Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Midnight Special": Masterful Story-Showing

Now in Select Theaters, Wide Release on April 1, 2016

It’s becoming a common occurrence to see low-budget festival-targeted science fiction make its way into theaters this time of year, and much like last year’s Ex Machina, I think Midnight Special is going to be remembered as something… well, pretty special.  Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud and Take Shelter) has always been a proponent of story-showing rather than story-telling, and his stab at science fiction is a grand demonstration of just how damn good he is at it.  Seriously, what we have here is a modern classic that I already want to see again, just to try and catch any details I may have (and probably did) miss the first time around.

The film opens on Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) taking Roy’s son Alton out into the night as an Amber alert plays on the television, telling us that Alton has been abducted from his home on a place ominously known as The Ranch.  Alton wears protective goggles over his eyes which sometimes emit a strange glow, and he has a strange relationship with electronic devices.  The federal government is interested in Alton for reasons relating to his powers, as is the cultish Ranch at which Alton was raised, so they both send agents in search of Roy and Alton, hoping to find them first as the fugitives pursue an unknown goal.

If that synopsis seems vague, that was my intention, as it is just about as vague as the film's first act.  This is a film that relies heavily on its ability to tease information that you think you need to know, yet only giving it to you when you truly need to know it.  In no way does this prevent the film from being compelling, as the central relationship between father and son that propels the narrative is immediately relatable, and their struggle is all the more harrowing for our not having all the facts yet.  The backgrounds and narrative significance of plot points and side characters such as Lucas or an FBI investigator (Adam Driver) are kept vague until necessary to provide a sense of tension, which always pays off in the form of a reveal that is rarely directly expository.

This all comes together through some fantastic performances.  Michael Shannon is one of the best character actors working today, and his persistently grim determination is detailed with subtle nuances that make him incredibly engaging to watch.  Edgerton and Driver both also acquit themselves well, surprisingly adding some comic beats that would feel out of place if they weren’t so well executed in relieving the persistent tension the film provides.  Even Kirsten Dunst, a relatively lackluster actress who plays Alton’s estranged mother, manages to carry the climactic scene of the film entirely on her facial expressions, so bravo for that.  The only potentially weak performance is that of Jaeden Leiberher, the child who plays Alton.  I wouldn’t call him bad, and the wooden performance is actually suitable for the character, so the lack of range he may or may not exhibit isn’t ultimately that important.

I hesitate to say more, because I’m still enthralled by how effective Midnight Special was at telling an engaging tale through twists and turns conveyed through the uniquely visual nature of cinema, and I don’t want to taint anyone’s first viewing.  I was actually worried for much of the runtime that one of the film’s central mysteries would remain unresolved, and yet, wordlessly, the final shot of the film not only answered my questions, but it recontextualized the entire experience to make it feel complete in a way I would never have expected.  This is how you show a story to your audience.  This is how you make a memorable cinematic experience.  This is how you make a great film.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"City of Gold (2016)": A Critic's Guide to Community

Now in Theaters
As a critic and general film nerd, it’s important for me to recognize my biases and determine whether my personal proclivities actually line up with a level of objective quality that would accurately convey whether a film is good or not.  I think I do a pretty good job most of the time, but walking away from City of Gold I wasn’t quite sure whether I really liked the film as a film, or whether it just spoke to me on a very personal level about the nature of art criticism and the place it holds in modern society.  I’m inclined to think that I liked the film because it is actually that entertaining, but feel the need to share that personal connection so that you can gauge for yourself whether my feelings would be reflective of your own.

City of Gold is a documentary about Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, an established member of the West Coast journalistic community who has even won a Pulitzer for his pieces on local cuisine.  What makes Gold so special is not only a level of linguistic artistry that I greatly envy, but that he endeavors to find all the little out-of-the-way spots in the city he loves so much, not just the upscale Western-inspired restaurants that one would traditionally find critics pursuing.  He is an intriguing individual, but his life and background merely acts as a focal point for a film that is much more reflective of the city rather than the Gold.

Through Gold’s writing and dining experiences, we are introduced to a side of L.A. that we don’t often see in popular cinema.  We’re too often exposed to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as if that is the only part of the city worth discussing, but the city is actually an incredibly diverse amalgam of cultures, featuring a number of people who have emigrated to start culinary enterprises in order to serve those of similar backgrounds.  Gold revolutionized the L.A. food scene by focusing on these ghettoed restaurants and encouraging a greater sense of community in the city’s overlapping cultures.

Documentarian Laura Gabbert does an excellent job of making the city of Los Angeles come alive, through interviews with restaurateurs and shots of the city in motion, as well as a light sense of humor that shows the humanity of everyone on screen.  The film does focus on Gold’s role in the critical community and primarily follows Gold around in order to see the city as he does, but Gold is humble enough and Gabbert discerning enough to recognize that Gold’s goal through criticism is not to achieve personal notoriety (though he certainly has just by the nature of being a critic), but to present an expertise that will bring his community closer together.

A documentary is always a limited portrayal of whatever subject it chooses, but City of Gold feels very complete in its conveyance of a city through the eyes of one optimistic food critic.  This is a film that will make you fall in love with an aspect of a city that you thought you already knew all about, even if you have never been there before.  It’s a demonstration of how one person can play a small part in bringing his community together, how his knowledge of the culture and the role that food plays in it can be instrumental in exposing us to our neighbors.  That’s an admirable goal as a critic, and one that I relate to in my own minor way by writing on this blog.  But even if you aren’t a critic, I think there’s a lot to enjoy here.  If nothing else, the loving shots of local dishes are mouth-watering.

Friday, March 25, 2016

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2": The Culmination Pays Off

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I recently reread my review of last year’s Mockingjay Part 1, and I almost feel like I did a disservice to the film by reviewing it at all.  Quite frankly, there just wasn’t enough of a movie to even effectively critique, since it was nothing more than a first act stretched to the breaking point of cinematic tolerance just to give Lionsgate one more year to figure out how to make money again once this franchise was milked dry.  So I wrote a retrospective piece about how the films have gradually gotten better from an abysmal start, but I avoided actual analysis by simply stating that the franchise had finally grabbed my interest by finally bringing its subtext to the foreground.  So the real questions now are (a) whether Part 2 justifies the division of this film into two parts, and (b) whether the potential of the franchise has finally been reached.

The answer to the first is most assuredly a negative.  I won’t even bother to try at a synopsis, as Part 2 makes no effort to pretend it’s a standalone affair, jumping in directly where the first half left off without so much as a refresher, which is a bit jarring for the casual viewer.  As payoff for the extra-long set-up of Part 1, this installment does, in fact, pay off and is considerably better paced, if only because it has both a second and third act to expand to two hours rather than only the first.  This means the bulk of the runtime is spent in the best action sequences of the franchise, which isn’t high praise but is still evidence of marked improvement.

What time the film does devote to story is actually rather somber and surprisingly grim.  It’s a terribly gutsy move to keep this PG-13 finale to a popular franchise so bleak, since it risks alienating an entire subsection of the audience acclimated to happy endings that expect just that.  Even the film’s final moments can only be described as bittersweet at best, and are downright depressing when you stop to think about it.  The political message of the film is shockingly prescient, and it’s easy to see why so many have gravitated toward this franchise just based on this ending alone.  It’s a risk that pays off, both from the standpoint of Suzanne Collins’s original text and to adapting it for the screen.

So, yes, this is the film that acts as the pinnacle of a franchise that is immensely overrated, but is at the very least respectable for its ambitions and moral purpose.  It would have been better to cut together Mockingjay into one film for the sake of artistic cohesion, since this final chapter really does not need to be over four hours long to be adequately told, but fans of the series should be able to proudly proclaim that their darling finished strong.  I still don’t think that the finale justifies an investment of three previous films in order to bring newcomers into the fold, and certain elements of the franchise still bug me for their dalliance with cliché and over-used dystopian fiction tropes, but there are a lot worse things to be a fan of, and I’m willing to admit that I had some fun at the end.  Now we can only hope that Lionsgate doesn’t follow through on those prequels they’re trying to cobble together.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Marguerite": The Disaster Artist of Opera

Now In Theaters
I will freely admit that I have a soft spot for films that tell stories like that of Marguerite’s.  This is a story of an artist who doesn’t know that what she produces for the world is the subject of ridicule and mockery, but her passion for her art form is so genuine that it is hard not to feel sympathy for her lack of talent.  Essentially, this is the sort of story that we usually see told about mad auteur filmmakers like James Nguyen and Tommy Wiseau, people whose ambition blinds them to the fact that they aren’t making anything of the artistic merit they boast.  Marguerite may be fictional and about opera singing rather than film direction, but its story is very much in the vein of The Disaster Artist.

Set in 1920s France, aristocrat Marguerite Dumont performs for her local music club as a vocalist, but her singing is so terrible that her audience must either retreat to the next room or prevent themselves from laughing at the spectacle.  Even Marguerite’s husband, Georges, is ashamed of her, contriving excuses to miss her recitals, yet preserving her feelings by fabricating acclaim through adoring fans’ gifts.  When Marguerite receives a subtly mocking review that she mistakes for praise, she ventures out to meet her critic, which sets her on a journey to perform her first public recital while Georges and various other acquaintances choke back telling her that she is only setting up her own humiliation.

The film is structured as a comedy and works remarkably well despite the French language barrier, with absurdist surrealism of the era beautifully complimenting the stunned reactions of Marguerite’s audiences.  Catherine Frot plays Marguerite with an obliviousness that seems almost willful, and her desire to only make her husband proud is what makes the film also function in its more tragic turns.  There’s a desperation and constant anticipation of disappointment in Marguerite’s every action, so it’s easy to feel sorry for her when her hopes and dreams are betrayed as reality begins to crash down around her.  I can think of few films that so cleverly balance comedic tone with heartbreaking tragedy, but the juxtaposition never feels forced.

However, the screenplay could have used at least one more revisionary draft to strengthen its structure.  A couple of minor characters have a romantic subplot that either needed to be further developed or cut entirely, but seems entirely superfluous as it stands.  The bigger offense, though, is that the film effectively has two climaxes, framed in different ways but ultimately communicating the same idea.  If the second climax had worked to change the end result of the narrative, I would have been on-board for its inclusion, but it only functions to extend the film by an extra twenty minutes with no new thematic information conveyed.

These are minor issues, though, as the performance of Catherine Frot and the witty dialogue of Marguerite are easily enough to recommend it.  Its theatrical run may be limited here in the United States, but I strongly recommend searching it out or finding it on home video in a couple months.  It’s a gem of a film that shouldn’t be missed just because of its foreign origin.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Testament of Youth": Shallow British Blandness

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

How is it that critics are always suckers for white people with British accents in twentieth century period costumes?  (Please note that I say this as a completely unapologetic fan of Downton Abbey.)  Relying on the strength of acting performances or the gravity of one’s source material does not make a film engaging or meaningful, which seems to be a point missed not only by the BBC’s films division but by the critical press that constantly applauds the production of the same monotonous tripe.  The latest example is Testament of Youth, which is a casualty of the same over-aggrandizement that accompanied Far From the Madding Crowd last year.

Based on a memoir of the same name, the film follows the life of Vera Brittain, a young woman who fights for her right to attend school, only to have the events of the First World War completely upend her plans and set her on a track toward nursing.  The character of Vera is actually pretty well realized in the form of actress Alicia Vikander, who paints Vera as a strong female lead with hopes and aspirations, but is not immune to the lures of companionship and romance and is capable of not taking herself too seriously.  There are times when she slips into a melodramatic Oscar-baiting sob, but those moments are forgivable in what is otherwise a very bland production.

And quite bland it is!  The crux of the narrative is in Vera’s constant confrontation with tragedy, watching her grow and develop as she gradually loses everyone she loves to the front lines.  However, the film seems to miss the point of these tragedies for the purpose of the narrative and instead focuses on the tragedies themselves in order to pull out a few more tears from Vera.  The point of most narrative pieces with a primary protagonist is to watch that character go through an arc, to develop and change in a way that is relatable to the audience, and while the loss of a loved one is certainly sympathetic, we don’t get much of a catharsis in watching Vera grow.  The film’s final scenes pay lip service to Vera’s developed pacifism as she pleads before an audience to let the fighting end, but there was no gradual build-up to that belief or any evidence that those were the conclusions that Vera was forming up until that point.

And really, that’s all there is to say about Testament of Youth.  The lead performance is decent for the material presented, but the supporting cast feels full of wasted potential as they exist solely to provide sounding boards for Vera’s speeches and objects of her mourning.  Yet despite its grand posturing over a heavy subject matter, it’s a very dull film that cashes in on tragedy in order to pluck sympathy from its audience without any sense of nuance or narrative importance.  It’s just a waste of time, hoping to fool you into thinking it’s a meaningful experience.  I guarantee you won’t remember the film for very long after you see it, as it blurs into the malaise of all the other British historical melodramas that purport the same faux depth.

Friday, March 18, 2016

"The Wolfpack": The Kids Are Alright

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix

The Wolfpack is one of those documentaries where the central premise sounds much more interesting and engaging than the final product ultimately ends up becoming.  This isn’t because of any flaws in the production or an inability of the subjects to meet expectations, but there is a certain amount of narrative intrigue that was lacking in The Wolfpack in order to make the film feel like a complete package.  The final result ends up feeling like it doesn’t have any of the closure it so desperately needs, leaving the viewer unsatisfied with a very personal story.

The eponymous wolfpack is six teenage boys who were kept in isolation in their New York apartment by their father, almost never having been exposed to the actual outside world as their mother homeschooled them.  Their only sense of community came from each other and their shared love of movies, of which the family owns approximately five thousand according to one boy’s estimate.  Not having anything else to do by way of hobbies, the teens set out to make reenactments of their favorites, of which we get to see their renditions of The Dark Knight, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs.

Documentarian Crystal Moselle enters the picture shortly after the boys have begun to violate their father’s edict to not interact with the outside world, which to their surprise is met with apathy.  Watching these unsocialized kids make their way in the outside world for the first time on their own is incredibly interesting, as they only have one another to rely on, all of them just as clueless as the other.  And yet, they still are pretty normal teenagers, self-deprecating and perhaps a bit too reliant on movie quotes to fill in the gaps of conversation.  Seeing how their unique circumstances have resulted in a bizarre sort of normalcy is simply fascinating.

However, where Moselle goes wrong is in not really knowing how to end her film.  She shows a brief montage of events at the end to hint that the brothers are beginning to branch off into their own identities, with one actually moving out into his own apartment, but there isn’t any sense of closure to it, only a sense that there are new challenges to tackle.  She doesn’t even come to a solid conclusion about the boys’ father, who seemingly only wants to keep his children safe from the corrupting influences of the politicized modern world, yet is an apparent alcoholic with abusive control issues.  It makes the ending feel hollow with too many unanswered questions.  Moselle should have kept the camera rolling for another month or two in order to provide us with an epilogue that the troubled beginning of their social lives desperately needs.

All in all, though, The Wolfpack is an interesting look into the lives of some teenagers coming from some bizarre circumstances into their own form of adulthood.  The daunting feeling that their story isn’t over yet is inescapable in the film’s final moments, but as unsatisfying as that is, the way these kids see the world with fresh eyes is definitely satisfying in the moments you see it.  As long as you don’t hold your breath to see if the kids end up alright, The Wolfpack is an interesting glimpse into how they seem to be pretty alright for now.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Divergent Series: Allegiant": So Stupid It's Funny

In Theaters on March 18, 2016

Allegiant is the best film of The Divergent Series.  I had a great time watching it.  These two statements do not mean that Allegiant is a good film.  Far from it, Allegiant is a terrible film, in many ways just as terrible as its predecessors with only mild improvements to differentiate it at all and make it the best on a pure technical level.  So how can I claim to have had so much fun?  Because The Divergent Series has officially become so stupid that it is hilarious.

Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due.  Allegiant improves upon its franchise forbearers by FINALLY moving out of the concrete gray of post-apocalyptic Chicago and offering something interesting to look at.  Granted, this takes the form of a monochromatically orange wasteland and a pristine white future city, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.  Also, I have to give props to this film for having a complete three act structure, since this is technically an adaptation of only the first half of the last Divergent book.  I can’t speak to whether the book is awkwardly structured enough to make this breaking point easy, or even if the remainder of the book is weighty enough to justify another movie, but for right now this is a film with a solid beginning, middle, and end, which is better than we’ve come to expect from penultimate young adult adaptations as of late.

But the bad is still just as bad as ever.  The characters are shallow and move around at the convenience of the plot rather than by any sort of motivation, which is unfortunate considering how much effort Shailene Woodley and newcomer Jeff Daniels try to play these roles straight.  The plot itself is a mess of post-apocalyptic tropes that don’t even coherently hold up as a high-school clique allegory as they once presumed to in earlier films.  There’s no subtext, no point to the story that would make the lack of character depth forgivable.  It's just a mess of twists that are asininely predictable, mainly because the film telegraphs them so far in advance that it's amazing the characters don't break the fourth wall over how obvious their coming trials are.

What made the viewing experience worth it, at least for me, was how hilariously inept the proceedings have become.  The script is at times laughably dumb, with such precious lines as “This hole looks radioactive.” (How does something look radioactive?)  Simple points of story construction break down under simple logic, like how a set of characters learn to fly an air vehicle in midflight without having seen one before a few days ago.  Thankfully, one cast member can’t even take this shlock seriously anymore; Miles Teller takes every moment he can to crack wise and mug for the camera, and I’m pretty sure that some of his cracks weren’t in the script.  But those who I must applaud for taking the film way too seriously are the extras, who have some of the most ridiculous energy I have ever seen from their kind, and their riotous exclamations, which have been edited to be prominently audible, are to die for.  If they aren’t named in the credits, I can guarantee that they are worth watching and listening to, way more so than the main cast.

This idiocy is not worth the price of admission, nor is it worth it to catch up with the previous films in order to comprehend the plot of this one.  I would likely feel much sourer about the film if I hadn’t attended a free advance screening.  However, while it’s unclear whether Allegiant is self-aware of its comedy or if the adaptation is starting to break down under the weight of its own ridiculousness, this is a film that ended up entertaining me, if only as a way to practice creating my own personal mental RiffTrax.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"People Places Things": Nondescript Nouns The Movie

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

Technically, People Places Things is not a bad film.  However, much like that god-awful title, seemingly no effort was made to make it any good either.  Independent cinema, as insignificant as that label seems to be sometimes, has fallen victim to some pandering and repetitive tropes, and People Places Things feels like a distillation of those tropes into an insufferable amalgam of uninspired drivel.  The comedy is weak, the drama is weaker, and the plot is so inconsequential that it won’t be remembered by anyone who takes the time to sit through the entire film.

Sing along if you know the words: A single dad, Will, played by a notably quirky actor (in this case Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement) tries to navigate his career, his divorce, raising his children, and his potential love life.  This plays like a softcore version of the show Louie, but without the avant garde cynicism that makes that show work so well.  The aforementioned career is as a professor teaching on how to make comic books, which simultaneously acts as an excuse to aggrandize higher education and include comic style art in the film’s production.  Neither of those are per say bad things, but here they feel like checkmarks on a laundry list of required indie swag.

Will’s divorce is supposedly played for laughs as his wife cheats on him during their twin daughters’ fifth birthday party, but this joke feels bizarre, nonsensical, and completely out-of-line for the supposed supermom the ex-wife later purports herself to be.  The separated couple shtick is also used for some trite scheduling conflict shenanigans that have been stale for years, yet are in no way reimagined to greater effect here.  This is only exasperated by how artificially precious the twin daughters are, with an exploitative cuteness rarely seen this side of the Olsen twins.

The one bright spot of the film comes in the form of Will’s romantic interest, a literature professor and mother of one of his students played by Regina Hall.  The nice thing about Hall’s inclusion is that not once is the potential for an interracial relationship acknowledged as weird or bizarre, which is shockingly still a trope elsewhere in modern cinema.  But beyond that, her character is still little more than a means for Will to move on with his life after his divorce, by no means an independent character with identifiable traits or personality.

Again, nothing I’ve said about this film is technically bad, but it feels so similar to parts of a million other movies out there that it does almost nothing to stand on its own.  The title People Places Things feels like such a slapdash attempt at indie coolness that it’s hardly surprising that the screenplay and performances feel much the same.  Don’t waste your time with this one.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane": Wait, It's Actually Awesome?

Now In Theaters
It’s certainly understandable why anyone would be skeptical of 10 Cloverfield Lane.  With an ad campaign that is purposely vague about the film’s premise and a title that calls back to a disappointing monster flick that used similar marketing tactics, one could be forgiven for outright dismissing this one as a film studio's cynical attempt to use that same trick twice.  The two films don't even seem related by subject matter or characters.  However, this is one of those rare instances where the complete opaqueness of the trailer is entirely justified, because as a thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t just deliver, it delivers excellence.

After a car crash knocks her off the road, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a stonewalled, windowless room, chained to the wall on a thin mattress.  Her host is the imposing figure of Howard (John Goodman), a seemingly emotionally unstable man who built this bomb shelter in case of foreign or extraterrestrial attack.  This is exactly what he claims has happened, and he sees himself as Michelle’s savior from the radioactive air outside.  Along with Emmet (John Gallagher), a fellow survivor who pushed his way into Howard’s bunker, Michelle must try to discover whether the world outside truly has succumbed to apocalyptic circumstances or if Howard is just using that as an excuse to keep her against her will.

The majority of the film takes place in the confined quarters of the bunker, so it is largely dependent on character drama to drive forward the plot, and that is the film’s greatest strength.  Winstead displays a tough, yet vulnerable, determinism against a desperate situation and Gallagher does a great job of playing her more optimistic and naïve foil.  The most credit must go to John Goodman, though, who uses his massive figure to exude a quiet menace.  You easily get the impression that even if the world has gone to shit, Howard is severely unhinged and likely was long before the bombs dropped, which makes him a dangerous roommate on the best of days.  Considering Goodman’s proclivity for supporting character roles, it can be easy to forget just how good of an actor he is, as he dominates the stage with hat-drop emotional turns and subtle physical quirks that tell us much more about Howard than the dialogue ever could, all without slipping into scenery-chewing self-parody.

Equal kudos must be given to first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, who has an incredible talent for tension and suspense.  He knows just when to draw out a scene to make the inevitable shock us, to twist the seemingly inevitable into new surprises, and to just surprise us entirely with new possibilities.  The claustrophobic atmosphere is used to great effect, with distorted close-ups and a frantic score to keep you constantly tense and unprepared for the next heart-dropping beat.  Surprisingly, the film even manages to work in a few laughs, though less because there are any funny jokes and more because Trachtenberg clearly knows how to milk an awkward moment where nervous laughter seems like the only appropriate response.  This is a directorial talent to look out for, because this debut is stellar.

The one thing about this film that I can easily see become an object of contention is the third act.  I won’t spoil it, but the tension is going to come between those who came to see a Cloverfield movie and those who came to see the film despite the Cloverfield moniker.  Personally, I think the ending works, mainly as a thematic escalation of the gradually more insane twists the film keeps throwing at us right up until the very end, but your mileage may vary and I understand why.  Truth be told, I didn’t expect to walk out of 10 Cloverfield Lane loving it, but that’s exactly what happened.  Forget the stupid marketing; this is a worthy addition to the horror renaissance of recent years, and its found footage predecessor cannot tarnish that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"The Peanuts Movie": Genuine To Its Core

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I won’t lie and make myself out to be the biggest Peanuts fan, but I will say that I was a little worried when I heard that Blue Sky Studios was going to be responsible for adapting Charlie Brown and company to the big screen.  Known primarily for the never-ceasing Ice Age franchise, Fox’s animation studio isn’t exactly known for quality or even visual creativity.  However, having now seen their attempt at translating the works of Charles Schulz, I have to admit that they’ve managed to mostly stay true to the source material.  Mostly.

I think this comes in large part from the contribution of Craig and Bryan Schulz, Charles’s son and grandson respectively, as the film’s producers and screenwriters.  The narrative is kept somewhat loose, centering on Charlie Brown’s infatuation with the Little Red Haired Girl who has moved in across the street.  The conflicts are simple problems of childhood, be it a book report or a standardized test or a school dance, but all of them are reflective of Charlie’s attempts to seem impressive in the LRHG’s eyes, even if he isn’t impressed with himself.

What struck me most about this is that it retains the melancholy of the original comics and TV specials, leaving Charlie Brown’s ingrained depression largely unaltered and maintaining a darker tone than is usual for children’s animation.  But that’s part of what makes the world of Peanuts so relatable, especially for children, who understand the trials and anxiety that Charlie faces from firsthand experience.  That relatability is only enhanced by the smart choice to have the gang voiced by actual children, a move that is not seen often enough in recent animation bent on lending star power to their marketability.

But marketability tends to be the source of The Peanuts Movie’s biggest weaknesses.  Though Snoopy’s Red Baron sequences are accurately reminiscent of the TV specials, they happen much too frequently and are obviously in place to act as a visual distraction for the youngest viewers who won’t grasp the heavier themes.  But that’s all they are: a distraction.  Furthermore, the film insists on playing the same original pop song on at least three occasions, making what would otherwise be an anachronistic annoyance into a full-on redundant pain.  And finally, I'd not like to put too fine a point on it, but the LRHG is a rather unfortunate waste of a character.  I know that in the original comic she was supposed to embody Charlie Brown’s unobtainable desires and wasn’t as much of a character per se, but I think it is worth pointing out that it is a problematic trope to have a female character exist purely for a male character’s self-actualization, and the fact that the LRHG has been given a voice and a face but still no personality now only makes that point more pronounced.

Still, there’s a lot to like in The Peanuts Movie, and it is probably a better version of the gang than one could have reasonably expected, especially from Blue Sky Studios.  It’s by no means a home run and it will never replace the TV specials as the standard for adapting Schulz to film, but it is an enjoyable time nonetheless and I’m happy that it will introduce a new generation of kids to a great little franchise.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

"London Has Fallen": I'm Disgusted That This Exists

Now In Theaters
I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of a movie theater feeling quite so upset as I was after London Has Fallen.  I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies, particularly since I started writing criticism, and I have seen many instances of racism, jingoism, and bigotry put to the big screen, yet I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so offended as when I saw London Has Fallen.  This movie is not only poorly made and an affront to the power of modern cinema, it is the most overtly prejudicial film I think I’ve seen from the last decade, if not longer.  This is the kind of film that makes the United States look bad to the rest of the world and reaffirms our negative international perception as a blindly hateful and xenophobic people.

A sequel to the problematic yet dull Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen picks up with the death of the British prime minister, so that all the leaders of the Western world must attend his funeral.  Terrorists attack, killing every world leader except for the American president (a painfully inept Aaron Eckhart), thanks to his trusty secret service agent Mike (Gerard Butler).  The two spend the next hour running around a ruined London as Mike mows down bad guys in his wake.  And by mow down bad guys, I mean that Mike indiscriminately kills brown people.  The film constantly signals to us as the audience that the villains, often disguised as police officers, are the people of Middle Eastern descent, either through focus or musical cues.  And there’s no stopping to question whether Mike is killing the right people or not; if they are brown and possibly in police uniform, they are going to be shot.

Not that it’s easy to tell who Mike is killing at any given moment.  With the exception of one decently executed chase scene, the action of this film is nearly incomprehensible.  We often see Mike shoot off-screen, and there are intermittent cuts to people falling over from gunshots, but the relation between the two is nebulous at best.  A ridiculous number of knife fights are also blurry, unfocused cinematographic messes, and these are probably the worst moments of the film because they demonstrate Mike’s sociopathy.  Oh yeah, it isn’t enough that Mike kills brown people, but he has to revel in it, torturing them with stab wounds even after they give him the information we wants.  He asks if they are from "Fuckheadistan" and monologues about how the Western world will still be standing in a thousand years as he beats in the skull of his latest catch.  He’s a terrifying protagonist during these moments, and to call it uncomfortable is an understatement.

As horrible as much of this is, the film could have mitigated it by being at least somewhat self-aware of the ridiculousness of its premise or the blatant issues of its portrayal of a bloodthirsty American protagonist on an international stage.  No such luck.  Every bit of violence is played straight, as if this is a scenario that could actually happen and Mike is a realistic American hero.  The closest the film comes to having a sense of humor is that Mike says the word “fuck” to an asininely childish degree, often punctuating “jokes” with the word in the hopes that the audience with mistake it for something funny.  The only time a joke was actually constructed, punch line and all, was an oddly misplaced “call the president gay” gag that not only wasn’t funny, but also didn’t even make sense given the context or the tone of the scene.  Action movies don't necessarily need great writing, but the rules of comedy need to at least be respected.

Now, I won’t go on to say that London Has Fallen is the worst film I’ve ever seen, since this is patently untrue, but it is one of the most tone-deaf and embarrassing pieces of cinema to represent American ideals.  That alone, though, wouldn’t have led me to leave the theater in such a disturbed state.  The people in the theater with me loved it.  There were claps, cheers, and laughs at extremely inappropriate moments, and I had a real taste of being surrounded by people who scared me.  This is a film that revels in the indiscriminate killing of people of Middle Eastern descent without a trace of irony, and if the theater I was in is any indication, this film’s box office returns will be at least somewhat successful.  I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Youth (2015)": The Frustrating Eccentricities of a Film-maker

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

In a word, Youth is probably best described as frustrating.  It is by no means a bad film, but it is a rather obtuse one, a film that requires you to acclimate to director Paolo Sorrentino’s seemingly bizarre sensibilities, and even then it will likely lose a lot of its audience to its pretentions.  However, there are really extraordinary pieces to this puzzle, even if those pieces don’t fit together in a conventional sense or even one that I would particularly prefer.  It’s best to go into this one knowing what to expect, though.

Set in a Swiss resort, the film follows the day-to-day lives of retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and working director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), best friends for the past sixty years.  Those looking for a clean narrative throughline to this film should look elsewhere, as the film purposely avoids doing so, only coming close in the opening and closing moments as Fred wrestles with a decision to return to conducting at behest of Queen Elizabeth.  Rather, this film operates in themes and motifs, often returning to repeated phrases or visual callbacks in order to create moments of symmetry and contrast, particularly in how Fred and Mick approach their pasts and futures in old age.

Caine gives one of the most nuanced performances of his late career and Keitel is similarly engaging, particularly in later scenes where we see what fruits his character's current cinematic labor will reap.  The supporting cast is also noteworthy, from Paul Dano as a jaded young actor who wants to be remembered for more than his most popular role in a sci-fi film, to Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter trying to recover after her husband dumps her to marry a pop star.  All of these characters have a great chemistry with one another that not only makes for great drama, but a surprising amount of comedy that left me laughing much harder than I would have thought from a film about old men pondering their near demises.

The real star, though, is the cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, who composes shot after gorgeous shot that seem to belong more in an art book than they do in a motion picture.  And I don’t say that solely to compliment Bigazzi’s work; these shots belong moreso in an art book than in this film.  The editing is erratic, absurd at the best of moments but completely baffling at the worst.  As gorgeous as this film is at times, those moments only serve to pull us away from the characters, the only thing this film has going for it in any semblance of a narrative.  Particularly when the film veers into more serious territory in its later scenes, these moments become tedious, distracting from the character drama that is supposed to be engaging us.

As I said before, Youth is a frustrating film, but not one without merit.  Sorrentino seems to want to play with the medium of film in purposely musical ways, playing more to emotional spectacle through repetition and variation than to conventional three-act structure.  And that’s fine, but I don’t think the experiment is an entirely successful one, particularly when it tries to pull back on the reigns and ground its narrative in its two leads.  But without that grounding, the film could have veered into true avant garde territory, and who knows what would have resulted.  As is, Youth is entirely watchable and not entirely pointless, and your entertainment will likely be dependent on keeping that in mind.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The Wave": Low Budget Disaster Is Anything But

In Theaters on March 4, 2016

Disaster movies are quite possibly the most formulaic genre put to film, and there’s a reason for that.  People go to these films to see special effects spectacles, but that spectacle is rendered hollow and meaningless if it is not supported by characters we care about.  That’s a mistake many modern American film studios make in producing disaster flicks, relying on the tried-true archetypes of the patriarch and his family in need of rescue, which not only have been played to death but are also starting to show their misogynistic age.  Enter The Wave, a Norwegian film that seeks to emulate the uniquely American disaster flick genre, and somehow ends up becoming one of the genre’s best examples in the last decade.

Our patriarch this time is Kristian, a geologist in the village of Geiranger, Norway who is about to move with his family to a larger city in order to work for an oil company.  During his last day on the job, some of his research station’s sensors go offline to the bewilderment of his colleagues, but Kristian eventually realizes that this is the harbinger of a mountain’s collapse that will cause a tsunami to wipe out the tiny village.  His co-workers believe him to be overreacting, but soon enough the disaster strikes, leaving Kristian to save his young daughter on an escape route out of the city, and his wife Idun to protect their teenage son in a hotel within Geiranger itself.

What The Wave does remarkably well is build tension, using character drama to escalate conflict between Kristian and Idun, as well as place Kristian as tragic figure talked out of his foresight.  These characters aren’t necessarily that deep, but they are example of how to use archetypes as a starting point for character development rather than leave them as audience cyphers.  The titular tsunami doesn’t even arrive until halfway through the film, and I was never bored in the moments leading up to that event.  As for the wave itself, for a film costing only $8 million, it looks a hell of a lot more convincing than many Hollywood disaster flicks that cost more than ten times as much.  The devastation feels real, which is necessary and unfortunately lacking if most of this film’s brethren.

The Wave isn’t without its faults though, and they are mostly due to the film’s continued devotion to genre convention.  After the wave hits, Kristian’s journey to find his lost wife and son feels more than a little aimless and contrived, though Idun’s struggle still remains compelling and even shockingly violent, giving the two leads an appropriate balance of survival chops regardless of gender.  But by the end of the film, the patriarch is still the one to save the day, and an appropriately dark ending is supplanted by a saccharine climax that made my eyes roll.  Furthermore, for how much character development took up the first half of the film, these characters deserved much more of an epilogue than they received, the film cutting to credits just after they are all reunited.

But for its faults, The Wave is a surprisingly entertaining film.  It doesn’t transcend its chosen genre, but it knows how to use the tropes of its genre effectively, and an entertaining movie is the result.  If you can find a theater playing this Norwegian film near you, I definitely recommend it for the water special effects alone.  It’s a fun time, nothing more, nothing less.