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Films I Neglected To Review: Eggs In The Face
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Hotel Mumbai," "Making Babies" and "Screwball."

When Paul Greengrass made ''United 93,'' his recreation of the events of 9/11 culminating with the story of the plane that did not make its intended target after the passengers fought back, many observers questioned the wisdom of taking on a project that seemed as if it would be virtually unwatchable at best and crass exploitation at worst. The resulting film turned out to be quite strong (though I confess I have never met anyone who has ever sat through it a second time) because Greengrass managed to find a way to depict the cataclysmic events in human terms that allowed viewers to get a better grasp on the enormity of what happened without ever reducing them to just another series of disaster movie cliches. I have no doubt that first-time director Anthony Maras hoped to accomplish the same thing ''Hotel Mumbai,'' his recreation of the 2008 nightmare in which ten members of an Islamic terrorist organization launched a series of 12 violent attacks in the heart of Mumbai that culminated in an extended siege of the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that left over 100 people dead, many of them staff members who elected to stay behind in order to help get their guests to safety.

In technical terms, Maras has certainly staged the carnage with a sickening degree of authenticity as he shows people being blown up and mowed down with machine guns. The problem is that while Maras and co-writer John Collee have clearly done their research on the subject, they have not figured out a way to present the material in a way that works on dramatic terms. The opening scenes, in which scenes of the terrorists preparing for the attacks are interspersed with introductions of the various characters and a behind-the-scenes look at the hotel, is frankly a mess and while their stories do eventually coalesce, they have been presented in such a hackneyed manner that they wind up feeling like the usual disaster movie cliches. What is even more galling is that even though many of the characters in the real story were obviously Indian, only a heroic kitchen worker played by Dev Patel is allowed to stand out among them while entirely too much time is devoted to an American architect played by Armie Hammer and his attempts to reach and rescue his infant son and nanny--attempts that end up putting them all in jeopardy--while his wife waits and worries below. To put so much of the focus of the Taj attack on the hunky white American does a great disservice to so many others who fought and died during the attack and it winds up leaving a bad taste in the mouth afterwards. ''Hotel Mumbai'' is a film that is clearly noble and well-intentioned, I suppose, but unless you really want to vicariously experience one of the most ghastly examples of modern-day terrorism for yourself, there is no earthly reason for anyone to sit through what is certainly one of the least enjoyable cinematic experiences of recent memory.

My guess is that if I were to ask you for a list a potentially hilarious concepts for a comedic movie, a couple struggling with problems regarding infertility would probably rank near the bottom. This is not to say that a smart and knowing comedy could not be made on the subject--to pull it off, however, would require both a delicate sense of wit and a willingness to move into potentially fraught territories instead of relying on hackneyed sitcom cliches, gross jokes and grosser emotional manipulation. Unfortunately, none of these qualities are on display in ''Making Babies,'' a major misfire that is one of the least funny comedies to come around in many a moon. After five years of unsuccessfully trying on their own to have a baby, happily married couple Katie (Eliza Coupe) and John (Steve Howey) elect to seek outside help for their problem via a fertility doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) with a penchant for quoting Civil War speeches during his examinations. These treatments donít come cheap, of course, and when John, you years to start his own microbrewery, loses his regular job, the inevitable cash crunch add additional pressures. As for Katie, she has a good and stable new job but her superior is a flake and her workplace turns out to be a haven for working mothers to spend countless hours basking in the joy of motherhood. Throw in Katie's nagging mother (Glenne Headly in her final role), John's dopey brother and his extended brood and lot of stuff involving semen samples, the pressures of expanding their family ironically threatens to tear Katie and John apart for good.

Considering just how emotionally fraught the subject of infertility is, pretty much the only way to make it work, especially in comedic terms, is to make it as real and relatable as humanly possible in order to allow viewers to potentially laugh at things that might not otherwise strike them as being particularly amusing. Unfortunately, writer-director Josh Huber misses that mark completely, instead relying on jokes involving public embarrassment that seem trucked in from one of those direct-to-video ''American Pie'' sequels, cheesy contrivances, people acting in outlandish ways simply for the sake of the joke (would the receptionist at a fertility clinic really tell a guy bearing his sample that he has arrived too late for the in vitro treatment and then laughingly tell him that she was just kidding?) and scenes that appear to have been improvised by people with no evident flair for that particular skill. As bad as the comedy is--and it is pretty awful throughout--the film gets even worse in the late innings when it awkwardly strains for a sense of poignance that it never comes close to earning on its own. Unless jokes about unwanted hard-ons and fertility clinics that offer pornographic films as aids to help collect sperm samples strike you as inherently hilarious, you are as likely to be as unhappy with ''Making Babies'' as the central characters.

With its South Florida setting and a storyline involving not-too-bright criminals who briefly strike it big before becoming undone largely as the result of their own greed and stupidity, the longline for ''Screwball'' makes it sound like a heretofore unknown collaboration between celebrated crime writers Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen. In fact, proving once again that truth is much stranger than fiction, it is a documentary that takes a story that most people have at least heard about in some form--the 2013 MLB doping scandal that wound up ensnaring one of the game's biggest names--and reveals the absolute madness just beneath its already crazy surface. The central figure is Anthony Bosch, the son of a Cuban-American doctor who, armed with a highly questionable medical degree from Belize, sets up shop in Miami with a program for positioning elaborate regimens of injecting hard-to-detect doses of steroids as an ''anti-aging'' program for athletes. One big name who signs up is Manny Ramirez, who begins to post skyrocketing stats before getting caught and eventually leaving the game rather than serve a 100-game suspension. The notoriety of the Ramirez case only charges up Boschís career and he is soon transformed into a boat-buying, club-hopping coke-snorting party animal who finds himself working with no less a player than Alex Rodriguez before it all comes to a screeching halt for the silliest and pettiest of reasons when he tried to screw an investor out of a few thousand dollars.

The story is, of course, crazy and compelling (did you know that MLB has their own team of FBI-style investigators?) but it is not one that necessarily lends itself well to the documentary form--the people who have agreed to appear in front of the camera are desperately trying to put themselves in the best possible light, no matter what the circumstances, while the ones that most people would really like to hear from (such as A-Rod) are nowhere to be seen. To compensate for this, director Billy Corben has applied an overtly flash stylistic approach to the material with mixed results. On the one hand, he does capture the wild and screw-loose nature of the story in a manner that is far more suitable to the material than the typical straightforward mixture of talking heads and archival footage. More importantly, although he gives Bosch the lionís share of the screen time, Corben is not trying to whitewash his crimes and at times seems more interested in letting Corben go ahead and hang himself with his own relentless yapping. On the other hand, Corben's most audacious gimmick--recreating some of the incidents with a bunch of kids lip-synching to the narration as a way of underlining just how childish the entire endeavor was at its core--is funny at first but soon grows kind of tiresome. There are a few other hiccups here and there (there is perhaps one allusion too many to ''Goodfellas'' for its own good) and there is the sense that the whole thing might be more at home as an ESPN special but while ''Screwball'' (Authorís Note: Crashingly obvious baseball metaphor straight ahead) is no home run, it is still a solid base hit of a film.

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originally posted: 03/30/19 01:46:32
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