Gravity(10/4/2013)

One of the things that first got me into film were the AFI “100 Years” specials that aired in the 90s and early 2000s.  I got around to their famous “100 Best Films” list eventually, but there were a few too many musicals and romances on that list to really pique the interest of my eleven year old self.  No, the special that really hooked me in was the “100 Years…100 Thrills” list, which focused in on “thrillers” in the broadest sense of the word.  The list had all the Hitchcock type films you’d expect on a list of thrillers, but there were other choices on the list like High Noon, Safety Last, and All the President’s Men which made sense on the list if you thought about them but which are set in enviroments and situations which aren’t normally associated with the thriller “genre.”  For instance, High Noon is set in the old west but doesn’t really play out like most westerns.  All of that film’s drama focuses on the tension of Gary Cooper’s character feels as he waits for the showdown he knows is coming at the titular hour.  Safety Last has all the antics of a farcical comedy, but when Harold Lloyd is climbing that tower you can’t help but worry that he’s about to plummet.  And while All the President’s Men is set in a newsroom and largely involves the making of phone calls and the tracking down of sources, the way the investigation comes together feels more thrilling than a straightforward drama would.

I was thinking a lot about this wider definition of “thriller” while watching the new Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which has frequently and erroneously been called a science fiction film simply because it’s set in space when at its core it is a thriller through and through.  Cuarón’s film is not set in the future and does not depict any sort of technology that has not already been employed by NASA.  The focus is on a rookie astronaut named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who is helping with repairs on the Hubble telescope when mission control suddenly warns Stone and the two other astronauts on the spacewalk, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and engineer Shariff (Paul Sharma), that a debris field is about to rip through the region they’re in and lay waste to their ship.  Stone begins spinning freely into space, and seems to be doomed until Kowalski swoops in with a jet pack and saves her.  Stuck out in space, the two of them must find a way to get back to their ship and find a way to earth before their air runs out.

I suspect that many of the people who go to see Gravity after hearing all the praise for it may be a bit surprised at how simple the story is.  There’s no hidden plotline here that emerges later in the film, this is all about seeing if and how Sandra Bullock’s character is going to survive this ordeal and it proceeds procedurally until this question is answered and at that point the film ends.  Those looking for a more conventional plot which involves human interaction may be baffled or disappointed.  That’s not to say the film is empty.  It certainly has an emotional arc and there’s also enough material here for an aspiring film student to give the film a political, environmental, or a feminist reading, but at its center this is a movie about action (of a sort) and suspense.  As I see it, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if that’s where a film hangs its hat it becomes extremely execution dependent, and fortunately the execution here is absolutely brilliant.

“Visceral” is a word that gets abused by critics and applied to films that aren’t really worthy of it, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  Gravity is a film that truly deserves the moniker.  As the Sandra Bullock character’s day gets worse and worse you’re constantly on the edge of your seat hoping that she manages to escape the increasingly dangerous situations she finds herself in.  This is in part because Bullock (an actress who all too often wastes her talents on less challenging material) manages to create a lot of audience empathy without having a whole lot of backstory to work with.  Cuarón also creates a lot of suspense simply by immersing the audience into the film’s environment.  It goes without saying that the film’s CGI looks incredible and that while you watch it you really don’t think too much about the fact that most of the film was likely shot on a green screen.  The film’s science seem extremely accurate, at least to a layman’s eyes, and this also increases the tension simply because it makes outer space seem all the more hostile.

Another factor in why the film is so damn visceral: 3D.  The film is, by far, the best argument for 3D I’ve yet seen.  I’m generally not a huge believer in stereoscopy as a filmmaking tool and generally only see a movie or two per year in the format.  Even when a film like Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi use 3D well the technique still seems like kind of a sideshow to me and when I think back to the films my memories of them tend to be in 2D.  With Gravity though… I don’t know.  This is a film that truly seems to have been made to be watched in three dimensions and on the biggest screen possible.  I’m not going to say that it really feels like you’re up in space with Sandra Bullock, but you definitely get a much better idea of her location in relation to the various objects that are floating around her at any given moment.  I saw the film’s trailer a few times in front of 2D movies and, yeah, you want to see this in 3D.

Gravity is a hard film to review because it feels like a sophisticated production but the things that make it great aren’t overly intellectual in nature.  The film is more of an experience than a story and you have to sort of accept the fact that it’s almost more like a roller coaster ride than a film.  Of course that’s what most bad summer blockbusters claim to be doing as well, but they really aren’t.  Most of those films actually do have standard narrative plots, albeit stupid ones that periodically get interrupted by familiar action set pieces.  Those films ask you to “leave your brain at the door,” and that’s something that Gravity never tried to force you to do.  However, it does attempt to stimulate different parts of your brain than something like Upstream Color or Before Midnight will, and to some people that will somehow make it a lesser work.  I disagree.  There’s plenty of room in the world of great cinema for a film like Gravity which simply shows you an extreme experience in a way you’ve never seen it before.

**** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Kung-Fu Panda/How to Train Your Dragon

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.

Dreamworks Animation.  Where do I start with these guys?  Well, let’s start by saying that in my book they’ve long had the duel indignity of being the makers of family films and of appearing to be soulless hacks who were shameless in their pandering to the basest of audience desires.  They seemed like the Brett Ratners and McGs of family cinema when compared to the “true artists” at Pixar.  The whole internet knew it and there were ample memes to reinforce the notion, my favorite being an image that summed up Dreamworks’ creative approach as “Uhh, there are talking animals… and they all make this [grinning] face.”  They also had the gall to be staggeringly successful at the box office.  The Shrek franchise was pretty much a license to print money in and of itself, and by 2008 they’d also established their even less respectable Madagascar franchise.  Even their forgotten “failures” like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, and Bee Movie had managed to make hundreds of millions of dollars at the worldwide box office, often tripling or even quadrupling their production budgets.  Worst of all, they managed to influence a whole cadre of other hacky animation studios to imitate their lazy and uninspired style in the creation of similarly brain numbing family fare like Ice Age and Hotel Transylvania.

I don’t know if it was Stockholm Syndrome or what, but there was a three year period between 2008 and 2010 Dreamworks actually managed to score some points with the critics with the release of a couple of movies that actually seemed to be pretty good.  Not Pixar-good, but good.  Mind you the studio would immediately shoot that goodwill in the head by putting out nothing but sequels and forgettable crap like Turbo in the years that followed, but hey, two semi-respectable movies are better than none, right?  That’s not to say I went to see them.  Hell, in 2008 and 2010 I wasn’t even seeing Pixar movies, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be seeing slightly over-achieving Dreamworks Animation movies.  Still, I have from time to time wondered if they hype about these projects did have any legitimacy.  So, today I’m going to give Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon in order to see if there really is something deep down in the soulless abyss that is Dreamworks Animation that can be appreciated.

Kung-Fu Panda

Never in a million years did I think I’d ever find myself in a position where I’d be both watching and writing about a movie called Kung Fu Panda, at least not one where the title was literal.  This really is a movie about a panda, who does Kung Fu.  It’s not just the combination of those two things that I find suspect, the panda in and of itself is suspicious.  Every few years we see crazes where people fall in love with certain “cute” animals.  It was penguins in ’05 and ’06 and pandas seem to have stepped in to take their place in the wake of that stupid viral video of a sneezing panda cub that was circulating around the time this film came out.  As someone who hates pandas, this was not a pleasant turn of events. That’s one demerit against the film, and another is that it stars Jack Black.  Now, I don’t hate Jack Black, in fact I’ve found him amusing on a number of occasions.  However, voicing a CGI panda who knows Kung Fu seems like exactly the kind of project which would lead him to indulge in all of his worst tendencies.

Still, critics seemed to take a shine to the film.  It’s sitting at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and it beat Wall-E in a surprise upset at the Annie Awards, although the prevailing theory is that it only won that because of professional jealousy within the animation community.  In fact it’s kind of interesting that this and Wall-E came out in the same year and had kind of an odd relationship.  It was sort of the Iron Man to Wall-E’s The Dark Knight; one was clearly the better and more respectable work but the other was seen as surprisingly well made and populist alternative.  Of course if I wasn’t going to see Wall-E that year I damn sure wasn’t going to see this thing, at least not until now.

Unlike most of the family films I’ve seen over the course of this project, Kung-Fu Panda exists in a world that consists entirely of talking Animals.  Pixar’s talking animal films like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and to some extent A Bug’s Life all took place in worlds that were still very much populated by humans and where the talking animals essentially lived in secret.  Here in Kung-Fu Panda there are no humans and anthropomorphized animals have built societies and live as surrogate humans.  More specifically they live as surrogate ancient Chinese people and their world bears a strong resemblance to the ancient China seen in the various Shaw Brothers films of the 1970s.

In many ways this is exactly the movie I was afraid it would be.  Over the top slapstick and bad comedy rule the day in the film and Jack Black is pretty much what I thought he’d be in the lead role.  The rest of the voice cast is pretty cool, but most of the big name actors they got are sort of wasted.  I think Jackie Chan, for instance, has something like two lines in the film.  It also trades in the cheesy and simplistic moralization of the “you can be anything you want” variety that Dreamworks Animation’s movies usually seem to come with.  In this case the message comes when Jack Black’s character nonsensically seems to learn kung fu over the course of a training montage  and then gets a self-esteem boost when he learns from a couple of sources that there’s no “secret ingredient” to success… or something.  Whatever.  Look, I’m not the type of person who gets bent out of shape when kids are handed participation medals and the like, but this ending that more or less eliminates both hard work and talent from the secret to success kind of comes off as ridiculous wish fulfillment.  A similar story of a seemingly disadvantaged animal succeeding in a field that normally would have been closed to him was told much better in Pixar’s Ratatouille, in which a rat manages to become a master chef but only because he has real aptitude for the trade and also works like mad over the entire course of the film in order to make it.

All that said, there were moments when I could see why this film appealed to people more than the average Dreamworks film.  For one thing, the action scenes here are actually pretty solid.  The makers of the film seem to have choreographed the fight scenes pretty carefully and I was especially amused by a scene where the Panda and his mentor “fight” over a piece of food during a training exercise.  That’s not to say that I’d want to see any of these scenes over an actual live action martial arts film, firstly because the fights don’t have a real sense of danger to them and secondly because it’s a lot more thrilling to see real live people doing these physical feats, but the fights are certainly better than they had to be.  Also, the people who made the film do seem to have a genuine affection for the martial arts genre, and coming from the studio that became famous by incorporating a Matrix spoofing bullet time sequence into a movie about a farting ogre, that’s a relatively cool thing to be referencing.

At the end of the day, this is not a movie I need.  I have plenty of real martial arts movies to watch which aren’t filled with dumb jokes and stupid moralizing.  However, I can see why kids who maybe haven’t been exposed to stuff like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin might like it in much the same way that the kids who weren’t allowed to listen to N.W.A might have liked MC Hammer.  That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie and I’m not going to give it the pass that critics in 2008 gave it, but I guess I can see how a critical community that had been forced to sit through three Shrek movies, Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, and Bee Movie might have been in a position to over-rate it.

How to Train Your Dragon

If the critical success of Kung-Fu Panda was unexpected, the even greater success of another Dreamworks film two years later was downright shocking.  That film, How to Train Your Dragon, looked like pretty standard family movie crap when it was first announced and advertised.  It had a terrible title, a concept that didn’t really stand out, and a trailer with “hilarious” gag involving a dragon vomiting a fish part onto a dude and making him eat it raw.  And yet, when the film finally opened it earned a Pixar-like 98% rating on Rottentomatoes, it won the Annie Award, and almost certainly would have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature if it hadn’t come out the same year as Toy Story 3.  On top of all that, it became the highest grossing Dreamworks film outside of the Shrek series.  I wasn’t dreading the prospect of seeing How to Train Your Dragon the way I was dreading Kung Fu Panda, but when Kung-Fu Panda failed to live up to its hype I became all the more skeptical of all the praise that How to Train Your Dragon got back in 2010.

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the film’s pedigree before watching it was that its voice cast was surprisingly dignified, at least by Dreamworks standards.  This is a studio that regularly thrives on the gratuitous casting of celebrities who seem to have only been brought in for the purpose of putting their names on the poster.  The lead voice actor is Jay Baruchel, an actor who’s perfectly suited for the part of a vaguely nerdy but not cartoonishly pathetic young man, but who had very little name recognition in 2010.  In fact, How to Train Your Dragon is the only Dreamworks film to date which doesn’t have an A-List celebrity voicing its lead role.  Most of the rest of the voice actors here do have semi-recognizable names but aside from Gerard Butler and Jonah Hill none of them are really movie stars.  For the most part they’re people like Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and David Tennant; recognizable talents that seem to have actually been hired because they matched certain roles rather than as a means to get famous people to promote the film on their talk show rounds.

When I finally popped the Blu-Ray in and started the movie what struck me was how much Dreamworks had upped their animation quality in the two years since the release of Kung-Fu Panda.  I was actually kind of shocked at how dated and sort of cheap Kung Fu Panda had looked, especially when compared to 2008’s other animated hit Wall-E, but How to Train Your Dragon’s animation did seem to be on par with Pixar for the most part.  The film’s look is certainly stylized, but stylized well.  The characters all look cool, and I was especially struck but the visual design of the character of Astrid, who is one of the most believable “warrior princesses” I’ve seen.  I also really liked the look of both the film’s signature dragon (Toothless) and the big “boss” dragon at the end, and was especially amazed at how realistic their bulging eyeballs looked.  My one complaint about the film’s visual style is that, aside from the two aforementioned examples, all of the film’s other dragons look distractingly silly.  It’s almost like the filmmakers put all their art resources into those two dragons and then left the rest of them to be finished by the B-team because they seem like they came straight out of a different movie.

The film’s story is, oddly enough, a sort of platonic inter-species take on “Romeo and Juliet.”  As it often seems to be the case in Dreamworks’ dilms, the film is about a young misfit who’s trying to find his place in a society that demands that he take a specific role he is unsuited for.  In this case that’s the role of a soldier in an age old war between Vikings and dragons.  Like the Montagues and Capulets these two sides have been fighting so long that they haven’t even considered peaceful co-existence as an option.  What finally breaks the cycle is a forbidden… friendship… between two young members of each clan.  This “friendship” is kept secret and only once it looks like the two “friends” have been killed do the warring parties see what a scourge is laid upon by their hate.  I guess it’s not a perfect parallel, after all the feud is made rather one-sided by the fact that only one of the clans is made up of sentient humans, at its heart this is a classic forbidden… friendship… story.

The film isn’t overburdened with action set pieces, but when battles do occur the filmmakers do a fairly good job of maintaining a legitimate sense of danger while still keeping the onscreen violence toned down and PG.  The bigger bulk of the film’s “action” comes from its flying sequences, which are appropriately sweeping, especially when accompanied by John Powell’s excellent score.  In fact it was that first flying scene when I finally broke down and admitted that this is a pretty damn good movie.  Are there some dumb jokes in it?  Yeah, there are, but they aren’t as omnipresent as they were in Kung-Fu Panda.  In fact there probably isn’t that much more dumb comedy here than there is in your average Pixar movie.  And speaking of Pixar, I do think this probably is good enough to stand up to some of that more acclaimed animation studio’s works including their medieval romp: Brave.  That’s not to say that How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie or anything.  It’s not an overly deep work and it doesn’t really take all that many risks, but it is a solidly put together family film that manages to preserve more of its dignity than this studio’s fare usually does.

In Conclusion

So, in the battle of Panda vs. Dragon, I think I’m pretty firmly entrenched in Team Dragon.  It isn’t even close really.  Kung-Fu Panda is basically just another shitty Dreamworks movie with a couple redeeming elements that make it a little more palatable, whereas How to Train Your Dragon is a genuinely good film with a few shitty Dreamworks elements holding it back.  I’ll give them credit for having finally made one movie that’s worth a damn, but at the same time that actually kind of makes them look worse.  If they were really capable of making a film which is that good this whole time, what’s their excuse for how lame the rest of their filmography is?  Maybe if How to Train Your Dragon had been the start of some new and more respectable phase of Dreamworks releases I would be more able to forgive them, but they’ve put out eight movies since then and every last one of them have had the whiff of being business as usual from the hacks at Dreamworks.  So yeah, I’m glad I saw How to Train Your Dragon, but nothing about this experience has changed my mind about this studio.  Next Month I’ll finish up my analysis of the Harry Potter series by looking at both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

Rush(9/28/2013)

Two years ago, when I was discussing the film Moneyball I told a lot of people that while I mostly liked it, I didn’t think it would be all that interesting or understandable to people who aren’t baseball fans.  Later that year, when I saw the biographical Formula 1 documentary Senna I came to wonder if I was wrong about that.  It occurred to me that the fact that Senna was about a foreign sport that I wasn’t familiar with had actually increased my enjoyment of the film because it allowed me to watch a legendary sports story play out without any foreknowledge or preconceived notions about the real events that inspired the film.  It’s with that in mind that I had some high hopes for the film Rush, which is also about a famous rivalry in the history of Formula 1 racing, which is a sport that I know nothing about but hold no ill-will towards.

The rivalry at the film’s center is between a pair of drivers named James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the film primarily covers their actions during the 1976 F1 season.  To put it lightly, these guys hate each other, and most of what they do in the film is motivated by an intense desire to crush the other.  Early in the season it appears that Lauda, who moved up from lower divisions earlier and was on the Ferrari team, but as the season rolls on Hunt begins to catch up and it quickly begins to seem like there’s going to be a real race to the finish to see who will win the season.

Rush was written by Peter Morgan, a writer whose mostly made his name writing non-fiction films The Queen and Frost/Nixon which revolve around strong willed people clashing against one another.  As such, I can totally see why he’d be attracted to this particular rivalry because Lauda and Hunt are a pair of opposites who contrast one another in a number of interesting ways.  Both men exemplify different sides or what is supposed to make a great racer: Lauda is a gearhead and strategist who perfectly calibrates his cars and uses his intellect to race effectively while Hunt is a daredevil and thrill seeker who uses his courage and passion to win the day.  Their differences continue when they’re off the track.  Hunt lives hard, he drinks heavily, smokes heavily, sleeps with groupies, and carries himself with a cocky rockstar attitude.  Lauda, by contrast, is a rather cold person with limited social skills and a lot of people just don’t like the guy.

One could easily envision a version of this film that only follows one of these guys while vilifying the other, but the truth of the matter that both racers are assholes in their own unique way.  I think the film will prove to be something of a Rorschach test where different viewers will empathize with one racer or the other.  Personally I found Lauda to be the more sympathetic of the two, but of course I would, I’m a lot like him and know what it’s like to have to live in the shadow of a dumb jock who thinks he’s a hero because he behaves like a self-destructive dickhead.  Conversely I’m sure there are a lot of extroverts who would find Hunt’s antics to be amusing or enviable and think that Lauda is a know-it-all weasel.  The film never really takes sides in the matter, and both racers are given their moments to shine both on and off the track.

So, we’ve got an interesting script by sports movie standards, what about the execution?  Well the film had one big red flag on its record in the form of its director: Ron Howard.  Ron Howard is a filmmaker who’s shown some promise in the past, but since then he’s become the epitome of dull and safe prestige filmmaking.  Still, there was something about this project which made me think it had a chance of bringing Howard back to his former Apollo 13 glory.  This, however, was not to be.  Howard doesn’t botch the film necessarily, but he is the weak link.  As has been the case in a lot of Howard’s recent work, the cinematography here is muddy and unpleasant and the editing is good, but not as tight and perfect as you’d want from a big budget auto racing movie.  In fact, there really isn’t a ton of racing in this movie, we mostly just see short fragments of any given race and we rarely see an entire race play out.

In final analysis, Rush is a good movie, but not a great one.  Peter Morgan is on to something with this story, but he telegraphs too many of his messages in his dialogue and while both actors are good (especially Brühl) I wouldn’t say either give performances for the ages.  I can’t help but think that this movie would have been so much more if its screenplay had been handed to someone who was in a better position to make a proper action/sports movie.  I can only imagine how well it could have turned out in the hands of a Danny Boyle or a David Fincher or a Michael Mann.  Instead we have the version directed by Ron Howard and… it could have turned out a lot worse I guess.  It probably is Howards best film in almost a decade, so, there’s that.

*** out of Four

Prisoners(9/22/2013)

What is it about Boston and its surrounding areas that makes people want to set movies there all of a sudden?  Between The Departed, The Fighter, The Boondock Saints, Killing Them Softly, Shutter Island, The Town and a handful of other films, it seems that Boston has become cinematic shorthand for “blue-collar, but serious.”  Looked at with a particularly cynical eye one could say that Hollywood’s screenwriters have used the commonwealth of Massachusetts so that they can add a layer of vague Catholic guilt twaddle as a means to lazily give whatever crime film they’ve written an unearned aura of profundity.  That’s not to say that I personally think that’s really happening with many of the above-mentioned films, but I must say I’m getting a little skeptical when I see a film like Prisoners which is set in a Boston suburb called Brockton and which has a kidnapping plot which immediately invites comparisons to two of the most famous Boston films of recent memory: Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.

The children abducted in this film are the daughters of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), two friends and neighbors whose home lives are thrown into disarray the night their daughters mysteriously disappear together.  The police investigation, led by a man named Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), initially focuses in on a man who was near the scene named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) but he is soon dismissed as a suspect based on the fact that his mental deficiencies make it nearly impossible for him to have accomplished such a kidnapping without leaving obvious clues.  Keller Dover does not accept this reasoning and has already made up his mind that Jones is the kidnapper, a conclusion that’s backed up in his mind by a handful of seemingly suspicious statements that Jones seems to make in Dover’s presence.  Holding firm to the notion that Jones knows where his daughter is, Dover kidnaps Jones, locks him up in an abandoned building and begins to torture him and resolves that he won’t stop until his child is found.

Given the decade we just lived through, a torture storyline in a film immediately takes on a lot of baggage even if it’s in a context that’s removed from a national security context.  I don’t think the torture here is meant to be an exact allegory to what was going on in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but they do elicit certain questions about the morality involved in harming people simply because one believes they’re saving a family member.  Dover’s actions seem completely irrational, everyone watching the movie can tell from the word go that Jones is innocent and also severely retarded.  Even it were reasonable to think he was guilty, it should have been clear very early into Dover’s torture sessions that no amount of beating, cutting, scaring, imprisoning, or scalding is going work in getting him to speak… and yet Dover keeps on doing it.

To the film’s credit, this does seem somewhat consistent with Dover’s character.  He is, to put it mildly, a violent and impulsive man.  Hugh Jackman makes this very clear via a shouty and borderline overblown performance (a performance that employ’s a somewhat questionable American accent BTW).  It’s partly because he’s a violent man that he can’t seem to come up with a more peaceful and potentially more effective solution to his dilemma but there’s also a degree of abuse involved.  He’s frustrated by the situation and cannot bring himself to just sit back and let the police work things out, so he’s letting out his anger on a retarded guy who’s said to have the mental capacity of a ten year old.  The film never provides the audience with a scene where Dover gets told “we’re not so different you and I” by the real bad guy, but it might as well have.

The morality of the torture scenario is at the heart of Prisoners but its fatal flaw is that screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski doesn’t seem to know this.  Instead his screenplay treats the torture material as a sort of largeish sub-plot in the middle of a relatively silly and unrealistic mystery plot.  The film’s third act in particular is bogged down in mystery novel hokum, and the morality scenario is more or less abandoned.  That’s not to say that the mystery plotline is completely uninteresting, in fact I may well have enjoyed it in a different context, but when you start trading in the kind of graphic and serious imagery that’s in the torture plotline, it’s a lot harder to be interested in serial killers who keep rattlesnakes in suitcases.

Prisoners is basically a film that has a strong veneer of respectability that makes you want to take notice of it.  It’s got some really good Roger Deakins cinematography, its cast looks really good on paper, and director Denis Villeneuve does have some eye for what he’s doing.  In fact, almost every scene of the film is pretty good when looked at in isolation, but when taken as a whole I think this project is just really misguided.  It never decides whether it wants to be a morality plat or a pot-boiler and ends up failing at being both.  I’m left with a renewed respect for Mystic River, a film which managed to give its audience both a more believable mystery and also a moral exploration that never has to go to the vulgar extremes that Prisoners trades in.

**1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 9/25/2013

Spring Breakers(8/22/2013)

Where to start with this… thing.  This was the movie that everyone was talking about earlier this year for some reason.  I mean not everyone, it didn’t light up the box office or anything, but pretty much everyone who did see it was a blogger who felt compelled to write a think-piece in response to whatever it is that professional provocateur Harmony Korine was trying to say when he unleashed it.  I’ll give the movie this: there is some interesting filmmaking on display here.  He’s got a really neat editing style, he makes some cool musical choices, some of the scenes are pretty creatively realized, and there are moments in the film that have a real bizzaro charm to them.  As such the movie can’t be completely dismissed or ignored all that easily.  But to what end is all this style directed.  I don’t think Korine takes any of this all that seriously as a straight-up story; three of the film’s four characters are completely indistinguishable beyond the fact that they’re psycho party chicks and their adventures in Florida don’t really make much sense if you take them at face value.  Is Korine trying to make some wider statement about youth culture?  I hope not, because if he is then he’s doing it through such extreme exaggeration that it probably serves little purpose other than to confuse older audiences into making confused assumptions.  Is he simply trying to wallow in T & A?  No, the film shows a ton of skin but its style is so assaultive that it’s not going to be arousing to many.  Ultimately the only way I really enjoyed the film was as an exercise in style, and that isn’t really enough.

**1/2 out of Four

Starbuck (9/4/2013)

I don’t exactly know the statistics, but I’ve always been of the belief that people going to fertility clinics is a relatively rare occurrence and that people using anonymously donated sperm from said clinics is even more rare.  Despite this, there seems to be an inordinate number of movies and especially TV shows that involve test tube babies. The French Canadian comedy Starbuck, which was rushed into a limited American release earlier this year in order to predate an upcoming Hollywood remake, is the latest work to look at the funny side of artificial insemination.  The high concept here is that a former sperm donor has learned that he has unwittingly fathered 533 children who are now over 18 and want to make contact with him.  Through a set of contrived circumstances, “Starbuck” finds himself wanting to make contact with these people, but being forced to do so anonymously for some unclear legal reason.  Though it is a foreign language film that was likely relegated to “arthouses,” this movie is extremely conventional and also not overly funny.  It’s harmless enough, but being remade by Vince Vaughn is not beneath its dignity.

** out of Four

Olympus Has Fallen (9/7/2013)

Olympus Has Fallen was the first, and to my eyes the more promising, of the two “terrorists take over the White House” movies from this year.  This is a tough film to analyze because I find it to be something of a guilty pleasure in spite of the fact that it is deeply flawed.  For one thing, this film is absolutely shameless in the way it rips off Die Hard beat for beat.  Shameless.  It makes Air Force One look downright original.  It also has some very strange notion of geo-politics and vastly overestimates how willing a sitting president would be to put national priorities at risk in order to save high profile hostages.  There are other smaller problems too like a singularly awful performance by Dylan McDermott.  All that said, I’m a sucker for old-school action films that are loaded to the brim with R-rated gun violence and this film has just that in abundance.  Things kick off with an epic shootout on the white house lawn and the film never relents in its dedication to bloodshed and mayhem.  I can’t in good conscience call this a “good” movie, but if you see it scheduled on HBO or something and you’re looking for a good action film, it’s worth a look.

**1/2 out of Four

Dead Man Down(9/13/2013)

I’ve always had a pet peeve about movies that are trying to be “gritty” even though they don’t really strive for any kind of realism and they’ve clearly been written by film students who come from wealth and don’t really know a damn thing about “the streets.”  It’s why I’ve never had any respect for the films of David Ayer, but he at least seems to know a thing or two about police procedure (it’s the criminal side that he’s clueless about).  Dead Man Down on the other hand seems to be a pure fantasy, one which tellingly rips of the videogames “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “Heavy Rain.”  The world of crime depicted here is not unlike the fantastical criminal organizations we saw in Quentin Tarentino’s first three films, but this movie doesn’t trade in wit and iconoclasticism the way those films did.  The basic story is revenge hokum and I can’t say that I ever much cared about any of the characters.  Niels Arden Oplev has given the film a somewhat interesting look via digital photography but he squanders a number of good actors and fails to bring any overly interesting action scene to the fore.  This movie isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing about it that stands out and there’s a whole world of better crime films that are more worthy of any viewer’s time.

** out of Four

42 (9/25/2013)

If Lee Daniels’ The Butler is this year’s The Help, then 42 is almost certainly this year’s Red Tails.  I was pretty shocked when I saw the film’s trailer, which seemed to promise little more than a TV film treatment of one of the most famous stories to come out of the civil rights era.  Yeah, the actual film offers little more than what the trailer “promised.”  The film is told in a very straightforward way and has almost nothing original to say about the life of Jackie Robinson.  The production values are mediocre, and most of the cast is unnoteworthy.  Harrison Ford is his usual grumpy self, but I can’t blame him too much for not being great considering the questionable dialogue that is pervasive in this film.  In general, the movie indulges in all of its corny instincts and then emphasizes them with a dreadful and overbearing score.  At the end of the day, I think the makers of 42 got so wrapped up in making a film that would “educate” and “inspire” children that they forgot to make a film that anyone over twelve would get anything out of.  That’s a trap that a lot of films about African American heroes tend to fall into, but I feel like Jackie Robinson in particular deserved better.

** out of Four