Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2014 (So Far)

Happy New Year, everyone!  And, of course, with a new year comes a list of my favorite films from 2014.  Before we get to the meat of things, here are a few ground rules for this list: (1) This is my list, and it is largely reliant on my feelings about the film at the time of writing.  You are free to disagree, but I’m no more right about my preferences than you are about yours; no matter how acclaimed a movie is, it always comes down to personal taste.  (2) I’m restricting this list to films that were theatrically released during the 2014 year.  Inside Llewyn Davis and Her may have been among my favorites that I reviewed in 2014, but those were part of the 2013 theatrical year, and are therefore disqualified.  (3) I completely recognize that I have not seen all that 2014 has to offer yet, but that will hopefully be rectified by February for my Oscar Predictions editorial.  That’s why this article has the words “(So Far)” in the title.

And so, without further ado, here are my top ten favorite films of 2014. Be sure to click the title of each film to get the full reviews!

Drenched in a brooding atmosphere reminiscent of the darker Coen Brothers films, Blue Ruin is a shocking character study of a man who kills not out of hatred or vengeance, but out of a sense of obligation.  It is a slow and methodical tale that can be punishing if you aren’t paying attention, but the experience is well worth it for Macon Blair’s lead performance.

The main reason this film is not higher on the list is because we’ve all seen this type of film before: this is an AIDS epidemic tear-jerker, but it succeeds so well in its execution that it would be a disservice to not give credit where it is due.  From Mark Ruffalo’s morally questionable protagonist to a story that is not so much about a fear of dying as it is a social group’s fear of demonization, The Normal Heart knows just how to pull on your heartstrings and does so damn effectively.

Noah is one of the stranger films to come out in 2014, but director Darren Aronofsky found a way to make an epic action film out of a Biblical myth, yet still allow space to explore the moral ramifications of dooming one’s entire species to die in a flood.  As a visual marvel, the film shines, with some of the most surreal dream sequences to ever be associated with the divine, and though the most fundamentalist of Christians may be turned off by the supposed stretches in dogma, Noah delivers a damn fine piece of entertainment.

For a film that uses a man in a papier-mâché headpiece as its main selling-point, Frank sure knows how to make you feel guilty for your choice of viewing experience.  Darkly funny until it pulls the rug out from under you, this film turned out to have one of the most surprising narrative turn-arounds in recent memory, delivering a powerful message through a vacant, cartoon smile, which Michael Fassbender wears with realistic emotion that still resonates even with the obstruction.

Who knew that Jake Gyllenhaal had it in him?  Dark, suspenseful, and undeniably creepy, Nightcrawler exposes the seedy underbelly of the crime-as-news industry through a character so fascinatingly disturbing that it makes us question who the real monster actually is: him or the industry he’s a part of.

Even if Snowpiercer weren’t a venomous polemic about the consequences of class-based society, it most certainly qualifies as one of the most gorgeously filmed movies of the year.  Sure, its message is a bit blunt, but the film is upfront about that, and it uses its anger to tell a fantastic story of people only trying to make a better life for themselves, even if violent revolution is the only way they can achieve it.

The fact that what appears to be a blatant corporate cash-grab made the list should only be surprising if you haven’t seen it yet, and if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself.  The Lego Movie is one of the funniest films of the year, making self-aware jabs at itself with a childlike innocence that doesn’t rely on so-called “adult” jokes to make the experience enjoyable for all ages.  And the third act twist may just be one of the most brilliant things that could have been done, given the licensed property.

Wes Anderson has always had a way with bringing obviously staged productions to the screen with grace and energy.  The dialogue is ham-fisted and the sets are grandiosely unreal, but that doesn’t matter because the whole experience is so damn fun.  From shots that pay homage to cinematic eras past to characters that pop from the screen to implant themselves forever in your psyche, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that simply delivers the best of what Wes Anderson has to offer.

Yeah, I know this is perhaps not the most technically great film on the list, but you know what?  I don’t care.  This film is a hell of a lot of fun, and for all its faults, I’ve still watched it three times since its release, two of those times in the theater.  This is a smart sci-fi action comedy that has put together the greatest ensemble of protagonists since Ghostbusters, and I think Guardians will have just as much staying power in the decades to come.

Of all the films I’ve seen this year, I can think of no other more deserving of the number one spot on this list.  From the multi-layered acting to the gorgeous cinematography to the incredibly subversive screenplay and direction, Birdman is a work of genius that other awards season contenders are going to have a very hard time competing against.  This is a superb character study wrapped in a commentary on the entertainment industry wrapped in a fever dream, and it would be a shame if any of you missed it.

And there you have it!  My top ten films of 2014.  Think I left something important out?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, December 29, 2014

"The Skeleton Twins": Great Performances, Faults Forgiven

Now Available DVD and Blu-Ray

It would probably be easy to write off The Skeleton Twins as just some more indie tripe for the modern hipster audience, with comedic actors taking unexpected dramatic turns and tackling a dark script with a central theme of suicide.  And at a surface level, that’s a valid criticism, because that is precisely what the film actually is.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a pretty damn good film, home to some really great performances by the eponymous leads, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.  Their chemistry elevates this film above its trite plotting and they make a compelling character study for a couple of troubled thirty-somethings.

The opening scene of the film shows Milo (Bill Hader) about to attempt suicide.  We then cut to his twin sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) receiving a phone call from the hospital, informing her of the attempt.  She goes to visit him in the hospital, and there is an apparent rift between them, which we soon learn is because they haven’t spoken in about a decade.  Maggie invites Milo to come stay with her and her husband for a while until he gets back on his feet, and Milo agrees.  As Milo begins to relive some dark parts of his past, it becomes clear that Maggie doesn’t quite have the perfect life she claims.

The way the film is written, there’s always a measure of intrigue to how Milo and Maggie interact.  They clearly have a troubled history, but it isn’t until late in the film that it’s revealed just what their issues are.  On top of that, though, the twins start to discover what’s going on in each other’s lives, things that they hide from everyone else.  If there’s one thing this script does damn well, it makes you invested in finding out more about these characters, and that is only strengthened by the lead performances.  Hader’s Milo is constantly dodging serious discussions with an acerbic and inappropriate sense of wit, and Wiig’s Maggie is only barely holding together the façade of actual happiness.  The only time the two characters seem truly happy are in a few moments where the duo’s comedic tendencies shine through and it’s clear that they really do love each other, something that is probably only achieved through the real friendship Hader and Wiig share.  The fact that they’ve translated that goofy friendship into a couple of tragic characters is something truly worth seeing.

However, I wasn’t kidding when I said that the film could be a bit trite at times.  It constantly reminds us that Milo and Maggie are in fact twins through some wholly unnecessary flashbacks to the pair as young children.  It’s hokey and mostly unnecessary.  Furthermore, the film is so intent on establishing the twins’ relationship as the primary narrative focus that when the credits roll at least one major plot thread (and potentially a few minor ones) are left dangling in the wind, never to receive resolution.

Those minor faults aside, though, The Skeleton Twins is a great dramedy.  It knows when to be funny, when to hit hard, and how to do so in effective and intriguing ways.  Sure, the screenplay has its faults, but those are made up for with fantastic performances from two very gifted actors, both of whom display more range than I would have expected from either of them.  Give this one a look, and prepare to not be disappointed.

Were you a fan of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig back in their SNL days?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, December 26, 2014

"Abuse of Weakness": Missing Key Narrative Elements

Now Available on DVD and Netflix

Abuse of Weakness is a film that has received much critical praise for the insight and self-portrayal of French filmmaker Catherine Brelliat.  Brelliat suffered a stroke in 2004, and while recovering, she began work on her next film.  During that process, she met an infamous con artist named Cristophe Rocancourt, and ended up loaning him nearly €700,000 while he supposedly wrote a screenplay about his life that ultimately would never be produced.  Rocancourt was later convicted of abus de fablaisse, which translates to “abuse of weakness,” and is defined as the taking financial advantage of another in a time of mental vulnerability.  This is the backstory that spawned this film’s making, and though fictional, is largely autobiographical of Brelliat’s experiences with Rocancourt.  However, despite how cathartic and empowering I’m sure making this film was for Brelliat, it is not perfect, and while the elements of a great film are there, critical storytelling missteps prevent the film from achieving such heights.

This is because the film almost entirely relies on its audience knowing that obscure bit of trivia that I explained in the first paragraph, as it completely ignores characterizing the main characters as anything more than representations of their real-world counterparts.  See, the film starts with Maude (Brelliat’s stand-in) suffering her stroke, and then going forward with physical therapy.  We watch her struggle with physical therapy and it quickly becomes established that her new disability is going to require some assistance from friends, family, and hired workers.  Enter Vilko (Rocancourt’s stand-in), whom Brelliat invites into her life with the plan to use him as an actor in her next film.  As the film progresses, we see Vilko gradually manipulate Maude into eventually signing away her entire life’s savings to him, but we never see why Maude decides to go along with it.

I can think of any number of reasons why a person would become the subject of financial abuse: loneliness, dependence, attraction.  However, this film never firmly establishes what Maude’s actual vulnerability is.  Sure, we see her struggle physically in the aftermath of her stroke, but we never see any other evidence of loss in her mental faculties.  To an outside observer, Maude is simply making irrational decisions without any sort of explained reason.  If the film had bothered to emphasize the relatable reasons for Maude’s vulnerability, it would be easier to empathize with her as a victim.  Even an inner-monologue narration would have been enough to sustain the film’s lack of insight into its main character.

This is what I mean when I say that knowledge of the director’s story is necessary when viewing this film; and yet, paradoxically, if you already know that story, there’s no reason to watch the film, because the film doesn’t provide any new insights that Brelliat’s Wikipedia article couldn’t provide.  I suppose the performances by leads Isabelle Huppert and Kool Shen should be applauded for their subtlety, but they were perhaps so subtle that the film’s point got lost in the realism.  This seems to me the result of an artist being so closely intertwined with their work as to be blind to its biggest flaws, and ultimately leaves the piece feeling unfinished due to that oversight.  Abuse of Weakness is probably one to skip.

French films.  Do you think perhaps something was lost in translation here?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"The Maze Runner": Better Than Average YA Fiction

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I’m really quite sick of young adult dystopian fiction.  I know I said this already in my Divergent review, but it stands out to me as one of the most cliché-driven, shallow, and ultimately redundant genres currently in production, relying little more on overdone settings with simple characters that rarely serve as anything but archetypes of the various personalities one would encounter in the high school cafeteria.  That was about what I was expecting when I went into The Maze Runner, and I found myself pleasantly surprised… for the most part.  It’s not a great movie by any means, but mostly works as a passable one, and while the forced cliffhanger ending didn’t really make me want to continue seeing where this franchise plans to go, I think that this film can stand on its own as a decent sci-fi thriller.

The opening shot of the film is on our protagonist Thomas as he ascends on an elevator into a grassy glade.  He has no memory of anything prior to that moment, and he is then surrounded by other teenage boys who also have no memory of a time prior to arriving at the glade.  The various members of this makeshift society explain to him that they are kept there by the maze, a shifting conglomeration of walls that is home to cyborg monstrosities known as Grievers.  A select few runners daily work their way through the maze to try to find a way out, but they have as yet not succeeded.  Circumstance begins to transform Thomas into a natural leader, becoming a voice of progress against voices in the camp that would rather stay put in safety than risk their lives for freedom.

I actually think this is a decent concept.  Sure, the characters aren’t the deepest in cinematic history and telegraph very early which side of the conflict they’re going to be on, but they all get the job done for the purposes of the narrative.  No, what I thought was good about this film was the inherent simplicity of its mysterious plot.  Most young adult fiction places the characters in a flimsy setting where any believable world-building is undermined by the irrationality of its foundation and any symbolism is undermined by its heavy-handedness.  However, what’s nice about The Maze Runner is that what drives the plot is the mystery of what is on the other side of the maze, who put the kids there in the first place, and why.  This isn’t about social commentary or message mongering; this is just a story of a bunch of teenagers trying to survive and understand what’s happening to them, with plenty of the action and puzzle-solving scenes inherent to that set-up.  It’s a nice thematic shift from what this genre usually has in store.

However, by the end of the film, most of that praise can go out the window.  I won’t spoil anything since I’m technically giving this one my recommendation, but the twist ending feels like something that belongs in an M. Night Shyamalan flick, is logically inconsistent at times, and lays the groundwork for the sequels to be the same sort of forced commentary I just criticized.  But ninety percent decent is better than being bad, and while the ending may be a bit of a let-down, the majority of the film has enough merit to be worth a rental.  If nothing else is catching your eye, maybe give this one a shot.

One interesting thing to note is that this film seems targeted at young boys rather than the usually teen reader demographic this genre caters to.  Think that has anything to do with the narrative direction that also stands apart?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Wild": A Wonderful Actress Showcase

Now In Theaters
Wild is what you might call an actress’s showcase.  It largely consists of scenes where a solitary performer, Reese Witherspoon, gets an opportunity to demonstrate her abilities without other actors taking up the spotlight, either because the other characters are transient and limited in their roles , or because Witherspoon is literally alone for large segments of the film.  And while often times this sort of film can backfire because it feeds too heavily into showing just how emotive a performer can be, Wild strikes an incredible balance between emotional moments and subtlety that makes this film more than just a stroking of Witherspoon’s ego, and elevates it into a heart-rending tale of redemption.

Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who has little to no experience hiking who decides to make a treacherous, 1100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.  Her reasons for doing so are initially unclear, but as her trip progresses and she dwells more and more on her past, pieces begin to fall into place.  Hers is a journey of self-discovery and emotional healing, as the tragedies of her life come into focus, as well as the self-destructive behavior that led her to this seemingly insane ritual.  Director Jean-Marc Vallėe does a masterful job of providing a scattershot yet coherent inner monologue for Cheryl that not only connects the expository flashbacks to the events happening at present, but makes the many shots of Cheryl simply walking feel diverse and entertaining.

However, to give credit entirely to the direction would be a huge disservice to Reese Witherspoon, who absolutely nails a nuanced performance with often very little to react to.  There are many scenes that could have been played with cartoonish exaggeration to emphasize her emotional turmoil, but Witherspoon opts to play the role as quietly determined, only letting the emotive outbursts take over when the moment actually calls for it.  Even her flashback scenes are great examples of her ability; despite being almost forty, she quite convincingly pulls off looking and acting like a teenager in some pivotal expository scenes, demonstrating a range that many performers would envy.

If there is one fault that I must emphasize, though, it is the blatant slut-shaming that is integrated into Cheryl’s self-abusive backstory.  Part of the reason Cheryl goes on her epic hike is because she is attempting to come with terms with her drug abuse and promiscuity.  The film treats the large quantity of sex Cheryl has with the same sort of ire as the drug use, treating both as addictions of equal measure.  It is disconcerting to think that if the lead role in this film were male, the sexual component would likely not have been emphasized as much, or even glorified by comparison.  Perhaps this isn’t so much a fault in the film as in societal perceptions that feminine sexuality is somehow self-destructive, but it is disappointing to see such a well-realized narrative marred by that particular detail.

That fault should not prevent you from appreciating a well-made film, though.  I won’t go so far as to say the film is profound or particularly intellectually deep, but it runs off emotion and a damn good performance well enough to merit a very high recommendation.  Wild is just now hitting a wider release, so if you want to see this gem in theaters, now is the time.  It’ll be worth your while.

Think Reese Witherspoon has what it takes to take home the Best Actress Oscar this year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Nightcrawler": Gyllenhaal Delivers Twisted Acting Gold

Now In Theaters
Sometimes a film just works because it takes a story we all know and love and applies some sort of twisted logic to it in order to not only recontextualize the genre, but make a point about how that genre actually operates in the real world.  Take, for example, Nightcrawler.  Structurally, this is a fairly standard rags-to-riches story, with protagonist Lou Bloom working his way up through the ranks of his chosen profession until his skills place him at the top of his game.  What makes Nightcrawler so special though is the character of Lou and the profession that he finds himself the rising star of.

Lou starts out as a night owl thief scrounging for scrap metal, when he comes across an auto accident and pulls over to watch the police extricate a woman from the wreckage.  Suddenly, a news van arrives on the scene, swarming with cameramen (nightcrawlers, as the film calls them) getting up close and personal on the police and victim who are too otherwise occupied to push them away.  Lou sees this and thinks it would be a good idea to get into the business himself, so he buys his own camera and police scanner and starts filming, eventually hiring an “intern” to navigate for him and becoming a prominent member of the journalistic community.

Jake Gyllenhaal breathes a special sort of life into Lou, having lost so much weight for the role that his eyes nearly pop out of his skull, which is made all the more creepy by his tendency to blink as little as possible.  Lou speaks almost entirely in PR language and bargaining terms, sounding like someone who has memorized every phrase from the minimum wage management handbook, yet doesn’t have the position or resources to use the jargon effectively.  His rambling nature is accentuated by a malicious undercurrent, where it becomes clear that no step is too far for him to take in order to achieve his goals, no matter how underhanded, no matter how violent.  This performance is what elevates the film to greatness, and it will no doubt be one of the Oscar contenders for Best Actor.

But Lou wouldn’t work so well as a character if it weren’t for the smartly directed screenplay that recognizes the formula it is derived from and plays on the audience’s expectations.  Eventually, as Lou’s talent and drive push him toward being one of the most powerful nightcrawlers in Los Angeles, what at first looks to be an honest, if morally reprehensible, living starts taking on more sinister tones at Lou’s direction.  Whether it is through coercion, deception, or just plain illegality, Lou will go to whatever lengths necessary to get what he wants, and though the plot may be a bit predictable at times, the way the film makes those moments the subject of deep suspense shifts focus from what is going to happen to when and how it is going to happen.  Integrate that with a message about the evils of crime-driven local journalism, and this makes for a truly intense film, punctuated by the fact that our fascinating anti-hero drives it all through sheer force of will, leading us to question if he is truly evil or just a symptom of a larger system.

Nightcrawler is a powerful thriller that will not leave you disappointed.  Gyllenhaal truly delivers as Lou, and the script he has to work with really lets his acting talents shine.  To miss out on this would be to miss out on one of the most intense films of 2014.  So don’t miss it.

Has Jake Gyllenhaal ever delivered a performance of this dramatic scale before?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)": Almost As Bad As Expected

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Let’s make one thing clear right from the get-go: this is a bad movie.  We were all expecting it to be bad.  This is Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, behind the wheel here, which specializes in making cash cows out of nostalgia properties for the cheapest amount possible and the most minimal amount of effort put in.  Normally, this comes in the form of horror reboots, but here Bay’s crack team is going after yet another late-80s toy franchise, and the Ninja Turtles are near and dear to as many Gen-Xers hearts as the Transformers once were.  So is this new TMNT just as bad as the infamously horrible Transformers quadrilogy?  Well, not really, but it’s still horrible.

But before we can talk about the only thing about this film that 
kinda, sorta works, we have to delve into the horrible, horrible plot.  April O’neil (Megan Fox) is a reporter who speaks entirely in exposition, seeking to prove herself as more than just eye-candy to be objectified, which is somewhat ironic considering that Fox’s entire career path has relied on just that sort of superficial, chauvinist attraction.  She stumbles across the turtles during a strike against a vaguely evil paramilitary group called the Foot Clan, and very conveniently remembers that her scientist father worked on mutating turtles.  She then connects this to a businessman, Eric Sacks, who wants to use the turtles’ blood to act as a cure of a pathogen that he wants to release into the atmosphere, so that he can sell the cure and become very rich.  Now April and the turtles must stop Sacks and his henchman, Shredder, from releasing the pathogen over New York.  If ever there were a lazier screenplay that relied on convenience, coincidence, destiny, and plot holes, this is it.  The film jumps from scene to scene with only the slightest connective tissue between them, and while it never gets to the point of being incoherent, it does reek of plagiarism, as many key plot points are ripped directly from another horrible-yet-somehow-successful script, The Amazing Spider-Man.  Convenient box in the main character’s closet that explains all the backstory?  Check.  Evil baddie wants to pollute the air with a toxic gas?  Check.  Climactic fight atop a tower where the gas will be dispersed?  I could go on, but you get the point.

The performances are really the only thing that could have carried this poor of a script, but unfortunately the so-called “acting” is simply horrible.  Megan Fox is as wooden and vapid as ever, with an emotional range of mildly amused to sorta shocked.  The turtles don’t fare much better, as each of their iconic personalities have been reduced beyond the cartoonish simplicity implicit in their television origins, and filtered through the most hypermasculine dude-bro sensibilities one could conceive of.  This results in them barely having any personalities at all, so even if all the voice-actors’ deliveries weren’t inappropriately inflected and oddly similar, there isn’t much beyond the superficial differences to tell their “characters” apart.  The only exception is possibly Michelangelo, who spends most of his screentime very creepily trying to flirt with April, going so far as to call dibs on her like a piece of property.  Gross.

And that brings me to the only thing I did appreciate about this film.  You may notice that my description of the plot paints April as the main protagonist, and that’s mostly correct, as her actions are the ones that ultimately resolve the primary conflict.  That isn’t to say that the turtles are completely sidelined though, as they are the main focus of the action scenes, which are much better than I could have hoped from a Michael Bay production.  While nothing mind-blowingly spectacular, they do have a sense of organic flow to them that never feels disorienting, and there is a neat sense of roller-coaster excitement to an extended slide down a mountainside avoiding semis and electrified grappling hooks.

But that point only demonstrates that I understand how this film could have done so well at the box office, even ignoring the fact that this was a film marketed at kids.  However, setting that mindless action aside, this film has a multitude of problems at every level of production.  Even those exciting action scenes are marred by the turtles’ cheap-looking CG animation and incredibly ugly character models.  This obviously isn’t a film that appeals to the sensibilities of long-time TMNT fans, but I don’t see this as something good for the current generation of fans either.  I haven’t seen much of the new cartoon, but I know it relies on cartoon antics and sly pop-culture nods while relying on rich character dynamics to tell compelling stories.  Kids expecting to see that in this live-action adaptation will be sorely disappointed.

And yet somehow this is getting a sequel.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Theory Of Everything": Disability As Oscar Bait (Yet Again)

Now In Theaters
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to go see The Theory Of Everything.  This film is about as blatant as Oscar bait gets, being billed as the uplifting story of an upper-middle class English guy overcoming a physical impairment in order to achieve greatness.  To those who don’t know, this is the Stephen Hawking biopic, so you can fill in the appropriate blanks in order to get a picture of precisely the sort of story you are in for.  Except this is worse than your standard inspiration porn, because the film has some underlying themes about disability that, while I’m sure are unintentional, transform it from what should have been a mildly inoffensive glimpse into the life of one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century into a commentary that makes Mr. Hawking’s disability his defining characteristic.

I think the problem comes from where the screenplay was adapted from.  This film was based on a biography by Hawking’s now-ex-wife Jane, and though I don’t want to blame the source material itself (having never read it), I do think it is informative of the film’s troublesome perspective.  Stephen has the most screen time for the first third of the film, establishing him as a funny and awkward man with a passion for cosmology; however, Jane takes on the role of protagonist as the film enters its second act.  After Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Jane steps into the forefront as Stephen’s caregiver, and the film’s primary conflict becomes her struggle to keep her family together.  This feels more than a little disingenuous for being a film where the main selling-point was to catch a glimpse of the life of Stephen Hawking, as his character’s arc is little more than an obligatory progression from career landmark to milestone of physical degradation, rinse and repeat.

And therein lies the main problem with the film.  Because the primary narrative focus is on Jane’s emotional torment for most of the film, with allusions to an affair with an assisting caregiver, Stephen becomes little more than an obstacle keeping Jane from finding happiness.  When Stephen’s achievements are necessarily touched upon, the emphasis is not that he formulated a theory on the nature of time and space, but that he formulated a theory on the nature of time and space despite his disability.  This is only further punctuated by the fact that the film’s climactic moment is when Stephen tells Jane that it is alright to finally leave him, basically freeing her from her burden.  The film’s primary conflict is resolved when Stephen acknowledges that his disability has been holding her back.  If it isn’t readily apparent to you why that is problematic, you may need to check yourself on some of your able-bodied privilege.

And yet, I’m not quite sure how the film could have avoided this pitfall, as I’m not familiar enough (nor did the film make me familiar enough) with Mr. Hawking’s life to say in what ways his personal struggles could have been greater emphasized without couching everything in terms of “overcoming” disability.  After all, nobody is going to see the film to see Mr. Hawking crunch equations for hours on end; rather, everyone knows him as the physicist in the wheelchair with the robot voice, and it’s that shallow, surface understanding of the man that the film panders to.  There has been a lot of buzz over Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking, and though the actor certainly has the physicist’s mannerisms pretty solidly pegged, that quite aptly demonstrates that the primary praise for the film derives from an able-bodied actor’s portrayal of disability, not its portrayal of a multi-dimensional man with disability.

At the end of the day, The Theory Of Everything seems to have its heart in the right place, but stumbles over its Oscar ambitions by placing emphasis on the wrong aspects of a great man’s life.  I recognize that it would be impossible to make a film about Stephen Hawking without placing some emphasis on his disability, yet this film goes after that low-hanging fruit a bit too overzealously for my taste, making what should have been a single aspect of Mr. Hawking’s life into an attraction where we can mourn his wife’s lost opportunities.  I’d recommend passing this one up.

I’ve somehow managed to find an awards-season dud right out the gate.  Have you come across any yet?  Leave your thought in the comments below.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Frank": The Brilliant Film We've All Overlooked

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I was drawn to Frank by its seemingly quirk-driven premise of a main character who never removes a giant papier-mâché head placed over his real head.  It seemed gimmicky, but the reviews from the film’s theatrical run were quite positive, so I thought I’d give the film a shot.  And frankly, this film is much more than I was expecting it to be.  Part comedy and part cultural critique, Frank starts off in pretty mundane waters, only to reveal itself as one of the most profound films of the year.

The film’s ostensible main character is Jon, an aspiring musician who can’t seem to write anything more than a couple of jingly lines at a time.  He stumbles across a strange band with an unpronounceable name: Soronprfbs, full of eclectic characters, the most notable of which is Frank, the film’s aforementioned selling point.  After witnessing the attempted self-drowning by the band’s keyboardist, Jon volunteers his services to the band of misfits, and from there is whisked away to a remote location to help record the band’s first album.  This portion of the film plays like your fairly standard fish-out-of-water comedy, with Jon acting as the straight-man to the Frank-idolizing producer, a violently hateful theremin player, and, of course, the creative visionary himself, Frank.

The film has a very deadpan sense of humor, placing the story's bizarre circumstances on display without any sort of wink or acknowledgement that these are intentional jokes.  And yet, that’s part of the film’s narrative genius.  As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that not everything is as clear cut as the initial premise would suggest.  The comedy becomes less and less prevalent, and eventually the film becomes a full-on message piece about the freak show fame that our society gives to those with mental illness based purely on their extraordinary quirks.

I don’t want to give too many of the film’s later plot points away, but the most important and fantastic part of this film is the narrative gut-punch it delivers in the final third.  Essentially, events transpire that recontextualize everything that came before, and it becomes blatantly clear that we as the audience have been party to the victimization of one of the characters.  See, the film takes a pretty hard stance on how popular culture views mental illness and disability as a fundamental aspect to creative genius, and whereas the first part of the film seems to indulge that ideology, the latter portion makes it gut-wrenchingly clear that this is not the case.  If anything, we as a culture enable harmful pathologies by labeling them as the hallmark of the artistic savant, and this film wants to make sure you recognize how you and everyone else are part of the problem.

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the surprise, but I would be remiss to not mention that Michael Fassbender is fantastic as the titular Frank, creating a complex and likeable character without being able to use facial expression to convey emotion.  It’s superbly done, and proves that Fassbender is one of the acting greats of our time.  And that greatness is reflective of the film as a whole.  This film is not only an enjoyable one, but also a very important one with its novel message presented through a brilliant narrative twist.  This is one of my favorite films so far this year, so I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a smart and poignant flick that will likely be overlooked come awards season.

Know any other brilliant films that have flown under the radar?  Share your favorites in the comments below.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Calvary": This Preacher Ain't Preachy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

According to Christian doctrine, Calvary was the spot on which Christ was crucified.  It’s an appropriate title for this dark Irish drama, which follows a week in the life of a priest only trying to do what is best for his thankless community.  This isn’t a story of Catholic piety triumphing over the den of sin that is society; this is the story of one man who belongs to a religious order that itself is filled with flawed and sinful people, yet is still trying to hold himself up to the ideals that he thinks his god commands of him.  He acknowledges that he isn’t perfect, and the film certainly acknowledges Catholicism’s sins over the centuries, but this is the story of a man simply doing his best, not preaching dogma to an ignorant mass.

I feel it necessary to lay that groundwork for this review, because by acknowledging what could be many people’s first impression of the plot, I hope to communicate that the film is not as preachy as it sounds.  The first shot of the film sets up our premise: an anonymous parishioner tells Father James in a confessional that he was molested by a priest as a young child.  The parishioner goes on to say that the abuser has since died, and so, in order to send the Catholic Church a message, he is going to kill Father James in one week’s time.  We then follow Father James for seven days, as we meet the townspeople he ministers to, easily recognizing their sinful nature and all the while wondering which of them could be the mysterious parishioner.

The film has a very dry and dark sense of humor, very similar to another famous bit of Irish cinema, In Bruges.  (This only makes sense, seeing as the two films’ directors are brothers.)  If you appreciated the humor in that movie, you’ll likely appreciate it here, though humor is much less the focus here compared to the study of Father James’s character.  Brendan Gleeson gives a fantastic performance of a man gradually coming to terms with his own impending death, as well as his doubts about how worthwhile his vocation really is when hardly anyone does much more than mock it.  The whodunit plot isn’t even the primary narrative focus, as one gets the distinct impression that Father James has already figured out the parishioner’s identity, but is more concerned about what to do about that knowledge than anything else.

That said, I found the film’s main problems to be technical in nature.  There is an overabundance of characters in Father James’s small town, and the film tries a little too hard to give enough of them screentime so that we may see their sinful ways and try to deduce which of them is the parishioner.  However, by doing so, the film crams itself full of exceedingly short and inconsequential scenes with little to no transition, creating a disorienting perception of time and space as we’re pulled from one location to another with no indication that any time has passed.  This is especially prevalent in the latter half of the film, and eventually the red herring villagers become little more than white noise.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from enjoying a fantastic character study.  It’s easy to worry that a film about a man of God will be religiously preachy and pushy, but Calvary refreshingly is not.  This is just the story of a troubled man, looking to help in any way he can, and wondering if that help will ever be enough.  It’s ultimately a relatable and very human story, and one that I heartily recommend.

Know of any other films that handle their religious content in such a non-patronizing manner?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)": Seamless Brilliance

Now In Theaters
Well, folks, award season is officially here.  Critics are beginning to tally up their picks for the best films of the year, and that means it’s time for me to switch gears and actually get out to the theater so that I can see what all the fuss is about.  And I’ve started right out the gate with a big one.  Birdman is a powerhouse of a film.  The direction, the writing, the acting, the editing and cinematography: this is the real deal.  Birdman is a film that unabashedly toys with you, and you will love every second of it because every tiny detail is so fantastically realized.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an aging former movie star most famous for his trilogy of films as the superhero Birdman.  He has adapted a play for Broadway, and is now starring in and directing the production.  When a (possibly) freak accident debilitates Riggan’s co-star, acclaimed actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) offers to step in.  However, Mike is an egomaniac who treats the stage as a playground and seems intent on derailing Riggan’s production for the sake of grabbing all the attention himself.  Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is just out of rehab, and Riggan’s attempts to be close to her are shunned.  This, and a variety of other dark (and often hilarious) circumstances begin to push Riggan to the verge of mental collapse, with his very grip on reality becoming increasingly tenuous.  To say much more would be to spoil much of the film’s charm, but I would like to say that just about every time you think you know what’s going on, you should be prepared to have that expectation subverted right until the very end.

This is often achieved through some phenomenal acting talent on the part of Keaton, Norton, and Stone.  Keaton very gradually lets the stress of producing the show alter him from passably sane to less-than-such; Norton makes what is ostensibly an antagonist into one of the most sympathetic (and in some ways pathetic) characters on screen; and Stone, though not playing an actress in this film, has created layers of depth to her character that slowly peel away the more she speaks.  However, Keaton’s and Norton’s exchanges are perhaps the best realized in the film; since both actors are portraying actors, their scenes capitalize on the nature of their craft, flawlessly shifting between realistic dialogue and performance, blurring the line between them so that it is difficult to tell what the story’s true reality is.

On the technical side, I can almost guarantee that the folks in charge of editing and cinematography are due for their Oscars this year, because I highly doubt that any other film is going to top the grace and precision necessary to pull off this film’s grandest illusion: the uninterrupted cut.  The majority of this film exists as one long, continuous shot, following actors down hallways, playing with mirrors to show two faces at once during conversations, and moving around the actors in a surreal blend of reality and cinematicism.  And it never stops.  If you’re paying attention, you can pick out the moments where the scene likely ended and was resumed at a later time, but it is all done so seamlessly that the illusion is mind-bogglingly impressive.

I could likely go on and on about why I found this film so extraordinary, but this is a review, not an analysis.  If you are looking for a recommendation, Birdman has most certainly earned it.  It seems I chose a hell of a movie to start off awards season with.  Here’s hoping that the other contenders have what it takes to compete.

What award-nominated films would you like to see me tackle in the coming weeks?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Happy Christmas": Improvised White Noise

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Improvisational filmmaking is a strange animal, as its existence defies standard critical conventions.  Stories can often feel loose and lacking in traditional narrative arcs, but that’s because the cast and crew made this film without a script and only a broad outline of plot and characters.  Dialogue often isn’t catchy, memorable, or even especially dramatic, but the trade-off is naturalistic, overlapping exchanges that seem to mirror real life, largely because the actors are being about as real as possible.  So by what metric does one measure a film like Happy Christmas when the characters, script, and direction were purposely handled without any real sense of care, and that was part of the whole point of the production?

Well, starting with what semblance of story there is, Jenny is an irresponsible 27-year-old, prone to drinking and passing out, who moves in with her brother Jeff, his wife Kelly, and their two-year-old son.  And beyond that basic premise, there isn’t so much a narrative as decently realized character moments.  Kelly wanted Jenny around to help care for the child, but upon seeing Jenny’s immature habits is concerned.  Jeff is afraid to confront his sister about her faults because he still wants to be the cool older brother.  Jenny convinces Kelly to pursue her novel-writing profession more vigorously by writing a trashy romance novel to bring in the money.  The film moves from point to point with a fluidity that resembles real life, and these people seem real and believable enough where nothing feels out of place or especially extraordinary.  This, however, is a double-edged sword, because it also means that most of the film is devoid of a central conflict, and when the film finally does find its defining moments, it doesn’t dwell and promptly ends before it meanders into incoherence.

However, improvisational films have generally had these limitations, but make up for it by being visually interesting.  Take Shortbus for example.  That was a film that combined its improvisational style with a thematic purpose and some interesting camerawork and post-production special effects for its bizarre finale.  While there is a theme of family support and growing up in Happy Christmas, the technical side of things feels lacking, rarely rising above the level of a three-camera sitcom.  There are no close-ups, no tracking shots, nothing to make the mundane suburban setting visually interesting, leaving the actors to carry the film like it was a stage production.  And while the performances are serviceable and even likeable, they aren’t really good enough to stake the whole production on.

I can recommend this film for pretty much one thing: background noise.  The prime situation for watching movie is something to have on as family members begin to arrive for the holidays, something that you can start watching while you wait, ignore as people start filtering in, and jump back in at any point without really caring what happened in between and still be mildly entertained, even while distracted by real-life banter.  However, this is not a film that works well as a complete artistic work, and while thankfully short at only eighty minutes, it is not worth the time to watch in its entirety.  A holiday classic this is not.

Huzzah obligatory holiday film review!  Let’s move on to the remainder of the year’s home video releases so we can get to awards season.  Thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"The Congress": When Social Commentary Goes Looney Tunes

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Congress was undoubtedly not the film I was expecting it to be, and if the disc’s box art is all you go by, you will certainly be as surprised as I was.  The film advertises itself as a sci-fi speculation on the future of cinema and the detriment this will be to artistic integrity, but instead transitions into an apocalyptic warning of the powers of mass consumerism and the substitution of mass media for the pleasures of reality.  I wouldn’t go so far to say that I think that the transition is an entirely successful one, and the film does meander into some unnecessarily abstract territory, but if you are willing to deal with an unnecessarily obtuse third act, this may be the film for you.

Our main character is a fictionalized self-portrayal of actress Robin Wright (best known for her role as Buttercup in The Princess Bride), who has left acting behind to raise her children.  However, Miramount Studios (I see what they did there…) offers her a deal for the chance to become a relevant star again by selling a digitally animated copy of herself to the studio so that they may keep making films ad infinitum with her as the face of it all.  In order to pay for treatments to her son’s chronic illness, Robin agrees.  This all takes roughly forty-five minutes to play out, and is probably the film’s strongest third, establishing Robin as a sympathetic character faced with circumstances that force her to bend to the whims of a manipulative entertainment mogul.

However, this is where the film gets weird.  Flash forward twenty years, and Robin visits the Futurological Congress, where everyone has taken a hallucinogenic drug that makes them an animated cartoon.  The visual shift is jarring to say the least, and the animation starts off as a Technicolor assault on the eyes, with bright colors and bending lines creating the cinematic equivalent to an LSD trip.  This is also where the film shows its hand, describing films as a dead medium and depicting the horror of a future where life is nothing more than escapist entertainment that entirely supplants reality.  It is sometimes painfully blunt in getting this message across, with a pivotal scene clearly paralleling Apple-style press conferences to cultish fanaticism, but it serves its purpose.

The final third of the film, though, gets even stranger, as it seemingly abandons its message in favor of using the abstract nature of its animation to the fullest extent, taking wild narrative detours that really serve no other purpose than to show us some weird shit.  One might be tempted to think that this absurdity was leading to a grander point, but unfortunately the film blew that load by the halfway point, and the rest feels all too much like padding.  Robin herself doesn’t even feel like a substantial character by the end of it all, completely consumed by the film’s attempts to use visual absurdity to convey the absurdity of mass entertainment.  The film is mostly running on fumes for the last twenty minutes, and even the creative animation cannot save it, because by that point the strangeness of it all is nothing but white noise.

That said, though, The Congress is an alright film.  It’s overlong and pretentious to be sure, but the parts that work do work decently well, and I’m willing to forgive the lackluster third act in favor of its strong opening and solid second act.  If you find the experience becomes too tiresome by the ninety minute mark, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to shut it off, but that first ninety minutes is a decent enough film to warrant a viewing.

Can animation and live acting effectively combine to make symbolic points in cinema?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"The Hundred-Foot Journey": Overly Conventional Food Porn

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

When a film is produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, you can get a pretty good idea of what you’re in for; The Hundred-Foot Journey is inspiration porn, through and through, designed so explicitly for upper-middle class middle-aged white women that it’s a marvel that the film was a theatrical release and not shown on the Hallmark channel.  Hell, even the film’s poster appeals to that sensibility by prominently displaying Helen Mirren as the film’s star, even though she is the film’s primary antagonist and tangential to the narrative focus.  However, a film’s primary demographic shouldn’t be the sole indicator of a film’s quality, and yet, this film is so steeped in formula and convention that it never becomes anything more than average.

The crux of the film’s conflict is reminiscent of the classic Montague/Capulet struggle from that old Shakespeare classic.  (I forget the name…)  A family from India moves to a French village to set up a restaurant, and ends up across the street from an acclaimed culinary establishment run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).  The family establishes their restaurant with the hook that Indian cuisine will be exotic enough to entice the French palate away from the more conventional taste of Mallory’s chefs, and this starts a business war between the two restaurants.  Meanwhile, our main protagonist, wanna-be chef Hassan, begins developing a romance with Marguerite, a sous chef at Mallory’s establishment.

For the most part, the film plays along to the expected beats predictably enough, and while the performances are decent and the dialogue is well-written, there just isn’t much here that hasn’t been done before.  It is worth noting that much screentime is devoted to the mouthwatering culinary treats that are the center of this narrative universe’s desire, which is hardly surprising considering this was directed by Lasse Hallstrom of Chocolat fame.  The theme of food as a great uniter is just as prevalent here, though the romantic angle is played down in favor of a racial tolerance message.  It all works just fine, but again, it’s all very obvious and trite.

The only real problem with the film is that it suffers some third act pacing issues, dragging on for way too long in order to resolve Hassan’s character arc.  If the first two-thirds of the film had been focused on Hassan as intently, I would not have had as much of an issue with the film’s plodding pace, but by the ninety-minute point, the story’s primary conflict has been mostly resolved, and Hassan’s goals and aspirations feel more like narrative loose ends than central story elements.  It doesn’t help that the generic nature of the film’s characters makes it difficult to especially care about any of them, so when the focus shifts almost entirely to only one of them, the film feels slow and empty, populated with more unnecessary food montages to pad the film out until it’s acceptable to tie the final knot.

But when all’s said and done, The Hundred-Foot Journey isn’t a bad film, and I’m sure that it will be appealing to its primary demographic.  I’ve certainly seen worse, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s worth your time, it might just serve to fill a couple hours if you have nothing better to do.

Any food-obsessed films that you really like?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"The One I Love": A Most Mysterious Recommendation

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The One I Love is a marvel of the modern age, precisely because of one thing: its trailer.  This movie’s trailer reveals next to nothing about what the film’s actual premise is; that’s a damn wonder and a welcome one at that.  That’s primarily because the film’s major twist is so central to the wonder and enjoyment that this film has to offer that to spoil it would sabotage the whole film.  Unfortunately, that makes writing about the film extremely difficult, because it’s really hard to talk around the central premise of a film when attempting to review it.

What I can tell you is that the story begins with Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss) at couple’s therapy, demonstrating just how out-of-sync they are and the problems they face as a couple.  Their therapist recommends that they go to a retreat home out in the middle of nowhere and… that’s all I can say specifically.  What I will say is that the film starts to analyze the workings of Ethan and Sophie’s relationship, and the trials they face will either cause them to come out stronger or be torn apart.  Both Duplass and Moss give great performances, effectively conveying a wide emotional range that is necessary for this script.  Moss in particular is fantastic at shifting from chipper to deadly serious at the drop of a hat, so her casting couldn’t have been more perfect.

And now I must explain the film’s primary flaw in the most circuitous way possible.  See, the film starts off with a clear direction of exploring the dysfunction of the two leads, and would effectively work as an engrossing character study… if the film had bothered to stay on that course.  However, instead of focusing on the characters, by the third act the film is focusing on the logistics of the strange events that have taken over their lives.  But the mystery of these events is not what makes the narrative interesting; sometimes films are structured with the assumption that weird things happen, because that’s what drives a story forward, but The One I Love seems to miss the forest for the trees and is content to explore its own uninteresting (and ultimately unresolved) lore.

That’s a paragraph that I assure you makes sense more when you see the film, and I do recommend this film, if only for the sense of mystery it evokes and the great character performances by Duplass and Moss.  It’s a film where the ride is more fun than the conclusion, where a sly game of hide the ball ultimately reveals that there is no ball, but damn was it fun to guess where it was.  Give this one a rental if only to see what the big mystery is all about.

How did I do?  Did I adequately convey my thoughts on a film that I felt it necessary to be so oblique about?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"What If": Formulaic, Yet Endearing

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Romantic comedies have a bad reputation for being lazy, derivative, and overly-reliant on formula, and it’s usually a well-deserved criticism.  Romantic comedies are to the female demographic what generic action flicks are to the male demographic, and they generally serve only to fill in box office schedules for weekends where there aren’t any big blockbuster releases.  They’re cheap to produce and there’s always an audience for them, so it’s easy to see why studios are willing to make a few every year without much thought put into them.  That’s why What If seems to me like some sort of bizarre paradox, because it is certainly derivative and formulaic, but it gets by almost entirely on a charm that certainly took some thought and effort to realize.

The story is your standard boilerplate rom-com set-up: two attractive twenty-somethings meet and then spend the entire film awkwardly denying their attraction for one another.  This is nothing new, but the chemistry between stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan makes their friendship and budding romance believable, something that most star-studded romantic comedies seem to miss entirely for the sake of just having the big-name actor and actress of the week.  When you get right down to it, What If works precisely because it embraces romantic comedy conventions and is determined to make the best version it possibly can.  And this goes for the comedy as well, as the film has a witty script that rapid-fires jokes that are consistently funny and delivered with the self-aware sincerity of close friends trying to make each other laugh.

Unfortunately, despite the film’s loving embrace of the oft-overbaked rom-com conventions, it also falls into one of the genre’s inherent pitfalls: emphasizing the inherent differences in the sexes.  Both Radcliffe and Kazan have a best friend archetype to bounce their woes off of; Radcliffe’s dude-bro friend is constantly encouraging him to make a move on Kazan, even though she already has a boyfriend; Kazan’s sister is consistently trying to make moves on Radcliffe, which stokes a jealousy in Kazan.  These conventions wouldn’t be so bad if every single conversation they had wasn’t about making stereotypical assumptions based on the other lover’s sex, and then using the next scene to affirm those assumptions.  This ball gets bounced back and forth for the entire duration of the film, and it gets tiresome if you realize that men and women truly can just be friends without any sort of romantic involvement.  The point of a romantic comedy is to ensure that the leads end up together by the end, but by framing the central conflict around whether or not the two leads can maintain a friendship, the film cheapens that genuine friendship by emphasizing a missing sexual component.

Inherent flaws aside, I liked What If.  It’s about as good as the romantic comedy genre gets, and while that isn’t high praise, I found this film to be a worthy-enough distraction.  Probably worth a rental if this is your sort of thing.

How do you think Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter career is shaping up?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"The Giver": Made Too Late To Be Relevant

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Giver is a hard movie to take seriously.  Based on the godmother of all dystopian teen fiction that so permeates the cinematic landscape, The Giver had yet to receive a big-screen adaptation, despite being an award-winning novel and a cornerstone to high school English curriculums.  But that was probably a good thing, as the reason the book is so beloved is that it is largely a symbolic tale, not really concerned with the logistics of its failed utopia, but more so with using its setting to communicate a message about our own world.  And yes, that message is little more than an overly-simplified analysis of how the pursuit of absolute equality can lead to the destruction of our individuality, but as teen fiction, it’s hard to fault the story for resonating with that demographic’s primary emotional concern.  The Giver tends to be really thematically problematic when you really examine it, but for once, I’m not going to delve into that aspect of the film.  There are plenty of places when you can read about the thematic issues of The Giver book, especially those concerning its heavy-handed allegories for euthanasia and abortion.  Instead, I want to point out the specific reason why the film doesn’t work.

As I pointed out, The Giver is largely a symbolic story, revolving around a society that has removed all strife and conflict by sapping the world of anything resembling diversity, whether that be in thought, feeling, or even in the ability to see color.  That’s fine on paper, but in order to translate that type of story to the big screen, there need to be some truly ambitious aspirations in order to make something entertaining to watch while still remaining true to the spirit of the novel.  And the film seems to start off with that intention, keeping the world devoid of color until protagonist Jonas begins to unlock his potential as the Receiver of Memories.  The teen actors are your standard stock wannabes hoping for a shot at the big time and think this film is it (spoiler: it isn’t), but Jeff Bridges (the eponymous Giver) and Meryl Streep (the evil Chief Elder) give performances that seem to demonstrate that they actually give a damn about the production’s success.

Unfortunately, this is also an attempt to be a summer blockbuster with a target audience of teenagers, so the film must obligatorily lean toward action-heavy by the third act.  Jonas comes to a conclusion that he must abduct an infant about to be euthanized and take it with him outside the community in order to survive, and this leads to some half-assed chase scenes limited by the fact that nobody in this universe is supposed to understand violence.  The film’s plot adds this strange condition that, once Jonas escapes his community and reaches a certain point beyond its borders, everyone will suddenly remember what it is like to have feelings again.  Logistically, I have no idea how this works, and once that magical turning point is reached, the film sort of just ends with only a generic voiceover as an epilogue.

The main problem with The Giver as a movie is that it tries too hard to work the classic novel’s story into the same framework as modern dystopian teen fiction films, like The Hunger Games or Divergent.  By forcing the film into having an action-oriented third act and a magic happy ending MacGuffin to drive the plot forward, the story has been robbed of its identity.  If The Giver had been allowed to be its own thing, it probably would have been an alright movie, inherent thematic issues aside.  As it stands, though, it’s hard to hate The Giver, but it’s hard to care much for it either.

How do you feel about the classic novel?  Disagree with me on the quality of its thematic messages?  Discuss in the comments below.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Sin City: A Dame To Kill For": Overcooked Junk Food

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Sin City wasn’t really a movie anyone was waiting around with baited breath to spawn a sequel.  Yeah, the first movie was good, but it was good in a one-in-a-million type of way, having the best combination of cheese, blood, guts, and style that one could hope for in a Frank Miller production.  This was probably due to the co-direction of the ever stylistic Robert Rodriguez, and likely had less to do with Frank Miller’s writing or directorial input.  When Miller went on to direct The Spirit, he ended up making an infinitely sillier movie that was so devoid of the stylistic violence that carried Sin City that the inane writing almost seemed like an intentional effort to sink the film.  And now here we are, nine years after the first Sin City with A Dame To Kill For, a film that only seems to exist because Rodriguez and Miller agreed to do a sequel back in 2006 and have only just now gotten the time and resources together to make it happen long after anyone is likely to give a damn.

If you’re looking for more Sin City, then this film very basically delivers on that front.  The same overly-pulpy noir narrations accompany stories of bad people doing bad things, and even the good guys are morally compromised.  The first film managed to make this work because it felt like junk food, a guilty pleasure that combined adolescent obsessions with noir violence and comic book aesthetics, distracting you from the inherently shallow nature of its stories by shifting between them in vaguely interlocking fashion.  A Dame To Kill For, though, attempts the same thing while trying to take place both before and after the first film, making any sense of continuity convoluted and confusing.

The first film also had an advantage in that the stories all felt unique, with characters that were fleshed out as much as they needed to be and were memorable precisely because they didn’t overstay their welcome.  The sequel screws that up by focusing heavily on bringing back old characters, who now feel like one-note caricatures of their representations in the first film played by actors who have aged too much to be convincing in their return to the roles.  But even though that surreality could otherwise be forgivable, the film’s repetitive elements make this one a pale shadow of its predecessor.  Two of the four stories have the same primary antagonist, and two of them use emotional manipulation of Mickey Rourke’s Marv to take down an army of bad guys.  This is lazy writing even by Frank Miller standards, and its style can’t make up for its lack of substance.

And this is primarily because the style isn’t even as gratuitous as the first film.  The film’s violence has a routine, matter-of-fact nature to it that robs it of any emotional impact.  Quick cuts to men dying to mundane gunshots and stab wounds is not exciting, and even when the film does opt to show us a modicum of gore, it feels like something that was done better in the first film.

Normally, I would try to judge a film on its own merits without excessive comparison to its progenitor, but Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is practically inviting me to do so.  It doesn’t have an identity separate from its better realized older sibling, and it so desperately tries to mime Sin City that it comes across as pathetic.  If you’re one of the two people who have been craving a new cinematic installment in the Sin City franchise, you probably already saw this in theaters.  Everyone else doesn’t need to bother; the first film will scratch that itch if you have it.

Did anyone else see The Spirit?  It’s one of those films that’s so hilariously bad that I’m surprised it hasn’t garnered a cult following.  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"The Wind Rises": Miyazaki's Disappointing Farewell

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I don’t feel good about not liking a Hayao Miyazaki movie.  For thirty years, the man has directed some of the greatest animated films of all time, and has single-handedly made anime a world-recognized artform; even the most lay of filmgoers and ignorant of Japanese animation know his name.  And I really wanted to be able to appreciate his final feature film as a capstone to his career, a culmination of what made him such a great entertainer.  Unfortunately, The Wind Rises is a problematic film, both thematically and structurally, and while it retains the superb quality of animation that we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, it doesn’t retain the same charm we have come to associate with the brand.

The film follows the exploits of Japanese plane designer Jiro Horikoshi in the early 20th century.  He sees a beauty in achieving flight that he recognizes he will never realize due to his bad eyesight, so he devotes his life to constructing the best planes imaginable.  Unlike most Miyazaki films, The Wind Rises takes place entirely in the real world, with fanciful elements restricted to Jiro’s dream adventures with Caproni, an engineer whom he idolizes.  One would think that this would make the film less beautiful when compared to the sprawling fantasy landscapes of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa, and while definitely less showy, the animation is superb as ever.  Studio Ghibli really knows how to animate fluid movement; watching planes glide through the air, failed designs tearing themselves apart in mid-flight, or even the simple human actions of walking down a street or writing a note is marvelous.  It really makes you appreciate the studio as masters of their craft, to have an ability to take something that could easily have just been mundanely filmed and make it look gorgeous through animation.

However, the film tends to neatly sidestep an issue that I feel it is unfair for it to ignore.  Jiro Horikoshi’s planes were the ones used to make Japanese bomber planes in World War II.  The film acknowledges the coming war and quietly shoves any blame the Japanese may incur for its involvement under the rug.  The Germans are an easy enough target to blame the entirety of the war’s atrocities on, and Jiro is simply an innocent artist who wants to make the beauty of planes.  In one dream sequence, Caproni asks Jiro if he would rather live in a world with or without pyramids, claiming that it is worthwhile to live in a world with great art, even if it comes at the expense of others’ lives and suffering.  I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.  I recognize that this is a symptom of Japan’s collective denial of their own troubling history, but it does not translate well to an audience that can clearly recognize the unstated ramifications of the film’s lionized hero.

Troubling historical disregard aside, the film itself stumbles through its second half, relying heavily on a love story between Jiro and a one-dimensional love interest to string it along.  It’s very strange to see Miyazaki, a director noted for his films’ strong female characters, reduce the female lead to a symbol of artistic purity for his male protagonist to pine over and enshrine.  It makes the feminist in me cringe, and it brings Jiro’s character arc to a stuttering crawl, extending the film by an unnecessary extra half hour through sheer romantic necessity.

Like I said before, I don’t like not liking this movie.  Hayao Miyazaki directed some of my favorite movies growing up, and was a gateway for my appreciation of anime during my teenage years.  Unfortunately, Miyazaki’s swan song just isn’t up to the lofty standards he’s held himself to in the past, and its faults would make it problematic regardless of which animation studio produced it.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki classic?  Mine’s Spirited Away.  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"22 Jump Street": The Perfect Anti-Sequel

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Try to think of a sequel to a great comedy movie that was just as good as the first.  You may be able to think of a couple examples, but they are certainly few and far between when compared to the plethora of failed attempts to make a franchise from what worked well as a stand-alone product.  So it’s certainly reasonable to worry that 22 Jump Street would befall the same fate, but I come bearing good news: it’s hilarious, if not funnier than the first film.  Where the first film was built on a meta-joke about how reviving a short-lived 1980s TV show as a modern film was a stupid idea (and paradoxically was a huge success), the second film is itself a giant meta-joke about the formulaic nature of sequels, calling attention to how much its basic plot is just like the first film, while still remaining fresh with new character arcs and even more hilarious writing.

If you’ve seen 21 Jump Street (which you definitely should if you want to fully appreciate most of this film’s self-referential humor), then you already know the basic premise.  Young-looking cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) infiltrate a learning institution (this time a college campus) in order to track down a new drug’s dealer and supplier.  What’s brilliant about the set-up this time around though is that the film is constantly breaking the fourth wall to refer to how much this is exactly like the events of the first film, while excessively flaunting the film’s bigger budget by needlessly having the most expensive set-pieces imaginable and then drawing attention to them.  Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are the absolute masters of these sorts of industry-stabbing shenanigans, proving time and again that they know how to turn a stupid premise into a hilarious study of film-making’s lazier and corporate-driven elements.

But even without the meta-humor, the film is still incredibly solid in its own right, playing role reversal with its main characters so as not to rehash every element of the original film.  In 21 Jump Street, Schmidt is a loser-turned-cool-kid while Jenko ends up living in the land of the nerds, but in 22 Jump Street, Jenko ends up fitting in like never before as he joins frat life, and Schmidt is pushed to the lonely sidelines as he feels like he’s losing his best friend.  This is a clever variation on old themes that still comes across as fresh and new due to very natural character progression and sly winks to the fact that we would normally expect them to go through the same arcs as in the first film.  And, of course, Hill and Tatum are one of the great comedy duos of this decade, with a chemistry that is undeniably rich.

I would be remiss to point out that there’s one scene in the film that revisits the villains of the first movie, but it relies heavily on a very offensive trans joke and doesn’t really add much to the overall narrative.  However, it’s a small, ugly blemish on what is otherwise a fantastically funny film.  It plays with your expectations in all the right ways and ultimately turns what should have been a horrible failure into a great success.

23 Jump Street has been announced, but Lord and Miller won’t be directing.  They’re only acting as producers.  Will lightning only strike twice, or can a third time be just as charming?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.