Girls Trip (Lee; 2017)

Tell me if you’ve seen this movie before, four people who have been friends since college, and who have drifted further and further away from each other over the years but still keep in touch, decide to take a trip together to a festival in New Orleans to reunite and blow off some steam.  The “leader” of the foursome is successful in both career and marriage and writes self help books on how you too can have it all, the leader had a falling out with the one who had success as a journalist and who now has to pay bills with a celebrity scandal blog, one of the four is a parent, straight-laced, and is uncomfortable with the whole situation, and the final of the foursome is a partier and instigator constantly getting into trouble but is incredibly loyal to the group.  It’s an overly familiar plot with overly familiar archetypes, except this time, the cast is made up entirely of African American women.

The four actresses playing these women are Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish, and the chemistry between the four is fantastic.  It’s not just believable that these four have been friends since college, it seems like practically a given.  The actual performances are a bit of a mixed bag, with Queen Latifah’s being the best of the lot, but the writing is actually top notch for this type of story so this adds some nuance and realism to the foursome and to those who surround them that the performances might otherwise not.

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This script is the reason to see Girls Trip, and is also the reason that it stands among the best of this sort of film alongside movies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids.  For, while all of the characters are an archetype, in addition to those listed above we also have the cheating spouse, the booking agent who seems a bit too friendly, and the old crush from high school, none of them are stereotypes.  The cheating husband, for instance, is always respectful, never loses his cool, and actually has an understandable, if not forgivable, reason for cheating.  He’s not just an asshole philanderer.  The straight laced character does let loose on the trip, but only once and afterward she does loosen up a bit, but doesn’t transform into a different person.  This honesty of character can be seen in everybody on screen, making those in the story relatable not just because we recognize a type, but because they act like and have the motivations of real people, not over the top caricatures.

Most importantly, though, the humor in this movie really hits.  I am not the target audience for Girls Trip, and I was laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from the corners of my eyes when the lights in the theater came up.  This may have been because laughter is contagious, for I did see the film with the target demographic – I was the only white male in the entire movie theater, and of the women in the theater only a handful were white – and everyone else was in hysterics to the point where I couldn’t hear the final lines of quite a few scenes, but I know that couldn’t have been the entirety of the reason for the laughter.  While the actors in the film may not have been the most subtle when it comes to the portrayal of their characters, they know funny, particularly Tiffany Haddish and Jada Pinkett Smith who steal every comic scene they are in, which is the majority of them.

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Final verdict:  Girls Trip may not contain anything we haven’t seen many times before,  hell we had Rough Night just last month, but it does the best that can be done with its too familiar pretense.  You could probably summarize the plot from beginning to end without seeing the film, and I’d bet you could get pretty close to the real thing, and yet, this is still a movie worth seeing.  These four ladies are hilarious, the writing they are given to work with has a lot more realism then most films of this type, and the subplot surrounding Queen Latifah’s Sasha Franklin may be the most fascinating I’ve seen in a debauchery focused plot.  Girls Trip may not need to be seen in the theaters to be enjoyed, though my audience certainly made my experience better, but it should be one to keep an eye out for when you get a chance.

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And, Hollywood, take note.  I saw three films this weekend at three different theaters, with Girls Trip being the third, and in every single case the lobby of each theater was as crowded as I had ever seen them and 95% of the people in each of those theaters were African American women.  This is not a film you would expect to draw gigantic crowds for, and yet there they were.  You have an audience starving for some attention and representation on screen.  When I did research for an article on racism in Hollywood which I have not yet published, I found that less than 1% of leading roles in Hollywood are portrayed by African American women, or women of any other minority for that matter, and that is criminal.  Love of film is something that can unite us all, but we love it most when we see someone who is a stand in for ourselves, and minority women get that stand in so far, far too rarely.  Sit up, take notice of the box office for Girls Trip on its opening weekend, and do the right thing, which also happens to be a profitable thing.  Win-win.

Lion (Davis; 2016)

Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierly (played as a 5 year-old by Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel), an Indian boy who after being lost and ending up thousands of miles away from home was eventually adopted by an Australian family.   This very well acted and written movie really is two different films, the first half a sort of thriller about a young boy desperately trying to survive and get home in a culture so overpopulated that people are practically disposable, and the second half about a young man trying to figure out his place in a world in which he feels he is betraying the people who love him when he becomes obsessed with his past and who also feels guilt over his luck in becoming a privileged person through no work on his own part when he knows he would have lived a life of complete and abject poverty were it not for a quirk of fate.

Both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierly, Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother) have been nominated for Academy Awards as supporting actors in their respective roles, and while I don’t see either performance as necessarily worthy of winning, they are both definitely worthy of their nominations.  These two roles are the largest in the film, and have to carry more of the themes and the story than any others, but are considered supporting purely due to the fact that the film takes place over such a large period of time with such a large cast that even these largest roles are around for only roughly half the running time.  Still in that half we get to see both of these actors at or near their best.  Patel particularly gives us a truly realistic and memorable character as he starts out a confident, cheerful man very pleased with his life but ultimately becoming more and more anxious gradually, losing that confidence and eroding his relationships as he becomes consumed with both his guilt over his luck and his desire to discover what happened to his birth family.  Nicole Kidman doesn’t give perhaps her best performance here, her career is so long and celebrated that that would be quite a stretch to claim, but it does rank among her greatest at least.  Her Sue is a character that brings out the empathy in us all with her long suffering cheerfulness and her desire to make the world a better place.  There is one scene between Kidman and Patel in particular when Saroo reveals to Sue that he feels guilty for her having to raise him that I guarantee will get under the skin of even the most unsympathetic of us and will make you ponder the way you think of family and its purpose.

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The cinematography in Lion was also nominated for an Academy Award, and this nomination is a little more sketchy.  It is well done, there is no doubt about that, and a handful of scenes here and there show true inspiration, but for the most part the camera work in Lion is nothing more than consistently proficient.  There is nothing at all wrong with that, and it makes for a strong viewing experience when the camera work never interferes with and often enhances the story, but to say it is one of the five best instances of cinematography this year is an overstatement when there are far more stylish and more difficult to film works that did not get nominations.

The writing in Lion is, however, worthy of its nomination.  It not only gives a gripping, multi-layered, well-paced true story, but it also manages to say a lot about family, privilege, overpopulation, and a great many other topics in its 2 hour running time and all of it current, relevant, and very thoughtful.  Young Saroo’s trials as an orphaned child in India show a culture which is so overstuffed with people that it’s all one can do to just survive day to day, and being noticed is not only not a concern, but can often be a detriment as the only reason someone would want to deal with a stranger is to use them to further their own survival by whatever means are necessary.  The sharp contrast with the wealthy Australian family is night and day, and says a lot about not just first world privilege and how we take it for granted, but also about what altruism and love truly are, or at least what they can and should be.

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Final recommendation:  Lion is an excellently put together story.  It has a wealth to say about the world we live in and how very different our cultures can be.  It says just as much about love, family, our personal ties, and what it is that ultimately makes us human.  However, as well done as it all is, it isn’t overly creative nor artistic.  It’s a film you appreciate and respect more than be awed by.  You will often get caught up in it, but will also just as often lose that connection when Lion moves on to a scene not so pivotal.  If you are an Oscar junkie, or if great performances are your favorite part of a movie, then this gets a whole hearted recommendation.  I give the same recommendation to those who are moved by stories about love and family.  For the rest, I will say there is nothing here which will be particularly off putting nor intriguing.  It is a wonderful story, and a good movie, but it is not a masterpiece and it is not one of a kind.