Thursday, March 9, 2017

Turned to 11

Sausage Party (2016): written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir; directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon; starring the voices of Seth Rogen (Frank), Jonah Hill (Carl), James Franco (Druggie), Michael Cera (Barry), Kristen Wiig (Brenda), Edward Norton (Sammy), David Krumholtz (Lavash), and Salma Hayek (Teresa): The film-makers reportedly really screwed over their animators so as to get the budget for this R-rated animated movie under $30 million. That's bad. The movie is pretty good and extremely filthy. 

In the world of Sausage Party, all food is sentient. I don't mean cows or chickens. I mean Twinkies and hot dogs. The premise is both bizarre and, by the end, what I assume to be an unintentional nod to the early H.P. Lovecraft story "From Beyond." The food in a supermarket believes it's going to Heaven when it's purchased. So you can see that expectations will be crushed. Along the way, Sausage Party makes a not-so-subtle endorsement of Atheism. One doesn't normally get an argument for Atheism and a five-minute animated orgy in the same film, so this is ground-breaking stuff. Recommended.


Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016): based on an ad in Craigslist; written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien; directed by Jake Szymanski; starring Zac Efron (Dave), Adam Devine (Mike), Anna Kendrick (Alice), Aubrey Plaza (Tatiana), Sam Richardson (Eric) and Sugar Lyn Beard (Jeanie): Amiable time-waster of a comedy advertised as a shocking laughfest but too timid and sentimental to actually be that shocking laughfest. 

I suppose it's instructive that the gross comedy 'shocks' all involve women having things done to them by men or other women; Mike and Dave emerge physically unscathed. Zac Ephron is affable, Adam Devine is annoying, and the three main female leads all seem to be acting in another, better, funnier movie. Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza and Canadian Sugar (!) Lyn Beard really do the heavy comedy lifting. I'm pretty sure this is the first movie to be based on an ad in Craigslist. I'm shocked that it didn't get a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. Very lightly recommended.


Winter's Bone (2010): adapted by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell; directed by Debra Granik; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Ree) and John Hawkes (Teardrop): Set in the dystopic rural backwaters of Missouri, Winter's Bone  earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and announced the arrival of a teen-aged Jennifer Lawrence with a Best Actress nomination for her.

Most of the actors who surround Lawrence are amateurs tapped for their local authenticity. I didn't notice. The acting is fine from everyone, and especially so from Lawrence and John Hawkes. Everything seems authentic, though the movie is a Quest Narrative, about as long-standing a story structure as there is. The plot manages to avoid stereotypes in its depiction of its blighted rural areas and their impoverished residents. 

There's an almost dystopic feel to the movie. One can see how the producers of The Hunger Games franchise, seeing this film, would think to cast Lawrence as the heroine of that series. But her quest here, grounded in horrifying reality, is a far more compelling journey through the night. Highly recommended.


The Conjuring 2: Electric Boobooboo! (2016): written by Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, and David Leslie Johnson; directed by James Wan; starring Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren) and Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren): The Enfield Poltergeist, famous in England in the 1970's, is a 'real' haunting so goofy it pretty much debunked itself. However, in the world of The Conjuring franchise, Ed and Lorraine Warren are tireless crusaders against supernatural evil and not con artists. And crap like the Enfield Haunting is, well, a real haunting -- but even moreso! Now with 100% more Zuul-level demons than in 'real life'!!!!

If you drink a shot every time the director and screenwriters swipe from another, better supernatural horror film, you may be dead by the second hour of The Conjuring 2. Everything from the basement in Evil Dead 2 to the Danny-throws-a-rubber-ball scene in The Shining shows up. The Amityville Horror itself occupies part of the film's first act, with the Warrens debunking the debunkers who dare to challenge the veracity of The Amityville Horror, one of roughly a million 'real-life' hauntings the Warrens 'investigated' over the years.

Then we're in Merrie Olde Englande in the 1970's. The Warrens ostensibly operate as stealth agents for The Church (it's not named, but simply strongly hinted to be the Roman Catholic Church) as they investigate The Enfield Haunting. See, the Vatican relies on the Warrens to vet supernatural occurrences before sending in their exorcists so as to avoid public embarrassment should the Church accidentally try to exorcise a demon who doesn't actually exist. What, you say? Yes! No, seriously, what???????

So some 12-year-old girl gets punished for holding her friend's cigarette by having the forces of Hell unleashed on her and her family. No, that's really how the plot works in its depiction of supernatural cause-and-effect. A lot of rote supernatural stuff happens. A reel-to-reel recorder plays a key part, as does some demonology that seems... goofy. People who debunk psychic and supernatural phenomena are the secret monsters of the narrative: how dare they point out moments of clear fakery! Oh, the temerity of these godless atheists!

Anyway, it's a shitty film made by dunderheads that plays to an audience of brain-damaged Christians and fellow travelers with its Christian iconography and utterly debased and impoverished version of Catholicism. Of course it made money. Not recommended.


Logan's Run (1976): adapted by David Zelag Goodman from the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson; directed by Michael Anderson; starring Michael York (Logan), Richard Jordan (Francis), Jenny Agutter (Jessica), Peter Ustinov (Old Man), Farrah Fawcett (Holly), and Roscoe Lee Browne (Box): Logan's Run is an enjoyable scifi action-dystopia made from a superior novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. 

In the future, the State kills everyone at 30. Prior to that they live sybaritic lives inside a giant Dome. What's outside the Dome? Well, you'll find out.  Michael York is typically fine as Logan-5, a Sandman (the name for the people who hunt down those who don't want to die at 30) who is assigned to find out where the fugitives -- dubbed Runners -- are trying to run to. Jenny Agutter plays Jessica-6, his initially reluctant love interest. 

There are some stunning, disturbing visuals once Logan and Jessica reach the realm of the cybernetic ice sculptor Box. Peter Ustinov shows up towards the end as a guy who lives with a lot of cats and keeps quoting T.S. Eliot. Clearly, he's a metaphor for Ezra Pound. Recommended.


Independence Day: Resurgence (2016): written by at least five idiots; directed by an idiot; starring a bunch of young, boring actors along with Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, Judd Hirsch, and Jeff Goldblum desperately hamming up a storm. Not starring the incredibly lucky Will Smith.

Oh, what a terrible movie is Independence Day: Resurgence. Maybe they could have improved it with the tagline THEY CAME TO STEAL EARTH's MAGMA! The first 40 minutes are a tolerable rip-off of the first 40 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as things happen around the world to suggest that the aliens of Independence Day are coming back. Note that I said 'tolerable,' not 'good.' 

Everything goes to Hell after that in a stunning combination of stupid writing, confusing aerial combat scenes, dull acting, and a fifteen-minute sub-plot involving Judd Hirsch, who doesn't seem to have aged since the first movie, driving a schoolbus full of abandoned children from the Atlantic Coast to Area 51 in Nevada so that the children can be threatened by the inevitable alien attack on Area 51 at the climax of the movie. Based on the amount of screen time Hirsch gets, Judd Hirsch fans were clearly the target demographic of this sequel. People have been musing for the last 20 years on the question, "Geez, what happened to Judd Hirsch's character after the end of Independence Day?".

The final battle is a lot like a Boss Fight from an indifferent computer game circa 1999. At one point, the filmmakers, led by King Idiots Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, no doubt, crib a concept from Ender's Game. Ender's Game! Actually, two concepts. Neither of those concepts involve sucking all the magma out of Earth's core, however. That's all Devlin and Emmerich and the half-dozen or so other people listed as having written this colossal turd of a movie. The ending promises a sequel. Please, God, no. Really not recommended.


9 to 5 (1980): written by Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins; directed by Colin Higgins; starring Jane Fonda (Judy Bernly), Lily Tomlin (Violet Newstead), Dolly Parton (Doralee Rhodes), Dabney Coleman (Franklin Hart, Jr.), and Sterling Hayden (The Chairman): Writer-director Colin Higgins hit it out of the park twice with Foul Play and then 9 to 5. And 9 to 5 still has the capacity to surprise with its unapologetically feminist vision of the workplace and the eternal cruddiness of so many men. 

Jane Fonda plays amusingly against type as a mousy divorcee forced into the workplace. Lily Tomlin is funny and acerbically fierce as a woman whose great ideas are stolen repeatedly by her horrible boss, played wonderfully by Dabney Coleman in a career-making role. Dolly Parton is also terrific as that terrible boss' terribly harassed assistant. You could remake this movie almost verbatim today. It's funny and sharp and witty. Highly recommended.


The Silence of the Lambs (1991): adapted by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris; directed by Jonathan Demme; starring Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Anthony Heald (Dr. Chilton), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), and Ted Levine (Jame Gumb): More than 25 years later, The Silence of the Lambs still sings with the force and presence of Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Foster. And the plot sings too -- or at least hums from beginning to end with urgency and horror and sympathy and dread.

Overall, I think Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris' first novel featuring Hannibal Lecter, Manhunter (adapting the novel Red Dragon) is the superior work. Why? Mann is a better visual director than Jonathan Demme, and he makes more interesting choices in terms of set design and terrifying set-pieces with unusual musical accompaniment. Demme goes for the obvious by making both Lecter's part of the mental asylum and the basement of serial killer Jame Gumb into dripping medieval prisons. And his Jame Gumb never comes into focus as a sinister character -- he remains a scary freak right to the end, unlike Tom Noonan's human monster in Manhunter.

Still, Jodie Foster deserved her Best Actress Oscar. It's harder to judge Anthony Hopkins' Lecter now, overlaid as he is by another 25 years of improbable, omniscient, omnipotent serial killers. 

The movie is relentlessly feminist in a strangely satisfying way for a thriller: even the best of men ignore women when they're not either hitting on them or using them as bait. Or murdering and skinning them. These 'bad man' moments are almost all peculiar to the movie, as screenwriter Ted Tally either omits or rewrites certain male characters to highlight Clarice Starling's embattled solitude in a Man's World. Jesus, though, Jame Gumb has the world's most anomalously large basement. Highly recommended.


Defendor (2009): written and directed by Peter Stebbings; starring Woody Harrelson (Arthur/ Defendor), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Dooney), Michael Kelly (Paul Carter), Sandra Oh (Dr. Park), Kat Dennings (Kat), and Clark Johnson (Capt. Fairbanks): This clever Canadian superhero movie straddles the realms of drama and satire expertly enough that even at the end, it's not entirely clear where its heart lies. Is Woody Harrelson's titular, mentally challenged vigilante heroic or a commentary on the stupidity of superhero movies? 

I don't really know, but wherever the truth lies, Defendor is far more enjoyable a superhero film, satiric or straight, than all but a handful of the big-budget studio productions. Kat Dennings is surprisingly tolerable as a hooker with a heart of gold. There's some funny stuff here, including Defendor's use of wasps as a crime-fighting tool. Somebody call the Red Bee! Recommended.


Lethal Weapon (1987): written by Shane Black; directed by Richard Donner; starring Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs), Danny Glover (Roger Murtaugh), Gary Busey (Mr. Joshua), and Mitchell Ryan (The General): Screenwriter Shane Black set Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 at Christmas. Why? Not sure. 

In any case, Lethal Weapon holds up pretty well. It helps that the stunts have to be real and not CGI and that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover share a certain chemistry. Mel's mullet is a little distracting, though. The dialogue crackles for the most part and the action scenes stay just this side of possible. It's remembered fondly -- and spawned three sequels and now a rebooted TV series -- because it's better than it has any right to be. Recommended.



Natural Born Killers (1994): written by Quentin Tarantino, David Velez, Richard Rutowski, and Oliver Stone; directed by Oliver Stone; starring Woody Harrelson (Mickey), Juliette Lewis (Mallory), Tom Sizemore (Scagnetti), Rodney Dangerfield (Mallory's Father), Russell Means (Old Indian), Robert Downey, Jr. (Wayne Gale), and Tommy Lee Jones (Warden McClusky): Still as bracing and fresh and horrifying and pertinent and exciting and revolting now as it was in 1994. Maybe moreso. 

From a story by Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers is the best movie either Tarantino or director/co-writer Oliver Stone was ever involved with. The often dizzying shifts in film stock and POV mark a progression for Stone from similar effects in JFK. They also anticipate Tarantino's Kill Bill, only here they're actually about something other than Tarantino's desire to wow while remaining substanceless. 

You could call it American Scream. You could call it American Dream. It's uncompromising in the most disturbing of ways, a restless meditation on a society's love of violence and the media's love of anything that secures ratings, no matter how vile or dangerous. 

I think it's a Top 100 All-Timer, a Juvenalian yawp of barbaric, cosmic, comic horror. The whole cast dazzles, though none moreso than Rodney Dangerfield as a monstrous father to Juliette Lewis' monstrous daughter. The soundtrack/score is also a triumph, highlighted by a repeated use of Leonard Cohen as a sort of mournful commentator-in-song on the horrors onscreen, suggesting that Stone may have actually read Cohen's Beautiful Losers. This is Trump's America. You're soaking in it. Highly recommended.

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