|Films I Neglected To Review: "Receive What Cheer You May"
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Borrego," "Hotel Transylvania: Transformia," "Shattered" and, at long last, "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
"Barrego" is a film that tries to be a serious and searing indictment of the breadth of the current drug problem and those who are touched by it and a gripping thriller about a typical drug run that goes spectacularly wrong with all sorts of fatal consequences for most of those involved but can't quite pull off either one. After a series of title cards informing us as to the widespread consequences of drugs like fentanyl, we head out to the Borrego Springs desert area in Southern California where Elly (Lucy Hale), a botanist with a troubled past, is investigating the presence of a flower in the desert that should not logically be there. She is just about to head back from the desert to her motel one night when she witnesses the crash of an ultralight plane and when she goes to investigate, she is taken hostage by pilotTomas (Leynar Gomez), who has just gone down with a load of pills that he was taking from Mexico to the Salton Sea. As a way of staying alive, Elly volunteers to guide him to the drop-off point and the two set off on foot to traverse the roughly 50 miles of rough terrain, eventually growing to bond unexpectedly along the way. As they make their journey, they are pursued by Guillermo (Jorge Jimenez), the cartel middleman who needs to get his hands on the pills or else he will be in serious trouble from his bosses. Pursuing all of them is Sheriff Jose (Nicholas Gonzalez), the only lawman in the area who slowly begins to piece together that something big is happening, and his spunky teenage daughter Alex (Olivia Trujillo), who just happened to meet and befriend Elly the day before and who is determined to find her as well.
Written and directed by Jesse Harris, "Borrego" is a film that clearly yearns to be taken seriously but never comes close to earning it. The two different narrative approaches fail to come together effectively and the result feels like a standard-issue and highly derivative thriller that had some additional somber elements tacked on in a misguided effort to give it some kind of dramatic weight without ever actually earning it. The thriller elements do not work either because there is a notable lack of tension to the proceedings--especially during the long and meandering middle section--and though each of the characters are given a moment where we are meant to embrace their complexity, none of them prove to be especially interesting despite the Herculean efforts of the cast to make something out of their cliched roles. Additionally, by shifting the focus from the drug dilemma to making it a story about whether Elly will survive her encounter with these drug-dealing Mexicans, the story cannot help but come across as seeming slightly racist in its telling. In the end, though, "Borrego" is a film that sounds like a potentially compelling story in theory but which is undone by a flat and listless execution that makes watching it seem almost as tedious as spending a couple of days wondering around in the desert.
Although hardly masterworks of contemporary feature animation, the first three films in the "Hotel Transylvania" franchise proved to be perfectly decent family entertainments with plenty of goofiness and slapstick to keep the kids entertained and just enough style and wit--mostly due to the contributions of writer-director Genndy Tartakovsky and the surprisingly droll vocal turn by Adam Sandler as a Dracula more concerned with being a good dad to beloved daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) than in drinking blood--to make the experience reasonably endurable for parents and older siblings as well. Alas, neither of those two have turned up for the purported finale to the series, "Hotel Transylvania: Transformia" (though Tartakovsky does retain a co-writing credit) and their absence can be felt right from the start. As this one starts, Drac (now voiced by Brian Hull) is planning to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his hotel by turning it over to Mavis and her doofy human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) but when Johnny overhears this and begins making odd plans for the place, Drac panics and says that there is a bylaw that says that the place cannot be run by a human. Chagrined, Johnny runs off to bumbling Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), who just happens to have invented a machine that can transform humans into monsters and one zap later, he has been transmogrified into a bizarre beast. When he learns what has happened, Drac--along with pals Frankenstein (Brad Abrell, filling in for Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), invisible man Griffin (David Spade) and mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key)--tries to set things right but the machine ends up turning them all into humans, kicking off a trek to the Amazon in search of a cure that will turn everyone back to normal before the various switches become permanent. Wackiness, at least in theory, ensures.
The resulting film may well indeed amuse younger and less discriminating viewers--it is fast, noisy and colorful enough to servers a distraction--but older viewers who enjoyed the more offbeat qualities of the previous installments will probably find this go-around to be a fairly tiresome endeavor whose most notable quality is that it is slightly better than "Sing 2." For the most part, however, this is a lazy work that is more comfortable with riding on the coattails and goodwill of the previous installments than in generating any of its own. It looks the same as its predecessors and Hull and Abrell certainly do their damndest to try to sound like Sandler and James but it too often feels like a cheapo TV spinoff than anything else. As for the returning players, they all seem to be simply going through the motions this time around and the lack of inspiration can be felt in virtually every frame. Outside of serving as a streaming babysitter for kids over the long holiday weekend, "Hotel Transylvania: Transformia" is a mostly pointless waste of time that is notable only for perhaps being the only time that I have ever finished watching a movie and thought to myself "This could have used some more Adam Sandler."
Once a cinematic staple back in the day, the erotic thriller has been all but defunct in recent years, mostly due to the general desexualization of most American films these days. Therefore, the arrival of a film like "Shattered" that overtly tries to evoke the sleazy charms of that bygone genre may inspire some excitement among those hoping that it will herald a new golden age for followers of software smuttiness. Alas, the resulting hybrid of "Fatal Attraction" and "Misery" is so embarrassingly tepid that it makes last year's equally flaccid "Voyeurs" look like "Body Heat" by comparison. As the film opens, our hero, recently cashed-out tech millionaire Chris (Cameron Monaghan) is living alone in his remote mansion following his recent separation from his wife (Sasha Luss) and adorable moppet daughter (Ridley Asha Bateman) when a late-night wine run allows him to have a Meet Cute in a grocery store with sexy blonde Sky (Lilly Krug). One thing leads to another and before too long, life is an extended session of vaguely steamy activity that is interrupted only briefly when he has his leg broken by a guy trying to break into his car. No problem as Sky is willing to stick around and nurse him back to health using methods that Patch Adams thankfully never considered. Not counting the injury, this all sounds too good to be true, like a cross between "JAMA" and "Penthouse Forum," and before too long, Chris discovers that there is a bit of a downside to it all when Sky eventually reveals her true colors and intentions towards him.
To cut to the chase for those whose potential interest in seeing "Shattered" extends only to the quality and quantity of what are typically referred to as The Good Parts, I must report that they come up short in both areas since none of the relatively few sex scenes on display are especially memorable or erotic--oddly enough, the longest sustained amount of nudity on display comes from an utterly extraneous display of naked yoga that does not involve any of the principal players. Those whose interests are slightly more elevated will be equally disappointed by what is on display here. The screenplay by uberhack David Loughrey (how else to describe the author of such “classics” as "Star Trek V," "Obsession," "The Intruder" and "Fatale"?) is a shallow collection of cliches in which every would-be plot twist can be easily called well in advance and Luis Prieto's direction does little to enliven the material. As for the leads, both are certainly attractive enough but are both so dull that they somehow fail to make an impression even when they are standing around naked. Frankly, the only vaguely mysterious thing about the film is the series of circumstances that led to no less a figure than John Malkovich to appear as its equivalent to Stanley Roper--a landlord character who turns up for a couple of scenes to lech around before meeting an untimely yet ludicrous end. Although there is not a single moment in which Malkovich suggests that he is doing anything other than cashing a paycheck, his mere presence in a role that might have once rightfully gone to the likes of Jeff Fahey does invoke a certain curiosity that lends a degree of interest to the scenes he is in. Beyond those brief moments, "Shattered" is little more than an exercise in cinematic detumescence that is unlikely to arouse interest--or much of anything else for that matter.
I have had a couple of people inquire as to why I have not yet reviewed "The Tragedy of Macbeth," the latest cinematic iteration of the William Shakespeare classic, this time adapted for the screen and directed by Joel Coen (sand brother Ethan for the first time) and featuring a cast top-lined by no less of a duo than Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Now obviously I do not review every single film that comes around these parts--the thought of trying to apply critical thought to the likes of "American Underdog" is enough to make my eyes roll almost as much as they did while watching it--but I generally try to tackle all the significant ones unless, as is the case with the acclaimed "Parallel Mothers," I just have not had the chance to see them. That is not the case here--not only have I seen the film no fewer than three times, I have admired it each time for any number of reasons. The performances are exemplary across the board, it has been crafted with great skill and even the seemingly odd notion of a Coenesque take on the Bard makes sense here--like any number of earlier films by the Coens dating all the way back to "Blood Simple," it tells a story of greed, lust, jealousy, fate and a seemingly foolproof crime that spirals wildly out of control and the stunning visual conceit--it has been shot by Bruno Delbonnel in black-and-white and in the old-fashioned squarish Academy ratio to help underscore the sensation of the characters being trapped--further helps to place it alongside their other noir-influenced efforts. And yet, every time that I have sat down to try to review it, I have found myself drawing a blank as to what to say about it.
I think my problem with trying to review it is that, for perhaps the first time in Coen's career as one of the most dependably offbeat filmmakers of our time, he has made a film that doesn't really offer anything truly new or fascinating for viewers to discover for themselves. Even when Coen has tackled material originated by others--either via adaptations like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "No Country for Old Men" or straight-up remakes like the underrated "The Ladykillers" or "True Grit"--he has usually found a new way into the material that allowed us to separate it from previous versions and consider it as something new. Here, he is dealing with a work that is not just considered one of the greatest plays ever written but which has already inspired at least three film masterpieces from the likes of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski and as good as it is at times, it never quite manages to transcend them to the degree that it can stand completely on its own as a truly unique take on the material. (The closest thing it has in that regard is the decision to cast the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with actors older than the norm, which does lend an additional sense of poignance and desperation to the characters and their increasingly murderous motivations.) Even the performances by Washington and McDormand, which are both aces by most critical standards, are not especially surprising or revelatory because seeing two of the best actors around tearing into two of the greatest dramatic parts ever written with gusto is hardly startling--they are great but the most genuinely unexpected and memorable turns in the end come from Kathryn Hunter, who is terrifying as all three of the Weird Sisters, and Stephen Root, who gets to inject some much-needed humor into the proceedings with his single scene as the hilarious drunken Porter. Like all other movies bearing the Coen name, "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is ultimately worth seeing in the end, though I suspect that, unlike the majority of their oeuvre, it is not one that many people will find it necessary to revisit too often in the future.
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originally posted: 01/13/22 20:05:46
last updated: 01/14/22 07:29:52