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19
Dec

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa


Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Johnny Knoxville dons an old man suit to play an eighty-six-year-old widower named Irving who cannot wait to get back in the pond and chase much younger women. His plan comes to sudden halt, however, when his drug-addicted daughter drops off his grandson—to her mother’s funeral, no less—because she is going back to jail. Not wanting to take care of the boy, Irving’s solution is to take the Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his irresponsible father in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” based on the screenplay by Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine, is a comedy that is purposely stupid, crude, dirty—and it made me laugh multiple times, at times so hard that my laughter turned into cackle. But the film is held back one fundamental misstep: It forces a narrative involving a grandfather’s relationship—or lack thereof—with his grandson which garners a few “Aww” moments but they are ultimately irrelevant because the humor takes a backseat for a few minutes. In comedies that are propelled by reaction shots, a few minutes is a long wait.

Irving getting his penis stuck in a soda vending machine sets the stage for the type of humor it employs to get us to keep watching—not because it is supposed to be realistic but because it is so over-the-top that looking away is near impossible. While such a situation would have likely come across as idiotic in a mainstream fiction comedy, it works very well here because we observe the reactions of regular people who happen to be at the right place and right time during filming.

In a way, watching these candid segments is an opportunity for us to laugh at ourselves. Given a similar situation, we might react in a similar manner. As a viewer, it is easy to judge and say that a person is silly or stupid or downright criminal for acting a certain way, but we have all been in a situation where we have no idea what to do or say that we succumb to the pressure of what is happening and, inevitably, make a mistake. In the latter half, Irving tells his grandson that “you can get away with almost anything; all you have to do is try.” And it appears time and again that he is right.

Many scenes are effective or close to being hilarious so we laugh anyway. This includes the furniture sale and the woman responsible for a certain remote, Irving trying to ship his grandson in a box, Ladies Night in a strip club that starts off awkward and ends up being beyond awkward that I actually covered my eyes, and the beauty pageant competition that bears some similarities to Michael Arndt’s “Little Miss Sunshine.

Less funny is the running gag involving a corpse. We all know that it is a fake… and we get the feeling that people who are not aware that there are hidden cameras everywhere recognize that the dead body is a fake, too. So, what’s funny about it? Pretty much nothing. And what is up with that Moby Dick scene? Why is that funny? Because they have the budget to buy a really big fish that looks super fake on camera?

The film, directed by Jeff Tremaine, is worth seeing for its strength: setting up a ridiculous situation and simply watching passersby dealing with what is in front of them. The screenplay does not need the usual bonding storyline during a road trip. Although Irving can be a bit of a curmudgeon at times, not once are we really convinced that he does not like or care about Billy. Nicoll appears to be having a great time all the way through.

18
Dec

Fucking Åmål


Fucking Åmål (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) and her family had moved and settled in Åmål, a small town in Sweden, for two years, Agnes still finds it difficult to make friends. School is a torturous experience for her since she believes just about everyone whispers behind her back about how much of a weird loner she is. It does not help that Agnes is a lesbian and she is attracted to Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), one of the most well-liked girls in school.

Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson, “Fucking Åmål” could have been only a straightforward story about a girl, potentially two girls, coming out of the closet but I admired that it strives to tell us something more. The idea of escaping to some place better is one of its major themes and it is explored in a subtle, intelligent, and sensitive manner.

Agnes is so unhappy, there comes a point when she decides to risk her life. In order for her to experience a temporary escape from the unbearable emotional and psychological turmoil, she needs to feel something physical: seeing that she has the power to make something happen, even if she knows she is harming herself, makes her feel less powerless—but not powerful—and more in control.

Since the gloom of the material is given time to percolate, the aforementioned scene is given an air of intimacy. We are right there with her. We feel her thought process. Instead of us thinking that Agnes decided to cut her wrist for take sake of gaining attention, we feel genuine fear and sympathy for her.

Like Agnes, Elin has her share of frustrations. She is so bored of Åmål, she has turned to drugs and drinking just to feel like she is somewhere else, out of her body. Although sprinkled with humor, the scene where she tries to convince her older sister (Erica Carlson) that they ought to sample various drugs from the medicine cabinet for fun implies a lot about her mindset.

Through Agnes and Elin’s unhappiness, the writer-director successfully establishes a template when it comes to why Agnes and Elin are a good fit for one another, not necessarily romantically but as possible friends. The night the two girls meet, Elin’s sexuality is uncertain so we are consider that perhaps their relationship is merely a form of a blossoming friendship.

The defining moment of the film is when the duo decide to hitchhike from Åmål to Stockholm, without informing anybody, if one of the next five cars on the road stopped to give them a ride. I found myself invested in the course their lives will take. On one hand, I did not want any of the vehicles to stop for practical safety reasons. They do not have money, they carry no extra clothes, and everyone will undoubtedly worry. On the other hand, if someone did stop for them and they somehow reached the city, it could be a perfect chance for them realize that there is a world out of Åmål just waiting for them when the right time comes. Maybe when they return, they will not be so unhappy.

The recurring theme of escape in “Fucking Åmål,” also known an “Show Me Love,” is astutely connected to the backdrop of a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. Shot in a grainy, yellowish look, watching Agnes and Elin’s stories, first separate then together, feels like perusing through an old photo album. And despite its consistent melancholy tone, it somehow still brims with optimism.

16
Dec

Safe Men


Safe Men (1998)
★ / ★★★★

Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) fancy themselves as singer-songwriters, but they are unable to entertain a bar packed with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. When Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), the right hand man of one of the Jewish gangsters in Rhode Island, has mistaken them for legendary safe crackers, they find themselves in a quandary: perform the job that Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner) wants done or get swim with the fishes.

“Safe Men,” written and directed by John Hamburg, is a farce that uses the lead actors’ chemistry as a crutch whenever the jokes miss the mark. And, boy, does it miss quite often. When the jokes work, however, I found myself smiling from ear to ear. Still, the ratio between unfunny to funny bits is far too large.

A standout is a scene involving the first safe that the hapless duo attempts to break into which happens to belong to another Jewish gangster, Leo (Harvey Fierstein), who runs a fencing operation behind a barbershop. Completely inept and constantly at each other’s throats about how certain things ought to be done, Sam and Eddie are caught by Hannah (Christina Kirk), Leo’s daughter. The funny thing is since she has a history of dating thieves, she does a surprising thing.

When the screenplay plays with our expectations combined with providing us a skeletal understanding of the motivations of characters who are about to commit bizarre actions, watching the interplay among the characters is fun and entertaining.

There are too many recycled ideas that distract from the plot. Frank (Mark Ruffalo) and Mitchell (Josh Pais), the real safe men, drop in and out of the story whenever it seems convenient. When they do show up, they act like baboons half the time and the script never bothers to convince us that they are smart and stealthy, two basic requirements, I would imagine, in being successful thieves. Maybe it would have been funnier if Frank and Mitchell had been completely different from Sam and Eddie instead of just playing a diluted version of them.

More frustrating is Giamatti not given a lot to do. I actually felt him wanting to be more challenged. The screenplay touches upon his character wanting to be treated like his boss valued him more. Once or twice there is a funny line or two about his line of work but there is not a time when we are given a chance to actually consider Veal Chop as more than a henchman. One serious moment might have given the character a semblance of dimension. If we were to ultimately believe his insecurities, we had to see him as a person.

Finally, the romance between Sam and Hannah is is not at all convincing. The way material likes to remind us they are a couple is showing a sloppy make-out session. It’s supposed to be funny. Why not just allow us to continually observe the sexual tension between Sam and Eddie grow until it is unbearable?

It is a shame that the writing is so bland and unfocused because Rockwell and Zahn seem willing to go to the extremes. For all the risks that “Safe Men” appears to take on the surface, what results is still a flavorless concoction of inanities.

14
Dec

Inland Empire


Inland Empire (2006)
★ / ★★★★

When the movie ended, I felt thankful—thankful that the torment was finally over.

An old woman (Grace Zabriskie) visits an actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who is waiting for a phone call from her agent. For some strange reason, the visitor is not only aware of the role that Nikki is hoping to get, she appears to have prior knowledge that Nikki has in fact booked the job. The film is called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” and although the actress and her co-star (Justin Theroux) are led to believe that it is an original work, the director (Jeremy Irons) confesses later on that it is actually based on a Polish gypsy folktale and the story is said to be cursed. A prior film that attempted to tell the story was unfinished because the two leads ended up dead.

Written and directed by David Lynch, “Inland Empire” is very well-acted by Dern and the scenes between Dern and Theroux are fiery-good, sometimes sexy, but I found the picture’s dream-like approach to be so pretentious that a potentially fascinating story ends up overshadowed by the technique. The subplots are a drag and whenever Dern is not front and center, I lost interest completely.

It is weird for the sake of being weird. Do not believe anybody who claims to have the answer as to how scenes involving people in rabbit suits relate to the main plot. The writer-director tries so very hard to be mysterious that for a second I was convinced he is actually turning his work into a parody—which would have been a more interesting avenue given his reputation for creating movies that are insular.

Its attempts to surprise, shock, or scare do not work. One of the reasons is due to a lack of buildup. The most common approach is a character entering a dark room and either one of two things will almost always happen: a sudden, bright flashing light fills the space or a cacophony of sounds blast their way through the speakers. I suppose Lynch is trying to replicate dreams but if one were to really think about it, dreams do not have loud or shrill noises. There is no bright flashing light meant to surprise or scare. We begin to realize we are in a dream state when we notice the small but incorrect details.

A technique that works is the camera’s tendency to be real close on the performer’s faces to the point where it is real unflattering at times. It makes otherwise beautiful or interesting faces look bizarre. Couple such images with elliptical dialogue, a specific mood is created—that something strange may be brewing.

The picture’s saving grace is Dern, a consummate performer. She has a special talent in controlling her face so she seems capable of delivering just about any emotion required in a scene. She knows how to change her expression in small ways—often within a shot—and so we are convinced that her character always has something going on in her mind. Lastly, she knows how to utilize her limbs in such a way that they often create interesting angles. We are convinced that the character she plays has been in more than a handful of films. So when she receives news that she has gotten the job, not only is it not a surprise, it is likely to be well-deserved.

“Inland Empire” starts with a certain level of intrigue, mostly due to the conversation between the old woman and the actress, but it devolves into lurid mumbo jumbo. After three hours of near-total confusion, one just feels thankful that the experience is over. Credit to Lynch for being ambitious but that is not enough. The work must actually be, in the least, not incomprehensible.

12
Dec

What If


What If (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a medical school dropout, and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator, meet at a party and sparks fly between them almost immediately. The problem: Wallace is still trying to get over a breakup while Chantry has a boyfriend of five years (Rafe Spall). Recognizing that it is difficult to find another person that one whom can connect with almost on an instinctual level, Wallace and Chantry decide to be friends. The more they spend time together, however, it becomes clearer that maybe they ought to take their relationship on another level.

Directed by Michael Dowse and based on a screenplay by Elan Mastai, “What If” is an overlong, too-twee-for-its-own-good romantic comedy that goes nowhere fast. Despite solid performances by Radcliffe and Kazan, not even their effortless charm can perform miracles on a sinking ship. The ship could not sink any faster so that the torturous experience could finally be over.

The soundtrack is overbearing in that it gets in the way of real emotions. Instead of employing silence from time to time in order to highlight realizations and sudden turn of events, cutesy folk music is used to make us feel warm and cuddly. I did not buy a second of it. The material is supposed to be inspired by Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally…” but other than the question of whether or not the opposite sex can truly remain just friends, this movie is like that romantic comedy classic if its brain and subtleties were taken out.

The supporting characters are either malnourished in terms of development or supremely unlikeable, from Ellie—Wallace’s sister who happens to be a single mom—to Dalia—Chantry’s sister, a typical blonde bimbo who talks like her IQ is in the single digits. Because the supporting players come across fake, the world that Chantry and Wallace inhabit neither feels real nor does it offer anything substantial or interest. They exist for the sake of having color commentaries, bland dividers from one scene to the next.

I hated how Chantry and Ben’s relationship is handled. They are supposed to be living together for five years, but not once do we feel that they were once happy or they are happy but are currently going through a rough patch. A litmus test when it comes to characters who are supposed to have known each other for so long is whether the audience can imagine how their past must have been like. Here, we do not get that opportunity. It is all about what is in front of them—Chantry and her increasing feelings for Wallace and then Ben trying to advance his career. Their life together is one-dimensional.

“What If” is based on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. One has to wonder whether the play is adapted properly to the screen. What the picture lacks is a sense of real intimacy between people who are afraid to cross certain lines. Instead of trying to be cute, it should have attempted to be honest. Because honesty does not result from cuteness but cuteness can result from honesty.

10
Dec

L’instinct de mort


Instinct de mort, L’ (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

In 1979, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) and a woman he was with were ambushed and killed by the French police. Jumping to the 1950s in the middle of the Franco-Algerian War, we observe Mesrine partake in a violent interrogation in which he is eventually ordered to shoot a woman in the head. Once discharged, he returns to his hometown to live with his parents. Although his father has secured him a respectable job, Mesrine instead chooses to work for the local mob, led by a man named Guido (Gérard Depardieu).

Based on the book by none other than the subject of the film, although “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is occasionally elevated by nail-biting scenes, it is only partially successful in creating a portrait of a deeply complicated man. This shortcoming can partly be attributed to the mishandling of time jumps. A handful of them pass after a blink of an eye—without having a chance to build up, punch through, and show why that specific time in Mesrine’s life is a high point or a low point. I wrinkled my brows and wondered what the picture is attempting to communicate or achieve.

Conversely, certain time periods that seem to go on forever, aimless, its ideas are recycled continuously to the point of tedium. For example, there is a hold-up, followed by a quick celebration, then the attention turns to the negative aspect of the occupation. After, Mesrine feels the itch to do another job and steal more money. Rinse and repeat. When the pacing slows down, we cannot help but suspect that script has run out of ideas.

At times, the picture focuses on what makes Mesrine vulnerable through the women in his life. There is Sarah (Florence Thomassin), a prostitute with whom he considers his lover; Sofia (Elena Anaya), a gorgeous Spanish woman who gave birth to his three children; and Jeanne (Cécile De France), a woman not unlike himself, deeply connected to crime. Whenever the main character is next to the opposite sex, it is almost like watching an invisible wall melt. Whether the interactions take a form of flirtations in a bar, dancing to some spicy music, or just being at home, it feels refreshing to see because we feel his struggle between leading a life that is expected of him versus a life that quenches the thrill of being in a position of power.

His search for domination is nicely tethered to the way he sees his father (Michel Duchaussoy): a good man but is often a doormat. Unfortunately, for every scene that looks more into Mesrine’s personal life, there are four or five scenes of him being showcased as a tough guy with a gun accompanied by powerful glares.

Mesrine might not have been a lot of things, like a good father or a good husband, most might even consider him a bad person, but, as the film suggests, he is a man of his word. Somehow, even though it made me somewhat uncomfortable, I found myself respecting that part of him. I believe that admiration is one of the reasons why I constantly wanted to see him do good even though he is already neck-deep in criminal records.

Written by Abdel Raouf Dafri and directed by Jean-François Richet, “L’instinct de mort,” sometimes romanticized but often gritty, requires smoother transitions of its subject’s life events. At its worst, instead of the dramatic tension pouring over one another from one year to the next until the inevitable flood, tension is drained after each year and the material begins from scratch.

9
Dec

Obvious Child


Obvious Child (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Obvious Child,” directed and based on the screenplay by Gillian Roberspierre, is a sort of miracle because even though its story can be categorized as a romantic comedy, it is written and executed in such a way that it works as a drama with a minefield of amusing situations and funny exchanges. To me, it does not hit a single false note and that is a rarity despite whatever genre a person considers this picture to belong under.

The story involves a possible abortion. A few days after having slept with a guy she met in a friend’s bar, Donna (Jenny Slate) learns that she is pregnant. She is in no condition to raise a child given that a boyfriend has recently broken up with her, still in mourning over that former relationship, and she is on the verge of losing her job at a bookstore since it has been shut down. But the picture is not interested in contemplating over a hot topic. Instead, it is used as a device to highlight the main character’s current station in life, not something that defines or will come to define her. We hear from Donna’s friend (Gaby Hoffmann) as well as Donna’s mother (Polly Draper) about their own experiences with having gone through the procedure.

Slate has a way of pinpointing the comedy in the sadness and distress from what is supposed to be funny. Already, this sets her ahead of performers who are unable to find the contradiction in their characters and build something from it. This is why when Donna skewers the details of her personal life up on stage, most of the remarks are funny but we recognize that they stem from not only awkward situations but real feelings like disappointment, regret, feeling out of one’s depth. Thus, the humor is not one note. It is sharp sometimes, raunchy at times, and just plain silly in other instances.

Jake Lacy plays Max, somewhat of a dorky guy in his mid-twenties who works for a computer company. Some actors know how to play ordinary very well—which is difficult to pull off on camera because it verges right alongside Boring Town. What Lacy does in order to mesh weel with Slate’s neurotic Donna is to play Max like a great guy friend who one can talk to about anything and there is no judgement, only open arms. It is not necessarily a question of whether he is perfect for her romantically. Instead, the question is: Will she be able to snap out of her mourning over her former flame quickly enough before Max decides to walk away and not want to be a part of her life?

I enjoyed the picture’s odder moments. The scene that leads up to a character trying out another character’s shoes quickly comes to mind. In ordinary, bland, boring comedies, such a scene would have likely ended up on the cutting room floor. Why? Because it would have been considered to be a disruption of the flow. Sometimes it is the oddities that allow films to stand out and become more accessible.

People who watch the picture and think that it is simply an “abortion movie” need to do some introspection and snap out of denial that they are so blinded by the issue—regardless of their stance—that they cannot detach themselves and recognize the humor of this specific situation. Donna is not perfect; in fact, I thought that she is irresponsible. But I liked her because I knew that she can do more with her life. She also knows it but she often gets in her own way. Don’t we all sometimes?

6
Dec

The Babadook


Babadook, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

A mother and son’s nightly ritual involves checking the closet, looking under the bed, and reading light-hearted stories where a hero defeats a monster. This is because seven-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) is convinced that there is a monster in their house—one that likes to come out at night and prevents him from sleeping. Amelia (Essie Davis) considers her son’s behavior as a phase… until Sam hands her a pop-up book called “Mister Babadook,” filled with creepy and violent black-and-white images. Soon, the mother is convinced that there really is a presence in the house.

Beware of superlatives: “The Babadook,” written and directed by Jennifer Kent, is a decent horror movie, equipped with one or two good scares, but it does not do anything groundbreaking to advance the genre. The problem with the picture is the former half is stronger, its ability to create a sense of dread within a two-person family with a history of tragedy, and the latter half is by-the-numbers horror movie elements like a person pulling out her own teeth, a bed shaking erratically, a bout of possession.

Its mood and atmosphere make us curious of its secrets. Is a paranormal phenomenon truly occurring or is what we are seeing an extreme form of neglect to the point where it feels surreal or magical? We watch closely—during the first half anyway—as to dissect what is really going on. The boy often throws tantrums. The educators in charge at Sam’s school say that the boy has “significant behavioral problems.” He likes to perform magic but at the same time he has weapons that can seriously injure. At one point, he pushes another kid off a treehouse for being teased.

One of the picture’s limitations is its failure to show us its characters’ lives before things went bad. Thus, we are unable to gauge the changes before and after the so-called Babadook has appeared to have taken over their lives. There is talk about the father dying the day the mother gave birth to her son. Have Amelia and Sam been this unhappy for seven years? The ending brings up more questions than answers. The writer-director drops the ball, shamelessly leaving room for a sequel.

Viewers often minimize the importance of getting a feel of the characters’ history. Here, it is important that we have an idea. For instance, because I was unable to feel that Sam is probably a happy boy before his sleepless nights, at times I got the impression that I was watching a young person who will likely grow up to become a psychopath. The way the characters are written, it is very difficult to relate or sympathize to either protagonists.

“The Babadook” is creepy in parts, well-photographed, and the performances are solid. However, it is only scary and very curious up to about forty minutes in. Look closely and you will notice that as the material loses power, louder noises, shrieking, and yelling are more often employed. Such a technique is almost always used to hide the fact that there is really nothing worthwhile happening on screen.

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