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Movie Reviews - 2016 posts

Friday March 10, 2017

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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
Hacksaw Ridge reviewThis 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?

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Posted at 06:42 AM on Mar 10, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Tuesday February 21, 2017

Movie Review: Sausage Party (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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?”

Sausage Party reviewGreat 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. 

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Posted at 02:09 PM on Feb 21, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Friday February 17, 2017

Movie Review: The Founder (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

The FounderThere’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.

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Posted at 10:45 AM on Feb 17, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Wednesday February 15, 2017

Movie Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The subtitle of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is like a warning to Hollywood execs not to resurrect franchises that did OK at the box office but hardly gangbusters; that were, as a fan might say to friends the morning after watching it on PPV, “not bad.”

Because this? This sequel to the “not bad”? It’s awful.

That doesn’t happen much with Tom Cruise movies. Say what you will about him—and we have—but he usually doesn’t pick lame projects. Usually.

Smuldering
Review of Jack Reacher: Never Go BackSo much in “Never Go Back” depends upon the sexuality of a star who seems to have little of it onscreen, and whose offscreen sexuality has been the subject of decades of rumors.

As the movie opens, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is solving cases for Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), then hitchhiking his way to the next town, a classic American drifter-hero in the mold of The Lone Ranger or Kwai Chang Caine. But with each case, and call back to Turner, the flirtation deepens, until he arrives in D.C. ready to take her to dinner and maybe back to her place. Except, darn the luck, she’s been arrested for espionage. It’s cell block as cock block.

(Question: Has Reacher ever seen Maj. Turner or did he just luck out? Did he know, for example, that she wasn’t 54 and dumpy but 34 and so smokin’ hot she should have her own adjective? I’d suggest smuldering, after the actress. You’re welcome.)

Another soupçon of sexuality comes from his classified file. Apparently Reacher is a dad. At least there was a paternity lawsuit a few years back. I assumed this, like the espionage charge against Maj. Turner, was trumped up, since the military never contacted him about it, and because he claims he remembers all the women he’s slept with. (All zero of them?) Even so, he checks out the potential offspring, a bratty 15-year-old named Samantha (Danika Yarosh), and even talks to her outside of a convenience store where she’s been shoplifting. It’s the one time in the movie when Reacher is being followed and doesn’t know he’s being followed. Photos are then taken that will come back to haunt him. Or us.

Because of course Reacher is pulled into the web. He’s accused of murdering Turner’s JAG attorney, which gets him into the same prison as Turner, which allows him to bust her loose. Sadly, when they get more intel, he realizes the bad guys know about Samantha (those photos), and they all have to go on the lam together: the aging drifter-hero, the smuldering Major, and this blonde brat who doesn’t know enough not to use a cellphone or credit card when being tracked by the NSA. Could the movie have worked without her? I don’t know. But with her it was a painful slog. I never cared for the character, the actress, any of it.

There’s a nemesis, of course, another top agent-y guy known only as “The Hunter” (Patrick Huesinger); and while Huesinger is good, the back-and-forth between the two, the taunting on the phone, tries to be McClane/Hans in “Die Hard” and fails. It also tries to be vaguely Batman/Jokerish. Hunter sees himself in Reacher: two hugely effective solo operatives. The movie undercuts this by giving Hunter henchmen: two more guys for Reacher to kill. The odds have to be further stacked against our hero.

The maguffin is Parasource, a private military contractor that’s bleeding money, so it’s smuggling opiates into the U.S. with the help of top military brass. That's right: top military brass. The movie is another gung-ho action flick with a decidedly mixed message if moviegoers ever thought about it for two seconds after the popcorn was gone.

Puff Daddy
Cruise is beginning to show his age, by the way, which is mine, 54. He still looks good, but he’s got a new puffiness around the eyes and cheeks. He’s also so slight in those skintight outfits that when he was brought into prison by a burly guard, I flashed on tiny Luke being led before the Emperor by Darth Vader. I’d suggest he try for more adult roles but in today’s Hollywood they’re hard to come by. And maybe he doesn’t want them? Maybe he wants to return to his pre-couch-jumping glory days of movie stardom? Seems so. Here’s what he has lined up for the next few years: another “M:I” sequel, a “Top Gun” sequel, and a reboot of “The Mummy.”

In “Never Go Back,” it all ends on the rooftops of New Orleans. Reacher kills The Hunter, learns the daughter isn’t his, and he and Turner don’t have sex. Then he hits the road again—the last hitchhiker in America. Sexless once more. 

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Posted at 07:28 AM on Feb 15, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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Tuesday February 14, 2017

Movie Review: Morris From America (2016)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Unique concept, poor execution.

The titular Morris (Markees Christmas), a 13-year-old, pudgy African-American kid, lives in Germany with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson of  “The Office”), a former soccer player turned coach, and navigates adolescence as a stranger in a strange land. He battles racial stereotypes (that he plays basketball well, dances well, has a big ---), pursues Katrin, a cute Geman girl two years his senior (Lina Keller), and tries his hand writing hip-hop. He visits a castle and learns German.

Morris from America movie reviewBut mostly it’s the girl and hip-hop.

Problems:

  • I didn’t buy Robinson as an international soccer player. Maybe former football player or wrestler? I also didn’t buy him as a coach. He didn’t occupy the field the way coaches do. He looked like he was a visitor; like he was trying to be inconspicuous as possible rather than standing and demanding and owning the space.
  • I didn’t like our main character at all. There wasn’t enough interesting about him, probably because he wasn’t interested in enough things. Of his two great pursuits, he wasn’t particularly good with hip-hop (until he was), and the girl was both: 1) out of his league (physically), and 2) not worth his time (she’s kind of awful). Dude, you’re in Germany. Learn, absorb, appreciate. Which of course is the lesson of the movie at the end.
  • I hated Katrin. Her prank at the party, with the fake kiss and the squirt gun to the crotch, was unforgiveable, and she never really redeemed herself. She got away with too much. What does she believe in? What does she care about? Besides her own looks and the effect it has on men/boys?
  • I didn’t like Morris’ German teacher, Inka (Carla Juri), who seems both too close/chummy with him during lessons, then reads his personal notebook and freaks at the misogynistic rap lyrics.
  • I didn’t like any of the Germans. How awful is that? Not one character is worth our time in this country? C’mon.
  • The Yankee caps don't help. 

When I rented it, I thought it was written and/or directed by Robinson, but it’s actually the work of Chad Hartigan, who was born in Cyprus, and who fetishized Katrin a little too much for my comfort level.

The last 15 minutes almost made up for the first 75, but not enough. If you haven’t bothered, don’t bother. 

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Feb 14, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2016
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