Monday, 28 December 2015

Movie Review: The Ridiculous Six/Suffragette (2015)

I hate Rotten Tomatoes. Despite how it’s widely considered to be a good barometer for how good/bad a film is, it’s surprisingly broken if you actually look at the scores. Some of the reviews that are listed as Fresh or Rotten, if you actually look at even the blurbs on the site itself, are extremely arbitrary, the actual overall score is tucked away underneath the big percentage rate, and said percentage only amounts to how many people liked a film vs. disliked a film. Not how much, just whichever way their opinion falls. For a site that’s meant to help show an overall opinion, being misleading is probably the worst thing you can do. However, with that said, they are especially good in one certain area: The 0%; the films that absolutely no-one defended. Given how this illustrious list includes films like C Me Dance, Fred: The Movie, A Thousand Words and Keith Lemon: The Film, easily some of the worst films I’ve ever seen, that integer still carries a lot of weight. So, what does that say when today’s subject is only one of the three released by Happy Madison Productions to have received a 0%? I mean, that’s means that this is even worse than The Master Of Disguise, That’s My Boy and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, among so many others? Is this truly that bad? Time to, reluctantly, find out. This is The Ridiculous Six.

The plot: Tommy Stockburn (Adam Sandler) is a white man who has been raised by Native Americans under the name ‘White Knife’, after his mother was killed by an outlaw. When his estranged father Frank (Nick Nolte) arrives in his village, and is subsequently kidnapped by Frank’s former partner-in-crime Cicero (Danny Trejo), Tommy sets out to obtain enough money to secure his freedom. Along the way, he comes across five of his half-brothers: Burro rider Ramon (Rob Schneider), farm hand Lil’ Pete (Taylor Lautner), mountain man Herm (Jorge Garcia), former Presidential bodyguard Danny (Luke Wilson) and saloon musician Chico (Terry Crews). Together, the Ridiculous Six set a blazing trail across the West, robbing every do-no-gooder they come across.

This is easily the most literal one-joke cast of so-called characters I’ve seen all year; not even Superfast! was this bad. We’ve got Sandler as the badass knife-slinger with Native American powers, because it’d be a true miracle if he didn’t stroke his own ego in one of his own films (not to mention his wife Jackie as Never Wears Bra), Lautner as Simple Jack with even less dignity, and Schneider as Ramon, the Mexican who lugs around a donkey with diarrhea. Then there’s the just-plain weird ideas, like John Turturro as Abner Doubleday who spends his entire scene inventing baseball, and Vanilla Ice as a gangsta posturing Mark Twain. Rather than simply point out how all of these characters are bizarre, and not in any of the good ways, I’m going to throw this film its ounce of mercy and say that some of these characters could have worked in better hands. Wilson as Danny could’ve made for some funny moments given his backstory, and Crews is usually a saving grace in any film he’s in, and even Harvey Keitel’s bar owner was at least semi-engaging for the one segment he was in. However, this isn’t the League Of Gentlemen we’re talking about here, who are more than capable of turning basic one-note caricatures into truly fleshed out characters; this is Happy Madison territory. Quite frankly, I should be thankful that Sandler is able to play the straight man as well as he does throughout this film, making for the only consistently watchable performance in the entire production.

There is no plot here. Despite whatever synopsis I gave earlier, there is no actual logical progression of events to be seen here. Instead, it’s like Sandler and co-writer Tim Herlihy had a bunch of ideas for gags in a Western setting and just constructed the robbery angle to string them all together. It’s more video game than film in terms of plot: PCs need X amount of money, follow path given through clues by NPCs while robbing towns till you reach X. Now, once again, this would be perfectly fine if it weren’t for two key problems. First off, some of these one-off scenes are insanely out-of-place. Some of them like the poker game with General Custer (David Spade) and Mark Twain are surreal, but acceptable. The whole baseball sequence is incredibly jarring, even for how silly the rest of the film is, and ends up doing nothing more than putting another nail into John Turturro’s career as an actor.

The other problem is one that you probably would have guessed as soon as the words ‘Adam Sandler’ were brought up: It’s not funny. Actually, scratch that, it isn’t just that it’s not funny; it’s that this is that special brand of not funny that constantly sabotages its own jokes. Whenever there was even the slightest inkling of a good joke and/or punchline, it is dragged out to the point of no jocular return and then dragged even further to make sure that even the back row got the joke. Insert your own snipe about the intelligence levels of people who watch Happy Madison productions and them needing to have the joke explained here because, unlike an unsettling amount of critics out there, I’m not so big an asshole as to call people stupid and/or retarded because of their tastes in pop culture.

Okay… need to take a breather. How about we discuss the supposed ‘message’ behind this film? Between Tommy’s upbringing to the ethnic diversity of the Ridiculous Six itself, it seems to want to make some sort of statement about the racist attitudes of the time, or even those shown by past Western cinema. However, much like when Sandler tried to use his comedy for a better social purpose with I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, this indulges in those same stereotypes far too much to make any pretence of commentary viable. Between all the sexist, racist and even ableist gags used throughout, it feels more like the attempts at ‘satire’ are more like a scapegoat so that Sandler can do the exact same thing over again like he has with some of his worse films.

All in all, this is not a 0%. To say that this film is worse than the shockingly offensive That’s My Boy or the excruciatingly vacuous Paul Blart: Mall Cop is laughable. However, that by no means makes this a good film. Out of all the Happy Madison productions I’ve seen this year, even those that I stepped up to defend in whatever small way, this is easily the worst. Between its lazy characterization, its abysmal pacing and jarring tonal shifts, there is literally nothing to be salvaged from this aside from a couple of barely-audible chuckles. It’s worse than The Wedding Ringer, as that film at least had a decent stretch of watchable content; this just coasts on lameness for its two-hour running time. However, this wasn’t nearly as draining to sit through as Aloha.

Well, after that last one, I could be reviewing just about anything and it would be a colossal step-up. So, might as well get right into it so I can purge that last one from my mind as quickly as possible. This is Suffragette.

The plot: After a chance encounter, laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes caught up in the suffragette movement lead by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Long since tired of the prejudicial behaviour she and the rest of the women in London have suffered from, Maud assists fellow suffragettes Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) so that they may secure the rights they so badly deserve.

This is easily the best performance I’ve ever seen from Carey Mulligan, who nails strength and tragedy like very few before her. Bonham Carter will hopefully be able to remove the Burton-induced prejudice her acting regularly gets with this one, as her portrayal of the passionate and frequently radical Edith is powerful that nearly match Mulligan in their scenes together. Streep, despite what the advertising may suggest, only appears in one scene which is that seen in the trailers. That said, testament to the woman’s abilities as, in the single speech she gives, she exudes this air and poise of a woman that thousands would rally under and is genuinely inspiring in her performance. Anne-Marie Duff as Violet brings some proud mischief to the table, while also proving powerful in a key scene between her and Mulligan. Outside of our largely female cast, we have Ben Whishaw who, if he isn’t playing the straight-up good guy, usually plays characters with some sympathetic edge to them. Here, his portrayal of Sonny manages to keep on the relatively understandable side of the era’s sexism, until he reaches the point of no return in his final scene. Brendan Gleeson delivers another great performance as Steed, showing a loyalty to the law more than a real loyalty to any prejudices and selling it well.

With the film’s text-on-black-screen prologue and epilogue, there was a serious worry that this was going to be nothing more than a mouthpiece film. It doesn’t matter how important the message is, because if it isn’t delivered well than a film can still fail regardless. However, what makes this film work as well as it does is that it actually takes the time to question what the suffragettes are doing in order to secure their rights. We see both approaches that were being taken, with the peaceful protestors alongside the more militant bomb-makers, and the film isn’t shy to point out the problems with both of them. The pacifists are being largely ignored, but at the same time the more violent ones keep running the risk of injuring the very people they’re trying to liberate. It doesn’t immediately portray either as being wrong or right; just as two different paths being taken to get the rights that they deserve.

This is aided by how uncompromising the film is in portraying how poorly women were treated at the time. From the sexual abuse to the physical abuse to how they were treated in prisons, which particularly turns stomachs when you realize that these methods are still being used, it is harrowing to witness how these people are treated. And yet, while these horrific acts are taking place, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed in any way. Because these women aren’t being shown as altruistic saints, but rather as human beings that breathe and bleed, not only is the brutality more effective but it doesn’t enter into the realms of exploitation that could’ve harmed the film’s core message. It also doesn’t shy away from the more emotionally damaging scenes as well, particularly when showing the sacrifices that these women are making to do what they truly believe to be the just thing to do. Watching Maud try to keep in contact with her son after being thrown out of the house is at once heart-warming and, considering how that sub-plot ends, heart-breaking to the fullest extent.

I find myself once again having to talk about the camera work, and it is for reasons other than what I would like to be talking about. After the terrific job DOP Eduard Grau did with The Gift, where he managed to make a regular house at midday look as appealing as a concentration camp, I genuinely surprised how haphazard the cinematography is here. It is largely ruled over by a lot of unnecessary shaky-cam that, especially during the more dramatically intense moments, ends up distracting heavily from the events on-screen. Given the scenes it is primarily used in like the riots and mass protests, Grau was probably aiming for a feeling of chaos and disorientation to make the brutality hit harder. Unfortunately, since the hand-held camera not only makes some parts difficult to make out but also reaches the point of unintentional hilarity, like when during Pankhurst’s speech and the camera just wobbles for no foreseeable reason when focusing on her, that effect isn’t reached.

When Maud is brought before the court to testify on behalf of the suffragettes, she mentions how she never thought that they would get the vote and thus wouldn’t even know what to do with it if she got it. At first, this honestly seems kind of stupid and probably the worst foot forward you could take to convince someone else to change a law. But then, as the film progresses, that moment starts to make more sense. Between Maud, Edith and Pankhurst herself, what is being marketed as the core cast represents three generations of women whom have all suffered at the hands of Britain’s sexist government. Their fight is a very long and arduous one that existed long before them and, unfortunately, will exist long after them as well. As we watch the actions that both sides of the suffragette movement are taking, it sinks in that they aren’t doing any of this for themselves; they are doing it for the next generation that comes along. This notion even makes the text ending work, as it highlights how shockingly recent the right to vote has been granted in certain countries, with some only happening within the last year or two. By portraying the events of the film not as a definitive victory, but as a pivotal moment in a long-running campaign for equal rights, it avoids the pitfall of trying to encapsulate the entirety of the subject and instead highlight an important aspect of it. As a result, its message and the method by which it’s delivered works astoundingly well.

All in all, this is an amazingly well-done portrayal of a particularly tragic part of human history. The acting is outstanding, with Carey Mulligan giving a career-highlight performance, the camera work can be distracting but still be effective in places, and the script treats the suffragette movement is the right amount of importance and questioning to show how vital their role was, while not deifying any of them at any point and ruining the film’s intent. Without question, this gets a recommendation as one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year. It’s better than Avengers: Age Of Ultron, as this doesn’t have any long-winded build-up to poison its efficacy; if anything, given what else I’ve seen Carey Mulligan in this year, it was a very pleasant surprise. However, considering how much the camera work and the text-only bookends did ultimately distract from the overall production, it falls short of Clouds Of Sils Maria which, despite its ending, was a lot more consistent cinematically speaking.

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