“Perfect. We’ll make a killer of you yet.” The Favourite and Vice

“Beware the quiet man.” – proverb that opens the film Vice

Oh, this special and lovely historical moment we are currently surviving, with volatile, temperamental, ill-informed leadership surrounded by hangers-on who benefit more from chaos than peace. You’d think we’d learn from the mistakes of our forebears. Hell, you’d think we’d learn from the mistakes of a decade-or-so ago. Nope. Nada. Nyet.

Blessed be when Hollywood gets something right, and did they ever with the one-two punch of The Favourite and Vice. In essence, these fact-based films tell two versions of the same tale: a sweet-natured autocrat (The Restoration-era’s Queen Anne and post-9/11 President George W. Bush, respectively) whose ineptitude is compensated for/manipulated by courtesans (Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill and Dick and Lynne Cheney, also respectively) whose Machiavellian desires for power belie a self-satisfied surety that their intentions are noble (even when the outcomes are clearly suspect).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Both flicks embrace a surreal cinematic visual and aural language as well (in The Favourite, fish-eye lens cinematography, discordant musical queues, and what appears to be hip-hop choreography; in Vice, fourth-wall busting asides, Shakespearean soliloquies, and omniscient narrators) to make abundantly clear that The Favourite and Vice are intended as allegorical cautionary tales for a present-day society that has utterly run off the rails.

“The word is about, there’s something evolving; whatever may come, the world keeps revolving. They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution’s near, but to me it seems quite clear, that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.” – Shirley Bassey and Propellerheads, “History Repeating.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Perfect. We’ll make a killer of you yet.” – Sarah Churchill/Lady Marlboro (Rachel Weisz) in The Favourite

The Favourite. So well-acted  and so damn visceral. You can practically smell the powdered wigs … and copious amounts of onscreen vomit. That said, the three leads – Olivia Colman (oh, she’s a freaking lead!), Emma Stone (La La Land, Birdman), and Rachel Weisz (best I’ve EVER liked her) – tear up the screen in a post-feminist, 18th-century-period-piece take-down of patriarchy …working from a twenty-year-old (!) script by Deborah Davis. If there ever was a movie that showed the hell women go through (and sometimes put each other through) when they darn well know how the world SHOULD be run (and nobody will listen), this is it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Director Yorgos Lanthimos stages an insular and haunting court where palace intrigue is as cruel as it is serendipitous. Lady Marlboro (Weisz) rules the palace and Queen Anne’s (Colman’s) heart with kid-gloved fists, a dominatrix with a heart of gold who manages the day-to-day royal operations as a means toward ultimately setting foreign policy and other matters of state.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into this delicate spider-web wanders Marlboro’s wide-eyed cousin Abigail (Stone), whose guilelessness is as phony as the rouge on her cheeks. I won’t spoil the fun, but the wit and wisdom in the performances and in the script and the sheer lack of vanity throughout are unlike anything we’ve seen onscreen in quite a while.

And Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class) holds his own with this remarkable trio as Robert Harley, a parliamentarian who finds himself the happy beneficiary of the political blow-back from this unlikeliest of love triangles.

“I’m still the lady I was. In my heart.” – Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) in The Favourite

I wasn’t a huge fan of Adam McKay’s previous biodramedy The Big Short (which just tried too damn hard and was too cute by half for my tastes), but I LOVE its follow-up Vice. A little Macbeth, a bit of Richard III, a smidge of Hee Haw, and a smattering of Mad Magazine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Christian Bale (American Hustle, The Dark Knight) and Amy Adams (Big Eyes, Man of Steel) are perfection as Dick and Lynne Cheney, the calculating, power-hungry duo at the center of a decades-old political machine that prizes cash over humanity. But the film is never cruel, offering a kind of grudging appreciation for the audacity of their unified if calloused accomplishment.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is pretty damn excellent as well with dynamic character turns by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) as George W. Bush, Steve Carell (Beautiful Boy) as Donald Rumsfeld, and Tyler Perry (Madea) as Colin Powell. The Cheney family is rounded out by American Horror Story mainstays Alison Pill and Lily Rabe as Mary and Liz Cheney. Naomi Watts (Insurgent) and Alfred Molina (The Front Runner) pop up in delightful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos as Jiminy-Cricket-esque commentators (a FOX News anchor and a snooty steakhouse waiter, respectively) on the Shakespearean intrigue that is afoot.

“I will not lie, and THAT is love.” – Sarah Churchill/Lady Marlboro (Rachel Weisz) in The Favourite

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It may seem a strange recommendation to suggest that you should spend your remaining holiday free-time with such a dubious cast of characters … but you should. Both films are not only crackerjack, award-caliber entertainments, but they are essential viewing as collective warning against repeating the sins of both the distant and the immediate past. Don’t miss either film, and, if you’re truly feeling ambitious, and perhaps a bit masochistic, take them in as a double-feature.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.” Gone Girl (film review)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Bruise black social satire or toxic tragedy (or both) of the fallacious state of American marriage, David Fincher’s dark film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark best-selling novel Gone Girl is compelling and timely, but, at least for this viewer, not as visionary nor as iconoclastic as its hype would suggest.

Doesn’t mean it’s not a crackerjack film, but the ideas herein have been covered in many (and sometimes better) ways. While watching the 2.5 hour flick, I thought often of such clammy classics as The Children’s Hour, Vertigo, Charade, The Days of Wine and Roses, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Double Indemnity and even (arguably) lesser works like The War of the Roses, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Body Double. Heck, I even sense a bit of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible in Gone Girl‘s DNA.

However, what this new entry in mind-f*ck cinema does very well is distill all those disparate influences into a saucy, curdled stew of …

  • the petty evils spouses exact on each other
  • the caustic calcification of love gone wrong
  • the thorny economic necessity of the institution called marriage
  • the disastrous poisons that egomaniacal pursuit of outside adoration and praise introduces into the delicate private workings of any relationship
  • our present-day/post-OJ world of “he said/she said” criminal psychodrama
  • the preening desire of us Gen X’ers to glibly document our every thought, feeling, and deed
  • and social climbing run amok in a Recession-blighted era of unfunded McMansions, too many babies, and too little compassion.

Whew! And Flynn, efficiently and effectively adapting her own novel, partners beautifully with Fincher (for at least the film’s first half) in dangling delicious uncertainty before us. For those unfamiliar with the novel, in essence, Flynn has created a black comedy out of our TMZ/Perez Hilton/Nancy Grace-fueled penchant to celebrate, devour, abandon, and repeat on a 24/7 news cycle prurient stories of philandering spouses who murder each other, their children, or their neighbors or who seemingly evaporate into thin air, only to be found months later in someone’s basement, the bottom of a river, or hanging out at a shopping mall food court.

The “gone girl” in question – Amy – is expertly portrayed by Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Jack Reacher) in a super-tricky performance (is she dead? is she alive? what is/was she up to?) that somehow invokes a lot of Cate Blanchett with a sprinkling of Kelly McGillis, Kathleen Turner, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novak. Amy vanishes (amidst broken glass and blood splatters) from the plastic-perfect home she shares with husband Nick (Ben Affleck being perfectly typecast for his prototypical Ben Affleck-iness) the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary.

The first half of the film tracks Nick’s many media, social, and other political missteps as evidence mounts, pointing to him as the likely culprit. Y’see, Amy and Nick, being sickening hipster fancy-pants, have played a “cute” game annually where she leaves him little riddles and clues to his anniversary present and sends him on a “darling” goose chase to figure out what “artisanal” surprise she has in store. So, this year, said clues take Nick (and his new friends, the police) closer and closer to a grotesque image of domestic brutality and potential murder.

But then, the movie reaches the halfway mark, and everything we thought we knew is turned sideways. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, but, both Pike and Affleck do a splendid job offering characters as unlikable as they are relatable. At one point, Pike intones during her narration of events, “Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.”

They are supported by a strong cast that all neatly walk that fine line between dramatic potboiler and broad satire: an oily Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s possibly sadistic ex, an even oilier Tyler Perry as Nick’s defense attorney, Saturday Night Live-alum Casey Wilson as a delightfully wackadoodle neighbor, Missi Pyle as an even wackadoodlier TV shock news host, and stage vets Carrie Coon as Nick’s long-suffering sister and David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy’s media-whoring parents. Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ slithering score is a character unto itself, providing the perfect note (pun intended) of menace throughout.

Fincher is so good at creating a claustrophobic world where tension and humor come from familiarity and contempt. I adored The Social Network and Fight Club, and Gone Girl nearly approaches the dizzying fever dreams those films crisply achieved. Alas, the film (and Pike) are burdened with a third act that veers away from the Hitchockian to the Verhoeven-ian. Amy’s narrative has a sharp post-feminism lilt for much of the film but devolves into vagina dentata foolishness in the film’s final moments. To me, that was disappointing, if not inevitable in our misogynistic day and age.

Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but when both characters are as believably rotten as Nick and Amy, let’s not default to the old poor henpecked hubby trope with a dose of Rosemary’s Baby-bait-and-switch as an otherwise fine dark satire rumbles to its denouement.

Like last fall’s superior PrisonersGone Girl aims to say something profound about the “little pink houses for you and me” that provide cold comfort when we are faced with the violent horrors those closest to us can callously inflict. Yet, Gone Girl falls short. In this current moment, when people are withholding marriage from one group by claiming its sanctity for another, Gone Girl is just the poison pill our hyperbolic national debate needs. I just wish the film or the book (or both) had had the courage to see its dark thesis through to the story’s final frames.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Yeah, I know. We should have known better … the sequel: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Well, when I started this adventure called Reel Roy Reviews a little over a year and a half ago, my first review – perhaps just to telegraph to readers how few standards I had – was of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program. No lie – proof here.

As if to come (shamefacedly) full circle at this holly jolly holiday time of reflection and penance, this fifty-eighth (!) entry in my weird, lightly trafficked corner of blogdom highlights Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas. And, yeah, we still should have known better. It is just dreadful.

(Tyler Perry, that dollar store indie-auteur, is helping me formulate a new supposition: the more possessive apostrophes in a film’s title, the worse the cinematic outcome.)

Perry is no dummy. His bread and butter is Madea, and, as poorly (under)written as his scripts are and as shoddy as his direction, that character – a loving (and honest) homage to his mother – remains the bright spot in the Perry universe. As broadly as she is drawn (sometimes spinning perilously into full-blown cultural offense), Madea as a characterization, I would argue, belongs in the cinematic canon of franchise comedy series players like Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, or Francis the Talking Mule.

Strange company, I realize, but when Perry is firing on all saucy cylinders, his Madea transcends the sub-par narrative context in which she’s placed and can make me laugh like a kid watching Laurel and Hardy reruns on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It’s just too bad Perry as a filmmaker doesn’t know his limitations – imagine if Hal Roach thought he was Ingmar Bergman.

This brings us to Perry’s latest – A Madea Christmas – which is one of his weakest efforts to date. He bears the remarkable distinction of actually getting worse as a filmmaker the more movies he directs.

As an aside, the high-water mark for the series (which isn’t saying much) remains Madea Goes to Jail, which leverages Madea’s ongoing rage at the cosmic ineptitude of mankind to great effect, most notably during a run-in in a Kmart parking lot. Madea Goes to Jail also has the good sense to include Viola Davis (at a time before we all realized how amazing she is) in one of Perry’s trademark melodramatic subplots: some nonsense about Rudy from The Cosby Show becoming a drug addicted prostitute … and then finding Jesus. Davis, whose actorly commitment could make an episode of Full House bearable, plays the prison counselor that gets Rudy (and Madea) back on track and offers one of the rare instances of a compelling character-driven performance in a Perry film.

A Madea Christmas on the other hand features the magical acting chops of … Larry the Cable Guy. And he’s one of the most subdued (and funny) people in this mess. Color me astounded. Kathy Najimy (who should fire her agent) and Larry play liberals-in-rednecks’-clothing whose son secretly marries Madea’s niece. Madea, of course, is fine with all of it, as long as she gets to crack wise and crack heads. The girl’s mother, histrionically played by Anna Maria Horsford as if she thinks the movie’s audience is located somewhere on the moon, is less than thrilled by her daughter’s choice of life mate. Bad 1980s TV movie hijinks ensue.

There’s a bizarre subplot about a dam that has cut off water from the town and is robbing the hateful farmers there of crop-growing potential; a Christmas pageant sponsored by the conglomerate that built said dam and that now wants to deprive the town of their “Christ in Christmas” by making the event a non-denominational “Holiday” pageant (with no – gasp! – nativity); and a school that apparently is located right inside the town hall (!), has six students, and is run by sweet-faced principal Lisa Whelchel (yeah, The Facts of Life‘s Blair) whose notion of the separation of church and state is decorating her classrooms with Christmas-light-festooned crosses. It’s like Sam Walton’s fever-dream.

Mr. Perry, I implore you – take some time off. Cranking out two movies a year does not a great director make. Assess what you do well (fish-out-of-water comedy, class warfare satire) and what you don’t (poignant melodrama, humanist messages) and be brave enough to let someone else … anyone elsedirect you (as Madea) in one of your scripts. That would be the best holiday gift of all to those moviegoers (like yours truly) who keep waiting (but probably not for much longer) for you fully to realize your potential.

Fun escapist trifle far better than it deserves to be: Sparkle

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

I have foggy half-remembered impressions of the original Sparkle with Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas. I, like so many others, am more keenly aware of all the films and musicals that came in its wake, paying homage (or swiping) its central conceit, including both stage and film versions of Dreamgirls. But, probably my most memorable exposure to the film was hearing En Vogue’s hit remake of the original Sparklesoundtrack cut “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” in the early 90s.

Consequently, this remake is no doubt going to land with an anti-climactic thud, which is a bit unfair. Yes, the film manages somehow to outdo both Douglas Sirk AND Tyler Perry in overwrought, under-scripted, over-accessorized, oddly-bewigged melodrama. Yes, it is yet another in the strange new subgenre of cheaply made, kinda junky, shamefully enjoyable Hollywood film musical featuring pop divas at odd way-stations in their careers (see: Cher and Xtina in Thanksgiving turkey Burlesque).

HOWEVER, a key difference is that the generally winning cast here overcomes limited material and an unfortunate Lifetime TV-movie approach to direction and screenplay to deliver a pretty compelling and always entertaining two hours. The specter of Whitney Houston’s passing hangs heavy on the production but also gives it an emotional heft it might not have otherwise had. Never an actress of great depth but always a presence, Houston, in this case, gives a nuanced performance, providing the film its emotional center. She plays a matriarch whose misspent youth has left her living in fear that her daughters will repeat her sordid deeds (which one of them does) and overcompensating through religious zealotry. If you can make it through Houston’s singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at a key moment in the film without becoming a puddle, well, you’re a stronger soul than I…or you’re a cyborg.

The other performers all turn in credible performances, and keep the enterprise moving along. Mike Epps is quite effective as a charmingly smarmy and eventually rabidly mean comedian who woos (and worse) Houston’s eldest daughter, the equally good Carmen Ejogo. Ejogo is kinda like a less-scenery-chewing Thandie Newton. As Houston’s middle daughter, Tika Sumpter has great fun with an otherwise thankless role – I looked forward to every line she zippily delivered. There was far too little of her in the film.

I’m not a fan of American Idol Jordin Sparks who played Houston’s song-writing title character daughter, and she and fellow romantic lead Derek Luke were a bit too cloyingly wholesome to be endured at times. BUT she dutifully served her purpose as a pleasant cipher upon whom we as audience members could project our own reactions to the, at times, goofy “movie logical” moments that would never actually happen in reality. (For example, not to spoil anything, but at one point a key figure is, yes, murdered with a fireplace poker, and, while the murder is in self-defense and no court in the land would debate it…all the other characters cover it up, while another nobly takes the rap. That’s what I call “movie logic.”)

Catch this one at the dollar theatre or on DVD/online. It’s a fun escapist trifle that is far better than it deserves to be because the ensemble is so devoted and engaged. Whitney Houston’s passing broke my heart for many reasons, though not necessarily because of her prior film performances. After seeing her in this, though, I think we have been deprived of what could have been a very interesting third act in her remarkable, challenged, and challenging career.

Yeah, I know. We should have known better: Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program

Description: Film poster; Source: Amazon [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Amazon]

Yeah, I know. We should have known better. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program is a big, dumb mess of a movie. The worst of an admittedly (wildly) uneven film series. You know you are in trouble (big trouble!) when Denise Richards (!) is doing the best acting work of anyone in the ensemble. I have never seen a worse performance than Eugene Levy’s mugging, unfunny tomfoolery in this thing, and my heart hurt that Doris Roberts and John Amos were anywhere near this film. As always, Perry is a warm-hearted, saucy delight as the title character, and he is even better-than-adequate as Uncle Joe and as Madea’s nephew. However, the man cannot write a decent script to save his soul…and his directing is just a notch above ABC After-School Special territory. The highlight for me was watching Madea, a character who apparently hasn’t flown post-9/11 (if ever), navigate the absurdity that is modern air-travel. Watching her take off her shoes in the inspection line was (almost) worth the price of admission. Almost. Avoid at all costs…even when it airs on TNT in what will feel like three weeks.