Saturday, January 28, 2017

Joy

Year 9, Day 28 - 1/28/17 - Movie #2,528

BEFORE: My first post written on the new computer, with an updated browser - can you tell?  No, probably not.  I've been working with the new iMac for over a week, but most of that time has been spent transferring files over via an external drive, finding out if my old versions of Word and Excel would work (nope...) and finding a viable alternative that doesn't involve giving any money to the Microsoft Corp.  Then I had to re-program all of my iTunes playlists, and convince my phone to sync up with the new computer instead of the one at the office. The first synching went horribly wrong, I tried to do it all at once and songs were skipped, album artwork didn't transfer over, some songs ended up being duplicated - it was a mess.  I don't know why I can't just make a playlist, tell the computer to transfer that playlist to the phone, and that doesn't just WORK.  Instead, it seems to be buggy as all hell.  But removing all the playlists, then transferring them over one at a time, and syncing the phone after each one seemed to work better, though it was much more time-consuming. I know, white person problems, right?  But at least I'm back to where I can download music to replace my old audio-cassettes, and have a way again to get that music on to my phone, so I can listen to it on long subway rides, not have to listen to strangers' conversations, and then I won't get the urge to punch them in the face, so really, this is for the good of everyone.

Robert De Niro carries over from "The Intern", for another film about a woman succeeding in the workplace.


THE PLOT: The story of Joy Mangano, who rose to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.     

AFTER: First off, it's a little weird that they never say Joy's last name within the film, and I had to look it up online.  It's an odd detail to leave out - was it considered too ethnic?  Did some screenwriter feel that people wouldn't empathize with the lead character if I knew her last name, or that by leaving it out, I'd imagine her last name could be mine, or something?  Secondly, if you told me when I started this movie-watching project that I'd eventually watch the story of a woman who became famous for inventing a mop, I would have said you were crazy.  But that's where I find myself.  

Of course, we're talking about the Miracle Mop, a staple of the early days of Home Shopping Network and the infomercial circuit.  It's very tempting, being the cynical person that I am, to not believe that any product on TV is as good as it says it is.  I've seen too many empty promises, bought too many things that DON'T work for me to buy something on the advice of the exact same people who are also going to profit from that sale.  I'm probably the guy who confounds the marketing people, because I've peeked behind the curtain and worked in an advertising-adjacent line of work, plus I don't own a car, I only buy a new computer or phone when the old one crashes, and I tend to not own more than one pair of sneaker or two pairs of pants at one time.  I'm a simple man, and (generally speaking) money belongs in the bank, and I'm not eager to throw it away on a whim.  

But occasionally there is an item that does what its advertising says that it will.  In 2015, my mother asked for a MyPillow for Christmas, and from what I can tell, it's working well for her.  And after watching that infomercial for that square copper frying pan (you know the one, I bet) my wife and I took a chance on it at Christmas last month while shopping at the "As Seen on TV" outlet store, and so far so good, it really seems to be as non-stick and as easy-to-clean as Chef Eric said it would.  So since my umbrella gave up the ghost in a windstorm last week, hey, I may even give the Better Brella a try.  

This film takes place back in 1990, when "home shopping" was in its infancy, after convincing people that the term was not an oxymoron, before there were even web-sites to shop from.  Before that, it seems people would only shop at these things called "stores", where they could pick up and inspect the merchandise before buying, and walk out of the store with it THAT SAME DAY (I know, right?) and carry it home.  All shipping was "free shipping", because there was no shipping.  But I guess even back then there was the Sears catalog, and I don't know how that thing stayed in business for so long.  Why drive to a store and get your item right away when you can call a phone number and get it next week?  

But all this meant that there were only a few companies that controlled what products got on store shelves and which ones didn't, so even if you built a better mousetrap, there was no way to get people to find out about it, so that old saying about people beating a path to your door just wasn't the case.  Then along came TV and the internet, which I have to think leveled the playing field - but along with greater channels for promotion no doubt came new ways to rip people off.  For every invention that Ron Popeil came up with that delivered on its promise (ginsu knives, and let's assume that rotisserie oven) there were probably three that didn't (the Pocket Fisherman, that record-cleaning device) or broke after a few uses.  

Look, I don't know if the Miracle Mop was all that it was cracked up to be.  But I applaud the ingenuity of the person who designed it.  That said, I don't know if her story warrants making a movie about her, or depicting her terribly quirky family in such an obtuse way.  I don't even know if this portrayal of this American family is spot on, or if it was exaggerated in such a way to emphasize the hero-ness of Joy, being a working mother supporting family members who didn't seem able or willing to get jobs and pitch in.  I mean, sure, follow your dream, even if your dream is to sing in nightclubs or watch soap operas in bed, but you've got to have some balance in your life.  Maybe once you have a job and some income you can devote a few hours a day to your daytime dramas or whatever, but if that's all that you do, someone needs to call a family meeting. 

So I'd really prefer to call a mulligan here, because I can't say that this story didn't ring true, or took too many liberties, I just have to fall back on whether it entertained me or not - and I'm kind of neutral on this point because so many characters were so gratingly annoying, and I'm not sure that I buy this whole women's empowerment thing when it's just the same kind of success story that we see on "Shark Tank" every week.  I mean, let's keep some perspective here, this woman didn't cure a disease or become the first woman in space, or even champion civil rights, she just invented a better mop.  And I don't think she did it for the benefit of the world, as this story might lead you to believe. 
OK, so maybe the world's a little cleaner, but that's about it.

NITPICK POINT: Why does it seem like the only way a movie can show a woman getting "tough" is to show her cutting her hair?  I don't get the supposed "empowerment" that a scene like this is supposed to symbolize.  A woman can be tough or determined and have long hair - what's the alleged connection between the short hair and her demeanor?  I just see it as a cheap way for a movie to show what can't be shown, it's a shorthand cheat. 

NITPICK POINT: I don't know why anyone would wring a mop out with their bare hands - a mop head is obviously going to be dirty and something one wouldn't want to touch.  I believe that prior to 1990, a professional janitor would probably use a bucket with a wringer attached, and people at home had the option to use those sponge mops that either had a metal plate that you could squeeze the sponge with, or that handle that would compress the sponge together.  So I don't see how the Miracle Mop solved something that wasn't much of a problem to begin with. 

Also starring Jennifer Lawrence (last seen in "X-Men: Apocalypse"), Bradley Cooper (last seen in "Aloha"), Edgar Ramirez (last seen in "The Counsellor"), Virginia Madsen (last seen in "The Rainmaker"), Diane Ladd (last seen in "Wild at Heart"), Isabella Rossellini (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), Elisabeth Rohm (last seen in "American Hustle"), Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Jean-Louis, with cameos from Ken Howard (last seen in "The Judge"), Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Melissa Rivers.

RATING: 5 out of 10 royalty checks

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Intern

Year 9, Day 27 - 1/27/17 - Movie #2,527

BEFORE: I could have gone several different ways, linking out of "Sausage Party" - I love films with big casts, even animated ones, because they present me with so many options.  But sometimes this is maddening, too, if there are too many options - should I follow the Seth Rogen link to "Steve Jobs"?  Or the James Franco link to "Tristan & Isolde"?  And so on...

But I've set my sights on Feb. 1, and I already have a path there, so Anders Holm carries over from "Sausage Party", and this is the start of a three-film chain with Robert De Niro.  Then we'll hit the romance films on Monday, OK?



THE PLOT: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn't all it's cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site.

AFTER: It's impossible to predict how much of any actor I'll see in a given year - after watching 5 films with De Niro in 2015, I went ALL of 2016 without an appearance from him.  For any given actor, there are ebbs and flows to all of this.  Anne Hathaway turned up three times in 2015, and I didn't see her at all last year, either.  

But I wonder if De Niro was miscast in this film - he's just so NICE, in every aspect of the word.  And is De Niro really at his best when he's being NICE?  Agreed, he was 72 when this film was released, and he's playing a guy who's 70, but it should be a scrappy 70, not an overly polite, neatly dressed 70.  There were times during this film when I was praying to see a little bit of the old Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver" or Max Cady from "Cape Fear", just to shake things up a bit.  "Casino" or "Raging Bull" or "Godfather Part II" - heck, I would have settled for some of the meanness from his character in "Meet the Parents" here.  


Because he plays a guy here who keeps taking things in stride - the death of his wife, the solitude of being retired and directionless, and then when he does find his way back into the workforce, it's a tough go for him to learn about the new ways of doing business in an online world.  And even though he's very helpful to this dot-com's female founder, she doesn't want to accept or trust him at first, she even transfers him to another department for the crime of being "too observant", so he has to go on coffee runs for a bunch of spoiled millennials (I'm assuming...). 

"Come on!" I thought, "Get angry, fight back, stand up to these spoiled kids!  You don't have to smack them around, though that would probably be good for them, but let's see some push back!"  Of course, this is not THAT movie, instead he wins over most everyone in the company with his polite manners, his ability to tackle complex problems and his can-do spirit.  Ho-hum, how very boring!  If I wanted to see people pitching in and getting things done, I can just go to work!  I think if he had been more direct and forceful with the company's CEO, he could have straightened her out much quicker, and it wouldn't have taken the whole damn movie.  

NITPICK POINT: Ben spots a flyer that's looking for "Senior Internships", and it turns out that this dot-com company is really, genuinely looking for senior citizens to be interns at their company - but that's not even a real thing, is it?  This would have worked better in the film if the company was looking for COLLEGE seniors, and he thought they meant senior citizens, and then he's a real fish out of water, a 70-year-old guy applying for the same position as twenty-something millennial hipsters.  Now, THAT'S a solid premise.  So close, but they missed that opportunity here. 

I have a feeling this film may have seemed extra boring to me because I watched it right after "Sausage Party", which represented a flurry of manic activity.  The day-to-day operations of a clothing web-site are bound to seem dull by comparison, even though they manufactured a couple of shipping emergencies, and a mistakenly-sent e-mail that led to a heist-like operation to prevent the recipient from seeing something that would have been a personal disaster for the CEO.  Yeah, we all wish there was an "Unsend" button,  don't we?    

There is more to the story, but I'm going to avoid spoilers here, but much of it deals with the logistics of a woman running a company, and her inability (before De Niro's character, Ben, comes along, of course) to balance her job, her relationship, motherhood, and a decent sleeping schedule.   Ben finally convinces her that in this modern world, she shouldn't apologize for trying to have it all, or have to compromise any of those four things just to improve one of the others.  Which really should have gone without saying, so should a movie have to apologize for having its characters stating the patently obvious?   

So, what's the takeaway here, that a mommy can't be a CEO because she's always going to wonder if she's putting the company ahead of her husband and her daughter?  And a man can't be a house-husband, even if he says he's OK with it, because he's always going to secretly feel inferior because he's not the breadwinner in the family, and this will cause him to act out in other ways?  That's a horrible message.
 

Also starring Robert De Niro (last seen in "Grudge Match"), Anne Hathaway (last heard in "Rio 2"), Rene Russo (last seen in "Two for the Money"), Andrew Rannells, Adam Devine (last seen in "Pitch Perfect 2"), Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Christina Scherer, Linda Lavin (last seen in "Wanderlust"), C. J. Wilson, with cameos from Celia Weston (last seen in "The Invasion") and the voice of Mary Kay Place (last seen in "Starting Over") and archive footage from "Singin' in the Rain" featuring Gene Kelly (last seen in "Cover Girl") and Debbie Reynolds (last seen in "The Catered Affair").

RATING: 4 out of 10 flower pots 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sausage Party

Year 9, Day 26 - 1/26/17 - Movie #2,526

BEFORE: I've done well so far in Year 9, if I do say so myself, I've kept to a regimen where I only add one film for every two I watch, so in 26 days the list has shrunk from 145 films to 133.  And I've managed to get to some relevant films, not only topically, but ones that I really wanted to watch last year, but couldn't find room for, like "Suicide Squad", "The Hateful Eight" and "The 33".  Those were all on my to-do list for 2016 and honestly, I just didn't have the time.  But in terms of quality, for every "Reds" there was an "Ishtar", for every "The Big Short" there was a "Concussion", for every "Anomalisa" there was a "By the Sea".  And I did watch two films with Seth Rogen there at the end of the year, so it killed me to fall one slot short, because this could have slipped in there so easily.  But these things have a funny way of working out, now it plays an integral role in helping me link to the start of the February Valentine's Day chain.

Unfortunately, my progress is about to come to a stop, because TCM's running a Debbie Reynolds marathon tomorrow - 12 films in 24 hours!  And I've only seen two of them before, "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Catered Affair".  I also want to add that HBO documentary "Bright Lights" about her relationship with her daughter, Carrie Fisher, and I don't know if I'd schedule these late in the year, with an obvious link to "Star Wars: Episode VIII", but I can at least keep my options open.  My dedication this year was to Carrie, so I think it would be nice.

But even if I ignore "The Singing Nun" and "How the West Was Won" (not in the mood...), that still leaves 8 films added to the list at once - that would undo most of the progress I've made so far this year, the list would be back up to 141, and I'm not sure my DVR can even hold that many HD movies at once.  What to do?  OK, first, relax.  Maybe I don't need to add ALL of them - I can focus on the ones that are most about love and relationships, even though I don't have room for them this February.  Do I really need to watch "Hit the Deck" or "I Love Melvin"?  And I was able to record "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" a couple of days early, so maybe I can trim this down to three more adds.  Adding three in the next two days, while taking two off the list, means it's only a slight setback, which I can overcome next week.  So in addition to "Molly Brown", I'll add "The Mating Game", "The Tender Trap" and "How Sweet It Is".  Then I just need two more films next week to complete this February's chain, then I can go back to my "every other day" rate of adding new films, and still get the watchlist close to 130 before the end of January.

Conrad Vernon carries over from "The Penguins of Madagascar" and voices several characters tonight.


THE PLOT: A sausage strives to discover the truth about his existence.

AFTER: First off, let me point out that I work in the realm of adult animation.  Not that all of it is graphically sexual (OK, some of it is) but I mean animation that's aimed at adults as movie-goers, not just films that they'll see when they're looking for something to occupy 90 minutes of their kids' day.  We know it's a tough struggle, because most Americans equate cartoons with children and child-like sensibilities, but when the entire animation market is only aimed at kids and their parents, then the market is not living up to its full potential.  Plus this puts a limit on the types of stories that can be told with animation - there can no cursing, no sex, and only limited violence.

But in other countries, like in France and Japan, adults watch animation that's not aimed at kids.  Who gave kids control over this segment of entertainment, anyway?  Kids don't have a lot of money, but their parents do.  I get it, you want to set the kids down in front of "Frozen" for an hour or so, just so you can have some time for yourself.  Or maybe you're an adult who digs movies aimed at kids, and if so, more power to you - but as I've seen, so many of these movies for kids are just bloody awful.

The tide has been turning - slowly.  More millennial young adults have kept watching animation well into their twenties, and shows like "Archer" and "South Park" and the Adult Swim line-up, and movies like "Team America" and "Anomalisa" and "Persepolis" have shown signs of promise.  Turns out that animators like Ralph Bakshi and Bill Plympton were maybe just a bit ahead of their time - and so regardless of the quality of "Sausage Party", I know a lot of people who were celebrating the fact that it was a financial success, because they've all been waiting for a breakthrough like that.

That being said, my feeling after watching "Sausage Party" is that it's wildly inventive, intensely creative, and crude (but in a way I don't mind), and I wish that I could just turn off my mind and really allow myself to enjoy it, but you just have to know that I'm about to nitpick the hell out of it.

Let's start with the concept, which is brilliant - a bunch of food characters that are alive, much like the toys in "Toy Story", only people can't see or hear them, and they live in a supermarket and worship the customers as "gods", and believe in the Great Beyond outside the supermarket, which is a promised land where all of their dreams will come true.  Meanwhile they fear the Dark Lord, who's really a supermarket employee that throws them in the trash can when they've reached their expiration dates.  It's not hard to draw the parallel between the foods and people believing in heaven and hell.  Who's to say that hell isn't essentially a dark, bottomless trash can?  And who's to say that our belief in heaven isn't just as misguided as the food's belief in the paradise outside the store?

But this leads me to NITPICK POINT #1.  The analogy between the clueless food characters and clueless religious people only goes so far - a great point is made here, especially if you're an atheist or an agnostic.  (But I bet religious people won't even see it...)  The food has the advantage of being able to SEE their gods, they KNOW that their gods exist, even if they don't quite understand them, or why the gods hear their songs (prayers).  Religious people in the real world are thereby at a disadvantage, they have to believe in gods that they can't see and can't prove, and you would think this would make people more skeptical in general and their beliefs more tenuous, but somehow the opposite seems to be the case.  People just say that "proof denies faith" and "God works in mysterious ways".  Umm, yeah, or maybe he just doesn't exist.  Isn't that simpler and more rational?

But the problem with the "Sausage Party" spin on religion - it's all over the place.  Heaven is outside the supermarket, but gods walk around inside?  Why would gods come down to "earth", and why can't they hear the food's prayers?  (Later, the people can, but it's due to a device/conceit...)  And it's a rude awakening when they find out that in heaven, God wants to eat them.  Suck on that, religious nuts.  Hey, why hasn't that idea taken root in comparative religion class - I mean, if you believe that God created the world and all the people, WHY did he do that?  Why didn't he just continue on, being all-powerful and all-knowing, but alone.  Does God NEED followers, and if so, for what purpose?  Is humanity just God's experiment or vanity project, because God needed some kind of ego boost?  If he exists, I think he gets off on all this worshipping, if you ask me.

And why do the foods have different religions - some are clearly Jewish (the bagel and the "juice") and others appear to be Muslim, but shouldn't they all have the same "heaven is outside" religion?  And where are the Christian foods?  This leads me to my next issue, which is that some of the foods are clearly ethnic, like the Mexican and Chinese condiments, and the box of grits both sounds and acts black, and then we get to the horribly stereotypical Indians, or Native Americans -actually I think the term "American Indian" is in vogue now, but that seems a bit like an oxymoron.  The character of Firewater is just unforgivably terrible, with the war paint and the feather on the head, and the very broken English and deadpan tone.  AND he's a bottle of alcohol?  Jeez, like there aren't enough struggles that Native Americans have to overcome, do we really need to remind everyone of the stereotype that they're heavy drinkers, too?

I think there's a big difference in casting Craig Robinson to voice a box of grits, or say, Stanley Tucci as the voice of Leonardo Da Vinci in "Mr. Peabody & Sherman", because he's of Italian descent, and hiring a white actor to do his best impression of "Tonto" to play Firewater.  Like, movies have a bad enough reputation for portraying Native Americans in Westerns (as Marlon Brando pointed out when he protested his Oscar...) do we need to keep all that going in a cartoon?  Native Americans are mystical, Native Americans talk funny, and they sit around a campfire and smoke-um peace pipe.  Give me a break, can't we get past all of this?

I'm just not sure that if you want to portray a supermarket full of foods, that falling back on these cheap stereotypes is the best way to do it.  Sure, it's easy, it's quick comedy, but is it really what's best for the story, what's best for our country?  It just highlights all of our differences, and it seemed for a minute like this film wanted to unite all the foods against the humans - but again, I question the methods.  There are moments of potential, like when the (Jewish) bagel and the (Muslim) lavash realize that they have some friends in common (and are both hot for each other, but more on that later) but these are counter-acted by the depiction of Nazi-like sauerkraut containers that want to "Kill the Juice!" (jews).  Do you really want to fill up your film with Nazi imagery like that?  It's too dangerous, some people will laugh at it, but others may take it seriously.

I mean, of COURSE a Mexican taco should have a Latina voice, and the bottle of tequila, the jars of salsa, I'm OK with them having Mexican accents, but do they ALL have to wear sombreros and have thick, swarthy mustaches?  That's some "Speedy Gonzalez"-style stereotyping right there, and I thought maybe we'd moved past this sort of thing.  And NITPICK POINT #2, a taco is a composed dish, you wouldn't normally find filled tacos sold in a supermarket - taco shells, sure, and the other ingredients, but a filled taco just wouldn't be there.  Even in a cartoon universe, there need to be rules, and they need to make sense.

Like, NITPICK POINT #3 would probably be something about how sometimes the character is the organic food, like the vegetables, but sometimes it's the container, like the jar of jelly or the juice box.  So how can a container be filled with food and self-aware, it's a cardboard box or plastic bottle with thoughts and feelings?  And in those cases the food is their internal organs, or blood or something?  That seems wholly inconsistent.  Also, a hot dog is processed meat, how can it be "alive"?  I can almost see favoring an ear of corn or a head of cabbage as a character, because those are living plants, but a hot dog is dead beef or turkey, ground up and mixed with fillers and other ingredients.  It can't possibly have a personality that doesn't acknowledge this, nor can a bread roll, which is flour and yeast and baking powder, somehow turned into a living, thinking talking creature with additional arms and legs?

Every possible dick joke you can make about a hot dog is here, of course, and some foods are naturally going to read as "male" and some, like the hot dog buns, are going to read as "female" - so the hot dog + bun thing is inherently suggestive, but it's nothing new.  Way back in 1927, a singing duo called Butterbeans & Susie released a record titled "I Want a Hot Dog For My Roll", with all the sexual suggestion that implied, and as you can imagine, it was quite a scandal.  But if we're going to take every food item and give it googly eyes and white gloves and little shoes, so that everything looks like the California Raisins or the m&m characters, is a hot dog really the best choice?  And she happens to talk out of her vagina-like lips, real classy there guys.  You reduced a woman to a talking vagina, whose sole purpose is to open up and accept the "hot dog".

I'm glad the film didn't get all preachy and uppity about vegetarian issues, it might have been easy to slip into that.  Also, they probably saved money but not using any genuine licensed brand characters, like Mrs. Butterworth or Charlie the Tuna.  Someone already made that film, it was called "Food Fight", and I'm guessing it was horrible.  In that film, the brand characters came to life in a supermarket, and probably half their budget was spent on licensing all the characters, and then they were probably hampered by the fact that you can't show Charlie the Tuna smoking, for example, even though there would be an obvious pun on "smoked salmon" or something.

But OK, let's say you don't want to think about the racist, sexist, religious overtones, and you just want to switch your mind off and try to enjoy the comedy here.  I mean, I couldn't do it, but maybe you can.  Is the story strong enough to carry the picture?  Apparently not, because they fall back on those old stand-bys, sex and violence.  Both have their place, but I'm just not sure that it's here.  The story's inconsistent because it pitches Frank (the hot dog) and Brenda (the bun) as a perfect fit (literally and figuratively) and they spend most of the film trying to get on the same page with regards to their, umm, union.  But the first time that they're alone together, out of their packages, why doesn't the hot dog slip into the bun, right then and there?  If it's SO important to them, why do they wait?  And then when the sex scene eventually happens, many other food stuffs join in (trust me, you'll never look at bagels and tacos the same way again...) so their monogamous relationship, the perfect fit of a hot dog and bun, one of the "goals" of the film, went out the window at the first possible chance to join the food orgy.  Romance is not really the strong suit of the filmmakers, I'm guessing.

The villain of the film is a giant douche - no, literally, he's a douche, and HIS goal is to, umm, get all up in that with one of the customers.  He seems to want to have sex with a god in heaven, if the analogy still holds.  But as we saw in another part of the film, if he loses the liquid inside of him, he'll die.  So he wants to have sex with God and then die?  Confusing things further seems to be the fact that when he loses the liquid inside of himself, he seems to be able to replace it with fruit juice?  And then late in the film, after giving a man (??) a fruit juice douche (enema?) he's able to control that man, much like Remy did in "Ratatouille".  Yeah, this is the part where the story was WAY out of control, and don't get me started on "bath salts", which - yep, NITPICK POINT #4 - as a psycho-active drug, are NOT the same as the bath salts one might buy in a store.  It's just the nickname for the drug, I know because I took five minutes and looked it up, back when that drug was prominent in the news.

I'll give credit for the dramatic irony that pervades the early part of the film, when we the audience know that the food items are destined to be eaten, but they don't.  (More clueless animated characters tonight, in the same vein as the Minions and the Penguins of Madagascar...) But NITPICK POINT #5 refers to the scene where the groceries are in the woman's kitchen, and there's the big reveal where she peels the potato and eats the (gasp) BABY carrots.  (Which, BTW, a little research would tell anyone are NOT immature or even "genetically bred to be small" carrots.  They're just the ugly, unusable carrots after being thrown into a cutter that makes small but uniform pieces. Sorry.)  My problem is that the woman opens the package of hot dogs and spreads the dogs out on the counter, obviously so the sausage characters can all stand up with space between them and witness the upcoming horror, but NOBODY opens a package of frankfurters like that!  Who wants a hot dog after it's been lying out on the dirty countertop?  Everybody either opens a little bit of the package and slides out a couple of weiners, or they open the WHOLE package and put all the dogs on the grill or into the boiling water.

The thing I hated most about the film was probably the cop-out ending.  Once again, it's a weird machine that saves the day, I won't say what the machine does, but it kind of negates the whole story, along with the new level of "self-awareness" that the food characters obtain.  Wild inconsistencies across the board, which is a major indicator of story problems.  I'd guess that after the wild scenes in the second half, nobody could really come up with an ending that would resolve everything.  I mean, a hot dog and a bun can't keep walking around a supermarket forever, aren't they going to spoil or get moldy at some point?

I don't know, something tells me that I'm WAY overthinking this.  But hey, that's what I do.

Also starring the voices of Seth Rogen (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 3"), Kristen Wiig (last seen in "Zoolander 2"), Michael Cera (last seen in "This Is the End"), Jonah Hill (last seen in "True Story"), Edward Norton (last seen in "Red Dragon"), Salma Hayek (last seen in "Savages"), James Franco (last seen in "The Night Before"), Paul Rudd (last seen in "Captain America: Civil War"), Bill Hader (last heard in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2"), David Krumholtz (last seen in "The Mexican"), Nick Kroll (last seen in "Vacation"), Danny McBride (last seen in "Aloha"), Anders Holm (last seen in "Inherent Vice"), Craig Robinson (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine 2"), Harland Williams (last seen in "The Whole Nine Yards"), Scott Underwood, Greg Tiernan, Lauren Miller, Nicole Oliver, Michael Daingerfield, Vincent Tong.

RATING: 6 out of 10 toothpicks

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Penguins of Madagascar

Year 9, Day 25 - 1/25/17 - Movie #2,525

BEFORE: I often can't understand why certain films take so long to hit premium cable - is it because the film's DVD sales are doing well?  Or does the distribution company have some deal with Netflix or iTunes that prevents it from going to cable?  All I know is, this film was released in theaters in 2014, and now it's THREE years later, and it still hasn't shown up.  I always put each year's animated films on my wish list, and this one's been conspicuously absent for some time - I mean, I've watched almost 900 films since "Madagascar 3", how am I supposed to remember where the story left off?  

I got excited when I saw it on my DVR, listed on the On Demand channel, about 2 weeks ago for just $1.99.  Ah, they've cut the price, that usually means it will be on some premium channel in about a month, maybe two, right?  But then I really needed to use this film as a link, it's a perfect connection between "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" and tomorrow's film, which I really really want to get to.  But I had other films to add to the list, so I didn't take advantage of the $1.99 On Demand deal when I should have - those bastards at TW Cable (sorry, Spectrum) raised the price back up to $3.99.  But WHY?  The only reason to lower the price to $1.99 would have been that no one was buying it at $3.99, so the next logical step would be to play the film on HBO or Showtime for no additional cost, over the cost of the premium channels, that is.  

Then I thought, maybe it will be cheaper on iTunes or Amazon - nope, same price.  I even signed on to my wife's Amazon Prime to maybe watch it for free - no dice.  Amazon Prime is very helpful when it comes to offering you movies you don't want to see, it seems you can never get the movie you WANT as part of the deal.  OK, so I bit the bullet and paid the $3.99, just like I did for "The Big Short", another helpful linking film.  But at some point, I've got to give up on linking movies, because it's just getting too expensive. 

So, OK, I'll watch this film and that's one problem solved, but this isn't the only film that's taken a LONG time to show up on cable.  I should know, I've got a list of them.  Where is "Nightcrawler", and where is "Drive"?  Whatever happened to that film "Into the Wild"?  They're running "Burnt" now, but where's that other film about a chef, "Chef"? That Liam Neeson film "The Grey"? Where's that biopic about Jimi Hendrix, and the other one about Linda Lovelace?  And where are films that I saw at Sundance years ago, like "Regeneration", "Scotland PA" and "The Young Poisoner's Handbook"?  I only have those on VHS and my copies are not great, so I'd love to replace them.  I had hopes that the new year would bring a bunch of new films my way, and it did, but not these. 

Tom McGrath, who voiced Odysseus in "Mr. Peabody & Sherman", carries over to voice Skipper the penguin, and tomorrow I'll follow the voice of Rico the penguin to another film.


FOLLOW-UP TO: "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (Movie #1,603)

THE PLOT: Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private join forces with undercover organization The North Wind to stop the villainous Dr. Octavius Brine from destroying the world as we know it.

AFTER: The screenwriters here have to walk a really fine line with the Penguins - the stereotype of penguins is that they're cute, cuddly, they waddle around and are genuinely clueless.  But there's not much story potential there, so they go in the opposite direction with these four, who act like a military unit - very organized, resourceful, efficient.  But then, that's not inherently funny if they're good at what they do, is it?  So they have to act like a well-oiled machine, but they also have to be generally clueless at what they do and make mistakes, essentially failing upwards.  That sounds complicated, but it puts them in the same realm as Ace Ventura, Inspector Clouseau, and many other characters.  Confidence is the most important aspect of their personality, even if they don't always succeed, they have to believe that they will.  

This film is part prequel to the "Madagascar" series, and also part sequel.  We do get to see the origin story of the team, how three young penguins broke away from their flock to save a runaway egg, which hatched to become Private (which explains why he's the inferior member, he's slightly younger than the others) but in rescuing him, they got separated from Antarctica.  The action cuts forward to the end of "Madagascar 3" (I think) where they separate from the other circus animals on their own mission.  

In a roundabout way, this puts them in touch with the film's villain, an octopus who hates penguins because in every zoo or aquarium he's ever been in, the penguins are much cuter and he's eventually shuffled off to the next zoo or aquarium.  And then somewhere along the way, he gained the ability to talk like a human (all the other octopi in the film must be mute), disguise himself as a human, and gain the scientific knowledge to develop a serum that will turn cute animals into monsters.  Yeah, that's a bit of a stretch, all of it.  

Our four hero penguins have to figure out his next target, get there first and lay a trap for Dave, the evil octopus.  But there's another group of animals out to get Dave, and unlike the penguins from the South Pole, they're the animals from the north - a harbor seal, a snow owl, a polar bear and a gray wolf.  At some point, you'd think this would all get confusing, with all these characters.  And it does.  Hey, I thought the penguins were supposed to be the stars of this film, and here come four new animals to upstage them, just like in the "Madagascar" films.  The "North Wind" animals are cockier, better equipped, and generally better trained.  It would seem logical that they'd be more likely to succeed, right?  

But in the end, it's not what kind of animal you are, it's what you're willing to sacrifice.  It's not what you look like, but what's in your heart, right?  OK, but then how come so much emphasis is placed on being "cute" like a penguin is?  The worst thing that the villain can do to them is to take away their cuteness, but if looks don't matter, then why is it so important that the penguins get changed back? 

Speaking of the end, this is the 2nd (or maybe 3rd) animated film in a row where the end is brought about by a complicated gizmo, that just happens to work the way that the story needs it to work, physics and logic be damned.  Here it's this anti-cuteness beam thingy that is powered by a serum, and when the serum is removed and replaced by something else, the whole machine then just works a different way, because it needs to.  Sure, and you can replace your car's engine with a giant hamster wheel, or someone's heart with a baked potato, and everything will be fine.  

Also starring the voices of Chris Miller (last heard in "Turbo"), Christopher Knights (last heard in "Madagascar 3"), John Malkovich (last seen in "Zoolander 2"), Benedict Cumberbatch (ditto), Ken Jeong (also last heard in "Turbo"), Peter Stormare (last seen in "Nacho Libre"), Annet Mahendru, Andy Richter (last heard in "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2"), Danny Jacobs, with vocal cameos from Werner Herzog (last seen in "Grizzly Man"), Billy Eichner.

RATING: 5 out of 10 snowglobes

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Year 9, Day 24 - 1/24/17 - Movie #2,524

BEFORE: Allison Janney carries over from "Minions", where she was the voice of the mother in the family of bank robbers.  I like putting this one after "Minions", which was also like a little fictional trip through history, though that film skipped over quite a lot.


THE PLOT: The time-traveling adventures of an advanced canine and his adopted son, as they endeavor to fix a time rift they created.

AFTER: I'm back on time travel, I've been trying to get to this topic for a while, but I never can seem to find the time.  Ironic?  They did do a gag about time travel in "Minions", so this seems right on point.  And finally, a film that has zero connection to Donald Trump.  I know secretly some people were maybe wishing for a time-traveler from the future to appear at the inauguration and change history, but alas, it was not to be.  Maybe we all have to live through this scenario once and see how bad things become before we're allowed to change the timeline.

But time travel is a hot subject all of a sudden, at least on TV.  This season, I've been watching both "Frequency" and "Timeless", while last season I watched "12 Monkeys" and now it looks like someone's also making a show out of "Time After Time", which was a great film about H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper traveling into the present.  In films we've seen such ridiculous films as "Hot Tub Time Machine", but also "Safety Not Guaranteed", and "Project Almanac", which is still on my list of films to get to.

What does it all mean?  Why is this topic so prevalent in science-fiction.  Is it just escapism, do we want to get out of the situation we're in?  Or are we just fascinated by other times, when things were "better", or at least different?  Is there some fascination with being able to "fix" historical things that were broken, or at least make a valiant attempt to do so, and is that all just a form of wishful thinking?

In its own way, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is itself a sign of a simpler time, because the original 2-D cartoons were part of the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" show when I was a kid.  I'm not old enough to have seen them first-run, I must have watched reruns in the early 1970's, and I was probably too young to understand much about history, or get all of the jokes.  But damn, there were 91 episodes, it turns out, and I wouldn't mind watching them again as an adult to see what I missed the first time.  For example, I always thought it was called the "Wayback" machine, but it turns out the name for their time travel device was really WABAC, which is an acronym meant to look like ENIAC or UNIVAC, which were early computers of that time (late 1950's).  It didn't really stand for anything specific, probably still doesn't (but maybe it should...) it's just supposed to sound like "Wayback".  Ah, but the IMDB tells me this film used the acronym to stand for "Wavelength Acceleration Bi-Directional Asynchronous Controller", so there you go.

If you can buy the concept of a dog that's smarter than most humans, and can talk, then you're in the clear.  The original cartoon flipped this whole concept of "a boy and his dog" (like, Davey and Goliath, or Buster Brown and Tiger) by making the show about a dog and his boy.  Now, in the modern version, Mr. Peabody is not only Sherman's owner, he's his adoptive father.  Because once you allow gay marriage, I guess, you have to allow smart dogs to adopt children.  Wait, is that right?

Dreamworks bought the movie rights in 2012 to characters owned by Classic Media, and this includes Mr. Magoo, Richie Rich, Casper, Little Lulu, Underdog, and Felix the Cat, plus they're in a joint venture that could make more films with Jay Ward Productions, which covers the Bullwinkle characters and George of the Jungle.  So there's plenty of material there to make future animated films that also appeal to nostalgic parents.  If they're all produced at this level of quality, then I think everyone wins.

However, (and you knew I'd have a "however" when a story relates to time-travel, right?) like many other time-travel stories, at some point this film spirals out of control.  After we see Mr. Peabody and Sherman visit France at the time of the Revolution, and then return to the present to deal with other matters, like Sherman's first day at school, which does not go well.  Partially because Sherman knows a little TOO much about history, but he can't reveal the existence of the WABAC machine - because if humanity knew that a dog built a time machine, everyone would lose their minds and panic.

Of course this is a kid's movie, and of course I don't expect the science to be accurate in any way - but why would a black hole affect a time machine?  A black hole is a point in space, not time, right?  Ah, but the gravity of a black hole is so strong that maybe it CAN affect time, we found that out in "Interstellar", right?  But still, I wouldn't expect a kid to be up on theoretical physics like this.

Further problems are caused when Sherman goes back in time to try to undo the damage that he and his rival Penny have caused, and thus he changes the present, by arriving back before he left, and trying to get Mr. Peabody to come and help BEFORE the last time he came to help.  Which isn't possible, because if he leaves the timestream to help the second time, then he wouldn't be there to help the first time, and then the real problem wouldn't have occured.  The situation gets further complicated when future Sherman bumps into past Sherman, and that's a paradox that the continuum just can't resolve, apparently.  (Of course, since future Sherman doesn't remember the encounter that past Sherman had, the story should shut down right there, but it doesn't.)

Plus, this means that Mr. Peabody never went back to Egypt to get Penny, since future-Sherman interrupted him before present-Sherman got a chance to enlist his aid.  So therefore, she should now still be in Egypt, because nobody went back to get her.  But this seems to have been ignored, because the problem of two Peabodys and two Shermans existing at the same time seems to take precedence.

So a temporal rift is created, and it starts disgorging Trojan soldiers, Marie Antoinette and King Tut into the modern world.  The Sphinx falls from the sky, Abraham Lincoln is back, etc.  But fortunately this means that some of history's greatest minds - Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Da Vinci are on hand to come up with a solution, which even as a fan of time-travel stories, I didn't quite understand.  And if I didn't understand it, what chance does a kid have?

NITPICK POINT: As we saw in the news last week, presidential pardons are only valid when the person issuing them is still President, thus many Presidents wait until their last day in office. Even if George Washington traveled through time to the present, he could not issue one, because he's no longer the commander in chief.  Yes, I know this was a gag, but even joke plot points need to be realistic.

One thing I noticed about "Minions" was that it cast actors against their usual type, for example, Sandra Bullock has never played a villain before, and Jon Hamm, who was so great on "Mad Men" as the deadpan Don Draper, played a very lively and expressive Herb.  Tonight's animated film played it straight, and seemed to cast according to type - Ty Burrell as the suave, proper Mr. Peabody, Stephen Colbert as a smarmy father, Stanley Tucci as Da Vinci.  I don't know which method was ultimately more successful, but I bet the first was more satisfying for the actors.

Also starring the voices of Ty Burrell (last seen in "Muppets Most Wanted"), Max Charles (last seen in "American Sniper"), Ariel Winter (last heard in "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2"), Stephen Colbert (last seen in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"), Leslie Mann (last seen in "Vacation"), Stanley Tucci (last seen in "The Hoax"), Patrick Warburton (last seen in "Ted 2"), Dennis Haysbert (ditto), Steve Valentine (last seen in "The Walk"), Tom McGrath, Zach Callison, with vocal cameos from Stephen Tobolowsky (last seen in "Failure to Launch"), Mel Brooks (last heard in "Hotel Transylvania 2"), Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Lake Bell (last seen in "In a World...").

RATING: 6 out of 10 Einstein on the Beach cocktails (that should be a real thing...)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Minions

Year 9, Day 23 - 1/23/17 - Movie #2,523

BEFORE: Steve Carell carries over from "The Big Short", and he was also in "Café Society", so now I'm regretting once again that I didn't watch that when I had the chance.  The die is cast, I've got my eye on Valentine's Day lining up, so there's not much I can do about that now.  I've got four animated films this week, which tend to be shorter, which is great for me because I'm falling behind on TV and comic books again, plus I have to re-build all my iTunes playlists on the new computer.  So even with shorter films, I've got some late nights ahead of me. 


FOLLOW-UP TO: "Despicable Me 2"  (Movie #2,207)

THE PLOT: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb, hatches a plot to take over the world.

AFTER: I've got to get off of politics and Trump, because I'm starting to sound like a broken record.  Besides, there are plenty of people who are protesting more and louder and better than I am - plus, you never know who's listening...  So let's get off of Trump, and on to some fun animation stuff.  

"Minions" is the story of a bunch of little clueless and confused people, who are looking for a leader, and they've decided to follow the commands of the most evil person they can find.  Nah, that's going to get just get me back on Trump again.  Let me try a different way...

"Minions" is the story of an evil villain who plans to take control of a country, and then double-cross the people who helped do that.  Damn, this is not going to be easy....

Truthfully, there are differences, because the main villain here is a woman, and the country she's trying to take over is the U.K., which the last time I checked, was a monarchy.  And you don't become the ruler of the U.K. just by stealing the crown, it turns out.  You kind of have to know someone, or be born into the proper family.  But since this is for kids, I guess you have to give a little bit of leeway, you can't really get into the vagaries of royal succession, how it goes to the oldest son, and if he has a son then it skips over his brother and sister, and so on.  

You kind of have to go with the flow here, because when a Minion steals the crown, somehow he becomes king.  But he wants to give the honor to his boss, Scarlet Overkill, even though that's "against the rules" - and the story was ignoring the rules in the first place, so WTF?  Why start saying there are rules once you've already broken them?  Comic effect, I know - but a more clever screenwriter would have acknowledged the rules earlier and written around them.    

For reasons like this, I found the story very hard to follow here - and the fact that the main characters speak a form of broken French that's the equivalent of gibberish, well, that didn't help.  The whole relationship between the minions and their employer, Scarlet Overkill, seems out of whack somehow.  Right from the start, when she holds a sort of open competition for assistants in the middle of Hall H at the "Super-Villain Convention" (really? a blatant rip-off of Comic-Con?), it's all a bit strange.  Wouldn't it make more sense to hold auditions one at a time, so she could see what each is really capable of?  Imagine you were casting for a movie role, and you got all the actors who wanted the part in a room together, and you just told them all to start reading the lines loudly at the same time, hoping that one of them would stand out.  Really, it would all be a bunch of confusing noise, right?

But Scarlet selects the three minions to work for her, and she tells them to steal the British crown.  Her husband, Herb, even helps arm them with some of his inventions, but then later she's surprised by this.  Did she not want Herb to help them, did she not want the Minions to succeed?  Because when they do, she's immediately upset with them, even though that's what she had told them to do.  Then, even when the entire British feudal system is upended to allow her to be the new Queen, she's STILL upset with the Minions and punishes them.  Will nothing make this woman happy?  Everything goes her way, and still she doesn't take it well?  I mean, yeah, she's a villain, but what gives? 

NITPICK POINT: The Minions go into exile after working for Dracula, and they don't surface out of their ice-cave until some time in the late 1960's.  We don't know how long they roamed the earth before arriving in New York City in 1968, but let's say they were out of communication with the outside world until 1965.  How, then, do they know about modern music, like the song "Make 'Em Laugh", sung by Donald O'Connor in 1952?  Or how does Stuart know how to play the electric guitar?  

NITPICK POINT #2: It's done for comic effect here, but there's an impossible time-loop that takes place in the background at Villain Con.  Professor Flux uses future versions of himself as helpers, plucked from future points in the time-stream.  But when one future version accidentally kills the original, the others vanish a few moments later, because they're all older versions of the same guy.  But this is just not possible, because if Flux dies at ANY point between "Now" and "Then" (the future points he pulled them from) then they wouldn't even exist at those points, because he died/will die before then.  So he couldn't have plucked them from the future if he wasn't going to be alive then, right?  (Only if he didn't pluck them from the future, one of them wouldn't have killed him.  So we go around and around on this...)   

NITPICK POINT #3: If the "Secret Villain Channel" is so secret, how do the Minions accidentally tune it in?  It can't just be because they moved the TV antenna in a certain way, because that doesn't help you receive extra channels, it only improves the reception on the channels that you DO get.  Augh, there are a ton of these little mistakes, and when you add them all together, it seems like someone just didn't pay attention to the way that anything properly works.  I mean, I know it's a cartoon and a cartoonish reality, but some things still have to work the way they do in the real world, or at least display the rules of cartoon physics.  

NITPICK POINT #4: Why are the Minions so desperate to work for a super-villain, centuries or eons before there even was such a thing?  It doesn't follow any form of logic - a dinosaur is not a villain, it's just a dinosaur, it eats, it hunts, it can't even be classified as "good" or "evil", it just is.  So why are the Minions, who apparently live forever, even following a dinosaur as a substitute for something that doesn't even exist yet?  For that matter, why do they even seek out a leader, when they could be plenty capable of building a society on their own, or electing a leader from within?  

They made some odd choices on the music tracks, too - there's about zero connection between the 1960's rock songs that were chosen and the plot - unless you count the songs played during the closing credits, which were "Mellow Yellow" (because the Minions are yellow) and "Got to Get You Into My Life" (because the minions do work their way into Gru's life, eventually).  All of the other songs, I'm hard pressed to figure out why they were chosen, there's no rhyme or reason to it.  Similarly, the cameo of the Beatles walking across Abbey Road feels like it was just tossed in.  

Also starring the voices of Sandra Bullock (last seen in "Practical Magic"), Jon Hamm (last seen in "Friends With Kids"), Michael Keaton (last seen in "Robocop" (2014)), Allison Janney (last seen in "Spy"), Steve Coogan (last seen in "Philomena"), Geoffrey Rush (last seen in "Frida"), Jennifer Saunders (last seen in "Muppet Treasure Island"), Pierre Coffin (last heard in "Despicable Me 2"), Katy Mixon, Dave Rosenbaum.  

RATING: 5 out of 10 yetis