Friday, September 20, 2019

Things Will Be Great When You're 'Downton Abbey'

“At my age, one must ration one’s excitement."

I'm no Anglophile, so Downton Abbey the series wasn't something I felt an immediate need to view. I believe it was well after the second season had premiered in the U.S. that I, on a rainy day, decided I needed something suitable to watch while cozying up with some tea and knitting, and binged the first season on Netflix.

It was easy to get sucked in. It certainly looked like a stodgy PBS Masterpiece Theater series, but it was a pure soap opera at its heart, complete with tropes like treachery, sibling rivalry, and illicit sex. By the third episode, when Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) super vagina killed a Turkish diplomat, I knew I'd follow this show wherever it went.

And it went to some pretty stupid places! Miraculous paralysis recovery! Imposter cousins! Pointless murder trials! The introduction of Lady "Scrappy Doo" Rose (Lily James)! Downton Abbey may have presented as posh, but it was actually the best kind of trash, at its heart merely a fantasy predicated on the fairy tale notion that the English aristocracy were benevolent and loving, and their devoted servants wanted nothing more than to please them. Forever.

And it may very well go on forever, if the hints laid out by Downton Abbey the movie are any indication. I'm sure existing fans will have no problem with that, but I find it hard to believe anyone who hasn't seen the show will have any burning desire to see this movie. Which isn't to say it's inaccessible--the royal visit plotline is simple enough--but I can't imagine a newcomer giving a flying fig about the developing romances of characters who only get about 15 minutes of screentime.

And that's a general problem when you spin off a movie from a TV show. Somehow you've got to convey years of character development into two hours for those who are just coming aboard. This shorthand can thus reduce a character to their most identifiable trait--which is often their most annoying. (Looking at you, sour Mary.)

Taking place mere years after the series finale, the story finds things at Downton pretty much where we left them, though some characters have inexplicably returned after making a big show of leaving. (Daisy (Sophie McShera) is back in the kitchen, and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has apparently given up on that new start in America.) A letter informs the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) the King and Queen will be touring Yorkshire, and they plan to stay overnight at Downton. I guess that's how the royals make a reservation.

(I had no idea who the King of England was in 1927, and it's never explicitly stated in the film--and why should it? I am sure the majority of Downton fans know this stuff. Still, I had to look it up. It was King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the current Queen Elizabeth.)

This news of course sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy. Will the staff actually be able to serve the King and Queen? Or will they be cook-blocked by the royal entourage? Will Irish Tom be able to control himself in front of the royals? Will Edith's (Laura Carmichael) dress arrive in time for the ball? This is the kind of drama all Downtown Abbey fans have come to expect.

Also expected and delivered: lots of period costume porn; plenty of fancy food porn; and of course the ever present interior design porn that is Downton Abbey itself. The transfer from television to the cinema has its advantages. There are some nice aerial shots, and the big screen can better convey the sheer size and grandeur of Downton Abbey. And yet, the movie still feels like a television episode, albeit perhaps more like one of the series's standalone "Christmas specials." Scenes rarely last more than a few minutes, with a constant need to pop between the many character's and personal dramas.

This means that, as always, there's never enough time spent with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, the comedic heart of the series, and really the only thing that has remained consistently entertaining throughout its whole run. She and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Whilton) continue to toss the kinds of pointed barbs that can only be shared by people who actually love and respect each other. (Comparisons to both Machiavelli and Caligula are made of each other, over after dinner port in the drawing room. Downton Abbey in a nutshell.) If turning the show into a movie garners Smith and Oscar for the same role she won an Emmy for--twice!--then it will have been worth it.

Friday, August 30, 2019

'Brittany Runs A Marathon' Is Healthy Junk Food

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...And a Burger Shack shake

As someone who has gained, lost, and gained weight her entire life, I can safely say, losing weight is not a ticket to happiness. And for the most part, the comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon knows this, too. Still, it's a tricky thing these days to base a comedy around a woman's weight loss goals, and I'll admit when I first heard about the film, my knee-jerk reaction was, "haven't we grown past this?"

But then I reminded myself I gleefully consume shows like The Biggest Loser and Fit to Fat to Fit like the televised junk food they are (and yes, hate myself for that consumption, just like I would after eating a pint of ice cream), so who am I kidding? I'm here for it.

Comedian and actress Jillian Bell, who has been relegated to sidekick and comic relief roles in the past takes on the lead role of Brittany with aplomb. Brittany is in a rut. At one point, she was aiming for a career in advertising--specifically, jingle writing--but is now barely getting by with her job at a small theater company. She's also outwardly hilarious, always the first to make a joke at her own expense; the funny, fat sidekick to her more conventionally beautiful girlfriends; the low-esteem girl who gets far more requests for blow-jobs than she does for her phone number.

Her life is a loop of clubbing, drinking, drugging, hangovers, and people who won't hold that subway door for her rushing-and-late-to-work ass. What she needs, obviously, is Adderall. Unable to convince her doctor it's because she "has a hard time focusing," he chooses to focus on her actual health, letting her know her BMI is too high ("I feel like you're totally missing the point of those Dove ads"), her blood pressure is elevated, and she's at risk for fatty liver disease ("Oh, even my liver is fat!"). He tells her to lose 45 to 55 pounds, or as she puts it, "the weight of a Siberian husky. You want me to pull a medium-sized working dog off of my body."

She ultimately recognizes this is the kick in the ass her life needs, and after a thwarted attempt to join a gym with rates that start at over $100 a month, she decides to try running, since that's, you know, free.

The early running scenes are both funny and painful. Funny because Bell sells the agony (at one point she's running so slow she's convinced she's going backwards) and painful because of the fat prosthetic she's forced to wear.

Because the filming schedule was only a month long, they weren't able to incorporate the weight loss Bell went through in preparation for the role into the actual film. By the time they started shooting, Bell was down 30 pounds, so they had to illustrate her "before" state with padding and a fake double chin that's distracting in its overly-freckled make-up job and the stiffness it adds to Bells movements. It also adds a weird dynamic to watching the movie: you hope she loses weight, and fast, so you don't have to look at that creepy chin anymore.

As Brittany moves through her running journey, she makes new friends, including Catherine (Michaela Watkins), a rich neighbor she had previously despised, and Seth (Michah Stock), a gay father who is trying to get into shape so he can stop running out of breath when he's playing with his son. Together they decide to tackle the New York City Marathon, a year long training goal. She also takes on a house/dog sitting job, where she meets Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the "night shift" dog watcher who has decided to just squat at the house full time. She hates him immediately, so you know what that means.

There's a tightrope to be walked with these kinds of stories, and Brittany Runs sometimes slips. We are given constant updates on how much weight she's lost, and we are consistently shown the changes in her physical appearance as he admires herself in the mirror. But not as much attention is given to the state of those medical issues that drove her to make changes in the first place.

On the other hand, the film also recognizes that an obsession with that number on the scale never, never, leads to anything good, and can actually be dangerous, and that physical changes mean nothing if you don't address your mental and emotional issues at the same time. This is illustrated most painfully in a scene where Brittany projects all her built up insecurities onto an overweight woman she meets at a family party and treats horribly. Because while there may be some debate about whether skinny is a worthy goal, skinny bitch never should be. I may have some issues with the central premise of Brittany Runs a Marathon, but its heart, humor, and central performance from Jillian Bell turn it into something I didn't feel guilty about consuming.

Friday, August 16, 2019

'Where'd You Go, Bernadette,' And Why Should I Care?

"Manjula, I need to order a black scarf, decidedly less itchy than the monstrosity currently around my neck."

Unless it's a genre I actively dislike, I can usually find something in a story to glom on to, even if it's just the setting, or the music, or the costumes, especially when the central character is a woman, roughly my age, living a life I may not be living, but can certainly recognize. But Where'd You Go, Bernadette has to be one of the weirdest works of art I've ever experienced, because in both its book and now movie forms I wasn't able to connect with it at all. And I really have no idea why.

When the book was a best seller, I tried to read it, more than once, but I just couldn't get past the first dozen or so pages. I assumed it was the epistolary format, and maybe the satirical tone that I didn't find particularly funny, but sitting down to watch director Richard Linklater's film version, I was faced with the same feeling of disconnect. I wanted to become engaged with the film, sat there waiting for that happen, and never felt it.

And this time, I can't really blame the format (although translating that epistolary storytelling technique does lead to a lot of monologues and people talking, uninterrupted, for a lot longer than they naturally would). Cate Blanchett as Bernadette, along with Kristen Wiig as her nemesis neighbor Audrey, certainly bring the right level of comedy to their roles, and they both almost save the movie. But for almost half of its running time I kept asking myself, "What is this movie even about?"

I suppose a big answer can be found in the title itself. While Bernadette does "disappear" towards the end of the story, the truth is the real Bernadette has been missing for years. She lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and their 15-year-old daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), in a huge, dilapidated former girls home called Straight Gate, which sits on a hillside overrun with blackberry bushes.

You can catch bits of whimsy throughout the home, like wall decorations made out of old school books, and a door in a crumbling room may open up to a beautifully restored bathroom, but you get the sense the house is a project long ago abandoned. Why the family lives there, and why some of it is stunning and innovative while the rest is a disaster is a mystery for way too long, which is one of the screenplay's (by Linklater, Nina Jacobson, and Brad Simpson) biggest problems.

Facts about Bernadette's past, and just what made her a curmudgeonly, insomnious, misanthrope are doled out too slowly, so that you spend the first half of the movie wondering if you're actually supposed to think she's off her rocker, or if she's just reacting as anyone might to a "gnat" of a neighbor who fakes injuries for sympathy, a husband who works too much at his Microsoft job, and a daughter who has decided to leave for boarding school. This is the most crushing to her, as Bee is the only person who seems to understand her.

Removing what is essentially the central mystery of the novel turns the story into more of a character study, and while Cate Blanchett's Bernadette can be certainly be an entertaining asshole to watch, I needed to see more of the supposedly stifled creative genius in her if I was going to garner any real sympathy for her situation, which, on the surface, certainly doesn't look too bad.

Bernadette spends most of her days puttering around her home, driving Bee to and from school, occasionally falling asleep on pharmacy couches, and dictating long emails to her virtual personal assistant Manjula, who takes care of things like refilling prescriptions, ordering fishing vests, and booking travel. The travel, vest, and prescription are all needed for the family's upcoming trip to Antarctica, a reward for Bee's perfect report card. Bernadette is, as she tends to be with most things, not exactly excited about the trip, but it isn't a spoiler to say she does get there. Her kayaking among the glaciers is the film's opening shot.

The film's final stretch, centered in Antarctica (actually Greenland) is definitely beautiful, and may have you contemplating your own treacherous sea voyage to get there. It almost had me buying that Bernadette could actually "find" herself there. I could buy it. But I still couldn't feel it.

Friday, August 2, 2019

'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw', Deck's Redemption

"Has anyone scene my motorcycle, Fido?"

Every time I see a movie in the Fast & Furious franchise, I have to remind myself that I have, indeed, seen every single movie in the series. And then I realize I don't remember a goddamn thing about any of them. In theory, that shouldn't come as a surprise. They're fast paced action films, the cinematic equivalent of a thrilling car ride, and when was the last time you came away from one of those experiences remembering every detail?

The thing is, the Fast & Furious universe is as complicated as a Tolkien saga, with way more plot than they'd ever need, numerous heroes who become villains, and villains who become heroes (with their own movies), and so many sisters and brothers marrying their best friend's/worst enemy's brother or sister I still need to remind myself Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez are married in the series, and not siblings. (Though who knows, maybe that'll be another twist in a future film.)

Trying to remember and catch up on this stuff never seems to work for me, so I tend to just go into the films like they're all stand-alones, and for the most part, that can work out fine. Of course, there's probably more enjoyment to be had when you can watch and piece it all together, going back five movies, but when there are also enough car chases, explosions, and fights to enjoy, why bother trying to think?

Which brings us to Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, the first "spin-off" from the series, which implies it was designed so you wouldn't need to know too much about the other movies to enjoy it. And in fact, coming in cold may be help. That way you wouldn't know that Jason Stathams's Deckard Shaw was once a cold blooded killer who murdered a lot of people, including one of the franchise's favorites. (And no, I didn't remember that; a friend had to remind me.) But no matter, he's a hero now, paired up with Dwayne Johnson's Luke Hobbs, the retired DSS agent and former prison mate he loathes.

You might be wondering who thought it was a good idea to pair two people who fantasize about bashing each others skulls in every time they're around each other to help save the world, and I am too, because despite seeing the movie this week, I can't remember. What is it with this franchise and my instant amnesia?!

This I do remember: they're sent on a mission to retrieve a deadly virus, one that could bring about the end of humanity (well, at least the end of weak humanity), which was apparently stolen by rogue MI6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby). Yes, Hattie Shaw is Deckard Shaw's sister.

Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), another former MI6-agent-gone-bad, is also hot on that virus's trail. He's got history with Deckard Shaw (because of course), and has now teamed up with a terrorist organization that goes by "Eteon." Thanks to them, he's mechanically enhanced, bullet proof, and in possession of a self-driving motorcycle that shows up like an eager puppy when summoned. (Great. Will those now replace rentable e-bikes all over the country?)

While we know Hattie was actually framed, it takes Hobbs and Shaw a little while to figure that out, and a little longer to realize the virus she "stole" is still on her person, literally, having been injected in capsule form into her palm. The majority of the film is then a race against the clock to figure out how to get the capsules out of her before they dissolve and she becomes the Walking Black Death. (Cutting off her hand never seems to occur to them, and she certainly doesn't seem to be protecting that palm during all the fist fighting she goes through.)

But really, Hobbs & Shaw succeeds or fails based on three things: car chases, fighting, and banter. I was definitely entertained by the former, a little less so by the latter. Too often the barbs they toss at each other come off as lazy and too juvenile (I think at one point Hobbs jokes about doing the "sexy hula hula" with Shaw's sister). Much funnier are scenes between Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, who makes an appearance as a former co-worker and "best friend" of Hobbs, but that's probably because Reynolds has much more natural comedic talent than Jason Statham does. (That Ryan Reynolds shows up isn't much of a surprise when you consider director David Leitch also directed Deadpool 2.)

And while there might not be quite as many elaborate car chases as your average Fast & Furious film, what's there doesn't disappoint, particularly the one involving a bunch of trucks, a helicopter, and the side of a cliff. Is Hobbs & Shaw a good movie? Does it matter? The important thing is, in a year or two, when the next entry in the franchise inevitably comes out, I'll have forgotten this one completely, and I'll be ready and eager for that next exhilarating car ride.

Friday, June 28, 2019

I Don't Believe In 'Yesterday'

"But I don't get how a guitar can 'gently weep,' Jack."

Would I Want to Hold Your Hand have been a hit if it had been sung by one guy? Would Eleanor Rigby have felt so revolutionary if it hadn't been proceeded a few years earlier by I Saw Her Standing There? Danny Boyle's new film Yesterday would have you believe that the songs of the Beatles are such powerful entities apart from their creators that they'd rock the world even if they were just performed by one charismatically challenged and mediocre musician with a guitar.


Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malick, a singer and songwriter with too many years playing local pubs and children's birthday parties. After his manager and longtime friend Ellie (Lily James) gets him a gig at music festival that turns out to be on a stage in an an empty tent, he decides to give up the musician's life for good, something Ellie, his biggest fan in more ways than one, begs him not to do.

That night the world experiences a 12 second total blackout, which also results in Jack getting hit by a bus while riding his bicycle home in the dark. When he wakes up he's missing two teeth, and the world is missing something much greater.

Recovered and out of the hospital, Jack picks up a guitar again, and plays Yesterday for his friends. Visibly moved, they ask him when he wrote it, and he tells them, duh, he didn't, Paul McCartney did. You know? From the Beatles.

They have no idea what he's talking about.

Jack's frantic Google search reveals that in this post-blackout word, the Beatles never existed. The Beatles albums he once had in his collection are now missing, and Jack is the only person in the world who knows their songs. Or at least, some of them. (A scene where Jack tries to remember the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby is the only time director Boyle truly gets playful with the whole idea.)

So Jack gives up retirement, and starts to perform as many of the Beatles songs as he can remember. His small audiences love them. Someone offers to record a demo. Jack starts giving the CDs out at his warehouse job. He gets interviewed on local TV. And then Ed Sheerhan (who plays himself) shows up at his front door.

From there a predictable trajectory is followed: Jack tours with Sheerhan. Sheerhan's manager (Kate McKinnon) sees a possible cash cow and signs him on. Greedy music execs want to package Jack in the most commercial way possible, so of course the album title Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is tossed out the window. And Jack becomes increasingly uneasy at the idea of gaining stardom via plagiarism, even if there's no way anyone could ever prove that.

And floating on top of all this is the romantic subplot in which Ellie finally confesses what should have been readily apparent to Jack for years: that she loves him, and, you know...he should be glad! Instead, Jack wavers, and Ellie who has been pining for him for years, is once again relegated to the "friend column," with no real explanation as to why.

It doesn't make sense to her, and it certainly doesn't make sense to us, because the script from romantic comedy veteran Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) does a piss poor job of selling that conceit. For one, Jack is a self-centered drip who deserves to be single, so why would Ellie even care? And for another, Ellie is cute, devoted, and for years, his only real fan, so what the hell is Jack's problem?

That the film was once titled All You Need Is Love may give some indication as to which path Jack decides to take: love or fame, and that that decision becomes the center of the film is disappointment, with a grand romantic gesture that feels more creepy than heartfelt.

The whole "a world without the Beatles" concept isn't really investigated beyond how it affects Jack's life. I'm sure there have been late night conversations in pubs that had more insight into what our modern pop culture landscape, let alone the whole world, might look like had the Fab Four never formed. Yesterday relegates that philosophical topic to a joke about Oasis never existing either.

Which brings me back to those songs. Himesh Patel has a serviceable voice, especially when he's singing an acoustic ballad. But there is otherwise nothing special about his versions of the Beatles songs, and, in fact, some arrangements are unnecessarily aggressive. Yesterday will definitely have you coming out of the film humming the Beatles songbook, and then desperately rushing to listen to real deal, because a world where only Jack's version of those songs exists would be a sorry world indeed.