film focuses on the aged (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel), while the Eastern film on the young (to the point of casting unfamous actors in the leads, and not showing us how they aged). It’s the opposite of how we perceive each culture: the west discards its aged, the east reveres its elders. I hope China doesn’t give up on that as it moves to the center of the world stage.
Overall, I enjoyed “Youth”—I was certainly swept up by it—but there’s a big disconnect that isn’t addressed. On some level, we’re all nostalgic for our youth, as is our narrator, Suizi, as is the film itself. Which means she/it yearns for this troupe, full of mean people, and this period, the Cultural Revolution, a time when society was upended, education reviled, priceless artifacts destroyed, and millions of lives ruined. Not exactly “Happy Days.” Not even “That ’70s Show.”
The movie also should've given us Xiaoping’s triumphant dance scene. I mean, c’mon.
Movie Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)
I’m not a fan of shitty movies. I have friends who are, who gather monthly to drink, laugh, and do the whole “MST3K” shtick with this or that piece of crap. Sometimes it sounds fun. It's just not for me.
I’ve never seen “The Room,” for example, a 2003 vanity project by a long-haired, pockmarked, deep-pocketed, thick-accented dude named Tommy Wiseau, who not only stars but writes, directs and produces. He’s good at none of these things. He’s notoriously bad at all of them. The movie is notoriously bad. It’s the “so bad it’s good” movie of the 21st century, and, over the years, has acquired a cult following, including various Hollywood stars: among them, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and James Franco.
“The Disaster Artist,” directed by and starring Franco as Tommy, chronicles its making. It’s the opposite of “The Room”: it's gotten raves: 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, top 10 lists, WGA nomination. It’s the acclaimed movie about the making of a bad one—a la “Ed Wood” or “Boogie Nights.”
Here’s my question: Does “The Disaster Artist” make “The Room” worse? Somehow less fun?
A cable kind of guy
I began to understand how huge all of this was last month, at Christmastime, when my nephew kept repeating the following line of dialogue to me. It's almost like his generation's “wild and crazy guy”:
I did not hit her, it’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did naaaht. Oh hi, Mark.
It's from an infamously bad scene in “The Room.” You can see it here.
You can also see how it’s redone in “The Disaster Artist.” Franco's scene is good: the number of takes it took; how everyone on set knew the line except for the actor, Tommy Wiseau; how when he finally nailed it, in a manner so bad it became a joke, everyone broke into applause—because at least it had been done.
But ... Franco doesn’t quite nail it, does he? He doesn’t get the quick glance over to Mark before tossing the bottle on the ground. He doesn’t get the squinched eyes on “Naaaaht.” You look at the difference between the two scenes and wonder if Franco isn't a good-enough actor to act as badly as Tommy Wiseau.
Plus ... isn't he’s kind of menacing?
That’s what surprised me when I watched some YouTube scenes from “The Room” after seeing “The Disaster Artist.” Tommy Wiseau may be weird and off, but he’s not as weird and off as James Franco playing Tommy. There’s an innocence in the original that isn’t in “The Disaster Artist.”
Indeed, if “The Disaster Artist” reminds me of any movie, it’s “The Cable Guy,” starring Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick. Each is about a vaguely menacing loner who insinuates himself into the life of a well-meaning guy.
The well-meaning guy here is Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a San Francisco actor who’s too uptight onstage. That’s why he admires Tommy, who puts it all out there. In their acting class, Tommy does an extended version of Brando doing Stella; at one point, he literally climbs the walls. Greg wants to be like that.
But the closer he gets to Tommy, the more he realizes how odd he is. The hair, the thousand-yard stare, the Eastern European accent. The insistence that—despite the accent—he’s an American from New Orleans.
Franco piles on oddities of his own. Tommy does Brando in acting class but he’s never seen a James Dean movie? But it allows us to watch the “tearing me apart” scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” which Tommy incorporates into/steals for “The Room.” As with tossing a football around with Greg. Even though he can’t toss a football around.
Despite his near-comatose look, Tommy is a go-getter with a carpe diem attitude—at least when it comes to Greg. A move to LA seems impossible to Greg until Tommy says they can stay at his apartment down there. He has one. He’s loaded. But he seems fixated on Greg to an unhealthy degree. When the two are at a bar, and Greg starts chatting up a cute bartender, Amber (Alison Brie), Tommy demands they leave. And when Greg moves out to move in with Amber? It’s like a betrayal.
Is it because Tommy is lonely without Greg? Because Greg is his only friend? Or is it something deeper? The movie never answers these questions, merely insinuates. It never answers who Tommy is, or where he’s from, or how he got rich. It almost delights in not answering.
Later, when Greg laments the endless, fruitless auditions, and says the only way they can be in a movie is make one themselves, a light bulb goes on over Tommy’s head, and “The Room,” in which Tommy mistreats nearly everyone on set, and which is about how everyone betrays the upstanding hero, is made.
Thus the implication of “The Disaster Artist”: that Tommy makes “The Room” to keep Greg close, then makes it all about Greg’s betrayal of him.
That’s some fucked-up shit. And does it make “The Room” itself less fun as a result? I guess people who like shitty movies will have to answer that one.
For the birds
So Tommy spends millions of dollars to make a horrible movie while being a horrible person in the process. But this is Hollywood, so we need a happy ending. More: Franco and others like “The Room.” They know it's a horrible movie but they don't feel it's a horrible movie. It's given them too much joy. And that's their out. That's their happy ending.
In “Ed Wood,” the best director in the world, Orson Welles, tells the worst director in the world, Ed Wood, to keep going: “Visions are worth fighting for,“ he says. ”Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?”
Here, it’s something similar. Though the movie is a disaster, though at the premiere every winds up laughing at it, Greg convinces Tommy that that’s a good thing. Did Hitchcock ever make people laugh like this? No. So in this way Tommy is better than Hitchcock.
Yeah. He is naaaht.
Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
For a director as esteemed as Guillermo del Toro, it’s kind of shocking how few esteemed movies he’s made. It’s really just “Pan’s Labyrinth” and this. Everything else is lesser fare (“Crimson Peak”), B-comic movies (“Blade II,” “Hellboy”) and giant stupid shit (“Pacific Rim”). He’s got one Oscar nom (original screenplay, “Pan’s”), two BAFTA noms (both for “Pan’s”) and a shitload of sci-fi awards.
I guess that’s who he really is: a sci-fi geek.
As for this fairy tale, fish-out-of-water love story? Patricia loved it from beginning to end. I liked it. But you know what I liked more? I liked Del Toro talking about it.
In December, he was on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and pointed out that “The Shape of Water” is really a revisionist take on “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” It’s the outsider’s take—the creature’s take. The woman, rather than being desired, is desirous. The creature is a creature, but benevolent and intelligent and curious. The true villains are the white men in charge: scientists and military officials and bureaucrats. I wonder if del Toro considered having Michael Shannon smoke a pipe throughout—like a ’50s era, B-movie scientist hero.
Then he goes deeper:
The screenplay makes a point of showing you that the characters that have the power of speech, that talk, have more of a trouble communicating with each other than the characters that just are.
That's nice. The movie is set in the early 1960s, one of the most frigid parts of the Cold War, but del Toro lets us know why the film is relevant today:
Every time we talk about emotions we do so very guardedly and with the fear of appearing disingenuous. And I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote unquote, “the other”—as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face every day in the news and politics.
Listen to the whole thing. His accent alone makes it worth it.
As for the movie?
OK, so I’m a worst-case-scenario person. Sue me. I just couldn’t get past the stupidity of our heroes, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), stealing an Amazonian river-god from the U.S. government in 1962, right under the nose of a borderline psychotic head of security, Richard Strickland (Shannon, essentially reprising his “Boardwalk Empire” character), and then ... not doing anything with him. For days. They just fill up the bathtub and let him flop around in there. Then Elisa has sex with him. She fills her entire bathroom with water and has sex with him. Mind you, she lives above a movie theater, and the building is old and made of wood. Fuck the shape of water, what about its weight? That’s risking a lot for one fairy-tale schtup. It’s not exactly staying on the down-low.
Even before then, in the government facility, isn’t Elisa quick to embrace the creature? To assume he’s not harmful? Here’s an egg, here’s another. You have claws and fangs but what the hell, I’ll just hang poolside with you. Within reach.
BTW: He is harmful. Ask the cat.
And what about the cat? Don’t they get over her pretty easily? If this things bites the head off Jellybean, I don’t think I’ll risk my ass helping him escape. Not that he’d get anywhere near Jellybean; she’d mess him up.
With most of this, del Toro is placing his needs as a filmmaker (to create the visually and emotionally dazzling) above the needs of his characters. He’s doing what he wants rather than what they need.
That said, Hawkins is wonderful as Elisa, a mute janitor at a government lab, the lowest person on the totem pole, who, despite her mousy exterior, has an inner steel and her own, full, no-apologies sex life. Some of my favorite scenes are her confrontations with the bullying, supertall Strickland. How her eyes don’t budge. How her gaze undoes him because it doesn't bend to his will.
I also loved Michael Stuhlbarg as the most sensitive undercover Russian spy in the world. He brought true emotion, true feeling, to what might otherwise have been a by-the-way character. When he’s killed, shot by his own, it almost physically pained me.
I just wanted the movie to make more sense. Even Cold-War fairy tales should have their own internal logic.
Movie Review: Girls Trip (2017)
I wasn’t planning on seeing this, but then the New York Film Critics Circle tapped Tiffany Haddish for supporting actress over Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird” and Holly Hunter in “The Big Sick,” so I had to check it out.
No doubt, Haddish is the best thing in the movie, the only one who’s laugh-out-loud funny. But choosing her and this role over Metcalf and Hunter? The hell? Does NYFCC have a history of going with broad comedies? Did they, for example, choose Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” a role which garnered a best supporting actress nomination at the 2011 Oscars? Nope. They went with Jessica Chastain for three films: “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter.” So why this one? Why now?
Plus “Bridesmaids” was actually a good movie. Remember how it opens? With Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph having conversations that felt as intimate as any lifelong friendship? It felt personal and specific and funny.
“Girls Trip” is the opposite of that.
A mile away
We’re told that four friends graduated from college in 1995 and went their separate ways. And each became a plot point waiting to turn:
- Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) is super-successful, “the next Oprah,” with a line of books, shows, products she pushes with her ex-football star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter of “Luke Cage”), encouraging women to “have it all.” Let me guess: He’s cheating on her.
- Sasha Franklin (Queen Latifah) is a struggling former journalist who runs a celebrity-gossip blog. Bills are piling up and backers are demanding more dirt and more clicks. Let me guess: She’ll realize the error of her dirt-digging ways.
- Lisa Cooper (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a single mom so anal she borders on obsessive-compulsive. Let me guess: She’ll let her freak flag fly.
Yes, yes, and yes.
The last of the four is Dina (Haddish), a take-no-prisoners party girl who refuses to be fired from her office job for physically attacking the coworker that stole her Go-Gurt. The four are reunited when Ryan, on the verge of her Oprahesque deal, flies them to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival, where she is keynote speaker.
During the course of the weekend, things get crazy. Lisa accidentally pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street and hooks up with a studly man half her age; Dina pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street on purpose and gets the others effed up on absinthe; Sasha keeps pondering whether to go public with photos of Stewart in flagrante delicto with an Instagram queen (all bootie, boobs, and bitchiness), while Ryan has to decide whether to give Stewart, and possibly that Oprahesque business opportunity, the heave-ho.
It’s obvious what Ryan needs to do but it takes her the entire movie to do it. And then of course it turns out OK. The Oprahesque deal goes through anyway—Oprah didn’t need a Stewart, after all—while Sasha is rewarded with a partnership. It makes up for the time Ryan totally threw her over for Stewart—a key fact that’s revealed only two-thirds of the way through.
What’s not funny
The obvious plot turns might have been forgivable if any of this had been funny. It isn’t. Haddish is funny. Her demonstration of the grapefruit method had me laughing so hard I missed the next 15 seconds of dialogue. I think I had a few other laughing jags courtesy of Haddish, who, not coincidentally, is the only character who doesn't have an obvious plot-turn.
That’s the lesson. The obvious isn’t funny. Bullshit isn’t funny. The other characters are obvious and bullshit. Bravo to Haddish and thanks for the laughs, but unlike NYFCC I stop there.