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Saturday
May142016

Money Monster (2016)

Taking Stock

The previews for Jodie Foster's Money Monster make the film look like Network fused with a hostage-crisis movie. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, especially when George Clooney plays the outrageous anchor; Julia Robert plays the scared but resourceful control booth director, and Jack O’Connell is the guy with the gun. I was on board until the characters left the TV studio, at which point the trailer devolved into quick cuts between panicky banker-types and cops marching through Manhattan. “Great,” I thought, “They’re going to solve corporate corruption in ninety minutes.”

I went in guarded but ready to be swayed, and was rewarded for being adventurous. Money Monster is great—maybe not Captial “G” Great, but great in its own modest, left-field ways. This glossy, big-budget, big-issues drama is crowd-pleasing in form but thematically darker than its summer release date suggests. Foster’s movie is goofy and mixed-up, to be sure, but it’s not easily dismissed.

As Lee Gates, host of the titular, fictitious finance program, Clooney exudes his trademark smarm and charm. He’s a boozer and a scoundrel who drops stock tips by pounding a giant red button; drives home points with sound effects and B-roll; and struts onto set accompanied by hip-hop music and back-up dancers.

We open on a particularly gloomy day for worldwide markets: a major tech firm called IBIS, which Gates had endorsed as “safer than a savings account” four weeks earlier, crashed. Not surprisingly, CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) is nowhere to be found. While filming the live broadcast, an angry young man named Kyle (O’Connell) takes over the studio, armed with a gun and two explosives-lined vests—one for Gates and one for Camby, who was scheduled to appear. Kyle had dumped his life savings into IBIS, and demands restitution for himself and everyone else who’s been screwed by what the news reports as a “glitch” in the company’s high-speed-trading algorithm.

From here, the film begins down every road you’d expect, introducing the no-nonsense police captain (Giancarlo Esposito) who’s managing a tactical team; opening the door to spiritual redemption for the shallow and self-obsessed Gates; and delving into the elaborate techno-conspiracy that Kyle has inadvertently stumbled upon. Though Money Monster is about numbers, it’s hardly by-the-numbers. Foster and screenwriters Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf take several unexpected detours into humor that keep the conventions from getting stale.

Not all the avenues are smooth. From a flaccid recurring joke about erectile-dysfunction cream to a third-act reveal that turns the hostage drama into a reluctant-buddies misadventure, there are moments here that would have been better served by a bit more genre convention and less Michael Bay-style, cheap-seats sensibilities. Luckily, most of the risks pay off. Gates’ impassioned plea to his audience to help inflate IBIS’s stock back to viability has a hell of a capper, and the police captain’s ploy to talk Kyle down by connecting him to his pregnant girlfriend (Emily Meade) goes south in ways that only psychics will see coming.

Money Monster’s humor is as dark as it is unexpected, enlivening the hostage drama's more played-out elements, and forming a sugary coating around the screenplay's bitter social-consciousness pill. Foster and company don't solve the financial crisis, but they lay it bear in broad strokes: with global currency having morphed from representations of tangible things into lightning-fast ones and zeroes that no one can really keep track of, the economy is ripe for manipulation. The so-called money gurus we see in the media are meant to offer hope, cover, and distraction. They serve the interests that own the companies that own them, and underserve the everyday investors who look to them for advice as to which input will best feed the machine.

Money Monster opened a day-and-a-half ago, and I haven't seen one news report of audiences angrily emerging from screenings, ready to burn the system to the ground. No boycotts, no petitions, no calls for throwing out the bums who collude with the real-life Walt Camby's to perpetuate the same great systems that gave us the stock bubble, the tech bubble, the housing bubble...

Of course there aren't. The truth is right there for everyone to see and understand, and in a far more accessible package than even The Big Short. Sadly, in forty years, we've gone from "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" to "Well, that sucks. Hey, did you see what Kanye just said?"

Like the show within the film, Money Monster is a transaction disguised as message-driven entertainment. Most people who buy this product will leave the theatre feeling good at the end because evil is kinda punished, and the stars they came to see are still as attractive and small-R relatable as ever. It's just funny and serious and well-put-together enough to ensure you won't ask for a refund in the first twenty minutes--at which point the theatre and the studio and the company that owns the studio* will whisk your hard-earned ones and zeroes into the digital ether, where they will ostensibly contribute to making more movies.

Some call this sinister. Some call it business. I call it great. Maybe even Capital "G" Great.

*And the company that owns the company that owns the studio.

Tuesday
May102016

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Agents of the Shield

Note: Years ago, over drinks at a dive bar whose name I can't remember, a beligerent reader called me "the Seymour Hersh of film criticism". I had just published the transcript of a confidential Iron Man 2 meeting, and this non-fan claimed I'd made the whole thing up. Sticking his finger in my chest and screaming gin-soaked epithets that folks three taverns down could undoubtedly hear, this non-fan informed me that my source was not a real person, and questioned how anyone at a major film studio would even know about my pissant movie blog, let alone entrust the proprietor of same to share such explosive revelations with the world.

I knew the truth, but the confrontation shook me up pretty bad. I became far more judicious in posting any content that I A) hadn't written myself, or B) could't verify with a few quick emails or phone calls. Another package showed up last week and, after much deliberation, I've decied to run with this transcript of its contents. The writing on the padded envelope was familiar--which is good because the only thing inside was a promotional Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice flash drive containing a single Word document (no hair this time). You may think that what follows is an odd choice to run in place of an original Captain America: Civil War review, but this document captures the overall spirit of the film as I see it.

As a side note: there are some massive spoilers in here, for both movies--things I wish I hadn't known when sitting down to watch Civil War. If you haven't seen it yet, come back later.

Please enjoy. And if you see me drinking alone out in the wild, keep walking. As Dennis Miller once said (back when he was funny and on the right side of history), "I'm not here for you, I'm here for me".

4/15/16 Transcript of “Justice League: Damage Control” video conference (Warner Bros.)

Meeting Organizer:

J.D. Heigelmeir: Senior Steering Chair, DC/WB Cross-Channel Creative and Narrative Architecture (New York, NY)

Attendees: 

Zack Snyder: Director, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Los Angeles, CA)
Ben Affleck: Star and screenwriter (uncredited), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Los Angeles, CA)
Chris Terrio: Screenwriter, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Santa Barbara, CA)

Transcriber:

Dovelyn Proust: Templeton-Young Professional Errands

Begin Call, 11:34am PST

Zack Snyder: Hey, guys, it's Zach. Is everybody on the line that's gonna be on? I've got Ben here with me.

Chris Terrio: Hey, everyone, it's Chris.

J.D. Heigelmeir: I'm here.

ZS: Good, good, then we're just waiting for David.

JDH: Goyer's not coming. I told his assistant to cancel.

ZS: Oh, okay. I just thought this was a Justice League meeting, so...

JDH: It is, but Goyer's out. He's been reassigned to the Bratz remake. This doesn't leave the room, but we just acquired the brand from MGM.

CT: Is there, um... is there a replacement? I mean, ah, who will I be working with now on JL?

JDH: We'll get to that. Look, we're here to get the DC movies back on track, and that means big changes for Justice League.

ZS: Sorry, J.D., I'm a little confused. Yesterday, when I called you from set, you said everything was moving forward like we talked about last week. Something changed?

JDH: Bet your ass, something changed. Me and the rest of senior management got in on that advanced Civil War screening last night. All your talk about, "Well, sorry you guys're disappointed that we're not doing the best numbers but we've got a solid vision"--that's all out the door. Frankly, after watching what Disney/Marvel's about to unleash on the world, people are gonna give less of a fuck about The Justice League than they do about a new Star Trek movie now that The Force has awakened.

ZS: I don't see what one movie has to do with the oth--

JDH: Shut it, Sucker Punch. The adults are talking.

CT: I'm sorry, this is not how professionals talk to one another.

JDH: Oh, you wanna be off the movie, too? Done. [To an assistant in the remote conference room]. Therese, get this guy off the line and set up a call with Contracts.

CT: I am an Academy Award-winning screenwr--

JDH: Argo fuck yourself.

Conference Line Recording: Chris Terrio has left the call.

ZS: J.D., what the hell is going on?

JDH: The Russos ate your lunch, Zach. There's no other way to say it. Civil War is--and I've got the backing of the board when I say this--Civil War is, in many ways, identical to Batman v Superman. Two big heroes pitted against each other by a vengeful little prick. Lots of setting up characters for their own franchises. Crying and punching over dead parents. But it's also got something to say, a goddamned reason to exist.

ZS: But my movie has plenty of reason to exist. It shows the fascist brutality of a soul-dead world, consumed by a darkness so absolute that there can be no true heroes. There's a real grit here, a groundedness that makes the viewer really relate to--

JDH: Are you finished?

ZS: Uh...

JDH: Your so-called heroes are sociopaths. On one hand, you've got an alien god who feels obligated to help people, and can't wipe the fucking frown off his face while he's doing it. On the other hand, you've got a murderous, grumpy billionaire who's so unhinged that he gives up his two-year moral crusade against a perceived planetary threat when he realizes his mom shares the same name as Space Hitler's.

You kill some anonymous CIA spook in minute three, who turns out to be Jimmy Olsen; Lois Lane and Wonder Woman are less than characters, and you've turned Lex Luthor into the least interesting and least threatening villain in Superman-movie history. And, yes, I'm counting Nuclear Man.

Over in the Marvel Universe, we have two complex main characters--friends who find themselves on opposite sides of a great moral divide. They talk, they argue, they disagree vehemently, and ultimately decide they can't budge on the most important question of their time: Can super-powered beings be trusted with autonomy?

ZS: With all due respect, J.D., I raised a similar question in Batman v Superman.

JDH: Yes, you did. And you cut short the answer with an exploding jar of piss.

ZS: Actually, if you'll remember, the bomb was in the wheelch--

JDH: I was talking about the screenplay.

ZS: ...

JDH: Do you remember pitching us Justice League? It was right after we decided to add Batman to the Superman sequel, 'cause less than thirty percent of our Internet polling data showed that people wanted to see their beloved Boy Scout become an even bigger bully. It was the same meeting where I explicitly told you "No More Characters", because you and Goyer and Terrio hadn't cracked the icons you were already working with. It was the meeting where you insisted that you could fit another four into this this sequel because, well, you had two-and-a-half hours!

ZS: Yeah.

JDH: Do you also remember the story notes you received later on, the ones where myself and several members of Cross-Channel Creative suggested you tighten up some of the Luthor stuff, shave off about twenty minutes of flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, and whatever the hell else was going on in that Middle-East-jewel-heist-hell-scape--and maybe give some heft to these other supposed superheroes?

ZS: Yeah.

JDH: I do, too. I remembered it last night, in fact, as I watched [Civil War writers] [Chistopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely create watchable, likeable characters in Black Panther and Spider-Man. They each had twenty minutes of screen-time, tops, and yet all anyone could talk about after the movie was how much they couldn't wait to see more of their adventures.

I even heard someone in the lobby refer to the movie's overall themes of power, responsibility, and accountability as Marvel's delicate thematic nods to the fact that they've finally given Spider-Man a proper, loving home after nearly a decade of domestic battery at Sony. You and I know that's probably artsy-fartsy film-school bullshit, but it's a better question to ask than, "What' the villain's motivation?" or, "Why is Aquaman holding his breath?" or, "Why is Doomsday a shit monster now?"

ZS: C'mon, J.D., everyone knows who Lex Luthor is! There've been, like, a billion other movies and TV shows and comics to explain--

JDH: No, Zack, you need to explain. Your gray-sky little pocket universe doesn't exist in continuity with anything else. A roof laying on the ground is a floor. Marvel/Disney, they've built a goddamned mansion, and they earned every solid gold brick because they drew up the plans and then executed on those plans . Hell, there's stuff in Civil War that actually makes a case for Age of Ultron existing.

And you know how happy we all were when that piece of shit started letting the air out of the House of Ideas' blockbuster balloon. After Ant-Man failed to register--like, at all--with the moviegoing public, we mustered some confidence in BvS. It's all for naught now. Like I said, they're eating your lunch.

ZS: No. No, 'cause the die-hard fans love my movie. They went to see it a ton in the first couple weeks.

JDH: Yes, and they're the same crowd that had to see The Phantom Menace over and over again because they were sure it couldn't be as terrible as everyone said. The same people who are so grateful to see comic books brought to life on the big screen that they'll accept just about any drastic, uncharacteristic, blasphemous shift in a character's foundation if it means they'll get to have more of their pseudo-imaginations spoonfed to them for years to come. We love these idiots, don't get me wrong. Every dollar counts. But they're sucking the tit of a cancerous cow. BvS is a worthless, dried-up side of beef that should've fed thousands, not dozens.

ZS: What are you even talking about, J.D.?

JDH: I'm talking about markets, Zack. The depth and breadth of worldwide markets with disposable income, who will see a movie and then return with their friends, and their children, multiple times, throughout a theatrical run-- a run that their wallets and word-of-mouth will extend into a healthy lifespan of VOD, Blu-ray, and television repeats. Multi-billion-dollar markets, Zach, the kind your film will eventually limp into, heralded by cries of disbelief and derision. Civil War isn't exactly a kids' movie, but it's at least not grounds for DCFS to get involved. I'm sorry, is this getting too Network for you?

ZS: The Facebook movie?

JDH: Nevermind. 

ZS: Look, I'm not interested in making some colorful spandex movie where everybody's happy, okay? The DC comics were never about that. I mean, they killed Superman! My film is right in line with a proud tradition of--

JDH: Do you know how many main characters die in Civil War?

ZS: Let me guess. A lot.

JDH: None.

ZS: What? You've got a movie called "Civil War", and nobody bites the bullet? And you accuse me of lousy storytelling? That sounds lame as hell.

JDH: Marvel/Disney doesn't need to kill off its characters to keep people interested in them--or give their characters artificial motivation because they've been written into a corner. At the beginning of Civil War, there's a ghastly terrorist attack that levels a building in a developing country--

ZS: Sounds awesome!

JDH: It's not awesome. It's a goddamned tragedy. And the characters treat it as such. Scarlet Witch reacts in horror. Captain America is visibly shaken. Tony Stark upends his entire worldview after talking with the mother of a young man who was killed in a similar incident.

The United Nations asserts itself, demanding that the Avengers cede their authority to a governing body. It's the same plot as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre, but this time, you've got characters who disagree about going underground--who will take up arms against one another because they have different views of which freedom is greater: that of the people or their protectors. It's like Watchmen, if The Watchmen acted like they actually stood for something.

ZS: Um, I think I know a thing or two about Watchmen...

JDH: Where's the evidence? Anyway, the main thing Marvel/Disney get right is an understanding the audiences want their heroes to get along, to actually be heroes. Even in their darkest hour, when Cap and Iron Man are about to kill each other, you can feel the love and the sorrow of several great movies exploding out of them.

In that big runway fight everyone keeps talking about--which does in fifteen minutes, by the way, what you couldn't manage in five hours--the Russos stage an emotion-driven, inventive display of spectacular powers. Even though you've got a giant man swiping at a guy in a flying metal suit, and a teenage witch hurling opponents into planes using pink energy clouds, or whatever, these are all still recognizably human characters. They don't hate each other, and some of them actually agree to take things down a notch so that there'll actually be a tomorrow.

I know everyone blew Winter Soldier like it had a candy-cane dick, but Civil War is the real political-intrigue movie. It's also a fun summer blockbuster. It's also something John and Jane Public will go back to more than once and buy on DVD. And you can bet your ass they'll pre-order tickets for Black Panther and [Spider-Man:] Homecoming. Compare this to the Justice League spin-offs, which will probably never see the light of day--except the ones we Shyamalan'ed into and out of production before Dawn of Justice came out.

ZS: J.D. I really don't think you're being fair here. Again, comparing the two movies...it's okay to like them both. The world's big enough for both.

JDH: Most people like McDonald's cheeseburgers. And if you gave them a filet mignon from a Michelin-rated bistro, chances are they'd like that, too. But having taste is different from having taste. One is physiology. The other is discernment. I'd trust the bistro owner to prepare and improve upon the Big Mac. I might trust the Mickey D's manager to clean the bistro's toilet, but even that's fifty-fifty.

ZS: So you're saying Civil War is perfect, and my movie's shit, right?

JDH: In a nutshell. I mean, this is the third Captain America film to feature distractingly awful CGI face-work. Jesus Christ, it's Disney--you'd think they could spend a few hundred extra bucks to get someone who knows what they're doing. Either that or hire a young Robert Downey Jr. look-alike, instead of just plain embarrassing themselves. You'll know the scene when you see it.

Some of the Vision/Scarlet Witch stuff was clunky.

But, yes, in the grand scheme of things, Batman v Superman, and you, too, Zach, will soon be remembered as unfortunate but necessary missteps on the rocky road to franchise success. Just like Sony rushed their abominable Spider-Man reboots, we're starting fresh--as of today.

Is Ben still there?

ZS: Um, yeah. He's been practically catatonic since that "Sad Affleck" video came out. We're running low on non-verbal scenes to shoot and are hoping he snaps out of--

JDH: Maybe this'll cheer him up. Benny! Guess who gets to play Executive Producer?

ZS: What?

Ben Affleck: [Singing, barely audible] Because a vision sofly creeping...

JDH: Zack, you've got three weeks to bring Affleck up to speed on your way out the door. We'll do a soft roll-out. First we'll announce him as EP. About two weeks later, he'll be officially tapped as quote-un-quote co-writer, and by July Fourth, Ben--my beautiful, talented, Oscar-winning golden child--you will be the director of Batman: Reconciliation!

ZS: What about me?

JDH: You're going back to commercials. Pepsi Dark needs someone, stat, and no one does sugary rage-boners like Zack Snyder. We've brought on Bruce Timm and Geoff Johns to work with Affleck on the Batman script. DC is theirs now.

ZS: But they're cartoon and comic book writers! You can't do this to me!

JDH: You did this to yourself, and to us.

ZS: I don't understand!

JDH: Watch Civil War in a few weeks. You will.

Conference Line Recording: J.D. Heiglmeir has left the call.

End Call, 12:07pm PST

Saturday
May072016

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Out of The Blues

Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for I have sinned. Until very recently, I'd only seen The Blues Brothers once, years ago, and I couldn't stand it. No surprise there. An innate inability to appreciate the classics on first viewing hangs like a double-knotted albatross around my neck (count The Big Lebowski and Easy Rider among other colossal claims to shame). Sometimes I come around, though, like last weekend, when I took a fresh look at John Landis's epic musical comedy.

It was rough going at first. Twenty minutes into the film, and I'd barely cracked a smile. In Landis and co-writer/star Dan Aykroyd's meandering absurdism, I recognized a lot of what annoys me about so much modern comedy: the humor felt referential instead of intentional, as if the novelty of adapting a Saturday Night Live skit to feature length was supposed to be inherently hilarious. The nun jokes and the used condom joke and the over-the-top black church service where James Brown helps Jake Blues (John Belushi) bask in the cyan light of Jesus felt at once corny and dry--desperate, even.

There's a paradox here, somewhere, since The Blues Brothers came out in 1980, decades before non-sequitor throwback narratives became fashionable and every property with even an ounce of name recognition got the big-screen treatment. I was reminded of George Carlin's take on The House of Blues:

You ever see these guys? Don'tcha just wanna puke in your soup when one of these fat, balding, overweight, over-age, outta-shape, middle-aged male movie stars in sunglasses jumps on-stage and starts blowing into a harmonica? It's a fuckin' sacrilege...It's not enough to know which notes to play, you gotta know why they need to be played.

Indeed, the film reeked of vague parody, of a kind of Hollywood snobbery disguised as a blue-collar comedy wrapped in cartoonishly affected "Chick-yeah-goo" accents (the same kind SNL would make famous again in the mid-80s with their "Super Fans" sketches). As Jake and his brother, Elwood (Aykroyd), made their way from Joliet prison to the Chicago orphanage and points beyond, I wondered if The Blues Brothers would amount to anything more than a road comedy with some musical-number pit stops and a tired, save-the-orphanage destination.

Then came the car chase. Sorry, the first big car chase, the one in which our outlaw heroes lead several cop cars through the Dixie Square mall. My modern eyes had seen the closed-quarter outrageousness of exploding windows and bodies leaping out of the frame before, but two things stood out in the middle of this scene:

1. Hardly anyone got hurt. I'm sure the shopper characters were terrified, but the damage was limited to gaudy bargain barns and vehicles driven by those authoritarian squares known as the police.* Compare this scene to any of today's big-budget blockbusters,** and it's like watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon versus a 9/11 YouTube compilation. With the exception of one building collapse, whose wreckage is clearly comprised of Styrofoam "bricks", all the carnage in The Blues Brothers takes place on quiet streets, open roads, or in plazas where there's enough room to get out of the way. Revisiting the "awesome" Nick Fury takedown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier a couple days later, I couldn't help but wonder how many people were killed or severely injured in the Heat-inspired heavy-arms-in-mid-day-traffic set piece.

2. It was real. Today, even when a filmmaker goes the "practical" route with stunts and special effects, they still employ a ton of digital trickery to fill in gaps. This technology didn't exist in 1979, to the degree that Landis and company needed to deploy, so ninety-nine percent of the on-screen destruction--from the mall chase, to the dozens of police cars pursuing the "Bluesmobile" down Lower Wacker Drive, to a scene in which Jake and Elwood run a pack of Nazi demonstrators off a bridge--was all done using stunt performers and actual vehicles in real settings.

For me, at least half the thrill of this movie came from marvelling at what went into making it (from permits, to insurance, to just plain guts and imagination). Friend and fellow critic Patrick McDonald, of The Chicago Film Tour, informed me that John Landis destroyed 103 cars in filming The Blues Brothers. They die spectacular deaths, hurling into one another and forming piles of busted metal that look like a giant, invisible child going to town on his toys. The scenes escalate in scale and mischief, and I finally got what Landis and company were laying down.

The music helped, too. Aside from the surprisingly conventional James Brown number, The Blues Brothers pops with numbers by Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and, of course, the Brothers themselves. My favorite is Aretha Franklin performing "Think", as she dares her diner-manager/guitarist husband (Matt Murphy) to hit the road with Jake and Elwood. The moment is emblematic of the movie's rebellious spirit, skewing notions of domestic roles just as the titular characters push the boundaries of cultural identity via their obsession with (and some might say appropriation of) the blues scene.

In Jake and Elwood's quest to preserve their childhood home, we catch a glimpse of a segment of rapidly changing society clinging to its uniquely American blues heritage. The blood had barely dried from Viet Nam (not to mention segregation, the official version of which was barely a decade-and-a-half behind us); on the horizon lay an era of unbridled prosperity for those who prefer their country white and polite. The Blues Brothers are criminals, yes, and Landis and Akyroyd don't shy away from giving them their comeuppance, but they are, in the truest sense, righteous anti-heroes. Their wanton destruction and refusal to "come along peacefully" aren't just catalysts for action scenes and jokes; they are rallying cries against gentrification that would have likely been silenced if the characters were actually as black as they thought they were.

The Blues Brothers take on Nazis, rednecks, big business, and a government that will go to ridiculous lengths to tuck away undesirables and dissidents. They live with transients, hang out in a pawn shop, and show a reverence to struggling black diner owners that they are incapable of mustering while recruiting their sold-out maître d' buddy at his place of employment (a fine-dining restaurant so buttoned up that it serves thousands of dollars' worth of champagne and shrimp cocktails to a couple of obnoxious loud mouths--simply because they looked like they should have a table there).

Jake and Elwood's buffoonery isn't cheap, and it isn't random. It's wickedly funny, subversive protest. They know why every note needs to be played. And now, so do I.

*The cops in this film are ostensibly trying to do the right thing (protecting, serving), but they are mostly faceless stunt drivers who exist to get Roadrunner'ed by the free-spirited Jake and Elwood. Those that do have faces (like the great Steven Williams, whose character, I'd like to think, quit the force after the events of this movie and started the Jump Street program) are grumpy and vengeful and impossible to root for. 

**At $30 million, The Blues Brothers was, in its day, one of the most expensive comedies ever made.

Monday
Apr252016

Sex Ed (2014)

Agenda Neutral

Like actual puberty, movie puberty ain't pretty. Some films confidently lead audiences on a journey that seems painstakingly mapped out. Others are torrents of conflicting emotions and ideas whose epic identity struggle makes a relatively short ordeal feel like forever. Isaac Feder's Sex Ed is the latter kind. I'm glad to have laughed at, squirmed through, and dissected all the stuff that did and didn't work, but I'm mostly grateful it's all behind me.

Except for this review, of course. How do I distill Sex Ed's promise and problems without spoiling the whole thing or just saying, "Go watch it, and see for yourself?" I'm don't know how much of Bill Kennedy's screenplay was Frankenstein-ed via editing and other decisions to create the end result, versus what was on the page at the outset. I can say that this is three distinct movies in one. More accurately, it's three partial movies, none of which have any business harmonizing as much as they do:

Movie #1: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, a high school detention monitor who learns that his roomful of rambunctious teens is dangerously ignorant about sex. He begins a health-studies class and runs afoul of a local pastor (Chris Williams), whose son is one of Eddie's students. Trapped between a secular school policy that's oddly defined by religion-based community standards and a moral obligation to keep his kids from making terrible mistakes, Eddie gets creative in helping both sides find common cause.

Movie #2: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, an out-of-work math teacher who takes a job at a bagel joint to make ends meet. In the opening scene, he fends off two horny college kids who desperately want to screw in the bathroom. It's another sad reminder of the sex Eddie isn't getting (that he has, in fact, never gotten). Trapped between dealing with actual adult issues of employment, self-esteem, and life-planning, and the epic war raging in his pants, Eddie must get creative in navigating a world of freaks and geeks without either head exploding.

Movie #3: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, a dorky virgin who winds up teaching health studies to rambunctious kids after school. One of his students, Tito (Kevin Hernandez), has an attractive older sister named Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), with whom Eddie falls in instant love. Pilar has a bad-ass boyfriend, of course, (Hector, played by Ray Santiago), and Eddie finds himself trapped between respecting Pilar's relationship, following his own heart (which beats with different kinds of affection for both Pilar and Tito), and managing insecurities about his inexperience.

Taken on their own, each of these concepts is a solid (if not already thoroughly explored) foundation for a movie. But the cross-over elements make things problematic and more than a bit ooky. Eddie's roommate, JT (Glen Powell), for example, is a mid-twenties Steve Stifler-type, a clueless poon-hound who offers terrible advice based on his rotating cast of conquests. This makes for a solid case of the fidgets when Eddie invites him to role-play in class, opposite fourteen-year-old girls whose boyfriends are pressuring them into various sex acts.

No, this newfound perspective doesn't make JT grow up and respect women--that honor falls to Ally (Castille Landon), the hook-up who turned out to be bona fide girlfriend material. Connecting these three dots with a solid line, rather than a dotted one, would have made things really interesting; it also would have bled into Movie #4, in which the Eddie character is relegated to third billing at best.

There's also the problem of genre expectations. Sex Ed opens with raunch and strays into weird raunch (personified by Matt Walsh's perverse and utterly tuned-out school principal). By the time Eddie walks into his classroom, Feder and Kennedy have seeded an American Pie-style sex comedy. In a flash, we realize these kids are A) very young and B) realistically drawn Teens With Problems--not the oversexed, college-bound horn-dogs who make cartoon virginity pacts and put the moves on baked goods.

The movie switches from the kind of film where gratuitous nudity seems inevitable to one where I hoped to God no one would take off their clothes. There is one scene, toward the end, where we see a pair of exposed breasts. They belong to an adult, fortunately, but they're revealed as the punch line to an utterly depressing joke, the result of tagging the spirit-rousing climax from Movie #1 with the sex-comedy silliness of Movie #2.

Sex Ed benefits from solid casting, the glue that holds these disparate elements together. Osment and Izzo are great, and their characters' relationship goes places I hadn't expected at the outset. Ditto for Landon's character, and that of Retta, who plays the wise and sexually adventurous owner of the bar Eddie lives above. In fact, Sex Ed brims with female performers and characters who I wouldn't describe as strong in this context, but who are interesting enough to warrant being fleshed out in Movie #5.

Feder and Kennedy are adept at fooling around in different genres, and I would love to have seen any of the three main movies they hint at here. But skipping the crucial outlining process (which helps organize thoughts and strengthen the thesis before diving into the fun stuff) changes Sex Ed from an essay into a multiple-choice pop quiz.

Friday
Apr152016

The Jungle Book (2016)

Chapter and Versus

On Monday, Disney announced plans to develop a sequel to their live-action remake of the 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book, which opens today. I am profoundly disappointed by this news, and not because I dislike the new film. On the contrary, director Jon Favreau has created one of the most astonishing technical and dramatic achievements I'm likely to see this year. Disney continues to turn the remake trend on its ear by offering lush, transportive fantasies that stand on their own, and it would be nice to spend their arsenal of creative bullets developing other properties (even--gasp!--original ones). Like Maleficent and Cinderella before it, The Jungle Book is a relatively short, self-contained children's tale that has no business being a franchise.

I can't judge how well this version compares to the original, or to Rudyard Kipling's book, as I'm not familiar with either. Fans of both may find that Favreau and writer Justin Marks haven't covered much new ground, story-wise. But as a spirited adventure, and as a landmark of digital-effects innovation, the filmmakers break ground in ways that should send James Cameron and Zach Snyder back to the drawing board on those Avatar sequels and misguided DC Universe movies.

Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a young boy living among several species of wild animals deep in the jungle. Correction: talking wild animals. Yes, Mowgli sasses his panther mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), and fits right in with his adoptive wolf parents Akila (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), and sibling pups.

Into this harmonious ecosystem stalks a ruthless tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He threatens to kill everyone in sight if Mowgli is not delivered to him, and a debate erupts within the community as to whether or not they should give him up. Bagheera guides Mowgli sneak away, in search of the human village at the edge of the jungle; though Mowgli has never had significant contact with mankind, Bagheera reasons that they're his best chance for survival in a jungle ruled by Shere Khan.

From here, The Jungle Book becomes almost episodic. Mowgli has several misadventures on his way to the human world, which complicate his already mixed emotions about engaging it. He learns his origin story from a seductive python (Scarlett Johansson), becomes the unwitting servant of a con-artist bear (Bill Murray), and runs afoul of a singing primate mobster named King Louie (Christopher Walken). No prizes for guessing that Mowgli eventually returns to the place he calls home and faces Shere Khan, but Favreau, Marks, and Seethi sell the journey of self-reliance and identity that make the film's climactic confrontation a truly powerful experience.

None of this would have been as effective, or even possible, ten years ago (much less forty). Ninety-nine percent of The Jungle Book's animals and environments were created digitally,* and its place as a marker in the history of photo-realistic-animation milestones is guaranteed. From Terminator 2 to Jurassic Park to Star Wars Episode I to The Lord of the Rings to Avatar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes to The Jungle Book, the state of the art has progressed from relying on a blend of digital innovation and practical trickery to practically bridging the Uncanny Valley.

Unlike superhero movies and dumb summer blockbusters that treat the digital toolbox like a toilet, Favreau and company use everything at their disposal (including performance capture and some terrific voice work from the top-notch cast) to create wholly realistic, empathetic characters. In the middle of the film, I recalled a moment, years ago, when I revisited The Neverending Story. As child, I was convinced Falcor and the giant rock monster were real. As an adult, I just saw puppets and efforts that had been left in the dust by technological progress. For an hour and forty-five minutes, The Jungle Book reignited that eight-year-old's desire to believe in impossible creatures. To be honest, I was a tad disappointed when I got home from the screening, and my cat refused to tell me how his day was.

Switching gears, I wish to God I didn't know about the sequel. The knowledge alone shatters all surface-level analysis and invites the harder-to-ask questions about whether or not Disney set out to make art here, or if art was a cosmically fortunate bi-product of an utterly cynical business decision. It becomes too easy to strip away the layers, to see, for example, not a diverse and talented voice cast, but a bunch of Marvel movie contract players:

Then there's the man himself, Jon Favreau. It's fitting that the writer/actor/director who birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe and re-birthed Robert Downey Jr. by casting him as Iron Man would lead another revolution in the way artists tell stories. But then I think of Chef, his phenomenal, deeply personal 2014 dramedy in which he exorcised all the demons he'd absorbed as a fallen Hollywood hit-maker. I'm a great admirer of Favreau (though not of Iron Man 2 or Cowboys & Aliens, which could be seen as the inciting incidents that led to Chef), but I can't help but wonder if this isn't déjà vu all over again.

I hope you're lucky enough (that is to say, unjaded enough) to neither understand nor care about this commentary. I hope you see The Jungle Book on the big screen, with someone you love, and that it makes you feel young and wild and invincible. Experience Favreau's awesome new world. Be inspired by it. Then close the book and move on.

*The movie doesn't have a post-credits stinger, but you may gasp when the single filming location pops up on-screen.

**Okay, that's not part of the Marvel Universe, but give it time.