Sean K. Cureton

Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews: 2014’ Category

Reluctant War Machines

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on February 7, 2015 at 10:46 am
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American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood
3 out of 4 stars

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the progeny of Kathryn Bigelow’s decidedly greater Iraq War dramas, both directors summarily concerned with the moral ambiguity tied up in the War on Terror, albeit via varying cinematic avenues, styles, and genres. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow examined the turmoil of war as it affected an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, soldiers tasked with disarming bombs in the midst of civil strife according to commands originating from America’s Commander in Chief, each individual’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty within the ranks of a military occupation instigated by religious zealotry begetting incomprehensible aggression and fear paving the way for unorthodox methods and questionable goals, the terror at the heart of international engagement as nebulous as the incentives for remaining overseas, save to forget the horrors of one’s actions through repetition, personal moral reflection negated via authoritatively capitulated action. As its spiritual successor, Zero Dark Thirty feels less personal and more reluctantly patriotic, the clandestine assassination of infamous Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden played off as an action-espionage thriller, the means by which American forces secured the information and whereabouts of the world’s most notorious international terrorist left open for question, Bigelow content to let the issue lie while garnering further critical acclaim, free from political indictment via artistic recognition. Given the tenuous territory in which Hollywood has tread before when attempting to represent America’s military engagement in the Middle East, it comes as a surprise that American Sniper is so bold in its complicity in propagating Right-wing propaganda, Eastwood’s representation of American Navy Seal Chris Kyle taking a non-condemnatory stance on Kyle’s public image as a war hero. Neither, for that matter, is Sniper’s Kyle character allowed any thematic engagement beyond the standard spy-versus-spy plot device that makes up the core of the film’s script, the numerous stand off sequences between Kyle and an opposing sniper standard Eastwood fare, the Western film genre superimposed over one of the most ethically complicated wars in American history, setting the film up for stern looks of disapproval from the politically correct Left-wing, even if the film itself is as amorally apolitical as Sergio Leone.

The most lethal sniper in American military history is the byline that Chris Kyle self-appointed in writing his tell-all memoir about his service overseas, an act of self-promotion as euphemistically defined as the war in which Kyle served, the accolades he has received for his service tied up in systematically killing his enemies unseen, itself an act of deception and subterfuge, two qualities not so closely aligned with a more classically defined heroism rooted in bravery and honor in the face of dire peril. In constructing his own narrative on his American Sniper, Eastwood chooses to depict the dubious heroism of Kyle through hyperrealism, the film less of a drama depicting the super heroics of an idealized mensch than it is a study on the reluctant arbiters of military engagement, Kyle and his fellow Seals entirely unfamiliar and consistently misinformed regarding the implications of their orders and actions as cogs in the machinations of war. Like Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, Eastwood’s film engages in a visual style that feels less like that of an auteur taking the viewer on an immediately recognizable and personal journey than it does an incredibly capable film technician hiding behind the camera in order to lend the narrative a decidedly impersonal gaze, simultaneously visceral in its documentation of dramatic performances without the individual character of a cinematographer. However, where Vallee’s film is bolstered by a distinct engagement with a clearly articulated rhetoric on social rights activism arising from the personality present in the film’s script, American Sniper is comparatively clichéd, less of an examination of an individual sniper than it is a novelization of Kyle’s professional resume, each scene and sequence another bullet point under applicable job skills and experience. Instead of engaging the Chris Kyle character from the perspective of a director, Eastwood maintains a producer’s lack of vision that has come to define his entire career, his films less of a succession of personal statements via artistic expression than they are a slew of well made vehicles designed to appease an audience of conservative movie goers, American Sniper a compelling action film without the guts of a more spirited and independent filmmaker.

In choosing to not make a definitive statement on the objectively questionable aspects of Kyle’s military history, Eastwood ensures the more thrilling aspects of his film outweigh the potential unease surrounding the rather large public shadow that his subject has cast, American Sniper decidedly making a hero out of the man that Chris Kyle called into being through the power of his own story more personally told. A story, moreover, which Eastwood feels less than comfortable in telling himself, similar to the way in which Bigelow’s preceding dramas were largely sterile in their grandiose provocations of psychological instability in her post-war survivors, her films coming off less as dramatic vehicles for open political discussion on the ethics of international diplomacy than they were deftly crafted mythologies, manipulating the emotional impact of highly personal stories for purely aesthetic ends. Unfortunately for Eastwood, his film has no aesthetic lens through which to view the Chris Kyle character, resulting in a film which wishes to glorify its war machine without understanding the cogs that make it turn, the film unable to move beyond tacit patriotism, the script utterly devoid of the rhetoric by which to articulate a political statement of any kind. The fact that so many moviegoers and cultural commentators have reacted to the film so vehemently as being a pro-war propaganda piece, on both the political Right and Left, only serves to show how delicate the entire subject is when opened up to narrative reinterpretation, our own historical proximity to the events depicted as fiction on screen still too close to our every day reality, imbuing the film with more political power than it ever purports to hold. Chris Kyle may have been an ethically questionable character in real life, but the image presented on screen is only ever a reflection of the man, and a fictitious one at that, as accurate as the viewer holds the film accountable to being, our own reaction towards a semblance of Kyle’s life on screen as telling as anything presented in the film as sheer entertainment.

When Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle returns home for brief periods of time in between the four tours of duty which his living counterpart took part in, American Sniper begins to hint at an interiority denied by the memoir to which the film owes its name and surrounding cultural controversy. In life, Kyle appeared on numerous television programs, a guest to day time news anchors, political pundits, and late night talk show hosts, engaging in the construction of his own personal martyrdom, trading stories with Bill O’Reilly and Conan O’Brien in due turn, all without letting on that any of his purported actions have personally bothered him an iota. Instead of revealing anything about himself which might lend clarity to what makes the most lethal sniper in American military history tick, Kyle always appeared calm, cool, collected, and utterly without character. Presumably, much of this emotionless demeanor may have been born out of a trauma which he undoubtedly experienced, as evidenced in Eastwood’s film, but the fact remains that the individual who eventually became Eastwood’s American Sniper might not have been an entirely accurate depiction, the Chris Kyle we think we know the result of politically shaped, capitalistic propaganda, the conservative xenophobia of which the film has been accused the byproduct of a larger entity, the military-industrial complex personified. The fact that Eastwood’s film has been so heavily criticized for being immoral in its treatment of the Middle East is predictable, its own value as Hollywood entertainment secondary to its status as yet another reluctant war machine, signifying less than you might think.

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Incoherent Innocence

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on January 24, 2015 at 4:05 pm
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Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
4 out of 4 stars

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is characteristically idiosyncratic, set in 1970 California, and hosting a cast of characters who seem to float in and out of the proverbial hippie daydream only just beginning to turn into a nightmare, Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration ushering in an era of political unrest and police-state paranoia, the peace and love beatniks of the 1960’s rendered impotent in their quaint attachment to non-violent expressionism and excessive Dionysian recreation. Based on the neo-noir by the great American post-modern novelist Thomas Pynchon, Anderson’s Inherent Vice is like a few too many acid trips gone bad, its protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, taking on the role of private investigator lifted straight from the pages of Raymond Chandler, dazed and confused in a California filled to the brim with red herring characters, clues, and plot devices, missing persons seeming to turn up or disappear entirely, as the case may be, amid a fog of marijuana smoke and a collapsing bohemia. As Sportello wends his way across a dilapidated tapestry of typically Pynchonian misdirection, the world around “Doc” fills with a contrastingly vibrant levity unseen in an Anderson picture since Boogie Nights, its characters spouting deliriously literary lines of dialogue delightfully lifted directly from Pynchon’s novel, and the central mystery of the film’s plot becomes secondary. Under Anderson’s precociously mischievous gaze, each and every exchange, situation, and comic moment appears to be imbued with a relevance all its own, the characters allowed to eat up the scenery in the process, literally as well as figuratively, evolving from mere caricature to a three dimensionality that lends the film a humanity to offset its latent cynicism, leading to a conclusion that proves satisfying, bringing a close to not only the film, but the ethos of the hippie movement. In this way, Inherent Vice acts as an ode to an entire decade of American history, summarizing the unfulfilled promise of an era that still feels possible if not probable, a daydream still wishing to be fulfilled, the film itself another entry into a cinematic oeuvre that has come to be defined by a proverbial loss of innocence, our own or Anderson’s left open for interpretation.

In adapting one of the lesser works of one of the great American novelists, Anderson’s film feels suggestive at times of being taken in as a comprehensive masterpiece of contemporary American fiction, and yet is tonally disinterested with becoming overtly coherent. Through the distorting and transformative power of Pynchon’s prose, the film becomes cinematic, with Anderson’s direction simultaneously distancing the film from the text’s more post-modern construction, while imbuing its meticulous plotting with a more characteristic penchant for tragic-comic theatrics, turning the near incoherence of the script on its head, the film’s central detective narrative less about the solution to any individual case, and more about the characters whose lives become interwoven with one another’s, the Altman-esque pastiche of Magnolia revisited. Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is possessed by whimsy and a devil-may-care attitude, its listless ease making for one of Anderson’s funniest films in years, harking back to the creative energy of Boogie Nights, while maintaining the more focused gaze of both There Will Be Blood and The Master. With his sights set so keenly on the crashing wave of 1960’s Americana, Anderson builds upon his pre-established love for period playacting, his film less of an historical set piece than it is a kaleidoscopic look into the past, familiar in its evocation of a time well remembered, while being distorted through the lens of subjective nostalgia, lending all of the Pynchonian unease arising with the dawn of an era remembered less fondly. Sportello, like Dirk Diggler, is an innocent traipsing his way across a dreamscape of hopeful possibility very quickly turning into a landscape of cold reality, paving the way for characters such as Daniel Plainview to take up residence in a brave new world of more clearly defined ambition, making Inherent Vice the most complex and comprehensive film, stylistically speaking, of Anderson’s entire career, seeming to encapsulate the creative aspirations of an entire oeuvre in the span of two and a half hours, an ambitious goal that is more often than not admirably achieved, ironically making Inherent Vice his most cohesive achievement to date.

And yet, for all of Inherent Vice’s narrative invention, gleefully opaque in its mimicry of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, alluding to Anderson’s stylistic debts while paving an authorial path all its own, the film wends its way through neo-noir pastiche with a gleefulness that borders on the chaotic, its convoluted plot structure as charming as it is impenetrable. It might be enough to simply say that understanding all of the various facets of the film’s meticulously constructed script is besides the point, its incoherence in and of itself an aesthetic coherence found in the film’s spot on evocation of time, place, and character, but such an analysis fails to accurately distill the exactitude of the essence of the film’s unmistakably beautiful and melancholic tone. The reason why “Doc” Sportello is such a fantastically rendered protagonist comes in Anderson’s cinematic recreation of Pynchon’s language through the visual medium of film, the marriage of literature and celluloid through adaptation providing for one of the most moving evocations of Anderson’s deeply felt empathy for archetypically innocent characters inhabiting ever more corrosive and corrupted worlds. Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is fundamentally a coming of age story, Sportello’s identification as a part of the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s at the dawn of the 1970’s marking his character for imminent cosmic upheaval, the malaise of peace and love giving way to the turbulence of pervasive aggression and conservative policies. When Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen finally kicks in Sportello’s door at film’s end, it’s almost as if “Doc’s” hippie daydream has been invaded by the dour consciousness of the Nixon era, the bummer that is “Bigfoot” signaling the return of Republican politics, liberalism accordingly associated with our shared and ever ephemeral innocence.

In more ways than one the spiritual predecessor to the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, that other thoroughly post-modern take on Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled literary tradition, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest directorial effort is perhaps his best film since Magnolia, possessing all of its warmth, humor, and intelligence, without getting bogged down in the over indulgence of some of his more recent cinematic work. Thomas Pynchon’s writing has never been quite this snappy and lightly handled, the ponderousness of his prose coming to life in Anderson’s film, thanks in part to one of the greatest ensemble casts of any of Anderson’s films yet, the exactitude of the literary construction of the dialogue seemingly made fluid in its delivery, lacking the self-consciousness more typically experienced when reading Pynchon. In Anderson’s continued evocation of the style and cinematic oeuvre of Robert Altman, Inherent Vice is thoroughly familiar, lending the film’s plot much of its light-hearted panache, the weariness that might otherwise come with its ambition and headiness tempered by a learned aestheticism and form, lending a certain constructiveness to the script’s more free-flowing and improvisatory invention. In more ways than one, Larry “Doc” Sportello might be the most thoroughly Andersonian character yet, his innate innocence seemingly incorruptible, the seeming incoherence of his rambling gait and unfocused attentions lending shape and definition to a world that is vibrantly alive, its vitality an undiluted distillation of the essence of Anderson’s directorial wonder and whimsy. And thus, the question of whether or not Anderson has lost his own porverbial innocence in the process of making his way to the creative high that he finds himself operating from with the release of this, his seventh feature film, becomes irrelevant, his ability to capture the loss of such innocence through fictive characters who are consistently and sympathetically drawn proving to be more important, an incoherent innocence more satisfying than a coherent maturity.

There and Back Never Again, Or A Joyless Journey

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on December 31, 2014 at 12:41 pm
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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
1 ½ out of 4 stars
Directed by Peter Jackson

Like the last film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies makes an attempt at the grandeur of Jackson’s far superior Lord of the Rings trilogy, substituting adaptation for masturbatory, fan boy extrapolation, taking material culled from the appendices of J.R.R. Tolkien’s source narrative, and assembling the assorted odds and ends into an epic of sorts, albeit one that no one asked for, and one for which fans of the original, and comparatively humble, novel will not be thankful. Where 2003’s Return of the King was a triumphant, well earned, and moving piece of epic fantasy adventure, tying together its numerous sub-plots and character arcs in a way that was not only cinematically exciting, but emotionally compelling, Jackson’s supposedly final foray into the lands of Middle Earth is a toil to get through, the shortest film in his six Tolkien behemoths to date, and yet by far the most self-indulgent and thematically stagnant, its characters and plot put aside in order to feed Jackson’s insatiable need to remain in the world that made him a household name, and won him numerous Academy Awards, including the Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. And this isn’t to say that Jackson’s Middle Earth isn’t still teeming with the visual beauty and faithful indebtedness that has made his Tolkien adaptations such fantastic tributes to the beloved books upon which they are based, but rather to state that Jackson seems to have lost sight of the source material entirely, his innate gift for recapturing Middle Earth propelling him towards over representation, each and every facet of Tolkien’s text up for cinematic recreation, even if he strays away from what makes the basic stories so timeless. No doubt there are citable reference points in Tolkien’s original books and related writings for each and every twist, turn, and convolution of plot, but the fact remains that the average viewer will care little for these subsidiary elements, Jackson’s dogmatic reinterpretation of every facet of Tolkien’s world resulting in a film that is less than faithful to the very spirit of Bilbo’s unexpected journey. In attempting to bridge his Hobbit trilogy too closely to the far more allegorically nuanced and morally complicated Lord of the Rings, Jackson has delivered an adaptation that reaches too far, falling prey to an over zealous attentiveness to its source material that proves stifling, an entirely expected journey that proves joyless in its execution.

Perhaps the greatest error in Battle of the Five Armies comes in its overlong, self important, grandiosity, which is saying something given the entire franchise’s dependence on the continued relevance of said grandeur. Granted, there is not much material left to work with after the events already related in The Hobbit as seen so far on screen, which certainly serves to explain the tedium of the film’s over choreographed, computer generated warfare, but doesn’t excuse the tedium itself, each and every sequence an extension and elongation of what has already become a cinematic event that has long outstayed its welcome. In what might have been an exciting and climactic final sequence tacked onto the end of the last film in Jackson’s trilogy becomes a nebulous and ephemeral action flick, with a few dwarves, orcs, and goblins thrown in to appease the more learned fans of the source material, resulting in a film that is grand in overindulgence only, neither exciting or climactic, but redundant and boring. All sound and no fury, Jackson’s last film to take place in Middle Earth would be easily forgettable if it were not for that fact that it is meant to conclude the journey started in the thematically and tonally asymmetrical An Unexpected Journey, which aside from its own individual issues of plot and pacing served as a far better adaptation of Tolkien’s original story, lighthearted and centrifugally concerned with the titular hobbit himself, as opposed to the rogues gallery of boors and grotesques largely created for the propagation and continuation of the franchise into this the third installment. While the prior Desolation of Smaug serves to set up the war that takes place in Battle, bringing the tone around to that of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the narrative impetus that is present in Jackson’s first filmed Tolkien epic is absent, feeling not only out of place in the story of The Hobbit, but incongruous with its other elements and characters, Bilbo Baggins a poor man’s Frodo Baggins, his story drastically dissimilar from that of his nephew’s, no matter how it is thematically presented.

Aside from Battle’s anti-climactic, faux-action flick feel, perhaps conceived in response to the continued monetary success of The Hunger Games and its ilk, Jackson’s final Hobbit film is marred in the striking absence of its namesake creature of imaginative fantasy. What’s more, the band of dwarves who were so lovingly introduced in the first film in the series have become utter strangers, blending into the faceless denizen’s of Lake Town to the point of inscrutability and absence of character, demoted from the status of heroes to elements in establishing the film’s setting, plot, and narrative context. In introducing the aforementioned rogues gallery of assorted original heroes and villains into the trilogy in the last installment, Jackson has brought the momentum gained in the first two features to a grinding halt, the supplementary characters so tactlessly applied to the source narrative to the point of being indistinguishable, leaving little reason to care whether they live or die, taking all of the tension out of each and every scene and sequence of potentially awesome fantasy adventure. What’s more, many of these characters’ individual roles, be they of comic relief, romantic divergence, or noble daring do, are already provided in Bilbo and his company of dwarves, the beggar and his wayward outcasts more than fitting points of interest for audience engagement, participation, and enthrallment. In populating Tolkien’s original story with extraneous characters and plot lines, the point of entry into Jackson’s final Hobbit film becomes hard to find, leaving the viewer as bewildered and uninterested in the film as its characters are, to say nothing of the equally redundant five armies to which these characters supposedly belong or oppose.

Maybe the most poignant and dramatically relevant moment in Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies comes in the final scene, in which a much older Bilbo Baggins, now played by Ian Holm as he appeared in 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, is seen closing the book on the narrative relating the particulars of his great unexpected journey, thus returning the viewer to The Lord of the Rings cycle, and putting an end to The Hobbit trilogy, once and for all. And yet, in ending his Hobbit films in direct connection to his far greater cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work of imaginative fiction, Jackson serves to establish his new trilogy as an entry point for future viewers, thereby lessening the potential impact of his far more cinematically compelling trilogy with the addendum of a lesser one. What’s more, certain fans will be sure to propagate the need to see all six of Jackson’s Middle Earth films in a certain “order,” some inevitably starting with An Unexpected Journey, thereby losing potential fans in the process, the effort of getting through Journey  in and of itself an arduous task even for the already initiated. It’s lamentable that if it weren’t for the fact that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was such a critical and financial success, The Hobbit trilogy wouldn’t exist, and if it did it would more likely than not have been achieved in one self-contained film, preferably clocking in at around two hours. However, given the success and applause that was rightfully lauded onto Jackson in 2003, viewers now have his Hobbit trilogy to contend and come to terms with, remarkable in its enfeebled indebtedness to a far greater series of films, The Battle of the Five Armies the final brushstroke in Jackson’s grand canvas depicting a cinematic fantasy that no longer appears as subtle and deftly accomplished as it did just over ten years ago.

Selling Baymax

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on December 13, 2014 at 10:29 am
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Big Hero 6
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams
1 ½ out of 4 stars

Coming off of the run-away success of last year’s Frozen, Disney Animation Studios’ new animated feature film, Big Hero 6, is the first foray into the superhero film genre that Disney has attempted since their partnership with Pixar back in 2004 in the creation of Brad Bird’s still underutilized original film property The Incredibles. Taking inspiration from a discontinued and largely forgotten Marvel Comics series, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have taken a big idea concept not all that dissimilar from 2012’s highly original Wreck-It Ralph, tackling the superhero comic book story tradition and transposing it into the context of a family friendly animated feature film, starring a lovable cast of characters in a colorful and brightly lit world, designed to please young and old moviegoers alike. At the center of Disney’s new animated feature franchise is Baymax, a cuddly robot programmed to provide medical support and assistance, who is reformatted and appropriated by the boy prodigy Hiro Hamada as a Transformer of sorts, capable of flight, martial arts, and stunning feats of acrobatic, crime fighting ability. While the film was initially advertised as a clever satire of the super hero genre, with the emphasis in the initial teaser trailers from a year ago centering around the action hero aspects of the film’s story, the actual movie is less about the super hero team that lends its title to the film’s poster than a centrifugal family drama, cringingly sweet and sickeningly clichéd at every turn, manipulating the audience’s sympathies to the extent of inauthentic dullness. About an hour into the film, it becomes clear that Hall and Williams have no clear idea as to where to take their potentially creative property, and instead fall back on the same old superhero tropes and children’s cartoon cutesiness of lesser animated features, Baymax an easily lovable star that they have decided to ride all the way to the bank.

Like Dreamworks’ Despicable Me, Disney’s Big Hero 6 appears to be another unimaginative foray into the easily marketable, animated feature film property, Hall and Williams providing their parent company with characters that are immediately appealing to children, while remaining inoffensive enough to compel parents to take their children to see the film and buy the officially licensed toys and movie tie-in merchandise. As is the case with the now ubiquitous Minions from Despicable Me, Baymax is a character whose innate cuteness makes up for a lack of cinematic content, Hall and Williams’ film merely a delivery system for said character, their movie more or less a commercial for a property with a built-in adaptability to star in feature films, syndicated television programming, as well as being the frontrunner for a potentially endless line of toys and action figures. Where Steve Carell’s potentially intriguing, European mastermind Gru was more often than not outshined by the cloyingly obnoxious buffoonery of his Minions in Dreamworks’ aforementioned feature film property, Baymax looms larger than the entire cast of Big Hero 6, which might be why so many moviegoers have been able to overlook the vapidity of what is otherwise an uninspired movie, Baymax’s likability alone worth the price of admission. Instead of becoming immediately disenchanted with the film’s sappy tragedy and cheaply fictionalized setting, San Fransokyo a poorly dyed and distressingly American take on the aesthetic traditions of Japanese culture, viewers of the film seem to be pleasantly satisfied, confusing the cuddliness of Baymax for authenticity of narrative. Where Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is comparatively genuine due to its originality and depth of characters inhabiting a fully realized and citable world, its moral lessons couched in well researched allusions to video game history and culture, its universe vibrant, lively, and clever in its utilization of easily recognizable real world counterparts, Big Hero 6 seems ignorant of what makes superhero movies cool or redundant, a disappointingly bad film, not necessarily because it should be any better than it is, but because it doesn’t even possess the ambition or wherewithal to even begin to navigate the highly meta-fictional world that it attempts to inhabit.

All of this leaves Hall and Williams’ film within the realm of incredibly lucrative feature film properties with legacies that have nothing to do with the films themselves, and everything to do with the marketability of their animated stars. In the case of Hall and Williams’ property, and at the heart of the film’s marketing campaign, Big Hero 6 has been sold to its audience on the image of Baymax, with initial trailers that suggest a larger satire of the proliferation of the superhero film genre in general, but ultimately sell the film based on the humor derived from Baymax’s lovability, his inane cutesiness a stand in for thematic resonance and a creative drive. Instead of establishing a clear narrative in its build up to their film’s release, or even introducing any of the other supporting cast of heroes and villains, Hall and Williams opted to push Baymax as the incentive and siren song for the entire project, lulling potential viewers into a trance, their own imaginations and pre-conceptions of the film’s stated genre supplying as much nuance and originality to the film’s sparseness as needed. As a result, Baymax has been invited wholeheartedly into the hearts and minds of Big Hero 6’s substantial audience, the film a commercial success poised to continue to rake in money, all thanks to the successful and unilateral sale of Baymax, the film itself an afterthought, more marketing strategy than film franchise. Instead of building upon the promise of its initial premise and admittedly impressive marketing scheme, Hall and Williams’ film does little more than sell more potential film properties, each of its supporting characters and theatric settings ready made action figures and play sets, meant to support and provide definition to Baymax’s already substantial net worth.

And yet, none of this is all that surprising. Taking Dreamworks as an example and precursor for the success of Big Hero 6, why should it be all that surprising that the likability of an animated character should be the impetus for a film’s success? Despicable Me spawned a sequel based entirely off of the appeal of its supporting characters, as opposed to the merits of the film itself, with a third sequel slated for release this holiday season sans the original feature’s protagonist altogether, the Minions having run amok and taken rein of the controls altogether, a blatant and bold statement on behalf of a film studio perfectly comfortable with selling a product in the guise of a feature film. In addition, Dreamworks is also releasing a fourth Madagascar sequel in tandem with the Minions production, giving the supporting trio of devious penguins their own film, further situating the studio as pushers of an already in demand and lucrative product, the studio itself morally and creatively bankrupt. While it would be too soon to say the same of Disney, Baymax belies a certain willingness on behalf of the filmmakers to sell a product instead of producing a film, Big Hero 6 a dull exercise in the marketability of feature film properties that ultimately proved successful for the studio, which is troubling to say the least. If nothing else, moviegoers have bought Baymax, and Hall and Williams’ Big Hero 6 will be considered a monumental success by Disney Animation Studios, but at the end of the day the film is little more than a commercial, its product proven cheap and disposable after only a single viewing.

A Space Odyssey Remembered

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on November 22, 2014 at 10:06 am
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Interstellar
3 out of 4 stars
Directed by Christopher Nolan

Interstellar is probably the most highly anticipated film of the year, setting it up for the potential disappointment that comes with a film as over-hyped as this one most certainly is, while also granting it the space required for it to grow in what ever direction it needs to, its dreams un-tethered to the expectations associated with an unknown director’s work, and allowing for its final grand gestures towards cosmic significance to feel genuine despite itself. Coming off of a string of seminal films that have succeeded in establishing Christopher Nolan as one of the greatest directors of his generation, Interstellar builds upon an already established and credible legacy, leaning on the iconographic cache of Nolan’s name in order to attempt the making of one of the most sought after goals in Hollywood: the making of a space odyssey. Inevitably, Nolan pulls upon such unavoidable inspirations and sources as Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas in order to do so, but is still able to instill his impeccably distinguishable touch into his own work, giving his audience a film that is cinematically compelling, even if we have seen its like before. While Nolan’s new space odyssey doesn’t offer any new avenue into the sci-fi genre, stumbling over the convolutions of plot that occur in the narrative’s utilization of time travel, it’s hard not to stand in awe of the film’s technical mastery. Watching Nolan’s film is akin to recapturing the innocence of our collective youth, ephemeral in its impermanence, playful in its mimicry of its forebears, and awesome in its genuine sense of wonder, still caught up in the dreams of childhood that we have long since been shaken awake from.

Intersellar is deeply indebted, both in terms of narrative and aesthetics, to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as such sets off in search of new territory from the well of Kubrick’s pervasive influence on both the genre and Nolan’s film itself. By taking the very best aspects of Arthur C. Clarke’s original screenplay and Kubrick’s authorial vision, Nolan attempts to neatly repackage what audiences have already seen in a way that is surprising, fitted to modern times and his own cinematic sensibilities. Essentially reformatting Kubrick’s classic vision of the omniscient wonder of space to a contemporary, ecologically driven narrative, wherein earth is becoming uninhabitable and depleted of sustainable farmland, Nolan pulls on the grandness of the space odysseys of the 1970’s and 1980’s, inhabiting a dreamscape that was once pure fantasy made into a more tangible reality within the scope of his film. One of the most stirring aspects of Interstellar is its fascination and intimate love for deep space exploration, reinvigorating a dying enthusiasm for space travel and the sci-fi epic that has long lain dormant in our collective subconscious for nearly a decade, only to be reinvigorated once more by the majesty of film, propelling us out of our seats and into the stars. Interstellar is by no means Nolan’s greatest achievement, unmemorable in its constant allusions and trace resemblances to such classics as Kubrick’s aforementioned odyssey, but its level of visual tenacity and outright beauty is a marvel to behold, urging you to watch more closely, and revel in the silence of yet another small step for man, leaping into the void in order to reinvigorate our long lost love for celestial drama.

Probably the most glaring criticism to be made about the film comes in the laziness of its many conveniences and contrivances of plot, most notably being the overly sappy and Kubrick-esque third act, wherein the familial drama that forms much of the film’s thematic center is married to the fictive surrealism of the plot’s poorly delivered sci-fi tropes. Granted, the climactic portion of the film that bears the brunt of a lot of this specific source of criticism looks remarkably similar to Kubrick’s final sequence in 2001, but where Kubrick was driven by the camera, alienating and isolating his viewer’s in the process of crafting some of the most well edited and composed shots in terms of cinematography, while alienating and confusing his audience in the process, Nolan’s film is interested in the characters, their stories and connections to one another as important as Nolan’s debts and connections to his audience. While certain aspects of the familial drama do feel Spielbergian in their overt manipulation of the audience’s sympathies and investment in the film, it’s also a thematic point of fundamental significance that serves to anchor the viewer’s investment over the course of the film’s near three hour run time. What’s more, this familial drama is set up clearly in the film’s script from act one, is seamlessly carried over through an emotionally taut second act, and finally grants climactic closure in a third act that feels well earned and genuine, sentimentalism carrying the drama and action throughout. As was the case in Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 ecological fable Silent Running, Nolan implements genre filmmaking in order to tell a story of the warmth and compassion of humanism, setting his film apart from the cold, nihilistic detachment of Kubrick, and making Interstellar stand out on its own, definitively Nolan-esque. It might not be the most memorable film within Nolan’s oeuvre, but it’s certainly one of the year’s best, populated by characters that are compelled by the cinematic vision of an auteur, and carried on the shoulders of the script’s structural, if not scientifically cogent, mastery.

Without a doubt, Interstellar is a film that will be talked about for weeks to come, and will be the center of a lot of Oscar Buzz as we head into awards season, but it likely won’t be the recipient of the Academy’s final selections for artistic recognition. Nolan’s admirable attempt at the space odyssey often feels a little too redundant in its wistful reminiscing of what has come before, leaving the viewer in a state of disaffectedness as the credits begin to roll, left with the knowledge that the film was in fact directed by Christopher Nolan, his name holding more aesthetic power and cohesiveness than the film itself, lacking the character of The Dark Knight and the clarity of Inception. The stylistic indebtedness that the film holds to the sci-fi heyday of the 1970’s and 1980’s is a welcome resurgence that strives to carry on the example set by Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar winner from last year, and next year’s The Martian directed by Ridley Scott seems to be further promise of the genre’s reemergence as critically and commercially viable. However, Interstellar’s grandness might also be its downfall, just as big cinematically as Star Wars, Alien, or Blade Runner, but not nearly as vital, lacking a certain authorial urgency and heart that defines the three aforementioned classics, Nolan merely playacting as Kubrick in a dilapidated playground of adolescent exuberance, contented but not inspired. For all of its cinematic effectiveness on its own terms, Interstellar struggles to surpass its inspirations, treading water in the tidal pools of recursive nostalgia, the vast ocean of independent innovation lying beyond its comfortable recesses in the sand.

Synecdoche, Lite

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on November 15, 2014 at 10:12 am
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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
4 out of 4 stars
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Michael Keaton’s most recent cinematic turn as Riggan Thomas in Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman is the bravest performance of the year from a leading actor, laying bare all of Keaton’s insecurities, vanities, and virtues through a fictional character who possesses more than a passing resemblance to Keaton himself. Riggan is a washed up, out of work Hollywood actor, attempting to breath new life into a public image that has been distorted and manipulated by the cult of celebrity, bringing with it all of the personal vices of arrogance, avarice, and self-absorption that such distortions of self-worth and identity inevitably represent and instill. Likewise, Keaton is a figure of the popular culture who appears as more of a caricature than a three-dimensional actor in the collective mind of the general public, associated with some of the most iconic movie characters from the 1990’s, including Batman and Beetlejuice, thereby mirroring Riggan’s association in Inarritu’s film with the fictional big budget superhero, and at times near literal alter-ego, Birdman. Inarritu’s film thus becomes an examination of the blockbuster movie star, simultaneously celebrating and deriding the actor whose relevancy is at times more dependent upon the associations conjured up by the characters he portrays as opposed to the power of each individual performance, Birdman bigger than Riggan, in much the same way that Beetlejuice looms larger than Keaton, in both name and persona. Michael Keaton’s cultural status as one of the big budget stars of the 1990’s thus becomes a meta-fictional aspect of the very fabric of Innaritu’s film, inevitably informing the audience as to how to read Riggan’s deeply conflicted interiority and ego-driven flights of astrally projected fantasy, visually represented in the film through Inarritu’s use of one continuous, and spectacularly edited, long shot, seamlessly encompassing the entire film, and further mirroring Riggan’s subjective vision and reality in a way that is intensely characteristic of the film, the character, and the surreal nature of Inarritu’s beautiful meditation on the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

The frame narrative of Inarritu’s film centers around a stage production of the classic American short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by minimalist writer Raymond Carver, adapted and produced by Keaton’s Riggan Thomas in the lead role, providing for an accessible point of entry into the film’s visually driven first person narrative, as Riggan’s highly subjective point of view very quickly begins to drive the entire course, and at times alter the reality of, the film’s plot and cinematic scope. As the camera pans across and through the small, claustrophobic hallways and back stages of New York’s Broadway theatre district, the playhouse a veritable Pandora’s box of Riggan’s artistic dreams, hopes, and delusions, the viewer is swept up in the storm of his creative fruition, bordering on the insanity and emotional fragility that makes up the core of Inarritu’s film. When we first see Riggan, he is literally floating in mid-air in his dressing room, a ludicrous first shot that boldly establishes the subjective unreality of the film, and immediately establishes a clear directorial vision, one that will be impossible to outwit or predict, making for a deeply compelling and intimately truthful performance based piece of storytelling. According to the demands of the one shot take that establishes the subjectivity of the narrative, every other actor’s performance becomes a part of one long stream of Riggan’s conscious and subconscious, each line delivered with the grace and elocution of live theatre, the players all a part of one organism in motion, their individually delivered performances in active participation with the creation of Keaton’s persona, the entire film brimming with a communal vitality. In establishing a film centered on, around, and within one character, Inarritu has created his own subjective world in Birdman, one that mirrors the celebrity driven popular culture of our own, each one of us supporting actors and walk-on’s in the theatre of celebrity and fame, all of us culpable in the ignorance of Riggan Thomas.

In this way, Inarritu’s film is about solipsism, with its closest precursor in terms of thematic scope and directorial vision being Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, wherein the subjective reality of the New York actor and playwright is examined with the fierceness of an unforgiving and distinctively authorial force, at times remarkable in its overstated ambition and pretentious precocity. And yet, Birdman is never overly heady, as Kaufman’s film is, never treading too far into the subjective lens so as to become impenetrable, self-avowedly brilliant but visually opaque. Where Kaufman seems to be too overly in love with his own brilliance, his protagonist suitably left in a literal apocalypse of his own creation by film’s end, Inarritu’s Riggan is relatively warm, capable of emoting and connecting with those around him, even if they are all forced to co-inhabit his own subjective dreams and nightmares. Where Kaufman’s New York Theatre is filled with shadows of narrative misdirection and evasion, coupled with the indecipherable, Joycean mutterings of the literary intelligentsia, Inarritu’s is inhabited with the light of the artist still struggling to connect with his audience, embittered towards the academic establishments of theatre and film criticism, and eager to engage with Carver’s comparatively accessible text. Birdman is a worthy successor to Kaufman’s film, more immediate and emotionally compelling than Synecdoche’s grand opera, delivering the equivalent of a three and a half minute pop song to Kaufman’s twenty-two minute progressive rock noodling, Synecdoche, Lite in essence.

Despite the near insurmountable ambition and hubris of the film’s concept and subject matter, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman lives up to the self-conscious precocity of its subtitle, examining the socio-cultural status of the Hollywood celebrity through the eyes of a falling star. Michael Keaton makes a stunning comeback performance as Riggan Thomas that ranks as one of the best performances of the year, in addition to an already enviable body of work from the past. The level of meta-fictional, self-reference that Keaton is able to pull upon to lend some empathetic tragedy and intimacy to the iconographic nature of a former Hollywood superhero is effectively comical and heartbreaking, Riggan’s professional and personal association with the Birdman character as inseparable from his sense of self-identity as Batman is to Keaton in the public eye, lending the film much of its satirical bite and cultural relevance. And yet, for all of its carefully composed strategic plotting that might feel a little too smart for its own good in anyone else’s hands, Inarritu never falls prey to cinematic convenience or contrivance, his story of artistic redemption moving and dramatically satisfying, hopeful despite the melancholy of its character’s solipsistic ambition. When Riggan finally soars free at the end of the film, both in terms of creative fulfillment and surrealistically projected fantasy, the final note is hopeful, even though the viewer knows that the character still resides within his own head, ignorance his and our creative bliss, made necessary once more by the film’s titular and unexpected virtue.

The New American Pastoral

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on October 12, 2014 at 11:30 am
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Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher
4 out of 4 stars

Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, and adapted for the screen by its author, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is one of the most thrilling rides you will go on in a movie theatre this year. Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Nick and Amy Dunne, two too-cute-for-their-own-good Manhattanite writers living the dream in the Big Apple, or at least until their entire world begins to crumble around them amid the economic collapse at the turn of the 21st century, that is, Fincher’s new film is about the sorts of fabrications that we create for and about ourselves, and how flimsy those sorts of subjective fictions can turn out to be, especially when they begin to collide with the opposing planets of those who are the most near and dear to us, signaling a complete and total cosmic collapse of the self. Without giving away too much of the plot, Gone Girl, at its core, is about the charade of marriage, the sanctity of the private life in a world encroached upon by the 24 hour news cycle, and how both of these forces can combine to create a self-imprisoning fiction that proves to be all too easy to begin to believe in, even trust. The film starts out as a simple murder mystery, with Affleck’s Nick in the hot seat, suspected of murdering his seemingly perfect wife, case closed, no questions asked. As the film progresses, however, the story becomes more confused and opaque, leaving the viewer reveling in the various lies and deceptions employed on all sides of the case, until the final reveal at the film’s end, giving you exactly what you wanted, only this time the portraiture of domestic bliss is all too true, without even a veneer of romantic playacting, the players revealed for who and what they really are.

Like the novel, Flynn’s screenplay for Fincher’s film employs the deceptive narrative device of the unreliable narrator in order to create the aura of mystery and intrigue that is so central to the novel’s character and form, presenting two protagonists who are in a near constant state of re-invention and outright fabrication, each lie disguised as truth, and each truth seemingly a lie. Remarkably, the malleable nature of the novel’s plot is adapted impeccably well to the screen, with each lie made all the more terrifying when aided by Fincher’s cunning point of view, compelling the viewer to sit back and watch as Fincher’s characters lie, contort, and fabricate each and every step of the way in full view, making their deceptions all the more disturbing and cinematically compelling, akin to live theatre in the immediate nature of each character’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to each twist and turn of the film’s plot. At first glance, Amy is the perfect little Stepford Wife, willing to play the “Cool Girl” to Nick’s gallivanting brohemian life style, aiming to let her “dancing monkey” off the leash, in order to appear to seem less controlling and shrewish. As the film continues to unravel such orchestrations of character, however, Amy trades places with Nick, and begins to create her very own Stepford Husband, belying the inherent misogyny in the very conception of the “Cool Girl” aesthetic as it plays out across various male character types, an individually tailored Manic Pixie Dream Girl for every boy. Throughout Fincher’s film, Nick and Amy Dunne are constantly out of reach, impalpable to our touch, cold and distant, ephemeral in character, allowing for the reality of the film to become all the more willing to bend on cue into either dark nightmare or domestic pastoral, depending on the needs of the current fiction being entertained by the film’s characters.

Depending on their moods, Nick and Amy are in love, or not, rendering their marriage a darkly satirical farce, the players made into world class thespians, adaptable to the vicious nature of the private life within a very public world. The public world in Fincher’s film is personified in the 24 hours news cycle, populated by Fox News predators, CNN story spinners, and TV personality lawyers, all eager to devour their very own convenient truths, true or not, so long as it makes for a good story. Thus, Nick and Amy Dunne are outright encouraged by those around them to trade off their roles multiple times over the course of the film’s impeccably paced and remarkably punchy 149 minute run time, the abuser and the abused one minute, the mouse and the cat the next. As their roles go under their many stages of metamorphosis over the course of the film’s construction of the perfect domestic fable, the world of the film grows colder and harsher, Nick and Amy becoming victims to the very falsehoods they once held up only for themselves now held up to the eye of a public eager to project their own desires into the mix. Instead of playing the Stepford Couple only for themselves, by the end of Fincher’s film Nick and Amy Dunne are playing for the entire world, performing a dirge of a marriage that once was, within a prison of the self that no longer feels so familiar.

Gillian Flynn has done the near impossible in her adaptation of what was a particularly remarkable novel for the screen, and David Fincher has proven the ideal co-creator in Flynn’s prosaic narrative on love and marriage in modern times, delivering a film that is shocking in its dark satire, and disturbingly comforting in its capitulations to the form of marriage as an ideal. With all of the various indictments and irregularities that Fincher’s film raises about marriage between two people living on their own subjective planets of selfhood, the universe that surrounds these two planets of self-image proves to be the true menace, encroaching upon the privacy of the soul with wanton abandon and an insatiable appetite to be entertained by our own projected fantasies. What’s more, in engaging with the film as a viewer, the act of our own voyeurism must be reckoned with in order to watch the film as entertainment, implicating the viewer in the larger evils of Fincher’s cinematic dialogue, making CNN news anchors and Bill O’Reilly’s of us all. Possibly the most frightening thing about Gone Girl is its insistence on the need for the types of orchestrated realities that we see on the news everyday, as they serve to placate a sub-conscious desire to be informed, outraged, and complacent to let things run their course, for the sake of the most convenient of truths. We don’t really want to upset the convenient idealism inherent in our various constructions of our private and public selves, willing ourselves to be entertained by the drama inherent to our everyday lives, true or not, so long as it’s entertaining, and we each get to go home to our very own Stepford Husbands and Wives at the end of the day, a new American Pastoral for everyone, domestic bliss be damned.

I am the Walrus, and Tusk is Coo-Coo-Ca-Choo

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on September 25, 2014 at 5:43 pm
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Tusk
Directed by Kevin Smith
2 out of 4 stars

In what is probably the most bizarre film to come out this year, Kevin Smith’s sophomore outing into the realm of horror is a great start to the fall movie season, filled with genuinely disturbing scares, idiosyncratic bursts of lighthearted humor and wit, and some of the most surprisingly well designed sets and overall shot compositions of Smith’s entire cinematic career. Building upon the unprecedented inventiveness and ingenuity first seen in his 2011 thriller Red State, Tusk is a creature feature in the same vein as The Human Centipede, completely off kilter and sadistic, while being simultaneously infused with Smith’s penchant for raunchy humor and overt sentimentality, making Tusk utterly unforgettable and indescribably peculiar. Part of what makes Tusk such a rewarding and thrilling film to watch is the complete insanity of its plot, pieced together from a conversation between director Kevin Smith and longtime producer and creative partner Scott Mosier, originally featured on an episode of their popular podcast; Tusk is unpredictable from start to finish, leaving the viewer unnerved and anxious, if they’re not laughing maniacally at the film’s subtle use of satire. Unfortunately, Smith does get in his own way at times, often lingering too long on one particular character or back story, lending too much realism and schmaltz then is entirely conducive to the rest of the film’s darker tone, thereby lessening the factor of B-movie campiness that serves to give the film much of its edge and ballsy verve. When Tusk is really working, the unreality of the film’s world is dazzling in its send up of some the more distressing elements of the contemporary horror genre, which makes it a film not to be missed, even if you don’t end up loving it as a whole.

In terms of its narrative arc and character development, Smith has never been better. Tusk is incredibly effective in its implementation of the basic three act plot structure, which serves to move the film’s story along at a pace that is familiar and expected, thereby serving to off set the weirdness of the film from becoming too overwhelming or uncomfortable to watch. The journey that Smith takes his characters on is never too gimmicky or too clever, lending his characters a certain amount of reality within the film’s more fantastic elements and contrivances of hyperbolic horror tropes. As a stand in for Kevin Smith, Justin Long is terrific as one half of the film’s fictional pod casting duo, paying homage to the film’s creative inception with a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that lends the film some of its bite, and a little of its bile. Not since Galaxy Quest has Long been this funny or this good in a role, even if he is only on-screen for a little less than half of the film’s relatively concise 102 minute run time. Disturbing, but never truly horrifying, funny, but not ridiculously so, and sentimental, with just a dash of whimsy, Tusk is a very effective film in terms of narrative, defying easy categorization, and more rewarding to the viewer the less they know about the film’s actual plot going in.

And yet, despite the film’s horror genre flourishes and narrative invention, there is a certain unevenness in tone to Smith’s approach that detracts from some of his better intuitions, resulting in a film that is never truly at peace with itself, despite its brash and brutal nature. While much of the film revels in the sheer absurdity of its plot and characters, there are moments in the film where Smith feels the need to explain certain situations through back story and extended sequences of dialogue that only serve to slow the film down to a grinding halt, demystifying certain aspects of the film’s character that are better left unexamined. In particular, there is an entirely unnecessary scene in which an otherwise entertaining exchange with a Quebecois homicide detective is interrupted by a flashback sequence in which Michael Park’s antagonist is examined a little too closely, pulling him ever so slightly out of the realm of surrealistic nightmare into crudely exploitative farce; moments like this one are extraneous and thematically jarring, destabilizing the otherwise creepy atmosphere that lends Tusk so much of its stylistic distinctiveness in the first place. While a lot of the film is strengthened by Smith’s sense of humor, the comedy employed throughout might also be its greatest weakness, as it holds the film back from being either entirely unsettling or supremely bizarre. Instead, Tusk becomes slightly incomprehensible in its near atonality, utterly unforgettable and indescribably peculiar, but in a way that is more incoherent than it is genuinely interesting.

Without a doubt, Kevin Smith’s new feature film is unforgettable, but not purely because of its merit. Tusk is utterly original, but not a masterpiece, and not even when compared to some of Smith’s other pieces of work. The aspects of horror genre reinvention and comedic self-awareness make the film immediately watchable, but fail to raise it much farther beyond the gimmick at the heart of the film’s script. Where Red State was a little more consistent and content to be campy, Smith’s most recent foray into horror genre filmmaking feels a little too ambitious, with not nearly enough intelligence to back it up. Man may be the most dangerous animal, but Smith’s walrus is certainly the most luridly fascinating, but not always for the right reasons.

The King of the Monsters Returns, a Potent Behemoth with Teeth

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on May 24, 2014 at 11:04 am

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Godzilla
Directed by Gareth Edwards
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla starts off with a montage sequence not too far removed or dissimilar from the one seen previously in Roland Emmerich’s attempt at the franchise in 1998. Through the compilation of stock footage of nuclear weapons testing, mushroom bombs, and pages of text lifted directly from Charles Darwin’s seminal work on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species, Edwards deftly grounds his film within the franchise’s established discourse on the ecological dangers of bio-nuclear warfare, and begins mounting the viewer’s tension as they await the big reveal of the film’s star. Ever since audiences first heard the titular character’s iconic roar during the opening credit sequence of Ishiro Honda’s original of 1954, Godzilla has become a monster movie icon, the go to staple for anyone with a taste for the kaiju cinematic tradition of Japan. Godzilla, who is indeed the King of the Monsters, as the film’s constant meta-fictional media coverage dubs him, is a beauty to behold when he is finally revealed about an hour into the film, gorgeously rendered with CGI and some of the best sound effects engineering of the past few years. And yet, for all of the dramatic build up and technical artistry that went into designing everyone’s favorite kaiju, Edwards’ film feels a little bland, boasting a cast of characters who appear intricate and nuanced at first, but fairly quickly fall away into the background once the film picks up speed, resulting in another big budget summer blockbuster that fails to offer anything new, falling into some of the worst cliches and stereotypes of the film’s pre-established genre.

The film begins in Janjira, Japan, where Joe and Sandra Brody, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, are working in a local Nuclear Testing Laboratory. Inevitably, the lab experiences an accident of such turmoil and violence that Cranston’s character is left a widower, with the emergency at the lab tragically taking the life of his beloved wife in a scene that, for all its overt melodrama, is deeply effecting and poignant. Cut to around twenty years into the future, and Joe’s son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is now a bomb specialist in the US military, and his father has become a conspiracy theorist obsessed with what really happened during the accident at his lab, lo those many years ago. While this initial portion of the film serves to establish its characters and plot trajectory in a way that is refreshingly vibrant, incredibly well paced, and effectively establishes the premise and conceit of the film’s more fantastic elements, it also fails to carry itself beyond the initial set up of the first hour, becoming background noise once Cranston’s character is killed off by one of the first creatures to erupt from the earth. After Cranston’s Joe Brody is killed off, his son is left as the central human protagonist, which would be alright, if it weren’t for the fact that Aaron Taylor-Johnson is one of the most wooden and bland actors currently working in Hollywood, especially when set side by side with the far superior performance offered from Cranston over the course of the first half of the film; persistently over the second half of the film’s two hour runtime, the viewer is left bored and disinterested with what is happening to Taylor-Johnson’s character, rendering his encounters with Godzilla and his ilk less potentially dangerous, as there is little reason to care all that much whether or not Ford will overcome the odds and emerge victorious by film’s end, the lone man standing amidst the debris of apocalyptic disaster and chaos.

That being said, the rest of the film is quiet brilliant, fantastically gorgeous in its grandiosity, and effectively frightening in its utilization of the kind of implied mass destruction that has become all to familiar and boring in other Hollywood blockbusters of the same sort. When compared to something like Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, or even Zack Snyder’s abysmal Superman entry from last year, one of the things that really shines in Gareth Edward’s new film is the minute and exacting attention to the death toll and scale of real world destruction that the film portrays to its audience, using televised news coverage of the events in the film’s fictive narrative in order to offer both instances of unexpected humor and levity, while simultaneously documenting just how catastrophic and horrible the fantasy destruction actually becomes. In any of the one too many Transformers films that have come out over the past eight years, destruction is utilized for pure spectacle, in effect deadening the viewer’s senses and comprehension of just what is supposedly unfolding within the events of each individual installment, resulting in a series of films that are empty and devoid of any value whatsoever, as cold and lifeless as the giant robots that are its staple. In contrast, and much like Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, Edwards’ Godzilla is sympathetic to both its monsters and its victims, never ceasing to shy away from the more terrible aspects of the film’s destructive action sequences, or to exploit the lives of its fictional characters, which alternatively results in sequences of cinematic destruction that are comprehensive and actually shocking. Where Michael Bay’s films are pornographic and detached in their construction, Edwards’ film is rooted in a sort of empathetic realism, which is a more than fitting tribute to Honda’s beloved original, and is sure to make any fan of the Godzilla franchise proud and contented with this new re-vamp of everyone’s favorite kaiju.

Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is decidedly better than Roland Emmerich’s reviled and silly attempt at the franchise in 1998, bringing back the sense of integrity and eco-political dialogue that was so integral to the 1954 original. Where Emmerich’s Godzilla was a harmless mess, Edwards’ Godzilla is a potent behemoth with teeth, offering both affecting melodrama and character development, as well as fully realized computer generated action sequences that are a verifiable wonder to behold, and reward the viewer in a way that is satisfying and well earned. Edwards’ new film might be the first must see film of the summer season, warts and all, well deserving of the IMAX experience in which such a film prototypically demands to be seen, leaving the viewer quaking in their seats with each deafening roar from the film’s namesake and star. While Pacific Rim, from last summer, might have been a little more fun in its send up of the campier aspects of the kaiju genre, Edwards’ film is a brave attempt at something a little grander and more dramatic, even if a lot of that drama doesn’t quiet hold up under the pressure of its supersized theatrics. Edwards’ Godzilla is not a perfect summer blockbuster, but it’s still pretty damn spectacular, and doesn’t lack or hold back when it comes to entertaining its built in audience, making it a fitting inheritor of its King of the Monsters.

Business as Usual

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on May 10, 2014 at 11:19 am


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The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb
2 out of 4 stars

After the tepid reception to Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man movie in 2012, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stands as a film that at times exceeds its predecessor in terms of sheer blockbuster spectacle, its larger than life set pieces and spandex clad protagonists stealing the show for much of the film’s oversized run time of 142 minutes. At the same time, however, Webb’s innate talent for character development and subdued dramatic tension, as evidenced in his far superior cinematic debut (500) Days of Summer, feels misplaced within an otherwise formulaic superhero epic, throwing the whole fabric of an otherwise solid action film off balance. Where Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy was rooted in the romantic melodrama of Peter Parker, Webb’s reincarnation of the series is primarily focused on the daring feats of Spider-Man, a fact that seems to have eluded Webb in the production of this ambitious, but misguided, sequel. Whenever Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) are on screen together in their multiple, and mercifully brief, scenes together as a couple, the film comes to a grinding halt, suggesting an adopted depth of character and intimacy that is otherwise absent and unearned. Like the first film in this re-boot of the Spider-Man franchise, Webb appears to be out of his depth in his attempts to compromise the demands of a big budget franchise blockbuster with his own penchant for melancholic drama, and in the process has offered up another film for Sony Pictures that will be sure to leave fans in both movie going camps disappointed and vaguely confused.

Like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Webb’s new film about everyone’s favorite web slinger suffers from the age-old problem of having one too many super villains in one movie. While Webb at first seems to be intent on focusing on Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon/Electro antagonist, played off as a good-intentioned nobody turned misunderstood socio-path, the film rather quickly shifts its focus over to Dane Dehaan as Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, the soul inheritor of the insidious Oscorp company and former childhood friend of Peter Parker. While the origin story for Electro is well executed and immediately engrossing, we soon learn that Harry is afflicted with a genetic disease that can only be cured with the blood of Spider-Man, taken willingly or not, making Green Goblin the show runner yet again. While each of these characters is interesting in their own right, with performances from Foxx and Dehaan that far outshine any of the other characters in the film’s impressive cast, the plot quickly becomes overburdened by its own ambitions, effectively short shifting what could have been two fairly interesting movies into a single, lack-luster cash grab. While the film’s climax boasts some of the best special effects and action sequences in the franchise to date, there’s ultimately no reason to care about any of the characters involved, leaving little incentive to see the next film in the series, Sinister Six teaser notwithstanding.

All of this leaves the film in a rather precarious position as to where to take the franchise next, whether to stay the course set by Sony Pictures and pave the way for a Sinister Six movie set to rival the Marvel Studios powerhouse that is The Avengers franchise, or to hand the reins back over to a capable auteur, surrendering the potential monetary gains of the franchise in favor of individualistic aestheticism. If Webb means to keep the director’s chair going forward, will he be allowed more artistic and creative freedom with the series’ plot and characters, or will Sony Pictures maintain its tyrannical hold over the Spider-Man property, offering up more of the same, and running the franchise, along with Webb’s track record, into the ground? As the series stands, Webb will find himself even more hard pressed going forward to break out of Sony Pictures’ expectations for the direction of the films, as there is very little room left for deviation from the set course of super villain overload, promising yet another special effects extravaganza, with little to no narrative substance, in the next installment. In a similar situation, Sam Raimi came away from Spider-Man 3 feeling defeated by the studio’s demands, leading him to opt out of directing a fourth film for Sony Pictures. In direct contrast, Webb appears to be more willing to cow to the demands of a studio that has essentially taken him under their wing, offering him the opportunity to direct a major motion picture, an opportunity, moreover, that would be hard to turn down for any new director in the same position. If this is indeed the case, then The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s failure should not be attributed to Webb as the director, but rather to Sony Pictures as the producer, a studio that has become infamous for its tenacious hold on the few superhero properties that it owns, putting out films periodically if only to maintain the rights to said properties, and squandering the potential of said properties’ intrinsic values; the re-boot of the Spider-Man property thus falls into the territory of business as usual, a ready made cash cow for a major Hollywood studio eager to cash in on the latest craze among the main stream movie going audience.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is thus an even more disappointing installment than the first in this new series of Spidey operas, full of promise and blind ambition, un-tempered by any respect or consideration for the audience of eager fans of the character. As was the case the first time around, Webb revels in bringing Spider-Man to life, and watching Andrew Garfield don the red and blue tights is a marvel to behold, feeling truer to the loose lipped demigod of the original comic book serial of the 1960’s than Raimi’s angst-ridden Tobey Maguire. However, when it comes to setting aside the mask and becoming Peter Parker, Garfield struggles under Webb’s direction to bring the character from the comic book to the silver screen, awkwardly attempting to trade in Maguire’s superior down-trodden selflessness for a Parker who is, for lack of a better word, cool. In doing so, the character and the film to which he is attached loses its ability to connect to the very same audience that loved Spidey the first time around back in 2002, as much of the appeal of the Spider-Man franchise stems from Peter Parker as the relatable social outcast and nerd. Marc Webb is still a more than capable director, however, whose work on the Spider-Man franchise is an unfortunate set back, as any attempts for narrative and authorial control have been no doubt wrested away from him by a studio with no artistic integrity, insight, or faith in its chosen director; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not a bad movie, but will never be held in as high a regard as Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, which set the bar for what a modern day superhero film should look like.