Monday, 28 September 2015

Movie Review: Ricki And The Flash (2015)

One of the big benefits that’s come out of me looking ever so slightly more in-depth into films than I used to is that I’ve started taking more notice about the names of directors. Now, in a way, this is a good thing: Recognize a director from a beloved film at the helm of something new, you have a semi-solid reasoning for liking this one; this is why I’m so hyped about the upcoming release of Crimson Peak. However, this is assuming that every film a given director makes is exactly the same. As much as Tim Burton gets flack for his overused visual styles, you’re still going to have a hard time convincing me that Ed Wood, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Batman are pretty much the same movie based on that logic. Hell, one of the reasons why I’ve praised Steven Soderbergh so much in the past is mainly because of how varied his filmography is. All good directors are capable of crap and vice versa, and more so capable of stepping outside of what we initially perceive to be their comfort zone. As such, let’s look at today’s film: A comedic drama about an aging rock star that’s directed by Jonathon Demme, a man best known for making the film that introduced Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal to the world. Decades ago or not, that’s not exactly something that’s easily forgotten. This is Ricki And The Flash.

The plot: Ricki (Meryl Streep), many years earlier, left her family for the sake of starting a career as a rock star. However, when her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls for Ricki after their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) falls into depression after losing her own husband, she tries to get back into her family’s lives and help her daughter after so long. Unfortunately, animosity between Ricki, Pete and their children may prove to be too much for any of them to handle.

As much as commending Meryl Streep for her acting chops is itself a cliché at this point, I bring up her and most of the cast’s efficiency here because they don’t exactly have the best script to work with. Ricki as a character exists in a morally grey area, considering the character that abandons their family for their own creative interests is rarely treated in any sympathetic way, and Meryl does admirably to give her enough pathos to make it work despite the rather inconsistent writing. Credit is also due to Mamie Gummer, who not only has great chemistry with Meryl (No duh, honestly, since she is her real-life daughter) but her deadpan delivery manages to wring some laughs out of snarking at the family dysfunction happening around her. While the rest of the cast do well, but not exactly sticking out in memory, the only other highlight of note would be Rick Springfield, Mr. Jessie’s Girl himself, as Ricki’s boyfriend and bandmate Greg. Now, admittedly, most of his ‘acting’ amounts to him rocking out with the band, which is fine, but he does get one big ‘emotional’ scene in the film. Said scene honestly works really well and ends up helping redeem Ricki’s character by film’s end. It’s one of the few times when the drama actually hits home so, given how confused the focus is for this film, it’s easy to see where it should have been devoted.

Writer Diablo Cody, I am firmly convinced now, got lucky twice during the course of her career and probably never will be again. She made a big splash with Juno’s hipster-quirk and even managed to sell the idea of Toni Collette having multiple personalities with United States Of Tara. However, between the mangled whatever-that-was of Jennifer’s Body and uncredited and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to revise the scripts for Burlesque and Evil Dead, I think the well is tapped on that front. This film doesn’t really change that assumption, considering it doesn’t even seem clear what exactly the point of it all is. We get a lot of possibilities for story: General dysfunctional amongst the family, conflict between her and her daughter while also helping to recover from her break-up, her struggles with the band and their financial issues. A better writer would have been able to juggle all of these elements to create the story, whereas most of these threads are either left hanging or given kind of lame resolutions. Julie’s depression, something that takes up the majority of the film’s trailers, takes up about half of the film if even that much and ends up just being dropped off the face of the earth. All we get is a frankly confusing scene at her brother’s wedding, one that could only make sense if there was an earlier draft where it was supposed to be her wedding. To say nothing of the dialogue, which is about as trite as can be expected from this kind of middle-of-the-road generi-drama. It’s full of wishy-washy emotional moments that are purposely scattershot to try and blindly appeal to as much of the audience as possible, coupled with as many quote-unquote 'edgy' moments as its rating will allow. And by ‘edgy’, I mean weirdly disjointed moments like Julie off-handedly calling something ‘gay’ as an insult, which kind of cripples the attempts at reconciliation between Ricki and her gay son out of not knowing how seriously the film is taking it. It doesn’t help that the film makes it a point of addressing how he and his many gay friends aren’t allowed to marry; you haven’t known awkward until you’ve sat through that exchange considering recent events concerning that topic.

The soundtrack, as performed by the titular band, is comprised solely of covers. While I would argue that a few more original songs would have been nice, considering not only is there an in-universe album that Ricki made but also an original acoustic number as well, but then I would be discrediting the admirable song selection. The film opens on American Girl, a sort of introductory song for Ricki (that also seriously doesn’t help when trying to disassociate this film with Silence Of The Lambs), then the band go on to create musical signposts like Keep Playing That Rock & Roll when Ricki returns to the band after leaving her family (and Julie’s depression is neatly unresolved), Drift Away when her boyfriend pays for her ticket back to attend his son’s wedding, and My Love Will Not Let You Down as a capper for the film and a semi act of redemption for Ricki, as well as the original song Cold One working as a more personal number. Sure, they don’t all work in this fashion (Brownie points if you can figure out how ‘Woolly Bully’ fits into all this) but it shows that effort was made which is essential when making a jukebox musical. Or, at least, I think that’s what Demme and Cody were going for amidst everything else.

All in all, while I freely admit that this film probably wasn’t made with my demographic in mind, considering the oldie rock soundtrack and everything, this still feels very messy in terms of the writing. The music is good and mostly well used and the acting manages to rise above the script, but it just doesn’t know how to proceed with the plots and subplots it has been given, not to mention having some pretty wonky characterization to boot. It’s better than The Man From U.N.C.L.E., because this doesn’t have nearly as much wrong with the production itself; here, it’s mostly confined to the writing. However, in terms of connecting the audience to the music and the musician playing it, Love & Mercy honestly did a bit better than this film did. This is one of those films, much like the previously mentioned Burlesque, that exists solely for the sake of its soundtrack; if pub rock covers of 60’s rock and Bad Romance sounds appealing to you, I’d advise buying the soundtrack as opposed to a ticket for the movie.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Movie Review: Two By Two (2015)

If I had to sum up 2014 as a cinematic year, other than being overall pretty good, it would be as a more predominantly Christian year than most others. From indie works like Heaven Is For Real, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas and the previously exenterated God’s Not Dead, to the more mainstream like Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus, I highly doubt we’ll see another year quite like it in that department. It is with this in mind that I look at today’s subject, an animated family film based on the story of Noah’s Ark, and can’t help thinking that this release missed the boat, so to speak. If you audibly groaned at that pun, strap yourselves in ‘cause it’s only going to get worse from here. This is Two By Two.

The plot: The flood to end all floods is coming and the animals are boarding the Ark to survive. Unfortunately for Nestrians Dave (Dermot Magennis) and his Finny (Callum Maloney), they aren’t on the list of animals allowed on board. However, in an attempt to sneak on board as part of a family of Grymps, Finny and the young Grymp Leah (Ava Connolly) are left marooned. Now, it is up to Dave and Leah’s mother Hazel (Tara Flynn) to rescue their children while keeping off of the radar of the Lion (Martin Sheen/Alan Stanford [Both are credited]) in charge of the Ark.

Maybe it’s because I’m still reeling off of how well last year’s Noah did with the source material, but the notion of turning that typically dark story into something kid-friendly feels up there with some of the dumbest ideas of the year. It doesn’t help matters that said idea is done about as competently as a Nativity scene acted out by newborns. Now, admittedly, using the story of Noah as a means to teach younger audiences about tolerance and how important it is to include everyone into a group is a neat idea. What isn’t so neat is how badly it falls on its face for a number of reasons. First off, it’s pretty hypocritical of a film to promote inclusion when it feels okay with casual racism involving two Indian elephants, complete with a red dot joke. Secondly, as I’ve mentioned before, this notion of inclusion has been so thoroughly rammed down our throats by virtually every form of media there is for every variation of person there is, it is reaching Conjoined Twin Myslexia levels of unnecessary pandering. And thirdly, by far the most important thing to remember, the film is so gun-shy of the premise’s undertones that it flat-out refuses to acknowledge little things like why the main characters aren’t allowed on the Ark in the first place. That, along with feeble attempts to defuse the potential violence involving carnivores and herbivores and even undermining the film’s title by not getting close to admitting why there is a need for two of (almost) every animal, right down to them for some reason showing three giraffes getting on the Ark at one point, shows an utter lack of thought put into the translation here.

Let’s talk about the Nestrians themselves for a bit, because they represent the majority of the film’s problems. Something I find kind of funny in an utterly embarrassing way is the attitude that most writers have when it comes to basically inventing new animals. And I don’t mean animals that are meant to populate made-up worlds like the creations of Dr. Seuss; I mean new creations that are meant to co-exist with the real deal. It always comes across more like they were thinking with tie-in merchandise in mind rather than anything that makes sense within the film itself, and the Nestrians are a prime example of this. It’s the ultimate irony that a film based on a Biblical story would contain an animal that is an evolutionary dead-end: Bright pastel colours, fluffy body that makes my nit-picking over Inside Out’s design choices look even more needless, involuntary glowing in the dark, emitting highly-visible blue smoke when they’re scared; it gets so ridiculous that the film itself kind of lampshades it with one of the Grymps wondering how they stay alive for even a day, although in context it’s more down to their collective idiocy rather than their appearance. Speaking of idiocy, the crowning jewel of why these creatures are destined for the genetic recycle bin comes at the end where, in a complete cop-out, we discover that Nestrians are able to breathe underwater. Not only that, we also discover that apparently at least one other animal knew this about them when they themselves didn’t. In short, half of the main characters here are literally too stupid to breathe. I feel dumber for having written that sentence. Their bad design is made worse when put side-by-side with the Grymps which, while suffering from the same kid-friendly nomenclature, have a lupine-esque look that actually makes sense to the point where I’d much rather that they be the focus of the film. Not that these are even the worst of the stupid names in this film, as we later encounter Obesy the whale-who-doesn't-know-he's-a-whale and Stayput the parasite; yet another statement that makes my brain want to leak out of my nose.

Even ignoring the failure at Bible adaptation, this still is pretty horrid as a family film in its own. The majority of the script is comprised of dialogue spoken solely for the sake of creating noise so that kids supposedly won’t lose interest, with needless expositing about what we can clearly see happening on screen; basically, this is the anti-Shaun The Sheep. The humour level is about on par with the weak average of modern kid’s films, in that it mostly revolves around cheap bodily gags. It’s either that or weirdly out-of-place video game jokes, like the depiction of the different plans to escape the brig and the mystifying Tetris gag. The plot, even without considering the makes-it-easy and hair-brained finale, is pretty damn stupid. Between the idiot-plot scheming of the Nestrians to get aboard the ark, the contrivances needed to make the rescue plot run in the first place (why can’t they just turn around; it’s not as if they have anywhere in particular to be other than generally afloat) and the fact that the entire plot exists because of how misinformed the Nestrians are about their own biology, I feel like I’m watching post-lobotomy Akiva Goldsman trying to write a family film.

All in all… okay, I briefly brought this up at the end of my recent podcast appearance on Lesbian Talk, where I described this film as being “just as dumb as it sounds” and I can only hope that now readers will understand my words. There is a possibility for a good family film using the story of Noah’s ark, but it most certainly is not here. It’s too pandering, too meandering and ultimately too stupid to be anything other than bargain bin DVD fodder and the fact that this made it onto the big screen, even in a year that has already produced quite a few needless releases, frankly astounds me. It’s worse than Tinker Bell And The Legend Of The NeverBeast, as this barely has a reason to exist on plastic let alone in a cinema, but even with how incompetent it is, it still didn’t quite reach the same levels of annoying as The Interview. To paraphrase one of my initial critical influences: I watched it so you don’t have to; other than to provide quasi-humourous write-ups such as this, there is no reason to watch this movie for yourself.

I guest hosted on Lesbian Talk! Again!

I got brought back on as a guest host on the podcast Lesbian Talk with Diamanda Hagan and The Omega, where we discussed the series 9 beginning of Doctor Who with 'The Magician's Apprentice' as well our hopes (and fears) for the rest of the series. I'm so glad I got a chance to chat with these people again, and I can only hope that you find this equally as entertaining. 


Saturday, 26 September 2015

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

If there’s one thing I love more than cinema and all things geek, it’s hip-hop. From growing up around my parents’ love for gangsta rap, to going through school during Eminem’s glory days, to some rather unfortunate attempts at being an MC myself (that still exist on YouTube right now), it’s been a big factor on my upbringing. Probably one of the major songs that I can point to for being responsible for that is NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which my mother would often have playing around the house and in the car. Yeah, hearing her rapping along with the music might be the whitest thing short of Birth Of A Nation, but the timeless beat work and aggressive lyricism of those cats from Compton still resonate with me to this day. So, ever since the news hit that this biopic would be coming out, I have essentially been surfing on my own salivation over this film. But is this actually going to be that rare cross-section that people like me only get once in a blue moon? Dear Lord, I hope so. This is Straight Outta Compton.

The plot: Andre Young (Corey Hawkins), Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) and O’Shea Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) are three youths trying to survive in 1980’s Compton, amidst the notoriously racist police force. Andre decides to start making his own music with O’Shea, with Eric as their manager. Under the individual names of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube, and the collective name NWA (Niggas With Attitude), their musical career would see them come face-to-face with the police, the industry, the public and each other, all the while their music would go on to influence the streets and the radios all starting with the release of their first studio album: Straight Outta Compton.

As soon as news hit about this film, the first thing that stuck out was the… interesting casting choices. The casting of Ice Cube’s real-life son to play him, at first glance, seems like one of those ideas that looks like gold on paper but doesn’t work so well on the screen. Just because Jaden Smith frequently gets cast as Will’s son in their movies doesn’t mean that he’s any more believable at portraying that connection. This time around though, to put it simply, he is Ice Cube on that screen and I dare not bring up how he ends up looking like Drake later on in the film out of fear he would trash my house like he does the Priority Records office. Not only does his performance fit exactly with how I envision Ice Cube but his dialogue reflects that as well. On wax, Cube never minced words; if he had a problem with someone, he would say it plain and simple, something that made him one of the most forceful and powerful MCs to come out of the West Coast. The script keeps that take-no-bullshit attitude intact, as O’Shea here tells it straight as well whenever he gets into confrontations with Eazy-E, his manager or the aforementioned record company. Given director F. Gary Gray’s previous experience with Cube, as well as the natural research that probably went into the performance, this is one of those moments when all the stars align to craft a perfect performance.

As for the rest of the cast, which originally was going to follow the same idea as Cube’s casting, their actors do excellently as well: Jason Mitchell gives a shady but still sympathetic turn as Eazy-E, whose interactions with the other members in the third act make for the most emotional scenes in the film; Corey Hawkins imbues Dr. Dre with the level-headedness to play ego in the group’s dynamic; and Paul Giamatti comes across as a pretty slimy manager, like the typical impression of a hip-hop music exec, but he fills the role with the charisma that it calls for. Even though Dre, Cube and E get the majority of the spotlight, credit to Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. as MC Ren and DJ Yella respectively, as their interactions with the rest of the group strengthen the group interactions in the earlier acts of the film. Other than the members of NWA themselves, we get some nice turns from Keith Stanfield as a decently-done Snoop Dogg and Marcc Rose/Darris Love as Tupac, but the main guy that sticks out outside of the Ruthless camp is R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight, co-owner of Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records label. Suge has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the more violent parts of this overall story, and Taylor has an intimidating presence right from the off-set, morphing as the film goes on into something genuinely scary. In yet another result of life-imitates-art-imitates-life, this could be a result of him getting first-hand experience of Suge’s behaviour, given a certain incident that happened near the film set; Quiet On Da Set, indeed.

Given how a lot of the film takes the time to show the influence NWA’s music had on the political atmosphere of the time, it should come as no surprise that the soundtrack is a hip-hop head’s wet dream. Along with tracks from the titular album and subsequent releases connected to the group, shown during the recording process as well as being performed live, we also get contemporary classics of the genre like Jam Master Jay by Run-DMC and C.R.E.A.M. by the Wu-Tang Clan. Knowing the whole East Coast-West Coast rivalry hokum that ensues not long after the events of this film, seeing them recognize the cross-country respect that actually existed within the hip-hop community is welcomed. However, the soundtrack goes beyond just hip-hop and delves into its predecessors as well, including tracks from Roy Ayers, Zapp and the P-Funk collective; essentially, the music that formed the backbone for Dr. Dre’s signature G-Funk sound. This is the kind of acknowledgement and respect for the culture’s roots that honestly feels missing from a lot of other hip-hop biopics.

This film takes a large scope of the story, covering NWA’s success with the titular album, Cube’s separation from the group and the beef between the two and then Dre’s leaving the group, ending with Eazy-E’s death and the prospects of NWA getting back together sadly not coming to fruition. Naturally, since this is a biopic about the drama of the events rather than covering the entirety of those events, there’s a fair bit that has been left out and bits of it can feel rushed. Now, rather than go into all of what wasn’t included in here, like JJ Fad and their influence on the group, Tairrie B and her connection with Eazy-E or any of the other female artists that are connected to the overall story, I’m just going to accept that for the sake of tone and brevity, some things will be left out. It does feel a bit like some events were just covered for the sake of completion, like including 2Pac in the proceedings when the whole Death Row could serve as its own biopic (Which it will, as a sequel to this one is already in the works), but overall it portrays the group dynamics and conflicts well. That said, outrage in the face of a biopic is nothing new and simply putting down this movie for not sticking completely true to life isn’t feasible; if it were a documentary, different story, but as it stands this is far more than serviceable. Besides, it’s not as if NWA’s less reputable connections with women are completely hidden, as their misogynistic behaviour takes centre stage in a handful of scenes where they are indulging in the typical ‘gangsta rap’ lifestyle of hotel romps and poolside parties. As someone who has seen how far the sub-genre has dropped in the last few years, this is still remarkably tame compared to the exploits of their descendants.

Much like in NWA’s music, the film hits its highest points when it looks into their political context and their run-ins with the law. From the attempted prejudicial arrests outside of Jerry Haller’s office to the rioting after a particular live show in Detroit when the cops insisted they refrain from performing ‘Fuck The Police’, not only is the public reaction to their music addressed well but it also creates some genuinely beautiful moments. A few key scenes are set against the backdrop of the Rodney King police brutality case and the subsequent rioting across Los Angeles, with Eazy, Dre and Cube witnessing it all first-hand. This is some seriously powerful imagery here, and I once again have to bring up how kind of sickening it is that these images are still relevant today, showing the streets being empowered by the timeless beats and salient lyrics of NWA to rebel against their oppressors. As much as the interpersonal conflicts and label drama are well-written and delivered, this is where the heart of the film beats like a hummingbird on speed.

All in all, historical accuracy be damned, this is a remarkably well-handled biopic on one of the most influential groups in the entirety of hip-hop. The acting is top-notch, with a pitch-perfect turn from O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his dad, the writing may overstretch itself to fit everything onto screen but it’s helped by the fact that at least every event shown works within the context of the film’s timeline, and the soundtrack pays respect to both the music of the era and the classics that inspired it. There’s already work being done on making a sequel to this film, this time detailing Dr. Dre and the history of Death Row Records, and I can only hope that it’s half as good as this. And hey, even if you are offended by the portrayal (or lack of portrayal) of women in context to the story, I know there’s at least one thing we can all agree: Regardless of the quality of the film itself, it did finally get Dr. Dre back in the studio to release another album after Detox was waved in front of our faces for so many years. It ranks higher than Mad Max: Fury Road, which is undeniably more even-handed when it comes to gender politics, but this was a lot more consistent in terms of an overall film. However, it doesn’t quite match up to It Follows, given how I prefer my screenplays to give me something to think over for hours afterwards.