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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Land Ho!": A Film About Nothing

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Land Ho! is generally what you’d expect from a low-budget film making its rounds on the indie circuit.  It’s about two older guys, taking a vacation in Iceland, seeing the sights and exchanging humorous, naturalistic banter along the way.  Though the characters are likeable and the setting is gorgeous, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten a critical piece of crafting a narrative; there’s no damn story to this thing!

Our two main characters are Mitch and Colin.  Mitch is basically what you would get if you aged Walter from The Big Lebowski to his sixties and turned his lechery up one-hundredfold.  Colin is the more grounded, sensible, less adventurous type.  Mitch pulls Colin along on an adventure to Iceland, because why the hell not, and as the two talk and have quaint montage moments, we get pieces of their pre-retirement backstories that humanize them and make them relatable to the film’s primary demographic of retirement-age folks.  This is all well and good, as the actors playing our two leads have a rich chemistry between them, so the friendship feels genuine if not simply an enactment of the performers’ genuine fondness for one another.

However, the film lacks any sense of conflict to drive it forward.  The only time the film ever comes close is when the two friends get into an argument two-thirds of the way through, and that gets resolved so quickly that it hardly seems to matter, even with respect to the film’s thankfully short runtime.  The main focus on the film is to take advantage of the gorgeous scenery that Iceland has to offer, but this has the effect of making the film feel like a glorified travel brochure rather than a fictional feature film.

And that’s all there really is to say about it.  There isn’t any substance here to analyze, and the film seems content to just be a character-driven travelogue without any conflict or narrative.  I’m sure that some folks in the target demographic will be able to vicariously enjoy the Icelandic countryside through the main characters that are so archetypal that one could easily identify oneself in them, but this is certainly not a film that’s going to entertain a wider audience.  It’s not bad for what it is, but what it is lacks so much ambition as to be mostly pointless.

Can’t even think of a good comment starter for this one.  Old people, am I right?  Comments below and whatnot.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"A Most Wanted Man": Hoffman's Swan Song

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

No one could have predicted that A Most Wanted Man would feature Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final role, but I can’t think of a better way that he could have taken his final bow.  Hoffman’s primary talent as an actor was to take harsh, unsympathetic characters and portray them with such humanizing nuance that we cannot help but be sympathetic.  With the exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote, I don’t think Hoffman has ever done a finer job of making the unlovable just a little bit understandable.

Hoffman plays a German intelligence agent in Hamburg named Gunther Bachmann, attempting to hunt down a Chechnyan refugee, Issa Karpov, whom he believes may be involved in plans for future terrorist activities because he is the son of a known launderer of terrorist funds.  Hoffman’s espionage team also begins tracking a local Muslim philanthropist whom they believe funnels money to fund terrorist organizations.  Gunther seeks to manipulate the two targets into exchanging funds, coercing the help of a nervous banker and Issa’s own attorney in order to achieve these ends, all while trying to navigate debriefings with American agents who seem a little too interested in the case.

The plot itself is hard to describe much further, due to its relative complexity and reliance on surprises.  However, what I will say is that initial perceptions of several key characters are not always as they appear to be, and the lines become a bit blurred when determining who is truly a villain and who is only doing villainous things in order to further a righteous agenda.  Hoffman walks this line perfectly as Gunther, a cynically unapologetic spy who seems to live entirely on cigarettes and coffee and has no life outside of his obsessive job.  He and his team are not legally a part of German law enforcement, so he has license to illegally use surveillance and is not above blackmailing or kidnapping people in order to get what he wants.  However, he only does those things because he wants to prevent another terrorist event from happening.  He takes no joy in what he does, and the film does nothing to make his tactics any more redeemable.  He’s only doing his job in the best way he knows how and hoping that the world ends up a safer place because of it.

The film is really only hindered by a few weaker performances, notably Rachel McAdams as Issa’s attorney and Willem Dafoe as the banker.  Dafoe doesn’t do a horrible job, but he mostly feels like he’s been miscast, forcibly restrained from being a more animated character that wouldn’t have fit in this film.  Again, not a bad performance, but one that I think should have been filled by a different breed of character actor.  However, the real weak link her is McAdams, who, while not terrible, feels a bit flat compared to her fellow performers.  She doesn’t portray much emotion beyond blind concern for Issa’s well-being and guilt for being manipulated against him, and her inability to convey a convincing German accent leaves a lot to be desired.  While not outright bad, her lack of ability is especially noticeable when in scenes where Hoffman dominates not just out of his own gravitas, but out of necessity to carry the scene forward.

Those minor quibbles aside, A Most Wanted Man is a damn good espionage thriller that will leave you shocked at some points, intrigued at others, and disgusted in gut-wrenching ways by the end.  This one is definitely worth your time.

Have a favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman film?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Jersey Boys": Sure Ain't Like The Good Ol' Days

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

I generally write these reviews immediately after watching the film, so that my impressions are fresh and my feelings aren’t clouded by the passage of time.  And after watching Jersey Boys, only one feeling comes to mind: exhaustion.  Jersey Boys is a marathon of a film, obligatorily moving from plot point to plot point in the lives and times of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, from their humble, slightly nefarious beginnings, to their meteoric rise to fame, to the events that drove the group apart, and finally to Frankie Valli’s struggling solo career.  To a fan of The Four Seasons, I’m sure this is just a gold mine of fascinating performances that provide real insight into the band’s amazing story.  For the rest of us… Well, I can certainly think of better ways to spend two hours.

The film starts off strong enough, establishing Valli as a down-on-his-luck kid growing up in New Jersey who, through the help of a seedy mentor named Tommy DiVito, comes to join a band called The Four Lovers.  The band struggles for a few years, playing dives and small stages, until songwriter Bob Gaudio joins the group and the band starts producing hits under the new name The Four Seasons.  Until this point, the film has a period-piece feel to it, emphasizing the 1950s atmosphere and probably making more than a few grandparents nostalgic for the good ol’ days.  This is a Clint Eastwood film, after all.

However, the film makes a notable shift in tone once the band becomes famous.  It starts montaging through the group’s greatest hits, and suddenly we’re seeing the life and times of a partying group of successful musicians.  We see Frankie Valli’s home life fall apart due to his perpetually prolonged absences, creating a conflict that, while nothing we haven’t seen before in this genre, is still sympathetic.  This is all well and good, but then the film stops and drops a bombshell on us, telling us that it hasn’t all been paradise.

The film then rewinds itself two years into the past, and starts portraying events that lead up to the band eventually breaking up in the events shortly after the bombshell event.  Now, if this had served a narrative purpose other than showing two completely different sets of events with thematic similarities, I would have been on board.  If, for example, the film had deigned to reframe certain events so that we were shown how the film had misdirected the audience into thinking everything was swell, that would have been fine.  But to show a parallel narrative after a key turning point in order to show that point’s significance is just lazy writing.

The remaining half hour of the film dwells on Frankie Valli’s post-Seasons career, working hard to support his family and finally be there for his daughter.  His redemption arc in the eyes of his daughter falls more than a bit flat because up until this point, she hasn’t been a relevant character, and so it’s impossible to care about her or her feelings for her father.  Instead, we’re supposed to take on faith that Valli is trying his best to reconnect with the teenager, but the focus is so much on Valli’s effort that we never see the pay-off of whether he actually succeeded.

The film’s epilogue is over-long to the point where I was pacing my living room just waiting for the damn thing to end.  I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters, who had seemed to somehow become more two-dimensional as the film went on, and I just didn’t care about the history lesson about a band I’m only marginally familiar with.  Maybe this film just wasn’t for me, but I somehow get the feeling that the intended audience for this film is people who may just be trying to catch a glimpse of times long past.  I can’t begrudge that, but for the rest of us, this film will likely be forgotten by history.

The Four Seasons.  Discuss or something in the comments below.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Interstellar": Fantastic Until It Isn't

Now In Theaters
Interstellar is a pretty good science fiction film… until it isn’t.  Director Christopher Nolan has attempted here to create a science fiction movie that grounds itself as much as possible in real physical and spatial phenomena and how humanity might experience it… until he decides not to.  This is one of those bizarre cases where the film is much better if you do not judge it as a sum of its parts, but look at each of its major setpieces in isolation and judge them independently of one another.  When the film succeeds, it really succeeds, exhibiting Nolan’s talents for creating tangible tension with an exquisite eye for detail and emphasizing the huge stakes of a given situation.  However, Nolan also attempts to tell a story about the human condition, and that’s where the film goes off the rails.

In a near-distant future where a blight has gradually destroyed most remaining crops on Earth, Coop is a struggling farmer who pines for the days when he was a pilot and engineer for NASA.  The current political climate has shut down NASA in favor of focusing on agrarian sustenance, seemingly grounding the potential astronaut for good.  However, through some circumstances that the film winkingly refers to as “supernatural,” Coop ends up discovering the last underground remnants of NASA just as they are about to launch their final mission into space in hopes of finding a new home for humanity.  Coop is recruited, and he and his crew of scientists launch off to explore three planets in a far-off galaxy.

Once the crew enters space, the film ends up playing out like something that Arthur C. Clarke could have written, relying on hard science (or at least a layperson’s understanding of it) to create setpieces of spatial phenomena such as wormholes, planets circling a collapsed star, and relativistic time slippages.  The former two inspire the type of visual awe that really make the film worthwhile, and the latter adds a unique twist to the time constraints necessary to make the relocation of humanity a success.  As the film moves from setpiece to setpiece, it does try to throw a few dramatic twists at you that were so obviously telegraphed that I was able to predict them, but the plot ends up taking a backseat to the spectacle for the majority of the runtime, so any narrative weakness can be forgiven in favor of the film’s dedication to scientific reality as cinematic adventure.

That is, until the film’s third act and final vignette, where that dedication is unceremoniously thrown out the window in favor of an exceedingly contrived and stupid twist ending.  It relies on suspension of disbelief so much beyond what the film has conditioned its audience to accept up until that point, relying on science that even I as a non-physicist know is completely bullshit.  It even goes so far as to claim that love is a physical force in the universe in the same vein as gravity, which just feels bizarre and out of place in a film that had until then relied on realism to drive its plot rather than sentiment.  It requires such leaps of faith, logic, and basic understandings of the physical laws of the universe that it breaks the emotional payoff the narrative is supposed to provide.

That said, though, Interstellar is a film worth seeing for the parts when it really does work.  At three hours long, I am tempted to suggest that the film would have been better if cut down for time, but any parts that were narratively unnecessary were the most entertaining, and the worst parts were the most critical to the resolution of the main narrative arc.  Christopher Nolan has pushed out of his depth here, trying to create an experience as awe-inspiring as Inception, and only succeeding in so far as creating a work of visual wonderment, leaving the story elements a thematically disjointed mess.  To see the spectacle on the big screen is alone worth the price of admission; just don’t be surprised when the final act betrays that sense of wonder.

Favorite Nolan flick.  (Not The Dark Knight Rises.) Comments.  Go!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Hercules": Inherently Flawed, Inevitably Likeable

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

This is one of those films that many people felt was a betrayal of their expectations, primarily because the trailers made it seem as though The Rock was going to be taking on mythological creatures as the mighty Hercules.  Instead, the film uses most of the trailer footage within the first five minutes, as a voiceover narration tells the tale of Hercules’s birth and epic feats, only to have the rug pulled out from under our feet to reveal that those myths were merely embellishments of more realistic feats pulled off by the “real” Hercules and his band of misfit mercenaries.  This left a lot of movie-goers with cinematic blue balls, as it became clear that traditional army warfare was going to supplant their high fantasy expectations.  And frankly, that’s a bit of a shame, because the film taken on its own merits isn’t all that bad.

See, I understand wanting to misdirect the audience in order to get their butts into the seats on opening weekend, but if you are going to subvert their expectations, you need to do so in a way that makes what they were expecting miniscule by comparison.  Turning the Herculean feats into the marketing tools of a misfit band of blades for hire is a neat idea, but there’s no way that it can provide the level of spectacle that modern blockbuster audiences have come to expect.  This isn’t helped by the fact that the violence is kept relatively bloodless in order to maintain a PG-13 rating; a hard R might have been able to deliver a level of excitement that would elevate the film’s action out of the depths of mediocrity.  It’s not bad action, mind you, just very obviously restrained.

What makes the film work, though, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a very likeable and humble Hercules, and he has an eclectic cast of supporting characters that, while archetypal to an ever predictable fault, are still fun to watch.  My personal favorite was Ian McShane’s warrior seer, who may or may not be able to predict the future, and yet almost always seems to be right.  Everyone has humorous quips at just the right moments to break the tension, and because of that, what would otherwise have been a slogging, by-the-numbers affair shows a bit of personality.

Alas, it’s still not a great movie.  The film teases that the opposing army has centaurs, and given that the film has already shown its hand that mythological creatures don’t actually exist in this narrative, the revelation that the “centaurs” are just soldiers on horseback is more than a little predictable.  The climax of the film also has a huge plot-convenient event take place off-screen, and it robs Hercules’s character arc of some of the gravity necessary to really pull together.  That said, it’s not as if you’ve never seen this type of story before, so the fact that it’s so familiar may be enough to pull some viewers through to the point of catharsis.  (Think Kratos’s backstory in God of War, and you basically have the broad strokes of Hercules’s tragic origins.)

All in all, Hercules is something that I’m definitely glad I didn’t go to see in the theater, but didn’t mind spending an evening with.  For what it is, it’s a decent action film with some likeable performances and a plot that, while pretty brainless, does its job at entertaining.  Give this one a rental, and then promptly forget everything about it while still retaining positive feelings about the experience.

This was the second Hercules film this year, and both were box office flops.  Have people just had enough of sword-and-sandles myth-making?  Or is that simply indicative of the films’ quality?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Maleficent": Disney Flinches At The Trigger

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Can we all just take a moment to acknowledge how weird it is that a film like Maleficent even exists?  Seriously. Disney, one of the most stringent companies when it comes to their image and the fairy tale charm of their properties, produced a film that not only revises the history and backstory of Sleeping Beauty, one of their keystone stories, but also portrays Maleficent as a tortured anti-hero.  Even on paper this sounds insane.  After all, Maleficent is practically Disney lore’s equivalent to Satan, being evil just to be evil, and that’s what has made her such an eternal character; she was designed to scare the shit out of you.  And now we have a film that portrays her as the good guy?  It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here we are.

The film starts off by telling you that everything you think you know about the tale of Sleeping Beauty is a lie.  The first film is essentially a piece of anti-Maleficent propaganda, and this is the real history as it should be told.  Maleficent is a winged fairy in a magical forest kingdom sharing a border with a human kingdom.  She meets a young man named Stefan, and the two grow close and develop feelings for one another.  Fast forward a few years later, and an overzealous king seeking to invade the fairy kingdom offers his throne to anyone who can kill the fairy queen, who just happens to be Maleficent.  Stefan returns to the fairy kingdom, drugs Maleficent, and cuts off her wings while she sleeps.  He then becomes king, and a broken, grief-stricken Maleficent vows revenge.

The rest of the film recounts the supposed true events of the Sleeping Beauty story, following Maleficent’s character arc from revenge-driven villainess to sympathetic mother figure.  If that last sentence gives you pause, it should, because it really makes the whole film fall apart.  See, Maleficent for some reason decides to watch over the young Aurora as she grows up, presumably to make sure she survives long enough to have the sleeping curse take hold over her.  Throughout this process, Maleficent begins to develop maternal feelings for the child, essentially becoming her “fairy godmother.”  This has the effect of gradually sapping away any sense of fun that the film ultimately has.  The best moments are when Angelina Jolie shows off just how evil Maleficent is or just how tortured Maleficent feels, but as the maternal instinct takes her over, the film becomes a bland by-the-numbers redemption story.

I was intrigued by the concept of Maleficent, but I didn’t think it would be something that Disney would be willing to follow through with.  And I was right.  It would be fine if Disney wanted to tell a dark tale from the perspective of one of their iconic villains, but it almost seems like the film’s producers started to get just that and decided to back-pedal into more comfortable and conventional territory.  Instead, this reimagining ends up feeling like a half-hearted attempt at making us sympathetic to what was originally a deliciously evil monster, and that’s something that nobody was asking for.  Don’t bother with this one.

Partially due to the commercial success of Maleficent, Disney has commissioned live-action reimaginings of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, as well as an Alice In Wonderland sequel.  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"Life of Crime": Competently Un-Noteworthy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Life of Crime suffers a handicap right out the gate by featuring many of the same characters as the Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.  While not a direct prequel to that film, it is based on the same series of novels written by the prolific Elmore Leonard.  Mos Def (here credited as Yasiin Bey) replaces Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell; John Hawkes takes over the role of Louis for Robert DeNiro; Bridget Fonda’s Melanie is swapped out for Isla Fisher’s take on the character.  All three are capable actors, but they don’t bring the same charisma that Jackie Brown’s cast brought to the table, and the inevitable comparison makes this film a little hard to judge in a vacuum.  However, despite not living up to Tarantino-level standards, the film works in its own right, even if it is fairly standard in the process.

Ordell and Louis are just starting out as a couple of criminals, and they decide that their first big kidnapping should be of Mickey Dawson (played by Jennifer Aniston).  Mickey is the wife of Frank Dawson (played by Tim Robbins), a wealthy man with a secret bank account full of funds he has embezzled from his company.  After the crooks nab Mickey, though, they hit a snag in the negotiations: Frank was planning on divorcing Mickey anyway, and is now with his manipulative girlfriend, Melanie.  Now it’s up to Ordell and Louis to figure out how to still turn a profit on this criminal enterprise.

Now, this is mostly a lighthearted affair, not so much in that it’s a comedy, but that the characters are generally casual and there’s never really a sense of urgency to any of the conflict.  Scenes mostly exist to simply allow some well-written characters to interact with each other and the plot takes a backseat to the banter.  This isn’t really a bad thing, but the film is missing a creative edge to put a distinctive stamp on its product.  It could be that the script needed more comedic or dramatic tuning; it could be that the acting was too generic and safe; it could be that the cinematography and overall direction were lacking in the stylized finesse we’ve come to expect from the crime genre.  The unfortunate side-effect, though, is that the finished product feels incomplete, or rather unremarkable.

That isn’t to say that Life of Crime is a bad film by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s perfectly competent.  For all that the film lacks, that shouldn’t really be a judgment on what is there.  Unfortunately, though, the good stuff isn’t so good that I feel like I can adequately comment on it.  If ever a film were just “okay,” this one is it.  I’d say that you can give this one a rental, especially if you want an unofficial Jackie Brown prequel.  But I don’t think it’s anything you can’t live without seeing, with so many much superior versions of the same premise and genre.

Have your own favorite crime comedy?  Let me know in the comments below.