Friday, October 30, 2015

"Southpaw": An Uninspired Substitution

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Director Antoine Fuqua is best known for two things: Training Day and a bunch of middling action films that aren’t Training Day.  Fuqua has a penchant for portraying images of tortured masculinity, of men overcoming their baser instincts to become decent human beings.  Though technically proficient in getting his cast and crew to make effective films, those films don’t seem to have much to say anymore, simply adopting his favorite masculine tropes and adapting them to whatever stock narrative he can get his hands on.  This is precisely the problem with Southpaw, which is never an outright bad film, but is one that is immediately forgettable upon viewing.

At the height of his career, the quite unsubtly named boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has money, fame, a beautiful wife, and a loving daughter.  However, one day, in a confrontation with another boxer, his wife gets shot by one of the other boxer’s bodyguards, leaving him a widower and his daughter without a mother.  After a spiral of self-destructive behavior, Billy loses his fortune to creditors and his daughter to child services.  Now, under the tutelage of seasoned boxer Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker, trying on the “wise old black man” trope), Billy must work his way back into the ring to make a better life for him and his daughter.

This whole premise plays out like a mix between Rocky and 8 Mile, which isn’t surprising once you realize that the character of Billy Hope was originally written with Eminem in mind.  The whole production oozes with Eminem’s influence, including the rap-heavy soundtrack and the casting of 50 Cent as Billy’s manager.  However, for whatever reason, Eminem dropped out of the project and the infinitely more talented Jake Gyllenhaal was hired in his stead (and beefed himself up in a physical transformation that is equally as impressive as his gaunt character in last year’s Nightcrawler), which paradoxically works to the film’s detriment.  Though Gyllenhaal is a much better actor, Billy is not a character that was written with Gyllenhaal’s range in mind, meaning that Gyllenhaal ends up mumbling his best Marshal Mathers impression for the entirety of the runtime.  If Eminem had stuck with the project, there would have at least been the element of playing a version of oneself that made him somewhat interesting in 8 Mile.  Instead, though Gyllenhaal is clearly doing his best, he’s stuck with material that was designed to mask Eminem’s lack of talent, thereby obstructing Gyllenhaal’s actual talent.

Meanwhile, the Rocky elements of the plot have been so superficially lifted from that franchise that it makes the latter half of the film a game of “spot the trope.”  There’s forcing Billy to complete humbling and menial tasks to work his way up from the bottom; there’s a clichéd empowerment speech Titus gives to Billy in order to move him out of the dumps; there’s a training montage that shows us Billy’s progress without actually showing us anything interesting about boxing.  It all plays out beat for beat effectively, but that just makes me wish I were watching Rocky instead so that it wouldn’t feel so derivative.

Though Southpaw is technically a decently directed film, just like most of Antoine Fuqua’s work, I can’t bring myself to recommend it.  Maybe it’s just because I don’t latch on to the subject matter, but such close adherence to the sports-as-metaphor-for-self-improvement genre tropes makes this film feel undifferentiated from stuff we’ve all seen a million times before.  It also doesn’t help that the film feels somewhat pointless without Eminem as the lead actor, no matter how dedicated Gyllenhaal is to making himself a believable substitute.  Ultimately, this film is passable in both senses of the word: it functionally works as a movie, but it is entirely not worth your time.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Our Brand Is Crisis (2015)": Bullock Can't Carry This Alone

In Theaters on October 30, 2015

Sandra Bullock occupies a very particular space in my brain when it comes to how I perceive her in regards to whether she enhances or detracts from any particular film she stars in.  And that space is: a surprising amount of ambivalence.  She occupies a similar role to that of Christian Bale in that I don’t think she’s a bad actress, and I have liked roles and projects that she has been a part of, but I don’t necessarily feel that those projects have been in any way enhanced by her presence.  She’s just a sort of stock actress, versatile enough to be dropped into any leading role you need her for, but not so good that she brings anything unique to the table.  Which is probably my biggest problem with Our Brand Is Crisis, as the entire production is couched in Bullock’s ability to sell the film.

Actually a fictionalized reimagining of a documentary of the same name, Our Brand Is Crisis tells the story of Jane Bodine (Bullock), a political strategist who backed out of a game that was eating away her conscience who gets pulled back in one more time to help a struggling Bolivian presidential candidate pull a victory out of nothing.  What about this particular job is so intriguing as to pull Jane from retirement?  A rival from her past, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is the advisor for an opposing candidate.

As a self-proclaimed comedy, this set-up sounds like it would be the perfect sort of fodder for satirical jabs at how Americans involve themselves in other countries’ political battles and how ridiculous it can be to supplant American political strategy onto a population that has no cultural stake in such a rat race.  However, Our Brand Is Crisis isn’t that sort of movie, instead paint in broad strokes of physical comedy with a light pattering of character moments to give the supporting cast the appearance of more depth than they actually have.  This could potentially work in any other movie, but here it falls flat because Bullock is just not the right person to carry everyone else’s cardboard cut-out personas.

Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Sandra Bullock, but she just isn’t especially intriguing.  A grander personality who wasn’t so interested in making her performances so “Oscar worthy” could have made the physical stuff work, but Bullock just isn’t that grand.  And while the script does veer into dramatic territory that Bullock is slightly better suited for, even then it feels like she’s carrying the entire production on her shoulders, with even Thornton phoning it in as her supposed nemesis.  The writing most certainly doesn’t help, as nothing stands out as especially clever, witty, or insightful; it’s all just fairly formula-standard burdened-conscience-to-moral-epiphany stuff that isn’t done in any new or intriguing way.

I’m only inclined to call this a bad movie in the sense that I didn’t personally enjoy it.  On a purely technical level, it’s serviceable and though much of the comedy didn’t work for me, I can see how it could work for someone more inclined to spend their money on a Sandra Bullock movie.  But as far as I’m concerned, this one is a pretty forgettable dud; even with the seemingly interesting premise, it falls flat on its uninspired execution, and Sandra Bullock doesn’t really make that any better.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"My All-American": Unintentionally Hilarious

In Theaters on November 13, 2015

I didn’t go into My All-American expecting great things.  The trailer made the film seem like a pretty stock-standard, sports-centric rise to glory tale cashing in on the star power of Aaron Eckhart as the coach in order to support the no-name main cast.  And all of these things are true, but there is so much more to this film: it is a steaming pile of shit.  Out of respect for other moviegoers, I needed to restrain my laughter at how inept and awful this film turned out to be.  This goes beyond being merely formulaic; it hits all the standard plot beats of a sports movie without understanding the emotional weight that needs to back them up, which makes for awkward and unintentionally hilarious cinema.

Ostensibly based on a true story, My All-American follows the meteoric rise of college football athlete Freddie Steinmark.  He never won the All-American title, but he is remembered fondly by his coach and teammates as being smart, dedicated, and a lot tougher than his small stature would lend credit to.  And this is pretty much the film’s key failing: Freddie is too damn perfect.  He doesn’t exhibit any sort of character flaw that would lend him some humanity, like he’s Captain America but without a narrative that pushes against his blind idealism.  Even when Freddie is diagnosed with fatal bone cancer and told that his leg will need to be amputated toward the end of the film, he takes the news with a grim certainty that he will be fine in the end.  This makes him an incredibly dull character and thus all conflict in the film feels entirely meaningless.

But what really makes this film so riot-worthy is the incompetent direction that barely holds all its working parts together.  Characters come off as flat and token, as if the actors are reading cue cards from just off-screen.  Even Eckhart can’t seem to give more than half a shit with his performance, which could have been a lifesaver in a sea of talentless hacks.  This may have a lot to do with the script, which is peppered with clichés and Hallmark moments that range from cringeworthy to sidesplitting.  My favorite culmination of these various idiotic factors is when Freddie is trying to teach his roommate how to pray, and the roommate looks down at his hands as if he just cannot figure out how to clasp them together.  All of this is stitched together through the language of training montages and period-topical references that feel as artificial as they are hackneyed.

The only saving grace of this film is that director Angelo Pizzo clearly knows how to shoot football plays, which begs the question of why his talents aren’t better put to use by one of the major television networks on Sunday afternoons.  This film could be called amateur at best, but is more likely the result of lazy writing and an over-reliance on the likeability of its protagonist.  But a protagonist doesn’t need to be simply likeable, but also relatable, with actual struggles that he is actually STRUGGLING to overcome.  Instead, this film gives us a messianic figure who can do anything and came to a tragic end through no fault of his own, but its narrative is wrapped in such an accidentally comical presentation that what little character the film had going for it cannot be taken seriously.  This is a film that deserves a drinking game, but definitely not the cost of your ticket stub.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Jem and the Holograms": I Can't Quite Hate It

In Theaters on October 23, 2015

Just to be as upfront as possible, I was never a fan of the classic Jem cartoon.  It was before my time and not really my style.  Yet I don’t find it at all surprising the Universal and Hasbro have teamed up to try and revitalize the franchise in cinematic form, essentially aiming to become the Pitch Perfect for the under-14 crowd.  So, how does Jem and the Holograms measure up?  Well… I didn’t hate it…

Jerrica Benton is a teenager who lives with her aunt, her sister Kimber, and her foster sisters Aja and Shana.  She is camera shy and generally doesn’t enjoy the spotlight.  In a spontaneous need for an outlet, Jerrica records a video of herself singing in low-light and makeup under the pseudonym Jem, which Kimber then uploads to the internet without her knowledge.  This causes the world to take notice, giving her internet celebrity status overnight.  Record executive Erica Raymond swoops in and vies to make Jem into a star.  With her sisters by her side, Jerrica must overcome her reluctance to be in the spotlight and share her talents, all while balancing pressures to go solo and a quest from her late father to complete a robot.

That last sentence should raise an eyebrow, because it is precisely demonstrative of exactly how much of a mess this film’s screenplay is.  One minute it is a decided coming-of-age story, yet another it is a story of mega-stardom leading to betrayal, and yet another it is a mild sci-fi mystery adventure.  I understand that the original cartoon could at times be all these things, but the movie is never all of these things at once, but rather trades its hat whenever it runs out of narrative drive.  This not only leads to strange tonal transitions, but it also makes for some of the most contrived narrative pacing I have ever seen.  Events happen purely because the script says so, not because of any logical consequence of character actions or plot revelations.  It’s lazy and unnecessarily forced.

And yet, despite all that, I didn’t hate this movie.  I think this is mostly due to the fact that the production clearly seems heartfelt, even if its execution is laughably faulty at times.  Director Jon Chu reportedly received a smaller budget in consideration for his ability to retain greater creative control, which despite making the film look pretty darn cheap, adds a lot of personality that I don’t think otherwise would have been there.  A good example is the use of YouTube artists as the background score for various scenes, which, while slightly overused, is an interesting idea and acts as a pretty neat callback to Jerrica’s in-narrative roots.  And Aubrey Peeples as Jerrica/Jem is actually worthy of emotional investment; despite how asinine the material she has to work with is, Peeples clearly has the potential to be a leading lady in bigger and better films.

Kids will probably like Jem and the Holograms.  It’s emotionally relatable and slightly silly, and the generic pop that peppers the film’s musical scenes isn’t terrible, just mildly forgettable.  But for the adults watching along, it’s probably going to be a bit of a snore-fest.  Unless you are willing to make your own fun and mock just how ridiculous the film can be in its attempts at drama, this is a movie that does little to amuse a more sophisticated audience.  But despite all that, I can’t bring myself to hate this movie.  The few things it does right make it at least bearable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Tomorrowland": Disney's Failed Attempt at "Bioshock" Philosophy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

On an ideological level, I really, really want to like Tomorrowland.  It carries a message of hope for the future that is often missing in modern fiction, a vocal and boisterous rejection of the dystopian fiction tropes that dominate current popular culture.  This is a film about how the future is not set in apocalyptic stone, but is rather in our hands to mold as we see fit, which is a fantastic message for a world that often seems apathetic in the face of massive ecological, societal, and economic problems.  However, Tomorrowland bungles this message in its presentation, which shoots for the brilliance of Bioshock but ends up feeling self-defeatingly Randian in execution.

As the incredibly vague trailer campaign for this film alluded to but didn’t ever enunciate, Tomorrowland is the story of a disillusioned and bitter former boy genius (George Clooney) and a young upstart genius (Britt Robertson) trying to get to Tomorrowland, a city in an alternate universe founded by the best and the brightest of yester-century.  The aesthetic is retro-futuristic in the style of what midcentury dreamers envisioned our time would be like, with jetpacks and space travel as everyday means of life.  However, a vague threat looms over the known world, threatening the existence of humankind, and Clooney thinks that only Robertson has the means to stop it.

As referenced earlier, that threat comes in the form of defeatist ideologies, as humanity has predicted its own future and has become comfortable with its downfall by celebrating it in works of fiction.  However, as much as the film hides the ball for the majority of its runtime, to call this message subtext would be generous.  When the face of the villain is finally revealed and it is shown that his negative communications to the collective subconscious of humanity are resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the villain steps into the shoes of Andrew Ryan and spouts directly into the camera exactly why humanity is deserving of its fate, and the exceptional should be protected from the human waste within Tomorrowland.  This is less storytelling than it is proselytizing, telling the audience without any attempt at artistry that their laziness is the cause of their own destruction.  A noble objective, as I do not disagree with the sentiment, but the presentation is not likely to motivate anyone to change their outlook.

This is only further hampered by the film’s continued insistence on the exceptional as the means to bring about social change.  Director Andrew Bird does not outright object to the Randian mythos of Tommorowland’s supermen, but rather embraces it, hoping to inspire a select few people to rise up and change the future for the rest of us.  However, that seems rather self-defeating for a film that is trying to garner mass appeal, essentially telling its audience that the special snowflakes of society will fix everything for us and that any sort of collective action isn’t even an option.  To go back to the Bioshock comparison, Rapture has not been destroyed; it has simply come under new and not dissimilar management.

Again, Tomorrowland as a concept has plenty of potential to act as a wake-up call for a society that relishes in their own imminent demise.  To package that in a summer action blockbuster is a noble pursuit, and the action setpieces, while not spectacular, are entertaining at least.  However, the film feels too far entrenched in the ideology of Atlas Shrugged to be anything more than shrug-worthy as a mechanism for social change.  Instead of inspiring its audience to make their optimistic destinies a reality, the film simply berates its audience and tells them to let the smart people handle the hard work.  But that is a surefire way to further solidify the average person’s hopelessness and turn down that person’s hope for making a difference in the world.  So the good intentions backfire, and Tomorrowland remains yet another summer flop.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Beasts of No Nation": Snooty and Goon Crossover

Now Available on Netflix

Wait?  Where's the review?  You can check it out at Snooty and Goon where I have guest starred on this week's episode!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Dope": A Chaotic Mess With a Lot of Heart

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

There’s a lot to be said for being passionate about one’s work.  Particularly in artistic ventures, passion beyond simple commercial gain can go a long way in making a product enjoyable, even if that product is not exactly perfect.  That’s the sort of headspace that Dope seems to occupy: writer/director Rick Famuyiwa really cares about what he has put on the screen, and though it isn’t a perfect representation of what he was trying to achieve, the general feeling and overall effort are readily apparent.

Dope is the story of Malcolm and his two friends Jib and Diggy.  They are outcasts in their underprivileged public school, as they are 90s hip-hop geeks who care about “white people things” like getting good grades and going to college.  Through a series of adolescent accidents and general inexperience with the world of gangstas, Malcolm finds himself strapped with a backpack full of MDMA.  Since turning in the dope is not an option for a black kid from the ghetto, he must find a way to get rid of the product with the help of his equally street-inept friends.

If there is one thing the film does really well, it is in treating Malcolm as a complex character, a teenager who doesn’t know who exactly he is except for defining himself as who he is not.  He is not a drug peddler and his identity is couched in getting to Harvard so that he can pull his mother out of their poor neighborhood.  But who he is as a person is confused and muddled, somewhere between a product of his environment and a rejection of it, and that ends up being the focus of his character arc.  This culminates in a wonderful scene that involves Malcolm speaking directly into the camera, equal parts blunt and provocative, but still necessary in ensuring the film’s main point isn’t lost on its (presumably predominantly white) audience.

But as great as that culminating moment is, the rest of the film isn’t nearly as consistent.  It’s an issue of tone that emanates from an excited director wanting his film to be all things at once.  Scenes can transition between lighthearted and goofy to deadly serious at the drop of a hat, and while some of that feels intentional, other times it is jarring and seemingly out of place.  There also seem to be missed opportunities to flesh out the supporting characters of Jib and Diggy, who mainly exist as a sounding board for Malcolm’s musings rather than as fully fleshed out characters.

That said, Dope is still a pretty good movie, a project saved almost exclusively by the extreme passion for its existence.  At times hilarious and at times deeply contemplative, this film is a strong early entry for Rick Famuyiwa, and I hope he can harness that enthusiasm for a more balanced product in the future.  But in the meantime, give Dope a chance to win you over.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Room (2015)": An Impressive Exercise In Perspective

In Select Theaters on October 16, 2015, Wide Release on November 6, 2015

I think Room is going to draw some comparisons to another notable film with a child protagonist, Boyhood.  Both feature really strong naturalistic performances from incredibly young child actors, but Room has a distinct advantage over Boyhood’s overambitious attempt at improvisational storytelling: it has a traditional narrative.  Room is an insightful look into the mind of a child, but is also portrayed in a compelling way that offers a unique insight into the mind of this particular child that is intriguing because of the peculiar circumstances in which he was raised.

The film opens on Room, the only world that five-year-old Jack has ever known.  He has never been outside the interior of the garden shed where his mother’s captor has imprisoned her for seven years, and as far as he is concerned, life is good.  However, his mother Joy conceives a plot to finally get them out of Room and away from her rapist jailer, and after years of isolation the two finally make their way out into the world.  It is in the latter half of the film that Jack must come to terms with a world that he doesn’t understand, a seemingly endless parade of people, places, and experiences far beyond what the small room prepared him for.

Despite the fact that the film dwells for slightly too long on life inside Room, the way the film frames the narrative around Jack’s perspective is incredibly impressive.  Realistic voiceover accompanies Jack’s thoughts as we see how growing up with such a limited conception of reality has informed his perception of a whole new world.  Equally ingenious is how the film chooses to limit the information given to the audience by mostly only showing scenes where Jack is present in order to perceive adult conversations and subplots.  Jack is old enough to understand the words being said by the adults in his life, but his confusion is apparent even if we are able to comprehend the struggles that his mother has in adjusting back to life in the real world.

And that is perhaps also the double-edged sword of the film’s perspective.  By limiting us so drastically in order to give us a better understanding of Jack’s mind, the nearly equally interesting Joy is given the short shrift, as her battles with depression and feelings of parental inadequacy are only seen from the outside perspective of her young son.  This is obviously an intentional stylistic choice, and if one character is going to be the focus of the narrative, it should most definitely be Jack.  However, I can’t help but feel that an opportunity was missed.

Director Lenny Abrahamson blew me away last year with the incredible film Frank, and once again he has used a unique perspective to craft a truly great film.  Despite my inclination to highlight them, my gripes with the film are minor, and were potentially unavoidable in order to tell the story in a necessarily compelling way.  Regardless, Room is one of the best films of the year thus far and one that assuredly deserves your recognition.  Go see it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Steve Jobs": A Complex Portrait of a Troubled Tyrant

Now In Select Theaters, Wide Release on October 23, 2015

I have to admit, I went into Steve Jobs with a certain amount of trepidation.  I’m fairly opposed to the Hollywood-standard method of translating the complexities of famous people’s lives into a three act structure by cramming their entire Wikipedia summary into a three-act narrative.  Thankfully, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are smart and talented enough where that hasn’t turned out to be an issue for the second Jobs-centric biopic in two years.  No, what the duo have created is a very impressive character study that neither lionizes nor entirely demonizes the controversial Apple CEO.

They avoid this pitfall by working with an unusual structure.  The film’s three acts take place across the backstage preparation of three pivotal product launching events: the Macintosh in 1984; after Jobs was fired from Apple, the NeXT in 1988; and after being rehired as CEO, the iMac in 1998.  In the build-up to these enormous events, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) can be seen managing his fragile social circule, including a condescending friendship with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan in role perfectly cast), a crumbling bond with his mentor John Scully (Jeff Daniels), and a relationship with a daughter he refuses to acknowledge as his own, aged five, nine, and nineteen in the respective years/acts.  Each of these sequences ends before the launch presentation actually begins, with the events of the time gaps explained through archival news footage.  Though the gimmick is somewhat transparent, particularly with how Jobs must meet with each of the important people in his life in each act as if going down a checklist, it works primarily as a method to keep us from being bogged down with the parts of Jobs’s life inconsequential to telling this story.

It is Sorkin’s writing that really holds the entire thing together, with a slow burning tension that rises gradually before each launch event that only continues when the catharsis of seeing the launch is denied to us.  Yet there is always room for a relieving comic witticism when most needed, which keeps the film from becoming overwhelming.  This is to say nothing of how Danny Boyle’s direction capitalizes on such writing, keeping focus on Jobs to have us piggyback on his emotions, which not only serves to make him relatable, but also to show us a complex portrait of a troubled man.

And what a portrait it paints.  Fassbender may not look much like Jobs, but he gets the man’s mannerisms down pat and does a great job of differentiating Jobs’s stage presence from his real personality without becoming cartoonishly exaggerated.  And the way that Sorkin writes Jobs, he is very clearly a narcissistic and petty person, using and abusing the people around him.  But he isn’t all bad.  He clearly pushes people away because he’s afraid of the weakness that may foster in him, and his constant quest for perfection and societal justification for his amoral behavior makes him at least intriguing if not sympathetic.  It’s a complex representation that is likely to earn Fassbender a well-deserved Oscar nomination (as little as such a nomination can actually mean in relation to an actor’s talent).

The film’s final moments delve a little too far into the saccharine for my tastes, choosing to end on a idolizing note that the film has clearly demonstrated that Jobs doesn’t deserve.  However, this is a minor gripe in a film that managed to keep me engaged the whole way through, largely due to excellent acting, fantastic writing, and astute direction.  This may be one of the only biopics that actually deserves to find its way into critical top ten lists this year.  Check it out.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"When Marnie Was There": Ghibli's Unfortunate Final Film

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Normally, I love what Studio Ghibli has to offer.  Their films are more insightful to human emotion than most children’s films could ever dream to be, and they are unparalleled in the realm of the quality of their 2D animation.  They have made some of the best animated films of all time, including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and last year’s brilliant and heart-wrenching The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.  And this is why I regret that in the film studio’s final days, of the three films I’ve reviewed this is the second one that I must give negative press.  When Marnie Was There starts out strong and full of potential, but quickly descends into confusion and ultimately comes up bafflingly and insultingly short.

Our protagonist is Anna, a twelve-year-old girl who suffers from asthma and seemingly crippling social anxiety and depression.  After a severe attack (attributed to asthma, but more likely due to psychological symptoms), Anna is prescribed rest in the clean air of the countryside with relatives of her foster mother.  She has trouble socializing with local children until she meets a mysterious young woman named Marnie, who lives in a mansion across the bay.  The two become instant friends and start to develop a severe and lasting bond.

This seems like great fodder for a coming-of-age story, and for a long time it seems to be headed in that direction.  It even shows great promise of being a lesbian romantic tale, as the two girls appear to be much closer than just friends (though this admittedly may be due to cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. in terms of intimacy between friends).  And yet, it doesn’t deliver on any of that promise.  Things start to become a bit weird, as the film begins to hint that Marnie’s house has been recently moved into by a different family and questions about Marnie’s origins begin to become more and more daunting.  But instead to playing with that intrigue, the film chooses to largely ignore it, with Anna explicitly stating that she doesn’t care who Marnie is, even as the film agonizes us with hints of something greater.  Intrigue only works if the audience is as invested in the mystery as the protagonist, but if the protagonist has no interest in solving the mystery, then it makes the audience question whether there will ever be a satisfying answer.

And yes, the film does give an answer to the lingering questions of who exactly Marnie is, but the supposedly emotional twist ending is not only unsatisfying, but it ultimately raises even more questions than it answers, as previous events aren’t recontextualized to fit this new information.  This makes the ending feel blatantly manipulative, hoping that the audience will not notice the gaping plot holes as it mechanically feeds us what is supposed to be the emotional lynchpin of the film.  It doesn’t even work on those terms either, as the twist is not organically introduced into the plot, but is rather the result of an extended expository speech from a character to whom we’ve barely been introduced.  It feels lazy and disappointing.

It’s horrible that Studio Ghibli has closed its doors on such a flat and lackluster note.  There is hope that they will return in the future under new leadership after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, but as it stands now, their legacy is tarnished by their final product, a bizarre little mess of a film that does not do justice to the mark they made on the world of animation.  Remember the good films, the early films, or even the recently remarkable Princess Kaguya.  But don’t ruin your love of Ghibli by subjecting yourself to When Marnie Was There.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl": Cool, But Not That Cool

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

There’s a lot to appreciate about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, particularly in how much it is willing to reject certain tropes of teen-targeted films in order to make a product that defies genre conventions.  First and foremost, this is not a love story, which alone makes it noteworthy amongst films targeted at this demographic.  It is also wickedly funny with a sense of humor that is instantly relatable to the teenage mindset, yet couched in literary and cinematic language that makes it interesting for adults.  That said, though, Me and Earl would have been a much better film if it hadn’t spent so much energy congratulating itself on how it’s different and focused on how it could tell a more original story.

The titular characters are Greg (“Me”), Earl (self-explanatory), and Rachel (the Dying Girl).  Greg is an aspiring film-maker who partners up with local kid Earl to make off-beat parodies of classic and quirky films.  One day, Greg’s mom informs him that Rachel, a girl in Greg’s class, has been diagnosed with leukemia, so it is Greg’s duty to go and spend time with the dying girl who he barely knows.  Begrudging at first, Greg makes his way over to Rachel’s house and the two eventually spark up a friendship, bringing Earl in as Rachel becomes a fan of their bizarre films.

The premise itself may sound a bit standard for the cancer-as-tragedy style of tear-jerker that is a staple of teen fiction, but this film surprisingly doesn’t exploit the cancer for its own sake, even going so far as to mock those who can only see a person for the disease they carry.  This is actually a coming-of-age story for Greg, whose self-loathing angst is transformed by his willingness to bring a new friend into his life, a status that he only barely awards to Earl even after years of making films together.  It’s an interesting spin on a stale trope that is accentuated by some really smart and funny writing, with Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, and Jon Bernthal killing it in some bizarre supporting adult roles.

However, the film is perhaps a bit too self-congratulatory in how aesthetically and narratively different it is.  The camerawork and score make constant reference to classic films, and while the references will only be distracting to those versed enough in film history to get the joke, they don’t serve any purpose other than to make the film appear more artistically deep than it actually is.  Furthermore, this comes at the expense of real human interactions, as Greg’s story completely overshadows the other two titular characters.  Earl and Rachel each have one defining character trait (being a black cliché and dying, respectively), which especially feels disingenuous when the film places such emphasis on treating Rachel as more than a cancer incubator.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t a bad film, but it certainly isn’t as great as it thinks it is.  It’s a film with a lot of style and a lot of self-awareness of the pitfalls that teen tragedies fall into, but not only does its self-awareness become obnoxiously egotistical, but it ultimately feels hollow once you acknowledge the tropes that it doesn’t avoid, namely its shallow characters and too-cool sense of style.  I recommend this film for a few quirky and bizarre laughs, but don’t buy into its self-hype during its final moments.  This is not the teen fiction second coming that some have lauded it as.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Magic Mike XXL": Fan Service Just Isn't Enough

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The first Magic Mike was actually a surprisingly decent film, at once being both a meditation on the working class and how sometimes they will do anything to survive, even pawning off their good looks, while simultaneously being a celebration of male stripping as an exhibitionary art form.  The former was what elevated the film beyond being exploitative drivel, acting not only as a draw for the straight female gaze but also as a study of an underground subculture that star Channing Tatum had once been a member of.  The sequel, Magic Mike XXL, all but completely abandons its depth and subtext in favor of being a film solely and exclusively about stripping, much to the film’s detriment.

This is largely evidenced by the absence of most of the supporting cast from the last film, including the love interest, protégé, and manager who were so instrumental to the first film’s conflict.  Instead, we’re stuck with Channing Tatum (usually not a bad guy to be stuck with) and the other male dancers from the previous film, all with beefed up speaking roles in order to fill out the gaps.  The premise this time is that Mike (Tatum) has gotten out of the stripping life and has opened his own small business, yet still longs for the days when he was in the spotlight.  He reunites with his old stripping buddies who are about to go down to the ever-so-creatively named “Stripper Convention” (seriously, that’s what the thing is called) to put on one last show together.  Mike decides he’s in, and road trip shenanigans ensue.

This premise is about as shallow and mandatorily sequelizing and producer-driven as it sounds, acting more as an excuse to populate the film with ever more clothing-destroying dance numbers than to act as any sort of contemplative story.  There is some lip service paid to the fact that the dancers aren’t getting any younger and that none of them really know what they want to do after their retirement from stripping, but none of these issues are substantively addressed by the film’s climax, which functions as about fifteen minutes of straight performance.  And to the film’s credit, the dance numbers are very well choreographed, so much so that it strains the bounds of plausibility that these guys were able to formulate these routines while on the road, but maybe that’s missing the point.

Unfortunately, though, at almost two hours long, the never-ending and excessive fan service overstays its welcome, meaning that if you wanted to see anything other than two straight hours of stripping, this film is most certainly not for you.  What’s actually most obnoxious about the film is how blatantly and manipulatively it tries to appeal to as many demographics as possible, to the point where you could almost fill out a bingo card with its targets.  There’s a stripping scene meant to appeal to millennials with a Backstreet Boys song, another in a drag club for the gay community, another in an underground venue to garner black support, and yet another with middle-aged white women who are such cougars that you can practically see their claws.  Diversity is one thing when it is used to representatively formulate a main cast, but it is quite another when various demographics are being nakedly pandered to through projection.

This is less a film than it is a glorified strip show, and that shouldn’t be surprising given how the film was marketed and who it was marketed to.  Is it good at what it’s attempting to do?  Sure.  I’m no expert on the art of stripping, but the performers seem good at it and from a sexual perspective, yes, the cast are all very attractive.  But does that make this a good film?  I don’t think so.  As something so obviously manipulative with barely any effort put into story or characters, Magic Mike XXL can only justify its existence by the millions of screaming women who went to see it in theaters.  It may have made the studio a lot of money, but that doesn’t make it any less exploitative.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"The D Train": Jack Black Ruins Cinematic Progress

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

To me, The D Train represents a turning point in American cinema.  This is a film that treats non-heterosexuality as casual and it is not the emphasis of the film’s dramatic underpinnings.  The fact the film does so and received little notice upon its nationwide theatrical release is also indicative of how we as a nation don’t even bother to make a big deal out of major actors portraying homosexual activity anymore.  This is a great thing, and I’m glad that this film can represent this important step.  I just wish the film were better so that the casual progress would feel grander.

Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is the self-proclaimed leader of his twenty year high school reunion committee.  In a mad effort to attract more people to the party, he decides to track down and convince the coolest guy from high school, a television commercial actor named Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), to come to the event.  After tricking his boss into thinking that a potential business deal exists in Los Angeles in order to pay for the trip, Dan meets up with Oliver, has a wild night of carousing and shenanigans, and ultimately, in an impassioned response to Oliver saying yes to coming to the reunion, ends up having sex with the guy.  The remainder of the film revolves around Dan dealing with his lack of closure, as he isn’t a believer in one night stands.

What’s really nice about this film is that the sex of its characters is entirely incidental.  Oliver’s bisexuality is brought up casually in order to establish it, and then is never used to make his character into a cliché or stereotype.  Dan, on the other hand, is written not to believe that he might be gay after his homosexual encounter, but to deal with the fact that a one-night stand is an okay thing and that sex doesn’t require emotional attachment.  Dan doesn’t try to hide Oliver’s sexuality from his wife; he only wants to hide his lapse in fidelity.  There is a refreshing casualness to the whole proceeding that I think films less than a decade ago wouldn’t have mustered, and many larger studio films would likely still struggle with.

However, despite this milestone, The D Train isn’t a great film.  It bills itself as a dark comedy, but like many dark comedies it has a distinct problem of keeping a consistent tone.  There are a few laughs to be had, but when the film decides to go serious, it abandons its lighter-hearted nature in favor of hard-hitting moralism.  But even absent the tonal shifts, many scenes might have worked better if it weren’t for the miscasting of Jack Black in the lead role.  Black has a flair for goofball comedic antics, and while he is no stranger to drama, he’s never quite gotten the hang of being taken seriously.  Dan is a tricky enough character to portray, given the line he must walk between being silly and tragic, but this is only further complicated by Black’s inability to exude anything but over-the-top lunacy.  I don’t mean to paint Jack Black as the only reason the film doesn’t really work, but he is probably the biggest factor.

Ultimately, The D Train is right on the line between being passable or being a dud.  I’m more inclined to call this one a dud, but I can definitely see how some folks would enjoy this film more than I did.  The casual nature of its non-heteronormativity may make this required viewing for those who have followed the social progress of the LGB community.  But as a film, I just don’t think it quite pushes over my threshold for liking it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Unexpected": Too Indie For Its Own Good

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

As much as the term “indie” gets used and abused by marketing advertisers and hipsters, I do think there is still such a thing as being “too indie.”  Independent cinema at its inception garnered a reputation for shirking the studio trends of the time, offering experimental pieces and foregoing mainstays of traditional blockbusters in order to offer smaller, more intimate experiences.  However, there are times when the experiment fails, or the smaller scale only serves to disservice the product, and the latter is precisely what happened with Unexpected.

Samantha is a thirty-year-old teacher at a closing high school who discovers that she is unexpectedly pregnant, so decides to marry her boyfriend and make a life with him.  However, as she comes to terms with her job ending, she doesn’t know if she wants to give up the prospect of working in order to be a mom full time.  Around this same time, she realizes that one of her students, Jasmine, is also pregnant, and the two form a bond as Samantha tries to convince Jasmine that she doesn’t need to give up her dreams of college in order to raise her baby.

If this film does one thing exceedingly well, it is in showing how wealth disparity can have a tremendous effect on how one views their unexpected pregnancy.  For Samantha, who is middle class and college educated, the decision to keep her baby comes at the expense of her potential to gain employment that would commence right around her due date, and while that is an unfortunate circumstance, she still has the potential to make a career for herself eventually and has the support of a loving partner.  Jasmine, on the other hand, is a low-income teenager whose boyfriend’s immaturity makes him a less-than-ideal father figure and whose education may potentially be put on hold indefinitely due to her inability to get enough financial aid to support both herself and her baby.  The difference in their circumstances is nicely highlighted in a few key scenes, and it hits home the point well.

However, there isn’t much to the film other than that one point, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that this is the central theme.  This is partially because the focus seems to be on Samantha as a protagonist, and Jasmine’s role seems delegated to that of a foiled subplot.  However, the other reason this film feels so fluffy is because there isn’t a whole lot of conflict in the script.  Sure, characters fight, but their arguments are resolved almost instantaneously, and Samantha’s character arc of accepting her impending motherhood alternates between feeling subsumed and irrelevant compared to Jasmine’s greater problems.  This feels like a film that wants to say something about the difficulties of unexpected pregnancy, but it never quite comes up with a thesis statement.

This is why the film feels “too indie.”  Without some sort of guiding producer influence, this project ended up feeling like a half-baked idea that made its way to shooting way too early.  The characters are little more than archetypes of their socioeconomic class, but the film doesn’t hammer home its moral hard enough to justify their shallow existence.  Unexpected could have been a good film if it had had any more direction than what was presented.  But this is unacceptable.