Film

Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, Florence Foster Jenkins, Equity, Anthropoid, Lace Crater

PETE’S DRAGON

3CR-Steve at the Movies-newBearing little resemblance—visually or plot-wise—to the 1977 Disney original, this new and vastly improved version of Pete’s Dragon is a heartfelt testament to friendship and family, with peripheral lessons about trust and treasuring the last remaining secrets of nature. The talented director and co-writer (with Toby Halbrooks) David Lowery came up in the indie film world as an editor for Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz and Kris Swanberg, among others, while also tackling his own films (St. Nick, and most notably, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). But Pete’s Dragon is another monster entirely for Lowery, in more ways than one, both in terms of scale and emotional appeal. Not surprisingly, what the filmmaker has done has taken a story that might have been told as a broad, sweeping spectacle about a boy and his dragon and turned it into an intimate work about protecting what is dearest to you, no matter the personal cost.

The film opens with probably its most gut-wrenching sequence. A happy family with a toddler named Pete in the backseat is in a car crash while they’re driving through a stretch of wooded road. Pete survives and wanders into the woods, where he meets an enormous but friendly (not-talking) dragon that he names Elliot, after a dog character in his favorite book. Elliot’s look is interesting, because he’s no Tolkien or “Game of Thrones” scaly creature with a mouthful of fangs. Elliot is furry, like an oversized dog or wolf. He still has wings and can fly, although he has a tough time sticking his landings, which might be my favorite thing about him. We’re not even sure he can breathe fire until late in the film. And he’s great at camouflage (he can touch any object and become its color or pattern), or he can just become invisible to hide from prying eyes. As an added touch, Elliot does have sharp teeth, but the only ones that show all the time—his lower canines, one of which is broken—make him even more endearing.

Jumping ahead six years, there are a few sequences between Pete (Oakes Fegley, most recently seen in This Is Where I Leave You) and Elliot that resemble certain getting-to-know-you scenes in the recent telling of The Jungle Book. Pete’s hair is shaggy, he’s wearing something like a loincloth, and he’s able to climb the tallest trees in the forest and even take a tumble out of one, without getting hurt. He’s essentially The Wild Child from François Truffaut’s film of the same name, and his language skills haven’t really progressed beyond what little he could say when his parents died. He’s aware that there are other humans outside the woods, and he’s a curious kid, so eventually he gets spotted, and that’s when the trouble begins.

Lowery has set his story in a small town in the Pacific Northwest called Millhaven, which is particularly telling, as if placing the action there is his way of making sure that his version of Pete’s Dragon is the total opposite of the previous one, which was set across the country in Maine, lest there be even the slightest chance of confusion. But the differences only start there.

Pete’s Dragon is also the story of a second boy, named Meacham (now a wise old grandfather, played by Robert Redford), who saw a dragon decades earlier. The legend of the Millhaven Dragon in these parts is familiar to everyone, but he’s the only person who claims to have seen it with his own eyes, and hearing Redford spin the story to his granddaughter Natalie (played by the gifted young actress Oona Laurence, currently in Bad Moms) and kids her age, gave me the first of many chills I experienced watching this work. Meacham talks about feeling something akin to magic wash over him the moment he realized what he was looking at all those years ago.

His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a park ranger who shares her father’s love of nature, but not his belief in a local dragon. Her husband, Jack (Wes Bentley), is a bit of a wet blanket and basically just goes along with what she says (that’s probably wisest). His alpha-male brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), heads a logging company that makes ignoring the boundaries of where he’s allowed to cut standard practice for his operation. So we know right away, he’s the bad guy. Pete is discovered by Grace fairly early in the film, and he immediately takes to Natalie. Before long, Pete admits that the person who has been taking care of him all these years is a dragon, and Grace assumes Elliot is imaginary, but Meacham and Natalie think otherwise; a quick trip to a hidden corner of the forest clears that right up.

There is something inherently displeasing about spoiling the magic of a relationship like the one between Pete and Elliot, and the deeper into the storyline director Lowery gets, the more the fairy tale dissipates and the ugly, real world creeps in. The real gift to the film is Elliot, whose personality and unspoiled kindness shines through almost immediately. He moves and reacts like a big dog most of the time, and his natural green coloring makes us see him as a part of the environment—at one with the trees that he takes great care not to knock down with his lumbering strides. As a special effects creation, Elliot is even more impressive, feeling as weighty and tactile as anything else on the screen.

Pete’s Dragon also deals with the give and take that humans have with nature, not with some heavy-handed message, but with more of a reminder that there’s a balance that must be struck. Urban’s character is perhaps too broadly drawn and driven by the idea of capturing Elliot (which he does, eventually) and declaring it “his,” without any real sense of what to do next. Truthfully, the movie works best when there are the fewest number of characters on screen. Lowery is a filmmaker who thrives in staging quiet, deeply emotional moments, so it’s not surprising that it’s the scenes with just Pete and Elliot that are the closest to perfection.

Unless you’ve had your heart surgically removed recently, I don’t see any escape from you shedding a few tears during this rich and moving piece. But the interesting thing about all the crying you’ll likely do is that the tears will come at unexpected moments, moments that illustrate the bond between Pete and Elliot. The thought that sticks with us throughout the film is that somehow Elliot kept this little boy alive all those years. He’s far more parent than pet, and although no one in the film actually says this, it permeates every frame of the movie. There’s a love between these two that goes beyond selfless, and in those moments where that bond is expressed, you’re going to sob.

Above all other things, Lowery has made this story his. Unlike recent live-action versions of The Jungle Book, Maleficent, or Alice In Wonderland, Pete’s Dragon isn’t attempting to re-create something that came before. This is the filmmaker’s work, which just happens to include a furry dragon (courtesy of Weta Digital). The director isn’t afraid to let things get tense and scary, without crossing the line beyond his PG rating. When Elliot is threatened by humans for the first time, even I was a bit startled by his violent response (hints of The Iron Giant at this moment, for certain). But we discover that even a dragon can take a pause, count to 10, and calm down enough to formulate a sensible response to the peril.

My advice to you is to buy a ticket to Pete’s Dragon because you want to see a new kind of dragon, but don’t forget to watch how this mostly gentle creature influences and draws in the human characters around him. The movie is a remarkable achievement on both a technical and emotional level, and I’m guessing a lot of kids are going to wish they had a friend as good as Elliot to keep them company as the summer winds down.

SAUSAGE PARTY

When I saw the work-in-progress version of Sausage Party in March at SXSW, I refrained from reviewing it because it didn’t seem right reviewing a film that wasn’t complete. And this cut was truly incomplete, with large portions of the movie being either very rough animation (looking more like pre-viz graphics) and even some storyboards with only the voice work in place. But even that very rough draft of this decidedly R-rated animated extravaganza made it clear that Sausage Party was going to be one of the funniest films of the year by simply taking everyday objects (in this case food and other goods you’d find in every grocery store) and looking at the world from their perspective.

Working from a screenplay by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the film takes a deceptively simple concept and works in messages concerning relationships, the trouble in the Middle East, religious tolerance, along with the slightly more predictable bouts of sex, violence, ethnic humor, and the ever-present (in films by Rogen and Goldberg) drug references. Sausage Party is set in a world where grocery store food sees humans as god who select them for entry into the Great Beyond, a wonderful place where they can live however they want and finally break free of their packaging. Our hot dog hero Frank (Rogen) has the hots for a tight little bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig), and the Fourth of July holiday is right around the corner, which means the gods are going to pick them very soon.

But something unexpected happens when a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to the store and put back on the shelf. He’s in such complete shock at what he saw on the other side that he can’t even get the words out, but his claims that the gods are actually horrible, destructive monsters largely fall on deaf ears. But Frank’s curiosity is peaked, and after a shopping cart mishap that leaves quite a few products in chaos, Frank and Brenda decide they need to find the all-knowing Firewater (a bottle of booze dressed like a Native American and voiced by Bill Hader) to get some answers. They are accompanied by a bagel named Sammy (Edward Norton, doing his best Woody Allen impersonation) and flatbread named Lavash (David Krumholtz), both of whom embody the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in their discussions of shelf space on their aisle. It would be even funnier if it wasn’t so tragic.

While Frank goes seeking answers, some of his hotdog buddies have been purchased and are headed to someone’s home for dinner. Michael Cera plays the slightly misshapen hotdog Barry, who manages to escape after he witnesses what, to him, looks like a massacre in a kitchen. He lands in the home of a bath salts-taking druggie (James Franco) who is able to see and hear the talking food around him when fully stoned. The entire film is like the stoner Lord of the Rings, with various combinations of characters traveling together in search of the truth about their condition, battling fearful adversaries like Douche (Nick Kroll), an actual douche who has leaked out his actual contents and replaced them with the contents of a juice box, making him a pumped-up, sugar-fueled dick who wants revenge on Frank for bending his nozzle and ruining his chances to fulfill his destiny.

At every turn, in every new aisle is a take on the life of food that we’ve never considered. The booze section is a non-stop party, the aisle with knives and other cutlery is a cold, scary place with no life, the frozen food aisle is a freezing tundra. And while the jokes range from obvious puns and wordplay to more stinging commentary on the world we live in (Frank delivers a monologue about how ridiculous it is that the food believes in this story of the Great Beyond just because someone told them it was a wonderful place).

With supporting voice work from the likes of Salma Hayek (as a lesbian taco), Craig Robinson (grits), and Paul Rudd (as store clerk Darren, one of the few human characters in the film), Sausage Party is a colorful, energetic, sharp, beautifully animated bit of adult entertainment, complete with a food-orgy final sequence that will test your limits (I’m sure it tested the MPAA’s). It genuinely shocked me to learn that the film was co-directed by Greg Tiernan. Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (Madagascar 3, Monsters vs. Aliens, Shrek 2) have populated every corner of the frame with something to look at, whether that be subtle visual gags or just details that complete the world of the supermarket.

For those complaining that Sausage Party is too low-brow: have you never seen a Rogen-Goldberg production? Even their highest-brow ideas (The Interview, This Is the End) tend to work both ends of the comedy taste scale. Above all else, the film is screamingly funny, never missing the opportunity for innuendo or just outright dirty jokes, but also making certain to keep one eye on one or two highfalutin ideas as well. It’s a delicate balance that doesn’t always stay perfectly horizontal, but it provided me with more jokes per minute than any other film I’ve seen in 2016. In the end, that’s what counts.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

The idea of getting an “A” for effort typically ends when you leave primary school in your rearview mirror, but if you have a big, giving heart (and a boatload of money), then there’s a chance the world might give you high marks even if you’re underachieving in a given field. Welcome to the world of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York City socialite living in the first half of the 20th century who supported the musical arts (particularly opera) to such a degree that she fancied herself a part of its community as a performer. She hired a photographer and purchased costumes from famous operas, and the resulting images (all set in silver frames around her lavish home) made it appear that she had a rich and long career as an opera singer. The problem was, she couldn’t carry a tune, keep rhythm or even properly pronounce the many foreign languages in which she was singing. But that didn’t stop those who surrounded and protected her from carrying out the ultimate deception that allowed Jenkins from believing she was a gifted performer.

And while Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, sounds like a one-joke comedy, the film doesn’t play out like that at all. Sure, there are a lot of laughs to be had, but once you get past her horrific voice (provided entirely by Meryl Streep, who always finds nuances in even the most broadly drawn characters), the film expands its scope to give us a profile of a woman who desperately wants to be a part of a world she loves so dearly. It’s unlikely she can hear her voice the way we do, and she may even be slightly off her rocker, but Streep never lets us feel sorry for Jenkins or allows us to laugh at her for too long.

Jenkins’ key co-conspirators are her constant companion St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, doing his best Hugh Grant-isms), who would arrange events in front of carefully selected audiences made up of friends who understood the game that was being played, paid critics, and musicians desperate for donations from the singer’s ample fortune. They clapped, cheered, wrote good reviews, and generally harmed no one in the process. When the occasional outsider slipped in, he/she was dealt with swiftly the second they voiced a negative response. Jenkins was never in the greatest of health, but in a particularly peppy time in her life, she decides she’s well enough to play Carnegie Hall, something even Bayfield knows he won’t be able to control, especially when a certain number of tickets are released to the public.

In an effort to prepare Jenkins for the show and possibly sound a little better than normal, Bayfield hires piano accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, from “The Big Bang Theory”), who is shocked beyond words after hearing Jenkins sing. But with enough much-needed money and the promise that no one will know he’s helping her, he sticks with it. Since Helberg is something of an accomplished piano player in his own right, it’s mesmerizing to hear him and Streep weave in and out of each other’s performing (all the performances in the film were recorded live). She skips a few bars and he catches up; she pauses a bit in her singing, and we catch just how talented a player he truly is. His job is partly to play with her, but often his main objective is to find Streep. Shockingly enough, there’s an art to playing well behind someone singing terribly.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, Philomena, Dangerous Liaisons) has always been great at telling true stories, but his true gift is finding the secret worlds behind the primary story. There’s a hefty subplot about Bayfield and his longtime mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), who was part of an understanding between him and Jenkins (they led a platonic but quite close life together). There’s also the strange home life of McMoon, who seems to enjoy men’s fitness magazines and judging bodybuilding competitions. There’s very little indication that McMoon even knew that he might be gay, and considering the times, this feels completely appropriate. Since McMoon is something of an audience surrogate, some of the finest moments in the film are between him and Bayfield, as Cosme is learning the delicate inner workings of Jenkins’ world and state of mind.

The idea of massive numbers of people celebrating mediocrity is hardly a new one, but no one was attempting to exploit Jenkins as a singer (as an heiress, they certainly were). There are no bad guys in Florence Foster Jenkins. Even when a politician’s new, young bimbo wife (Nina Arianda) gets into a concert and can’t stop laughing, she is taken out without causing a scene, and by the end of the film, she becomes one of Jenkins’ strongest supporters. I wish the film probed just a little deeper into Jenkins as a younger, less isolated woman, if only to understand her progress to the point where we meet her in the film.

Florence is an easy character to love or at least feel for. I’m sure most of us have something we love and wish we were good at; it just so happens Jenkins had the means to make a small part of the population help her achieve he dreams. I’m not sure the messages in Florence Foster Jenkins are ones everyone should be inspired by, but certainly the idea of believing in yourself has a great deal of merit. I’m not sure she qualifies as a hero, but she’s a terrific character who led a life in a bygone era that will likely never be replicated. At times, it’s like looking at life on another planet, one without internet trolls (who would have surely torn her to shreds) or TMZ to spread the evidence of her lack of talent. I don’t know if it was a kinder time, but the film makes it feel simpler. At the very least, this is a safe film to take the moms and grandmoms to see.

EQUITY

Sometimes a movie is bizarre just because it’s bizarre; other times it’s bizarre in a “Why would anyone make a movie about that?” way. Director Meera Menon (Farah Goes Bang) has made Equity, a film about investment banking—not a documentary, mind you, but a dramatic feature about the corruptive power of money in the modern world, and somehow it mostly works. Although this is not a film about last decade’s banking collapse, it does tell a story that slyly gives us insight into the “never enough” mentality of investment firms and banks that leads their employees to come up with new and inventive ways to rip folks off.

Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”) stars as Naomi Bishop, a senior-level executive at a bank who has been passed over for a promotion by her clearly sexist boss (Lee Tergesen) several times over. But she’s on the brink of pulling in a tech client for an IPO deal that should seal the promotion for her, especially since she had a rough go with her previous big deal in which a big-money client underperformed, possibly due to her error. Although Equity almost never directly addresses the concessions women are expected to make in the corporate world with regards to family and personal lives, these ideas permeate the film, especially when Naomi gets together with fellow women in business.

She has a sort-of boyfriend in investor Michael Connor (James Purefoy), and although they aren’t allowed to talk shop due to Securities and Exchange Commission rules, that doesn’t stop him from pushing just a little too hard for information. I say “sort-of” boyfriend because they mostly just eat dinner and have sex, which is all either of them seem to have time for, and while it doesn’t come across as particularly intimate, it seems to work for them, until it doesn’t.

Another key player in Equity is Samantha (Alysia Reiner), a former college friend of Naomi and current SEC investigator, who just happens to be looking into Naomi’s firm for violations. So the entire film becomes a strange balancing that also involves a ticking clock to keep things stable until the IPO launches. Although most of the drama in the movies is tied up in numbers and dollars, it’s still a weirdly compelling piece of filmmaking. Filled with backstabbing, lower-level employees, womanizing clients, and terrible people in every direction, Equity is effectively a waiting game to see if and/or when Naomi will flip on her boss and/or her boyfriend, who might have an ulterior motive for getting close to her.

Finding bankers reprehensible won’t stop you from liking the film. If anything, it may enhance and strengthen your beliefs about them. Gunn and Reiner are especially strong here as two sides of the coin. Samantha is a lesbian in a happy relationship, with a child and a career; Naomi has none of those things, at least not in the same way her friend does. But she maintains she’s fine with that, even though she clearly resents that she’s working twice as hard for the same money (if she’s lucky). There are certainly a lot of interesting and little seen elements in Equity, which may not work for some, but I found it fascinating stuff. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

ANTHROPOID

One of the more frustrating things about historical dramas is when a filmmaker opts to treat what should clearly be a headline story as a footnote. Anthropoid is a clunky telling of the World War II mission by the Czechoslovakian resistance to assassinate the third most important man in the Reich, SS General Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), the primary architect behind the Final Solution. And without spoiling that aspect of the film, there’s a reason this story is significant. Shot in and around Prague, with a mostly UK-based cast, Anthropoid tells the true story of the planning, execution and aftermath of the mission, which did not go as planned at many stages.

Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey) and Cillian Murphy (Inception) play resistance fighters and Slovak soldiers Jan and Josef, who parachute into a highly occupied area of the country, where they eventually are met by the underground and housed with a family headed by Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones). When they explain what their mission is, the resistance leadership is hesitant, thinking they simply don’t have the resources to carry it out, but eventually they are convinced it can be done. For reasons I will never understand, the film attempts to squeeze in a love story between Jan and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), a woman helping out the family. She’s also a worthy resistance agent, but attempting a romance in the midst of this thriller feels like a distraction.

Director Sean Ellis (Cashback) co-wrote Anthropoid (which comes from the operation’s code name) with Anthony Frewin, and it’s clearly well researched and striving for a certain level of authenticity. The moments leading up to the assassination attempt are tense and messy, despite careful planning. More harrowing is the extended standoff between the final few resistance fighters and Nazi troops as the Czechs are held up in an Eastern Orthodox church, some defending the position, others hiding in the basement. The shootout is loud, chaotic, violent and beyond heroic. It always feels like an impossible fight to win for the Czechs but their conviction is inspirational, and the sequence is by far the best thing in the film (a Czech production).

Most of my issues with the film have to do with its lack of focus until the final battle. The acting and staging of the action sequences are especially impressive, but a combination of strange editing choices and unremarkable details tossed in made me lose interest in what should have been a truly epic tale. The drama feels undercut until long after the mission is complete, which is a terrible misstep. The plotting and rehearsal of the assassination of a major Nazi player should feel far more significant than it does here. As a result, by the time you get the standoff, most of the audience will be lost. It’s an important and noble story told poorly by those involved, which is truly a shame.

LACE CRATER

It has been said many times, many ways of late, but we’re in something of a golden age of horror, and I don’t mean that a higher percentage of the horror films of late are that much scarier; I mean filmmakers are searching for new and creative ways to scare us and/or approach the horror genre through unexplored avenues. Case in point, the first feature from writer-director Harrison Atkins, Lace Crater, a tale set amongst the strange and terrifying world of New York millennials and bearded hipsters, who begin the film taking advantage of one of their parents’ vacation homes in the Hamptons.

For some of us, just the prospect of being trapped in a car with these five conversationally stunted youngsters would be terrifying. But after a night of partying, flirting in a hot tub, and eventually popping molly, Ruth (Lindsay Burdge, recently seen as a crazy cultist in The Invitation) goes back to her coach house, which she’s been told is haunted. A little dazed and high, she’s startled by an apparition that appears out of the dark covered entirely in burlap. At first she’s terrified, but when the ghost identifies himself as Michael and helps her clean up the beer that she spilled, she becomes more curious about him and how “real” he truly is. They strike up a conversation that leads to Michael (Peter Vack from “Mozart in the Jungle”) revealing his face to her, and a handsome face it is. So naturally she has mind-blowing sex with him and wakes up the next morning unsure of how much of her evening was real or imagined.

Upon returning to New York, Ruth is clearly quite ill, throwing up and generally looking anemic. She also routinely wakes up covered in slime and her skin begins to peel off in large swathes. A visit to the doctor results in no conclusive diagnosis, but for whatever reason, he seems fairly certain her problems stem from unprotected sex. That seems like quite a leap, but for the purposes of the story, we’ll move on. While she’s dealing with ghost cooties, Ruth is also trying to live her life in a post-breakup world from her ex-boyfriend Dean (Joe Swanberg, who also is co-producer on the film). There seem to be sparks between her and friend Andrew (Andrew Ryder), who is also fresh from ending a relationship; she’s also at odds with her best friend Claudette (Jennifer Kim). In other words, her life is in flux, and of course the one time she let her guard down for an emo ghost, she gets an STD.

Filmmaker Atkins does have an ear for the way 20-somethings talk around their deeper issues and fears of being alone. Ruth goes into reclusion when she discovers the root of her illness, and it takes a great deal of effort to reach out for help, since she and her friends rarely seem to address serious issues as part of their daily conversations. Burdge is especially good as a young woman barely about to hold in her fear of the unknown and the strange, often disgusting changes that are going on in her body. Add to that, a creepy electronic score from Alan Palomo, and the result is a fairly impactful movie about an existential crisis coached in a chill ghost story. It might sound a little silly (and Lace Crater certainly has its moments of humor), but it all seems to work rather nicely. The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.

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