P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Geostorm (2017)

I was saddened to hear from early critical response that the ludicrous environmental thriller Geostorm does not contain nearly as much geostorming as the marketing promised. Indeed, Geostorm features an official “Countown to Geostorm” at its climax that Gerard Butler’s alpha male hero cuts off early all by his lonesome to save the world from the titular global disaster, thus blocking the audience from receiving the payoff promised. There’s plenty of cheap CGI simulations of extreme weather leading up to that anticlimax, however, so it’s not like Geostorm cheats its audience on climate change action entirely. What most surprised me when I finally caught up with the movie, though, was that its over-the-top fretting over extreme weather was not at all what made it entertaining. Geostorm‘s entertainment value doesn’t lie in its titular threat at all, but rather in its Info Wars/Alex Jones style paranoia about governmental control over the daily lives of self-sufficient macho men.

From Geostorm‘s opening vision of a climate change-riddled 2019 in which the world is nearly destroyed by a series of floods, droughts, landslides, and so on, you might expect the film to be a kind of left-leaning warning to change our ways along the lines of a The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. Instead, this “extreme weather” dystopia is more in line with the Individualist, Conservative fantasy of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. An international team of scientists & a UN type coalition of governments are reported to have worked together to invent a satellite network that can control the weather to prevent this global crisis. Geostorm has no interest in celebrating this international collaboration & governmental triumph. Instead, it pits a tough guy American badass (played by a sleepwalking Butler) against the Big Bad Government, who he suspects of weaponizing the satellite system to create extreme weather events in a bid for world domination. Butler barges in to take over command of the international crew, stopping at nothing to get to the bottom of which US government entity (because America is all that matters) is threatening to destroy the world. Skepticism of surveillance, beaurocracy, and even the President of the United States swirls to such a ludicrous crescendo of Info Wars/Coast to Coast AM-style, conspiracy-minded paranoia that you almost forget the main draw of the film was supposed to be video game-level CGI simulations of manmade “Natural” disasters.

As amusing as Geostorm‘s Armageddon-style politics can be, the film is desperately lacking the collective charisma of Armageddon‘s cast, which featured outsized personalities as wide ranging as Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormare, Ben Affleck, Live Tyler, William Fichtner, etc., etc., etc. By contrast, Gerard Butler is a cardboard cutout of a leading man action hero, with exactly none of the charisma needed to carry the film on his back. The rest of the cast has a kind of CSI Miami vibe in their aggressive forgettability, underselling what could potentially be some fun, over the top dialogue. The space alien wording of “That I am calling bullshit on,” & the understandably incredulous “Hold on, what now?” response to the first utterance of the term “geostorm” (which is then amusingly defined at length) tickled me in particular, but could have been much more fun in sillier hands. Gerard Butler’s black hole of a personality is far more damaging to the entertainment potential of Geostorm than its deficiency of geostorms. The movie could have been a much better time with an action star like Schwarzenegger or Stallone in the lead role.

Butler is undeniably a bore as the film’s leading man and there certainly could have been more onscreen global disaster to help pass the time, but I still found Geostorm to be an adequately silly time at the movies. Its right-wing political paranoia, scenes of scientists dodging fireballs in Smart Cars, and basic premise of a weaponized, weather-controlling satellite network all help cover up the boredom threatened by its cast of non-characters. Watching Geostorm in New Orleans, where it was filmed, even has its own built-in entertainment value. The exact two buildings where I work being passed off as Washington, DC and the Superdome being blurred out in the background of a sequence set in “Orlando” were pleasant distractions from the placeholder dialogue they were decorating between whatever paranoid rants or monumental disasters bookended them. “Cheaper, dumber Armageddon” obviously isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun time at the movies, but I was at least moderately sated by the oddly geostorm-deficient Geostorm, Butler warts and all.

-Brandon Ledet

Gods of Egypt (2016)

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Director Alex Proyas has been going on some epic Facebook rants lately, decrying the violently dire critical & commercial response his latest film, Gods of Egypt, is being met with at the box office. He’s particularly frustrated that what he describes as “hate bloggers” have organized a boycott of the film due to its predominately whitewashed casting of its Egyptian characters. Much like the recent Ridley Scott epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt represents for a lot of people yet another example of a long line of Hollywood pictures in which POC actors have been locked out of the lead roles that, at the very least for historical accuracy, should not have been granted to white actors. Proyas claims that the reason critics have been harping on his film’s problematic casting is that they’re too overworked to form opinions on their own & instead parrot the shrill voices of “hate blogging” (whatever that is) out of convenience or laziness. Proyas genuinely believes that if his film were able to stand on its own merits outside of its political controversy, it’d be doing much better at the box office. He’s taken to the soapbox he claims to hate the most (online criticism) to cry foul, to complain that he hasn’t been given a fair shake as a filmmaker.

Now, I’m not sure if this makes me a lazy critic or a “hate blogger” (maybe both?), but I also hated Gods of Egypt. However, despite what Proyas might believe, I didn’t enter the film wanting to hate it. In fact, I set the bar for my enjoyment so pathetically low that it’s incredible that the film failed to clear it (despite its excess of golden wings). Equipped ahead of time with foreknowledge of the film’s controversial casting, dire reviews, and crackpot director (whose work ranges from total shit like The Crow to actually-enjoyable nonsense like Knowing), I felt like I was steeled to what the film had going against it. Still, there was a visual element in the trailer that made me hopeful that it might be mildly enjoyable as a campy trifle. What I was expecting was the visually striking, narratively undercooked mess of Snow White & The Huntsmen, which I enjoyed despite its negative critical consensus. What the film delivered instead was the bland CGI worldscape that put me to sleep (literally) both times I tried to watch 300 in the theater (and, curiously enough, both films star Gerard Butler). Gods of Egypt has problems that extend far beyond its racially tone deaf casting & temper tantrum-prone director. The film is also a hopeless bore, which might be the most damning fault of them all.

Similar to the way The Witch attempts to breathe life into the religious paranoia of Puritan beliefs, Gods of Egypt aims to illustrate the myths of gods living among men that once populated ancient, polytheistic Egyptian philosophy. The difference is that The Witch dealt in sincere historical recreation while Gods of Egypt attempted to mold its subject’s mythology into a goofy action epic framework & the most despicable genre of them all: the shameless franchise-starter. Through overbearing storybook narration, Indiana Jones-style action adventure, and flat-on-their-face quips, Gods of Egypt tells the story of a half-blind god & a mortal thief who team up to stop a deranged relative who plans on merging life & the afterlife in a quest to claim absolute power. I won’t bother you with many plot details, since very few are of interest & can be boiled down to dual damsel in distress rescues. True love prevails over death & destruction, the men save their ladyfriends, the universe maintains its balance, etc. The stakes rarely feel high in Gods of Egypt, because each challenge is conquered with ease by a pair of protagonists who have no option but to succeed. The Egyptian mythology setting mostly serves as a backdrop for a white knight story we’ve all seen play out countless times before.

The best chance you have of enjoying Gods of Egypt is either as mindless eye candy or as a so-bad-it’s-good camp fest. May the gods pity you in either case. The film’s costume & set design are bathed in sweet, delicious gold, but the effect was tiring after its initial introduction. The brevity of the film’s trailers did its visual style a huge favor, distracting the eye from its bland CGI mediocrity by making it seem downright lush through rapid editing. There’s a few interesting details here or there: a masked army in blood-red robes, a flying chariot pulled by scarabs, gods bleeding gold when wounded in battle, etc. For the most part, though, the film is about as visually interesting as a video game cutscene (something else I find unbearably boring). The creatures were particularly disappointing on that front. I kept waiting for them to prompt me to press “X”. As far as goofy camp goes, there isn’t much of interest to chew on there either. There’s exactly one line that made me laugh. When asked where his buddy is hiding, the mortal half of our heroic tag team responds “Up your butt,” which, you know, isn’t the height of wit or anything like that, but I’m honestly an easy audience. I also found a lot of humor in the way that they visually conveyed the gods’ imposing stature by making giant-sized versions of their props to dwarf their human counterparts. That’s the kind of tactic you’d expect in an old midnight movie like Attack of the Puppet People, not a modern $140 million action epic.

Acting wise, most of Gods of Egypt‘s (again, controversial) cast is on autopilot. Gerard Butler performs as if he’s in 300 Part Deux. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau phones it in as a barely-engaged Jamie Lannister, trading in his missing hand for a missing eye & swapping the moniker “King Slayer” for “Lion Slayer”. Brenton Thwaites & Chadwick Boseman (a legit POC actor! and he’s not even an extra!) overact in a way that’s far more annoying than it is entertaining. The female leads are given little more to do than to dress provocatively & await rescue. Only Geoffrey Rush’s out of nowhere turn as the sun god Ra stands out as wildly-entertaining scenery chewing. One gets the distinct feeling that the renowned actor is slumming it in this feature-length high resolution screensaver, but his delightfully bitchy take on the all-powerful Ra was one of the sole bright spots in a film that could’ve used a lot more of them. At least half a star in this review’s rating is due to his performance alone, which, as you can probably tell, was a much-needed boost.

Part of me kinda feels bad for Proyas. He’s such a typical 90s Guy that he probably had no idea that such a cultural backlash was going to plague Gods of Egypt from its initial announcement to its dismal box office opening. In his mind, he made a grand scale Hollywood epic with a handsome cast & a lot of browbeating about how “In this world you’re either rich or you’re nothing” & the radical idea that slavery is cruel. He expected to get by on good intentions, particularly perplexed that his own Egyptian heritage didn’t allow him to sidestep criticism for whitewashed casting in yet another mishandled Hollywood take on the region’s past. The truth is that just as many people would’ve been annoyed with Gods of Egypt’s casting pre-Internet, but would’ve had a much more difficult time publishing/publicizing their complaints. Casting isn’t the only way the film feels politically stale, though. Take, for instance, the protagonist god’s jealousy that his lover had sex with her wicked, power-hungry enslaver. It’s the romantic jealousy that’s played as a character fault, not the fact that he’s slutshaming his lover for being serially raped. That’s the exact kind of outdated sentiment that seems to be going over Proyas’s head, making him subject to intense scrutiny from “hate bloggers” & “lazy critics”. If released sometime in the 90s, Gods of Egypt might’ve been able to skate by as a mediocre prequel to a forgettable blockbuster like The Mummy. In 2016 its moral ickinees is too much of a sore thumb to overlook, especially for something that aims to be a franchise starter. You get the distinct feeling throughout the film that Proyas & company should’ve known better (or at least tried harder). After reading Proyas’s rants it’s all the more confusing that Gods of Egypt is such a dull slog. This is the film he’s going to bat for? This is what he’s confused about no one liking?

There’s a single scene in Gods of Egypt that perfectly sums up my whole experience watching the film. During a heavily green-screened chariot chase an arrow strikes & kills the mortal doofus hero’s beloved & she dies while he blankly looks on & continues to steer their escape. This scene is everything Gods of Egypt is in a nutshell: visually uninteresting, passionless, seemingly plucked from a time long gone (and I don’t mean ancient Egypt). Again, Proyas should’ve known better. Or he at least should’ve known to concede defeat when it failed to connect with audiences & critics, who, despite what the director seems to believe, are the very same people.

-Brandon Ledet