REVIEW: Beatriz at Dinner

16 06 2017

The 2016 election was not just a political event. More than any one before it in the United States, the election was also a cultural event. Across Europe and other democracies, it’s long been considered normal to bring up politics in conversation. In America, however, politics rarely made their way into average dialogue. As a teacher once told me, the only safe topics of conversation with a stranger on an airplane were sports and the weather.

But now the spillover is unavoidable. We must talk about them. We can avoid it no longer. In Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” we get cinema’s first big movie about how those conversations will look – faux pas and all. (I specify “cinema” because television, with its shorter production schedule, struck while the iron was significantly hotter.)

The movie runs just 83 minutes but manages to cover a lot of ground as it leads up to the rupture of its titular character, Salma Hayek’s massage therapist and apparent “miracle worker.” After providing services for a long-standing client, Connie Britton’s well-meaning Cathy, Beatriz’s car breaks down in the driveway. Cathy, rather than shooing her off to wait with the help, invites her to dine with the family as her husband celebrates a big deal with business partners.

Well-intentioned though the offer from Cathy is, the wincing that ensues shows just how hollow her notion of cross-class communication stands at our current moment. John Lithgow’s unapologetic capitalist boor Doug Strutt makes the obvious cinematic mistake of mistaking Beatriz for a server and asks for another drink. (Of course, this has to happen.) But more than just casual racist biases emerge over the course of the evening. We see the pain of microaggressions against Beatriz as they roll casually off their tongues and jab into her dignity, many of which come courtesy of the younger married couple who we’d believe should “know better.” We observe the different feeling rules they maintain, both in terms of personal greetings as well as in the larger sense of who deserves sympathy and consideration.

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REVIEW: Sausage Party

30 08 2016

Sausage Party” may begin with an amusing ’90s Disney-esque opening ditty – with help from “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty & The Beast” composer Alan Menken, to boot – but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have far more than obvious parody. (Besides, 1999’s adult animated “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” took care of that pretty well.) Using a supermarket as a microcosmic playground for the world, the sly writing/producing team continue their thematic exploration of pressing social and existential issues.

That’s not a joke, and yes, “continue” means that this thread has been present in their past work. 2013’s “This Is The End” was, among many things, a fascinating exploration of how public figures come to deal with their mortality and the afterlife in the face of a seemingly inevitable apocalypse. Playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself, Rogen and his celebrity comrades united to satirize the lack of self-awareness among self-important actors.

Much of that same gang reunites for “Sausage Party” to play the voices of processed or packaged foods ready for consumption. The elaborate ritual laid out in the opening song deludes them into thinking “the gods” have destined them for some kind of heaven once placed in the grocery cart. But once a returned jar of honey mustard offers a chilling vision of what lies beyond the automatic doors, hot dog Frank (Rogen) and his sweetheart bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) bring it upon themselves to discover the truth. Neither realizes the answer will shake up everything they thought they knew about life after purchase – provided such a thing even exists.

Along the way, they journey with Kareem the lavash (David Krumholtz) and Sammy the bagel (Edward Norton) and start to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. They bump into Firewater (Bill Hader), a Native American liquor bottle, and bump up against the complications of colonial displacement of indigenous peoples. Rogen and Goldberg, along with “The Night Before” co-writers Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, take advantage of how ripe animated films are ripe for social commentary given how much an audience has to project humanity onto the objects.

Oh, and all the food eventually comes together in a raucous orgy. Just as the apocalyptic monster in “This Is The End” had disturbingly large anatomy, the “Sausage Party” participants’ sexual drive serves as an outsized reminder that Rogen and Goldberg come from a place of absurdity, imagination and crass humor above all else. Don’t take any of this too seriously, their flourishes seem to cry out, because the authors themselves don’t. They know their places as comedians and entertainers above all else, although Rogen might soon vault to Mel Brooks status for a new generation. The combination of his boundary-pushing comedy with trenchant, socially attuned subject matter certainly makes him an obvious contender to assume the vanguard. (Without saying too much, try not to think of “Blazing Saddles” during the finale.) B+3stars





LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!





REVIEW: Savages

1 08 2012

I’m not one to say that a movie HAS to be made a certain way or in a certain style. Having said that, movies about drug trafficking, drug cartels, and drug violence should really be done in a raw, gritty fashion.  That’s the standard, be it Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” or television’s “Breaking Bad.”  The style and the content really work in perfect harmony.

And it’s a standard for a reason.  Oliver Stone, ever the belligerent iconoclast, feels no need for such formalities.  He’s begging for attention as usual in his latest feature effort “Savages,” a film that’s about two drug growers in a ménage à trois with a girl who winds up being used as a pawn against them, although it’s really just about Oliver Stone.  His insistence on making curious directorial choices often makes the film feel like a tasteless, hair-brained Tarantino flick.

His insistence on savagely graphic violence aestheticizes slaughterings, tortures, and killings to the point where it seems to serve only Stone’s eye.  One particular scene goes way too far; it’s a disgusting sight to behold and really doesn’t have much to say about the morality of violence.  Scorsese-esque, this is not.

And if the violence doesn’t make “Savages” unwatchable for you, then maybe the acting will.  Blake Lively, taking a page from the Kristen Stewart playbook, grunts, moans, and brays her way through a juicy role that could have been memorable in the hands of someone like Elizabeth Olsen or Rooney Mara.  Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as leading men in a love triangle (that Stone presents with some homoerotic undertones) are passable, but Kitsch really should find a role where he can channel the emotional honesty he brought to Tim Riggins on television’s “Friday Night Lights.”

Stone also finds a way to turn Oscar nominees John Travolta and Salma Hayek and winner Benicio del Toro into caricatures, particularly Hayek, whose thick accent is played for comedy.  It’s a shame that “Savages” is hijacked by its director to flaunt the peculiarities of his own mind.  The story, a caper of duplicity and cannabis, is actually quite captivating.  But to Oliver Stone, it’s merely a canvas onto which he can make his “Bonnie & Clyde.”  In the hands of a director who respects the source material enough to subvert and subdue their own tendencies if they were not suited for the story, “Savages” could have easily been something very special.  C+





REVIEW: Puss in Boots

7 03 2012

We’re all allowed some major guilty pleasures, aren’t we?

So sorry that I’m not sorry about loving “Puss in Boots.”  I’m well aware that it’s a shadow of DreamWorks Animation’s heyday of “Shrek” and “Shrek 2” (which introduced the titular character).  And it’s still no Pixar.  But the day that there’s something wrong with having a good laugh at clever wordplay and situations is a day I don’t want to see.

I was busting a gut throughout the movie, and it wasn’t even in spite of myself.  It’s delirious fun through and through, reclaiming a shrewd wit that seems to have eluded this studio’s movies for the past few years.  I’ll admit that I had my doubts about a spin-off, even if it was based on one of my favorite “Shrek” characters.  Yet once the movie began, all my doubts were put at bay and I was enjoying the movie like I was five years old again.

Antonio Banderas’ thick Spanish accent once again brings that sucker punch of spirit to the character of Puss in Boots, no longer a marginalized sideshow (can anyone say Mike Myers’ Shrek was their favorite character in the series?) but headlining a prequel to the action.  I must say, he makes a good case that DreamWorks should have spent ten years and four movies focused on him.  Trotting from pun to pun and one twisted-off fairy tale character to the next, he brings a laugh and a wide-faced grin with him wherever he goes.

Whether it’s romancing Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a perfect romantic foil, through dance battles or attempting to decode the mysterious motivations of Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis in some truly inspired vocal casting), his adventures are a blast as he pursues the golden eggs at the top of Jack’s magic beanstalk.  The story never feels like something we’ve seen before, a remarkable feat for a franchise entry.  “Puss in Boots” really is just rollicking good fun for some reason.  I could spend more time trying to figure out what exactly that reason is, but I’d rather just let its silliness be and accept the mystery.  B+ 





REVIEW: Grown Ups

19 07 2010

In “Grown Ups,” Adam Sandler and friends have three stages: childish, adolescently juvenile, and grown up.

When they are childish, the movie is old and trite.  We’ve seen all the bathroom humor, boob humor, fat humor, hot girl humor, and racial humor Sandler can throw at us.  It was funny in the ’90s whenever movies like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore” were rocking the comedy scene.  But Sandler hasn’t changed his game much since then, and it’s time to move on from the silly and stupid just to get a quick laugh.  In fact, I usually just groan now.

When they are adolescently juvenile, the movie takes flight.  I assume that a lot of this is outside the lines, improvisational stuff.  I felt like I was watching them brainstorming one-liners for SNL in the writer’s room.  It’s like they are reaching out and including us in these creative sessions as they just rattle off joke after joke.  They have some clever wordplay and witty situations when they are at this level, and it’s where they should dwell more often.

When they are grown up, the movie is corny and laughable.  There’s that obligatory “oh, we’ve been joking the whole time, let’s grow up quickly and have a lesson” scene towards the end that derails all the comedic momentum the movie built up.  And this one is so bad and so out of place I can only hope Sandler and pals meant it to play off as a giant joke.

All comics are not created equal, as the movie shows us.  Sandler writes the best for himself, making he and his wife, played by the gorgeous and incredibly out of place Salma Hayek, the only normal ones.  Compared to him, the successful Hollywood agent, we are supposed to assume that everyone else is a loser in comparison to him.  There’s the Mr. Mom played by Chris Rock, the obese therefore butt of jokes played by Kevin James, the creepy bachelor played by David Spade, and the just plain creeper played by Rob Schneider.  Spade’s bits are stale, Rock is fair, Chris Farley’s doppleganger James is good enough not to make us yearn for the late star, and Schneider is as good as he’s ever been – which is to say that he wasn’t funny then and he’s not funny now.

So in the end, it’s that creative spark that comes from just reeling off one-liners and playing off each other that saves the movie from being a total disaster.  It’s that more refined immaturity that we don’t get nearly enough of that keeps us coming back to Sandler’s movies.  Because we don’t want Adam Sandler to grow up so much as just move on.  C /





REVIEW: G-Force

2 08 2009

Believe it or not, I really don’t mind talking animal kids movies.  I risk my credibility in saying this, but I actually kind of liked “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”  I would rather watch “Alvin and the Chipmunks” than several movies nominated for Best Picture this decade.  But “G-Force” does not have the stuff to be a guilty pleasure; in fact, it doesn’t really give any sort of pleasure whatsoever.  There were only small giggles in the theater, even from the kids.  It’s a hodgepodge of kids movie clichés that fails to provide anything new and worthwhile.

The talking animals this time are guinea pigs (voiced by Salma Hayek, “30 Rock”‘s Tracy Morgan, and “Frost/Nixon”‘s Sam Rockwell) who call themselves “G-Force” and are trained to be FBI operatives.  I had struggled over a brief plot summary for the movie, but when I realized that I had written more for this dreadful movie than I had for “(500) Days of Summer,” I decided not to be so magnanimous and to make some massive cuts.  Because anybody who reads this blog would surely not in their right mind go see this movie by choice but rather because they are being dragged by their kids.  In addition, the movie really doesn’t have much of a plot.  So, to summarize, the first half involves G-Force’s escape to a pet store after a failed mission and their eventual reunion, and the second half plays out like a bad parody of “Transformers” where Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are replaced by guinea pigs.

I know that well-developed characters might be too much to ask from a kid’s movie, but it honestly feels like each of the guinea pigs just say the same thing every time their tiny mouths open.  Tracy Morgan’s is always trying to get Salma Hayek’s to go out with him, Salma Hayek’s is always cryptically speaking about who she likes, and Sam Rockwell’s is always trying to sound valiant.

I do appreciate that kid’s movies try to add a little bit of adult humor to make it enjoyable for all.  The “Shrek” movies are infinitely funnier now that I have grown up and get every little joke.  However, in “G-Force,” it just falls flat on its face.  I have never rolled my eyes so many times in such a short span.  The absolute worst comes whenever one of the guinea pigs fights a coffeemaker that has come to life, it jumps in the air and yells, “Yippie-ki-yea, coffeemaker!”  Yeah, it’s THAT bad.

I was always peeved growing up by how the critics reviewed kids movies.  I thought that they overanalyzed everything as if they expected it to be the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture.  And although they might have been a little overly critical, I now see it from their perspective.  But I also try to consider the perspective of the target audience, the tykes.  And even they didn’t seem to be riveted by “G-Force.”  It is possible to make a kids movie that is fun for all ages (see: Pixar), and this one doesn’t satiate any age.  C- / 1halfstars