Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sausage Party, Pete's Dragon, Florence Foster Jenkins, Captain Fantastic Reviews

Sausage Party
Dir. Conrad Vernon & Greg Tiernan
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While there have been precedents for R-Rated "adults only" animated films (i.e. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, Fritz the Cat), writer-producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are the first to plant the flag for raunchy 3D cartoons in the Pixar vein. Like many of Pixar's films, which employ the familiar formula of "The Secret Life of (non-human thing)," the stoners who gave us Superbad and This is the End explore the secret life of food, which if you think about it has horrifying implications. Sausage Party is essentially the college freshman version of VeggieTales - featuring non-stop immature sex jokes, lazy racial stereotypes, and even hot dogs that smoke pot out of a kazoo. While I was hoping for a clever, pun-filled adult-oriented Pixar-esque film, what I got was an obnoxious, shocking just for the sake of it bro-fest that rarely made me laugh.

The story takes place in a supermarket, where all the food, including Frank (Rogen), a hot dog, Brenda (Kristin Wiig), a bun, Teresa Taco (Salma Hayek), Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), and a whole bunch of other products lining the shelves await to be chosen by customers and brought to the eternal "great beyond." However, their world comes crashing down when Frank and his pals learn the horrifying truth that once they leave the store, they are made into meals and eaten. So all the food essentially stages a store-wide escape from the humans.

The film attempts to implement a very South Park-inspired atheistic "message" to go along with its low brow frat boy humor (90% of this movie banks on the audience laughing at the sheer fact that food items are cursing and referencing sexuality), but unfortunately that fell flat for me as well. The idea of the food being happy in its ignorance of the "truth" behind the store, as well as the idea of certain "Non-perishable" items (the store's wise men) promoting this false truth to establish order, at least has a kernel of an interesting idea, but the film constantly goes back to that one idea over and over and becomes overly preachy. Maybe if the rest of the film made me laugh more, it would've been forgivable.

Comedy is subjective, so if seeing a weiner spout off more "f*cks" than Goodfellas and watching food have graphic sex with each other hits your funny bone, who am I to tell you this doesn't work? But for me, Sausage Party was a big disappointment. It has a certain novelty in its weirdness - there is certainly no other movie like it - but its off-putting, forced "dirtiness" and repetitive atheistic agenda rubbed me the wrong way. Now if you excuse me, I'm hungry so I'm going to fire up some hot dogs and feel pretty bad about it.

Rating: C

Pete's Dragon
Dir. David Lowery
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Like other films recently given the live-action remake treatment from Disney, including The Jungle Book and CinderellaPete's Dragon holds a special place in my heart as a kid because I remember watching the VHS of it often and also - duh - the protagonist's awesome name! Although I didn't necessarily connect with the whole "orphan who befriends a dragon" aspect, it was a charming enough film with some nice music and post-Mary Poppins human-cartoon interaction. But now we're living in a post-Rise of the Planet of the Apes human-CGI creature interaction world, and Pete's Dragon (2016), like its 70's predecessor, beautifully integrates those two elements together. Not only that, but David Lowery's film exceeds from the original in almost every way (save for the music): it's more emotional, there's a kind of gentle poeticism in its tone, and best of all, the child actors aren't the acting equivalent of nails on a chalkboard!

The refreshingly small-scale story follows the goings on of a small logging town, where Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) delights the local children with stories of a dragon he saw in his youth, that he believes still lives in the woods nearby. His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park ranger, believes they're just tall tales, until she meets a 10-year old orphan, Pete (Oakes Fegley), who says he lives in the forrest with his big friendly dragon, Elliot. The rest of the film pretty much falls how you'd imagine: Grace eventually learns her father's rumors to be true, while the rest of the townfolk (including Karl Urban as a disgruntled lumberjack) want to be rid of this seemingly dangerous large creature.

While Pete's Dragon definitely follows the familar "Disney" story beats - and not to mention a smattering of ideas seen recently from How to Train Your Dragon to Room - it is still a beautifully crafted film with some truly incredible dramatic performances (not excluding the dragon itself). Fegley is incredible here; his interactions with Elliot feel as genuine as that between a child and his doting pet. After having been away from civilization for so long, Pete's slow acclimation to "normal" life reminded me of Jacob Tremblay's performance in Room, and even a little of the twins in the underrated horror film Mama. Elliot's look is also really inspired - with fur instead of the traditional scales, the pet-like nature of their relationship hits home even more, and his green color also adds to the environmental message of the movie.

I loved the quiet, graceful quality Lowery brought to what normally would be a "rip roaring" action adventure type of film, and it respects the emotions of the audience. Like Pixar's Up, there's a very emotional sequence right at the beginning of the film that hooked into me right away. There's also a very tactile, "independent" feel to the film despite coming from the House of Mouse - it almost seems like a reverse of The Jungle Book in that only one element is CGI, but all the environments and characters are real and shot beautifully (whereas Mowgli was the one real thing in Favreau's film). The soundtrack, the look, the tone, the acting, the effects - as simple and familiar as it is I pretty much liked everything about this movie and I really hope it finds its audience.

Rating: A-

Florence Foster Jenkins
Dir. Stephen Frears
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It's harder and harder nowadays to go into a movie completely fresh and unencumbered by numerous trailers, posters, TV ads, reviews, Facebook posts, etc, but I managed to go into Florence Foster Jenkins with completely virgin eyes (and ears). All I knew going in was Meryl Streep was starring (check), Stephen Frears was directing (check), and it had something to do with music or opera, I wasn't quite sure. I'm so glad that was the case, as the main idea of this film, when it was revealed, was a complete surprise to me. And because I'm a nice little reviewer I won't spoil it for you either - though even the poster somewhat gives it away!

I'll just say that Streep plays a quirky character whose dreams outweigh reality, and Streep does a fantastic job conveying her denial, naivety, inner sadness, and outer bubbly spirit. It's a complex character of an aging older woman that I wish we saw more of in film (Philomena, another Frears film and one of my "Top Ten" a few years ago, is another great one!). I loved how Jenkins conveys the relativity of "success" and what that word exactly means - does it matter if you're respected by your peers as long as you're proud of yourself and that you actually did what you set out to do? It's inspiring to me as a blog writer - the reward of which is generally just a handful of "Facebook" likes, if that - that as long as your "art" makes you and perhaps a few others happy, who's to say your passion is a waste of time?

I'm tap-dancing around the story because I enjoyed discovering this character along with the primarily "assisted living"-aged audience I saw it with, but Florence Foster Jenkins was both entertaining and fascinating in a way that felt almost like something out of a Robert Ripley cartoon. I also tend to give higher ratings to movies that make me emotional, and this one certainly did. Even if some of the side characters weren't that strong (really I'm just thinking of the guy from The Big Bang Theory, who was totally miscast here), and it's all rather predictable, I was moved, touched, and laughed quite a bit by this incredible true story I knew nothing about.

Best movie quote of the year: " one can ever say I didn't sing."

Rating: A-

Captain Fantastic
Dir. Matt Ross
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The second movie in a single blog post about how children who live most of their lives in the woods cope with coming back to the "real world" - and both are fantastic films! In this case, it's even in the title. Captain Fantastic, from Silicon Valley actor Matt Ross, making his feature film debut, is about a father, Ben (Viggo Mortenson), and his six children, who live off the grid, isolated from the outside world in the middle of the woods. They rely on Bear Grylls-style survival skills, perform physically at an athletic level, educate themselves from the most distinguished literature and philosophers, proficiently play music of various instruments, and learn to live at one with nature, without technology. Essentially Ben has trained his kids into a perfect Noam Chomsky-parroting hippie militia, and when Ben is informed of his sick wife's passing, he and his kids take a road trip to her funeral, during which they experience the outside world for the first time.

Despite the premise sounding like a straight fish-out-of-water farce, the film intelligently wrestles with Ben's experimental, utopian ideals in contrast to his in-laws' traditional capitalist point of view, while also bringing a lot of heart to the mix. The main kids are all fun to hang around, and Viggo Mortensen has never been better as the complicated, society-rejecting patriarch whose grief may get in the way of his judgment, and whose lofty ideals of the "perfect" family may seem good on paper, but sometimes you need to just let "kids be kids." Captain Fantastic definitely has "Sundance" written all over it, and has a great blend of comedy and drama that seems to only come out of this particular brand of "indie" flicks.

Rating: A-

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