All Eyez on Me


Everyone wants to rap with ‘Pac.

(2017) Musical Biography (CODEBLACK) Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Hill Harper, Annie Ilonzeh, Lauren Cohan, Keith Robinson, Jamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana, Cory Hardrict, Clifton Powell, Jamie Hector, DeRay Davis, Chris Clarke, Ronald Brooks, Jarrett Ellis, Erica Pinkett, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Josh Ventura, Chanel Young. Directed by Benny Boom

 

Tupac Shakur remains one of the most vital and influential artists of the 20th century; while there have been documentaries on his brief but meteoric life, there hasn’t been a biopic up until now. Shipp as ‘Pac is a dead ringer for the late rapper and displays at least some of the charisma that Tupac possessed; some have groused that Shipp is not even close in that aspect but that’s like bitching about a match because it isn’t the sun. For my money he did a pretty decent job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

The movie is a touch over two hours long and sadly you feel every moment of it. We get little sense of Tupac the artist and instead we spend a whole lot of time seeing Tupac the party animal. The movie reinforces a lot of the stereotypes Middle America has of rap culture – the misogyny, the violence, the drugs and alcohol and the conspicuous consumption. At no point during the course of the movie do we see Tupac actually creating anything; mostly we see him railing against the forces that were against him, hanging out with his boys and getting in confrontations with rivals. We get the highlights of his turbulent life and most of the soundtrack is made up of his more pop-oriented songs which may serve as a nice introduction to those unfamiliar with his work but will likely frustrate his fans.

Shakur is one of the most important artists of the last decade of the 20th century and his genius reverberates through modern rap without any let-up since his 1996 murder (which remains unsolved to this day) at the age of 25. He deserves a film that is as powerful as the music he created, but this isn’t it. What this is however is a fairly bland introduction to the life and music of Tupac and for now it will just have to do.

REASONS TO GO: Shipp is a star in the making.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie concentrates too much on the parties and the thug life and not enough on Tupac as an artist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shipp’s father worked with Death Row Records as a producer and produced some of Tupac’s work near the end of his life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straight Outta Compton
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cars 3

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

The Queen of Versailles


The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel, power couple.

(2012) Documentary (Magnolia) Jackie Siegel, David Siegel, Virginia Nebab, Lauren Greenfield, Richard Siegel, Oscar Goodman, Tina Martinez. Directed by Lauren Greenfield

 

The American Dream; we all have it to at least one extent or another. We want to be free of the cares of the world;  we want to have the freedom to do what we want when we want. That’s the freedom that money and wealth provide. Not all of us want to live extravagantly but most of us would like to at least live comfortably.

At first glance, the Siegels seem to be the embodiment of the American Dream. David is the owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately-owned timeshare company in the world. He is a billionaire many times over. He lives here in Orlando in the exclusive Isleworth community, where such celebrities as Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal live.

He is married to Jackie, a beauty queen, former model and incongruously a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. She’s beautiful, gracious and vivacious and 30 years younger than he. She’s also quite fertile – she and David have seven children together and are raising an eighth, the teenage daughter of Jackie’s sister.

The 26,000 square foot home – what Jackie terms a “starter mansion” – isn’t large enough for the Siegels however, so they set out to build a new one on the shores of a lake with a nightly view of the fireworks over in Disney. It just started out being a larger home but as the Siegels began adding in all the amenities they wanted – from a bowling alley to a functional baseball diamond which would double as a parking lot for their event parties – it soon became larger than life. When completed, it would be the largest private home under a single roof in America. The Siegels, who were inspired by the architecture of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas as well as the summer palace of the French royalty in France named it after the latter, Versailles, without a hint of irony.

They are riding at the top and throw lavish parties for the Miss America pageant, a program close to both of their hearts – Jackie as a former beauty pageant winner and David…well, as a man who likes beautiful women. Then comes 2008 and the economic meltdown. David’s business depends heavily on loans from banks and when they’re no longer lending, his business suffers. Suddenly, the Siegels are forced to cut back. Their staff goes from more than twenty down to four.

It turns out to be something of a trauma. David is forced to lay off workers, clearly an act that bothers him very much. When Jackie goes back to her hometown of Binghamton, New York she doesn’t fly on the private jet – she has to go on a commercial airliner which is startling to her children who wonder why so many people are waiting in line at the airport. Shopping trips are to Wal*Mart instead of to the high end retailers of Gucci and Tiffany. Construction on Versailles is halted and Westgate’s new centerpiece property, the Planet Hollywood Towers becomes the object of desire for banks who almost want David to go into foreclosure while he stubbornly tries to hold on to everything.

David boasts early on that he was responsible for George W. Bush getting elected, although he declines to give specifics, only giving us a bit of a twinkling eye and a wink about quasi-legalities. The irony there is that Dubya would preside over the meltdown that would caused him so much heartache.

Looking at all the above, it might be easy to think of the Siegels as arrogant one percenters who got what they deserved but I didn’t wind up seeing them that way. Jackie has a heart as big as they come, and she’s completely disingenuous. Sure, she is ditzy in places but we all have brain farts from time to time but she’s genuine. She’s a lot smarter than she sometimes lets on – between the cleavage and the Botox you probably get the opinion that she’s all sizzle and no steak – but I get the feeling that she uses her looks as a defense. People probably have underestimated Jackie her entire life. Brains can be a curse for a beautiful woman, if you subscribe to the ignorance is bliss theory.

David shows signs of stress near the end of the movie which is understandable, although in interviews he says that it was due to the presence of the filmmakers, whom he has since leveled a lawsuit at for misrepresenting the financial state of his company, which he claims is far more solvent than what the filmmakers let on. To be fair, Greenfield made it seem like Westgate was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy at times which, considering that David is still despite everything that has occurred, a wealthy man, seems unlikely.

The story of David and Jackie is our story, believe it or not. They may not necessarily be able to relate to the problems of the middle class well but by the same token we don’t really relate to theirs. The prospect of losing things you dreamed of and worked for is just as painful for a billionaire as it is for you and me. David and I probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of our politics, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a decent man. Jackie and I don’t have the same ideas when it comes to shopping but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good woman.

I wound up wishing the Siegels well, which was something I didn’t expect. It’s very easy to paint all the top one percent with the same brush and declare them evil because they’ve had amazing success. I have no doubt David Siegel earned his success many times over – even in his 70s he is a driven, hard worker. I can’t begrudge anyone success – after all, it’s what I aspire to myself . I just begrudge those who have it working to prevent others from achieving it. Those that buy politicians and get them to enact laws designed to keep the super wealthy rich and the rest of us in our place as they see it, well, those are the actions I can’t stand. Those who simply want to live their lives in the lap of the luxury that they can afford, while I can’t help but envy them I can’t bring myself to hate them. After all, to a starving family in East Africa I probably appear to be rich as Croesus. I could probably be doing more to help them than I do. However, I would never support laws that would remove programs that they need to survive so that I could keep every penny of my wealth. I would hope more of the one percent would feel that way. I certainly hope David and Jackie Siegel do.

REASONS TO GO: A cautionary tale. You wind up liking the Siegels even if you come in wanting to despise them.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much dog poop. Hard to feel sympathy for the Siegels.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film crew had extraordinary access to the Siegels, staying in their home several days every month for nearly three years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”

CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION LOVERS: Throughout the film, we see the Siegels attitude of more is better; they aren’t shy about enjoying their wealth (not that any of us would be either if we had that kind of money); shopping trips – even to Wal*Mart – are epic excursions. They have a private jet, a fleet of limos and enormous closets full of clothes although David probably doesn’t – he seems a little bit more down to earth when it comes to his cash.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Arthur (2011)


Arthur

Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig try to out-cute one another.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Nick Nolte, Geraldine James, Luis Guzman, Christina Calph, Evander Holyfield, Leslie Hendrix, John Hodgman, Richard Bekins, Peter Van Wagner, Charlie Hewson. Directed by Jason Winer

 

The thing about remaking a movie which has become so beloved as 1981’s Arthur is that the new version is inevitably compared to the original and usually found wanting. The thing about films like Arthur (the original) is that they tend to be viewed through the dewy-eyed lenses of nostalgia and their flaws overlooked.

Of course, some movies are just flawed from the get-go. Arthur Bach (Brand) is the son of the CEO of Bach Worldwide, a major investment firm run by his mother Vivienne (James). Arthur is the sort of guy tailor-made for the tabloids, constantly getting involved in one scandal or another, usually having to do with women (he’s single) or alcohol (which he drinks a lot of). He is watched over by Hobson (Mirren), his childhood nanny who drily and somewhat acerbically sees to his needs and fruitlessly tries to protect him from himself.

But there’s one scandal too many and investors are beginning to lose confidence in Bach Worldwide. To stop the bleeding, Vivienne proposes to have Arthur marry Susan Johnson (Garner), her extremely competent right hand and the daughter of wealthy Burt (Nolte) the builder from Pittsburgh. She and Arthur had a previous relationship which ended badly.

Needless to say Arthur is reluctant to agree until Vivienne insists that if he refuses, he’ll be cut off from his inheritance of $950 million  (why couldn’t they just have made it an even billion?) so Arthur, not one to give up his toys easily agrees. Trust me, he’s got a lot of toys from a floating magnetic bed to the Batmobile. Yeah, that one.

So then he meets Naomi (Gerwig), a beautiful and spirited tour guide – well, a non-accredited one but she’s working on it. Arthur gets immediately taken with her and begins to woo her, despite her impending nuptials. He knows he has to go on with his wedding, not just for the money but because Burt the builder is going to use a power saw on him if he doesn’t. So Arthur is left with an age-old dilemma; marry for love, or marry for money.

The new version follows the old very closely, with some minor differences. Linda (the Liza Minnelli character from the original) and Naomi are very different, with Linda being a bit brassier and a bit shall we say less shameless while Naomi is a bit more quirky.

The movie rests on a several factors – the most crucial is the likability of Brand. He’s done this type of role before, the addled rock star Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brand can be charming and is here for most of the show but to be honest, it’s hard to really be too sympathetic to a spoiled billionaire rich kid with mommy issues. In all truthfulness, Dudley Moore really made the part his and Brand doesn’t quite measure up.

Secondly, the relationship between Arthur and Hobson has to be strong, and it is. Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his portrayal of the stiff English butler who has an arch streak in him and a soft spot for his gentleman. Mirren is a distaff version of the part who is almost motherly towards her charge but with a Margaret Thatcher iron spine. She doesn’t get as many bon mots as Gielgud did (“I’ll alert the media” in response to Arthur’s announcement he’s taking a bath, a classic) and she doesn’t have the same chemistry with Brand that Moore and Gielgud had.

There is a good deal of crudeness here; the original was for its day somewhat crude in its depiction of drunkenness but this one exceeds the quotient that way and for no good reason. The overall environment for the movie – the middle of an economic downturn might not be a time where the general moviegoing public might be terribly sympathetic to the super-wealthy – might also have contributed to its lack of connection to the audience when it was released to theaters.

There is some charm and warmth here which does go a long way – Arthur isn’t a bad boy at heart, merely a spoiled one. Garner does some nice work as the cast iron bitch who wants to marry him for his name and no other reason, a role that strangely suits her, possibly because she also does the nice girlfriend so well.

As for snuggling up with your honey on the big romantic movie night, there are probably some better movies to put on the DVD/Blu-Ray/VCR if you’re of such a mind, but if you’re into extravagant romantic ideas, there are some here that might fire up your imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: The source material had a good heart which shows through here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Russell Brand is no Dudley Moore. Crude in places it shouldn’t be.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of alcohol use here (mostly by Arthur), some sexuality, a few naughty words (very few) and a couple of drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie Arthur’s father is 44 when he dies, the same age as the original movie’s director Steve Gordon was when he passed away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and outtakes which give you a further appreciation for Brand’s skills as a comedian but nothing that really sheds any light on the making of the film. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.7M on a $40M production budget; the movie was unable to recoup its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Princess Bride