Freeheld_Movie_PosterFreeheld (2015)

Starring- Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Luke Grimes, Josh Charles, Mary Birdsong, Kelly Deadmon, Gabriel Luna

Director- Peter Sollett

PG-13- some thematic elements, language and sexuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blk27Jj9UE8

The true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a career police officer who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2005, fought the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to ensure that her pension benefits went to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).

Freeheld is probably — in fact, almost definitely — a bad movie. But what can I say? Its stupid charm worked on me.

It’s more an example of a movie pressing all the right buttons rather than being genuinely well made. Basically, it’s one of those bad movies that I like anyway because its sensibilities are right up my alley. I don’t mean to suggest that Freeheld is terrible, by the way, just that it’s pretty consistently underwhelming in most respects.

Mostly, it just doesn’t know what story it’s telling. The first half of it is a relationship movie where two people meet, fall in love, get on each others’ nerves, make up, grow closer, and eventually marry. Then, it splits off in two different directions — half terminal illness drama and half civil rights procedural. Laurel and Stacie are strangely uninvolved in the latter, which constantly threatens to become an awards-bait story about all those nice straight people who stood up for the lesbian couple.

There isn’t much of an arc to any of this. None of the main characters change significantly over the course of the film. There are little adjustments here and there, but they’re minor character details more than anything, making the main story a bit richer but having very little to do with it otherwise. Obviously, that’s something you want to do as a writer or filmmaker; it really fills out your characters and the world they inhabit. But if what you intend as character detail ends up being more compelling than the main story, it’s likely your focus is off, especially when that main story isn’t very cohesive to begin with.

Strangely, the movie assigns the vast majority of its major arcs to minor supporting characters. That’s fine — a story’s arc isn’t always focused on the main character; sometimes, it’s about how he or she affects everyone else. Here, it comes across as a poorly managed device to land that big finale where everyone turns out in support of Laurel and Stacie. This movie focuses on the Freeholders and the police force, both of which need to come around to the protagonists’ side by the time the credits roll. The script assigns a minor character to each of those entities and tries to filter those arcs through his perspective. The problem is that the main Freeholder and the main police officer who represent those arcs are both sympathetic to Laurel and Stacie from the beginning — their perspectives don’t change; they simply find the courage to stand and do the right thing. Which would be fine if the movie was specifically about personal courage, but it doesn’t really start teasing those threads until near the end; and also if the movie didn’t use those two character arcs as substitutes for almost everyone else in the film. As soon as those perspective characters decide to show their support, everyone else just follows — even the characters built up as strident homophobes who will need a lot of work in order to come around. So much of its character development seems to happen entirely off-screen.

Peter Sollett directs this thing nearly into oblivion. There’s barely any visual life in Freeheld. It looks very much like a TV movie — dull, lethargic, lit in dim soap opera orange. There are barely any memorable images. It’s very much a “point the camera at the actors and press the button” sort of movie.

Those actors are — predictably, given their caliber — strong, but the chemistry isn’t always there. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are giving solid performances individually, but only in the film’s happiest moments does their relationship have any spark or lived-in quality. Everywhere else, there’s something off about it, something a little too staged and uninvolving.

I don’t really know what to tell you. It just got me somehow. I have a soft spot for civil rights movies, particularly when they focus on how an entire community of people from different walks of life learned and grew and rallied together. That’s the kind of sappy, beautiful cheese that gets me reaching for tissues. Throw in the inherent sadness of something like this — a woman dying before her time, slowly deteriorating, leaving the person she loves behind, and other people are preventing her from passing secure in the knowledge that person will be cared for — and it’s hard not to feel something.

I know that’s essentially cheating and that Freeheld touches the soul exclusively because of its hot-button topic and the fact that it’s merely bad rather than terrible. That’s something this movie has me wrestling with — if it works, is that the only thing that matters? If I had a good time, I can’t call it a bad movie, can I? But what if it’s clearly pressing the easy button in every scene and only working on your emotions because it has an impossible-to-screw-up premise?

Freeheld appears to have good intentions. That was enough to put me in its corner, if only just. But it is not a good movie.

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterThe Visit (2015)

Starring- Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn

Director- M. Night Shyamalan

PG-13- disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCsULFGldi8

When the grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) they’ve never met reach out to them, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) mom (Kathryn Hahn), who cut ties with her parents before either of the kids were born, allows them to decide whether or not they’d like to visit. They choose to spend a week with their grandparents, both to reconnect and because aspiring documentary filmmaker Becca thinks it would make for an interesting subject. At first, their grandparents are awkward and somewhat laid-back, but friendly, and the trip gets off to a decent start. But their behavior gets stranger and stranger; the kids initially write it off as forgetfulness and the odd health issues of old age. But as the week progresses, their grandparents’ actions take on a sinister edge, and Becca and Tyler begin to wonder if they might be in danger in their little house in the country.

So, a fairytale wherein residents of an apartment complex encounter a magical creature, a fantasy film inspired by one of the best animated TV shows of the last decade, and a Will Smith-led sci-fi/action feature, and the found footage horror movie about scary old people is the one where M. Night Shyamalan gets his mojo back?

To be honest, I’m not ready to join the chorus of voices calling The Visit a major comeback for the once-promising director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The movie isn’t thatgood, and it has several hallmarks of a happy accident. But it is, simultaneously, kind of good, in ways it seems to intend, albeit filtered through a ton of trashy weirdness.

My perspective on Shyamalan’s work is mostly balanced. I stayed on that bandwagon way longer than most people and continue to maintain that everything up to and including The Village is at least okay. I don’t think Lady in the Water is terrible, and I’m pretty sure The Happening was supposed to be a dumb, over-the-top B-movie; it just isn’t any good at it. It was The Last Airbender that did me in. That movie is so profoundly awful in such an amateurish, immediately identifiable way that I simply don’t know how a career can ever fully recover from it — dialogue so leaden and goofy the average person on the street could probably do better, absolutely terrible acting all around, outright bizarre storytelling choices, and haphazard direction that turns all the action silly and all the drama awkward. People don’t really talk about it anymore, but it remains, for me, one of the great mysteries of modern cinema — a movie so bad I’m not sure how it ever existed in its final form.

For that reason, it’s going to take a long, unbroken string of genuinely fantastic movies before I’ll be willing to align myself with Shyamalan again. But The Visit is definitely a step in the right direction, if only a small one.

It suggests that maybe Shyamalan actually was onto something with The Happening. Maybe he’s exhausted his supply of serious cinema and now is best served with junky B-movies that straddle the line between comedy and horror — that way, you can claim the genuinely good scenes and dismiss the others as intentionally goofy. The encouraging thing is that, the more I think about it, the more it seems as though maybe The Visit isn’t doing that as often as it might appear.

Truthfully, in some respects, it represents a significant improvement for Shyamalan, who both wrote and directed. It’s weird that the movie he shot from the perspective of preteens with handheld cameras is more directionally functional than movies he shot with full coverage, but The Visit actually has a decent sense of geography and staging — I understood the layout of the house and yard pretty well, well enough to know when to be especially scared. I don’t think any of the scares are particularly original, but The Visit’s best scenes are nevertheless admirably spooky, which is especially praiseworthy considering that it is, again, a movie about scary old people, the only thing less inherently frightening than The Happening’s killer plants.

Even in his best films, Shyamalan had a tendency toward dryness in its characters, so it surprised me how much Becca and Tyler entertained me. They’re annoying, yes, but they’re annoying in the real ways that kids that age usually are. Becca’s the self-appointed Smart One, who knows a lot of big words and memorized a handful of high-cultural concepts that she wields sarcastically as intellectual weapons against her inferiors  (why, no, I didn’t see my teenage self in her at all; why do you ask?). Tyler’s the troublemaker, but old enough to be aware of that and employ it in the service of his own amusement. He’s also deeply uncool, and it’s never quite clear the extent to which he’s in on the joke. They act like real kids, and they mostly talk like real kids, too — that’s the big surprise here, given Shyamalan’s past predilection for characters who talk like extremely redundant robots.

The grandparents don’t work as well as they could, and I think that might be the movie’s biggest weakness. The characters don’t have any personality other than being creepy and strange. I wanted fuller psychologies there, something to help me understand their relationship with one another and their relationship with the kids at the outset. I do admire Peter McRobbie and especially Deanna Dunagan for their full commitment to what turn out to be extremely degrading and undignified roles, particularly in the knowledge that they were doing it for a movie with no aspiration to be anything other than trash. It’s worth mentioning that The Visit is one dark, nasty, and disgusting PG-13, constantly testing the rating’s boundaries on all three points. It’s not going to curdle your blood if you’ve seen the Hostel movies or something (I never have and have no plans to correct that), but it might be rough for the uninitiated. One scene made me wrench away from the screen in utter revulsion. The movie definitely goes places you wouldn’t expect, especially since there’s always been a fundamental sappiness to Shyamalan’s storytelling — strangely enough, it’s here, too, and not entirely ineffective, despite everything else.

I guess I’m still trapped in a place where I’m pretty sure the movie is in one most of the joke but uncertain about the other twenty-five percent of it. There are scenes in this that actually are very funny in clearly intentional ways — making this the first M. Night Shyamalan movie (keeping in mind that I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and think Signsand The Village are a heck of a lot of fun) I can remember coaxing genuine laughs out of me. There are also scenes that are creepy in clearly intentional ways. And then there are the scenes somewhere halfway between, where what’s happening is clearly stupid but played somewhat seriously. The goofiest trailer moment — “Would you mind getting inside the oven to clean it?” — is one of the best examples. I had absolutely no idea if the movie wanted me to find that funny or tense; I didn’t quite find it to be either one. There are several scenes that have that effect. Part of me thinks they couldn’t possibly seriously, but then the other part of me remembers that “we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs” was an actual line of dialogue in The Last Airbender.

I don’t mean to sound so condescending. Storytelling is hard. Filmmaking is hard. So, I’ll leave it at this — The Visit represents a speck of hope on the horizon of Shyamalan’s career future, as well as a significant improvement from his previous few films. Considering the idiocy of its premise, that may be a much bigger accomplishment than it seems on the surface. The Visit doesn’t even resemble anything great, but it’s a fun bit of B-movie junk, and it’s officially okay to switch into cautious optimism when Shyamalan announces his next project.

Truth_2015_posterTruth (2015)

Starring- Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, David Lyons, Dermot Mulroney, Rachael Blake, Andrew McFarlane, Natalie Saleeba, Noni Hazlehurst, Connor Burke

Director- James Vanderbilt

R- language and a brief nude photo

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqOz8-Sto1g

A chronicle of the fall of 60 Minutes anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) in the wake of a story questioning then-President George W. Bush’s National Guard service as he ran for reelection against John Kerry.

Am I the only person who really liked this? I am? Cool.

I probably have two advantages on that score. The first one is being thirteen in 2004 and thus blissfully unaware of a journalistic ethics debate taking place behind the scenes at 60 Minutes; in the interest of complete honesty, I actually knew next to nothing about this incident prior to researching it in the lead-up to this movie. I managed to scrape together a mostly functional understanding of what happened, but I’m not the person to assess its fidelity to what happened or interpret its bias in the debate.

The second one is that I majored in journalism — WHAT, REALLY? Woah, Matt, you totally haven’t said that, like, eight thousand times — and really enjoy movies about it. With hard, international news in particular, every move you make is an ethical quagmire and every thought you have is suspect, and any movie that effectively explores that basically has me in the palm of its hand, regardless of its flaws.

The 60 Minutes/George W. Bush incident feels like something I should have heard about — at the very least, something that would have been mentioned in one of my journalism classes. Based on the research I’ve done thus far, it appears to be a fascinating case study in ethics with extremely far-reaching implications for journalism at large. I find it strange that this story somehow became the enormous news media implosion that time forgot. I’m glad that Truth brought it back to the table.

It’s an adaptation of Mary Mapes’ book on the subject and is naturally somewhat biased in her favor as a result. Mapes continues to stand by the Bush story even today, admitting that critical errors were made but that their implications were true. The film isn’t exactly an exoneration of the team behind the piece — though it does downplay the severity of a few of their oversights a bit too much for my taste — so much as an argument for forgiveness, that the situation was the result of human error rather than malice.

Truth intrigues me because it explores how human error and malice can mix together to the point that you can’t figure out your own motivations. None of us know our own minds as well as we’d like to think we do.

I like Truth not because of its objective depiction of real-life events but because it incriminates its audience as well — by anchoring itself in the reporters’ perspective, you see how easily you might have been a part of the problem had you been in the same situation.

I think every journalist has some innate desire to speak truth to power on behalf of the little people. Everyone has their own heroic fantasies, and for reporters, it’s to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, to find those politicians and CEOs who are abusing their power and to expose them to the world they’re destroying. And I think all of us love a good story and really want the best ones to be true. It’s why people ignore the evidence on Bigfoot — a monster in the woods is so much more fun than a guy in a costume messing with people.

Those two things can easily combine in the heart of a reporter determined to change the world, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to great fault.

Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to understand how this incident might have happened, especially as depicted in the film. One thing is clear to me from my research, that despite the ethics violations and the procedural oversights, there remain a lot of questions hanging over this story. The 60 Minutes team uncovered a lot of circumstantial evidence that certainly made it look as though something shady had happened during Bush’s National Guard service.

The film puts you in that situation, on the ground floor with the reporters responding to it. You got into this field to fight for the people, you’re biologically programmed to love a good story, there’s a major presidential election coming up, the incumbent has raised questions about his challenger’s Vietnam service, and you’ve just stumbled into a lot of clues indicating the possibility that said incumbent’s own record isn’t exactly spotless. The circumstantial evidence is enough that you think it’s impossible for this to be a coincidence, but it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove in court. When you start searching for the connections, how do you not look for the ones that will prove your theory?

It’s difficult. It’s tough to figure out your motivations — even if they aren’t partisan — and separate them from your actions. What do you do when you’re trying to make a difference and you discover a pile of evidence pointing to possible corruption but nothing that will prove it? When is it malice, and when is it pure error? We’re all guilty of both, the film says, and we’re all capable of doing something like this. Truth moved me to feel the propulsion and triumph as the team put one clue after another into place and subsequently to share in the guilt when the film shows you what they missed.

I do think that in trying to make a more general point about journalism, the film goes a step too far in glossing over things. Human error is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of what happened, but even that can be somewhat undersold here. And the film’s suggestion that it was purely human error, that no malice whatsoever, whether conscious or subconscious, was involved, strikes me as too simplistic. It was, as are most things, probably a mixture of both, and even those involved probably couldn’t tell you which was which. In that sense, I think Truth may have said all of these things purely by accident, but if that’s the case, at least it accidentally did so very well.

Regardless of its factual basis — and I encourage everyone to consider all narrative films as works of fiction, no matter what their inspiration — Truth is nevertheless very solid drama. A little didactic, a little preachy, and every thematic undercurrent is directly explained to the audience at some point in its run-time, but you get a great sense of who the characters are, what they want, and how it all adds up. Despite its low-key premise, Truth is a thoroughly propulsive film that never really lets up emotionally — one plot point leads very organically to the next, everything develops logically, the movie gets so wrapped up in the process of journalism that it seems outright excited about it. It’s one of those rare movies that can make arresting entertainment out of the utterly mundane. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching people tape documents onto whiteboards.

And if nothing else, you’ve got Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford going head-to-head in the lead roles. That alone ought to sell the tickets. Redford’s the one giving the prestige performance here, but it’s very much Blanchett’s movie — though it was billed as the Dan Rather story, he’s unambiguously a supporting character; it belongs to Mary Mapes. Redford is great, but Blanchett is just absurd. I haven’t seen Carol yet, but if her Oscar-nominated work in that film is better than her performance in Truth, I’m worried the universe might collapse. This is arguably career-best work for her, and that is no small feat in a filmography like hers. The role plays to her strengths — Blanchett has a stoicism about her, and that makes her suited for tough, no-nonsense characters who aren’t into public displays of emotion, which is true of Mary Mapes here. But the film seems to be testing that boundary a bit; her work here feels much more grounded, more like an ordinary person than the royalty and fantasy and lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous roles on which she’s built her career. Mapes has friends, a sense of humor, a sharp wit; she’d fit very well into the newsrooms with which I’m familiar. And she is a bit standoffish and contained, but Blanchett slowly peels that back as the story progresses, first making her bubbly with glee as the story comes together and then gradually tearing her down after the criticism comes in. There’s a real progression behind this character, and Blanchett captures it seamlessly. It’s absolutely tremendous work.

And it articulates something interesting about news media as an industry. I like how it sees 60 Minutes both as journalism’s heyday and the thing that killed it. Despite the little hope notes here and there, I ultimately think Truth is a little on the cynical side of things; unfortunately, I don’t have any disagreements with it. Journalism is dead, it says; may it rest in peace. Once upon a time, it was taken for granted that news reporting lost money; the media did it anyway out of a sense of duty. Then, 60 Minutes did it well enough to make it profitable. Then, everyone else tried to do so. Then, money got involved. Now, the major networks are the property of corporations that are lobbying the same politicians the reporters are supposed to hold accountable; what in the world keeps that system objective? Then, of course, you had the rise of infotainment, and now, you’re either going to Fox News for a narrative or CNN for: “Hold the phone; I just saw a bird. I think it may be an ISIS bird. Random citizen, do you think that is an ISIS bird? Remember, viewers back home, that initial reports aren’t always reliable.” I think I’m ranting. What was I talking about? Right, Truth.

Truth built me up, tore me down, gave me hope, and then crushed it. It’s not a particularly nuanced look at the specific events that it conveys, but it sure is a nuanced look at the trials and tribulations of journalism in the 21st century. Kind of heavy-handed and not always subtle, but I still came pretty close to loving it. It’s easily one of 2015’s most underrated films.

ChiRaqMoviePosterChi-Raq (2015)

Starring- Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle

Director- Spike Lee

R- strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use

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

A modern retelling of the classical Greek play Lysistrata, set in inner-city ChicagoAfter a young girl is killed in a drive-by shooting, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), girlfriend of gang boss Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), organizes the women of the community into a sex strike in order to stop the violence.

At the very least, no one can say Spike Lee doesn’t have an extremely singular vision. There are movies that combine different elements in new ways, and then there are movies that combine elements you didn’t even realize were on the table with a litany of left-field ideas and concepts and come out the other side with something almost entirely unprecedented. I have no idea how to even begin recommending Chi-Raq to anyone. I really liked itbut good night is it weird. It surprises me how comparatively unified critical culture is in its praise of this one; in practice, it’s one of the most obviously “love it or hate it” movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

Its most dominant stylistic quirk stems from its roots in classical Greek theatre. Lysistrata — which I know nothing about, by the way; my knowledge of theatrical history isn’t even thorough enough to be considered functional — isn’t merely the inspiration for this movie. Chi-Raq is, in its entirety, a classical stage comedy — actually, one of my foremost thoughts while watching it was that it might be a lot more fun seeing it live than on a screen. Characters have names like Demetrius and Dolmedes, and the rival gang leader’s street name is Cyclops (and he has a glittery bright orange eyepatch to boot). The dialogue incorporates modern slang, but almost all of it is written in rhyme. The costumes are larger than life; the sets often come across as stages; objects are sometimes moved into shots; sometimes, light descends from a stage rig you can’t see; there’s a narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who interacts with the other characters and then approaches the screen to speak to the audience directly. It’s an odd framing device, and that’s before you use it to tell a story about gangland violence, drug abuse, poverty, and urban decay.

And that’s also before you add the endlessly idiosyncratic Spike Lee into the mix. I don’t think he gets enough credit for being one of our most deeply strange directors. Once I started exploring his work (and I’m still far from an expert), I realized that a Spike Lee movie is so radically different from the stereotype of a Spike Lee movie that I kind of wonder how many people have actually seen his films. Cinematically, he’s a guy with weird interests and weird influences and weird ideas, and he doesn’t seem to second-guess himself — he never seems to reach a point where he dials things back in order to become more accessible. He has a voice; it’s bizarre, but he uses it.

Beyond his strange, off-kilter visuals; his odd, theatrical characters; and his genuinely mind-boggling genre mashups, what I really like about him is his ability to wrangle seemingly incompatible tones into something effective. Reductively speaking, he makes bright, sunshiney comedies about atrocities. Chi-Raq is very much an adherent to the Do the Right Thing philosophy — it’s a colorful, jokey, weird, loosely narrative sort of hangout movie that also digs its fingernails into the bloody grime beneath society’s most deep-rooted and costly problems. Chi-Raq’s inciting incident is a little girl being shot in the street while playing hopscotch, and it’s also frequently hilarious. It’s miraculous that these two things are never at odds. The movie visits some very dark places, and there’s a sense of melancholy, loss, entrapment, anxiety, and fear overhanging everything; it’s also a goofy sex comedy that eventually turns into a literal military standoff where both sides are playing slow jazz and sexy dancing at each other.

But even at its funniest — and Chi-Raq is very, very funny; I was genuinely surprised how many big laughs there were — there’s a bitterness at the heart of this movie that pushes closer and closer to the surface before culminating in an ending that drips with sarcasm. The movie opens with what is essentially a lyric video for a rap song about the violence in Chicago; then, sirens blare, and big letters fill the screen reading, “This is an emergency.” The opening concludes with statistics comparing Chicago’s annual death toll to that of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Basically, the movie announces up front that, despite its quirky surface, you’re very definitely getting angry Spike Lee here.

And that anger simmers under the surface for most of the film’s run-time. Chi-Raq never feels like an angry movie; it’s caught up in its outlandish story and larger-than-life characters. But when you dig deeper, it becomes clear how ironic it’s being about all this, how the story and its fairytale/theatre aesthetic is mostly grim sarcasm.

Spike Lee’s movies have a reputation for being political cudgels, but in my (again, limited) experience, they’re almost the polar opposite. Do the Right Thing, for example, is clearly twisted up about everything that happens in it, unable to solve the problems it’s addressing, unable to provide a clear answer to the question of what it means to do the right thing. Similarly, Chi-Raq sure as heck unloads on a lot of touchy sociopolitical issues, but it, too, appears to be doing so mainly to express how complex and multifaceted this situation is. It understands the situation in a very measured way; it not only presents the problems as stemming from a variable mixture of external and internal forces but sees those forces as having an inseparable relationship as well. An external negative force creates an internal negative force, which feeds back into the external negative force, and so on. It doesn’t look at America’s racial problems through the lens of a simple solution, but as a series of interwoven threads that have to be pulled and untangled and addressed by everyone involved — including, unfortunately, a lot of people who want nothing to do with it.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Spike Lee is a subtle filmmaker; I suspect even his biggest fans would emphatically agree that he most certainly is not. Believe it or not, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything inherently wrong with that; it’s just that very few filmmakers are good at being unsubtle. Sometimes, shouting it from the rooftops is the only way to say something, and all the better if you can do so with passion, fire, and narrative backing. At his best, Lee is great at that. However, I think a lack of subtlety becomes a problem when the filmmaker is using it as a device to explain something the movie has already demonstrated visually. Chi-Raq lands somewhere in the middle. There are times when its plainspokenness is refreshing and times where my response was: “Yeah, I got it the first time.” (The worst offender is probably Samuel L. Jackson’s speech at the beginning of the standoff, just bluntly explaining something the movie had already definitively conveyed.) At times, it ends up being a bit of a problem for the movie; it keeps taking breaks to talk about the politics of everything and make sure the viewers at home are following along.

Chi-Raq is, as a result, a pretty tangent-driven film, which isn’t all that unusual for Spike Lee — after all, his most famous film, Do the Right Thing, barely has a plot at all. And I know I’m in the minority on this, but I just don’t think Lee is great at tangents. I don’t really mean that in a derogatory sense; very, very few directors are, even those among the all-time greats. Stories are structured things; breaking the rules for a larger purpose is extremely difficult to pull off. Lee’s tangents, in my opinion, aren’t always interesting or illuminating, sometimes distract overmuch from the main characters and storylines, and are occasionally heavy-handed ways of highlighting the message. Chi-Raq is two hours long, and I think it could easily stand to lose about 30 minutes of that. It really takes off once the plot kicks in, and I genuinely think it’d be one of my favorite movies of the year if it kept its focus there.

Even so, Chi-Raq is unique, funny, and surprisingly moving — sometimes, somehow, all at once (the final scenes, in particular, shift from bitterly funny to deeply sad to semi-triumphant in seconds flat; it fascinates me how spectacularly they defied my entire understanding of storytelling logic). It’s also extremely weird and almost intentionally off-putting, and as such, it simply won’t be for everyone. And I have no idea whether that includes you. But as one of the most wholly original movies of the year, I can’t help but enjoy it.

Goosebumps_(film)_posterGoosebumps (2015)

Starring- Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell

Director- Rob Letterman

PG- scary and intense creature action and images, and some rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Cn716jv61s

Zach (Dylan Minnette) isn’t happy about it when his mom (Amy Ryan) moves him to a new town and a new school, particularly given that his first friend, next-door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), is the daughter of the creepiest, meanest, most unpleasant guy on the block (Jack Black). One night, Zach is at home when he hears what he’s convinced is his neighbor beating Hannah next door; he rushes to her defense and finds the truth to be far stranger than that. His neighbor is actually the famed Goosebumps author R.L. Stine, and his original manuscripts are capable of summoning his monsters into reality. Which, of course, the teens have accidentally done. A particularly nasty ventriloquist’s dummy by the name of Slappy (voice of Jack Black) escapes and, set on revenge, frees all of Stine’s monsters and looses them upon the unsuspecting town. Now, Zach, his friend Champ (Ryan Lee), Hannah, and Stine not only have to survive the night but find a way to send the monsters back where they came from before they destroy the real world.

I didn’t expect to be thinking about Goosebumps a few days after I saw it. My response to it has undergone a strange evolution — in that my actual feelings toward it haven’t changed a bit since I watched it but have diverged into larger, still-unresolved questions about what it means for something to be a good kids’ movie. Basically, I think I’m going to write a negative review of Goosebumps and yet possibly recommend it anyway.

That’s because my main issue with it is that it lacks freshness — staging scares and fake-outs in transparent, heavily broadcast ways; twisting in predictable directions; rarely offering anything surprising or new. But then, I remember that Goosebumps is essentially a gateway horror movie for kids, and I wonder — how original does it actually need to be, especially since no one’s making anything like it anymore.

You might be surprised to learn that I was actually rooting for this movie, and not because of nostalgia either — yes, I was born in the 90s, when Goosebumps was a pervasive, all-consuming cultural eclipse, but I was pretty easily scared and mostly avoided it. I never read one of the books and only saw an episode of the TV show here and there. I don’t have a personal stake in this. I was more interested in this because of what type of movie it is. I really miss family-friendly horror. There’s something about the tone and style it has, and who doesn’t fondly remember the first movie that scared them in a fun way? When I was a kid, family-friendly horror was absolutely everywhere, but when properties like Goosebumps faded, nothing really rose to take their place. When Halloween comes around, what are all the family channels playing? Nineties stuff. Every now and then, we get something like Hotel Transylvania, but even that doesn’t really count — it’s a manic comedy with monsters in it; there’s nothing particularly scary about it. I can’t imagine people 20 years from now talking about how scared they got watching it and other movies like it when they were kids. I’ve missed this type of movie and longed for it to make a comeback. I had a lot of those hopes pinned on Goosebumps. I wasn’t naive enough to expect it to be good; I just hoped for the best.

And it’s possible that’s close to what I got. It just came with a loud reminder that I’m no longer in the target audience for it. And I’m becoming weirdly okay with that.

Like I said, my main issue with it is that it isn’t very original. But should it be? I can’t believe I’m asking that question; my knee-jerk response is: “Yes, idiot.” But Goosebumps occupies such a specific cultural niche — it’s supposed to entertain and scare children. It needs to be a little spooky, but it can’t permanently scar its audience. It needs to be a little upbeat and silly. It needs to be a little broad. None of the scares worked on me, but I’m a friggin’ adult. If they worked on me even a little, they’d probably mortify children. So, yes, when I look at the spooky moments, I see incredibly obvious jump scares that land with very little punch and are broadcast long beforehand through atmosphere and music. When I watch it, I see tricks and tactics that have been used a thousand times in other, better movies, but this one is supposed to prepare kids to watch those ones later in life. So, is its unoriginality necessarily a flaw? I’ve been spending far too much time torturing myself over that question.

Of course, there are plenty of things Goosebumps could do a lot better that would make it a stronger kids’ movie and add a little more adult appeal. That’s why I ultimately consider this review, on balance, to be a negative one. The big problem is that the script really isn’t there. It follows the formula of most mediocre family horror from when I was a kid — introduce characters, release monsters, go, go, go, go, go. There comes a point one third of the way through where the only thing the movie does for the remainder of its run-time is run from one monster chase to the next. You could cut most of those sequences without anyone knowing they had ever been there. As I’ve said in the past, I really dislike it when a movie feels like it could either end at any second or go on forever, and while Goosebumps doesn’t have it as bad as most, it’s still there.

It also doesn’t have a real sense of itself emotionally. Normally, a movie like this — a small community vs. a big threat — will spend time establishing that community so that whatever happens to it will matter to the viewer. Goosbumps’ setting and supporting characters could be anywhere and anyone, which wouldn’t be that big a problem if it didn’t bank so hard on those “everybody teams up” notes at the end. I got the impression a lot of material was cut on this front — toward the end of the movie, completely pointless characters start commanding screen-time, there are comeuppances and rewards with almost no set-up, and the early parts of the movie generally feel constricted.

As for the main characters and their journey, the movie has a lot of good ideas but doesn’t follow through on most of them. Well, okay, Zach’s arc wasn’t a good idea — the writers defaulted to the Dead Parent angle, and, as usual, it has nothing to do with the actual story and just randomly pops up every once in a while. But there are a lot of other cool ideas here that could have made for a truly fun and unique adventure had they been developed to fruition. It’s established that Stine began creating monsters as both an escape and a revenge fantasy when he was a lonely, bullied child, and he’s continued using them to fill the holes in his life even as an adult (the real-life R.L. Stine must be a pretty cool guy for signing off on this incredibly unflattering — albeit comic — portrayal). Later in the film, the characters find out — possible SPOILER, albeit one I don’t think would ruin much of anything — that in order to get the monsters back in the books, Stine needs to write a new one. Connect those two items and allow them to dominate the entire plot, and you’ve potentially got a very interesting, fun kids’ movie about the power and process of storytelling. Instead, the set-up becomes an unconvincing tie-in to Zach’s been-there-done-that baggage, and the resolution is more a device thrown in to give the heroes a shot. There isn’t much feeling attached to it.

It’s also worth mentioning that the effects in this movie are bad enough that even the kids might notice. The monsters look and behave like cartoon characters smashing into live-action elements; they have so little texture, and some of the green-screen work gets very obvious. I imagine it’s a question of budget, but it’s not as though this movie couldn’t be scaled down — a lot of the Goosebumps stories are small and contained and could easily be done practically or with only minimal CGI. And unsurprisingly, the movie is at its most fun when the monsters are practical; the graveyard sequence is the only one in the movie to actually get tense.

But I like the tone, I mostly like the characters, I like that the teenage characters look and act like real teenagers, I like that a lot of the humor isn’t half-bad, I like that the story is self-contained and doesn’t seem like ninety minutes of franchise creation (truth be told, I have no idea where the inevitable sequel will pick up). There’s a lot about Goosebumps that goes surprisingly well — nothing I’d single out as great, but even so.

That’s why I look at the movie and find that I dislike it and can’t quite call it a good movie but also don’t think it’s an entirely bad movie for kids. Weirdly, I think I’d actually give it a soft recommendation for children — no one’s making anything like it right now, and the kids will have a good time without rotting their brains. I can’t promise that the adults who watch it with them will get anything out of it, but then again, it isn’t for them.

Pan_2015_posterPan (2015)

Starring- Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Adeel Akhtar, Nonso Anozie, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis McDougall, Cara Delevingne

Director- Joe Wright

PG- fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1wRv8vTpxo

Peter (Levi Miller) never knew his mother, or anything about her apart from the fact that she left him at the orphanage where he now lives under the iron fist of some spectacularly unpleasant nuns. One night, he awakens to find the other children being kidnapped by flying pirates; despite his best efforts, they capture him as well and whisk him away to Neverland, specifically a mine where the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) forces his prisoners to dig for fairy crystals. Among those prisoners is the roguish James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), with whom Peter forms an uneasy alliance after it becomes clear they need one another’s skills to escape and appeal to the native princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) for assistance in the fight to stop Blackbeard from destroying everything beautiful in Neverland.

Good lord, even the poster for this is awful. Look at that thing. A Dutch angle in a vertical shot, the actors badly Photoshopped in. They’re standing in what appears to be the same shot, but clearly were photographed elsewhere — either that, or there’s a highly specific wind that only affects Hook. The environment could not more clearly have been green-screened in. Also, physics defiance — Hook’s right leg is somehow higher than his left despite being on the half of the image that’s tilting downward; apparently, he became a hobbling mutant at some point. The mast is superimposed behind Blackbeard in such a way that he appears to have a gigantic spear slung over his shoulder. I don’t know who told Peter to pose like Vin Diesel on a Fast and Furious poster, but that’s not working out. And then there’s that broad, eye-burning, utterly false light sprayed over everything, half early evening and half hot summer afternoon. Seriously, who approved this monstrosity? My website is going to be, like, fifty percent less visually appealing with this garbage plastered on top of it.

Yeah, that’s the kind of review this is going to be. Pan is a very serious contender for the title of 2015’s Worst Film (I’m still giving that award to Unfriended, but everyone else seems to have a weird affinity for it; call Pan the People’s Choice, then). It’s the sort of mind-boggling disaster that seems fated for a future of cult status and ironic viewings (or would, if it had made more than two dollars at the box office). Normally, I’m inclined to be nice to movies I think are genuinely trying to be good — and that’s my opinion of Pan — but this one is terrible enough that I’m really reaching to find my goodwill right now.

They say every good director has one truly horrendous movie in him, and this must be Joe Wright’s. Mostly, I think it’s a case of a director and a film being disastrously ill-suited for one another. Wright has mainly built his career in period pieces and costume dramas, with the occasional foray into a more modern setting. I don’t know that he’s ever been a great storyteller; it’s a matter of debate, at the very least. But he sure is one heck of a visual stylist.

That was true wherever he took his variations, whether a period piece like Atonement or a modern thriller like HannaPan, however, is the first time he’s wandered into the realm of pure fantasy. His previous films varied in their levels of realism and the periods in which they were set, but they were all filmed in real places or reconstructions of places that used to exist, using tangible items that had to be found or researched rather than created out of thin air.

That’s my long, roundabout way of saying that Pan looks uncharacteristically terrible. This is, as ever, baseless speculation on my part, but perhaps Wright’s skill lies more in framing, lighting, and coloring what’s in front of him than in inventing and/or approving otherworldly creature, location, costume, and effects design. Pan is pure visual chaos. There’s no unifying theme to the look of anything. The movie throws colors, fantasy creatures with simultaneously complex and bizarre designs (there are giant bird monsters that look like a crappy physical effect rendered as a crappy CGI effect, in that they look like unconvincing puppets but also burn your eyes with bright colors and textural weirdness), elaborate costumes, and confusing sets together, not only into one scene but often into one shot, and everything just drowns in itself. The cinematography and editing are fine, but that isn’t the be-all and end-all of drawing a viewer’s eye. This movie, particularly its action sequences, is like an impossible-to-follow fever dream where everything looks freakishly colorful and fake and a thousand elements are competing for attention. There’s a character in the middle of the frame you’re supposed to be following, and the shot is composed in the most logical way to do that, but every other inch of the screen is filled with discordant madness that pulls you in and out of the action and leaves you disoriented and wondering why you feel vaguely anxious.

The rest of the movie isn’t much better. The performances are a mixed bag, and I’m saying that only because Hugh Jackman is kind of entertaining in the most over-the-top role of his career, a screamy, melodramatic, flamboyant kids’ movie villain. My feelings about everyone else are mixed at best. As Peter, young Levi Miller exhibits a few too many of the typical child actor traits — he’s a little too poised, a touch bland, and hits every note just a little too hard. I don’t blame him for that, though. Everyone else in this movie is going over the top, and he’s along for the ride; plus, I don’t think even a seasoned adult actor could find life in the blank pages of the script where they forgot to write Peter a personality. Rooney Mara’s mostly doing the stolid warrior princess thing. And Garrett Hedlund is trying much, much too hard to be Han Solo — the smirk, the angry sarcasm, the obviously forced gravel in his voice, it’s basically a copy/paste job, except over-the-top and without a human center.

The script is worse. Honestly, it’s hard to summon the energy even to write about it. It’s boring in a completely lifeless and unimaginative way. More senseless, unnecessary prequelizing, complete with constant ironic references to the original story and a pasted-on There Is a Prophecy You Are the Chosen One narrative. There’s something potentially interesting in a story where Peter Pan and Captain Hook start out as friends, but Pan never comes close to finding it; they interact as any other characters would, except with constant “I bet we’ll be friends forever lol” jokes. Pan clearly wants to explore that storyline in a sequel its box office has 100 percent guaranteed we will never see. Instead, it burns time on a been-there-done-that, Point-A-to-Point-B fantasy action plot and leaves its odd-couple friendship hanging and emotionally irrelevant. If you’re telling a story because you had an idea where Peter Pan and Captain Hook are friends, you’d better tell that story instead of leaving us a promissory note for a sequel that might never exist. This, to me, is easily the most irritating thing about Hollywood franchising.

It isn’t, however, the most irritating thing about Pan, a title for which there are a thousand fully-qualified competitors, from the eye-melting visuals to the bad acting to the  contrived script. Pan is very, very bad. Somewhat uniquely bad, but I simply cannot recommend it on the level of morbid curiosity. I haven’t even seen the Disney animated film or the early 2000s live-action adaptation, and I don’t even like Hook, but I’ll still tell you to watch absolutely any of those before Pan.

Irrational_Man_(film)_posterIrrational Man (2015)

Starring- Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsey Aidem, Ethan Phillips

Director- Woody Allen

R- some language and sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP8mPkyBntw

Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is hanging by a thread when he joins the faculty of a small-town Rhode Island college. He considers the majority of his own field to be complete nonsense, has no energy, and has gave up a long time ago on ever finding a reason to live in a world that’s so resistant to change and improvement. Mostly, he sits alone in his house and broods. That changes when he strikes up a friendship with a bright young student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) — a friendship that threatens to evolve into something that might ruin his career but that also sets him on the path to healing.

Albeit in entirely the wrong way.

Surprisingly, I think I’m actually in this movie’s corner.

I was somewhat resistant to it going in. Oh, Woody Allen’s making another movie about an older man who falls in love with a much younger woman; I wonder how he’ll attempt to justify the fact that he’s married to his ex’s adopted daughter this time! (I defended Magic in the Moonlight in 2014 and still think it’s technically a good movie, but  I soured on it significantly after I realized what it was up to.)

But here I am, thinking Irrational Man is pretty good and actually a bit curious why it got such bad reviews. This isn’t one of those cases where I consider it functionally bad but like it because of the way it appeals to my taste; I genuinely admire a lot of what this movie does and how it does it. It absolutely has problems and is nowhere near great, but there’s an audacity to it that I found arresting.

If nothing else, it’s unique — at least in 2015’s cinematic landscape, if not necessarily film history. For the last several years, most of Allen’s movies fit comfortably into the lightly comedic indie drama mold — some are better than others, but tonally and stylistically, there isn’t a world of difference between Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, and Magic in the Moonlight.

Irrational Man doesn’t seem to be any different at the outset. There’s a depressed, middle-aged, self-styled intellectual who falls in love with a young woman who’s barely an adult and over whom he wields some kind of authority. It’s light, talky, a little bit quirky, and has a wry sense of humor that occasionally leans into black comedy but never goes the whole way. I didn’t hate the first half of this movie, but I watched it understanding why the reviews weren’t great — Allen didn’t appear to be doing anything new, returning to the same story and thematic wells he’s practically trademarked, and I was waiting anxiously for its subtext to once again be resolved in a way that left me feeling like I needed a shower. The first half coasts on sharp, witty dialogue and strong performances (I truly believe Joaquin Phoenix is one of our greatest actors), which is fine, but I definitely wasn’t on board.

What I’m about to say could possibly qualify as a spoiler. I’m not going to tell you a single detail of what happens, but I know some people like it when a movie tricks them into thinking it’s something that it’s not and like to be unprepared when the trickery is revealed. If that’s you, don’t read the rest of this.

At about the halfway point, Irrational Man takes a hard left turn and becomes the darkest movie Allen has made in quite a while. That twist comes on very suddenly, within the space of one scene — it starts as light as everything else in the movie, then suddenly goes to a very dark place and becomes an entirely different story. From there, the movie mostly left me amazed that it was actually willing to go there. I’m impressed how well the movie makes that dramatic shift — it makes perfect sense for the characters; I just never entertained the idea that Allen would allow it to happen, especially not in a movie this light and inconsequential.

The film turns into a reminder that Allen can do dark comedy very well when he wants to. There’s an absurdity to the decisions the characters make — their ideas are entirely ridiculous, and the movie waits a long time before revealing whether they were being serious. You laugh at a character’s self-absorbed lunacy and penchant for melodrama, and those laughs gradually become more and more uncomfortable as you begin to realize: “Oh, wow, he’s actually going to do it.”

I think the philosophy at the heart of it only makes it funnier. A lot of my laughter stemmed from how much sense Abe made here and there. It’s a classic case of a character finding the solution to his problems and then taking it waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too far. He comes to the right realization about himself but does it in the wrong way. Or perhaps he comes to the wrong realization about himself in the right way. Who knows? The film finds interesting nuance in what would be a simple moral in anything else. For some people, it’s about finding yourself and realizing that you can opt out of the systems you’ve created at any time, but there’s definitely a way to over-romanticize that and end up in a worse place as a result. Irrational Man just takes that idea to its most ludicrous endpoint.

In that sense, it’s the first Woody Allen movie I’ve seen where he seems to be reflecting upon his own wrongdoings in a comparatively honest and self-critical way. Yes, he’s built his entire career on self-critical filmmaking, but there’s a difference between self-deprecation and openly addressing something that’s deeply wrong with you. His male protagonists are almost always stand-ins for himself, and it’s clear from the start that Abe is no exception. Maybe he sees himself as having reached a similar turning point and taken his newfound sense of meaning and purpose to a hurtful place. Of course, mere reflection and a shrugged apology aren’t nearly enough to atone for certain things, but the film at least appears to acknowledge the problem. (Obviously, all of this is written on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” If he is, in fact, guilty of the rape allegations that were leveled against him years ago, then everything I just said doesn’t even begin to cover it.) In Irrational Man, it’s much clearer than usual that the usually-romanticized May-December romance is a bad idea that comes from a place of unachievable fantasies and imbalanced power dynamics. And it’s even clearer that Abe’s interpretation of purpose and meaning get bad in a hurry. In essence, it’s a movie about people trying to imbue their lives with purpose who begin sacrificing the well-being of others on the altar of maintaining their own happiness.

And it absolutely isn’t perfect. Primarily, I think it takes a while for the film’s tone to catch up with its script. The first half of this movie is a little more grounded than your average Woody Allen production — its reality is a little less heightened, something that’s reflected mainly in the performances, which have a bit more real-life intensity behind them. But the characters still express themselves in unrealistic witticisms, engage in plenty of unnecessary melodrama, and bluntly explain their own problems to other people with much more openness and self-knowledge than is normal for someone with internal problems to get over.

Even after the twist, Irrational Man is more a trifling amusement than anything else. But it’s very enjoyable and has a rare capacity for shock and surprise, always taking things a notch farther than you expect. It’s not your typical Woody Allen movie, and that may be the best thing about it.