The Last Stand (7/5/2013)
||Well, here’s a pleasant surprise. This movie tanked at the box office and was met with general indifference by critics, but I thought it was pretty damn fun for what it was. At the very least I think this is a much better approach to making an action movie with a geriatric than the shameless nostalgia pandering that Sylvester Stallone has been up to. Instead of trying to recapture the magic of 80s action movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger has opted to bring in a cool Korean director named Kim Ji-woon and make a fun little tongue-in-cheek action flick with some semi-creative set-pieces. I don’t want to over-sell the movie too much because it’s only really all that impressive within the realm of B-action movies and I probably would have been less forgiving of its flaws if I’d paid to see it in a theater instead of checking it out on Blu-Ray, but I definitely had a lot more fun with it than I expected.
*** out of Four
Side Effects (7/22/2013)
|This is apparently going to be Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical film, and in my humble opinion he’s going out with a whimper. Then again, I’ve generally been less impressed than most people with Soderbergh’s work during this period, at least when it comes to his “experimental” films like Haywire and Magic Mike. This one is weird because it has a story that could easily be mistaken for a Lifetime original movie if it didn’t have a name director behind it and didn’t have a bunch of celebrities in its cast. It was advertised as some kind of expose of the pharmaceutical industry, but it’s really a riff on both 80s erotic thrillers and on exploitative true crime stories, but Soderbergh doesn’t lean into the story’s inherent genre tropes and instead plays it really straight. That helps to make the ending more of a surprise, though perhaps not an overly pleasant surprise. There are some good performances here and if I tuned into it on a Saturday afternoon with minimal expectations I would be entertained by it, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of artistry here to really latch onto.
*** out of Four
Oz the Great and Powerful (8/4/2013)
|I’ve been fairly outspoken in my dislike of the recent trend of fair-tale inspired action films, a phenomenon that seems rooted in all of Hollywood’s worst instincts, but this one falls firmly into the “I guess it could have been worse” camp. I think what sets it apart from the rest of the crop is that its acting as a prequel to a fairytale rather than a re-envisioned retelling of a fairy tale and that that fairy tale already has a cinematic legacy that this is building off of. Sam Raimi gives the film a fairly fun sensibility and brings a few interesting ideas to the table like the living porcelain doll and the film’s fun climax where the wizard uses turn of the century technology to his advantage. But let’s not mistake this for a truly solid piece of filmmaking, because its not. Rather it seems like everyone involved seems to just view it as a slightly less embarrassing than usual way to sell out. All of the actors here are really phoning it in and any rough edges have been fully sanded off to ensure maximum profits at the spring box office.
**1/2 out of Four
|Let me preface by saying that I’ve kind of come to despise independent coming of age movies. It’s the most played out genre in the world, and between The Kings of Summer, The Way Way Back, and The Spectacular Now there have been a lot of them to skip this year. However, there is one coming of age movie from this year that I did hold out some interest in and that’s Mud if only because it was made by an actual experienced director (most of these movies are made by first timers who were advised to “write what you know” but don’t actually “know” anything interesting) and also because it seemed to actually be about the coming of age of someone who isn’t just another boring suburban kid trying to get a manic pixie dreamgirl. In fact, Mud is probably closer to an older breed of coming of age movie like Stand By Me or something like that, still not m favorite genre but at least not one that infuriates me.
This one’s directed by Jeff Nichols, who showed promise with Shotgun Stories and really impressed with Take Shelter. This is probably my least favorite of his three films if only because it tackles material that doesn’t interest me as much as the other two, but it does still show growth behind the camera. The film is definitely shot really well and Nichols also has an eye for both interesting locations and good performances. However, all of that good work is in service of a story that is somewhat interesting but also rather shallow. I can’t say I ever got wrapped up too much in this story about a kid who befriends a drifter and finds himself embroiled in a cockamamie family feud, there are good scenes in it and its never unenjoyable, I was just never all that drawn to it. If one can rate films objectively then I’d definitely say that this movie is good, but it really isn’t my cup of tea.
*** out of Four
Identity Thief (8/19/2013)
|Pretty much every year I find myself getting punked into seeing an absolutely awful comedy. Last year it was The Dictator, which took the comic genius of Sacha Baron Cohen and used it to create Mike Myers caliber stupidity. This year’s awful early-spring comedy is Identity Thief, and it makes The Dictator look tolerable by comparison. I’m not exactly sure why I let myself get tricked into seeing this… I guess I just wanted to check in on this whole Melissa McCarthy craze but didn’t want to wait for The Heat to come out on Blu-Ray. Anyway, this is a pretty direct rip-off of the Midnight Run formula with a pinch of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles here and there. Academy Award nominee Melissa McCarthy is terrible as usual, I don’t know what the makers of Bridesmaids put in the water to make the world think that this female Kevin James was some kind of brilliant comic actress but she isn’t. I’ve also got to say that Jason Bateman is increasingly proving to be a one trick pony, I like his shtick in Arrested Development but it’s a lot more annoying when its being applied to lame material like this. Aside from all that, this movie’s script is completely contrived and unbelievable, which would be less of a problem if it was actually funny, but it most certainly isn’t. Not even a little.
* out of Four
Every year, without failure, I find myself reading a slew of think-pieces about how the most recent summer movie season was “the most disappointing ever.” As is usually the case when people talk about things going to hell in a handbasket, this attitude seems to be informed by a sort of short-term memory loss. Pretty much every summer has a similar hit-to-miss ratio as far as I can tell, but the past successes tend to stand out in most people’s memory and they forget about all the vapid nonsense that they had to watch in-between the good ones. When you’re in the middle of the season though, you’re well aware of how much crap gets churned out and it makes you angry. For example, the summer of 2009 is fairly well remembered today: we had J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek, we had the original The Hangover, we had Up, and we had The Hurt Locker. Sounds good, but in-between all that you “had” to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator: Salvation, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, so there were just as many “worst summer ever” think pieces as ever.
It was in that environment that a film called District 9 came out and was received as the savior of Hollywood. It was an original I.P., it was made by an unknown young filmmaker, it was set in an exotic foreign county, and it had a political allegory at its center. To many it was like a breath of fresh air and proof positive that summer blockbusters could still be smart. It got rave reviews and even managed to snag a surprise Oscar nomination, albeit one that was surely the result of an expanded Best Picture field that year. However, my response to District 9 was relatively lukewarm. I respected that it was doing something different and enjoyed it for the most part, but I thought the main character was completely unlikable (which would have been fine if the film didn’t try to turn him into an action hero) and I was disappointed to see it turn into a sort of Jerry Bruckheimer-esque action movie at the end. Still, it was a promising debut and I’ve been looking forward to director Neil Blomkamp’s follow-up film Elysium.
This new film is set about a hundred and fifty years in the future, and in that timespan earth has become polluted and over-populated and even cities like Las Angeles now looks like gigantic favelas. Everyone who can afford to has abandoned the planet and set up mansions on an orbiting space habitat called Elysium, which looks sort of like a cross between a Halo ring and the space station from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film focuses on an earth-born ex-convict named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), who becomes irradiated in an industrial accident early in the film and is told he has only a week to live. Desperate, Da Costa decides that his one option is to find a way aboard Elysium so that he can make use of their extremely advanced healing devices. In order to accomplish this he makes a bargain with a smuggler named Spider (Wagner Moura) to take part in a data heist in exchange for passage to Elysium, but in doing so he stumbles upon information that would implicate Elysium’s defense secretary (Jodie Foster) in a coup attempt. As such he quickly finds himself being chased down by a grizzled mercenary named C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley), and must find some way to escape before his time runs out.
The film’s message is not subtle; it’s a direct statement about wealth inequality, unequal allocations of healthcare, and illegal immigration among other contemporary issues. In many ways this is the most openly left-wing Hollywood action movie since V for Vendetta and its making statements that are a lot more relevant than District 9’s attempts to make statements about apartheid twenty years after the fact. I suspect that many people will fault the film for being too “on the nose,” I would suggest that they remember that science fiction allegories are almost never subtle and that obvious messages are sort of par for the course in this genre. The social messages in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, for example, were every bit as overt as what Blomkamp is trying to do with Elysium. What’s more, when you’re making a big action movie like this and you really want audiences to engage with a political message subtlety probably isn’t your friend. It’s way too easy for people to ignore what you’re trying to say amidst all the rest of the chaos on screen and sometimes you’ve got to shout if you really want to be heard.
For what it’s worth though, political messages are by no means the only reason to go to Elysium this weekend, Blomkamp has packed his movie with all kinds of other cool things to sweeten the medicine he’s feeding the audience. For one thing, he employs some really cool world building both in terms of turning Los Angeles into a third-world wasteland and in creating Elysium itself as a sort of ultimate gated community in space. The film also has a lot of interesting action scenes, in part because the world of the film has a lot of interesting futuristic weapons in it, each one of them bringing fantastical gory injuries when they are employed. Some of the action is perhaps marred by some questionable use of “shaky-cam,” but at the very least one can say that these are more inventive action sequences than one is likely to see in most of the other summer action films this year.
Elysium is hardly a perfect movie. I’m pretty sure Matt Damon was cast more for his star power than because he was an exact fit for his role for one thing (though he does a pretty good job just the same) and the film also employs a fairly convenient MacGuffin both to get things going and also to bring things to a conclusion that is perhaps overly cozy. Also, as much as I like Sharlto Copley as the film’s villain (you’d hardly believe that this is the same actor who played District 9’s nerdy protagonist), I’m not exactly sure what the character is trying to accomplish towards the film’s end when he goes completely nuts. Despite all that, I can’t help but respect Elysium. All too often I’ve seen people let films like Pacific Rim which wear their stupidity on their sleeves get away with anything and everything while blockbusters that show even a little bit of effort to be something more are torn down immediately for having the gall to try to play with the big boys. To me, this attitude serves no purpose except to punish ambition and reward mediocrity. Elysium is exactly the kind of politically mindful action film that critics seem to be asking for whenever they complain about the vacuous sequel-driven machine that Hollywood’s summer slate has become, and as such I’m willing to cut it quite a bit of slack.
***1/2 out of Four
The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
For all my distaste for family films over the years, I’ve never been anti-animation. In fact I’ve spent a lot of time viewing animation as a very cool technique that was sort of being held hostage by a bunch of dumb family movies and I’d long waited to see it liberated from its lowly place as children’s entertainment. As such, I’ve gone to see a bunch of really suspect films just because I wanted to support various attempts to make the medium grow up a little bit. For instance, when I was twelve I went to see the mostly forgotten movie Titan A.E. just because I liked the idea of animation being used to make what appeared to be a rather straightforward sci-fi action movie. For mostly the same reasons I also went to see the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within the next year, but it seems like there weren’t many people who felt the same way. In fact, the extreme financial failure of that film would be a big portent for a lot of what we’ll be talking about in this edition of “The Journey Continues” because it was the first major film that was accused of falling into what’s called “the uncanny valley.”
The uncanny valley is a term that was coined in 1970 by a Japanese robotics engineer named Masahiro Mori, who noticed that whenever he tried to make a robot look very human-like it would have an unsettling effect on observers. People would have no problems with androids which looked actively machinelike and metallic, but when they actually had skin and hair they became harder and harder to accept. The theory was that people weren’t seeing what was human-like about these robots so much as they were seeing the small things which made them unhuman: their dead eyes, the fact that they weren’t breathing, their overly taut skin, etc. And the more humanlike an android would get the deeper into “the uncanny valley” it would find itself, and this would force the robotics engineers to either avoid the valley altogether by making inhuman robots or to brave their way through the valley until they could make a robot that actually did seem like a perfect replication of a human being.
The term “uncanny valley” would soon also be applied to realistic CGI representations of humans and the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was probably the first movie to make human characters that were realistic enough to seemingly fall into the uncanny valley’s clutches. While that movie had plenty of other problems (namely a loopy anime-ish story and a general lack of excitement), I never really had a problem with its animation. In fact I’ve never been all that concerned about the uncanny valley, I’ve always just seen it as a specific animation style and I think animators are generally a little more scared of the valley than they should be. It might be my experience with video game cutscenes, but I made my peace with realistic CGI humans a long time ago and never had much trouble with any of the films that have been accused of being in the valley.
And I suppose that brings us to the man whose name became synonymous with the uncanny valley during the 2000s: Robert Zemeckis. When Zhemekis made the desert island film Cast Away in the year 2000 I don’t think anyone could have predicted that he would have spent the next ten years trying to be a computer animation pioneer. I mean, visual effects had always had a place in the guy’s movies whether it meant sending a DeLorean into the past or digitially removing an amputee’s legs, but they were always used to very realistic ends in movies that were relatively down to earth. He never seemed like the kind of guy who would try to break new effects ground the way a Lucas or Cameron would and he never exactly seemed like the maker of children’s entertainment either. And yet, he and his company ImageMovers quickly began to specialize in the polarizing art of motion-capture animation, and would first unveil their work with a Christmas movie called The Polar Express.
The Polar Express
Let’s take a minute to talk about Christmas movies. I’m not a fan of them and never have been. In fact I’ve never been much of a fan of Christmas in general. When I was kid I viewed the holiday as an opportunity to get free stuff and could take or leave everything else associated with the holiday. Since then I’ve kind of grown to hate everything about the “holiday season.” I hate having to hear Christmas carols all the time, I hate having to see evergreen trees and wreaths for two straight months, and I’ve just generally gotten sick of having the damn holiday take over the public consciousness for an extended period of time every god damn year for no particularly good reason. And nothing expresses all the bullshit inherent in the “holiday season” quite like Christmas movies. I mean, there are plenty of good movies that happen to be set on Christmas, but whenever Hollywood deciders to churn out another movie about how “magical” and “important” Christmas is I immediately grab for the barf bag.
Given my distaste for both Christmas movies and animated movies for children, you’d think I’d have shunned Robert Zhemekis’ The Polar Express with a passionate fury, but I’ve actually been kind of curious about it ever since it was first released. Aside from my general curiosity with motion capture animation; there was always something about the tone and style of the film’s trailers that intrigued me. It seemed like an oddly… dignified… version of a Christmas movie. Furthermore, Roger Ebert absolutely loved the movie and gave it four stars, and this was at a time when I pretty much worshiped everything that guy wrote as gospel. In fact, in 2004 I tried to watch each and every movie that Ebert gave four stars to… but I ultimately balked at The Polar Express for all the usual reason I tended to skip critically acclaimed family films. Still there was always a lingering curiosity in the back of my mind about the film and I figured, what better time to finally see this yuletide “classic” than early July!
There are a lot of very specific things about family movies that have turned me off over the years: juvenile humor, cutesy aesthetics, rank sentimentality, the abuse of pop culture references, etc. For the most part The Polar Express is devoid of all of these elements, which would seem to suggest that it is right up my alley. It isn’t. In fact, The Polar Express is a bizarre and horrible movie, the kind of film you watch and then immediately wonder what the hell was going through the minds of the people who created it. To make it all the more frustrating, there are moments of true potential to be found in the film, but they’re all lost in the midst of a sort of black hole of weird story-telling, confoundedly misguided filmmaking decisions, and technological blunders.
I guess I’ll start with what is oddly one of the film’s strongest (and yet most infamous) aspects: its animation. There’s actually a lot to like about the CGI used in the film. The train looks great, the snowy landscapes look great, the interiors are great, pretty much everything that doesn’t involve a human being looks great. It all looks so great that it would have looked odd if they’d filled these environments with cartoony caricatures instead of realistic looking humans, but the technology wasn’t really ready for that. The faces in this movie are just bad, it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re in some sort of uncanny valley, they just look plastic and weird. For a lot of critics that was the big deal-breaker, but it’s more of a minor annoyance for me. Every field needs pioneers to go forth and take risks and I’m not going to give Zhemekis and his company too much grief for being that pioneer.
What I can blame Zhemekis for is the fact that The Polar Express is one of the most meandering and pointless films ever made by a major studio. The film’s plot is thin to the point of non-existence. In short: it’s about a kid who gets on a train, goes to the North Pole, hangs around there for a second, then comes home. What do we know about this kid? Well, he’s about eleven, he lives in the suburbs, he has a sister, and he’s beginning to suspect that Santa Clause isn’t real. That’s it. We don’t learn anything more about him through the course of the film, not even his name. What are his motivations for getting onto the train? Well, maybe that’s not a fair question; I also probably would have gotten onto a magical train if I was his age as well. Still, this kid remains a completely passive character throughout the film. The motive of getting to the North Pole is sort of thrust upon him and he goes along with it, but we have very little real reason care if he gets there.
What about the side characters? They’re all terrible. There’s a girl that our hero meets on the train who we later learn is supposed to be a leader, but all the film allows her to lead anyone to do is wander off from the group late in the film. There’s a younger child who pretty much stands around looking depressed, and then there’s the character credited as the Know-It-All Kid. Boy did I hate this guy. He’s basically a stereotypical nerd who exists to be a cartoonish asshole… and in spite of the fact that he looks like an eleven year old he sounds like he was voiced by a fifty year old man who did nothing to disguise his voice. The film doesn’t do a whole lot to establish any real rivalry between any of these kids, or any real friendship for that matter. In fact there isn’t any real conflict to speak of in this film. There’s no villain trying to hold them back and while there are a couple setbacks on their “adventure,” its ultimately a pretty smooth journey north and there’s almost no suspense about whether or not they’re going to get there. And what do they finally do once they get to the North Pole? Fucking nothing. They wander around a bit, get a little bit lost in Santa’s factory, but then meet Santa and then leave.
Looking at it from a certain angle I’m tempted to wonder if what Zhemekis was trying to make was some kind of David Lynch style charismas movie that operates on some sort of kooky dream logic. This would explain the films “was that or wasn’t that a dream” ending and also some of the more random imagery that pops up here and there, but no, I’m not buying that as an excuse. Towards the end this movie seems to boil down to some super-hokey message about this journey teaching this kid to keep on believing in Santa Clause, as if that’s some kind of virtuous thing to do. Hell, the movie doesn’t even hold up believing in Santa Clause as some sort of stand in for any other leap of faith, there’s nothing interesting about choosing to believe in something that you already have empirical evidence for in the form of having personally witnessed it. No, there’s nothing deeper going on here, this is just a schmaltzy Christmas movie albeit one that fails miserably at its corny goals.
I don’t know how the man who made Back to the Future and Forrest Gump could make this thing. For all their flaws, Zhemekis’ films could never be called lifeless or boring, but this movie is both of those things to an extreme extent. Hell, this barely a narrative film at all, it’s more like some kind of slow moving Christmas-themed amusement park ride that’s been turned into a film. If I can say anything nice about the film it’s that it isn’t a film that could be made by a hack. As bored and confounded as I was while watching it I can still say that it’s a more valuable bad Christmas movie than something like Jingle All the Way or something. At least this movie was trying to be… unique and interesting even if the results are, to my eyes at least, disastrous.
There’s no doubt that a lot of people hate The Polar Express, and I’d always assumed it was a box office bomb as well, but it actually wasn’t. It had a fairly weak opening weekend (in part because it opened the week after The Incredibles), but it proved to have unusually strong box office legs and quietly made quite a bit of money over the holiday season, eventually grossing over three hundred million dollars worldwide. Zhemekis would do the same thing five years later with his version of A Christmas Carol, which also quietly made a killing over the course of its holiday season. In fact, outside of the disastrous Mars Needs Moms, all of the motion capture films that Zhemeckis’ ImageMovers production company has made has been profitable to one extent of another.
The company’s first post-The Polar Express motion capture film, Monster House, was simultaneously its most critically respected and also its lowest grossing outside of Mars Needs Moms. Actually, it might be unfair to mention that the film grossed less than many of the studio’s other films, in part because those other projects had much higher budgets. Monster House only cost seventy five million to make, which is less than half what it cost to make all of the studio’s other projects, but it does still kind of say something about the film’s somewhat middling impact on the public’s consciousness. It certainly had its supporters back in 2006; it scored a respectable 74% on Rottentomatoes and it also managed to score ImageMovers its one and only Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars, albeit in a weak year for the category where it would end up losing to Happy Feet of all things. Despite all that, you really don’t hear about this movie all that much anymore. It really kind of came and went and its supporters moved on pretty quickly.
It’s because of the relatively brief interest that the public had in the film that I can’t say I was expecting much from this one. I mostly expected it to be a sort of attempt at combining motion-capture animation with a more straightforward family movie than The Polar Express was; essentially a Dreamworks movie, but with more realistic faces. I probably wasn’t entirely wrong to expect something along those lines, but I must say I got a lot more than I’d bargained for. Monster House is, in fact, one of the more pleasant surprises that I’ve come across in this review series so far.
For one thing, this feels way more like a Robert Zhemeckis film than The Polar Express did, which is odd because Zhemeckis actually didn’t write, direct, or even produce this movie. It was made by Zhemeckis’ company and used the technology that he developed, but he personally had relatively little to do with the project. The movie was directed by a guy named Gil Kenan, who directed another movie for young adults called City of Ember two years later and then seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet. I got a better idea of what creative juices were at play here when I looked to the writing credits. The film was co-written by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler.
Pettler’s other credits include Corpse Bride and 9, which were both productions that Tim Burton had a hand in. She’s clearly been an innovator in the sub-genre of gothy horror influenced animated family movies, and she’s presumably responsible for the film’s skewed take on the horror genre. I wouldn’t exactly put this on the same level as a “real” horror film, but I did find the film’s take on the haunted house genre to be pretty fun. Normally haunted houses are just regular houses that happen to have ghosts in them, here they make the actual house into a monster… literally. The floorboards open up to trap people, the carpet snatches people up, the chandelier is a uvula, etc. And at the end of the film the house itself starts walking around and tries to attack people. It’s all good fun and I suspect that the film has enlivened many a child’s Halloween party over the years.
The writer who’s probably most responsible for the touches that really make the film special is Dan Harmon. Harmon is of course the creator of the cult sitcom “Community” and is a master of fun genre pastiches that still work as stories that can be taken at face value. In this case he’s sort of doing a take on the old Amblin “realistically ill-mannered suburban kids go on a fantastical adventure” genre. In fact the Amblin logo is seen at the beginning of the movie, and I guess it managed ride this particular wave of nostalgia long before the movie Super 8 got the same idea. The film really gets the interplay between these three kids right and succeeds at making each one of the kids into an individual personality unto themselves, at least by family movie standards. I was even more impressed with the film’s side characters like the babysitter, her boyfriend, the guy at the pizza place, and the two neighborhood cops. These weren’t fully formed characters or anything, but the writers put in more work than they needed to in order to make each one of them a fun personality without making any of them into bland archetypes.
Most of all, I like that the film has a certain twisted sensibility to it. This is a film that seemingly begins with an old man dropping dead right on top of a small child and traumatizing said child for a decent chunk of its running time. Elsewhere it shows the house eating a puppy, and it also makes no attempt to turn its characters into “role models” and it also doesn’t shove any sappy moral down its audience’s throats. It’s filled with fun little details that could easily be overlooked by most of the audience but which still elevate the film above what it otherwise could have been. For example, there’s a fictional video-game that’s played in one brief scene mid way through the film. The filmmakers easily could have mocked up a really fake looking game for this sequences, but instead they actually made something which looks like a genuine 80s arcade game. Its little touches like that which really engenders a project like that with certain audiences, and it’s the same attention to detail which would go on to make Harmon’s show “Community” such a cult hit.
Hell, with all the good vibes the film was giving off I forgot to even bring up the animation, which for the most part works really well here. Technically, this film is a lot less ambitious than The Polar Express. The character models are a little less caricatured than the characters in Dreamworks and Pixar movies, but their faces are cartoony compared to the other ImageMovers films. That’s probably a good thing given how bad the faces looked in The Polar Express, but it also means that the backgrounds don’t look as real. That’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff, although I was disappointed by how lifeless and neighborhood seemed at times. There didn’t seem to be a single “extra” on the streets and at times it seemed like this suburb was completely empty outside of the speaking characters. Still that’s kind of a minor issue, and it’s probably for the best that the film’s animation doesn’t detract from the film’s other charms. I wouldn’t call Monster House a classic by any means, but I did enjoy it a lot more than I expected to and by the standards of the family film genre, it’s pretty damn solid. I suspect that if it had had the Pixar logo in front of it the film would have really had people going nuts for it, but as it stands it feels like something of a cult item in spite of its moderate initial success.
Talk about the best of times and the worst of times. One of these movies is terrible and the other one is really good. Were I watching these in a vacuum I’d be left without any real notion of whether or not ImageMovers Digital was something to get behind, but with hindsight it’s pretty clear that they didn’t really go in much of a positive direction from here. After Monster House the studio made the more adult oriented Beowulf, which I saw and mostly enjoyed back in ’07. From there though they went back to the Christmas well with A Christmas Carol and then made the infamous bomb Mars Needs Moms. The studio’s future is kind of uncertain at this point. Robert Zhemeckis has gone back to making live action films, Disney has cut ties with the studio, and they don’t seem to have any more animated movies in production. That’s not to say that their experiments in motion capture have been a complete waste. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson used similar techniques on their The Adventures of Tin Tin project. Even on that the tech wasn’t all there, and my dream of motion capture opening up animation for a wider breadth of cinema still hasn’t come true, but I’m glad people are trying. Next Month I’ll be moving into the home stretch on the Harry Potter franchise by looking at the first two films of the series directed by David Yates: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
I think I said before that I’m no fan of the Sundance Film Festival. I’m sure it’s done some good over the years, but at the same time I’m constantly annoyed at the mediocrities that it all too often puts on a pedestal. Unlike the European festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, Sundance is rarely a platform for truly ambitious world cinema and unlike Toranto its rarely a platform for truly impressive studio prestige pictures. Instead it has mostly served to cultivate and reward all of the most annoying trends in American independent cinema that have emerged over the years. In particular, it’s this festival that’s largely responsible for the profusion of naval-gazing American indie films about the quarter-life crises of twenty something white males. In fact the festival is so overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class that the few films in competition that aren’t about caucasions with first world problems are the ones that end up standing out and leaving with awards. It worked for Hustle in Flow in 2005, for Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire in 2009 and for Beasts of the Southern Wild last year. This year it seemed to happen for Fruitvale Station, a drama about an African American man who faces challenges that are anything but trivial.
The film is a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a twenty three year old man who was shot in the back by a police officer while lying down in a real life incident that sparked rioting in Oakland in 2009. Her Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, and is depicted as a flawed, but ultimately very likeable man who was just about to get his life on track before it was cut down by police violence. We see him over the course of the day as he plans of his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday, tries to set his relationship with his baby-mama (Melonie Diaz) straight, tries to get his grocery store job back, and tries to decide what to do with the one bag of weed he has left over from his drug-dealing past.
Ever since I first started writing reviews myself I’ve tried desperately to avoid reading anyone else’s reviews for movies I’m interested until I’ve already committed my own thoughts to paper. Given that I’m not privy to press screenings and that movies don’t always arrive in my city right away, this can be a rather challenging standard to live up to, but I do it for a reason. I do it so that I’ll know for sure that the impressions I have of any movie will be my own. If I end up agreeing with common consensus I want to know that it’s the conclusion I would have come up with anyway and that if it differs from the common consensus it won’t be because I’m trying to be some kind of contrarian. Try as I might to avoid other people’s takes on the films I plan to see, it’s sometimes inevitable in this world of social media that I’ll see someone else’s take on a film, think it makes a lot of sense, and then never quite knowing for sure if I’d come to the same conclusion on my own.
That may well be what happened when I saw Fruitvale Station after having already read a tweet by the film critic Mike D’Angelo which read: “Fruitvale Station (Coogler): [two stars] Because I was totally fine w/cops killing civilians until I saw what a super-nice guy the victim can be.” Ouch. That, in a much more succinct way than I would dare to attempt, cuts to the core of why this film’s message is kind of shallow. In essence it’s making the not so radical argument that African Americans are human beings. Judging by some of the more frightening online responses to the recent Trayvon Martin case, one could argue that there are still people out there who could benefit from such a message, but I doubt any of them will see this movie and even if they do I doubt they’ll be persuaded by it. What’s more this particular case doesn’t even seem like all that good of a case study for such a message. No one out there was arguing that Oscar Grant deserved to die; even the police officer who pulled the trigger never made that argument and claimed that the incident was an accident caused by his own gross incompetence.
If the film doesn’t function well as a message movie, is there anything else to be gained from it. Well, yes. When viewed as a Ramin Bahrani-esque slice of life, Fruitvale Station can still be an interesting film to watch. Over the course of the day that’s being portrayed (along with a flashback or two) we get a very good idea of what Grant’s life is like at that moment and what his personality is like, maybe too good an idea. I suppose it’s possible that the real Oscar Grant’s managed to successfully complete a full character arc in which he resolves to give up drug dealing, comes to terms with his relationship issues, and even get a potential job prospect because of a random act of kindness all within the 24 hours before his death, but I doubt it. The movie kind of leans on coincidence in order to make a sort of composite day that would express everything that the film had to say about the guy. I guess that’s a valid narrative conceit in some contexts, but it does clash a little with the inherent realism that the film is trying to convey. Still, there is a sort of voyeuristic thrill to watching his life play out and Michael B. Jordan does a pretty good job at subtly building him into a rounded character. I also liked Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend and Octavia Spenser as his mother even if the film maybe makes her character a little more saintly than it probably needs to.
Fruitvale Station was directed by a first time filmmaker named Ryan Coogler, and it does feel like the work of a first time filmmaker. It’s a film that knows a horrible situation when it sees it and doesn’t really know what to say about that situation except to point out its existence. It’s a movie that is probably worth seeing, but it’s not really the penetrating look at society that it seems to think it is and its success are on a much more modest scale than they probably should be. Still, I am glad to know that Oscar Grant’s story is being told by someone and that both Coogler and his cast have been given this platform which will hopefully lead all involved parties to bigger and better things.
*** out of Four
In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.” This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics. With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot. Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme.
I’ve long praised the Turner Classic Movies network, which I maintain is one of the last consistent bastions of sanity and integrity left on television, and my love grew for them just a little bit more last month when they aired a retrospective or works from the documentary pioneer Lionel Rogosin. I’d maybe heard of one or two of Rogosin’s films before I saw that marathon on the schedule, but for the most part his work was a complete blindspot for me. That’s why I excitedly DVRed all four of the films that TCM aired and will look at each of them in sequence.
On the Bowery
Lionel Rogosin’s most famous film is On the Bowery, which (as the title implies) takes a look at the people who live and congregate in New York’s rough Bowery neighborhood circa 1956. I say “takes a look at” instead of “documents” because it is perhaps open to interpretation whether or not this film counts as a true documentary. The film was made in a time before a filmmaker could really get good results by simply walking around with a handheld camera and a boom mic. As such, Rogosin needed to make his portrait with a full film crew and that isn’t really a set-up that’s conductive to fly-on-the-wall spontaneity. Instead what he’s done is gone into the real neighborhood and hired actual people from the neighborhood to sort of recreate their day to day lives around a simple scripted story that was meant to convey truth even if it was technically a work of fiction. Robert J. Flaherty used similar methods when making his early documentaries like Nanook of the North, and one could also compare this to what Italian neo-realist filmmakers were doing with non-actors around the same time.
If the film is to be believed (and I see no reason why it shouldn’t), then the Bowery was about as dismal a place as you’d expect. Most of the film is set in a tavern called the Confidence Bar & Grill, where a bunch of nearly homeless blue collar types congregate to drink their sorrows away. The film doesn’t do a whole lot to try to explain what led these people into this lifestyle and it doesn’t go out of its way to offer solutions either. In many ways the film seems to view life on the Bowery as a sort of existential destiny for a certain percentage of the population that just sort of finds itself giving up on life. It’s not the most uplifting film you’re likely to see, and it’s all the more depressing when you know that the film’s two main “actors” would go on to drink themselves to death not too long after the film was completed. The film is a stark contrast to what you’d likely see out of a Hollywood film of the time, even the ones like On the Waterfront which allegedly depicted the realities of blue collar life. I think that’s what you need to keep in mind while watching this extremely interesting but sometime difficult to watch film.
***1/2 out of Four
Come Back, Africa
While On The Bowery is probably his most famous film today, Rogosin’s most ambitious film was probably his 1959 film Come Back, Africa, which took a hard look at South African Apartheid some twenty years before that was a cool issue to get behind. In fact the making of this film (which is chronicled in the workmanlike but interesting 2007 documentary An American in Sophiatown) is in some ways just as interesting as the film itself. Rogosin essentially had to lie to South African officials about what he was in the country to film and then sneak around with the underground activists of the time in order to make the film. Like On the Bowery, this is technically a scripted film albeit one that is meant to be a strong reflection or reality and which doesn’t use professional actors. This one feels a little more scripted than On the Bowery, in part because it has a wider array of locations and also because it has more of a central character in Zacharia Mgabi.
I expected the movie to be a litany of horrors and indignities perpetrated against black Africans, and there is certainly some of that to be found in the film, but I was surprised to see that the film was also interested in some of the softer sides of daily life in the black communities. The film goes to great lengths to prove that these oppressed Africans are not the “primitives” that the whites claim they are. Rather they’re shown to be both politically aware and culturally astute when they’re allowed to be. In fact the Sophiatown shown the film is shown to be a somewhat vibrant community even though it’s a squalid place built on oppression. In fact it’s because the black Africans in the film are shown to be such fascinating individuals that it’s all the more unpleasant to know they’re being forced to live in such horrible conditions. Come Back, Africa doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions to the situation in South Africa, but it works well both as a document of the situation and as a plea for justice.
***1/2 out of Four
Good Times, Wonderful Times
With his first two films Lionel Rogosin sought out oppressed places in the world and documented them. His third feature length film, Good Times, Wonderful Times, took a more experimental approach to filmmaking in order to attack injustice on a larger level. The film is set primarily at a bourgeois London party where people are having petty discussions and arguments about war with Vietnam as the clear backdrop. The film then intercuts these discussions with some of the roughest and most graphic archival footage from the first and second world wars that Rogosin could find. The argument that the film is basically trying to make is that war is a hell of a lot more horrible than people can know from the safety of their safe upper-class home and that America’s rush to war was analogous with the patriotic fervor with which Germany rushed into the Second World War.
I understand and sympathize with the message that Rogosin was trying to deliver with the film, but I kind of despise the way he went about expressing it. This is some really nasty footage of human suffering that Rogosin is working with here, and to just use these people’s suffering in order to make a bunch of people at a party look like idiot just struck me as wildly inappropriate and distasteful. I sympathize with Rogosin, I know what it’s like to be anti-war in a time when the world seems to be marching toward conflict and I know what it’s like to overstate your case while witnessing a massive injustice. Still, I cannot endorse what he’s done here, at all. It’s a massively misguided effort and if there’s anything interesting to be taken from it it’s the fact that someone once thought it was a good idea to make it in the first place.
*1/2 out of Four
This is the only of these four Rogosin that can pretty unequivocally called a “documentary” in that there aren’t really any scripted segments, but it’s still not a vérité type thing. Instead what he’s done here is he’s assembled a number of blues musicians in a room and had them more or less shoot the breeze about their experiences and thoughts. It’s not an overly organized conversation; there are nuggets of interesting ideas throughout, but a number of them kind of get lost in the shuffle. Still I guess it’s good that these conversations have been recorded for posterity. I also liked how Rogosin sporadically cuts in images of proud black children who are sort of being posited as the benefactors of the suffering of this older generation. Still this is a really minor work when all is said and done. It’s something like 60 minutes long and it’s far from the most important work on this subject. There’s not really much to say about it really, it’s the kind of thing that would air on PBS at like two in the morning during Black History Month and then kind of be respected but ignored.
*** out of Four