August 31, 2016

Gene Wilder: The Gentle, Insane Genius

To generations of kids, now grown up, Gene Wilder will always be the madcap maestro of candy, Willy Wonka. But for me, I can't help but picture him in 1968's The Producers, screaming frenetically on the floor to a bewildered Zero Mostel, "You're going to jump on me! I know you're gonna jump on me!" Wilder, who died this week at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease, had a seemingly endless reservoir of insane comic energy. He gave voice to all of us who were being jumped on by life, because he could scream and flail and cry when we couldn't. In Willy Wonka that energy is relatively reserved, which is why that performance is somewhat unsettling, somewhat less than all the others: the fact that he’s exercising control of this madness feels almost like a false note. I don’t mean to criticize the performance, especially since I too grew up loving Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But have you seen Gene Wilder in The Producers

But when you compare Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka to Gene Wilder in The Producers, or Young Frankenstein, you realize just how much he was capable of going bonkers on camera, of channeling that comic energy into a brilliant force that filled us with glee. For me, Gene Wilder's loss of control on screen became a weird source of comfort. I think of the scene in Young Frankenstein when Wilder, playing the tormented grandson of Victor Frankenstein, accidentally spears himself with a scalpel during a rant to a smug medical student, like a maestro ushering in the final note of a symphony with the wave of his baton. He gathers his composure and dismisses the class before plucking the scalpel out of his leg. That marriage of chaos and control, of gentleness and genius, is what made Gene Wilder a great performer. 

Mel Brooks got a lot of mileage out of Gene Wilder, casting him in his directing debut, 1968’s The Producers as a sad, meek little man, a tax attorney named Leopold Bloom. Bloom is terrified of his business partner, the big-as-life Max Bialystok (played by the sweaty, comb-over-wearing, scenery-chewing Zero Mostel). When he enters the first scene of the movie, Max is engaged in foreplay with an 80-year-old rich woman. Bloom is horrified and embarrassed, and so neurotic that he can barely bring himself to speak, let alone flee the scene and forget he ever saw anything in the first place. But that scared deer-in-headlights look soon transforms into mania, when Max gets in Bloom’s face and Bloom explodes. Nobody ever screamed as humanly as Gene Wilder did. A Gene Wilder scream isn’t scary or unnerving, it's funny and sympathetic and full. 

In Blazing Saddles, which required Wilder to play a more subdued character (a drunk gunslinger-turned-deputy), that sweet, serene nature was enough to win us over; and it was the antidote to the toxic racism lampooned within Blazing Saddles. When Bart, the first black sheriff of Rock Ridge (played with aplomb and savvy by Cleavon Little) returns from a humiliating walk about town, it's Gene Wilder's sad Jim who makes him feel better: "These are people of the land: you know, morons!" Little laughs, and it's as though a weight has been shattered. That was what Gene Wilder did. 

Wilder showed early promise in a small appearance in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, where he played a similar character to Leopold Bloom: a neurotic nobody who gets temporarily swept up in the drama of the criminals. And even in lesser works, like The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975, which he also directed), or the 1986 fiasco Haunted Honeymoon (co-starring his wife, the wonderful Gilda Radner) or the forced 1989 Richard Pryor vehicle See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Gene Wilder shows up and gives everything he’s got. 

In his final acting appearances, on two episodes of Will and Grace, Wilder played Will Truman’s eccentric boss, who strikes up an unlikely romance with the drunk, monstrously funny Karen (Megan Mullally, in some ways a New Wave Madeline Kahn) after the two of them, along with Will, have all sworn off dating because it’s only brought them heartache. While Will is distracted, they paw at each other like two teenagers at a Christian summer camp, hurrying back to neutral position as soon as Will returns; later, in an office meeting, Wilder resorts to his classic approach: speaking in that soft, lilting voice just before furiously banging his hands on the table in a frenzy of energy, just like he did in Young Frankenstein when Teri Garr said, “Look! You haven’t even touched your dinner.”

Or when he made Garr, Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman promise not to let him out of the monster’s prison cell, no matter how much he pleaded. Cut to a frantic Wilder pounding on the door as the agitated monster approaches: “Get me out of here. Get me the hell out of here. Son-of-a-bitch-dumb-bastards! I’ll kick your rotten heads in!” Every Gene Wilder performance had real power in it, and almost every Gene Wilder performance had anger in it. But that anger was never threatening. Wilder never looked more himself than he did sporting that frizzy, crazy, electrified hair: the hairdo equivalent to a Gene Wilder performance. 

'Hell or High Water' takes an honest look at poverty and crime in America.

Hell or High Water is a stark and pungent film about two brothers in Central Texas who go on a bank robbing spree, and the two taciturn Texas rangers who doggedly pursue them. Although the film recalls the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men— both take place in Texas, both involve stolen money and the good and bad guys chasing after it, and both take on a generally cool, detached tone, one that matches the austere Texas wilderness—Hell or High Water doesn’t strive for grandiosity as much as No Country does. No Country For Old Men has a monumental cruelty that slaps you in the face. (And I should clarify, I think it’s one of the Coen Brothers’ finest films.) But it’s a relief that Hell or High Water doesn’t aim for such devastating depths: at its core, Hell or High Water is a simple story about a man who cannot obey the law (Ben Foster), and his brother (Chris Pine), whose circumstances draw him into the same volatile world. 

But that’s not to say this movie doesn’t have something to say. The director, David Mackenzie, situates his story in a lonely human wilderness, a vast, sprawling mausoleum of dead towns plagued with poverty like it’s a contagious disease. As Toby and Tanner drive from one job to the next and back to their isolated house, where they bury their beat-up getaway cars in the earth, we see billboards dotting the narrow highways: “Are you in debt?” Mackenzie has social consciousness, and like Bonnie and Clyde, circumstances are meant to melt our hearts toward the criminals. Toby (Pine) wants to save his sons from the chief problem of society: a lack of money. His brother Tanner (Foster) is too far gone (he's already spent time behind bars) to do anything legal. Tanner has a crazy gleam in his eye, as though robbing banks provides the only satisfying scratch to an interminable itch.

That itch haunts Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) too. He’s weeks away from retiring, and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a half-Mexican, half-Native American with almost as many years of service under his belt, suspects that Marcus has fixated on the robberies to prolong his career, to stave off the inevitability of sitting on the porch with nothing to do. The itch is a need for purpose. So these two over-the-hill rangers travel to godforsaken little Texas towns and stake out banks, and eat at skeezy little dives where hard, pissed-off waitresses say things like, “I’m hot…and not the good kind.”

Marcus is old school. If it weren’t for his career as a Texas ranger, Marcus would be propped in front of Fox News waiting to cast his vote for Donald Trump. He picks mercilessly at Alberto, employing every Mexican slur and stereotype he can. “I’m half-Indian, too” Alberto responds calmly while in a cheap motel, the TV blaring some televangelist’s glad-handing promises about religion. “I’ll get to those when I run out of Mexican jokes,” Marcus assures him. Their banter—actually it’s mostly just Marcus’s one-sided insults—is supposed to be funny, and it is to a point, although it’s never clear what we’re supposed to be laughing at: the racist jokes themselves, or the stupidity of the racist. Their relationship is predictable: We know they will grow to care about each other despite the jabbering. “When you’re standing over my grave, my insults will be the thing you miss most,” Marcus promises. Amusing, but also a bit too self-conscious, as though Mackenzie and screenwriter Tayler Sheridan were themselves nervous about the racist jabs. 

What lingers in the memory about Hell or High Water, though, is the film’s sly tenderness. These hardened men do have compassion in them, tenderness inexplicable as the act of bleeding water from a stone. And, like The Big Short, this movie wages a sassy, insouciant takedown of the economic inequities that we like to pretend don’t exist. When Toby and Tanner are having lunch at a diner, Toby makes nice with a friendly waitress who’s got a mellifluous Southern drawl and a motherly figure: she’s struggling to make rent, and he leaves her 200 dollars for a tip. When the rangers interrogate her later, she refuses to rat them out or turn over the money. Hell or High Water finds nobility in looking out for yourself. These folks don’t hedge: they know what they need, and they know how to get it. That’s far more admirable than the millionaires on Wall Street, counting their millions like grubby little American Scrooges.

And that's not to say that we're supposed to approve of these men for robbing banks. The movie never gives them a pass. But, like any good crime film, it humanizes the criminals, reminding us that we aren't as far removed from them as we like to think. 

August 27, 2016

"Maggie's Plan" insists that you CAN return your annoying husband back to his first wife, for a full refund.

What do you do if you’re in a bad marriage with a man who’s still in love with his ex-wife? Well, if you’re Maggie, you hope and pray that you can give him back for a refund. That’s the “plan” at the heart of the movie Maggie’s Plan, a Parent Trap of a different sort, and a film that happily thwarts the conventions of the romantic comedy. Maggie’s Plan itself is not a romantic comedy proper, but somewhere inside, there is a romantic comedy trying to get out. Instead, it’s a study of a mistress-turned-wife, an ex-wife, and the man they have to share. Each of them is fully equipped with eccentricities and neuroses. And while director Rebecca Miller often comes dangerously close to turning these three into caricatures, she knows how to rein herself in, molding them into complex human beings instead.

At the beginning of the film, Maggie arranges for an old college friend named Guy Childers (Travis Fimmel) to be her sperm donor. He is a self-described “pickle connoisseur” (perhaps a subtle allusion to a romantic comedy I adore, 1988’s Crossing Delancey). But then Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), a struggling academic/writer who’s married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a brilliant professor at Columbia. John feels ignored by the far more successful Georgette (with whom he has two children), so when Maggie agrees to read a chapter of his novel, an unexpected romance develops. Cut to a few years later: Maggie and John are married with a kid of their own, but Maggie’s unhappy. She worries about being trapped in a loveless marriage, because she’s kind of tired of John, and especially because: she’s convinced that John is, in fact, still in love with Georgette.

For better or worse, Greta Gerwig has found a niche playing a wistful girl of 30 who’s a little lost, a little eccentric, and a little too smart for her own good. In Frances Ha, she was perpetually falling apart but somehow blissfully unfazed by it; in Mistress America, her wistfulness turned her into a monstrous figure, a woman hungry for social power, whose grandiose tales often defied fact-checking. And now, in Maggie’s Plan, Gerwig plays a woman trying to make a family for herself, despite the fact that she’s never been in a stable relationship for “more than six months”. Gerwig, more than any other actress, has become a poster child for the millennial generation, lost in the fragmented sea of modern life. But that’s not to say being lost is always a bad thing. What makes Gerwig’s performances likable is an often madcap defiance against her own circumstances. In all three films, she is propelled by her own definite notions of what ought to be rather than what is.

Julianne Moore’s Georgette is French, and Moore affects a sometimes distracting but, for me, enjoyably exaggerated accent that sounds like Madeline Kahn’s Lily von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles (even though Lily was German). When we first meet Georgette, she’s participating in a discussion panel, moderated by Wallace Shawn, about the Occupy movement, along with her husband. Georgette appears to be a cold, ruthless, intellectual bitch. She’s fashionably basic, and her little top-knot bun feels like the finishing touch on a woman who could kill you with merely a glance. But Julianne Moore, God bless her, hasn’t turned into Bette Davis yet, and Rebecca Miller has genuine feeling for Georgette, who’s a lot more vulnerable than it would first appear. So instead of degenerating into the villain of the movie, she becomes Maggie’s confidant.

Ethan Hawke has the least flashy performance, which probably makes his work the hardest. John is self-absorbed, the kind of guy who likes girls who like the things he says and does. And since he’s a writer, this flaw is compounded by the fact that’s already the typical needy, self-effacing artist. But even John, it turns out, is capable of love, and not merely a jerk.

The surprise MVPs of Maggie's Plan, however, are Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, playing Maggie's married friends Tony and Felicia. Maggie once dated Tony, but while their romance fizzled, their friendship blossomed; and she works with Felicia, who says things like, "people say I'm a bitch, but I think I'm pretty nice." Every scene with these two needed to be longer.

Maggie’s Plan feels a tad slight, but the performances of Gerwig, Moore, and Hawke give the film a much-needed substance and vitality. It could easily be just another quirky indie film about quirky New Yorkers; and it while it kind of is that, the film is also something more interesting: a meditation on the ways men manipulate women (and vice versa). Georgette controls John, makes him feel invisible, but she also makes him feel needed; his relationship with Maggie is a complete reversal of that dynamic: he turns her into his housekeeper and book editor. There’s no longer any genuine love between them. And Maggie, always stuck on her own moral impulses, cannot endure a phony marriage, or a marriage that is, as he puts it, dead. “I’m in such deep oatmeal right now!” Maggie cries early in the film. It’s a wonderful, goofy line, indicative of Maggie’s character: She gets herself in plenty of messes without ever knowing how to clean them up; but somehow, she survives.

August 22, 2016

'Don't Think Twice' shows us that success is a complicated beast.

In her commencement speech at Harvard University, actress and comedian Amy Poehler said, “If I wanted to give you advice as an actor, I would tell you this: Don’t do it. Don’t be one. There are too many. I have a lot of talented friends who aren’t working… I bet you’re great, but just work with the human genome instead.” Initially, Poehler’s words might appear arrogant, like a king telling you that it’s much easier to be a peasant, and since it’s so hard (nay, impossible) to become a king anyway, why bother trying? But when you watch Don’t Think Twice, which is a movie about people trying to make it in acting—specifically in comedy—Poehler’s words ring especially true. The competition is seemingly impossible, and the number of talented people who can’t find work is truly staggering. Don’t Think Twice feels like the hard, honest truth that we’ve been denying for so long about following our dreams, exchanging it for mantras such as, “you can be anything you want; you’re special; there’s no one like you.”

Don’t Think Twice shows the more realistic side of the entertainment industry: people in their mid-30s following their dreams without much else to help them survive: they deliver pizza or or demo new brands of hummus at the supermarket; they share a two-bedroom flat with five roommates; but they also carve out time for the work that they love. (In her terrific book Yes Please, Amy Poehler herself recounts similar experiences of when she first moved to New York.) You can devote everything within you—your time, your energy, your sweat, your money—and sacrifice everything else, and still not make it.

The director and star of Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia, plays Miles, leader of “The Commune,” a New York City improv group comprised of six people, each of them quirky and funny and genuinely talented. There’s Jack, the hunky, most polished member of the group (played by Keegan-Michael Keel); Sam (played by the effervescent Gillian Jacobs), a woman who’s fixated on the group, and who is paralyzed by her fear of success; Allison (Kate Micucci), who likes to draw and who can do an excellent imitation of an Italian maitre d; Lindsay, who’s slightly older than almost everyone else, and whose wealthy parents help fund her dreams (and she resents it); and Bill (Chris Gethard), who’s mopey and sad, but funny in that Ben Stiller low-self-esteem way. (Ben Stiller, incidentally, makes a cameo appearance as himself.)

Miles, who’s constantly taking credit for helping the others develop their craft (and guarding against his own insecurities) has studied with some of the founders of improv like Del Close, back in Chicago, and now he’s teaching other young actors, all the while continuing to nurse his own ambitions. But Miles’s dream of making it on Weekend Live (the film’s fictional version of SNL), has turned old and wrinkly, like the jilted spinster Miss Havisham in the novel Great Expectations, all of her clocks broken, permanently suspended in time to mark the day her lover left her. Miles has been betrayed by his dreams too.

Maybe Don’t Think Twice hits too close to home. My generation seems to be lost, not like the 20- and 30-somethings who survived World War I, but a new group of lost people, dazzled and finally dulled-out by a world of too many choices. It’s hard to be sympathetic to our plight, though, because saying “I’ve just had too many options to be successful” is a sign that you might be a genuine asshole.

And while the movie is funny (there are many scenes of the actors performing sketches, or turning real-life situations into moments for improvisational lunacy), it’s also genuinely heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to see people’s dreams fail them. (Or maybe they have failed their dreams, which is even worse.) It’s heartbreaking to see people compromise, to see success and fame tear the group apart when Jack finally breaks through. But the movie doesn’t offer these characters up for pity’s sake. They aren’t victims and they aren’t pathetic. They’re simply people who’ve tried to achieve their goals in life, and who haven’t completely succeeded. Some of them do find success, of course; others discover new avenues to explore in the wake of failure.

And if Don’t Think Twice is somewhat cynical about the entertainment industry (which, how could it not be?), this movie also challenges our ideas about success, and asks some valuable questions: What if it’s not about being rich and famous? What if it’s about the work and the community we form around creating and doing the work? When Jack makes it onto Weekend Live (apologies for that mild spoiler), something like a wall inside the group cracks, for good. Sam, who also managed to score an interview with Weekend Live, can’t even bring herself to attend the interview because, deep down, she knows it means tearing the group apart. What matters more for Sam is what the group is able to create, together, not what she can accomplish on her own. After all, the goal of improvisational comedy is that the group, working in unison, can create something new and spontaneous. Improv, like jazz, is most alive in the moment. It’s visceral, not cerebral.

Rita Rudner once said, “your dream could actually be your nightmare.” Rudner wanted to be a dancer, but then she looked around and noticed how many ballerinas were still working after they reached the age of 30. That would be basically zero. Then she thought about George Burns, a comedian who was working well into his 90s. She’s 63 and still working as a comedian. Rudner’s point speaks the same kind of truth that Don’t Think Twice encourages us to dwell on: We have to be willing to adapt our dreams to reality, and we cannot fixate on past failures for too long.

We are so quick to want to monetize our talent; we are so needy of praise and attention when it comes to our abilities; and not just a little bit of it: We want every ounce. It’s like Eve Harrington, the scheming young actress who tries to steal Bette Davis’s career in All About Eve. The applause is what draws us in, what seduces us. And it’s not that some people deserve to be famous and some don’t. It’s that, first, fame isn’t the only measure of success; and second, fame is like everything else in life: it’s capable of corrupting us until we no longer resemble ourselves. But it’s also more complicated. We see Jack trying to help his Commune gang out, even though he’s told never to try and plug friends’ work; we also see him becoming cocky from the fame, and suddenly, it’s completely understandable (though no less wrong). Don’t Think Twice shows us just how complex and maddening and crazy and beautiful this industry can be, all at once, and it feels lived-in and honest, dark and funny and hopeful, all in one dose.

August 21, 2016

'Sausage Party' Will Make You Want to Set Your Food Free

Sausage Party will make you want to set your food free—from yourself—and you may never eat dinner again without wondering if you're actually committing genocide. It's like The Muppets and Julia Child on acid. This is an animated movie for adults that portrays consumable goods—everything from hot dogs to cherry tomatoes to toilet paper to Jose Cuervo—as sentient beings, each of them brandishing skinny little arms and legs and able to communicate with each other. Every morning, as the supermarket opens, they perform a musical number hastening the arrival of “the gods” (that’s us), each of them hoping she or he will be chosen. To be chosen is to be bought, and taken to “The Great Beyond.” Nobody knows what that means, but everyone assumes it’s a good thing, a wonderful, magical, eternally blissful thing. Of course, reality, which the grocery store’s inhabitants will learn, is far more horrifying. The film’s message is clear: religion is the opiate of the masses, the thing that those in power use to control us. And the writers—Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir—have crafted a canny, lucid thesis in defense of skepticism. Sausage Party is funny— sometimes uproariously funny—and surprisingly transcendent: at times, the gags (the film is ladled with jokes like a pot roast steeped in its own gravy) and the bleakness of the film’s message (there is no god, there is only the here and now) converge into a chaos of beautiful insanity. 

But the writers’ thesis-driven approach to comedy feels far too self-satisfied. It would be like if Blazing Saddles were trying to be Roots. In Blazing Saddles, which is one of the most important anti-racism films of the 1970s, the racists were idiots, and we were free to infer for ourselves just how wrong racism really is. Sausage Party, were it made in the 1970s, might be free to let us do some thinking on our own. But sadly it’s mired in message like a kindergarten class. And while I admire the film’s honesty, what I enjoy and delight in is its insanity, and Sausage Party often cannot do both at once. 

Here’s an example of insanity: Barry (voice of Michael Cera), a sausage, narrowly avoids being boiled to death in a woman’s kitchen; he escapes and ends up in the home of a 20-something stoner with crazy curly hair who, once he’s injected himself with bath salts, can see that all his food products are living creatures. (Normally, humans cannot perceive this because their version of reality is so limited.) Later in the film, when the consumables are battling the humans at the supermarket, Barry shows up with the severed head of this bath salt-addled junkie. Barry didn’t kill the guy (that would be far too mean-spirited); it was a freak accident. But when the noggin of this blazed lug plops down on the floor, and Barry yells triumphantly, “the gods can be killed!”, it’s a moment that is equally hilarious, moving, and bonkers. That’s the kind of thing that comedies need more of. 

But when Sausage Party fixates on its message against religion, it often feels as earnest as a kid-friendly Pixar movie. (Sidenote, the afore-mentioned drugged-out lunkhead drives a beat-up old car with a bumper sticker that reads, “Dixar.”) Seth Rogen, who plays the main character, a sausage named Frank, is the one who first discovers the truth about the Great Beyond, and he becomes the film’s literal voice of reason, championing free thought over blissful ignorance. When he angers the entire supermarket with his claims that the Great Beyond is a lie, he realizes he must be “nicer.” It feels smug and disingenuous, and really beneath everything else that’s happening in Sausage Party, because so much of Sausage Party is ingeniously crazy. It happily riffs on all the politics—be they racial, gender, what-have-you—of our time: two supporting characters are a Jewish bagel named Sammy Bagel, Jr. (voice of Edward Norton) and a Middle Eastern lavash named Kareem Abdul Lavash (voice of David Krumholtz); another character, the sultry lesbian Teresa del Taco (voiced by Salma Hayek) has a crush on Brenda, the other main character, a hot dog bun who’s in love with Frank. (She’s voiced by Kristen Wiig.) There’s a Native American character, Firewater (Bill Hader) who knows the truth but pretends not to: he’s imbued with all the stereotypes of the wise old Indian distilling knowledge (and weed). And, much like Blazing Saddles erupts in an orgy of chaotic violence at the end, Sausage Party erupts in an orgy too, the old-fashioned kind. 

As delightfully reprehensible as much of Sausage Party is, it loves silliness too, and accumulates a stock of wonderful little throwaway puns. Every adage about food you can imagine (“spill the beans”, “how do you like them apples?”) is thrown into the mix; when one character says, “Okay, so…”, a jar of sticky orange cheese suddenly appears and says, “Did somebody say ‘queso’?” And then there are moments that truly feel disturbing, like when a woman is preparing dinner, and we see the food being tortured and killed: a triumphant potato, the first item she picks up, suddenly screams in horror as she begins to skin him and then tosses him into a pot of boiling water; the woman then pops two baby carrots into her mouth, and we see her teeth chomping them into bits from the inside while outside, horrifying foods wail, “She’s eating children!” So if we have to have our comedies doused in messages today, at least some filmmakers are still jolting us with the kind of nutty, irreverent insanity that makes the genre an urgently needed antidote to our own reality.

Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernan. With voices of Nick Kroll (as one of the film’s chief villains, a douche), James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, and Anders Holm. 

August 08, 2016

'The Wailing': A horror movie for our time.

In The Wailing, a small South Korean village is beset by an evil spirit, and suddenly the villagers start dying in what appear to be outbursts of domestic violence. The killers—mothers, fathers, children—appear possessed. (The local police fear it’s some bad mushrooms causing people to go temporarily out of their heads.) Meanwhile, rumors are swirling about an older Japanese man who’s recently moved into the area. But for one of the police officers, it takes the possession of his 11-year-old daughter before he can accept that something supernatural is at work.

Horror movies, even ones that flirt with more profound themes about the supernatural, often seem disposable in their exploitive violence and gore. That’s where The Wailing, which was directed by Na Hong-jin, differs. The Wailing becomes increasingly caught up in the idea of a spiritual realm, where good and bad spirits do battle over human souls. What feels at first like a traditional possession flick becomes rich and awful and terrifying as it grapples with good and evil on a grand scale. 

The film reaches a kind of pinnacle when the possessed girl’s family summons a shaman, whose very complicated ritual, designed to drive out the evil spirit, takes on a semi-documentary substance and earthiness. He dresses in all-white garb and begins shaking bells in the face of the screaming child, he chants loudly and long while his assistants beat incessantly on drums—more noise to annoy the malicious inhabitant. It’s in this scene, where spiritual belief and physical practice come together in strange and tangible ways, that The Wailing transcends the genre, becoming poetic in its fierce and terrifying grasp of the spiritual, in all the good and bad ways we understand that word.

There are numerous possession flicks (namely, The Exorcist, although it seems like there are three or four of them a year in more recent times) in which filmmakers depict/exploit religious rites performed to cast out demons, and those scenes certainly provide verisimilitude. (And The Exorcist is an effective horror film, to be sure.) But The Wailing approaches religious rites with caution, where in most possession movies they are an absolute form of cure against evil spirits: In The Wailing there are competing interests at work, and we are never sure who’s really evil and who’s really good. Thus the shaman and his smells-and-bells approach to exorcism is a sight to behold, but not necessarily a legitimate cure to this little girl’s troubles. 

I prefer the ambiguity of this film. Na Hong-jin, who also wrote the script, makes us believe in the supernatural, but he doesn’t presuppose that religion will make everything right in the end. He also has much to say about human nature in the face of tragedy and fear. When Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won), the possessed girl’s father, leads a posse of angry fellow villagers to the mountain cabin where the Japanese man lives, it’s the terrifying fury of a mob that pounds on his door, ready to tear him to shreds. But we’re still in the dark about the Japanese man. Is he really evil incarnate, or merely an unfortunate outsider, branded a creep by mere human prejudice?

What will it take for us to turn on our neighbors without proof? At what point do we turn back toward religion—or medievalism, as some might say—when science and rationality are no longer enough? And as intense and, occasionally, terrifying as the movie can be (e.g. the finale, where we come face to face with the Devil himself, in one of the most intensely freaky moments I’ve ever experienced in a movie), this film doesn’t sledge-hammer us with unsatisfying answers. Rather, it lives in the terrifying unknown, just like the world in which we live. Indeed, The Wailing is a horror movie for our time.

With Hwang Jung-min, Jun Kunimura (as the Japanese stranger), Chun Woo-hee, and Kim Whan-hee as the girl, Hyo-jin. 

August 05, 2016

Where would 'Bad Moms' be without the insane, hilarious performance of Kathryn Hahn?

In Bad Moms, three mothers in the suburbs of Chicago decide they’re sick of all the mom-competition, and vow to be bad mothers, giving their kids—and themselves—a break from the constant pressures they face in 21st century domestic life. Bad Moms offers an appealing, though obvious, message: We should be less frenetically obsessed with our children’s success, because it may actually be good for them to do things for themselves (even if it means failing at them for a while). (Shocker!) 

The movie frames itself as a tribute to moms everywhere. (The closing credits even feature interviews with the film’s stars and their mothers, a movie which feels a bit calculated, even though it’s kind of sweet too.) And judging from the crowded theater in which I saw this movie—it was full of mostly middle-aged, middle-class women, many of them frequently bellowing happy affirmations at what happened on screen—Bad Moms resonates with its target audience. But as much as this movie wants to free moms from the pressures of perfectionism, Bad Moms never fully considers “moms” as human beings and as women. These women remain cartoonishly enslaved to maternity as an ideal, and so the film affirms what is ostensibly sets out to critique: the idea that women are nothing if they are not mothers. 

Mila Kunis plays Amy, the main mom, who’s working at a hipster coffee company run by a slob in his 20s who declares a working holiday for his staff when a beloved character from Game of Thrones is killed off. (The film’s depiction of obnoxious millennials feels as flimsy and on-the-nose as last year’s The Intern.) Amy essentially has no self. She’s Mom. She shuttles her kids to school and soccer and music lessons, and she hustles to meetings, and she cooks dinner while her man-child husband is carrying on an online affair. Needless to say, Amy is due for a breaking point. She experiences it at the PTA meeting, where she challenges Gwendolyn, the tyrannical Mother-from-Hell (played by the delightful Christina Applegate), who asserts her superiority over all the other women at every opportunity, and keeps them all on a tight leash because she embodies what they think they want: perfection. But perfection comes at a cost, and Amy isn’t willing to pay it any more. 

Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn complete the trio of moms who revolt against the tyrannical expectations of motherhood. Bell's Kiki has quite a brood of little monsters, and they’ve essentially sucked the life out of her. What’s more, Kiki’s husband is a self-involved jerk who expects her to do all the housework and parenting. Hahn’s character Carla, who’s already a “bad mom” (she’s divorced, sexually active, and says whatever pops into her head at any moment), sums Kiki up best: “Everything she says is like a cry for help.” 

The idea of three women banding together against oppression has served movies well. (The 1980 classic 9 to 5 comes to mind.) But when Bad Moms’ idea of fighting oppression starts with three white, middle-class mothers wolfing down sugary cereal at the supermarket (because now when they go shopping, they’re gonna buy whatever they want, dammit!), something’s not quite right. The film has good intentions (who doesn’t agree that Moms work their asses off and get far too little appreciation for it?), but comedies don’t score points for good intentions. Fortunately, Bad Moms has the saving grace of Kathryn Hahn, whose performance is so deliriously over-the-top that she drags this movie into the naughty territory it’s otherwise afraid to enter. She’s constantly talking about jumping various men; she lovingly refers to her son as a “little shit”; and she expresses no interest in sitting through his baseball games: “The last one I went to lasted six hours and the score was 2 to 1.” She’s a woman who isn’t willing to give everything up just to be a mother. 

Christina Applegate also deserves credit for making Bad Moms endurable. Applegate plays the Alpha-Mom with relish, and her character’s control over her own pack of mamas, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith and Annie Mumolo, is amusing. But the clash between Gwendolyn and Amy never fully works, perhaps because the movie spends so little time developing their relationship. Amy’s big speech about perfectionism feels strangely pre-mature; but it kicks off a rivalry between them because Amy announces her plans to run for PTA president. (As retaliation, and in order to keep the other mothers on her side, Gwendolyn throws a party for all the moms, catered by Martha Stewart, who’s their idol.)

Of course the film exaggerates a very real problem in our culture, in which women vie for power in the domestic sphere because it’s the only power available to them. But that’s where Bad Moms feels like a cop-out. It never challenges the order of things with any conviction. Even when Amy stops catering to her children’s every whim, she’s later reduced to apologizing for “neglecting” them. (But her son does learn how to make a frittata.) 

Bad Moms isn’t all bad. It has funny moments, but it’s hard to rally behind it the way I can behind the deliciously reprehensible Bad Teacher. I don’t know what I would have done without Kathryn Hahn. Bad Moms is like a balloon with a hole in it, and Hahn is its never-ending supply of helium, constantly giving it momentary shape. Someone give this woman more leading roles. 

With Jay Hernandez, David Walton, and in an amusing cameo as a marriage counselor, Wanda Sykes. Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.

August 03, 2016

New Netflix Series 'Stranger Things' is a Horror and Sci-Fi Pastiche with a Heart

Stranger Things, a new series on Netflix, is a show about a parallel universe that is utterly corrupted, and it’s about what happens when a young boy named Will, from a small town in Indiana, becomes trapped in that universe. The show, which was created by the Duffer Brothers, draws from just about every significant horror and sci-fi creation of the 1970s and 80s: There’s a lot of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, and a lot of John Carpenter (especially the synthy music score). What movies specifically does Stranger Things suggest/reference/imitate? How about: Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T., Carrie, The Fury, and Poltergeist? But this pastiche of science fiction and horror classics has a heart, and that is what makes it compulsively watchable and truly endearing. 

Winona Ryder heads the cast, playing Joyce Byers, Will’s mom, who’s naturally distraught when her 11-year-old son vanishes at the beginning of the first episode. Joyce and her older son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) fear the worst, that he’s been kidnapped or had an accident, but they have no idea how bad it truly is. Then, unexpectedly, Joyce makes contact with Will, via the lights, which flash with fury, like the sudden energy bursts that occurred when the spaceship landed in Close Encounters, or like Carol Anne, the creepy child kidnapped by ghosts in Poltergeist, who communicated through the television. 

The show traces multiple characters, all of them essentially connected to Will’s disappearance. There’s Joyce’s heartbreaking and lonely journey as she becomes convinced her son is still alive, trapped in some ungodly place, despite the fact that no one believes her; there’s Will’s friends, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, who encounter a disturbed little girl just escaped from a top-secret government compound, where she was a kind of human lab rat, controlled by a creepy white-haired scientist played by Matthew Modine. (The girl, called “L,” has telekinetic powers as in Carrie, and like the teenagers in Brian De Palma’s other telekinesis thriller, The Fury, the government wants to harness her substantial powers of mind.)

What makes Stranger Things so great is that, while it does tantalize us with suspense to keep us watching, the show never treats us with contempt. Nor does it become swallowed up by its cultural influences. This series may unabashedly celebrate a particular moment of early 80s pop culture, but it is an essentially human story, and it never loses sight of this fact. The references—they’re really more like impressions—to past movies and shows, which so often accumulate like baggage, feel as though they’ve been aired out here and given new life. And you don’t have to be a fan of those 80s movies to appreciate and enjoy Stranger Things, although the Duffer Brothers clearly meant this series as a valentine, both to the movies themselves and to the fans. 

Say what I will about nostalgia’s burgeoning and sometimes negative impact on our current culture, I can’t help but adore this show. It’s super creepy and disturbing at times (there’s a terrifying monster, a more terrifying government agency, and the always disturbing fact of a child missing and imperiled, whose mother suffers just as much as he does in not knowing where he is or what’s become of him or how to help him.) Winona Ryder, playing a part that would have surely gone to Dee Wallace if this were 1982, exudes warmth and compassion and sympathy, and anchors the series to reality. Likewise, David Harbour, playing the local police chief (who has his own demons and tragedies to contend with), acts as a kind of security blanket for the timid viewer, as he becomes increasingly enrapt in the investigation of the missing boy. At various times, we are Joyce, the cop, the boys. 

The boys, played by Finn Wolfhard (Will), Gaten Matazarro (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), and Noah Schnapp (Will), are endearing from the onset (like the kids in Stand By Me, not the obnoxious little shits in The Goonies), when they’re embroiled in a passionate round of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s this game which first allows them to understand the dark universe into which Will has been thrown, and it’s their nerdy passions for ham radio and magic and sundry other outrĂ© hobbies that equips them to fight for their friend. Millie Bobby Brown, playing L, gives perhaps the most sympathetic performance in the show. L has had no childhood, and understands only a minimal vocabulary when she encounters the boys, who keep her cloistered in the basement, so that their unassuming parents won’t find out about her.

Natalia Dyer, as Will’s teenage sister Nancy, also plays a pivotal role in the series. She and Jonathan become unexpected partners-in-crime when Nancy’s best friend Barb also goes missing. Jonathan is the high school outcast, partly because his family is poor and he’s quiet and brooding; Nancy’s middle class, and just starting to discover boys and romance. (She’s dating Steve, played by Joe Keery, a seemingly typical jock who turns out to have a heart of gold.) 

The creators and the writers, to their credit, imbue even the smaller characters with flesh and bone, according some of them, like the character of Steve Harrington, greater significance and depth as the series progresses. Moreover, this is a series that unearths the mysteries that fester particularly in small towns (much like Stephen King does), without insulting them: The people who live under the microscope turn out to be complex and full and fascinating; And there are problems associated generally with modern life, whether in a small town or a big city: We see Nancy's mom (played by Cara Buono) struggling to keep her family together without any help from her husband, who's snoozing most of the time and clueless when he's awake. She emerges as yet another supporting character who becomes increasingly more well-drawn. Like a good Shirley Jackson story, Stranger Things is generous to its characters, always investing in them for the good of the story and for the good of the audience.

And unlike so many other scary shows (The Walking Dead comes to mind), this series doesn’t take delight in the horrible things that happen to people. Stranger Things embraces the horror and science fiction genres with affection, but it never loses sight of the tragedy and the humor that imbue our lives with mystery, a mystery that these genres, at their best, bring into ever sharper focus. 

‘Jason Bourne’ is Summer Blockbuster Fare at its Worst

Jason Bourne is the latest in the film series based on the Robert Ludlum spy novels, and this fifth installment marks the return of Matt Damon, after Jeremy Renner stepped in for The Bourne Legacy in 2012. According to the website Cinema Blend, Damon agreed to come back to the franchise because Paul Greengrass, director of Parts 2 and 3, was also returning. I’m relieved for Jeremy Renner, not so thrilled for Matt Damon. Neither of these actors deserves this series, although it does less harm for Damon as an actor and more good for his career, because he’s already positioned himself as our next Everyman, the new Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford or Gary Cooper. But Jason Bourne is an ugly movie, the epitome of the summer blockbuster at its worst, collapsing in on itself like a ramshackle house built on top of a sinkhole. It’s the Donald Trump of summer movies: nonsensical, excessive, depressing. 

It’s somewhat shocking to me that people actually relish this series. Matt Damon, likable as he is, isn’t enough for me. Others are, I think, turned on by the movies’ supposedly “high-octane” thrills. All of the films move rapidly. Barry Ackroyd, the cinematographer of Jason Bourne, maintains this tradition. His camera never stops, and it’s almost constantly in close-up. It feels like we’re peaking over the actors’ shoulders and pressing our faces up against windows, hovering so closely we can paint our hot breath onto the panes. But this is ugly filmmaking. The camera advances its chaotic story with all the finesse of a child violently shaking a LEGO man out of a toy car. There’s no magic, no organic excitement, merely the cheap thrills of flashiness that represent impoverished storytelling. And Jason Bourne feels particularly repellant in its ugliness, for it’s both ugly as a movie and ugly at heart. For a film this corporate to be so cynical about American government feels like blatant hypocrisy. There’s some grim talk of patriotism: Jason Bourne is a rogue CIA man who’s being hunted by his own government, unless they can persuade him to rejoin their forces. 

Why the CIA would want him back is something of a mystery, since they have a masterful hired assassin, played by Vincent Cassel, working for them. Cassel, with his narrow, upside-down triangle of a face and his frog-like eyes, is somehow handsome, yet he’s unusual too.  Seventy years ago he would have been playing parts meant for Peter Lorre, except that he’s taller and more calculating. He makes glamour out of his corruption, and even with a part as one-note as this, Cassel conveys presence and humor, always striking a sharp contrast to the gloomy character played by Matt Damon. Damon, on the other hand, is an ideal good guy, driven by his own moral code when he realizes the moral code of his country has deceived him.

Jason Bourne wants desperately to have something to say, but it’s far too shallow to make much of its promising themes. The film concerns itself with surveillance in the digital age: Riz Ahmed plays a billionaire social media mogul, who took money from the government to fund his social networking site, in exchange for data on millions of private citizens; Julia Stiles plays a hacker who steals files from the CIA, which enables an opportunistic rookie played by Alicia Vikander to exhibit her tech savvy and get the files back. (She wants to impress her superior, played by Tommy Lee Jones, but she also wants to surpass him.) Vikander’s character deletes the files remotely, just after they’ve been transmitted to Jason Bourne. Vikander’s performance is too grim too, and she looks like a baby, perhaps because she’s so often acting opposite grizzled old Tommy Lee.