Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"While We're Young": Intergenerational Idolatry Is Damn Funny

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

A quick summation of While We’re Young would be to say that it is the indie arthouse equivalent of last summer’s comedy Neighbors.  An older couple having trouble coping with their age becomes acquainted with hip young people, and comedy ensues as the old try to be hip and relatable as they once thought they were.  However, while Neighbors was just a straight-up comedy without much in the way of subtext (which was totally fine for what it was trying to be), While We’re Young attempts to take things to a deeper level, commenting not only on the aged recapture of youth, but also youth’s look to the past for its sense of meaning.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a struggling documentarian and his wife living in New York City, struggling to relate with their best friends who have just had a baby.  Enter Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfield), a couple of hipster twenty-five year olds who sit in on Josh’s continuing education film class to essentially stalk him as a form of idol worship because Jamie is a wannabe documentarian himself.  The two couples soon become friends, the older two marveling at how the younger generation seems to be all about cooperation, sharing, and making art, while the younger two consistently reinforce Josh and Cornelia’s egos.

The truly interesting thing about these interactions is that the admiration goes both ways, with the older couple unable to get over how much the hipsters are into vinyl and VHS tapes, and the younger couple seemingly unable to grasp their elders’ constant grip in the clutches of modern technology.  There is commentary on how the old wish they were young, but also in how the young only wish to emulate the old, and the dynamics are interesting to watch unfold, particularly as this begins to produce tension across the generational divide and ideas of authorship and creative freedom begin to collide.

However, this is also where the film begins to go a little off track.  It still retains the intergenerational theme throughout, but it begins to form a treatise on the modern state of documentary filmmaking. While that is interesting in its own right, it does seem to distract from the film’s main point, at least as it had so far been established.  Writer/director Noah Baumbach is generally known for taking his films to weird and dark places (just watch the adolescent masturbation scene from The Squid and the Whale to get a sense of what I’m talking about), but here it seems like he’s restrained himself from going as far down the rabbit hole as he otherwise could have.  That doesn’t make this a bad film, but it feels somewhat neutered in favor of more traditional happy endings and fully realized conclusions.

Still, While We’re Young is a fantastic film with some great performances, funny setpieces (including an ill-advised drug escapade), and some overall great commentary on intergenerational relations.  Check this one out if you’re in the mood for something a little strange.

Is it just me, or does Ben Stiller seem to primarily be on his A-game when he isn’t directing?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Wild Tales": The Measure Of An Anthology

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

How does one evaluate how good an anthology film is?  Essentially a collection of short films, there often is no overarching plot that connects them, unless there is a framing devise to do so.  Do you evaluate the short films individually?  One could do that, but it takes away from the experience of seeing them in a sequence specifically designed to communicate with the audience.  So what do you evaluate?  A method that I’ve read about and generally agree with is to treat the film like a music album.  The tracks may vary in their composition, but they are all part of one piece of art, and that piece of art can be evaluated as a whole based on the general feelings the individual tracks give you.

So how does Wild Tales fare under this model?  The six short stories are compiled in such a way as to give an introduction with one of the most interesting stories, then start from the bottom and work its way up in an ascending scale on intrigue.  The general motif of the picture is revenge and how those who deserve it will get their just deserts, usually in death.  That theme is established early, but each successive story toys with the premise in different ways, such as setting two wrongdoers against one another, making the villain a government entity, and deceiving the public as to who the real criminal is after a hit and run.

By slightly ramping up how perverse the idea of revenge is, the theme twists in on itself, conditioning the audience to have certain expectations of how a story will end, only to either follow through or subvert those expectations, and becoming less and less predictable as to which it will do.  By the last couple of stories, the expectation of a twist ending or a murderous moment is so conditioned that when it doesn’t happen as you expect, it hits all the harder.

So is Wild Tales a good film?  The answer is most assuredly “yes.”  To attempt to evaluate the shorts on their own would be an exercise in futility, as they are thematically shallow individually, but the entire album is thematically rich and subject to interpretation.  The consistent tone and quality of the shorts is likely due to them being written and directed by one man, Damián Szifron, an Argentinian director whom I hope to see more of in the future, perhaps with a feature length narrative.  In the meantime, though, Wild Tales is a hell of an introduction to his work.

What anthology films do you enjoy?  Share them in the comments below.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Welcome To Me": The Problems Of Portraying Mental Illness As Comedy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

On paper, Welcome to Me doesn’t really feel like a movie that should be a success.  Its premise is bizarre and fantastic, yet is often tragic in its portrayal of mental illness.  We’re expected to laugh at the antics of our protagonist, yet also recognize that borderline personality disorder can be debilitating to those who have it.  This film should be a complete and utter failure for its inability to find a consistent tone.  And yet, somehow, it works.  Not perfectly, but it works.

The aforementioned protagonist is Kristen Wiig as Alice, a woman prone to severe mood swings and so grounded in habit as to have kept her TV on continuously for eleven years.  One day, she happens to win the lottery, coming into possession of $86 million dollars.  She decides to use this money to buy her own public access TV show, titled Welcome to Me, which functions as emotional exhibitionism masqueraded as an Oprah-style talk show.  Through the bizarre spectacle of re-enacting supposed traumatic moments from her life, cooking seemingly inedible meals, and neutering dogs on live television, Alice simultaneously garners a cult following for her narcissistic display and alienates her closest friends.

Though the film is a work of pure fiction, it feels more like a take on the real life products of insanely wealthy film auteurs than it does a serious representation of mental illness.  Had Tommy Wiseau (The Room) decided to take a different approach to cinema, we might well have ended up with something as bizarrely autobiographical as Alice’s show, and the homage to the unhinged nature of Wiseau and his contemporaries feels deliberate.  Wiig’s self-centered auteur is every bit as artistically deficient and socially oblivious as her real life counterparts, and Wiig makes her simultaneously believable in her bizarre antics and otherworldly in her disconnection with reality.

As I stated earlier, though, this portrayal has its drawbacks, very closely walking the line of making fun of a serious mental illness.  It’s established early on that Alice is a very ill woman, yet we’re expected to laugh at what in normal circumstances would be black comedy gold.  But when the film wants us to feel sorry for Alice, the tragedy is always couched in terms of her diagnosis, and only in the film’s final scenes do we see her actually struggle with a character-developing conflict that isn’t directly attributable to her disorder.  Instead of writing Alice as a specifically diagnosed patient, it might have been preferable to portray her as merely an eccentric, removing the guilt inherent in laughing at a suffering woman while still keeping the basic essence of the comedic performance intact.

And yet, despite this glaring issue, I thought Welcome to Me was an entertaining film.  The climactic conflict feels somewhat tacked on with a resolution that doesn’t make much sense if you dwell on it, but the main reason to watch this film is to see Kristen Wiig step into the role of a self-obsessed film auteur using her newfound wealth to make her dreams come true.  And in giving that bizarre character a spotlight to shine in, this film achieves its raison d’etre, even if the dramatization of borderline personality disorder distracts from the film’s chief pleasures.

Do you find portrayal of mental illness problematic in films, or is it alright to portray comically insane characters?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Timbuktu": Preaching To The Choir

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Coming from a world of academia with a focus on social justice issues, it is sometimes easy to forget that certain nuances of world affairs are lost on many people.  Take, for instance, the distinction between the religion of Islam and the terrorist organizations that have appropriated Islam as a tool.  Many Western people don’t make the distinction, and equate the violence committed by militarist factions as their only conception of what Islam is really about.  It is therefore all the more unfortunate that many Western film audiences will ignore or be ignorant of Timbuktu, a film that directly addresses that distinction but is relegated to the indie circuit by virtue of its foreign origins.

Taking place in the titular city, a militaristic group called ISIL (a none-too-subtle nod to a certain real life militant extremist group) has taken over the city, bearing guns and spouting new rules in the name of God.  Prohibitions on women’s dress, cigarettes, soccer, and even music are implemented, placing the city on virtual lockdown as tensions between the militants and the city’s residents begin to mount.

What is most striking about this set-up is that it is painfully obvious that the militants do not believe the rhetoric that they spout.  Many are seen smoking or talking about sports, despite their compatriots’ mandates that such acts are sinful and against the will of God.  At one point, a militant calls his superior to ask what he should do about a group of singing townspeople, as their song is in direct reverence to God.  It would almost be comical if the situation weren’t so obviously dire for the people imprisoned within their own city.  This point is hammered home no more clearly when punishments start being meted out, resulting in severe brutalization and often death.

If the film has one major issue, however, it should be apparent in what is missing in my review thus far: a protagonist.  Sure, the residents of Timbuktu are all sympathetic, but none of them are anything more or less than normal people without any sort of character arc.  Eventually, one resident develops into a makeshift protagonist, but the driving action behind his arc doesn’t take place until over halfway through the film, and by that point his case is merely especially demonstrative than anything specifically relatable.  That may have been the point though, to tell a tale of a city rather than of a single person; but if that’s the case, it seems strange to have a protagonist shoehorned in so late in the running.

That quibble aside, though, Timbuktu is a fine film that eloquently hammers home a point that will, unfortunately, be likely already obvious to a Western audience culturally aware enough to know of this film's existence.  It may have been a better film as a short subject with a tighter narrative structure, but that would have made even many film fanatics miss out due to a lack of distribution.  As the film stands, it is a fine piece of filmmaking that is well worth watching, even if you are aware of the difference between religion and rhetoric as a means of social control.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Run All Night": Here We Go Again

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It’s not just me, right?  I can’t be the only one who feels like we’ve all been here before.  Liam Neeson isn’t just an actor anymore; he has become a genre in and of himself.  It seems that every role he plays nowadays is as a flawed yet likeable patriarch with superheroic gun skills who must either win back the affection of his family and/or prove that he had a superior point of view that his family should have listened to.  These are quintessential dad movies, targeted at the 40-60 year old male demographic to provide them with assurances that they were successful parents while getting to watch one of their contemporaries be more badass than any subsequent generation.  And Run All Night is no exception.

Neeson’s alias this time is Jimmy Conlon, a former hitman for the local Irish mob who hung up his hat and wallowed in his inability to connect with his estranged adult son, Mike, by becoming an alcoholic.  His only friend is Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), the head of said mob, who repays years of service by supporting Jimmy through this tough time in his life.  Through an unnecessarily convoluted chain of events, Shawn’s son threatens to kill Mike, forcing Jimmy to kill Shawn’s son and put Jimmy and Mike on the top of Shawn’s hit list.  The two must spend the night running from crooked cops and hired hitmen in order to save themselves and protect Mike’s family.

The themes and motifs present in this film should not be unfamiliar to anyone who has seen a Liam Neeson movie since 2008, and much like the rest of that catalogue, the results are pretty standard.  There’s not much one can say about an adequately directed action film, as the formula has been down pat since at least the 80s and it’s rather difficult to screw up too badly.  Neeson and Harris do respectably well playing begrudging adversaries, two men who really don’t want to fight one another, but must betray years of friendship out of loyalty to their families.  There’s a genuine sadness to be felt between their characters that a lesser film would have played off as bitter rage.

However, the plotting of this film is unforgivably complex.  For as shallow and superfluous as many of the film’s characters are, there certainly are a lot of interweaving plot threads for what essentially amounts to a good-guy-versus-bad-guy narrative.  What should have been a ninety minute film is stretched to two hours by the sheer amount of unnecessary plotting, especially considering the driving moment of the plot doesn’t happen until after twenty minutes of establishing scenes.  By comparison, John Wick had an intricately established cast of characters, but each was unique and interesting enough to be memorable, and the plot was simple enough that exposition often wasn’t necessary.  Run All Night, on the other hand, feels like it needs a flow chart to keep track of all its dealings, but none of them actually matter in light of the central conflict.

Still, despite all its flaws, I can’t really fault Run All Night for what it is.  It’s a popcorn flick, plain and simple.  Something to watch once, forget about immediately after, and then watch again years later only to have it seem vaguely familiar to you.  It’s not a bad film, nor is it an especially good one, but it’s entertaining enough to watch through to the end, and that’s ultimately what films are here to do: entertain.

Do Liam Neeson films interest you at all?  Or do they all melt together into a malaise of guns and sternness?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Inside Out": Pixar's Surprisingly Adult Return To Form

Now In Theaters
Pixar is pretty well acknowledged as having a deep understanding of human emotion, with classics such as Toy Story, Wall-E, and Up tugging at our heartstrings while leaving us incredibly satisfied with extremely creative and immensely enjoyable films.  The last few years have either seen Pixar completely absent or blatantly subjecting themselves to the Mouse House’s commercializing demands for more sequels, and things just haven’t quite been the same… Until now.  Inside Out is a fantastic little film that will restore your faith in the beloved animation studio.  Unless you are a child, because this might not be the film for you, paradoxical as that sounds.

Riley is an eleven-year-old girl, born and raised in Minnesota, who moves with her family to San Francisco and must deal with the loss of everything she has ever known and adjust to a new life in a new city.  Coming from Pixar, this could be pretty compelling in and of itself, but this is just as much a story of what’s going on inside Riley’s mind, as we meet the five emotions who drive her: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  As Riley tries to cope with her move, the emotions vie for control over her mind in the emotional Headquarters.  Things only become worse, though, when an accident leaves Joy and Sadness far outside of Headquarters’ reach, and the two must traverse the recesses of Riley’s mind in order to restore themselves in Riley’s emotional spectrum.

Pixar has been great at providing insight into emotion and humanity in the past, but never before have they taken that task so literally.  And they make it work to great effect.  The parallel narratives of Joy and Sadness learning to understand one another, Fear, Disgust, and Anger struggling to keep Riley emotionally healthy, and Riley herself struggling on a metatextual level are all brilliantly interwoven to create a narrative that might otherwise have been mundane and infuse life into it by literally demonstrating how a world of emotion and cognitive processes function as represented by anthropomorphized abstracts.  We see the depths of the subconscious, the wonders of the imagination, the bureaucracy of memory management, and the curiosity of abstract thought, all realized as a creative world that exists within us all.  Riley’s story is one of emerging adolescence, of losing childhood bit by bit in ways that are scary and imperceptible, and Pixar once again hits the emotional resonance right on the head, finding a way to make us feel for Riley through making her emotions grow in complexity with her.

But isn’t this a kid’s movie?  Isn’t all this philosophizing and cognitive analysis a bit much for the film’s intended audience?  Well, I would argue that, yeah, this is not a great movie for kids.  Sure, there’s some obligatory slapstick and the whole experience is bright and colorful, but I don’t think that pre-adolescent children are going to have the self-awareness nor the emotional intelligence to grasp the complex concepts central to the narrative.  That isn’t to say this diminishes the film’s quality at all, but audiences should expect something targeted at those who can look back on childhood and understand what is happening in Riley’s mind, rather than a piece of diversionary entertainment for their young ones.

That said though, assuming you are an adult and have enjoyed Pixar’s work in the past, Inside Out is a must-see film, especially considering how lackluster the rest of the summer is looking to be.  It is an extremely intelligent piece that has returned Pixar to top form.

Think Pixar can keep this good momentum going with this fall’s The Good Dinosaur?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Chappie": Continuing Blomkamp's Disappointing Career

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Director Neill Blomkamp is turning out to be a real disappointment.  As his career progresses, it’s becoming very apparent that he’s stuck in a creative rut, unable to recreate the success of his debut with District 9 because he’s doing little more than emulating his previous work.  At least with District 9 there was some allegorical subtext that remained consistent throughout the whole film, even when it devolved into pure action spectacle rather than retain its earlier tone and intelligence.  Blomkamp’s follow up, Elysium, was little more than a restructuring of District 9’s themes into a suspiciously similar sci fi setting, but didn’t retain the direct allegory that made District 9 substantive.  Now we have Chappie, where we return to Johannesburg to take a look at culture clash, but without any coherent themes to support its high concept premise.

Our story begins as Johannesburg implements a robotic police force in order to fight back against gang violence.  The inventor of these robots thinks he can create true artificial intelligence, and runs a secret operation separate from the weapons contractor who employs him.  When he is captured by three thugs (two of whom are notably played by Ninja and Yolandi of rap group Die Antwoord), he is forced to activate his AI in the body of a damaged police robot, the idea being that this robot can help them in an upcoming heist.  Thus Chappie is born, and his coming of age story begins.

There is actually a lot of potential to this premise, as Chappie is raised by Ninja and Yolandi separate from his creator, and the conflict that arises is intriguing.  Yolandi recognizes that Chappie is little more than a child, and seeks to nurture his creativity.  Meanwhile, Ninja wants to make a warrior of Chappie, attempting to stop Chappie’s emotional development in favor of teaching him to fight and tricking him into killing.  This functions as a reflection of how many young boys are raised, with masculine ideals forced upon them at the expense of their creativity and empathy.

Alas, the film abandons that thematic momentum by the time the third act rolls around, as Chappie becomes fixated on preserving his own consciousness while simultaneously fighting against a world that wants to destroy him by virtue of his very existence.  This should feel familiar if you’ve seen District 9, and it is a huge thematic shift to make so late in the film, completely derailing any investment one had in seeing how the conflict between Chappie’s burgeoning humanity and his parental influences pans out.  Instead, we’re treated to some truly benign action sequences against a bland corporate villain, followed up by a completely nonsensical epilogue that borders on cringeworthy.

Neill Blomkamp doesn’t seem to know what to do with his success, as his last two films have only tweaked elements of his freshman effort, only to have those tweaks completely backfire as they destroy the delicate balance of what made District 9 any good in the first place.  He is a man fascinated by big ideas, but doesn’t know how to implement them in compelling ways without resorting to action tropes or losing sight of his original objective.  Chappie is just a slip further down the slope of what is turning out to be an ideologically hollow career for Mr. Blomkamp.

Blomkamp’s next project is going to be an Alien sequel in the spirit of the franchise’s first two films.  Will working on source material that isn’t his own save Blomkamp’s career?  Or are we doomed to another lackluster Alien outing?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Serena": What The Fuck Happened?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Serena is, in a word, baffling.  It’s one of those strange films where all the ingredients seem to come together to make something that should be great.  Talented actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in a film by acclaimed Danish director Susanne Bier.  What could go wrong?  Apparently a whole hell of a lot, as I’m struggling to even comprehend what I just saw.

Set in the Depression era South, Pemberton (Cooper) meets a lovely woman named Serena (Lawrence), whom he immediately weds and brings in to assist him in his logging business.  At first, it would seem that film is intent on have two storylines bent on converging: one in which Pemberton is fighting off government attempts to convert his logging land into a national park; the other being Serena’s fight to be taken seriously as a savvy businesswoman in what is ostensibly a man’s world.  And yet, by the end of the film’s first act, most of that pretense is dropped, leaving me to wonder why exactly Pemberton’s business and Serena’s intelligence were so excessively established.

Rather, the film takes a hard left into making Serena baby crazy.  First she’s desperate to bear Pemberton’s child.  Then she is devastated upon losing her pregnancy in a manner that precludes her from ever being pregnant again.  And then she goes off the deep end by attempting to kill Pemberton’s former lover and out-of-wedlock infant son, through a convenient enough henchman who believes she saved his life in accordance with some prophecy.  So it’s up to Pemberton to save the day, I guess, fighting off the henchman in a climax to a conflict that is only established very late in the film.

Yeah.  This is some weird shit.

If there is one thing to point to in how this film goes so awry, it has to be the screenplay.  All the dialogue is stilted, melodramatic, riddled with clichés, and just downright awkward.  Cooper and Lawrence do their absolute best to make their dialogue sound natural, often resorting to scenery chewing eccentricities to distract from conversations that no two rational people would have.  Furthermore, as my garbled synopsis demonstrates, the plotting makes next to no sense, emphasizing scenes of lumbering, high life socializing, sexual encounters, and extraneous subplots that ultimately distract from what (I think) was the film’s intended purpose.

Given the title of the film, I’m assuming that the focus was meant to be on Serena’s tragic downfall from a strong independent woman to being an emotional wreck due to her sterility.  Though Lawrence manages to at least sell that as Serena’s arc through sheer willpower (more so than the film’s bizarre script at any rate), this is a painfully one-dimensional representation of a woman lead, reducing her self-worth to her ability to bear children, even though her character is clearly established to have other aspirations.  Yes, it is sad when a woman who wishes to have children loses the ability to do so.  But that doesn’t mean she will immediately break under the strain of losing her procreative abilities.  Give her a bit more credit than that.

Ultimately, Serena is a fascinating film in just how bad it turned out to be.  It isn’t even entertainingly bad; I actually found the film rather boring when I wasn’t gawking at its blatant sexism.  But the fact that such talented individuals were involved in producing such an obvious flop of a film is simply baffling.  Just… baffling.

What films have baffled you with their sheer horribleness?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"The DUFF": The Teen Comedy Starring... Her?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I am twenty-four years old, so I really don’t have any right to say this, but after watching The DUFF, I feel unnecessarily old.  I remember when I was a young teenager and I first saw She’s All That, a film that was supposedly emblematic of teens growing up in the late nineties and early millennium.  And The DUFF hits pretty much all the same plot beats, right down to the male tutor giving fashion and dating advice to the awkward nerdy girl only to end up with the two of them in love with each other.  What I don’t remember, though, was She’s All That being so blatantly pandering to its target demographic, and thinking that either makes me cynical or out of touch with those a decade younger than myself.  Probably (hopefully) both.

The term DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a term that desperately wants to find its way into teenage lexicon via hashtag.  The idea is that in any group of friends, one person is the most approachable and consequently least interesting, acting as a safe mechanism to volley conversation between those too nervous to speak with the more popular, interesting members of the group.  Our protagonist, Bianca (Mae Whitman, or to those who watch Arrested Development, “Her?”), discovers that she has been an unwitting DUFF to her supermodel gorgeous friends, and so seeks to rebel against the trends and become self-sufficiently attractive enough to ask out the boy she likes.  Enter the jock who agrees to help her in exchange for chemistry notes, and you can pretty much figure out where it goes from there.

I have to say, Whitman really pulls her own as the star of her own movie, consistently exuding a charisma that many twenty-somethings playing teenagers never quite manage.  She’s goofy and funny, yet sympathetic in her desire to be more than just people’s stepping stone to her more popular best friends.  (How she is even friends with these girls when none of them remotely share the same interests, I couldn’t tell you.)  What is less than endearing, though, is the film’s constant attempts at referencing social media in order to appear hip and cool to teenagers.  Yes.  We get it.  Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all exist.  But name-dropping social media sites in order to point out how foreign the concept seems to adults is not only antiquated, but also doesn’t get funnier with repetition.

Furthermore, the film has some really inconsistent moralizing, with a finale that seems to simultaneously tell its audience that it’s okay to be different and strange, yet still follows through on Bianca’s character arc of self-improvement through beautification.  This is a pretty common problem in the teen comedy genre, and I would love to see a film rise above childish moralizing and just provide an original story for once, without all the baggage that emulating teen movies from the nineties entails.

And yet, despite its issues, The DUFF is a pretty decent and mostly inoffensive film.  Whitman pretty much carries the film with her “Hollywood ugly” charm, and there were a few moments that genuinely made me laugh.  I only wish that the plot, subtext, and pop culture references weren’t so recycled and already dated.  In the information age, it only makes sure the film will be irrelevant to its target demographic by the time the streaming services pick it up.

Is the teen comedy genre inherently flawed?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"Kingsman: The Secret Service": Pretty Dumb, Really Fun

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

In 2010, director Mathew Vaughn released his adaptation of a comic book by Mark Millar, a simultaneous mockery and deification of superhero tropes expressed through ultraviolence of near-cartoonish extremity.  That little film was called Kick Ass, and it has since become a cult classic.  Kingsman: The Secret Service feels a lot like that film, probably because it is another Vaughn film adapted from another Millar comic.  So, the short version of this review is that if you liked Kick Ass, you’ll likely enjoy Kingsman for a lot of the same reasons.  The major difference is that where Kick Ass was a send-up of the superhero pastiche, Kingsman is likewise a take on classic espionage flicks a la classic James Bond, and this carries some baggage with it that makes the film problematic in certain respects.

The film has two concurrent plotlines that eventually intersect, one introducing us to the world of the English secret agent society known as the Kingsman through the eyes of potential recruit Eggsy, the other revolving around the investigation of a mounting plot by megalomanical tech genius billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).  Eggsy’s story will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Harry Potter films, as his underprivileged background places him in stark contrast with his aristocratic competitors, yet that outside perspective is what enables him to succeed where others fail.  It hits its required beats with admirable efficiency, not lingering too long on what the audience realizes are inevitabilities and instead focusing on getting to the action.

And boy does this film lean heavy on the action, and it delivers in astoundingly choreographed ways.  The camera zips around and slows down in order to provide close-ups of bloody executions framed with comic book sensibilities, often not breaking a shot as it moves from fast-paced execution to extreme explosion.  There is one scene in particular wherein an agent engages in a hundred-person brawl inside a hate group church that will likely be the scene this film is most remembered for, despite how obviously contrived its presence in the film is just to provide the guilt-free spectacle of watching anonymously evil people rip each other to shreds.

But despite its ultraviolent spectacle, Kingsman attempts something that Kick Ass did not; it attempts to have a political agenda and comes off as more than a little… well, stupid.  Without spoiling the film’s third act, it involves a plot so reliant on a cynicism about the true intentions of the rich, famous, and powerful as to be childish in its lack of nuance.  Samuel L. Jackson plays a comically overblown American villain, who drinks his wine with a Big Mac and speaks with an affected lisp to hammer home is foppishness.  This paints the conflict as between American capitalist imperialism versus (a supposedly superior) proper English imperialism, which feels less than thought out to the extent that the film blatantly spouts its philosophies.  Furthermore, the film paints working class men as Neanderthals who universally beat women, and Eggsy’s personal journey revolves around him rising above that influence to become a true gentlemen, completely ignoring inherently classist implications.

And yet, these implications don’t detract from what is simply a really fun film.  The action is heavy, the characters are memorable, there are a handful of very unique setpieces, and, most important, the movie is just a blast.  Just don’t try to think too hard about the implications of a bourgeois society with no oversight fighting against foreign bourgeois through a mandate of moral supremacy.  Unraveling that thread can only serve to demonstrate how stupid the film truly is, but stupid fun in just fine when taken as such.

What films do you need to turn your brain off for in order to enjoy?  Does that make them lesser films?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Spy": A Feminist Espionage Film?

Now In Theaters
Melissa McCarthy is one of those actresses who has made her career in pretty much the only way a fat woman can make it in Hollywood: by being comically self-deprecating.  This often leaves her in supporting roles to the more classically attractive Hollywood stars, and she’s paid plenty of dues to succeed as a recognizable actress.  Now, in Spy, she shines on the center stage, and while it isn’t the greatest film around, it is certainly effective in demonstrating the deficiencies in not just Hollywood casting choices, but also in how the world treats women who don’t hold a certain body type.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a support agent for the CIA who works in an office pool of (exclusively women) support agents, ensuring that their partner James Bond archetypes are properly equipped in the field.  When the identities of all the field agents are compromised, Susan volunteers to be put into the field to track down a rogue nuclear weapon.  As she travels between European locales, she discovers a self-confidence she never knew she had.

The greatest thing about this film is that, for once, McCarthy herself isn’t the punchline of most jokes, but rather the film’s biggest joke is that her entire support team is constantly underestimating her abilities.  In a fictional profession like genre-trope spying which is dominated by men and female characters designed to attract the male gaze, it’s remarkable to see a film utilize McCarthy in a way that demonstrates she is capable of being an action lead and is able to be empowered and attractive while doing so.  And the film’s primary source of comedy comes from the fact that her co-workers are so shocked that she can do anything just as amazing, if not more so, than her male counterparts.

However, despite this fantastically feminist portrayal, this isn’t as astounding as, say, Mad Max: Fury Road.  Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but whereas Fury Road was both decidedly feminist and a brilliantly composed action movie, Spy is merely an adequate action-comedy with feminist subtext.  The action beats are well-executed, and the film serves up a decent, if forgettable, espionage narrative, but the biggest failure is that the film’s gags are consistently tepid.  Almost none of them are bad or offensive, but neither does the film encourage much uproarious laughter.  It hovers around a low chuckle, as the tonal shifts from scene to scene make it feel more like an action film that occasionally breaks out into comedy than a nuanced combination of the genres.

But still, I enjoyed Spy.  It would be a pretty forgettable movie were it not for McCarthy’s lead performance, and quite frankly, that’s enough this time.  I would love to see her tackle roles like this in the future, as she certainly has the charisma to lead a film if she has the right talent behind her.  It’s a slow week in the summer theatrical release schedule, so if you’re looking for a good movie this weekend, you could do a lot worse than Spy.

Is feminism on the rise in cinema?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"Focus": A Film Without Focus

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The con artist film and the romance film are very disparate genres, and that’s for a generally good reason.  While both genres are founded on the charisma and sexual appeal of their leads, the romance film is founded on the budding relationship of two people, how the two grow together and trust one another.  The con artist flick, on the other hand, is all about betraying the audience’s trust, spinning curveballs and half-truths in order to provide an engaging roller coaster of a plot.  These diametrically opposed film philosophies have been meshed before to make romantic con films, but Focus never quite seems to get beyond this crucial problem.

Enter Nicky (Will Smith), a seasoned con man.  After being ineffectually held-up by wannabe grifter Jess (Margot Robbie), Nicky decides to take her under his wing and guide her in the true art of thievery.  To go further into plot points would spoil many of the film’s twists, so for the folks who wish to see the film, I won’t go any further.  However, the film does a decent job at entertaining with several key scenes, including an extended gambling sequence with B.D. Wong as an eccentric businessman and an out-of-the-blue cut to an extremely minor character that leads to major ramifications.

However, despite these glimmers of cinematic taste, Focus never really comes into focus.  The romantic and con artist threads of the plot continually stumble over one another, meaning that the romance is never entirely believable and the ultimate reveal of the film’s long con is extremely underwhelming as the romance is underutilized.  It doesn’t help that the attempt to be both genres at once means that the film must simultaneously introduce the audience to the dynamics and intricacies of con work while developing a relationship between the two leads.  The film manages to do both, but only in the shallowest of ways, shifting back and forth between wanting us to believe what we’re seeing for the sake of fooling us and wanting us to believe because the characters’ emotions are, in fact, real.

And this isn’t without effort on the performers’ part either.  Robbie plays Jess with the right mix of naïveté and cunning to make her an engaging protégé to Smith’s smooth-talking and witty Nicky.  Yet, the film doesn’t give the characters enough screentime with one another where there isn’t a con going on, starving their supposed relationship of the witty repartee and genuine interaction necessary in order to make it believable.  Instead, the film tries to achieve this objective through their shared conning experience, which only left me waiting for a shoe-drop twist that would never come.

So while there are elements of Focus that I found quite entertaining, I can’t really recommend it.  There are some moments that truly made me wish they were part of a better film, and those moments may be enough for some people to find the experience worth it, but I personally found the film alternately boring and unfulfilling.  The big twist ending will certainly leave you underwhelmed, and you’ll likely forget all about it the next day.   I know I will.

What genre blends do you think work best?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"Jupiter Ascending": Dead On The Cutting Room Floor

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Jupiter Ascending was originally supposed to be released in summer of last year, but it was delayed by six months to its February theatrical release.  There’s no official story as to why this delay happened, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Warner Brothers was not thrilled with the film for any number of reasons.  It could be that the film is so blatantly anti-capitalist that it made them nervous to release it in an unaltered form.  I think that primarily, though, the film ended up being too much of a big ideas space opera instead of a summer action diversion, and the studio didn’t think such a film could compete in the summer marketplace.  Regardless of the reason, though, Jupiter Ascending is now out for the world to see, and the final product falls way short of its potential.

The nicest way I can summarize the plot is to call it a mess: a jumbled interweaving of mythos and plot points that feel underserved by the narrative.  Our protagonist is Jupiter Jones, who happens to be an exact genetic match to the now-deceased queen of the universe.  For reasons that aren’t ever made entirely clear or logically explained, this entitles Jupiter to ownership over the queen’s universe-spanning empire.  The queen’s children all vie for Jupiter’s attention in order to increase their control over the universal marketplace, while Jupiter is bumped from sibling to sibling’s nefarious scheme, only to be saved by a new companion, a wolf-human hybrid who floats around on hover-shoes.  The particulars are a bit more complex than that, but many of the finer details are lost in the wake the film’s de-emphasis on plot.

What this film does not lack is creativity, weaving a mythology of Grays, robo-bureaucrats, planet-scale human harvests, giant lizard people, space mercenaries, etc.  Astoundingly enough, the film never feels overstuffed with all these elements in play, as the directing Wachowskis have clearly put a lot of thought, passion, and effort into making their interstellar community come to life.  Furthermore, the film is simply gorgeous, with diverse color palettes and engaging action sequences that make all those individual elements pop to life.

Unfortunately, though, the film is severely lacking in connective tissue that makes those isolated elements form into something coherent.  The film’s characters, particularly the protagonists Jupiter and wolf-man Caine Wise, come across as shallow and dull, as their significance and personalities are barely established before the film barrels headfirst into its action beats.  This has the ill-fated consequence of giving the action sequences no emotional weight, as the film has not laid the groundwork for a connection with either the setting or the characters.  And the film never really catches up after failing to establish that connection, its characters zipping between exposition and action in oddly repetitive ways, only to arrive at a beautifully-shot climax that is entirely lacking in emotional investment.

I strongly suspect that the reason the film was delayed was to re-edit it from an intellectual sci-fi film to a sci-fi action flick, as the action sequences are pushed so much to the foreground that the other elements of the film are subsumed.  And though the action pieces are very well-executed, it’s fairly obvious that the film was meant to be something more than mindless fun.  The pieces of an epic space opera are all there, but they haven’t been assembled in such a way as to make a good product.  I would be interested to see a Director’s Cut, which will probably never see the light of day due to the film’s box office performance.  It may not have ended up anywhere near perfect, but there’s too much ambition and creativity here for the original cut to have not at least been more interesting.

How do you feel about the Wachowskis’ mixed-bag of a career?  Are they misunderstood geniuses, or over-funded hacks?  Leave your thoughts the comments below.