Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Starred Up": A Hard Look At Hard Time

Now Available On DVD and Blu-Ray

Starred Up places a lens on an aspect of society that many of us don’t like to think about, and that is the incarceration system.  We don’t like to think about criminals or what happens behind bars, because we think of them as dangerous and potentially deserving of whatever happens where we cannot see.  Starred Up takes a definite stance against prisoner abuse, and goes so far as to demonstrate that a philosophy of punishment only further entrenches anti-authority mindsets in violent offenders.  And yet, despite its message that rehabilitation is the best method by which to handle prisoners, the film never shies away from the fact that its characters are violent criminals.  Not criminals with hearts of gold.  Not criminals with any sort of redemptive arc where a happy ending shows them reentering society.  These are just criminals with antisocial and pathological communication issues, who react to their problems with violence rather than words, making them at once sympathetic yet never once worthy of the label “good.”

Our protagonist is Eric, a juvenile offender so violent that he had to be removed from the juvenile detention facility and entered into an adult prison.  Our first glances at him are a casual admittance to the prison, as he has been through this all before multiple times, and upon entering his cell, the first thing he does is fashion a shiv from a toothbrush and razor.  Multiple violent episodes follow, almost all out of instinct and self-defense, and yet he is persistently treated as a purposeful offender by the prison staff.  Only one person wishes to help him with his impulses rather than punish him for them, and that is the prison’s counselor, a state-mandated position whom the rest of the staff believes coddles the prisoners.  And yet, the only times we see Eric really come to terms with his anger and his outbursts are when in the counselor’s presence, hinting at a therapeutic process that the other conditions of prison life make it hard for Eric to fully realize.

In the same prison is Eric’s father, convicted of a life sentence and a constant absentee from his son’s life.  It is obvious from the moment the two set eyes on one another that there are a plethora of emotions they wish to express, and yet are unable to due to their poor communication skills.  Violence is the only way they have been conditioned to handle the most remotely uncomfortable emotions, and the crux of the film’s character-centric arc is watching to two struggle to relate as Eric begins to integrate the counselor’s advice into his behavioral patterns.

Starred Up admittedly touches upon a subject that I am personally passionate about, so I’m probably more willing than many to overlook some of the film’s drier dialogue or underdeveloped supporting cast.  However, just because a film is flawed does not mean it’s not worth seeing, and Starred Up is most assuredly worth your attention.  It shines a light on some of the most reprehensible people in our society and asks the question of whether they deserve to be treated like people, and whether we reinforce undesirable behavior by treating them as subhuman.  This is powerful stuff, and I whole-heartedly recommend this film to anyone and everyone.

What are your thoughts on the treatment of prisoners in the modern incarceration system?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"Dear White People": A Film America Needs Right Now

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

An early scene in the film says that in order to make a point about an audience’s flaws, berating them is not the way to do it.  The key is to turn the camera on them so that they can see the flaws for themselves.  That is exactly the method by which Dear White People delivers its social satire, turning its camera on the so-called college elite to demonstrate that racism isn’t nearly so dead as many folks seem to think.  This is accomplished by stepping into the shoes of four black college students, each with a unique and interlocking story that has as much to do with grappling their own identities as it does with navigating the stereotypes and expectations society places on black shoulders.

The first of these students is Sam, a film student who walks the line between being an anarchist revolutionary and getting the world to see her as more than the “angry black woman” stereotype.  Next is Toby, her ex-boyfriend obsessed with appealing to a broad demographic for political advancement, often to the detriment of his own interests and loyalty to his black peers.  Third is Coco, a woman with naturally refined speech who feels the need to “black it up” so as to garner attention and Youtube hits.  And finally, there is Lionel, a gay black student who doesn’t feel at home with either the white gays or the black population, as his identity doesn’t entirely jive with either clique.  These characters’ journeys are placed in the context of a campus housing crisis, wholly fabricated by the administration to split up the predominantly black Armstrong-Parker House.  Characters fall on various sides of the conflict, and nobody’s position is so rigid as to be dichotomous.

Like most satire, the comedy comes from observation of the absurdity of many of the film’s racially fueled situations, but that absurdity is something that white people should really keep an eye out for.  Dear White People is not just a catchy title; the film is quite literally pointing out a list of shitty things white people do because they believe racism is over, and shows it from a black perspective so as to communicate exactly why that particular behavior is so shitty.  The film is never mean-spirited or accusatory; it just demonstrates common black experiences, all the while emphasizing that there is no such thing as one defining black experience.

This is the first film from writer-director Justin Simien, and he reminds me a lot of an early Spike Lee.  The upset over the poor state of race relations is similar to that seen in Do The Right Thing, and while the film never escalates to the level of full riot (which the film pointedly acknowledges is something the media thinks only black people do), it does vent its frustration with pinpoint accuracy.  It’s tempting to label the villains who throw a blackface-themed Halloween party as hyperbolous, until the credits begin to roll and show actual photos of college blackface parties from within the past decade.

In short, Dear White People is precisely the type of film America needs right now.  It uses its wit and charm to diffuse any accusatory notions, yet is sharp and cutting in its critique of white society’s reduction of black people to dehumanizing stereotypes.  No one film is going to ease the tensions that plague our country, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Have a favorite Spike Lee movie?  Think Justin Simien will carry on that great work?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"John Wick": Among The Best Of Its Genre

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

On its surface, John Wick seems to be little more than another installment in the often mindless generic action genre.  Get a recognizable name to hold a gun and blam, instant hit on a slow October weekend.  And yet, John Wick aspires to be more than a simple cash-grab for its studio.  Oh no, John Wick is made with a passion that is often lacking in its bullet-frenzied brethren, and it elevates this film from being just another forgettable flick to being a template for what future action films should aspire to replicate.

The set-up is actually rather deceptively simple: a group of hooligans break into the home of a man who they think disrespected them, beat him up, steal his vintage car, and kill his dog.  Little did these idiots know that they just pissed off one of the world’s greatest retired assassins, John Wick, and now they have invoked his wrathful vengeance.  The leader of the gang is the son of a powerful Russian mobster, so John must fight through henchmen and contract killers in order to exact his revenge.

This simple set-up works well primarily for two reasons.  First, the character of John Wick is precisely as complex as he needs to be.  This film recognizes that it is not a form of high art, nor does it aspire to be, but the film’s first act is spent establishing John, making him sympathetic through a backstory involving the loss of his wife to an illness, yet also emphasizing through a slow and methodical reveal that he is not a person you want to fuck with.  Given his poor track record, one might be skeptical of Keanu Reeves filling the protagonist’s shoes, but if there is one thing he is good at portraying, it is stoic determinism, and that’s all that John needs to be effective.

The second and probably most important thing that the film does is an astounding amount of world-building with a minimal amount of exposition.  John’s conflict with the mob is the primary plot-driving force, but it’s clear that all the film’s characters have a history with one another.  We don’t need the Cliff’s Notes of their lives in order to make that clear, but we can piece together their relationships through conversation, mannerisms, or even just by recognizing the character actors filling the roles.  This is all constructed around a pseudo-fantastical underground criminal society that operates by clear rules and etiquette that are never bluntly explained, but are simply apparent through character behavior and clever direction.

But even without the superb structure, writing and character direction, this film has some really great gunfighting scenes, where Reeves combines his martial artistry with some expert gunplay that make the fights both engaging and intense.  Sure, his superhuman abilities are somewhat unrealistic and therefore removes some tension from the fights, but this isn’t a film where one worries about the fate of its hero.  Rather, we’re here to watch him kick ass and take names in a righteous cause of revenge, and as an empowerment fantasy this not only works, but it works superbly.

In short, I really enjoyed John Wick.  It has some truly unique qualities that make it stand out in my mind as among the best in the gunplay action subgenre, and it’s a flick that I’ll surely revisit when I just need to sit back and enjoy something good.  But if you haven’t seen it yet, then you probably should.

Favorite Keanu Reeves flick?  Leave yours in the comments.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Annie (2014)": Grossly Classist Propaganda

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

After watching this remake of Annie, I can’t help but picture a boardroom of wealthy executives, cynically tossing ideas around on how to tackle the public perception that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor.  “The people need a movie to assure them that the root of wealth is hard work and sacrifice, and that anyone can achieve prosperity if only they believe,” says one shady figure. 

“But people won’t see a film unless it has brand recognition,” says another. 

“What about that musical, Annie?” proclaims a third.  “It already deals with class disparity, and brings together the rich and poor in a heartwarming tale of family.”

“Yes!  But seeing a little ginger kid isn’t going to motivate the plebs to spend their minimal disposable income.  We need to make Annie look like them.  Annie needs to be black.”

“Great!  Then we can market this as a progressive step for the film industry rather than a transparent attempt to garner buzz and appeal to a demographic we intend to propagandize to.”

“Speaking of propaganda, I think we’re going to have to change some plot details.  People can’t relate to the Great Depression because the Internet didn’t exist then.  We have to modernize.  That will allow us to showcase impractical and excessive wealth to transform Annie’s journey into one of shallow wish fulfillment.”

“Imagine how much product placement we can get out of that!  And let’s make sure to insert some satirical jabs at exactly that practice so that the masses will think we’re hip and self-aware.”

“We’ll need to make sure the script is rife with phrases akin to pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, so that Daddy Warbucks doesn’t seem like he’s too entitled.  In fact, Warbucks’s name needs to go.  Let’s make him Will Sacks.  You know, like sacks of cash.  People might think that’s clever, but we really just don’t want to associate wealth with war more than people already do.”

“His character arc should involve nothing more than growing to love and care for Annie, perhaps with him running in a political race for a position that will clearly only feed his ego.  That way, when he inevitably withdraws in order to spend time with Annie in his affluence, he will seem like a better person.  We absolutely cannot allow any of the original musical’s implication that Warbucks becoming more charitable toward the poor will enhance his character.  In fact, throw in a line about how hand-outs are bad!”

“Speaking of the fact that this is a musical, does anyone want to shell out the cash to hire good singers, an experienced musical director, or even a decent choreographer?”

“Nah!  People won’t notice if we spend the entire budget on big name actors without consideration of their fitness for the roles.  Slap enough zeros on the check, and big names like Jaime Foxx, Rose Byrne, and Cameron Diaz will swallow their pride and peddle this shit.  Their presence alone should get some asses in the theater seats.  Only musical nerds will notice if the production quality is terrible.”

“So, just to recap, we’re going to produce a remake of a musical that originally had intentions of breaching the class gap, sanitize it so that wealth seems absurdly amazing, instantly attainable, and consequence-free, then assemble the pieces with no real care so that we can make a propaganda piece promoting the idea of a degree of upward mobility that 99% of people could never hope to realize?”

“That’s the idea!”

But the executives were wrong in their arrogance, and the film bombed happily ever after.  Fuck. This. Shit.

EDIT: I initially misidentified Cameron Diaz as Charlize Theron. That has been rectified.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Exodus: Gods and Kings": Dull Spectacle Overwhelms A Dull Film

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

To address the elephant in the room, casting exclusively white people in a film about the Biblical exodus from Egypt is a particularly stupid move in the 21st century.  Given the problematic history of Hollywood productions whitewashing Biblical characters in order to preserve the unfounded belief that Christian heroes were somehow whiter than the people of that time and place likely were, it is exceedingly inappropriate to misrepresent the racial diversity inherent in that setting.  Hell, even casting Christian Bale as Moses is a stretch, considering exactly how NOT Jewish he looks.  However, this film doesn’t need racial politics to drag it down, because the film’s poor execution does that well enough without any of the surrounding controversy.

Remember the plotline of The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt?  Well, lo and behold, we’re going to adopt that exact same interpretation of Exodus here again, right down to Moses and Pharaoh being adopted brothers, a detail that is ungrounded in the source material but is somehow now mandatory for film adaptation.  And the film seems to know this on some level, because it devotes next to no effort in developing characters or interesting dialogue.  Clocking in at two and a half hours, one would think that there would be some opportunity to know who these characters are, other than the stock versions of Moses and Ramses and various nameless supporting cast that we’ve seen so many times before.  And yet, every actor’s performance is layered in so much haughty stoicism that everyone simply seems bored with the material, going through the motions so that we can justify the monumental Ten Plagues set-pieces.

Director Ridley Scott’s later career has been marred by emphasizing style over substance, crafting visually spectacular scenes with the latest computer technology but letting the story and characters necessary to make them impactful fall by the wayside.  Exodus: Gods and Kings feels like the epitome of that sentiment, except now the visual spectacle doesn’t even rise to the bar of memorability that something like Prometheus attains.  The most interesting thing Scott conjures for this film is an army of crocodiles to kill people and make the Nile bloody, thereby creating a uniquely realized reason for the waters to turn red.  However, that is where the creativity starts and stops.  Every other plague or miracle plays out pretty much exactly how you would expect, making the whole experience dry and dull, not to mention painfully drawn out.

Having just spent over two hours watching this piece of crap, I honestly can’t think of much more to say about it.  It’s the Exodus story, but sucked dry of any emotional weight that would make the story interesting, with only computer generated rehashes of familiar scenes acting as the film’s raison d’etre.  In short, this is a bad movie, and you should most definitely skip it.

Have a favorite Exodus film?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Top Five": Chris Rock's Best Film

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Chris Rock has had a bit of a shaky career when it comes to making film directing, with previous attempts Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife coming off as passable at best.  But with Top Five, Chris Rock seems to have hit on something, probably precisely because it feels so genuine.  Whereas his previous films tried to mold Rock’s persona into a scripted performance, this film embraces the type of style that Rock is most suited for, and that’s stand-up comedy.  Sure, the film is a bit meandering and tangential at times, but think about how stand-up is delivered, and that’s usually how it goes.  Eventually, Rock works his way back to the narrative through-line of the film, but the vignettes that break up the structure actually seem to enhance what would otherwise be a pretty standard rom-com narrative.

Rock plays a partially autobiographical character named Andre Allen, and the film follows him as he tries to juggle releasing a serious dramatic film, being involved in a reality TV wedding, and convincing the world to take him seriously and forget about his wildly successful comedy franchise where we played a wisecracking talking bear.  Sitting opposite to Andre’s rants is Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a journalist looking to shed some light on Andre despite all the tabloid buzz surrounding him.  What ends up transpiring is pretty transparently predictable, as the two begin to realize a chemistry that ultimately leads to Andre re-embracing his comedic roots.  And you know what, that works just fine, because the characters are likeable, and the conflicts they work through are relatable and cathartic when they reach resolution.

What makes this film stand apart is how the narrative will sometimes take a break so that Andre can tell an anecdote that will be visually interpreted through flashback and celebrity cameos.  This is what is either going to make you love or hate this film.  These asides are less akin to something you’d see in Family Guy and more like a narrative one would hear in a stand-up performance being acted out.  Usually, these side stories are pretty funny, and it’s nice to see Chris Rock adhering to his storytelling strengths.  However, much like a stand up narrative, the return back to the main plotline can be jarring, as the story is suddenly over and we remember that there’s actually greater narrative.

However, I think Rock makes it work.  It definitely won’t be the type of narrative structure that many people find engaging, particularly those with attention spans short enough that the vignettes will distract from the plot rather than enhance the characters, but if you want to see the cinematic equivalent of a stand-up comedy show, Chris Rock seems to have delivered exactly that.

In fact, the film reminds me of the show Louie in that respect, though Chris Rock and Louis C.K. aren’t all that similar in their comedy.  Any thoughts on that?  Leave them in the comments below.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"The Book of Life": Beautiful Yet Forgettable

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Book of Life is basically a microcosm of all the best and worst aspects of modern children’s animated feature films.  At times, it bursts with creative energy, as its obvious adoration of Mexican culture can sweep you off your feet.  At other times, it falls back on unnecessary pop culture tropes, trying much too hard to make the film relatable to the lowest common denominator.  The result is a somewhat bland film that is wrapped in gorgeous art direction, but does the visual marvel of the film make up for the film’s missteps?

To start with the bland, the film’s story is not much to write home about.  The two gods of the underworld decide to place a wager over which of two friends will marry their childhood friend, Maria.  The first is Joaquin, an egotistic warrior living in his father’s shadow, who means well, but has no actual courage, as he relies on a magic amulet to make himself invincible.  The second is Manolo, who comes from a family of bullfighters, yet wishes to be a musician, but is afraid of disgracing his family by following his dreams.  Manolo is our obvious hero, while Joaquin is the unwitting pawn of the more evil god, who seeks to better his position in the land of the dead.  Though the characters are likeable, the whole production feels more than a little trite, emphasizing the same morals that are used in every children’s flick, notably those of following one’s dreams and loving oneself.  I do appreciate, though, that love interest Maria does make reference to the fact that women should not be prizes to be won, even if the film doesn’t seem self-aware that that’s basically all her role in the film amounts to.

Script-wise, the film is also lacking, as much of the film’s humor will fall flat for anyone but the smallest of children.  In order to accommodate older audiences, the film tries to insert musical references to modern artists such as Mumford & Sons and Radiohead.  There’s nothing clever about these insertions; they’re just there, and they feel lazy and awkward given the film’s predominantly folklore-inspired atmosphere.

And it is just that atmosphere that makes this film forgivable.  This is a gorgeous film with some of the best art direction in a CG animated film from recent memory.  The colors are rich and vibrant, and the characters all appear as traditional marionettes, with stringed joints and wooden features to boot.  The environments, particularly in the land of the dead, are simply bursting with creativity, with minute touches that both feel original and pay homage to the cultural heritage of Mexico.

So, with that in mind, does The Book of Life warrant a recommendation?  Eh, that largely depends.  Personally, I found the film mostly inoffensive, and the art style is enough to differentiate it from the hoard of other same-y children’s films of the past few years.  However, the plot and story are pretty forgettable, and even as I write this review, any details beyond the visual are leeching away from my memory.  It’s not the worst way to spend ninety minutes, but I certainly think there are better films with which you could be doing so.

Guillermo del Toro was one of the producers for this one.  Is that cause for disappointment, or do you suppose he was only involved on the aesthetic side of the production?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Listen Up Philip": Egomania As Art

Now Available on DVD

Sometimes a film comes along that is less about providing entertainment than it is about delving into the mind of the author who penned the screenplay.  Listen Up Philip ends up feeling that way in relation to its writer and director, Alex Ross Perry, like a self-critical analysis of what it means to be a writer and how that affects the writer’s loved ones and ultimately can turn a person into a pretentious ass, doomed to perpetual self-loathing and arrogance.  That isn’t to say that Perry is throwing himself a pity party, but rather is deconstructing his own authorial identity through his portrayal of a comically pretentious protagonist whose life is framed by equally pretentious narration.

We join the titular Philip (Jason Schwartzman) as he is on the cusp of publishing his second novel, a milestone of success many authors do not reach and the signal of a turning point in Philip’s life as the promise of success looms on the horizon.  However, this film isn’t about his professional successes (as we never see or hear a single word Philip has written), but rather about his failures as a human being.  The narrator, using turns of phrase that would make the old women of any book club swoon with adoration, guides us not only through Philip’s life, but through the lives of his increasingly alienated girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and a newly-adopted mentor figure in the form of once-successful author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce).

As Philip begins to allow his success to take over his ego, we see his self-centeredness push Ashley away, and during the film’s middle third we observe Ashley’s recovery from what she comes to recognize was a one-sided and ultimately abusive relationship.  Conversely, a portion of the film’s latter third is devoted to the exploits of Ike as he tries to recapture the productivity and spirit of his youth, only to discover that he has no sources of inspiration as he has pushed away anyone and everyone who would have provided any.  These representations of Philip’s past and future make Philip’s inevitable fall both tragic and sympathetic, ultimately painting the paradoxical picture of a horrible human being too blinded by his own hubris to recognize who he is becoming and why that is undesirable.  Even Philip’s exaggeratedly grandiose dialogue seems carefully plotted as opposed to other, more casually conversational characters, signaling the self-imposed pedestal that he and he alone occupies.

Alas, as brilliantly self-analytical as Perry’s work seems, it does suffer from some structural issues that feel like they would be more at home in a novel than on the screen.  The vignettes of Ashley and Ike take up a significant amount of screentime, so much so that for about half the film’s runtime our protagonist is lurking in the background, appearing only occasionally to remind us that this is truly his story.  In the novelistic way the film is told, these diversions would have been many chapters long and would have been subject to more artistic transition and potential interweaving, but here they make for a lull in the proceedings, overstaying their welcome after their point has already been made.

That, however, is a small gripe for what is otherwise a provocatively intriguing film.  This is a story about the dangers of success and losing sight of the important things in life, and perhaps it is a cautionary tale to other writers to not end up as Philip, alone and friendless with only his talent for company.

Any writers out there who fear their own potential success?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb": Good for the Kids and No One Else

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Night at the Museum franchise has never been anything spectacular, but I’ve never felt it was horrible or even actually all that bad.  The first film took a dopey, grade-school chapter book premise and made something halfway decent for kids, effectively translating Ben Stiller’s then still-relevant comedic stylings into something more kid-friendly while encouraging a love of learning by making museum exhibits come alive.  And while that’s definitely a laudable goal, the films were, and continue to be, primarily for the kids rather than the adults that have obligatorily brought them to the theater or bought the DVD.  The third installment in pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be: a slapdash combination of recycled jokes and a recycled premise, but with enough new material to keep kids happy and really no one else.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar, Night at the Museum is basically an even more kiddified version of Jumanji, where a magic McGuffin brings inanimate museum exhibits to life and wacky hijinks ensue.  The hook this time around is that the McGuffin, an ancient Egyptian tablet, is beginning to lose its power, and so nightwatchman Larry (Ben Stiller) must venture with his exhibit friends to find out how to keep the power from running out so that the exhibits can continue living.  To do this, they go to the British Museum, which brings their exhibits to life as well.  This is an odd mix of the rehashed plot of the second film, that relied almost purely on cameos and new exhibits to see brought to life, and of a new story to act as the bookend to the trilogy.  As far as redundant children’s series go, you can do worse.

Also paradoxically, the ones who will likely find this film the most entertaining probably were only just born when the first film came out almost nine years ago, if even born yet at all.  The jokes are skewed young, relying on urination, goo effects, and repetitive dialogue to drive the biggest comedic set-pieces, which can be admittedly grating if you aren’t suffering through for a child’s benefit.  Ben Stiller’s comedy truly hasn’t aged well, with his rambling conversational sketches quickly losing their edge if they were even sharp to begin with.  Perhaps it’s the neutered kids’ material, but none of his delivery really ends up sticking the landing.

And yet, I can’t really bring myself to call this a bad film.  It’s nothing I’d watch again, but I’m most assuredly outside the target audience.  It’s rare to see a kids’ blockbuster with such a passion for education and learning, and if that inspires kids to pursue their own self-betterment through knowledge, then I can’t really place too much fault in the filmmakers’ intentions.  The whole trilogy has retained a pretty standard level of mediocrity, and the final installment doesn’t stray too far from that safe territory.  If you have a kid, this probably isn’t a bad choice for them.  I can’t really say there’s much of anything here for you as an adult, but you will likely be able to appreciate the lessons being instilled in the next generation.

So, you think Ben Stiller’s lost his touch?  Or are you excited to see Zoolander 2 next year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Fury": Unapologetically Dark, Unapologetically Brilliant

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

War movies tend to follow some fairly traditional beats, emphasizing the horrors of combat while glorifying the sacrifice that soldiers make in order to protect their comrades-in-arms.  This is particularly true in World War II films, with an added understanding that Nazis are entirely disposable bad guys on the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the righteous American saviors.  With Fury, however, director David Ayer seems to reject that rosy picture of American involvement in the war, and while our heroes happen to be fighting for the right side of the conflict, war has made them anything but virtuous.

Our film opens on a tank crew, led by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt), that has just lost their bow gunner to enemy fire.  It is the end of the war, as American troops roll into Germany and Hitler’s regime makes its final death throes.  Enter Norman Ellison, a recruit who has been trained as a typist and has only just now been thrust into combat.  He is the new replacement bow gunner, and nobody on the five-man crew is happy about that, least of all him.  As we learn from Norman’s perspective, the soldiers are far from the righteous protectors of freedom that history and period propaganda have shown us; these are men destroyed by war and are only being held together by Wardaddy’s guidance.

The true genius of this film is that Norman’s character arc isn’t so much a coming of age story as a slow and dark transformation into the type of person his tank-mates have become.  They are excessively violent, prone to lewd jokes about raping civilians and desecrating the Bible, and take a perverse joy out of killing Nazis.  Even civilian death does not phase them, as enemy Germans are just enemy Germans to them, with civilian rules of engagement only observed under threat of personal reprimand.  The true tension of the story comes from seeing how far Norman is going to slip into their habits, as it becomes increasingly clear that their psychopathy is only their coping mechanism for the daily horrors they must endure.  This is only accentuated by Pitt’s fantastic portrayal of Wardaddy, a mentor to Norman who is only barely keeping himself together more than his crew and acts as Norman’s lifeline to humanity.

But even beyond the superb characterization, the action scenes in this film are some of the most unique I’ve seen in a period war piece.  Almost all of the combat is done in the crew’s tank, and my gods does David Ayer know how to direct some tense tank action.  Tanks are lumbering beasts that require the coordination of multiple people, meaning that every maneuver becomes a race and shouting match to get in position to fire at an enemy’s weak spot.  Between cramped close-ups of the crew to aerial shots of the tanks moving into position, to hearing the Germans frantically shout their own commands, these scenes are some of the most intense and unique I can think of from a recent war flick.

All in all, I really enjoyed Fury.  It’s unapologetically dark, so while it hits some of the same beats that other war films do concerning honor and sacrifice, David Ayer presents those beats in a context that is rarely acknowledged in American cinema, and that makes for a welcome change.  If you want to come out of this film feeling good about humanity, then I don’t think this is your cup of tea.  But if you want some intense action and a bold take on how war can change a person, this is probably right up your alley.

Between this, Fight Club, and Inglorious Basterds, Brad Pitt seems to be the go-to guy for deconstructing masculine ideals.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, March 6, 2015

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1": The Best of a Subpar Franchise

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Hunger Games is a franchise that has never really resonated with me.  I read the first book in high school, and I didn’t think it was bad or anything, but I found the plot derivative of plots like Running Man and Battle Royale, and it didn’t inspire me to continue reading the trilogy either.  So when the films came out, I didn’t really pay much mind to them, even though I recognized that its fanbase was much better deserved than, say, Twilight’s, as The Hunger Games was a feminine empowerment fantasy rather than a fantasy of submissive abuse.  Now, in light of the third film’s home video release, I’ve caught up on the film franchise, and I have yet to have my initial impressions entirely rebuked.

The first Hunger Games film is just bad.  Poorly directed, cheaply made, and utterly lacking of the internal monologue that made Katniss an even remotely interesting character, it seemed made solely with the intention of luring an inevitably satisfied fanbase into theater seats.  Catching Fire fared better, adopting a unique visual style and placing greater emphasis on the use of the Hunger Games as a propaganda machine to quell an unsettled populous.  However, it felt redundant in the overall arc of the story, essentially redoing the first film to better effect but not really progressing the plot beyond its pivotal final scenes.  Mockingjay Part 1 is the first film to actually grab my attention and keep it for the entire running time, mostly because this is the film that strips away the mask of subtext and allows Katniss to grow as a character, navigating her way through being the figurehead of the noble revolution’s propaganda machine after having just been the puppet of their oppressors.

In the first two films, the social revolution plot was the dessert that we waited five hours of collective runtime to get to.  And now that it’s here, it feels like these films finally have something interesting to say.  The manipulation of mass media to effect social change is a powerfully resonant theme on which to build a film, particularly for the information-saturated generation that is the franchise’s target audience.  This isn’t as poignant as something like Snowpiercer, but it gets the job done, and it’s nice to see that all the fanfare for this franchise is finally building up to something noteworthy.

However, as the title implies, if this is the dessert of the franchise, it is only half a portion.  For the entirely legitimate artistic reason of making Lionsgate Films more money, the final installment has been split in half, continuing an unfortunate trend in episodic cinema of bleeding a franchise dry until there’s nothing left to pick from the bones.  The result in this case is a film that runs for about two hours with only a half hour of plot-critical or interesting scenes.  The rest of the time is spent moping in the resistance’s underground bunker or excessively establishing the atrocities that the Capital visits upon the people of the Districts.  In other words, this film is ridiculously padded, and though the film does find a dramatic severing point on which to end, it still feels like a ton of build-up without the catharsis of a third act or climax.

And yet, for being the best installment in what has turned out to be a fairly mediocre franchise trending upward, I’m willing to give Part 1 a pass.  If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely already seen it, and if you aren’t, then I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes the slog of the first two installments worth it.  Yet, this was the film to finally get me invested, and yeah, now I want to see how it ends.  I’m not at the edge of my seat in anticipation, but this was the film that made me sit up and take notice.

What’s your favorite young adult fiction adaptation?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Lucy": Dumb Action That Worships Brilliance

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Plot-wise, Lucy is pretty simple.  The titular character is abducted while vacationing in Taiwan and is forced to act as a drug mule for an Asian cartel.  While being held captive, the drug bag in her abdomen bursts, but instead of killing her with an overdose, the drug begins to enhance her cognitive abilities, making her superintelligent and capable of intense feats strength and accuracy.  As the drug becomes more integrated with her system, though, she begins to gain other superpowers, such as being able to manipulate radio waves and telepathy.  The ensuing tale is simultaneously one of revenge against the cartel that kidnapped her, and a quest to pass on her newfound knowledge to a group of scientists before the drug eventually kills her.

To address the elephant in the room, yes, the “we only use 10% of the brain” fallacy is stupid, and it is not an accurate representation of how cognitive functions work or how our brains are designed.  However, Lucy is a science fiction movie, with a very heavy emphasis on the fiction part of that equation.  The percentage markers are not presented with any sense of scientific accuracy or intent to be viewed as such, but are simply benchmarks to represent our protagonist’s next level of ridiculous superpowers.  And I’m totally fine with that, especially because the film in no way is trying to represent itself as an authority on neuroscience, but instead plays to director Luc Besson’s strengths of intense gunfights and car chases while acting as a love letter to actual scientific discovery and progress.

Best known for writing the Transporter and Taken franchises, Besson delivers precisely the type of film one would expect based on his previous work, populating the story with one-dimensional villains and supporting characters while a primary focus is placed on the superhumanly-skilled protagonist.  However, the man has mastered the craft of the action scene to such a degree that his films are often good, mindless fun, and Lucy is no exception.  This arguably makes Lucy a somewhat shallow experience, but it does what it’s trying to do decently enough. Depth is not one of Besson’s strong suits, nor would it likely appeal to Besson’s primary demographic of action aficionados.

That makes it all the better that the film chooses to focus on the benefits that Lucy can bring to humanity through her evolution rather than portraying her as a terrifying monster that needs to be stopped.  Though Lucy gradually loses her ability to feel as the film goes on, the logical choice she comes to is not to view herself as separate from and inherently better than humanity, but to try and spread her wisdom to humanity before her time is up.  The moral here is that knowledge for its own sake is a source of goodness in the world, and ignorance is what causes our human failings.  Given the less-than-cerebral nature of most guns-and-cars action films, this message is welcome in its delivery to an audience that might not otherwise ever receive or contemplate it.

Though not the most engaging or intellectually savvy film out there, Lucy is a good popcorn flick to spend ninety minutes on.  Additionally, it’s refreshing to see a female-led action film, with Scarlett Johansson delivering her increasingly emotionless affectation with a grace that is unique to her (and played to much greater effect than in the terribly overrated Under The Skin.)  All in all, it may rely on a scientific fallacy to measure its plot steps, but its adoration of knowledge elevates this film above most standard action fare.

Were you as disappointed as I was that Marvel’s Phase Three doesn’t include a Black Widow movie?  Think this is as close as we’re going to get?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"Get On Up": A Muddled, Disingenuous Mess

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Biopics can be a hard type of film to make, specifically in the writing department.  Often, the idea to make a film about some famous person requires molding their real-life experiences into some sort of cohesive narrative, when in actuality real-life events often aren’t so easily encapsulated in a two-hour film.  That isn’t to say that it can’t be done, as there have been plenty of great biopics, but that seems to be the inherent difficulty that Get On Up never manages to overcome.  The life of James Brown is rife with drama and conflict, but this film seems to try and force its audience to accept one narrative of Brown’s troubled life while obligingly only mentioning some of the things that may have had the biggest impact on him.  On top of that, the narrative the film is trying to convey seems confused on whether it wants to glorify James Brown’s greatness or act as an excuse for his less reputable behavior.

The film’s biggest stumbling blocks seem to come from its insistence on telling the story achronistically, shifting between points in Brown’s adult life to his childhood with little-to-no transition, operating under the illusion of artistry.  As the narrative becomes more chronological as the film goes on, it starts to become clear that the film is trying to use those moments to demonstrate that James Brown acts out because of his childhood abandonment issues and he never had the chance to fully mature as an adult.  However, the film fails to connect those dots until a scene at the very end, leaving every transition a disjointed mess that only becomes coherent through analysis of the screenwriters’ intentions, which makes for some sloppy writing.

The narrative also quite casually brushes over key aspects of James Brown’s life in order to keep on track with its own confused story, all but ignoring Brown’s tendency toward domestic violence (with the exceptions quickly forgotten amongst all the hero worship), the death of his son, and, perhaps most important, his persistent and chronic drug habits, all of which were likely causes of his controlling and egomaniacal behavior.  When the film ignores those factors, Brown’s character seems to lash out at people for no reason other than being an asshole, making the parts where the film tries to justify him as a creative genius feel all the more disingenuous.

To give credit where credit is due, Chadwick Boseman pulls off a masterful James Brown impression, and he manages to make some of the film’s more dramatic scenes really pull together.  However, no matter how well that performance or those scenes work in isolation, the connecting tissue of this film is thin, flimsy, and confusingly compiled.  Get On Up is not worth your time, even if you are a fan of the Godfather of Funk.

James Brown.  How do you feel about the man?  The music?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.