Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Johnny Knoxville dons an old man suit to play an eighty-six-year-old widower named Irving who cannot wait to get back in the pond and chase much younger women. His plan comes to sudden halt, however, when his drug-addicted daughter drops off his grandson—to her mother’s funeral, no less—because she is going back to jail. Not wanting to take care of the boy, Irving’s solution is to take the Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his irresponsible father in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” based on the screenplay by Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine, is a comedy that is purposely stupid, crude, dirty—and it made me laugh multiple times, at times so hard that my laughter turned into cackle. But the film is held back one fundamental misstep: It forces a narrative involving a grandfather’s relationship—or lack thereof—with his grandson which garners a few “Aww” moments but they are ultimately irrelevant because the humor takes a backseat for a few minutes. In comedies that are propelled by reaction shots, a few minutes is a long wait.
Irving getting his penis stuck in a soda vending machine sets the stage for the type of humor it employs to get us to keep watching—not because it is supposed to be realistic but because it is so over-the-top that looking away is near impossible. While such a situation would have likely come across as idiotic in a mainstream fiction comedy, it works very well here because we observe the reactions of regular people who happen to be at the right place and right time during filming.
In a way, watching these candid segments is an opportunity for us to laugh at ourselves. Given a similar situation, we might react in a similar manner. As a viewer, it is easy to judge and say that a person is silly or stupid or downright criminal for acting a certain way, but we have all been in a situation where we have no idea what to do or say that we succumb to the pressure of what is happening and, inevitably, make a mistake. In the latter half, Irving tells his grandson that “you can get away with almost anything; all you have to do is try.” And it appears time and again that he is right.
Many scenes are effective or close to being hilarious so we laugh anyway. This includes the furniture sale and the woman responsible for a certain remote, Irving trying to ship his grandson in a box, Ladies Night in a strip club that starts off awkward and ends up being beyond awkward that I actually covered my eyes, and the beauty pageant competition that bears some similarities to Michael Arndt’s “Little Miss Sunshine.
Less funny is the running gag involving a corpse. We all know that it is a fake… and we get the feeling that people who are not aware that there are hidden cameras everywhere recognize that the dead body is a fake, too. So, what’s funny about it? Pretty much nothing. And what is up with that Moby Dick scene? Why is that funny? Because they have the budget to buy a really big fish that looks super fake on camera?
The film, directed by Jeff Tremaine, is worth seeing for its strength: setting up a ridiculous situation and simply watching passersby dealing with what is in front of them. The screenplay does not need the usual bonding storyline during a road trip. Although Irving can be a bit of a curmudgeon at times, not once are we really convinced that he does not like or care about Billy. Nicoll appears to be having a great time all the way through.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Deciding to dive into a film with a premise that is potentially rife with unintentionally funny and embarrassingly awkward situations, given that the main character gets into a romantic relationship with his operating system, “Her” ends up being quite a delightful surprise. It is sweet, amusing and accessible, but it also has insights when it comes to the complexities of human connection—what seems so real and substantial one minute can feel so fleeting and imaginary in the blink of an eye.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely man who remains to live in the shadows of his impending divorce. He has the papers but he refuses to sign and send them. To him, it is neither the right time nor does it feel right. When he purchases an operating system, who names itself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), he is slowly pulled away from the shadows and learns to open up to someone new. That someone new just happens to be a machine. Is there something wrong with that?
Writer-director Spike Jonze creates a futuristic world that is a patchwork of past and future. The orange glow, a technique usually used to denote a past, gives the picture a dream-like, sunbaked atmosphere. On the other hand, the lifestyle of advanced technology and infrastructures of futuristic Los Angeles communicate otherwise. In that way, it is a science fiction film in concept but its essence is grounded in a sort of parallel reality. The images are easy on the eyes.
It is up to us to do the judging. Either one buys the romance or is repelled by it completely. After all, the central relationship is between man and machine. Samantha may sound just like a human being. She may claim to feel a spectrum of emotions like joy, love, jealousy, and hurt. She says she has needs and has dreams. But the fact is she is not a person and will never be a person. Is it all an illusion?
Jonze is a smart director—one who has consistently turned an original vision into reality—and so he anticipates and avoids the trappings of the romance genre. Casting Phoenix is an advantage because he can be unpredictable. Part of the excitement is wondering what he will do next—how his character will react to more familiar situations like a blind date or consoling a friend who is at the end of her wits (Amy Adams). From the moment Theodore activates the OS to the final shot of the L.A. skyline, Phoenix embodies a character that we want to see achieve some sort of happiness. Theodore may be a sad sack at times but, through his conversations with Samantha, we learn that he is aware of his limitations and that he can be impossible. Aren’t we all?
“Her” makes an interesting double feature with Steven Spielberg’s undervalued “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” about a robot in a body of a child who goes on a journey to meet The Blue Fairy so he can make a wish and be turned into a real, live boy—parallel to Samantha’s obsession with having a body. Though the scope and mood between the two are worlds apart, both pose similar questions about mankind’s relationship with machines and machines having human-like consciousness.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.