Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Poltergeist (2015)": Been There, Done That

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

What is the point of doing a remake?  This is the question I found myself asking as I watched the 2015 version of Poltergeist.  Sometimes a film can use an update to better communicate with a modern audience, but Poltergeist doesn’t really need that, as the terrifying appeal of a bunch of spirits haunting a family home is timeless as portrayed in the original film.  So why remake it other than to update the daily technology to more modern relatable appliances (and make a quick buck off name recognition)?  There sadly isn’t much of an answer to that.

The names are different, but the basic premise and plot points are still the same.  A family of five moves into a suburban home and the children begin to detect otherworldly presences with them in the house.  Strange things start occurring, such as televisions reverting to static, dolls moving on their own, and balls bouncing into frame.  One night, the haunting becomes so severe that the youngest daughter is pulled into the spirits’ realm, and the family must call upon the help of paranormal investigators to get her back.  Some details have been changed for modernity’s sake, such as a medium character being changed to a reality show ghost hunter and the use of a drone camera to take a look into the spirit realm, but more or less the nuts and bolts of the plot remain identical.

What I found most appreciated were the lighthearted touches that director Gil Kenan managed to slip into the first half of the film.  The slow build-up can sometimes be pretty dull in horror flicks, so it’s nice to see a director recognize that it’s fine to have fun with the premise.  Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt have wonderful chemistry as the haunted family’s parents, with witty banter that never becomes so ever-present as to pull away the building tension, but still gives them personality where they otherwise would have been stock archetypes.

That said, though, the film can’t help but be compared to its predecessor, and this is clearly the inferior film.  Many of the classic moments of the original film have been recreated to shrug-worthy effect, and other effects feel derivative of other recent haunted house flicks.  There’s nothing new here, right down to the obviously CGI ghosts that later appear, completely breaking the tension as the clean polygonal figures never escape the uncanny valley.

Overall, this new Poltergeist is technically proficient and effective, but utterly pointless.  With the recent renaissance of better crafted, low budget horror films, this not only feels like just another in a wave of lackluster studio horror projects, but it also doesn’t even serve as an adequate modern surrogate for the original.  It at least doesn’t often resort to jump scares, but that minor point cannot save this film from its utter lack of raison d’etre.  Give this one a pass and pick up the original.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Lambert and Stamp": A Directionless Mess

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

If you’ve ever read my reviews of documentaries, it’s likely apparent that I have a difficult time measuring the worth of a documentary, as I think the value that anyone is going to get from watching one is largely dependent on the subject matter.  So, on the off chances when I do watch a documentary, the question I find myself asking is “what about this film makes it good or bad as compared to any other documentary?”  And now, for the first time since starting my film critiques, I may have an answer in Lambert and Stamp.  This is a film that could have been much better, if only it had picked a thematic throughline and run with it.

Ostensibly this film is about the eponymous Kit Lambert and Christopher Stamp, aspiring filmmakers in the 1960s who struggled through obscurity in the film business.  They collaborated on an idea to get their careers off the ground: they would find a rock band and, through managing the band, would make a film about that band’s rise to fame.  This is how the duo became the managers of one of the most successful rock bands of all time, The Who.

Now, there’s a lot of material to work with in a premise like this.  There’s the relationship between Lambert and Stamp themselves, their relationship with the band, their personal lives, pretty much anything that any other biographical arc in a documentary would cover.  However, the star power of The Who pulls focus away from our supposed protagonists, making the most interesting parts of the film those that have to do with the band’s rise to fame, and not about the people who were responsible for it.

This is largely due to how the filmmakers decided to present the information they had archived, directly presenting rambling interviews with the surviving members of the band and Stamp himself (Lambert had passed away years ago) over archival footage of the band and, to a lesser extent, the managing duo.  This is all quite interesting as a historical glimpse at rare footage of The Who and understanding some of the backstage drama that went into the creation of such albums as Tommy and Who’s Next, but it splits the film’s focus between being a Who fan film and a character study of Lambert and Stamp, causing it to fail at being either very effectively.

This is a film that will work for you only if you are a diehard fan of The Who and are interested in seeing the rare footage this film has to offer.  In a sense, this also works as the film that Lambert and Stamp never got to make in their years managing the band, their whole purpose in pursuing management in the first place.  But for a film called Lambert and Stamp, it can’t seem to entirely commit to either a representation of the duo or a representation of the greatness they enabled.  As a result, it comes off as a bit of a directionless mess that most people shouldn't bother with.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Results": Fails To Produce Even An Awkward Laugh

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Do you ever feel like there’s a joke you just aren’t in on, like the people telling the joke think they’re being incredibly funny but you just have no idea what they’re going on about?  That is perhaps the most concise summary of Results that I can provide.  Ostensibly a comedy that relies upon the awkward and uncomfortable performances of its cast, I never understood when I was supposed to laugh or what it was that drove the plot forward.  This film is a jumbled mess of half-formed jokes, and apparently that’s the punchline.

The story revolves around three people: Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner of a local fitness center in Austin; Kat (Cobie Smulders), one of the personal trainers who works at said fitness center; and Danny (Kevin Corrigan), an average dude who has inherited an obscene amount of money and decides to spend some of it on hiring a personal trainer.  Beyond these broad character portraits, though, I couldn’t really tell you what Results is actually about.  It seems at first as though Kat and Danny are going to establish some sort of romantic comedy chemistry, yet Danny quickly comes off as creepy and disturbing in a way that I’m sure was meant to be endearing but feels manipulative and threatening.  Prior to abandoning that plot thread, Trevor feels vestigial until it suddenly comes to light that he and Kat had had a former sexual relationship, which the film had never hinted at until it suddenly becomes relevant and, although never quite the focus of the “story,” is apparently the key to the film’s happy ending.  The plot has the feeling of being made up as it goes along, and it’s difficult to keep up with all the new information casually spewed at you.

This has a lot to do with the film’s script seemingly being written for efficiency’s sake rather than immersive storytelling.  Characters don’t have much in the way of definitive personalities beyond their broad archetypes, and their dialogue often feels stilted and inhuman.  There were multiple times where a character started on Topic A, then immediately started talking about Topic C, but there was no transitional Topic B in order to make the conversation feel natural.

I think that this was perhaps done intentionally in order to accentuate the awkwardness of the characters and play it up for laughs, but the film never gets as far as making an actual joke.  The awkward situations aren’t intrinsically funny, and the uncomfortable tension never gets relieved by the saving grace of a punchline.  Instead, what results is scene after scene of these three characters interacting in a variety of manners that will make you question how they even got here, and thinking back on the experience isn’t ludicrous for comedy’s sake, but is only frustrating.

Maybe I just don’t get the joke.  Maybe I’m not pretentious enough to appreciate what this film has to offer.  But my gods, Results is an uncomfortable mess of a film with unlikeable characters, horrible writing, and an entirely misplaced sense of comedic timing.  This is one of the worst films I’ve seen all year.  It belongs with the likes of Wild Horses, Get Hard, and Serena.  It’s that bad.  Skip this movie.  It barely counts as one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Pitch Perfect 2": Second Verse Better Than The First

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It’s not hard to see why the first Pitch Perfect was such a box office success, even if it wasn’t an exemplarily great film.  The timing was right for someone to jump onto the Glee-inspired musical film bandwagon, so Universal Studios produced a note-by-note formula piece in the vein of Bring It On and was lucky enough to actually have some decent comedic talent to back it up.  It didn’t do anything special, but it got the job done and filled a niche that was lacking in the blockbuster film industry, so pop music fans flocked to the picture and fell in love.  So, of course, a sequel was ordered and the results are about as you would expect.

When making a sequel to such a straight formula piece and keeping the same cast of characters, there are two ways to approach the new plot: rehash the formula once more or focus on character development at the expense of a central plot theme.  The second option is ultimately the better one, as it prevents the film from feeling pointless in the shadow of its predecessor, and thankfully Pitch Perfect 2 decides to take this route.  Beca (Anna Kendrick) is interning to try to become a successful music producer, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is trying to juggle a secret romantic life with her acapella obligations, and the rest of the singing group tries to come to terms with their impending college graduation and inevitable splitting up as a competitive team.  There is a world competition that looms as the obligatory musical climax, but that mostly exists in the background and only serves as an excuse for the ladies to keep singing.

And as for the singing itself, the performances become a pretty decent metacommentary on the state of musical performance as a competitive art.  A common criticism of the first film was that it exhibited an overreliance on choreography and showmanship when the centerpiece was supposed to be the vocal performances.  The sequel takes those critiques head on, turning the group’s collective arc into one of moving beyond pure spectacle and coming together to find their true unifying voice, abandoning the acapella staple of cover-based performance and realizing the potential of original music.  In a way, this comes as a statement that this sequel wasn’t intended to be pure fan service, but actually has a purposeful message about the real world state of musical performance, and it’s a nice touch.

And, of course, as before, the comedic performances are still pretty fun.  Some characters are still as one note as before (I’m thinking of the lesbian and nymphomaniac caricatures), but Fat Amy’s one liners are still ridiculous as they are awkward, and Beca’s inexplicable attraction to a domineering German competitor is delightfully satisfying.  As with the first film, though, the prize must go to John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the competition announcers, who spew seemingly improvised commentary with expert chemistry that only makes me wish that they were a larger focus in the narrative.

All in all, fans of the franchise will love this film, and while it still doesn’t reach any heights of transcendent greatness, Pitch Perfect 2 is a solid example of how to move past pure formula in order to keep a sequel fresh and interesting.  I just wouldn’t expect it to draft any new recruits to the cult of acapella.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Good Kill": Overshadowed By Its Own Politics

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sometimes films are made with the best of intentions but, for whatever reason, just end up being bad examples of whatever they were trying to portray.  This commonly happens with political message films, where the writers can become so invested in conveying an ideology that they forego creating a worthwhile narrative or characters in order to carry the message in an entertaining way.  Good Kill is a film with the noblest of intentions, but it bungles so many very basic elements of compelling storytelling that it just cannot be considered a good film.

The political purpose of this actually underpublicized film is to bring awareness to drone strikes, how they affect the populations they survey and kill, and how they cause a unique form of PTSD for soldiers here in the United States.  Enter Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former pilot who has been assigned to a Nevada base where he clocks in every day to sit at a desk and control a drone over Afghanistan.  What follows from that basic premise is a fairly standard tale of how PTSD affects those who suffer from it and how it affects their loves ones, but it is told only about as effectively as in American Sniper, perhaps even less adequately so.

The main problem is that this film is devoid of identifiable characters.  Nobody feels like a real human being, least of all Hawke who, despite being a decent actor, just can’t convincingly pull off dead serious roles that ask him to be completely devoid of levity.  Nearly every other character is nothing more than a speechifying mouthpiece of writer-director Andrew Niccol’s views on drone strikes and the military complex that allows them to continue to accept collateral damage in the name of stopping terrorism.  The fact that I may agree with these points doesn’t make the story any more compelling; the actors are just props to spout lines that spin a particular political sentiment, yet don’t communicate anything more than that.  The only exception seems to come in the form of January Jones as Major Egan’s wife, yet she seems to be perpetually stuck playing Mad Men’s Betty Draper with less and less effectiveness as the years wear on.

Even if one were to take the film’s political message as de facto good writing, the ending completely sabotages the consistency of the ideology as presented up until that point.  I think this subtext was probably entirely inadvertent, but the final moments of the film involve Major Egan going off assignment to kill a target that he does not have permission to kill, but he feels morally justified in doing so given some of the atrocities he watched his victim perpetrate.  This carries the unfortunate implication that sometimes drone strikes can be justified, and what feels like it was intended to act as a protagonist’s cathartic climactic moment only ends up confusing the tentpole theme that kept the whole story aloft.

Good Kill is a really unfortunate film because it seems to have a lot of potential in its premise and its ideological stance.  But a film needs to be more than just an ideological stance.  To now make a contrast to American Sniper, whereas that film was so devoid of ideology as to be soulless, this film sacrificed its characters and plot upon the alter of ideology.  Neither makes for a good film; as always, there needs to be balance and moderation in narrative writing, but especially so in political drama.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

"Love and Mercy": How To Do A Biopic Right

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I get royally sick of biopics, mostly because they often fall into the trap of trying to summarize a person’s entire life by forcing it into a three act structure, which neither serves to commemorate the lives they portray, nor does it make biopics thematically or structurally distinct from one another.  That’s why when a film like Love and Mercy comes along, I take notice.  Written by the same screenwriter that wrote the excellent Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, Love and Mercy is a great example of how to use non-linear storytelling in order to capture some key moments in a person’s life in order to tell a compelling story that isn’t overburdened with the baggage of an entire life story.

Love and Mercy chronicles two periods of singer/songwriter Brian Wilson’s life: the 1960s, where he (played by Paul Dano) was the lead singer and composer for The Beach Boys and worked on the later albums Pet Sounds and the unfinished Smile; and the 1980s, where an older Brian (John Cusack) struggles with mental illness under the watchful eye of the manipulative Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), as he courts a woman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who ultimately acts as his key to freedom.

The way the two stories are cut together makes for incredibly interesting storytelling, as the two begin to converge around the nature of Brian’s mental illness, with his younger self losing his grip on reality as the older version struggles to find his way back towards it while his so-called doctor pushes him down into suggestible catatonia.  The film also makes a remarkable use of sound to convey Brian’s mental faculties and processes, whether it is snippets of unfinished songs that we hear racing through his head, or the overloud cacophony of knives and forks scraping across plates as his anxiety reaches new heights.  It’s a fascinating look at how mental illness could affect someone with such a deft musical ear.

If the film has one major failing, though, it is in the consistency of the performances.  Paul Dano is suitably disturbed as the younger Brian, and Elizabeth Banks once again proves how great of an actress she is by injecting Melinda with a sense of humanity and strength that a lesser actress would have simply projected as distress.  However, John Cusack feels like he doesn’t quite have a handle on any emotion other than sullen manic depression, making his version of Brian feel relatively one-dimensional, and Paul Giamatti really oversells his take on Dr. Landy, coming off as less than subtly menacing and more of an obvious shrifter with a quick temper.

Overall, though, Love and Mercy is a damn fine film that really captures the essence of the tortured life that Brian Wilson lived.  It captures that essence, but does not feel the need to act as a narrative summary of Wilson's Wikipedia article.  More biopics need to trim their fat and focus on the key moments that make their protagonists who they are, and find a story to tell other than the usual rags-to-riches nonsense.  Let’s hope that in the upcoming biopic-heavy awards season that more films follow this model.  Though I’m not counting on it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Furious 7": Fast Cars Make For Dumb Ridiculous Fun

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Fast and/or Furious franchise (besides its increasingly ludicrous installment titling conventions) is that they have somehow taken their formerly poor quality and elevated it into something that, if not legitimately great, is a hell of a lot of fun.  The first four films are of varying quality but have always existed on the dumber, duller side of the spectrum, their continued existence only justified by filling a niche for dude-bros who love fast cars on the big screen.  However, something changed in the fifth film, which left the underground racing origins of the series behind in favor of an action heist plot, and the action elements have only been emphasized ever since.  This has led to an escalation in the last three films that has served not to make the films any more intelligent, but to make them fun enough where the their lack of depth doesn’t matter compared to the pure visceral thrill of their existence.  Furious 7 continues this tradition and ends up being what is probably the best in the series.

Continuing from the events of Fast & Furious 6, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) swears revenge against Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and crew (Paul Walker, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and Michelle Rodriguez) for leaving his villainous brother in a coma, attacking them one by one with intense black operative skills.  Dom is approached by secret agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to track down a surveillance MacGuffin that will allow the crew to find Shaw, and Dom agrees on the condition that Mr. Nobody will assist in taking Shaw down.

In all honesty, the plot to this film is full of gaping holes, most notably that the whole purpose of finding the program in order to find Shaw is undermined by the fact that Shaw appears in every major action scene, making the task of hunting him down a complete non-sequitur.  However, the plot is not the reason anyone sees a recent Fast and/or Furious film: it’s the ridiculous action setpieces, and boy does the seventh installment deliver.  As awesome as the tank battle from part six was, it cannot compete against skydiving cars, jumps between moving vehicles, drone attacks, missile barrages, and driving a brakeless car through a skyscraper dozens of stories into the air.  Previous films in this franchise were hampered by their cost-saving transition into computer-generated stuntwork, but now that the films are so far removed from reality as to justify that transition, the cartoony nature of such scenes feels welcome precisely because they are so unbelievable.

It’s also worth mentioning that this may be the only ensemble action franchise to be predominately headlined by people of color and have female characters with defined personalities and actual agency within the plot.  Considering that other franchises greatly lack such empowering diversity (like a certain Cinematic Universe), the fact that such a cast remains intact and hasn't become Hollywood whitewashed is astounding and hopefully will endure in future installments.

Furious 7 ends with a tribute to the late Paul Walker, using his character’s transition into family life and out of the franchise as a metaphor for Walker’s premature demise.  It’s a touching moment that fans of this fifteen year franchise will appreciate, and it really hammers home that the franchise’s boast of the value of family and loyalty is not empty, but is an expression of the cast’s actual dedication to one another.  Though Walker may not have been the greatest actor, his presence will clearly be missed by those who worked with him, and with this as his final film, I’m happy to say he left on a high note.  If you’re looking for some pure dumb fun, Furious 7 won’t let you down.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Aloha": Actors Can't Float A Sinking Script

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Aloha has a stellar cast.  Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachael McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski Danny McBride, and Alec Baldwin all signed on to do this romantic dramedy, and one would think that with that sort of star power that the film could have at least succeeded on some level.  But that’s forgetting one thing: this film was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, a director with a lot of passion, but very little by way of talent.  He has only made two good films (Jerry McGuire and Almost Famous) at the start of his career that he has coasted on ever since, and has since been responsible for such travesties as Elizabethtown and Vanilla Sky.  Yet somehow, studios still inexplicably give him money to make films, with his latest dull wit forming the basis for Aloha.

Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) is a military contractor responsible for overseeing the successful launch of a satellite into Earth’s orbit.  In order to fulfill this mission, we travels to Hawaii, where he meets his old lover (McAdams), who has settled down and is married with children.  While rekindling his friendship with her, Brian meets Captain Allison Ng (Stone, supposedly portraying a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese woman in the most racially tone-deaf casting this side of United Passions), who has been assigned to keep an eye on him while he preps the satellite for launch.  After a rocky start, the two begin to develop feelings for one another.

I say a rocky start, but the two seemingly transition from ideologically rivalrous banter to face-sucking giddiness at the drop of a hat, perhaps acting as one of the worst romantic arcs put to film in recent years.  It doesn’t help that Stone is portraying the prototypical Manic Pixie Dream GirlTM, the overused (notably by Crowe on multiple occasions) cinematic device wherein a carefree spirited young woman pulls an uptight man out of his shell into the relaxed groove that is love.  That’s not a character; that’s a wet dream.  And Stone, try as she might, doesn’t bring anything new to the role.  Which is sad, considering that Cooper and Stone are both fantastic actors.

But that can largely be blamed on Crowe's plodding writing and direction, which feels equal parts lazy, incompetent, and uninspired.  For what is supposed to be a dramedy, there are actually very few jokes, and the ones that are attempted are so disparate in comic tone and completely unestablished that they never land as funny.  It’s easy to see how a more competent director could have made those scenes or that dialogue smirk-worthy, but Crowe seems to have forgotten how, or at least doesn’t care enough to have his actors convey anything other than goofy smiles.

I understand how a film like Aloha is supposed to be appealing.  It’s about beautiful people in a beautiful place having a good time and ultimately falling in love with each other.  There are literally hundreds of movies that fit this formula, and some of them work.  Aloha doesn’t because it doesn’t have any aspirations beyond being a vacation for its cast and crew.  It’s a lazy product that thankfully didn’t make its money back.  Hopefully this will keep producers from giving their money to Cameron Crowe again.  But it likely won’t, and that’s the saddest thing of all.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"United Passions": One of the Worst Films of All Time

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Incompetence is not the only hallmark of a horrible film, though United Passions is most certainly incompetent.  Sometimes a film can represent something so ideologically reprehensible and be such a blatant disregard for actual historical events as to be offensive by its very existence.  The FIFA-funded autobiography of the famed soccer organization was released to the most ironic timing, following in the wake of a corruption scandal that saw over a dozen FIFA officials arrested and the resignation of President Sepp Blatter.  The irony sets in as one realizes that United Passions is a blatant propaganda piece that seeks to aggrandize the organization and its leaders while completely ignoring any faults the organization has ever had.

This comes to the expense of any sort of discernable plot, other than acting as a dramatized history lesson of the origin and rise to power of the soccer association.  Three presidents are biographically portrayed: Jules Rimet (Gerard Depardieu), João Havelange (a disturbingly whitewashed miscast of Sam Neill), and Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth).  The first half of the film focuses on the first half of the twentieth century when Rimet was in power, and is entirely devoid of conflict, as the organization is portrayed to effortlessly rise to popularity as cartoonishly racist British competitors sneer in the background.  The latter half focuses on Havelange’s presidency and Blatter’s ascension of the ranks.  This is also fairly bloodless, with the closest thing to a discernable arc coming in the form of Blatter overcoming allegations of corruption in the 1990s.

Were it not for such close timing, one could almost have thought this film was an investment in Blatter’s criminal embezzlement defense, treating the man as a saint while faceless underlings betray him and leave him holding the bag.  The fact that the film acts as if FIFA is an organization that has overcome internal corruption and exploitative practices is laughable at best and downright despicable at worst.  This is propaganda at its most obvious, so ineptly made as to not even be convincing.

As mentioned before, the film has no narrative throughline, meaning it is completely lacking in narrative or character investment.  The big-name talent called in to staff this film all seem to regret the parts they play even as they are on screen, and the dialogue is so hokey and ham-fisted that it cannot be taken seriously; there are moments where extras spout expositionary dialogue as if it were taken from a cue card off screen and deliver the line just as convincingly.  The film attempts to mask its stilted and obvious writing by overusing swelling orchestral accompaniments in the vain hope that, if the words spoken will not convince the audience of FIFA’s greatness, the emotional manipulation of music will.  There are barely any scenes of soccer actually being played, so we are denied even that banal pleasure!

There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this movie.  I’m racking my brain to think of something that I can find praiseworthy, and the only thing I can even remotely consider good is the historical set design.  This is how you know your film is creatively bankrupt.  This is as much a horrible piece of marketing as I’ve ever had the displeasure to see put to feature film format.  It is a glossy-eyed portrait of a historically corrupt organization that neither works as an accurate factual representation nor as a piece of narrative fiction.  It is easily one of the worst films ever made, and not even in a way that is funny.  If you were curious, just walk away.  There’s nothing worth seeing here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"The Age of Adaline": Adequate Despite Its Aspirations

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Age of Adaline is not as smart of a film as it thinks it is.  It clearly has a desire to be the next Benjamin Button, spinning a love story with magical undertones and scenes across time, but it doesn’t have any source material or thematic complexity to back it up.  This is a film that seeks to be classically literary without having any sort of literary pedigree to its plotting or theming, and it that respect, it is a failure.  However, setting aside the film’s obviously lofty ambitions, does it succeed as a film in and of itself?  I think the answer is yes.

Adaline (Black Lively), as the film’s seemingly out-of-place storybook narrator will exposit, was born in 1908, and due to a freak accident at the age of 29, her aging process halted, preserving her physical appearance and health.  Cut to the present day, and Adaline has been living under false names every new decade to avoid detection.  She meets a young man named Ellis (Michiel Huisman) and the two begin a courtship that Adaline most assuredly thinks will end in tragedy, as she fears that she must soon move on and leave him behind.

For all the film’s pretentions towards telling a love story across time, structurally this is just another film about a woman insecure about pursuing a relationship who is ultimately seduced by the love of her life into opening up.  It’s a formula that has been used time and again, and The Age of Adaline seems intent on pretending that its effective use of that formula is grander in scope than it actually is.  However, the halted-aging contrivance doesn’t have any sort of direct effect on Ellis and Adaline’s relationship; it’s only an obvious secret that she keeps from Ellis, and one that, predictably, won’t matter by the end credits.

But as with any formula piece, the deciding factor is in the efficacy of the performances, and Adaline has some damn fine examples.  Blake Lively turns in an incredibly believable performance as an old woman in a young woman’s body, playing Adaline with a calm serenity that hints at experience well beyond her apparent years.  She’s still fallibly human and not at all curmudgeony as those suffering from the effects of old age can be, but there’s a certain air of authority and knowledge that makes her seem almost otherworldly, but only almost.  Also turning in his best work in years is Harrison Ford as a former lover who meets Adaline by pure happenstance.  Ford has never been a superb actor, but the level of nostalgia and longing in his voice as he remembers the Adaline of his youth makes me suspect that Ford may have been channeling emotions from his own life in order to make this role work for him.  And work it does.

Ultimately, The Age of Adaline won’t be the staple of anyone’s romantic movie collection, nor will it likely be remembered or appreciated for what it did right.  Though its aspirations were lofty, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be remembered as one of the greats.  However, as a romance film, it serves its purpose and is surprisingly lacking in the gross misogyny that is typical to the genre.  If you’re looking for a sweet film to fill an afternoon, you could do worse than The Age of Adaline.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"The Harvest": Indie Horror Produces Another Gem

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

We’ve seen a resurgence in the past two years of smaller-budget horror films of substantially improved quality.  With The Babadook I thought we had an odd fluke; with It Follows I thought we had a trend; now, with The Harvest, I’d say we have a definitive renaissance.  Of the three films, The Harvest is decidedly the weakest, but the fact that it is a good film in light of the horror genre’s poor showings over the past two decades is something to behold, particularly in how it remains suspenseful even in the absence of supernatural elements.

Maryann is a preteen girl who moves to a small town with her grandparents after her parents die.  Out looking for a new friend, she visits a boy next door named Andy, who is confined to his bed and his wheelchair and is not allowed to leave the house.  Maryann persistently tries to befriend the boy, despite his mother’s rather unsettling insistence that he must be left alone.  As Maryann pushes forward, she discovers a family secret that puts Andy’s malady in a whole new perspective.

What this film does quite well is combine elements of slow-burning horror with those of a lighter-hearted adolescent coming of age film.  The two child leads are appropriately affectless in their performances, giving off the impression that they are real kids in a truly frightening situation.  It almost feels like a 1980s Spielberg film, which makes the horror turns that much more shocking and unsettling.  Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon play Andy’s parents with a surprising amount of emotional nuance for acting in a genre that isn’t known for it, and the way their marital dynamic unfolds over the course of the film is not only disturbing, but it is downright scary in a way that few films master.

However, The Harvest does hit a stumbling block in how it handles its all-important plot twists.  There are two that change the film’s course quite drastically, and I found the first to be genuinely surprising.  And yet, the second twist is almost a direct logical consequence of the first, so that I just made the assumption that it was an accepted reality within the film’s narrative, only to find that the script expends a lot of energy in trying to hide a ball that’s in plain sight.  There is also an issue in that the film never gives much of a good reason for no one to believe Maryann’s shocking mid-film discovery other than for plot convenience in order to keep the intrigue going.  It’s a mild oversight, but an annoying one.

Despite these issues, though, The Harvest is a tense and thrilling film that is a worthy addition to the independent renaissance that has come to the horror genre.  It kept me guessing (until it didn’t) and knew how to pluck at tense heartstrings without resorting to lazy jump-scare tactics.  If you like good horror like it hasn’t been done since the 70s, this is a film for you.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Jurassic World": Sorry I Showed Up Late To The Party

Now In Theaters, Available on DVD and Blu-ray on October 20, 2015

Alright, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Yes, I am probably the last person on Planet Earth to have seen Jurassic World.  I was planning on reviewing it next month when the home video release is set to drop, but I saw its brief theatrical re-release had made its way to my local theater, so I decided to make the excursion and find out what all the fuss was about.  And yes, it’s a really fun movie.  Not a great movie, but pretty much exactly what you can expect and ask for in a summer blockbuster.

Reviving the spirit of the original Jurassic Park, World sees the original conception of John Hammond’s dinosaur theme park brought to life, with seemingly stable dinosaur habitats and tens of thousands of visitors daily.  Park executives see a steady decline in profits, though, and seek to remedy this by introducing a new, genetically manufactured dinosaur, Indominus Rex.  However, the dinosaur proves to be much smarter than originally thought, as it escapes and begins to wreak havoc across the park, killing dinosaurs and humans alike.  It is up to park operator Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), her two nephews, and velociraptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) to stop the monster before it can completely lay waste to park and its inhabitants.

This is most assuredly the second-best Jurassic Park film for two major reasons.  First, it is such a clear homage to the original that it is hard to take it too seriously.  This is a campy B-movie first and foremost, and World capitalizes on our love for the original film with swooning orchestral renditions of that classic Park score and cute fourth wall nods to the place the two-decade old film holds in history and in our hearts.  The second reason, though, is that the film is self-aware of how utterly ridiculous it is, with over-the-top action setpieces that aren’t rehashes of its inspiration, despite how easily it could have been done with the recycled archetypes that populate the cast.  This is a film that features Chris Pratt leading a team of velociraptors on a military-style tactical assault on what is essentially a steroid-powered T-rex from hell.  And when that’s only the tip of the iceberg used to get asses in theater seats, you know you have one hell of a thrill ride coming your way.

Yet, despite the praise I have for this film, it isn’t perfect.  The child duo of Gray and Zach are pretty bland and one-dimensional characters, the former seemingly defined only by his apparent autism and the latter just a too-cool teenage archetype.  Furthermore, a budding romance between Claire and Owen feels shoehorned into the plot as a part of some producer-mandated checklist and actually seems to emerge in spite of rather than because of their interactions.  Finally, though I found the way the Indominus Rex was used in the film’s many exciting action setpieces to be quite effective, I found the monster’s actual design to be somewhat underwhelming.  For what is supposed to be the ultimate badass of dinosaurs, it mostly just looks like a T-rex with longer grabbing arms, which feels like some lame wasted potential.

But really, those are just minor details that niggle away at my mind for what is ultimately supposed to a pretty mindless popcorn flick.  And it succeeds at being just that through nostaligic reinforcement and some really original and silly action scenes.  It doesn’t live up to the special effects genius of Jurassic Park, overpopulating its frame with CGI monsters rather than the practical models and sparingly-used CGI of the original, but it also isn’t trying to surpass its predecessor either.  This is ultimately a well-funded fan film that remains true to the spirit of what made us all fall in love with a movie about a dinosaur theme park gone wrong.  Let’s hope that the recently announced sequel won’t shatter that good will.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"I'll See You In My Dreams (2015)": One Great Performance Doesn't Make A Good Movie

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Can one performance save an entirely otherwise bland production?  Normally, I’m inclined to say no, and I’ll See You In My Dreams does not do much to persuade me otherwise.  This is a dull indie flop that features lazy direction, boring camerawork, hackneyed writing, and one hell of a leading lady.  However, despite that leading lady’s clear devotion to the role, this is a great example of how an independent film darling can depend so entirely on its star power as to be entirely pointless otherwise.

The film opens on our widowed protagonist Carol (Blythe Danner) spending time with her dog, going about her daily routine around the house.  Within a few moments, though, we find ourselves at the vet’s office, watching Carol go through the agonizing process of putting her sick, elderly dog down.  With this newfound hole in her life, Carol begins to experiment in being social once more, befriending her pool boy, getting into shenanigans with her retirement home friends, and trying to get out and date again.

The triteness of this premise could have been saved by some funny screenwriting or some interesting visual metaphors, but the director, Brett Haley, couldn’t seem to be bothered.  Every shot is filmed for the straight communication of information directly from the mouths of the characters, with no visual flourish or cinematic dynamism to keep the experience fresh and interesting.  Danner does a great job of portraying Carol’s inner turmoil as she takes her introverted self out into more sociable experiences, but she alone can’t save this film, particularly because of the blandness of the material she has to work with.

The script itself is largely lacking in heartfelt moments that rise above tropes and plot points we’ve seen before in other movies.  We see Carol go out on tortuous speed-dating, begin to quickly fall for a love interest in the form of a phallic cigar-chomping Sam Elliot, struggle with the loss of an elderly friend, and a number of other saccharine moments that have done better and more interestingly in other films.  There are a few exceptions, such as a pot-smoking scene with Carol’s old lady friends, but those rare moments of interest come off as more bizarre than endearing, considering the context in which they’re presented.

All in all, I’ll See You In My Dreams is a really boring movie.  It may speak to an older audience who can relate to Carol’s experiences more directly, but as someone who watches a lot of films, I found it impossible to ignore the lazy reliance of elderly tropes and the lackluster effort put into the production.  Blythe Danner is a talented actress, and she slips into her role as Carol flawlessly and sympathetically, but one person cannot usually save an entire production.  The director actually has to make an effort too.