|Films I Neglected To Review: Trouble
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Force of Nature," "Four Kids and It," "John Lewis: Good Trouble" and "Suzi Q."
Since there is generally a period of months between the time when a movie is produced and when it is released, there is always the possibility that the cultural winds may shift drastically during that gap that could transform a project from being foolproof to virtually untenable. However, with the possible exception of "Can't Stop the Music," the heavily hyped 1980 Village People spectacular that wound up landing in theaters just as the market for disco music was crashing, I cannot readily think of another film that fails to read the current state of the cultural room as spectacularly as "Force of Nature." though it is hard to imagine that anyone could have thought it even remotely palatable when it first went into production. This is a film that not only tells a story centered on a couple of violent, hotheaded, racially insensitive and generally objectionable cops--both of whom have had their careers derailed as a result of interference by members of the public interfering with their work--who eventually help to save the day as brutally as possible, but has the sheer nerve to fill one of those roles with none other than Mel Gibson himself. The film is set in San Juan, Puerto Rico just as a massive hurricane is about to hit and disgraced police officer Cordillo (Emile Hirsch) is sent off against his will with new partner Pena (Stephanie Cayo) to find would-be holdouts and get them to shelter before the storm hits. After arresting one man, Griffin (Will Catlett), the two agree to take the man back to his apartment building so that he can feed his pet and this leads them to try to get two other residents to leave, a reclusive old German (Jorge Luis Ramos) and Ray (Gibson), a cantankerous and ill former cop who refuses to budge, despite the entreaties of his doctor daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth). It is at this point that a group of ruthless thieves, led by a Puero Rican guy named John (David Zayas) who are looking for something in the German's apartment and will stop at nothing to get it, transforming the film into a bizarre hybrid of "Die Hard" and "Key Largo" with a few bloody chunks of "Tiger King" thrown in for good measure.
To address the biggest elephant in the room first, Gibson turns out to be arguably both the best and the worst thing about the film. On the one hand, he is pretty much the only person involved with the whole enterprise who actually seems to be making something resembling an effort with his performance as the unapologetically loathsome Ray--for good or for ill, he still possesses the raw charisma that made him a instant worldwide movie star back in the day. On the other, his basic presence is so overwhelmingly toxic that to try to position him as a hero--even one as flawed as the one he portrays here--ends up casting a pall on the proceedings whenever he is on the screen, especially when the screenplay begins to nudge his character to something resembling redemption. (At least in "Dragged Across Concrete," the previous film in which he played a violent and morally indefensible cop, his character was basically seen as being throughly unrepentant throughout and his half-hearted stabs at repentance at the end were presented as being too little too late.) The rest of the film is pretty awful as well--it haphazard work that tries to combine incongruous action film beats with a near-celebration of the lighter side of white male rage and plot points so deranged that it almost feels as if director Michael Polish and screenwriter Cory M. Miller are trying to transform the material into self-parody. (In the most astonishing sequence, Griffin, who is African-American, delivers a long monologue about how he was assaulted by police officers, received a big cash settlement from the police department because of his injuries and now feels guilt about accepting the money because he feels that he did nothing to truly earn it.) In case you are wondering, that is indeed the same Michael Polish who began his career with such quirky indie films as "Twin Falls Idaho," "Jackpot," "Northfork" and "The Astronaut Farmer" and who has lately been doing a lot of forgettable junk, though none of it as haphazardly constructed and incompetently executed as this film. Granted, the mere presence of Mel Gibson in the cast will mean that a lot of people will not even bother with "Force of Nature" in the first place but considering how terrible the rest of it is, it could be argued that he is actually doing those people a favor by keeping them away from an exceptionally lousy movie.
According to IMDb, Michael Caine has appeared in over 176 projects covering virtually every conceivable genre with the possible exception of the Western. Because of this, the notion of Caine appearing in the movie in which he supplies the voice to a grumpy sand creature who grants short-lived wishes to a group of annoying little kids via what can only be described as magical indigestion is not all that shocking--frankly, it is more surprising to learn that he had not already played such a role at some earlier point. And yet, while it is clear right from the outset that Caine's participation in the U.K. children's fantasy "Four Kids and It" is little more than an easy paycheck gig for him--one that affords him slightly more dignity than the likes of "Blame It on Rio" or "Jaws: The Revenge," if only because he is never actually seen on the screen—he proves to be the only real point of interest in this otherwise bland and lackluster story. Based on the YA fantasy story by Jacqueline Wilson, itself a contemporary riff on the beloved E. Nesbit Edwardian-era story "Five Children and It," the film begins as a newly dating pair of recent divorcees decide to set off for a week's vacation at the Cornish seashore with their children--amiably goofy Brit David (Matthew Goode) brings bookish Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and videogame-obsessed Robbie (Billy Jenkins) while newly transplanted American Alice (Paula Patton) arrives with the perpetually grumpy tween Smash (Ashley Aufderheide) and the eternally winsome moppet Maudie (Ella-Maw Siame). Alas, the kids have no idea about any of this and when they are all brought together for the first time as a "surprise," it does not go well. Eventually, the four all wind up on a remote section of beach where they make the acquaintance of a Psammead (Caine), a creature that lives in the sand and looks like the result of a tryst between E.T. and one of Dr. Suess's rough drafts. It turns out the creature can grant a wish a day, though said wish only lasts until sunset and then leaves the person high and dry. As the kids go through their wishes while trying to keep the creature a secret, Ros tries to formulate a wish that will not only reunite her dad with the mom that left them to find herself but will last longer than a single day.
Although I have not actually either of the books that have inspired this film, what I have read about them suggests that they were smart and reasonably nuanced tales that offered up light moral lessons with a quirky sense of humor that never became overly pedantic. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Andy De Emmony's film, which essentially reduces the entire thing to a series of less-than-inspiring fantasies and adventures that eventually boil down to the single moral of "be careful what you wish for." Admittedly, I am several decades away from being the target audience for this kind of story, but I find it hard to believe that younger viewers will get much out of it either. The story is not especially engaging, the kids are colorless at best and obnoxious at worst (Smash is so off-putting from the get-go that even when she finally learns to straighten up and stop being so bratty and self-absorbed, you'll still find yourself cringing every time she appears on screen), the slapstick (mostly courtesy of the inexplicable inclusion of Russell Brand as a weirdo who is also hunting for the Psammead) is more dumb than amusing as it tries to add a touch of "Home Alone" to the proceedings, the fantastical elements (ranging from learning to fly to a brief stab at tween-pop stardom) will hardly impress anyone who has seen the Harry Potter films and even when seen from the comfort of home, the 109-minute running time will have most kids squirming long before it finally comes to its blandly heartwarming conclusion. The only scene in "Four Kids and It" that rings true comes right at the beginning as Ros, who dreams of one day being a writer, stocks up for her vacation by rummaging the aisles of a used bookstore and picking up classics like "Charlotte's Web" to read. Trust me, doing that, regardless of your age, would be an infinitely more intelligent and inspired use of your time than watching this film.
If there is anyone out there who is truly worthy of being the subject of a documentary at this particular moment in time, it is John Lewis. As an leader of the civil rights movement, he helped to lead the fight against segregation and the suppression of black voters and as a 17-term congressman, he continues to fight those battles to this day. His extraordinary life, which took him from the Alabama farm where he grew up as the son of sharecroppers to the corridors of power in Washington DC, is chronicled in "John Lewis: Good Trouble, a new documentary by Dawn Porter that mixes together contemporary and archival material that is further bolstered by interviews with the man himself as well as the likes of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is cited by all of them as an inspiration for their own endeavors. Rather than using a more straightforward chronological unfolding of Lewis’s life and accomplishments, Porter has arranged the material in a more thematic order that helps to underscore how the struggles of the past continue on to this day and how his determination to fight them has not faded at all over time. In another intriguing gambit that winds up paying off, Porter has taken pieces of archival material, some of which Lewis admits to having never seen before, and screens it for him, capturing his immediate reactions to the footage and the memories they inspire. The only section of the film that does not quite work is the one that covers his initial run for Congress in 1986, a controversial campaign that found him running against his old friend and fellow civil rights activist Julian Bond and deploying a couple of controversial gambits to help secure the win--instead of using this as a springboard for an extended discussion about the compromises that even the most idealistic of people are forced to make in the name of politics, it just dangles like an especially frustrating loose end. Beyond that hiccup, "John Lewis: Good Trouble" is a solid look at the life and work of a genuine American hero, a man whose innate bravery, spirit and noble grace is needed now more than ever.
Although she has sold more than 55 million records throughout the world--emphasis on "the world"--Detroit-born rock musician Suzi Quatro remains little more than a cult figure in her home country and is probably best remembered for her recurring role as Leather Tuscadero during a couple of seasons of "Happy Days" than for her own music. Liam Firmager's documentary "Suzi Q" aims to address that injustice by recounting her story in a way shows her as a true musical pioneer whose groundbreaking, if often overlooked, efforts helped pave the way and influence everyone from Joan Jett and Blondie to Madonna and the Riot Grrl movement. At the same time it celebrates her long-running career, which continues to this day and which has seen her dabbling in everything from writing poetry to musical theater, the film also deals with more somber material including long-simmering resentments involving her family (her first musical endeavors involved a couple of girl groups with her sisters that were left behind when she was signed to a solo contract in 1971) to industry sexism (including one especially appalling clip from a British talk show appearance where the host literally has her turn around so that he can pat her ass) to the question of why she never quite made it as a star in her home country despite possessing the combination of talent, looks, catchy tunes and commanding stage presence that should have made her a megastar. For the devoted fan base, the film is an indispensable treasure trove of fascinating archival clips, present-day interviews with Quatro, her family and such friends/acolytes as Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth, Cherie Currie, Kathy Valentine and Alice Cooper (who gave her some of her greatest exposure in the US when she was picked as the opening act for his "Welcome to My Nightmare" tour in 1975) and, of course, such favorite tunes as "Can the Can," "Daytona Demon" and the still-slamming "48 Crash." For those who have never been exposed to her or her music before, "Suzi Q" should prove to be an eye-and-ear-opening look at the life and career of a performer whose contributions to the history of rock music should be better known and whose combination of musical chops and defiant attitude (especially when seen on stage wielding a bass guitar that is practically as big as she is as though it were nothing) should send them off to download as much of her music as they can as soon as the film ends, if not before.
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originally posted: 07/02/20 13:14:15
last updated: 07/02/20 13:41:44