Movie Review ~ Respect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom.

Stars: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Skye Dakota Turner, Heather Headley, Leroy McClain

Director: Liesl Tommy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 145 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The heat in St. Louis, MO brought me into the theater to see Respect and the hurricane-level rain and winds nearly sent me right back to the streets when the power went out during a preview for the new James Bond film No Time to Die.  Having missed the press screening for this during my vacation, I was determined to see this much-hyped Aretha Franklin film in theaters as soon as possible because I had a notion this wouldn’t be just another standard biopic which recounted the same story.  So, when the power went out and the theater ushers said we could either wait fifteen minutes or get our money back, I thought: “Hmm…wait a bit or leave in the torrential rain?”  Take a guess what we did.

I’m not going to lie to you, Respect is largely your formulaic story of the rise of a legendary singer from humble beginnings to superstardom and all the bumps and tumbles along the way.  Then again, isn’t that how it all happened in the first place?  How else is this story supposed to be told?  People are always out to complain about these types of films but there are some entities and life stories that just have to be told in a particular way and you just have to sit there for over two hours and listen to it…and if you don’t like it, you’re clearly not a fan of the artist in the first place.  The movie wasn’t made for you to begin with – so why are you reviewing the film? 

I happen to be a huge fan of Aretha Franklin and trusted that when the Queen of Soul hand picked Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to play her, she knew what she was doing.  Even though a TV biography of her life starring Cynthia Erivo played earlier this year (to no audience or critical notice), it wasn’t approved by the Franklin estate so Respect is the one “true” story that should be considered from the point of view of the woman herself.  While Franklin, who died in 2018, didn’t live to see the movie released, her presence hangs greatly over the film and there’s ample reverence paid to her during the credits. 

Frankly, I was glad we didn’t have the messiness of the obtrusive bookends to open the film that awkwardly take us back in time to Aretha’s childhood.  Instead, screenwriters Tracy Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri just start at the very beginning (a very good, oh you know..) and show little Aretha (powerhouse Skye Dakota Turner) being woken up by Rev. C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) to sing for his friends at one of his famous Saturday night parties. Asked how old she was, family friend Clara Ward (Broadway’s Heather Headley) says “She’s 10, but her voice is going on 30.” and then she proves it loud and clear.  It’s a sign that the monumental vocal instrument we all knew was always present.  Estranged from Aretha’s father, her musical mother (Audra McDonald, Beauty and the Beast) encouraged her daughter to always demand to be treated with dignity and to say “no” when she doesn’t want to do something.  It will come in handy down the road.

As Aretha grows into adulthood (the film largely skips over the children she has at 12 and 14, a sensitive subject Franklin herself was always reluctant to discuss) and begins to have a mind of her own, the larger-than-life voice starts to reflect in her attitude.  Signing with Columbia records but producing no hits, she eventually has to leave the comforts of home and the care of her father in order to record the kind of music she needs in order to have a hit record.  By this time, Aretha (Hudson, Cats) is with Ted White (Marlon Wayans, On the Rocks), a relationship that will provide most of the rocky slips and skids onscreen.  The higher Aretha climbs and the more famous people she meets, the more she tries to keep the peace with the men in her life that jostle for position as alpha in their relationship…even though she is always the Queen.

While it may seem exhausting to consider watching another story of a woman demurring to men that don’t have her best interest in mind and who often stays in relationships that cause her physical and emotional pain, it’s important to understand the context of the time and the woman living through it.  That’s what Respect and the script does better than the other films telling similar stories.  There’s far more attention paid in the direction and performances into pitching these characters just right, so that they don’t become just another battered wife, unloving parent, or ego-centric man.  That’s what keeps it from droning on as it passes the two-hour mark.

Speaking of which, the film makes it to its long length because it takes its time with the music and gives audiences full throttle versions of Franklin’s greatest hits.  What’s better, on more than one occasion we are taken step by step through the creation of the songs from a songwriting perspective as well.  Want to know where the earworm chorus for “Respect” comes from?  You’ll find out here.  Even Franklin’s historic performance of “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles is recreated to perfection by Hudson who does new wonders with her voice as she reigns in her tendency to oversing for this most important of roles.

I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about Hudson and the incredible work that’s going on in Respect.  Going into the movie, I felt like I had a good read on how Hudson would play the role but I wasn’t quite prepared for the transformation she made into Franklin.  The way she carries herself, the way she sings, the way she speaks, it’s a head-to-toe creation by the actress that is modeled after her idol and it’s less of an impression and more of a recreation of greatness.  Those disputing the performance need to go back and watch the film again, particularly Hudson’s gut-wrenching bottoming-out scenes when Franklin was at her lowest point in relation to substance abuse.  It should be more than enough to earn her an Oscar nomination…deservedly so. 

The rest of the cast largely rises to Hudson’s level as well, even Wayans who I was initially skeptical of.  While he didn’t make it over the finish like in my good graces due to his tendency to use a strange hollow voice of speech to suggest, age?, maybe? but for the most part he’s better here than he’s been in his last twelve films combined.  Whitaker feels like he’s working himself toward another Oscar nomination in something…not in this, but something.  I’ve gone on record not loving Blige’s (Rock of Ages) acting and I still think it’s iffy but her cameo role as Dinah Washington was perfection.  I’m not totally understanding where the fanaticism for Marc Maron (Joker) is for his contributions to the movie – I like Maron’s podcast but the acting here just seems like an extension of the man instead of a stretch of the man’s talent.

Having suffered through a number of these types of films (onstage as well!), Respect could easily have found its way to a Broadway theater or, shudder, a bus and truck tour.  I’m glad those in power took the time to craft a well-tailored movie for its Oscar-winning star and even if it presents a somewhat sanitized view of the singer – it also shows the darker times as well.  Even the areas the film glosses over are at least introduced.  It may not stay there long but they are indicated…other films coughcoughBohemianRhapsodycoughcough completely skip over major happenings in order for their (still living) talent to look good.  Show some respect for the Queen of Soul and the filmmakers of Respect and catch this one in theaters.

Movie Review ~ On the Rocks

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

Stars: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Let’s have it out right now at the start so we can move on.  I’m not a fan of Lost in Translation and I don’t get it’s appeal.  Whew.  There, I said it and I feel better.  Do you?  Sorry, but that film just didn’t land with me and I know I like a bunch of movies that may leave you wondering if I have a sane bone in my body but Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning screenplay left me freezing.  I guess I could watch it again and see if my mood on it has changed but…I just don’t think so.  Her subsequent films have been a mixed bag too, with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides being right on target and Marie Antoinette making 2005 buzz with its charisma and style.  I was marginally sold on The Bling Ring but less enthused with her remake of The Beguiled, which is all to say that I approached her new film On the Rocks (which has been playing in theaters and now premieres on Apple+) very carefully.

The story of an almost-40 New York mother of two (Rashida Jones, The Sound of Silence) who suspects her busy husband (Marlon Wayans, The Heat) of cheating on her with his co-worker could have easily been another in a long line of crestfallen big city women in crisis movies that you’d rent from Redbox and then forget about forever.  Yet Coppola has made one of the more interesting films of the year by casting one of the more interesting actors working today and giving him his best role in quite some time.  That moves On the Rocks from the watch it and forget it column to the watch it, talk about it, think about it, tell all your friends about how good Bill Murray is in it sort of deal.

At first, Laura (Jones) isn’t sure her successful husband Dean has strayed in their marriage.  A half-awake Dean has returned from a lengthy flight and when he flops into bed and she greets him, he appears surprised to hear her voice.  She actually writes off the incident and even believes the rational reason he provides when she finds the make-up bag for his co-worker in his luggage.  Then she has lunch with her retired art-dealer dad Felix (Murray, Moonrise Kingdom) and that’s when he plants the germ of a seed of doubt in her mind and proceeds to help her nurture it.  A notorious womanizer that has struggled to stay faithful himself, he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Even though Laura doesn’t want to believe the hard to believe signs, maybe her dad is right…but does she want to risk her marriage on a hunch?

Coppola’s film is mainly a drama, a family drama no-less, but there are elements of a number of different genres present.  It’s a buddy film in the way that Laura leans on Felix for support during this strange period of her life as it doesn’t appear she has any female friends she can open up to, surely not the self-involved women (including a scene-stealing Jenny Slate, Zootopia) at her children’s school.  There’s a road trip adventure quality to it as well when Felix convinces Laura to follow Dean to Mexico to surprise him on a co-workers only trip in the hopes of finding him with another woman.  It’s a mystery too, as the audience is never quite sure how allegiant Felix is to his daughter – we feel like he wants the best for her but it’s also clear that for as much shameless flirting and grandstanding gladhanding as he does, she may be his only true connection and if she remains so devoted to Dean where does that leave him?

I wish Coppola had a bit more to say about these relationships in her wrap-up because the conclusion is definitely nowhere near as interesting as the carefully laid out (and highly enjoyable) first ¾ of the movie.  There is a feeling too that had Wayans been a more dynamic actor the stakes may have been raised a bit higher.  As it stands he’s just not on the same level as Jones who in turn isn’t at the same level as Murray.  So you have three different actors all at differing levels of range – sometimes that doesn’t make a difference but in emotionally fueled movies like On the Rocks it does become part of a make or break discussion.  Murray is fantastic, easily the best and brightest he’s been in years – fingers crossed he gets some recognition for this effort – and I hope Coppola continues to explore this side of her narrative storytelling.  Just work on the ending.

Movie Review ~ The Heat

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Uptight FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn is paired with testy Boston cop Shannon Mullins in order to take down a ruthless drug lord. The hitch: neither woman has ever had a partner — or a friend for that matter

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demián Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I recall the first time I saw the trailer for The Heat and marveled at how two and a half minutes could go back without a single laugh for a film that was supposedly a comedy.  Then positive early buzz had Twentieth Century Fox move it from an early spring opening to a prime June release date, so I was curious to see if the buddy cop film with two proven comedic stars (albeit adept at very different styles of comedy) partnering with the director of the wildly successful Bridesmaids may have just made a bad first impression.

Turns out it pays to trust your gut because The Heat is a barely lukewarm summer bummer, a movie that probably started out with potential but is unfortunately sacked by copious amounts of overstuffing an ungainly turkey of a film.  Don’t be fooled by the cleverly cut TV spots and trailers that suggest a laugh a minute comedy awaits all those that shell out their dough because the film itself is a chore to get through.

Perhaps knowing that the movie was rushed into production to accommodate Melissa McCarthy’s other commitments provides some context to why the film feels only half thought out.  I’m wondering if the script from television writer Kate Dippold (Parks and Recreation) didn’t start out as something more interesting because the movie seems to have been tailored to cater to McCarthy’s gruff comedic instincts and tweaked to make room for Bullock’s star wattage.

The film wants to have it both ways – it so desperately wants to be a hilarious genre re-defining buddy/cop picture while retaining a gritty edge with bloody violence.  The trouble is that it’s not funny enough to stand on its own and not gritty enough to be salvageable as a hybrid comedy-thriller.  Instead it’s a middle of the road affair with Bullock and McCarthy lost among the chaos.  All the cinematic chefs in the world couldn’t make this oil and water concoction palatable even though the recipe is right in front of them.

Though McCarthy has shown up in several movies where her improv skills have been a highlight, (The Hangover Part III, This is 40) in The Heat she lets her ad-libs get the better of her and the result is akin to the feeling of being at a bad sketch comedy show where the performer can’t right her sinking, laughless ship.  Her early scenes are so achingly bad and long that I half wondered if Judd Apatow didn’t direct the film instead of Paul Feig.

Worse is Bullock, so out of her element that she’d need a map to find her way into a joke and a compass to get herself out of it.  I like Bullock and probably appreciate her dramatic turns more than anything lately (I’m very much looking forward to Gravity, arriving later this year) but she does herself no favors here, resisting the wise idea to simply play her Special Agent as the straight (wo)man to McCarthy’s foul-mouthed Boston cop.

That’s another thing that bothered me about the film and only goes to show you how many opportunities were missed in the quick shooting schedule.  Though McCarthy is supposedly a dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian with a comically stereotypically family, there’s not a hint of an accent on her.  So at a dinner scene where her family (including the woefully underused Jane Curtain) is laying the accent on thick, when McCarthy chimes in she sounds like a visitor from Idaho.

The less said about the supporting cast, the better with not one person coming close to anything resembling a committed performance.  That’s largely due to the bi-polar script that feels as if it was either entirely made up or written scene-by-scene by different local comedians.  Did no one read, really read, this script?  It’s so formulaic and obvious that you could watch the first five minutes of the film and probably write verbatim the denouement of the bad guy and also the final scene between McCarthy and Bullock.

The few bright spots in the movie come from McCarthy…because even firing blanks she occasionally hits her target when the movie allows her to infuse the character with a little sensitivity and heart.  That’s where McCarthy really gets to shine and come alive…when she’s shown as vulnerable and layered.  Bridesmaids was smart in that it allowed this element to come out naturally but in The Heat it’s forced out in a way that’s no lasting fun for anyone.

There’s talk of The Heat 2 being fast tracked by the studio and if that’s the case, I fear what may await us.  I can only hope that any further adventures involving McCarthy and Bullock are better crafted than the cheap looking mess masquerading as a summer blockbuster.  Both actresses are better than this…you know it, I know it, and (worst of all) they know it.