Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bad Moms (2016) ***

Psychologists have a concept called “Good Enough Parenting,” which states that kids don't need perfect parenting. They just need a certain amount of love and care, and anything beyond that doesn't provide any additional benefit in terms of life success, mental health, etc. It's hard for parents to accept that, though. We always think that if we could spend a little more quality time, provide a little more enrichment, and push a little more for academic success, that all that work will produce a proportionally better outcome for our kids. The pressure is enormous to do MORE, and it seems to fall most heavily on the moms.

In “Bad Moms,” Mila Kunis plays Amy, a mother whose efforts to run her kids around to activities, do their school projects for them, and work a part-time job, while remaining active in the PTA are driving her to exhaustion. When she catches her husband (David Walton) having an online affair, it's the last straw. Amy has a meltdown at the PTA meeting, which puts her at odds with power-mom Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), but wins her a couple of new friends, Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell.)

With her new compadres, Amy decides to pursue a new ethos. Since nothing they do ever seems to be enough to qualify them as “good moms,” they should just celebrate being “bad moms.” The ladies indulge in microrebellions like daytime movie breaks, making the kids fix their own breakfasts, and hiring the occasional babysitter. Small as these transgressions seem, they wind up costing Amy her exploitative, part-time job and they trigger all-out war with Gwendolyn. Amy winds up challenging Gwendolyn for the PTA presidency, becoming a champion for imperfect moms everywhere.

Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the minds behind “The Hangover,” “Bad Moms” is in the modern vein of raunchy-comedies-with-heart. The film does take on a bit of after-school-special stink in the third act and isn't as tightly-scripted as it could be, it's still a barrel of fun. Mila Kunis is always easy to look at, and all these actresses are good at comedy, especially Kathryn Hahn. This film is not on the level of “The Hangover” or “Bridesmaids,” but still it's a raunchy good time.

3 stars out of 5  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

No Country for Old Men (2007) **

I had heard that “No Country for Old Men” was bleak and violent, but it also got a lot of critical praise. I love me some Coen brothers, so I had to give the movie a shot. The messed up thing is, the movie actually fools you for a while, making you think it is a really awesome crime thriller. You wind up really invested in some of the characters before the film totally pulls the rug out from under you.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a guy who is out hunting when he stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. He finds a bunch of dead and dying men, a truck full of drugs, and a satchel of cash. Llewelyn makes off with the cash, but winds up with a crew of unsavories on his trail, including the creepy Anton Chigur (Javier Bardem). The relentless Chigur carries a pneumatic bolt gun, and sometimes decides whether or not to kill someone with it by flipping a coin. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to find Llewelyn before Chigur does.

The first two thirds of “No Country for Old Men” is outstanding. Besides beautiful photography of the west Texas landscape, the film is chock full of tight performances. Llewelyn, it turns out, is a lot smarter and tougher than anyone would have guessed, and you start to believe that he may be a match for Anton Chigur.

Then the movie gets needlessly depressing, and you wind up wondering why you invested two hours in it. You know, coming in, that a Coen brothers movie is going to be violent, and that people are going to die. What I didn't expect was the utter bleakness, the nihilism of the conclusion. Rarely have I seen a movie expend so much effort to make me like a character, only to discard them so perfunctorily. Ultimately, this is a crappy story told by two very talented filmmakers. Ethan and Joel Coen have made some of my favorite movies, including “Miller's Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski”, but they really screwed us over on this one.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

La La Land (2016) **1/2

Most films that come out this time of year, angling for Oscars glory, are serious affairs. Some of them can be hard to watch because of their ponderous themes, like the Holocaust. The new musical “La La Land” is exactly the opposite. This light and fluffy confection is about almost nothing. Its scenes float away like notes on the air.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play an actress and a jazz musician trying to achieve success in modern-day L.A. They fall in love, but wind up having to chose between love and success. And that's it. Absolutely nothing else happens. Sure people break out into song and dance on a regular basis, and everyone looks just lovely, but after two hours of fidgeting in my seat, I felt like I had seen nothing at all. “La La Land” is a great example of tremendous star power and beautiful cinematography wasted.

“La La Land” indulges the same “follow your dreams” tropes that so many Hollywood films do. The film also implicitly promotes another familiar Hollywood conceit, which is that the only dreams worth having are artistic dreams.

The point of a musical, of course, is the music, and 30 minutes after the film, I couldn't recall the songs at all. There is an attempt to give jazz music some love, and I suppose that works to some extent. Bottom line: “La La Land” is not going to enter the pantheon of great movie musicals.

I am definitely in the minority here. Audiences and critics alike seem to love this movie, and the awards and nominations are pouring in. Maybe in a time when half the country hates the other half, a movie that says nothing, and thereby offends no one, is the only thing we can all agree on.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 13, 2017

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) ***1/2

Actor Christopher Abbott (Charlie from the show “Girls) has the most poignant line in the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” When his young, Afghan character Fahim says, “I was a doctor,” speaking in the past tense, it speaks volumes about what a mess Afghanistan is. There is simply no place on earth where it is normal for someone with medical training to be working as a translator. The film never makes clear whether he was displaced from his profession by the Taliban or by the American invasion. As one injured soldier points out later in the film, if you want to start laying blame for the state of things in Afghanistan, you'll have to work your way through Osama bin Laden, to the Taliban, to the Russians, and all the way back to the British Empire.

Fortunately, this film is not constituted wholly of such serious stuff. More comedy than drama, the movie hums with the wry humor that Tina Fey brings to all her projects. Fey plays Kim Baker, an American journalist who,bored with her life as a news copy writer, accepts an assignment as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. There she finds that in addition to danger, there is opportunity, both professional and sexual. As fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) explains to Kim, “In New York, you were a 6 or a 7. Here you're a 9, maybe 9 ½.” In addition to having her pick of men, Kim gets on-camera opportunities that she never had back home. Reporting by day and partying by night, Kim finds love with another reporter (Martin Freeman) and friendship with her translator Fahim. Always, there is the danger of kidnappings or bombs, or just the danger of getting swallowed up in a place where the unacceptable comes to seem normal.

With poor box office and mixed reviews, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” never seemed to find its audience. I think people were expecting either a straight-up comedy or a much sharper satire. Many reviewers seemed irked that the film didn't do more with some of its serious content, such as the horrors of war or the plight of women in the Middle East. It's true, the film never pokes too hard at any of these targets. Rather than the weakness of a script afraid to offend its audience, I found this to be the strength of a personal story that didn't give in to some tidy, preachy narrative. The film is based on the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” by Kim Barker. The story is not about discrimination or military incompetence, it's about Kim and her own personal experience, and the biggest lesson she learns is that you have to embrace change. She made a change when she moved to Afghanistan, and after a few years there she realized she needed to make a change again and move back to the U.S. It's not about setting up the perfect life, then maintaining that. Success comes from embracing the changes that inevitably come your way, or, as one injured veteran tells Kim, “Embrace the suck, and move the f--- forward.”

3.5 stars out of 5