Movie Reviews - 2016 postsSaturday March 18, 2017
Movie Review: A Man Called Ove (2016)
Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the quintessential grumpy old man with a heart of gold—Swedish version. He’s a widower who spends his days nitpicking over minor violations in block association rules, visiting his wife’s grave, and trying to kill himself. The neighbors keep interrupting these attempts to ask for favors. They keep blithely assuming he’s a sweetheart even though he’s shown them nothing but contempt.
It works. During the course of the movie, amid his grumblings, Ove: helps his new neighbors back their trailer into their driveway, loans them a ladder, drives them to the hospital, babysits their kids, fixes their dishwasher, teaches the Iranian wife to drive, repairs a bike, takes in a stray cat, takes in a gay kid who’s been kicked out by his homophobic dad, and saves the life of a stranger about to be run over by a train.
Then in the final showdown, he rallies the neighbors to prevent social services from taking Rune (Börge Lundberg), his onetime friend and rival for block association president, now wheelchair-bound after a stroke, and placing him in an institution against his and his wife’s wishes.
With grumpy old men like this, who needs friends?
You see early on where the movie’s going, and it gets there without many surprises. It’s about simple joys, loves, lives. Tragedy keeps intersecting with joy, but none of it feels particularly real.
- Tragedy: His father is proudly showing his teenage son’s grades around the railyard when he gets run over by a train.
- Heroism/tragedy: Shortly thereafter, he runs into a burning building to save his neighbors’ lives but gets no praise or backslaps, simply a sneer from social services, the villainous “Whiteshirts” of his imagination, who allow his own home to burn to the ground because they’re going to demolish it anyway.
- Joy: Now homeless, sleeping on a train, he runs into a beautiful, intelligent woman, Sonja (Ida Engvoll, looking like a “Twin Peaks”-era Sherilyn Fenn), and she does most of the heavy lifting to get them to the altar. What does she see in him? Who knows? He’s a tall hayseed, not particularly attractive, who can barely string two words together. But the movies are the movies.
- Tragedy: In a tour group in Spain when she’s six months pregnant, the bus goes over an embankment and Sonja loses the baby and the ability to walk.
- Overcoming tragedy: Denied teaching positions because she’s in a wheelchair, Ove builds a ramp in the rain that finally gets her the job.
None of it is grounded. The tragedy isn’t painful, the joy isn’t uplifting. It’s not life; it’s life packed in styrofoam peanuts.
There’s a kind of connective tissue between the tragedies and his old-man persnicketiness, since if people had simply been more careful most of the tragedies could’ve been avoided; but it’s not deep. There’s a kind of humor in the world’s various intrusion into his many failed attempts to kill himself, but it wears fast.
I did have one moment of true joy watching the film. Ove is reminiscing about first meeting, and discovering a kindred spirit in, Rune. Both are sticklers for block association rules, neighborhood enforcers who chase after scofflaws, and on their way to a great friendship. “Until,” Ove narrates, “we finally discovered the small difference.” Then we get a scene where young Ove, his face a mixture of confusion and betrayal, realizes Rune prefers Volvos to Saabs. That was brilliant. I laughed so hard at that.
But there wasn’t enough of it. I’ve heard the novel is better, as novels tend to be.
Movie Review: Allied (2016)
The first thing I didn’t buy in “Allied” was Brad Pitt as a Canadian from Ottawa who parachutes into North Africa in 1942 and pretends to be the Parisian husband of Marion Cotillard in front of other French speakers and Parisians. The movie gets away with it by having Cotillard tease him about his Quebec accent, then tutor him to speak Parisian. Here’s the bigger problem: There aren’t many actors who seem more American, and less Canadian, than the Oklahoma-born-and-raised Pitt. Imagine Michael Fassbender in the part and things click.
The second thing I didn’t buy was that after their successful We’ll-always-have-Casablanca mission, Pitt and Cotillard (Max and Marianne) get married and move to pre-D-Day London, where he continues spy activities while she becomes a mom and housewife. Really? She ran the Casablanca operation. She kept schooling him. Suddenly she’s taking her piece off the table? With Paris still occupied? The movie gets away with it with this second-half reveal: She isn’t the real Marianne Beausejour. The real Marianne Beausejour was killed and she’s a German spy. But then we have to buy Marion Cotillard as German, not to mention a Nazi.
This movie, in other words, puts together the most American of actors and the most French of actresses and makes them Canadian and German, respectively.
But the main thing I didn’t buy was Max’s reaction to the reveal that his wife, and the mother of his child, is really a Nazi spy. Good god.
‘I need to protect my family’
He tries to flee with her and the baby to Canada. He’s ready to betray his country, western democracy and freedom for a pretty face.
OK, if any woman is worth it, it’s Cotillard. But, dramatically, how much can the hero put personal love above country and duty and not lose our sympathy? The movie wants to evoke the romanticism of “Casablanca” but it’s really the anti-“Casablanca.” It’s telling us that the problems in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans next to three little people.
Pitt’s been here before, by the way, in a different world war: World War Z. Remember? The zombie virus strikes and Pitt’s character uses his wits and contacts to get aboard a virus-free aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, run by the U.S. government, which is searching for an antidote. They want Pitt involved. They want to send him to South Korea to help save the world. His reaction?
“I’m not your guy. I need to protect my family.”
Uhhh, dude? This is howyou protect your family. Really, this is the only way to protect your family. Added bonus: You help save the human race.
Here, Marianne reveals that, yes, she was a German spy but then she fell in love with him. Yes, she sent top-secret communiqués from London to Germany (Nazi, Germany), but only because the Germans found her, and threatened their daughter! What else could she do?
Somehow, he sees the logic in this. It could be bullshit for all he knows. She could be a full-throated, anti-Semitic, sieg-heiling, Leni Riefenstahl-watching Nazi, but he buys it, and tries to help her/them escape. When they’re caught, she has to kill herself to free him. So our heroine is a traitor who does a good deed in the end, while our hero is a man of inaction who doesn’t.
No wonder everyone was disappointed in this thing. What Rick said about himself with modesty is true of Pitt’s Max: He’s no good at being noble.
The movie starts well, despite the miscast Pitt. I particularly liked the rooftop scenes, where men go after making love to their wives, and how Max uses the excuse of the nosy neighbor to try to steal a kiss and how Marianne sees through the ruse. Check out Cotillard’s face during this scene, the myriad realizations/emotions crossing her face in seconds. Such a great actress.
The London scenes were OK. At least we had Jared Harris, always a pleasure, as Max’s commanding officer. He is good at being noble. At the airport, he tells MPs that Max shot and killed Marianne, that his friend did his duty, even as Max slumps there, an abject figure. It’s more echoes of “Casablanca,” a kind of “round up the usual suspects” on the airport tarmac. It should’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it’s the end of a less-than-beautiful movie.
Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
It’s Mel Gibson, so it’s God and gore again. Question: Is it God because of the gore? In Mel’s worldview, does the gore—the suffering, the awareness that we are meat and food for rats —lead us to God? Make us search beyond ourselves? Lift us up?
I liked “Hacksaw Ridge,” by the way. The first half is sweet, the second half harrowing and bloody. It’s mildly, unapologetically corny and not overlong.
But it begins by stealing from one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Thin Red Likeness
This is the open. We get slow-motion shots of war in the Pacific: men charging and yelling and screaming in pain and dying; and all the while a voiceover with a thick Southern accent talks about God:
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?
Sorry, that’s Pvt. Train from Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” one of the greatest movies ever made. This is what we hear in “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s the voice of our main character, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the second conscientious objector, after Sgt. York, to win the Medal of Honor, and the first to do so without carrying a weapon:
Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the Earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar like wings on eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.
It’s interesting comparing the two voiceovers. Malick’s is all question marks. It’s uncertain, questioning, probing. It’s trying to translate the awful dichotomy of the world into the oneness we long for.
Doss’ voiceover begins with a question, too, but it already has the answer (God), which it then tells us. It’s not even Doss telling us; it’s Isaiah 40, 28-31. What it says prefigures the movie’s big moment—Doss, all alone at night, rescuing 75 wounded men, one by one, who were left behind on Hacksaw Ridge—but the promise within the verse sounds odd to my secular ears. It’s a little too quid pro quo: You give God belief, He gives you energy. It’s full of the suspect promises of a late-night infomercial. Apparently God is to us as spinach is to Popeye.
From that Malick-esque open, we cut to 16 years earlier and two brothers hiking and playing and fighting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In the midst of a wrestling match on the lawn, young Desmond picks up a rock and clocks his brother, nearly killing him. In the horrified aftermath, he stands before a religious painting and its depiction of Cain and Abel, so near to what he himself did, and finds God.
Now a leap forward. Desmond is in his early 20s helping out at church when there’s a car accident out front. (The streets of rural Virginia, 1941, prove suprisingly dangerous in this film.) His makeshift tourniquet saves a leg, and at the hospital he comes across a beautiful nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he stares at starry-eyed. Their courtship is sweet. Then war calls. Despite being a Seventh-day Adventist who won’t touch a gun, Desmond signs up. He needs to do his duty.
A few thoughts on his platoon:
- I never bought Vince Vaughn as the tough-talking drill sergeant. He’s not actor enough. Also not in shape enough. At one point, he threatens his men during a march by saying they’ll have to keep going until he drops. Me: “I’ll take those odds.”
- At least, in this quintessential story, Vaughn is American. Everyone else, and I mean everyone else, is Aussie: mom (Rachel Griffiths), pop (Hugo Weaving), girl (Palmer); Smitty, Teach, Grease, Vito; Capt., Lt. Col., Col. Was it cheaper this way? Is Mel just prejudiced against Americans?
- The platoon itself is all walks of life: the tough Brooklynite, the cowboy, the Jew, the hillbilly, the card shark. Was it really like this back then? Or was it only like this in the movies back then?
- Speaking of: There’s an odd character, Zane (Luke Pegler, Aussie), who is nicknamed “Hollywood” because he loves his own looks so much. He’s got a cheesy Clark Gable moustache and a body that’s way too buff for the times. We first meet him naked, doing chinups. Once at Okinawa he's a bit cowardly. Is this Mel’s attack on Tinsel Town? Full of preeners whose muscle doesn’t match their spirit or soul?
I was a bit confused by the date they landed on Okinawa. You get the sense Doss signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor (he did: April 1, 1942), yet after basic training it’s suddenly May 1945. Where have they been for three years? Turns out Leyte and Guam, where Doss won the Bronze Star, but, for dramatic effect, Mel skips this and pretends the platoon is green.
That said, he handles the main set piece—Hacksaw Ridge, a.ka. the Maeda Escarpment—well. Does he go over-the-top with his battle scenes? Probably. It’s Mel. But we get a real feel for what it’s like to face a group of men trying to kill you. Also for how quickly our bodies become hamburger.
Aussie cast, Chinese aud
You know what’s shocking about “Hacksaw Ridge” besides the carnage? The fact that it took so long for Hollywood to tell the story. But apparently Doss didn’t want his story told. In the 1950s, producer Hal B. Wallis gave it a shot, with WWII hero Audie Murphy in the lead, but Doss wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until 2001, two years before his death, that he was finally convinced that his story should be seen on the silver screen.
Another shocker: Where was the audience? The people who say Hollywood is ignoring them and their values? This thing has God, country, good reviews, Academy Award nominations, and it was helmed by their man, crazy Mel, whose “Passion of the Christ” grossed $370 million in 2004. Yet “Hacksaw” grossed almost as much in China ($62 million) as it did here ($66). USA? USA? USA?
Movie Review: Sausage Party (2016)
The obvious one-word review of “Sausage Party”? Tasteless.
When he’s not doing stoner comedies, Seth Rogen has spent his career either buying into the tropes of Hollywood genre films (“Neighbors”), half buying into them (“The Green Hornet”), or mocking them mercilessly (“Observe and Report”). “Sausage Party” is in this last group.
It takes the Disney/Pixar love of anthropomorphism (animals, toys, and furniture), and asks, “What would happen if we did that with food?”
Great concept. When I first saw the trailer in early 2016, I roared with laughter. The food thinks it’s going to a special place, then horror ensues: the potato is painfully peeled, the iceberg lettuce torn apart, the baby carrots masticated. “They’re eating children! Fucking children!” a hot dog cries.
What makes it particularly funny is that, until that moment, all the scenes in the trailer buy into the Disney/Pixar tropes. The grocery store/kitchen is the happiest place on earth. It’s Disneyland, where everyone is clean, behaves, no one curses, and no one has genitalia or sexual urges.
That’s just the trailer, though. In the actual movie, our foodie protagonists act as horny and raunchy as dudes at a frat party. The hot dogs are all male, the buns female, the former want to get into the latter: “You know it, baby! Work those buns! ... Waiting to get filled with my meat!” Everyone’s tossing around F-bombs. It’s supposed to be shocking and funny but it’s shockingly unfunny. It’s pushing buttons that don’t produce laughter. By the time the kitchen knife comes out, the carnage is almost welcome.
Question: With the racially specific food (the Woody Allenish bagel, voiced by Ed Norton; the hard taco shell, voiced by Selma Hayek; the German mustard with the Hitler face), is this a satire of the now-embarrassing racial stereotypes of early cartoons? Or is it just an opportunity for Seth and his friends to be as politically incorrect as possible? I’m betting both. It feels like they’re enjoying it too much.
The movie was directed by animation vets Conrad Vernon (“Shrek”) and Greg Tiernan (“Thomas & Friends”), and written by the Rogen crew: Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir, Kyle Hunter and Rogen, who all worked on “This Is The End.” Goldberg goes back with Rogen to “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” days. I’m beginning to think this is good as these guys get.
Movie Review: The Founder (2016)
How often does the hero of the story become the villain of the story?
“The Founder” is the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a down-on-his-luck, 53-year-old salesman hawking milkshake mixers from the back of his car, who teams up with two California brothers to franchise a new concept, a fast-food restaurant called McDonald’s, and, through pluck, persistence and determination, turns it into a global phenomenon that on any given day feeds one percent of the world’s population.
“The Founder” is also the story of a man who steals someone else’s concept, steals someone else’s wife, breaks rules and contracts and vows and friendships, and because of his ruthless and unethical behavior becomes impossibly successful and an American icon.
Both stories are true.
A rose by any other
Before I get into the turning point of the story—how the hero becomes the villain—I’m curious if this dichotomy was the result of its filmmaking team.
There’s a scene late in “The Founder” when, after all the legal battles, one of the McDonald brothers asks Kroc why he just didn’t reproduce the concept. On the very first day, the brothers showed him everything they knew. He had the template. So why not just reproduce it elsewhere? Why franchise what they started? His answer? Their name: McDonald’s. It spoke of America, he said. It could be anything for anybody. Nobody, he added, is going to buy anything from Kroc.
In a way, I think of the filmmaking team this way, too. The movie’s screenwriter is Robert Siegel, former editor in chief of The Onion, who tends to write about the underside of the American dream (“The Wrestler”), and whose name sounds like the underside of things. Its director is John Lee Hancock, whose movies tend to have a sheen of Americana shellacked over them (“The Alamo,” “The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), and whose name, let’s face it, couldn’t sound more fucking All-American if it had been George Washington Crockett Boone. Hancock’s face fits the bill, too. He could be a movie star himself: jaw out to here. I admit, I’m a total bigot in this area. On some level, I doubt any film directed by someone as handsome as Hancock can be truly exceptional, since the handsome have no clue what life is like.
Anyway, to the turning point of the story.
Kroc starts out a hero because he’s an underdog. He’s going town to town, taking rejection after rejection, and buoying himself with a flask of courage and an LP on success that he listens to in cheap hotels at night. One day, his secretary tells him they received an order of six mixmasters from some outfit in San Bernardino but he figures that can’t be right. That would mean 30 milkshakes a minute. Nobody needs that many. So he calls them and indeed he’s corrected. They need eight.
For years I had a postcard of that original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, and when Ray drives there to see what’s up, and we get it recreated on the big screen, it’s like seeing, I don’t know, Ebbets Field or something: something iconic and American and long gone. But now here again.
Kroc, who is used to drive-ins, which thrived in the years immediately after World War II, and which tended to attracted teenagers generally and juvenile delinquents specifically, is initially confused by the place. By the time he pays, his food is there. In a paper bag rather than a tray. With no silverware. How does he eat? Where does he eat?
It was a system created by Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) after decades of failures and experimentation. They reduced the menu to its most popular items: burgers, fries, soft drinks, shakes. They set up the kitchen to maximize efficiency. They got rid of waitresses and silverware. They called it the “speed-ee system.” We call it fast food.
Kroc’s brilliant idea, to franchise what they’ve created, was actually attempted by them first. Sadly, the franchisees didn’t keep up the McDonald brothers’ standards and so they decided to abandon it rather than ruin their good name. Their name meant all. But they agree to let Ray have a go in the Midwest.
He runs into the same problems: franchisees, bankrolled by country club types, add items to the menu, don’t keep the place clean, and it becomes a J.D. hangout rather than a family-friendly hangout. So Kroc starts tapping up-and-comers like himself; people with gumption. Things take off. Except the initial contract with the McDonald brothers gives him such a small percentage of the profits (and them even less) that he’s still in danger of falling into bankruptcy. Until he runs into Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak, doomed to play smart, slick characters), who gives him a way out: buy the property where the restaurant will stand, then lease it to the franchisee. A different corporation is created for this revenue stream (initially Franchise Realty Corporation, eventually the McDonald’s Corporation), so Kroc doesn’t have to run things by the brothers. Eventually he becomes rich and powerful enough to defy them—at first in small ways, then in bigger ones—and the movie begins to focus on them more.
Which is when our hero, Ray Kroc, becomes the villain.
He is truly awful. He lawyers up—he has the money now—and he buys out their contract for a lump sum of $2.7 million and a handshake promise for one percent of the annual profits, which he reneges on. They get to keep their place but get this: They have to remove the McDonald’s name. Their name. Then, out of spite, Ray opens a McDonald’s right across the street from them and puts the original McDonald’s out of business. He also divorces his long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) and marries Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of his franchisees (Patrick Wilson). We last see our hero in 1970, practicing a speech he’ll give before Gov. Reagan, in which he extols the virtues of his All-American success story; in which he tells the Hancock side of things.
The ruthless gene
That’s the how. Another question: why did our hero become the villain?
I would argue it’s because Ray Kroc is what all hugely successful businessmen are: ruthless. Kroc was so desperate for so long that once he got his chance he let nothing, particularly ethics and morality, stand in his way. The McDonald brothers, meanwhile, are simply hard-working innovators who don’t carry the ruthless gene. You can see it in Lynch’s eyes in the last third of the movie: He’s amazed and sickened by the way Kroc acts, but helpless. As a result, the innovators get steamrolled by Kroc and by history. Their name goes global but it’s not theirs.
Ironically, “The Founder” itself got steamrolled by its distributors, the Weinstein Company, which initially planned on a Nov. 25 rollout (prime box office real estate) then shifted it to August (so so), before dumping it in the least-fertile box-office month of the year: January. It actually opened on one of our darkest days: January 20, 2017; Donald Trump’s inauguration day.
I assume then Weinsteins dumped it because they felt the movie has too much Siegel and not enough Hancock. It wasn’t feel-good enough. A shame. It may not be the movie America wants, but it’s certainly the movie America needs.