Sabotage (2014)

Starring- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Max Martini, Kevin Vance, Mark Schlegel, Mireille Enos, Olivia Williams, Harold Perrineau

Director- David Ayer

R- strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HDArXZgrsE

I didn’t really think I’d end up feeling conflicted about Sabotage — and frankly, I didn’t want to be. The easiest thing to do would be to join up with the critical consensus that Sabotage is vile, ugly, mean-spirited, cruel, overly macho, philosophically confused, and generally immoral — and that consensus definitely isn’t wrong.

But…I don’t think that quite covers it, and it might even be unfair to the film. It’s definitely a thankless job to have to defend Sabotage a little — especially since I have a long history of being uncomfortable about cinematic violence a long time before a lot of other reviewers do. Not to mention that it definitely isn’t a good movie, and there’s still plenty of stuff in it that sets my moral sirens to blaring; it’s just not always the stuff everybody says it is.

I think the problem may be that everybody assessed it as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and went to it having already decided to view everything that happens in it through the lens of a film that’s only trying to entertain you. Of course it’s going to come off as wildly immoral if you do that. What we should have done, maybe, is go into it thinking of it as a David Ayer movie — as a director, he’s no guarantee that the movie will be great or even good, and Sabotage is certainly proof, but it is nearly a guarantee that it will at least have something on its mind.

My point, in short, is that I think there just might be a method to Sabotage’s madness, but that depends entirely on how much benefit of the doubt I want to extend to it, and I haven’t managed to decide yet.

“Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of an undercover DEA squads that specializes in the rough stuff, busting up one cartel after another. During one mission, $10 million goes missing, and Breacher and his team are suspected of having stolen it. No one can make the charges stick, however, and less than a year later, the team is back on active duty.

That’s when someone starts picking off its members one by one. As paranoia sets in and the survivors hunker down and prepare for Armageddon, they begin to suspect this isn’t the work of the cartels after all — one of their own is a traitor and out for blood.

I’ll start with the stuff I’m not conflicted about at all and work my way down from there — Sabotage isn’t a good movie, and I’m not telling you to go see it. It struggles with wonky dialogue and incredibly forced banter; the chemistry between the members of the team never really clicks; the film sets up a lot of plot points and either forgets about them or resolves them so quickly you wonder why they were ever introduced in the first place; and so on.

There’s good stuff, too — Ayer directs it with suitable aplomb, budgets the plot twists fairly well, and even somehow coaxes an unironically decent performance out of the Governator.

Where the movie has drawn particular critical ire is in its perceived immorality, and I’ll say this much — the critics are right on at least one point, and that’s its naked (often literally) misogyny. This is not a film that treats its female characters particularly well. This is a movie where the strip club scene is actually the least of its problems — it might dwell on the dancers overmuch in a way that becomes a touch problematic, but at least that scene says something important about its characters and can be forgiven on that level.

Somewhat less forgivable is the lesbian sex scene in the beginning that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anything else and actually extends what’s going on past its useful life. There’s also the scene during a shootout in an apartment where one of the cartel members grabs a female hostage…who is in her underwear, for some reason. There are only two female characters of note: Mireille Enos’s gun-crazy team member, who happily goes to the strip club with the guys and even gets up on the pole and whose most useful role is seducing bad guys, something she also appears to enjoy very much; and Olivia Williams’ interceding FBI agent, who’s a much better character, so of course the film needs to arbitrarily get her naked and have her exploited sexually.

Basically, Sabotage’s treatment of women is enough for me to condemn it even if everything else went swimmingly. It’s not pervasive and in-your-face about it, but that almost makes it worse — that the film seems not even to be aware that it’s doing this.

But what most critics have honed in on is the violence. Ordinarily, I’d be right there with them — in fact, I’m usually there long before them. So, it’s weird that I’d part ways with them on what is probably the most violent movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. Sure, I’ll confess that there is way more violence in this movie than there needs to be — it seems like it’s trying to beat The Walking Dead for the title of “Most Ridiculously Violent Pop Cultural Property,” and it falls into the exact same trap, where it exposes you to so much blood and gore that, eventually, it stops meaning anything. However, I don’t think Sabotage is condoning all this violence, and in fact, I think it’s turning it around into something that could actually be construed as positive. This is where I get conflicted about this movie — for all the sexism and everything else that goes wrong about Sabotage, there is a thematic throughline here that I think is surprisingly well done and makes an alarming amount of sense within the context of the film.

Critics have said that the “heroes” of this film are totally unlikable — loathsome, sexist, sociopathic murderers. I totally agree with them. Here’s the thing — I think David Ayer would, too. I think viewers are trying to impose the usual Schwarzenegger dynamic onto this team — something like Predator or The Expendables — and resist when they find they can’t like these guys. You won’t get anywhere doing that. If you interpret these characters as purposefully unlikable, the context of the entire movie changes. And I’m not interpreting them that way because it makes me feel better about everything but because the movie gave me plenty of contextual cues that compelled me to do so. These characters don’t get away with it. Their actions are shown to do actual damage. There’s no reward for what they do, and plenty of punishment.

Plus, look at how the DEA is portrayed — a self-defending, closed-off institution impeding the activities of the more unambiguously heroic figures in the other law enforcement branches, the ones who are primarily concerned with combating murder and theft rather than drug use. We see corruption at every level, folding in on itself until what we’re left with is an organization that exists mainly unto itself. Now, look at Breacher’s team within that context — killing people is what they do for fun, and they spend the rest of their time throwing their weight around for special privileges. It’s not hard to draw that line — I think Sabotage is a sneaky anti-drug-war movie. Of course Breacher’s guys are selfish and murderous — when you ask someone to risk their lives and kill to stop somebody else from getting high, how many heroes are you expecting to answer that call? You’re going to get guys who are only in it for the money, you’re going to get guys who just want the license to kill somebody, and maybe then you’ll get a small handful of actual heroes to pepper in there. The result, rather inevitably, is what happens here — someone’s selfishness overpowers the team dynamic, and suddenly, they’re paranoid, at each other’s throats, and trying to kill each other. It’s something of a simplistic take within the context of reality, but you can see how the ultimate message of the film is one that condemns violence — at least, the loose, easy kind that usually characterizes Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

I think the movie even criticizes the excessive masculinity that upset so many critics. Breacher’s wife and son have been tortured to death by a cartel prior to the start of the film, and he’s out for revenge. Throughout the movie, we see him watching the video of their torture sessions the cartel sends him; critics have interpreted this as him reminding himself what he’s fighting for, that he feels as though he has to stare into the abyss until he becomes one with it. I agree with that interpretation; I disagree with where they go with it. What I’ve read most often is that the film embraces this, that it suggests the nature of being a man is numbing one’s emotions and conscience so that you can do what must be done. I don’t think that’s what the movie’s saying at all. It’s quite the opposite. I can’t say why without spoiling major plot developments, but to those critics, I would simply say…watch the movie again. Pay attention to everything that happens as a result of Breacher doing this. Viewed in that light, it’s impossible for me to interpret what he does as a good or noble thing — not just for me, but for the film.

I don’t really know why I’m defending Sabotage. Maybe it’s because those undercurrents are executed well enough to make me actually kind of enjoy it a little, or at least find it compelling — it’s not fun, though I’m not 100 percent sure it wants to be. Ayer does have a tendency to want to make art and an action movie at the same time, and those instincts can sometimes come into conflict. They do here.

But if something has merit, it’s worth discussing. I think Sabotage has some overlooked merit. It’s nowhere near enough to want to wade through the disgusting sexism and general badness of the thing, but if we’re going to talk about it, let’s at least talk about all of it.

-Matt T.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Starring- Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Danny Woodburn, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg, Minae Noji

Director- Jonathan Liebesman

PG-13- sci-fi action violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZZ0PnDZdZk

All right. Eventually, somebody’s got to draw a line, and here’s as good a place as any. Ideally, when you’re making a movie, you should be actively determining the best medium for telling your story, and for blockbusters especially, there comes a time when you have to make a call: practical effects, or an animated film.

As you might expect, Teenage Mutant Ninja CGI Monstrosities that Consume the Souls of Children comes down very much on the wrong side of that line. Visually, it’s totally unsalvageable; everything else barely matters aside from the fact that it is, completely without exaggerated, one of the worst-looking films I have ever seen in my life.

You probably already know this story — four baby turtles are exposed to a mutagen and evolve into intelligent beings, hiding in the sewers and training in martial arts with their master, Splinter (mo-capped by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub) to protect the city of New York as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Leonardo (mo-capped by Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard).

The movie begins with largely the same setup as the 1990 adaptation. April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is an underappreciated TV reporter hoping to gain respect by cracking the biggest story of the day: a rising criminal organization known as the Foot Clan, led by the mysterious Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), that has been terrorizing the city.

While following that lead, she witnesses a Foot Clan robbery — and sticks around long enough to see four gigantic turtles crash the party and foil the clan’s plot. The turtles are forced to bring her into the fold and swear her to secrecy, only to themselves become the subject of a conspiracy to destroy the city.

It actually helps me out that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a bad movie in the more conventional sense. If it had been good, I’d have to spend an entire review doing that “if and but” thing I always do when something has promise and a lot of quality but also significant flaws that undo that at every turn. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ most glaring flaws don’t step all over anything particularly worthwhile. Nevertheless, this movie was totally doomed from the moment the production team came out of the design studio feeling satisfied with what they’d just seen. They could’ve hired one of modern cinema’s best screenwriters, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The movie’s astonishingly awful visuals undermine it at every turn.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles looks totally repulsive. Say what you will about the 1990 film, which is one of those movies that I think gets viewed with nostalgia goggles — it’s pretty bad. But at least those corny costumes had weight and presence and interacted with their environments properly and gave the actors something to work with. There are shots in this movie that are basically a cartoon with an especially strange and ill-advised aesthetic. The CGI is about as well-integrated as modern technology can make it, but that’s saying basically nothing, given the demands this movie makes of its effects team. Poor Megan Fox is doing her best and is actually weirdly okay as April, but she spends 95 percent of the film staring off into the empty space just above or beside her CGI costars. Like I said at the outset — when you reach a point where your actors are the only thing in the scene that isn’t CGI, I kind of have to wonder why you aren’t just making an animated film.

It really isn’t just the CGI, though. Producing blockbusters entirely inside of a computer is basically what we do now. That goes for our good ones as well as our bad ones — in Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, there’s probably a process by which Rocket and Groot could’ve been constructed with a combination of practical and special effects and been given more presence. The difference is that at least those characters are very well-designed — they’re expressive and have exactly the right number of human touches, and you can come to care about what happens to them.

This movie, holy crap. I have absolutely no idea how the turtles came out looking like this — how someone came up with the idea, how someone else approved it, how an entire team created them frame-by-frame and never started to wonder why they kept feeling nauseous all the time. These characters are freaking terrifying. Even when you get over the gut-level flight instinct that hits you when you’re introduced to them, you still spend the rest of the movie uncomfortable in a hard-to-define way whenever they’re on-screen. There’s a lot going wrong here — their squat, snake-like heads; their giant, flaring nostrils; their “bad comic book” huge muscles; the way their skin is halfway between texture and plastic; the oozy sheen they all have now. As always, though, it’s the small stuff, the ill-advised attempts at humanizing their designs, that push them over the top into creepy. Human mouths, you guys. They have human mouths — giant, gaping, lippy, toothy human mouths. Ugh.

   It says a lot that despite this, Splinter is even more disgusting. You can tell most of the budget went into realizing the turtles. I honestly think you could have pasted a character from Rango into this movie and had something more textured and believable than this monstrosity. The fur is very badly-generated; he looks like he has mange. The skin is pebbly, wet-looking, and gross. And his integration is just awful; if you showed it to me divorced of context, I would absolutely think it came from some ugly animated film. The second he appeared on-screen next to a human being — or on-screen at all, really — my suspension of disbelief crashed and burned.

So, yeah, there’s really no script that could’ve saved this mess, and certainly not this one. I mean, okay — I’ll admit that the movie, as a whole, isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Early on, we were getting one baffling creative decision after another, and I was becoming convinced that this was Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman working together to intentionally make the worst movie of their combined careers. Neither one of them succeeded.

To its credit, the movie mostly gets the tone right and doesn’t take itself too seriously — though the score and Liebesman’s direction try to force a little too much “epicness” into the proceedings. At least the script allows the turtles to be jokey and everything surrounding them to be more or less the right level of over-the-top. There are some really bad decisions here and there — making the Foot Clan some sort of weird terrorist organization and mostly removing the martial arts element is the kind of “dark and gritty” choice that just makes me roll my eyes at this point — but mostly, it’s pretty cheerful and openly dumb. Plus, they mostly get the turtles’ personalities right, even though they are, as ever, extremely broad and sometimes kind of annoying. Also, it’s only an hour and a half long, which, yay.

Unfortunately, it’s also really paint-by-numbers. The story is so been-there-done-that that it’s almost aggressive, like the filmmakers are rubbing it in your face that they didn’t really try. Visually, it’s basically Transformers — gritty, in-your-face camerawork that drains much-needed style out of the action scenes, blisteringly hot lighting, alternating teal-and-orange and green color correction that, combined with the abundant CGI and awful character design, only serve to make the movie even more unsettlingly surreal.

It’s structurally weird, too. The first act of the movie barely has any turtles in it, and even when they appear, it’s only in glimpses. It makes sense to introduce them through April’s perspective, but even then, the original movie only took a couple minutes to make that happen. It’s worth mentioning that April is straight up the main character of this; the movie doesn’t leave her perspective even after she meets the turtles. The second act of the movie is relentless exposition — we get the origin story of the turtles twice, with no details the second time but nothing that would prevent the two scenes from being consolidated. The film isn’t content to imply anything even when it’s really obvious; every piece of information gets a scene where it’s explained in as much boring detail as possible. Finally, the third act — it’s one gigantic, unending action sequence.

All of this is as perfunctory as possible; the only reason the movie does anything is because, well, that’s just how it’s done. It introduces the turtles through April because that’s how every adaptation does it. It has to sideline Splinter and make saving him a major motivation of the heroes, because that’s how the last live-action movie did it. The origin story has to be rewritten so everything is connected, because that’s how we write blockbusters now. And so on, and so forth. The turtles have character arcs, but we don’t get to see any of them, and none of them pay off meaningfully. April, who ends up being the center of the movie, probably should have an arc, for all the time the script spends setting her up as a go-getter determined to break the next big story and become a household name, but none of that goes anywhere and, in fact, gets dropped as soon as the film gets more explosiony things on its mind. The movie just slides its pieces around to get them where it needs them and doesn’t attend to pacing or character even a little bit.

But, yeah, irrelevant. I feel dumb even commenting on the writing in a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — not that good writing wouldn’t improve it, but saying as much is a really thankless job. At any rate, it doesn’t matter — nothing would save this movie from its record-setting terrible visuals. This was a big hit — of course it was — so we’re probably going to get a dozen more of these, and every last of one of them is already fated to be awful. I’m looking forward to it.

-Matt T.

Oculus (2014)

Starring- Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty

Director- Mike Flanagan

R- terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYJrxezWLUk

It’s hard not to appreciate Oculus at least a little for approaching the horror genre from a somewhat different angle, both narratively and stylistically. Unfortunately, despite the height of its ambitions, the end result is stale, a little boring, and most damningly, not at all scary.

When they were kids, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) Russell’s father tortured and murdered their mother. When he came for them, Tim shot him as well. A decade later, Tim is being released from a mental institution, having fully accepted that version of events. His sister is less convinced — she believes her father was not a murderer at all and that he and their mother both were possessed by an evil spirit that lived within an antique mirror they owned. She’s recently reacquired that mirror and has constructed an elaborate experiment to prove once and for all that something supernatural was going on in their childhood home. Mostly to convince Kaylie to accept the truth and seek help for her delusions, Tim accompanies her on a trip to the old house, where they put the mirror back on the wall — and wait.

Oculus is the sort of horror film that’s much less about kills and gore than it is about atmosphere, suspense, and getting inside your head. Horror films along those lines seem to have made a comeback lately, so Oculus is hardly unique in that regard, but it’s still something for which I’m grateful. It tries to generate scares the old-fashioned way, without taking the gory, over-the-top shortcuts that seemed to dominate the horror landscape not too long ago. There are times when its approach to creating that tense, unsettling atmosphere is actually quite unique and almost effective — Mike Flanagan directs the material slowly and patiently, leaving blank silences at the ends of scenes or opening space around the edges of the frame that get you anticipating jump scares that usually don’t come. Usually. Actually, that’s something else I like about Oculus — even by comparison to the other slow, atmospheric horrors that are starting to show up nowadays, it largely avoids cheap jumps. The first appearance of our supernatural entity epitomizes this approach — a character walks into a room, and the being is simply there, just within his field of vision, unaccompanied by any quick cuts or sharp musical cues; he blinks, and it’s gone. It’s pure imagery, and I like that the film orients its approach this way.

And though we could argue how well the film tells its story, I have to at least praise it for coming at it from a relatively unique angle. The story begins after all the weird things have already started happening; it’s about the survivors going back into that environment to face their demon and destroy it. The entire movie is about Kaylie and Tim facing off against the monster that tormented them as children. A lot of ghost stories involve an eventual paranormal investigation; this is one of the few that could truly be said to be about one. And as half-realized as it is, I like the quiet, unobtrusive way that the filmmakers weave in themes of dealing with childhood trauma and past wrongs.

Honestly, Oculus would probably be pretty great if not for nearly everything else going as wrong as it does. Some of its flaws are more basic than others — the bland characters and on-the-nose philosophizing undercut some of the emotion. The film also simultaneously tells the story of our two leads as children, living in that house, and that’s definitely the less effective half of the piece; there’s something empty and generic about the family dynamic, and the story ultimately doesn’t go much of anywhere.

Its biggest issue, though, is the one sense in which it does capitulate to stock horror tropes — namely, the one wherein all of the characters are idiots. There are a lot of horror movies where characters at least compromise their own survival with stupid behavior, but at least with most of them, you could argue they still would’ve wound up in that situation even if they were smart. Oculus is that rare horror film where I can definitively say that not only would I have survived the situation, I would never have been in it in the first place. Here’s what our two leads know going into the house:

1.     There’s a ghost.

2.     It’s malevolent.

3.     It can control people’s minds.

I mean…you can see the flaw in reasoning here, right? I don’t even have to tell you what Kaylie’s plan is in order for you to identify the most immediate thing that will definitely go wrong with it. It’s a horror movie where the path to survival is as simple as not doing the transparently stupid thing that you don’t actually have to do. That definitely sucks some of the tension out of it.

What tension remains is lost when the film fails to properly define the rules of its universe. I’ve got to be completely honest — maybe I’m just stupid, but I have absolutely no idea what happened in the last half hour of this movie. Out of nowhere, the supernatural elements get amped up to eleven, to the point where it isn’t clear if we’re watching two different stories cut together, if there’s some kind of weird temporal thing going on, or if we’re just seeing a ghost messing with the characters’ heads. The problem is that I couldn’t tell how many of the threats were real and how many of them were imagined, which made it hard to feel particularly frightened at any of them. And don’t get me wrong — you could make a good movie about that, even a great one, one where you emphasize how confused and mentally unstable the protagonists are becoming and use that to heighten the sense of disorientation and terror. But past a certain point, Kaylie and Tim seem to just accept all of the weirdness; their reactions to it are strangely muted. They seem as though they’ve simply decided to play by the new rules being laid out before them and just see what comes of it.

It brings the film to a point where it’s relying on pure imagery for its scares. The imagery is fine, and it’s even admirable to see it trying to create its atmosphere in that way. However, the fear can’t come solely from the imagery — that’s not usually something that’s going to stick with you, nor is it going to scare you all that much in the first place if you don’t know what it means for the characters. There are a lot of admirable elements on display in Oculus; unfortunately, it only adds up to a dry and confusing film.

-Matt T.

Jersey Boys (2014)

Starring- John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken, Renee Marino, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Freya Tingley, Mike Doyle, Rob Marnell, Johnny Cannizzaro, Donnie Kehr, Jeremy Luke, Joey Russo

Director- Clint Eastwood

R- language throughout

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL2iILHUsG0

It means well and isn’t terrible, but ultimately, Jersey Boys is a lifeless and inert movie about the era in music that The Beatles rescued us from.

Okay, okay, full disclosure of bias, as always: As you might have guessed from that opening line, I am not what you would consider a fan of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons, whose rise from the New Jersey projects to musical stardom is chronicled in this film. That might be the understatement of the year — a more accurate summation would be that the musical montage portions of this film made me a severe threat to every small animal within a five-mile radius of my house.

To be fair to the Four Seasons, a statement you will never again hear cross my lips or see escape from my keyboard, they were products of a decade in music that, with a handful of exceptions, was just awful — I can barely set foot in those 50s-themed diners anymore unless I have a good conversationalist with me, because the overhead radio rapidly turns into my madness mantra. The songs were all weird, melodramatic novelty goofiness that either smothered insipid subjects in the most comically sweeping music ever or became so un-serious that they rivaled the Wiggles for musical dignity. The only thing the Four Seasons really added to this dynamic was Valli’s cartoon chipmunk singing voice. That, of course, is always the point in the conversation where people start telling me, “Oh, but…that range!” And fine, yeah, I admit it — Valli could definitely sing, in some objective technical sense of the word. Lots of skill, control, the rest. I have no problem saying that, as long as I can add that it also takes a lot of skill and control to extinguish a candle by farting.

Where was I? Oh, right, reviewing a movie.

At the end of the day, even a movie about musicians is a lot more than just its music; it’s about character and story and finding the emotions behind things that happen. If you create a character who desperately longs to fulfill his dream of singing like Mickey Mouse having his brain throttled and you make me like that character and see his passion, then dang it, I’ll be right there with him, as long as I have earplugs. (Okay, okay, I’ll stop talking about the music now.)

Jersey Boys, unfortunately, is basically a Martin Scorsese movie if you drained all of the energy out of it. You’ve got the mid-century Italian community with heavy mob activity, you’ve got the characters regularly breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience, you’ve even got the requisite shouty marital breakdown. (Oh, and Joe Pesci is in it, kind of.) But all of it is passionless, dry, unimaginative, and boring — which, unfortunately, seems to be a trend with Clint Eastwood movies these days.

I’m really starting to wonder if Eastwood’s reached the point where he ought to retire while he’s still mostly in everyone’s good graces. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not remotely the sort of person who thinks people ought to quit making art just because audiences don’t like it. If Eastwood genuinely loves making movies and finds some peace in that, then I’m glad he’s still working and welcome him to continue. My concern is that his films are so detached and by-the-book these days that they almost make me wonder if he wants to retire and just can’t, for some odd reason.

Jersey Boys is totally lifeless and so straightforward that it never manages to find any voice whatsoever. Most of the scenes are constructed in the most obvious way possible. There are no noteworthy or memorable visuals. The story is ineffective and framed strangely — each member of the band gets to narrate a part of the film, often directly to the camera, taking a break in the middle of the scene, a feature I’m told is borrowed from the stage version. The closest I can get to guessing the point of this movie is that everyone remembers things the way they choose to — a statement highlighted on some of the promotional materials that gets reemphasized in the end of the film. That’s the only reason I know that, by the way, because the narration adds basically nothing — you could remove it entirely and still glean everything it tells you just by paying close attention to what’s happening in each scene. The narrations don’t coincide, for one thing, so we never get to see a single event from every band member’s perspective. For another thing, what they do tell us isn’t particularly revelatory and means very little in the context of the film. It’s also structured oddly — the film proceeds in chronological order until about an hour in, at which point it abruptly jumps backward in time two years, catches up with itself, and subsequently drops the narration entirely until the final scene.

Other than that, I guess the movie is just a tale of big egos clashing — and not a particularly interesting one. They all have their faults, but the only one who has a big ego and is at the same time completely irrational about it is Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza). The others give as good as they get, sure, but at least they’re right about things. Valli himself mostly gets the absentee father who needs to learn to put family before work routine, which has basically nothing to do with the movie as a whole.

The movie isn’t terrible. Eastwood lets sink whatever emotions manage to bubble up to the surface. He just seems totally uninterested in exploring those in any kind of depth, in finding the little quirks that might make the situation relatable or compelling. It’s encapsulated in the fact that the movie doesn’t really have an ending — it just runs out of important events in the history of the Four Seasons, so it settles for a big musical number and calls it a day. Wait, did I say a big musical number? Make that three.

If you’re seeing Jersey Boys, you’re really only going to get two things out of it — the music, if that’s your cup of tea; and the cast, all of whom do a pretty good job of imitating their respective band members (which, depending on your stance on the first thing, might be a draw or a deterrent).

Other than that, Jersey Boys doesn’t have much to recommend itself. A Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons movie was always going to be a tough sell for me. The fact that it seemingly doesn’t even try to seal that deal basically condemns the entire enterprise.

-Matt T.

Frank (2014)

Starring- Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Francois Civil, Carla Azar

Director- Leonard Abrahamson

R- language and some sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-catC4tBVyY

Frank is a frequently funny and occasionally stirring tribute to great art and the eccentrics and weirdos who make it.

Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) dreams of making it big as a musician, but finds it somewhat stifling that he has no real talent. Sure, he can play — keyboards, specifically — but everything he writes is cheesy and bland. Following a chance encounter, he ends up filling in for a band’s keyboardist during a show in his hometown — and when it turns out that keyboardist is going to be waylaid long-term, he’s invited to retreat with the band to a secluded home in the woods to cut an album. There, he meets the gang — Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who hates him; Don (Scoot McNairy), who they met in a mental hospital; and the leader of the band, vocalist Frank (Michael Fassbender), a bizarre creative genius, capable of writing a great song about pretty much everything, a seemingly endless fount of wisdom. Oh, and he always wears a giant fake head.

Creative tension ensues.

Frank is definitely one of the year’s biggest surprises for me — it’s rare when something this patently unusual works out in anything more than the basic sense and actually finds its way to being great. Or at least great-ish. It ends up being something of a case study in quality indie comedies — something genuinely funny but also intelligent, precisely in control of its tone and never neglectful toward character.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like my comedy dry and with that slightest twinge of darkness, so Frank is right up my alley — I laughed, and I laughed a lot. Frank has that all-too-rare ability to have you laughing uproariously and thinking “oh, how horrible” at the same time. That image in the trailers where Frank is comically hit by a car is actually played somewhat seriously (somewhat) in the movie — not that the image itself becomes any less hilarious.

Mostly, it’s not the sort of comedy where you’ll be sharing favorite quotes and talking about the scenes that made you laugh the hardest — though there’s a touch of both — but rather something that’s aware of how surreal it is and constantly plays that right to the edge of seriousness and silliness. It’s a more visual comedy than most; it gets its laughs through the way the shots are composed and edited together and how things move within the frame. Most of this comes courtesy of Frank — the film treats the character like an ongoing game of Where’s Waldo where Waldo is constantly standing right out in the open. In a lot of the shots, he’s not the first thing that catches your eye — you find first the more serious characters dealing with the more serious emotional undercurrents and have exactly enough time to process that feeling before your eye suddenly stumbles across this giant freaking plaster head, and abruptly, the scene is kind of funny.

I’m finding it strangely difficult to attribute the humor behind Frank to Fassbender’s performance, not because I dislike him as an actor or even because his work here isn’t brilliant — it totally is — but because there’s a slightly irrational part of me that struggles to identify an eccentric genius who wears a giant fake head as one of the great performances of the year. But yeah — it kind of is. Fassbender’s timing in the role, both the vocal element and the physicality of the character, is spot-on and very funny. Somehow, despite his face being completely hidden for almost the entirety of the film, he also manages to imbue a lot of actual feeling into the character, something that’s clear from his posture, his line of sight, his gestures; Fassbender is in total control of the character throughout.

And that, in itself, is only possible because of what the film gives him to work with. I think what I appreciate most about Frank is its refusal to psychologize its title character’s most obvious quirk — or at least, not to Movie Psychologize it, by having any of Jon’s myriad theories, including that Frank is hideously deformed and wears a mask like the Elephant Man, turn out to be true. Frank is mainly about the creative process, but it’s also, lightly but still poignantly, about the randomness of mental illness.

Part of that, of course, has to do with the fact that the movie devotes most of its effort to deconstructing the way Jon sees everything. He’s the perfect reference point for the audience — he’s sane enough that it’s easy to encounter these strange characters through his perspective, but also primed in such a way that he actually incites the worst of the madness. He’s also someone who is clearly well meaning but rushes into situations without entirely understanding them, inevitably hurting someone. He both wants to prove himself to the band, none of whom have any respect for him artistically, and to help them become more marketable. He charges forward with this extraordinarily flawed understanding of the arts — he subscribes to the flawed idea that great art comes out of great pain and quietly envies what he assumes had to be Frank’s rough childhood or something similar. He’s pretentious in that way that doesn’t recognize itself as pretentious — dumb nuggets of twitter wisdom, a smug self-satisfaction with his own ideas, etc. He’s not a bad guy, though, which is critical to his role in the story — to allow the writers to be self-critical and even audience-critical. I find Jon — and by extension, the other characters — compelling because he forces me to look at myself and wonder if maybe I am him. Of course, I have to send some credit Domhnall Gleeson’s way — he manages to keep the character likable while also telegraphing that everything he does is a little underhanded. His role in our new Star Wars movie is almost certainly going to make him significantly more famous, and Frank is proof that he deserves it.

The rest of the cast is pretty good, too — Scoot McNairy plays Don right on the edge; he’s simultaneously the sanest member of the band, someone to whom Jon connects immediately, and also the one most likely to randomly pull a gun on everyone at the drop of a hat. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is doing some of her best work in a while; her character exhibits a palpable sense of loathing toward everything and everyone, Jon especially. She even expresses her happiness in cold anger. She’s actually gruff and enraged enough to be kind of terrifying. She acts mainly as Jon’s counterpoint in the story — a True Artist to the point of actual fault, an angry, condescending wraith who takes the whole process so seriously that she threatens to drive everyone else out of the room. Frank ends up being the cheerful, spiritual, music-loving foil that keeps her from exploding.

The movie uses those three characters in particular — Jon, Clara, and Frank — to explore the central dilemma of any artist. You want your work to be seen or heard, but you’re aware that, sometimes, that takes compromise. It can take resources to make something great, but you may need to make something less-than-great in order to obtain those resources — and sometimes, that goes on and on and on. Do you labor in obscurity to produce scarce works of greatness that no one will ever hear, or do you take to the stage with something watered-down in the hopes that you’ll make something great eventually?

To be honest, I think the film raises more questions than it answers, but I find it easy to forgive. It’s still challenging in its own way, and at any rate, the music’s great, the cast is great, the characters are great, and the comedy is great. It’s a weird movie about weird people making weird music, and we need it as much as we need a world full of Franks.

-Matt T.

The One I Love (2014)

Starring- Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss

Director- Charlie McDowell

R- language, some sexuality and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCOvhojlZzQ

This is likely to be a shorter review than is typical of me. You shouldn’t take that as an indictment of The One I Love as being uninteresting. You should, instead, take it as the exact opposite — the film is so interesting and original that I hardly want to say a word about it.

Everyone who wants to see this movie should go into it as blind as possible. I understand that saying as much is, in itself, a bit of a spoiler — it primes you for a film that isn’t what it appears, immediately, to be. But it would be worse to simply tell you about the whole thing, so that’s the compromise I have to make.

I’m hesitant to call The One I Love one of the best films of 2014, for a variety of reasons. However, out of everything I’ve seen so far this year — and based on what I know of everything that’s yet to come — I’m confident in saying that it’s the most unique. For that reason alone, it’s worth checking out.

The setup, in the vaguest terms possible, is this: Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are a married couple falling out of love. After a number of attempts to inject new life into their marriage, they go on a weekend retreat as a last-ditch effort to save the relationship. While in the idyllic rural home, they encounter an unexpected dilemma that may either split them apart or solidify their bond forever.

I would be remiss to say anything more than that. The One I Love brings one surprise after another, none of them clearly broadcast and yet, none of them out of place, and it’s best experienced fresh as it unfolds. It’s masterfully in control of its tone, which constantly threatens to fly right off the rails of comedy, drama, and general weirdness, but never once does. It’s very assured filmmaking; it makes any number of bold and unusual choices, but it never second-guesses any of them.

Duplass and Moss are the centerpiece of all this — in fact, only one other actor even qualifies for a speaking part — and they’re up to the task. Their performances are small and detail-oriented, the sort of character work that’s so effortless you hardly realize how much thought had to go into every scene. Their acting work is yet another aspect of the movie that’s difficult to discuss without telling you too much about where the story goes, so it’s tough to say why. I think Moss has to be considered the standout, especially because of what happens in the last fifteen minutes of the movie — she’s weighing so many conflicting motivations on so many fronts that so much as the wrong sideways glance at the wrong time could bring the whole thing crashing down, but she’s totally in control at all times. That’s not to undersell the work Duplass does here — it’s great, too. He’s just not called upon to do as much — Ethan is a simpler character, and his wants and needs are a bit easier to grasp. Still, the movie needs you to like him while also being aware that he’s a bit self-involved, and there’s plenty on Duplass’s shoulders navigating that quagmire. The two of them have just about the right chemistry, too — this dull flicker that might’ve been something once but that’s now just a constant, aching reminder that neither of them is happy anymore. It can blossom into warmth when they’re at their best, but it can also turn frosty and uncomfortable.

The One I Love is a relationship movie, as if it could be anything else — that’s probably the only sense in which it could be considered at least somewhat predictable. During their retreat, through the circumstances they encounter, both Ethan and Sophie explore what it is they want out of each other, whether or not that’s justified, the personal flaws that have brought them to their current position, and plenty more. Unfortunately, I think this is the only respect in which the film goes significantly awry — not that it isn’t intelligent and not that it doesn’t ultimately go to some unique places with its thematic undercurrents, but the material it feeds into this is ultimately too stereotypical. Ethan and Sophie are both full characters, but their desires for the relationship break down mainly to the most basic cultural notions of “guy stuff” and “girl stuff” — he seems to want a brainless, constantly cheerful housewife who cooks and cleans and finds him endlessly fascinating, and she seems to want an endlessly sensitive and insightful soul who’s naturally fascinating, whispers sweet nothings, and has plenty of cute romantic surprises for every occasion. Don’t get me wrong — this is definitely part of the film’s point, that what they want is something easy that doesn’t qualify as an actual human being. My issue is not that their desires are flat and two-dimensional but that they’re so non-specific, that what Ethan wants from Sophie says nothing about him as a person and vice versa. It’s mainly shorthand to get to the meat of the thing.

But what I love about where it goes with all of this is that every time I thought I had its thematic endgame figured out, it threw something new into the mix and totally upended my expectations. It keeps expanding on the question it’s asking, scene by scene, until the answers at which it arrives hardly resemble your initial assessment at all. That’s not to say it ignores the questions it raises initially but that it keeps incorporating them into something larger and more interesting. At the outset, it seems inevitable that the message here is learning to appreciate that people’s flaws are a big part of what makes them human — what makes them something complicated and interesting and worth loving. And it is, partially, but that ends up being a small part of something way bigger, a complex whole that can’t be resolved exclusively with a simple answer like that. The One I Love is one of the most thoroughly unpredictable movies I’ve seen in years — I certainly thought I knew where it was going, but each scene was a repeated exercise in realizing how wrong I was.

There are lessons to learn and ideas worth exploring, but even if there weren’t, I think I’d be sitting here recommending this anyway, if only because of how committed it is to being its own thing. The One I Love resembles a couple of other movies I can think of in terms of its tone and style, but when I expand that to include what it’s about and how it’s about it, I can’t clearly draw a line to any noteworthy influences. It’s unique, daring, interesting, and, really, just plain entertaining all around.

-Matt T.

Maleficent (2014)

Starring- Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites

Director- Robert Stromberg

PG- sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-XO4XiRop0

At any given moment while watching Maleficent, my mental state was largely that I could take it or leave it. I can’t say that I absolutely loathed this experience and checked my watch every five minutes, and I can’t say that it ever particularly pulled me in. It’s basically acceptable background noise both at best and at worst.

My mixed feelings toward it are in part informed by my difficulty figuring out exactly what it is. In some ways, it strikes me as unusually ambitious and risky by the standards of your average live-action Disney movie; in others, it seems detached and passionless, as though no one could really be bothered. I’m inclined to give it some leeway for its apparent attempts at developing it’s own voice, and I’m inclined to do exactly the opposite on account of what seems to be a general sense of laziness about it. It’s hard for me to settle on a tone for this one.

The movie is a retelling of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty that shows the events from the perspective of the villain, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). In this version, Maleficent is a fairy who lives in a forest inhabited by magical creatures of all kinds — just a stone’s throw from a human kingdom. The two worlds are deeply suspicious of one another and, for the most part, keep their distance. But when a human, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), wanders into the forest, Maleficent takes a liking to him. They become friends, and then, something more.

Years later, the human king decides to conquer the forest and brings an army against it. Maleficent drives him back, shaming him in the process. The king declares that whomever kills her and brings back proof of her death shall be named his successor.

Tempted, Stefan returns to the forest to see his love, only to cut off her wings and bring them back to the king. He inherits the throne, leaving a vengeful Maleficent to stew in the shadows. When his first child, a daughter, who will grow up to be the princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is born… Well, you know this part. Maleficent crashes the party and curses her, upon her sixteenth birthday, to prick her finger and fall into an eternal slumber, to be broken only by true love’s kiss.

Until then, Maleficent watches over the girl in secret to ensure that she survives to make her revenge complete…and in the process, develops an inadvertent fondness for her.

The film has a myriad of problems, but I don’t have the time to devote to them, not when its most fatal flaw is in the foundation itself. Quality fantasy needs a good world, good characters, and a good story, and Maleficent drops the ball on every one of those levels.

Its world is mostly window dressing — visual stuff that isn’t suggestive of anything deeper than what you’re seeing and that leaves the edges of the movie’s universe totally blank. And it’s not even particularly good-looking window dressing at that. Making this movie seems to have involved computers more often than it involved cameras, and the CGI is both obvious and lazy. Nowhere is this clearer than in the battle for the forest that takes place early in the film — it tends to use the actors for close-ups of the characters’ reactions to whatever’s happening and then abruptly turn into a cartoon, with CGI creatures knocking around overly fluid, low-res computer ragdolls.

But even with more practical effects on display, I’m not sure how much better the film would be. It simply isn’t that imaginative. The fantasy creatures tend to come in two varieties — the ones we’ve seen before, like the walking trees; and the ones that are relatively new but so weird and cartoony that they don’t assimilate into or expand the world so much as call attention to their novelty. I can think of only one creature design in the film that left me in any way awestruck, a sleek, Miyazaki-esque floating dragon that appears in one scene midway through.

The personalities assigned to these creations are just as unhelpful. The movie, thankfully, is not another one of those fantasy films, the ones where everyone is dry and boring and has no recognizable identity whatsoever. But what the film is lacking is anything in the way of meaningful relationships — and that’s a big deal, because it is, at its heart, a relationship movie. It needs the growing mother/daughter-like bond between Maleficent and Aurora to be believable and potent. It isn’t — Maleficent’s character seems to fluctuate almost on a scene-to-scene basis, and it’s occasionally difficult to assess the motive behind what she does here and there; and Elle Fanning strikes those innocence notes so hard that Aurora comes off as a moron.

It would have been especially interesting for the film to do something with Maleficent and Stefan, considering their history — true love turned to deep hate after a ruthless and selfish betrayal. But if you watched the movie and skipped the prologue, you’d never guess there was ever a relationship of any kind between the hero and villain. That’s something that really ought to be the emotional core of the film, but it seems totally uninterested in exploring it.

The film even skips the small stuff — as part of its perspective shift, it’s recast the trio of fairies as a group of vacuous incompetents, and Maleficent’s sidekick, a raven she turned into a human (played by Sam Riley), barely registers as anything other than a sounding board for when she needs to talk about what she’s going to do next. (I will, however, admit to somewhat enjoying the portrayal of Prince Phillip [Brenton Thwaites] as a puppy-eyed teenage numbskull.)

And then there’s the story. Maleficent comes off like a biopic determined to tell its subject’s entire story in as little time as possible; it always seems over-eager to get whatever it’s doing over with so it can reach a more exciting bit that never actually comes. The prologue lasts 15 minutes but feels like it could be its own separate movie — there’s something scattershot about it. And somehow, the rest of the movie retains that same feeling. It seems most at home when it’s offering its own take on a scene that actually appeared in the original Sleeping Beauty, but it’s lost whenever it has to go off on its own and make up something new.

I should emphasize that it’s somewhat inaccurate to call this movie a retelling of the original story. It’s not a perspective shift that simply adds new context to the story you already know. It would be better to call this speculative fiction that happens to be set in the same world and follows the same characters — consider it an alternate universe Sleeping Beauty, in other words. The details of the story are completely different; in fact, after Maleficent curses Aurora, almost nothing that happens is the same as what happened in the animated film. It’s not a matter of perspective — in this version, Maleficent is unquestionably the hero, and Stefan is unquestionably the villain. I’m not going to say that’s the wrong way to tell the story, but it strikes me as less interesting. There’s something to be said for looking at a classic story from the point of view of another character — not changing the story itself or what he or she did in it but simply showing us the reason for his or her behavior. Maleficent gives us that reason — revenge for a past wrong — but then immediately recasts the character as a misunderstood hero who never again, after her initial mistake, does anything that might even look evil if you glanced at it sideways. By the climax, it’s a totally different film with absolutely no connective tissue to the original story whatsoever.

Actually, it doesn’t have much connective tissue with anything. Yes, I suppose this is still a legitimate, if less interesting way, to tell the story — and that’s the reason why it doesn’t work anyway. This is the sort of movie that governs its characters by its plot more often than the other way around. Scenes just sort of happen. Questions of motive get tossed aside — this character did this thing because, well, we just needed these two people to go to this place and have this conversation. There are a couple of scenes that happen for no real reason and are never mentioned again — there’s a bit where Maleficent turns her sidekick into a wolf and uses him, as well as a bit of telekinesis, to torment some guards in the forest that doesn’t seem to have any real reason for being other than to have something action sequence-like in the middle part of the film. The movie proceeds with a sense of detachment, not trying to justify anything within the context of its characters or develop any idea completely to fruition. The closest it gets is in its efforts to have Maleficent come to terms with her past, but this has exactly the sort of resolution I feared it would — a climax that allows the main character to do the right thing without suffering any of the potential consequences of doing the right thing. Anyway, the relationships that bring about these decisions are, as stated, flat, so they don’t register on an emotional level to begin with.

It’s hard to say what it is that keeps the film watchable, in some really basic sense. It’s not necessarily unique in cinema as a whole, but as modern Disney movies go, it feels like a small step outside of the usual comfort zone, so there’s that, I guess. Jolie is mostly a bit wooden, but she’s fun in the character’s darker, more “evil” moments (she’s got this voracious grin that sets you on edge, like she’s about to jump off the screen and eat you or something). Plus, the film has at least a basic understanding that you need a bit of light to counterbalance the darkness, and even though it attacks that pretty clumsily sometimes, it still goes a long way in keeping the whole thing from becoming monotonous. Other than that, I don’t really know — it just doesn’t render any real offense, I suppose.

Which is, of course, no reason to recommend the movie, so I’m not going to do that. It’s not a painful experience, so if your kids are absolutely insistent upon it, you don’t need to brace yourself or anything. But nothing about it stands out to recommend it, and it is, overall, a gigantic mess in just about every category.

-Matt T.