Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Shaun the Sheep Movie": Comedy Without Words

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Aardman Animations is pretty well renowned for their extensive catalog of stop-motion animation films and TV shorts, among which are the fantastic Chicken Run and legendary Wallace and Gromit.  Recently added to their catalog is a show aimed at a younger audience, but not any more wanting for charm.  Shaun the Sheep is centered around a fairly basic cartoon premise of barnyard animals and their clueless farmer.  Despite being aimed at kids, the show is universally funny family entertainment, mainly due to its reliance on cartoon slapstick and visual gags and a complete disregard for spoken humor.  In fact, the entire show’s dialogue is communicated in grunts and animal noises.  So when making a feature length movie adaptation of a show that only runs for seven minutes an episode, will the faithful wordlessness translate into consistent comedy?  The answer is most assuredly yes.

The film opens on a monotonous week on the farm, with Shaun and the rest of the sheep going through the daily motions of their lives.  One day, Shaun gets the idea to take a break and devises a plan to put the farmer to sleep so that he and the other sheep can watch some TV in the farmer’s house.  After a domino trail of ridiculous antics, the farmer is not only disposed of, but he has ended up in the nearby city, alone and with amnesia.  So it is up to the sheep and the faithful watchdog Bitzer to bring the farmer back home.

Given that the show is aimed at younger audiences, I was expecting a bit of a toned down version of what Aardman usually has to offer in their cinematic exploits.  This is only true in one respect, and that is in the obligatory absence of intelligible voicework.  There are still jokes in the form of written and other visual gags, and the fact that there is no dialogue to distract from that only makes those jokes stronger and funnier.  The slapstick isn’t reduced in the slightest, as Aardman uses their singular gifts in animation to create setpieces reminiscent of the best that Looney Tunes and early Disney had to offer.

And really, that’s the best thing that can be said about Shaun the Sheep.  It is a cartoon at its core, and it isn’t ashamed to be one.  Aardman recognizes that kids don’t need loud noises or constant chatter to stay entertained; with great timing and some wacky antics, one can tell a great story that people of all ages can enjoy.  Though necessarily grander in scale than the limited focus of the farm, the story is still instantly relatable and the characters instantly loveable without the necessity of telling us to love them.  More than anything, Aardman knows how to evoke childlike joy in a way that has since been lost to the bygone age of cartoon shorts.  Here’s hoping they keep doing just that.  But in the meantime, Shaun the Sheep Movie is just as worthy an addition to their catalog as any of its predecessors.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Trainwreck": Brings Out the Best of Two Artists

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Amy Schumer is perhaps one of the most inconsistently funny people working in comedy today.  At times, she is the queen of feminist social commentary, crafting hilariously satirical situations via sketch comedy that is poignant and cutting.  Other times, though, she can come off as vindictive and as resentful of other women for qualities that she is self-deprecating of in her stand-up.  That’s why I ended up feeling a little hesitant about, Trainwreck, her new star vehicle which she also wrote.  Fortunately, though, she has some grade-A talent to back her up behind the director’s chair: Judd Apatow, a man who has seen little by way of success in recent years.  Yet these two comedians together have made one of the funniest films of the year, which I doubt they would have been able to separately.

As per usual, Amy Schumer autobiographicalizes her role by playing a character named Amy, who has problems with sexual intimacy, yet no problem with sexuality or using weed and booze to supplement her partying lifestyle.  Working for a gossip magazine that is clearly Schumer’s topical target for venting her feminist ire, Amy gets assigned to write a story about sports surgeon Aaron Connors (Bill Hader).  As she gets to know Aaron, she begins to feel actual romantic feelings for him, and as she navigates this new relationship she must tackle her issues with allowing affection into her life.

The comedy is pure Schumer, even if it is wrapped in the shell of a romantic comedy.  The jokes are often borderline adolescent in their reliance on sexuality and absurdism, but still relatable to what most people go through in their social lives, work, and relationships.  Schumer has a definite knack for portraying what it is like to live as a non-skinny girl in a world that seemingly only rewards women for physical “perfection,” and though this film is definitely restrained enough to keep its social commentary to a minimum, the perspective shines through in how Amy’s character seems to have built up her emotional barriers as a reaction to this.

This is where Judd Apatow comes in, offering a level of charm that we haven’t seen since his early films.  Whereas Schumer has provided the majority of the comedic influence, Apatow has inserted his trademark emotional influence to provide support for a relatively standard story.  Aaron seems to be genuinely confused when Amy is unable to make an emotional connection to him, and when she constantly wants to end things with him because it’s becoming too hard for her, he is strong and there for her regardless.  And yet, Apatow’s direction is smart enough not to imply that Aaron is saving Amy from her own emotions, but rather that it is Amy’s responsibility to navigate her own character arc.  It is great to see that Apatow has the capacity to treat a female protagonist with the amount of depth that he has given to male protagonists in his previous work.

All in all, Trainwreck is anything but.  It is a sly and witty film that combines the best qualities of two very funny people and cuts out most of what can make them relatively unpalatable.  The film is by no means perfect, with a few too many one-note side characters and a few missed jokes here and there, but overall, this is a hilarious film that I highly recommend, especially to those who have enjoyed anything that Amy Schumer or Judd Apatow have made in the past.  Hopefully this means that the two will collaborate in the future.  I’d love to see what else they’d have in store for us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"The Good Dinosaur": The Merely Good Pixar Movie

In Theaters on November 25, 2015

The Good Dinosaur was originally slated for release last year, but for unknown reasons, the original director was scrapped and the project was delayed by a year and a half in order to be reworked into its current product.  This isn’t the first time that Pixar has run into a troubling production cycle, but, at least in my opinion, the other Pixar movie to come out of that development hell (Brave) was as worthy of the Pixar name as any other.  However, I’m not so sure that this is the case this time around.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still a pretty good movie, as Pixar’s standards are (usually) well above what is considered passable for children’s entertainment; yet it still comes across as lesser than its siblings.

Part of this has to do with the simplicity of the film’s set-up.  Set in a world where dinosaurs were never eradicated and have evolved into sentient species, the film focuses on the journey of Arlo, a cowardly young Apatosaurus who is swept away from his family by a raging river and must find his way home.  Accompanying him on this journey is a feral human whom he names Spot, a non-verbal sidekick who is less rabid than he initially appears and whom Arlo grows to love in their quest to return home.

Though Pixar has made simple, clichéd set-ups like this work before (see the aforementioned Brave in telling a Disney Princess story), they have gotten by on strong character development that is sorely lacking in The Good Dinosaur.  Arlo is entirely defined by his coward-to-courage character arc, and Spot functions entirely for Arlo to bounce his thoughts off of when he isn't acting as cheap slapstick comic relief.  Other dinosaurs appear throughout the film as interesting characters that offer funny and heartfelt moments, but their presences are purely transient, only serving to act as pit-stops for Arlo to receive on-the-nose advice.

The animation itself, though, is gorgeous.  Or, at least, the wooded setting of the film is.  The mountains and rivers have an almost photo-realistic quality that is unparalleled in animated cinema, which makes it all the more disconcerting to watch the extremely cartoony character designs of the dinosaurs romp across its landscape.  The choice seems like a conscious one, as if the animators knew that the simplistic story they were working with would have to be carried by expressive faces and eccentric movements, but it feels jarring in juxtaposition to such carefully crafted realism.  This isn’t to say that the expressive animation isn’t effective, as the film still manages to offer heartfelt moments of genuine emotion through little to no dialogue, but the two well-meaning elements of exaggerated emotion and photorealism just don’t visually work well together.

This review sounds quite negative, but it really isn’t meant to drive people away from seeing The Good Dinosaur.  This is still Pixar, and in light of the recent revelation that the studio plans to continue sequelizing with little original content on the horizon, this film is a welcome entry to their catalog for that reason alone.  However, especially in the inevitable comparison to recent masterpiece Inside Out, it’s hard not to see how Pixar squandered some missed opportunities with this one.  The Good Dinosaur is definitely worth seeing, but lower your expectations for it to be merely good, rather than the usual Pixar greatness.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Sisters (2015)": Buddy Comedy At Its Funniest

In Theaters on December 18, 2015

It’s hard to deny that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of the funniest women working in show business at the moment.  Their respective sitcoms ran for seven seasons each and were huge successes, if not in their initial ratings, then in critical acclaim and Netflix watches and re-watches.  The two women also have a definite chemistry and affinity for one another, as demonstrated by their team-ups on SNL and in hosting award shows.  However, their previous feature outing, Baby Mama, was a bit lackluster, if only because it was carried by their performances rather than strong writing.  Is Sisters the film to prove that the duo have what it takes to deliver on the big screen?  I most certainly think so.

Sisters is the story of… well, two sisters, Katie (Fey) and Maura (Poehler).  Katie is immature and irresponsible, yet paradoxically the mother of a fairly well-adjusted teenage daughter.  Maura is overly responsible to the point of being self-sacrificing, even when her advice is unsolicited.  When the women’s parents decide to sell their childhood home, the two head to the house to clean out their old bedroom.  In an act of rebellion against their parents, the two decide to throw a major party like those of their high school days, but this time Katie has to be the responsible one and Maura is allowed to let her freak flag fly so that she has the chance to score with the cute guy next door.

What makes this film work so well, besides the fact that the script is overflowing with hilarious jokes, is that Katie and Maura are very well-developed characters.  On the most basic level, they are archetypical foils to one another, but they also obviously have a shared history with one another that transcends the bare outlines of their personalities.  This probably has a lot to do with Fey’s and Poehler’s BFF status, but considering that these two are so funny anyway, I don’t really mind the fact that this film is mostly just an excuse for them to hang out together.

And unlike the aforementioned Baby Mama, the writing in this film is really solid.  In many straight comedies, the screenwriter can often forget to write a third act entirely, or can make the third act so dire that the comedy comes to a screeching halt.  However, Sisters makes neither of these errors, keeping the comedy consistent while simultaneously delivering resolution to both major character arcs of the two sisters.  This doesn’t even take into account that the jokes themselves are usually riotous, to the point where I’m sure I’ll have to watch the movie again just to make sure I didn’t laugh so hard that I missed something.  There are a few jokes about lesbian stereotypes that don’t quite work (which is true about most Fey-affiliated GLBT humor), but on the whole the film had my entire theater laughing almost non-stop.

Sisters has the unfortunate distinction of opening in theaters on the same day as Star Wars: Episode VII, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this one flies under a lot of people’s radar.  But that won’t prevent me from advocating for it.  If you have time for two movies that weekend, or if you just really aren’t feeling the Oscar bait this year, seriously, support Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as feature film buddy comedians.  This film is great, and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

"Trumbo": Cranston Holds Steady As A Leading Man

Now In Theaters
Trumbo feels like a film that I should like a lot more than I do.  It’s a Hollywood historical piece populated with a cast of performers that I all enjoy over the breadth of their careers.  However, it also strikes me that the purpose for this film’s existence is pretty bare and blatant: this is a piece of Oscar bait, goading the Academy to rally behind the story of one of its most unjustly persecuted talents.  The film is good on its own merits, to be sure, but that ulterior motive seems to hover just outside the frame at all times, and it exposes the film for exactly the by-the-numbers biopic that it is.

Bryan Cranston makes a star turn in his first major role since Breaking Bad as Dalton Trumbo, an openly Communist screenwriter who was wildly successful in the 1940s.  However, in the wake of WWII, the U.S. Congress felt a need to root out Communist influences in popular media for fear that this would lead to sympathies with the other, non-capitalist superpower of the era.  This led to the imprisonment of ten of Hollywood’s most outspoken Communist writers, and once they were released from prison, these writers were blacklisted from working with any major studio.  This forced these writers to work in secret and for little pay, which caused hardship, loss, and in extreme instances even death.

The film lives and dies with its incredible ensemble cast of notable character actors, including Louis C.K., John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Alan Tudyk, Diane Lane, and Michael Stahlbarg, to name only a handful.  Most of these great actors get their share of great character moments, painting the darkest chapter of Hollywood’s history as populated with eclectic and larger-than-life figures who feel believable precisely because Hollywood thrives on the illusion of being larger than life.  Cranston does an admirable job as Trumbo, though I think the rumblings of this landing him an Oscar nomination are somewhat unfounded; he’s still doing a variation of the underappreciated genius shtick he was pushing as Walter White, except his character now has the wit and moral integrity to back it up.

And yet, despite the film’s great character moments, there is a lack of emotionally connective tissue to tie these scenes together.  Trumbo is victim to the classic biopic pitfall of trying to condense decades of information into two hours, so while the film as a whole feels like a coherent whole, the transitions between scenes that span vast lengths of time feel somewhat forced and at times tonally dissonant with one another.  Furthermore, the film falls into a second act lull that pulls attention away from the victimhood of the Hollywood Ten to focus on Dalton Trumbo’s personal failings as a human being when placed under the pressure of the situation.  In another film, this sequence would have been perfectly fine, as it is well-acted and heartfelt, but here it feels like a distraction meant to show off Cranston’s acting chops.

However, you shouldn’t take that to mean that Trumbo is a bad film.  Far from it, this is an engaging and entertaining piece of biographical fiction.  Sure it’s a little bloated and a little pretentiously self-congratulatory, but it makes up for that with some truly entertaining performances, some of whom steal the show with seemingly little effort.  Bryan Cranston may be the audience draw for this picture, but much like the real Dalton Trumbo, he wouldn’t get far without the support of his colleagues.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Mr. Holmes": How To Turn Fan-Fiction Into A Great Movie

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

There’s something irresistibly intriguing about the central conceit of Sir Ian McKellen playing an aged version of Sherlock Holmes.  A beloved actor for both his iconic roles in geek ephemera and his endearing public persona, McKellen seems uniquely equipped to tackle the complexities of a character virtually as old as cult fandom itself.  And thankfully, the results are pretty much on par with McKellen’s abilities, thanks to a surprisingly gripping screenplay and a plot that serves both the character and McKellen’s unique spin on playing him.

McKellen’s Sherlock is a 93-year-old man, living in self-imposed exile with only a housekeeper and her preteen son Roger as his company.  His memory has started to fail him in recent years, with one particular case bothering him for his inability to remember it.  As Roger begins to connect with Sherlock over a shared passion for beekeeping (a nice canonical nod to the original books), Sherlock begins to unravel mysteries of his own past, coming to realizations of why he feels guilt and failure as a detective for offenses that he cannot initially remember.  This is mainly revealed through interwoven flashbacks that do a remarkable job of slowly unraveling the mysteries of both past and present and creating a parallel character development between past and present Sherlock that works to emphasize the dramatic tension of both arcs through juxtaposition.  In other words, the film is masterfully edited.

One point of contention I’ve noticed amongst critics is the reliance on the intergenerational friendship trope as Sherlock befriends the young Roger, but honestly, I didn’t have much of a problem with it.  It never overshadows Sherlock’s personal development and the focus is almost always placed on Sherlock, not on the less interesting dynamics between Roger and his mother.  There are enough scenes to establish Roger as a fairly likeable character in his own right, but not so many as to overshadow the primary reason people want to see this film in the first place.  And McKellan’s Sherlock is a pretty damn amazing interpretation of the character: a smug erudite who knows precisely how smart and capable he once was (and still is), but is tortured by the limitations his age is putting on his mind and body and is not entirely incapable of making human connections if he determines the effort is worth making.  It’s a complex portrayal that well serves a complex character.

But aside from the fantastic lead performance and the very well-executed premise, the screenplay offers a number of delights that I rather didn’t expect, particularly in how it treats Sherlock as a metafictional character.  I have a soft spot for stories where the lines between fiction and reality become blurred, and in this version Dr. Watson and Arthur Conan Doyle are one and the same person, with Watson’s recollections acting as fictionalized accounts of Sherlock’s actual cases.  To see a curmudgeonly grumbling Holmes grouse about the inaccuracies of Watson’s accounts and even go to a cinema to see himself portrayed in a woefully melodramatic adaptation is as supremely entertaining as it sounds, and the commentary never gets old.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed Mr. Holmes.  The minor quibbles that would have probably bothered me in other films weren’t as much of a concern here due to very solid writing, a good plot, and an excellent performance by Sir Ian McKellen.  I’m not the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan, but I am familiar enough with the character to know when he is being done justice to, and this film not only embraces its source material, but understands it well enough to provide a proper bookend to the life of one of fiction’s greatest characters.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"The 33": The Good Moments Fall Through The Cracks

Now In Theaters
I can’t think of a film in recent memory that felt so internally polarizing to me.  The 33 is at times quite effective and at others bafflingly amateur, but it is never what one would call mediocre.  The juxtaposition of these qualities makes for an emotional rollercoaster, but not one that is based on investment in the film itself; rather, it’s incredible shifts from good to bad alternately pull one in and out of the film to the point where it is disorienting to try and evaluate whether what you just watched was objectively any good or not.  In short, this film is incredibly uneven, which is why I cannot recommend it.

The 33 is the story of the Chilean miners who were trapped underground in 2010 after the unsafe working conditions of their mine caused a collapse.  With enough rations for three days, the miners must fight to survive with what little they have until the Chilean government can drill through to their rescue.  However, even once that is accomplished, the daunting task of actually extracting the men from the mine still looms heavily over the proceedings.

What this film excels at most is framing the tension of the situation in such a way that makes it easy to forget the inevitable happy ending that will arrive for the struggling band of brothers.  Starting with the collapse of the mine, the near certainty that at least one of these men is going to die is ever present, and yet the miraculous revelation that they all survive is not any less sweet for having realized it with foreknowledge of real life events.  Then, as the men struggle to survive on a minimum of food, the tension remains high as both the drillers up top and the miners below bemoan the impossibility of their situation.  This is driven home by an excellent performance by Antonio Banderas as Mario, a miner to whom leadership has been thrust upon, yet wants nothing more than to keep everyone alive and from tearing each other apart.

However, once you start looking at the characters, the film starts to fall apart due to how shallowly realized they all are.  As well as Banderas portrays Mario, he isn’t defined by much more than his de facto leadership status, and doesn’t seem to exhibit much personality beyond that.  The other miners fare even worse, as they fill in the stock archetypes of the struggling alcoholic, the man with the pregnant wife, the new guy, the old man days away from retirement, and so on and so forth.  It is understandable that in order to portray this many characters it is necessary to make them readily identifiable, but that should not come at the expense of character depth, a problem that could be rectified by simply deigning not to focus on so many of them as named characters and instead explore the personalities of those most important to the narrative.

But what ultimately makes this film unforgivable is the shockingly bad direction during key moments, primarily when the film attempts to inject comic relief.  There are sequences that feel forced and awkward, in particular a shared hallucinatory experience as the miners are starving to death that feels very inappropriately played for laughs.  Furthermore, the score of this film is atrociously poorly timed, with chipper and uplifting music playing at the most bizarrely dreary moments, completely pulling you from the experience.  There are some things this film does quite well, but none of those are enough to justify the price of admission, because even without the major missteps this film would only be serviceable.  If you’re interested, wait for a rental.  Otherwise, give this one a pass.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Creed": Celebrating Its Legacy, But Standing Proud On Its Own

In Theaters on November 25, 2015

Sometimes, not often, a film comes along where everyone just does their god damn job.  The writing is tight, the acting is on point, the score is excellent, the cinematography and editing are engaging without being obtrusive, and the direction of all these elements is executed with a seemingly effortless grace.  This is the heart of effective moviemaking that spawned classics of the 70’s and 80’s that are still remembered and beloved today, and perhaps no film embodies that working spirit more than Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a studio gamble on a then-unknown writer/actor/director that paid off in an Academy Award winning hit that spawned one of the most iconic franchises of American cinema.  The franchise has seen its ups and downs, particularly toward the end of its lifespan, but because we live in the age of nostalgia, there is no way this series was going to stay dormant.  And, thankfully, Creed embodies the effort and spirit of the original film, yet still retains an identity and integrity of its own.

Newcomers need not worry about studying up on previous Rocky films, as Creed functions entirely as its own narrative while still winking acknowledgment to longtime fans of the series.  Our protagonist is Adonis Johnson, the extramarital child of legendary boxer Apollo Creed, who died in the ring before Adonis was born.  Adonis bounced around foster care after the death of his mother, but was taken in by Apollo’s widow.  Growing up with an expectation of a calm, corporate career, Adonis finds that he cannot suppress his urge to enter the ring, but wishes to earn a reputation distinct from that of his father.  So he moves to Philadelphia, where he enlists the help of Rocky Balboa to train him into being his successor.  Adonis’s character arc, while entirely functional in its own right, works as a fitting metaphor for the success of the film as a continuation of the Rocky franchise while still acting as a solid story on its own, and the story gains an extra layer of meta-depth because of it.

However, what really sells the film is the combination of those key elements of film-making that I mentioned back in that first paragraph.  The character performances are fantastic, with Michael B. Jordan absolutely killing it as a troubled youth who struggles with issues of identity and an angst that he has never learned to cope with, and Stallone returning as an older, jaded Rocky that seems like a very natural take on the aged character.  The dialogue is alternatingly witty and heart-wrenching, injecting the film with comic relief at key moments while still telling a serious story that tackles difficult emotional issues, both for Adonis and Rocky.  The score is similarly fitting with triumphantly nostalgic swells of the Rocky theme and more somber tones as necessary.  The camerawork is fantastic, particularly in the boxing scenes, one of which is an extended take with hidden cuts that creates the masterful illusion of an uninterrupted match.

I could pick this film apart and tell you exactly why each of its elements work, but that would be a disservice to the efforts of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler to make those elements seem effortless to the casual viewer.  His direction is spot-on, and it’s likely because his efforts that all the right people showed up to work and did their god damn jobs.  This will probably go down as one of the best films of the year, and let me tell you, that was not a sentence I was expecting to write before the lights dimmed in the theater.  This will be the film to go see this Thanksgiving.  Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Digging For Fire": Has A Horrible Marital Moral

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I’m going to be very blunt: Digging for Fire is a really, really dumb movie.  Like, really dumb.  Its entire thematic premise is based around a tired cliché that doesn’t even believably work within the film’s narrative.  Its characters are shallow archetypal representations that serve to make a point that not only is much too obvious to be thought-provoking, but is actually even morally unethical to put into practice. 

Married couple Tim and Lee are housesitting for Lee’s client when Tim discovers a gun and what seems to be a human bone buried in the hill adjacent to the house.  The police seem (inexplicably) disinterested in this discovery, so Tim wants to dig around and see if he can find more bones.  Lee disagrees and wants to leave it buried.  Lee then leaves to visit with her parents and some friends, leaving Tim alone at the house.  Tim invites some friends over, and both Tim and Lee find their way into flirtatious entanglements with members of the opposite sex.

Let’s disregard the fact that Tim’s clearly calm demeanor towards potentially discovering a body is more than a little absurd.  The buried body metaphor is very obviously a skeleton in the closet, a secret that perhaps shouldn’t be unearthed.  Tim eventually decides to leave the body buried and with it buries the clothes he wore to try and impress the girl he liked.  By extension, Tim and Lee’s respective extra-marital romantic encounters (neither of which culminated in sex, by the way) should be buried so as not to harm their marriage.  This is a horrible message.  Since when is dishonesty a proper way to manage marital conflict?  The fact that this film portrays such behavior as okay makes me question the relationship ethics of everyone involved in this project, and by extension the relationship ethics of society as a whole.  I sincerely hope that I’m not alone in thinking this is messed up.

But even if we were to take the moral at face value and dismiss the hackneyed metaphorical mechanism for its delivery, the film doesn’t even work on its own terms, particularly because it never gives us any reason to be invested in Tim and Lee’s relationship.  They share a few opening scenes together, just enough to establish that they are married, their relationship has some tension, but they are in love and share a young child together.  However, this simply isn’t enough for us to care about them as people or for us to root for them to stick together.  They’re both clearly tired and stressed out, and I think that is meant to make us sympathetic to how close they come to non-consensual adultery, but with that as their sole defining character traits, it’s hard to care about anything they do that would affect their so-called “relationship.”

Last year I reviewed another film by director Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) which I gave a lot of slack for its improvisational tone.  However, it seems that even with a script that Swanberg can’t deliver.  Between the shallow writing, clichéd execution, unlikeable characters, and completely backwards notion of what constitutes a healthy relationship, Digging for Fire is one of the unethical films of the year.  Don’t lie to your partners, people.  Even if you think that you’re protecting your relationship, that isn’t fair to your partner, and they deserve to have a relationship that isn’t built on lies.  And don’t look to Joe Swanberg for marriage counseling.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Brooklyn": Take Greatness with a Grain of Salt

Now In Theaters
As I alluded to in my recent review of Spotlight, there are certain types of film that critics and Oscar voters are attracted to, and one of these is the period piece.  Brooklyn is such a film, detailing an immigrant’s journey to New York from Ireland and exploring the emotional turmoil associated with that transition.  Intriguing in its own right to be sure, but it’s worthwhile to take the near-universal praise of a film like this with a grain of salt, since it may merely be a good film that aligns particularly well with critical film-viewing preferences, rather than being as much of a masterwork of cinema as the film’s Metacritic score would lead you to believe.  Brooklyn may be a really good film, but is it worthy of the accolades that are already being thrown at it in this early Oscar season?

Brooklyn is a character study, focusing on the 1951 immigration of Eilis Lacy, an Irish woman whom no one in her hometown expected to make anything of herself.  In order to pursue a life outside of her more successful sister’s shadow, Eilis heads off to Brooklyn, where homesickness sets in almost immediately and her kind-hearted nature just isn’t enough to sustain her emotional well-being.  Enter Tony, a young Italian man who is set to make her feel at home with his romantic intentions, which Eilis willingly accepts.

This is a fairly old-fashioned style of storytelling, content with a classical mode of romance between two heterosexual young people, but remarkably the film never comes across as dated or hackneyed.  Instead, the film relies on wit and humor that is as much about mocking the dull formalism and sexual attitudes of the era as it is about the quaint simplicity of the time.  In short, it’s simply a film that’s hard not to find charming.  But even in its more serious moments, Saoirse Ronan really sells the character of Eilis, whose soft-spoken and polite nature hides a strength that isn’t so much about overcoming any immense obstacles in her way as it is about simply finding her place in the world, whether that be with Tony or at a given profession or even in deciding whether New York is right for her.

However, given the old-fashioned styling of the film’s narrative, there are definitely a few glaring issues that need to be pointed out.  First of all, though I recognize that part of Eilis’s character arc is coming into her own self-discovered identity, there is a large portion of the film where Eilis is led by the actions of others rather than by her own initiative.  This is nowhere more evident than in her relationship with Tony, who seems to single-handedly erase any depression Eilis feels upon their courtship; it reeks a little too strongly of the “woman only needing a man to be happy” trope for my liking, even if it does make a certain amount of sense within the narrative. 

But that doesn’t excuse the film’s other glaring problem, which is its pacing.  The film carries with it a feel-good vibe for its first half that almost entirely eclipses any sense of central conflict, until a mid-film twist forces Eilis to head back home to Ireland for a rather contrived series of events designed to keep her from wanting to leave.  Though this does provide a nice resolution for Eilis’s arc that doesn’t rely on Tony’s influence, the film does not spend nearly enough time developing reasons for Eilis to want to stay in Ireland rather than return to a life that she had learned to love.  There is never any real tension that would suggest that Eilis should want to forego returning to New York, so the entirely rushed third act feels more vestigial than it is necessary, particularly with its shoehorned-in competing romantic interest who never feels remotely threatening to Eilis and Tony’s much better established relationship.

This review came out sounding more negative than I intended, because while these issues are glaring, they never go so far as to break the film.  The dialogue and performances are damn entertaining, and I would not be surprised to see Saoirse Ronan among the top contenders for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars.  The cinematography is grand and the film exudes a lively sense of color that darker Oscar bait will likely sorely lack.  However, despite the film’s near-universal praise, those good qualities need to be acknowledged alongside the film’s problems, which demote this film from being great to just being pretty damn good.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"Spotlight": Unsettling Societal Introspection At Its Finest

Now In Theaters
It’s easy to be skeptical of a film like Spotlight.  Often when a film receives such universal acclaim and is also in the wheelhouse of Oscar-baiting tropes, such as adapting a barely decade-old event into a “true story” feature, it is easy to see how eyes can glaze over and awards can be handed out purely out of instinct and habit.  That isn’t to say that a film that fits this mold is usually bad, but its flaws are generally ignored in favor of elevating it above genre flicks that may have been of superior quality.  However, that isn’t what’s happening with Spotlight.  This is an honest-to-goodness amazing piece of filmmaking that will deservedly be recognized as one of the best of the year.

In January 2002, the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church’s protection and sheltering of pedophilic priests within its ranks.  Spotlight is the story of the eponymous team that pursued that investigation in the preceding year, tracking down survivors, finding out about more and more priests involved at an exponential rate, and coming to terms with how the Boston community turned a blind eye to these events in favor of preserving the Church’s status quo.

At first, I was a bit off-put by the fact that there were no stand-out performances in this film, no lead to latch on to in order to act as an audience surrogate.  But before long I realized that this wasn’t meant to be a film about a lone hero or even a single antagonist, but a film about people who have to come to terms with what is simultaneously the best and worst kept secret of their community.  No performance stands out because they are all necessarily excellent, from Michael Keaton as the Spotlight team’s increasingly disturbed editor, to Rachel McAdams effortless portrayal of a woman in a male-dominated field, to a slightly neurotic turn by Mark Ruffalo that is deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  There are numerous others, both in large and small roles, but the entire film pulsates with realistic human emotion and a staggering sense of community between them.

And that sense of community may be the most tragic element to this story, as the film so masterfully portrays.  Instead of veering into cliché and melodrama by making the Catholic Church into a monolithic entity of control and manipulation (though elements of that are definitely present in its portrayal), Spotlight instead opts to focus on how so many key players in Boston institutions had knowledge of the systemic rape of children, and yet nobody opted to do anything about it, or those that did choose to speak up were not acknowledged, even by the news institution that was now putting the pieces together.  Relatedly, there is a fantastic red herring subplot that I will not spoil, but the reveal is so casual that the gut-punch twist is all the more effective because of it.

The film ends on a disquieting note just after the article is published and leaves an unsettling question mark over the future of Boston and its (and the world’s) relationship with the Catholic Church.  This isn’t a film that begs for resolution, but rather asks us to examine ourselves and our communities and whether the perceived benefits of the status quo are worth the secrets we sweep under the rug to preserve it.  This is masterwork filmmaking and I will be most pleased to see this film’s inevitable Oscar nominations.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"San Andreas": Failing the Art of Disaster Film-Making

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Despite appearances to the contrary, there is a certain amount of artistry that goes into making a natural catastrophe film.  It isn’t all about special effects and watching destruction happen en masse, though that is a major component of it.  In addition, though, there needs to be a human element that relates the disaster to the struggles and tribulations of a cast of characters that, while not necessarily deep, need to be relatable so that the audience can feel their fear and tension through the characters.  This is what San Andreas is so desperately trying to do, but lacks the technical skill to pull off gracefully.

The catastrophe in question is a massive fissure that is working its way along the San Andreas Fault, causing the largest earthquakes in recorded history.  Our audience surrogates for this film are Ray (Dwayne Johnson, as generically likeable as ever), his estranged wife Emma, his daughter Blake, and Ben and Ollie, a couple of British boys who get trapped with Blake when the quakes start happening. 

The family has personal drama stemming from the death of their eldest daughter in a time before the film’s events, and it uses the family’s internal turmoil to act as a mirror to the external turmoil of the catastrophic events around them.  This normally would be a perfectly fine bit of theming and motif work, but the film couches itself into a most tired cliché of the tortured patriarch needing to prove himself to an inept female family.  There is an argument to be made that Blake is a strong female presence in the film, acting as a de facto leader when her father is not around, but her entire survival strategy revolves around her father eventually coming to save her.  And Ray is such a superman of a father figure that he never has any visible trouble overcoming the obstacles the continuing natural disaster throws his way, any potential for self-doubt overcome by singular determinism.  Factor in that Emma’s only emotional responses seem to be worry for her daughter’s safety and swooning over Ray, and you have a cast of archetypes so broad as to be entirely unrelatable, and all tension fizzles out of the film.

It also doesn’t help that the visual effects of this film never quite sell the destruction they purport to represent.  The scale of the CGI modeling is impressive, but the way the buildings are rendered feels too clean and polished, creating a layer of surreality that acts as a constant reminder that what you are watching is a computer simulation.  The film also doesn’t do a great job of relating the catastrophic landscape shots to the close-ups of the characters’ turmoil.  A near-complete absence of wide shots separates the film into two realities wherein a chaos rages outside and a more personal dilemma follows the characters; a cause and effect relationship is there, but it is minimal, as the destruction of notable California architecture doesn’t carry the same weight as the millions of lives theoretically lost that the film neglects to show or allude to.

San Andreas clearly isn’t an ambitious film, seeking only to fill the catastrophe movie niche in a year that appears to be otherwise lacking in a film.  It has a likeable star, a barebones plot, and enough special effects to ensure a large enough audience to make its money back.  It was an early summer theatrical diversion that will soon be forgotten in the annals of history, so it’s not really that big of a deal that it’s not a very good film.  But a good film it still certainly is not, so if you find yourself tempted to give this one a look, I advise against it.  There are better ways to spend your time and money.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief": Intensely Eye-Opening

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

What is perhaps the most amazing thing about Going Clear is that, from the original book’s conception, it was not supposed to be condemnation of Scientology.  The book was intended to act as an investigation and informative discussion of the merits and criticisms of the organization, but what the author found was uniformly disturbing and horrifying.  Enter documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who sought to adapt the book into a documentary, and I’ll be damned if he did not succeed in making one of the most compelling documentaries in recent memory, and not just because of its sensational material.

Gibney excels as a documentarian because he is able to craft a story purely through his research and his interviews, which sounds like a no brainer as far as documentaries go but can be rather difficult to achieve in execution.  Here, Gibney begins his story with the life and mind of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, whom evidence and testimony paints in two seemingly disparate lights: as a manipulative cult leader seeking to create a personal tax shelter or as a disturbed individual who actually believes what he tells his followers.  Gibney rather amazingly embraces that contradiction and shows that Hubbard could well have been both simultaneously, a man with selfish intentions who melted under the self-imposed pressures of the mythology he created.

However, this fascinating biographical study is only the tip of the iceberg, as the film starts to investigate Hubbard’s successor as leader of the church, David Miscavige.  Miscavige is infamous for his unwillingness to engage in interviews or discourse with the media, and Gibney tries to explain this seclusion by looking to how Miscavige was brought up in the church, how he manipulated his way into a position of absolute power within the church’s ranks, and how he has abused that power to corrupt the organization even beyond its founder’s intentions, causing even the IRS to bend to his will.  This film exposes Miscavige as the head of the largest corporation in the world and how he has gotten away with passing it off as a tax-exempt religion.  It is gripping stuff.

But what this all culminates in is not just a biography of the organization itself, but of the people it has used and abused to further its ends.  There is some obligatory service rendered to the lives and manipulations of noted Scientologist celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, whose subjugation into being spokespeople for the church is sadder than I had ever realized.  But it is in the numerous interviews with survivors of the mental, emotional, and physical abuse administered by the church that really strike home the monstrosity of this organization and what it can get away with under the banner of religious freedom.  This includes former leaders within the church who have since become disillusioned, people who have been sent to actual prison camps for re-education, and those who have been harassed by the church in the many years since leaving.  It is eye-opening to just how horrible the infamous group is to those in its fold.

The last frame of the film is a list of those who declined to be interviewed, exclusively consisting of those still affiliated with the Church of Scientology.  The film posits that to appear in public would necessitate self-defense against the claims that hundreds of their former ranks have alleged, and that the church is not equipped to deny any of the mountains of evidence against them.  Alex Gibney has compiled such a complete case against the institution that the two hour runtime is collapsing under the weight of the evidence, as there are undoubtedly many stories that there simply wasn’t enough runtime to share.  This is a brilliant instance of documentary filmmaking and deserves your undivided attention.  Give it just that.