Snowpiercer (2014)

Starring- Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Ah-sung, Alison Pill

Director- Bong Joon-ho

R- violence, language and drug content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nX5PwfEMBM0

Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language film produced mainly for Western audiences, but fear not — it’s still really, really South Korean. And for a lot of people, that’s all the more recommendation or condemnation you’re going to need.

It’s aesthetically varied; more parable than story; closer to being a live-action anime than anything this side of Pacific Rim; wracked with relentless and insane tonal shifts; colorfully dark in its appearance; and balancing grisly violence with scenes of maybe-comedy and definitely-comedy. Simply put, it’s either your thing or it’s not.

By comparison to a lot of more mainstream blockbusters, Snowpiercer is a challenging and ideas-driven piece of work and one that leaves the viewer without an immediate, pressing sense of how to feel about it. That was true for me, as I’m sure it will be for many others. But the longer I think about it, the more it starts to cohere in retrospect, and I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it might be one of the sneakiest great films of 2014.

When humanity’s last, desperate attempt to halt climate change backfires, the world freezes over and drives all life to extinction. The only survivors of the human race are the lucky few who boarded a nonstop train around the globe, one that functions as a self-contained ecosystem, runs on an eternal engine, and is shielded from the frozen hellscape beyond its walls. It’s been 17 years since then. Now, the passengers are divided — there are those in the front, the wealthy elite, and those in the back, the poor and desperate. Those in the back live in cramped conditions, subsisting solely on grimy protein bars. Now and then, those from the front will come back and take their children for unknown purposes.

There have been a number of revolutions, and all of them have failed. But now, receiving hidden messages from a secretive informant in the front, back-section resident Curtis (Chris Evans) has a plan — if you control the engine, you control the train. The revolution begins anew, but all is not as it seems.

Snowpiercer was a difficult film to get my head around at first. It’s too grim, gruesome, and nasty to be any fun. There are times when it starts to seem like nothing more than a merry-go-round of human depravity. And if you want to assess it specifically as a political film that isn’t using the class warfare metaphor for anything more than that — and that’s the easiest way to treat it in the moment while you’re watching it, before you get the full context — the comparison comes across as simplistic and heavy-handed. In a lot of ways, it’s the usual dystopian sci-fi class stratification fable — people are defined by their status in a post-apocalyptic world, and we know which is which because the poor are all wearing brown and covered in dirt while the rich are posh and colorful and wearing absurd costumes. You’ve seen it before. And for a substantial portion of the run-time, the metaphor plays mostly as setup — a simplistic underlying theme designed to carry the action and adventuring and not to make a particularly involving or well-observed statement about human nature or society or something like that.

It’s where the film ties it all into something larger that the metaphor starts to take on layers. Snowpiercer is a much more intelligent film than a lot of people are going to think it is, especially in how gracefully it manages to distill its big ideas into a small, simple package without compromising on their complexity. On the whole, the important point is this — it borrows class warfare imagery and themes to form the base of its story, but I don’t think the metaphor is a specifically political one when all is said and done. I think it only adopts the framework of the oppressed rising up against their oppressors because it’s a familiar and relatable foundation for a story like this. Really, Snowpiercer is something like a blueprint for revolution and affecting social change. It’s not necessarily literal in what it advocates for — it’s a violent and pulpy story and would be quite alarming if it seemed as though it was arguing exclusively for the axe-to-the-skull method of changing the world. I think it’s more focused on the end than the means — not how you get there, but what you ought to be fighting for in the first place. And the violence is actually, in my opinion, a part of how it makes that point, though to explain specifically how would be to spoil an ending that’s too rich with plot twists for me to want to talk about it in detail.

What it says, ultimately, is this: Sometimes, you need to be willing to ask if the system itself is a part of the problem. For a lot of reasons, in a lot of pressing debates, there can be a tendency to treat the existing framework as a given, something that must always be. But Snowpiercer wants to put it on the table along with everything else. The question the characters ultimately have to face is whether they could be considered fundamentally different than those in the front, as well as whether or not the train could even continue to operate under the changes that they would propose. Can it be altered, or is the injustice innate? Is the train itself the problem? The film’s smart enough to suggest, probably rightly, that the reason we don’t want to ask those questions is that blazing your own trail is going to be extraordinarily difficult, at least in the short term. For that reason, it exists in a near-constant state of bittersweet notes and moral ambiguity, and it could easily drown in that, but it doesn’t. I still have my points of discomfort with it — and it’s difficult to elaborate upon those without, again, spoiling the film’s conclusion. But my reflection upon it, thus far, has been rewarding.

I think that Bong Joon-ho made the right move with the ending, as well. It wraps things up neatly enough that the themes come full-circle and are distinct and concrete; simultaneously, the metaphor itself is left open enough that you could read just about anything into it. You could take the simplest route and see it as what it is on the surface, a metaphor for economic oppression of various kinds. But you could also see it as race or sex or sexual orientation. I think there’s a distinct religious through-line where the train can be seen as a metaphor for God. There’s a lot going on, some of which you have to bring to it on your own, and all of it manages to become complete by the time the credits roll.

Where it’s going to lose most people is simply in how non-Western it is, despite being an English-language film featuring a couple of our big stars. Snowpiercer will be especially aggravating to anyone who can’t handle a hefty dose of Movie Logic. I think, on the whole, Western audiences are a little more literal-minded about their movies. I am, too, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing so much as a cultural difference that gives us narrower lines on this issue than what people who live elsewhere might have. Snowpiercer is best taken as completely metaphorical, because when you try to piece it into its own tangible reality, the senselessness of the whole affair starts to drive you mad. The train itself raises a dozen questions, as do the impossible technologies, the spatial concerns, the way the characters encountered on the journey to the front of the train are less people and more cultural one-shots, and so on. I would normally find it bothersome, but I think Snowpiercer maintains a good balance in that the metaphorical nature of the story mostly doesn’t infringe upon the literal psychologies of its characters. Thus, questions about how the whole thing actually works didn’t interfere with my experience.

I think the bigger issue is likely to be the dramatic tonal shifts, and that’s where Snowpiercer actually did manage to lose me a bit. Almost every scene in this movie works on its own terms, but the way one bleeds into another can get downright jarring. You can see it in the characters themselves — Chris Evans plays Curtis with the naturalism-lite typical of action movie protagonists, enough realism that you buy him as a person but enough conviction in the ridiculous that he feels like the same person when he takes to faceless goons with a battleaxe. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have a representative from the front section played by Tilda Swinton, who seems to have been told she was starring in a cartoon. She hams it up big-time, lisping behind obvious false teeth and a garish outfit.

The early scenes in the back of the train play like The Hunger Games, grim and serious. From there, the movie gets weirder and weirder. It concludes on a note of pure philosophy, but prior to that, we get scenes that could be from any sci-fi thriller, some moments of pure grindhouse cheese, some satire, some comedy, etc. It’s highlighted most dramatically, I think, between one scene where residents of the back and soldiers from the front have an extraordinarily bloody and disturbing showdown in pure darkness, followed shortly thereafter by an encounter with a schoolteacher, played by Alison Pill, that tips over the edge of satire into straight comedic absurdism…and just as abruptly becomes something out of an especially colorful Robert Rodriguez movie. Both of these scenes work on their own terms — the battle scene made my skin crawl, and the Pill’s cameo made me laugh out loud — but put them right next to each other, and the effect is confusion.

It’s best to view the movie as a series of vignettes that feed into a larger whole. Each of these scenes seems like it comes from a different movie entirely, but all of them are distinctly connected. Again, it’s straight metaphor — these scenes don’t really create an independent world so much as they give the characters the opportunity to pass through different representations of modern society. It’s why they walk through a rave, a drug den, a school, a garden, a fancy restaurant, and more but never once encounter, say, a recreation area or, you know, living quarters. It’s all about what everything — and everyone — symbolizes. And the movie mostly tackles that without compromising its effectiveness as a story. Still, the tonal shifts can be difficult to navigate, and whether or not they’re something you appreciate is going to depend almost entirely on who you are.

Regardless, Snowpiercer has enough to offer that its, let’s say, uniqueness would be hard-pressed to put anyone off entirely. Among effects-heavy blockbusters, it’s highly original, thoroughly unpredictable, surprisingly intelligent, and almost destined to become a cult classic.

-Matt T.

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Starring- Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Birbiglia

Director- Josh Boone

PG-13- thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ItBvH5J6ss

The Fault in Our Stars is a decent movie, but it isn’t anywhere near the best possible version of itself — nor is it what it promises to be.

Maybe the book it’s based on is. I’ve never read it. According to some of the research I’ve done, author John Green wrote it based on his experience as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, which convinced him people view terminally ill children as something, in his own words, “fundamentally other.” He said his goal with the book was to argue for their complete humanity, to defy the broad and basic stereotypes that inform other people’s assessment of them.

My issue with the film adaptation is that, a scant few moments aside, it met my stereotypes where they’re at and didn’t do much to change them. It seems to share the book’s aspiration, though. It opens with narration from its protagonist, Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), during which she essentially promises that her story will be the anti-sick-kid-movie, saying that many people choose to sugarcoat their experiences but that she can’t. But the story that followed, honestly, wasn’t any more or less sugarcoated than any other movie I’ve seen. It’s sad, but it’s Hollywood Sad. It’s philosophical, but the majority of its revelations are Hallmark card material. It’s smart, but mostly in the way it presses your emotional buttons, not in the way it actually explores the issue at hand.

Hazel was diagnosed with cancer when she was thirteen. She’s seventeen now, and she knows she’s dying. The medication she’s on — an experimental treatment that, so far, has only really worked on her — could keep her lungs going for a while, but not forever. She’s withdrawn, so her parents prod her into attending a local cancer support group. It’s cheesy and more depressing than anything, but the upside is that she meets nineteen-year-old Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), a charming, funny guy who seems mostly unbothered by the loss of his leg to his own disease. The two of them strike up a friendship and, soon, something more, forcing them to consider what their relationship means when either one of them can — and probably will — die any day.

I wanted to love this movie. I know so many people who swear by the book. But for all its efforts to be the “real” movie about young people struggling with tragic circumstances, there’s just a ton of artifice here. It reminded me of too many other dramatically-minded teen movies and even, on occasion, your run-of-the-mill Lifetime movie. It’s a story about generically attractive people (with names like Augustus Waters) with minor emotional baggage and fairly standard demeanors who have the occasional climactic breakdown over their circumstances to a soundtrack of popular soft rock but mostly handle their illnesses with preternatural wisdom and a determination to live life to the fullest that comes close to making their situation seem enviable. I couldn’t escape the sensation that I’d seen this movie, and it had been just as emotionally easy the first time as it was this round.

I think The Fault in Our Stars just wants to be a weepy. It wants to make everyone sad and then inspired, and because of that, it passes over really exploring what it must be like to be a teenager struggling with the knowledge that you’re going to die soon.

I say that because even having not read the book, I figured out the movie’s exact endgame right off the bat. I made that call based not upon the characters or the themes but upon these two factors: Firstly, the type of movie that it is (i.e., what always happens in this sort of thing?); and secondly, by examining how it was stacking its deck and what specific catharsis it could pay off with that. Most of the characters in this movie aren’t really characters, in the sense that you could say they’re full human beings who act like real people and reveal more and more complexity with each passing scene. There’s Hazel, the protagonist, and then there’s everyone else; and everyone else is measured largely in terms of how they affect her. They aren’t expressed as detailed and independent sets of unique thoughts, ideas, experiences, and motivations but rather as individual series of stimuli designed to bounce off Hazel in a certain way and, by extension, the audience. All you have to do is figure out how the movie wants the audience to feel by the time the credits roll and decide what has to happen to each character in order to bring that about. The line is straight as an arrow, and it isn’t hard to draw. The end result is something that’s more about achieving catharsis, bittersweet though it may be, than truly investigating the complex situation at its core. I think of how the movie Short Term 12 avoided taking the easily cathartic route through its subject — abuse survivors — and, in so doing, helped me understand that situation in a way that I hadn’t before. The Fault in Our Stars, on the other hand, didn’t really challenge my own, rather distant assessment of the situation. It was more or less what I expected it to be — a Sad Movie, more invested in what you’re feeling than what you’re thinking about.

And for what it’s worth, it’s good at that. I don’t have heart made of stone. The Fault in Our Stars wants to make you cry, and it’s probably going to do that. It might be setting up its cards specifically and transparently to make you sad and then to lift your spirits, but it’s really, really precise in the way it arranges all of its elements to that result. It wants you to feel, and it knows exactly how to get you to that point. Maybe that sounds cynical — and honestly, it is, a little. But I’m not going to deny that The Fault in Our Stars is very watchable. You like the characters; you care about what happens to them. The story doesn’t quite inhabit our reality, but it does inhabit a reality, and it inhabits it with at least some level of consistency, despite its clear aspirations to break through into our world. I like that it condemns its characters’ tendency toward co-opting the free choice of others in order to save them pain; Hollywood all too often portrays such actions as heroic. I like that it focuses on the value of the here and now and not allowing hypothetical futures to totally define you as a person. The movie is involving and emotional; I just wouldn’t call it rich. It’s the fast-food version of a cinematic drama — it tastes pretty good and deals with your basic needs in the moment; it just doesn’t inspire and doesn’t reveal new flavors the more time you spend with it (and it probably shouldn’t be the centerpiece of every meal).

We got a decent movie out of the deal. I just can’t help but wish it delivered on its promise to be the realistic take on the issue. Instead, it aims for bittersweet and adorable, and the emotions it achieves are very much Movie Emotions, the sort of thing that gets you but doesn’t stick with you. It’s a Story, a fairytale about terminal illness that’s watchable and thematically complete (albeit thematically somewhat-inapplicable) but not particularly raw. If you’re going to dive into something like the challenge of a young person facing his or her own mortality, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Whether or not the book did, I can’t say, but the movie is just a little too neat and shiny.

-Matt T.

Obvious Child (2014)

Starring- Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper

Director- Gillian Robespierre

R- language and sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HpYzpr2iDA

It’s pretty difficult — oh, who am I kidding? It’s impossible for me to resist any movie that gets branded as controversial. Obvious Child wound up on my list the same day I first heard it described as “the abortion comedy.”

The subject of abortion is already one cinema tends to avoid. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything that wrestled with it very directly, other than one or two Christian movies. So, for it to get addressed in a comedy, of all things…I have to admit that I was intrigued.

But I’m kind of disappointed by the end result. Obvious Child definitely isn’t a bad movie; on the contrary, it’s quite funny and entertaining. It also isn’t anywhere near as thoughtful as I’d hoped it was going to be, which is to say that it really isn’t thoughtful at all. Honestly, it isn’t really even about abortion, but it’s so not about abortion that the fact that it’s not about abortion almost becomes what it’s actually about, and yes, I’m fully aware that sentence made absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it was the best of the three or four that I tried out. It invokes a whole lot of controversy, but it never goes anywhere with any of it, and it’s hard for me to understand the decision to frame something so discussion-worthy as a mere element of a larger whole that’s so mundane.

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a New York stand-up comedian in her late 20s physically and her late teens mentally. Then, her boyfriend cheats on and dumps her, and she loses her day job when the bookstore where she works closes down. She crashes hard, resulting in a drunken one-night stand with a complete stranger (Jake Lacy). A few weeks later, she finds out she’s pregnant.

Obvious Child is fun to watch. I feel the need to emphasize that now, because the majority of this review is probably going to be criticism and backhanded compliments. Jenny Slate is a major find. She isn’t credited for the script, but the movie still feels like it was written by her and loosely based on her experiences. Her performance is very natural and always comes across as an extension of her own mental state and comedic sensibilities. Just this week, they announced a Ghostbusters sequel starring an all-female team; allow me to submit Slate as the first nominee.

Donna is, herself, an amusing adult-child. She’s a total mess in most of her affairs, from the professional to the private. She’s very immature — her sense of humor calculatedly so; she’s the sort of person who tells jokes mainly about bodily functions and laughs uproariously if someone in her immediate vicinity passes gas. There’s also a general sense of immaturity in the loose and somewhat irresponsible way she conducts her life. She’s a very frank person, though, and has an acerbic, acidic wit that she directs mainly at her own failings. She has enough self-awareness to know what’s wrong with her but not enough to fix any of it.

The movie is about her much more than it’s about the abortion — and again, it’s almost pointedly not about the abortion. It uses all of its elements as a mechanism to push her toward real adulthood and to get her to start taking actual steps toward independence and responsibility. The movie isn’t bad at that. It’s not great at that either. But it’s not bad.

But again, the abortion element… I’m almost not sure what to say about it. I’m not sure what I actually wanted out of this movie, or if it’s fair to want anything at all out of it that I wouldn’t expect from something else. Does every movie about this subject have to be solely about this subject? Do they all have to be grim, weepy after-school specials full of argument and high emotion? Is this that one issue that simply cannot appear in a work of fiction without being its primary focal point? We don’t treat other social, moral or political issues that way.

I mean, it’s not like the abortion element exists within the story of Obvious Child apropos of nothing. It says something about the character and is used to illustrate certain points about her pathway to adulthood. At the same time, it is treated as something very close to the climax of the film, and possibly even the catharsis as well. Of all the elements that go into this coming-of-age story, the abortion is clearly the most significant, the foundation of the entire theme. So, I don’t know that the movie can really excuse itself from controversy by not talking about it or spending much time exploring what comes after it. In order to sell the resolution of this character arc, the film needs to define the relationship between the act of abortion and Donna’s growing/diminishing adulthood/independence, her ideas about womanhood, her feelings about sexuality, and her ultimate desires where children and family are concerned. If it’s going to make abortion this central to the plot — even though it’s not the ultimate point of the work — it’s just plain going to have to get its hands dirty. There’s no way around it.

Obvious Child just skates around it. The main reason it can’t be said that the film is about the issue of abortion is that it doesn’t attach any drama whatsoever to that particular part of the story. Donna doesn’t wrestle with the decision, and the film doesn’t present any external voices that disagree with her or at least have some reservations about the whole thing. The film treats it like a minor plot element that doesn’t need to be addressed, but it still hinges half its protagonist’s arc on it.

I’d be more inclined to generosity on this question if Obvious Child was incorporating the abortion issue into a story about other things that are more interesting, but…it’s not, not really, not in my opinion. The movie’s just a romantic comedy that’s smarter than average and has a lot more edge. The storyline is partly about Donna moving toward mental adulthood and partly about her reconnecting with the man with whom she had her one-night stand and finding that he’s actually a decent person and probably worth more than just that one time. The romantic relationship is kind of cute here and there, mainly because Jenny Slate is hilariously awkward about everything and Jake Lacy seems wildly underequipped for dating a raucous, vulgar stand-up comedian, but it’s not all that interesting overall. Lacy’s character is blandly perfect in his relentless niceness, humility, and understanding.

Even the coming-of-age story is a bit underwhelming. It’s okay, but it’s not terribly new. I’m getting tired of all these indie comedies about suspended adolescence; they’re all over the place now and don’t vary much between installments. Doing the same old thing but doing it well just isn’t enough to sell me on this kind of thing anymore; you have to find some way to actually shake up the formula and spin it off into something unique. Obvious Child is a solid film in this regard, but I’m not willing to give it a whole lot more than that.

Maybe it was wrong to go into this movie expecting it to light some kind of fire under me. I don’t think it was wrong to expect something more than a decent, basically enjoyable indie comedy that doesn’t do anything with its unique and daring premise, though. Obvious Child is an amusing diversion. I wish I could give it higher praise than that.

-Matt T.

Gone Girl (2014)

Starring- Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski

Director- David Fincher

R- a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ym3LB0lOJ0o

That Gone Girl is in the 2014 Oscar conversation at all is proof that David Fincher has officially arrived. That’s not a commentary on Gone Girl’s quality so much as the fact that it’s extremely un-Oscar-y. Fincher has made his rounds at the awards scene before, but for films like The Social Network, which, while colder and more modern than a lot of what wins gold, was still an intelligent and emotive true-story drama.

Gone Girl is pure trash. That’s not an insult. I think that’s the word Fincher and everybody else who made it would use, too. It’s one of the trashiest and most lurid mainstream films to open to this sort of acclaim in quite some time. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the pulpy romance and murder novels you buy for a dollar at airports.

And honestly, it’s pretty great trash. Gone Girl is extraordinarily well made. And that’s where I run into trouble. As well made as it is, I’m not sure I like it. I’m not sure I dislike it either. It runs for two and a half hours, and I was never bored; in fact, I was engrossed. But a lot of things are engrossing, and not all of them are enriching or leave you feeling good about the experience. That space is where Gone Girl lives.

Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn (who also adapted it for the screen), Gone Girl is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike), seemingly the ideal educated, suburban married couple. Beneath the surface, their marriage is on its last legs. They’ve grown distant and inattentive to one another’s needs, to the point that they now dread one another’s company. Nick is planning to ask for a divorce. On their fifth anniversary, Nick starts his day as usual only to return and find Amy gone and the house in a state of disarray. The investigation soon begins to look like kidnapping — and possibly murder.

The national news media latches onto the story. And as the cracks in their marriage start to show, public opinion begins to convict Nick of the crime — and if he doesn’t find out what happened to Amy soon, a jury of his peers might do so as well. And Missouri, as the television news hosts are so fond of pointing out, has the death penalty.

The closest comparison I can make to Gone Girl is Oldboy (the original). I walked away from both films feeling almost exactly the same. The difference, of course, is that I expected Oldboy to be messed up and left it surprised only by the degree. With Gone Girl, I forgot who David Fincher is long enough to think that it was going to be more of a drama/mystery with mild pulp elements than pure, unabashedly lunatic trash. I was shocked to see how gleefully upsetting it is.

What both Gone Girl and Oldboy share in common is that they are very good at what they do. They know exactly what they are — slyly over-the-top, cold, biting, dark, and graphic pulp fiction — and they know how to deliver the goods. They know how to structure the story to achieve exactly the right catharsis. They know how to anchor things in character — broad, slightly exaggerated character, but still, character. Both are visually stylish and utterly precise, though that, of course, is to be expected. Fincher can direct a scene; even his detractors don’t deny that. He’s meticulous with his timing and flow and needs only a camera and a color filter to determine exactly how you feel about what you’re looking at. And both have strong performances — perhaps Gone Girl especially. Sure, Ben Affleck is Ben Affleck, but that’s all he’s really supposed to be; Nick is the audience’s everyman. But Rosamund Pike does some stellar work — stellar in ways that are difficult to describe without substantially spoiling the film. Suffice to say that she’s in the awards conversation, and she’s in it for a reason. Fincher even grabbed a few actors who don’t conventionally appear in things like this — Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, etc. — and got good work out of them. This is slick and admirably produced entertainment. I have no argument with it on that point.

The more important thing Gone Girl shares in common with Oldboy is that both are uncomfortable and upsetting — and the intent behind that is unclear. For me, there’s little that’s more unsettling than finding something you’re watching on-screen to be deeply uncomfortable and having to wonder if anyone else in the theater is feeling the same way. That is to say, I’m not sure if Gone Girl and Oldboy made me uncomfortable because they were supposed to or because they’re pure entertainments made for people who do not have my particular countenance.

I don’t consider myself a prude, though I probably am by the standards of some. I just find that there’s a context for violence, sexuality, and everything in between that either makes it part of a spiritually enriching whole or otherwise leaves it feeling exploitative. Gone Girl ultimately left me feeling, honestly…dirty. Like I’d seen things I shouldn’t have seen. Very, very few movies have ever left me that way; I can count the ones that did on one hand. Gone Girl just has a blend of sex and violence — sometimes employed simultaneously — that feels, well, trashy. Duh, I guess.

As usual, I say that without judgment. To borrow the old cliché, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. My inability to find anything particularly edifying in Gone Girl shouldn’t be taken as an objective declaration that there isn’t any, and I wouldn’t deny anyone who dug it out. Honestly, I wouldn’t even say that there’s nothing of moral value on display here, and maybe that’s why I’m stuck more on “discomfort” than “outright dislike.”

It shines brightest as a media satire. The film has been described as darkly comic, and it certainly does have its wits about it — particularly in this regard. The media satire, too, is difficult to explore without spoiling some of the twists. I will say, vaguely, that Nick eventually finds himself in a position where he has to wage an incredibly complicated war through the media — both using and rising above the sensationalism that’s all but convicted him of the crime — in order to both clear his name and figure out exactly what happened. And there are hands on the other end doing the same thing to him. The media ultimately comes off looking very bad here — it’s intrusive, judgmental, sensational, and rushes to conclusions as quickly as it can, no matter whose life is destroyed along the way. And frankly, having seen the way true-crime stories get national attention in the recent past, it kind of deserves that, and I definitely appreciated the intelligence with which Gone Girl calls it out.

That’s where Gone Girl stands out. But to discuss some of my deeper discomforts with it, I have to spoil it. At this point in the review, you’ve gotten the spirit, if not the detail, of my opinion, so if you want to go into it blind, now would be the time to go elsewhere. If you don’t mind, continue reading.

Most critics seem to be reading Gone Girl less as a mystery/thriller and more as an autopsy on Nick and Amy’s marriage. Through flashbacks, including Nick’s memories and excerpts of Amy’s diary, we see exactly how they related to one another and where the problems emerge. Initially, there’s something of value to the way it explores why their relationship eventually became tense. Nick is, in a lot of ways, the oblivious product of a world that, generally speaking, favors men, at least as the leader in relationships; there’s a lot about Amy and her role in his life that he takes for granted, largely by accident. There’s no self-awareness. At the same time, it’s clear that Amy is guilty of some deception, and for the same reason — she’s not, as she says, “the cool girl” every guy wants, the one who’s attractive and fun to be around and doesn’t have pressing needs that infringe upon her significant other’s. But she tries to be, lets Nick get away with it, and allows him to be oblivious. Meanwhile, she quietly suffers because he doesn’t quite recognize her full personhood. And slowly, she begins to assign him more blame than he’s due — after all, he seems a decent enough person that if she just communicated with him, he might realize why his behavior toward her is hurtful and wrong. But they go on and slowly grow to hate one another.

But any movie exploring a romantic relationship is going to have to be about the give and take, and Nick ultimately comes off looking so much better than Amy that anything productive it says about him — about his distance, selfishness, and, eventually, infidelity — pales in comparison to the sins of which Amy is guilty.

Because the twist is that Amy is a complete psychopath. It turns out she hasn’t been murdered or kidnapped. Instead, she grew to hate Nick so deeply that she decided to fake her own death and frame him for the crime. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that this is not the first time she’s done this — she got her most recent boyfriend convicted of sexual assault for trying to break up with her.

She watches the media outcry go down and absolutely relishes it, particularly when she considers the possibility that Nick will be put to death.

(And since I get to talk spoilers now, seriously — Rosamund Pike is terrifying in this part. She’s easily the spookiest movie villain since the Joker — partly for the times she decides to kill you but especially for the times she decides to let you live.)

It leaves you in a place where you think, “Okay, Nick was wrong not to be more aware of himself and especially to cheat on his wife, but holy crap, Amy!” It also feeds into a number of unpleasant stereotypes, namely: Men are dumb, but women are nuts. And I don’t think that’s the sort of movie our culture needs in this present moment.

I’ve also seen reads on this movie that see Amy as a symbol for all women — not in that they’re all insane but in that these are the lengths mistreatment has to reach in order for their hurts to bear weight in the public consciousness. I don’t think that read is entirely wrong, but I think it, too, is subordinated to the thrills and the chills. Ultimately, it’s still contextualized solely within the hurts of the men in the story, which makes it hard to read it as a subversive feminist parable.

That’s ultimately where most of the movie’s themes end up — there, and not without intelligence, but so secondary to the twists and thrills that they fail to register emotionally.

That leaves the movie in a place where the increasingly graphic violence, sexuality, and overall immorality feel more a part of the genre film aesthetic than part of a more edifying statement. And for me, as great a movie as Gone Girl is, it’s just too much. It’s the sort of movie that forces you to look around every handful of seconds and think, “Should I be watching this?” And that’s why I’m not sure I could see it again.

-Matt T.

Ida (2014)

Starring- Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogroznik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Syzszkowski, Halina Scokzynska

Director- Pawel Pawlikoski

PG-13- thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXhCaVqB0x0

I had an unusual relationship with Ida. I went in expecting great things, based on what I’d heard of it. The movie started, though, and I found it immediately off-putting and began to expect it would turn into one of those minority opinions I sometimes have trouble justifying. But then, even while hardly changing a thing, it slowly won me over. And by the end, I felt that what I had seen was actually really good and that I could stand to give it another viewing or two.

Better late than never, I suppose, and anyway, there’s something so satisfying about wrestling with something and coming out of the experience richer.

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young woman, orphaned and raised in a convent, who is on the verge of taking her vows when she receives word that her sole living relative has been discovered — an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). The nuns decide that Ida should come to know her before taking her vows, so she goes to visit her aunt and learns some unexpected truths about her heritage — namely, that she is Jewish and that it was the Holocaust that orphaned her. So, she and her aunt set out to find her parents’ final resting place so both of them might find closure on their pasts.

The strength of Ida was always going to be in the relationship between Ida and Wanda, who are, with a handful of significant exceptions, the only characters in the film; anyone else who appears exists less as his or her own entity and more as a catalyst for something else between the leads. And for the brief time we spend with them, they make an interesting pair, each of them the polar opposite of the other.

Ida doesn’t really know life outside of the convent, so hers is a worldview composed of naïve certainty, the sort that borders on judgmentalism and self-righteousness, albeit not in a mean-spirited way, the sort born of her inability to grasp the world as it is outside. There’s a bit of culture shock adjusting to this louder, less reverent place — Ida is stiff and speaks little, fading into the background of any interaction.

Wanda, on the other hand, is under no illusions about the world whatsoever. There’s very little she hasn’t seen, and she’s carrying around a lot of pain. Nameless men come in and out of her apartment on the regular, and she’s never far from a cigarette or a flask. She’s made her living as a state prosecutor, so she’s assertive and won’t take no for an answer. She also lets very little escape her gaze unchallenged, regardless of how significantly it affects her.

It’s an interesting dynamic — Ida, in her silence and obsequiousness, seems like a much older woman, but it actually stems from her youth and naivete, the fact that she sees the world as a simple thing not terribly unlike her sheltered upbringing; Wanda, in her looseness and spontaneity, seems young, but her behavior is a reflex against the pain of too many years of suffering, of having seen all there is to see and then some. Wanda looks at Ida and is thrown into desperation to think of this mostly undamaged young woman submitting to vows that will cut her off from the boons of youth; Ida looks at Wanda and sees something in need of judgment and, maybe after that, redemption. Neither of them is entirely wrong.

The film is about a great many things, but of particular interest to me is the religious commentary. It’s simple enough for Ida to judge Wanda from her perspective as someone who has, in truth, seen almost nothing of the world but nevertheless thinks she understands it. It’s unclear whether the nuns are aware of the need for her to have experiences before taking her vows when they send her on this mission. Regardless, she did need it. And I think, slowly, she arrives at a place where she realizes, firstly, that she knows nothing, and secondly, that she needs to contextualize her aunt’s actions, to see them within the whole of her personhood. The film never really commends Wanda or the way she lives her life, but it forces Ida to recognize her as a human being who’s done what she can and continues to do her best. In some ways, the film is a traditional coming-of-age story — Ida realizes that she doesn’t understand this because she hasn’t lived it. She is still young, and her life is ripe with possibility. More importantly, she was shepherded away during one of history’s great tragedies.

Ida is a very spare film. It’s rarely overt about any of this; these are impressions one picks up only by paying close attention. It’s definitely a performance piece, and it puts a lot on the shoulders of its actors. We learn about the characters not through what they say and usually not through what they do but through their countenances, their mannerisms, the ways in which they react to one another and to what’s happening around them. Ida is a silent, reserved character, but this fact is almost unnoticeable — Agata Trzebuchowska’s performance is so expressive that it feels as though the character says much more than she does. It’s such an old cliché, but her eyes tell the story. Agata Kulesza gets more to work with — Wanda is more talkative and active than Ida by far — but she also says far more without words than with. In lesser hands, Wanda could seem like a flighty pleasure-seeker; in Kulesza’s, the character takes on that front enough that you understand why the other characters believe it, but in her private moments, we see a desperate life in its last gasp, a person scraping to find just one reason to live, to find somewhere to bury the pain.

The film is quiet, colorless, and doesn’t often deal in concrete information. It says a lot with a little and hits harder in the most dramatic moments by, in some ways, actually pulling its punches, highlighting some small thing in a character’s reaction rather than the more traditionally “cinematic” thing happening in the foreground. In so doing, it manages to capture a traumatic time in world history with uncommon grace.

Nevertheless, I had to get used to it. And early on, I was worried Ida was going to leave me cold. There are a couple of reasons for this, but chief among them is the one you’d expect — I’ve written plenty of lukewarm to negative reviews over this. I hate “artsy” camerawork, and Ida is a big offender. The movie likes to place people’s faces right against the edge of the frame, in the direction they’re looking. It likes to bury the focal point in one of the lower corners. It regularly leaves more than two-thirds of the image for headspace. At first, I thought there was going to be a point to this — for example, the camerawork was being used to create discomfort in a certain environment so that we would feel warmer in others. Even then, I might have objected — I think the best films do their work subconsciously; you can pick them apart and figure out how they accomplished what they did, but things like camera placement aren’t at the front of your mind. I see a shot like that and I leave the moment emotionally so I can determine the reason behind it. I’m not fond of that. Even so, that’s no justification here, because the movie never lets up on that approach. Regardless of tone, objects keep showing up in those places in the frame. It’s a double-edged sword, to be fair; the film’s emotional distance from most of its scenes only makes its scarce moments of true intimacy all the more striking. And even within this context, there remain some spectacular images to be found here — I love a shot where Ida is sitting in a church pew, head bowed in prayer and placed in the lower left corner of the frame; it’s as though we have a God’s-eye view of one of his subjects in deference to him. But mostly, the visual approach was the only thing I noticed, and it became an obstacle through which I had to fight rather than a subconscious piece of the emotional whole. Fortunately, it’s also the sort of thing you get used to, eventually.

And though I’m still working through it, there are elements of the ending that don’t sit well with me. It’s difficult to discuss the details without spoiling certain significant developments. In general, I think our current cinematic climate could stand to realism that cynicism can be as much a posture as the blind optimism of easier entertainments. Not that I think the ending of Ida is wholesale cynical, but I also think that some of the characters come to entirely the wrong conclusion based on their experiences. In so doing, I think some of the religious commentary, in particular, suffered.

But its flaws aside — and I’m willing to concede even more subjectivity than usual on all of them — Ida is something pretty special. It’s got some of the year’s strongest performances, and it would be great to see either of these actresses break out overseas. It also strikes the perfect balance with its story and character development — spare without being completely inaccessible and detailed without beating you over the head with anything or having to take long exposition interludes. Ida is a well-crafted piece of cinema and hopefully something that will be remembered toward the end of the year when we’re talking about 2014’s great foreign language films.

-Matt T.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Starring- Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammar, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, TJ Miller, James Bachman, Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Robert Foxworth, John DiMaggio, Mark Ryan, Reno Wilson

Director- Michael Bay

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

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbI980iUb78

There was a moment earlier this year that forced me to do some soul-searching. It was a few weeks prior to the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction, and I came to the startling realization that I was actually looking forward to it.

Yes, dear readers, I have made it through all five stages and have finally settled on “acceptance.” I’ve come to realize that I don’t hate the Transformers movies; I love to hate them. They are the Joker to my Batman — though they are terrible and obnoxious and not nearly as funny as they think they are and my sworn nemeses until my dying breath, we complete one another. They provide a healthy outlet for all of the dark emotions I formerly didn’t even know I possessed — all of my hate, all of my rage, all of my inability to come up with a third thing when I’m making a list. I’ll keep seeing them, and they’ll keep making them, and truly, I shall spend an eternity dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.

Alternatively, it’s possible that the drug-like euphoria that comes with the end credits of every single one of these movies has turned me into some kind of weird Transformers masochist. Like how it feels when you pop a really big zit.

I should probably disclose that I haven’t actually watched this movie yet. Still, I feel confident making certain predictions about it. And honestly, I’m getting tired of trying to construct entire reviews around observations like: “Transformers is sexist, racist, juvenile, pandering, loud, confusing, chaotic, visually incomprehensible, overlong, annoying, utterly bereft of self-awareness, and rife with immoral thematic undercurrents structured to appeal mainly to bullies and warmongers.” Because duh.

So, screw it. We’ll do it live.

Gird your loins, people.

11:06: Movie begins.

11:09: Why would you call a geologist to what is clearly a paleontological find?

11:10: Ah, women in a Michael Bay film. I don’t know about you, but I see people walking down the street dressed like that all the time.

11:11: Um, no, Transformers. You don’t get to take potshots at sequels and remakes.

11:13: Those are teenage girls, Michael Bay. You should resist the gratuitous midriff shots. Though, to be fair, I think this is the first Transformers movie that didn’t introduce its female lead butt-first.

11:14: The Battle of Chicago definitely would have changed the world forever…if that wasn’t, like, the sixth time it had happened in-universe.

11:14: Oh, good grief. Are we seriously going to do the “government disavows the Autobots, sends them away, refuses to admit it needs their help, is grievously wrong” plotline again? This is the fourth movie; why do they all have the same plot?

11:15: Wait, what, teenage girl’s prom was conditional on going with her dad?

11:17: Mark Wahlberg is an inventor. No further observations.

11:18: Uh-oh. Black people. Please be nice, Michael Bay.

11:18: Threatening innocent people with a baseball bat because they didn’t know the property the realtor was showing them was occupied. OUR HERO.

11:19: Wait, his daughter taught him how to balance his checkbook? What is this I don’t even

11:20: I’m not sure why J.J. Abrams is the one we’ve decided to bother about lens flares.

11:21: Aaaaaaand guys with machine guns. Because that, historically, has always worked in these movies.

11:22: Except when it does. Well, it had better still work later in this movie.

11:24: Oh, no, not that guy! He was my favorite one! Also, I’m sure we’re supposed to think the humans are stupid for blaming the Autobots for what happened in Chicago, but let’s keep in mind that Optimus Prime did allow a lot of people to die in order to prove a point to the U.S. government. Because Optimus Prime is the hero.

11:26: The non-military wings of the government are totally incompetent? What a novel concept that has never before appeared in a Michael Bay film! This should be an interesting theme to explore.

11:27: Kelsey Grammar is going to turn out to be one of those villains who’s actually kind of right about everything, isn’t he?

11:28: Is Wahlberg a member of the Quiverfull movement who just forgot to have, like, a dozen kids or something? His daughter not only isn’t allowed to date, she’s not even allowed to be boy-adjacent. I’m giving this movie the (totally undeserved) benefit of the doubt that it’s going to resolve this positively, but still, this is a little over-the-top.

11:31: Is the eviction notice supposed to raise the stakes? Wahlberg’s landlord was trying to sell his property just ten minutes ago.

11:33: Wahlberg’s character — IMDB tells me his name is Cade, so I’m just going to roll with that from here on out — seems like he’s actively trying to be less likable than Shia LeBeouf’s entitled misogynist from the last three movies. Now, he’s basically trying to reduce his partner, who paid for the truck and thus has to be at least minimally more fiscally responsible than he is, to slave labor.

11:34: The hero of the movie, upon awakening, immediately begins trying to kill everything around him. That’s par for the course, I think. I wonder if he kills anyone execution-style in this movie? He did in the last two.

11:36: “I also have a saying: I don’t care.” Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, right here.

11:37: Yes, subtitles, I know what the CIA is.

11:38: Gratuitous Shot Stolen From Iron Man, check.

11:39: Oh noes, Big Government is coming for the Scenic Texas Farmland!

11:40: “My FACE is my warrant!” I love this movie.

11:44: Wow, it sure is lucky that Cade has, like, a freaking catacomb underneath his barn.

11:44: I think this is the second movie in this series that has done a slow motion combat roll out of an exploding barn, which is an oddly specific thing to do twice.

11:45: Wait. Stop. Who is that? Does it count as a deus ex machina if a normal person does the rescuing, but it’s somebody whose identity is a total mystery?

11:47: Ah, okay. Boyfriend. He should try to introduce himself later, on account of the whole “being chased and shot at” deal. Also, is it just me, or does he look kind of like Chris Pratt?

11:48: This escape method may or may not kill a whole bunch of innocent bystanders, but who cares! VROOOOOOOOOOOOM!

11:49: Waaaaaaaait. When and how did a second giant robot show up? Was he there the whole time or standing a mile away where no one could see him?

11:50: “Grab my stick! Grab my stick! She’s got the best hands in the business!” No. It’s not possible he said that by accident. This is not Arrested Development, and he is not Tobias Funke.

11:51: Slow motion explosion running! *does first shot*

11:53: We can add xenophobia to the list of reasons why Cade is generally a terrible person.

11:54: Ha ha ha ha ha that guy’s 20 years old no he’s not.

11:55: Boyfriend carries around a card with the Texas laws on what is and is not statutory rape. That’s a great sign.

11:56: I love Cade’s stealth spatula drone.

11:57: Wait, could Optimus have scanned himself into a truck that didn’t look like the one the government was after whenever he wanted?

11:59: Whyyyyyyyyy, John Goodman? Why?

12:00: There is an Autobot. He is Asian. He is a samurai, and one of his first lines is a haiku about flowers. It feels so good to be back in the Wacky World of Michael Bay, where anyone who isn’t a white middle American is a funny novelty person.

12:01: Ken Watanabe, how much money did they give you to debase yourself like this?

12:01: And here are our heroes: thugs jockeying for power over the group who can’t go five seconds without beating each other senseless.

12:02: “Autobots, I have sworn never to kill humans.” Uh, bull. Unless you just meant “on purpose, or directly,” in which case, great loopholes, Optimus! “But when I find out who did this, he’s going to die!” You know, you don’t really have a moral code if you’re willing to subject it to vengeance with basically no soul-searching whatsoever.

12:04: Whyyyyyyyyy, Stanley Tucci? Why?

12:05: Transformium. Nobody ever say a word about unobtainium ever again.

12:06: So, you can turn the metal into anything with only a thought. Is there a limit on that? Mechanical things only? Could I turn it into an apple? What about something that doesn’t exist? Like, if I wanted a time machine, could I just wish for a time machine and…? Nope, nope, not going to think too hard about this. I can’t wait until it starts causing gaping plot holes, though.

12:09: Even coming out of a government building, all the women are wearing low-cut, skin-tight dresses with mini-skirts.

12:10: Dramatically speaking, Cade really needs to do something other than complain about his daughter’s boyfriend. Like…we get it, okay? Cade is overprotective. Stop drilling it into our brains.

12:11: Bumblebee makes a huge scene because someone said his car wasn’t cool enough. OUR HEROES.

12:12: Also, not to be nitpicky or anything, but if Bumblebee thinks he isn’t a cool enough car, he could just scan another one, right?

12:14: “’But Attinger, buddy — you need to deliver the seed.” I don’t think the movie was even trying to have an innuendo there. (Also, thanks, guys, for explaining your evil plot to one another for my benefit. Nice of you.)

12:17: That shot of the Bumblebee Camaro was something right out of a television commercial. I wonder how much of these movies’ profits come solely from car companies.

12:17: EPIC GLASSES REMOVAL. YEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAH! (The best part is that Cade has not worn glasses in any other scene in this movie. And don’t tell me it’s part of his disguise. He is not Clark Kent and is doing literally nothing else to change his appearance.)

12:18: The action beats in this movie are so…blasé. The scene is tonally homogenous. The dialogue bits feel exactly the same. When the robots show up and starting exploding stuff, it just comes across as a thing that happened. The scene already exists in that stylistic mode.

12:19: Seriously, Stanley Tucci? You’re just going to walk up and scold rampaging robots with giant guns?

12:20: Oh, come on. Can we please not take the obnoxious, shouty little robot with the racist black guy voice with us? (Also, why are all the small robots in these movies obnoxious comic relief and also racist? There’s not a single one that doesn’t fall under at least one of those categories.)

12:21: I thought Galvatron and Stinger didn’t work yet. Seriously, didn’t we just have that conversation, like, five minutes ago?

12:22: Because, clearly, there wasn’t a version of this experiment where we didn’t kill innocent motorists. Also, Michael Bay, I know you love that money shot of a Transformer slicing a car in half with a giant sword, but there’s seriously been at least one of those in basically all these movies. The magic is gone, dude. Let it go.

12:24: But hey, at least the Autobots are gentle and cautious around human life.

12:25: Stoooooooooop. I can buy his daughter not being dead from that fall, but she basically just stood right up.

12:25: “You have no soul!” “That is why I have no fear!” This action scene banter is just…tremendous.

12:26: Having to choose between your face being a face and your face being a gun seems like it’d be annoying.

12:27: You know, the previous movies could at least kind of justify the mayhem, carnage, and relentless collateral damage (here meaning innocent people’s lives) on the basis that the Autobots were specifically protecting humanity from an external threat. But here, the threat is exclusively to the Autobots. So, everyone who’s died so far would’ve been spared if the Autobots had just gone away. But no, they need to be loved and appreciated or whatever.

12:33: Wait, so Lockdown isn’t treacherous and is, in fact, going to hold up his end of the bargain and leave Earth alone? Wow, every single death in this movie really was completely in vain, wasn’t it? If the Autobots leave, humanity gets along just fine.

12:35: Okay, I’m not sure if that joke worked or not. I did laugh when he said, “Let’s use violence as a last resort.” But the laugh came before the punchline of him immediately stabbing something for startling him. So…uh…

12:37: Stop stop stop stop STOP! The Autobots, the heroes, just fired the first shots on the civilian populace? They launched anchors directly into the nearest skyscrapers and knocked out basically an entire floor! The bad guy, who I guess we’re supposed to hate, actually had no intention of hurting anyone! You know what? Calling it right now — Kelsey Grammar is a terrible person who’s doing horrible things to achieve his goal, but at least intellectually, he’s totally right about everything.

12:39: I never thought I’d want more action out of a Transformers movie, but Michael Bay can’t do atmosphere, so all this sneaking around is really starting to get on my nerves.

12:40: Ah, okay. There it is.

12:40: Calling an Irish guy “Lucky Charms” is so dumb I’m not even sure it can achieve actual racism. Cade is still terrible, though.

12:42: Wow. Just…wow. I don’t even know where to start with what just happened. That thing in the cage… Okay, I don’t want to be crass, but that thing in the cage was a vagina monster. It looked like a vagina. I’m just saying. And then, it spits goop all over the John Goodman robot. The John Goodman robot freaks out and declares that it “shizzed” on him. He then calls it “bitch,” states that it’s too disturbing to live, and kills it for no reason. I mean… I don’t want to be one of those critics who reads psychosexual implications into everything, but… Yikes. (Also, OUR HEROES.)

12:45: You know. I’ll say this as an extremely backhanded compliment. This movie still has absolutely no sense of geography whatsoever, but other than that, these action sequences are mostly visible.

12:46: And the city wrecking begins. I need to point something out before we get too involved, since I know we’re probably going to be here for the next hour. This battle is entirely the Autobots’ fault, and the blood of everyone who’s about to die is on their hands. Kelsey Grammar is right.

12:48: I do want to clarify that when I call the action sequences “visible,” that’s me conceding that they’re directed better than other Transformers movies and not at all that they are directed well by the standards of movies in general.

12:49: Cade almost kills a guy with a machine gun and a crashing spaceship and then roughs him up for being angry about that. OUR HERO.

12:52: The little robot knew the humans were accidentally recreating Megatron and didn’t say anything. OUR HERO.

12:54: I just had that moment where it hit me that we’re basically only halfway through this movie, and now, my stomach hurts.

12:57: SOUNDTRACK! “NOBODY CAN SAVE YOU NOW! THIS SCENE IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT’S A WHINY EMO SONG! NOBODY CAN SAVE YOU NOW! ARE THE STAKES BEING RAISED NOW AUDIENCE! I’M AN ARTIST MOM! STOP MAKING FUN OF MY BAND! NOBODY CAN SAVE YOU NOW!”

1:19: Okay, I took a 15-minute sanity break. Back now.

1:21: “GALVATRON!” “PIKACHU!”

1:22: It’s probably just because my brain has been corrupted, but every line about “the seed” just sounds dirty to me.

1:23: I probably shouldn’t feel offended by Optimus’s rants about how awful humans are. He is a fictional character, after all. But he’s a really terrible one, and the movie’s kind of siding with him a little.

1:24: I also know what Hong Kong looks like, subtitles.

1:25: Best line in the movie so far: “Joshua, how lethal is that bomb?”

1:26: I don’t really want to start criticizing the specifics of character development and storytelling in this movie, because I will be here all day — it’s all terrible, but you knew that already. But Stanley Tucci’s change of heart really was predicated on absolutely nothing. Not to mention that he once insulted rampaging Transformers to their faces, but now, he’s losing it because the CIA is going to be after him eventually.

1:28: I don’t even know what to say about what just happened. Stanley Tucci’s salvation came in the form of every Asian character in the scene being a martial arts master.

1:30. Yeah, buddy. It turns out the roof is not a great place to hide from giant robots.

1:31: Actually, Stanley Tucci kind of has a point about you arbitrarily bringing your daughter into a war zone, Cade. To be honest, I’m not sure why the humans are still here at all. They’re acting like their only choices were “turn themselves in” and “follow the Transformers through hell and high water.” There was also “hide somewhere.”

1:33: This marks the moment that Stanley Tucci officially stopped caring.

1:34: Sure, there are giant robots fighting over there, but why wouldn’t I want to watch Mark Wahlberg and some guy punch each other for a while?

1:35: Tessa is such a strong female character, you guys. She’s only hidden in a corner and cried twice.

1:36: The camera is shaking more during the dialogue scenes than the action bits right now.

1:37: This movie is called Age of Extinction and marketed itself heavily on the dinosaur Transformers, so naturally, we don’t see a single one of them until, like, the two-hour mark. Narrative focus, it is a thing that Transformers hates.

1:40: So, Optimus Prime comes to the dinosaur robots and insists that he’s giving them freedom (actual line) but subsequently beats them senseless in order to force them to submit to his leadership and fight for his cause. Actual line: “You defend my family or die.” Spoken less than a minute after the other actual line. OUR HERO.

1:41: And now, racist samurai robot is talking like Optimus Prime just demonstrated his superior wisdom by beating someone up until he did what he told him to.

1:42: So, the dinosaurs are basically just going to be an action sequence prop and not anything that affects the plot or deepens the mythology in any way. Nevertheless, they’ll still give the movie its name. I’m not surprised by that.

1:42: Robot John Goodman’s incessant one-liners are reaching the point where they don’t even make sense any more. Fortune cookies…because they’re in China, I guess?

1:43: A big robot is riding into battle on an even bigger robot that transforms into a dinosaur, and I feel absolutely nothing. That’s what these movies have done to me.

1:45: I guess they’re wrecking this particular city to save humanity, so they have that excuse. Still, it would be helpful for the heroes to express some concern. The Avengers had a scene just like this, but the heroes were actually structuring their plans around saving people and occasionally took breaks to pull someone out of harm’s way. These guys are just smashing each other into buildings until somebody stops moving.

1:47: Characters keep showing up near the heroes even though I forgot they existed and they weren’t hanging around previously. Where did everyone come from? I keep forgetting Irish Boyfriend is even here; where does he keep going? The blond scientist is like a wraith or something; she just keeps warping into the scene. And where did Asian Woman Who Knows Karate go?

1:49: ha ha ha those people are dead now

1:49: Transformers are fighting in the middle of Hong Kong all day, and the Chinese government is just now finding out.

1:50: The slow motion reaction shot had all the great Mark Wahlberg facial expressions the Internet is going to need for the next year.

1:50: Is there an in-universe reason why Lockdown cycloned a stadium and then started dropping boats on everyone? All he’s here to do is capture Optimus Prime. That makes for a great money shot but not a great plan for capturing one guy and making sure he’s alive when you do.

1:51: Stanley Tucci is seriously just trolling the movie now.

1:52: It doesn’t speak well to your skills as a director when I repeatedly forget that your characters are carrying a bomb that could destroy the entire city.

1:53: Is it just me, or has this movie been on for eleven hours?

1:54: This movie is classically conditioning me to feel nauseous at the sight of slow motion.

1:54: Oh, okay! I get it now! Lockdown’s going to cyclone the Transformers into the ship! …Could he always have done that?

1:55: Good grief, Tessa. STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMAN!

1:56: Kelsey Grammar. Dying like a boss.

1:58: Yay! More Linkin Park songs! Or whatever this band is. It might as well be Linkin Park. This showdown is so emotional. So many feels. Emotional radio rock is so meaningful, you guys.

1:59: For a guy who puts so much profanity in his movies, there really is no such thing as a Michael Bay character who knows how to swear.

1:59: Okay, I don’t care how cool your alien sword is. A human is not going to block an attack from a seventy-foot robot. Especially not while lying on the ground.

2:01: The movie’s giving me vibes like it’s about to end. I don’t know if I trust it.

2:01: I love Nicola Peltz’s delivery on, “We don’t have a home, Dad. It blew up.” That’s one of those marriages of actor and dialogue that’s just movie magic.

2:02: Hey, the Autobots are actually leaving! Did someone in this movie actually learn a positive lesson? Holy crap.

2:03: An Optimus Prime monologue! The movie’s ending! It’s ending! This movie, inexplicably the length of The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Fellowship of the Ring, is ending!

2:03: End credits!

The most saddening thing about this is that, despite everything you just witnessed, I’m pretty sure this is the least awful Transformers movie since the first one.

-Matt T.

Belle (2014)

Starring- Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Alex Jennings, James Norton

Director- Amma Asante

PG- thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wtdk6owFj2o

Belle is basically a historical Disney princess movie, and it’s probably really uncool to like it. But it’s pretty good, so I do.

Based on a true story, it’s set in the back half of the 1700s and centers on Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of a black woman and a British admiral (Matthew Goode). When her mother dies and her father is sent overseas on Navy duty, she’s left with her aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). They are kind and raise her well, but they must also care for their reputations — Lord Mansfield being a justice currently overseeing a case involving slaves who were drowned by the crew of a cargo ship. Dido is a full member of the family only behind closed doors.

She has a large inheritance and, thus, no need for marriage, but afraid of becoming an “old maid,” she promises herself to the only man who will have her. Meanwhile, she befriends John Davinier (Sam Reid), a young lawyer and passionate abolitionist and begins helping him to unravel the case of the slave ship — threatening not only her family’s public standing but the entire institution of slavery in Britain.

I’ve said in the past that I have a limited taste for this sort of things — period dramas where stuffy rich people in silly costumes fuss about arbitrary social mores while a singular free spirit shoves her way through all the social stratification and decides to marry for love instead of economic gain between families. I’ve seen that movie a dozen times, and it never gets any less groan-inducing.

Belle, I think, rises above simply because it has more edge. It’s less about the customs and strictures and more about Dido warring against the social stratification that caused them in the first place — both because she’s biracial and because she’s a woman.

She acknowledges that, in both regards, she’s been lucky. The fact that her birth father loved her and claimed her as his own forced the government to recognize her personhood and both kept her far from the slave trade and guaranteed her inheritance would come to her. And that inheritance means she doesn’t have to worry about marriage; she can get by without the increase in rank that would come from joining with someone who comes from money. But she also realizes that spending the rest of her days alone in a big, empty house doing absolutely nothing is no kind of life, and it’s clear that something in her comes alight when she joins Davinier’s activism.

Dido is a great character all around, well written and performed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and she anchors the film almost single-handedly. And there’s something surprisingly complex in the way the film deals with both of her personal struggles, both as a biracial person in a world that sees her existence as abominable and as a woman in a society that reduces her to a commodity that can be traded for land and money. There are times when, subtly, the two issues start to clash, and it becomes impossible to deal with both simultaneously; progress on one front, for her, means regression on another. But the film isn’t miserable or hopeless — far from it. As said, Dido seems to find herself in trying to change the world around her and insisting on being a person in a society that doesn’t care to let her. She’s a great character and the number-one reason why I hope that families, particularly those with little girls, will check this out.

Belle resists simplicity with the supporting cast as well. The man to whom Dido becomes engaged — played by Alex Jennings — is clearly someone she’s going to leave. He’s the hypotenuse in the movie’s love triangle. But he’s not a bad man; truthfully, he’s quite progressive by the standards of the world he lives in. Nevertheless, he sees Dido’s race less as something to be embraced and more as something that can be overlooked.

The film also makes much of Dido’s relationship with her uncle, since that was the means by which she left her biggest mark on history. He’s trapped between a rock and a hard place with the slave ship case, required to uphold and interpret the law even though the law is morally unsound, and he understands the significance of what he has to do — either agree that humans are commodities to whom a fair price can be assigned or potentially cripple the slave trade and maybe Britain’s economy alongside it. He wants to do the right thing, but he also holds tightly to the social code required of politicians and public figures — and not always to his niece’s benefit. For him, the line between protecting Dido from the prejudices of others and protecting himself from them is a fuzzy one. He’s a man, composed of vices and virtues alike.

That said, Belle is rarely subtle, sometimes clichéd, and occasionally as eye-rolling as many of its costume drama counterparts. You probably picked up on that with my offhand mention of a love triangle a few paragraphs back. It’s obvious from the beginning how that will play out — you know who Dido is truly supposed to be with from the moment he’s introduced, just as you know that the person she’s currently courting will be left behind. And of course, she and her True Love hate one another initially and spend a substantial amount of time bickering and trying to be the smartest person in the room. (Fortunately, the movie cuts that out much earlier than a lot of others.)

By the end, Belle’s become a somewhat typical Disney Princess True Love movie with the requisite speeches and waterworks, and the score has the kind of sweep that betrays a lack of trust in the story to do the emotional heavy lifting. You learn to take it with the territory, eventually. It’s a family movie about important social issues; of course that’s how it does things.

With that romance, there’s a small part of me that thinks Belle tries to have its cake and eat it, too — criticizing the culture that requires such marriages of convenience while also accepting them in the way that the impact Dido’s motives. It allows Dido to suggest that marriage should be by love and by choice, and that’s why any underlying implications don’t bother me too much; however, it still focuses so heavily on the “old maid” fears that, to some extent, it ends up inadvertently framing that motivation within the context of a woman still needing a man in order to be a whole person — she just needs to make sure he loves her and she loves him first.

So, in a lot of ways, Belle is a film that lacks any particularly distinctive voice. It isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before, and it’s hard to imagine it graduating to classic status someday. But it’s still a largely enjoyable way to spend two hours. It’s got some solid, likable characters, some quality acting, and enough intelligence that you don’t quite feel condescended to by all of the flowery nonsense. And as a family film in the current climate, it’s top-notch. If it sounds like your thing, it probably is — and it’s good enough that it might win you over even if it isn’t.

-Matt T.