Mind Games and Benevolence
Reviews by Ken Burke
As this posting coincides with Valentine’s Day, I’ll send it out with hopes for love and happiness to everyone (in a relationship or not, because you should always love yourself at the very least, as PBS's Mr. Rogers encouraged for his neighborhood [more on him much farther below]) coupled to the good news that recuperation is continuing in the Burke/Kindblad (note slash rather than hyphen here, clarifying our hearts but not our names were joined about 32 years ago) convalescent ward as my wife, Nina, and I continue our slow recovery from fierce winter colds (hers has dragged on since New Years; she’s also dealing with intestinal and back pains, headaches, and for awhile a twisted ankle—as the old Morton’s Salt ad said [for those of you—like me—ancient enough to remember it]: “When it rains it pours”) so we haven’t gotten away from our Hayward, CA suburb lately for movie going, hence the locally-playing-fare for comments this week in the Two Guys reviews even as other options a bit father away continue to beckon with my hopes of reporting those to you by next week.
What Men Want (Adam Shankman) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Ali, a sports agent, works incessantly, is sure she’s ready to become the next partner in her competitive company, but with the male-dominated-business she's chosen such enhancement’s not destined to be hers yet; further, Ali's anger's barely assuaged by her boss telling her she doesn’t relate well to the men around her she’s competing with. This all changes after some wicked Caribbean tea and a bonk on the head leave her with the ability to read men’s minds which she attempts to put to immediate use in signing up a potential NBA star although she has to enhance her chances with the young man’s family-oriented-Dad by wrongfully claiming a guy she’s just met (who has a young son) is her husband. Further complications arise as her supernatural ability keeps her off-balance by offering her leverage unknown to the men around her yet getting her into deeper trouble as her plans don’t play out as she intended, finally resulting in her learning some difficult lessons about herself and how best to approach important relationships. There’s a lot of easy humor in this movie as well as a winning performance from Taraji P. Henson as the increasingly-conflicted mind reader, although the difficulties ultimately find a wealth of easy solutions as this is intended to be a crowd-pleasing-comedy with a solid dose of romance (as well as some energetic sex) thrown in to offer a useful Valentine’s Day choice after the major difficulties have been resolved. This one’s cute, funny, has some unexpected turns, and it's likely easy to find, playing in almost 3,000 North American venues.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
However, this is a Red Band trailer with heavy doses of the movie’s R-rated dialogue so
if your ears would prefer something a little more sanitized here’s another option for you:
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Alison "Ali" Davis (Taraji P. Henson) is a hard-driven Atlanta sports agent working for SWM, a huge firm where company meetings seem to barely contain only 1 other female along with a slim assortment of men of color among all that White testosterone around a long table. Raised by her father, Skip Davis (Richard Roundtree)—owner/trainer of a local boxing gym—she likely picked up from him the attitude of not alllowing herself to trust others, instead vigorously pursuing whatever she's after because everyone else is likely to be in it only for themselves, a bitterness he acquired when Ali’s mother left them some unspecified-long-time-ago. She’s accomplished at her job (although as Nick [Brian Bosworth], her boss, later notes none of her clients are in the NBA, NFL, or MLB so she’s not generally perceived as being as successful in this field as she feels herself to be), determined as our story begins she’s about to be promoted to partner (an assumption she proudly shares with her gay [that becomes somewhat relevant later] assistant, Brandon Wallace [Josh Brener]) only to be passed over for Eddie (Chris Witaske), someone she sees as less qualified, assuming she’s been blackballed (so to speak) by Kevin (Max Greenfield)—a colleague she doesn’t like—because partner elections require a unanimous vote. As she later rants her frustrations to Nick he tells her she doesn’t relate well with men (a huge problem in that workplace), so she storms away, later telling Dad of her frustrations while plotting to somehow convince likely NBA #1 draft pick Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie) to become her client, thereby quieting all those concerns. After dinner with Dad, she hangs around the bar, flirting with bartender Will (Aldis Hodge), goes back to his place for sex (wears him out as she’s so aggressive, then she dozes off), runs out quickly the next morning when she discovers he has a young son, Ben (Auston Jon Moore), angrily assuming Will’s married when she sees a photo of a woman. Her primary task that day is to meet with Jamal, his father/manager Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan), and Nick, although her prestige is shaken a bit when Brandon pulls a used condom off the back of her jacket, even as she attempts to turn on the charm to little avail with “show me the money” Joe.
However, everything changes for Ali that night at a bachelorette party with her 3 close friends (about all she’s got time for) when she has a private session with a psychic the bride-to-be recruited from somewhere in the vicinity with flamboyant Sister (Erykah Badu) giving Ali a special tea from Haiti (spiked with marijuana and ecstasy). Later that same night while dancing at a club she accidently gets hit on the head, wakes up the next day in a hospital where she can suddenly hear what the doctor’s thinking (shockingly about drinking, using cocaine on the job). This new-found-ability overwhelms her, with a cacophony of male thoughts running through her brain due to every man she passes (surprisingly for this R-rated-script there are few remarks throughout the rest of this story about random sexual attraction to this very alluring woman, which may serve the script’s purposes but doesn’t relate all that well to how most men would immediately respond to such a woman, at least in my experience [Damn! I forgot that Nina reads all of these reviews. Sweetie, this is all hypothetical, not specific!]) so she locates Sister at a tiny strip mall, wants release from this overwhelming distraction but is convinced by her it’s the power she needs to conquer the insider-male-advantages at SWM, starting with a secret poker game she learns the location of that night, shows up, starts raking in the chips because she knows what cards the other players hold, but lets Joe take a big pot so he’ll be more open to her at tomorrow’s meeting about his son (she also asserts herself with a big, friendly stud at her apartment house but runs away when she finds he’s into big-time S&M [with him ready for her control but it’s not the kind of power she’s at all interested in]). At the meeting with Joe and Jamal the next day the SWM guys show a horribly sexual video intended to entice the kid although he’s appalled by it so Ali jumps in to spontaneously save the day, then when Joe talks about how family’s the most important thing for him Ali quickly makes up a story about being married when she sees Will and Ben looking for her, followed by her inviting all of them to an Atlanta Hawks basketball game (SWM has a luxury box), the team Jamal ideally would like to play for (in the real world those Hawks would need his help, given their current 19-38 record).
⇒Ali continues reading men’s minds for her advantage but while having conversation—in addition to sex—with Will she learns he’s a widower, also accepts his request to slow down so they can really connect with each other. All seems to be going well until the shocking announcement Eddie’s gone solo, set up Jamal for a huge contract to play in China, so Ali’s lambasted by Nick for not closing her deal (the only good thing in the office is she’s managed to connect Brandon with Danny [Pete Davidson]) after which Ali confesses her “marriage” ruse to Will, so he angrily leaves. Trying to purge herself of her demons, Ali blurts out the truth at her friend’s wedding about how the almost-husband cheats while Ali’s other friend’s hubby is a closeted gay getting blow jobs at the golf course; a fight ensues, Ali gets hit with a metal vase, wakes up with her mind-reading-power gone. After all that, everything previously wrong finally gets righted as Ali apologizes to her friends for the trouble she’s caused (although they begrudgingly admit their men’s situations needed to be exposed, yet they still accept her offer of perpetually paying for Monday margarita night), she also meets privately with Jamal and encourages him to follow his heart so he passes up China for the NBA draft where he’s taken by the Hawks, Eddie sheepishly comes back to SWM without his partnership which is given to Ali but she shocks everyone by announcing she’s going independent, Kevin’s (who never was her adversary, she learns in a surprise conversation with him) going with her, as is Brandon who’s also going to be an agent (after Ali consistently telling him earlier he didn’t have the killer instinct for such a career, but his knowledge of sports is immense); of course, the real anticipated good news is that she also makes up with Will at Ben’s birthday party where she brings the kid her promised sports-car-shaped-cake, so everything once in crisis comes to a welcome conclusion, as we’ve assumed it would be all along despite the previously-mounting-problems.⇐
So What? (Before I get started here, let me note that despite this movie having an almost 2-hour running time the theater I saw it in honored me with an additional 25 min. of previews [actual trailers, not all that other blathering filler now preceding them in many locations] so if your local chain does the same you may not have to rush all that much to get there on time.) What Men Want has frequently been described as a remake to What Women Want (Nancy Myers, 2000) in which misogynistic, dirtbag advertising executive Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson; typecasting before his type was fully known?) falls into a bathtub holding a hairdryer with the electrocution somehow giving him the ability to read women’s minds which he first attempts to use for his own workplace betterment but eventually comes to appreciate the underserved lower status of women in the world, turning into a rather decent dude after losing his special ability in a lightning storm, making reparations with his female boss (Helen Hunt) and teenage daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson). While critical response was tepid (Rotten Tomatoes had 54% positive reviews, Metacritic offered a 47% average score) the worldwide gross was marvelous—$374 million—easily paying back its $70 million budget. Basically, Gibson’s character was an asshole until he began to show some humility leading to humanity by the story’s end. However, director Shankman insists What Men Want is not a remake but instead a "reimagining" where Ali's considerably different in motivation and actions from Marshall, although she shares the tendency to manipulate everything for her own purposes—yet, as she points out (correctly) to Nick, if she were a man her “me first” actions would be applauded rather than despised by the males in her company. In that sense we have a more complex character here in What Men Want because she’s trying (unsuccessfully until the well-expected-end) to succeed in a (chauvinistic at best, sexist more likely) environment where any successes are chalked up to unwelcomed bitchiness while failures count more heavily against her than is the case with her male colleagues, yet she’s the one with the problem because her actions don’t allow her to “relate to men,” even as those same men seem intimidated by her aggressiveness. There’s a lot of potential here for a more probing look at gender complexities in the workplace, but that’s not where this script wants to go, aiming instead for humorous profanity and slapstick even as Henson continues to shine throughout in a role where she’s forced to be alternately assertive and befuddled.
Bottom Line Final Comments: While Nina’s not been too enthused about going out anywhere for anything in recent weeks, she was quite willing to make the effort for this movie given her appreciation (mine too) for the talented Ms. Henson who can go from underappreciated math whiz helping to get the Mercury astronaut program off the ground in Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2017; review in our January 4, 2017 posting) to bossy Cookie Lyon in FOX TV’s Empire. She’s quite a force to be reckoned with no matter what she’s playing, including here as a woman whose assertiveness is read as hostile aggression but whose inner fears of failure keep her from making sincere emotional investments rather than calculated business strategies. While the whole movie has a generally delightful tone (despite its collective critical dismissal with 46% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, an unusual, slightly-higher response of a 49% average score from Metacrtic; more details in the Related Links section much farther below) with a lot of well-developed, well-performed scenes sometimes venturing into the realm of the acceptably absurd with the not-for-social-media-sharing-thoughts from men Ali either knows or just casually encounters, there sure are a lot of professional/interpersonal complications easily resolved once Ali takes on the burden of having been the one making her life into such a mess although circumstances (as well as needed truth, even when extremely uncomfortable to reveal) often put her in difficult positions few would have had the wisdom to approach in any manner better than how Ali handled herself, especially with her career on the line (at least if she ever wanted to advance rather than just cruise along at a marginally-acceptable-but-never-improving-manner) trying to bring Jamal into the ever-escalating-SWM-collective where she kept him on board before the China decision despite being chastised for not being enough of a team player. So, overall, I found What Men Want to be quite entertaining—even if overly familiar, as with The Lego Movie 2 … to be reviewed just below—just not something that seems to deliver more than I expected (Nina’s quite pleased with it, though, so the bargain-matinee-afternoon was well spent; overall, audiences were on her wavelength with about $18.2 million in receipts from domestic [U.S.-Canada] theaters on opening weekend, approaching its $20 million production budget). As always, I’ll end with a Musical Metaphor to give us one last consideration of this movie, choosing here Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” (from his 1970 album of the same name) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAedY3NucEs because in reading others’ thoughts Ali comes to realize about herself, for awhile at least, “I never thought I could feel this way And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it I don’t know where [I] went wrong But the feeling’s gone And I just can’t get it back [… although] You’d know that I’m just trying to understand,” which she finally does when all her trials ultimately, comfortably fall into place for her.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)
Return if you wish to the fantastic world of LEGO inter-connectable toys that come to life with ever-upbeat Emmet about the only one still hopeful in the remnants of Bricksburg, assaulted by alien marauders for many years as the next crisis is Batman whisked off to marry the alien queen, with Emmet’s love, Lucy, taken also, sending him on a rescue quest. It’s fast, funny, but oh-so-familiar.
Here’s the trailer:
Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
In the original version of The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014; review in our February 24, 2014 posting; huge success with $469 million worldwide gross, RT 95% positive reviews, MC 83% average score) we eagerly watched eternally-optimistic, coffee-swigging Emmet Brickowski (voice of Christ Pratt) save the day in LEGO-constructed Bricksburg, surrounded by a huge cast, most notably his eventual-girlfriend, Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), and Batman (Will Arnett), only to learn at the end all the adventures of these tiny-brick-built-characters and their surroundings came from the imagination of young Finn (Jadon Sand), whose unsanctioned play with his obsessive father’s (Will Farrell) LEGOs almost resulted in the disastrous (for the toys) decision to make everything permanent with superglue. Dad backed down from that threat, though, allowing Finn full access to his prized, sprawling LEGOs world. We’re reminded of that in a brief scene at the beginning of this sequel, with the (possibly) ominous reminder Finn’s sister Bianca (Brooklyn Prince) would also be welcome to play. From there we’re back to the computer-animated-world of Bricksburg as it’s attacked frequently over the next 5 years by aliens from planet Duplo (another connecting-brick-product from the LEGO company) who leave the place a near-wasteland renamed Apocalypseburg, although Emmet’s still smiling (despite troubling dreams of a final disaster, Our-Mom-Ageddon). Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) head off to nullify these invaders but aren’t heard from again. Then, General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives one day to carry off Batman to the Systar System to marry Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), which Mayhem does, scooping up Lucy and others in the process. Emmet rebuilds his broken little dream house into a spaceship to rescue Lucy and their friends (with some shots clearly showing outer space planets and stars as cardboard held up by ribbons), encounters turbulence, only to be helped by dashing adventurer Rex Dangervest (also Pratt)—an Indiana Jones-like-swaggernaut—we later learn is Emmet from the future, time-traveled back to help his present self toughen up. ⇒Upon reaching Duplo, Emmet finds pop-music-brainwashing has mesmerized all the Bricksburg captives (including loner-Batman, now eager to wed the Queen) except Lucy. Emmet “mans up,” determined to stop the wedding while Lucy learns these aliens aren’t enemies after all, just misunderstood in their peacemaking attempts. Chaos resulting from Emmet’s actions returns us to our world where Finn and Bianca are fighting, causing Mom (Maya Rudolph) to insist all the LEGOs be put in garage storage boxes. Lucy rallies the toys, though, as she and Emmet eventually vanquish Rex, peace is restored (between the real siblings also), Batman weds the Queen, so once again everything’s awesome in LEGOland.⇐
However, this sequel’s not fully capturing that previous magic as well just yet, with a bit lower 85% cluster of positive RT reviews, a much lower 65% MC average score, plus a solid-but-weaker-than-anticipated-box-office-response so far with $54.7 million gross worldwide (against a $100 million budget and more in distribution/marketing) in its debut weekend ($36.2 million domestically). Rebecca Rubin claims this results from less appeal to older audiences due to weariness from a couple of previous LEGO spinoffs (impacts kids as well); I agree it’s a case of already being conditioned to the avalanche of pop-culture-references from the original, feeling like I’ve already seen enough of this (expertly-animated, I admit) franchise’s approach, not being all that impacted by the simplistic situation of the story’s resolution ⇒(seemingly Bianca wanted Finn to be more of a macho guy then regretted the trouble she caused by wanting this personality change, made peace with him, although she seems to be more the persona behind Queen Wa’Nabi than Lucy [unless she’s both?] so I’m not fully clear how it’s all supposed to be understood—or maybe I’m just looking for more rationale here than is needed).⇐ Certainly the pace is constant enough to keep you from getting bored, there are plenty of pop-culture-jokes to keep adults amused (including Lucy coming upon Bruce Willis in Die Hard [John McTiernan, 1988]-mode while crawling through some ductwork) while the kids are being distracted by the action (maybe also becoming ambivalent about Batman wanting to get married, undermining his popular brooding appeal), and the whole experience is an acceptable continuation of these forays into the LEGO universe, but overall I’m ready to put it all back into storage. I’ve leave you with the Musical Metaphor of “Everything’s Not Awesome” (from the movie’s soundtrack album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4BXikJi7c8 in which Lucy admits the events of the story are deteriorating from their anticipated resolutions but she counters with determination it can all be made whole again through enough concentrated effort (“Things can’t be awesome all of the time It’s not realistic expectation But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try […] We should maybe aim for not bad ‘Cause not bad, well that would be real great Everything is better when we stick together”). That kind of more-plausible-upbeat-expectation sounds like it could have been inspired by Finn’s vague awareness in his younger days of Mr. Rogers (regarding Bianca, “Won’t you cheer up and be my sister?”), so let’s finish by talking about Fred for just a bit.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)
Here’s the trailer:
Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
I merely traveled to the living room to see this one on HBO because I missed it during the theatrical release last summer, although upon watching it now I’d choose it as my favorite feature documentary for the Oscars even though it—surprisingly—didn’t get nominated (of the ones that did I’ve seen only RBG [Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018; review in our May 17, 2018 posting], so those other 4 must really be knockouts). This is a biography of Fred Rogers’ life on public TV doing preschool-children’s-programming from the early 1950s at Pittsburgh, PA’s WQED to his famous PBS series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001), taking us to his death from stomach cancer in 2003. Even though I’ve fallen away from Christianity over the years (not for any other religion, though), the sincere work this ordained Presbyterian minister (lifelong Republican also) offered to young children (as well as adults not cynical enough to simply laugh off his wholesome image) is the sort of “good works” I truly admire among those who find value in their faith. While this doc is as simple and straightforward as Rogers’ show was in offering positive messages to his decades of enchanted viewers it becomes very emotionally moving as he (subtly) “preaches” love, compassion, understanding ⇒(even about subjects difficult for children to deal with such as the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy, the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, divorce, the sadness of feeling different or inadequate).⇐ His continuing message of “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are,” supported by puppetry, music, honest talk about accepting and supporting each other make this a marvelous message to watch in this era of sociopolitical turmoil, even if I’m months late in getting to the party (other weren’t; this film grossed over $22 million domestically, making it the all-time-champ for biodocs), despite the high critical praise I should have noted (RT 98% positive reviews, MC 85% average score). All I can say further if you haven’t seen it yet is to seek it out via some video-delivery-method (ironically, the night I saw it on HBO it was also on my local PBS station at the same time, although slotted for a half-hour longer than the actual 93-min.-running-time, so I assume [necessary] pledge breaks were included) while I leave you with the appropriate Musical Metaphor of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” (from their 1967 Magical Mystery Tour album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A8s OOKianA (along with this rehearsal for how the song was introduced as part of a 1967 live, worldwide TV broadcast) about which there’s also nothing else needed to say as I conclude this Valentine’s Day posting (with much love to Nina, for being who she is and for her ongoing recovery).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2018’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 24, 2019 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2018 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2018 along with the Oscar nominees for 2018 films.
Here’s more information about What Men Want:
https://www.paramount.com/movies/what-men-want (one of the least useful official movie sites you’ll ever encounter; no wonder Paramount’s having problems these days)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gqPDKLbk8g (a very short [3:41] interview with actor Taraji P. Henson [another indication of the pathetically insufficient promotion program Paramount’s concocted for this movie], audio’s a bit low in this clip)
Here’s more information about The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fIDZZKMDOQ (8:55 video on Top 10 things you missed in this movie)
Here’s more information about Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cthb3_PW-Zg (12:09 video on 10 nostalgic moments with Mr. Rogers, which includes aspects of the documentary [interrupted by ads])
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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