Movie Review: Extract

Mike Judge is someone whose work I always enjoy, even though (or maybe especially because) it’s usually low key and driven by average guys. But it can sneak up on you with its addictiveness.

Office Space, for example, went from a limited release, low-key, low-budget film to a cult classic adored by millions. Idiocracy? Well, maybe not so big, but still a cult classic. Even “King of the Hill”, which just ended its run last week, succeeded quietly, spending its run in the shadow of the iconic Simpsons and the far splashier “Family Guy”. And I suspect we’ll see “The Goode Family” build up the same kind of hard-core following, even if they don’t bring it back.

We won’t even talk about Beavis and Butthead, primarily because I’m not sure where that fits into the whole pantheon.

So, I wasn’t too surprised to see his latest movie Extract, spend one week at a few regular theaters—just surprised it jumped immediately to the second run theater. So The Boy and I rushed out to see it.

We laughed. A lot. As to be expected. But does this movie have the kind of grows-on-you cult-watchability of his other movies? Not a freakin’ clue. I’d have to rewatch it.

It is a bit ickier than his other films, I think. Though it’s ultimately handled with a typically kind and light touch, it feels kind of weird when it’s happening.

The premise is that Joel, a middle-aged man who built a successful extract factory, has become discontented on a couple of levels: First, he’s not getting any lovin’ from the wife (in a funny bit you can see parts of in the trailer); second, he’s somewhat disenchanted with his life’s calling of making extracts.

This second point is very secondary. We see and can understand why Joel’s unhappy with aspects of his factory and the life-changes his wealth has brought him; but he’s actually pretty passionate about extracts so his desire to retire ultimately seems to come down to the first point, and to a degree the encouragement of his colleague.

Anyway, into this mix is dropped a gorgeous con-girl, Cindy, a grifter who sees an opportunity when Step, one of the workers at the plant, suffers a freak accident. The accident, amusingly, occurs when one of the other workers, who’s obsessed with how much work everyone else is or isn’t doing, decides to let the machines roll even though doing so is bound to cause some sort of foul-up.

I’ve never worked in a plant like this, but from the people I’ve know who have, there are a lot of people who shoot themselves (and the plant) in the foot out of some perceived injustice. There are just a lot more of ‘em at Joel’s plant. He seems to have a soft spot for screw-ups.

Cindy’s pursuit of Step takes her across Joel’s path. And as we see in every single scene she’s in, Cindy uses her sexuality to deal with everything.

That might be enough to get the ball rolling, but for good measure, Joel has a bartender buddy (former co-worker) who gives him all kinds of sage advice, like how, as the owner of the company, he could have any woman he wanted who worked for them. (Though they’re mostly men and not very attractive.) And also, how, if his wife had an affair, he could also have an affair guilt-free.

It’s sounds almost French, doesn’t it?

The casting, typical for a Judge movie, is near perfect. Jason Bateman plays the milquetoast-y Joel with Kristen Wiig as his wife. Wiig does a great job, playing a very sympathetic woman in contrast to her usual quirky, sort-of cold comic character (seen in Ghost Town and Knocked Up). Mila Kunis is perfectly believable as Cindy, the sexpot without a heart of gold, though it’s a little hard to dislike her as much as we should.

David Koechner plays the neighbor from Hell, a latter-day Lumberg, J.K. Simmons is the colleague who refers to all of the employees as “Dinkus”. Dustin Milligan is the world’s dumbest gigolo. Beth Grant, last seen as the mother-in-law in No Country For Old Men is the woman who will wreck the plant to prove a point. Repeatedly. Gene Simmons plays a rapacious bus-stop-bench-advertising lawyer also out to shut the plant down out of sheer greed.

And, finally, in my favorite role of his since he played himself in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Ben Affleck is the drug-dealing bartender who basically guides Joel down the path of losing his marbles. He’s really good at these kinds of roles; he should do more of them. (I shouldn’t knock the guy; he was really good as George Reeve in Hollywoodland.)

But really, this is Bateman’s movie to carry, just as Ron Livingston had to make Office Space work and Luke Wilson had to make Idiocracy worth watching. Judge makes movies about Everyman and the Everyman has to be sympathetic and empathetic. Bateman’s one of my favorite actors, since the short-lived ’80s series “It’s Your Move”, and I love how he can turn up as a stoner jock in one movie (Dodgeball), an uptight white-collar worker in the next (The Break Up) and a smarmy won’t-grow-up musician in the next (Juno).

But did he have enough warmth to pull this off? I’m not really sure. And I mean that exactly: I’m not sure. It might be that the movie didn’t quite work for me at some levels and I’m looking around for reasons why.

The situation does get dire in this movie—Judge is excellent at making you wonder how the hell his characters are going to get out the messes they’ve made—and I felt like the resolution was a little pat. But it sort of had to be. It is a comedy, after all.

And it had what I consider to be Judge’s trademark kindness. The movie isn’t mean-spirited or misanthropic, so that goes a long way in my book. And while there was quite a bit about sex, it wasn’t graphic. It was way less than TV level, frankly. (I didn’t notice the language, though, so I guess that, and the drug use put it into the “R” category.)

I’m glad I saw it, and The Boy liked it a lot, if for no other reason then he was worried it was going to just turn into a downer and it didn’t. But I’d recommend it selectively, and heavily to the people I know who work in plants. It’s not Office Space level of classic, since there’s much less about the actual workings, but I suspect it’s eerily accurate.

There was another unusual thing about this movie: It’s basically business-positive, which is rare, and the first time I can remember such a thing in a decade. Ultimately Joel is heroic in his own way and lauded simply because he likes to work, and built a business where other people (who might not be highly employable) can work, too.

Even when there’s talk of a takeover, the company making the bid isn’t shown as a villain. The workers are shown as rather short-sighted, interestingly. And, of course, the lawyer is just as wicked as the criminal who hires him.

The Boy liked it.

Movie Review: Ponyo

Along with Pixar, Hayao Miyazaki is one of those filmmakers whose kid’s films I look forward to (and have for 15 years). And with Pixar’s John Lasseter running Disney’s creative stuff, it’ll be nice to see his films getting a bit of a wider release.

But when Jason (the commenter) tweeted that Miyazaki’s latest movie Ponyo boring, I could relate. In my case, I’ve noticed that there’s often something slightly relaxed about the narrative structures. There’s a different pace and purpose to scenes. Oddly, I always get to the point where I can rewatch them without being bored at all. Much like Pixar, his films are so packed with artistry that there’s always something new to notice.

I was pleasantly surprised by Ponyo, however. It skews young—more like My Neighbor Totoro and less Princess Mononoke—but the presentation was constantly entertaining. The Flower liked it. The Boy was chuckling throughout the whole movie, but I wasn’t sure he would cop to having enjoyed the movie as a whole, but he had no reservations about it. (He was actually more enthusiastic than The Flower.)

The story is one of these Japanese things where there’s a whole mythology that you’re not quite privy to. Fujimoto is the guy in charge of keeping the seas in balance. We’re not sure how he got the job, but he’s made time with some sort of sea goddess, and had 500 or so pollywoggish mermaid daughters.

But he’s a single dad, basically, raising a few hundred preschooler demigods, and so it’s not surprising that one of them, Brunhilda, manages to escape the protective bubble he keeps them in. From there, she gets into trouble and then rescued by a 5-year-old, Sosuke, who keeps her in a fishbowl and calls her Ponyo.

Her father then rescues her back, and I sort of thought the movie was gonna flash-forward Splash-style to a grown-up Sosuke, but it didn’t. Ponyo escapes her confines again, this time getting into her father’s store of magic elixirs and throwing the seas into chaos.

Ponyo reminded me a lot of The Barb, really, and I was pleased to see a movie that really respected the awesome, earnest destructiveness of the kindergarten set. There was another scene where Pony is sprouting arms and legs—growing into a human through sheer force of will—and poor Fujimoto (Ponyo’s father) is trying to stuff her back into her pollywog form, to no avail.

There’s a metaphor for ya.

Anyway, the only part that got me kind of sleepy was the climax of the movie. It’s a sort of weird thing for a movie about two five-year-olds, but they’re in love, and Sosuke has to pass a test to be with Ponyo. And if he doesn’t pass the test, Ponyo gets turned into sea foam.


But the whole aspect of what the test is and how to pass it is sort of vague. It might be something I get on rewatching the film, or it might not even be all that important. Other than that, the movie just seemed delightful: clever and cute, with some wonderful imagery.

Miyazaki fans will note a lot of trademarks: Food plays a prominent role; there’s a magical world and a real world; the real world has its ugly side but isn’t demonized; Ponyo’s sisters are reminiscent of the tree spirits in Mononoke; and so on.

Disney has thrown a bunch of celebs in here, as is their wont. There’s a Cyrus (not Miley) and a Jonas (but I don’t know if it’s one of the brothers). Cate Blanchett is the Sea Goddess, Tina Fey is Sosuke’s Mom—didn’t really recognize them or anyone else except Liam Neeson as Ponyo’s father and Betty White as one of the old folks. They just have those kinds of voices.

It’s been four years since Miyazaki’s last feature, and I know he keeps threatening to retire. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but Ponyo wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on.

Baader-Meinhof Komplications

This movie—indeed, the entire premise of revolutionary totalitarian movements—is probably best summed up by The Boy, who about 45 minutes (or approximately 5% of the total length) into the movie leaned over and asked, “What is it they’re fighting for?”

In fact, this movie feels so accurate, that one wonders whether it might not be used later on in the century by historians marveling that any group of people so stupid manage to survive. (Assuming, of course, we do manage to survive.)

The Baader-Meinhof Komplex is a German movie (the most expensive ever made at $20M euros?) about the Red Army Faction that operated primarily in the ‘70s in Germany. It covers about ten years of their activities, which include such socially advancing things as setting fire to a department store, robbing banks and blowing up newsrooms. And, at two-and-a-half hours long (in its pared down US version), it, uh…

What was I saying?

Oh, right. One-hundred-and-fifty-freaking-minutes of near uninterrupted idiocy. I read one review that said the movie doesn’t take a judgmental stance—which I’d agree with—and so gives you some room to sympathize with the characters—which I don’t agree with at all.

At one point, these spoiled Westerners who have been randomly destroying, killing and stealing go to a Palestinian Terrorist training camp and I actually felt sorry for the Palestinian terrorists. I mean, really sorry. I kept hoping they’d shoot the SOBs.

For example, the titular Meinhof at one point agrees to let her (pre-teen) daughters be thrown into a refugee camp. This, I guess, shows the completion of her transformation from bourgeois to radical.

The authorities are similarly clueless, with the one expert on urban terrorism constantly trying to figure out “the root causes”. These guys get away with stuff for years, and once behind bars, spontaneously formed cells of idiocy continue to do stupid stuff in their name.

And, if I may borrow from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, “What the f*ck is wrong with German people?” In particular, these—I’m sorry, I’m having trouble writing this without swearing.

What I’m getting at is that a significant percentage of the German population apparently supported these people. Worse, their capture was followed by years of navel-gazing by the courts, and a jail setup with all of them together that reminds one of nothing so much as “Hogan’s Heroes”, with all of them passing messages to the outside and stuff.

Look, people, we had morons who robbed banks and shot up cops here in America, too! We even made folk heroes out of ’em—though we had the excuse at least of being in dire economic straits. But when the state caught ’em, the state killed ’em. (In fact, sometimes the state killed ’em rather than catching them, because they knew they weren’t really all that good at catching, keeping and convicting.)

OK, sometimes we elected their friends President. But that’s complicated.

The only reason this is of interest—and maybe why I started to lose interest around the 100-minute-mark—is that these thugs masked their wanton brutality in political trappings. So determined were they not to allow the sort of fascist horrors that occurred under the Nazis, they blew stuff up and killed people to allow the sort of horrors that occur under communism.

The movie spends all its time on their activities (pre- and post-jail) and never looks at the question of how can something so obviously stupid be supported enough to cause such incredible destructiveness.

At one point, the Germans shut down the borders to do a countrywide dragnet to catch them! Our heroes are solemnly watching this, allowing how this confirms Baader’s idea that the country would turn into a police state. O, Irony!

I mean, honestly. I’m sure the people who lived it thought it was very exciting. An exciting time of change. But the only reason they could possibly think that is decades of a successful information war by communists, and a no-enemies-to-the-left attitude carefully fostered.

So, for me the movie ran out of steam. Well acted, well directed, well produced, and ultimately feeling like a waste of celluloid. (I have that reaction to Raging Bull, though, so your mileage may vary.)

Or as The Boy put it, “Hovercat is not amused.” These kids today with their internets and roflcats.

The Only Way To Win Is…

Phrases you don’t get to say much: “I’m here to see the new Andy Griffith movie!” I like Griffith, though I never could stand to watch any of his shows. I should say, I liked him in Waitress. I thought his Obama commercial with Ron Howard was kind of cloyingly appalling.

Still, the old guy’s back in the feature debut of Marc Feinberg, Play The Game. And once again his name is Joe. But unlike Waitress’s Old Joe, Grandpa Joe is a nice old guy with a grandson, David, who loves him.

David (played by Paul Campbell, who normally plays a character named “Billy”) is a sleazy used car salesman who is an expert at overcharging people he’s oversold, and who is expert and getting ladies into bed. He’s likable enough, and gave up his (weirdly low-key) dreams to buy a condo for Grandpa Joe in his time of need.

The premise of the movie is that David is teaching Joe how to “Play The Game”, i.e., get the ladies. Grandpa Joe quickly lands Edna (former James Dean fianceé Liz Sheridan), but really has the hots for Rose (perennial sombody’s mother Doris Roberts, who looks very good for 78). David coaches him through various strategies to land her.

Now, David is the main character in the movie, and it’s really primarily about him becoming smitten with Julie (Marla Sokoloff, who’s one of those actresses you’ll probably say, “Oh! Her!”) who always seems to be one step ahead of him, until he’s become the victim of his own games.

Well, you can see where this is going. You don’t make a RomCom about a guy who’s a player and have him stay a player. Kinda cramps the Rom part, if not the Com.

What sets this movie—or this part of the movie, anyway—above most is that is there’s an underlying mystery about what’s going on with Julie and David. He’s playing games with her, we know, because he goes over them in detail with his buddy, played by Geoffrey Owens (Elvin from “The Cosby Show”) and sometimes with Grandpa Joe.

A lot of little things, though, don’t quite add up. I wrongly attributed some of them to sloppy film-making (which attitude is the only one that makes it possible to be surprised by The Sixth Sense), but they’re all tied together at the end Fight Club style. Stay until the credits roll, people.

We enjoyed it.

I actually liked the old folks part better than the young folks. I don’t know if they’re better actors, necessarily, but they seem to have a lot more character then the pretty, sort-of-generic-looking leads. There is a fair amount of old folks sex and talk about sex. We do see the 83-year-old Griffith’s “Oh” face as the 80-year-old Liz Sheridan, uh… Let’s just say she’s out of frame for this part? We hear about it in detail later as well.

I also don’t really like “the player” as a lead character, or a member of society for that matter. David is a consummate liar, positively mercenary in his approach to women, and also almost completely unperturbed about his car selling tactics. I wasn’t sold on the back story for him; i.e., I didn’t feel enough empathy toward him to care too much about whether he got the girl.

Then there’s the question of the girl herself, and whether she’s playing him. And also why and to what end. Certain things that are intellectually satisfying are not necessarily emotionally honest.

But then, I dislike game-playing.

So, you know: fun movie, don’t think too hard about what it says about the main characters, or the view it takes of men-women relationships in general, and you can have a good time.