Movie Review ~ Bliss

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.

Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng

Director: Mike Cahill

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie.  Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one.  There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers?  No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere.  I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.

The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by.  Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise.  This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question.  It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does.  The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.

Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen.  He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most.  As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all.  Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.

Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real.  The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him.  That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from.  Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help.  Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?

While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points.  If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration.  It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us.  If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.

That’s the oddest thing about Bliss.  Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it.  Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy.  Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers.  Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride.  You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.

Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past.  She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that.  Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be.  I feel largely the same way about Wilson.  He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie.  There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal?  I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.

What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that.  A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project.  Find your bliss somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ Like a Boss


The Facts
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Synopsis: Best friends Mia and Mel run their own cosmetics company — a business they built from the ground up. But they’re also in over their heads financially, and the prospect of a buyout offer from an industry titan proves too tempting to pass up.

Stars: Rose Byrne, Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek, Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge, Karan Soni, Ari Graynor, Jessica St. Clair, Natasha Rothwell

Director: Miguel Arteta

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I always get a little nervous when I rip off the December 31 page on my calendar and see that I’ve come to the end of another year.  It’s not because of any resolutions I’ve made or due to price increases on insurance/rent/medical benefits/you name it, no, it’s something else entirely.  I know that when January 1 rolls around the movie landscape changes from studios trying hard to push out their best products for award consideration to their driving their dump trucks straight into your local theater.  It’s long been known that the first few months of the year are a good time to get rid of movies that could have issues or ones the executives have little faith in.  Maybe a film has been sitting on the shelf for several months and there’s a perfect weekend in January when nothing else like it is coming out (I’m looking at you, Dolittle), perhaps the end of the year holiday schedule was just too busy and they couldn’t wait for summer so why not let ‘er rip now (Bad Boys for Life)…you get the picture.

In the last few years, though, there has been an interesting turning of the tides and not every movie released in the first several weeks of the year are those surefire turkeys.  The barren wasteland of January has started to find some green and the studio heads have caught on that a tidy profit can be made with the right marketing and a keen sense of counter-programming.  That had to be the thinking behind getting the new raunchy comedy Like a Boss in position to open against big-time Oscar favorite 1917 during its opening weekend.  Made for ¼ of the budget of that wartime epic, this 83 minute (well, 79-ish without credits) comedy is a surprisingly pleasing bit of drop-in entertainment that succeeds on the merits of its appealing stars.

Mel (Rose Byrne, Spy) and Mia (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) are life-long friends, roommates, and business partners.  Not a lot has come between them over the years and they’ve parlayed their yin/yang relationship into a marginally successful cosmetics company.  Mel is the more corporate focused of the two, with Mia contributing to the creative aspects, though both are shown to be well-informed business women that do their homework when it comes to where their money is going and who is controlling it.  In their late 30’s but living life like they’re still in their early 20’s, their friends wish they’d settle down even if that means spending less time together outside of work.

Just as Mel is about to tell Mia their business is suffering a cash flow problem, a messenger from the multi-million dollar Claire Luna industry (Karan Soni, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) arrives and lets the women know Claire has been following their business and wants to own a piece of their company.  Mel is ecstatic, seeing this as the miracle solution they needed while Mia is wary of the quirky Claire getting into bed with the dynamic duo.  Turns out she should be worried because Claire (Salma Hayek, Savages) has her eyes on more than just a piece of Mel and Mia…and she’ll resort to dirty tricks to get what she wants.

If this all sounds like the set-up for a ABC sitcom or a rejected sequel to Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (and there’s another connection to that movie in here as well) then I don’t think you’d be too far off the mark.  There’s little meat to the plot bones but the script by relative newcomers Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly is fast paced and amusing.  I’ll get back to the three leads but in addition to them, the supporting players are all aces.  Jennifer Coolidge (Austenland) and scene-stealing Billy Porter as employees of the ladies are put to good use, delivering some silly one-liners but not overstaying their screen welcome.  I also enjoyed a trio of wedded gal pal confidants for the ladies played by Jessica St. Clair (Wanderlust), Ari Graynor (The Guilt Trip), and Natasha Rothwell (Love, Simon) who are there to listen and respond, and blessedly aren’t armed with a repulsive anecdote about married life.  Usually these domesticated female characters are there to show what frigid harpies they’ve become since getting hitched but thankfully the script allows them to be genuine.  Credit also to the screenwriters as well for not pushing a front and center love interest  – it would have been so easy to complicate things by giving one of the women a boyfriend from one of the rival beauty companies Claire handles but that would just shift the focus from the central friendship and make the movie longer in the process.

The movie is about our lead trio though and director Miguel Arteta (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) brings out some interesting sides to each.  We all know Haddish can navigate her way around a punchline and a litany of filthy jokes (if you can make it through the first five minutes of the movie you’ll be fine) but Arteta doesn’t just let her stay in that wacky zone forever.  She has several serious moments that believably resonate and it fits her well.  I’ve always gotten the impression that Byrne has a penchant for these kind of comedic roles and she looks to be having fun with her time in Like a Boss.  She gets to sing, dance, and battle a drone…though I do wish she wasn’t again cast as the more unlikeable person of a duo.

The sheer reason to see the movie, however, is for Hayek’s bonkers turn as Claire Luna.  In a flame colored wig (the end of which I could often see coming up off her forehead, incidentally), brassy contacts, and stuffed into a mélange of tight clothes and sky high shoes Hayek bulldozes through each scene she’s in and I can’t tell if it’s terrible or brilliant but I know I loved it.  It’s one of those bold character choices only an actress completely confident and without a shred of doubt in her work could make and Hayek has shown over and over again she’s that kind of actress.  Just watch the way she interacts with each person and piece of scenery throughout — this is someone that has truly thought about what she’s bringing to the set.  It’s an unpredictable delight.

It’s easy to find the things to pick apart in the film and I admit I thought I’d come out on the other side of seeing Like a Boss with a list of things about it I didn’t care for.  I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed myself, though, because it felt like a nice palate cleanser from the last few months, which is exactly what I think it was intended as.  It’s certainly not the best work any of these actors will do nor will it make any kind of best (or worst) list when we rip off that December 31 page of 2020 but for what it is and where we are now, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ Sausage Party

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A sausage strives to discover the truth about his existence

Stars: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, David Krumholtz, Nick Kroll, Michael Cera, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Bill Hader, Anders Holm, Paul Rudd, Danny McBride

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The team behind Sausage Party are funny guys…no, really, they are.  The trouble is, they have trouble with starring in movies that are actually…y’know…funny.  At least to me.  Saying this animated R-rated raunch fest is from the team that made 2013’s This is the End didn’t exactly inspire me to be counting down the days to its release.  If anything, it made me dread the day I had to sit in a theater and listen to Seth Rogen play a foul-mouthed but well-meaning hot dog looking to become one with a bun voiced by Kristen Wiig.

Maybe it was a wise choice for the folks behind the Sausage Party screening to give everyone over 21 a free drink because when the movie started my belly was warm with a concoction called Meat Juice (Jägermeister, Grapefruit Juice, Orange Juice, Soda, and Lime…overall as gross as it sounds) and I was feeling a nice little buzz.  It weakened my defenses, I think, because not only did I laugh harder than I thought I would but I wound up enjoying it for all of its surreally filthy fun.

It doesn’t take long for the first F-bomb to be dropped as a grocery store and its products awake for another day in paradise. In a 4th of July display, a package of hot dogs sits next to a bag of buns and wiener Frank (Rogen, The Guilt Trip) waxes vulgar of what he’d like to do to bun Brenda (Wiig, Ghostbusters). Anatomical questions aside, you just have to go with the fact that these food products are horned up, crude, and disarmingly pleasant even when spouting nasty thoughts.  I mean, when the main villain is a douche (literally) you have to step back and remember that you signed up for this one and love it for all its gross out rough edges.

Written by Rogen and three of his collaborators, the film becomes a journey of food understanding its place in the great circle of life and taking a stand against the “gods” (humans) that aren’t coming in to save them but to devour them.  Trust me, it will make your look at everything from bubble gum to toilet paper in a different light.  You’ll still use them…but once you’ve seen a face on a used prophylactic you just can’t return to the real world unscathed.

Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan have brought together a most impressive list of voice talent too.  In addition to Rogen & Wiig, there’s Salma Hayek (Savages), Edward Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel), David Krumholtz (Hail, Caesar!), Nick Kroll (Vacation), Michael Cera, James Franco (Homefront), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Craig Robinson (Get On Up), Bill Hader (Inside Out), Anders Holm (The Intern), Paul Rudd (Wanderlust), and Danny McBride (Aloha).

A good 10 minutes too long, the film, um, climaxes with an orgy so grotesquely dirty that it makes the one in Caligula look like a trip down the yellow brick road.  That bravado in going so low is what made me respect the film and its creators because it takes more than a rude mind to get to the places that this one does.  It goes without saying that if you’re a parent and you bring your child to this you are absolutely terrible but adults looking for a summer comedy that actually provides laughs have found a feast.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grown Ups 2

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Synopsis: After moving his family back to his hometown to be with his friends and their kids, Lenny finds out that between old bullies, new bullies, schizo bus drivers, drunk cops on skis, and 400 costumed party crashers sometimes crazy follows you.

Release Date:  July 12, 2013

Thoughts: Grudgingly, I’ll admit that when I caught the original Grown Ups at a second-run movie theater I liked it more than I thought I would.  A few years later, I’m confident that I’m over these types of lame-brained comedies from lame-brains Adam Sandler, David Spade, and director Dennis Dugan (other stars Kevin James and Chris Rock get a pass…for now).  This summer releasing sequel looks like more of the same antics so chances are I’ll wait on this one to see if lightning can strike twice at the discount movie houses.