Small(er) Movie Roundup: Because Even the Studio Knows RIPD Is a Toxic Stink Bomb

Courtesy of Film District Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

How nice it would be to report that the second teaming of Refn and Ryan Gosling has produced something as ecstatic and electrically nasty as their first. But the nastiness this time isn’t nice. It’s just … nasty. This isn’t Drive. It’s a rib cage rolling on human heads for tires. Gosling is a dude who operates a muay thai gym in Bangkok and dreams of having his hands sliced off. He’s not wrong to be scared. Vithaya Pansringarm plays an ex-cop who, starting with Gosling’s rapist-murderer brother, hacks his way through anyone who exploits or kills anyone’s daughters — or anyone related to Gosling.

Refn usually works on the border between classicism and formal chaos. His shotmaking and choreography are pristine, even when the images are splattered with blood. The film editing is precise. The sound design imaginative. The art direction museum-quality. This is more of the same — the Crayola color would be “viscera” — but all that craftsmanship is put to obvious, indulgent ends. It doesn’t take long to deduce that the vengeful slicing and hacking of limbs and the like are Refn living out some kind of castration nightmare. (At 89 minutes, the movie lasts as long as a bad nap.) To put too fine a point upon that dread, along comes Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling’s slum queen with a dirty mouth and filthier intentions. Her participation is as much a stunt as any of the sword work. (The most loving, if grotesque, image happens not to be phallic but vaginal.)

Directors are always digging around in their psyches for material — David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noé. Refn’s anxiety seems out to top theirs. But there’s no joy or folly or transcendence. It’s a one-dimensional video game of death, with Gosling as its star. To love him here — or Refn, for that matter — is to be a necrophiliac.

Monsters University, directed by Don Scanlon

It’s true that Pixar has entered a mortal phase. Last year it gave us a princess adventure (Brave), and now yet another sequel. Are they out of fresh ideas? It feels like the company’s having a creative crisis, but what’s amazing is that you rarely feel Pixar panicking and you never feel any complacency, either. It might assume it’ll make three-quarters of a billion dollars globally (the new movie’s more than halfway there). But, God, do they earn it.

University is actually a prequel about how the big green eye, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), met James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), a horned bear with Koosh ball fur, and wound up working at a power plant called Monsters, Inc. As much you can appreciate all the astounding visual wit (the half-smile a young Mike makes after he impressed everyone with his scream, a batwing mustache, the mosaic tiling of one character’s skin), there’s nothing here as cinematically inspired as the galaxy of doors in the climax of the 2001 original. But the care put into the satire of college life is actually kind of moving. One critter uses extra arms for extra coffee and extra eyes for extra studying. There’s a black-light joke. Sully, it turns out, is an entitled legacy. The movie takes great pride in its laugh-out-loud jokes that hit the ideal spot between children and the parents they’ve brought.

This is a moment when studios don’t often seem to be thinking about the ideal moviegoer, just about the maximum number of moviegoers they can fit in a theater. Pixar — which is owned by Disney, which owns this site — is no different in that regard, but even in this relatively fallow period in which it’s short on masterpieces, it’s never stopped thinking the most of us.

I’m So Excited!, directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar’s previous movie, The Skin I Live In, had Antonio Banderas playing a plastic surgeon who took gender reassignment to insane extremes, and yet it wasn’t insanity — or even sexual audacity — you sensed. It was formal restraint. It was medication. Some of us ardent Almodóvar junkies have been waiting to see what would happen if he went off his meds. This trifling airplane comedy is the answer.

It’s set on a flight from Madrid to Mexico City. When the landing gear fails, the pilots have to circle for hours, and basically so does Almodóvar, who barely needs a reason for the queeny flight attendants, first-class passengers, and the two pilots to fight and fuck. (Presumably because of budgetary concerns and a probable lack of familiarity, Almodóvar drugs the passengers in coach.) The movie has its pleasures, namely the bitching and vamping and eye-rolling and humping done by the cast, which includes Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo, Carlos Areces, Hugo Silva, Lola Dueñas, and a characteristically imperious Cecilia Roth.

Every safety sign looks like an erection, and Peninsula Airlines just sounds phallic. Almodóvar is basically exploiting what people presume an Almodóvar movie to be — bitchy campiness — in order to get some stupid telenovela fun out of his system. By the time you see a pile of suds bobbing up and down, the sight gags have basically driven over a cliff.

Yeah, this is what people think Almodóvar is. But it’s Almodóvar for people who assume they can’t get Almodóvar otherwise. It’s Almodóvar for Target.

Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski

As romances go, the one between Bujalski and his 44-year-old video camera brings a tear to your eye. The movie’s flickering, black-and-white images, shot by Matthias Grunsky on a version of the Sony AVC-3260, look so deeply found that you can’t believe this movie isn’t a retrospective of comedies shot with primitive AV technology. It’s set somewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s at a computer competition for software engineers trying to develop a program that can beat a human.

The dozen or so characters get mixed up in various types of lunacy around the hotel — drugs, some kind of New Age spiritualism, and one participant’s folly to avoid paying for a room. This is Bujalski’s fourth feature — his Funny Ha Ha helped launch so-called mumblecore moviemaking. I’ve never liked that term or most of the movies to which that label gets applied, but Bujalski never felt like a conscious member of any extant movement. He has an older soul; one with a little more magic, a little more hope, a little more adventure. His characters seem stuck, but he doesn’t.

This time the adventure is both tonal and formal. It stretches the starch of work-conference doldrums into drollery. The camerawork and editing and sound design are impossible to predict. Bujalski is having fun with Night of the Living Dead, on a community-access palette. But I also can’t think of another director who’s come closer to capturing how antique technology would dream about us.

The Conjuring, directed by James Wan

No one needs to make another movie about a nice white family and the demons that possess them — not even the director of the first Saw. The problem isn’t that these films are all striving to be The Exorcist or The Omen, it’s that none of them get there. The Conjuring more or less continues what went down in Mama, that hit with Jessica Chastain from January. It’s as if evil is working on a continuum that rarely leaves 1970s plots.

This movie has a couple good moments, nearly all of them requiring Lili Taylor to work very hard at seeming satanic. She plays a mother and wife whose husband (Ron Livingston, jaw dropped the whole time) moves her and their five daughters into the sort of house whose history real estate agents never come clean about. This place has a basement that doesn’t stay boarded up for long. The clocks keep stopping at 3:07 a.m. And the girls acquire imaginary friends and sleepwalking talents. But Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson hit the scene as sexy “ghost hunters” and explain almost everything.

Wan respects us enough not to lean on absurd effects and drunken editing to attempt to spook us. He holds his shots and uses wires to drag bodies across the living room and make chairs float off the floor. The movie’s absurd enough to get an audience screaming. It’s just that if you’ve got Taylor, Farmiga, Wilson, and Livingston in a movie, the script should have more for them to do than duck when antiques fly at them and stare down crazy dolls. For Taylor, this is a chance to revisit what she did in The Haunting. For us, it’s déjà vu. Every hand that reaches into a wardrobe, every nervous trip into that basement just gets on your nerves. Satan needs to get over himself.

The Way, Way Back, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

The two guys who wrote The Descendants now bring you one of those “summer that my life changed” comedies. This one revolves around Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old loner whose acutely agreeable mother (Toni Collette) drags him to the beach-town home of her churlish new boyfriend (Steve Carell). It takes a while, but eventually Duncan gets a job at a water park, where he’s shown the ropes by the resident man-child, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who harbors a long-standing crush on a fellow employee (Maya Rudolph), while Duncan is in awkward pursuit of a girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb, who’s wonderful).

Faxon and Rash are good comedic actors and they’ve said there’s some autobiographical material in their script, but this movie couldn’t feel less examined. No one seems to realize that Duncan and Owen have fallen into a kind of love that makes the scenes with Rudolph and Robb feel defensive and the ones between James and Rockwell feel illegal. And yet the deepening of that friendship provides the movie its only genuine emotional tension.

Otherwise, it’s tired jokes about lazy eyes, shenanigans on the water slide, and a double-extroverted Allison Janney taking over the movie because there’s no one to stop her. All the perception is hidden behind a 14-year-old. There’s human ugliness (the relationship between Liam’s mother and her boyfriend and two of their friends, a couple played by Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry, threatens to turn into marital war), but the film has been complacently concocted for likability even as it gives you very little that’s real, structured, or spontaneous enough to enjoy. If this movie’s a hit (and so far it is), it’s because it’s prechewed. “By the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno,” brags Fox Searchlight in a statement of fact that sounds more and more like a punishment every time it’s used.

Girl Most Likely, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a Manhattan arriviste socialite who, after a miserable couple of weeks, winds up sleeping on the floor of her estranged mother’s Atlantic City shack. This should be just as mediocre as The Way, Way Back. But it knows what it is — or at least it’s determined to be more than a movie fallen off the Sundance conveyor belt. Michelle Morgan’s script traffics in the arrested development that most American situation comedy does now and the vapid fantasy fulfillment of so-called chick lit (that title’s pretty awful). But Berman and Pulcini — American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries — found a tone somewhere between tragedy and nonsense.

They’ve also gotten all the actors to go under the top. When Annette Bening shows up as the mother, your heart sinks for two reasons: Less than 15 years separate her and Wiig, and she’s playing a woman whose daughter thinks she’s the mother from hell. The movie gets some comedy out of that cliché. When Wiig gets her first look in years at Bening, who’s toned, tan, and full of weary maternity, there’s a cut to a wide shot of the frantic daughter trying to flee the scene. But Bening has too much dignity to play a Gorgon or Shirley MacLaine in Postcards From the Edge.

The difference between what Bening does here and what The Way, Way Back is up to is that she doesn’t need us to like her. She likes herself, and that self-enthusiasm becomes contagious. Matt Dillon plays her dimmish CIA boyfriend, Christopher Fitzgerald her toddler of an adult son, and Darren Criss the nice-guy singer renting out a room in her house (Imogene’s not sleeping on the floor for long). You can feel all the actors wanting to be as casually good as Bening is. Criss is kind of a shock. He’s been rinsed of Glee‘s gooey geniality. Now his earnestness seems all natural, and you can feel Wiig being drawn to him as opposed to a screenplay forcing them together. He could spend the rest of his youth playing the kind of sweet, confident boy toy who makes warm feel like the new hot.

Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen

A woman (Mary Margaret O’Hara) goes to visit a gravely ill cousin in Vienna and spends many of her days in and around the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where she acquaints herself with one of the guards (Bobby Sommer), an older man who, in his narration of the film, professes a love of the vast, action-packed paintings of Bruegel. It’s a love that Cohen, an American experimentalist, imparts and encourages. His camera lingers up close over the images. He dispatches a curator (Ela Piplits) to explain the paintings and the intentions of their author and to dismiss any dissent from the people on her tour.

Ultimately, though, in surveilling Austrian street life, Cohen attempts to become another Bruegel, to show the ways in which we can be Bruegel or that Bruegel once was us. The movie has a slightness that at 107 minutes begins to feel slack, and some of its 16mm high-definition images risk seeming washed out in the dark of an art house. But its delicacy is absorbing. And its commitment to the inexorable allure of watchfulness and observation is resolute. Yet the film’s two most striking moments feature a character with her back to the camera. Amid all the looking and dissection, Cohen demonstrates an understanding of the individual need for increasingly elusive privacy that feels urgent, wistful, and quaint.

Grown Ups 2, directed by Dennis Dugan

If anyone else had made this movie — “anyone” being, say, the goats at a petting zoo or a gang of middle school boys who spoke no English because their middle school was on Saturn — you could salute the effort put into getting the men of Saturday Night Live to dress in tiny spirit squad uniforms and use their crotches to wash Kevin James and Maria Bello’s car. You could admire the hard physical work the comedian Nick Swardson does to steal scenes from Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, that Shaquille O’Neal puts into making us believe he’s related to Tim Meadows. You could say “thank you” for reminding us that funny women like Cheri Oteri, Melanie Hutsell, and Ellen Cleghorne are still alive, even though they’re not particularly funny here.

But kids didn’t make Grown Ups 2. Grown-ups did. For all the writing Sandler did with Tim Herlihy and Fred Wolf, for as close to intergenerational farce as the film gets, what you feel is laziness. You feel the somewhat dismaying acquiescence to middle age while behaving as if adolescence never ended. This isn’t a moral problem, it’s a comedic one. The movie isn’t sure whether having a family is hilarious or depressing. It just does stuff like make fun of Taylor Lautner, who plays an acrobatic frat boy, or have deer get up on hind legs and pee on Sandler and Salma Hayek. These movies are about four friends — played by comedians — remembering what it was like to be young. How much better for an audience would it be if they remembered what it was like to make comedy?

Filed Under: Adam Sandler, Billy Crystal, Chris Rock, Glee, Monsters University, Movies, Nicolas Winding Refn, Pixar, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell