Saturday, August 27, 2016

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (Damien Chazelle, 2009)

In GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH the splashy Hollywood musical of yesteryear converges with low-budget independent filmmaking that draws inspiration from the French New Wave. The jaunty orchestral music by Justin Hurwitz suggests a widescreen Technicolor extravaganza. Instead, writer-director Damien Chazelle employs the jazz score and songs for the intimate and boxy black-and-white 16mm frame. As the music swells, it stands in stark contrast to the drab, grainy monochrome images and thus reveals the rich emotional symphony inside the characters.

The story is the essence of simplicity. Jazz trumpeter Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) are a happy couple in Boston until he meets the flirtatious Elena (Sandha Khin) on the subway. Guy breaks up with Madeline and takes up with Elena. Madeline drifts for awhile before relocating to New York City and finding a new man. Still, Guy and Madeline seem to have difficulty letting go of what they had together.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH places greater emphasis on mood than story. Naturally, this is best achieved in scenes built around musical performance. At a cramped house party Chazelle captures the feeling of having a good time while shoulder to shoulder with friends and acquaintances. In an unbroken shot the camera whips back and forth to see a singer and the trumpeter performing in close quarters but separated from the observer by the crowd and a passageway. A production number at a restaurant conveys more through song and dance about Madeline’s pent-up frustration and her decision moving forward than a mere plot point. While the comparatively bigger moments are the most demonstrative in expressing feeling, Chazelle is also capable of bringing the interior experience of loneliness to the surface through tight close-ups and lingering medium shots.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH deconstructs the film musical to its basic elements: a guy, a girl, and a song. Perhaps with a nod to Godard, Chazelle and his co-editor collapse time and dispense with narrative details that can be inferred from the gaps. Unlike the impeccably cut WHIPLASH, which Chazelle made after this, the editing rhythms are more ragged and make this relatively short feature feel much longer than 82 minutes.

Whether or not GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH was Chazelle’s thesis film, it comes across as an ambitious project mounted to cap the pursuit of a graduate degree in the arts. The filmmaker’s raw talent is on display while the learning happening behind the camera remains evident. While the roughness in Chazelle’s debut adds some vitality, the film may be more of interest as an intriguing first pass than as a wholly successful enterprise. Based on the huge leap from this to WHIPLASH, it’s exciting to anticipate how his upcoming musical LA LA LAND with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone might turn out.

Grade: C+

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hell or High Water

HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie, 2016)

The Howard brothers turn to a life of crime to save their deceased mother’s West Texas ranch in HELL OR HIGH WATER. Older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) has already done hard time for stealing, so he has no compunction about holding up branches of the bank they owe in order to raise the capital to retain ownership of family property. Toby (Chris Pine) is less enamored of the idea of using illegal means to provide for the well-being of his two sons living with his ex-wife, but if this is the only option available to him, then at least he can concoct a plan that will hopefully keep them or anyone else from getting hurt.

Tanner and Toby try to strike early when fewer people are around and stick to stealing loose, low denomination bills in the cashiers’ drawers so that the money is untraceable. Their thefts aren’t big enough to attract the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leaving the pursuit of these bank robbers to Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is close to a retirement he’s less than eager to settle into, so he welcomes the opportunity to mix it up in the field perhaps one last time.

HELL OR HIGH WATER alternates scenes between duos on opposite sides of law with the expectation that at some point their paths will cross. Dividing the time about evenly gives space for empathizing with the circumstances that have brought Tanner and Toby to this point and to admire the ingenuity of and poetic revenge in the thieves’ methods. What they’re doing is wrong, yet it doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted either. The split focus also permits the lawmen to take on some added gravity. Rooting interests may favor the righteous brothers, but Marcus and Alberto come across as principled upkeepers of the code.

While the recession and its aftermath weigh on characters grieving for what has been or will be lost, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote SICARIO, manages to carve out ample room for humor. Foster has a grand time savoring the bond Tanner forms through crime with his less enthusiastic sibling. HIs character would probably commit these acts for kicks, so being able to carry them out in the name of self-justified justice and familial preservation is the icing on the cake. Bridges’ gruffness is never not a source of amusement. He busts the chops of his partner in a way that is easier for men in a tough job to express affection. Marcus baits Alberto with cracks on his heritage and may get under his partner’s skin on occasion, but mostly they give the sense of mutually respecting co-workers who have to tease one another to share the closeness they feel.

HELL OR HIGH WATER takes delight in the color found in declining small towns dotting the landscape. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the scene in which an elderly, no guff-taking waitress asks for the Rangers’ diner orders by barking “What don’t you want?” at them. Coming from her it’s an accusation more than a question. 88-year-old actress Margaret Bowman makes a meal of her handful of lines by pinning them to their seats with enough sharp attitude to castrate a bull in a single flick. In a film that examines the motivating force of taking what one feels is deserved, such behavior could not be encapsulated more effectively.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sausage Party

SAUSAGE PARTY (Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, 2016)

With computer-animated foodstuffs discussing the involvement of a divine force in their lives, SAUSAGE PARTY bears some similarity to VEGGIETALES, although the relentlessly vulgar comedy with an atheistic perspective makes abundantly clear where it parts ways with the Christian lessons for kids. There’s no denying the boldness of SAUSAGE PARTY in using the forms of animation and raunchy comedy to explore something more serious than audiences might expect. Imagine TOY STORY, in which inanimate objects receive a revelation about the whims of those they are devoted to, and cross it with the muddled theology and scatological comedy of Kevin Smith’s DOGMA for some approximation of what has been cooked up.

The items on grocery store shelves patiently await the day when they will be chosen by the gods, otherwise known as the shoppers. WIth the 4th of July nearing, chances are greater for many that their time to discover the life that awaits beyond what they can observe is imminent. Among the faithful waiting their turn is Frank (Seth Rogen), a sausage who hopes to be selected at the same time as his hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who is in a package next to his on an endcap display.

Indeed, fortune smiles upon them when a woman puts them both in her cart, but a returned jar of of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) warns that the paradise they’ve been promised does not exist outside Shopwell’s doors. An accident separates Frank, Brenda, Sammy the bagel (Edward Norton), and a contentious lavash named Kareem (David Krumholtz) from the items that leave the store. Also left behind in the scrum is Douche (Nick Kroll), who is damaged and discarded. He holds Frank accountable for his fate and vows revenge. Meanwhile, Frank learns that Honey Mustard was right about the horrible truth outside the grocery and wants to share the news with the others.

SAUSAGE PARTY is every bit as self-satisfied and strident as any evangelical entertainment meant to witness to the masses. Those looking for well-reasoned arguments critical of and against religious beliefs best look elsewhere from the gleeful bomb-throwing here. The screenplay by Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir possesses the intellectual swagger of a college freshman with a smidgen of exposure to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. The rebellious pushback manifests as reductive posturing masquerading as cogent thought. Such a shrill response to faith kind of makes the film as humorless as those the makers might accuse their opposition of being.

SAUSAGE PARTY also treads the line between ironic stereotyping and demeaning characterizations based on ethnicity, sexuality, and creed. For comedians pushing boundaries to mock unenlightened thinking, this is notoriously tricky terrain. In execution SAUSAGE PARTY’s jokes play closer to regressive reinforcement than comedic immolation of stereotypes. The filmmakers pay a lot of attention to the planks in the eyes of those with whom they disagree but fail to notice those in their own views.

Grade: C-

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Pete's Dragon

PETE’S DRAGON (Don Chaffey, 1977)

Pete (Sean Marshall) and his best pal, the cartoon dragon Elliott (voiced by Charlie Callas), run away from the abusive, dirt-encrusted Gogan family that bought the orphan to perform manual labor on their farm. In the musical PETE’S DRAGON the boy and his protector wander into the fishing community of Passamaquoddy hoping to make a fresh start. Elliott can turn himself invisible, which he does so as not to spook the townsfolk, but as might be expected with a big, friendly monster galumphing through town, he creates a mess in his wake, thus earning Pete the scorn of most of these new people.

Nora (Helen Reddy) spots Pete--but not a cloaked Elliott--as they prepare to take shelter in a cave along the coast. She operates the lighthouse with her probably alcoholic father Lampie (Mickey Rooney) and invites the boy to come with her for a warm home and meal. Like Pete, Nora is also adrift, having lost her fiancĂ© Paul (Cal Bartlett) at sea a year ago. Nora quickly takes a shine to Pete, and he to her even if the rest of Passamaquoddy’s citizens hold his dragon accountable for the fishermen’s now-empty nets. More trouble arrives when Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his traveling medicine show come crashing into town. The doc’s assistant Hoagy (Red Buttons) tells his quack boss about Elliott, whom he encounters when he and Lampie are getting loaded. Dr. Terminus considers a dragon to be a jackpot to harvest for his elixirs and potions and plots to acquire Elliott, whether by purchase or force.

With his bottom-heavy physique and two small, pink, bat-like wings, Elliott does not look a creature that nature designed to function. The same goes for the disproportional PETE’S DRAGON. Nearly three-quarters of its slightly more than two hours seem like first act establishment. There’s a remarkably small amount of time devoted to Pete and his animated friend but more than enough to go around for the shilling and scheming by the snake oil salesman. The pacing lumbers too. When multiple conflicts converge in the final quarter, the resolutions take seemingly forever.

Although the song “Candle on the Water” and the original song score earned the film two Academy Award nominations, this is not a classic Disney musical. The music and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn result in a set of passable but unmemorable show tunes. The Broadway-style mugging in the performances attempts to inject feeling into the emotional void of a screenplay. Pete ought to be a really sympathetic character. The film doesn’t make a fuss about the treatment he previously endured, but it’s unmistakable that the Gogans beat the boy. Nevertheless, Pete gets lost among the other storylines. Everything that unfolds happens in such a schematic manner that it fails to achieve the impact that a more focused script might have.

The hand-drawn animated Elliot is integrated nicely into the live action, but the character lacks personality. The biggest miscalculation may be having Elliott communicate through gibberish and clicks rather than speaking (although he can say “boo”). This just leads to is Pete performing a lot of translation. When Pete chastises Elliott for ruining everything in town and then makes up with him, it’s a potent emotional moment because it’s a rare occasion that the two are interacting rather than Pete serving as a conduit to explain Elliott’s side of the conversation. Remove the fantastical element and PETE’S DRAGON is essentially a boy and his dog searching for a home, yet it fails to develop the relationship between them or Pete and his newfound family beyond broad strokes.

Grade: C-

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bad Moms

BAD MOMS (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, 2016)

Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) manages to juggle two kids in school and all the associated obligations, part-time work at a coffee co-op that’s more like a full-time job, and the culturally expected duties of an American wife at home. When she discovers her man-child husband having an affair via webcam, she kicks him out of the house. In BAD MOMS Amy can deal with a failing marriage, but she can no longer put up with the demands of the Parent-Teacher Association president Gwendolyn James (Christina Applegate). Her refusal to go along with rigid PTA orders puts her on Gwendolyn’s enemies list but wins her the appreciation of Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell), two other overwhelmed mothers.

As a single mother and shameless flirt, Carla is pleased to make the acquaintance of someone else who has run afoul of the school’s parental hierarchy. Kiki is just happy to socialize with anyone, as her four kids give her virtually no time for herself. Amy, Carla, and Kiki are tired of the pressure to live up to an unattainable standard and thus vow from now on to be bad moms, although Carla was kind of already on that path regardless. If they want to do lunch and hang out at the movies in the middle of the day, so be it. They enjoy cutting loose for a while, but inevitably their flouting of the unspoken rules for mothers begins to have adverse effects on them and their families.

BAD MOMS is written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the duo that also wrote THE HANGOVER. While the women get to exercise some of their worst behavior, within reason, the film contains the sentimentality and platitudes of a Mother’s Day card, albeit one with a lot more dirty words. Unlike THE HANGOVER’s Wolfpack, whose raucous and destructive behavior gets accepted with a wink because boys will be boys, the moms don’t behave irresponsibly to a similar degree. The moms, of course, aren’t really bad; they just feel that way because of how they and others have defined their societal roles. Even within a film providing fleeting wish fulfillment for mothers, BAD MOMS has a hard time letting these women enjoy some guilt-free relief because we know somebody has to keep everything just so and it won’t be dads, amirite. *fist bump*

In fairness, the double standard gets challenged with Hahn’s Carla, who presents herself as an exception to the hard-striving mother ideal. She doesn’t seem to sweat her questionable actions or much of anything. When the moms share stories of parental mistakes, only her anecdotes cross the line between female bonding through mutual understanding and thinking about calling children’s protective services. Where Amy and Kiki are held back as characters because they are ultimately intended to be empowering figures, Hahn gives a bawdy performance that delivers on the concept of suburban moms breaking bad. Carla isn’t trying to impress anyone, so Hahn is allowed to let her wildness be expressed most humorously.

Bell’s reactions are quite amusing when Kiki unwittingly finds herself and her hooded sweatshirt being used to demonstrate how to manipulate an uncircumcised penis. She’s also funny responding to any bit of socializing like patiently-awaited scraps from the table. BAD MOMS is less sure of how to use Kunis’s comedic skills and often resorts to the jokes stemming from her aggression and humiliation. Overall, the film leaves the lingering feeling that these funny women and others in the cast have been shortchanged by a screenplay that finds the idea of moms who buck the norms to balance their lives as parents, spouses, and individuals more hilarious than the reality of them doing it.

Grade: C

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Jason Bourne

JASON BOURNE (Paul Greengrass, 2016)

In JASON BOURNE the title character (Matt Damon) is regaining his memory while staying off the CIA’s radar, but he still has questions about his nebulous past before becoming an operative for the agency. Former colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA and obtain files key to helping Bourne understand who has used and deceived him for many years. Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), head of the CIA’s cyber unit, spots Parsons’ activity and manages to place malware on the downloaded files, although important information is still in the hands of a rogue agent.

Parsons arranges to meet Bourne in Athens while intelligence officials strategize how to nab or eliminate them. As the chase spreads to Berlin and then London, Lee appeals to CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) to let her oversee the operation to bring Bourne back in and reestablish him as the valuable asset he is. Meanwhile, Dewey faces another threat to the agency’s power and secrecy when Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of a social media corporation, threatens to come clean about the confidential funding that makes his company complicit with government surveillance of the population.

As the fifth film in the series, the fourth with Damon’s Bourne character, it comes as no surprise that JASON BOURNE is essentially another serving of what has been delivered in the past. Director and co-writer Paul Greengrass is at the helm for the third time of the frenetically-shot and crisply edited action series. Editor Christopher Rouse has a co-screenwriting credit. Without knowing Rouse’s specific contributions, it makes a lot of sense for him to be credited there, as JASON BOURNE is told largely through how it’s cut. Strip the film of its dialogue, and there’s probably little crucial information the audience would miss. In the global marketplace, this film represents close to the ideal: an action movie that translates regardless of language or subtitles.

There’s much to admire on a purely technical level about how the action is sculpted. Although events often unfold in chaotic situations with a bobbing camera and short shot lengths, Greengrass and Rouse keep the viewer oriented. For all of the activity within the frames and the speed with which they change, these sequences remain coherent rather than merging into one big blur of sound and sensation. The sheer volume of frenzied pursuits and combat threatens to engulf all else. After JASON BOURNE arrives in Las Vegas and builds to a furious climax, the unrelenting motion earns hard-won appreciation, but for the first half the busy nature and usual cover-up particulars make a bland return of the star actor to the franchise.

Damon may be back back in the role for the first time in nine years, but he’s treated as if a computer scan was made of him and then animated to suit the script’s needs. It’s no reflection on Damon as a performer; he’s just playing an impersonal part in a two-hour action whirlwind. If Bourne is being fashioned as an American James Bond, then the character needs to be given the space to have a personality or be somewhat less task-oriented. Otherwise he’s just an avatar in well-executed fight scenes.

Grade: C+