Girls Trip (2017)

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Bridesmaids proved that women can be vulgar and funny, just like men, and now Girls Trip confirms the same to be true of African American women, specifically. Who knew? Call it the curmudgeonly grumblings of a repressed white homo erectus but I didn’t find  Malcolm D. Undercover Brother Lee’s film to be the funniest thing on the planet since bread came sliced. Not really.
     There’s simply no denying it, however: newcomer Tiffany Haddish grabs Girls Trip by the male reproductive organs and makes it her own. Overnight. She’s since demonstrated, of course, that you don’t have to be X-rated to be hysterical—just YouTube her co-presenting turn (with an equally lovable Maya Rudolph) at this year’s Oscars for proof positive.
     You go girl. A star is born.
     But Girls Trip wants to have its fruit and eat it too. Since when did it become fashionable to call 40-year-old African American women black girls again (and where’s the punctuation for that matter, unless the trip in question is a verb)? Since when is it cool for white women (or white men for that matter) to call black women sisters? I must have missed that memo. It’s puzzling, therefore, when Regina Hall’s character dresses down her white female PR manager by telling her to layoff the “girlfriend” stuff. I guess it’s not OK after all? I’m confused.
     Anyway, what is OK is to see a film almost exclusively produced by—as well as featuring—African American artists embraced so unilaterally. That’s truly groundbreaking and we need more of their ilk. It’s just unfortunate that the film in question has to resort to simulated fellatio, public urination, and full frontal male nudity in order to get its biggest, most horrified laughs (it is set in New Orleans, after all). Even Haddish flashes her (admittedly pasties-covered) breasts at one point. I guess time isn’t quite up just yet, gals.
     Girls Trip also stars Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith, who complement Hall and Haddish with warm and rosy tones, along with an abundance of male eye candy cavorting around in what is, in Essence, a not so subtle plug for the Big Easy’s biggest music fest—Common, Diddy, and Mariah Carey each provide performance cameos.
     Equal parts shrill and boorish, and populated with thinly-written characters in predictable (if outrageously raunchy) situations, Girls Trip wants us to believe we can have it all. And eat it too.
     Grapefruit, anyone?


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Scent of Rain & Lightning (2017)

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Longhorns grumble in protest, the rain teems down, and a Midwestern ranching family grieves. According to producer and writer Casey Twenter, The Scent of Rain & Lightning is “a modern western noir” that stars Maika Monroe, Mark Webber, Justin Chatwin, Brad Carter, and Maggie Grace alongside veterans Bonnie Bedelia and Will Patton. Based on Nancy Pickard’s best-selling novel of the same name, the film “tells the story of a young woman who learns her parents’ killer has been released from jail, forcing her to revisit old wounds.” The publicity blurb also tacks on the clause “…while discovering the destructive power of hate and the true cost of family secrets fully revealing themselves.” Twenter probably didn’t pen that last part, because the film is better written than that. And it’s finely acted too, especially by the 24-year-old Monroe as Jody Linder, who confronts the odious lowlife (Carter, scarily real), demanding answers from the man who reportedly shot her father and drowned her mother. Only, there are those in town who believe Billy to be innocent of the crime. By the end of the film we will all know the truth, but Blake Robbins’ atmospheric, performance-driven indie is in no rush to get there, relying heavily on flashbacks for explication. The approach can be a struggle to keep up with at times, it’s true, and then there’s the bizarre inclusion of The Flaming Lips’ 2002 music video “Do You Realize??” somewhere in the middle (its jarring presence reminded me of the time some joker in a red metallic wig spliced footage of himself lip-synching to Adam Ant’s “Desperate But Not Serious” onto the end of a Bodacious Tatas videotape). But despite a few minor missteps, The Scent of Rain & Lightning still works, because the actors are so present, and the mood so prevalent, and the understated score (by Brooke and Will Blair) so resonant, and the direction so grounded. Kudos to everyone, then, for pulling the striking ‘Lightning together.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Forgiven (2017)

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Powerful performances by Forest Whitaker as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Eric Bana as the clemency-seeking death squad assassin Piet Blomfeld highlight Roland Joffé’s latest political drama, The Forgiven, a film inspired by true events. After the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s, newly-elected President Nelson Mandela called for the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a means for promoting healing, peace, and justice for all South Africans, with Tutu appointed its chairman. Those who fully acknowledged and confessed to their crimes of political violence were offered the possibility of amnesty by the TRC. To that end, Pollsmoor prison inmate Blomfeld requests an audience with the Archbishop in some of The Forgiven’s early, groundwork-laying scenes. Based on Michael Ashton’s stage play The Archbishop and the Antichrist—Ashton co-wrote the screenplay with The Killing Fields director Joffé—The Forgiven showcases the redoubtable Whitaker (Academy Award winner for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland), who excels as the celebrated South African Anglican cleric and activist despite a bulbous prosthetic nose that constantly threatens to topple him forwards. And Bana (Munich, Closed Circuit) makes a strong impression as convicted murderer Blomfeld, a man of bristling hatred and intensity, yet one able to coax a meeting out of Tutu by eloquently quoting Plato and Milton. Within Pollsmoor’s walls, the verbal showdowns between the two men are understandably stagy—the classic battle of wits and wills, the prototypical man of peace sparring with the man of war—but Joffé gives his principals the space they deserve to develop their characters’ inner demons and they don’t disappoint. Of equal interest is a subplot in which Tutu vows to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl, culminating in a dramatic courtroom scene in which Thandi Makhubele (who plays the teenage girl’s distraught mother) gives as good a showing as Whitaker and Bana with considerably less screen time. The Forgiven documents a pivotal time in South Africa’s turbulent history and does so with grace, intelligence, and humanity. The Archbishop Emeritus has himself called the film a tribute to “the outstanding compassion and courage of those who offered love and forgiveness as an antidote to hate and inhumanity.”


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Dame Agatha Christie described Hercule Poirot, her famous fictional detective, as “no more than five foot five” with “distinctive green eyes” and “symmetrically parted hair” on an “egg-shaped head,” making this “small, compact man” look “positively erotic” with his “expressive eyebrows,” “tiny, fastidiously-groomed hands,” and, of course, “the tortured splendor of his famous moustache.” The Hercule Poirot portrayed in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s all-star remake of Murder on the Orient Express (brought to us by Godiva!) looks decidedly more like the blue-eyed, five foot ten Kenneth Branagh than anything else, a little more handsomely rumpled than those previous descriptors might imply. Christie purists consider David Suchet’s to be the definitive interpretation in the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013), but Branagh pulls off the dapper Belgian bit, even giving his character some realistic OCD tendencies to support the affectations the role dictates.
     And boy, what a moustache!
     Branagh’s flamboyant spectacle of facial hair looks, let’s face it, patently ridiculous, and significantly grayer than the “suspiciously black” one referred to by the celebrated author, but it does actually match Christie’s description of an “enormous” waxed specimen. It even gives Kurt Russell’s outrageous sweeper in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight a run for its money (until now, the largest I remember seeing on the big screen).
     It’s hard not to be distracted by Poirot’s ear-to-ear ‘Express exhibit, especially since the director has his cameraman follow it everywhere, up and down the sleeping cars, in and out of staterooms, in full bloom and pomade curling close-up. In fact, the only time it’s hidden from view is when the detective turns in for the night, covering it with a custom moustache guard for safekeeping. Of course, it makes perfect sense that Branagh would keep Poirot’s signature facial feature front and center since his camera, by design, follows the actor all over the place, from Jerusalem to Istanbul to the Swiss Alps. The other eclipsed stars get a look-in, and they’re all quite good—Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, and Willem Dafoe—but it’s Branagh’s film after all and he likes to play favorites. Just imagine Gilderoy Lockhart directing himself.
     Murder on the Orient Express was first made into a star-studded spectacular in 1974, with Albert Finney as Poirot and Lauren Bacall winning an Oscar for her American socialite Mrs. Hubbard, a character central to the Lindbergh baby-inspired storyline (Pfeiffer doubles for her in the redo). When the unusually full train is derailed by an avalanche and its passengers wait to be dug out, a particularly anxious antiques dealer is found stabbed to death in his first-class sleeping compartment. Fortunately, Poirot is aboard and can invest in some serious sleuthing.
     Branagh’s family friendly film, much like its hirsute protagonist, is big and bold; Murder on the Orient Express is confidently made and competently told (Blade Runner 2049’s Michael Green faithfully adapted the novel for the screen). There are few surprises, of course, if you’ve read the book or seen any of the dramatized versions, but its two-hour running time fairly skips along. The filmmaker is clearly going for the franchise here, what with that closing-reel teaser about a new assignment in Egypt, but that’s understandable given Christie’s popularity and prolific body of work. Personally I’d prefer Branagh tackle one of the Queen of Crime’s smaller, previously unfilmed works but I’ll likely give Death on the Nile a look when it opens next year, moustaches—Christie’s preferred term—an’ all.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Game Night (2017)

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Nobody does exasperated better than Jason Bateman. Nobody. And Bateman is given plenty of opportunities to showcase this particular talent in Game Night, the latest rollicking comedy misadventure from the co-writers of Horrible Bosses (in which the hardworking star of Arrested Development also appeared).
     ’Bosses scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have graduated to co-directors here, leaving the writing duties to one Mark Perez. Perez penned Disney’s The Country Bears, so he has a lot to answer for.
     Anyway, Bateman is one of the best things about Game Night, and he’s joined by a perky Rachel McAdams who proves to have a deft knack for slapstick. Max and Annie meet cute, satirically, in a bar when they simultaneously reveal—for double points—their Teletubby knowledge (Tinkie Winkie is the purple one, in case you were wondering. “He always carried a… red purse!”). The next thing you know, Max and Annie are lovelocked, then married, montage-style, and soon hosting couples game nights in their suburban home… in so generic a development it’s literally a plastic model from the air.
     Anyway, these covert game night affairs regularly arouse the suspicions of their law enforcement neighbor, Gary (a creepily good Jesse Plemons), who’s not been invited to one since his wife left him. She was the fun one, apparently.
     Game Night’s major strength is, in fact, its casting, which also takes advantage of some very appealing supporting players. The usual attendees at Max and Annie’s competitive contests include dimwitted Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his bimbo of the week… although for the bulk of the film he’s traded up for a sharp-tongued Irish lass, played by Sharon Horgan (he thinks she’s English, naturally). Also on deck are the happily-married-since-high-school Kevin and Michelle (the likeable Lamorne Morris from New Girl, along with Kylie Bunbury). When Max’s intimidatingly successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up in a shiny red 1976 Corvette Stingray—Max’s dream car—the stakes spike precipitously. No board games tonight! Someone is about to be… taken! Now these game game players need to figure out the mystery before, well… before it becomes an actual murder mystery.
     My expectations were, alas, way up for this one, having stupidly ODed on the super-cute trailer, and I was disappointed I didn’t find it funnier (Catastrophe’s Horgan is given a few zingers but deserves more). Game Night is funny, no question—writer Perez certainly redeems himself with occasional flashes of brilliance—but I was hoping for more consistent belly laughs given the talent involved rather than a smattering of lightweight chuckles throughout. At least the film doesn’t devolve into gross-out gags and scatalogical humor, so that earns it an extra half star at least.
     Max [drawing Ed Norton in a game of charades]: Oh, this, easy. He was, er… Incredible Hulk.
     Kevin and Michelle [simultaneously]: Eric Bana.
     Max: Other one.
     Michelle: Mark Ruffalo.
     Max [frustrated]: OTHER one.
     Ryan [shouting victoriously]: Lou Ferrigno!
     Max [making a fist for emphasis]: Primal Fear.
     Kevin [confused]: Richard Gere never played the Incredible Hulk.
     Ryan: Time!
     Max [disgusted]: Jesus Christ! Ed Norton.
     Everyone: Ohhhh…
     That’s fine comedic writing. And classic Jason Bateman.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com