Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sausage Party

‘Sausage Party’ is wrong on every aisle. Hell, it’s wrong on every shelf, refrigerated section, display unit and available till. It’s wrong up and down the store and right out into the car park. You could even say that it makes the entire concept of consumable goods and retail outlets seem wrong.

It’s also – when you get beyond the coarse language, the racial stereotypes, the frequently grotesque imagery and the food porn orgy that acts as the film’s literal climax – smarter than it has any right to be, as well as being genuinely funny.

(A word on the racial stereotypes: ‘Sausage Party’ deals in equal opportunity offensiveness. Every nationality gets it, from the Hitlerian German products to Great Britain’s representation as an aisle of tea bags – and, yes, they aver a preference for tea-bagging. This, then, isn’t the obvious puerile point-scoring of, say, Charlie Hebdo where the gays and the Muslims are singled out for a bashing time after time while everyone outside of the immediate hate-speak demographic gets away scot free.)

Plotwise, things begin with the unrequited passion between hotdog sausage Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen) and hotdog bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who are convinced that they’ll find consummation when they’re picked by some happy shopper and taken into the Great Beyond (the sun-dappled expanse outside the car park). Thanks to a Disney-esque song intoned by the comestibles just prior to opening time every morning, all the products on sale in a Walmart-like store believe something transcendental awaits. Rather than the food processor, the oven or the pan of boiling water.

The first crack in the fabric of their collective delusion occurs when a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to the store. Suffering the food version of PTSD, it struggles to enunciate the horrors it’s witnessed. Its warnings are further detracted from by a shopping trolley collision – played out in hilariously bad taste as a spoof of the opening sequence of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – which leaves various food products dead (the bananas who unpeel to reveal ghost faces are fucking creepier than any horror movie I’ve seen this year), injured or thrown loose from their packaging and desperate to get back to their aisle before they’re swept up and binned. It also leaves an anal douche (Nick Kroll) damaged and denied procurement by a particularly amply proportioned lady. The douche blames Frank for the collision and swears revenge.

Meanwhile, Frank’s slightly deformed fellow sausage Barry (Michael Cera) undergoes an equally onerous misadventure that takes him from the environs of the store to a middle class suburb home then across the city and into the shitty apartment of a stoner (James Franco) whose copious intake of hallucinogenic substances renders him able to see the food in its anthropomorphosised state. The half-dead pizza slice that crawls its way across the greasy box, berating him for eating its legs) proves quite the head-fuck for him. Barry witnesses human/food brutality at first hand and encounters a Stephen Hawking-like piece of gum (Scott Underwood) who provides scientific enlightenment at odds with the quasi-religious indoctrination that has kept the food happy and malleable back at the store.

In the meantime, Frank and Brenda join forces with ideologically divided Jewish bread product Sammy Bagel Jnr (Edward Norton) and Muslim lavash Kareem (David Krumholz) – “you have occupied the whole of the west aisle” the latter opines – as well as lesbian taco Teresa (Salma Hayek) who has the hot tamales for Brenda.

I sincerely apologise for typing that last sentence.

How Frank and co. and Barry and his rag-tag crew of new acquaintances reunite – Barry having surfed a character arc from chicken-livered short-arse to Guevara-like revolutionary – essentially forms a quest narrative, with both sausages essentially seeking enlightenment. Barry, as noted, achieves his scientifically (albeit with a large dollop of vengeful hatred), Frank via a trippy encounter with a bottle of firewater (Bill Hader) and a power ballad sung by a meat loaf. The meat loaf would do anything for love but he wouldn’t d--- … but you saw that one coming, didn’t you?

‘Sausage Party’ is a blunt and frequently unsophisticated movie – let’s face it, this flick offers a talking condom (post-use, I hasten to add) and a toilet roll that cringes away from Barry, declaring “you don’t want to know” what it’s been through – whose co-directors (Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon) and co-writers (Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) seem hellbent on offending just about everyone. But damned if they don’t – almost by accident – create a cluster of characters who are so winningly brought to life that you can’t help but root for them. Not only this, but they achieve the kind of pro-atheism argument that would make Bill Maher weep. Kareem’s reluctant relinquishing of the seventy-seven bottles of extra virgin olive oils waiting for him in the Great Beyond (“but my flaps will be dry! I cannot have dry flaps!”) should, on paper, be Islamophobia writ large; but between Krumholz’s performance and the fact that the same stick is applied equally to all characters, it’s an oddly poignant moment.

The final unity of the foodstuff – all belief systems scrapped in the face of a common enemy – is a thing of beauty, a Marxist victory rendered as if Leni Reifenstahl’s politics had swung to the polar opposite. The means by which the victory is celebrated, however, doesn’t so much cross the boundaries of good taste as demolish them. It makes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ look like a teddy bears’ picnic and the hardened carnivore might find him or herself considering the hitherto unthinkable option of vegetarianism.

But even then, what happens to the carrots … Oh dear God, won’t somebody think of the carrots?!?!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Don’t Breathe

Life in Michigan is so shit for twenty-somethings Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minette) that they embark upon a series of house robberies in order to fund their relocation to, and standard of living in, California. Or least, life is shit enough for Rocky to risk it all for a way out – her mother’s the personification of white trash, her step-father-in-waiting sports swastika tattoos, and her prepubescent sister (or maybe stepsister) is looking at another decade of deprivation if Rocky doesn’t make something happen.

Is life shit for Money? Who knows? He’s what a filmmaker bordering on his forties thinks a millennial in thrall to the thug life acts like. He postures and seems to enjoy criminality and thinks he’s a big man for packing a gun. He refers to said item as “chrome”. That’s all you really need to know about Money. That and the fact that he calls himself “Money”.

Is life shit for Alex? Not really. His dad owns a financially successful home security business that, with a modicum of application and self-discipline, he could be running himself in a decade’s time. But wait, Alex is hung up on Rocky even though she’s Money’s girl (I was a little bit sick in my mouth just typing that sentence), and therefore he risks the most, ripping off the spare keys and alarm codes to various moneyed homesteads.

The heists this threesome pull follow the same pattern: they let themselves in with the spare key, deprogram the alarm, steal enough in saleable goods (never cash) that if they’re caught it’ll be a misdemeanour rather than serious jail time, let themselves out, then hurl a stone through the window to trigger the alarm (thus drawing attention away from Alex’s father’s company) as they make their getaway.

So far so good. At least Rocky has been given motivation and a reason to risk it all. Granted, there’s not quite enough frisson between them to justify Alex’s infatuation, but Levy is an attractive and charismatic enough presence that you can believe he’d carry a torch. Still, Alex of all of them has the most to lose and takes the biggest risk for the smallest yield, so already the film strains credulity purely it needs to explain how these tweenie-robbers can bypass alarm codes.

(Seriously, all Alex needs to do is wait till Money gets hauled off to jail – he’s stupid enough for said outcome to be a foregone conclusion – get her hired at his old man’s firm, put a deposit on a place of their own and be a good uncle to Rocky’s baby sis and it’s happy ever after.)

But this is the kind of movie in which the characters are smart and resourceful when the script needs them to evade a particular situation and utterly fucking stupid when the script needs them to get caught. And everything in ‘Don’t Breathe’ develops because the script requires it rather than as a result of decisions made by characters who are, y’know, acting in character.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After an archetypal robbery from which our so-called heroes get away clean, director Fede Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, establish the set up with commendable efficiency: in a depressed area of town, where virtually every property in the immediate vicinity stands empty, a Gulf War veteran, blinded during said conflict, lives in hermit-like solitude. He also stubbornly remains in an economically depressed urban wasteland when the out-of-court settlement from the rich family whose scion his daughter in a drink driving accident has swelled his personal wealth to the tune of almost half a million. A sum that he keeps, in cash, on the premises.

Money, pissed off with fencing the proceeds from previous jobs at a 60% loss on their street value, gets a tip off re: the blind man. Yup, Stephen Lang’s terrifying and brilliantly portrayed character isn’t even given a name. Alex is concerned that it’s a heist too far, but at the risk of losing contact with Rocky acquiesces. The trio wait till after dark, drug the blind man’s dog and break in. Things go south PDQ.

For an all-too-short while, ‘Don’t Breathe’ offers the unalloyed pleasure of a handicapped but still brutally efficient military professional putting every bit of his training, tradecraft and expertise to the test in order to outwit and viciously repel his attackers. Had ‘Don’t Breathe’ continued in this vein – robbers who aren’t necessarily the bad guys suddenly finding themselves targeted by a homeowner who isn’t necessarily the victim – it could have been the subversive genre-redefining home invasion thriller of its time.

As it is, Alvarez throws in a plot twist that dimps the first of several plot holes in the fabric of the film. It’s pretty effective when you’re sitting there in a darkened cinema and everyone else in the auditorium has gasped, but after a moment or two’s reflection it throws up too many unanswered questions. Yes, I can dig that a guy who’s lost his sight would use certain aspects of his military training to overcome his disability; that he’d still have lightning-fast reflexes; and that he’d know the layout of his house down to the last inch of crawlspace. But the big secret his house is hiding … now, that’s entirely different set of logistics. And surely there would have been a police investigation and given his relationship to … But to say anymore would necessitate spoilers.

Which I’m sorely tempted to throw out, because it’s this aspect of the film that transitions ‘Don’t Breathe’ from tense-as-all-hell cat-and-mouse thriller into grubbier territory. As Rocky is separated from her companions, the woman-in-peril scenario takes on a luridly sexual implication. Thereafter, false escapes and recaptures pile up alongside back-from-the-dead moments at a pace frenetic enough to strain credulity even further, not to mention Lang’s visually-challenged antagonist seeming to morph from ruthlessly proficient but still blind ex-soldier treating his home as a battleground, to a fifty-something Michael Myers popping up out of nowhere for maximum scare effective and never mind whether it was physically possible for him to get from location A to location B in anything like the time implied.

Throw on top of this a scene that Alvarez and Sayagues concocted purely for the gross-out factor and its painfully clear that they weren’t confident about being able to sustain suspension and tension for the film’s 89-minute running time and compensated with juvenile torture porn tropes. Which is a damned shame, since ‘Don’t Breathe’ works beautifully as an exercise in tension, with some exemplary sound work. The house is a brilliant creation, and the performances range from decent to very good, with Lang and Levy taking top honours. With its misconceived subplot snipped out and the running time reduced to 75 minutes, it would have been a nerve-shredder of the highest order.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Hell or High Water

About halfway through David Mackenzie’s lean and introspective crime thriller, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his much put-upon half-Indian/half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – “I’ll get to the Mexican when I’ve used up the Indian insults” Marcus avers in a moment of breathtakingly casual racism – decide to take a hands on approach to the series of bank robberies they’re investigating and stake out one of the handful of branches of the Texas Midland that hasn’t been targeted yet. During their stay at the economically depressed small town said branch caters to, Marcus and Alberto take in the delights of the most depressing motel this side of ‘Vacancy’ and a restaurant whose menu is marginally less limited than its waitress’s customer service skills. As their sojourn drags on, Hamilton playing out his string as an avoidance technique (his mandatory and unwanted retirement is imminent), they get to discussing small town life. Marcus can see a kind of dimestore poetry to it; Alberto is scathing: “Everything in the hardware store costs twice as much as Home Depot and there’s one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress.”

This, more than any of the billboards advocating high-interest loans or debt management services that various characters drive past, pins down the subject Mackenzie and scripter Taylor Sheridan (‘Sicario’) are putting under a microscope. Or should I say that they’re putting it under a microscope, leaving the microscope out in the sun, sitting back with a patience and a commitment to slowburn narrative that evoke the best of 1970s American filmmaking, and letting it squirm for a while.

Here’s another line, prominently featured in the trailer, which pretty much serves as mission statement. Marcus and Alberto are in a diner the perps ate at before a robbery. Marcus takes a good-ole-boy approach to ingratiating himself with the regulars and sounding them out: “How long y’ been living here?” “Long enough,” one of them replies, “to see a bank get robbed that’s been robbin’ me for thirty years.”

Some bank heist movies key into the Robin Hood-style romanticism of the outlaw lifestyle (‘Bonnie and Clyde’), some are studies in logistics and fall-out (‘Heat’), some use the heist as a jumping off point for revelations and political machinations (‘The Bank Job’) and some are laconically subversive (‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’). Now there’s a thought: watch ‘High or High Water’ on a double-bill fronted by ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’: Bridges at the start of his career playing the charismatic wiseass, and Bridges in the maturity of his career, giving a definitive study of ageing, regret and almost sealed-off vulnerability. But I digress. ‘Hell or High Water’ is a bank heist movie where the mechanics of the heist are secondary (though still well-observed: the burial of the various getaway cars is an inspired touch) to the particular branches that get robbed.

It’s no spoiler to introduce our two stick-up merchants: brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard. Toby’s divorced, little contact with his two children and not much going for him. Tanner’s been in and out of jail his entire adult life, no meaningful relationship, no future, and quite frankly even fucking less going for him. Hence his willingness to partner up with his bro for a series of heists engineered to steal small but untraceable sums, the aim being a pot of money that satisfies the bank who are a week away from foreclosing on their late mother’s farmstead, a property that is apparently a source of oil. Toby’s intent is to regain ownership of the land and leave it in trust to his children – to do, in essence, one good thing in a life otherwise defined by failure. Tanner? Well, he just seems to enjoy it.

The brothers have a system worked out: rob bank, hit casino, convert stolen money into chips, play just enough to earn a bit more or lose within acceptable levels, then cash in said chips for a cheque made out to the very bank they fucked over. Crime with a sense of irony. What’s not to love?

What makes ‘Hell or High Water’ fascinating is that neither Toby or Tanner actually stand to make anything out of the heists beyond being able to buy back their birthright. Which is an abject shithole, oil or no oil. Toby wants to shore up the future for his offspring whom he’d previously failed. Toby, as another character says of him, could make enough from a single heist to park a brand-new pick-up truck and a jet-ski in front of his house for no other reason than to spend it all so that he has to go out and steal more money.

In this respect, although the aesthetics of small town Americana are writ large, ‘Hell or High Water’ can be readily identified as the work of a British director. This is the heist movie for the age of austerity. You could transpose the whole thing to the septic sceptred isle relatively easily. Bridges would be the Little England bigot not quite ready to retire to the Costa del Sol (and therefore be a significantly interesting character), and the banks would be, well, the banks.

But maybe I’m stretching a point. As much as ‘Hell or High Water’ seems like a parable for austerity Britain, it’s also chillingly easy to read it as prescient of an America under Trump. A scene where Toby and Tanner deal with armed resistance at a bank swiftly and decisively only to escape getting shot to pieces by a hare’s breadth as they hotfoot it outside and a bunch of townsfolk make like it’s the Alamo all over again is as effective a commentary on open-carrying as you’re likely to see. It’s a scene that evokes the intervention of the pick-up driving fascist rednecks that utterly and irreversibly changes everything in the final season of ‘Breaking Bad’. It’s a scene that culminates in said townsfolk changing their minds the moment the odds are recalibrated. And it’s a scene that entirely hinges on the American love affair with weaponry.

Yet there’s nothing gung-ho about the film. Sure, it depicts machismo; Mackenzie and Sheridan are acutely aware of how men behave around each other – not to mention how abjectly they regard women. (Arguably only Toby transcends this failing, but to talk about the dynamics of a scene towards the very end of the film would be to indulge in a spoiler too far.) Everything – tone, pace, performances, visuals – testifies to how much thought and consideration went into ‘Hell or High Water’. Even a sudden lurch into ‘High Sierra’ territory pays off in a manner that is more evocative of Tommy Lee Jones’s contemporary anti-western ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ – a film I’d have no hesitation in ranking this one alongside.