‘Cats’ is a Jellicle-Only Affair

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Ray Winstone

Director: Tom Hooper

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG for CGI’d Cat-People Lifting Their Legs Up Suggestively

Release Date: December 20, 2019

I admire the people who have made Cats, including all versions of the musical and this here film adaptation. The whole premise is thoroughly ridiculous, and all the little details only make it more so. So anyone who has given it their all at the Jellicle Ball has no time for the shame that such an enterprise might convey. That sort of pluck and resilience will get you far in life. It doesn’t necessarily make for good filmmaking, though. In this case, at least, it just transfers something truly baffling in one iteration into something just as baffling, in the same ways and more, in another medium.

The plot, such as it is, is immensely inconsequential, but it has something to do with new cat in town Victoria (Francesca Hayward) trying to find her place in cat society while devious cat Macavity (Idris Elba) plucks away his competition for the Jellicle Ball, which I’m pretty sure is some sort of talent show. Meanwhile, all the other cats prance about and sing their signature songs to let us know who they are. So far, so phantasmagorical. This could be appreciated as a bizarre theatrical extravaganza if the staging and choreography were decent. But director Tom Hooper has a way of shooting every scene that makes it feel like everything is so far away, even the close-ups. It confers an elusive nature that is the opposite of the extreme intimacy of high-frame rate, and thus it is difficult to connect with whatever emotional resonance the actors are able to summon. If something is going to be as unbelievable as this, it ought to also be unforgettable. Alas, Cats is just a piffle that my subconscious doesn’t even want to bother with.

Cats is Recommended If You Like: Thorough nonsense

Grade: 2 out of 5 Jellicles

Movie Review: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is Surprisingly Goofy, Unsurprisingly Family-Oriented, and Annoyingly Convoluted

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Universal Pictures

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Eddie Marsan, Eiza González, Helen Mirren

Director: David Leitch

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Vehicles and Big Egos Slamming Into Each Other

Release Date: August 2, 2019

Spin-offs should offer something that the original couldn’t. Hobbs & Shaw immediately feels off in that regard, considering that Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) have already been a couple of the biggest characters in the last few Fast & Furious movies. Although, they aren’t quite members of the core family, so that leaves them enough wiggle room to break out on their own. But it can’t be too different! This franchise has a sterling stunt reputation it needs to maintain, and while director David Leitch and company do not try to be as relentlessly mind-blowing as Fast Five or Furious 7, there is at least one memorable moment when a motorcycle slinks between some truck tires.

The separation, then, mostly comes in Hobbs & Shaw being at its core an odd couple buddy comedy, and in this case, that means a few celebrity cameos who inject their own particular brands of impishness. These moments feel out of place in this world, but they might also be the best parts? Their charms cannot be denied. Honestly, though, I think we would have been better off spending more time with Hobbs’ daughter (Eliana Sua), as her scenes are both delightful AND internally consistent.

As wonderfully corny as Hobbs & Shaw is willing to be, it can’t change the fact that most of the plot is convoluted high-tech, globetrotting nonsense. Idris Elba is the cybernetically enhanced big bad, and we get a few genuinely disturbing shots of how he is becoming a superhuman or something beyond human. There is a hint of a larger conspiracy at play here, but only a hint. Meanwhile Vanessa Kirby plays Deckard’s sister Hattie, an MI6 agent who has been infected with a virus that’s going to kill her and apparently everyone around her also. The explanation for how the virus is supposed to spread is either glossed over or not emphasized enough, which is a problem because the race to cure Hattie is what drives most of the action.

Thankfully, the reward for dithering through all that is a surefire demonstration that we must, in true F&F fashion, celebrate the importance of family. It’s not as flat-out heartwarming as the series proper, but Hobbs takes us all along to Samoa to meet his mom and brothers, and Helen Mirren totally rocks her prison jumpsuit in her return as Mama Shaw. I could do without all the derivative action flick gobbledygook, but I’m grateful for the good vibes.

Hobbs & Shaw is Recommended If You Like: James Bond, but with a goofy postmodern (though not quite parody) sensibility

Grade: 3 out of 5 Friendy Insults

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 3/15/19

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CREDIT: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
The Mustang

TV
Arrested Development Season 5 Part 2 (Premieres March 15 on Netflix) – The final (?) episodes!
Shrill Season 1 (Premieres March 15 on Hulu) – Starring Aidy Bryant!
Turn Up Charlie Season 1 (Premieres March 15 on Netflix)

Comedy
Amy Schumer Growing (Premieres March 19 on Netflix)

Sports on TV
-March Madness (March 19-April 8 on CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV)

SNL Love It/Keep It/Leave It: Idris Elba/Khalid

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

Jeffrey Malone watches every new episode of Saturday Night Live and then organizes the sketches into the following categories: “Love It” (potentially Best of the Season-worthy), “Keep It” (perfectly adequate), or “Leave It” (in need of a rewrite, to say the least). Then he concludes with assessments of the host and musical guest.

Love It

Can I Play That? – The push to avoid having actors of one identity group play characters of any other identity group is, I believe, generally well-intentioned, and it has done real good in terms of achieving better representation in the entertainment industry. But it can also be taken to ridiculous lengths that forget that the point of acting is to (typically) play someone other than yourself. But at least the tying-oneself-in-knots and constriction that result from that ridiculousness are, we now know, a great formula for an SNL game show parody. This could make for a decent recurring sketch, considering that, even though the joke has already been fully established, these controversies and conundrums tend to keep cropping up.

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This Is a Movie Review: ‘Molly’s Game’ Has Jessica Chastain Deliver What Must Be a Record-Setting Amount of Dialogue in Aaron Sorkin’s Directorial Debut

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CREDIT: STX Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, J.C. MacKenzie

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for the Vices That Surround Poker and a Brutal Assault Scene

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)

Effective poker strategy usually involves plenty of silence, so a poker film would seem to be an odd fit for the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, one of the most verbose screenwriters of all time. But don’t fold on him just yet, because Molly’s Game isn’t about the poker but rather the woman running the game. And a lot of talking has to be done behind the scenes to get to the point where you can stay silent behind the cards. And let’s just say Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) talks (and does) a lot to get to be the big kahuna running a high-stakes underground poker ring. From near-Olympic skier to lowly assistant to self-made millionaire, she lives quite the whirlwind. The tabloids call her the “poker princess,” but give a queenpin the respect she deserves and don’t saddle her with a patronizing nickname.

The players at Molly’s games consist of Hollywood hotshots and Wall Street bigwigs, and that high-profile money moving has the FBI thinking she might be involved with drug running and tax fudging. So she turns to smooth-talking but upright lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her. He’s a bit pricey, though, and her assets are not exactly currently liquid, so she appeals to him on the basis of personal credit. Much of the film is a frame story of Molly filling Charlie in on the details of her life. Because they are reading dialogue written by Sorkin, Chastain and Elba have to deliver about four times as many words as they would in an average movie. Both are more than up to the task, Chastain especially, as she also has to deliver a ton of voiceover narration on top of her on-screen dialogue. It’s an electrifying story, but with nary a second of silence, plus frenetic editing on top of that, it is a bit exhausting, or at least it was for this viewer.

While Molly’s story will take you through the gauntlet, you can also vicariously thrill to the stories that her players bring to the table. Several of them basically have their own mini-movies going on (that Molly narrates, natch). You end up feeling that you know enough about their tells and pressure points that you could come in and win a few hundred grand against them even if you’re a complete novice. Especially memorable is Michael Cera with an effortlessly cool vibe unlike anything he’s ever given off before. He fully inhabits “Player X,” an anonymized version of an actual famous actor. (Some quick googling reveals he is essentially playing Tobey Maguire, or some amalgam of Maguire, Matt Damon, and maybe a few others.) It’s a career highlight for him and representative of the film’s emphasis on affirmatively filling out the clothes you wear in poker and in life.

Molly’s Game is Recommended If You Like: Poker movies, Poker competitions, Women Taking Control of Their Own Narrative

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spreadsheets

This Is a Movie Review: The God of Thunder Gets Stranded in the Louche ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Colorfully Stylized Action Violence and a Glimpse of Hulk Butt

Release Date: November 3, 2017

Even in its stronger outings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently exemplified the distressing 21st century trend of “franchise film as trailer for its upcoming sequels.” But putting at the helm Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director behind vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and coming-of-age charmer Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would perhaps signal a willingness to kick back with an idiosyncratic one-off effort. And indeed, Thor: Ragnarok is not particularly burdened by setting up the next “phase” for all the other Marvel heroes, save for the mandatory post-credits scene as well as an early rendezvous with Doctor Strange that at least has the courtesy to be completely ridiculous. But as Waititi is not creating something out of whole cloth, it is still a bear of a job to wrap his sensibility around Thor’s personal history and Asgard’s extensive mythology.

One of the biggest disappointments of most MCU films, and what made Doctor Strange so satisfying when it bucked this trend, is their lack of imagination in design and music. Their craft is far from ugly, but it is no more than workmanlike. Ragnarok has plenty of personality, but it kind of gets in the way of itself. Mark Mothersbaugh’s prog-rock synth score is entirely fitting, but it never really fully rocks out until the end credits. All the new supporting characters make a convincing case to be the breakout star, but there is only room for so much of that in a busy 2 hours. I would never willingly sacrifice Cate Blanchett’s evil diva goddess Hela, or Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric sensualist Grand Master, or Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking and unapologetic Valkyrie, or the most hedonistic version of the Hulk we have yet seen on screen. But this is a series of solo acts, not a supergroup. They play nice together, but they only intermittently gel as a unit greater than the sum of its parts.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly straightforward, but a little overwhelming in its climax, due to the surfeit of moving parts. The titular end of Asgardian days is threatening to come to pass with the return of Hela, the long-imprisoned goddess of death and sister of Thor. Thor and Loki broker one of their many peaces to team up and save their home realm, but they are first waylaid onto the Grand Master’s home planet, where they get caught up in some gladiatorial combat.

By the end of it all, I found myself confused about who was defeated and who was victorious, and how much so on either count. Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo any prosaic interpretation for the sake of embracing a more expressionistic experience. This is not hard to do, as there are plenty of blasts of pure imagination (punneriffic reference perfectly intended). Trouble is, the story does matter to the people who made this movie, and even if it did not, it is too imposing to disregard. By the end of all these affairs, Ragnarok is the type of feast that overloads you with deliciousness but leaves you crashing instead of the kind that fills you up and floods you up with endorphins. It is adequately cromulent, but not very transcendent.

Thor: Ragnarok is Recommended If You Like: Doctor Strange, ’70s Glam Rock Stars, Kiwi accents

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nonsense Circles

This Is a Movie Review: I Saw ‘The Dark Tower’ – Please Send Help

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gunslinging and Fire Beasts

Release Date: August 4, 2017

Unlike most bloated modern blockbusters, The Dark Tower keeps it under two hours, clocking in at a merciful 95 minutes. Unfortunately, that is the best thing about it. Within the first 10 minutes of this dud, and for the remaining 85 thereafter, my primary thought was, “Well, at least it is going to be over soon.” This adaptation of Stephen King’s long-running series of novels could benefit from an extended runtime, as it would allow room to actually explain what the hell is going on, but that could only improve it so much, as its problems run much deeper than narrative confusion.

The crowd I saw it with applauded at the end, and several other times throughout, so perhaps if you’re a Dark Tower aficionado (do you call yourselves “gunslingers”?), it might work for you, but for the uninitiated, there is no effort to explain character motivations or the rules that govern this world. The point of this whole adventure is saving the titular structure, as its destruction would lead to the extinction of all existence. Roland (Idris Elba), a gunslinger, is trying to protect it, but he is stuck in an epic interdimensional struggle with Walter (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black, a sorcerer who wants to … destroy the tower? Or control it? Or just accumulate power in general? The fight between these two has possibly been lasting for centuries, or maybe just hours. The stakes between them seem especially personal, but they do not need to be, considering that Walter’s villainy is all-encompassing.

Sucked up into all this, for no clearly discernible reason, is young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). Jake does not really fit the Chosen One fantasy trope, mostly because he barely registers as a character as all. His presence in this conflict is mostly accidental. He has “the shine,” a psychic ability found in many of King’s works, which allows him to observe interdimensional goings-on in his dreams but does not make him particularly interesting.

The Dark Tower manages to wring out a few decent stabs at humor, thanks to Roland’s fish-out-of-water presence when Jake whisks him away to Earth. He asks “what breed?” when told he is eating a hot dog and pops a whole cocktail of painkillers like they’re candy. Most pointedly, Jake assures him that he is going to love Earth, due to its much easier availability of bullets than Roland is used to. But it occasionally feels like he should have a better idea of what is going on, or maybe he should have no idea at all. If you told me that Roland had visited Earth 100 times previously, or never, both possibilities would sound just as believable.

Something resembling laughter also comes from King’s knack for inexplicable dialogue, which is relentless throughout. The Dark Tower epitomizes the sort of complicated story that makes perfect sense to the people telling it but leaves no guidance for outsiders to find their way in.

The Dark Tower is Recommended If You Like: Stephen King’s awkward dialogue, Administering the autopsy on a box office disaster

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Magics