Sunday, June 28, 2015

Un-Bear-Able: TED 2

Less a film, more a long string of failed scenes limply strung along by an offensively puny wisp of story, Ted 2 is the sort of movie you’d never want impressionable youngsters to see. Not simply because it’s relentlessly vulgar and casually mean-spirited, but because they might get the wrong idea about what constitutes a joke. Nothing but bad vibes and cheap jabs, jokes here are lazy swipes at stale targets, insults, cultural references, and mind-in-the-gutter gags spat out in a painful patter with no sense of pacing or timing. It’s stiffly assembled and flatly delivered, a long, punishing excursion filled with lifeless shots and awkward pauses. Lacking even the sliver of imagination and energy that made the first Ted, our middling introduction to the eponymous R-rated sentient teddy bear, this sequel begins with no reason to exist and makes no case for itself.

Ted 2 has desperate desire to offend, nakedly condescending. It shouts out names of recent tragedies (in obvious ADR), insults oppressed minorities at every opportunity, and is wallpapered in casual racism, homophobia, and sexism. An equal opportunity offender only lazily upholds the status quo, without a perspective to make any real points. It’s boring to watching such flailing irreverence, chasing empty shocks towards irrelevance. Writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s comic stylings are recognizable from his rancid Family Guy and flop western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West. He thinks standing back from his material spouting off random garbage is equivalent to wit, but it’s a bullying approach, smirking and slapping at an audience while talking down to his own characters. And then he asks us to care about their plights.

Unlike its predecessor, which fell back on a predictable man-child comedy structure asking its characters to grow up, this new Ted asks us to love them even though, and often because, they’re unrepentant jerks. Mark Wahlberg returns as the man whose childhood toy became Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), and they proceed to rampage through a movie that has them make fun of black men and gay people, destroy a barn, steal weed, molest Tom Brady, start a fight at New York Comic-Con, and knock over a shelf of samples in a sperm bank without consequences. (No good movie has ever featured sperm bank shenanigans.) All that happens because Ted and his wife (Jessica Barth) want to adopt a baby, but are told they can’t since the bear isn’t legally a person. Makes sense to me, but MacFarlane wants us to be outraged enough to care about a protracted court battle as the uncouth bear decides to fight for his nonexistent civil rights.

Between unfunny tomfoolery and insult comedy, long scenes play out mostly straight as characters earnestly discuss Ted’s consciousness, determined to prove his personhood to a jury. How am I to care about this bear when the movie’s so fundamentally unserious, and he’s totally, irredeemably, purposelessly unlikable? We’re supposed to feel suspense waiting for the verdict, after a plucky young lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) delivers sincere speeches and Ted compares his trials to the plight of slaves (he watches Roots and references Dred Scott) and gays (or, as he tells the court, denying his equal rights “is just like what you’re doing to the fags! I’m sorry—homos”). The joke is that Ted uses a slur and then corrects himself to a different impolite term. The effect is an insult – hurtful words so dismissively tossed off – wrapped in a bigger insult – that anyone expected a laugh out of it. It takes a particular kind of social blindness to make a movie that’s both a metaphor for civil rights battles and an insult to anyone who’s fought for them.

It’s lazy and hateful, with sincerity cut only by stale attempted humor the very definition of “punching down.” By the end, two bullies have dressed up in costume to menace nerds at a convention, a wise old civil rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) tells the jury to remember the Emancipation Proclamation and vote pro Ted, and Jay Leno has appeared as himself pretending to be “gay” in the most awkwardly silent thirty seconds I’ve spent in a theater this year. And I saw Paul Blart 2. MacFarlane shows no desire to shape a scene or whip up momentum. With the deadliest pacing, every gag is dead on arrival. There’s no inner drive, nearly two hours spent just clunking along from one patch of dead air to the next. He takes lazy jabs at Bieber and Kardashians (hardly the freshest, or most deserving, of targets), stops scenes cold for fumbled cameos (poor Liam Neeson), and displays a preoccupation with male virility as if it’s an inherently funny topic.

This movie is superfluously backwards and overwhelmingly dull, too slapdash in its story and comfortable in its hypocritical and unchecked assumptions about what’s funny, as if anyone that’s not a straight white bro is worth pointing out and picking at. But, yes, by all means, let’s respect a stupid teddy bear. Yeesh. It’s agonizingly clear how grating and deadening MacFarlane’s hodgepodge approach is. I think he loves movies – he stages a straight-faced joke-free Busby Berkeley-ish musical number as his opening credits – and maybe genuinely wants to make a case for equality. But he’s too tone deaf to be funny while doing so, or control the real messages his Ted oozes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Furry Road: MAX

Who’s a good dog? Max is a good dog. He can sit, stay, beg, bark, obey orders, follow his leader, search for contraband, find missing persons, track suspects, sniff out bombs, serve in the military, escape bad guys, fight off meaner dogs, take down an international smuggling conspiracy, save hostages, and bring a grieving family closer together by loving them as only man’s best friend can. Sounds like a good dog to me. The movie in which he stars, played by a handsome Belgian Malinois named Carlos, is a slice of schmaltzy Americana, flag-waving, manipulative and corny as all get out. It’s a movie intent on pushing buttons with sentimentality, easy suspense, and simple uplift. But at least Max proves himself one of the most uncomplicatedly likable heroes you’ll see at the movies this summer. Who couldn’t like a dog this sweet and tough?

We meet Max in Afghanistan, on patrol with his until. There his handler (Robbie Amell) is killed. The dog is returned stateside where he’s diagnosed with a bad case of canine post-traumatic stress disorder. By this point we’ve already met the family of the fallen soldier, seen the funeral where the dog sits in front of the coffin and refuses to leave. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel the tug of heartstrings, since the movie’s working so hard to yank them there. So, since Max has been declared no longer fit for duty, the family adopts him. They’re mourning the same man. Through the presence of the pooch, the family – a gruff dad (Thomas Haden Church), sweet sad mom (Lauren Graham) and sullen teenage boy (Josh Wiggins) – slowly works through grief while learning to live with this new companion.

That’s surprisingly heavy stuff for a kids’ animal adventure. This glossy, earnest look at a mourning family has some sincere intent to focus on the plight of soldiers and their families’ through a dog’s-eye view. I liked this aspect of the movie, as the boy and dog learn to trust each other and the family starts to work through emotional trauma, the boy’s father growing distant, his mother quick to cry, his friends (comic relief Dejon LaQuake and love interest Mia Xitlali) the only ones ready to help him train the dog. Soft, bright cinematography keeps things feeling safe and comfortable even when dealing with pain. There’s always a feeling things will work out just fine. I mean just look at that dog, good at growling, panting away, chuffed to be sniffing and barking and going for walks and chewing on his toys. Maybe one day they’ll let him in the house.

But right when the movie seems to be narrowing in on the sensitive emotional terrain of the family, it becomes another movie. Writer-director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) and co-writer Sheldon Lettich (of Stallone and Van Damme pictures) really want to underline this dog’s heroism as a salute to military dogs everywhere. They get Max and his boy involved in a crime thriller about a crooked soldier smuggling arms to drug cartels south of the border. The dog recognizes one of the culprits and ends up leading his new family down a dangerous path ending in a red-meat satisfying boom-pow conclusion pushing the edge of the PG rating with fights and stunts out of proportion with the smaller, sweeter, sadder story pushed to the margins. There are some nice twists, and its reasonably involving on a dumb level. But I wondered why it was there.

Maybe it’s best to think of Max not as a socially conscious boy-and-his-dog picture, but as a canine version of The Rock's Walking Tall. It’s a story of a veteran who returns home psychologically wounded by war, then needs to clean up his small town’s crime problem. The veteran here just happens to be a dog. Over the end credits, we’re told military pooches have a proud tradition. We see photos of various dogs in various wars, and are shown statistics as to how many have died for our country. It’s a nice sentiment, and the movie, all apple-pie, bike rides, Fourth of July, and fireworks, looks at an interesting subset of military service. And yet, I couldn’t shake dissatisfaction as a great dog – and some great dog acting, with perfect reaction shots, fun stunts, and reasonably believable action – was pressed into clunky formula. Wouldn’t the family-friendly canine remake of Best Years of Our Lives or Coming Home it occasionally is be more interesting?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Date of the Dead: BURYING THE EX

There have been and will be worse movies than Burying the Ex this year. But I doubt many could match it for disappointment. It’s an uncharacteristically shallow work from Joe Dante, a beloved movie-mad director usually reliable in his ability to bring energy and complexity to all manner of theoretically disreputable genres, while retaining a core of deep affection for the material with which he’s playing. Just look for his name if you want to see clever, aesthetically appealing and subtextually rich creature features (Piranha), monster movies (Gremlins), backlot comedies (The ‘Burbs), sci-fi satires (Small Soldiers), mid-century B-movie love-letters (Matinee), self-critical sequels (Gremlins 2), and live-action cartoons (Looney Tunes: Back in Action). His latest is disappointing not just for falling far short of his usual standard. This is only his third feature in sixteen years. It’s a long-awaited return, enough to make one wish it was in service of a better script.

At the center of Burying the Ex is a horror geek (Anton Yelchin) working in a year-round Halloween shop selling costumes, décor, and curios. The set is lovingly festooned with copies of Fangoria and Video Watchdog, vintage posters for genre cinema, and a TV behind the counter playing Hammer horror. It’s a fandom repository, a place where the film’s macabre heart shines brightest. Throughout the film, the protagonist visits a repertory cinema for a Val Lewton double feature, attends an outdoor screening of Night of the Living Dead, and has his grating comic relief half-brother (Oliver Cooper) watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis DVD. If you’re one of the club, enjoying all these references piling up, you’re certainly on Dante’s wavelength. He loves this stuff genuinely, and knows that those who do will have lots in common with his main character.

Unfortunately, the plot around this guy takes that for granted, expecting us to love him because of the surface ways he’s like us. Screenwriter Alan Trezza concocts a scenario in which we’re supposed to hate the protagonist’s girlfriend (Ashley Greene) because she has no time for his collections and preoccupations. She’s a vegan blogger – shorthand for type-A and clingy, for some reason – who throws out his mint-condition posters to make room for her recycling bins. This is seen as reason enough to loathe her. The guy is going to break up with her, but before he can she’s hit by a bus and bleeds out on the street. At least now he can date the hot malt shop owner (Alexandra Daddario) we know is cool like him because she likes the same pop culture. They bond over Cat People and General Mills Monster Cereals. There’s nothing particularly charming or interesting about their discussions, nor are the characters anything more than what the plot demands.

When the movie’s horror/comedy conceit kicks in, it’s about time. A devilish knickknack makes the dead ex’s dying wish – “We’ll be together forever” – come true. She’s reanimated, a lovesick zombie shambling back to her boyfriend. Clumsy farce follows as a scared guy scrambles to keep his new girlfriend from discovering his undead one and vice versa. This is potentially fruitful ground for genre kicks, and Dante stages the eventual zombie chomping with reasonably effective spurts of gooey fake blood (no phony digital spray here). But the horror isn’t scary – just one good jump scare – and the comedy isn’t funny. Trezza’s script is full of fumbling one-liners falling flat despite the best efforts of everyone involved, and predictable plot points slowly drag their way on screen.

It’s tepid sitcom plotting, without any of the sweet bite or grinning horror that defines Dante’s best work. He’s still capable of staging a light, colorful moment, and the cast is full of bright young performers who’ve been likable elsewhere. But all that can’t save a shrill, tone-deaf experience in which one-note stereotypes engage in underwritten antics. The love triangle is unconvincing, mostly because the guy and his new love interest are so flatly drawn. But even worse is the mean-spirited perspective on the zombie ex. She’s such an unrelentingly shrewish portrait, without any thought given to her inner life, closing off any poignancy or conflict over her death and resurrection. There’s simply no tension or complication to be found. The proceedings grow depressing as they drag on, a thin idea stretched beyond all sustainability, with only the faintest glimmers of personality for the dedicated auteurist to enjoy. I’d say it’s a for-the-diehard-fans-only proposition, but they’re also the ones who’ll be most disappointed. Every bit of Burying the Ex simply points towards ways it should be better.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Straight Outta Inglewood: DOPE

In many ways, Dope is a standard coming-of-age American indie, right down to the buzzy Sundance premiere and self-consciously precious stylization. What saves it from growing insufferable is its energy and perspective. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) gives the proceedings a loping eccentricity informing each meandering step through a fraught Inglewood odyssey. It stars a good kid in a bad neighborhood, who is pulled away from his path to Harvard through a series of accidents and coincidences, then must work his way back. Complications pile up, and a variety of subplots and supporting characters push each other off screen for puzzling periods of downtime. It’s a movie with too much, finding time in its loose plot for narration on everything from racial authenticity to gay rights, drug dealers debating the morality of drones, and Pharrell-penned musical interludes. It’s too much, but when it settles into an easy groove, it’s a pleasure.

Set in modern day Los Angeles County, high-schooler Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his buddies (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori) look like they stepped out of Yo! MTV Raps in the early 90’s. Self-described black geeks, they love old school hip-hop, playing in a garage band they started after dropping out of marching band, and shopping for vintage gear. The opening narration (delivered smoothly by Forest Whitaker) tells us they aren’t in a gang and don’t do drugs, spending their days dodging dangerous characters while working towards good SAT scores, a fun prom, and going to college. But, with their adolescent urges, they’re always looking for ladies. When a nice girl from the block (Zoë Kravitz) invites them to a birthday party down at the club, they can’t help themselves, even though the guest of honor is a notorious local dope dealer (A$ap Rocky).

Their plans for the future are thrown into doubt when the police break up the party and the dealer stashes his dope in Malcolm’s bag. Our leads escape, but soon those dangerous characters draw near as the trio scrambles to stay alive and get rid of the drugs in a way that’ll get them out of trouble with both cops and criminals. They’re caught between a dealer and a law place. For a while it’s a madcap scramble to get the bag back to its owner, a goal complicated by a rival dealer (Amin Joseph), a slimy businessmen (Roger Guenveur Smith), a high rich girl (Chanel Iman) and her aspiring producer brother (Quincy Brown), and Malcolm’s mom (Kimberly Elise). A tight focus on this crisis, in a one-crazy-After Hours-day mode, rockets the movie along, but soon drifts away as the film swells with misjudged comedy and overcrowded subplots – romantic, academic, criminal, and more – which drain the threat of immediacy.

A sort of slow-motion caper movie, with a supporting cast too sporadically deployed and stereotypically defined to really pop, the key source of interest is Malcolm. Rachel Morrison's smooth cinematography keeps him the center of attention as Moore delivers a loose, funny, charismatic performance. It’s easy to root for the meek geek in over his head in situations out of his control, and Famuyiwa finds workable tonal slipperiness by allowing the central character such fine consistency. Through a gauntlet of disreputable scenarios by turns comic, suspenseful, and sexy, we watch this young man attempt to wrest back agency in his own life and prevent damaging his Ivy League dreams. The way there takes too many detours, but Moore’s allowed to be the sort of performer who immediately draws attention and sympathy whenever he’s on screen. His climactic recitation of his college application essay, looking straight out at the audience before pulling up his hoodie and walking away, is such a powerful moment of rhetoric. It’s almost excusable how uninvolving the film’s back stretch – involving a dumb hacker (Blake Anderson), and some far-fetched contrivances – grows, plus the few extra endings beyond that point.

The telling may be shaggy, but there’s still some appeal in the framing. Matching the main trio’s throwback vibe, Famuyiwa’s direction is similarly inspired by early-90’s culture, specifically the particular indie sensibility birthed by the early successes of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, and Kevin Smith. There was a period of a few years where all you needed to launch a tiny film project was semi-comic violence, ironic distance, loud politics, dialogue saturated with pop culture patter, and liberal use of split-screens, title cards, arch narration, and malleable chronology. Few of the derivative works were as good as their inspirations, and even some of them weren’t that good. But somehow, twenty years on, there’s some freshness in seeing the old tropes again, especially when brought to a slick hipster synthesis speaking to uniquely modern discourse on race and opportunity (and technology, though dropping the word “bitcoin” a hundred times doesn’t make it as successful a topic here). There’s personality to spare, enough to almost cover up its sloppier parts.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Life of the Mind: INSIDE OUT

Inside Out is a film so in touch with its protagonist’s emotions it makes them characters unto themselves. The result is one of Pixar’s loveliest conceptual gambits, daring in its simplicity, moving in its surprising dexterity. Certainly the idea of personifying the human brain’s many emotions is not a new one. But what’s new is this film’s sustained commitment to psychological zaniness, finding inventive and satisfying analogues for mental processes without losing a sense of compassion or an elastic sense of humor. A moving evocation of complicated emotions through brilliantly colorful cartoon adventure, it’s a perfect fit for Pixar’s favorite subjects: elaborate contraptions, colorful characters, memorable complications, affectionate teamwork parables, and emotional complexity. This is one of the animation studio’s warmest, most vital films in years.

Here is a film knowledgeable about what it’s like to be eleven, going on twelve, full of conflicting impulses on the bridge between childhood wonder and adult resignation. Our main character is Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a girl whose loving parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have decided to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a prospect as intimidating as it is exciting. Our setting is her brain, amongst the little voices inside her head. Writer-director Pete Docter (responsible for modern classics Monsters, Inc. and Up) imagines a quintet of primary-color cartoon beings sitting behind a control panel in a big pastel room, processing incoming sensory detail and converting them into memories. Most importantly, they’re her emotions, helping her react to the world. Taking charge is Joy (Amy Poehler), but Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) are jostling to make themselves known as well.

The emotions are brought to vivid life in voice performances brimming with a child’s excitable naïveté. Joy isn’t the lead for no good reason. There’s energy and happiness, and character coherence as the five beings make themselves known through one voice. It’s easy to believe these different outlooks on life expressed by their color-coded geometric designs – sunny yellow flower Joy, blobby blue Sadness, wiry purple Fear, broccoli-green Disgust, squat fire-red Anger – add up to one character. They’re treated as figures of fun, predictable in their responses to any given development, and seriously as key components of any healthy mind. You might think a movie built around characters defined by precisely one emotion would grow monotonous, but the performers find remarkable shadings within their set ranges, piling on adjectives, growing complex as they work together to run one mind. Docter and crew find value in every emotion, acknowledging they each have their place.

As they punch buttons and manipulate glowing memory orbs on their way to storage, we see only a blending of their attributes can accomplish the goal. Trouble starts when, struggling to keep Riley joyful after the jarring cross-country move, Joy and Sadness are caught in an accident. They’re left stranded far from the controls, lost in Long Term Memory. The others try their best to keep Riley safe and sane, resulting in mood swings – sarcasm, panic, and outbursts. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness move through cartoon symbolism – a train of thought, warehouse workers causing forgetfulness, dream production studios, and a dark scary subconscious. This vision of the mind is a world of vibrant colors, candy textures in gleaming mental faculties factories and vast corridors of memories. Joy and Sadness work their way through lands of imagination, abstract thought, core personality traits, and crates of facts and opinions, on the way back to where they belong.

Imagination fills the frame. We meet a forgotten imaginary friend (Richard Kind), glimpse childhood memories, and meet some of Riley’s fears and dreams (scary clowns and towheaded boy bands). Rubbery cartoon mechanics in the mind – splats and bonks, stretchy expressionism and sight gags – tie to a real-world portrayed more drably and realistically, as the wacky emotions’ antics play out subtly across the girl’s face. It’s one of the most simply astonishing feats of animated acting I’ve ever seen. Inside, her emotions contort and careen, while on the outside she appears thrillingly natural, a real little girl. It’s a terrific crosscut cause-and-effect, good for gags and heartfelt tenderness. This is as good a metaphor for depression as I’ve ever seen – inner conflict leading to outer discomfort and vice versa – wrapped in a buoyantly entertaining cartoon adventure. Riley is unhappy with her new circumstances and is unsure how to react. Starting over in a new place is difficult.

So is growing older. Memories fade. What once was important to your personality evolves, or disappears. Old happy memories gain bittersweet tints. This all packs quite the wallop. Like Up and Toy Story 3, it gains great power from its recognition of aging’s melancholy inevitability, and the importance of embracing new aspects of life’s journey, stepping forward with those you love. Here there are passages of childhood memory I would compare to The Tree of Life for their precise observation and overwhelming compassion. Moments inside the brain, cartoony though they may be, come freighted with symbolic imagery in vast stretches of psychology transmuted into only-in-animation splendor. There is no villain. Joy’s main goal to keep Riley happy all the time is recognized as unsustainable. In its simplicity, it’s complicated.

And yet it’s also light and lovely, teasing in its complexity. It contains great truths and great feelings without dragging itself down. Great fun is kept aloft by the lovable voices, Pixar-formula cotton-candy plotting (co-written by Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley), Michael Giacchino’s chirpy New Age fairy tale score, and a team of animators imbuing each frame with buoyant personality. It could make you laugh and cry and feel happy for doing so, indulging every single emotion at the controls of your responses as we speak. Another great Pixar confections, Inside Out is sweet entertainment for the whole family. And like the best family films, it imagines a lively multicolored scenario a little exciting, a little scary, as bright and funny as it is wise. In a world that can be full of forced good feelings and manic positivity, how wonderful to find such a fast, clever, entertaining argument for embracing every feeling in your emotional palate.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bleak Mirror: WILD TALES

Wild Tales lives up to its name and then some. A collection of six short films from Argentinean director Damián Szifrón, each story features seemingly ordinary people pushed into madness. These are bitter, ugly, violent, unpredictable stories of everyday life going beyond the expected in twisted, hilariously dark directions. It’s a jaw-dropper, electric with misanthropic guffaws stuck in the throat. One can read such invigorating cynicism as righteous fury over the state of the world and the venom that lies in the hearts of mankind. Or you can read it as an explosion of brutal bleak comedy, taking human impulses to the edge of propriety and beyond. Either way, it’s a roiling hoot. Incredibly popular in its home country, this is uproarious and lively chaos tapping into populist rage. It put me in mind of Lacan’s observation that most people actually do love thy neighbor as thyself, since most people hate themselves.

Some of the characters across six separate stories find petty annoyances escalating into violent retaliation. Others take drastic action against more obvious wrongs. Either way, they end badly. We start on a plane, where the passengers realize they all happen to know the same man. Worse, they’ve all done something he’s hated them for. Yikes. Then, we go to an empty roadside diner, where the waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) has good reason to hate their only customer (César Bordón), and the ex-con cook (Rita Cortese) is only too happy to suggest a criminal solution. These opening salvos of revenge are violent and upsetting, absurd in their matter-of-fact horror, and scary in their plausibility. They turn on terrifyingly logical conclusions, startling and funny in their inevitability.

Next, a story about road rage finds an explosive end, followed by a story about a man (Ricardo Darín) trapped in a maze of traffic tickets whose impotent anger turned potent. These are slightly more conventional. The feud between two drivers (Leonardo Sbaraglia and Walter Donado) escalates on a predictable path, like Spielberg’s Duel made uglier and more personal, but is remarkably exciting in its astounding willingness to go well past the point of no return. The story of the frustrated man trapped in a cruel, uncaring DMV bureaucracy is funny enough, I suppose, but it’s the weakest of the six. It isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard before, flirts with sexism, and mostly serves as a nice pause before the crescendo of the final segments. Maybe because I was enjoying the film’s pessimism so much, I just didn’t respond to this short’s ending, the relatively happiest of the bunch.

Saving the best stories for last, we spend some time with a rich man (Oscar Martínez) trying to bribe his son’s hit-and-run indictment away. Then we meet up at a wedding reception spinning out of control when the bride (Érica Rivas) learns the groom (Diego Gentile) has been cheating on her, and with one of their guests, no less. While just as broad as the earlier segments in their exaggerated race to the extremes of the human experience, these two shorts are the most sociologically precise in the bunch, curdled comedies of manners. A roomful of rich guys debating how much money it will take to wave off a manslaughter charge is potent class critique, dark and dryly sidesplitting. Then, intensely appealing comic melodrama is found as a wedding immediately evaporates in manic bad feelings, the loud party thumping dance music while people go understandably mad. Sia’s “Titanium” makes for an ironic counterpoint to the crumbling relationship on display.

Each story unspools with expertly framed visual panache and unyielding forward momentum. With Javier Julia's gorgeous widescreen staging and walloping precise sound, Szifrón has complete tonal control as he swiftly sets up each new situation, getting an audience invested in the character’s plights and situations quickly. As with most anthologies, some of the stories are better than others. But the consistency amongst these tales is high, as each rollicking nightmare worst-case-scenario rolls into the next. Laughter catches, then erupts with renewed vigor as events spiral even further out of control than you’d thought. Turning on Twilight Zone (or O. Henry, or any twisty sketches) style conclusions, they nonetheless remain defiantly moral-less. We’re not meant to take away any lesson, just that the world is an awful place. Doing the right thing and treating people with kindness might save you. Or it might not.

In gleefully digging around in horrible situations for razor-sharp plotting, Wild Tales is a very dark comedy, and yet it’s also one of the most crowd-pleasing moviegoing experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Rather than being turned off by its poison-pen misanthropy, the audience around me ate the film up, howling with laughter at each bloody twist of the comic knife, then gasping and chortling when it drew blood. It is relatable madness, stories of everyday people taking their true feelings for one another to extremes. It’s mean-spirited, but of an exhilarating, hugely entertaining variety.

Monday, June 15, 2015

In Treatment: WELCOME TO ME

With its central recurring tragicomic setpieces taking the form of a deeply strange local access talk show, the Kristen Wiig-starring Welcome to Me recalls SNL sketches where she’d play a televised oddball attention seeker. Unlike that series’ endless iterations of the cracked talk show concept, this film deepens the emotional terrain and provides context tying the laughs to melancholy and sadness. It’s a small character study brushing up against eccentric details, but never losing a central thread of depression and pain. It’s funny, but in the cringingly awkward way an unexpected inappropriate comment punctures empty moments. The movie is appealingly uneasy.

Never let it be said Wiig plays it safe with her choice of roles. Here she’s a woman with borderline personality disorder who goes off her meds after winning millions in the lottery. Against the advice of her therapist (Tim Robbins), best friend (Linda Cardellini), and parents (Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace), she cuts a check to a tiny nearby TV station, buying airtime on which she demands to star in her own daytime program. Oprah-obsessed, she imperfectly models her show on her idol’s. Clearly enjoying the cult-of-personality aspects above all else, she creates a show with no interviews or topics. Instead, she only discusses herself. It’s a warped reflection of any social media feed you might encounter, or any string of comments below any article, where you slowly realize the person behind the messages is deeply troubled.

The results are a program that’s a stilted mess of naked neurosis and narcissism, clearly the product of a disturbed mind, and strangely compelling because of it. She uses the airwaves as her own personal therapy session, much to the confusion of the station’s managers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden, and Joan Cusack), who continue cashing her checks, the only thing keeping them out of bankruptcy. The show, also called Welcome to Me, features a woman exorcising her past amongst rudimentary graphics, mannered reenactments by confused day players, stretches of silence, crying jags, cooking demonstrations, and rides across the stage in a swan boat. It’s a close, psychologically complex, cousin of the Tim & Eric aesthetic. Of course it would generate a cult following, from baffled channel surfers and an overeager grad student (Thomas Mann) hungry for more.

Her show, and the performance that comes with it, is the source of the movie’s appeal, crafting a painful vision of a woman for whom personal validation is inextricably tied to a desire to be on TV. (If that’s not a comment on our current media landscape, I don’t know what is.) Beyond it, director Shira Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence have created a small world, but a consistently compelling one. Under bright, flat cinematography, Wiig shows off a range of hilarious and heartbreaking line readings which are always firmly rooted in a good sense of character, especially as the woman increasingly disappears up her own unmedicated ego in bizarre and elaborate episodes. Relationships beyond the studio setting are perfunctory indie dramedy fare turned slightly unsettled by the context. But they take a backseat to the show-within-the-movie. It builds in complexity and heart with each repetition, drawing difficult emotional reactions from what could’ve easily tipped over into stiff camp.

Often queasily hilarious, this story of a woman struggling with mental illness is still treated just soberly enough to not feel mean-spirited. Even when she is making self-destructive decisions, or exploited by those who should know better, her plight is treated with empathy and understanding. At best, it’s a comic character study so unusually sharp it draws tears, but retains a layer of artificiality keeping the proceedings vaguely humorous. Because we see the person behind the show, it’s both funny and painful. Like her cult following, I found myself hanging on every word while she’s on the air. The film doesn’t come to any sort of satisfying resolution and many subplots fall flat, but it’s Wiig’s memorable character, and the core of cringe comedy respectfully played, that sticks with me. The show’s warbling theme song still echoes in my brain.
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