#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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Original US release date: December 17, 2003
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $1,119,929,521

Might as well do this, right?  I did a #ThrowbackThursday on The Fellowship of the Ring here and I did one on The Two Towers here, so let’s finish off the trilogy with The Return of the King!  As before, I’m looking at the Extended Edition, so there are scenes – and even characters – that are featured in the version I’m looking back upon that are not included in the theatrical cut.  These make a true difference in giving the audience closure on some of the ongoing subplots and character arcs.  For instance, near the beginning of the film, there is a major scene featuring Christopher Lee’s Saruman, yet Saruman was nowhere to be found in the theatrical edit.  So, yes, the Extended Edition is monumentally lengthy, but it’s a much more complete and satisfying narrative experience.

Also of note regarding the film is that it was only the second film in history, after James Cameron’s Titanic, to cross the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office.  A couple of other films that were released before Return of the King, namely Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, now sit above the $1 billion mark, as well, but they both required re-releases that occurred long after their original runs and after the original run of Return of the King, as well.

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In addition to that, after the series scored Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards for both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in the two prior years, The Return of the King finally delivered with a win in the category.  Conventional wisdom is that the win counts as a moral victory for the entire series and that the first two installments were never going to win because the epic finale was waiting in the wings.  I don’t know if I agree with that, but that’s what many people think.

One way or another, the film certainly lives up to any lofty expectations it had weighing on its shoulders.  Director Peter Jackson took this job extremely seriously, wanting to pay respect to author J.R.R. Tolkien, pay service to the cornucopia of deep and engaging characters, and deliver for the fans that had waited for so many years – and in some cases, the majority of their lives – to witness Tolkien’s magnum opus fully realized in spectacular live-action.

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In order to end up with the film that Jackson (and everyone else) desired, he knew he couldn’t cut corners.  He had to deliver on story, character, dialogue, and action.  And there is plenty of each.  The action doesn’t kick into gear, right out of the gate.  There is still a healthy dose of groundwork to be laid before the fun, eye-popping geekouts can commence.  But that’s not a problem (for those with an attention span, at least), because by this point in the story, we already feel a strong connection with the characters.  We care what they have to say.  We care what they need to do.  We care about their wants and desires.  The film is never boring because we feel like we’re a part of it.  We’re engaged.  We’re invested.  This is the magic of big-sprawling franchises that allows us to spend a significant amount of time with the characters.  Had each of the series installments been a brisk 90 minutes, so much would have been lost – most importantly the weight of the events that occur.

Along the way, everyone gets at least one moment to shine – even the characters that weren’t introduced until later in the narrative.  Jackson is savvy enough to know that every character is someone’s favorite character, so he makes sure to give everyone in the audience something to cheer about.  (My favorite moment is the big one for Legolas.  “That still only counts as one!”)  Ultimately, all of the character arcs lead up to two nearly-simultaneous events: Frodo’s arrival at Mount Doom and the Battle of Pelennor Fields.  But instead of using the action as an escape from the story, Jackson adeptly uses the action to embolden said story.  Characterizations are further developed based on the actions that are taken in war.  Important events in the narrative are both caused and affected by the physical conflicts.  It all works together as one massive cornucopia of masterful storytelling by one of the great filmmakers of our time.

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This feels abbreviated, but what more can truly be said about this film or this series, in general?  Once everything is tied up at the end of the film (in a series of codas that the impatient whined about but were necessary in order to completely close the door on the story), the audience has had an immensely rewarding experience that honors the devoted, the attentive, the thoughtful, and the persevering patrons who were willing to submit themselves to the full, unforgettable adventure that was The Lord of the Rings.  The franchise will forever stand on its own as an unmatched combination of art, spectacle, and legacy that will likely long outlive each and every one of us.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Review – Annabelle: Creation

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You likely know by this point that I consider the Conjuring films to be two of the three greatest horror films ever made, along with The Ring (my thoughts on those three films can be found here, here, and here).  The original Annabelle movie doesn’t have a great reputation, but it wasn’t all that bad.  Most people are only capable of throwing films into two categories: perfect and horrible.  It was neither of those, delivering pretty standard fare for a horror film and failing to impress or be memorable in any significant way, even if it wasn’t all that offensive, either.  Despite people swearing up and down that they hated the film, it still somehow managed to earn almost $257 million at the worldwide box office on a paltry $6.5 million budget.  So, if you were the beneficiary of that success, you’d make another one, too.

The producers over at Warner Brothers decided to go another route, however, and deliver a prequel to that first film, just as Universal recently did with its Ouija franchise.  That prequel, Ouija: Origins of Evil, was a fantastic horror film that ultimately earned less money than its far inferior predecessor, a victim of an unforgiving audience.  On at least one of those counts, Annabelle: Creation is following the same path, whereas it’s still too early to know for sure about the other.

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When a nun and the orphans in her care are expelled by the closing of their orphanage, they find a home with a couple who are struggling to cope with the death of their young daughter from over a decade past.  The father of that young girl is also a dollmaker who created – you guessed it – Annabelle.  Whereas the Conjuring films are adapted from the real-life case files of renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (I feel like I’ve typed that description so often in my life that I’m not entirely sure it’s my own wording, anymore.  I’m keeping it the way it is, though.), this particular film is a purely fictionalized account of the genesis of the famed Annabelle doll.  In reality, Annabelle was actually a Raggedy Ann doll, not the product of an independent dollmaker.

So, knowing that this film isn’t purportedly based on factual occurrences may take a little bit of the luster off, but it shouldn’t really matter all that much.  It’s a solid story that surprises in all the right places.  As in the Conjuring films, the focus is on the characterization and narrative, with the scares being augmented by our investment in the cast.  One would have to be of rather questionable character in order to root for the demise of a sweet young orphaned girl who has been hobbled by polio.  So, yeah, maybe the script stacks the deck and perhaps even panders a bit in order to elicit the desired sympathy.  But since I’m sure most of you have complained at one point or another about the tendency of horror films to feature unlikable characters who you want to see dead, this should be a refreshing change (unless you’re already a fan of the Conjuring franchise – as you should be – in which case, this is just one of many areas in which the series almost always excels).

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As the film builds, the menace creeps in, a bit at a time.  It all crescendos in a climax bursting with imaginative and terrifying visuals buried within excellently-timed examples of both jump scares and suspense horror.  The film goes out of its way to offer up a haunting that manifests in ways unlike anything that has been done in film before (mostly, at least).

The marketing for the film has featured a quote (from a critic whose name I didn’t catch, so my apologies) that states that Annabelle: Creation is “one of the best films in the Conjuring universe”.  That may be a slight paraphrase, but that was the idea.  Using basic logic, that would make Annabelle: Creation the second-best film when comparing it to the two Conjuring films and the original Annabelle.  If it was the best, that would have been stated outright.  If it was in the bottom two, that would not make it one of the best”.  So, since there are exactly four films in the series, that only leaves one spot according to that particular critic.

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I agree that it’s significantly better that the original Annabelle, if for no other reason than I suspect it made more of an impression on me and I’ll remember more specifics of the film after time has passed.  But Creation is nowhere near the quality of the two Conjuring films.  Those films have infinitely more heart and weight, largely due to the presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who have a combustible chemistry and, when paired, create an unbeatable and intangible It Factor that can’t be replicated on demand.  Plus, those films do have the aforementioned added attraction of being based on true stories.

But that doesn’t mean that Annabelle: Creation isn’t good or worth seeing for horror buffs.  I just suggest that one not go in expecting it to measure up to either Conjuring film, since those movies are near-perfect classics and those would be unfair expectations.  Still, Annabelle: Creation is an above-average supernatural thriller with some fun and disturbing visuals and many genuinely unnerving moments.  It’s not one of the best horror films ever, but it’s a worthwhile entry and a fun horror movie to hold us over until It drops in just a few weeks.

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Review – Annabelle: Creation

Review – Wind River (2017)

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In a little over two weeks, I’ll get to meet Elizabeth Olsen.  This is a big deal to me because she’s been among my favorite actors for a number of years, now – not that she’s been around for all that long.  She caught my attention by single-handedly elevating the remake of Silent House from an okay movie to a pretty darned good one.  And then she turned me into a full-fledged fan after I went back and watched her performance in the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene.  There was a lot of talk that she might get an Oscar nomination for that one.  It didn’t materialize that time out, but that takes nothing away from her efforts.  She quickly established herself as one of the best in the business, of any age and of any experience level.

Wind River opened last weekend in a limited release of only four theaters.  It expanded, this weekend, but still came nowhere within reasonable driving distance of where I live.  But, I’m out of town and am taking advantage of being in Boston and catching this one while I can.  I’ve seen – and own – every other movie she’s been in (except one she did with her sisters, Mary Kate and Ashley, when she was a kid) and wanted to see her latest before I got the chance to talk to her.  Of course, the fact that she is also in Ingrid Goes West, a comedy with Aubrey Plaza, that opens this weekend in a whopping three theaters poses its own problem, but I’ll deal with these issues one at a time.

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I already got to meet Olsen’s Wind River co-star Jeremy Renner, but that was over a year-and-a-half ago, so it’s too late to talk to him about this one.  Still, he’s pretty great, too.  Despite featuring a pair of powerhouse leads, it takes more than a great cast to make a great film, even when the cast delivers.  Had Wind River featured an entirely different cast, it still would have caught my attention based on the trailer, alone.  So, while one can feel pretty confident in Olsen and Renner, did the film live up to its promise?

Fortunately, coming along with the film’s reliable cast is an equally-reliable writer-director in the form of Taylor Sheridan.  Actually, to clarify, Sheridan has been building a strong writing résumé with Sicario and Hell or High Water, but he has only directed one film prior to Wind River – a little-known horror movie from 2012 called Vile.  I can’t speak to that one, since I haven’t seen it, but I can speak to Sicario and Hell or High Water.  I liked the former and loved the latter, so seeing Sheridan’s name attached to Wind River gave me even more confidence that the film was going to be of high quality.

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When a young woman is found dead on the Wyoming Native America reservation of Wind River, a local tracker (Renner) aids an FBI agent (Olsen) in her efforts to solve the mystery and bring the guilty party to justice.  The film is inspired by true events, the details of which I have no knowledge.  But, even had that not been the case, as I watched the film, one word kept occurring to me as the most appropriate description: authentic.

Every individual aspect of the film plays as honest, true, and sincere.  And this is accomplished, similarly to A Ghost Story (though not to that extreme), through the conscious application of extreme restraint.  This is a dynamic story, no matter the lens through which it is viewed.  Many filmmakers would have been painfully tempted to “Hollywood it up” with the typical, supposedly crowd-pleasing clichés that we’ve all seen umpteen-thousand times.  Sheridan shows great respect to the story and the thematic elements by foregoing the standard Hollywood tropes and playing it straight and genuine.  Sheridan doesn’t pander and he doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence nor their sensibilities.

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The film (from my perspective, at least) flies by.  Sheridan’s direction and eye are buoyed by his own whip-smart script that betrays an understanding of seemingly basic concepts on a bafflingly complex level.  The dialogue snaps, the events unfold at a brisk pace, and the two charming and charismatic leads captivate and force the audience to invest.  Sheridan provides Olsen and Renner with two heroic and relatable protagonists that are only strengthened by the talents of the actors.

I try to avoid hyperbole.  And I’m also aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the moment just after one has seen an amazing film for the first time.  So, I’m not going to jump the gun and proclaim that both Olsen and Renner turned in my favorite performances of their careers in this film, but I will say, without hesitation, that both of their Wind River performances are in that conversation.  And, as Sheridan does with his direction, they both accomplish this feat through restraint.  The best performances are the authentic ones.  I’m going to say that, again, and I’m going to put the whole thing in bold type.  The best performances are the authentic ones.  It’s not about grandiose displays of emotions, though those are the performances that tend to get the most attention.  Whether obtusely theatrical or quietly subdued, acting is all about authenticity.  And, as Olsen and Renner’s characters both have justification – whether professional or personal – for reigning in their emotions while they also must struggle with the deeply affecting nature of the case as it unfolds, the duo majestically toe the line, grounding their humanity in their need and desire to solve the case.  It’s simply too late for them to do anything else.  Olsen and Renner are both perfect in this film and maybe – hopefully – this will be Olsen’s time at the Academy Awards.  If not, it’s just a matter of time.

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As I said in my review for A Ghost Story, the biggest hurdle this film has to clear on the road to awards season is time.  It’s awfully early in 2017 and people have very short memories.  Then again, Hell or High Water was released at about this same time, last year, and it did pretty well for itself.  Ultimately, the point is that Wind River is filmmaking at its finest and it serves as a thoughtful, adult-skewing option featuring some of today’s finest talent both in front of and behind the camera.  It’s still expanding out into theaters, so you might have to be patient, for a little while longer.  But, once it’s in your town, I urge you to reward Wind River with your time and money, just as it will reward you with a poignant and heartbreaking tale of reality.

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Review – Wind River (2017)

#ThrowbackThursday – Almost Famous

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Original US release date: September 15, 2000
Production budget: $60,000,000
Worldwide gross: $47,383,689

Directed by Cameron Crowe and released to much critical praise (including winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical), Almost Famous is another example in a very long, sad line of examples in which a great movie of the precise type that people claim to love and want to see failed to succeed because those very people were all talk and bailed on the film when it was actually released.  I know a great many people who say they saw and loved this movie, yet look at the box office numbers above.  People love to make fun of a movie such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for “only” grossing $873 million on a $250 million budget, but that final figure is nearly a multiple of 3.5 times its budget.  That’s a success.  Whereas Almost Famous didn’t even gross enough worldwide to match its already-modest budget.

That’s a shame and the audience bears the blame for it.  Almost Famous is a fantastic film and deserved to be a financial success in addition to being a critical one.  Director and writer Cameron Crowe used his own experiences from earlier in his life as a columnist for Rolling Stone as inspiration for the film, which follows wannabe rock-and-roll writer Will Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he tags along with the band Stillwater, who is on the brink of superstardom.  Miller has an assignment from Rolling Stone for a 3,000-word article on the band, but nailing it down proves difficult as he gets caught up in the whirlwind of life with a rock band and consistently gets the blow off from guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) for the interview that will serve as the lynchpin of the piece.

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Complicating issues even further is the presence of a superfan who goes by the pseudonym “Penny Lane” (Kate Hudson).  Penny is infatuated with Russell while Will is infatuated with Penny.  Will gets increasingly involved in the personal issues of the band and must decide if it’s more important to be their friend or to be an honest journalist.

Almost Famous sports the shiny veneer of being a film about music, but the music is just one of the tools that Crowe uses to tell his story.  Here’s a secret: genre is an illusion.  Whether the topic of discussion is movies, music, books, or anything else, genre is essentially irrelevant.  Regarding film, whether the movie in question is classified as action, drama, romance, horror, or anything else, it always boils down to two components: story and character.  Any story can be told using any genre.  And this story is a coming of age tale for multiple characters – maybe even the majority of them.

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Most of the characters are largely unlikable – especially those in the band.  This is by design, as Crowe aims to present them honestly.  They are selfish, insecure, and suffer from delusions of grandeur, as most bands do.  They truly believe that they’re changing the world through their music, yet when Will asks one of them why they love music, he can’t even answer the question.  He doesn’t know.  That’s because it’s not about the music.  It’s about the lifestyle.  It’s about the image.  It’s about the ego.  The only one of the whole bunch who truly loves music is Will.  His resistance to being seduced by the romantic nature of the industry is evident throughout the film, but he clings to his desire to be honest and true to his hopeful profession.  The band sees journalists as “the enemy” because of their honesty (an all-too-common platitude, these days), yet they bring Will into the fold, anyway, trusting that his youth and their charm will make him easy to manipulate.

Will is the youngest character in the film, but he is also the most mature.  As much as he initially experiences during his time with Stillwater, Penny, and their friends, he teaches them even more about themselves.  The film is almost a three-person show, with Fugit, Hudson, and Crudup taking the leads, but Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Zooey Deschanel, and Fairuza Balk all make their mark on the film, as well – with McDormand and Hoffman standing out, in particular.  The film mostly served as Kate Hudson’s coming-out party, though.  She used the role to launch a solid career for herself (though she never quite hit the heights I expected her to), while co-star Patrick Fugit was unable to similarly capitalize, despite doing well in the role of Will.

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In the film, Jason Lee’s Jeff Bebe says that, with regards to music, “the popular stuff is usually the best stuff”.  That’s typically true in music (true, high-quality music speaks to people through its own merits, not through an associated image.  And you know it’s speaking to people when they respond by buying it.), but film is unfortunately a little different.  Films require more than someone liking it enough that they show it to a captive audience who is then forced to experience it, such as the way a disc jockey would play a song on the radio and grant it free exposure.  Movies require people to pay before they experience it.  And if there’s not enough money in the advertising budget to do that, many great movies can go without the support they deserve.  And that’s what happened to Almost Famous.  The award nominations should have gotten people to go see it, but general audiences still absurdly believe they know more about movies than critics, so they mostly ignore award nominations.  I hope that changes, one day.  But, until it does, you can still enjoy Almost Famous long after the fact, when it no longer does the film any good.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Almost Famous

Review – Kidnap

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There is a lot to like about Kidnap, the new Halle Berry vehicle, but perhaps my favorite aspect of the film is how director Luis Prieto keeps it simple.  Kidnap is a lean, focused, blindingly-paced adrenaline burst that gives even the most phone-addicted millennial no time to worry about whether or not Johnny Instafaced them or how many likes their newest Twit got.  Using a high-octane, old-school approach to filmmaking, Prieto, writer Knate Lee, and Berry work as an unbeatable team to suck the viewer in and drag them along for one of the most enjoyable films of the summer.

I was once talking about my experience watching Snakes on a Plane when someone who overheard the conversation interrupted to ask me what that movie was about.  Don’t make that same mistake with Kidnap.  Halle Berry plays Karla.  Sage Correa plays Karla’s six-year-old son Frankie.  While at the park, Frankie is kidnapped and Karla pursues the guilty party with the lone goal of retrieving her son.  That’s it.  That’s the movie.  And that’s all it needs to be.

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The film moves at a blistering speed.  Prieto takes just enough time at the beginning of the movie to establish character and context and then we are off and running.  And, what a run it is!  It’s a full-on sprint for its rather abbreviated 81-minute running time.  Even as short as the film is, it flies by.  It felt to me that we were only about 45 minutes in, when suddenly it was over.  And that’s a compliment, as no one enjoys films where we keep checking our watch, just waiting for it to mercifully come to an end.  Not the case with Kidnap.  I forgot that I had a lot to do when I got home.  I forgot that I had other stops to make.  I forgot that I hadn’t had lunch and was supposed to be pretty hungry.  I was along for the ride.

Though she isn’t the only actor in the film, make no mistake: this is Halle Berry’s movie.  She easily holds down the most screen time and carries the majority of the film’s weight on her shoulders.  The emotional core of the film is firmly centered within her performance as Karla, which is more complex than one might immediately realize.  As simple and straightforward as the narrative happens to be, it’s not quite so easy for Berry, who can’t just bury herself in hysterics or only resonate anger.  She has to consistently be concerned, panicked, resolute, furious, alert, hopeful, loving and any other of a myriad of emotions that one would be feeling in this situation.  Much of her screen time is spent talking to herself and she aims to push herself through the barriers of fear and uncertainty and keep herself from making any fatal errors in judgement.  It might seem unnatural to anyone who isn’t thinking about it or sharing the moment with her, but it’s exactly what any sensible person would do in her position.  The characters – particularly Karla – are honestly written, which in my opinion is the most important support column in the foundation of any script.

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The film, itself, covers all of the ground that this brand of film could possibly cover.  The first half plays like a super-charged, action-chase film, while the second half is more of a suspense-horror thriller.  It’s a little bit of everything and the shift is natural and seamless.  I actually skipped the gym, today, to catch an early showing of the film.  I think I made a good choice because I swapped out forty minutes of elevating my heart rate with eighty-one minutes.  The entire movie is just that thrilling and that riveting.

There are little places where one could nitpick.  There are the expected good-fortune circumstances that help Karla along on her journey.  There are a couple of mighty coincidences that push the boundaries of plausibility, as well.  None of this is as pervasive as in many other films of its type, nor are they so massive as to be too bothersome.  The film also tackles some clichés of the genre and handles them easily, working them in and moving past them without making them central plot points.  Prieto and Lee know the conventions of abduction movies and do a nice job of acknowledging that they must be addressed while also making sure the audience doesn’t spend too much time in familiar territory.  The fact is that the film isn’t perfect (very few films are) but it’s awfully good and any flaws are far outweighed by its multitude of strengths.

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It should be pretty obvious that Kidnap isn’t going to be garnering any Best Picture nominations in 2018 but it should also be obvious that the filmmakers weren’t trying to.  This is the second of two films currently in theaters – along with Atomic Blonde – that have a very throwback feel specific to the hard-nosed action-thrillers of the eighties.  And both are excellent, fast-paced, adrenaline rushes that are sure to become cult classics over the years.  Hopefully, they can also be financial successes, in the meantime.  If you want a powerful, explosive escape from your humdrum existence, I strongly suggest an Atomic Blonde/Kidnap double-feature.  If you don’t have time for that, then see them on separate days.  But both of these female-led films need and deserve your support.  The experiences are worth more than the $10.00, or so, that each will cost.

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Review – Kidnap

Review – Girls Trip

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Here we are, again.  You likely know by now that I enjoy watching comedies but I’m not crazy about reviewing them.  Mileage varies far too often on what passes for funny.  But I have a responsibility to you all, so – as always – I’ll do my best to represent the film honestly and objectively, even if objectivity is pretty much obliterated in the face of comedic filmmaking.  But I’m playing catch-up with this one, so let’s give it a whirl.

From director Michael D. Lee (Undercover Brother, Scary Movie V), Girls Trip (why no apostrophe?!  There should really be an apostrophe!) follows four lifelong friends as they look to rekindle their relationships with each other by traveling to the Essence Festival in New Orleans.  Along the way, their modern lives clash with their desire to relive the good old days and things quickly become far more complicated than any of them had intended or desired.

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Let me say that, while I was aware of and perfectly at ease with Girls Trip‘s R rating, I was significantly unprepared for exactly how R-rated this film would turn out to be.  This is an absurdly raunchy movie.  That doesn’t bother me, of course, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting.  The sheer audacity of one of the sight gags, in particular, was almost worth the cost of the ticket, if for no other reason than to witness the reaction from the rest of the crowd.  You’ll know that scene is coming when they start taking about grapefruits.  Be ready.

As I’ve said ad nauseam, there are copious viewpoints out there regarding what’s funny and what isn’t but, for me (with the full understanding that absolutely nothing about me places me even within range of the film’s target audience), Girls Trip is a mixed bag.  I’m a fan of cleverness and wit, in any form.  It can be delivered verbally, visually, physically, or any other way, and I’ll enjoy it as long as it’s something creative that I haven’t seen, heard, or thought of before.  Girls Trip has some of that, to be certain.  I laughed from time to time, though not nearly as often or as loudly as the group of women to my right, who guffawed uproariously at the mere sight of the four leads wearing wigs.  Yeah, some people are just easy.

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But a lot of the humor was of the slapstick nature, and there was plenty in there for the sake of shock value, as well.  In most cases, any sense of wit or intelligence was abandoned for the sake of these particular gags.  There was also the clichéd our-leads-are-high-on-something-they-shouldn’t-have-ingested “joke” that’s been done to death and I’m just sick of seeing it.  To be fair, Girls Night added some extra context and urgency to that scene that, while not making it any funnier, did contribute some unpredictability and narrative importance.

So, big surprise, I liked some of the comedy and some of it, I didn’t.  That’s pretty par for the course for most comedies, these days.  In most cases anymore, the funniest movies are those that don’t even market themselves as comedies (think the Guardians of the Galaxy series or films like The Edge of Seventeen or Hunt for the Wilderpeople).  But few films are single-note, and that goes for Girls Trip, as well.  As is common, these days, the film adds some gravitas and seriousness to the proceedings as it progresses.  That’s become a formulaic approach to the modern comedy and Girls Night does little to toss the convention on its ear, but it still allows the cast to put their versatility on display and give them a little more to sink their teeth into.

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Regina Hall is the primary protagonist of the group, playing successful author Ryan Pierce.  Pierce receives the lion’s share of the attention from the script and the most thorough and satisfying character arc of anyone in the film.  Hall is endearing, charming, and invincibly likeable in the role and, even when Ryan makes some questionable and self-destructive choices, it’s tough not to feel for her and pull for her to come away from them a stronger person.

Her three friends – Sasha, Lisa, and Dina (Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish, respectfully) serve dually as both support for Hall’s character as well sources of additional and various styles of laughs.  My two favorites were Hall and Smith.  I liked Latifah.  But Haddish annoyed me from the first moment to the last.  For many – and possibly even for most – she will be the best part of the film.  For me, she was loud, boorish, and crass while being almost entirely without intelligence, wit, or charm.  Part of the bothersome aspect was Haddish’s performance and part of it was her character’s development in the script.  And that grapefruit moment I mentioned was all her, as well.  She gets in a couple of decent lines, but I mostly just wanted her to go away.

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The bottom line is that I didn’t unabashedly love Girls Trip, but it wasn’t without its merits, either.  I did laugh periodically throughout the film and I specifically enjoyed watching Regina Hall deliver a performance that was surprisingly layered and complex – especially for this type of film.  I don’t think there is enough story to justify the two-hour runtime (even the women to my right ran out of steam after about 90 minutes), but audiences seem to be enjoying it much more than I did and it’s performing very well at the box office.  That’s a good thing.  If you wanted to see it before, or if my description of the film suggests that’s it’s in your wheelhouse, then go check it out.  Only good things can come from its continued success.

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Review – Girls Trip

Review – Detroit

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Set during the 1967 Detroit riots, the simply-titled Detroit follows a substory that occurred within that larger, nationally reported framework.  Taking the reins of the film is Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, who has forged a very successful career by translating historical events into film, having helmed Zero Dark Thirty as well as The Hurt Locker.  Detailing an instance of police brutality and terrorism occurring under cover of the riots, Detroit has caused some controversy due to its topical nature.  Its subject matter naturally also means that it’s not exactly good-natured escapism, but that’s what makes film so great: it has everything to offer, and it’s always a good idea to take in everything one can and expose oneself to the various facets of the art form and the multitude of human perspectives that comes along with them.

And that’s exactly what Bigelow does throughout Detroit: present numerous perspectives on an increasingly hot-button issue using one key real-life incident as her toolbox.  When shots are seemingly fired at police from a window of the Algiers Motel in Detroit during the riots, law enforcement responds swiftly and brutally.  Lines are crossed, protocol is abandoned, personal prejudice is wielded and disguised as justice, and, yes, lives are lost.


As I mentioned, Detroit is likely not a story that was chosen by coincidence to be told at this time.  Police criminality towards minorities has been all-too common in recent years, with many people feeling the need to steadfastly choose a side, rather than maintaining a more appropriate grasp of the bigger picture.  To say that there is no issue with inappropriate police behavior towards minorities is akin to announcing to the world one’s blissful ignorance.  Unarmed black men have been recently shot by police while laying on the ground with their hands behind their head.  And I still have people on my own Facebook feed posting memes that blame the victims.  I have family that post those memes.  It’s disheartening and monumentally embarrassing, making me want to hide my own face in public, for fear of being recognized as their kin.

On the other hand, the law enforcement officials responsible for this type of unforgivable behavior represent a small percentage of the total population.  Most policemen and policewomen are admirable and upstanding people who don’t deserve to be held accountable for actions that are not their own and in which they have no involvement.


Bigelow does a fine job of maintaining this fair-minded perspective.  The police involved in this given incident on this given night are detestable and morally corrupt.  However, not all law enforcement figures are portrayed that way in the film.  Similarly, not everyone on the receiving end of the police officers’ actions on that night in 1967 behave completely innocently (though most did).  The incident that first attracts the attention of the officers is ill-advised, immature, and possibly illegal in its own right (I don’t know enough about the law to say, with complete certainty).  That’s not to say that the perpetrator or their compatriots deserve what comes their way, but the cast of characters are all presented as complete, flawed human beings, with some obviously being worse than others.

The film almost plays as a horror-suspense movie, which seems like the obvious creative choice to make but still took me off guard.  Beginning with a disorienting animated opening sequence, Bigelow introduces our cast to us in a respectfully-paced, but still moderately brisk fashion.  The film never drags and each performer exudes charm and charisma, making it easy to invest in each character’s arc and their ultimate fate, whatever that may be.  Once things go horribly south at the Algiers, the viewer is completely invested.  The tension digs in and never lets go.  I don’t think any other director would have presented the film in this way, but seeing as how it was very much a real-life horror film for those involved, it’s unquestionably appropriate.  Using this approach, Bigelow creates a feeling of gut-wrenching empathy for the people we have gotten to know up to that point.


I wouldn’t be surprised to see several Academy Award nominations headed the way of Detroit, come early 2018.  Of course, I don’t know what competition will be headed its way, later on in the year, but it will be tough to overlook the film, entirely.  If anything is working against it, it would be its relatively-early release date.  By the time we get to the onslaught of late-year Oscar bait, too many Academy members might have forgotten this one.

But the subject matter may hopefully prevent that from occurring.  This isn’t the kind of movie one pulls out for a re-watch on a relaxing Saturday night, but it’s an important one that will theoretically introduce closed-minded people who can’t understand others’ perspectives to a reasonably palatable explanation for why minorities continue to be upset and afraid in modern society.  These events occurred fifty years ago and, sadly, just when it felt like progress was occurring, the country regressed and here we are again.  Detroit is my favorite of Bigelow’s films and is a gripping, poignant, powerful, and unfortunately necessary look at the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America.

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Review – Detroit