Monday, August 29, 2016

So Shone a Good Man in a Weary World

Today, let's remember Gene Wilder by momentarily forgetting about the Willy Wonka we all like to talk about -- the crazy, scary, borderline insane, slightly sadistic child torturer.  Everyone knows Willy Wonka was off his rocker.

But he was also kind.

And generous.

He had a heart that might have had a hard, dark chocolate coating, but was filled with beautiful, golden love on the inside.

Watch the clip at the beginning of this post.  Remember this Willy Wonka.  Not the one who screams, "You lose!" ... but the one who joyously shouts, "You won!"

The one who tells Charlie that the traits most worth rewarding are to be honest and to be loving.

Gene Wilder made every child believe that he or she could behave like Charlie Bucket, even when we knew we were really acting more like Veruca Salt and Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teevee and Augustus Gloop.

Gene Wilder made us believe that Willy Wonka would see through our rottenness and find the good.

Gene Wilder made many movies.  He was good in all of them, even the bad ones.

But he was never better than he was as Willy Wonka.  Thank you, Gene Wilder, for reminding us, no matter how old we are, that as adults we can be mean and scary and angry, we can frighten children sometimes with our unpredictable behavior, but at our best, when we do those things it's because we care.  Because we want children to be better.

Because we want ourselves to be better.

Gene Wilder reminded us that it was always possible to be better -- to reward our better selves, and to be rewarded for the effort.

He made other movies, even movies that mattered, but none ever mattered to me quite like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and that was because of Gene Wilder.

May the universe look kindly upon him tonight.  And always.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"Don't Breathe"

 0 / 5 

Don't Breathe is squalid, dispiriting, irredeemable.  It is a film -- and I use that term loosely -- that is worthless, even as an attempted exercise in suspense.  It has no style, wit or cleverness.  There is nothing at all to it except the nihilism that it puts forth as a sad and hopeless guiding philosophy.

To illustrate just how hollow and empty this movie is, how devoid it is of any meaningful observation either of humanity or simply of cinematic technique, let me tell you about something that happens toward the end of the movie.  (In some circles, this might count as a "spoiler."  I don't really care.)

As the story nears its end, one character captures another, restrains her, hoists her up in the air, spreads her legs and cuts the fabric of her clothes to expose her sexual organs.  In another part of the room, he has been heating some frozen semen, and now he grabs a turkey baster, fills it with the semen, and prepares to insert it in her as the camera lingers on her terrified, tortured face.

This is what Don't Breathe believes passes for entertainment.  Already we have witnessed the kind of extreme, gruesome violence that frequently fills movie screens, but this is the scene that pushed me over the edge.  I wanted to leave.  I wanted to do more than that, I wanted to walk to the back of the theater, put my hand over the projector and ask the audience why they weren't outraged that they were watching the violent, brutal, graphic rape of a woman being played out for its entertainment value.

It is beyond imagining that a group of people at the motion picture ratings board saw Don't Breathe and felt it was worthy of an R rating.  This is not a film that anyone should be subjected to, especially anyone younger than 17.  That a movie like this can skirt the NC-17 rating is deplorable.  Then again, everything about Don't Breathe is deplorable.

It's a snuff film masquerading as a thriller.  Don't Breathe relishes the sight of people being tortured and dying.  Now, that is not, in and of itself, automatic grounds for disapproval; plenty of good, worthy, even masterful films have depicted horrifying violence.  But Don't Breathe is a graceless film.  It does not even seem to want to try anything technically interesting; it just attempts to find the maximum shock value with the minimum of effort.

The story is about a home-invasion robbery gone horribly wrong.  The three teenagers who plan and execute the robbery do not realize that they are encroaching on the property of a violent, deluded psychopath who happens to be blind.  The fact that he is blind barely factors in to the film; it is simply a device to have one sequence take place entirely in the dark, with the young actors doing their best to channel that Great Actress in the Best Picture Winner About the FBI Agent and the Serial Killer.  (It would be a disservice to name either the actress or the film in the company of this trash.)

Stephen Lang (I'll name him because he should know better) plays The Man.  The movie cares so little about character development that he is never named nor given any sort of personality.  He moves about his house with ease and speed, and only stumbles or aims his gun poorly when it will be to the story's advantage.  His blindness is stupid and offensive, like the movie itself.

Sam Raimi produced Don't Breathe.  He also should know better.  The movie's marketing showcases him as one of the creators of Evil Dead, but many years ago he directed another film about a robbery gone wrong called A Simple Plan, which was taut and tense and twisty and skillful and surprising.

See that film.  But don't see Don't Breathe.

Please, please.


Viewed August 28, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, August 19, 2016

"Hell or High Water"

 3.5 / 5 

Hell or High Water is as cautious and methodical as two of its three leading characters, and occasionally as violent and unpredictable as its third -- two of whom are bank robbers, and one of whom is the aged, weary Texas Ranger on their trail.

This is a movie that expects and rewards patience.  Though marketers want you to know it is from the writer of Sicario, Hell or High Water is, at every turn, languid when the other film is anxious, calm when the other film is fearful.  Sicario is a relentless movie that grips you tight and pulls you along from even before its very first frame, but Hell or High Water is more like Bridges' character; he really doesn't care what you think or if you're interested.

But he and the film are both fascinating, in large part because of their languid styles.  They are weary of yet in love with the nondescript but sharp edges of West Texas, where even cowboys can't understand why they bother to do their jobs anymore.  Time has passed by these parts, which leaves its older residents hollow and resigned, while the younger folks are aware of how much they've been cheated by their circumstances.

One of them, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), has been cheated more than most.  Divorced, broke, unable to afford his child support payments, the iniquities don't end: His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) shot and killed their mother's husband, for which he was sent to prison.  Now he's out, and the mother has died, leaving their desolate ranch to Toby, who's in turn determined to make sure it goes to his children -- not just to give them somewhere to live, but because an oil deposit has been discovered on the ranch, one that stands to make everyone rich.

The problem: The bank intends to get the ranch.  Toby needs to make sure he gets it first, but cash is non-existent.  The solution: He and his just-sprung brother will rob some banks.  He's thought it all out, and no one will get hurt.  They'll pull just enough robberies to get the money they need; in effect, the bank will pay what he owes.

From its very first shot Hell or High Water makes it clear: The hard-working people of Texas -- of the country, for that matter -- aren't the ones who are guilty for their condition.  Toby and Tanner are Robin Hood-style heroes, not robbing the banks but taking back what should be theirs with a ruthlessness not far off from the bankers themselves when they repossess a home.

But there is the matter of the law.  Guns are carried but never used in the robberies.  Low amounts of cash are taken.  The FBI has no interest in the rash of robberies, but they intrigue Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whose Mexican and Native American roots are a source of endless amusement for the soon-to-retire Hamilton.

Hell or High Water takes its time setting up the conflict, but its close observations of desperate lives make it endlessly compelling to watch, and the movie builds tension well -- though releases it much earlier than a less assured film might.

Toby and Tanner continue their crime spree even as Hamilton and Parker close in on them, leading to a couple of scenes of brief but nonetheless shocking violence, which in Hell or High Water is never treated with glamour or excitement; it's depressing and unnecessary, and if the movie takes a certain gleeful attitude toward guns when they're not being used, it hates the consequences of pulling the trigger and takes no joy in the outcomes.

With uniformly strong performances by all four of the central characters, especially Foster as the unhinged Tanner, Hell or High Water is a bleak and sad Western-twinged movie, a film that takes a steel-eyed but disappointed view of an American landscape that once inspired epics and now can barely muster the enthusiasm of an old dog.

It's a film that longs for a better time -- whose title is uttered in a scene inside an attorney's office, where the photos of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson hang on the walls, one of the men made by Texas, the other destroyed by it, both of them Democrats, both of them relics of a long-ago time when hard work and dedication paid off.

But we've gotten to a point where the only thing that pays off anymore is stealing from other people, but subtly and professionally, like the financial institutions do it. As one of the old-timers observes, the days of stealing the old-fashioned way, of robbing banks and getting away with it, are long past.  If such a desperate act is the only way left to get ahead, where do we go from here?

Viewed Aug. 18, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Monday, August 15, 2016

"Sausage Party"

 2.5 / 5 

Why should it be any stranger or less appropriate to laugh at the sexual proclivities of food than it is to, say, sigh over the empty love life of a volcano or hope that two futuristic robots will end up together?

What it all comes (ahem) down to is whether the characters legitimately earn our respect and sympathy, and that, let me tell you about Sausage Party, depends on how much respect and sympathy you have for anyone or anything that consistently confuses profanity for wit.

It's not any more or less shocking or any more (or less) funny to hear the F-bomb hundreds of times within the first few minutes of Sausage Party than it would be in any other film, and the fact that it's being uttered by hot dogs, hot dog buns, jars of mustard and bottles of ketchup do not excuse the failure of Sausage Party to find any way to earn our attention than to pummel us over the head with its manufactured inappropriateness.

Bear in mind, it's been 25 years since we found it charming for a young girl to have a gentle sexual awakening in the arms of a towering, hairy beast.  Animation has a particular way of making anything seem possible, and Sausage Party is hardly the first time that has extended to talking foodstuff.  (In fact, the last time I saw this gag, the food was espousing Christian ethics in Veggie Tales.)

So, Sausage Party knows it had better do something and pretty fast, because even a song with music by Alan Menken can't save its first few minutes.  It comes as a relief, then, that Sausage Party continues to get better and better the more patience you have.

Set primarily in a grocery store, Sausage Party proceeds, like Toy Story before it, to imagine that inanimate objects have a secret life humans know nothing about.  In this case, the food believes that the "gods" who wander the aisles of the store pushing shopping carts "choose" the food to take to "the great beyond," where they will be treated to a food version of heaven.

When a jar of honey mustard (yes, it's fun and funny even to write this) is returned to the shelves, he comes bearing horrific news: He has seen what actually happens, and it's terrifying.  The movie's best and most creative, amusing sequence happens as he tries to warn the others and ends up in a scene that is like a grocery-store version of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan.  Watch for the Oreo: He's worth the price of admission.

The movie's main characters are a hot dog, Frank (Seth Rogen), and a hot dog bun, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who desperately want to have sex with each other.  There are as many hot-dog-in-a-bun sex jokes as you could possibly imagine in Sausage Party, and then there are about three dozen more.

Whether to believe the jar of honey mustard or whether to just get on with their lives is at the artichoke heart of the movie, and Sausage Party turns into an odd quest film, interspersed with the adventures of a tiny, misshapen hot dog (Michael Cera) who sees more than he wants to of the outside world.  In the second-best scene in the movie, the little wiener witnesses the unique horrors of potatoes being peeled, baby carrots being eaten and a fellow hot dog being sliced right in front of his eyes.

Sausage Party is at its best when it uses animation to find humor in violent tropes; we live in astonishingly violent times and have become so used to terrifying images on movie screens that it's both funny and shocking to see horrific acts through the eyes of an innocent -- without anything truly graphic.  The ability of animation to simultaneously heighten and mute the impact of violence is one surprising discovery of Sasuage Party.

The rest is not nearly as clever.  There are funny scenes and moments, to be sure, and Sausage Party aims to be one of those equal-opportunity-offender comedies, painting Jews, Christians, gays, blacks, Mexicans and low-income whites with the kind of stereotypes that no live-action film has gotten away with since Mel Brooks' golden years.

There are high points, like Edward Norton's surprisingly good imitation of a young Woody Allen, and in the end the titular party finally takes place, finding no end of creative inspiration in the ways that food might have sex with each other.  There is straight sex, gay sex, S&M sex, fetish sex, you name it.  If this is what you envisioned for Sausage Party, and it probably was, then the movie finally delivers.

But it comes at a price.  There are some depressingly played-for-laughs scenes of drug use so graphic and unnecessary that the only logical explanation for this film not receiving an NC-17 rating is that the ratings board was high when they saw it.  The drug use is not innocent; I can give a movie a pass when its characters get really, really stoned, but when one of them shoots up deadly bath salts and the movie plays it for laughs, Sausage Party crosses a line.  I fully expected the movie to follow this up with a moment of pedophilia.

Keep in mind, this movie springs largely from the same minds who came up with the monumentally unfunny political chit called The Interview, and its a relief that Sausage Party is funnier and infinitely more clever than that film.  But it's still not quite clever enough; it laughs too often at its own jokes, a habit I hoped Rogen would have dispensed with by now.

There's probably an age correlation to the enjoyment of the film, though; that's something I fully admit. ,The 19-year-old kids in the audience thought cussing, sexually obsessed hot dogs were hilarious, much in the same way, probably, that they still find flipping off the camera to be funny.

Neither they, nor the old-enough-to-know-better filmmakers, have yet learned the concept of artistic irony; everything is played here pretty much at face value, and the movie never goes so far as to send up the bedrocks of CG animation as try to mimic what make the Pixar movies work -- then thumb their noses jealousy at the success, even adding in a visual gag of a bumper sticker with the word "Dixar," written in Pixar font.  If you can't rise to the level of your talented colleagues, call them dicks.  That usually works.

That's the weird problem with Sausage Party -- it's not a bad movie, it certainly isn't unfunny, and it almost makes it on its own.  But it's got a potato chip on its shoulder, and is imbued with a disturbing sort of jealousy, the kind that makes the C-grade kids shout unkind names at the A-grade kids.  Those C-level students could be A-level students, too, if they just trusted their imaginations a little more.

Yeah, the whole thing has a lot of comparisons to being back in school, and as far as that goes, Sausage Party isn't in the same class as the cool kids of, say, "Robot Chicken," which has studied how to combine adult humor and animation; it's mostly stuck in seventh-grade, drawing pictures of penises on book covers and getting hauled to the principal's office.  The thing is, the penises it draws are pretty funny.

Viewed Aug. 15, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Bad Moms"

 3 / 5 

First things first: Bad Moms is funny.  Sometimes, it's very funny, and sometimes just mildly amusing, but even when it veers into maudlin, sentimental territory, Bad Moms knows that its first job is to make us laugh, and it does that job well.

Its cast is all very good, with Mila Kunis offering a stark reminder, after the missteps of Oz: The Great and Powerful and Jupiter Ascending, that she got her start in comedy; Kathryn Hahn delivering the funniest performance of the year; and Kristen Bell proving that playing the sidekick has its advantages.

But then there's this odd undercurrent.  This is a movie written and directed by men, and even though it boasts a phenomenal cast of fearless women in all of the leading roles, there's something odd about its underlying message.

Bad Moms posits that women can only be truly free when they are wild, boozy and slutty, that a woman who enjoys being a mom is lying to herself, and that the ones who try to "have it all" (meaning they work outside the home) are setting themselves up for disaster.

Women are at their best, Bad Moms at least sort of thinks, when they go to movies in the afternoon, have extra liquor during long brunches, and wander aimlessly around luxury stores, dreaming of a life they hope they'll have one day.

Kunis kicks things off with a voiceover narration that is used as voiceover narrations so frequently are: as a crutch to give us a quick introduction to the main character, whose disembodied voice will not be heard again.  In this five-minutes-and-we're-done lead-in, we learn that Kunis's Chicago-suburbs mom Amy married at 20, had three kids and feels her life has become too harried, too hectic, too impossible to juggle.  She works at a hipster-trendy coffee company where, at 32, she's the senior citizen among her co-workers, which include her completely oblivious boss (Clark Duke).

Her two kids seem to despise her, which is what young teenagers are supposed to do, after all, and their school is controlled by the Mean Moms of the bunch, the PTA president (Christina Applegate) and her two hangers-on (Jada Pinkett-Smith and Annie Mumolo, both horribly underused).  Indeed, there are long stretches where Bad Moms appears to be the continuing story of the Mean Girls after they finished high school, got married and grew up.

After a particularly disastrous day made no better by discovering her husband masturbating to live-chat porn, Amy pulls herself together just enough to attend one of the school's endless PTA meetings, where she has a mini-meltdown and leaves to spend some time at a local bar, which seems to be placed unusually close to a school.

In the bar, she meets two moms she has never spoken to before, the blowsy broad Carla (Hahn) and the demure Kiki (Bell).  They become fast friends, because amid the many extras who fill the scenes of PTA meetings, there appear to be only two kinds of moms: "Good" ones who will sacrifice anything to help their child get ahead, and "bad" ones, who just sort of sit on the sidelines and leave their kids' baseball games after an hour.

Carla is a bad mom, and she knows it.  Kiki just wants to be whatever kind of mom is going to win her some much-needed friends who can take her away from her disturbingly controlling husband.  Amy's right down the middle.  She's been too good for too long ... now she wants to be bad.

The trio visit the grocery store and mix their own drinks right there in the aisles. They eat cereal from the boxes and they perform acts of minor vandalism and act like untamed animals because they're letting their hair down.  It's positioned as the comic highlight of the movie, but is one of the film's biggest breaks from reality and least successful moments.

After this attempt to be The Hangover with women (only logical, since the movie was written by the writers of The Hangover), they start recovering their wits and realizing that they want a combination of less-stressed lives with more recognition.  They want, in a nutshell, to be seen as people -- so, using the same methods as their most unruly toddlers, they decide they have to act out to do it.

They visit a downtown bar and practice their slut-moves.  They talk with each other about graphic sexual encounters. They throw a party for all the other moms to get them drunk and high and having such a great time they'll elect Amy the next PTA president.  Martha Stewart even gets into the act, showing up in the movie just long enough to reveal that she starts her day off with six lingonberry extract Jell-O vodka shots.

And it is undeniably funny, made funnier by the way its trio of lead actresses commit themselves to their performances and to their characters.  If there's one thing Bad Moms excels at, it's creating distinctive characters for its performers; the superhero movies could learn something from this.

But, wait.  Look closer.

Does the movie suggests that the best way for a woman to let loose is to start her day with liquor?  Or that her true personality shines through when she ditches the kinds of dresses "that Mrs. Doubtfire would wear"?  There's an uncomfortable double-standard going on here, especially when one of the movie's Bad Moms compliments the one "hot dad" for the way he dresses casually.

Yeah, could be I'm just too sensitive, but these undercurrents bothered me in Bad Moms, much the same way that they bothered me about the shrewd, funny Trainwreck, another movie that suggests that the best way a woman can express herself is to show off her sexual side and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol.

For a while I didn't think the movie was going to recover.  Amid its laughs, it was saying that there are only helicopter moms and drunkard moms, and if you weren't one or the other, you had to become one or the other, and that the best, true path to salvation was for the helicopter mom to become a sloppy drunk.

I don't believe that, and I don't think Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell believe that, so I was confused about why they would agree to be in this movie.  It is, on one level, a harmless comedy, but it also works hard to weave in a deeper level, one in which it wants to say something about the intrinsic worth and self-sufficiency of women who choose to work and have a family.  (It says absolutely nothing about family men who choose to work; after all, they're doing what they're supposed to do.)

Despite those reservations, though, and they're big ones, Bad Moms is so full of good cheer, anchored by Kunis, Kuhn, Bell and, unexpectedly, Applegate's single-mindedly bitter PTA president. Applegate is clearly having a great time playing a flat-out villain, and she brings such a broad, cartoony fun to the role that it's easy to see how much inspiration Bad Moms takes from Mean Girls, which is not a slight toward either film.  There are times in Bad Moms that made me think that this is how Regina George and her posse would have turned out.

Bad Moms does finally set much of its wobbly record straight -- that these women were letting off steam and were never really endangering their families.  And it expands the definition of the title from moms behaving badly to those moms who just need help figuring it out, who imagine themselves as bad but aren't.

It's a funny, flawed movie, one that's finally fulfilling -- and legitimately earns the goodwill it generates from its audience, cheerily asking them to stick around for one of the best end-credits sequences yet, in which the actresses and their moms recall childhood.  It's got one of the movie's funniest lines, involving Al Pacino and his notorious 1980 movie Cruising.  That's the kind of bad-momming that's really memorable.

Viewed Aug. 6, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood