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LYT’s L.A. Film Festival Wrap-Up Part 3: Magic Mike, Robot & Frank, Celeste & Jesse, Vampira & Ray

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by on July 2, 2012

If you’re catching up, part one of my coverage is here. Part two is here.

Skeletor never learned that robot henchmen inevitably fail you. But can his big-screen alter-ego Frank Langella trust an artificial intelligence to be a loyal partner in crime? That’s one of the questions asked by Robot & Frank, the high point of this year’s LAFF (though it was preceded by an awfully boring documentary short about actual robots programmed to appear to be friends).

In an unspecified future time, Frank (Langella) is an ex-con living in a messy house and beginning to suffer the symptoms of senile dementia – every day he tries to go to his favorite restaurant for lunch, realizes it has long since been closed and replaced by a  trinket shop, and promptly shoplifts a mini-soap sculpture. He enjoys trips to the library and a daily flirtation with the attractive-yet-age-appropriate librarian (Susan Sarandon), though he is condescended to by the library’s new manager Jake (Jeremy Strong) who sees him as a kitschy relic of the print-media era… which the library itself is about to phase out. (In an irritating bit of obvious metaphor, the most valuable book left is Don Quixote.)

When Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) gifts him with a helper robot that resembles a giant MiniMate, Frank’s first reaction is, “That thing is going to murder me in my sleep.” The robot, never named, is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard in what we now know is The Most Perfect Role For Peter Sarsgaard Ever – like Kevin Spacey in Moon, it’s a worthy follow-up to HAL 9000 that nonetheless becomes the actor’s own thing. Menacing and cold at first, the voice also deadpans some wonderfully comic bits, admonishing children not to molest it, or later, at Frank’s behest, pretending to have a self-destruct sequence.

The central joke of the movie is that as Frank falls back into his criminal ways and starts planning robberies, his health improves, and thus the robot, whose prime directive is to improve Frank’s health, becomes a co-conspirator (neither Asimov’s laws nor the government’s have been pre-programmed). The robot also becomes, in some way, the child Frank never had; unwilling or unable to teach college-kid Hunter his burglary skills, he can now pass along his knowledge, at least until flaky daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) comes home and has a problem with the robot because it puts humans out of a job.

This is not just the kind of science fiction that purists always say they want – i.e., the kind with real ideas that uses technology to talk about the human condition – but it’s also an emotional powerhouse; there’s a moment late in the game that absolutely floored me, but I may be more of a sucker for these things as my own father has a condition not unlike Frank’s. Unrelated: I still tend to think of Jeremy Sisto as a young actor playing a student filmmaker in May, so it’s a trip to see him all fat and bearded and grown-up as the sheriff. He’s pretty funny too.

I have no awesome segue from Frank Langella and his mechanical man to Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, so please just imagine I made one to Celeste and Jesse Forever and it was amazing. Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) are an annoyingly cute couple. They finish each other’s sentences. They bicker endearingly over driving directions. They spontaneously lapse into fake German accents while reading a menu. they fake-masturbate a tube of lip-balm using Cartman voices. Oh, plus they’re getting a divorce. This, they assure each other, is how they’re able to be best friends – ever since agreeing to split (while still living on the same shared piece of property), they have stopped fighting. From what we eventually come to learn, Celeste’s issues were the biggest obstacle, mostly summed up when she says, “He doesn’t have a checking account or dress shoes.”

It’s best to realize that Samberg basically plays this straight – yes, Jesse is a goofball, but fans of Hot Rod or That’s My Boy may be shocked to realize how much of a drama this is. Director Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) also shoots things like an art-house film, and doesn’t feel the need to hew to conventional rom-com tropes. The movie excels when he does let it get weird: a random guy in a cartoon bear-suit suddenly hugging Celeste, or a bong so long it cannot be hit and lit at the same time. Jones cowrote the script, and like Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks, this is likely her own attempt to break away from typecasting and show off her own skills – primarily, she is very good at risking total unlikability in a way no studio would ever let someone like Julia Roberts do. Emma Roberts also shows up spoofing her own teenybopper image as a Britney Spears-like diva, who’s nonetheless sharp enough to pinpoint Celeste’s key trait of “contempt prior to investigation.”

It’s a mixed bag all in all, a hybrid that doesn’t quite soar but probably merits a look. But an in-tune cover of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” over the end credits? Doesn’t that defy the point of the song? Yes, I get that the concept of just friends has become more harmonious, thematically, by then… but how do you do that to Biz?

A guy who is not “just a friend” to me but also a colleague is Ray Greene, director of Vampira and Me, which makes it hard to offer an honest review, but I’ll do my best. Vampira, a.k.a. Maili Nurmi, is probably best known nowadays as Tor Johnson’s costar in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, which, we are assured, she always took ironically. Ray’s movie makes many claims about her in this vein, like the notion that she was “the original riot grrrl and the birth mother of hipster irony,” without much footage to back it up, because, as the movie self-apologizes for upfront, not much footage of Vampira from her heyday exists. While an understandable limitation, it’s not an acceptable explanation for a n00b, and that sums up much of the movie. It will tell you a lot about Vampira from one point of view, and it is a nice tribute in that regard. But it is not a thorough journalistic study, and disappoints if one expects that. In the second major upfront qualification, Ray tells us that this movie is derived from an extended interview he did with Nurmi for another movie. Alas, once he says that, it’s impossible not to feel like this is an afterthought made with outtakes, especially since he makes the editorial decision not to show any of his interview subjects other than Nurmi, but use audio only. For a visual medium, this is a killer, albeit one he justifies by wanting to keep the visuals in the same time period that Vampira was queen. You decide if that works; it didn’t for me.

It’s still a great story worth telling. Originally a starlet briefly under contract to Howard Hawks, Nurmi developed her signature character by attending an industry fancy-dress ball costumed as the matriarch of Charles Addams’ morbidly funny cartoons (one day to be named Morticia). She was given a TV show hosting horror movies (and non-horror movies forcibly framed as such), but with much of it done live, very little tape exists. Her preposterous measurements helped her popularity: 38-17-36, which she maintained by fasting two days a week, and using meat tenderizer (actually papaya extract – awesome secret, ladies!) to break down fat cells. She became a friend to James Dean, and was ripped off by the less-subtle Voluptua, who got canceled for being too blatant. Later came the campy Elvira, who was less edgy and way more popular in the long run.

Maila appeared as herself in The Beat Generation, did a comeback Vegas revue with Liberace, dated Elvis, and continued to use the Dean connection much as Henry Jaglom milks his friendship with Orson Welles (whom Nurmi also claims to have dated). Blamed for Dean’s death by religious nutjobs, she found a career revival with horror-punk bands like the Misfits and Satan’s Cheerleaders before her death, which came after she coached Lisa Marie on how to play her in Ed Wood.

Like I said, a good story, and I’m glad I know it. But it isn’t remotely definitive. Maybe it’s unfair to expect it to be, but what’s Elvira’s response, considering Vampira sued her till she ran out of money and had to drop it? Ray says he already knows what it would be, and so didn’t ask. Lisa Marie? Not interviewed either. James Dean’s family or friends? You gotta be kidding. There’s no critical eye here at all; everything Maila says is taken at face value without much further investigation. That’s a nice tribute from a friend, but not the unflinching way we might want a documentary to be. I don’t say that every documentary has to be objective; indeed, no documentary truly can be – that’s a myth propagated by Michael Moore haters. But even letting opponents talk before dismissing them strengthens one’s hand.

The King of Pigs was my most anticipated film of the fest, and it largely paid off. Like my colleague Ray, I often rail against the critical bias towards Disney/Pixar and the idea that animation has to be something for everyone, when in fact it is the most free-form medium available to a filmmaker, so I do have a bias towards anything which expands that definition. As I also got sick of Harvey Weinstein getting all self-important with tactics to promote Bully, this is a movie that kills two birds with one stone by being an examination of the ugliness that results late in life from a childhood of bullies. I wish it didn’t falter in the last act, but it is still worth your time.

Opening on a strangled person keeled over at a table, our POV pans across to a man in the shower, crying. This is Kyung-min, a successful businessman who likewise had a reputation for crying when he was a kid. The dead person? Could be real, but might be just a vision, like the mutant boy with the pig-face. It’s been 15 years since Kyung-min talked to his old classmate Jong-suk, who is now a frustrated ghostwriter and a wife-beater. Still, he calls up after all this time to get together and reminisce on the scars of childhood.

As children, they found themselves under the control of a strict hierarchy of bullies, controlled by upperclassmen but featuring domineering stooges at every level. When a new classmate solves a math problem in a way that embarrasses one of the bully boys who can’t, he gets urine thrown on him and several beatings that ensure he has learned to smile and take it within three days.

But there’s another new kid who won’t. Chul, who has some pretty badass martial arts skills, lays the smack down on every single bully he sees, quickly earning the friendship of Kyung-min and Jong-suk. But he’s no hero; in fact, he advocates embracing evil in order to survive, and emphasizes this by knifing a stray cat in the guts.

Class issues are also shown to be an interfering factor in the kids’ lives. Jong-suk is so poor he can’t afford meat, while Kyung-min’s dad runs a brothel where Chul’s mom is employed (but aging out of her value). Chul’s dad commits suicide by poison, then continues to taunt his son as an Exorcist/Grudge-like spirit. And of course the bullies, now challenged, are preparing some major payback. It is, as any viewer will have guessed by this point, inevitable that somebody’s going to die; Chul plans to ruin everybody’s lives by committing suicide publicly and thus traumatizing everyone watching.

The final resolution, however, will take place in the present, and show just how much childhood terrors can still scar. The voice-acting gets overplayed at this point, and the last line of the movie, I have to say, is one of the dumbest ever. It won’t spoil to say that it’s something like this: responding to the question, “Where are you?” one character says, approximately, “I’m in a dark place paved over with concrete, full of the bodies of the dead. It’s called the world.” Gee, never would have guessed you were trying to make a grand statement until that point, movie. But check it out anyway, readers.

That brings us to the closing night movie: Magic Mike. Steven Soderbergh introduced the film as “R&R” after a week and a half of serious movies, indicating that indeed, he knows this movie is just a goofy fun thing and should be taken as such. And it is fun – he has basically made the cliched stripper movie, but switched the genders and made it Soderberghian by dipping the celluloid in a urinal…metaphorically, of course; that’s just what his relentless yellow filtering makes it look like. Like any other stripper movie, you have the older star who has power and is perfectly at ease with her/his place on the corruption scale (Matthew McConaughey); the headliner who has a good heart and wants to make enough money to start a legitimate dream job (Channing Tatum); and the new up-and-comer who’s looking to become the next headliner (Alex Pettyfer). There’s also the sleazy sex-interest (Olivia Munn, who gets topless – not unlike Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain – as a lure for straight guys who might get gay-panicked buying a ticket to a male-stripper flick) and the wholesome love interest (Cody Horn, daughter of Warner Bros. president and COO Alan Horn, who will never need to do nudity in her entire career if she doesn’t want to). The wholesome love interest also happens to be the up-and-comer’s sister, so the dynamics between the two men also affect the potential romance between her and Magic Mike.

Weird trivia: former WWE champion Kevin Nash is in this, as a stripper named Tarzan; why they picked a puffy-faced, non-agile guy with bad knees, of all the wrestlers they could have gotten, mystifies me, though it could be a subtle tip of the hat to Nash’s best buddy in the biz Shawn Michaels, whose gimmick more-or-less was that of a male stripper in his heyday. In-jokes abound in this, most obviously in a bit that involves McConaughey and bongos. Ladies, there’s no full-frontal, but you do see a fair share of buttocks, and one (probably prosthetic) gag involving a penile pump.

Reviewing other people’s reviews isn’t really a good habit, but it does seem like many of the critical reactions to Magic Mike are of a movie that doesn’t exist, be it a soft-core sex romp they may have imagined, or the more art-house version of the director taking over and deconstructing this business as he did prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience. The only deconstruction here is that it brings bigger stars in and flips the genders on what would otherwise be a straight-to-video Roger Corman production. It’s also shot a lot more nicely. Channing Tatum has said his real-life experiences as a stripper were so much weirder than what the movie shows that nobody would believe it, and I confess I would like to see that movie, done as a true bit of subversion. But that isn’t Magic Mike, and I also don’t hold with the notion that this is a “bait and switch,” unless the “bait” in your mind was that it wouldn’t use so many yellow filters. The promised goods are delivered within reason (you didn’t really think you’d see dick in an R-rated studio film, right?), and Tatum and McConaughey provide enough sexy charm for the ladies and self-satirical charm for the guys that most viewers should be entertained.

If it proves to be a gateway drug for Tatum fans to discover such other Soderberghian treats as The Limey, so much the better.