Transformers: The Last Knight


Mark Wahlberg reacts to news that Michael Bay plans to blow even more shit up.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Santiago Cabrera, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, Liam Garrigan, John Turturro, Glenn Morshower, Gemma Chan, Peter Cullen (voice), Frank Welker (voice), John Goodman (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Omar Sy (voice), Ken Watanabe (voice), Jim Carter (voice) Sara Stewart. Directed by Michael Bay

 

Michael Bay sure loves to blow shit up. In his latest installment of the Transformers series, he does a whole lot of blowing shit up; so much of it, in fact, that there’s almost no room for a coherent story.

See if you can make any sense of this; the world is in chaos with Optimus Prime (Cullen) having fled the planet to go seek Cybertron, the home world of the Transformers. There is no leadership and the Transformers are being hunted down by the TRF, a government strike force headed by Colonel William Lennox (Duhamel) who implores in vain his field chief Santos (Cabrera) that there are differences between the Autobots and the Decepticons. As far as Santos is concerned, the only good robot is a dead robot.

Izzy (Moner), a 14-year-old girl living in the rubble of old Chicago in a zone off-limits to humans due to Transformer infestation is discovered by the TRF but rescued at the last moment by Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), one of the most-wanted people on Earth due to his association with Bumblebee and the other remaining Autobots. Yeager is given a strange talisman by a dying Transformer who appears to be much older than the rest of them. In the meantime, Yeager takes Izzy to South Dakota and his junkyard where the last remaining Autobots are hiding.

Sadly, the TRF track them there too but Yeager is rescued by Cogman (Carter), a kind of C-3PO type of Butler. Cogman flies Yeager and Bumblebee to Jolly Olde England where Sir Edmond Burton (Hopkins) informs Yeager that the Transformers have been on Earth much longer than anybody knew and that he has been charged with protecting the history of the Transformers by keeping it hidden. He is also protecting the Staff of Merlin (Tucci) which is in reality a high-tech weapon. Quintessa (Chan), the Mad Goddess-Creator of Cybertron, wants that weapon so that her dead world can live again – only it would rob the Earth of its magnetic core which would kill our world. Yikes.

So Cybertron is on its way to Earth, Megatron (Welker) is doing the bidding of Quintessa and Optimus has surprisingly switched sides under the Mad Goddess’ influence. Everyone is after the Staff but only one human can wield it – Vivian Wembley (Haddock), a comely Oxford professor of history who specializes in Arthurian legends and who happens to be, unbeknownst to her, the last living direct descendant of Merlin. Got all that?

I really don’t know where to begin. At more than 2 ½ hours long, this is a bloated mess that outstays its welcome early on. There’s only so much falling masonry the puny humans can dodge before it starts to get old and it gets old fast. The trouble with a franchise like this is that in order to sustain it, you have to get bigger and badder with each succeeding movie and I can see Bay is trying his damndest to do just that. The novelty of having giant robots battle each other is wearing thin; not only are we seeing that kind of thing from the Transformers franchise but also from such movies as Pacific Rim and Colossal. There is a certain segment of the population – mainly adolescent boys or men with the maturity of adolescent boys – for whom that is all that is necessary for an entertaining movie. The rest of us need a bit more.

The turgid dialogue may be the most cringe-inducing of the entire series and that’s quite an accomplishment, albeit one that shouldn’t be an object of pride. The fact that they got Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest living actors, to appear in the movie is something of a minor miracle although I sure hope they paid him a dump truck full of money.

I give Wahlberg props for at least trying to make a go of it in the film but in the end he is reduced to mostly ducking for cover, sliding down embankments and bickering with Vivian. Wahlberg is an extremely likable actor but most of his charm is wasted here in lieu of spectacle and make no mistake – it’s spectacle without spirit.

The destruction is so constant and unrelenting that after awhile it becomes senses-numbing and actually quite boring. I will admit to never having been a fan of the animated show in the first place but I thought it to be at least better than most of the similarly natured kidtoons of the era but this is worse than even those. While the CGI is generally pretty detailed at times there are moments where it looked like they completed the CGI in a hurry and it shows.

The movie jumps the shark early and never stops jumping it. For example late in the movie, the 14-year-old girl stows away on a military aircraft on a do or die mission to save the world. I mean, really? The only reason she is on there is to save the day for the adults so that the tween audience can be pandered to. Quite frankly I felt the movie was aimed at the lowest common denominator throughout. That’s not a good feeling.

I probably would rank this lower if I thought about it long enough but there are some pretty impressive effects and Wahlberg deserves something for his efforts. I think Bay went for sheer spectacle and found that he was so focused on the sizzle that he neglected to put on the steak. That makes for a pretty empty and unsatisfying summer barbecue.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of shit gets blown up. Wahlberg makes a vain but valiant attempt to elevate this.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is wayyyy too long and boring. It’s a bloated, mind-numbing mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and robotic mayhem, a smattering of profanity and a brief scene of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive Transformers movie to date with a shooting budget of $260 million.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nothing compares to this.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Beatriz at Dinner

The Founder


Ray Kroc worshiping at the Golden Arches.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella, Randall Taylor, Lacey King, Jeremy Madden, Rebecca Ray, Adam Rosenberg, Jacinte Blankenship. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Most of us are more than familiar with McDonald’s. It is Main Street, America on a global scale; on a typical day the fast food chain will feed something like 8% of the world’s population. They are convenient and in a fast-paced world where meals can be afterthoughts, a necessity. But how did they get to be that way?

Salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) is having a spectacular lack of success selling his five spindle milkshake mixer to diners and drive-ins in the Midwest. When he gets an order for five of the machines from a burger joint in San Bernadino, California, he is gratified – gratified but amazed. The operation he visits is staggering; lines snake through the parking lot. Counter service only, he makes his order for a cheeseburger, fries and a coke and gets it delivered to the window in less than a minute. Dumbfounded, he sits down to eat his meal – and it’s actually pretty darn good. The restaurant, named McDonald’s for the McDonald brothers who own it, looks promising as visions of a franchise operation begin to dance in his head.

At first the brothers – Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) aren’t too interested. They’d tried something like it before and ended up with franchise owners adding their own flair – fried chicken, barbecue, straying from the formula of keeping the menu simple and the quality high. Kroc thought he could make that happen by being a hands-on boss. As it turned out, that didn’t quite work out the way he expected.

At home, his wife Ethel (Dern) lives a life of loneliness and boredom, living for those precious times when they go to dinner at the local club. He uses those occasions to snare investors and Ethel tries to help in her own way. Soon though Ray’s dreams are fast outstripping those of his partners as well as those of his wife. The wife (Cardellini) of a potential investor (Wilson) catches his eye. As for the McDonald brothers, they are content with having a quality restaurant and what Ray is looking to build is more than they intended to take on and their reluctance to change or to compromise quality becomes a major frustration for Ray. He becomes aware that the biggest hurdle in making McDonald’s a household name are the McDonald brothers themselves.

I’m not too sure what the executives at the McDonald’s corporation think of this movie; they are in a very real sense the descendants of Ray Kroc and they owe their position to his vision and his drive to achieve it. I think they appreciate the free advertising but Ray doesn’t come off terribly well here in many ways although he did do a lot of the less savory things that are depicted here, including taking credit for some of the aspects of the image that the McDonald brothers introduced (like the golden arches) and effectively excising the brothers from the history of the company (he labeled an Illinois franchise McDonald’s #1 when in fact it was the ninth store to open). Keaton imbues Ray with a surfeit of charm without ignoring the man’s more vicious traits; he also gives Ray enough energy and charisma that when he does some pretty bad things, one still roots for him. Maybe there’s something in that secret sauce that compels us to but I think that Keaton’s performance has a lot to do with it too.

The film only covers a short period in the history of the fast food Goliath and doesn’t really get into the globalization of the brand or examine the effect of their product on the obesity epidemic in this country which has disappointed some critics but not this one. There are plenty of things one can get into concerning the pros and cons of McDonald’s from their catchy advertisements, their shrewd marketing to children with the play areas and Ronald McDonald and their recent move to adding more nutritional selections on their menu and offering a wider variety of food in general. I think the movie accomplished what it set out to do and examine how McDonald’s went from being a small roadside burger joint in California to the global giant it is today and that’s plenty of story for one movie.

There’s plenty of dramatic conflict that goes on but this simply isn’t going to appeal to those who are easily bored. Although there might be a niche group interest for those who are interested in how corporate entrepreneurs achieved their success, I’m not sure if America (or anywhere else) is waiting for movies about Col. Sanders, Sam Walton (founder of Wal*Mart) or Bill Gates. I did find Keaton’s performance fascinating and that kept enough of my interest to give this a mild recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Keaton delivers a solid performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit boring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the McDonald’s restaurants depicted in the film were built from scratch in parking lots and vacant lots because producers couldn’t find suitable locations that matched the look of the film that they were aiming for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Network
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)

Office Christmas Party


Party on!

Party on!

(2016) Holiday Comedy (Paramount) Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate MacKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Sam Richardson, Karan Soni, Jamie Chung, Abbey Lee, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Andrew Leeds, Oliver Cooper, Chloe Wepper, Matt Walsh, Ben Falcone, Adrian Martinez, Lynne Ashe. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck

 

Holiday parties are a tradition for workers around the country. Some parties are staid and somewhat dull, others are raucous – generally in proportion to how much alcohol is consumed. Careers can be wiped out – or once in a great while – made by someone’s performance at an office Christmas party.

Josh Parker (Bateman) is the recently divorced head of I.T. at the Chicago branch office of Zenotek, a firm that manufactures data storage devices. The branch manager is Clay Vanstone (Miller), son of the founder. However Clay’s big sister Carol (Aniston) is the acting CEO who is engaging in cost-cutting measures to keep the bottom line looking sharp so the temporary position becomes permanent.

One way of cutting costs would be to close down the Chicago office which hasn’t been performing up to standards, which Carol has conveniently raised. Carol and Clay have had a sibling rivalry that goes back to childhood and Carol is taking absolute delight in shutting down Chicago, despite the fact that it was the office that their father ran. However, there is one glimmer of hope; there’s a multi-million dollar account that Clay and his IT team have been pursuing. If they can get Walter Davis (Vance), a representative of that company, to sign on the dotted line the Chicago office and all the jobs there will be saved.

Unfortunately, Walter is looking at other options and in a last-ditch effort he is invited by Clay to the office Christmas party that night, one which Carol has already canceled. However the thought is if they can show Walter a good time, he might be impressed enough with the corporate culture of Zenotek to go with them instead.

Therefore, Clay prepares for the party of the century with an ungodly amount of alcohol, a living nativity scene, an ice luge, a DJ straight out of 1997 and enough oversexed techies to fill up a bad porn film. Paranoid tech whiz Tracey (Munn) may have a program that might bring the company to the next level – assuming she gets the self-confidence to finish it – hooks up with Josh, while Nate (Soni) hires a prostitute (Lee) to pose as a supermodel girlfriend he’s been bragging about. Mary (MacKinnon) is the uptight H.R. rep who may be the party pooper – or the life of the party. And it looks like they have a real shot at getting Walter Davis to get on the right page. Still, it will take a Christmas miracle to keep the doors open in the Chicago branch.

This is essentially a raunchy ensemble sex comedy revolving around a party as the crux of the film and let’s face it; this is neither a new idea nor an uncommon one. Generally there are a couple of movies with this basic plot released every year – this one having a holiday theme to differentiate it (most of these sorts of films are set at high school graduation parties). This has a better-than-average cast which helps elevate the film above the B-movie these types of films tend to be.

Most of these types of movies can’t boast the likes of Bateman, one of the most likable actors in Hollywood. Nor can they boast the likes of Aniston, who is as versatile an actress as there is working today. With a cast that includes Miller, MacKinnon, Bell, Corddry and Park – some of the funniest comic actors in America – there is plenty of potential here and certainly from time to time the movie lives up to it.

But then again, the movie has a very pedestrian, predictable plot that leaves you feeling like somebody took a rough outline of elements cribbed from other movies and then stuck the actors in to ad-lib their own lines. That can work under the right circumstances but not here, sadly. It feels a bit tired overall, like something one has experienced time and time again without much variation. The jokes are fairly predictable and like a lot of comedies these days, thinks the farther that the raunchiness is pushed the funnier the film. I’m no prude but I need a little bit more than crude visual jokes to hit my guffaw button.

This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch, but it isn’t a particularly good movie. It’s just kinda there, and if that’s all you need, this will fit the bill. If you’re looking for something a little more daring, a little more outrageous, keep looking.

REASONS TO GO: There’s nothing particularly off-putting here.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s nothing particularly noteworthy here.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of sexual humor, nudity, profanity, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the fifth film to star both Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Project X
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Into the Inferno

The Accountant (2016)


Ben Affleck sets his sights on those who criticized his casting as Batman.

Ben Affleck sets his sights on those who criticized his casting as Batman.

(2016) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, Jean Smart, Andy Umberger, Alison Wright, Jason Davis, Robert C. Treveiler, Mary Kraft, Seth Lee, Jake Presley, Izzy French, Ron Prather, Susan Williams, Gary Basaraba, Fernando Chien, Alex Collins, Sheila Maddox. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

 

Most people have an idea of autism that is decidedly out of step with reality. The truth is that there all sorts of different types of autism and all sorts of different types of autistics. Some are low functioning, unable to take care of themselves and who are requiring of supervision. These are generally the types of autism that we tend to picture when we think about autism at all. Others are high functioning, some to the point where you wouldn’t know they were autistic if they didn’t tell you. The myth about autism that is most pervasive and most untrue is that autism goes hand in hand with mental retardation. Some autistics can be brilliant. Some can even be deadly.

Christian Wolff (Affleck) was born with a gift – a genius at problem solving. He’s a math whiz and able to ferret out patterns you and I could never see. He is also autistic, unable to interact well socially although he’d like to. He has rigid habits that govern his life; his breakfast is the same, every day, arranged on the plate in the very same way. He has his silverware in a drawer, arranged exactly the way he wants them – with no extraneous flatware to clog up his drawers. He likes things simple in his life.

Perhaps that’s because his job is so complex. You see, he’s an accountant and not just for anyone; he uncooks the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, ranging from drug kingpins to assassins to terrorists to warlords. This has attracted the attention of the Treasury Department and it’s lead agent, Ray King (Simmons) who is getting ready to retire but who has been chasing the accountant for years. He wants to get him as a crowning achievement to his career so he enlists agent Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) who is even more brilliant than he.

In the meantime, Wolff has been brought in by a biomedical robotics firm called Living Robotics to investigate some irregularities in their accounting, irregularities unearthed by a junior accountant – the chirpy Dana Cummings (Kendrick). CEO Lamar Black (Lithgow) wants these irregularities cleared up before he takes the company public. Wolff begins his investigation and turns up something – something that puts he and Dana in mortal danger, as a killer named Braxton (Bernthal) shows up to clean house at Living Robotics.

I like the concept here a lot; a high-functioning autistic action hero and Affleck is the perfect choice to play him. Affleck can play closed-off as well as anybody in the business and he shows that skill here. Christian is socially awkward and a little bit wary of social interactions. When Dana starts flirting with him, he’s attracted but he doesn’t know how to react. The scenes between the two are some of the best in the film. The other supporting roles are solid here as well, although Lithgow may have left a few too many tooth marks on the scenery for comfort.

One of the issues I have with the film is that I don’t think O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque were quite sure whether they wanted to make a thriller or an action film. Perhaps they wanted to make a hybrid of both but the pendulum kept swinging in one direction or the other and it ended up being unsatisfying in that regard. Worse yet, there are several plot twists, including one regarding the Braxton character which may as well have neon arrows pointing to them and blinking graphics screaming “HERE! PLOT TWIST! YOU’LL NEVER GET THIS ONE!!!!!” and of course anyone with a reasonable amount of experience at the movies should figure it out early on.

I like Affleck a lot as an actor; always have, even when his career was in a slump. Heck, I even liked him in Gigli which is saying something. He does elevate this somewhat, as does Kendrick and to a lesser extent, Addai-Robinson and Tambor (whose scenes are all too brief as Wolff’s mentor). It’s enough for me to give this flawed film a mild recommendation. It’s not a movie to write home about but neither is it one to troll Internet forums over. It’s a solidly made bit of entertaining fluff that will keep you occupied and be promptly forgotten. That may be enough in a lot of ways, especially in these stressful times, but it could have been a whole lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is terrific here and his chemistry with Kendrick is authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Most of the plot twists are telegraphed and the movie falls apart towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as regular occurrences of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Plainfield, Illinois (just outside of Chicago) it was shot in Atlanta where the production company got much better tax incentives than Illinois offered.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Transporter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Keeping Up with the Joneses

Bad Moms


Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

(2016) Comedy (STX) Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, David Walton, Clark Duke, Jay Hernandez, Wendell Pierce, Leah McKendrick, Megan Ferguson, Lyle Brocato, Wanda Sykes, Cade Cooksey, J.J. Watt, Ann Mahoney, Samantha Beaulieu, Kelly Lind. Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

 

Motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days. The expectations that are put on the shoulders of moms are simply unrealistic. Not only do they have to keep their kids days filled with various activities, they have to balance a career, the needs of their husband, working out, bake sales and PTA meetings with the needs of their parents and siblings as well. Something has got to give in these cases and it’s usually the women trying to be all things to all people.

Amy Mitchell (Kunis) has about reached her breaking point. First of all, she’s caught her husband Mike (Walton) having an online affair. Her marriage has essentially been an empty shell for years so he doesn’t complain too much when she kicks his ass out. Now, however, she has to go the single mom route which is no easy task for a woman who is perpetually late to everything.

Her daughter Jane (Laurence) is stressing herself out trying to make the soccer team which looks good on the transcripts when applying to the Ivy League schools Jane so desperately wants to attend. The Queen Bee of the PTA and poster child for perfect moms, Gwendolyn (Applegate) gives her askance looks, directing passive aggressive taunts her way. And she can’t get any respect at work.

So Amy has a meltdown. Right in the middle of a PTA meeting, no less. After receiving an extensive list of things not to bring to the upcoming bake sale, Amy just loses it. She is done trying to be a good mom. It’s time to be a bad mom for once. She goes to a bar and is surprised to find a couple of her fellow moms there; single mom Carla (Hahn) who seems to be potentially coming on to anything male, and breathless put-upon Kiki (Bell) who is sweet but overwhelmed with a husband who treats her like a house cleaner. The three ladies bond and begin a campaign of their own.

At first it’s all fun and games; Amy goes out and begins to have a life again. She forces her kids to make their own breakfasts and do their own homework rather than doing it for them. She goes to movies and to brunches with her friends. She starts to see a hunky widower (Hernandez) that all the women in school are lusting after. She quits her job and it isn’t long before her boss (Duke) is begging her to come back.

But Gwendolyn and her Gwendo-lettes (Smith, Mumolo) take this as an affront, a challenge to Gwendolyn’s authority and absolute rule of the PTA. Gwendolyn begins to attack and she targets Amy’s daughter, who is high strung enough as it is. Mama bears don’t take kindly to having their cubs threatened and Amy decides to take on Gwendolyn where it would hurt the most; she runs against her for the PTA presidency.

This is a raunchy comedy from the folks that brought us The Hangover and its sequels. And yes, in some ways it’s a distaff version of that series but rather than male bonding which has been done to death and even female bonding, which has also had its share of movies made about it, this one is about the expectations piled onto the modern mom and there is certainly room for a movie on that subject. I do think we pile unreasonable demands on mothers these days and while this film focuses on upper middle class helicopter moms, similar demands are made on women from less comfortable economic strata.

For this movie to work, it needs to have some chemistry between the leads and to be honest, it isn’t quite as consistent as I would have liked. Hahn is a force of nature and absolutely dominates the movie; Kunis is an excellent actress but in a lot of ways she’s overwhelmed by Hahn’s personality. Bell is almost under the radar, her character too mousy and too innocuous to really make much of an impression.

At times the movie doesn’t really seem to address real life. For example, most of the moms that are in the film are stay at home moms and that just doesn’t jive with current stats; most moms are also in the workforce. It’s freakin’ expensive to raise a family and most families can’t do that on a single salary unless that salary is six figures or more. The helicopter mom phenomenon isn’t one solely limited to the upper classes.

By the same token, I don’t think it’s of particular shock value that women can be just as dirty in their behavior as men. Women, after all, do like and crave sex as well as men. Why this should be a shocking fact in 2016 is beyond me. There are those complaining that the movie doesn’t have to be raunchy, that woman can be funny without it. This is quite true but the same goes for men as well and serves to indicate that there is a double standard on both sides of the gender equation. Men and woman can both be raunchy or not; it makes no difference what the gender is. What matters is if you find the movie funny, or not. In my case, I found it funny enough to recommend as one of the better comedies this summer which frankly isn’t saying much, but hopefully this will also spawn a franchise. Lord knows that the ladies deserve one.

REASONS TO GO: The film addresses some real issues.  It’s really funny in a lot of different ways.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t as revolutionary as the filmmakers think it is. In some ways, it’s not very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of profanity and sexuality, some full frontal nudity, as well as drug and alcohol content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The closing credits feature the main actresses having conversations about motherhood with their real life moms. All of those actresses are moms themselves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Suicide Squad

Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2


Hopa!

Hopa!

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Louis Mandylor, Bess Meisler, Bruce Gray, Fiona Reid, Ian Gomez, Jayne Eastwood, Rob Riggle, Mark Margolis, Rita Wilson, John Stamos, Jeanie Calleja. Directed by Kirk Jones

Woman Power

Like many others, I was a victim of the charm of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I won’t say that I fell in love with the movie, but it did blindside me a little bit and I regard it fondly, even though it was fairly flawed. Some movies will do that to you.

And now most of the original cast is back. Toula (Vardalos) has been married more than a decade to Ian (Corbett) who is now a principal at the local high school. Her travel agency went out of business and she is back working at the family restaurant and has proven herself an adept business woman. Her family is still around her like the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. She lives in a block of four houses on a quiet suburban Chicago street that all belong to members of her family.

That family includes patriarch Gus (Constantine) who believes himself to be descended from Alexander the Great and that everything useful or wonderful in the world came directly or otherwise from Greece, often with the flimsiest of evidence to back him up. His long-suffering wife Maria (Kazan) wants nothing more than to lead a semi-normal life, but with sisters like Voula (Martin) who never met a bodily condition too gross to discuss with anyone, that is quite the challenge.

Throw an angsty teenage daughter (Carides) into the mix and you get all the flavors of Greece in one soup. But even that is not enough when the discovery is made that due to a clerical error, Gus and Maria were never actually married. While Gus is eager just to rectify the error and go on with his life, Maria wants a big fat Greek wedding, the one she never got in the old country. It falls upon Toula to arrange everything and balance the family business, her husband’s frustration that the two of them have not been intimate for awhile, and her daughter’s collegiate choice that may take her away from Chicago and of course with her maniac relatives interfering in every way possible, this is a dance that even Zorba couldn’t manage.

All the elements of the first movie are here in the second, but as is usually the case, lightning doesn’t get captured in the bottle quite so easily. While Vardalos remains one of those rare actresses who simply is irresistible and cute onscreen, so much so that you want to take her home with you, for some reason this movie doesn’t work as well as the first. Perhaps it’s just a case of the first existing because it set a high bar for the second. But there are flaws here that can be explained.

For one thing, it feels sometimes that Vardalos who as in the first movie wrote the script was trying too hard to make her family eccentric. I think we got the point and a little more restraint would have been just as effective. I love Andrea Martin as a comedienne and she steals a lot of scenes here and Constantine who hasn’t made a full length feature film since the first big fat Greek wedding 14 years ago (yipes!) also dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.

The Nikki subplot really didn’t interface as well with the rest of the material. I can kinda see what Vardalos was trying to do – show that Toula was becoming exactly like her mother – and while that is an admirable and salient point, it wasn’t made as well as it could have been, particularly since the comedy is a little bit over-the-top. Again, restraint would have been welcome.

The movie is curiously flat when it comes to onscreen energy, which is normally the purview of the editor and the director. I’m not sure if that is the case here, but certainly the movie doesn’t have the same vibrant feel of the first. Perhaps there is the stigma of repetition, in that most sequels rarely capture the same magic as the original, but it could also have been that much too long has passed since we last visited this Greek comedy and that had its effect on our perception of the finished product as well.

I am a fan of Nia Vardalos and I was rooting for this movie to be better than it was. It will likely make it to cable earlier than intended and then fade away into obscurity but I am strangely glad that it got made anyway. I can’t really recommend it (hence the score) but I still have a soft spot for it anyway. If you were as charmed by the first movie as I was, you will likely be disappointed in the second, but you may very well find a soft spot for it as well. So please don’t mind if I get a second helping of spanikopita and enjoy a movie that should have been better.

REASONS TO GO: Occasionally shows the charm of the original. Vardalos remains sweet and charismatic in the lead role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks energy. Occasionally the material becomes overbearing. The plot is wafer-thin.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Toronto, substituting for the Chicago location of the original.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Boss