All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

GIRLS TRIP

Producer: Will Packer and Malcolm D. Lee
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Writer: Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver
Stars: Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Mike Colter, Larenz Tate, Kate Walsh, Kofi Siriboe, Deborah Ayorinde, Sean Combs and Lara Grice
Studio: Universal Pictures

C

If you consider the sight of a woman dangling over a crowded New Orleans street and urinating profusely on a crowd of revelers below—no spoiler here, as it’s shown in the trailers—is hilarious, this is the movie for you; the gag actually happens twice. Only a couple of weeks after the girls-go-wild comedy “Rough Night” bombed despite a starry cast, “Girls Trip” follows in its wake, telling much the same story (though with a marriage on the rocks replacing a dead body as catalyst). Its attractive players deliver some laughs, but an excess of raunchiness and—especially toward the close—sisterly sentimentality ruin their chance to shine.

The plot has a quartet of college friends who called themselves the Flossy Posse during their college days reuniting for a freewheeling jaunt to Louisiana for the Essence Music Festival. It’s all organized by the most successful of them, Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall), a bestselling author whose “You Can Have It All” message is supposedly proven by her collaborative marriage to smooth-talking Stewart (Mike Colter), a former NFL star. When she accepts an offer to deliver a keynote address at the festival, she decides to invite her erstwhile pals along—Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a onetime wild thing who now, as a divorced mother of two, is a nurse living sedately with her mother; Sasha (Queen Latifah), a celebrity-bashing blogger estranged from Ryan because of a past business partnership gone sour; and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), a volcanic bundle of energy and emotion with a propensity for the outlandish, but also extremely loyal to her girlfriends.

To be honest, though “Girl Trip” wants to be outrageously over-the-top, it falls pretty quickly into predictable patterns. Though the relationship between Ryan and Stewart is portrayed at first as a perfect coupling, soon to be raised to the next level as the basis for a television talk show, the guy’s oily smoothness immediately points to the fact that there’s trouble in paradise, and as it turns out he’s a cad, having an affair with a slinky Instagram celebrity named Simone (Deborah Ayorinde). When Sasha finds out about that, she confers with Lisa and Dina about whether they should reveal the facts to Ryan; but when Dina spontaneously does so, Ryan admits that she already knows, but is unwilling to give up professional success by dumping him. So starts the script’s overarching concern—will she settle, or start anew, an issue elevated by her reconnecting with another old college friend, endlessly agreeable musician Julian (Larenz Tate), who’s obviously always been infatuated with her.

The revelation about Stewart also creates a crisis for Sasha: her blog isn’t as successful as people think, and she needs a scoop to attract eyeballs to it. Will she betray Ryan for a big story? Meanwhile Lisa is trying to maintain her practical, homebody attitude, and keep peace among her three friends, only to be lured back into her old extroverted ways by a hunky admirer named Malik (Kofi Siriboe).

And then there’s Dina. Your feelings about the movie is likely to be as dependent on your reaction to Haddish’s portrayal of her as your take on “Rough Night” (if you were unfortunate enough to see it) was on how you felt about Jillian Bell. Dina is the story’s raging id, a bundle of motormouth hysteria and sexual abandon, who serves as the sparkplug for most of the wacky goings-on. While Ryan wants to forget Stewart’s infidelity, Dina tries to attack him with a broken champagne bottle, prompting the group’s ejection from the hotel (and an extremely gross encounter with a drunken old man who thinks they’re prostitutes). At another point she spikes her pals’ drinks with 200-year old absinthe (sold to her by Mike Epps in a cameo) and sends them all into wild hallucinations. She also demonstrates, with unremitting gusto, a sexual technique called “grapefruiting,” in a sequence that you will find either hilarious or appalling—maybe both.

You’ll probably know how you feel about Dina from her very first scene, when she spars with a boss who’s trying to fire her for assaulting a fellow employee by pretending not to understand him. She’s already what she remains for the rest of the movie—the very embodiment of Attitude, with a capital A—and whether or not you think her delightful or insufferable will probably be key to your ability to enjoy the movie as a whole. It might be easier if you’re a woman, since men might find it especially difficult to endure a scene in which Ryan is pressed to exhibit her technique at chopping sausages, or another in which poor Malik learns that “grapefruiting” can carry serious side effects.

“Girls Trip” repeatedly swings for the stands—in addition to the various sequences already mentioned, there’s a dance-off in a whisky-soaked bar and an over-the-top turn by Kate Walsh as Ryan’s agent, one of those white souls who embarrass themselves by trying too hard to fit in with African-American culture—but ultimately it winds up in safe, girl-power territory, where the apparently dangerous decision results in even greater success. By trying to be both grossly outlandish and sweetly endearing, the movie is alternately crass and mawkish.

Still, the cast is good—even if you find Dina someone you’d never want to meet, Haddish clearly demonstrates talent in playing her—and there are some nice clips from the festival’s musical numbers. Despite the picture’s being too long at two full hours, Malcolm D. Lee keeps things moving along, and technically the movie is pretty polished, even if cinematographer Greg Gardiner’s generally canny use of the locations extends to an excess of shots of the exterior of the Mercedes Benz Superdome, with the carmaker’s name repeatedly displayed with all the subtlety of the screenplay’s sense of comedy.

For those looking for an unrestrained R-rated comedy with a female rather than frat-boy slant, “Girls Trip” fills the bill. Whether it’s a bill worth filling is another matter.

LADY MACBETH

Producer: Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
Director: William Oldroyd
Writer: Alice Birch
Stars: Florence Ough, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Cliff Burnett and Bill Fellows
Studio: Roadside Attractions

B

Based not on Shakespeare’s play but on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (previously adapted for the screen by Andrzej Wajda in 1962 and the basis of the 1934 opera that brought official Soviet condemnation on Shostakovich), William Oldroyd’s debut feature is an uncompromising portrait of ruthlessness driven by unbridled passion. Relocated by screenwriter Alice Birch to Victorian-era Northumbria, the tale of an unhappily married young woman who will apparently resort to any means to free herself from the shackles imposed by her stern father-in-law and peremptory husband is presented in harsh, unforgiving terms that some viewers will find hard to take, but it’s undeniably powerful stuff.

In a breakthrough performance Florence Pugh stars as Katherine, a young woman virtually sold into an arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the heavy-drinking, boorish son of surly mining magnate Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Alexander proves unwilling, or unable, to perform his husbandly duties, and Boris blames Katherine, restricting her freedom as strenuously as the girdle strapped onto her each morning by her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) does her body. It’s little wonder that when both men are called away on business, she falls without much resistance into the arms of the crude but virile new groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).

Their unseemly affair does not go unnoticed, of course, and the separate returns of Boris and Alexander, each of whom threatens to make her life even more like incarceration than it had previously been, lead Katherine to take drastic action against them both. Now she and Sebastian can parade their relationship openly, without any further pretense. Unfortunately, Alexander has left behind a surprise that will threaten their blissful show of domesticity and result in an act of violence that will ultimately set them against one another.

Pugh commands the screen throughout, mostly through subtle nuance rather than histrionic outbursts—except, of course, in those instances in which Katherine engages in sexual abandon with Sebastian, whom Jarvis plays with an appropriately rough edge. Hilton and Fairbank prove entirely capable of placing Boris and Alexander among the most odious examples of male oppression ever committed to celluloid, while Ackie matches Pugh in revealing understatement, until the narrative forces her to extremis in the final reel. There are also fine turns from Golda Rosheuvel and Anton Palmer in the film’s latter stages. Technically the film belies its small budget through the canny use of locations—rough exteriors and gloomy interiors—that are given an appropriately dank look by cinematographer Ari Wegner, and Nick Emerson’s editing helps maintain the brooding atmosphere.

It must be emphasized that this is a dark, nasty tale in which very little light is allowed to penetrate the shadows of malignancy that permeate it. (A bit of comic relief is, however, provided by the house cat, which Oldroyd uses for a few doses of gallows humor.) There are violent sequences that will be hard to shake off—the first staged almost offhandedly, a second brutally, and a third presented quietly from a distance in a way that makes the horror of the deed all the more shocking. There is also a quick insert that will revolt squeamish viewers, a shot that one might literally describe as the cinematic equivalent of flogging a dead horse.

So “Lady Macbeth” will antagonize, even anger, some viewers, but it represents a bold, unsettling transposition of Leskov’s grim take on a Shakespearean motif—a promising debut for its director and a stunning breakthrough for its star.