Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sweet Bean, The Invitation, Louder Than Bombs, Demolition, The Boss, Hardcore Henry

Sweet Bean
The Invitation

Louder Than Bombs

The Boss
Hardcore Henry

Notes on a truly dispiriting week at the movies:

It's never good when the pick of the week is a mild discommendation, but at least Naomi Kawase's Japanese import "Sweet Bean" lives up to its title with supreme sweetness and a lovely, poignant finish. The baker Sentora (Masatoshi Nagase, whose face you'll remember from Jim Jarmusch's 1989 "Mystery Train") runs a tiny stand in a suburb of Tokyo specializing in dorayaki, a sweet the size and shape of a dollar pancake. He has placed an ad for an assistant, but when a smiling 76-year-old woman named Tokue (veteran Kirin Kiki) volunteers her services at a fraction of the wage he's offered, he puts her off, suggesting the work would be too strenuous. She responds by bringing him her an, the adzuki bean paste that fills the dorayaki. One taste and he hires her (he'd been buying pre-made an in bulk). There are some delightful moments of humor between the slightly strange, harmless Tokue and the taciturn Sentora as she teaches him the long, slow process of making the an. Tokue: "Keep up the good work." Sentora: "Thank you, I will." Tokue: "I was talking to the beans." Still, the 113-minute runtime is a bridge too far; I fell asleep - no, not dozed, slept soundly - for at least a good half-hour.

Director Karyn Kusama - who was supposed to be the next big thing around Y2K, until "Girlfight" opened with a thud - returns with a movie that's in the 90's on Rotten Tomatoes but that had us squirming in our seats so uncomfortably we walked out halfway through. It's called "The Invitation," and a scraggly-bearded Logan Marshall-Green leads the cast as Will, ex-husband of Eden (Tammy Blanchard, especially awful), who with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) has just returned from two years in Mexico and is throwing a dinner party for a dozen friends old and new. The behavior of everyone at the party ranges from stilted to creepy to bizarre, and that's before Eden and David fire up a video promoting The Invitation, the cultish spiritual support group with whom they took their extended sabbatical. Its (bald, natch) leader promises a peaceful way out of the pain of life. After the video, the hosts put back on music that sounds like bad folk bent through a misshapen tuning fork. We started checking the time every five minutes, then every three minutes, then every minute, before finally bailing. When I read my friend the remaining plot scene by scene, she pronounced it the stupidest she'd ever heard. 

Now for some true White People Bullshit: Joachim Trier's "Louder than Bombs" and Jean-Marc Vallée's "Demolition." "Bombs" stars Gabriel Byrne as a high school teacher and recent widower whose war-photographer wife (Isabelle Huppert) died not in a combat zone but in a car crash a few miles from home. Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid play, respectively, the adult and adolescent sons she left behind. It's the sort of muted, action-free family drama where a son asks his father, "Am I really that hard to talk to?" and the father answers, "No, it's me. It's just so DIFF-icult." Byrne reads the "DIFF" so heavily it says, "Nobody with a trace of melanin could possibly understand." You could gag on the tasteful restraint. Another time the father attempts to reach out to the younger son, who tells him to fuck off. (He's playing a video game.) If I were the dad, I'd start packing up his shit. Call me in ten years, buddy, we'll see Bobby Short at the Carlyle. As for the Reeds, what car do they drive? A Volvo. (It was that or a Saab.) Where do they live? White Plains. For a superior film about the effect of a war photographer's need for the chase on her domestic life, check out Juliette Binoche in 2014's "1,000 Times Good Night." 

"Demolition" also focuses on those left behind by a woman seen (and rarely heard) only in flashbacks. Here, it's Jake Gyllenhaal as Wall Street investment banker Davis Mitchell, who survived the auto accident that killed his young wife Julia (Heather Lind). Davis' behavior at the fund managed by Julia's prickly father (Chris Cooper) becomes increasingly erratic, while in voice-overs Gyllenhaal reads a series of implausibly long letters to the Champion Vending Company, whose machine #714 ate his $1.25 at the hospital the night of the crash without delivering Peanut M&M's. Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the one-woman Champion customer service department, calls Davis at two in the morning to express her sympathy, and though she's dating the owner, she starts seeing Davis too - platonically. Davis goes for an MRI and when the doctor asks where he's feeling numb, he waves his hand over his whole body and says, "This general area." Then the metaphors get even more hammer-headed (literally) as Davis begins demolishing several major items in his home. ("Other than the appliances," Karen notes, "you've got a really nice place.") When he hired a bulldozer to raze the whole multi-million dollar mansion, I couldn't join him on the journey any longer. Friends reported that after 90 minutes of general malaise, Vallée fills the last half-hour with enough plot for ten movies. Unlike the couple next to us - who spent the runtime noisily debating whether to leave - I was still glad I had.

"The Boss" is Melissa McCarthy's "Troop Beverly Hills." McCarthy's oeuvre includes the brilliant, mold-breaking comedies of Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "The Heat," "Spy"), the occasional amusing one-off ("Tammy," directed by hubby Ben Falcone), and some unfortunate High Concept movies: "Identity Thief" and this one (again by Falcone), with McCarthy as Michelle Darnell, a disgraced former Martha Stewart/Suze Orman type who, after serving time, moves in with her former assistant (Kristen Bell) and builds a cookie empire that aims to put the Girl Scouts out of business. Of Peter Dinklage, who plays Michelle's nemesis Ronald (he insists it be pronounced "Renault"), L.A. Weekly wrote that he "has no demonstrable talent for comedy." True, and the same can be said for the blandly "nice" Bell. The experiment in attempting to make her a movie star has been run, and it failed. McCarthy is at her best as part of a rich ensemble, as in "Bridesmaids" or "Spy," or opposite a single worthy foil (Sandra Bullock in "The Heat," Susan Sarandon in "Tammy"). She's a comic genius, but she can't carry a 100-minute, big-budget comedy all by herself. McCarthy must be careful to avoid the Eddie Murphy Syndrome, whereby picture after picture operates on the premise that everything the star says and does is inherently funny.

Finally, there is the headache-inducing "Hardcore Henry," essentially a first-person video game experience shot on Go Pro cameras, in which the never-seen-from-the-front protagonist wakes up in a world of power-mad scientists, ruthless arms dealers, and doctors with unknown motivations. Everybody's shooting at him - and vice versa - except for a chap named Jimmy who, as played by the mystifying Sharlto Copley, is about as much fun to be around as the local crackhead. Most of the dialogue consists of monosyllabic grunts that make Maria Sharapova's seem full of meaning by comparison. Some reviews have suggested that "Hardcore Henry" may "reinvent" the action movie, but is it a movie at all? A full-length feature comprising a single, ongoing chase can work when made with wit, as in the Japanese "Non-Stop" (2000) or Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run." But "Henry" offers not even a semblance of plot. It's dreary to look at and painful to listen to. If this is the future, include me out.

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