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Eat-That-Question-Frank-Zappa-in-His-Own-Words-509x410“EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS” My rating: B+ (Opens Aug. 26 at the Tivoli)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Rock legend Frank Zappa once observed that while he might be a household name, most people had never heard a bar of his music or knew why he was famous.

Nearly a quarter century after his death from prostate cancer, things haven’t changed all that much.  Zappa — founder, composer and lead guitarist for the Mothers of Invention — still has die-hard fans (present company included), but he’s off the radar of most millennials.

“Eat That Question” has the power to change that.

A documentary about Zappa could go in a dozen different directions.  Filmmaker Thorsten Schutte has chosen to concentrate almost exclusively on what Zappa had to say about himself and his music in dozens of filmed interviews.

Oh, there are snippets of live performances — enough to convince even the tone deaf of Zappa’s adventurous explorations of musicial styles ranging from doo-wop to classical, of his guitar skills and of the extraordinarily high degree of musicianship he  demanded of his players.

But mostly this is Zappa talking — and what a talker he was!

It begins with Zappa telling a interviewer that being interviewed is an artificial situation “two steps removed from the Inquisition.”

What’s amazing, given the stupefying cluelessness of many of the media types who grill Zappa (one calls him “Mephistophelian”), is the weary tolerance he exhibits, allowing his dry wit to now and then comment on the vapidity of the whole process.

(It should be noted here that Schutte’s film provides a mostly positive view of Zappa, a man quite capable of behaving like an asshole — asshole-ism and genius not being mutually exclusive qualities. The cast members of “Saturday Night Live” have voted Zappa their least favorite guest host of all time…no small thing given that Steven Seagal was also in the running. Well, Zappa didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he wasn’t about to cave to some network executive’s idea of humor.)

He was a social commentator whose lyrics gnawed away at what he saw as the vapidity of contemporary American culture. He wasn’t overtly political — he was way too much a rugged individualist to wave the banner for any organized cause — but Zappa was in his own way a great moralist.

Yeah, he often used naughty language and adolescent sex jokes and crude humor. But what used to be shocking now seems pretty mainstream. The messages he sent — especially his contempt for religion and a misleading mass media — are as vital as ever. (In one TV interview Zappa predicted that America was rapidly heading toward a right-wing theocracy.)

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sausage-party-post1“SAUSAGE PARTY”  My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The animated “Sausage Party” is so thick with puerile sexuality that a viewer must choose between bailing on the whole experience or embracing it in a spirit of unfettered adolescent humor.

I  mean, here’s an R-rated movie about a hot dog named Frank (Seth Rogen) who dreams that Brenda (Kristen Wiig), the bun he has worshipped from afar, will open up and allow him to nestle his full length in her soft, spongy interior.

Other characters include a lesbian taco with a Mexican accent, a bottle of tequila that talks like a wise old Indian chief, a neurotic jar of honey mustard, a box of grits and even a used condom. Then there’s  Lavosh — a Middle Eastern wrap — who is always exchanging insults with a Jewish bagel. The villain of the piece is the megalomaniac Douche (yes, a feminine hygiene product).

These characters are brought to life by a Who’s Who of voice talent that includes Salma Hayek, Bill Hader, David Krumholtz, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Edward Norton, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd and James Franco.

Narratively “Sausage Party” feels likes something a bunch of stoners dreamed up at 2 in the morning (duh).

It’s July 3 in the supermarket, and all of the products sitting on the shelves are pumped because so many of them will be “chosen” by the “gods” (i.e., human shoppers) and taken out of the store to what they are sure will be a paradisiacal eternity in the Great Beyond. They  celebrate their imminent liberation in a rousing song (music by Alan Menken).

Frank and his fellow wieners (they’re crammed in eight to a package) have been gazing lustfully at a nearby package of buns (six to a package…go figure), awaiting the day they will be joined in the hereafter,  “where all your wildest and wettest dreams come true.”

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%%%, Mel Gibson

Erin Moriarty, Mel Gibson

“BLOOD FATHER”  My rating:  C+

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Blood Father” is a comic book crime thriller — pulpy and superficial.

Yet it also features an arresting (if not precisely compelling) performance from Mel Gibson as a weary ex-con who suddenly finds his estranged teenage daughter violently thrust back into his life.

We first encounter Gibson’s John Link at an AA meeting in a windswept desert burg. He runs a tattoo business out of his rusting mobile home, pees weekly into a cup for his parole officer and with the help of his sponsor (William H. Macy) tries to stay clean after a lifetime of excess and crime.

Enter 17-year-old Lydia (Erin Moriarty), the child he hasn’t seen since her infancy.  Lydia has run away from home, gotten involved with Jonah (Diego Luna), the jerk scion of a family running a Mexican drug cartel, and is now on the run from her boyfriend and his murderous associates.

She’s spoiled, arrogant, and stupid.

In fact, with the exception of Macy’s character, there’s not a genuinely likable figure in Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay (an adaption of Craig’s novel). If Gibson’s Link eventually emerges as semi-heroic, it’s only because our options are limited. And because Gibson was born to play this sort of character.

Needless to say, Lydia’s presence brings down all sorts of woes on Link, who to protect his daughter must go on the run, thus breaking his parole. And that’s not even counting the bodies that start piling up.

 

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Logan Lehman, Sarah Gaddon

Logan Lerman, Sarah Gaddon

“INDIGNATION”  My rating: B

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As a producer and/or writer of most of Ang Lee’s films, James Schamus has established a reputation for intelligent —  even intellectual — filmmaking.

Now the CEO of Focus Features has made his directing debut, and as you’d expect from the man who wrote an entire book about one of the most confounding and polarizing films ever — Carl Theodore Dreyer’s emotionally arid “Gertrude” — it is brainy, challenging and not a little perplexing.

“Indignation” is based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, and a more faithful adaptation can hardly be imagined. Even to the point of duplicating things in the novel that have little hope of working on film.

Logan Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Fury”) is Marcus, a New York Jew who has landed a scholarship to Winesburg College in Ohio.

The year is 1951 and as long as he remains a student in good standing, Marcus can avoid the draft that is gobbling up his childhood friends for Korean cannon fodder. Staying in school is, for all intents, a life insurance policy.

But he finds Winesburg’s middle-American ethos and white Protestant outlook disconcerting. For starters, Marcus is assigned a dorm room with the only other two Jews  on campus who aren’t members of the Jewish fraternity.  These three individualists — one is probably gay, the other antisocial — form their own little ghetto.

And then there’s the weekly chapel requirement, which demands that all students show up to hear the campus chaplain drone on about Jesus.

Here’s the thing about Marcus.  Though he knows relatively little of the real world — he’s a virgin, he’s never worked outside his father’s butcher shop — he’s a borderline genius. And with that comes a degree of arrogance and, well, indignation at the way he’s being treated.

Things look up when he meets blonde coed Olivia (Sarah Gadon), whom he takes to a fancy dinner (Escargot! This son of a kosher butcher has never dreamed of such excess) and who rewards him afterward with a matter-of-fact blow job.

Marcus is so stunned, his moral compass so bent by this experience that he immediately ends the relationship.  Although he can’t resist standing outside her dorm late at night trying to find Olivia’s window.

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inno“THE INNOCENTS” My rating: B+

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Religious faith, political ideals, ignorance, charity, war, extreme human cruelty…there’s hardly a big topic that isn’t touched on in “The Innocents,” writer/director Anne Fontaine’s terribly sad and quietly riveting film set in rural Poland in the months after the end of World War II.

In the dead of night Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French Red Cross nurse working with the survivors of German POW camps, is summoned to an ancient convent. There she discovers one of the holy sisters in labor.

The Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) resents that an outsider has arrived to witness the order’s shame. She would prefer to have the patient die in childbirth. God’s will, and all that.

Nevertheless, Mathilde swears to keep the secret and performs a Caesarian section. Later the convent’s Number Two, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), explains that the Mother Superior fears that the ignorant local populace would shun the nuns if word of the birth got out. It could mean the end of the convent.

One can only imagine how the locals would react if they knew that at least seven of the sisters are pregnant, and that virtually every resident — including Mother Superior — was raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers who seized the neighborhood nine months earlier.

“They should have killed us,” one of the sisters laments.

Set in a bleak winter landscape and filmed with a washed-out palette in which flesh tones provide the main source of color,  “The Innocents” uses this situation to study the various ways in which we deal with the injustices of an often-cruel world.

Mathilde, for example, is an atheist and a Communist (ironic, given that she narrowly escapes being gang raped by a squad of Soviet troops at a roadblock). But she is also a humanist and a healer, so she risks nighttime returns to the convent, which is quickly becoming a primitive maternity ward.

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eqmaxresdefault“EQUALS” My rating: B-

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The dystopian future depicted in Drake Doremus’ “Equals” is on one level pretty attractive.

The people are mostly young, well fed and moderately good looking. Everyone wears white clothing and works and lives in uber-modern buildings of glass, plastic and concrete. There appears to be no crime.

Also, no joy. This civilization — formed after a war that left most of the Earth a smoking ruin — views emotion as a sickness or perhaps a crime. Citizens are bombarded with public service announcements alerting them to the symptoms of SOS — “switched-on syndrome” — in which they will begin to be overcome by emotions.

It’s like a being told you have AIDS…as the disease progresses the sufferers will become ever more unstable. Eventually they will be institutionalized and destroyed. Many choose suicide.

Early in “Equals” Silas (Nicholas Hoult) is diagnosed with an early stage of the disease. His coworkers are understanding but cautious…he won’t be required to wear a face mask, but his work station will be set apart from theirs.

He senses that a co-worker, Nia (Kristen Stewart), may also have SOS. Slowly they are drawn to commit the ultimate sin: A love affair.

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Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen

“CAPTAIN FANTASTIC” My rating: B- 

118 minutes |MPAA rating: R

There’s something phony…or at least seriously muddled…at the heart of “Captain Fantastic.”

Which doesn’t keep it from being intermittently entertaining and even borderline charming.

Matt Ross’ dramedy stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, the hippie-dippie/drill instructor Dad to six kids he’s rearing deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

A typical day for these youngsters — they range in age from 5 to 17 — consists of rigorous physical exercise, survival training, hand-to-hand combat and some serious hitting the books. (And I do mean books…there’s no Internet or electricity out in the bush.)

They bathe in streams, grow food in a greenhouse and hunt the local wildlife, and at night hold family jam sessions around the campfire (Ben plays a mean guitar, not to mention the bagpipes).

Ben is what you might call a left-wing survivalist. He’s convinced of the immorality and uselessness of most modern society, and has trained his kids to parrot his views. The family doesn’t celebrate Christmas; the big day on their calendar is Noam Chomsky’s birthday, which Ben marks by presenting each of his offspring with their own very wicked-looking hunting knife.

They’re like a military unit, moving in perfect harmony whether running down a deer or shoplifting groceries.

Just because they’re growing up in the boonies doesn’t mean the Cash kids are intellectually deprived.  The  youngest of them can recite the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, and the 12-year old is reading Middlemarch. The oldest, Bodevan (George MacKay), has a handful of acceptance letters from Ivy League schools; he’s trying to decide when to inform his father of this latest triumph (since it will mean leaving the fold).

Where is Mom, you ask? We never see her — alive, anyway. We learn that she’s been gone for several months for hospital treatment. And the bulk of the film consists of the clan’s road trip to Albuquerque to attend her funeral.

The opening scenes of “Captain Fantastic” are kind of idyllic — if you can ignore the fact that Ben is raising a brood  largely unequipped to deal with contemporary society.

But once the family members find themselves dealing with the outside world — in the person of Matt’s sister-in-law (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband (Steve Zahn) and his wife’s very rich, very opinionated, and (one suspects) very Republican father (Frank Langella) — we realize just what fish out of water they are. Continue Reading »

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