Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"Songbird" Review

 It has only been 13-1/2 months since the world committed mass hysteria figurative suicide over Hot Fad Plague 2020-21 and we've already got two completely mediocre movies cranked out to capitalize on the situation. Back in January brought the lackluster HBO Max mess Locked Down which starred Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a couple stuck in quarantine as their relationship unravels, but find shared purpose in pulling a jewelry heist. 

But before that by a month on VOD was Songbird starring KJ Apa (Archie on Riverdale) which is now on Hulu and my girlfriend bullied me into watching. Not saying I'm downloading Tindr after this, but...

 Set in a near-future Los Angeles which has been laid waste to by Covid-23, Apa stars as Nico, a bike messenger whose natural immunity to the far-more-deadly mutation allows him to traverse the deserted streets delivering packages to people who have UV sterilizing airlocks that don't seem very practical if you need a larger box brought in. Unlike the current coronavirus which as a 99.8% survival rate (unless you're very old, obese, or sick), this is a nastier bug which has killed millions and forced people into Q-Zones where they either prove immune or die. 

Nico works for Lester (Craig Robinson) and some of the work involves contraband immunity bracelets being dealt by a wealthy couple, William (Bradley Whitford) and Piper (Demi Moore), which allows passage outside. (While the bands are supposed to indicate who's immune, what good do they do for those who are vulnerable beyond letting them outside? Don't know.) Nico has a sweetheart named Sara (Sofia Carson) whom he does Facetime calls with, but it's unclear whether they've actually ever met face to face.

Also in a virtual relationship is Michael (Paul Walter Hauser), who flies surveillance drones for Lester, and is a fan of a singer, May (Alexandra Daddario), who does cover requests on a YouTube substitute and also canoodles with William. (Is she the titular songbird though she is only shown singing once, poorly, and doesn't connect to Nico and Sara at all? Don't know.) How convenient is it that everyone in this small cast is interconnected and seems to represent the entire surviving population of LA?

The stakes rise when Sara's grandmother becomes ill (considering they never go out, how? Don't know, same as with our current virus. meaning the Department of Sanitation, the government outfit charged with collecting the dead and infected for transport to the Q-Zone, will be coming for them soon unless Nico can somehow procure a bracelet to rescue her. Naturally, the corrupt DoS official, Harland (Peter Stormare), is connected to everyone else, which would seem to ease the process except he's evil on top of corrupt because of course he is because movie. 

Even before looking up how it was filmed when the pandemic was raging - it was the first Hollywood production to happen after the world shut down and operated under extreme precautions - you can tell something is odd because it relies mostly on people talking over screens and there is never more than two or three people in a scene. LA is a barren as Will Smith's Manhattan in I Am Legend except for the glimpses of the Q-Zones populated by CGI people. 

You never really get to the point of caring for the characters because they are just outlines, though I must say there's slightly more meat on their bones than the stick figures in Stowaway. The production feels cheap and slapdash - the prominently touted producer Michael Bay reportedly shot the action sequences - and it's not a surprise that only a few months transpired between coming up with the idea and shooting as it very much feels like a first draft. 

Just as Hollyweird cranked out one terrible anti-war movie after another in the Aughts, we are 0-for-2 in pandemic cash-ins. Part of the problem is while rushing these movies out means zero time for getting scripts prepared beyond spell-checking, the greater dramatic challenge is that despite a very successful effort by the biased and corrupt media to terrify scientifically ignorant Karens into believing Wuhan virus is Captain Trips (the germ warfare bug that escaped in The Stand, killing 99.4% of the world's population) and thus sacrifice their entire way of life, it's actually not a threat as mentioned above. 

So trying to make a horror/sci-fi flick about a deadly bug patterned after one that is almost completely a media hype creation requires too much suspension of disbelief. Unless you're a Karen who has bought into the #Scamdemic, then Songbird will join Bird Box in your rotation of fear-reinforcing entertainment.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

2021 Oscars Best Picture Nominee Review Compiliation

 Tonight is the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony and it will be the first one in my life that I can recall that I will not be watching live.

2020 was The Year Without Movies and thus the Academy decided to just go woke and left-of-dial with small mediocre movies that were big at Sundance and no one saw. Every one of them is a downer experience, even when they imagine they have happy endings.

I am DVRing the show and will skip through it since it will likely consist of nothing but extremely wealthy people circle-jerking their socialist pretensions, declaring half of the potential audience to be deplorable rubes occupying an irredeemably racist and evil country, before handing each other trophies for movies that no one saw, including the voting members. 

Below are his reviews for the ones I saw in time - Judas and the Black Messiah will be added later - ranked in order of quality:

"Stowaway" Review

 What is with Hollywood's aversion to happy endings? As Bill Maher recently ranted about how the all the 2021 Oscar Best Picture nominees are depressing (I've seen seven of the eight contenders and, yeah, pretty much), movies nowadays seem militantly unwilling to have the audience feel good at the end of the time spent watching them, which raises the question: Why bother?

 The latest offender is Stowaway, a Netflix Original which has a provocative concept, good performances, and a remarkably accurate verisimilitude in portraying space travel, only to squander it with some of the thinnest characterization I've seen in a movie (and that includes Godzilla vs. Kong) and a bummer of an ending.

The movie opens with the launch of the Kingfisher on its way to Mars with its three-person crew: Ship commander Marina (Toni Collette), doctor Zoe (Anna Kendrick), and biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim). While setting things up to conduct research during their journey, Marina spots drops of blood on the deck. Opening an overhead panel, out tumbles an unconscious man, Michael (Shamier Anderson), who breaks her forearm as she tries to break his fall.

After being stitched up and coming to, the crew learn that he was a launch pad engineer working on the ship and he had no intention on hitching a ride to Mars for two years. Unfortunately, his fall from the panel triggered the destruction of the ship's only CO2 scrubber (more on this later) meaning the crew will not have enough breathable air to survive the trip. Perhaps three people could make it, but not four. Uh-oh.

Thus we're presented with the classic Trolley Problem, the ethical thought experiment where a trolley is bearing down on five people tied to the tracks. There is a switch mechanism that would divert it to a siding, but there's a person standing there. Do you sacrifice the one to save the five?

While the crew initially conceals the gravity of their predicament from Michael, who seems a decent enough fellow and has tried to pitch in with the work on the ship, eventually one begins to encourage him to kill himself while another believes there has to be a way to MacGyver a solution. 

It's a thorny problem, but its ultimate resolution is unsatisfying due to Hollywood's current belief that "grim = good" (and I say this as someone who's noted that "All great movies end up with everyone being either dead or miserable.") and choosing to spend almost zero time making any of the characters people. It's a testament to the actors that they were able to make it seem like they were human beings we should care about, but here is literally every detail we learn about everyone is the movie:

  • This is Marina's third and final mission to Mars.
  • Zoe only applied to the program because she thought it'd be funny to be rejected.
  • Zoe used part of her limited personal effects weight allocation to bring Yale coffee mugs to troll Harvard grad David.
  • David is married and will miss his wife for two years.
  • Michael has a younger sister he worries about and he was burned in a fire as a child.

That's it. We're supposed to worry about their fates simply because we're supposed to worry about their fates. The nearly two-hour runtime has plenty of time for minutiae, but not characterization?  And that's before we have to deal with the huge logical gaps we need to leap in order to even accept the premise beginning with how the actual heck does a worker get sealed into a panel of an interplanetary spaceship without anyone noticing when it's not even where he describes he was working?!?

The secondary challenge, the destroyed CO2 scrubber, is also a deal-breaker because there is no way in hell such a vital life support system component wouldn't have a backup and then a backup for that backup. (Even the Apollo 13 mission, which had a catastrophic explosion on its way to the Moon, was able to to find a way to keep the astronauts alive even though filters were the wrong shape, using duct tape and ingenuity.) When a desperate attempt to get oxygen is made, its result requires the audience to accept that something we saw done before suddenly wasn't.

It's a shame that Stowaway falters so badly on the story and character side because the technical aspects are spot on. The ship looks like a real spaceship, not a movie spaceship like the one in Life, and the science depicted, like the artificial gravity generated by centrifugal spinning of the ship with a booster rocket counterweight, is accurate and there are some, pardon the pun, sequences which will have you holding your breath.

Score: 5/10. Skip it. 

"The Father" Review

 The sales pitch for The Father isn't very appetizing: An old man suffers from dementia as his daughter struggles to cope. Very familiar and you can pretty much imagine how it's going to play out and that's why I shoved this down the list of Best Picture nominees. Sure, Anthony Hopkins (who is nominated for Best Actor) and Olivia Colman (Best Supporting Actress) will be excellent, but haven't we seen this story before?

Perhaps, but not like this, and that's why The Father transcends the tired tropes of its tale. 

Opening with a frustrated Anne (Colman) rushing home to deal with her father Anthony (Hopkins) after he's driven yet another caregiver away with his belligerent behavior, accusing her of stealing his watch when it was in the same place he always leaves it. (He later finds it and puts it on and when called on it not being missing after all, he says it's because he hid it so no one could find it.) 

Anne is clearly at the end of her rope and is trying to get her father to stop being mean to the aides or he'll have to go to a nursing home because she's leaving London to move to Paris with her new man. "But they don't even speak English there," Anthony protests. He is convinced that she's still with her ex-husband and wonders why his other daughter, Lucy, doesn't visit him and Anne's expression tells us why.

Things get weird when Anthony hears a sound while making tea in his kitchen. Investigating, he is surprised to find a man in his sitting room who claims he lives there. Anne comes home and her hair is different - is this a flashback or forward? After tamping that moment down, Anne finally finds a care aide, Laura (Imogen Poots), who seems able to manage the father's quirks and he remarks on how similar she looks to his daughter Lucy, who doesn't visit him anymore. 

Then there is a scene where yet another man, Paul (Rufus Sewell), is in the apartment, claiming the flat is actually his and Anne's place and Anthony has been living with them and his deteriorating condition is interfering with their lives. The kitchen which we had seen previously now has a decidedly modern decor. 

It was at this point where I began to wonder what the actual heck was going on here? Was Anne gaslighting her father? Were we getting a jumbled timeline? Then it clicked: French playwright Florian Zeller (making his directorial debut directing a script adapted from his play with Christopher Hampton, who wrote the play and film versions of Dangerous Liaisons) is putting the viewer into Anthony's crumbling mental state. We don't know what is happening or what is real because Anthony doesn't know. 

This is the secret sauce that elevates The Father. We've seen countless versions of the senile old person wandering the street in their pajamas or mistaking and forgetting people, but it's always been an external experience, watching them deteriorate and other react. By putting us into Anthony's fractured grasp on his world and memories, we can empathize with his decline because our frustration trying to figure out what's going on mirrors his. 

Hopkins is stellar here. It may seem obvious, but with some exceptions like The Two Popes it's felt at times he's been coasting on his Greatest Actor reputation for a while. But he's in magnificent form and would likely take home his second Oscar, but it's a tough year with some competition from nominees who would benefit from Hollyweird's woke virtue signalling needs. Colman, who won Best Actress for The Favourite a couple of years ago, is also excellent. 

While The Father is yet another feels bad movie in a year where every Oscar-nominated movie seems to be a downer, at least it delivers a fresh spin on a stock story powered by exceptional performances. 

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. 

SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING: If you've every had trouble keeping actresses Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams separated in your head, this movie isn't going to help. The detail about the hair I mentioned above? I didn't realize a switcheroo had occurred until reading a synopsis afterwards and when they both appear on screen together, I thought some Orphan Black trickery was involved.

"Minari" Review

 With the Oscars three nights away (and holding zero appeal to me for the first time in my life), it's time to get through the nominees and up next is Minari, one of the two titles I had absolutely never even heard of when the nominations were announced; that's how bad this year's nominations are. 

Nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Score, it is the story of Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas in the early-1980s to start a farm. Father Jacob (Steven Yuen, best known as Glenn from The Walking Dead), mother Monica (Yeri Han), older daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and younger son David (Alan Kim) have moved from California to fulfill Jacob's dream of farming, moving into a ramshackle double-wide trailer on land. To earn a living, the parents work at a local chicken hatchery sexing chickens, which means they sort them by sex (with the males being incinerated, it is implied; so much for male privilege), not whatever weird kinky thing you were imagining.

Monica is clearly unhappy with the move, but Jacob is resolute (read: stubborn) about his dream of growing vegetables to sell to the Korean community in Dallas. He buys a used tractor from Paul (Will Patton), a very religious fellow who spends his Sundays walking the roads toting a huge crucifix on his shoulder and he offers to help on the farm. 

To help care for the children, especially David who has a hole in his heart, they bring over Monica's mother  Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), a feisty old woman to whom David takes a disliking because she's not like grandmas are supposed to be, not making cookies or coddling the kids. But she gradually wins him over by not cocooning him because of his condition like his mother does. 

The story meanders along from one crisis to the next; the well Jacob digs himself instead of having a water diviner do it run dry, the client he had a deal to sell his crops to reneges at the last moment, and various other incidents stress his marriage to the breaking point. Just as it appears things are finally turning around, something devastating happens which should scotch the entire endeavor, but the movie abruptly ends on an odd note as if the last reel got lopped off, denying the viewer a sense of closure.

Minari is one of those Sundance hits which never would've caught much of a mass audience or acclaim in a normal year, not because it's particularly bad, but because it's simply too small. But in the Year Without Movies where the Academy was indulging its virtue signaling urges, it has been thrust forth and thus gets judged more harshly because it's supposed to be a Best Picture. 

However, it's odd that the Academy would favor it because it lacks many of the woke points that generally animate their picks. When you heard the logline - Korean family moves to Arkansas - didn't you subconsciously fill in "...and they experience racism and hatred from the toothless yokel hillbillies"? Astonishingly, nothing of the sort occurs. They are warmly welcomed by the community and the church they attend. Other than one insensitive question from a young boy to David asking why his face is so flat, their ethnicity barely factors and the kid follows up by asking David if he wants to play; the question was just a kid asking a question without manners, not with malice. 

Even the film's treatment of religion is a departure from the usual "look at those snake-handling Sky Man believers" treatment Christians usually receive. Jacob isn't as religious as Monica and he's put off by Paul's speaking in tongues and casting out of demons, but Paul isn't made the butt of jokes outside of some of the Christian kids flipping him off in an ironic moment. 

My problem with Minari is that it fills nearly two hours with lots of specific details about their lives and events, but omits some rather major backstory details which would've explained why this farm is so important to Jacob. He says he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life looking at chicken butts, but why a farm. The couple emigrated from South Korea, presumably in the late-1960s, but why come to America? There's no mention of their educations or career aspirations; it lacks the "he was a doctor in his old life, but now has to drive a cab in America" angle. We know what Jacob wants to do, but not why. This extends to Paul - he has an affinity for Korean food from serving there in the war, but his odd behavior is never really explicated.

The performances are good with the breakthrough being Yuen, who most people remember last getting his head gruesomely bashed in with a baseball bat on The Walking Dead. Jacob is a quiet man who clearly prioritizes this farm over his family, which makes the lack of understanding why it's so important a bad oversight of the nominated screenplay. (This is a common trait in most of the nominees this year.) However, I wonder if part his nomination is because his fellow actors were surprised Glenn from TWD learned to speak such fluent Korean? The problem with that would be it's because he IS Korean, born in Seoul, living there until he was five when his family moved to Canuckia then suburban Detroit and his family spoke it at home.

Youn is a pip as the salty grandmother to the children, the kind of crown-pleasing performance that usually snags Supporting nominations, though it's distracting how much older she seems than the couple. (She was around 72 when this was filmed; Yuen and Han were mid-30s.) 

Writer-director Lee Issac Chung based Minari on his own childhood and while he makes some beautiful images, it's just too small and personal to allow outsiders in. Anyone wanting an edgy Korean story like last year's Best Picture, Parasite, will be disappointed. While it's not boring, it's slow-going and may lead some to wonder when the story is going to start. At the end, they may wonder, "That's it?" 

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Zappa" Review

 I'm a fairly casual Frank Zappa fan. While I've got well more than the "Valley Girl" single in my collection, I'm far from a completionist. I've never listened to a Mothers of Invention album, his guitar stuff was too aimless noodly for my taste - when I saw him in Feb. 1988 on what would be his last tour, I thought it could've used a half-hour less guitar soloing - and his avante weird "classical" stuff was just too out there. I liked the funny songs on Apostrophe, Sheik Yerbouti, You Are What You Is, and my favorite album, Tinseltown Rebellion. (Want me to sing you all of "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"? I can do it!)

 So it was with some interest that I approached Alex Winter's (yes, Bill S. Preston Esq.) deep dive documentary, Zappa. The main selling point is that it is comprised heavily of previously unseen footage from Zappa's massive archives beginning with his odd childhood growing up in a home with gas masks due to his father's work to the oddly-late beginnings of his musical career. 

The film really leans into his early days with the Mothers of Invention and how he was a strict taskmaster to his musicians, sometimes seemingly to the point of cruelty or at least aloofness. (To be fair, his single-minded focus led to his not having many personal friends, so he wasn't just mean to the help.) Veterans of his bands interviewed include percussionist Ruth Underwood and uber guitarist Steve Vai and Mike Keneally as well as footage with his widow Gail Zappa, who passed herself in 2015.

 While Zappa is most known for his rock music and goofy songs, it's clear his true passion was classical composition taking inspiration from avante garde composer Edgard Varèse who made "ugly music." Zappa didn't care for the usual classics like Beethoven and set out to make his own difficult music. (Frankly - no pun intended - "modern classical" is an oxymoron; abrasive, unpleasant, soulless noise which sounds like it was written in Excel to make dogs howl on the other side of the planet.) In one clip he admits he just wants to get recordings of his works to take home and listen to, but the economic realities of executing such complex music in a symphonic realm generally precluded proper productions. It seems he funded his classical ambitions with the rock stuff.

With such a heavy emphasis on his early years and then his late-1980s political activities for freedom of expression and race to finish as much classical work as he can after his prostate cancer diagnosis - which ultimately claimed his life a few weeks before his 53rd birthday in December 1993 - something has to get short shrift and unfortunately that is some of his most popular works released in the late-1970s/early-1980s; the stuff I mentioned previously that I like. It only seems to touch on "Valley Girl" because of the backstory of its creation (a lonely Moon Zappa left a note on his studio door introducing herself) and that he had no idea it was a hit because it was on tour.

If you're looking for a primer on this iconoclastic musician, Zappa is ill-suited to the task. If you're a casual fan, it's a bit of a coin toss whether much of this will interest you. But if you're a Zappa superfan, then this is a must see dive into the vaults.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Hulu.) 

"Mank" 4K Review

 The slog through the Oscar nominations continues with Mank, David Fincher's biopic about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane with Orson Welles (though that is a point of contention in the film). And quite the slog it was. 

Working from a script written in the 1990s by his late father Jack Fincher, Mank is the story of the writing of Citizen Kane intercut with flashbacks to Mank's (played with boozy charm by Gary Oldman) times in 1930s Hollywood, specifically his interactions with studio bosses Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and publishing tycoon William Randolph (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who were barely disguised as the Kane and Susan Alexander characters. 

Recovering from an auto accident, Mank dictates his script to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins), and fends off the people wondering where the script is (after starting very slowly, he ultimately hammers out on time) and then trying to dissuade him from actually allowing Welles to make it since it will anger the powerful Hearst who will damage it's prospects. (The latter was prescient because while Kane would go on to top Best Movie Ever lists forever, it was skunked in 8 of 9 nominations, only winning for its screenplay.)

Up for a field-leading 10 Academy Awards nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Score, Sound, Hair & Makeup, but NOT its screenplay), Mank should have been an easy layup to enjoy. I like Fincher's movies - I've seen all but Zodiac (just haven't gotten around to it) and his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake (didn't care for the original) - I like Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, I like movies about the movies and so forth, but watching Mank was a chore. It took me three different sessions over a few weeks to get through it's two-hours-and-change length and I watched Zach Snyder's Justice League, which is twice the length, in an evening, albeit with a dinner break midway. I was so unenthused about finishing, I found myself scraping YouTube for a 1997 Sleater-Kinney at CBGB's concert and watched the Racoon Whisperer's barn being torn down before forcing myself to get it over with with Mank.

 I simply could not bring myself to care about anything or anyone in this movie. It wasn't the usual case where the characters are so unlikeable that you start actively rooting for their downfall, but that the hopscotch story structure - clearly meant to ape Kane's manner of contrasting Joseph Cotten's newsman trying to divine the meaning of Rosebud with flashbacks to Kane's life - just never seemed to be heading toward a point and ultimately it never does. 

Much time is spent on the 1934 California gubernatorial race between the socialist Upton Sinclair and the Republican favored by Hearst. All well and good, but who freaking cares in 2020? There are a few lines which could be read as slaps at a recently deposed orange fellow who had a brief stint as a politician, but those could be coincidental. As I was muddling through, disliking the script, I looked up the Oscar nom list and when I saw that the one thing it wasn't nominated for was the screenplay, it showed that as much as the Academy loves to acknowledge movies about Hollywood, especially artily done productions like this, there are limits to charity. I've seen grumbles about its inaccuracy and bias against Welles, but being boring is a greater sin than being inaccurate here.

Mank is little more than a besotted quip machine making bad gambles and undercutting whatever brilliant talent he possessed with some bad people skills (and I saw this as someone prone to poor people skilling). Oldman manages to make it seem more substantive than the script provides, but even a rounded out cartoon is a cartoon. But Gary Oldman being good is a rather low bar to clear.

Seyfried comes out very well here, making Davies a self-aware gold digger/kept woman who connects with Mank on a level that initially implies some sort of relationship could occur, as if the mistress of Hearst could get away with it. Seyfried has been trying to turn the corner from her early roles as a pneumatic ingenue in movies like Mean Girls, Boogie Woogie, and Veronica Mars, attempting to bump up into Serious Actress terrain with her 2013 biopic of Linda Lovelace and its requisite nudity (as Anne Hathaway joked in her disastrous Oscar hosting stint about Love and Other Drugs, "I showed by breasts, aren't I supposed to get an Oscar nomination?"), but this will hopefuly do the job similar to how her Mean Girls co-star Rachel McAdams has in dramas like Spotlight and the woeful second season of True Detective, also shedding her rom-com phase which she, to be blunt, was aging out.

 Another problem is the nominated cinematography; it's simply wrong for the story and the period. While Zach Snyder's Justice League bizarrely chose to use the 4:3 square aspect ratio (supposedly to fill IMAX screens when 99.9999999% of people seeing it would be on widescreen TVs), Mank is 2.20:1 widescreen black & white using custom-built monochrome RED Cinema cameras (which caused headaches for the visual effects because the usual blue or green screen backgrounds wouldn't work) despite being set 14-23 years before the first widescreen film, The Robe

Fincher has shot digitally since 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and is known for his short-lighting style (where the light comes predominantly from behind the actors, making faces the darkest areas) and a flat contrast, but it results in a very dim and murky image. I have an OLED TV which shines (pardon the pun) in low light content like sci-fi/horror films like Alien or Prometheus and the Dolby Vision image was just blah. Vintage B&W has a silvery luster and Kane's look (shot by Gregory Toland) was groundbreaking, so why didn't they try to mimic that look? Also, why the heck are there "cigarette burns" in the corner of the frame (to indicate the end of the reel as explained in Fight Club) when it's shot digitally and no movies go to video with that damage? You can't try to pretend you're making an old analog movie when you're widescreen and digital.

 Despite its pedigree and subject matter, Mank was a wank; a passion project of Fincher's to film his father's script which really didn't deserve to be made as it's simply too thin and irrelevant despite the legendary movie it's trying to tell the story of making. This may be the worst movie Fincher has made and I'm including Alien 3 in that accounting because even with the infamous meddling of the studio and fraught production which has led him to entire disown the film, it at least attempted to be interesting and about something.

Score: 3/10. Skip it. 

"Promising Young Woman" Review

 Once upon a time, about 30 years ago, there was a young man who had always been sort of a dorky loser. He had had girlfriends, so it wasn't like he was radioactive, but he was never a ladies man. Then in the wake of a devastating breakup, he lost weight (he called it the Sudden Stess & Heartache Diet) and combined with not getting a haircut for a couple of years his look had transformed into what he'd later refer to as his "Discount Chris Cornell" days, after the hirsute lead yeowler for the grunge band Soundgarden. 

 Due to what had to have been a concurrent glitch in The Matrix, the lad suddenly found himself to be, as his oldest friend (a female) from high school teased, "a bitch magnet," as, bizarrely, women at clubs would gravitate toward him on the dance floor and ask him he he'd ever been told he looked like Chris Cornell? (Narrator: "Yes, he had. From the last woman he ended up shagging who opened with, 'Has anyone told you that you look like...'")  As he would later joke, "I was such a stud that I was in constant danger of having drywall nailed to me." It was an extremely weird year for him, but eventually someone rebooted The Matrix and he resumed his previous status of a guy who didn't seem to get many glances from women. Business as usual.

 During his dance hall days, there was one young woman he became acquainted with due to being a regular at his local haunt. She had a sarcastic demeanor and looked like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, but fortunately without the bunny boiling crazy part. Nothing remotely carnal occurred between them, though he thought she was attractive in that Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction way. 

One night at the end of an evening dancing it was obvious she was in no condition to drive safely, so the young man offered to take her home. She lived in a neighboring, much higher rent, suburb about 15 minutes away. Arriving at her family's home, he had to support her walking and use her keys to open the door. While trying to juggle her and the keys and the lock, she started to try and kiss the chivalrous lad. Now, he was interested in her, but not under these circumstances so he tipped his head away and told her to have a good night and call if she needed a ride back in the morning to retrieve her car. She had someone else take her and the incident was never mentioned again. Shortly after, he settled down in a very long term relationship with someone more brunette and lived happily ever after. 

The End.

 The reason for this fairy tale preamble is because according to the cynical, dishonest, reprehensibly toxic, misandrist and totally garbage Promising Young Woman - appallingly nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, and Editing) in these meaningless asterisk Feel Bad Awards for the lost year of 2020 - there aren't any men who would pass up the opportunity to impose themselves on a sloppy drunk woman. None. 

According to writer-director Emerald Fennell (best known to most for playing Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown; known to writing nerds as writer-showrunner for the second season of Killing Eve) every man in a sexist pig predator who preys on women without conscience, mercy, nor remorse. Every. Single. One. #YesAllMen And as a result, Promising Young Woman is probably the most culturally poisonous movie since Crash. It's worse than just a bad movie because it's a profoundly evil movie by design, wrapping a mindbogglingly hateful premise in a bright candy-coated shell intended to beguile the undiscerning into sharing its illusion of meaning and hope.

I used to think that Paul Haggis was the most dishonest screenwriter in Hollyweird due to his craven stacking of decks (e.g. Hillary Swank's family is such trash in Million Dollar Baby that of course suicide is preferable; the wealthy guilty white liberal racism fantasia that was 2004's "Best Picture" Crash), but Fennell really gives him a run for his money and has reaped the rewards as a symbol of feminist empowerment in the way all power is garnered these days: By claiming eternal victimhood from the oppressive Patriarchy, which is an odd flex for a successful actress and filmmaker.

 It's difficult to explain just how malicious this movie is without spoiling much of the plot except that while the trailer (below) does a nice job not spelling out the reasons Carey Mulligan's character is doing what she does, if you've read anything about it, you probably know what drives this revenge tale and knowing this sucks much of the impact out of how Fennell doles out the details.

However the trailer does give a taste of the premise as they summarize the opening sequences of the story where Mulligan feigns being blotto drunk at the bar and inevitably some irredeemable garbage man swoops in to take her back to his place for some fully unconsensual sexual activity, only to have her snap to, fully sober, presumably to scold them for being uncouth and presumptuous. We're never shown what happened to distinguish between the different colored marks she makes in her copiously marked log book. The men are portrayed as sexist pigs talking about her before taking advantage of her. OK, so men are pigs. Bold original concept rarely seen except for Thelma & Louise and countless other movies where men are pigs and killing them the only proper remedy.

When not trolling the bars for marks - I just realized that the massively overrated Hustlers, where strippers drugged men and robbed them, had a more favorable view of men - she lives at home with her parents at age 30 and works at a coffee shop owned by Laverne Cox.  One day, a guy comes in (Bo Burnham, who is like if they cloned Matthew Modine and removed all the a-hole genes that give him a punchable face) who attended medical school with her. He's now a pediatric surgeon, but why is she slinging java drinks? He's sweet on her and seems to be a Nice Guy, but as Fennell has clearly established, ALL men are predatory rapists, so it's just a matter of time before he's going to turn on her, right?

Even though this movie certainly doesn't deserve a shred of protection and I've spoiled movies worthy of being torched - witness my Country Strong review from 10 years and two weeks ago - I'm going to be merciful to this movie unworthy of mercy by nuking it below the trailer. 

Suffice to say, I completely LOATHED this movie. To quote wholesale from Roger Ebert's infamous review for North:

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."

 But let me pause DIRK SMASH! mode for a moment to praise a few things about Promising Young Woman. Mulligan's performance is quite good and worthy of nomination as she manages to make Fennell's cartoon of her character feel tangible in her grief and rage. Fennell's direction has some nice style to it for her feature directorial debut. (She only directed a short a couple years back.)

We now return to our beatdown in progress...

But all of the above is for naught because Fennell the director is stuck directing Fennell the writer's egregiously dishonest script. The quality of screenwriting has been in precipitous decline in recent years with barely above-average material reaping wild award praise, but the dominant plague of wokeness and virtue signaling which has plagued entertainment these days, replacing reason and entertainment with screeds and tracts, that what is little more than a two-hour-long 3rd wave feminism lecture consisting of two words repeated (i.e. "Men BAD!") would be hailed as a empowering feminist story is its own indictment. 

As previous stated, every single man in this movie is garbage and pretty much most of the women are, too. Mulligan has plenty of righteous grievance and motivation for her actions, but Fennell doesn't trust the audience to be capable of discerning nuance; no, she gets a giant highway billboard, emblazons the Big Message (i.e. "Men BAD!") upon it, and then proceeds to hammer the view in the head with it for two hours so they get the point. Even that One Good Guy turns out to be no different from the rest. (SPOILER ALERT!) 

Everyone is either a perpetrator or complicit in this world. Everyone has an excuse or a justification for their behavior. Even the mother of her best friend whose fate inspires Mulligan's acts tells her to move on. There is a corrosive cynicism which I've noticed underpins the work of Millennial writers like Damien Chazelle, who is about the same age as Fennell. Chazelle's Whiplash and La La Land screenplays were both sabotaged by Millennial cynicism, especially the latter film which had the most effervescent opening 17 minutes since Chicago then implode into Ryan Gosling's whiny bitching. There's a difference between having a low opinion of humanity and the nihilistic black hole perspective Fennell cast her milieu in. 

With the exception of one guilt-destroyed man who begs forgiveness for his life of sins against women, making him merely a repentant monster, everyone is selfish and irredeemable and this is supposed to make Mulligan a righteous avenging angel, striking a blow against the mythical Patriarchy and despicable males. (Can't really call these pigs "men", can we?) But it's so fragile a construct that not a single instance where a guy puts her in a cab to get her home can be shown? There can't be a moment where her methods are questioned?

But not content with stacking the deck so overwhelmingly even the aforementioned Paul Haggis would say, "Come on. Really?" Fennell then suckerpunches the audience with a plot twist that if I hadn't already been accidentally spoiled by, thus overshadowing the entire experience watching the movie knowing where it's going, I may've turned the movie off there. That she then follows that up with some more nihilistic evil of men and then ends with what is meant to be the crowd-pleasing finale which demands the viewer approve of how the worst case of vigilante justice ever was served. 

Right before watching this cinematic war crime, I saw a friend soliciting suggestions for movies to watch and I saw a woman chirp, "Promising Young Woman!" Seriously, if you have seen this movie and thought that ending was happy, you really need to have your head examined to see if your flipping marbles haven't fallen out somewhere.

The greatest shame of Promising Young Woman is that if Fennell could've somehow overcome her generation's insipid nihilism - I'm Generation X, which is turning out to be the Second Greatest Generation to whom the destruction of the Boomers and the brats younger than us shall fall - and not rigged the game so baldly that the cards are obviosuly pouring out of her sleeves, it could've been the edgy black dramedy it wrongly imagines itself being. Mulligan's performance is in service of nothing but lies and it's such a waste. 

If you want the full ugly details, find them below.

Score: 0/10. Kill it with fire. Also, SKIP IT!

************* SPOILERS AHEAD!! ************** 






************* NOT KIDDING! TURN BACK NOW!!! **********

Here is the full story:


Mulligan's lifelong best friend Nina attended medical school with her. One night, Nina got drunk and raped by a classmate which some of his pals watched. The school did nothing about it, treating it as a he said, she said case where she clearly was to blame for getting drunk and vulnerable. Distraught, Nina dropped out and Mulligan followed to support her, but Nina eventually kills herself. So she's filled the next seven years trolling the bars, doing.....we never know. She's clearly not killing these guys represented by the colored hash marks otherwise there'd be hundreds of bodies and that would certainly attract attention from 5-0. 

Since she has chosen to make baiting disgusting men her life's work, it's natural she'd be suspicious of any man, including the former classmate who pursues her with puppy dog charm and a harmless air that you'd correctly suspect will be torn away. The bubble bursts when another classmate (Allison Brie) whom Mulligan sets up for what appears to be her own drunken encounter gives her a phone with a video of the rape that was passed around because that's what irredeemable trash people do on this Earth-like planet. On the video is Doctor Nice Guy observing and not interceding. 

Threatening to expose his complicity, she gets him to tell her where the bachelor party of the rapist is being held. Dressed as a naughty nurse (see the trailer), she drugs the entire party except for the rapist groom-to-be and handcuffs him to a bed. She reveals who she is and prepares to carve Nina's name into his body with a scalpel, but he breaks one hand free and then proceeds to smother her with a pillow.

That's right, folks: The rapist who destroyed her friend's life murders her.

Now that you've picked your jaw off the floor....the next morning the best man, who had shot and shared the video, comes in and discovers his bro and the dead body and does what any man on this planet would do: Takes her corpse out into a field and burns it. Because men are amoral scum. In case you missed the previous parts of the movie.

But Mulligan gets the last laugh as she has sent the phone to a lawyer (an uncredited Alfred Molina) whose firm made a fortune getting evil rapey men to dodge consquences until the guilt and shame broke him. The accompanying note explains that she was going to the bachelor party and if anything happens, give the phone to the cops and tells when the wedding is.

This leads to the crowd-pleasing finale where the cops arrive after the vows and the groom is hauled away for murder and a scheduled text to Dr. Nice Guy Who Wasn't Nice taunts him from beyond the grave. Womp womp! Feel bad, bro! She showed you guys, didn't she? #JusticeForNina

Sure, she's DEAD and Nina's dead and presumably Dr. Raper will have high-dollar legal counsel get him off light because it WAS self-defense against some psycho hose beast chick who was planning on carving her vendetta into his flesh instead of straight-up killing him and getting away. Nope, she had to die because women are helpless victims who can only get justice at the cost of their lives.

Drive home safely, everyone! Grrrl Powah!

I'll wait while you chug some bleach to purge this story from your mind. OK, back now? Let's proceed...

I mentioned Thelma & Louise above and while that 1991 movie has a hefty dose of "men are pigs" animating the plot from Thelma's crappy husband, the attempted rapist Louise kills, and the gross gas tanker driver whose rig they shoot and blow up (which could never happen in reality that way), there are also some decent men like Louise's boyfriend and the cop played by Harvey Keitel who sympathizes with their plight and tries to get them to surrender. But in a trope-setting ending which devolved into Fennell's even grimmer view, the pair choose suicide over prison because it's a man's world, baby, and ain't no way for women to survive in it. 

While there's no denying that there are too many guys who do not qualify as "men", to pretend that the percentage of guys being as terribad as movies portray them approaches 100% is a damnable lie. Real men are not predators, they're protectors; protectors of their families, their friends, even strangers. They're coded in their genes to protect the weak. Even if you've had the misfortune to suffer at the hands of one of these rat bastards, you know that they are a small minority. I simply refuse to believe that I, the guy in the opening fairy tale (in case you didn't figure that out), am some sort of magical unicorn exception to the rule because I didn't capitalize on my drunk acquaintance's actions that night. When a culture presents an insane portrait of a world where one half are inherently evil and the other half oppressed victims for whom suicidal vengeance is the only escape, that leads nowhere good.

Maybe I am since during that brief period of inexplicable desirability I never made a first move on any woman, merely responded to those who approached me first. I never kidded myself that I was all that and just rode the rogue wave until it faded. Most likely, it's because I was raised by a single mother who worked her butt off to provide for me and thus strong women - genuinely strong, not the fake "stunning and brave" victimhood-mongers hailed as role models nowadays - are to be revered for their self-reliance. 

This is what's pernicious and corrosive about Fennell's movie. Despite her having an active acting career for a decade now, then swinging into writing and producing a popular TV series, and now garnering three Oscar nominations for her debut feature, it's impossible to square the squalid illusion of "Men BAD! Women VICTIMS!" with her own life. It's the central sickness of our time that a woman can write, produce, and direct a major motion picture with the message that women have no opportunities and will end up used, abused, raped, discarded, and killed by men who have total dominion over the world. Ummmmm, whut?

There is something ironic and perverse that Fennell's big breaks came from her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the tart actress and writer who created, wrote and starred in the brilliant Amazon Prime series Fleabag and adapted and created Killing Eve, handing the reins over to Fennell. I find Waller-Bridge quite interesting because her characters are complicated, messy, and filled with agency. If any of her women are victims, they're more victims of their own bad choices than a world set against them. She doesn't write saintly women and demonic men, she writes three-dimensional people with foibles and strengths and weaknesses. As I've belabored, Fennell here writes in only two colors: black and really really black, like Spinal Tap none-more-black black. But because Mulligan brings down the evil men who destroyed her in the end we're supposed to feel great about the lecture and the fact it means nothing?


"White Boy" Review

In the annals of famous criminals, one that people outside of the Detroit area have likely heard of is White Boy Rick, the street nickname of Richard Wershe Jr. who was infamous for being a teenage drug dealer AND FBI informant who ended up sentenced to life in prison without parole for cocaine trafficking despite his youth (17 years old) and being a non-violent offender. He eventually became the longest-serving non-violent juvenile offender in history. 

Name-checked by Kid Rock, the subject of a mediocre 2018 biopic starring Matthew McConaughey as his father, even the stage name of a local rapper I knew who went by "White Boy Ric", White Boy Rick attained a level of cultural fame usually reserved for Mafiosos. But lesser known are the details of how he became this legend and the complete screw job he received at the hands of a corrupt JUST US system which was protecting the deeply corrupt power structure of Detroit, all of which is laid out in jaw-dropping detail in the documentary White Boy.

Packed with interviews with lawyers, FBI agents, police officers, reporters (including Chris Hansen, who started in Detroit before going national and busting pedophile predators), lawyers, family, Curry and hit man Nathaniel Kraft (who confessed to 30 murders), and Wershe by telephone and archive footage, White Boy paints a stunning picture of how the FBI recruited the 14-year-old Wershe to infiltrate and inform the drug trade of Detroit's East Side.

I've been a metro Detroit resident almost my whole life and in the 1980s the various drug gangs running in Detroit like Young Boys Inc. and Best Friends filled the newspapers and newscasts. Naturally, White Boy Rick, the white teenager who was rolling deep with an almost exclusively black-controlled drug trade, was a standout simply because of his novelty, and the local media, not he or his street pals, gave him the nickname. (He was like the Eminem of drug dealing.) But even I was blown away by the depths of corruption that enabled this deadly trade which further destroyed a city already mortally wounded by the 1967 Riots and 20 years of Coleman Young, the extremely dirty Mayor of Detroit. 

How dirty was Young? His niece was married to Johnny Curry, head of the Curry Brothers drug gang, and as such the gang operated with near impunity from law enforcement as they were protected by the boss's uncle and his crooked cop minions. (One Detroit Free Press reporter featured laughably asserts that he didn't think Young was crooked, but perhaps some around him were. I immediately started ignoring whatever he said afterwards.) 

Even more shocking are the revelations that the head of the Detroit Police Department's Homicide department, Gil Hill - famous for playing Eddie Murphy's angry Captain in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, subsequently riding that fame to become President of the Detroit City Council - was corrupt to the point of ordering hits on certain people, including White Boy Rick.

After assisting in at least 20 successful prosecutions, he was cut loose by the FBI at age 16. Continuing in the drug game, a year later, after a very suspicious bust and having his legal counsel which was connected to Young tank his defense, he was sentenced to life without parole in 1987. When the state's mandatory life for 650 grams of narcotics law was ruled unconstitutional in 1998 and modified to allow parole, Wershe was still denied parole in the one hearing he was allowed in 2003. 

For some reason, certain factions were extremely opposed to Wershe every being released. Despite being a model prisoner and most of those involved with his judgement not objecting to his parole, the Wayne County Prosecutors Office blistered him as a menace to society who would cause great harm if released. In 2003, the County Prosecuter was Mike Duggan, who is now the Mayor of Detroit, and he didn't object to parole, but two weeks later, a second letter vehemently opposing release, as if Wershe were Scarface and Capone combined, came in with Duggan's signature, sinking his chances. However, Duggan claims he doesn't recall the second letter (despite his signature), though his top deputy was one of lawyers who railroaded him. Even as late as 2015, when Wershe was the longest-serving non-violent offender in history, an attempt to resentence him was crushed by current Prosecutor Kym Worthy. 

Throughout White Boy is an overwhelming sense of injustice perpetrated by the law enforcers who basically turned Wershe into a felon and then threw him in prison for life as his reward because he was too close to implicating dirty cops and politicians. While he escaped assassination, he was still left to rot long after murderers and actual drug kingpins like Johnny Curry had been released. In one final shocking twist, director Shawn Rech illustrates just how unjust Wershe's sentence is compared to another's through an extremely clever misdirection he used until then.

Another detail to Rech's credit is his identifying who the talking heads shown are every time they appear throughout the movie. So often documentary's fail to provide basic information like what year events occur or identify speakers once and then leave the viewer trying to remember who is who later. 

While Wershe was eventually paroled in 2017, he was promptly thrown into a Florida prison for another three years on a separate charge whose sentence was shockingly set to run consecutively, not concurrently. He ultimately regained his freedom in 2020 after spending 33 years incarcerated. (So much for white privilege.)

Score: 9/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Netflix.)

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