Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Black

Making a successful, as in consistently funny, comedy film must be difficult. In so many movies, including the recently released “Fifty Shades of Black,” it seems like the filmmakers decide to take the kitchen sink approach and toss in as many components of humor: from witty social commentary to poop jokes into the pot, only to wind up with a strange brew indeed. Which is to say that there are some good laughs in this parody of the best-selling novel (and movie adaptation) “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but also a fair share of groaners.

Here Marlon Wayans stars as Christian Black, a handsome entrepreneur whose money is not entirely made in a respectable way, as he proudly explains to the naïve, virginal college student, Hannah Steale (Kali Hawk), who interviews him as a favor to her crass and sassy roommate, Jenny Zigrino. Like most romantic comedies, it is far from love at first sight, but soon enough Kali is waking up after a drunken (chaste) night at Marlon’s place, and starting to realize she may just have feelings for him. Of course, there’s a lot more to Marlon than first appears – and he soon gifts her with a MacBook suggesting that she do research (starting with why a college student doesn’t already own a laptop). He also delivers a drone to her apartment, as well as giving her a phonebook thick contract laying out the do’s and don’ts of their sexual relationship. As he explains to Kali via flashback, Marlon was first initiated into the mysteries of S&M as a teen by his music teacher (Florence Henderson). As a result, he now has some perverse tastes, and Kali, though less eager, eventually comes to experiment with him in his private whip and chain filled room. Their journey of exploration results in many bruises, broken apartment items, and wacky high jinks, though there’s a happy ending for the scar-crossed (sorry) pair.

Whips and chains have an additional subtext when it comes to African-Americans engaging in S&M, and this is acknowledged amusingly, when we see Marlon pass over a whip called “Django Unchained,” only to reach for the one called “Joe Jackson.” When Kali eventually persuades Marlon to turn the tables and is the one wielding the whip, she soon gets into the spirit, giving him strokes for various minority actresses who’ve been brutalized on screen, ending with “That’s for the little white girl in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.'” Why? “”She had to be naked the entire time.” There’s also a direct potshot at the source material when Marlon pauses in his waterboarding of Kali – only to hit upon the biggest agony of all – reading from the novel itself. “Who wrote this – a third grader?” he quips. Sometimes you may wonder that of this movie, too, but there are some witty parts – they just take some patience to reach.

A Look Back: 10 Things I Hate About You

Just out of curiosity, do you know anyone who, in high school, was actually assigned William Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew’? I don’t; the ones that I was were “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Julius Caesar.” But because in the nineties, there was a trend to transform classics into updated teen movies, this less than popularly assigned one was also taken out of mothballs, dusted off and became “10 Things I Hate About You,” starring Julia Stiles and the late Heath Ledger. Brainstorming names of things can be tough, which may be why this title wound up being so clunky. (Yes, there’s a reason for it, but it’s not the kind of title that easily comes to memory.) The filmmakers might have taken a cue from the person who decided to shorten “Orthello” to “O,” another movie featuring Julia Stiles, but they decided to go with cumbersome title-wise as opposed to a name that could cause confusion when discussing it. Fortunately, the script and the performances are anything but.

“Ten Things I Hate About You,” features two actresses: Julia and Larisa Oleynik, who are playing sisters two years apart, but who are actually the same age. They also apparently each wanted the other’s role.  Anyway, Julia is the older bad-ass one who’s (gasp) a feminist, openly disdainful of her conformist peers and planning to attend Sarah Lawrence College next year which is all the way across the country. Like most siblings only a few years apart, Larisa is her polar opposite: an adorable dim bulb who is chafing at their father’s (Larry Miller) rule that she can only date when Julia decides to. Luckily for Larisa, an infatuated new student (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to hatch a plan which involves enlisting the school bad boy (Heath Ledger) to woo Julia. Surprisingly, Julia is not easy to woo, but Heath persists, and eventually, they begin to find common ground. Meanwhile, Joseph finds he has competition in the form of Andrew Keegan, who likes girls, but may only truly be in love with his own reflection.

It’s one of the cardinal teen movie rules that anyone who makes a bet is going to get not just found out, but publicly revealed for the callous jerk they really are. This happens here, after the high jinks are brought to a halt, the truth comes out, and as “Not Another Teen Movie,” puts it, valuable lessons are learned in life by all involved. According to the Internet Movie Database, the script was originally supposed to be darker with one character making references to suicide, but luckily, that was scrapped because it wouldn’t really have fit with the overall parodying tone (for example, the guidance counselor, played by Alison Janney, is “Ms. Perky”). So, to quote another Shakespeare play, for the characters of this movie, all’s well that ends well.

 

A Look Back: Pleasantville

Looking back at movies set a decade or so ago and featuring a young cast, it’s hard not to see at least one member and wonder where things went wrong later career-wise. However, “Pleasantville,” a movie starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, in which they are sucked out of their nineties present into a fifties-style TV sitcom, features two actors who managed to make a successful transition into an adult acting career without taking a detour into shoplifting, sex tapes or politically incorrect rants. (At least as far as I know.)

But back to the plot. How do their characters wind up in an alternate universe? Well, after a depressing day at school, Tobey intends to settle in on the couch and watch a marathon of his favorite show: “Pleasanville,” which is set in the fifties, a more idyllic time without high unemployment and global warming. However, his twin sister (Reese) wants the den for her own purposes (she has a date), and so the two teens have a heated argument over the remote control, only to break it. Fortunately, a repairman (Don Knotts) shows up unannounced, but no one cares at that point. However, he’s more than a little eccentric and winds up quizzing Tobey on the TV show “Pleasantville’s” statistics, which he knows cold, then as a “reward,” whisks the pair into the actual show itself. Suddenly, the two become the characters “Bud” and “Mary Sue,” with their parents being played by William H. Macy (the benevolent Father Knows Best patriarch) and his lovely homemaker wife, Joan Allen. Nor does anyone in Pleasantville notice anything different about the two teens.

Which of course, presents some problems because neither Tobey nor Reese wants to stay there permanently. (Getting back is not as simple as procuring a DeLorean here.) And Pleasantville is a strange place. For one thing, it’s in black and white, not color. For another, everyone is cheery and optimistic and wouldn’t know cynicism if it hit them in the face. And for a third, sex has yet to be invented (everyone sleeps in twin beds). The 90’s refugees soon decide that it’s best to play along until they can come up with a more viable plan to return to the present. So Reese is “Mary Sue,” who has a gaggle of giggly girl-pals and a cute boyfriend to whom she isn’t yet “pinned.” As “Bud,” Tobey plays on the school’s basketball team which never loses, not once, and works after school at a soda fountain shop run by the genial Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels). Jeff, a secretly frustrated artist, quickly gets tired of his job (“It’s the same every day!”) and turns to Tobey for help. He also begins to notice Joan for the first time.

Ii doesn’t take long before things start being altered drastically. Books begin to be filled in with actual words, rather than blank pages. A crowd gathers to gawk at the downtown store window with a bona fide double bed in it. A Lover’s Lane also appears and the teens who sneak out to it start changing into color. Actually, it’s the ability to feel passion, not just lust, that transforms the citizens of Pleasantville. Which unsurprisingly causes problems (there’s a parallel to more typical racism), but in the end, everyone realizes that change can be good. The “good old days” weren’t always as good as they actually were, and yes, it’s possible to OD on nostalgia.

Movie Review: The Danish Girl

In “Big Eyes,” a movie about artists that came out last winter, a woman painter (Amy Adams) is forced to deal with her conflicting emotions when her husband begins to take credit for her most popular works. “The Danish Girl,” which recently received several Oscar nominations, also explores the topic of professional jealousy in a two artist union, though that’s just the starting point for the drama to begin. When the movie opens in Amsterdam in the mid-1920’s, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) is deeply in love with her husband, Einar, (Eddie Redmayne) who’s also an artist, but feels overshadowed professionally. However, she’s told that she has the potential to be great – if only she can find the right subject. So back home she goes after her portraits are rejected determined to try yet again. They also hope to start a family, something that will cause problems in the near future.

When Alicia hits upon the idea of having Eddie serve as a female model for her paintings, the idea turns out surprisingly well, and her paintings start selling. Although he’s squeamish at first about the idea, Eddie soon takes to dressing up as a woman, even accompanying his wife out to public gatherings, as Cousin “Lili.” Because their set has a reputation for being bohemian (which is what I assumed because at first Eddie isn’t very convincing), no one bats an eye at this, and Lili finds herself with an admirer (Ben Wishaw), which doesn’t entirely repel Eddie. However pleased Alicia is with her professional success, she’s still understandably conflicted when her husband begins to claim that Lili is who he’s really meant to be. Even when doctors they consult begin to talk about “chemical imbalances,” (something still used to explain inexplicable behavior today), she insists on helping Eddie take steps to find a solution, and though she’s hardly pleased with the change, still is adamant that her husband is not insane.

As Eddie becomes more and more determined to be Lili, he paints less, which leads Alicia to meet with an art dealer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s a childhood friend of Eddie’s, also hoping to gain insight into her husband’s behavior.  And as Eddie meets a doctor who promises to try an experimental surgery that will change his gender, Alicia finds herself becoming attracted to Matthias. The stage is set for tragedy, but the movie does allow both Eddie and Alicia some happiness, even if it’s temporary.

Both Alicia and Kate Winslet (for “Steve Jobs”) have been nominated this year in the Best Actress Oscar category, and after watching “The Danish Girl,” I realized how much their roles have in common. Both play young women who have to deal with conflicting behavior from the man they care for. And despite friction throughout the movie, it’s clear how much their partner relies on them. There’s far less snark flying back and forth between Alicia and Eddie, of course, but they’re both, in the end, standing by their man roles. More or less anyway.

 

Oscar Nominations 2016

Oscar nominations for this year’s ceremony have recently been announced, so now it’s time to play “Why the heck was X nominated/snubbed?” In doing so, it’s easy to see that for every theory you may come up with, there’s always an exception. Still, between the view that the best actor (of either gender) wins because their performance is so moving that even non-movie criers choke up, and the belief that there are vendettas against certain directors, actors, etc. is the more moderate stance that talent plays a role, but so does luck and politics.

Making a movie that has a shot at being nominated for an Oscar can be like playing poker. Let’s say you’re holding a hand with three kings (say, British protagonist overcoming handicap in the World War II era), there still is a chance, however slim, that someone else will be holding a suit that trumps yours. However, if you won with three kings the year before, and again are holding the same hand, it’s likely that you won’t repeat your victory, at least not in the same category. The timing of your movie matters, along with a lot of factors that cannot be controlled.

However, taking the following into consideration while making your film won’t guarantee you’ll win an Oscar, but they may increase your odds.

1. Morally Un-Ambiguous Protagonist
A protagonist should have some kind of flaw or obstacle to overcome on the way to success, but he should also be a decent person at heart. Ideally, he should be imperfect, but not sociopathic.

2. Morally Un-Ambiguous Antagonist
A little ambiguity in your villain can be a good thing. But not too much. Note: an antagonist can be either a person or an issue. The Holocaust and slavery during the Civil War era are undeniably wrong. With the police or “the Establishment”, there is a bigger divide.

3. The Class Factor
Or: The Corset Factor

As many critics have noted, Hollywood loves to nominate period pieces. For one thing, it’s easy to pretend that all the issues raised have also gone firmly out of fashion, along with the clothes, and we are currently living in a more enlightened era. For another, it announces that you are a classy person yourself if you like these kinds of films, even if your secret favorite film of the year made you laugh so hard you squirted soda out of your nose.

4. The Gun Factor
Or: Enough With the Corsets Already Factor

Every now and then, Academy voters go rogue and nominate a film which harkens back to a time (or future) where men were men and did manly things without women getting in their way or even in the vicinity. Wars and the Wild West are two examples. But it also helps if these men are mostly Caucasian. It doesn’t take a sophisticated critic to note that white guys toting guns in movies are more likely to be more palatable to Oscar voters than non-white characters doing the same.  But whatever their skin color, the characters should be firmly on the side of justice.

5. The Last Year Factor
Or: Give Someone Else a Chance Already Factor

In which a well-regarded role or movie that resembles a recent Oscar-winner is bypassed. See above poker comparison.

6. The Catch Up Factor
Or: The Fairness Factor

In which an actor wins for a role that they technically should have won the year before, or say in an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio’s case, that they should have won multiple prior years. It may seem like some actors can get nominated playing a mute, while the odds are stacked against others for no discernible reason, but every now and then, there’s a curveball.

In both 5. and 6., the concept of fairness plays a role. Americans are generally big on the belief that if someone works hard enough, their effort will ultimately pay off. However, effort isn’t always rewarded at the right time and for the right reasons.

Are there exceptions to each of these generalizations? Absolutely. For example, “Black Mass” featuring lots of white guys with guns was snubbed this year. But then there was no real “hero” in the movie, just characters that were marginally less bad than others. And of course, talent does play a role, though sometimes not quite as big as it should.

A Look Back: Election

School elections, along with alcohol, sex and temporary new friends with issues, have traditionally been a great way for sitcom characters to learn life lessons. Usually, one of the main characters winds up running for office, but regardless of who it is, everyone learns that popularity shouldn’t count when it comes to electing a student body president, and that it should wind up being the best person for the job. In real life, at least when I was in school, popularity only played so much of a role – those elected were more or less in the middle of the spectrum. Also, not everyone chose to vote for an actual candidate, instead preferring to nominate someone who technically didn’t exist. (In my day, it was Bart Simpson.)

However, the 1999 movie “Election,” based on the book by Tom Perrotta, gets it right. Matthew Broderick plays a high school civics teacher who loves his job but runs into trouble when he tries, in the words of his antagonist, a student overachiever played by Reese Witherspoon, “to interfere with destiny.” Reese, who earlier had an affair with Matthew’s fellow teacher (Mark Harelik), rubs Matthew the wrong way because she is just so relentless in her quest to succeed. Perhaps because of this, or maybe as another character points out that no one really cares about elections, she is running unopposed for student body president. Still, she intends to campaign her eager little heart out, and while she does not sabotage anyone at first, you get the sense it might only be because she’s guaranteed to win.

However, this is not a movie where the adults have a firmer grasp on “ethics” and “morals,” the difference between which Matthew tries to teach his class. Mark’s character is described as becoming a teacher, “because he never wanted to leave high school,” and we soon realize that this also applies to Matthew. He likes being liked by his students, but every now and then, he gets one that makes him feel, well, inadequate. Dismayed that if Reese wins, they are going to be spending a lot of time together, he enlists an amiable jock (Paul Klein) to run opposite her. At first, Paul is daunted by doing so, but after Matthew gives him a pep talk using easily grasped metaphors like fruit, he gets into the spirit. Unfortunately, Paul’s younger sister (Jessica Campbell) decides to also run, for reasons she does not share with him, but have to do with her former friend going out with Paul. Jessica chooses to run on a platform of indifference and cynicism, and after she promises to abolish elections if she gets elected, soon has the whole school giving her a standing ovation. Surprisingly, this new challenge does not go over well with Reese.

It’s hard not to draw parallels to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” with Matthew now in the Mr. Rooney role, especially as his personal life begins to unravel as the election progresses. There’s a part where he shows up at school bedraggled, only to be offered a cupcake by Reese, which is reminiscent of the end scene in “Ferris,” where a girl on the school bus offers Mr. Rooney a gummi bear. Eventually, Matthew is forced to leave the school, but if you are expecting this to somehow alter his beliefs, you would be wrong. No one in the movie changes – for the better or for the worse – and since we’re privy to their inner thoughts, we know this for sure. It’s Paul’s character, who remains a genuinely nice guy throughout, who winds up far more satisfied with his life than either Reese or Matthew.  The black humor comes from the viewer realizing that the characters themselves don’t grasp that they haven’t changed. Inability to see one’s flaws isn’t a trait confined only to the young or the old here, and if there’s a “message,” it may just be that the ability to see the good in people may far outweigh one’s success in life than either ethics or morals.

A Look Back: The Insider

Watching the first ten minutes of “The Insider,” when it was first released, I experienced a sense of dislocation – because it opens with a blindfolded Al Pacino being driven through the bustling streets of some Middle East country and then attempting to interview a shah, which does not seem to be remotely related to the Big Tobacco controversy that is the subject of the film. Also, the other star, Russell Crowe, is nowhere to be found. But that’s there to established that Al’s character: real life 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman, is a man of integrity and principles – both of which will shortly be tested, not just by the shah, but by the controversy surrounding smoking, which hinges (at least in the movie) on the testimony of Russell’s character: real life research chemist and ex-Big Tobacco employee, Jeffrey Wigand.

Al seeks out Russell to help him make sense of some scientific-y documents that he has been mailed anonymously. He soon realizes that Russell, who has just been let go from his job, has a much bigger story – but he signed a confidentiality agreement, so he can’t openly talk about whatever it is, or he’ll lose his family’s health insurance. However, Al prevails – and the fact that Big Tobacco steps up the pressure to remain moot even before Russell has said anything of substance is also a factor.  So although one of his kids has severe asthma, and his wife (Diane Verona, who has the most thankless role in the movie) would prefer him to find another corporate job so they can remain in their McMansion, Russell does reveal that yes, Big Tobacco is trying to cover up that cigarettes are hazardous to your health. Not only that, but they lied under oath when testifying before Congress. And so Russell agrees to appear on 60 Minutes, in which he’s interviewed by Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer).

Most whistleblower movies focus on at least a couple of secondary characters who are directly affected by the controversy in question, but here the focus is on Russell and Al. Often, the whistleblower’s relationship with his/her loved ones is shown to be strained, including any love interests introduced in the film, but here, Russell winds up divorced, and Al’s faith in the people who work in his profession also takes a sound beating. Everyone runs into pressure from someone else in often dramatic ways, but in the end, the truth comes out.

I recently read a review of “Concussion,” that compared it unfavorably to “The Insider” in terms of drama. Indeed “The Insider,” has more amped up confrontation scenes; and there’s less of a sense that Will Smith’s life is directly in danger or that he’s going to lose his wife and children. But it may just be that in “The Insider,” you get the sense that several of the main characters are Acting (though doing a great job), whereas in “Concussion,” the actors interacting with Will give more restrained performances.  Or maybe it’s because as time goes on, even movies that were mocked when they first came out, like “Jobs,” acquire belated respect. Who knows? But “The Insider” does stand the test of time.