Boyhood(7/19/2014)

For the longest time people going onto the IMDB page of director Richard Linklater would see a rather title sitting in the “in production” section of his filmography.  For the longest time there was this odd movie called “Untitled 12-Year Project” sitting there with a release date that was way off in the future.  Those who followed film news closely knew exactly what this was: an ambitious project that the director had been filming little by little for over a decade starting when his star protagonist was only seven years old and finally finishing when he was in his late teens.  To call this a risky move would probably be an understatement.  There were any number of things that could have happened over the course of the twelve year filming that could have derailed all the work he’d done, and even barring a complete disaster, he easily could have found himself in a tricky situation where he no longer liked what he’d filmed years earlier and reshoots would have been out of the question.  Against all odds, it’s finally been twelve years and the film seems to have come together without a hitch and as hard as it is to believe for those of us who’ve been following it all this time, it’s finally out in theaters.

Boyhood starts in roughly 2002 when its protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), is about seven or eight years old.  As the film starts he’s living in a small suburban house with his single mother named Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and he’s occasionally visited by his biological father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke).  The film proceeds to follow this character as his family moves from place to place and situation to situation and as he goes through the various experiences that go into a modern American adolescence.

As one would surmise from the synopsis and the means by which the film was produced, this isn’t exactly a film with a traditional three act structure.  Rather it’s a somewhat episodic exploration of a mostly ordinary life.  Terrence Malick did something somewhat similar with his 2011 film The Tree of Life, but that movie looked at childhood in a much more grandiose and ethereal way while Boyhood seeks to be relatable and down to earth.  This goes double if, like me, you happen to be of more or less the same generation as the film’s protagonist.  I’m about seven or eight years older than Mason, but it was still a trip to finally see a film that finally shows how playing “Oregon Trail II” on an iMac G3 at school and pwning your friend at “Halo” can be an important part of childhood.  As the film goes on it is not only a chronicle of its central family but also of the American experience over the course of the 2000s.  We see the kids talking about the Iraq war with their father and campaigning for Barrack Obama, and the film also does a great job of using popular music as a means of marking time as it goes on.

I’m not exactly sure what made Richard Linklater chose Ellar Coltrane to be the star of his project, but the choice seems to have worked out really well.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that Coltrane evolves into the greatest actor I’ve seen over the course of the film, and I’m not sure what he’d be like in other roles, but it’s definitely interesting to watch him grow (literally and figuratively) into someone completely different from the little kid we see lying on the grass looking at the clouds as the film opens.  And while the film is called Boyhood and is mostly shown from Mason’s perspective, the rest of his family is almost as important to the film and are just as interesting to see grow and evolve.  Linklater cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as Mason’s sister and she is certainly an important and interesting character especially in the earlier portions of the film.  It’s also interesting to see Mason’s mother grow from being a befuddled single mother to being a confident and independent intellectual.  You don’t necessarily see every step of her arc, in part because Mason is left in the dark about a lot of her personal life when he’s younger, but it’s definitely there.  Another character with a full arc is Mason’s biological father, played by long-time Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke, who goes from being an aimless young hotshot to being a middle aged man who’s embraced responsibility.

Richard Linklater has never been a particularly distinctive visual stylist, but he’s always held his own when working with down to earth material.  His visuals here are not showy, but they are well chosen and bring the film to life through a variety of subtle decisions.  In general this is a movie that plays to all his strengths, particularly his ability to capture incredibly believable and relatable moments of human interaction.  There are conversations between the children here that I remember almost verbatim in my own childhood.  But Linklater does not make the mistake of making this kid’s childhood universal to the point of cliché.  His relationship to his parents in particular is a lot less antagonistic than it is in most coming of age movies, and is in many ways rather refreshing.  Linklater also doesn’t feel too pressured to manufacture drama in the character’s life.  There is one episode when Mason is about nine or ten which is somewhat out of the ordinary and could have been a movie unto itself, but the movie never feels too much of a need to fill his later years with similar material.  It’s like the movie knows that something like that is unlikely to happen to someone more than once during their childhood and for better or worse decides not to repeat it.

All that said I do think the movie does lose steam just a little during its second half.  That’s partly because Linklater’s style seems a lot more energetic and distinctive while he’s filming Mason as a child than when he’s filming him as a teenager.  Teenagers are of course a pretentious lot and the film accurately depicts Mason as being a little bit insufferable during those years, and I guess watching a child run around and play is always going to be a little more inherently cinematic than watching a teenager argue with his girlfriend.  Still, the film as a whole is a pretty amazing accomplishment.  Filming the mundane realities of life and making them this interesting is a lot harder than it looks and Linklater has once again proven to be the master at doing just that, and it’s really good to know that he had this up his sleeve all those years when he was making some questionable projects like Fast Food Nation and The Bad News Bears.  The film’s “passage of time” nature does invite comparisons to his “Before” series, and I don’t think I’m prepared to call this a greater accomplishment than those three masterpieces, but it’s definitely the cinematic event of the summer and one that no one should miss.

**** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- The Lost Episode: Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are

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.

[Note: The following installment of “The Skeptics Journey” had a bit of a troubled history.  I watched the two movies and started writing it in early January, but was quickly distracted by various end-of-year projects.  The Fantastic Mr. Fox section was written within a reasonable time-frame, but the Where the Wild Things Are section went unwritten for so long that I pretty much abandoned the whole thing.  However, I eventually decided that I needed to finish what I started and so I reconstructed my intended review using some old notes and hazy memories of the film.  As such, half of this piece is going to be pretty rough but at least it’s out there, and I can move on.]

Bolstered by the critical and commercial success of Pixar, all throughout the 2000s the coolness-factor of family films started to go up and up and up.  I think that this all peaked in the year 2009, which (perhaps not coincidentally) was the year that Pixar finally got its Best picture nomination for the movie Up.  The trend had moved far beyond Pixar and it seemed like every studio was starting to get into the business of making movies that were ostensibly for children but which actually seemed to be made almost entirely for adults.  It was the year of Coroline, of 9, of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and of Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol.  More importantly, it was the year where two filmmakers who had heretofore made nothing besides R-rated live action films decided to try their hands at making movies that at least looked like they were made for children.

Those two filmmakers were of course Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze and their films were Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things Are. Both of these films were based on classic picture books and both were met with strong critical praise and not so strong box office returns.  In fact, both movies barely made their budgets back at the box office and could probably be called bombs, which might explain why the percentage of “children’s films for adults” went down precipitously after 2009.  The thing is, neither film really felt like a bomb if you were living in certain circles.  These were movies that were made to appeal to certain nostalgic itches that upper-middleclass cineastes in their late twenties and early thirties were feeling and if you happened to know enough of those people you were likely to hear a lot about these two movies over the course of that year.  In fact there are no two films that inspired me to start this series of reviews than these two.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I think Wes Anderson is pretty much at a place where he needs no introduction at this point.  His whimsical neo-French New Wave style is almost instantly identifiable to anyone who’s been paying attention to cinema in the last fifteen years and his influence is beyond question as well.  The thing is, around 2009 I and many other fans had kind of fallen out of love with the guy.  In short, people were growing more than a little tired of his style and he wasn’t really helping his case much by making flawed misfires like 2004’s over-stuffed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and 2007’s under-stuffed The Darjeeling Limited, which is probably his least loved work to date.  It was clearly time for Wes Anderson to change things up a bit, but at the same time I think that completely jettisoning his signature style probably would have been a mistake.  Eventually he actually came up with a pretty clever solution to his little problem.  He opted to make a family movie using stop motion animation, which was a novel enough idea on his own that the film could feel like something fresh even though he was otherwise sticking to if not increasing the use of every other aspect of his usual MO.  The resulting film was an interesting little oddity called Fantastic Mr. Fox, which most people viewed as a comeback and it even managed to win over some people who never liked his films in the first place.

The film is based on a book by Roald Dahl, the famous author of offbeat children’s books.  I never read any of his books either as a child or in adulthood, but I have seen quite a few adaptations of his work and have a pretty good idea of what is authorial voice is.  Frankly I’m not exactly sure how his stuff caught on, it’s all just very weird.   “Fantastic Mr. Fox” would seem to be one of his more straightforward books, a sort of take on Beatrix Potter style stories about woodland creatures having adventures.  Being as it’s about talking animals, a live action version of the story was pretty much out of the question.  Wes Anderson has always been a very tactile filmmaker (if he’s ever used CGI for anything you wouldn’t know it from watching his films), so it makes sense that he went the stop-motion route for the project instead of conventional or computer generated animation.  Originally he was planning to work with Henry Selick (of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach fame), who he had worked with on some of the effects in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but Selick was busy directing Coraline when production was scheduled so Anderson instead worked with a guy named Mark Gustafson who has had a more anonymous career in the animation world and who probably interfered less in Anderson’s vision.

The animation style that Anderson went with differs from the last barnyard set stop-motion riff on genre filmmaking I saw (Chicken Run­) in that it’s more marionette-like than clay-like.  It reminded me a lot of those old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials except it was done on a higher budget and was a little more detailed all around.  The animation is not seamless, but it also isn’t really supposed to be.  Anderson is going for a sort of warm lo-fi approach to animation, where you can pretty clearly see the animator’s fingerprints displacing the fox’s fur in-between takes.  The film does end up doing a pretty serviceable job of replicating Anderson’s visual style within the animation, complete with Anderson’s signature pans and montages.  The biggest difference from his previous work (aside from the obvious) is probably that he opted for the narrower 1.85:1 aspect ratio here, which he stuck with for Moonrise Kingdom and reports indicate that his next film (The Grand Budapest Hotel) will be at the even narrower Academy ratio for much of its running time.

So, I mostly approve of the visual style, but what about the substance… well, allow me to digress for a second.  I’m not a big NPR listener, but one show I do listen to every week (in podcast form) is “This American Life.”  The show is a staple of public radio and every week it manages to provide both important journalistic pieces and interesting personal anecdotes.  However that show’s Achilles heel (aside from David Sedaris) is when it decides to broadcast fictional pieces that almost always take the form of hipster-ific short stories based around the “hilarious” conceit that they’re about talking animals (or storybook characters, or bible characters, or whatever) who, get this, talk and think like they’re contemporary yuppies.  Its basically the same dumb high concept that fueled the cartoon “The Flintstones,” a one-joke show about how cave men are just like us except that all their stuff is made of rocks and/or named after some kind of rock related pun.  I’ve got to say, at times this movie did not seem all that removed from that kind of bullshit.

Here the various animals speak and behave almost exactly like typical Wes Anderson characters except that they’re wild animals who live underground and eat raw meat and stuff.  They even curse like typical Anderson characters except with the word “cuss” being used in place of actual profanities in order to keep things PG.  George Clooney in particular seems to be doing his usual “smartest guy in the room” routine, although the film does subvert that persona here and there.  The rest of the cast is about as sprawling as it usually is in a Wes Anderson film, though I’ve got to say that some of the voice cast is maybe a little underutilized.  One thing that’s not overly clear in the movie is the extent to which humans and animals interact in this world.  At times it seems that the animals exist in their own little world and the farmers don’t know they can talk, but at times the farmers seems to interact with the animals as if they’re sentient foes.  Particularly odd is the rat voiced by Willem Dafoe, who appears to have been hired by the farmers in order to oppose the Fox’s gang, but I have no idea how the farmers went about communicating this to him.

In retrospect, it maybe isn’t that odd that Wes Anderson opted to go the family film route if only for one film.  His whole filmography seems to be defined by whimsy and a certain childlike innocence.  His characters have a certain charming naiveté and innocence to them which, in the context of live action films made for and starring adults, have a certain nostalgic charm to them.  Here it’s the opposite, we’re seeing a childish and whimsical environment but all the characters are acting like adults with adult problems.  I’ve heard a lot of movies described as “adult movies disguised as kid’s movies,” and this is one of the few times where I really agree.  That doesn’t necessarily mean I love it or anything, but I really don’t know what kids are supposed to get out of this.  If it wasn’t about talking animals this easily could have fit into the mold of a standard issue mid-life crisis movie, albeit one with a lighthearted thievery twist.  I don’t mean that as either a criticism or as praise, its just… this is a really weird movie.

It’s a movie that doesn’t make sense as entertainment for children and its visual style scares away all but the hippest of adult audiences who watch the trailers and just assume it’s another animated flick.  As such I’m not too surprised that it failed at the box office.  And fail it did.  You’d think that the family film trappings would have been a means of getting the film more mainstream exposure than Wes Anderson’s usual indie fare but it didn’t.  In fact it made less at the box office than three of Wes Anderson’s seven films (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and Moonrise Kindom if you want to look forward), and would have also been outgrossed by Rushmore if you adjusted for inflation.  Considering that those were all quirky indies with platform releases, that’s saying something.

Do I wish it did better?  Well, yes and no.  As a Wes Anderson fan I did find plenty to like here and I’m glad I at least watched it.  When Criterion releases their Blu-Ray of the movie in February I probably will pick it up if only out of auteur completeism.  Also, if family movies are going to get made, there probably should be a place for projects like this which try to do things a little different than the lame-ass Dreamworks/Ice Age formula.  Anderson’s next movie was a live action effort that was clearly for an adult audience (even if the characters were children) and his next project seems to be as well, so it looks like this was just a one-off goof, and a fairly enjoyable one for the most part.  As long as he keeps it that way I don’t mind too much.

Where the Wild Things Are 

In the grand scheme of things, Fantastic Mr. Fox was a fairly low-profile effort aimed at Wes Anderson fans and at families looking for a quirky diversion, but the same cannot necessarily be said of 2009’s other major auteur family movie: Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.  This was a $100 million dollar effort based on a much loved picture book that had been bouncing around Hollywood for nearly thirty years before Spike Jonze finally convinced Warner Borthers to let him make it.  Like no film before this seemed to be the ultimate test of whether or not this whole “kids’ movies for adults” thing was truly a viable business model or whether or not it might be better to keep the worlds of indie cinema and children’s entertainment separate.  I’ll give them this, their trailer almost had me convinced.  That perfectly cut two minute masterpiece set to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” was pretty tantalizing and almost made me want to give the movie a shot, but I ultimately decided against in part because the reviews were so polarized.  Some critics really seemed to love it, but most kind of sat on the fence between respectful bemusement and reverential bafflement.

Normally when I finally sit down to watch these critically adored family films I see what people like in them, but also come away with a feeling that what I just watched really was a lot more childish and juvenile than its supporters want to admit.  With this one though, I finally didn’t feel cheated: this really truly does feel like a kids’ movie that’s truly meant for adults.  It feels so much like it was meant for adults that failed to attract many kids to theaters when it was released back in 2009 and by all accounts the kids that did go (who were more than likely dragged there by their hipster parents) didn’t seem to like it much.  I remember reading an audience reaction article that described a child looking to his mother half-way through the film and asking her something like “mommy, why does this movie have to be so sad?”  So, we finally have a mature family movie, that should make me happy right? Wrong.  Simply being a movie meant for adults does not make a film good, and while there were things I admired about Where the Wild Things Are, I don’t necessarily think it’s any good.

The film starts out pretty well by looking at young Max in the real world and doesn’t hesitate to make him an authentically annoying kid in a way that most family movies don’t.  In fact, he’s a walking condom advertisement if ever there was one.  The film opens with him throwing a major tantrum after he provokes some older kids and they get slightly rougher than he intended and then don’t give an apology that he considers sufficient.  He quickly takes this “trauma” out on his mother, who is too busy to play along with the attention starved little shit’s imaginary games, which pisses him off to no end.  He gets so angry that, like Dorothy before him, he runs away and suddenly finds himself in a fantasy world populated by “wild things,” and that’s where the movie starts to go downhill fast.

I feel like this is a film where Spike Jonze has essentially cast himself as this kid’s savior.  He’s telling this kid that he understands how much of a bummer it is to be a ten year old who can’t get his mommy to play with him in his stupid fort so he’s going to provide this kid with a wonderful escape into a magical world filled with understanding people in freakish mascot outfits.  Not only will these wild things understand him and play along with his every retarded fantasy, they’ll also praise him and make him their leader.  These imaginary friends don’t really have lives of their own, so they’ll happily play with Max all day and night and are happy to build him a gigantic fort.  And that’s more or less when I really started getting pretty actively bored with the whole movie. At a certain point it just turns into this really aimless hang-out movie where Max and all the monsters are just playing together.

To his credit, Spike Jonze brings a lot of panache to the film.  This is a much better showcase of his visual capabilities than the two relatively visually restrained Charlie Kaufman movies that he made previously and Lance Acord’s cinematography almost reminds me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist in the way that it manages to simultaneously look beautiful and naturalistic.  However, no amount of visual beauty is going to matter when the movie itself is this misguided.  In many ways it actually reminds me of another movie I watched for this project: The Polar Express.  Like that movie, this one is imaginative and visually grand but in service of a movie that’s almost impossible to enjoy.  Jonze’s movie didn’t have quite as many bizarre moments and had a slightly better handle on tone, but there was a similar boredom that set in once it got going and a similarly insane sense of melancholy whimsy.  The film’s trailer makes a pretty good case that this visual aesthetic could have made for a very good music video or something, but at feature length the thing gets old fast.

I’m sort of conflicted on this one.  On paper I think it is a noble effort.  In general I’m a believer in the idea of giving big budgets to people like Spike Jonze and allowing them to make bold artistic expressions like this.  Jonze clearly had a vision, it just happened to be a vision that I do not share or enjoy watching… at all.  It was also a vision that most of America didn’t seem to share.  The movie wasn’t a complete bomb at the box office, it did make about $100 million dollars worldwide (77% of it domestically, interestingly), which theoretically means that it broke even but that’s hardly the kind of return on investment that Hollywood wants out of its big budget family movies.  Jonze clearly bounced back by making the lower budget and decidedly adult follow-up, Her.  Ultimately I’m going to have to call this one a failed experiment and a nice try, but also a pretty massive failure.

In Conclusion

As I said at the outset, 2009 was the epicenter of the “kid movies for adults” trend.  It was also the year that Hollywood maybe started to see the limitations of the trend and learned that they maybe needed to reign in vanity projects like Where the Wild Things Are.  In fact I almost want to envision a scenario where all the studio-executives got together and greenlit that movie as some sort of crazy experiment to see just how arty they could allow a family movie to become before it starts to alienate the target audience.  I think they got their answer, because movies like that stopped getting made pretty quickly.  You’d occasionally still get an auteur driven family movie like Hugo (another movie that made less money than its buzz would suggest) but for the most part family movies have gotten a lot more Frozen and a lot less Fantastic Mr. Fox in the last few years.  Hell, even Pixar seems to have lost a lot of its luster.  Part of me is disappointed that these movies are being made with less artistic ambition now, but truthfully I’m kind of relieved.  A world where people aren’t insisting that the latest cartoon is Oscar worthy is a world where I don’t feel as much pressure to go to the damn things.

 

That was the last installment of my planned “season 1,” the original plan was to have a brief hiatus for award season and then start all over again, but that plan is clearly out the window.  In fact I don’t plan to make any more monthly commitments like that, but I’m not quite ready to call it quits on the series altogether.  I will be doing some future installments, but they’ll probably be a little more sporadic and I’m not making any promises.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes(7/12/2014)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the sleeper hit of the summer of summer of 2011 and was greeted with open arms by critics, who viewed it as a breath of fresh air after a summer of noisy nonsense like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Hangover: Part 2.  I also liked it quite a bit, but I also thought some of the praise it was getting was a little excessive.  It was a reboot of a long dead series, it had to live in the shadow of Tim Burton’s ill-fated 2001 remake of the original Planet of the Apes, it had a dopey title, it came out in a year when Hollywood seemed to be driving off a cliff, and it’s because of these and other reasons that I think it was the beneficiary of lowered expectations that maybe led people to make it into more than it really was.  It was a summer blockbuster that had actual character development and a better than average emotional arc, and it also had some very good special effects, but the script let it down in too many places and James Franco was not as effective as a leading man as he should have been.  Still, the movie was mostly a success and I was pretty curious to see where they’d take things in its newly made sequel: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

This sequel is set ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the group of intelligent Apes being led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) has built its own village in the woods of Northern California.  The virus released in the earlier film has killed off most of humanity, but there are survivors, and many of them have gathered in San Francisco and taken up residence in a large tower surrounded by protective walls.  As the film begins, a small group of humans are walking through the forest in search of a nearby hydro-electric dam and when they run into a pair of intelligent apes a standoff ensues which ends with one of the apes shot dead.  This leads Caser and his compatriots to march to the human compound in a show of force and asserts an ultimatum: “ape home, human home, don’t come back.”  The humans are spooked by this but Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), their leader, knows that his people desperately wants power and prepares for war.  One of his men, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), thinks there is a peaceful solution and decides to go to the Apes village along with his wife (Keri Russell), son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a former employee at the dam (Kirk Acevedo) in hopes that they’ll be allowed enough time to complete the repairs on the dam and then leave before tensions rise further.

Emboldened by the success of the previous film, this sequel is surprisingly willing to take non-humans seriously as main characters.  The expensive facial recognition CGI has been expanded beyond the Caesar character and there are now numerous prominent ape performance, and while two of these apes can speak, most of them communicate through sign language (meaning that something like 25% of the film is sub-titled).  While the last movie that had some almost PETAish messages about man’s cruelty toward animals, this one displays more gray zones rather than simply making the humans the “bad guys” and the apes the “good guys.”  Early on we see that the apes feel no real solidarity with other animals; they’re seen hunting deer, killing bears without remorse, and using horses as beasts of burden.  It’s also shown that on both sides of the conflict there are well intentioned people who want peace along with the, and in this movie the dumb one-dimensional side characters that just exist to spaz out and cause trouble are just as likely to be apes as they are to be humans.

Those who saw the previous film know that there’s some pretty impressive tech being used in this franchise and if anything it’s been expanded here.  There are now multiple CGI apes giving full performances rather than just one, which is more impressive in theory, but I also found that having this impressive CGI applied to many apes kind of made some the individual ape performances seem a little less special.  Additionally, it kind of feels like they put so much work into making the apes look real that they kind of phoned it in on some of the other effects in the movie.  The hunt scene in the beginning has some kind of fake looking deer and the finale has a very questionable looking explosion.  Also, the movie suffers from one of its predecessors weaknesses: poor human characters.  I wasn’t too impressed with James Franco’s performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but he at least had a pretty well developed character with some distinct traits.  Jason Clarke on the other hand seemed like a really generic hero and the idea of making his family participate in the events goes nowhere.

We’re quickly approaching the dog days of the summer movie series, and I think it might be making kind of cranky.  I’m kind of getting to that point where I’m getting tired of giving movies passes for only being good by blockbuster status and I’m also feeling like I’ve kind of seeing the same movie over and over again.  This one in particular had a feeling of been-there-done-that, at least on a basic story level.  The movie borrows liberally from Avatar, which was another movie about a man trying to live among a non-human group while his hotheaded compatriots prepare for war, and of course that wasn’t an overly original movie itself.  Still, this movie has a scene where a chimpanzee dual wields a pair of M60 machine guns and that makes up for a lot.  I really don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing the movie, it’s better than a lot of its peers and there are technical accomplishments here that are definitely worth seeing.  But, at the end of the day, the movie left me with the same feeling its predecessor did in that it impressed me on many levels while still never really seeming like it lived up to its full potential.

***1/2 out of Four

Snowpiercer(7/4/2014)

Warning: Contains Minor Spoilers

Any analysis of Bong Joon-Ho’s new film Snowpiercer is probably going to address all the chaos surrounding its release, so let’s get that out of the way first.  It’s been well publicized that after the film’s U.S. distribution rights were picked up by Harvey Weinstein he demanded a bunch of cuts and insisted that a prolog and epilog be added.  When Bong Joon-Ho refused, Weinstein seemed to throw a fit and has now dumped the movie into a super-narrow release with almost no marketing support.  These fights are not uncommon when dealing with “Harvey Scissorhands” but this one seemed particularly irritating to me because behind it all seemed to be this specter that Weinstien’s true motivation was to relegate the film to a VOD rather than theatrical release for most audiences, a move that ensured that the release would not only be limited but also boycotted by major arthouse chains like Landmark theaters.  In my area that meant it would be opening in two places: a dump with wholly inadequate projection and a random multiplex way out in the boonies.  I was within inches of boycotting and washing my hands of the mess, but ultimately I decided to just be glad that the director’s preferred version was at least playing somewhere and bit the bullet.  The question then is, was this movie even worthy of all the drama?

Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a climate-change solution has worked a little too well and started a new Ice Age that has killed off almost the entire world’s population.  The few remaining survivors have taken refuge on a train called The Snowpiercer which had been built by an insane billionaire named Mr. Wilford.  This train travels along a very long track that goes around the entire world and is powered by a perpetual motion engine that keeps everyone warm.  However, there is a strict caste system on board with rich people living in luxury in the front section of the train and the poor people squeezed into the back section where they live in squalor and are controlled by vicious guards.  Among these tail-section dwellers is a man named Curtis Everett (Chris Evens) who has been plotting with other tail-section leaders like Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Edgar (Jamie Bell), and Gilliam (John Hurt) to fight back against these guards and release a security engineer named Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who has the knowledge that could open up car after car for these rebels and help them take over the entire train.

As Snowpiercer opens it quickly becomes clear that this is a science fiction movie with a strong allegory about wealth inequality taking the form of rich people forcibly separating themselves from the poor which occasionally stops in order to feature creative moments of violence.  What other recent film does that sound like?  If you guess that I was hinting at last year’s Elysium you are correct.  I was one of the few people who really liked that movie, so that comparison shouldn’t be taken as an insult necessarily, and I’m not accusing one of these movies of copying the other but the similarities are striking, especially in Snowpiercer’s first half.  The main difference of course is that Snowpiercer’s future society is confined to a single whimsically large vehicle rather than the entire world.  As such everything is deliberately on a much smaller scale.

As the movie went on and we went from car to car with each one posing a new challenge I started being reminded of the movie Cube, but then a much better comparison hit me: the movie is a hell of a lot like the video game “Bioshock.”  Both are about enclosed societies built by rich people who fancy themselves to be visionaries and who have very strict notions about how the societies they’ve built have been run.  Also, like “Bioshock,” much of the fun of the film is in seeing this world’s equivalent to the various world institutions and amenities as the journey goes on.  Case in point, the film gets much more visually interesting once it finally gets out of the drab prison-like tail section of the train and we start seeing the luxury cars we start seeing sights like an aquarium car and a school car and a nightclub car and so on and so forth.

Before the film gets to all that though, it can be pretty shaky.  The whole movie has some fairly questionable dialogue and this is especially true in that first half hour.  It’s also got some less than great performances by actors like Jamie Bell.  It also doesn’t help that the tone that Bong Joon-ho creates can really be all over the place.  The film can shift pretty radically between strange bits of Asian humor and serious post-apocalyptic pathos and some of the performances fall victim to this.  Case in point, Tilda Swinton gives one of the most over-the-top and ridiculous performances you’re likely to see all year, but I’m also pretty sure she’s just doing exactly who Joon-ho told her to do.  In some ways I feel like the movie might have been a little easier to take if it had been a full on Korean language production whose wackiness might have been easier to go with had it been distanced by sub-titles.

Overall, Snowpiercer is a pretty mixed bag.  Parts of it seem visionary, parts of it are completely fucked, parts of it are fun, and parts of it kind of made me cringe.  As a science fiction movie it is interesting but not wholly original, as an action movie it has some quality moments but probably won’t impress anyone who’s accustomed to Hollywood levels of action and destruction and the movie is marred by some poor CGI here and there.  Ultimately I feel like the best way to enjoy it is to look at it within the context of the recent wave of South Korean cinema like The Host and Save the Green Planet, but those movies certainly aren’t for everyone.  Ultimately I think it’s just different enough and has enough strong moments that I still recommend it, but not without some very strong reservations, and frankly I kind of have a better idea at this point why Harvey Weinstien didn’t want to dump too many resources into promoting it, because this is going to seem really really weird to anyone who doesn’t already have experience with the quirky rhythms of Asian cinema.

*** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 7/8/2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (4/25/2014)

The Paranormal Activity stopped being interesting as a work of horror almost immediately after the release of the first installment.  Its “moment of quite followed by jump scare” format was nothing to special to begin with and once it was ripped off by a hundred imitators it started to become even more tedious.  Instead what’s kept this series alive is the way that it’s slowly begun to establish a mythos about a secret cult of witches who are in service to the demon that was first established in the first film.  This proved moderately interesting for the most part, but Paranormal Activity 4 was a pretty big misfire, in part because it didn’t really add much of anything new.  The latest entry in the series is by no means a reinvention of what we’ve seen before, but it does add enough new ideas to punch things up enough to deep the franchise going.  For one thing, it was smart to place the film in the Oxnard, California Latino community rather than the usual suburban households, as that change of scenery makes the film a bit more distinct.  Its decision to focus on what happens to one of the possessed first-borns was also a good way to expand the mythos slightly.  So, if you’re a fan of the series don’t be put off by the fact that this is billed as a spin-off of sorts because this is definitely good enough to have been a numbered sequel.  All that said, the actual scares here are still more or less the same old thing, so if you’re already sick to death of these movies this probably isn’t going to change your mind.  Also, the film’s final moments are rather bizarre and don’t make a whole lot of sense within the internal logic of the series and seems to have been thrown in as an ill-conceived stunt.

*** out of Four

Ride Along (5/19/2014)

When I first saw the trailer to the movie Ride Along I thought it had some potential.  It had a serviceable enough high concept and it seemed to have cast the right people to make that concept come to life… but then I learned it was rated PG-13 and immediately lost any and all interest.  Truthfully, there were other warning signs I should have heeded, especially the fact that it was being directed by the hack du jour that is Tim Story.  Indeed the reviews for this movie were toxic even if the (mid-January) box office was quite strong.  Having seen the movie, I probably don’t think it deserves the 18% rating it has on Rotten Tomatoes, but it certainly has its share of problems.  For one thing, I think Kevin Hart’s comedic persona sort of backfires here and makes the character really unlikable.  The guy acts like grating hyperactive child for much of the movie and just does a whole lot of dumb stuff that makes him unlikable to the point where you agree with Ice Cube for hating the guy.  Everything else is just really by the book.  It reminded me a lot of movies like Rush Hour and Blue Streak, two movies that I really loved when I was eleven years old.  In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I only really liked those movies because I was too young to have seen the many other buddy cop movies that both films were ripping off.  Maybe there’s a 10 year old out there who would feel the same way about this movie, but I know better now.

** out of Four

The Monuments Men (5/22/2014)

I spent most of 2013 dreading this movie because I was afraid it was going to swoop in and dominate award season with its unchallenging mix of comedy, movie star charm, self-congratulations, and World War II pathos.  Fortunately the movie got delayed to early 2014 and once it was finally released the reviews were pretty harsh, so I’m not too worried about it showing up at the 2014 Oscars.  In spite of those setbacks, the movie did manage to quietly make a respectable amount of money at the box office, so somebody must like it.  The thing about the movie is that there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it, but there also isn’t anything particularly right about it.  It’s mostly watchable in an “I’ll watch this on HBO and have it on in the background while I do my taxes” kind of way, and there are sections in its episodic narrative that seem perfectly good on their own, but it never really gels into a real cinematic arc at all.

More irritating than its lack of narrative thrust is its generally self-righteous attitude.  It’s the kind of movie that’s based less on an actual story and more on a vague notion to trying to bring attention to a historical period which isn’t as obscure as the writers seem to think it is.  I’ve known about Natzi art theft since it was used as the basis for a level in the 1999 Playstation game Medal of Honor, and I’ve heard of it since then from seeing movies like John Frankenheimer’s The Train and the documentary The Rape of Europa.  It’s a movie that treats the audience to one on-the-nose speech after the next about “the importance of preserving art,” and yet does very little outside of these speeches in order to actually convey that message.  There are worse movies out there but if you’re interested in this topic I’d steer you towards the aforementioned documentary and if you want to see George Clooney and Matt Damon up to some hijinks you’re better off just sticking to Ocean’s Eleven.

** out of Four

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (6/30/2014)

As a moderate fan of the previous Jack Ryan movies I was curious to see Hollywood taking another whack at Tom Clancy’s most famous character, and I kind of feel like I’m still waiting because this does not feel like a Jack Ryan film at all. If anything it feels like the producers just found the script to a generic SaltThe Bourne Identity wannabe spy thriller and just did a find and replace on the main character’s name in order to make it into a Jack Ryan film. The Jack Ryan here does not feel at all like the grizzled agent that Harrison Ford played and instead seems a lot more like the young agent played by Ben Affleck in the much maligned 2002 film The Sum of All Fears. In fact this movie makes a lot of the same mistakes that that film made all over again like adding a superfluous sub-plot about Jack Ryan being supposedly unable to tell his fiancé about his job. In fact, that ben Affleck movie actually felt more authentic in a number of ways and at least managed to make Jack Ryan consistently “green” throughout, unlike this one where he suddenly becomes a super-spy action hero whenever it is convenient to the script. Ignore the baggage of the Clancy brand, and this starts to look like a serviceable but largely uninspired mid-budget Hollywood movie. Kenneth Branagh doesn’t add much behind the camera to elevate the film, but he does give the film’s best performance as the villainous Viktor Cherevin. In many ways this is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It has too much action to feel authentic but not enough action to really compete with the likes of James Bond or Mission: Impossible franchises. It didn’t do great business, so I doubt we’ll be seeing a direct sequel anytime soon, but I have some free advice for Hollywood if they ever try to resurrect Jack Ryan again: take your job more seriously. Actually try to adapt one of the Clancy novels, do it in a period setting and give it the sophisticated/realistic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy treatment. That might be a little risky, but you just tried playing it super-safe twice in a row and there’s a reason why that hasn’t worked out for you.

**1/2 out of Four

Non-Stop (7/8/2014)

The phrase “turn your brain off at the door” is usually applied to CGI extravaganzas that barter in massive explosions ever thirty seconds, but it could just as easily apply to super twisty thrillers like the recent Liam Neeson vehicle Non-Stop.  This high concept thriller about an air-marshal trying to stop a concealed assassin from destroying a plane is largely quite enjoyable as long as you don’t trouble yourself too much with concepts like “logic” or “plausibility.”  The villainous scheme that sets this whole thing off does not hold up to scrutiny and the characters occasionally react to the situation in ways that do not really make a ton of sense, but the movie does a pretty good job of distracting the audience from these shortcomings.  Liam Neeson is a big part of this, he really lends the movie a lot of gravitas and while director Jaume Collet-Serra provides solid, if somewhat anonymous filmmaking that make the film pretty watchable throughout.  This is the kind of movie that greatly benefits from being watched in the home and away from the scrutiny that comes with shelling out hard currency for a ticket.  Catch it on HBO or something and it will provide decent entertainment on a rainy day.

*** out of Four 

22 Jump Street(6/22/2014)

Expectations can do strange things to the way films are received.  The directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller seem to know that better than anyone as they’ve benefitted from low expectations leading up to the release of pretty much every movie they’ve made so far.  Their recent box office triumph, The Lego Movie, looked like it was going to be little more than a toy commercial and yet people seem to have been more than impressed by the results.  The same thing more or less happened with their previous, and decidedly less kid-friendly, film 21 Jump Street.  Most people seemed to come out of that movie saying “I can’t believe they managed to make something good out of that.”  Personally, I wasn’t sure why they were so surprised.  The “21 Jump Street” T.V. show was from before my time, so it just looked like a Jonah Hill movie with an interesting high concept to me and it ended up being more or less the solid R-rated comedy I expected it to be.  However, I my expectations were significantly lower for the sequel.  Like, a lot lower than the expectations that all those other people seemed to have for the first movie.  It wasn’t that I didn’t think this group could make another good movie; it’s just that the first film’s high concept seemed like something that would only work once, and the idea of doing it again sounded more like the kind of thing that the actors would only do out of contractual obligation. Still, that seems to be where this directing team wanted my expectations to be and in their usual fashion they were more than happy to subvert them.

22 Jump Street begins about a year after the first film and has Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) doing more traditional undercover police work, albeit in their usually inept way.  After a bust goes wrong it’s decided that the two would be better suited to doing another undercover operation at an educational center, this time a state college.  They’re presented with a case that’s a lot like their last one, this time involving a designer drug called WhyPhy which has recently killed a student.  They assume the same identities as before and enroll at the college.  Like before they infiltrate different social groups.  Jenko becomes friends with a guy named Zook (Wyatt Russell) who’s the captain of the football team and a leader of a fraternity, while Schmidt befriends a woman named Maya (Amber Stevens) who is popular amongst the artsy intellectuals on campus.  Of course these groups are generally in opposition with each other and their divided loyalties will put quite the strain on both their friendship and their partnership.

21 Jump Street was all about the high school experience, how much different it looks to you once you’re out of it and looking back, and how much it’s changed from the stereotyped depiction that was codified by the high school movies of the 80s.  This movie’s take on the college experience is not as refreshing, in part because most of the lingering stereotypes about college were set more in the 90s than the 80s and haven’t seemed as much in need of an update.  Still, I think what they are at least somewhat interested in exploring is the way old friends tend to drift apart once they get to college and form new identities.  It’s also sort of about the differences between people who actually seem to be in college because they have a genuine interest in learning things and expanding their minds and those who are just there to drink and socialize and hopefully get better career opportunities at the end.

That said, I think the movie is really a lot less interested in all of that than it is in riffing on the absurdity of making a sequel to 21 Jump Street or any other movie really.  If you thought Nick Offerman’s speech about how they were “reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s… [because the people in charge] lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice” was by far the best joke of the first movie, you’ll probably absolutely love this movie, because there’s a whole lot more of that meta stuff.  Early in the movie they’re told by their superior officer that trying to do different cases was a mistake and that the people in charge just want them to do the same thing all over again but with more money to work with.  It doesn’t really end there and the film actually comes pretty close to straight up breaking the fourth wall with some of these jokes that essentially wink at the audience about exactly what kind of movie they’re watching.

I’m of two minds about these meta jokes.  On one hand, if you’re going to basically repeat the same story structure of a previous film it probably is better to have some fun with it along the way.  On the other hand, you’re still repeating the same story structure all over again.  I’ve long been opposed to snarky writers playing the “you know that I know that you know that this is silly” game as a means of shielding themselves from the accusation that they’re working with clichés.  On the other hand, these self-referential jokes are generally more funny than Joss Whedon’s self-referential jokes, and they also come in the context of a full-on comedy, and not a largely dramatic story that’s constantly deflating its own momentum.  I’m ultimately willing to give this something of a pass, because I did largely enjoy the film, but I probably would have preferred a sequel that actually did find new territory to one that simply retreaded the old territory and then said “yeah, I know.”

Ultimately, 22 Jump Street is a movie that I enjoyed more than I respected.  I do think it largely is the kind of dumb retread sequel that it claims to hate, but what can I say, the people in it make me laugh.  Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum continue to have good comic chemistry and the team of Miller and Lord know how to create an atmosphere that in conducive of funny improvisations and a generally breezy pace.  It is telling however that the movie is at its best when it finally does introduce a plotline without a precedent in the first film (a bit involving Ice Cube, you’ll know it when you see it).  I feel like they got away with it this time, but I do not want to see yet another one of these movies that just does the same thing all over yet again and jokes about doing it all over yet again.  If they do make a 23 Jump Street they better have a damn good reason to, or else they’ll just be proving that they really are full of shit.

*** out of Four