Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Transformers: Age of Extinction": The Best Transformers Movie

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Age of Extinction is hands-down the best film in the modern Transformers franchise.  This isn’t to say that it’s a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least I didn’t find this one painful to sit through.  Michael Bay seems to be sick and tired of making these damn things, and paradoxically, his laziness is taking over his baser instincts and he’s directed a better film than when he’s actually tried in the past.  The film is still over-long and unnecessarily padded, but the action is at least somewhat fun and if explosions are your thing, they’re still here in abundance.

The plot starts off focusing on new characters, headed by Mark Wahlberg as a down-on-his-luck inventor and his teenage daughter.  These characters are just as one-dimensional as any of Bay’s past Transformers characters, but the major benefit here is that since Wahlberg is supposed to be the relatable character, we’re saved the adolescent objectification of our female lead, since creeping on the protagonist’s teenage daughter apparently crosses a line.  Anyway, Wahlberg accidentally comes across Optimus Prime in hiding from the U.S. government, who is now in league with a robot bounty hunter that is after Optimus’s head for some reason or another.  Wahlberg, Optimus and company must now flee the government and also prevent it from creating a knock-off Transformer army of its own.  Whereas the previous films had one very simple plot that took convoluted and circuitous routes, this film has too many plots overlapping and competing for screentime.  As a consequence, the film feels bloated with too many new story elements that function primarily as teasers for sequels.

On the flipside, however, the film has done away with the franchise’s fascination with nameless dudes in military regalia, and so now the brunt of the film’s storytelling and action falls on the metallic shoulders of the Transformers themselves.  With a cast of five main Autobots that have colorful designs and distinctive voice actors (if not unique personalities), this is the best that the robots have ever looked in their own movies, and while I recognize that this isn’t much of an endorsement, the difference is noticeable.  They actually engage in dialogue with each other and aren’t relegated to simply being military lapdogs; there’s actually an attempt to acknowledge their alien background and their relationship with humanity as a whole.  The characters aren’t quite fleshed out enough to make it work, but it’s a step in the right direction, and one that I hope future directors in the post-Bay Transformers films will deign to capitalize on.

Despite the bulk of this review focusing on the improvements this film has brought to the franchise, I still want to emphasize that Age of Extinction is not a good film by any means.  The plots are simultaneously dumb and overcomplicated, the characters are cardboard cut-out archetypes that offer nothing interesting to the narrative, the editing still jumps around so much that you have to piece the shots together with your imagination rather than comprehend what’s actually happening, and the whole experience feels phoned-in and lazy.  But if that’s all the negativity I can force myself to muster at a Transformers movie, the franchise’s status has been elevated from abysmally awful to simply below-average.  It certainly wasn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year, and its stupidity is, at worst, inoffensive.  I don’t recommend seeing it, but perhaps the groundwork has been laid for better installments to come.

Don’t believe me?  Disagree vehemently?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hell's Half Mile Film & Music Festival 2014: Thoughts and Impressions

This weekend, I had the pleasure to attend Bay City, Michigan’s 9th Annual Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival.  As of this writing, the festival is in its final day, and unfortunately this means that I was unable to attend today’s showings due to scheduling conflicts.  However, I thought that I would offer some quick thoughts on the films I did see.  These aren’t going to be fully fleshed-out reviews, mostly because most of these films don’t have a distributor yet, so the chances of the average person seeing them outside the festival circuit are pretty slim.  However, I offer you my audience participation scores and my reasoning so that if these films do get picked up for distribution, perhaps you’ll remember what a Pretentious Best Friend once told you.

Feature Films

Arlo and Julie – 1/5  With no understanding of comedic pacing, some truly amateur camerawork, and a bizarrely discordant soundtrack seemingly comprised entirely of budget-saving public domain songs, this film is a trainwreck.  I wouldn’t be surprised if director Steve Mims listed Tommy Wiseau among his directoral influences.

Patrick’s Day – 3/5  An interesting look at the life of a schizophrenic in love, yet the film has some serious first act focus issues, jumping back and forth in perspective so that it doesn’t ground itself with a protagonist or central conflict.  When a protagonist does emerge in the second act, though, the film takes a turn for the better and is heartbreakingly tragic as a result.

Der Samurai – 1/5  A disgusting film that equates gender non-conformity with violent psychopathy by placing its male villain in a dress and lipstick and offering no subsequent explanation.  The film suffers from an overly convenient plot and nonsensical twists, and while well-directed and shot, this film has one of the worst screenplays I’ve ever seen.

OJ: The Musical – 4/5  A cute, if quite predictable, story of a stage director trying to get a crazy musical idea off the ground with the help of old childhood friends.  There’s a running joke about suicide that is truly unfunny, but the rest of the film’s charm makes up for that.

Wild Canaries – 3/5  It’s hard for me to measure this one since there were technical difficulties during the showing of this film.  However, while the mystery plot was engaging, the characters’ intersecting love lives made them all unlikeable to a certain extent, and the romantic subplots could have easily been cut in favor of more sleuthing shenanigans.  Not a bad movie, but more like half of a good one.

BFFs – 4/5  Probably the best film I saw, this one analyzes where the line is drawn between best friend and romantic partner.  While I don’t think the film was as funny as intended, the story is strong enough to support the film’s faults.

Short Films

The Gunfighter – 5/5  A funny joke that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The Crumb Of It – 2/5  Well acted and directed, but hell if I know what it was trying to tell me.

SPONGE – 1/5  A pretentious musical romp that wants to be profound but ultimately feels idiotic.

The Telegram Man – 4/5  It perhaps takes too long to get to its point, but the emotional gut-punch ending works.

Breaking Chains – 5/5  A strong message film that brings awareness to a critical global issue.

Universal Language – 3/5  Overlong and utterly predictable, yet quaint in its earnestness to tell a love story.

The Zombie’s Trip – 4/5  Shortest film of the festival, biggest WTF surprise.

Directors on Directing – 4/5  The joke perhaps runs a little too long, but to sustain five minutes of film on one joke isn’t easy.

"We Are The Best!": Good Enough Critic Candy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

We Are The Best! knows exactly what it’s trying to be, and it does it quite well.  As a study of adolescence and what makes rebellion so appealing to the youngest of budding adults, the movie knows its stuff, and it comes off as genuinely knowledgeable and heartfelt.  Critics almost universally loved this film in its festival circuit and U.S. theatrical runs, which should lend to its credibility all the more.  After all, that’s why I chose to review this particular film in the first place.  And yet, I feel pretty ambivalent about this one.

Just to clarify, We Are The Best! is a good film.  There’s really nothing particularly wrong with it, for the cast is perfectly suited to their roles and the themes are resonant.  In 1982 in Stockholm, two thirteen-year-old best friends are really into punk rock.  They cut their hair short and don’t pretty themselves up like the other girls; after all, punk is not as dead as everyone says, at least not to them.  Fed up with being called ugly and strange for not conforming, the girls start to vent their frustrations by writing and playing their own punk song.  They realize that they’re not very musically talented, so they recruit a third member, a quiet Christian girl with no other friends who is good at playing guitar.  The oddly-matched threesome grow as friends and try their best to be as adult as possible, though their confused feelings at any given moment may get in their way.

So yeah, the film portrays adolescence pretty accurately, from the mood swings to the misunderstandings between well-meaning friends to the use of creative outlets to cope with their burgeoning adulthood and everyone’s insistence that they’re still children.  Yet I’m still pretty nonplussed by what should be a well-received experience.  Is it that I feel like this has been done before?  Spielberg is perhaps the most notable director to show young teenagers as naturalistically as possible, yet this film doesn’t share his penchant for youthful romanticism.

No, I think the issue is that the film doesn’t really hold itself up on more than its theming.  This isn’t really a film about getting a band together or overcoming other peoples’ expectations; it’s a snapshot of a bunch of pseudo-kids learning to say “Fuck you!” to everyone’s expectations of who they should be.  And yeah, that’s fine and all, but it feels a bit shallow in its thematic depth.  There’s some feminism interwoven with the primary message as well, but it feels like the obligatory subtext inherent in having three female leads rather than a fully fleshed out theme.  I guess I felt unsatisfied because I wanted the film to show me something more, something new, something that hasn’t been the subject of just about every coming-of-age story ever, albeit with a punk rock aesthetic this time around.

We Are The Best! seems to me like a film that’s being praised right now upon its release, but nobody’s going to remember it in the years to come.  It hits the sentimental soft spots that the film press really seems to gravitate toward, but it doesn’t do much with that sentiment other than tell a fairly standard coming-of-age tale.  I still think it’s a well-done film; I’m just disappointed by its lack of ambition.

Is punk dead?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"The Rover": Diamonds In Its Rough

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Rover reminds me a lot of a certain television show: The Walking Dead.  Just take away the Zombie Apocalypse and replace it with classic Apocalypse Generic, and the Hobbesian atmosphere of oppression and survival of the strongest will dominate your feelings during the film’s runtime.  However, much like The Walking Dead, this movie has its ups and downs, serving to be really intriguing and thought-provoking at key moments, but the quieter moments mostly serve to bore or seem more loftily intelligent than they actually are.

Our story starts out with a group of thieves fleeing a robbery and leaving behind an injured member named Rey, played by a surprisingly decent Robert Pattinson.  The gang then crashes their vehicle and steals a car belonging to Eric, a bitterly violent man who isn’t willing to give up his car at any cost, played by Guy Pearce.  After losing the gang’s trail, Eric begins to track down the thieves and eventually finds Rey in desperate need of medical attention.  Realizing that Rey is his only chance of tracking down his car, Eric takes the injured man with him, and the two begin a journey to hunt down the thieves.

The enjoyment of this film mainly relies on the sympathy one feels for the main characters.  Eric is a stoic protagonist with a past that he is less than willing to talk about.  He’s ruthless, but not bloodthirsty.  He only wants back what is his, and when the reasons for hunting down this specific car become clear in the final scene of the film, it is a brutally chilling revelation.  Rey, on the other hand, is a slow-witted man trying to come to grips with being betrayed by his brother, one of the gang members who left him behind to die.  Rey struggles with the fact that the one person he’d relied on his entire life for love and companionship would leave him for dead, and the young man’s journey toward self-reliance is both hopeful and heartbreaking.

And yet, for every good character moment, there’s another that seems pointlessly drawn out.  There are perhaps one or two too many driving montage scenes where nothing really happens except some bizarre orchestration; I understand that much of the time spent between Eric and Rey is silently driving, but I don’t really see the need to show that.  Furthermore, Rey gets some scenes to himself that don’t really do much to further the plot or his character development, and really only seem to be there to ensure that Pattinson gets as much screen time as Pearce.  This has the consequence of drawing out an already subdued and thoughtful film into a boring and plodding one.

I feel that I can recommend The Rover for its good moments, for by the time the climax rolls around those moments tend to overshadow any bad ones.  This is a solid work with some solid performances and a solid story.  It has its pacing issues and its mild pretentions, but overall, I think it’s worth seeing.  This was a flop at the box office, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it make its money back through DVD purchases.  Check out The Rover when you get the chance.

Any post-apocalyptic films strike your fancy?  And please, don’t everyone jump up and say Mad Max.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Neighbors": A Couple Of Rising Stars

Now Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

In all honesty, I was a little afraid of what this movie meant for Seth Rogen’s career.  He’s always been a slacker-stoner archetype, mostly because I think that he’s very much like that in real life, and he’s always been really funny because of it.  So when I heard he stars in a movie with a plot synopsis that sounds like a premise to a bad sitcom, and the character who I would normally associate his persona with is being played by Disney teen starlet Zac Efron, I had some serious reservations about it.  And yet, lo and behold, this is exactly the type of movie it needed to be, and it’s a great preview of the career paths for both Rogen and Efron.  Oh, and let’s not forget, it’s really damn funny!

The story is that married couple Mac and Kelly (played by Rogen and Rose Bryne, respectively) have poured all their money into a new house and are looking forward to raising their infant daughter there.  However, when a fraternity moves into the house next door, the couple becomes worried that the noise will disturb their tranquil new home.  The fraternity’s president, Teddy, is played by Efron, and he only wants to leave a legacy behind for future generations of the frat, so it’s his goal to throw the most over-the-top parties imaginable.  And so, a series of escalating pranks take place so as to try and force each other to move out.

What sounds like it should be a corny set-up is actually cleverly executed.  As I said before, I think that Rogen would have fit into the frat-boy persona decently enough a few years ago, but this film acknowledges something pretty important here: Rogen isn’t getting any younger.  Rogen’s pot-smoking loser antics aren’t going to hold up forever, so something needs to change.  Neighbors gets meta-textual about the whole issue and makes Rogen’s character a new family man who is essentially trying to recapture the lost devil-may-care attitude that he had only five years ago.  It’s a stroke of genius, and yet it never goes so far as to imply that he’s neglectful of his adult responsibilities, which would make him a tired mid-life crisis cliché.  In fact, his wife is right there with him the entire time, and the way they make their adult lives work around trying to screw over the fraternity is the set-piece of at least a couple well-done scenes.

And of course, the big surprise hit here is seeing Zac Efron put on the big boy shoes and actually do some damn fine acting.  He knows how to deliver a funny line and actually seems to fit right in to the shoes that Rogen has left for him to fill.  Not only that, but his character actually has some surprising depth to him, allowing Efron to shine as a dramatic actor for a few short scenes, and yet never brings the light-hearted feeling of the production to a halt.  Efron is someone who’s going to be sticking around for a while, and if he can keep up this good work, I’ll be happy to see him.

I should also make note of Rose Bryne’s great comedic touches as well; she isn’t as well-known as Rogen or Efron, so I can’t really analyze her career trajectory, but she’s just as valuable to the film as the two male leads.  And yeah, I suppose I should close out by mentioning the most important thing in reviewing a comedy: it’s really damn funny.  It’s hard to say more than that without giving away the humorous surprises, as is per usual in a comedy, but I will say that it makes full use of the R rating.  Even the gross-out humor that would have fallen flat in any other film is made charming by Rogen’s and Efron’s charisma.  Neighbors is everything I wanted it to be, and it is well worth the time investment to get a few genuine laughs.

What’s your favorite Seth Rogen film?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Looking Back At: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" & "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

The Transformers franchise has a strangely unique place in our popular culture, almost universally panned by critics, popular media, and in general human discourse, and yet it’s still one of the highest grossing film franchises of the past decade.  Part of this we can likely attribute to intelligent folks going to see these films “ironically” just to see how bad the new one has turned out, but I think the majority of the people who go to the theaters to see these films see this as their stand against the so-called intellectual elite.  By going to see a movie with tons of explosions and mindless action that is so universally hated by those who think they’re so much smarter than everyone else, people send a message that it doesn’t matter how smart a movie is; they’re just here for some dumb fun.  And I love dumb fun just as much as the next guy, but dumb fun done well is intelligently put together, using the techniques of the trade to make a film that is coherent and entertaining.  Transformers has never been that, and Revenge of the Fallen is the perfect example to demonstrate everything wrong with this franchise.

I’m not even going to attempt a plot synopsis of this one, mostly because it’s so all over the place that to diagram it out would be mind-numbingly pointless.  Basically, Shia LaBeouf has a magic MacGuffin in his brain, the evil Decepticons want it, poorly strung-together set-pieces ensue.  The good-guy Autobots are now agents of the American military for some reason, even though they say they’re here to protect the entire Earth; it seems to me that director Michael Bay may have more than just a bit of an American superiority complex.  The Autobots are never really characterized either, letting their generically ugly designs take over instead of trying to give them any discernable personalities.  The only two robots who seem to get any descriptively noteworthy qualities are the supposed comic relief characters, The Twins, a couple of the most offensive racial caricatures I’ve ever seen on the screen.  They speak in Ebonics, have monkey-like faces, assertedly cannot read, and are prone to immediate violence and in-fighting.  I’ll let you do the math on that one.

So, without any contributions from the title characters, the weight of the script falls onto the human characters, as wonderfully one-note and dull as they all are.  An inordinate amount of time is devoted to LaBeouf’s first day of college antics, seemingly only to make him super relatable to the Gen-Y demographic, "brah."  The film’s tone swings wildly from comic relief to serious exposition at the drop of a hat, and editing never slows down enough for any of it to ever sink in.  It seems that Bay realizes this, so throughout the film, key plot elements are repeated over and over to make sure we’re following along, and even then, too little information comes in too late for me to possibly give a damn.  Fast shouting and quick cuts are used to give the illusion of witty banter, but it becomes tiresome quickly and never lets up.

The treatment of women in this film is also cringingly horrible.  Megan Fox returns as LaBeouf’s eye-candy girlfriend, and there are moments when this film cuts away from dialogue only to pan up and down Fox’s body or to show us Fox stripping down.  Her character serves no purpose but to support LaBeouf’s, and Fox’s presence is only here to provide the film’s alpha-male demographic some masturbation material.  Fox reportedly refused to be party to the next film precisely because of Michael Bay’s objectification of her, and I wouldn’t doubt that for a second.

When everything comes to a head in the climactic final battle, Michael Bay isn’t interested in showing us robots fighting one another, but instead brings in the military to show off their big guns.  This seems to me to be a complete waste of having giant robots on-screen.  Bay’s gone on record for his ambivalence for the Transformers source material, and he’s clearly got a romanticism for the U.S. military, so I have a sneaking suspicion that this was his attempt to sink his own franchise.  The only problem is that his glorification of the military tricked people into thinking he was a master of action scenes, when really he used smoke, explosions, and an overly-hyperactive camera to obscure the action that serves to resolve the film’s major conflict.

Now, it’s only fair of me to point out that Revenge of the Fallen is the low point of the original trilogy, for Dark of the Moon is an improvement in presentation if not in content.  Don’t get me wrong, the film is still a train wreck; the plot is essentially a rehashing of Revenge, with LaBeouf dealing with Gen-Y angst and an only-good-for-her-looks girlfriend while intrigue formulates around a different MacGuffin.  The major addition this time is a recovered Autobot who’s intent on betraying them all, but once again the Transformers are so insufficiently characterized that it’s impossible to care too much when the twist does come along.

However, where Michael Bay seems to have gotten his shit together is in his action directing.  The camera is much more stationary now, and when the robots are on-screen, they pop against the backdrop of the cityscape rather than blend into it.  It’s easy to tell what’s happening in any given shot, even if there’s no investment in the characters in any given shot.  That said, the climax, while impressive in its scope of destroying Chicago, still pulls its attention away from the titular characters in favor of following nameless soldiers who are there to blow things up.

And that’s when it starts to become clear that Michael Bay purposely worked to make things more coherent for a special purpose.  See, right before the climactic battle, the Decepticons hold the Earth at ransom so that the Autobots will leave.  The Autobots apparently leave, and the Decepticons destroy their transport and proceed to invade the great American city of Chicago.  And yet, the Autobots never really left, and swoop in to save the day in order to, and I quote, “protect freedom.”  Cue the National Anthem, folks, we have ourselves a Stay the Course message!  The blatantly out-of-place nationalism sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that’s ostensibly about giant, sentient, fighting robots, and it’s awkwardness cannot be ignored.

I’ve already rambled on about these films for long enough; if you’re reading this, you probably already know all the arguments that have been made about these films, and you aren’t the audience that these films are seeking.  The Transformers franchise has not been made with people like me in mind, and an inexplicably large subculture of fans has built up around defending these films from analysis by people like me.  Transformers is critic proof, and as long as people keep giving up their money at the box office, the series will continue.  I guess I just ask that those of you who go to the theater to enjoy the films “ironically” take a moment to realize the impact this has on the film industry.  If a piece of crap like Transformers can be such a huge financial success, producers are going to want to replicate that success in order to make more money.  This means a future of dumber and more poorly made films, which is a future that scares the hell out of me as a movie lover.  If you must watch these films, hold off for the Blu-Ray releases so that your dollar doesn’t have as big of an impact.  The future of quality filmmaking may depend on it.

Well, this one ran a bit long.  Am I a bit fatalistic in my view towards a film franchise?  Isn’t it all harmless entertainment?  And if so, what am I even doing reviewing any film?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Tusk": Perhaps The Strangest Film You'll Ever See

Now In Theaters
Let me start out by saying how incredibly bizarre it is that this film even exists.  Seriously, this film was made on a joking dare by Kevin Smith’s podcast audience, and it now has a wide theatrical release, headlined by well-known actors like Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, and Johnny Depp.  And this is a movie about a man who captures people and surgically transforms them into walruses.  I… I hardly even know where to begin with this one, folks.  This is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

Justin Long plays a podcaster named Wallace (oh jeez, see what they did there?) who runs a podcast with his friend Teddy.  Together they exploit interesting people for hits on the internet.  While on a trip to Canada, Wallace runs across an advertisement for living space with a man who promises interesting stories in exchange for doing household chores.  The intrigued Wallace goes to meet this man, named Howard Howe (played by Michael Parks).  Howe subsequently drugs Wallace and begins the process of desecrating Wallace’s body so as to turn him into a facsimile of a beloved walrus from Howe’s youth, affectionately named Mr. Tusk.  Meanwhile, Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend realize Wallace has been abducted, and they head to Canada to hunt him down.

That, my friends, is the strangest synopsis that I’ve ever had to write.  And you know what?  As ludicrous as that descriptions sounds, the film mostly works precisely because of how ludicrous it is.  This film has been billed as a horror comedy, which is a genre mashup that’s very difficult to pull off.  However, this film manages to walk the line of those two disparate film-types by sticking to one principle: shoot all the horror scenes with straight-faced sincerity, no matter how ridiculous.  Director Kevin Smith knows that this is an absolutely preposterous film that he’s making, so there doesn’t need to be any winks to the audience as the absurd plot unfolds before us; that absurdity speaks for itself, and the fact that we’re basically watching The Human Centipede with A FUCKING WALRUS is such a strange premise that the film sustains itself purely on that intrigue.

The only times I think the film really falters are in some of the scenes that require straight comedy to sustain interest, because sometimes the jokes fall pretty flat.  The first act is dominated by the douchebag Wallace, but most of his lines lack any sort of comedic timing, so he’s just aggravating to watch at times.  I realize that he’s supposed to be unlikeable so that we don’t feel too sympathetic for him as he’s mutilated later in the film, but I think the film perhaps dwells on his attitude to the point where he becomes unnecessarily obnoxious.  That said, Johnny Depp shows up in the scene-stealing second act role as an ex-cop to deliver a wonderfully bizarre monologue about his career of hunting the serial killer.  The resulting flashback, while perhaps a little overlong, is strangely hypnotic in its pure stupid grace.

Tusk is one of those films that is truly one of a kind.  I won’t pretend that it’s a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the kind of experience that really needs to be seen to be believed.  The final scenes will convince you of that if nothing else.  Kevin Smith has created something that will be burned into my memory until the day I die, and all-in-all, that’s an accomplishment worthy of commendation and a recommendation.  Go see Tusk.  I don’t regret it, but even if you do, it will be worth it to know just how weird that goddamn walrus movie is.

Kevin Smith has announced two more horror movies to come out in the near future to complete what he calls The True North Trilogy.  After this, I’m oddly excited.  Leave your thoughts and impressions in the comments below.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"The Fault In Our Stars": Acknowledges Its Faults

Now Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

The Fault In Our Stars is exactly the type of movie you think it is, meeting pretty much all the conventions of the cancer-as-sentimentality genre.  Girl dying of cancer meets boy who is a survivor of cancer, a romance blossoms and fills the audience with happy feelings, and then an emotional punch to the gut takes over the third act and everyone walks away bemoaning the tragedy of this young love.  This movie hits all those notes fairly spot-on.  And yet, I felt fairly satisfied by the time it was all said and done.  In fact, it’s not a bad movie at all, and that’s a surprising thing for me to say, given my reprehension for shallow, emotionally manipulative storytelling.

That’s probably because, despite the film relying on tried-true tropes of a genre that thrives on the emotional insecurities of teenagers, it’s self-aware of these tropes and actually goes out of its way in its narration to point out exactly what’s happening.  See, narrator and main character Hazel is savvy to the tropes of teen cancer fiction because she herself lives a life as a teen cancer victim, and she’s aware that her story follows a path that lazy writers have used for decades.  Meta-confessing its own tropes doesn’t automatically excuse them, but it does mean that the film is willing to lay its cards on the table and admit exactly what kind of story it’s telling.  That goes a long way toward making what would otherwise be a cash-grab adaptation of a teen weepie novel into a well-told story in its own right.

And well-told the story is, with likable characters often engaging in witty banter that is endearing and funny without being condescending or overly sentimental.  As previously mentioned, Hazel’s narration provides a great meta-textual overview to a plot we’ve seen the basic outlines of many times before, and it makes her that much more relatable.  She recognizes that her love story is one of fairly standard transformation from reclusion to finding the love of her life, but that doesn’t matter because within her universe, it’s still happening to her.

Now, that isn’t to say the film is entirely devoid of its faults and genre trappings.  When I say that the characters are likeable, that proves to be problematic in two separate respects.  The first that I’ll mention is a surprising appearance by Willem Dafoe as a character who is supposed to be extremely unlikable, and yet Dafoe brings such bizarre energy to the part that I couldn’t help but laugh in a scene where, frankly, I really wasn’t supposed to. More importantly to the film as a whole, though, is the disgustingly perfect representation of love interest Gus.  This guy is a handsome, scholarly, athletic, and eloquent teenage straight girl’s wetdream, and it gets to a certain point where he becomes so unrealistic that it serves as a reminder that his existence serves only to further Hazel’s character arc.  The film attempts a token scene toward the end where the emotional hardship of events starts to break through his always-cheerful exterior, but it’s resolved so quickly that it feels that scene only exists to give justification against an argument that he is too perfect.

That being said, though, The Fault In Our Stars is about as good a version of what it’s trying to be as one could reasonably expect.  Its self-awareness and refusal to shy away from the actual gravity of its subject matter elevates it above standard attempts to use cancer as an exploitative tool to take teenagers’ expendable income.  It’s subject to the limitations of the genre and doesn’t quite transcend them, but all in all, I’d say it’s worth checking out.

No question today.  Just a statement: Fuck Nicholas Sparks.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Looking Back At: "Gojira" (1954)

With the snore-fest reboot coming out on Blu-Ray in a few days (the review for which you can read here), I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look back at the film that started it all: 1954’s Gojira.  I’d never seen it before, and what I was expecting to find was the film that spawned the kaiju formula, where an unknown force emerges, it turns out to be a giant monster, a second act scene of city destruction occurs, and a final resolving climax of massive destructive power removes the monster threat.  While that statement can describe the broad strokes of Gojira, it doesn’t really do the film justice for how it stands alone as not just a great Godzilla movie, not just a great monster or horror movie, but as one of the definitive classics of Japanese cinema.

See, what Gojira’s greatness comes down to is how it not only functions as a story of human struggle against a destructive force of nature, but it is also a powerful allegory for the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the pain and loss that was felt by the Japanese people at the hands of the nuclear holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When destructive forces first start hitting coastal Japanese villages, nobody knows what’s happening, and the cause of the destruction is never shown on-screen.  Then, when the force is discovered to be a giant radiation-absorbing reptile, it quickly becomes apparent that the Japanese military is nowhere near equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.  The first half of the film mostly consists of the human characters trying their damnedest to figure out just how to counteract this threat, and it’s hard not to feel their urgency, especially as we watch their country get torn apart by an unstoppable force.

The allegory is further nailed home by the climactic subplot involving the use of a new superweapon and a scientist’s internal struggle over whether unleashing his doomsday device upon the world would create a greater evil than the one they’re seeking to eliminate.  It’s a surprisingly powerful message for a film about a giant lizard, but the film pulls it off with grace.  The final scenes are actually quite emotionally charged, staying away from the action-packed climax one might expect from a monster flick and instead choosing to meditate on the gravity of the events taking place and the ramifications they have on the greater world.

Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the key destructive scene of the film where Godzilla destroys Tokyo.  Say what you will about the limitations of the special effects of the 1950s, this film pushes the edges of those limitations.  The miniature city that was built for Godzilla to stomp around it looks damn near perfect, and Godzilla feels just as enormous as his imposing presence is supposed to imply.  Sure, if you’re looking closely, you can see that the rubber Godzilla costume doesn’t actually provide for all that much mobility, but the film’s clever editing disguises that fairly well, and the look of the monster is the classic design that would spawn so many sequels in the coming decades.

Now, I won’t say that Gojira is a flawless film.  A couple of its human-centric subplots never really go anywhere, such as the story of a scientist who doesn’t want to kill Godzilla out of humanitarian concerns, or a romantic subplot that is dropped almost as soon as it’s brought up.  That minor complaint aside, though, Gojira isn’t really a film about any particular character’s story arc.  This is a film about the role of humanity in a post-nuclear age and a metaphorical demonstration of the consequences our irresponsibility in that age can cause.  This message may have been overshadowed by the pure spectacle that would come to dominate the kaiju genre in the coming decades, but it’s just as powerful today as it was fifty years ago.  If you’re looking for a treat from another era, get a copy of the original Gojira.

What do you prefer: the intellectualism of the original, or the full-blown fantasy of the action-packed Showa and Heisei eras?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Palo Alto": Through The Eyes Of Teenagers

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Palo Alto is a weird film in that it doesn’t really have a cohesive narrative arc.  The film is based off a collection of short stories by James Franco, so the interconnected stories aren’t so much actually related to one another as they just occupy the same timeframe.  Some of the ways the stories overlap feel a bit contrived, but this film is saved from being a jumbled mess by giving each of its protagonists appropriate room to breathe, and the film really knows how to convey the desperate loneliness that stems from adolescence.

The three main characters are April, Teddy, and Fred, high schoolers in the film’s titular town.  April is a good student and a dedicated soccer player, but she’s not a very popular girl and finds herself swayed by the advances of her soccer coach (played by an appropriately suave and sleazy James Franco).  Teddy is a decent enough kid who is a talented artist, but finds himself constantly in trouble through his association with Fred.  Because Fred seems to be his only friend, Teddy constantly covers for Fred’s antics, which lead to stints of community service and dangerous consequences.  Fred, on the other hand, is out of control, without adult influences in his life and so afraid of his sexuality being undermined that he acts out in insane and self-destructive ways. 

All three are victims of their development in a society that doesn’t recognize the problems they go through.  April is a victim of her soccer coach’s advances, and when he turns out to be nothing more than a predator, April is alone in her knowledge of his violation of her.  Teddy only tags along when Fred gets out of control, and when Fred leaves him holding the blame, he’ll take it in order to protect his only friend.  And Fred, perhaps the most proactive in causing trouble, is just disturbed, partially due to having no adult role models, and partially because the word “gay” is so damn scary to him.  These kids are outcasts, just as we all feel when we’re in high school, and they deal with the sorts of issues that real high schoolers go through.  It’s heartbreaking to watch each of them go through their struggles without any real solutions to their problems ever presenting themselves.  But that’s how life goes, and that’s what the film is trying to share with us.

Now, the downside to this format is that the film doesn’t really hold together as much more than a series of vignettes.  Fred’s character isn’t really explored until the last third of the film, and before then his purpose is mostly to just show up and mess up Teddy’s life.  Only in retrospect does he become interesting.  And April’s story is rather clumsily tied into Teddy’s when he confesses his love for her in the latter half, even though the two characters had until then only shared one scene together.  It’s bizarre and lazy, and I probably would have preferred a less linear approach to storytelling, treating each character separately and watching their stories interconnect in small ways as the main focus stays on one character at a time.

As is, though, Palo Alto is a satisfying experience and it does a fine job of giving a realistic portrayal of the high school experience.  These kids are archetypes of the people we all knew growing up, the people we probably should have treated better but didn’t have the empathy to comprehend their pain yet.  Hell, we can all probably find a little something of ourselves in these kids.  I know I did.

Know any other films that convey a true-to-life adolescent experience?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Brick Mansions": A Forgettable Last Hoorah

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Let’s get one thing out in the open right away.  Nobody would give a damn that Brick Mansions exists if Paul Walker hadn’t died.  You know why I know this?  Because I just watched the movie, and I can barely think of anything noteworthy to say about it except that he was in it, and even then I would likely have only made a mental note that this was the guy from The Fast and the Furious and likely wouldn’t have even mentioned it.  But no, Paul Walker’s death was sensationalized when he died in a car accident last winter, right in the middle of what some would call the height of his career, starring in enough action films that were either completed or near enough to completion that he has a decent-sized postmortem filmography.  And yeah, I’ll give the guy credit that he knew how to play a normal everyman amongst larger-than-life action heroes, but that was pretty much the breadth of his acting ability.  He was a character actor that played one character that the young male demographic could identify with, but I didn’t particularly identify with him, so his loss didn’t hit me very hard.

So why did I devote an entire paragraph just there to explaining my ambivalence to Paul Walker?  Well, as I said earlier, Paul Walker is perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this movie.  Brick Mansions is a very generic action flick, and it’s pumped so full with fight scenes and car chases that it takes a full thirty minutes to actually establish what the main conflict of the film is.  In translation, that means that the film’s plot is so flimsy that it had to devote an entire third of its runtime to mindless filler in order to bring itself to feature length runtime standards.  And absolutely none of those fights or chases are memorable in the slightest, resorting to sequences that have been done in so many movies before and will be done again by lazy filmmakers until the end of time.

I suppose I should mention that the film co-stars David Belle, a renowned parkour stuntman, as a convict with aims to rescue his girlfriend from a slum overlord.  Belle is quite good at what he does, sliding around opponents like some sort of human snake and jumping around with unbelievable agility.  That said, though, he’s not much of an actor, which shows even in the cliché-ridden role with which he’s charged.  Walker brings his usual self to his role as a cop with a vendetta against the overlord, but that’s again just slipping into a role that we’re all-too-comfortable with.

The one thing this film does to try and differentiate itself from the generic mold is that it props itself up as a message piece, taking place in an allegorical, near-future Detroit where the classes have been literally separated by a concrete wall and the rich let the poor kill each other with a cold indifference.  Even if this message is more than a little unsubtle, it could have made for a workable movie if it had been incorporated into the storytelling.  Instead, it serves as a backdrop for a traditional damsel-in-distress narrative, and the blatant symbolism of it all is practically shouted at the audience in the last five minutes, seemingly in the hopes that it will come off as a deeper and more intellectual film than it actually is.

Instead, what we have here is a bland, forgettable action romp that will only be remembered because it was one of Paul Walker’s final performances.  Sentimentality can only carry a film so far though, and if that’s the only leg this film has to stand on, then that’s a very sorry looking tripod.

Do you have an opinion on Paul Walker?  Am I too hard on the guy?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

"They Came Together": Dissecting The Rom-Com

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

They Came Together is a weird sort of film, one held together by a flimsy premise, and yet somehow still ends up more or less working as a feature film.  Essentially, the idea here is to take every tired and idiotic romantic comedy trope and lampoon the hell out of it.  And yeah, that is pretty much the running gag for the entire film, and for some reason, it mostly works.  The characters are all shallow archetypes and the cast portraying them feels like a Best of 2000’s SNL reunion show, and they go through the motions of the guy meeting the girl, then falling in love, then breaking up before finally getting back together in the end, and all the while winking to the camera over how stupid the whole enterprise actually is.  Unfortunately, though, for every joke that works, there’s another that doesn’t.

See, the way the film is structured, it feels like a series of sketch comedy bits with the intention of dissecting the romantic comedy formula and showing the audience the gross innards of the fluffiest and most brainless of film genres.  However, the sketches don’t seem to be able to sustain themselves just off that gag for the entire 80 minute runtime, so there are moments where gross-out humor and non-sequiturs take over a scene, and these sequences feel forced and out of place.  Most importantly, they’re often not very funny, which is really the death knell for any comedy.

However, the parts that are funny really do work.  I love the idea of breaking down the stupidity inherent in a genre and exposing it to a wider audience.  As a movie lover, it demonstrates to me that at least some in the industry recognize the inanity of repackaging the same product over and over to give essentially the same experience to an unthinking audience.  I imagine that some folks who take a look at They Came Together will pick it up thinking it’s just another romantic comedy, but come from it seeing just how susceptible they’ve been to Hollywood laziness.

And so, despite some portions that don’t really work as well as I’d like, I’m giving They Came Together a recommendation.  It’s not the greatest spoof ever, but it does an adequate job of getting its point across and the parts that are funny are really damn funny.  And without spoiling any of the jokes, that’s about all I can say about it.  Give this one a look.

Can you think of any romantic comedies that work as more than just brainless fluff?  Name a few in the comments below.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Night Moves": An Emotional Bait-And-Switch

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Night Moves is the kind of plodding, thoughtful film that is immediately going to turn a lot of people off because of its minimalist dialogue and stoic protagonist.  I get that; a lot of people need something to be happening in every shot, and this isn’t a movie for them.  However, once one gets acclimated to the slower pace, it’s easy to get caught up in the raw tension that the film evokes, leaving the audience in a constant state of guessing what’s going to happen next.  One critic called the film “almost Hitchcockian,” and I think that’s a fairly apt description.

This is the story of three environmentally-mind young people who only refer to each other by their first initial: J (Jesse Eisenberg), D (Dakota Fanning), and H (Peter Sarsgaard).  They purchase a boat and seem to be planning something big to do with it.  As more and more information is revealed through dialogue, we as the audience realize that this isn’t a fishing trip; they plan to blow up a dam.  And, surprisingly enough, the film makes us sympathetic to their cause.  They’re only concerned about the harm that the damn is doing to the salmon population, and they want to make a statement that people need to use less energy so that the dam is not necessary for their consumptionist needs.  It’s a fair enough point, and it’s easy to see how they’re pushed to the point of eco-terrorism in a world that doesn’t seem to care.

And the first half of the film focuses on the tension of covertly preparing their illegal deed, whether it’s buying enough explosive fertilizer or navigating a populated park with a boat-sized bomb, the risk these folks face is eternally palpable.  Jesse Eisenberg pulls off a surprisingly understated performance with only subtle indications to his inner thoughts, and Peter Sarsgaard carries the bravado of a man who may not actually know as much about what he’s doing as he says.  The real breakout performance, though, is Dakota Fanning, who comes off as confident and stalwart at first, but when the shit hits the fan, she begins to slowly crumble.

And shit does hit the fan, for the second half of the film shifts tone once their deed has been carried out.  The consequences of the terrorist act suddenly become very real, and the guilt that begins to consume the characters becomes overwhelming.  Director Kelly Reichardt smartly limits the perspective to J for the remainder of the film, emphasizing the isolation and fear inherent with keeping their crime secret, as well as having to worry whether his compatriots will crack under the same pressure that he feels.  This culminates in a climax that at once seems shocking, yet inevitable.

The film’s epilogue is bit strange and unnecessary in light of the climax, but it’s probably unfair to judge the entirety of the film based on the oddness of the last five minutes.  Overall, Night Moves is a haunting tale of dramatic tension and guilt.  The purpose is not to watch the characters in motion, but to feel the weight of the few moves they make in a life-altering course of events.  Even when they realize their actions caused more damage than they knew, the characters remain sympathetic, which is amazing considering that they are in fact the villains.  Night Moves is well worth your time.

Who knew that Dakota Fanning could act?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"Draft Day": Ready For Some Football?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

There are few things that I care about less than sports.  However, one of those things is the politics that go into building a sports team.  I know a lot of people get really hyped about seeing their favorite NCAA players make it into the pro teams, but to me, that’s even more boring than the game itself.  So what’s the big home video release this week?  Draft Day, the story of a general manager struggling with decisions over who to draft for the Cleveland Browns.  My enthusiasm was through the roof.

But you know what?  On a technical level, the movie isn’t half bad.  Not only does it do a decent job of conveying the gravity of the choices inherent in the final hours leading up to the all-important first round of draft picks, but it also portrays a cast of characters that are worth giving a damn about.  Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of these characters are deep.  The main character is Sonny Weaver Jr., played by Kevin Costner, and his story arc is the standard spiel about proving himself as a good manager, even when his choices seem questionable even to himself.  Jennifer Garner plays a love interest to the best of her limited ability.  Dennis Leary plays the Browns’ coach who argues with every decision Weaver makes.  Throw in a few to-be-drafted players to make us care about who makes the final cut, and we have a working, if fairly standard, coming-of-age sports drama.

Now, one would think that the negotiations between managers would be a dull affair, but the film constantly lets you know that the clock is ticking.  At the start of almost every scene transition, there’s a countdown to signify when the draft is going to begin, and as the number gets lower, the tension gets higher.  Stylized split-screen edits were a smart move that make telephone negotiations into visual collages, with characters walking into each other’s frames and back into their own reality without the slightest hiccup to reduce the tension.  It was a much appreciated touch for what could have been some truly bland visual storytelling.

Praise aside, though, the film does suffer from being a bit too much of a victim of genre conventions.  We all know that Weaver is going to make the right calls in the end because the right calls are telegraphed to us from a mile away.  The coach is going to be humbled by Weaver’s climactic genius, just as we’ve seen a million naysayers in a million movies before be proven wrong.  And of course Garner’s character is going to end up with Weaver, because her character literally serves no other purpose within the narrative.   It’s the classic cowboy transposed into a sports picture, saving the day from the evil Seahawks general manager and riding off into the sunset with his girl by his side.

So is Draft Day a good movie?  Eh, I’d say good enough.  It’s nothing spectacular, and it probably doesn’t help that personally I find the subject matter a bit on the dull side.  If you have any interest in football, I’d say there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.  Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be interested enough to want to watch it in the first place.

Have a favorite sports flick?  Let me know in the comments below.