Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

Starring- Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Guillaume Aretos, Zach Callison

Director- Rob Minkoff

PG- some mild action and brief rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMl2tTVwsZA

It was pretty obvious even before it was released that How to Train Your Dragon 2 was DreamWorks Animation’s good movie this year, so it comes as no surprise that Mr. Peabody & Sherman is mostly lifeless. Still, I was taken aback by exactly how little effort appears to have gone into it. Were it not for the occasional bit of spectacle, I would think this was a low-budget animated feature produced by a slightly better-resourced independent studio, not one of the big modern animation juggernauts. Animated movies produced by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and, occasionally, Blue Sky, usually have at least a year’s grace period where the kids who saw them keep them alive and put them on merchandise and whatnot. Mr. Peabody & Sherman came out just a handful of months ago, and it’s already been relegated to the status of forgotten cultural relic. That’s very telling.

Based on a cartoon old enough that even I don’t remember, much less the small children one assumes are its target audience, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is the story of, well, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) and Sherman (Max Charles). Peabody is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who also just happens to be a dog. Sherman is the human boy he’s adopted. Together, they have adventures through history in Peabody’s finest invention — a time machine he calls the Wayback.

On his first day of school, Sherman gets into a fight with a classmate named Penny (Ariel Winter). In an effort to teach Sherman a lesson and reconcile the two, Mr. Peabody invites the girl and her family over for dinner. Unfortunately, Sherman can’t resist telling her about the Wayback. Soon, Penny is stranded in ancient Egypt, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman have to rescue her — without tearing apart the fabric of space and time.

To be fair, Mr. Peabody & Sherman isn’t terrible, but DreamWorks Animation’s movies almost never are. It’s just effortless in a way that’s increasingly frustrating as the film goes on. Honestly, I suspect this is a premise that probably works best as a series of 15-minute shorts; still, it’s not a bad idea for a movie. I mean, the fact that Mr. Peabody is a dog is a little arbitrary; regardless, I think a kids’ movie about a couple of fun characters having adventures through time could be really enjoyable.

It’s the movie’s refusal to have any real fun with this premise that proves its undoing. There isn’t much imagination on display; everything plays out the way you’d expect. The different historical periods the characters visit — and surprisingly, there aren’t actually all that many — aren’t really explored; they simply serve as backdrops for largely straightforward chase scenes and pratfalls. Mr. Peabody and Sherman show up in an exotic location, aggravate the locals, get chased somewhere, Sherman does something stupid and inadvertently destroys and/or defaces a recognizable historical artifact, repeat from step one.

The comedy isn’t any more creative. There are one or two good bits (most of them courtesy of Patrick Warburton’s Greek warrior), but mostly… Well, the scene where Sherman realizes that King Tut sounds a lot like King Butt typifies the level of wit we’re dealing with here. There’s a lot of pun-based humor — some of it intentionally bad, but some of it noticeably not. You get your expected potty humor, of course, and this being a DreamWorks Animation production, there are plenty of vapid pop culture references to go around. And they’re still casting major celebrities in roles that don’t demand them — this, I think, is exemplified by Stephen Colbert being given a part that almost by design gives him next to nothing funny to do.

As with a lot of the lesser films that DreamWorks turns out, though, the proof is in the animation. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is as flat, empty, and textureless an animated movie as I can ever remember seeing from them. The studio has tried to cut corners in the past by stylizing their movies so that the lack of detail is a part of the aesthetic — you see a lot of this in Madagascar, for instance. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is the bridge too far. Everything looks plastic somehow, especially the human characters, though one wonders why the camera has to do an extreme close-up on Mr. Peabody for it to look like he has fur. My biggest grievance is the emptiness of the film’s environments — there barely appears to be a world that exists outside of the characters and their story. A lot of them look like they were created inside a computer that was simply told to generate three different buildings and then left to its own devices. Even Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s apartment — it looks like nothing more than four walls and a floor, with only the barest, most necessary furnishings. Nothing about the world the filmmakers have created looks the slightest bit lived-in. It’s like an old sitcom set that’s only just now being used for the first time.

It’s not very surprising, but it’s still a bit disappointing. DreamWorks is either in the big two or three of animated movies, depending on your assessment of the relationship between Disney and Pixar. We know it can do a lot better than this, not just because it has the resources but because it’s already proven it. Mr. Peabody & Sherman not only isn’t a good movie, it’s a severe miscalculation — a film so devoid of life and effort that it’s hard to even call it a cynical cash grab. I’m not saying kids won’t enjoy this; they’ll enjoy just about anything. But Mr. Peabody & Sherman will fade away immediately, and to a large extent, it already has.

-Matt T.

Hercules (2014)

Starring- Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews

Director- Brett Ratner

PG-13- epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Uro03xQwrA

Well, it’s certainly the best Hercules-related movie to come out this year.

Actually, I must admit to being somewhat impressed by how not-terrible Hercules is, because on paper, it should have been 2014-Bottom-10 material — annoyingly gritty trailers with bad CGI, starring The Rock, directed by Brett Ratner. I guess the stars just align sometimes.

I mean, I’m not saying Hercules is a good movie, whatever that even means anymore, but it’s knowingly dumb in enough of the right ways to be a decent time regardless.

Hercules the Legend is famed all across ancient Greece for his numerous exploits — chief among them the twelve labors undergone to earn peace from the gods who scorn their half-human son. Hercules the Man (Dwayne Johnson) may or may not actually have done any of that — though the band of mercenaries with whom he travels is content to let its foes believe it.

One day, they receive a plea for help from the king (John Hurt) of a beleaguered nation in Thrace, under constant assault from the barbaric, pillaging hordes of an enigmatic evil. Hercules takes on the job and begins training a meager army of farmers for battle against a mythical force.

I think Brett Ratner’s a guy movie buffs wish we could all hate, and I’m certainly among them. He’s that ideal combination of untalented and egotistical that ought to let us do so completely guilt-free. He has a reputation as Hollywood’s go-to shooter, a guy who will helm literally any project for the right price and, with minimal studio interference, will produce exactly what the execs wanted, nothing more and nothing less. Of course, this means that every now and then, the fates conspire to let him make something that’s actually kind of fun, and we reviewers all have to qualify our hate yet again.

So, yeah, I wasn’t inclined to enjoy Hercules, and I’m kind of kicking myself for the fact that I did anyway. Ratner’s main talent is that he doesn’t actively diminish the material he’s given, so this is one of the rare projects that just worked out.

Actually, the fact that he probably couldn’t have cared less about this movie might be one of the reasons it works, a little. I sort of admire the efficiency of the thing; in a lot of ways, it’s what all dumb, make-a-buck blockbusters should be — an hour and a half long, minimal navel-gazing, zero self-importance, simple plotting, etc. Hercules gets offered a job, Hercules takes that job, Hercules fights stuff, sandwich the absolute bare minimum of character stuff in the middle to make it all stick, roll credits. I have a certain admiration for the way the movie gets going right off the bat and doesn’t spend time laboring over convoluted plot points or trying to force an emotional intelligence that’s simply never going to happen. It takes all of our two-plus-hour blockbusters and cuts out everything but the fun bits. It’s a series of escalating action sequences, not a whole lot more, and I’m totally okay with that.

The only thing Ratner really brings to this is a willingness to step out of the way and just let things be stupid. The cast and crew are more than up to that task. Hercules was advertised as another gritty, self-serious picture, but it’s not; it’s jokey, tongue-in-cheek, and self-aware — sometimes maybe a little too self-aware, but the lapses are slight enough that I feel comfortable forgiving them. The movie has enough straight-faced nonsense to keep me entertained. The first major battle involves weird, shrieking zombie people that are never adequately explained; Hercules’s armor is made of immortal lion skin (and he’s fond of wearing its head as a helmet); one of Herc’s sidekicks is a silent, axe-crazy battle lunatic who has weird Gollum flashes at night; that sort of thing.

I think it’s the cast and characters that sell it. Dwayne Johnson is no stranger to being the centerpiece of a stupid movie, and let’s be honest, a movie that’s 95 percent him-straining-to-lift-something-heavy is going to be right up his alley. He surprised me in Snitch, where he actually kind of sort of did a little real acting for a bit; with Hercules, he’s back in charm-and-punch-something mode. I’m all right with that. Technically speaking, he’s probably bad in this role — he’s doing his usual Dwayne Johnson thing, but he’s doing with an accent and all these affectations, and it sometimes feels almost Schwarzeneggerian in its unintentionally humorous pomp and circumstance. A lot of that is this movie’s terrible dialogue, though, which is this awful mixture of modern and poetic fantasy speech that feels less like a writer creating his own dialectic reality and more like he thinks fantastical dialogue is mostly talking like a regular person but with big words and no contractions. As broad, cheery, and stupid as the movie is, though, the woodenness of it comes close to being part of the fun. Hercules is at least as much so-bad-it’s-good as it is accidentally-regular-good, is what I’m saying.

It isn’t Herc so much as the supporting players, though. Action movies are only just starting to lean toward the team dynamic again, and even then, it’s only because of our current fixation on big crossover pictures. I expected this would be a lone wolf sort of movie, so to see it give so much focus to a group of heroes and their dynamic is actually a bit refreshing, especially given that I was surprised to find I actually liked some of these characters. On paper, they fill rather stereotypical roles — the mentor, the best friend, the silent killer, the chick — but the movie does some fairly atypical things with them in practice. The mentor is a scene-styling Ian McShane, who plays the character like an especially drunk, uncaring Jack Sparrow who occasionally sees the future. The best friend is a touch more cynical and unsupportive than that character ordinarily would be. Our crazy battle lunatic has an unusual connection to Hercules that actually gives him (some) emotional grounding. The chick… All right, you’ve got me on that one. She marks every block on the Token Woman checklist, right up to the asinine midriff-baring armor. Everyone else is all right, though. The film allows these characters to be funny and spreads the big action beats between them fairly evenly. It’s one of the few things about Hercules that works in exactly the way it was supposed to. All told, it was probably the most important one, too.

And if nothing else, at least it’s paced all right. It helps that the movie actually pays off a lot of the smaller beats, most of them in extraordinarily obvious ways, but still; it gives it a stronger feeling of self-containment. There really isn’t much pretense on display here, which I appreciate; it understands the need for emotional involvement enough that it will throw, like, five minutes of characters hanging out here and there. But mostly, it just knows exactly how far to take things with each big, dumb set piece, and that’s enough for its purposes.

If Hercules doesn’t spawn a franchise, I will be very okay with that. It’s a Brett Ratner studio production; it was only ever going to go right once, if at all. And something like this either figures out people are enjoying it mainly for the wrong reasons and gets too self-aware, or it stays oblivious and blunders into self-seriousness. This really, really isn’t a great movie; rather, it’s a movie that does one or two important things right and does everything else amusingly wrong. As a one-off, it’s enjoyable. Lightning struck once; let’s not count on it coming again.

-Matt T.

Interstellar (2014)

Starring- Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Bill Irwin, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Mackenzie Foy, Timothee Chalamet, Leah Cairns, Topher Grace, Josh Stewart, Matt Damon

Director- Christopher Nolan

PG-13- some intense perilous action and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxOhd4qlnA

I have to confess that Interstellar, easily one of my most anticipated movies of the year, comes as a bit of a disappointment. Some people are going to find that vindicating. Anyone who accumulates the loyal, sometimes rabid fanbase the size of Christopher Nolan’s is going to wind up under unusually heavy scrutiny; naturally, some people aren’t going to like what they find, and Nolan certainly has a small but incredibly vocal opposition.

However, I’d like to think we can all agree on one thing — Christopher Nolan makes movies like he’s tinkering with explosives. Eventually, it’s going to blow up in his face. You can’t say he isn’t ambitious; he’s always been reaching for the stars — here, literally. Interstellar comes close to attempting a thesis statement on the meaning of human existence altogether, and there aren’t many directors courageous enough to take a stab at that. If Interstellar doesn’t get anywhere near its ambitions, well, of course it doesn’t. But in the moments where it comes closest, where its grasp very nearly catches up with its reach, Interstellar is transcendent.

In a day-after-tomorrow future, Earth is a dying world. It’s become a giant, swirling Dust Bowl. Blight has destroyed most of the crops; only corn still grows and even then, not for much longer.

Former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is just old enough to remember a time before, when the human race was still fascinated by the prospect of exploration and advancement. Now, just about everyone — including him — has been forced into farming. Human progress has stagnated.

Cooper is still prone to stargazing, however, and when his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), discovers a gravitic anomaly in her own bedroom, Cooper realizes it’s a message. It guides him to what appears to be the last NASA station, under the command of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who has for several years now been assembling missions into outer space in search of a new planet to sustain the human race. The latest one is in need of a pilot, and Cooper is perfect for the job.

And so, leaving his family behind for what he knows might well be years, Cooper and a small crew including Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), sets off to check on the last undiscovered worlds that might be capable of sustaining life. Time for them runs more slowly, and the world they left behind ages without them. Soon, it’s an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) running the show at NASA — and realizing that without solving the problem of time and space itself, the mission will come far too late to save everyone on Earth.

I don’t know whether or not it’s fair to say that there’s been all that much debate surrounding Nolan’s work — at least, not substantially more than any other film. His opposition has always seemed to be a vocal minority. Nevertheless, I should make clear that I’ve been a devoted fan for years. The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception — none of these films is entirely without fault, but I could watch any one of them over and over again without getting tired of it. Heck, I even defended The Dark Knight Rises, kind of. (My review of it reads extremely positive, but repeat viewings have dulled my enthusiasm somewhat.)

Interstellar was one of the bigger deals for me this year. I think it was inevitable that it was going to let me down at least a little. Still, I’m disappointed that it let me down as much as it did.

But on those moments when the writing, the direction, the characters, the acting, and the themes are in lockstep and working as well as they possibly can, you definitely start to see the shadow of what it could’ve been — sometimes even the light casting that shadow.

Interstellar is this big, ambitious, unwieldy thing, and the fact that it’s as contained as it is constitutes some kind of miracle, especially since it’s Nolan’s most significant step yet out of his usual wheelhouse. While his films have taken a slightly more optimistic bent post-Inception, Interstellar is the first thing he’s made that leaves his typically grim approach behind almost entirely. It was originally pitched as a Steven Spielberg project, and you can see that all over it — it’s a movie that, while acknowledging some of the darkness of the present and even the near future, takes an optimistic view of humanity’s ultimate fate; it’s built partially on good, old-fashioned sci-fi adventuring but mainly on an uplifting tale of the joy of discovery and the wonders of the universe.

And Interstellar has no shortage of wonders. It is, on one hand, simply an extremely well-designed piece of science fiction. The technology has a distinct look and feel and seems, for the most part, like a fairly logical extension of our current reality. There are a couple of robots along for the ride that don’t resemble anything we’ve seen in the past — they’re structurally like that giant computer IBM entered in Jeopardy a few years ago but nevertheless manage to register as characters worth caring about. There’s also something about sci-fi technology that not only looks unique but also moves in a certain way — there’s a dance-like fluidity to the way the parts interact, from the cockpit that rotates within the larger structure of the ship to the way the robots move by rolling like tossed jacks. Interstellar builds its futuristic world quite well — on Earth as well as in space. The first act is one of the film’s strongest segments. Despite some occasional meandering, it captures the state of humanity quite well and without beating you over the head with everything. It’s a world that’s largely given up on progress and has, as a result, regressed a bit technologically — except on the farming front, while miles-long fields of corn are mowed by complex robotic combines and other minor artificial intelligences. Most people aren’t aware that the world is dying, but there is a mild sense of unease hanging over everything — the last of the crops are dying, dust storms plow through once-busy towns with alarming regularity, and people are getting worried about what must be coming next.

Nolan shows uncharacteristic restraint in sketching out this world. It would be easy, in this pre-apocalyptic setting, for him to slide into the almost pathological darkness that characterizes most of his work. But here, he’s smart enough to allow things to play out with enough of a sense of normalcy that the desperate world of the future still feels like a place inhabited by ordinary people going about their everyday business. Actually, generally speaking, very little of Interstellar has the tonal appearance of a Nolan film; it is, as previously stated, like a Spielberg film with a few distinctly Nolan twists.

Of course, Interstellar finds far more wonders in the distant reaches of space. Nolan might not be anywhere near the visual stylist that Alfonso Cuaron is, but Interstellar comes very close to Gravity in the way it captures in the incomprehensible vastness of space. And Interstellar doesn’t restrict itself to Earth’s upper atmosphere and thus has twice as much to work with — chief among them the rivers of light bending ceaselessly into a black hole at the edge of the new galaxy the crew explores. The planets they visit feature such sights as a frozen landscape of clouds and — featured prominently in the trailers — tidal wives that stretch miles into the sky. There were moments when I wished Nolan would dwell a bit longer on these discoveries — he’s not a notoriously impatient director, but it sometimes seems as though he holds most of his shots just barely too short for the emotion to come across. Still, he’s an able enough director that the ample spectacle on display in Interstellar mostly sticks.

Of course, for me, the majority of his appeal has always been his ambitions as a storyteller. He’s never been perfect, but he’s largely able to write something well-structured and thematically interesting that always ends up in a different place than it starts and isn’t totally predictable in every detail. Interstellar represents a departure, though, as it’s one of those rare occasions when he’s found himself filming someone else’s script. Maybe that’s why so much of my disappointment in Interstellar is centered there. At the same time, a lot of its flaws are things he’s struggled with for years, even in his best films.

Don’t get me wrong — Interstellar is still a highly ambitious piece of storytelling and one that sporadically strikes some incredibly strong notes. It has a strong opening third and an almost-as-strong final third. That middle section can meander a bit, but even it isn’t awful. Unfortunately, there are just enough things amiss throughout that Interstellar always seems barely less resonant than it wants to be.

Nolan has always had an issue with the humanity of his characters — they get the barest personalities and motivations, usually connected well enough to involve you and complete the film but rarely deep enough that they could carry everything entirely on their own. Interstellar is more of the same — there are some engaging characters scattered throughout (the relationship between Cooper and Murph, which is, to be fair, the film’s most important by far is actually quite effective), but most of them are sketched very broadly, and not in a particularly lively or energetic way. It says a lot that the robots rate as some of the most likable and “human” characters on the crew.

Nolan has also had problems in the past with his ability to focus on something not only intellectually but also emotionally. He’s a sharp guy and a pretty solid structural writer, so his films very rarely leave you hanging, but if he has to deviate from the course in order to get something across, he’ll happily do so (I’m thinking, for example, of the accidental fascism/authoritarianism The Dark Knight occasionally indulges in order to make a larger philosophical point). There’s nothing quite that troubling in Interstellar, but the film gets so wrapped up in the visceral power of space exploration and all that associated imagery that it forgets how big a part of this story Murph is. Her actions have a huge role in the film’s thematic endgame, but the script reduces them to boring, science-y stuff that doesn’t get explained very well and mostly happens off-screen. It doesn’t spend a whole lot of time fleshing out adult Murph as a character, either, so the conclusion the film reaches about humanity’s relationship with the universe, while complete and not entirely incorrect, rings a bit hollow. The revelations and lessons learned are either funneled through the wrong characters or undersold within the right ones. The movie also has a hard time dramatizing them sometimes — the stop on the ocean planet, while visually quite impressive, feels somewhat empty because of how transparently it’s only there to move the plot along so we can get to some of the emotional meat.

Those thematic undercurrents also present their own problems. I think Nolan has always had a slight problem with taking weird poetry breaks in order to have the characters basically verbalize the themes — think Gary Oldman’s monologue at the end of The Dark Knight — but for the most part, it doesn’t matter. He’s still pretty good at having his ideas turn up as concrete elements of his story and characters, so they come across organically. Interstellar manages to come full circle thematically — and that at least makes it entertaining — but it swaths its ideas in so much symbolism, metaphor, and poetic philosophical talks that they lose most of their real-world application. I don’t even disagree with what it’s saying — not at all, in fact. But it expresses that solely through weird fortune cookie nuggets, pseudoscience, and outright nonsense instead of trying to render it through organic, real interactions and situations. For my part, a movie that’s thematically successful is one that essentially sets out to prove its point — not just to invoke structured symbolism or indulge in the odd poetic monologue. It’s about taking that thesis and testing it as honestly as you can through your characters and what happens to them. Of course, the rules are different depending on the movie you’re making — a dumb action movie is going to have to handle that material differently from an art movie. As far-reaching and ambitious as Interstellar is, though, I feel as though the rule applies. It’s not enough for me that I can take just about everything that happens in it and determine exactly what it symbolizes in the grand scheme of things. I want to then be able to take those elements in my mind, turn them over, and find that what the film pointed me toward was inevitable. Interstellar doesn’t do that. And I say again — I actually agree with what it’s saying (or at least, what I perceive that it’s saying), and there are a thousand ways the film might’ve included something more concrete alongside the symbolism and philosophy. It just doesn’t, so instead, the movie’s more an interesting subject for a term paper than something I found genuinely challenging.

Of course, I nitpick because I love. If this started to sound like a deconstruction of Christopher Nolan, know that it wasn’t intended to be. I can list, at length, the flaws of the filmmakers I admire most in far more detail than those in whom I have no interest. Those flaws, unfortunately, are more pronounced in Interstellar than in a lot of the other movies he’s made.

Still, he’s ambitious, and Interstellar might be the boldest thing he’s made to date. That he got anywhere at all with it is more a testament to his strengths than its significant flaws are to his weaknesses. Interstellar is extremely uneven and pales in comparison to his best work. Frankly, I don’t see myself coming back to it more than one or two times — unless my opinion changes radically. But it’s still bold, innovative filmmaking, and it needs to be seen at least once — preferably on the biggest screen possible.

-Matt T.

* CORRECTION: I learned after writing this review that Nolan did indeed pen the script, along with his brother Jonathan. It originated with the latter and was intended for Steven Spielberg initially. I apologize for this error.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Starring- Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman

Director- Seth MacFarlane

R- strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhmP8UYtipA

A Million Ways to Die in the West is egotistical, annoying, ruthlessly unfunny, and arguably the worst thing Seth MacFarlane has ever made. But come on, tell us how you really feel.

Sheep farmer Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is extremely ill-equipped for life in the Wild West — he’s openly cowardly, unconfident, can barely hold a gun, and bruises easily. When his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the town’s resident snooty rich guy, Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert is despondent — until he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), the new girl in town who’s taken a liking to him. What she hasn’t told him is that she’s married to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), a notoriously violent outlaw. And when Clinch finds out she’s been spending time with Albert, he’s out for blood.

MacFarlane has turned into quite the divisive figure — though I suppose he was never a comic for playing it safe. I have really mixed feelings about him. Generally, anything he makes is at least going to get a laugh out of me occasionally — and 95 percent of the time, I will immediately feel guilty for those laughs. At the same time, well, even his defenders would be hard-pressed to say that he doesn’t have some consistent negative tendencies.

And A Million Ways to Die in the West accentuates every last one of his flaws, more than anything else he’s ever made, while bringing absolutely none of his strengths to the table. Even compared to his mixed output thus far, I barely laughed at all — maybe three times during the entire movie, which feels exactly as long as its two-hour run-time.

Most of those laughs were ruined immediately. MacFarlane has always had a tendency to explain the joke — not because he thinks you’re stupid but as part of his overall approach, i.e., his explanation of the joke becomes the joke itself. You laugh because the immediate humor is obvious and the explanation is the part that’s truly unexpected. At least, that’s what it is when he’s been good. Here, for some reason, he feels the need to deliver the joke and then have all of the characters talk about it for the next five minutes, cracking wise until whatever cleverness there was initially drains right out of it and you start wanting to tell him he isn’t as observant as he thinks he is.

This tendency is exemplified by a scene where a miserable post-breakup Albert is reminiscing on his good times with Louise while fawning over photographs of all the fun things they did together, and all the images are them standing shoulder-to-shoulder with blank expressions on their faces. It was smart; I laughed. Then, MacFarlane basically says, “Man, I wish people would smile in photos,” and someone else replies, “What are you, insane?” Then, they continue talking about this for five more minutes before putting the subject on hold for the two additional scenes wherein people mock old-timey photos because no one ever smiles. That’s far from the only scene where this happens, but it strikes me as the most egregious.

MacFarlane also, obviously, has a tendency toward gross-out shock humor. And believe me, I’m not operating from a position of surprise here; I didn’t watch this movie and think, “My word! Sex and fart jokes in a Seth MacFarlane movie! Why, I never!” I mean, it’s Seth MacFarlane. Still, in the past, he’s usually been smart enough that the joke is, again, somewhat self-referencing — you’re laughing not because of the dumb, lowbrow humor but because of the highlighted immaturity of the person who created it. The stuff here is just presented as is. It seems to have been made mainly to amuse morons. I can’t identify a joke broader than “having diarrhea is funny.” Just loud fart noises and guys going, “Duh, huh. Boobs.”

The shock-value gags include more of his social faux pas humor, too. I’ve never been a fan of that because I’ve never been able to identify a message behind it that’s larger than “society takes sexual abuse too seriously.” But it’s getting so tired at this point that I couldn’t even manage a stunned gasp at the latest in his string of child molestation jokes. I mean, I wouldn’t find it funny even if it was fresh, but it says a lot about how old his shtick is getting that he can’t even successfully shock anyone anymore.

And of course, his humor still has a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned condescension. Here, the condescension is directed mainly at the Old West. I’m not offended by that, because it’s not like people from the Old West are some minority we still have out there somewhere. It’s just comedically pointless. I thought maybe there’d be some metaphor here, like MacFarlane using the circumstances of the West to point out the respects in which we haven’t evolved as much as we think we have or something like that. But nope — he apparently just thinks the Old West was a silly place and decided that premise was worth an entire movie. It’s two hours of him pointing at things and saying, “Wow, that’s really stupid; can you believe people used to do that?” His character is a total anachronism, a completely modern human being who was nevertheless born and raised on the frontier. Nothing about it makes a lick of sense, and all of it is incredibly obvious, anyway.

There’s still plenty of condescension left over for some groups of people that are still around, though. I’m not saying comedy doesn’t have a worldview; invariably, it does. MacFarlane’s, though, has always been less about deconstructing ideas and more about mocking the people who hold them. I’m not saying he doesn’t sometimes pick targets that deserve it a bit, but it almost always comes off as self-serving — MacFarlane patting himself on the back for being enlightened. Of course, with him, that enlightenment rarely manifests as anything concrete. Mostly, it seems as though he just thinks that because he knows better, and because we know that he knows better, he’s entitled to crack jokes about race and sex. Again, there’s a way to do that, but as with all comedy, you have to be conscious of whether you’re punching up or down. The only difference between a joke about a black person told by Seth MacFarlane and a joke about a black person told by a member of the Ku Klux Klan is that MacFarlane is so publicly political that we know he doesn’t mean it. Taken solely within the context of his work, it’s indistinguishable.

I think that’s part of why I’m drawn to his comedy, in a somewhat morbid way. It’s an accidental cautionary tale. I worry that I, personally, could easily become MacFarlane (or at least how he comes across as a comedy writer) — a guy with the intelligence to have all these high-minded ideals but without the self-awareness to realize when he’s not living up to them. He’s the sort of person I suspect considers #GamerGate to be a sexist and stupid movement; yet, in the way he approaches the dynamic between Albert, Anna, and Louise, he uses all of the same language. The film never acknowledges the similarity in its two conflicts — one of the villains is the guy who “stole” Albert’s girlfriend, and the other villain is the guy from whom Albert “stole” his new girlfriend. Because Albert is more generically polite, the film seems to expect its audience to accept that he’s entitled to both women, and if they don’t want him, that’s on them.* The structure of Albert’s character arc has little if anything to do with him becoming a better person; it’s a story about him coming to realize that he already was a great person and just needed to admit it and let it boost his confidence.

When you write, direct and star in a film as a character who’s clearly, to some extent, based on you, you really have to watch this sort of thing. A Million Ways to Die in the West ultimately comes off as a tribute to MacFarlane’s own ego, one that only validates and props up everything about its central character. He has the correct worldview, the correct personality, the correct everything — all he needs to do is realize and act upon it — and any women who leave him for someone else are ultimately being superficial and flighty, dangit.

Yeah, a lot of the humor is self-deprecating, but look closely at the aspects of his own personality MacFarlane chooses to barb — it’s all about things he considers meaningless anyway and spends the rest of the film deconstructing. He’s not stereotypically manly, he doesn’t like to fight, he’s terrible at rural activities like farming and square-dancing, etc. He self-deprecates, then immediately says, “But that stuff doesn’t matter anyway.” It has the appearance of humility, but none of the hard work.

I know this is a really long-winded way of saying that the movie comes off as an ego trip and gets a little insufferable after a while, but it’s worth pinpointing the exact reasons it isn’t funny — and by extension, the exact reasons MacFarlane has, increasingly quickly, been falling into disfavor. It doesn’t really matter if you agree with his worldview; I agree with substantial parts of it, and a lot of his critics agree with even more than I’ll cop to. Egotism is annoying no matter who it’s coming from. And maybe he is the humblest guy ever and is just really terrible at conveying it in film; who knows? I can only talk about what I’m seeing here.

It’s not that there isn’t a potentially good movie here; it just needed to be made by a Seth MacFarlane who wasn’t surrounded by yes-men or people who couldn’t identify when the project was getting too uppity or developing too many unfortunate implications. I’m increasingly finding it to be the case that serious actors always tend to steal the show in comedies — maybe they have a Comedy Reserve that they save up all year until they use it on that one film or something — and that’s the case here, particularly with Theron, whose seriousness actually plays kind of well off of MacFarlane’s constant smarm. Their relationship actually isn’t entirely without chemistry, which carries the film a long way.

Of course, there are a couple of jokes that actually do work, few and far between though they are. Most of them get over-explained until they die right in front of you, but the few that are allowed to stand are pretty memorable — chief among them a celebrity cameo so stupid as to be downright inspired.

MacFarlane also went an inexplicably long way toward making the film look very nice — it actually resembles an honest-to-goodness Western, with lots of practical sets and on-location shooting, matched with appropriately cinematic camerawork and a bright color palette.

But most of that ends up being window-dressing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, A Million Ways to Die in the West is dumb, juvenile, crass, and offensive — all without the self-awareness needed to make that funny — and much too self-congratulatory to be the slightest bit entertaining.

-Matt T.

* It likely goes without saying, but both women are reduced to the status of “hero’s motivation” by the third act. Anna is built up as this tough-as-nails woman of the frontier and an extremely capable marksman, but as the movie’s wrapping up, she’s just being menaced by things and ordered to go hide while the men take care of everything. (She obeys without fuss, of course.)

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Starring- Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Noah Taylor

Director- Doug Liman

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vw61gCe2oqI

Sometimes, a guy in a mech suit blows up aliens. And that’s okay.

Sometimes, that guy is Tom Cruise. All right, all right — William Cage, but you and I both know you’re not going to call him that. Anyway, Cage is a media relations guy for the United Defense Force — a massive international army that formed after an alien race invaded Earth, conquering and laying waste to the majority of the European continent. They call the aliens “mimics” because of their uncanny ability to anticipate seemingly everything the humans try to throw at them.

The United Defense Force is planning a counterattack to end it all. When Cage’s commanding officer (Brendan Gleeson) orders him and his film crew to the frontlines to capture the invasion, he tries blackmailing him to get out of it. In return, the general orders him arrested, and before Cage knows it, he’s waking up aboard a ship headed for the front the day before the attack, having been drafted into the service.

But the mimics are ready for them. The soldiers land in the middle of a slaughter. Cage watches all of his comrades die horribly, and soon joins them.

Then, he wakes up. He’s back on the ship the day before the invasion. Soon, he begins reliving the battle over and over again, dying and waking up on the ship every single time. He realizes that his foresight is the key to winning the battle that will end the war. None of his commanding officers believe him, however, so he teams up with the only person who does — war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who has experienced this time loop before — to figure out what’s happening to him and resolve the mimic problem permanently.

Edge of Tomorrow is Battle: Los Angeles meets Groundhog Day, basically. Cage trains with Rita, and the two of them work out a strategy via repeated excursions to the battlefield. They fight, they fail, they die, they figure out how to get past whatever it was that killed them that time, repeat from step one. I think the most impressive thing about the movie is that it isn’t tedious. I mean, the only thing that’s worse than an action movie where you watch pretty much the same thing happen over and over again is an action movie where you watch the actual same thing happen over and over again, right?

Edge of Tomorrow is pretty smartly paced, though. It has a pretty good sense of exactly what you can tolerate, how long you can tolerate it, and when it needs to find an excuse to throw something new into the mix. It’s creative in the way it manages to cut the relived days into each other. Sometimes, we get a full sequence; other times, it’s something like a montage. Sometimes, it’ll blend the two — a scene will play out as a full sequence, but it’ll become clear in retrospect that we were seeing the first third of it fresh with the characters with the other two-thirds quietly jumping ahead in the future to show their fourth or fifth attempt. The movie’s relatively clever in the way it bends that capability to its dramatic advantage, and that keeps the pacing brisk and un-burdensome. Of course, it’s equally helpful that Edge of Tomorrow is not, like most of its fellow blockbusters, a billion hours long. It keeps things simple and doesn’t feel the need to over-elaborate on the situation — the mimics came on a meteor and attacked; do we need to know anything other than that? The film only needs so much exposition, and it wisely contains the majority of it to one scene at about the midway point. Other than that, it just sticks with the central conceit.

I think it’s the cast more than anything that sells it. I mean, Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise; he’s going to come in and do his Tom Cruise thing. Any variation on that is going to depend largely on where the director points him. Doug Liman actually found a solid role for him in William Cage, though. It’s not quite the sort of role Cruise usually plays, but it’s the sort of role it’s easy to suspect is closer to the way he actually is in real life — the kind of guy who bought an expensive gym membership to look athletic and tough without caring to actually be athletic and tough, a Wall Street stock broker rather than a secret agent or superhero. Edge of Tomorrow lets the character be a little pathetic — a lot pathetic, actually — and get run through the ringer. Of course, it’s inevitable that he learns how to be a hero, and Cruise is able to let that happen pretty convincingly. I’ve said it before — Cruise isn’t a great actor, but he’s great at being utterly convinced in what’s going on around him. There’s no one who plays the generic action hero with as much aplomb.

Of course, if you’re reading the reviews at all, you already know that the big star here is Emily Blunt. She’s the human being to Cruise’s audience stand-in, someone whose presence suggests a whole world of stories we haven’t been told. She has the thousand-yard stare of a grizzled veteran who’s seen way too much and just needs a return to normalcy at this point — though civilian life may no longer suit her. In short, she’s the perfect person to play off Cage’s buffoonery.

The film has an appropriately boisterous and memorable supporting cast, particularly among the especially messy and underprepared squadron to which Cage is assigned. Chief among these players is Bill Paxton as the Drill Sergeant Nasty, memorizing the exact calorie count of every piece of scenery. That the film has enough of a sense of humor to accommodate these characters is another big component of what makes it work. It never takes itself too seriously; at the same time, it doesn’t undercut the seriousness of its characters. It gets a lot of mileage both out the way the characters bounce off each other and out of the situation itself — Rita gets amusingly gung-ho about shooting Cage in the face when she figures that would be easier than trying to salvage the situation.

All around, Edge of Tomorrow is way better than its shoddy marketing campaign, which made it look like soulless, banal Hollywood product and is probably the reason why it was a massive box office failure. Then again, I think bombing is the best thing that could happen to some films — it makes the people who liked them rally around and preserve them. At the same time, I think that can sometimes push people to make something more out of it than what it is, and I think that’s happening to Edge of Tomorrow. It’s a fun action movie, but I disagree that it’s the overlooked great blockbuster of 2014.

At the end of the day, it’s still a touch calculated and impersonal. The premise is an interesting one, but it exists mostly unto itself. I’m not saying a film like Edge of Tomorrow has to be challenging my understanding of human nature or something like that, but there’s too little going on beneath the surface to make it emotionally arresting the way some of the great action movies have been. It’s got some fun characters, a couple of halfway decent ideas for action sequences, and a decent sense of humor; it’s content to coast by largely on that.

I think what hurts it the most is Doug Liman’s static, passionless approach. (I’m not saying he’s passionless, just that he has trouble capturing that visually.) There aren’t a lot of particularly striking or memorable images on display here, and the action consists mainly of the fast-paced frenzy we’ve gotten accustomed to lately. There’s something blasé about the way he presents the film’s world — the mimics are just kind of a thing, not really built up to or paid off in an especially interesting way. There’s a scene where they attack a major city, and there’s no real emotion associated with that — they just show up, and stuff starts happening. That’s typical of most of their appearances — unrelated things happen, and then the mimics are there. Fight scene! There’s no real sense of the state of the world in light of this unprecedented threat, no idea of what’s at stake or what the characters are fighting for. Leading up to the big battle, there’s no palpable sense of dread. Even in the battle itself, the chaos feels manufactured rather than fearsome. There’s no sense of wonder associated with the fantastic sights and sounds. The film simply presents these things in a very matter-of-fact way and leaves no time to appreciate their emotional effect. It’s so occupied with producing slick entertainment that it doesn’t pause to nurture the finer details that might’ve made it great.

I mean, I had a pretty good time watching Edge of Tomorrow. Far be it from me to close on a negative note with what is ultimately a much better movie than we had any reason to expect. It’s good fun and certainly one of 2014’s best surprises.

-Matt T.

Chef (2014)

Starring- Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr.

Director- Jon Favreau

R- language, including some suggestive references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgFws3AoIUY

I think I OD’d on horror movies this Halloween, so I needed something light and good-natured to get myself back on track. Fortunately, Chef mostly did the trick.

It’s a testament to the difference it makes when a filmmaker actually cares about what he’s doing. Chef is pure formula from start to finish, but it almost redeems the formula on the strength of its sincerity. It’s an indie crowd-pleaser that’s also clearly quite personal for writer, director, and star Jon Favreau, and that lends it a richness it would otherwise be lacking.

Here, Favreau casts himself as Carl Casper, a celebrity chef who currently runs the kitchen at an upscale restaurant. However, he’s starting to get tired of having to cook the same menu every day, and no one ever orders his experimental dishes. When one of the Internet’s biggest restaurant critics (Oliver Platt), savages him in a review, accusing him of being unadventurous and lacking in imagination, Carl has a very public meltdown that goes viral and costs him his job and his reputation.

Left penniless and without any immediate job prospects, Carl picks up an old, piece of junk food truck and starts his own business, traveling across the country while also trying to reconnect with his estranged family.

You don’t have to know much about Favreau’s career to see that Chef is basically an autobiography, with cooking acting as a metaphor for filmmaking. Favreau was never on top of the world in quite the way that Carl appears to be, but his (directing) career still got off to a somewhat auspicious start — culminating, of course, in his work on Iron Man, where he and Marvel Comics got the ball rolling on a project that would ultimately redefine the state of blockbuster filmmaking. After positive reception like that, of course he agreed to take the helm on Iron Man 2.

By all accounts, that experience was far less positive — reports are that the studio intervened heavily, pressuring him to do the exact same thing all over again while shoehorning in a thousand Avengers setups. The end result was a minor critical drubbing and a largely unimpressed audience. Then, there was Cowboys and Aliens, and the less said about that, the better.

Now, Favreau’s returned with the cinematic equivalent of the food truck — Chef, a personal little film that was never going to set the box office on fire but that was, nonetheless, his, a story he wanted to tell, dealing with things that are important to him. That really does make all the difference, because as formulaic as Chef is, it rarely feels inauthentic. Favreau has clearly based this character on himself, and through him, he’s dealing with his feelings about his own critical rise and fall and what the future might hold for his movie career. It’s the sort of thing you can’t distill to the tactics and functions of good storytelling — it’s that certain emotional honesty that comes from knowing what you’re talking about and actually caring about it.

(And regardless of his actual knowledge about it, it sure seems like Favreau loves food almost as much as he loves movies. He shoots cooking like other directors shoot sex scenes. He made two films about guys in robot costumes blowing things up with lasers, and not a one of them savored every visual detail the way Chef does. Seriously, do not watch this movie on an empty stomach. You’ve been warned.)

What I especially like about Chef is that it doesn’t come across as a vanity piece that Favreau made to reassure himself and prop up his own ego. It isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to a critical downturn the way some other films have been (I have been trying very hard not to mention Lady in the Water, but screw it — Lady in the Water). It has an undercurrent of honest self-analysis — Carl Casper isn’t a perfect guy, and the critic isn’t just here to be laughed at or decried. The film as a whole feels humble. Well, okay, Favreau cast Scarlett Johansson as his girlfriend and Sofia Vergara as his ex-wife, but other than that.

It is a little weird that a film that’s all about striking out and doing your own thing, being creative and trying new combinations to see what works best, is a bit on the formulaic side. There are elements, particularly with the ending, that are so clichéd I found myself waiting for a hidden subversive twist to undo them. It’s pretty predictable overall and isn’t doing anything particularly new — it’s not even the first to do the food-as-art metaphor.

It’s pretty low-key, too, which is both its strength and its weakness. On one hand, I appreciate that it forgoes a lot of the big, obvious beats and mostly doesn’t try to upend everything with forced conflict. On the other hand, after Carl gets the food truck, the movie kind of stops being about anything. Even before that, it could hardly be considered a dramatic whirlwind. Again, maybe that’s for the best, at least compared to shoehorning drama into everything. It’s not pretentious or overly concerned with impressing anyone, which is a good thing for a movie this interested in individuality. It is, however, lacking in creativity, which is a problem for a movie that’s all about the joys of making something new.

It does, throughout, have that subplot with Carl trying to reconnect with his family, but that’s probably the movie’s most stale and uninvolving element. “Overworked dad who doesn’t spend enough time with his family” is what movies are about when they’re not sure what they’re about. And it doesn’t have all that much to do with the movie’s central premise of a guy finding himself creatively and determining what he wants out of his life and how his passions fit into that. Also, the resolution to this subplot is the most stereotypically Hollywood thing to happen in the entire movie and is handily its biggest and most obvious misstep, if not the one that has the biggest effect on the work itself.

But aside from the odd indulgence in fantasy or its occasional tendency to stray off-course, Chef is the kind of movie every director ought to make at least once — something that challenges them, something that conveys what they perceive as being their place in life, something personal and lived-in and feeling and honest. It isn’t brilliant, but it’s something Jon Favreau needed to make, and you can see that in every frame of it. Really, that’s all it needs.

-Matt T.

Blue Ruin (2014)

Starring- Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson

Director- Jeremy Saulnier

R- strong bloody violence, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJo1qrr_8Hc

Every now and then, a movie comes along and shows all the kids how it’s done. But sometimes, none of the kids see that movie, so they just keep doing it the way they always did. The kids should see Blue Ruin, is what I’m saying. Because if we’re going to keep making revenge movies and indie thrillers, we ought to know what they look like when they’re done right, and Blue Ruin is done really, really right.

The revenger here is Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a forlorn homeless man who lives out of a rusty old car on a beach in Delaware. Then, he receives word that the man who murdered both of his parents has been released on a plea deal. And so begins his quest. But vengeance is easy — it’s what comes after that’s difficult.

Blue Ruin, to be fair, isn’t a revenge movie in the typical sense — some over-the-top grindhouse affair with stoic, angry heroes and over-the-top, cartoonishly evil villains. This isn’t a Tarantino flick. It’s a drama that inhabits a world largely recognizable as our own and follows a series of events that one imagines could happen and, indeed, already has, in various circumstances.

It’s also not a revenge movie in that Dwight’s quest for vengeance isn’t the centerpiece of the whole thing. He gets his chance very early on. The film is about what happens after he tries it.

It’s reminiscent of Jeff Nichols’ under-seen Shotgun Stories — an intense family feud, finding its grounds in martial unfaithfulness, that escalates into violence. Two clans go to war. Most likely, only one of them comes out the other side. That’s the half of it that threatens to test one’s suspension of disbelief a bit, that a whole family would decide to keep justice “in-house” and begin a campaign against everyone associated with the enemy household. But it’s a small price for what turns out to be a very rewarding experience on the whole.

The main reason Blue Ruin isn’t a revenge film is that it glorifies neither violence nor revenge. It’s a startlingly brutal film, containing some of the messiest death scenes I can ever recall seeing on-screen. The violence is shocking and painstakingly realistic. It’s bloody without being over-the-top in that way that a movie that’s more “fun violent” would be.

And the vengeance… Well, regardless of who’s still alive by the time the credits roll, you realize early on that there are going to be no winners here. Blue Ruin shows that actions have consequences and that very rarely is an act of violence going to permanently and cleanly resolve anything, but it’s even more interested in the way that revenge corrodes the soul. The film is an escalating series of moral compromises. It contends — rightly, I think — that once you excuse one immoral action, there’s no line you can draw and swear not to cross. If things are desperate enough, you’ve already opened a logical pathway to the next bad decision, and you can’t close it. The only question that remains is how long it will take you to get comfortable with that decision — and when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, the answer is “quickly.”

At the beginning, Dwight sees his vengeance as justified. Maybe he doesn’t think it’s necessary; he might not even think it’s right. He doesn’t think it’s wrong, though, and that’s all that matters. Of course, his opinion doesn’t matter. Vengeance is never a closed circle between you and the person who wronged you. Consequences have a ripple effect, and they’re going to draw in those around you. That’s what Dwight realizes far too late. He started out for revenge. Soon, he’s fighting for his own survival, and especially for the survival of the innocent parties he loves. That puts what’s left of his moral compass to the test as he’s faced with decisions there’s no way he could’ve made at the beginning of the film. It’s a war now. In a war, there’s collateral damage — always. Dwight created a situation. He can’t un-create it. He either has to suffer its end or dive deeper into the darkness.

At the center of this is a performance from Macon Blair that put him on my radar in a big way. It’s the first time I’ve seen him on screen, and it had better be far from the last. His portrayal of Dwight is unique, precise, and thoroughly evocative. Even in smarter, more realistic revenge films, the protagonist tends to fit a certain archetype — the brooding, angry paragon of vigilante justice. This isn’t descriptive of Dwight at all. Blair inhabits this character with a pervasive sense of sadness rather than rage. When we first meet Dwight, he seems confused, lost, and lonely. You can tell that he carries deep wounds. He never stopped grieving. He probably never will. That’s destroyed him as a person, and little remains other than this shaky, nervous, anti-social wreck.

When he first begins stalking his parents’ killer, it doesn’t seem as though revenge is his intention — at least, not his conscious one. It appears, at most, to be a possibility he’s considered. Mostly, it seems as though he just wants to see, for himself, the man who did this, to watch him walk out of prison free, to figure out what this means for him and what to do from there. When his attempt at revenge comes, it hardly seems like a decision he makes. He sees the opportunity, his pain consumes him, and he leaps blindly, as if barely aware of what he’s doing.

Through what remains of the film, he never becomes the gun-toting warrior. He never becomes the rage-fueled avenger. He’s always a timid, suffering man, making the decisions he feels he has to in order to survive and protect the people he loves — and sometimes giving into his lesser impulses as well. It’s the cold logic of the awful decisions he makes as the film goes on that make him so tragic. The terrible things he does make a troubling amount of sense. That’s the problem with taking that first step into darkness — it’s often the case that afterward, you come across an altar on which you can leave either your survival instinct or your decency. And sometimes, you’re dragging innocent bystanders along for the ride.

Dwight is a rich, complex character — one of the year’s best — and a lot of that has to do with Macon Blair, who deserves all the praise we can offer him.

It’s why the film is a cut above most indie thrillers, too. Blue Ruin isn’t really reinventing the wheel; in style and approach, it’s immediately recognizable as a slow, quiet, tense indie film. Like other movies of its type, it has to say a lot more through visuals and implication rather than stating it outright. It also enters the situation a long time after most of the drama has happened — Dwight is already homeless in the opening scene, and we don’t get so much as a flashback to his relationship with his parents. The film has to connect those emotional dots without showing us anything concrete. Fortunately, Blue Ruin has an innate sense of exactly when it’s said what it needs to. It knows how to take the elements at its immediate disposal and imply the connections between them, defining their relationship, without having to raise any of them to the level of complete certainty. We don’t see Dwight with his parents, but we get an idea of what they meant to him based on his circumstances — the film is skilled at placing the bits of pure, abstract emotion between the scant objective and clear pieces of information in such a way that they flow into one another. A scene will carry Dwight’s sadness and loneliness over into a more clinical scene where we get a piece of information about his past. We enter a fully formed situation, as we usually do in such films, but we get a sense of its emotional reality almost immediately.

Blue Ruin does threaten to go off the rails here and there once it gets late into its second act. It tends to hover on a bit of comparatively underwhelming tension for too long or to devote too much focus to a thematically uninteresting scene designed mainly to move the plot forward. The ending takes a character who’s barely had a full minute of screen-time, uses a character who really ought not to know anything about the situation to drop a pretty big reveal about him, and then tries to hinge the resonance of the entire finale solely on him. It makes for a strange and confounding series of decisions in what is otherwise an emotionally involving and thematically complete third act.

Fortunately, Blue Ruin never wanders too far afield. In the scant moments where it starts to go wrong, it immediately rights itself. And the elements that seemingly never go wrong are, rightly, front and center and always important to what’s going on in each scene. Blue Ruin is an engaging and smart film, and we would do well to have a lot more like it.

-Matt T.