When The Bough Breaks (2016)

Poor Miss Havisham.  If we’ve learned anything from intruder-from-hell thrillers, it’s this:  Don’t own a pet.  That’s one of the many mistakes chef Regina Hall and lawyer Morris Chestnut make in the very silly and preposterous When The Bough Breaks.

Now firmly established in their respective careers with the prospect of even further advancement (Hall gets offered a CEO position while Chestnut is teased with a partnership at his firm), they set out to start the family they’ve always wanted.

But after three miscarriages, the middle-aged couple has given up pursuing the natural route.  Forgoing adoption, they decide instead to select a surrogate.  With only one last viable egg available for implantation, this strategy had better pay off.

Unfortunately, they choose suspiciously cheerful Jaz Sinclair.  Seemingly bashful and reserved, she presents herself as a mousy innocent, a harmless do-gooder putting Hall’s considerable needs ahead of her own.

It’s all a ruse, of course.  After watching one video of Sinclair being grilled about being a possible candidate, Hall buys her doe-eyed act completely while grumbling about the interviewer’s gruff line of questioning.  With Chestnut’s blessing, she’s the one.

Then, after being invited to dinner, we meet Sinclair’s boyfriend Theo Rossi who looks uncannily like Adam Sandler.  He’s also on board with the surrogacy.  But he has a peculiar conversation with Chestnut outside their curtainless house which raises alarm bells.  Also, during dinner, Sinclair arrives in a dress with the price tag still attached.  Hall thinks she’s just trying to impress her and shrugs it off.  She’s sticking with the plan.

Once Hall’s egg is placed in Sinclair’s uterus, everything changes.  Rossi turns out to be an abuser and after an incident at their home, Chestnut invites Sinclair to live in the family guest house.  Chestnut visits a bemused Rossi in lock-up following his arrest threatening all kinds of legal action against him.  It’s clearly a bluff because soon thereafter, Rossi is free and back to harassing Sinclair.  At one point, he even sneaks into the Hall/Chestnut residence to threaten her.  So much for that restraining order, counsellor.

As it turns out, Rossi and Sinclair are planning on scamming the desperate couple.  Once their son is born, they’re going to sell it to someone else.  Rossi’s already lined up a buyer.

But Rossi didn’t count on Sinclair developing an attraction to Chestnut.  Her first night at their house, she watches him have sex with Hall.  When they throw a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of America at their house, Sinclair lets down her curly hair and dazzles with heavy make-up in a bright red dress, Hall’s bright red dress.  From this point on, Sinclair is no longer mousy.  But Chestnut isn’t at all interested.  I blame her PG seduction technique.  It’s resistable.

And this is where the movie, already slow and quite dull, gets ridiculous.  While Hall is away being wooed for that CEO restaurant position, Chestnut has to constantly resist the relentless Sinclair.  While at work, he makes the very dumb decision to click 2 videos she sends him.  These are not safe for work videos, even though you don’t see very much.  Good-bye to that partner offer.

He also refuses to tell Hall what’s been happening until the inevitable embarrassing moment out on the street in front of the cops when Sinclair claims they’ve been having an affair.  His reasoning for keeping Hall in the dark the entire time is laughable.  Also strange is why the couple keeps Sinclair’s purpose a secret.  At the charity fundraiser, a fellow attorney expresses an interest in Sinclair.  Chestnut gives his blessing for the man to date his “second cousin”.  The colleague never does ask her out.

And then there’s Sinclair’s final interaction with Rossi.  Later on, we find out she was adopted and abused by her foster father.  She ended up killing him.  Rossi meets a similiar fate after the escalation of his threats and demands.  This doesn’t make any sense.  If Sinclair is such a dangerous psycho capable of murder, why does she allow herself to be abused for so long?

Realizing someone fucked up with Sinclair’s criminal background check, Chestnut eventually calls his buddy Michael K. Williams, a cool, capable cat who is the best character in the film, to fill in the blanks.  Besides uncovering the foster daddy debacle, we learn that Sinclair has a rap sheet and multiple IDs.  He also discovers that Rossi, who claimed he was being called back into army duty, was kicked out two years ago for being abusive.  Williams and Chestnut eventually make a grisly discovery at the bottom of the basement stairs.  It’s not a very effective moment.

In fact, When The Bough Breaks is barely a thriller.  How can it be when too much time is spent on Hall and Chestnut’s sizzle-free relationship.  The movie hints at past troubles but never delves further.  If they had been more clearly dysfunctional, maybe we would feel more tension and actually start to care.

But that would also require a stronger villain.  Sinclair has undeniable charisma but she’s not terrifying.  Sometimes, when she pops up undetected by the heroes, I laughed.  When she finally turns full heel in the inevitable, suspenseless final act, it’s not believable.  A woman that pregnant would not be able to layeth the smackethdown on anyone’s candy ass, let alone Hall’s.

Shortly before the expected finish, Hall gives Chestnut permission to do whatever it takes to keep the missing Sinclair close so they can snatch the baby once he’s born.  We’re told that this is necessary because technically Sinclair is the mother of their child and only when she gives him away will they enjoy full parental rights.  There is real-life precedence for this, the Baby M case in 1986, even though the biological father got custody.  However, as noted by Wikipedia, there was a similar legal battle in California in 1990 that didn’t turn out so well for the surrogate.

Regardless, after turning her down the entire movie, does Sinclair really believe Chestnut is suddenly all-in with her and with the idea of dumping his wife?  Of course not, which is why she follows him back to his house and discovers the truth.  In yet another bad decision, Chestnut leaves his wife alone to fend for herself while he tags along with Williams to try to locate the already dead Rossi.

When Sinclair first moves into their house, Chestnut lets slip that he’s not too fond of Miss Havisham, Hall’s cat.  She treats him like her child, he notes.  Like the rabbit in Fatal Attraction and countless dogs in numerous horror movies, we know exactly what’s under that white blanket in the baby’s crib.

Too bad it’s not the head of the executive who greenlighted this terrible movie.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 30, 2018
3:07 a.m.

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Published in: on July 30, 2018 at 3:07 am  Comments (2)  

17 Again

17 Again asks us to believe that Zac Efron and Matthew Perry are the same person.  Not only do they not look alike at all, they don’t even have the same-sized head.  The joke is that Efron is an adonis who let himself go when he transformed into Perry.  It’s not a good joke.  It’s too sad.

Back in 1989, Efron was the king of Hayden High School, a popular basketball star with a pretty girlfriend (Allison Miller).  But just before the most important tip-off of his young teenage life, his reticent love drops a bomb.  When the game begins, he’s too distracted and bummed out to impress the scout watching eagerly from the stands.

At first, I thought he was being dumped.  But when he chases her down right off the court, we learn he knocked her up.  Trying to do the honourable thing, he vows to stand by her.

20 years later, she’s on the verge of divorcing him.  Deeply resentful about throwing away a potentially lucrative athletic career for an empty life with his high school sweetheart, he has openly blamed her for his unfulfilled potential.  Delightful man.

His moody daughter, Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), wants nothing to do with him.  His awkward son, Sterling Knight, lies about joining Hayden’s basketball team.  He has a legitimate reason for doing so.  His oversexed bully (Hunter Parrish) is the captain who also happens to be dating his oblivious sister.  She’s the only one who thinks his unabashed cruelty and suspicious advances are misunderstood.

Temporarily living with his super nerdy best friend Thomas Lennon (gotta love his land speeder bed and Weird Al T-shirt, the only funny things about this movie), Perry has only one thing to look forward to, a possible promotion at his drug company.  But the young sleaze who has the authority to make that decision gives it to a young woman who’s only been working there for two months.  Perry’s been a successful salesman for nearly 20 years.

Now at his lowest, Perry drops by Hayden and while looking forlornly at his team photo from 1989, mysterious janitor Bryan Doyle-Murray suddenly appears and starts engaging him in conversation.  A seed is planted.  Shortly thereafter, while driving in the pouring rain, he spots the man on a bridge.  Is he suicidal?  Hardly.  He’s bait.  When Perry bolts from his car to find out if he actually jumped, he ends up falling himself.

When he returns to Lennon’s nerd palace covered in mud, he’s shocked to discover he’s regressed back to his peak Zac Efron period (or should I say progressed?).  When Lennon spots him in the bathroom, bizarrely he thinks he’s an intruder.  One of the dumber aspects of this depressingly derivative snore is that only one person has to do a double-take when they first see him.  That would be ageless Leslie Mann, the soon-to-be-ex-wife, who you know will not actually have the courage to go through with the divorce.

Thinking he’s now on a spiritual quest to redeem himself, Perry in Efron’s body seeks to bridge the growing gap between himself and his deluded, indifferent daughter.  Her boyfriend, his son’s bully, immediately takes a dislike to him even before he defends his honour in the school cafeteria.  Efron isn’t much of a fighter but he knows how to humiliate.  That doesn’t exactly deter the bully from kicking his ass on more than one occasion.

Efron becomes deeply alarmed when Trachtenberg reveals she’s not going to Georgetown as originally planned but a community college close to bully boy whose life ambition is to run a Home Depot.  They’re also planning to co-habitate.

His daughter’s three girlfriends have a very different reaction to him.  Initially competitive for his attention, they settle on proposing a fourway together.  Efron is never tempted which I find very hard to believe, odd circumstances notwithstanding.  His hormonal teenage body would surely override his adult common sense.

Efron is enrolled in Hayden again by Lennon (his stand-in fake father) who immediately falls for Melora Hardin (Mrs. Adrian Monk), the principal who not unreasonably finds the childish, rich software developer extremely weird and irritating.  That means she will eventually reciprocate his feelings but not before he wears her down for a dinner date after constantly trying to flaunt his wealth and, well, “peacocking”.  This is supposed to be a harmless teen comedy but having your nerdiest character stalk someone who isn’t interested in him at all until she finally gives in is actually quite dangerous.  This isn’t how you romance someone.  The moment at dinner where everything changes is more predictable than funny.

Meanwhile, Efron bonds with his reluctant son.  They first meet in the bathroom where the bully has ducktaped Knight to a toilet.  Besides preparing him for high school basketball (Knight is just as good as his dad), he urges him to talk to the head cheerleader he has a massive crush on.  Their first talk could not go any worse.  He should be thankful she is remarkably understanding despite being compared to a dead dog.

Time is running out for Perry, though, as the constant spectre of a divorce proceeding with Mann continually looms over his head like a death sentence.  Considering how he’s treated her all these years, he deserves to lose her.  She could easily do better.

That said, has Perry done enough as Efron to win her back?  In her eyes, Efron’s an inappropriate crush with a silly Justin Bieber haircut who nonetheless seems to know an awful lot about her failed marriage.  And she can’t get past how much he resembles her happier past.  Plus, when he gives his inevitable speech at the hearing, she is stunned to realize he made it up on the spot.  But still, how can you make up for 20 terrible years in only 80 minutes of screen time?

I’ve seen Zac Efron in several films now and beyond his looks (it’s enough with the shirtless schtick), I don’t see the appeal.  He’s not nearly as charming as his audience believes.  He’s also not funny at all.  It doesn’t help he’s not given any good zingers here.  The scene where he humiliates his son’s bully by focusing on his supposed inadequacies lacks comic bite and conviction.  No wonder his nemesis is undeterred.

The briefly seen Matthew Perry has the thankless task of being the sad sack version of this character which means zero laughs for him, too.  He often looks like he made a huge mistake taking this role.  And what’s with his high hair?

Because Perry’s adult personality is in Efron’s young body he does not come off as a cool kid.  That scene where he tries to convince his classmates not to have sex without love would in reality be met with a lot of derision and snickering.  Furthermore, his constant policing of young women’s open sexual attitudes, particularly his daughter’s girlfriends who endlessly lust for him, is tiresome and rude.  Even at his physical peak, Perry can’t help his sexism.

The most peculiar element of the film is the Bryan Doyle-Murray character.  What is his deal?  What does he care about Perry’s ruined life?  If I don’t give a damn about it, why should he?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 22, 2018
9:30 p.m.

Published in: on July 22, 2018 at 9:31 pm  Comments (2)  

Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage

Has there ever been a more unfairly maligned band than Rush?  When the Canadian hard rock trio first emerged in the mid-70s sounding an awful lot like Black Sabbath and The Who, critics were deeply unimpressed.  As they unapologetically jumped into the divisive world of progressive rock, reviews were even harsher.  By the 80s, as they grew in popularity, even hardcore fans started questioning the extensive presence of keyboards and the softening of their arrangements.

But the band kept going, stubbornly sticking to their creative instincts even as many continued to write them off as pretentious and annoying.

As Gene Simmons of all people points out in the entertaining documentary, Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, they were fearless.  Pursuing a musical path that was fraught with deep, relentless opposition, they have now become a beloved institution constantly referenced, admired and revered, the recipient of regularly bestowed pop culture tributes.  (Pro wrestler Kerry Von Erich dubbed himself “the Modern-Day Warrior” after the opening lyric in Tom Sawyer, his early 80s entrance music.  The same song was used to sell Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One this year.)  Even chicks dig ’em now.  (There’s an annual fan event called RushCon.)

One of the major knocks on the band was that they took themselves too seriously with their epic science fiction suites and Japanese kimonos.  But the truth is they are very silly people, as evidenced by this often amusing documentary.  (It’s surprising that the early 80s Bob & Doug McKenzie song Take Off and the band’s occasional interactions with the Trailer Park Boys are not discussed.)

The movie opens with frontman Geddy Lee, drummer Neil Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson warming up and goofing around backstage just before a show in Toronto’s ACC.  It ends with them getting together for dinner and cracking each other up.  (On the Blu-ray, that end title sequence is expanded into an even funnier bonus feature.  Maybe they should do a follow-up called My Dinner With Rush.)

In between there are lots of laughs about various moments in their careers, most especially their hopeless attempts at carving an image.  As Lee notes at one point, it took him 30 years to have the freedom to play shows in just a T-shirt and jeans.

One of the biggest laughs in the film happens in a restaurant.  Lee and Lifeson are approached by an employee who humourously ignores the guitar legend so that she can get a couple of autographs for her kids from the famously high-pitched singer.  Lifeson’s bemused reactions say it all as she rudely nudges him out of the way.  As the Air Farce would say, A Canadian Moment.

Lee and Lifeson are the nucleus of Rush (even though the multi-instrumentalist was not a founding member), having been best friends since high school.  Both share similiar backgrounds.  Lee’s parents were Holocaust survivors who were the only Jews in their Willowdale, Ontario neighbourhood.  Lifeson’s family emigrated from war-torn Yugoslavia, long before a brutal civil war would eventually divide the fractious country into today’s Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.  Both dropped out of high school to pursue their musical ambitions and both had to deal with skeptical family members because of it.  There’s a rare Lifeson family home movie where the guitarist discusses his situation with his parents who seem less than impressed with his risky plans.

Longtime fans know that Rush’s original drummer was the charismatic John Rutsey who also introduced the band’s set during their formative years.  (It’s cool to hear rare, unreleased Rush songs with him behind the kit.)  Other members came and went during their first five years which curiously goes unmentioned here.  Rutsey was a good drummer who preferred Bad Company over Genesis but he also suffered from diabetes which meant he wasn’t going to last.  (He died in 2008, two years before the brief theatrical release of this film.)  He was also supposed to write lyrics and ironically would suffer from terrible stagefright, but these facts are disappointingly omitted.  (Also not noted is that contrary to what he says in the documentary, Lifeson did keep in touch with Rutsey right up until the late 80s/early 90s.  They used to work out together, according to Wikipedia.)

His eventual and permanent replacement, Neil Peart, was a farm boy in Hagersville, Ontario who was born in a hospital in Hamilton.  Before wowing Lee and Lifeson two weeks before a tour at an audition he was summoned to attend, he slapped the skins for a hippy band called JR Flood and worked for his father’s car parts business.  Drumming gave the high school misfit self-esteem so he kept practicing until he was as good as The Who’s Keith Moon, a key member of one of his favourite bands.

An insatiable reader, lyricist Peart was the missing puzzle piece and a major factor in their transformation from high school assembly/bar band to unlikely prog rock icons.  After their third album, Caress Of Steel, tanks and leads to far fewer concert attendees, despite record company pressure to deliver hit singles, Rush doubles down with 2112, the Ayn Rand-inspired concept album that resulted in severe critical scolding but ultimately became their breakthrough.  As Peart astutely notes, the certified commercial success of the album assured them creative freedom for the rest of their careers.  After that, they were untouchable.  Whether you liked Rush’s prog rock period or not, you have to admire their integrity.

Personally, I’ve always preferred their 80s work mainly because Lee eventually stopped trying to hit so many impossibly high notes and their music became more diversified.  As the band realizes the limits of 20-minute rock suites, they gradually scale back and rework their sound for the video age.  Lee’s keyboards become front and center on classic tracks like The Spirit Of Radio, Tom Sawyer and my personal favourite, Subdivisions, much to the chagrin of Lifeson who feels over time that his stellar guitar phrasing is being overshadowed.  They experiment with new wave, reggae, electronica and jazz.  The blockbuster Moving Pictures album is a mixed blessing for Peart who is far less outgoing than his more gregarious bandmates.  Limelight, one of the standout tracks from that album (which inspired the movie’s title), is perhaps the most autobiographical song he’s ever written.

By the end of the decade, Lifeson’s grumbling leads to a return to the hard rock sound that inspired their best work.  The keyboards are still there but less prominent.  Old fans return to the fold as new ones discover them through the many famous musicians, several of whom serve as insightful talking heads here, who generously cite them as a significant influence on their own output.  It’s great hearing alternative rock stars like Trent Reznor and Billy Corbin vouch for Rush’s authenticity and musicianship.  It’s also great seeing the hilarious Jack Black sing their praises, quite literally in one instance.

In the middle of the 90s, the band is beyond criticism, a stadium band with a deep catalogue of memorable songs.  And then tragedy strikes Peart twice.  Jackie, his longtime companion, is struck with terminal cancer.  Then, his daughter, Selena, dies in a car accident.  Rush is put on hold for five years as Peart rides his persistent wave of grief on his moving sanctuary, a treasured motorcycle, through the highways and dirt roads far away from the glare of the unforgiving spotlight.  That painful wave would thankfully recede.

By 2002, having not played the drums in years, he returns to the studio with his relieved bandmates determined not only to get reacquainted with his role within the band but to improve his playing which inspires the open admiration of Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr.

I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music but now having seen Beyond The Lighted Stage, I greatly admire them as people.  All three found their life partners fairly early.  (After the untimely deaths of Jackie & Selena, Peart would later marry another woman and have more kids.)  None seemed interested in the temptations of touring, which baffles noted womanizing creep Gene Simmons.  Their only vice appears to be the occasional drunken hangover.  (Alex Lifeson’s infamous airplane incident is conspiciously avoided, however.)  There are neither any torrid tales of groupie sex or misadventures with heroin nor any violent encounters of any kind.

Unfortunately, on the flip side, there is a lot of unexplored terrain.  (The film runs less than 2 hours.)  There’s no mention of Lifeson’s side project Victor or Lee’s solo album, although there is time to briefly discuss Peart playing on a Buddy Rich tribute album.  I would’ve appreciated more insight into particular songs like Nobody’s Hero and New World Man.  The story of Spirit Of Radio is not touched on at all.  (It was an early slogan for Toronto station CFNY which mostly played underground punk and new wave starting in the late 70s.)  And most surprisingly, the famous rap in Roll The Bones is relocated to an outtake where its detractors get more time to dismiss it than we get to understanding the context of the era in which it was conceived.  (It was released in 1991 as nu metal was starting to emerge.)

Rush have such a long, complex history that it’s next to impossible to fully convey it in a single film.  Maybe the band deserves its own Ken Burns-style miniseries.  For now, this flawed yet funny, rewarding documentary filled with highly skilled performances, sweet family memories and smart commentary will do just fine.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 22, 2018
7:29 p.m.

Published in: on July 22, 2018 at 7:29 pm  Comments (2)