Tag Archives: Half-assed

Films in this category have something to offer but also have one or more flaws that detract from the experience. Still, these movies are probably better than most of the shit on Netflix.

TIFF18: Boy Erased

Jared is a good guy. He goes to church with is parents, where his father is the pastor. He plays on the high school basketball team. He’s kind to his girlfriend. But when he gets to collage, the world isn’t quite so good to him in return. He makes fast friends with a fellow runner, but that leads to a surprise sexual tryst one night that the other guy can’t live with. So, he tries to destroy Jared’s life, forcibly outing him to his deeply religious parents.

Jared (Lucas Hedges) respects his parents (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe) so he goes to gay conversion camp as instructed, in the hopes that they can turn him straight.  Conversion therapy is nuts. I mean, it just is, on principle. What kind of whack jobs really believed this would work? And what kind of whack jobs wanted it to? It would almost MV5BMjQ4MDM0MjMxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTkzNzY1NTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1555,1000_AL_make a handy queer dating service, as it is probably the biggest concentration of homosexual folk any of these kids has seen before, if it wasn’t so nasty and abusive. That’s what it really boils down to. The head instructor, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), blames your “problem” on some member of your family who made you gay. He wants you to pick someone to focus your anger on. He wants you to learn to “act” “straight” (did you know that the triangle is the straightest shape?). He focuses on behaviour – if you stop playing football, you are no longer a football player. Problem solved.

I mean, this whole thesis feels strangely out of date. Why is Hollywood still trying to convince people that gay is okay? I think societally we’ve moved past this point, except all these scripts that have been languishing for years are only now getting produced, and they’re already obsolete. You have to check out indie cinema to see some truly of-the-moment lgbt themes. But okay, gay conversion therapy is a horror. Of course it is. But the thing that’s great about Boy Erased is that Jared is such a strong character. Everyone and everything in his life is trying to make him feel wrong and ashamed and dirty, but he doesn’t. When he confirms to his parents that he thinks about men, he knows it goes against everything they believe, but it doesn’t seem like he’s internalized that self-hatred. It can’t be easy, in that house particularly, to know that his very being is not only repugnant but blasphemous to the people he loves most. And yet when he consents to the therapy, it’s for them, not for him. We never get the sense that he believes he needs to change. And that’s kind of astonishing to see.

Eventually Jared need to come to terms with disappointing the people he loves. And maybe he’ll need to cut out the people who are adding toxicity to his life. Those are hard choices, but they’re the right ones. This movie is really more about his parents needing to learn that they’re the idiots, and they’re the ones in need of education and re-conditioning. But while Nicole Kidman, in all her church lady big-hair, bejeweled glory, sort of comes around, there’s not a lot of remorse on the part of Russell Crowe’s character. And that’s where the movie falls short. Jared is surprisingly at ease with himself but the movie doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Director Joel Edgerton, perhaps unsurprisingly, spends more time on his own character, than he does on the ones with real influence in this story.

Boy Erased is a good, competent little movie that will fail to make a big impression.

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TIFF18: Destroyer

Mere minutes into this film, I was ready to hand Nicole Kidman her Oscar. We meet detective Erin Bell, LAPD, as a broken down woman limping up to a murder scene looking no better than the corpse. The reek of booze preceding her, her colleagues roll their eyes behind her back and do all they can to get rid of her so she doesn’t impede the investigation. There is no love or respect for her on the force, except maybe from her partner, who she is expertly avoiding.

But flash back to when she was a young FBI agent. She and partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) were placed undercover with a gang that dealt in a little bit of everything: drugs, theft, whatever. Like any good undercover agent, they melted seamlessly into the gang, became their friends, even got together as a couple, which more or less bled into their real lives. But when the gang plans a bank heist, the operation goes south.

MV5BMjAzMDU5ODU3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjMwMzcxNjM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Cut back to present day: Bell is washed up, an alcoholic, estranged from her family. She looks like hell, smells like she’s pickled, practically lives in her car since that’s where she most often passes out. But when that murder scene turns out to be related to her old gang, she realizes its leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell) has resurfaced and she’ll have to dive back down the rabbit hole in order to make things right.

You might be picking up on Nicole Kidman’s incredible performance. It’s not just that she’s nearly unrecognizable – her gait, her posture, the shadow behind her eyes – her performance is so holistic and encompassing it’s a shock to our system. Contrasted with the “before” years, before she knows how life can hurt you, she looks wholesome and free, like the world exists to bloom with possibility.

Director Karyn Kusama has a very dark outlook on the world, and she’s not afraid to bring her protagonist down the narrowest, most bleak passageways to get where she’s going. Erin Bell is tortured and unlikeable, which is unusual for a female character, and it’s certainly not what we’ve come to expect from Kidman. I’m glad that Kusama doesn’t try to soften her, but I also thought that Kidman’s haggard look was a little extreme, Bell’s complete collapse perhaps not quite explained by the trauma in her past. Everything hints toward something far more sinister, and when the pieces of the puzzle come together, it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as you expect. In fact, it’s a little on the expected side. Destroyer has a great female protagonist that pushes the envelope, and Kidman’s performance is nothing short of incredible, but this movie won’t be remembered for anything more than that.

TIFF18: Outlaw King

Well, if you can’t beat Braveheart, you can beat horses. I mean, literally ruthlessly kill horses. Hundreds of them at a go. My god it was rough watching.

Outlaw King follows a different character in the Braveheart cinematic universe – Robert the Bruce. He starts the movie out as a defeated nobleman, having just surrendered his land and castle (but never his heart) to England’s King Edward. Oh he is pitiable in his lovely green frock, belted low on the hips – a dress that accentuates his piercing blue eyes and his hand-crafted mullet. King Edward gives him a wife (Florence Pugh) as a reward, and they are married in a ceremony celebrating the love of naps and political alliance, but not necessary each other. But since you can only mollify a man with one wife at a time, soon enough he’s riding around the beautiful Scottish countryside, trying to unite the people (impossible) and rally an army (near impossible) to mount the campaign against their English oppressors anew.

As you can imagine, King Edward and his sadistic, bowl-cut sporting son the Prince of MV5BYzE1Njc4MmQtNjFhMS00MGQwLWJiMGYtZjQzYzljZDQ3ODkwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_Wales are quite enraged, so they’re only going to come at Robert (Chris Pine) harder – including declaring him an outlaw, and seizing his wife and daughter (which is poor gift-giving etiquette on their part). So Robert just gallops around raising hell and hopefully spirits until the two sides meet in an epic, EPIC, horse-murdering battle.

Outlaw King reunites Pine with his Hell Or High Water director, David Mackenzie. Unfortunately, lightning hasn’t struck twice. Theme and tone and conviction are all noticeably weaker, as if neither Mackenzie nor Pine is entirely convinced this Robert the Bruce fellow is really worthy of the mantle this film bestows upon him. They raise the stakes by painting him a devoted family man and thoughtful lover, a conceit I’d expect to see in a bodice-ripping romance, not a historical war movie. But it still doesn’t quite add up to a towering hero, perhaps in part due to lazy editing. The movie, at 137 minutes, is too long by quite a margin. There’s a lot of repetition that could easily be cut down without losing a damn thing.

But don’t worry, it’s not totally without merit. The men, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson (does anyone play deranged as well as him?) and Tony Curran love to roll around in the mud. The boys spend 97% of the movie caked in dirt and bathed in blood – it’s a real sausagefest that should sprout at least 10 new chest hairs for all who watch. And you’ll learn some handy Scottish customs such as: it’s not just kilts they don’t wear under with; and the old smacking people to wish them luck (“Let this blow be the last you receive unanswered”) – a real swindle if I’ve ever seen one; and weird swan oaths that are perhaps better left to history, or at least what passes for history on Netflix.

Outlaw King is often intense and often gory and often brutal. But just when it’s getting to be too much, Mackenzie cuts to a long, sweeping panorama of the countryside, giving me space to breathe. But then he zooms in tight on Pine so we see that Bruce is demented with grief – it’s right there in his eyes. Sure they might be sheep shaggers and horse killers, but they’re also just super chivalrous men who politely wait for each side to make their impassioned, inspirational pep talks before commencing slicing and dicing. It’s real beautiful stuff. I would hesitate to recommend it if it was being released in theatres, but since you’ve got Netflix anyway, why not wait for a day when you’re really mad at a horse, and live vicariously.

Peppermint

In two heartbeats, Riley North loses everything. Her husband and young daughter are gunned down in a drive-by shooting. The only thing that licks at her grief is justice. She stumbles out of the hospital to identify her assailants in a line-up, and then confronts them in court. But the justice system fails Riley (Jennifer Garner), and the killers walk free.

Contorted with rage and sadness, Riley disappears, and spends the next several years obsessing about revenge. When she resurfaces in Los Angeles on the 5th anniversary of Peppermint-1her family’s murder, she’s got a plan, and she’s got the skills and weapons to see it through. First, a trio of dead gang members are found hanging, execution-style, from the carnival ride where Riley spent her last moments with her daughter. It’s a message to the city, to the cops, and to the criminals she holds responsible. She’s coming for them.

And for the next 24 hours her time (102 minutes our time), it’s a goddamned bloodbath. The cops don’t know how to stop her and the city rallies behind her, their angel, their vigilante.

Jennifer Garner steps very nimbly back into badassery, and it feels like the genre has missed her. Although her character benefits from movie magic as the bad guys politely wait their turn to attack, single file, never overwhelming or completely outnumbering her, she still feels somewhat real. Maybe it’s the mom in her that never dies – she’s a kamikaze filled with revenge lust, but she still remembers to buckle her seat belt. Maybe it’s because Garner is a fierce mama bear in real life, admirably so. Riley is tough, but she hasn’t forgotten her humanity. She is haunted by the ghost of her little girl but has a soft spot for all children, sometimes to her own detriment. Otherwise, she’s not playing around. She wears boots, not heels, because she means business. Does she maintain unrealistically cute beachy waves? She does. But her hair is dirty, and her body is coated in blood and grime and she basically goes through hell – twice.

Director Pierre Morel knows a little something about putting families in jeopardy – he’s the guy behind Taken. Peppermint has a certain visual style that’s fun to watch. Morel takes us to the gritty streets of Los Angeles, plants us firmly in skid row, and the wrong side of the boulevard, but he also has Garner shooting up a pinata shop in gleeful contrast. The action sequences are tight, the action is hot, and Garner has fun uttering the perfect one-liner as the body count multiplies.

Extract

Chances are, every pantry has a little bottle of pricey vanilla extract on its shelves. It’s practically ubiquitous in baking. Just try to make a cookie without it. But have you ever wondered where it comes from? No. And neither have I. But that’s not going to stop Jason Bateman from trying to tell us.

Joel (Bateman) is one of those classically sad, back-boneless middle aged men who aren’t particularly effective at home or at work. He owns the extract company, but it’s barely profitable and the employees bully him. At home, his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) dons her sweatpants in a nightly ritual to thwart his bedtime advances. They’re going through a dry spell. So when Cindy (Mila Kunis), an alluring young woman, comes looking for a job at the factory, can we blame Joel for wanting to give her something else? I mean, yes. We absolutely can. And even Joel is a bit wishy-washy on the whole thing, so it takes the bad influence of his best friend (Ben extract-02.jpgAffleck) to come up with this convoluted plan: they’ll hire a teenage gigolo to seduce Suzie, leaving Joel free to have an affair guilt-free. That’s a legit loophole in the vows, right?

Anyway, turns out Cindy’s a conwoman who’s trying to influence a former employee (Clifton Collins Jr.) to sue Joel for the loss of his testicle. So who, exactly is going to get a happily ever after?

From the mind of writer-director Mike Judge, I expected a lot better from Extract, and I probably shouldn’t have. I mean, it’s funny. And there are a lot of great cast members really selling their parts (David Koechner is a scene-stealer in a part that will infuriate you). None of these things add up to anything significant, but if you can live with some ridiculous, and often ridiculously funny, bits and pieces, you might be able to make this work for you. It’s no Office Space; like the extract itself, a little goes a long way, but if you’ve got a hankering for some ethical flavouring, Extract has the essence.

Zoe

Got your fill of rom-coms? How about a sci-fi romance for a change?. Ewan McGregor plays Cole, an artificial intelligence engineer who creates a beautiful and highly realistic synthetic “woman” named Zoe (Lea Seydoux). Cole’s lab isn’t just making convincing companions, it’s also revolutionizing love. “The Machine” is a highly complex algorithm that can predict whether a relationship will ultimately work out. It has also synthesized a drug that can mimic the feeling of falling in love. But all of these things together don’t exactly mean a world full of meaningful relationships: humans will always exploit emotions. And Cole is lonelier than most.

MV5BZDZjOTUyNTctM2E0Zi00MGIwLWEyZmYtYTIzNDg2MmZiN2FmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzk3NjQ1MTc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Zoe doesn’t understand that she’s synthetic at first, and it’s a little heartbreaking when Cole has to tell her. Then she questions everything. Like these unrequited feelings she has for him – was she programmed to have them? She was not. But as the two grow closer, and become a couple, she senses things are still unequal. Knowing who she is, what she is, has him holding something back.

Zoe is a movie about the complexities of love, and what happens when technology disrupts it. Men are eager to visit synthetic brothels (Christina Aguilera plays a robot hooker, for some reason) but will they ever trust synthetics to have real feelings? Of course, in a world where those feelings can be manufactured and manipulated with a pill, I wonder if they haven’t been sufficiently devalued that synthetic or not, it shouldn’t really matter anymore.

At any rate, there are some really interesting ideas here, they just aren’t executed all that well. The movie opens up this delicious Pandora’s box but then offers almost no social commentary, and its protagonist’s navel-gazing is immature and insensitive. There are no glaring problems with any of the movie’s moving parts, it’s just that they don’t add up to anything all that gripping or compelling (except for the soundtrack, which was the only notable standout). With themes of authenticity of both personhood and emotion, Zoe pales in comparison to Ex Machina and even Her, and you can’t quite forgive its shortcomings. I suppose movies are a little like robots in that, if you can’t make it better, why bother making it at all?

The Happytime Murders

It’s not a total bag of shit. But it is a mixed bag, and I suppose we must allow that there is some shit in that mix.

I have a certain admiration, and perhaps a higher tolerance, for movies that take risks and push buttons. But a movie like this is going to test even my boundaries, flimsy as they are.

It’s set in a Los Angeles where humans and puppets live together, though not exactly peacefully. The puppets are treated like second-class citizens. And despite the fact that they’re called puppets, there’s no acknowledgement that traditionally that word has referred to an object animated by a human hand up the puppet’s bum. These puppets are people, and their plight is a very interesting allegory for the African American experience. Unfortunately, the film makers keep up that thread for maybe 10 minutes before they drop it in favour of shock-factor antics.

And I get it. Who can resist making puppets do rude things? I LOVE Avenue Q, but MV5BMjEyMjg5NDMwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjQ4OTMwNjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_Avenue Q has a message and a point. It’s well-written and cleverly delivered. The Happytime Murders derails itself with its lewd antics, and if they get a laugh, they also take away from the plot, which is thin to begin with.

The gist: The Happytime Gang was a TV show, and now someone’s murdering its cast one by one. Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and her ex-partner, puppet Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) have to overcome their history and a massive grudge to work together to save their friends.

But then: porn! So much puppet porn. And not the tasteful or vanilla, either. Puppets are in to some crazy stuff. Not to judge. But there were buckets of jizz, and puppet pubes, depraved bunnies, thirsty cows, and literal horn dogs. The murders are so much more sedate in comparison, puddles of stuffing rather than blood. It’s amazing, though, that something that sets out to be so shocking can so quickly become rather dull. One Sharon Stone-inspired puppet pussy shot is brilliant; repeating it can only reveal your lack of material.

The saddest thing, though, is the movie’s complete waste of funny ladies Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Banks. The script asks very little of them. McCarthy is relegated to sidekick status, and though she seems at ease among puppet costars, she doesn’t really get a chance to shine. If anyone, it’s Maya Rudolph who kind of steals the show as Philips’ long-suffering secretary, Bubbles, although it must be said that the puppetry is top-notch, and between you and I, I think I would have 100% enjoyed a documentary about the making of this movie better than the actual movie.

The Happytimes Murders is frequently disgusting, and often crude, but it’s not always bad. It’s not meant for everyone, but there was one woman in my screening who laughed like a hyena for the entire 91 minutes, so it does have its audience, it just may not be you. Or me. It goes out of its way to be ludicrous. If director Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son) could hide in the theatre and poke you with a big puppet penis, he probably would. The movie was clearly made with glee and abandon, even if it isn’t always received that way by audiences. Personally, I just think it confuses lewd and dirty with entertaining a little too often, and for me that joke wore thin. But I won’t pretend I didn’t laugh occasionally – it was just usually the kind of laugh where you hide your own eyes in shame and hope that Grandpa isn’t watching from Heaven.