Category Archives: Half-assed

Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood

In The Royal Tenenbaums, Eli Cash, played by Owen Wilson, writes a book and describes it thusly: “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.” It’s a great line. It kills me. And Owen Wilson passes it off so well.

Quentin Tarantino seems to have had a similar bug up his bum when he wrote Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood.

This review is a little…late, and while, yes, we were happily at the cottage when it came out, we have not been in a hurry to see it since we got home either, and in fact only saw it this past weekend because it was playing in the right time slot. Had Dora been playing at that time, I would have happily-ish seen that instead. The truth is, I’m kind of over Quentin Tarantino. I just don’t feel like racism is the price I want to pay to see his films. $12? Fine. Gratuitous use of the n-word? No thanks.

And while it’s impossible to say this film is racism-free (it isn’t), it’s not the film’s biggest problem. Sean and I just found it…boring.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a washed up TV star struggling to stay relevant. Dalton is a fictional amalgam of several stars of that era. He was a big star on a western television series a decade ago but now he’s lucky to guest star as the heavy on single, sporadic episodes. He drowns his sorrows in a pitcher of whiskey sours. His one time stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is now mostly his driver…and sometime handyman. He seems pretty content with his lot, his laid-back surfer dude persona disguising his continued ability to kick some serious ass.

Rick Dalton just happens to be living slightly beyond his means next to Roman Polanski in the Benedict Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Polanski is off filming a movie, leaving behind his 8 months pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and several houseguests…including the man who continued to love her despite her recent marriage to someone else, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

Sharon Tate bops around town while Quentin Tarantino fixates on her legs…and eventually, her dirty feet. Margot Robbie is the picture of youth and health and vitality and promise. But other than as a symbol, she has little to do in the movie. She was few lines and little screen time. Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood is only tangentially about the Manson Family murders. It’s mostly Tarantino’s love letter to old Hollywood, and in that respect, it’s a good one. There’s lots of period cars and neon lights and references to old-timey movies and actors (Damian Lewis appears as Steve McQueen). But the movie acts mostly as a vehicle for DiCaprio and Pitt, indulging in lengthy scenes that are great testaments to their acting abilities…but don’t really serve a greater story. One flashback scene is so long and absorbing, Sean literally forgot it was a flashback scene, and then the story just spits us back out where we belong – it’s interesting, sure, but it corroborates a single, throw-away detail, which makes it totally irrelevant. This film is 161 minutes long…it didn’t exactly need any padding. I would normally suggest the story needed some good editing, but I think the real problem is that Tarantino isn’t sure exactly where the story is. He’s got a series of good ideas but no cohesive narrative into which he can plug them.

DiCaprio and Pitt are acting their little tushies off though. Pitt in particular. He steals every scene he’s in. When he, a 55 year old man, takes off his shirt, revealing an extremely fit physique, it earns whistles and applause in nearly every theatre it screens in. Arguably, old man abs are not exactly acting…but he backs them up charm and dynamism.

This puzzle had many attractive pieces. But some puzzles, when you finish them, you spackle them with glue to frame and hang on your wall. Others you merely break apart and put back into the box…where it will collect dust until you sell it in a yard sale, usually at least one piece short. Once Upon A Time In…Hollwood is the second kind of puzzle. It’s fine. It’s just not great.

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Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Remember when the Fast & Furious gang were street racers who dabbled in highway robbery? Because the franchise’s writers seem to have totally forgotten. The street races are long gone, replaced with international espionage, world-devastating weapons, and an ever-growing cast of action heroes.

Two of those additional action heroes, Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham), are now spinning off from the main storyline and saving the world without any help from the rest of the franchise’s former street racers. This time, Idris Elba plays the unstoppable cyborg bad guy who’s racing against Hobbs and Shaw to track down a supervirus that Shaw’s superspy sister (Vanessa Kirby) injects herself with. Luckily, the supervirus takes 72 hours to take effect, giving Hobbs and Shaw a chance to find a way to extract it…if only they could put aside their differences and find a way to work together.

Of course Hobbs and Shaw will find a way to work together, but it takes longer than you’d expect. Probably because Vin Diesel isn’t around to remind everyone that they’re family.  That’s Hobbs & Shaw in a nutshell: a very competent (though brainless) action movie that more than anything will make you miss Diesel and the rest of his Fast & Furious family.

No matter how many explosions or dune buggies are involved in a showdown with the villain’s helicopter, Hobbs & Shaw doesn’t measure up to the other instalments in this franchise. At best, it’s a teaser trailer for Fast & Furious 9, but the energy that went into Hobbs & Shaw probably would have been better spent on something involving the whole crew. Because when it comes to big, dumb action films, bigger is better, and that’s a lesson I thought this franchise had learned a long time ago.

 

City of Angels

After a lovely sojourn at the cottage, Sean and I came home to no internet. No internet! So after a nice vacation of living off the grid by choice, we are immediately and understandably enraged that we are now forced to continue doing so IN OUR OWN HOME. And guess what: the Bell guy (internet provider) says they can’t fix it until September. SEPTEMBER. Which is not this evening. It’s next month! Which is a long way of saying there’s a reason there’s been a dearth of reviews on the site lately, and that some of the past reviews were random cottage finds (see: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and many of the future ones will be pulled off the dusty shelves of our DVD collection, which has been housed in the garage ever since DVDs became obsolete. And yet here we are, watching movies like “a homeless person” (I’m quoting myself here, in a moment of admitted hyperbole).

Anyway, there we were on a Saturday night, which is to say, a Sunday morning, watching The Big Lebowski. And no, you’re not having a stroke. That’s not the same title as the one up top. We were maybe 90 seconds into the film when Los Angeles is referred to as the City of Angels. That’s not endemic to The Big Lebowski, it’s a pretty common if misleading nickname for L.A. but at any rate, it DID remind of the 1998 romantic classic City of Angels (I know, not a big leap) and as soon as I learned that Sean never saw it (clearly he was terminally single in 1998), I insisted that Sean go out to the garage to find a copy of the movie I was 36% sure I owned and 98% sure I hadn’t seen this century.

And here’s how that panned out.

First I am shocked to recognize Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher). Actually, it took me a while to convince myself I was actually recognizing him – it looked like him, sorta. A younger him to be sure, but really the problem is that Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Capt. Holt is the world’s most deadpan character AND HE NEVER BREAKS. I’ve never seen his face express emotion before. I’ve never seen his lips do that slight curling upwards thing known as a smile. Even his voice was different; Capt. Holt is serious, and monotone. Braugher is my favourite part of the show, and he has transformed himself so wholly for the role that I could barely recognize him even though this film does nothing to obscure his identity. Watch carefully and you’ll also see a brief cameo from Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), so all your TV idols really did start off in a Nicolas Cage movie. Just kidding. That’s not a saying. Gross.

I’m actually very surprised that there’s a 1998 version of me that liked this movie. I was young, but was I really that dumb? I pretty much loathe Nicolas Cage and it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that I did not. And this movie gives you LOTS of reason to hate him. Dear god.

Nicolas Cage plays an angel, in a city that is chock-full of them. They creepily hover around people in order to better swoop them away at time of death. Seth (Cage) is doing exactly that, and exactly as creepily, during a man’s heart surgery. His surgeon, Maggie (Meg Ryan), loses him on the table, and unaccustomed to loss, she starts to fall apart. Seth starts to fall in love. Usually invisible to the living, he’s convinced she somehow saw him as he lurked about her operating room. And so he makes it so: he appears to her, and compels her to fall in love with him, and just when it starts to feel crazy for a human who saves lives and the angel of death to be in a romantic relationship, he becomes human for her. He takes the fall from grace.

I remember being a kid in full meltdown mode for like HOURS after this movie. HOURS. Oh the hormones pumping through my little body.

This time I just can’t get past Nic Cage’s cadaverous skulking about. I feel insulted on Meg Ryan’s behalf. Cage is in no way suitable for a romantic role. Deranged psychopath? Sure. I buy that. I still don’t like him. I still think he’s a terrible actor. But I’d buy it. Here? Not for a second. I keep wanting to yell at Meg Ryan that there’s a vampire waiting to eat her face! And frankly, when they kiss, I can’t help but feel like my suspicions are confirmed.

Even though my eyes were extra extra dry at the end of the film this time around, I still had to explain the ending to Sean, who is a robot. He doesn’t get stuff about love and sacrifice and forever. Sean’s review would consist solely of a shrug. Mine is likely far more hostile. This thing just isn’t holding up.

Poms

Martha (Diane Keaton) is dying. She has no partner, no children, not even a cat. Just a NYC apartment full of stuff she doesn’t need and one niggling regret. After selling off most of her worldly possessions and relocating to a senior’s retirement community in Georgia to die in a warm climate (where stupid hats are NOT optional), she knows exactly how she’ll spend her remaining days: cheerleading.

Sure it’s unconventional. But quilting and baking and playing bridge don’t really appeal to a woman like Martha. She’s been haunted her whole life by a childhood ambition that went unfulfilled, and if she doesn’t do it now she never will. And when she holds tryouts, it turns out that at least 7 other women wouldn’t mind humiliating themselves along with her – Jacki Weaver and Rhea Perlman included. And also Pam Grier, who quite possibly could never humiliate herself – she is a queen among peasants. No knock against anyone else, but Grier is the accidental sun in this solar system.

In many ways, this is a silly and frivolous film, one that won’t make any lasting impression on the world of cinema, and didn’t really make a dent in terms of sales. But I bet if you’re over 65, it might be nice to see an older person on film who isn’t just waiting to die, or to dispense their life’s advice to the young protagonist, but who is instead still pursuing dreams, still the protagonist in her own life. You may have heard that Anjelica Huston for some reason felt the need to take a shot at the film, which is unfortunate, because there are a lot of older ladies in Hollywood, and only about half a role to split between them. You’d think she might be a little more supportive. Perhaps she and her creaking hips were just jealous? I know why I’m jealous: there’s an old lady on the cheer squad who does the splits. And it’s pretty impressive that she can do the splits at her age, but it’s REALLY impressive that she can get back up out of the splits afterwards, unassisted. That’s who I’m jealous of. I’d be stuck FOR DAYS.

And I guess I’m jealous of anyone who knows their expiration date is approaching, and instead of living in fear, they just live. Martha uses her time. Instead of stewing in regret, she chooses joy.

The director, Zara Hayes, also chooses to slip some subtle messaging into the film about how we police women, and especially elderly women. How we default toward infantilization. While some older people will of course require care, they also, unfailingly, deserve respect. And it feels far too easy for an older woman to become disenfranchised and lose her power.

Poms is a sweet, well-intentioned film. The ladies make dreadful cheerleaders. I’m sorry, but it’s true. The movie really doesn’t glamourize old lady cheerleaders. Their moves are tame and lame and underwhelming, exactly as you’d expect them to be. But it’s the women’s verve and vitality that shines through. They’re not setting the world on fire with their dance moves or athleticism. But they’re not going gently into that good night. Until they’re dead, they’re alive. And in that way, it’s a very inspiring little film.

Otherhood

Three mothers, originally friends because their sons were friends, have stayed in each other’s lives even after their sons have all moved away. We meet them at a mother’s day brunch they’ve thrown themselves because their lousy sons always forget (if any one of them had a daughter, or even a daughter-in-law, this movie wouldn’t exist; daughters are not allowed to forget). Not content to just sit around bitching and whining about their lives, they decide to inflict their neuroses on their grown sons, uninvited. So they pack themselves into the world’s most hostile road trip and storm New York City to make their problems someone else’s.

You likely know a mother or two just like this, and if it’s your own mother, well, god bless you. This kind of mother wants it both ways: she decides she MUST become a mother because her life is incomplete, but then she spends her kid’s life telling him or her that it was a completely selfless act that requires a well of gratitude whose depth cannot be measured as it is bottomless and unending and nothing will ever be enough. And when the child is grown, the mother is lost and without purpose because motherhood was everything and now she is nothing. And improbably, all three female characters in this film are suffering from this affliction.

Personally, I know tonnes of mothers who have managed to maintain a balance between forging a career, having their own life, nurturing friendships, and being better mothers because of it. I don’t imagine that’s easy, but it’s life, and the last time I checked, motherhood IS optional. But these women are acting like life is over because their grown sons don’t immediately reply to their inane and constant texting.

It must have been difficult for Netflix to promote this movie since one of the three women is Felicity Huffman and she’s not exactly winning any motherhood prizes right now (if you’re just poking your head out from underneath a rock, she’s one of the parents accused of believing that her kids are such profound idiots that they could only get into college with the help of large, illegal bribes, and that they still deserved to be there, perhaps taking the place of your own kids, who would have otherwise merited the position, because their mother is rich and famous and quite possibly she just wanted them out of the damn house). Leaving her aside, Netflix managed to convince both Patricia Arquette and Angela Bassett to join the ranks of the pitiful. And frankly, Arquette does nothing to dispel the pity party. She’s gotten a little too comfortably playing the kooky, offbeat, perpetually single mother. When she breaks into her son’s apartment to bake for him, it’s uncomfortably believable. When she fails to learn a lesson about meddling and instead declares that the only problem was that she didn’t meddle soon enough, you believe that too.

Bassett, on the other hand, is an asset. Her character has certainly invested too much of herself into living for the men in her life (her husband and her son), especially when those men haven’t deserved it, don’t return it, and don’t even want it. But because it’s Basset, her character doesn’t feel pathetic. She holds her head high. She clearly has strength. And she DOES learn her lesson, and earns herself a better life; in the end, she’s the only one we’re really rooting for.

I think a lot of women, and perhaps parents generally, struggle with the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adult. But the truth is, that role is always changing. A newborn baby is a round-the-clock, soul-sucking (and hopefully soul-nourishing) job; a two year old is a battle of wills; a twelve year old is an exercise in diplomacy; a fifteen year old is a test of nerves. You never stop being someone’s mother, but mothering stops being invasive and starts being supportive at some point – if you’ve done it right. Not everyone gets it right, and that’s okay too, because we’re all human and we’re all learning on the job. You might even have to be someone’s kid while also being someone else’s parent. But neither of those things should subsume your entire identity.

Otherhood isn’t a great movie but it’s possibly worth watching just because there isn’t enough Angela Bassett in the world as it is. Stories about women are worth telling. We don’t always get them right. We’re all fumbling around trying to figure shit out. And if you haven’t recently been federally indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, you’re probably doing okay.

Stockholm

An American cowboy criminal flies to Sweden to host their first hostage situation. I mean, I don’t think he’s particularly interested in setting precedents, which is funny, because as you might have gleaned from the title, he’s about to create a situation that’ll become famous enough to named after it.

Lars Nystrom (Ethan Hawke) holds up a bank in Stockholm, but he doesn’t rob it. Instead, he uses it as leverage to have old buddy Gunnar Sorenson (Mark Strong) released from prison. On a roll, he throws in some extras, like a million dollars cash, bullet-proof vests, and a getaway car – standard bank robber demands. The dude doesn’t have an original bone in his body. He’s also not a planner: he asks specifically for a Mustang, and as someone who has not one but two of them in the driveway, I can tell you, you aren’t fitting hostages in that backseat. It’s a two-door car. When you’re running from the law, you don’t have precious minutes to waste trying to fold up grown-ups into a non-existent backseat.

But anyway. Lars has taken a couple of lovely ladies hostage, which is the kind he prefers. And also a dude, who hid rather than evacuated.

Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity. Sure it’s strictly irrational, but fear and stress and tension do create a rather specific kind of intimacy. Hostages and hostage-takers may feel like they’ve been through something together. It’s a form of bonding, in a weird way. It doesn’t make sense, but trauma does fucked up things sometimes. Stockholm syndrome is a fucked up thing.

Why would bank teller, wife, and mother Bianca (Noomi Rapace) bond with her captor? Perhaps partly because the cops seem inept. They’re not doing enough to save her and the others. The Prime Minister is not allowing the robbers to leave with hostages, and so they stay, festering in the bank.

Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace give terrific performances, but they’re stunted by a script that fails to do justice to the real events it portrays. Egregiously, it fails to sell the syndrome that gives it its title. I never felt a strong bond between captor and captives, certainly not one that would justify the three hostages not only refusing to testify, but fundraising for the dude’s defense. I rarely felt connected to anyone, or moved by anyone and I never felt any definitive chemistry between the characters either. This is not merely a missed opportunity, but supposedly the whole point of the movie, and it’s delivered so weakly it may as well not exist. I will not and cannot recommend what was ultimately a disappointment.

Secret Obsession

Jennifer (Brenda Song) is frantic for escape: it’s dark, it’s raining, she’s clearly terrified. Dashing from a payphone to an abandoned building, she’s eventually hit by a car, unconscious at the side of the road, and we still don’t know what or who she’s running from. Her husband Russell (Mike Vogel) arrives at the hospital while she’s still in surgery, unable to explain why she was so far from home, at an abandoned service station with no car or ID. When she wakes up, her memory is compromised. She doesn’t remember the accident OR her husband.

Frank (Dennis Haysbert), the detective on the case, is having a rough week. It’s his daughter’s birthday, but she disappeared when she was 10 and he still beats himself up for not finding her as he weeps in a closet with years worth of wrapped gifts. His guilt and grief push him to work this case more obsessively than usual.

In the meantime, Jennifer’s been discharged, headed back to a life she doesn’t remember with a husband who’s a virtual stranger. They have a beautiful home, but it is remote, and we constantly get that little tickle at the back of our necks that indicates that some sort of danger may still be out there.

Amnesia is a great way to create tension because the protagonist’s experience is ultra unreliable. Jennifer must question everything, and anything she fails to question is of course something that we, the audience, must sweat. And we end up sweating all the small stuff! You can’t trust anything, which is a very tenterhooky way of watching a movie.

So yeah, we’ve got a lot invested in Detective Frank. I mean, not as much as Jennifer does. She’s fearing for her life and I’m just kind of stressed out watching a movie that I’m technically allowed to stop or pause or walk away from, and unlike Jennifer, I’m not hobbled from a mysterious accident.

For Jennifer, recovered memories are a blessing and a curse. While every bit of information remembered is helpful to understanding her situation, it’s often quite distressing stuff. I think I’d prefer the bliss of ignorance myself. So yeah, Secret Obsession is a pretty suspenseful movie. It is not remotely original and it doesn’t really try to hide any of its twists and turns – this movie doesn’t so much keep you guessing as make you a jumpy pack of nerves.

Writer-director Peter Sullivan is known for making Hallmark movies, and while this movie is a step above, it’s also perhaps a step below what might normally get released in theatres. Of course, this movie is a Netflix original, so the standards are a little different. Maybe it’s not great, but it’s new, and sometimes that’s enough.