Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) * * *

Fahrenheit 11/9 Movie Review

Directed by:  Michael Moore

Starring:  Michael Moore

"How the fuck did this happen?"   This is Michael Moore's primary question two years removed from a Donald Trump presidential election win which few saw coming...although Moore himself  famously predicted a Trump win following the 2016 Republican National Convention.    Moore said he made the prediction in order to stir complacent voters who thought a Hillary Clinton win was in the bag.    It wasn't.    The reasons are myriad, including a complacent Clinton campaign in which she barely visited or did not normally blue states like Michigan or Wisconsin.    Nor the area in between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.    Those three states went red that night, and although Clinton received three million more popular votes, Trump won the electoral college which ultimately determines the presidency.

Moore likens Trump's walk to the stage on election night as a "perp walk".   He says of Trump's acceptance speech: "Never has anyone been so unhappy to win the presidency,"    I don't know how true that is, but Trump looks awfully dour.    If you follow Moore's reasoning, Trump originally entered the race as a negotiation tactic to make himself the highest paid TV personality on NBC.    After NBC fired Trump for racist comments made about Mexicans during the initial stages of the campaign, Trump figured what the hell and made a real go of the campaign.    Moore rails against the electoral college, which was founded to appease slave states during the writing of the Constitution, and against the media for its inordinate amount of coverage of Trump during the campaign trail.    The networks loved Trump and put his kisser on screen any time it could.    In one instance, CNN kept its cameras on an empty podium during a campaign rally in which Trump was fashionably late by forty minutes.

Moore's anger is directed at Trump during the first twenty minutes of Fahrenheit 11/9, but then examines a broken political system which has fostered apathy among voters.   In Moore's home state of Michigan, 10,000 eligible voters didn't vote, and Trump won the state by 8,000 votes.   If 10,000 more people voted, maybe Michigan would've remained blue.    But, after everyone's handling of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, maybe not.    Moore also studies this years-long issue as if he were covering a crime scene, and it is hard to argue against that belief.    Thousands of Michiganders are sick or dead from drinking the contaminated Flint drinking water, and the problem is still ongoing.  Then-President Obama's 2016 visit did not help matters, as he inexplicably drank the water in front of the press and a stunned crowd of supporters, which lent credence to Gov. Snyder's lies of the water being safe.

Moore covers a lot of ground in Fahrenheit 11/9, and sometimes the lack of focus hurts the overall narrative.    Moore conducts more of his famous stunts, including delivering a truckload of Flint water to Gov. Snyder's mansion, and dubbing Trump's voice over a Hitler speech to a Nazi rally.    Moore's comparisons of Trump's rise to Nazism are compelling, but the dubbing is overkill.    We also see Moore's interviews with the Parkland shooting survivors and newcomer Democrats who won surprising primary victories in recent Republican strongholds, which offers a ray of hope to Moore as he fights against the lethargy and infighting within the Democratic Party. 

Fahrenheit 9/11 was Moore's 2004 film which skewered then-President George W. Bush's administration.    Fahrenheit 11/9 documents one with an even more dangerous trajectory, if you can fathom that.    The saddest and inescapable part of the Trump presidency is the same as the rise of Nazism in 1930's Germany.    If people were not behind it, and if enough people didn't believe the lies which were fed to them daily, then such rises to power would not have occurred.    If you want to compare Trump to Hitler, that is one argument which can be made.    But, Moore unflinchingly compares Trump's followers to Hitler's, which makes this an even more frightening proposition. 

Moore is able to have his initial question answered in a sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic way.    He seems to be more of a doomsayer in Fahrenheit 11/9 than his previous films, mostly because he is uncertain whether the political landscape will change enough to get rid of Trumpism.  But, he remains tireless in his fight to urge people to vote and not sit on the sidelines.    We can't hope for a savior like Robert Mueller or impeachment.    We must take action, as many did in Moore's film, but the question remains:   Will enough people do so?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Wife (2018) * * * 1/2

 The Wife Movie Review

Directed by: Bjorn Runge

Starring:  Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern

We first meet the Castlemans in 1992 Connecticut, in which Joseph (Pryce) is a hailed writer who just received word he will be awarded the Nobel Prize and his wife Joan (Close) tends to his needs including keeping him on schedule, ensuring he takes his heart medication, and keeps his ego in check.   Or tries to.   The last part is the toughest.    It takes flying to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for the couple to recognize how fragile their relationship is.    It isn't easy for Joan to remain in the shadows of her famed husband, in more ways than one, even though she tries to put on a happy face and a faux presentation of modesty. 

The Wife is an intelligent, engrossing film about a marriage which feels more like a partnership, with Joseph getting the glory as the famed writer and Joan resenting his ego, infidelities, and vanity in the cold shadows.    The Nobel Prize is both the best and worst thing to happen to their marriage, and the events which occur test it thoroughly.    The Wife also flashes back to the late 1950's, with Joseph as a married fledgling writer/college professor and Joan as a student/fledgling writer who writes an extraordinary short story which she is compelled to keep hidden from the world.    A published author (McGovern) tells Joan of how female authors don't sell and in some cases the male-dominated publishing industry wouldn't even consider publishing her work.   So, she gives up writing and allows Joseph to gain the glory of a stellar career and settle in as wife number two. 

A nosy biographer (Slater), who longs to published Joseph's authorized biography, but nevertheless will write an unauthorized one full of potentially salacious scandal which will no doubt interest readers of Joseph's work.    Slater performs a delicate balancing act of flattery and flirtation with Joan, posing as either a potential friend or someone who can expose some of the deviousness within the family previously hidden from the public.    There is also an issue with their son David (Irons), who wants to be a writer, but finds approval from his famous father to be lacking, and finds himself as a willing listener to Slater's theories about his family.

Close and Pryce have tremendous fun as the long-married couple who have played public roles which belie their private ones.    Joan knows what makes her husband tick, and has seemingly come to terms with his history of skirt chasing.   Or has she?   And what about Joseph?   How insecure and egotistical must someone be to bask in the sunlight as he has knowing full well what it must be doing to his spouse?    Or knowing the truth?    He tries to give credit to her in his Nobel acceptance speeches, but to her, those are just more ironic twists of the screw. 

The Wife is efficiently directed by Bjorn Runge, who moves the story along and keeps us involved in this complex marriage which we know will end sadly and with truths that won't see the light of day.  The Wife is a study in the complicated issues of gender equality told within the microcosm of the Castlemans' relationship.    And we learn why the movie is called The Wife and not The Writer in ways we couldn't have possibly foreseen. 

Secretary (2002) * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Steven Shainberg

Starring:  Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie

It caught my eye that the dominant, sadist attorney in Secretary is named E. Edward Grey, while the dominant sadist in the Fifty Shades of Grey series is also named Grey.   Coincidence or did this film influence the Fifty Shades series?    I don't know, but both approach the subject of a sadomasochistic relationship as a kinky love story.    The characters in Secretary are more complex and involving, which carries the film about three-quarters of the way through until it tries to shoehorn in a happy ending which doesn't work.    The final scenes of bliss feel tacked on, as if there were a darker ending which test audiences or executives didn't care for. 

Instead of discussing the ending, I will discuss the setup.   Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young woman recently released from a mental institution.    She cuts herself with needles and other objects as a way of coping with her myriad insecurities and pain.    After a course or two at business school, where she learns to be a decent typist, she applies as a secretary for fastidious, compulsive attorney Mr. Grey (Spader), who not unreasonably doesn't like spelling errors on correspondence to clients.    Mr. Grey, however, does not merely tell Lee to shape up, he corrects her with a series of spankings and other S & M related punishments which Lee finds she likes.   Mr. Grey also tells Lee what to eat, how much to eat, and to walk home instead of getting rides from her overprotective mother (Warren).

Since Lee enjoys the S & M, naturally she will make mistakes on purpose so she can be corrected, but Mr. Grey is too wily to fall for that.    She screws up and is upset when Mr. Grey doesn't punish her, so she thinks of new ways to get his attention, including sending him an earthworm in the mail. 
Lee soon falls for Mr. Grey, or at least thinks she does, while Mr. Grey remains closed-off and isolated from her and everyone else he comes into contact with.    His office is situated in what looks like an abandoned church, with the decor looking like a fashionable S & M parlor complete with phallic symbols in the stained glass and a leather cushion door to Mr. Grey's office. 

Things go along well enough for Mr. Grey and Lee, until they suddenly don't.   Mr. Grey finds he may care for Lee more than other secretaries who served him before, but he can't allow himself to feel that way and coldly disposes of Lee.    She has a straight-arrow, awkward boyfriend (Davies) who doesn't even come close to satisfying her sexually since he only does straight sex.   When she tries to entice him to spank her, he doesn't respond, and she is left with feelings of longing for the emotionally detached Mr. Grey.

Spader and Gyllenhaal play nicely off each other in their emotional cat and mouse game.   Spader excels at playing stuffy yuppies with secrets in his heart, while Gyllenhaal is naive, somewhat innocent, but knows what makes her happy, which is something that has eluded her for the first twenty-plus years of her life.    She is very good here.    But, then the movie steps wrong after Mr. Grey and Lee separate.    The movie's ending is unworthy of the complexities which came before it.  Lee gets what she wants, which is for Mr. Grey to open up, but not every love story's ending should be a happy one.    The movie is about the denial of feelings and the inability of Lee to get what she truly wants out of Mr. Grey.    Then, Mr. Grey suddenly turns into a pushover because the screenplay says so, and that will not do.   

Envy (2004) * * *

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Directed by:  Barry Levinson

Starring:  Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Rachel Weisz, Amy Poehler, Christopher Walken

Nick (Black) and Tim (Stiller) are neighbors who carpool to work daily for their nine-to-five drudgery at a local plant.    Nick has another of his whacky, get-rich-quick ideas called "Vapoorize", an aerosol spray that you spray on dog excrement and it vanishes into thin air.    Where does the poo go?   Who cares?    You won't need those pesky bags anymore.    Nick offers Tim a 50/50 partnership, which Tim declines because he thinks the product won't take off.    But, almost overnight, it does take off.    Nick becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams and builds an obnoxious mansion, while Tim gnashes his teeth in envy from his modest home across the street.  

Tim can't escape Nick's display of wealth.   It is in his face every day.   He finds no solace in television because Nick's Vapoorize infomercials air constantly.    Tim's wife (Weisz) drinks far too much while reminding Tim that he could've been a 50/50 partner.    Regret and envy run about 50/50 in Tim's brain.    He tries to get away from Nick by taking his family on a vacation in a shack in the woods, but the homeless, crazy J-Man (Walken) learns of Tim's dilemma in a local bar and further fans the flames of his ill feelings towards Nick.    Tim must take action, but what exactly?    It's not he has the wherewithal to invent something better.  

We think we know where Envy is headed, but it surprises us.    For one thing, Nick does not turn into an insufferable jerk.    He loves Tim and thinks he is sharing his good fortune with him, without realizing what building a mansion across the street is doing to his friend.    Tim doesn't exactly hate Nick as much as he resents him and beats himself up for not saying yes to the partnership.    This resentment causes bad things to happen, some unintentionally, which I won't reveal.     Stiller remains the undisputed world champion of the slow burn which ignites into a volcanic tirade against those who make him angry.    We can understand his feelings, while wanting to slap him upside the head for not at least humoring Nick and saying yes to the silly proposal.

Then, there is the Vapoorize itself.    People ask where the poop goes after it is zapped away.   It must go somewhere, and soon we find out where, which isn't good for business and even less so for Tim, who finally turns the corner in his relationship with Nick only to have these complexities pop up.   The guy can't catch a break.   Then, there is the threatening J-Man, who demands blackmail money for things Tim does to Nick that he shouldn't have because of his envious mindset.  

Envy was a notorious box office flop which I enjoyed, mostly because it zigs where we think it will zag, and gives us some depth in the performances.    Envy is a comedy, but the harsh emotions flying around provides a darkly effective undercurrent.    We can identify with the people and wonder if we would behave like them if we were Tim or Nick, or heck even the J-Man.    We hope not, but human nature can't guarantee anything.

A Simple Favor (2018) * *

A Simple Favor Movie Review

Directed by:  Paul Feig

Starring:  Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Jean Smart, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini

I enjoyed the buildup more than the payoff in A Simple Favor.    Until the final thirty minutes, when the mystery was solved in clunky fashion, A Simple Favor was an effective, dark thriller with comic undertones.    But, the resolution wasn't worthy of the setup, and we walk away disappointed at a movie which could've been a gem.    Where did it step wrong?    And why? 

There is a mystery indeed.   I will tread lightly on the details.  We first meet Stephanie (Kendrick), a widow and mom who runs a video blog telling moms how to cook, bake, and make cute trinkets.    Her son goes to the same private school as the son of Emily (Lively), who emerges from a sports car in the rain to pick up her child looking all sleek, stylish, and uber chic.   Stephanie is enthralled by Emily, and is further so when they become friends.    Emily's home is an interior designer's wet dream.   It looks more like a museum than a home, and Emily guzzles martinis as if Prohibition were returning soon.

Emily is complicated, which is likely what draws the simpler and more awkward Stephanie to her.   She speaks frankly (sometimes too much), frets about her financial status, has a high-paying, yet high-stress job, and laments her husband no longer being a famous writer, but instead is now an anonymous college professor.    Something about Emily doesn't fit in the world of play dates and birthday parties.   One day, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son from school and disappears without a trace.

There are plenty of red flags with Emily, including her insistence Stephanie delete the picture she just took of her. and Emily's husband Sean's (Golding-from Crazy Rich Asians) realization that he didn't know her as much as he thought.    I couldn't help but think of the recent, and far superior Searching's similar theme.    I won't reveal much more of the plot, since it requires we discover what happened and soon we find we can't endure another plot twist or surprise thrown in to jerk us around.    As strange as this may sound, I liked A Simple Favor more before the movie began to unravel itself layer by layer and I was underwhelmed.     I enjoyed the performances and the first 80 minutes, but then we realize we would've rather the magician not shown us how the trick was performed.    We would've just preferred to be fooled.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

White Boy Rick (2018) * 1/2

White Boy Rick Movie Review

Directed by:  Yann Demange

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Rory Cochrane, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, Eddie Marsan

White Boy Rick captures the gloom of 1980's Detroit right, but never gives us a reason to care about its subject.    By the age of 17, Rick Wershe, Jr. (Merritt) was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for running a small drug empire under the nose of the city's more powerful dealers, but are we supposed to be outraged because White Boy Rick (his nickname) was sentenced to a lengthier sentence than some murderers?    The movie leans toward that argument, stating in the epilogue about how long Rick served in prison for a "nonviolent offense".    He may not have actually fired a gun at anyone, but his product killed people.    Let's not forget he was only 17.   Give him a couple more years and he likely would've had to bust a cap in someone, considering his chosen profession.

Rick's sentence is immaterial because the story leading up to it plods along with characters drifting in and out of focus.    Sometimes characters pop up again after a long period offscreen just to remind us they're still in the movie.   Rick himself may or may not have been a fifteen year-old kingpin/FBI informant as the trailers promise, but boy is he dull.    I can't fault the Merritt performance because he isn't given much to play.    Rick doesn't inspire much sympathy or any compelling reason for why his story needed to be told.    He's sort of a drug kingpin and sort of an informant, and such a story can be made intriguing in the right hands, but here it is listless and lacking heat.

We first Rick at a gun show where he and his father Rick Sr. (McConaughey) manage to swing a good deal for themselves on some automatic weapons.    Rick Sr. sells the guns and modifies others.  He is a kind of, sort of legal arms dealer and kind of, sort of not.    He has his son sell guns with silencers to local drug dealers and Rick Jr. is suddenly part of the drug underworld.    His activities do not go unnoticed by local cops and FBI agents, who blackmail him into working undercover for them selling drugs in order to provide the agents with information on suppliers, deals, etc.    Oh, and they allow Rick Jr. to keep a share of the profits, so he saves up thousands of dollars as a drug dealer/unpaid FBI informant.

White Boy Rick's more effective moments involve Rick's sister Dawn (Powley) who is hooked on crack and is rescued by Rick Jr. and his father in a hellish crack den, reminding me of the harrowing similar scene in 1991's Jungle Fever.    Rick Jr. also has a child with a female acquaintance, which only served to remind me that the child's mother was in the movie earlier and that they shared a romantic moment in which they said they would take it slow.   That plan didn't work as intended for either person.   It is difficult thanks to the choppy editing, and many scenes being shot in near darkness, to keep track of the players. 

A lot happens to Rick Jr. on his way to prison at age 17, but he is a blank slate.   We don't feel we understand his motivations and we aren't inspired by his speech to his father to get into drug dealing as a way to save the family.    At times, it seems to be a struggle for this kid to raise his voice to a level of audible speech.    McConaughey has no such issues.    He is a wheeler dealer father who is forever promising better things on the horizon while remaining a loser.    White Boy Rick is about a family of losers who never rise above their loser tendencies.   What the filmmakers don't tell us or show us is why we need to know about them more so than thousands of other families and dealers who suffered the same or worse fates. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Brothers McMullen (1995) * * *

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Directed by:  Edward Burns

Starring:  Edward Burns, Mike McGlone, Jack Mulcahy, Connie Britton, Shari Albert, Maxine Bahns, Jennifer Jostyn,

Made on a $24,000 budget and financed by Edward Burns' credit cards, The Brothers McMullen was a darling of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and launched Burns' career as an actor and director.    I've likened him to an Irish Catholic Woody Allen.    Burns is as perplexed by relationships as Allen, but perhaps with a little less outward angst and a more optimistic outlook.    I've admired many of Burns' films, and the genesis of their appeal is evident in The Brothers McMullen.

Burns, McGlone, and Mulcahy play Barry, Patrick, and Jack McMullen respectively.    They are three brothers who find themselves living under the same roof shortly after their alcoholic father passes and their mother moves back to Ireland with her first love.    Each has his own issues with the women in their lives.    Jack is over 30, married to a nice schoolteacher named Molly (Britton), and their marriage appears to be normal, if not super passionate.    Jack soon develops wandering eyes for Ann (McKay) and moves hesitantly into an affair with her.    Jack consummates the affair and then promises to himself during the ride home he will never do that again...until the urge occurs to do that again.

Patrick is the youngest of the three, who has a girlfriend he doesn't want to marry or move in with because that would be living in sin, but soon his girl reveals she is pregnant and Patrick's Catholic guilt won't allow him to have an abortion, yet he doesn't want to marry someone he doesn't love.    Barry is the middle child, a writer with writer's block who doesn't want a relationship, until one finds him in the form of actress Audrey (Bahns), who forces Barry to reevaluate his standards.     The underlying conflicts in the brothers are caused by their relationship with the Catholic church.     They feel guilt about certain church teachings, but not others, and feel remorse over selective sins, but not necessarily all of them.  

Are the church's laws relevant for today?    Having an abortion is a sin, but contraception is also considered sinful, so one can't use contraception to prevent a pregnancy.    Of course, abstinence is the best solution for this then, no?    Yeah, right.     Patrick and Jack have the biggest moral dilemmas, while Barry has to figure himself out or risk losing Audrey.    The characters have meaningful conversations about their issues, with Barry providing an analogy comparing men to bananas.    I enjoyed the realistic dialogue, and the way the actors say it.    The Brothers McMullen has a grainy, documentary feel to it.    We feel like we are witnesses to their lives in an intimate way.

We hope the brothers can all find a way to stop fighting happiness and embrace it.    This isn't always the case with people.    People at times act against their better natures in the name of what they feel at the moment, which makes them human.    Logically, the people in The Brothers McMullen know what the right thing is, but logic tends to give way when such strong emotions threaten to overtake the brain.    The Brothers McMullen understands that and we have a perceptive, intelligent romantic comedy because of it. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Peppermint (2018) * *

Peppermint Movie Review

Directed by:  Pierre Morel

Starring:  Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher, Jr., Juan Pablo Raba

We know going in Peppermint is a preposterous revenge fantasy in which an ordinary mother opens up a can of whoop ass on the drug dealer and his henchmen who murdered her family.    The mother, Riley North (Garner) transforms herself into a Terminator within the five years between the murders and her return to exact vengeance.    This is the perfect movie for those who post Facebook memes in which they promise retributions just short of disembowelment if you ever mess with their child.   

I allow leeway to movies like this.    I know the only suspense is how creatively Riley will dispose of her intended victims, but some of those methods are head scratchers, such as when she knocks off the three men who actually shot her family and somehow hangs their bodies on a Ferris wheel.    How did she manage to lug the bodies there?    I know she is freakishly strong now, but still.    And how did she do this without anyone noticing?    Did she knock out the security guards?   Were there any?   The mind boggles.

As Peppermint opens, Riley is seen killing a thug and then we flash back to five years earlier, in which Riley's generally happy life is upended when a drug dealer kills her husband and daughter in a drive-by shooting, while wounding Riley.   It turns out her husband and a friend were mulling over ripping off the dealer for some quick cash.    Riley's husband backs out, but the dealer has him whacked anyway.    Riley seeks justice, but due to reasons I won't list here, the suspects are freed and Riley is running away from police who want to send her to a mental institution.

When Riley returns to kick butt, she does so with such efficiency and precision that she must've received training from some country's special forces.    And we are treated to two scenes of Riley applying first aid to her battle wounds, a la John Rambo.    Riley's voice has changed too.    She is no longer perky, but speaks in a Sly Stallone-like low register growl just to show us she means business.    There are two cops on the case, as well as an FBI agent, but these two cops are apparently the only ones in all of Los Angeles since they show up at every explosion, murder, or malfeasance in the city.

Peppermint was a passable entertainment; a slick Death Wish-type of movie in which Garner is a convincing hero, until the clunky ending in which the villain has Riley surrounded by henchmen with guns and instead of just pumping dozens of bullets into her, the dealer decides to engage in a fistfight.    Moments earlier, Riley threatens to wipe out the rest of her crew over the radio, and the dealer says, "She's bluffing,"   Dude, she annihilated nearly all of your boys in the last 24 hours or so, as well as blowing up your drug lab and reducing other establishments to ashes.    And she's bluffing?

Pierre Morel, who directed Taken, helms this movie also, although Taken is an effective action thriller which engages emotions as well.    That formula has been duplicated without much success since.   With Riley's skills she acquired over the last few years, she could dispose of ISIS within a week.   

Friday, September 7, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) * *

Crazy Rich Asians Movie Review

Directed by:  Jon M. Chu

Starring:  Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Awkafina, Ken Jeong, Chris Pang, Pierre Png

Crazy Rich Asians has rich Asians to be sure, but not crazy.   Crazy would be a step up from the safe, dull people we meet here.    Crazy Rich Asians contains a lot of fashion, bling, excesses, and painful attempts at manufacturing suspense in the form of a wealthy Singapore matriarch (Yeoh) disapproving of her son's future fiancée.    The buildup is unconvincing enough.   The payoff, in which the fiancée turns the tables, is even less satisfying.    Who knew mom would be such a pushover? 

Those who are enthralled with the wealth on full display will no doubt be satiated by the mansions, parties, dresses, suits, and flashy excess we witness here.    Think of Sex and the City taking its high fashion to Singapore.    The journey to Singapore begins in New York as economics professor Rachel (Wu) and her sleek boyfriend Nick (Golding) discuss flying to Singapore for his cousin's wedding.    Despite dating for nearly a year, Rachel had no idea Nick was a member of one of Asia's wealthiest families.    She soon finds out when he has two first class tickets comped for him on an international airline.    "My family does business with the airline," Nick coyly tells Rachel.  

Once they arrive in Singapore, Rachel is the subject of endless speculation, hostility, staring, and outright jealousy from family members and friends.    How did this seemingly ordinary woman land Nick, one of the wealthiest bachelors in the world?    Nick's mother Eleanor (Yeoh) is still stinging from Nick's refusal to move back home and take over the family business in favor of courting Rachel.    As one guy tells Nick, "you are untouchable, Rachel is not,"   Eleanor acts cruelly toward Rachel under the guise of civility and makes it quite clear she and Nick will never be married on her watch.    The odd thing is Eleanor went through the same thing when she married her husband (who is unseen and "away on business" during the wedding), but yet doesn't give Rachel a break or empathize with her.    Things didn't turn out so bad for Eleanor, so what makes her think Rachel won't be ok either? 

Crazy Rich Asians' attempt at conflict is flabby enough.    To say it doesn't take much to force Eleanor's inevitable change of heart is putting it mildly.    And there is no way anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy before can chide me for giving away a spoiler.    Such central conflicts have built-in spoilers.     Yeoh, a veteran of action films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, is shoehorned into the villain role.    She does her best, but her actions are at the whim of the story.    She is a meddling creep until she suddenly isn't.

Crazy Rich Asians has a fun supporting performance by Awkwafina, who plays Rachel's best friend and a subplot involving Nick's cousin's marriage to an average guy and the tension it ultimately causes.   The movie misses an opportunity to use this thread to parallel Nick and Rachel, and doesn't give this subplot the heft it deserves.    Their relationship is more honest and real than Nick's and Rachel's, but it gets short shrift in favor of the less appealing storyline and the wealth porn on display.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Major League II (1994) * *

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Directed by:  David S. Ward

Starring:  Charlie Sheen, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, Margaret Whitton, Michelle Burke, James Gammon, Alison Doody, David Keith, Eric Bruskotter, Bob Uecker, Randy Quaid

If you haven't seen Major League (1989), no worries.   Major League II will recycle the formula and some of the gags for you.    One of the best lines in the movie was in the trailers of the original film, but was puzzlingly edited from the movie itself.    The filmmakers put the line back in this sequel and made sure not to make the same mistake.     It goes like this:

Vaughn:  "That ball would've been out in any park in America"

Nikki:   "Not every one"

Vaughn:  "Oh, yeah?  Which one?"

Nikki:  "Yellowstone" 

Major League II would likely be amusing to those who didn't already see the first film, which was pretty funny and had energy.    The sequel tries to recreate the energy with often cartoonish humor, which works occasionally but not enough.  

Major League II begins in spring training following the motley Cleveland Indians' surprise run to the playoffs last year.    We are told they were swept in the ALCS by the Chicago White Sox and return to action fat, happy, and complacent.    Leading hitter and base stealer Willie Mays Hayes (Epps), who was played by Wesley Snipes in the first film, made an action movie in the offseason and now complains of a leg injury.    Star pitcher Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn (Sheen) has forsaken his Mohawk hairdo for a suit and tie and thus loses about ten miles per hour off his fastball.    He is more interested in endorsements than baseball and takes on a girlfriend who is more like a live-in publicist.

Star slugger Pedro Cerrano (Haysbert) is no longer a glaring, gruff power hitter, but has taken up Buddhism.   He is more at peace and slower to anger, but he can't hit anything.    Manager Lou Brown (Gammon) returns, but soon suffers a heart attack in the middle of a losing streak and is replaced by former catcher Jake Taylor (Berenger-who was the heart and soul of the previous year's team).    There are also antics involving Roger Dorn (Bernsen), who retired, bought the team (how much did he make as a player to afford a team?), but runs into such dire financial woes he is forced to sell the team back to the original owner Rachel Phelps (Whitton).    She would love nothing more than to move the team to Florida, although since the making of this film there are now two major league teams there.  

Major League II also throws in a catcher who can't throw back to the pitcher, a Japanese player who calls out Pedro on his lack of passion, the team's cynical play-by-play announcer (Uecker) who occasionally passes out drunk behind the microphone, and an angry fan (Quaid) who has colorful nicknames of his own for Wild Thing.   Oh, and let's not forget the Indians' newest trade acquisition Jack Parkman (Keith) who thinks his new teammates are all losers and can't wait to be traded again.   Major League II has a lot of moving parts and the movie resolves them all in time for the playoffs, where the Indians will inevitably face Parkman again and give him his just desserts. 

Major League at least felt more like a realistic baseball movie and the final game had an authentic playoff atmosphere to it.    Major League II throws its characters into odd slapstick situations which are hit and miss, mostly miss.    When the big game occurs, it doesn't have the same vibe as the previous film's, and the entire product suffers. 

Searching (2018) * * * 1/2

Searching Movie Review

Directed by:  Aneesh Chaganty

Starring:  John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn

Searching is an absorbing whodunit told with a style which I feared would be gimmicky and distracting, but ultimately did not detract from the story of a father's intense search for his missing 15-year-old daughter.    Searching's style is revealed in the trailers.    We see all the action through computer technology, whether it's emails, FaceTime, YouTube, online cameras, news footage, etc.    Because Searching works so well as a thriller, we don't mind the occasional suspension of disbelief as the film creates further technological contrivances to catch all the events.

We meet the Kim family through phone camera footage from the birth of Margot (La), the daughter who mysteriously vanishes, to the death of Margot's mother (Sohn).   Margot's father David (Cho) raises his daughter lovingly and gently gets on her case about not taking out the trash.    He thinks he knows everything about his daughter, even how she is coping with her mother's passing from cancer, but once she goes missing, he realizes through his search of her computer that he doesn't know her at all.    Cash he left for Margot to take piano lessons finds its way into a bank account David knew nothing about.    She withdraws $2500.00 on the day of her disappearance.    Is she into drugs?   Is she a runaway?    Or was she abducted?

Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) is assigned to the case, and calmly explains police procedure in locating missing people to David.    She enlists David's help in contacting her online friends for clues, but David is stunned that Margot isn't really close to any of them.    Despite David's valiant attempts to keep it together, he chides Rosemary for not moving fast enough to find Margot as the hours tick away.    Rosemary assures David she is doing all she can, but this is of little comfort to the increasingly worried David.

Searching plays by the rules of whodunits, including false leads, red herrings, and things not being as they seem.     Co-writer/director Chaganty backfills plot holes with swerves and explanations which follow a certain logic and hold up under scrutiny.    Searching maintains an intense tone throughout; an eerie feeling that things aren't right and don't add up even during the setup scenes which depict the seemingly normal father/daughter relationship between David and Margot.    Despite peeking in on endless web pages, pictures, emails, and offline content, Searching never confuses us.    We know our footing.  

The biggest reason Searching works is how it taps into universal fears of having a loved one vanish and coming to the sinking realization that you didn't know that loved one like you thought you did.    David begins to blame himself for not knowing everything about his daughter, but how can he?    David's only sin is trusting too much and we see that manifest itself in more ways than one.    The intense emotions which underlie the reassuring rhythms of a thriller makes Searching special.    It becomes a study on what people will and won't do in the name of parental love.