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Maleficent

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Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, © Disney 2014.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, © Disney 2014.

****

I have noticed reviews dually attacking this film as misogynistic and the reviewers who minimize the vile assault on the titular Maleficent—Angelina Jolie, Changeling—as little better than those who permit our cultural tolerance toward rape to continue. I noticed this before seeing the film and realized that the scene of violation would be something to focus on. Having seen the scene, both sides have their points. The cutting off of the wings, which in my mind was as gruesome as that of the angels in Dogma, actually takes place off screen. The order of events are such:

1. Reconciliation of Maleficent and her human friend and love interest Stefan—District 9’s Sharlto Copley.
2. He fucking drugs her drink like a rapist in a bar.
3. Having taken her away some place private he pulls out his knife to kill her.
4. Unable to go through with it, he spares her life and …
5. She wakes up feeling confused and violated, soon realizing that her wings have been permanently sawed from her bleeding back. She starts to cry.
6. Stefan escapes with the wings.

The size and the power of Maleficent's wings. © Disney 2014

The size and the power of Maleficent’s wings. © Disney 2014

Well, it was a harrowing and disturbing scene. His means of getting her at his mercy were similar to that of a rapist’s and the knife is phallic, but what other options did the writer or director have, to have him carry an ax? But I do not criticize the film as the anti-misogynists do, but consider it amazing to have essentially placed a sexual assault in a Disney movie. And the victim has her weaknesses and sufferings, but she has power and personality far beyond this singular act. This is up for personal interpretation, but that is how I see it.

King Stefan (Copley) in Maleficent, enraged in his battle with Maleficent, © 2014 Disney.

King Stefan (Copley) in Maleficent, enraged and engaged in his battle with Maleficent, © 2014 Disney.

As for the rest of the film, Maleficent and Stefan fit into a Star Wars Force paradigm. As most people know, there are two sides of the force. The light side, which works with nature, and that dark side, which deals with destruction. In that world there are different paths to the dark side. Some head there for power, while others give in to their anger and their hate. Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is Maleficent in character, as her love gets abused for evil. Stefan is the Emperor in character, striving for ever more and more power. But in body and armor Stefan fits the role of Darth Vader. As he continues he is more armor than man, with only his eyes visible. His fate is also reminiscent of the Emperor’s. If that seems like too much of a spoiler, remember that this is a remake of a movie that almost everyone reading this has already seen.

On the whole a job well done by the director and the writer. The writer was actually a woman, Linda Woolverton, who previously wrote Beauty and the Beast, so this is a pleasant evolution. The director was, statistically unsurprisingly, a man, with two Academy Awards for Art Direction—Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. The surprising part was that this was his first attempt at directing and he had a huge star in Angelina Jolie to direct. Again, well done.

The Queen of Versailles

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The  “time share king” David Siegel,  and his former beauty queen wife, Jackie Siegel, on a throne in their home. © 2012 Magnolia Pics.

The “time share king” David Siegel, and his former beauty queen wife, Jackie Siegel, on a throne in their home. © 2012 Magnolia Pics.

What’s my driver’s name?

Is it fair to show a woman who has just flown commercial, with her bevy of children, for the first time in over 15 years, at the Hertz rental desk after she has disembarked and gathered their luggage? The scene is played for laughs. Who does not know that Hertz rent-a-car rents you a car and not a chauffeur? This portrays our queen, Jackie Siegel, as some dumb bimbo for our amusement. She is not some dumb bimbo, but in the way that stupidity can create a barrier to understanding society, so can insulation. She is a young Kim Kardashian’s mother without the media saavy. This documentary balances the pleasure of laughter that someone tripping and falling face first into a birthday cake evokes, with the discomfort of getting caught laughing at said person.

That is not the hotel. I wish there were a Hummer in front for the purposes of scale.

That is not the hotel. I wish there were a Hummer in front for the purposes of scale.

This really is a fascinating movie and I feel that the director–Lauren Greenfield and editor–Victor Livingston deserve so much credit, while they are also just extremely lucky. Jackie is married to David Siegel, who owns the world’s largest time share company. When the market collapsed his empire began to crumble. Both figuratively and literally. He had two modern palaces being built, which were this a classical tragedy would be his downfall. In real life, that seems to never be the case, but here he found himself over exposed. Palace one was a Las Vegas high rise, the PH Towers Westgate¹. Palace two was “Versailles”. The largest home ever constructed in the United States of America. Its dimensions do not even make sense. It is not the 13 bedrooms, I have heard of homes with a dozen bedrooms. It is not even the 30 bathrooms. While that is an absurd number, there are hotels with ten bathrooms on one floor. It is the 11 kitchens! What why and how can a home require 11 kitchens!? Yet it was never completed².

***½

The real losers here are the spoiled children. They have so much of everything that I doubt they can appreciate any of it. Siegel laments how his children might actually have to go to college and get jobs. Heaven forbid! The only one with the potential to appreciate the situation—since Jackie has long since lost touch with her Binghampton, NY roots—is Jonquil, a sixteen year old niece. She had been kicked out of her home by her apparently terrible mother—I mean she named her Jonquil. But Jonquil can at least appreciate that she is changing and how this lifestyle detaches those who are stuck in it. It appears that the primary symptom of this insulation from the masses is never taking any responsibility for anything, ever. Also, if you do not like this review, I will use insulation as my excuse even though I am not rich.

¹ As you can see here Westgate now owns the property again, apparently.
² According to an ABC New report from about a year ago, construction has started again.

The Fault in Our Stars

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****½

They don’t kill you unless you light them. And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing. A metaphor.

Woodley & Elgort as Hazel and Gus in the 2014 movie The Fault in Our Stars, © Fox 2000 Pics.

Woodley & Elgort as Hazel and Gus in the 2014 movie The Fault in Our Stars, © Fox 2000 Pics.

I can’t really think of anything critical of this film beyond its failure to demonstrate why Gus—Ansel Elgort, Divergent—falls for Hazel—Shailene Woodley. But as this is Hazel’s story and she could not imagine anyone wanting her I suppose it is valid to not have shown why/how Gus decided that she was the girl for him. Also, I really like Willem Dafoe’s small role in this. This is probably the best young adult film since, I don’t know, LOTR: Return of the King. Well done author John Green and director Josh Boone. And a really good job by the entire cast, especially its stars.

Peeples

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***

Put yo’ panties on the floor! Put yo’ panties on the floor!

Craig Robinson rocking out in Peeples.

Craig Robinson rocking out in Peeples.

Tina Gordon Chism wrote and directed this Tyler Perry production. I did not realize that at first and believed that Perry was more clever than I thought. Still, much of this romantic comedy had clunky exposition that piled on top of itself. The comedy was like an Adam Sandler movie, but with a higher batting average on the jokes. The cast was very good, but the characters went from one and a half note to occasionally impressive. Craig Robinson—”The Office” (US)—and Kerry Washington—Django Unchained—were fine as the stars, although their physical appearances did not quite make sense. The standout in the supporting cast was S. Epatha Merkerson—Law & Order’s captain, whose recovering substance abuse addict mother was funny, honest and genuine. She also had a fun back story as a singer from a 70s musical trio. Balanced against her was the scowling Judge/Father of Washington’s character—David Allan Grier, “In Living Color”—who just was not that interesting.

There is not much more to say other than I had to upgrade this to a 3 star movie because of the music. Craig Robinson is renowned—seriously, he is—for his clever ditties on the piano. The movie opens with him singing a song to children about expressing themselves through their words and not their pee. It was simultaneously juvenile and genius. For most actors such a scene would seem forced, but not with Robinson. Merkerson has a hit song which sounds great, and makes for a wonderful scene as Robinson puts on her headdress and sings along to the music in his head. Still, my favorite song was supposed to be by the 16 year old brother of Washington, played by Tyler James Williams—”Everybody Hates Chris”. While he clearly was neither singing the (auto-tuned) song, nor playing the guitar, Drawers on the Floor was a great song. It had a great beat, simple message and made me laugh unironically.

Lastly, this movie had almost no White people in it. One of the reasons I wanted to see this particular movie was because there are mediocre romantic comedies in movie theaters across the country every week. And they are almost always about two White people. Or if not, then it is a White man and a Latina woman. I was afraid that this movie, because it was populated almost exclusively by Black people, would unfairly fail at the box office. And I was right—it only grossed $10m~ when it cost $15m~ to make it. We’re the Millers, a romantic comedy full of white people that was just about as bad as this, made $150m. To be fair though, not many romantic comedies made much money in 2013. There are only a couple before you get to two other Tyler Perry movies and those probably cannot be labeled White. Hopefully this is a trend that changes more rapidly than the male domination of starring roles in movies.

Chef

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****½

You wouldn’t know good food if it was sitting on your face.

I absolutely loved this movie. I loved this movie in a way that I never connected to Jon Favreau’s biggest—critical—success, Swingers. It has been 16 years since Favreau wrote and directed himself in a movie—the forgettable Made. While I was surprised when he directed Elf and impressed that he made Iron Man, this was the movie his career has afforded him. No longer a man with something to prove he can make something amazing about a man with so much to improve.

Leguizamo, Cannavale, & Favreau in 2014's Chef.

Leguizamo, Cannavale, & Favreau in 2014’s Chef.

 

Since this movie is not very widely known, I will provide more of the plot than usual. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a divorcee father who works as the chef at a very successful gourmet restaurant in LA called “Gauloises.”¹ That restaurant is his life, although it is actually owned by the culinary conservative Riva—Dustin Hoffman, Captain Hook from Hook—and when the most popular food blogger in the country—Oliver Platt, the least prejudiced CIA Agent in X-Men: First Class—comes into Gauloises Chef Carl wants to change up the menu for the first time in five years, to show that he’s still got it. Instead Riva gets him to serve the old menu and the blogger pans it in his review. The review goes viral and gets the attention of his son, Percy–Emjay Anthony–and his sous chef and prep chef. The sous chef², Tony, is played by Bobby Cannavale—Win Win—and he is on Twitter. The prep chef, Martin, is played by John Leguizamo—Romeo + Juliet—and he is on Twitter too. They both love Chef Carl and accidentally let him know about how he is getting crushed online. With Percy’s help Chef Carl signs up for Twitter and accidentally starts “a flame war” with the blogger. After rudely challenging the blogger to return to the restaurant Riva tells Chef Carl that he cannot change the menu or he will be fired. This leads to a meltdown in front of the blogger and then YouTube… This is Chef Carl’s rock bottom and his friend, played by Scarlett Johansson—The Black Widow—tells him to get back to his son.

Favreau, Anthony & Vergara. in Miami, © 2014 Off Road.

Favreau, Anthony & Vergara. in Miami, © 2014 Off Road.

Fortunately, Chef Carl’s relationship with his Cubana ex-wife Inez—Sofia Vergara, “Modern Family”—is still very good, so when a newly impoverished Chef Carl flakes on his trip to New Orleans with Percy, Inez decides to bring Percy along to Miami. Chef Carl comes along as the nanny, but this is also where Inez grew up, where Chef Carl got his start as a cook, and where they first lived together.  Other than Chef Carl’s inability to obtain new employment, there are no real challenges to overcome. That almost never works in cinema. But this movie is so clever, so smart, so real, and so emotional that Favreau pulled it off. The only hiccup is the last scene, which felt a little bit rushed and happy. Otherwise, this is an improbable 5 star movie, instead of an improbable 4&½ star movie.

The realism in such a happy movie existed on a variety of levels: First, the chefing; Second, the familiarity with technology; and Third, the part-time divorced parent child relationship.

1. There were a few subtle things that rang so true for me, as former pantry chef.³ From the very start you can see, without it every getting addressed, that he has wide burn scars on his forearms. Every chef of 10 years has these from a burning hot sauté pan or a cookie sheet that they touch. That even though Chef Carl is The (head) chef at Gauloises he calls Tony and Martin “chef” as well. In a kitchen all the cooks call each other chef. Then there is the great corn starch scene. I wish I could remember it better to use it as the quote at the top! The gist of it is something I have known for years from the world of ultimate frisbee—swimmers prefer Gold Bond, weirdos—that sometimes you get sweaty down there and if not treated can lead to chafing. Baby powder or corn starch can be used to dry and protect that area.

2. Old people do not use Twitter. They do not understand it, nor do they use the word “tweet” when they referring to posting message thereon. Chef Carl did not understand Twitter. Martin, being younger, was on Twitter, but did not know what Vine was. Only the ten year old Percy understood both of them, and even made a few Vines—8 second videos for those who do not know. In my experience this is about right. I am in the group that has never been on Vine and never signed up for Instagram.

3. Chef Carl sees Percy about once a week, and if his time with Percy he tries to fill the days with movies and theme parks. He just does not realize that for a kid like Percy spending time at his Dad’s apartment, just talking and hanging out is just as special as going out on excursions. This was what Big Daddy could have been, if Adam Sandler had a delicate touch. And could make me laugh as much as Jon Favreau did here.

Combining the realism with the emotional depth made for an excellent drama. Still this was a comedy and because it made me laugh so much it became the best of what indie film dramedy can be. The only other point that I omitted was how personal this movie could be for Favreau. Duh! He wrote it, directed it, and starred in it. But he also took himself and his directing career and made a parallel for them with Chef Carl’s cooking career. When he started he was hot and innovative. Success brought him out to Los Angeles where he succeeded within the system and then stayed in the system. Never losing his skills, nor his desire to create, while facing increasing tough criticism—the same menu for 5 years and Iron Man 2. To actually confront the critic must have been interesting for Favreau, as well as for Platt who played the critic. It is not a happy message that fighting critics and the system, or both the indie and mainstream systems, can leave you unemployed and unable to do what you love. Although, thanks to the mainstream Hollywood Iron Man movies Robert Downey, Jr. has an amazing scene as Inez’s first ex-husband. I hope that I do not have to wait another 14 years for Favreau’s next movie

 

¹ I just realized why I wrote French restaurant when the food was not necessarily French. Gauloises is the best selling French cigarette.
² Sous chef literally means the under chef. This position is usually the busiest in a restaurant since he or she is the soloist while the head chef can be more of a composer/conductor. The sous chef is the one who can do everything and can do it quicker than everyone else. Also, they use the word chef as a verb too. E.g. Vinny sous chefed for four years.
³ A pantry chef is the cook at an Italian restaurant who is responsible for the salads, desserts, fried food, and some of the appetizers. I also worked as a prep cook at a French restaurant for a week. While I was an excellent pantry chef, I was a miserable prep cook. My last cooking job was at a noodle shop that have me using a wok, but it was not classy enough for me to consider myself a sauté chef.

The Last Stand

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***

You make us immigrants look bad.

This was a cute and clever action movie. The fight scenes were both adeptly and interestingly shot. The characters fit into archetypes:

Sheriff Ray Owens—Schwarzenegger—in The Last Stand, 2013 © Di Bonaventura Pics.

Sheriff Ray Owens—Schwarzenegger—in The Last Stand, 2013 © Di Bonaventura Pics.

1. The grizzled old veteran cop who saw too much but has not lost his edge. Arnold Schwarzenegger does a good job of seeming both imposing and aged. Kind of like an almost still in the game Harry Brown.

2. The rich Latino drug lord. Eduardo Noriega makes a charismatic bastard, who has a confidence that seems justified until almost the end.

Luis Guzmán as Deputy Mike Figuerola in The Last Stand, © Lionsgate 2013.

Luis Guzmán as Deputy Mike Figuerola in The Last Stand, © Lionsgate 2013.

3. The Luis Guzman character. Luis Guzman—Traffic—tackles this role and nails it, as he always does. When he is shot the crowd’s reaction mirrors our own, NO!!! Not Luis Guzman! Not again!

4. The hard ass FBI agent who doesn’t respect local police. Forrest Whitaker does what he can with this role. He seems efficient and like almost no fun. Well done.

Agent Ellen Richards—Genesis Rodriguez—in the few on screen moments pre-kidnapping. Same copyrights as above.

Agent Ellen Richards—Genesis Rodriguez—in one of the few on screen moments pre-kidnapping. Same copyrights as above.

5. Surprisingly attractive female hostage. Genesis Rodriguez is Agent Gets Immediately Kidnapped. And she is, let’s be honest, very attractive.

6. Stuck in his ways old man who won’t compromise with villains so he gets shot. Harry Dean Stanton. If you google him, you will go, “oh! that guy.” He was that security guard in the empty warehouse in The Avengers who tells The Hulk that he might have a condition.

7. The lieutenant bad guy. Peter Stormare—the lead nihilist in The Big Lebowski—can do this role in his sleep, in an accent that surely is not his. He is #58 on imdb’s top 250 most underrated actors list. I had comments about it/him here. He is Swedish, by the way. But in the 12 movies I have seen him in not once has he used his Swedish accent.

Leaving the predictable and returning to the above quotation, I loved how multi-ethnic and generally culturally sensitive this movie was. For contrast, watch Live Free or Die Hard, which is jingoistic, Ammmurrrican crap. Here a Korean directed movie starring an Austrian whose police force has a Puerto Rican, a white woman and a white man. The FBI, led by a Black man is moving a Spaniard who has taken a Cuban-American hostage while the only starring traditional white American male is Johnny Knoxville, who is not traditional in many ways! In some ways this deserves more than 3 stars, but in other ways it is just an example of how good a 3 star movie can be, like Hellboy 1 & 2.

Slumdog Millionaire

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****

Keep her crying and you’ll earn triple.

The year when a film comes out interests me. For instance, in 2007 No Country for Old Men won the Best Picture Oscar, but it was not even one of the five best—according to me—movies of the year. Contrast that with 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. That was actually the best movie of that year. I gave both films 4 & ½ stars. While both years were very good years in film, 2009 was a very good year for very good movies. 2007 was a very good year for great movies. This film is from 2008. My Top 10 for 2008 included Get Smart. At number eight! In that light, this would be a top 4 movie, even though it only had 4 stars. Make sense?

A handcuffed Dev Patel, as the Slumdog Millionaire and Irrfan Khan as the police inspector interrogating him. © Fox Searchlight 2009.

A handcuffed Dev Patel, as the Slumdog Millionaire and Irrfan Khan as the police inspector interrogating him. © Fox Searchlight 2009.

It lost points for some of the coincidences and how it dragged at times. But it gained points for three key decisions:
1. Immediate torture and Irrfan Khan as the police inspector! I did not expect to see Jamal getting tortured to see how he cheated as part of act I of this movie. And Khan just keeps impressing me with Amazing Spider-man and to a greatest extent Life of Pi.
2. Showing Indian poverty and cruelty. Yeah, I do not really want to go into this in much detail, but: orphan in poop trying to avoid being blinded while living on the street with a drunken, rapist brother.
3. The relationship between Jamal—Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—and the show’s host—Anil Kapoor, MI: Ghost Protocol. Patel’s unique attitude and spirit clashed with the jaded and smug Kapoor, but it just worked.

Patel's Malik and Kapoor's Prem on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (in rupees). © Slumdog Millionaire, 2009 Fox Searchlight.

Patel’s Malik and Kapoor’s Prem on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (in rupees). © Slumdog Millionaire, 2009 Fox Searchlight.

This is, by far, (director) Danny Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting. I know, I really went out on a ledge saying that his only Best Picture winner was his best in 14 years. This gem was a very good movie in a pretty mediocre year. That is part of the recipe for success at the Oscars, along with having a feel good ending, periods of confronting injustice and not having Christian Bale in it. Seriously, look at Bale’s résumé and with how many great movies he has been in, without ever acting in a Best Picture. And he came so close when he was a kid in Empire of the Sun!