Beyond the Lights (2014)

Starring- Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Richard Colson Baker, Danny Glover

Director- Gina Prince-Bythewood

PG-13- sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfcfZn8nq3w

Beyond the Lights is another one of those movies that would be pretty mediocre if not for the one thing that it does really, really well.

When we first meet Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she’s a little girl happily accepting a trophy for second place in a local talent competition. When she leaves the stage, her overbearing mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), forces her to throw it out — “Do you want to be first runner up, or do you want to be a winner?”

The next time we see Noni, it’s been over a decade, and she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, a multi-award winner before her first album — expected to be one of the all-time largest debuts for a female soloist — has even dropped.

And she’s standing in the edge of her hotel balcony, thinking hard about jumping.

Kaz (Nate Parker), a police officer hired to provide security for the evening, shows up just in time to catch her. A media circus subsequently descends upon both of them; Noni tries to spin it to maintain her image, and Kaz tries to use it to nurture his political ambitions. In between, the two come to care for one another and question their place in the public eye.

I can’t really say that anything is significantly wrong with Beyond the Lights. It’s more that everything about it is really okay. It’s light, inspiring drama with just a touch more edge than usual. It’s the sort of movie where true love solves everything, where each character has exactly one problem to resolve and can expect the rest of his or her life to go swimmingly once that’s taken care of. The romance at its heart is pretty predictable, particularly within this context — its ups and downs make for great drama but don’t feel too honest. At a certain point, it seems as though every scene between the two of them is going to begin great then crumble after one of them says or does something wrong. There will be soul-searching; they’ll make up. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not bad; it’s not good. It’s movie drama. You’ve seen it.

If there’s anything here that’s actually an explicit problem for the film, it’s that the chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker is a bit on the sleepy side and never really takes off the way the film needs it do. The film smartly draws parallels between them that at least offer an intellectual justification of their relationship — both of them either have or are pursuing careers in the public eye, are managing an image that’s been cultivated for them, and are struggling with questions of who they really are and who they really want to be. It’s easy enough to assume that this relationship works and appeals to both of them because they truly are the only people who stand a chance at understanding one another. That’s just not something that always comes across on-screen. The relationship between these characters isn’t bad, necessarily; it almost gets the job done. It’s just a little dry, a little wooden, something that has touches of life here and there but is never lifelike.

Admittedly, I appear to be in the minority on this — a lot of critics, including one or two of my favorites, have called this one of the best movies of the year. But if this romance and this story were all Beyond the Lights had to offer, I’m not sure I’d be working on a positive write-up right now.

And then there’s that one thing that it does really well. And that really raised its profile for me. I think what Beyond the Lights has to say about celebrity is really interesting, deftly handled, and quite needed right now.

It does that by allowing us to see Noni in two different lights — through the media, which focuses on the drug-fueled escapades, on the public meltdowns, on the sex appeal; and in her private life, in the moments between the major events that define how everyone else sees her. Essentially, the film takes the stereotypical modern pop star — the drugged-up, scarcely dressed, disconnected, pretentious, egotistical nutcase — and asks its audience to see that person in another light. Removing none of those negative characteristics, it finds the narrative in between and tells us what really shouldn’t be novel: “Hey, these are human beings.” And then, it goes a step farther: “Also, it might’ve been you who did this to them.”

With Noni, it becomes clear that all the nonsense she gets up to is an escalating series of cries for help, trying to get someone, anyone to see her as an actual person and allow her to be that for once.

“It’s like I’m standing in the street, suffocating, and no one can see me,” she says.

It’s about not only the cult of celebrity but the strange sense of ownership society has over people who have come to be in the public eye. “Here we are now, entertain us.” It’s about the way we see their private affairs as something to which we’re entitled, that we not only need to witness but have explained to us. It’s about the way people in that position are left with no other choice than to play to that image somehow, to find some means of making it an advantage. It’s about how painful it is to deny oneself for that long and to put on a face about how it really is. And when it reaches its most hurtful point, when you finally lash out or do something stupid, crying for help or trying to make the pain go away, just for a second, it’s interpreted as part of a relentless, negative narrative people are building around your life for their own entertainment. It’s the sort of thing that’s certainly not true about everyone but is just as certainly true about someone. The film is as much about the paparazzi, the gossip magazines, and the news media as it is about Noni finding a way to love herself again — and its perspective is refreshingly non-positive and quite intelligent in the way it indicts its own audience. It encourages a sort of voyeurism around Noni’s life and then undercuts it with conscience — forcing viewers to recognize that real life is constantly offering us the former without the latter, that we see only the drama and don’t recognize the humanity. It’s intelligent stuff and really ought to be in a much better film.

This one is mostly all right. There are no significant missteps. There are also few standout qualities. It’s an easy, simplistic drama. But it also happens to have a thematic throughline that’s surprisingly intelligent, effective, and challenging — enough so that I’m thrilled they managed to sneak it into something this populist. On that level, it’s leaps and bounds above its competition.

-Matt T.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014)

Starring- James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler, Nikki M. James

Director- Ned Benson

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dtk9yJDckw

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is, in theory, an intriguing cinematic experiment but one that, in practice, proves a touch superfluous.

It’s the story of Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) — her father was a huge Beatles fan who happened to be graced with the familiar last name — in the months after the collapse of their marriage because of a tragic event in their lives.

This story is told in three separate films, released simultaneously — Him, Her, and Them, each one shedding light on the relationship by viewing it exclusively through the perspective of the titular characters. Him is Connor’s story, Her is Eleanor’s, and Them cuts and pastes the two together into one continuous narrative. Basically, what I’m saying is that I had to watch three separate movies in order to write this review for you people, and you’d better appreciate me. (Actually, I didn’t; I watched Them first and then the deleted scenes from Him and Her after it became clear that the ones the combined version kept weren’t significantly altered. Still.)

It’s definitely an interesting concept, but it’s one that ultimately turns out to be a bit meaningless — not because the people involved aren’t talented but because, in retrospect, this approach to telling the story is somewhat, well, pointless. Cinema is already capable of showing two different perspectives on a series of events, and Them proves it.

The only way I could see this framing device being used to its fullest potential — and for the record, I have absolutely no idea how you’d pull it off — would be to hone in on the characters’ individual perspectives on a scene to scene basis, to take the scenes in which both characters appear and find a way, in Him, to show how Connor is feeling in that moment and, in Her, to do the same for Eleanor. But the scenes they share are almost identical in both versions.

As such, I think it would make more sense for this to be a single, epic film — three hours long or so. What we have right now is a single two-hour film that works well enough on its own but sends you to two others in order to grab some helpful context — context that could easily have been included alongside everything else.

None of this is to say that the story being told here is a bad one; on the contrary, it’s quite good, if not great. It’s just that the framing device doesn’t do it any favors; it works much better as a single story than two disparate ones with a few sequences in common. As you watch this “trilogy” unfold, it begins to seem as though it was even written this way — as one continuous film — before being split apart. The main characters’ individual stories fit into each other too neatly. They communicate with one another. They respond to one another’s emotional ebb and flow. They’re calculated to climax in the same way. The information you get in one sometimes heightens and changes the emotional context of what’s happening in the other. Apart, both films feel empty — feature-length, but aimless and without purpose, like a minor episode in a television show you don’t get to see.

The stories also need that mutual support in that they occasionally cover up one another’s weaknesses. This is especially true of Him, Connor’s half of the story, which is definitely the film’s less interesting half and is still more lightweight when expected to carry an entire hour and a half on its own, without interruption or context. It’s telling that when writer/director Ned Benson started cutting these films together into Them, he removed far more from Him than he did from Her.

It’s far that reason that I would call Them the definitive version of this story and the only one that you particularly need to see if the premise intrigues you. Him and Her provide some helpful context clues here and there, so they’re not entirely without value in understanding these characters; still, all the truly vital story elements made the transition and the others aren’t needed in order to “get” the film.

Taken on its own, Them is a good film — not a great one, per se, but perfectly serviceable. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are both able performers, and neither one clearly outshines the other here. They both successfully give viewers a window into their inner world that isn’t always clearly articulated by the script or visuals. The more I see from both of them, the more certain I am that they’re here to stay. The supporting cast fills out the edges nicely — especially Viola Davis as a college professor with whom Eleanor develops a warm rapport; she brings some much-needed humor and perspective into the proceedings. Ciaran Hinds and William Hurt appear as Connor and Eleanor’s fathers, respectively, both of them finding something uniquely human in these small-ish roles. Hinds plays a sadder, more forlorn character, a guy who was probably a well-meaning but not particularly skilled father and isn’t handling his waning years with much grace. Hurt gives the opposite impression — someone who’s lived a full and productive life but doesn’t know how to deal with what his daughter is going through now.

I think that’s the film’s main strength — how it handles Eleanor’s grief, depression, hopelessness, and uncertainty. I don’t know that it emerges with any significant insight into the process, but it certainly does a good job of capturing the situation — the way the tragic event that sent her into a downward spiral also affected everyone around her and how it’s now the elephant in the room that everyone needs to talk about but isn’t always allowed to. Everyone’s hurting and dealing with that in his or her own way, and their methods don’t always coincide well. It’s implied that this is why Connor and Eleanor can’t be around one another anymore — he can’t heal until he finally regains a sense of routine in his life, and she feels as though going back to the way things were is an injustice somehow. This has affected their extended families as well, and they, too, are grieving in their own way but are aware that their children are suffering far more than they are and need to be handled with a certain delicacy — though no one has any idea what that looks like.

The film’s main weaknesses come with the territory — it’s an indie drama in every sense of the word and runs headlong into a few too many of the old clichés. The movie constantly takes breaks for pretentious, poetic dialogue interludes where everything starts Meaning Something. It’s also got subtlety somewhat confused with obfuscation and emotional distance. I’m not sure why the film is so mysterious about the specific tragedy that drove a wedge into Connor and Eleanor’s relationship. For the first third of the combined film, I honestly thought this was simply a romance that had gone sour and disabled both partners emotionally; I was given no reason to see it as anything else. Then, it casually drops a big reveal in the middle of a totally unrelated conversation. It hit me like a ton of bricks, but probably not in the way it was intended. This is information the audience really ought to know immediately, and I have no idea why it was packaged as a plot twist. In general, the film doesn’t care to let you see much of its protagonists’ lives before the breakdown — a cute dinner scene at the beginning when it appears as though both of them are dating rather than married is all you get for most of this. It’s hard to understand Connor and Eleanor’s pain when it’s not clear what they lost. Actually, to be completely honest, it wasn’t until a good distance into the film that I realized these characters were even married at one point. The film doesn’t even quietly imply any of this; it simply drops game-changing information on you when you least expect it.

Still, it’s largely an emotionally engaging piece of work. The question is how best to experience it. My recommendation is that Them is the best version of this film — it’s missing tiny bits of helpful context here and there, but mostly, it’s just as easy to follow as the other two and also has a much-needed sense of emotional continuity. It gives the stories the opportunity to take shape around one another and to become that much more effective as a result.

If what interests you about this project is the experiment itself, then you should watch Him and Her and skip Them — it’s patched together out of the other two films and doesn’t add a single scene of its own. I don’t think either film stands on its own all that well, but if you manage to carve out enough time to watch them in immediate sequence, they might come close to working as intended. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is watching all three, the way I (kind of) did — there’s really no point.

In all fairness, I’m always excited to see filmmakers testing the limits of what’s possible in storytelling. The downside is that, sometimes, it’s just not going to work — you’re going to find that bridge that can’t be crossed. That’s largely the case with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Still, I’m glad that the attempt was made, and I’m gladder still that we got at least one mostly decent film out of it when all was said and done.

-Matt T.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Starring- Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph

Directors- Don Hall and Chris Williams

PG- action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3biFxZIJOQ

In the interest of maintaining some perspective — when Marvel began its cinematic universe project, there were noticeable rough spots. As Disney Animation’s first foray into that universe, one that’s somewhat new territory for a studio that mainly does comedy and fairy tales, Big Hero 6 is solid. It’s a fun flick.

But man, it is uninteresting in the worst way.

Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter) epitomizes the “brilliant but lazy” trope — he graduated from high school at 13 years old and invents high-tech robots in his spare time. But he lacks any sort of ambition other than making easy money in bot-fights — that is, until his equally intelligent older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), shows him around the labs at the university he attends. Hiro is hooked and becomes determined to get in.

Then, a terrible accident during the university’s science fair claims Tadashi’s life, and Hiro gives up on that dream, retreating into himself, his only friend a medical robot his brother invented, Baymax (voice of Scott Adsit). However, Hiro soon begins to suspect that what happened at the university was no accident. Determined to see that justice is done, he outfits Baymax with martial arts programming and a suit of armor and recruits his brother’s university friends into a high-tech superhero team — the Big Hero 6.

Structurally, Big Hero 6 could be loosely described as “every superhero movie ever made.” You begin with an ordinary teenage kid who’s smart but unambitious. You kill off his closest and most important relative. You give him powers (or have him invent some for himself). You introduce a supervillain. You follow through with some minor adventuring and a touch of mystery. You stage the final confrontation against the backdrop of a major science-related presentation the villain is determined to disrupt. Spider-Man alone has already done it twice. The fact that Big Hero 6 injects almost nothing new into this formula — whether that’s a character, a theme, a minor twist on the plot, whatever — is easily its biggest problem. Take any current Marvel film and dial it down to a PG rating — you’ve got Big Hero 6.

Even by that standard, it’s dramatically inert. Partially, that’s because Hiro is so naturally brilliant that it feels as though he never really has to work for anything. When he needs new tech, he’s invented it by the next scene. Any training involved in the use of that tech gets handled in a montage. Even his emotional development seems scattershot. For starters, the film takes forever to establish any sort of underlying theme — anything the characters are dealing with that might connect us to them on some level beyond entertaining props in colorful action sequences. After far too much indecision, Hiro gets saddled with the typical revenge plot and has to learn that hurting the person who hurt his brother won’t actually bring him back and so on. The movie rushes through this. It rushes through a lot of things, actually — it seems to want to skip from one plot point to the next without making sure they lead into one another meaningfully, are built up in any way, or last long enough to register emotionally. The villain is so underdeveloped and devoid of personality that he barely registers as a presence in the film at all. (It struggles to do anything with him because it’s determined to keep his identity a secret, but honestly — it’s clear from the outset who it is. Better to let us in on it so we can identify with him in some way rather than leave him a blank space.)

Its structure as a team movie is lazy as well. Basically, you get your first action sequence where none of them know what they’re doing and blunder into and undermine each other. By the next action scene, they’ve got all that sorted out, with nothing in between to justify the change, whether that’s more training, more planning, figuring out how to work together. It’s the bare bones of an arc with none of the work. Actually, it’s kind of a bad team movie all around. It starts off as the Hiro and Baymax show and basically stays that way. The other four members of the titular team don’t get a fraction as much screen-time or development. The film is content to give each of them a single personality trait and leave it at that — Fred (voice of T.J. Miller) is a moron, Go Go (voice of Jamie Chung) is cool, Wasabi (voice of Damon Wayons Jr.) is a stick in the mud, and Honey Lemon (voice of Genesis Rodriguez) is girly. That’s all the more you get out of any of them. It doesn’t compare to the stronger superhero team movies, like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, where most of the characters have detailed personalities and relate to one another in a particular way. Here, you’ve got Hiro and Baymax and their comedic buddies.

When the movie works, though, it’s because of the development it focuses on Hiro and Baymax. It doesn’t intend to be a “boy and his robot” movie, but even so, it’s a decent one. With Hiro, the film is aiming more for “likable” than “interesting,” but that’s good enough for its purposes. Baymax is certainly the breakout star of the film, which is interesting because he’s one of the rare movie robots that indisputably never treads the line between machine and human being — he’s data and wires, and that’s it. But between the cuddly design and the sweet, relentlessly helpful personality, he’s immediately endearing, and the film knows exactly how to fit him into the comedic dynamic. That’s another strength of the film overall, that it is generally quite funny in more or less the way that it intends — off the top of my head, I can only think of one joke that fell especially flat. It’s also predictably well animated and manages to scrape some interesting visuals out of its premises — both in the semi-futuristic world it inhabits and the wild, colorful action sequences. It’s also at least trying super hard to have a good message, even if it doesn’t deliver it all that well, and I guess I have to award some effort points for that.

It’s like I said — Big Hero 6 is fun. And I suspect that a few weeks from now, I’ll remember basically nothing about it. It’s something new for Disney Animation, and you can tell — as a first step, it’s tepid, unconfident, and very, very safe. It’s difficult to say that I recommend it, especially if you’re going to go out of your way. If you’ve seen any superhero movie before, you’ve probably seen this. Then again, maybe your kids haven’t seen those superhero movies, and Big Hero 6 might be a solid introduction. And maybe that’s all it’s really supposed to be. If that’s the case, Big Hero 6 does its job.

-Matt T.

Dumb and Dumber To (2014)

Starring- Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Rob Riggle, Laurie Holden, Rachel Melvin, Steve Tom, Don Lake, Patricia French, Kathleen Turner

Directors- Bobby and Peter Farrelly

PG-13- crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references

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

On paper, Dumb and Dumber To seemed like it should’ve been a fun review, at least. In retrospect, it should’ve been obvious what a thankless job it is writing about this movie. It puts the writer in the position of having nothing to say other than that Dumb and Dumber is, well, dumb. And the readers stare at the screen and wait for some kind of point to develop.

Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) are back. Twenty years after the events of Dumb and Dumber (whatever those were), the duo is reunited for a cross-country adventure in search of Harry’s long-lost daughter. He needs a kidney transplant, in case you thought there was any altruism in this undertaking. So begin the expected mishaps, especially once the moronic pair blunders into a murder plot.

I guess the real problem here is that comedy is so subjective. Yes, all art is, but comedy especially so. At the end of the day, you either find something funny or you don’t. And it’s slowly becoming clear to me that my taste in comedy is wildly different from the culture at large. The list of acclaimed modern comedies that I actually enjoy is restricted mainly to the Jump Street movies and everything Edgar Wright makes. And the number of older comedy classics that do little to nothing for me is seemingly endless — Anchorman. Zoolander. Wayne’s World.

The original Dumb and Dumber is definitely on that list. It’s at the top of that list. I really don’t get it at all. It has the same problem I seem to have with all these other movies. Generally, when society universally recognizes a comedy as terrible, I am totally on board with that. But then, when it universally recognizes one as very good, I often find myself standing outside the circle struggling to tell the difference between the two. Half the time, I can’t tell a comedies people like apart from Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg movies.

Now, we have a split within a single film series. Lots of people love Dumb and Dumber. And lots of people hate Dumb and Dumber To. And I can’t tell how they are not, on every conceivable level, exactly the same movie.

It comes down to a question of whether they’re funny dumb or dumb dumb. You obviously know where I stand on that question. And I’m utterly unqualified to determine how one film’s approach is substantially different from the other’s.

So, I’ll assess Dumb and Dumber To on its own. It’s not entirely laugh-free — there are a few moments of inspired idiocy, most of them spoiled in the trailers. There’s also a lot of amusing narrative subversion going on — Dumb and Dumber To is almost an anti-movie in the way it pointedly avoids a cathartic resolution to nearly all of its major plot points. And the weird thing is that it isn’t unfunny, like those especially bad comedies where you cringe at every joke and are embarrassed for the actors to the point of feeling physically ill.

I think that, maybe, it’s just too much. This premise, for me, just doesn’t work at this length. Maybe Harry and Lloyd would be fun to follow around in a series of short films. But when what you’re watching is almost two hours long and has no jokes other than “stupid people misunderstand the basics of reality,” it gets old. It also gets obvious — you quickly learn to identify the set-ups and get good at predicting how they’ll be resolved. Take word/object/social convention. Have main characters misunderstand it as extremely possible. Repeat until audience hates you. You feel the movie getting less energetic, imaginative, and fresh as it goes on.

Of course, there are also plenty of jokes that don’t land in any context. I only remember one or two bits that were especially cringe-worthy, but there are a number that are, again, just plain obvious. People getting hit in the groin, fart jokes, random sexual references, a couple of bland shout-outs to the first movie, etc. There’s a minor Seth MacFarlane-esque tendency to elaborate unnecessarily — there are a lot of cutaway gags in Dumb and Dumber To, but instead of providing comedic clarification to something the characters say, they just visualize the original statement in exactly the way you’d imagine. Basically, a character will say that something happened, and the camera will cut to a brief shot of that thing happening, usually with no twist whatsoever. The movie just tells the same joke twice, once verbally and once visually.

You don’t really go to something called Dumb and Dumber for the story, but with some of the intelligent writing we’ve been seeing in comedy lately — again, 22 Jump Street — it’s hard not to want more. Most of Dumb and Dumber To feels like padding — loosely connected narrative strands trying to make room for the different bits. The movie constantly feels like it’s running in place — fast and frenetic but going absolutely nowhere. If the jokes were better, I might forgive it. Instead, it feels like the premise won’t sustain a feature-length film and thus requires a dozen diversions.

It doesn’t help that the movie attempts to trade on the sweetness and likability of its characters in order to motivate its emotional developments when, here, Harry and especially Lloyd are a bit grating. The humor surrounding them is considerably more mean-spirited than I remember it being in the first one — they’re not just lovable idiots in the more, they’re adult-children who seem to have deliberately chosen to be stupid and are constantly offending everyone around them. The trick to a lovable idiot is to ensure that he or she is also well-meaning. Not to keep harping on the Jump Street movies, but they’re excellent at this — Jenko is a moron, but he’s a moron who genuinely wants to do the right thing and to treat everyone around him the way they want to be treated. Harry and Lloyd…don’t. They’re happy being stupid and don’t care who minds.

Apparently, Dumb and Dumber To is worse than the first one, because everyone hates it but likes that. Those are probably the people you should talk to if you want to know whether or not you’ll enjoy this. Like I said, as far as I can tell, it’s exactly the same movie as the first one. I just don’t find it funny — it’s much, much too stupid and not in the calculated, sneakily intelligent way that lets you in on the joke and allows you to continue being an adult who is no longer amused by bodily functions. Both installments in this series feel like PG-13-rated kids’ movies to me.

-Matt T.

Song of the Sea (2014)

Starring- David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, Lisa Hannigan, Lucy O’Connell, Jon Kenny

Director- Tomm Moore

PG- some mild peril, language and pipe smoking images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgbXWt8kM5Q

Is it too early to declare Cartoon Saloon the next Studio Ghibli, and Tomm Moore the spiritual successor to Hayao Miyazaki? Two movies might be too few to know for sure, but they’re certainly on the right track. Both are quite enough to fill the Miyazaki-shaped hole in my heart now that he’s retired.*

Young Ben (voice of David Rawle) lives with his father (voice of Brendan Gleeson) and sister Saoirse (voice of Lucy O’Connell) in a lighthouse by the sea. Ben’s mother (Lisa Hannigan) disappeared when he was very young, shortly after giving birth to Saoirse. Ben seems to blame his little sister for this — and that animosity only deepens after a strange incident with Saoirse prompts their father to send both of them inland to live with their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan). However, Saoirse’s unusual behavior continues, and it soon opens her and her brother up to a new world they never knew existed.

Tomm Moore’s debut feature, The Secret of Kells, was a foundational film in my life. I was only about 17 years old when it came out, and I credit it with opening me up to independent and other, smaller films that I wasn’t going to hear about just by watching TV spots. In that sense, it influenced my taste and my writing style immensely, and it remains, six years later, one of my favorite films.

Six years is a long time to wait, so, naturally, I had a lot was riding on Song of the Sea, and for the most part, it’s up to the task. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s in the same ballpark as The Secret of Kells — I don’t find it quite as thematically interesting, and some loose world-building here and there undoes the narrative stakes — but then again, Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t in the same ballpark as My Neighbor Totoro. What’s important is that the same vision, the same originality, the same risk-taking — all that remains readily on display.

I keep comparing these films to Miyazaki’s work, and I’m not certain how much I want to do that — I don’t want to make it sound as though there’s a sense of indebtedness here, as though The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea are an inferior homage to films that paved the way for them. They certainly aren’t; they’re unique and singular movies that have thoroughly cultivated their own style and voice and don’t owe anything to anyone. I make the comparison only because the effect is similar, and in this case, I intend that as the highest possible praise.

Moore and Miyazaki have both taken the myths and legends of their native cultures — Ireland and Japan — and infused them into original stories that treat them with a sense of wonder and significance. Both tell those stories in a way particular to them, not immediately fitting into any mold or formula other than the one they’ve established. Both of them weave those stories into visual masterpieces with detailed, fluid, unique, stylistic animation. Both of them have found a composer who seems to best match their vision — for Miyazaki, Joe Hisaishi, and for Moore, Bruno Coulais — who then pairs the visuals with beautiful music drawn heavily from the local culture. (Side note — it is genuinely inexplicable to me that Coulais isn’t one of the big names in movie music. Listen to the scores for The Secret of Kells and Coraline and tell me that isn’t some of the richest, most unique stuff you’ve ever heard.)

Compared to what we’re used to here in the United States, Moore is such a gentle and reserved storyteller. He may be relatively new to filmmaking, but his work gives off the air of a practiced, confident hand. His films believe in the decisions they make and don’t try to hedge their bets with exposition, easy ways out of the darker corners, or ill-advised comic relief. Nor do they give the impression that they’re trying to impress anyone with pretense and big, important messages. His stories are uncomplicated on the surface, but anyone willing to look deeper is going to find layer after layer after layer. Song of the Sea is no exception — it’s surprisingly subtle in its methods. It allows you to look into its characters’ inner world without having them explain it to you. Ben’s resentment of Saoirse is never something that’s explained overtly, but you get a sense of it looking at the family dynamic — she looks like her mother, which reminds her father of his lost love, which causes him to treat her differently than Ben, which doesn’t mean that Ben won’t suffer from his father’s overprotective attitude toward her. The same could be said for the dull but pervasive melancholy that hangs over everything Ben and Saoirse’s father does.

Song of the Sea is ultimately a story about letting go — not the newest or most exciting message around, but delivered in a way that feels fresh and intelligent. It’s something that every character is dealing with on some level — and through that, Moore finds a lot of compassion for all of these people. The film has an — again, very Miyazaki-esque — approach to its characters that finds something relatable in all of them and allows very few of them to be exactly what they seem at first glance. At least two characters seem, upon their introduction, to be set up as villains, but by the time the film ends, it’s too broad a word for both of them.

On the whole, as I said previously, I don’t find it as dramatically compelling as The Secret of Kells — it spends about half an hour being every bit as good, but my interest began to dwindle when Ben and Saoirse were separated from the rest of the cast, off on their own adventure. Nevertheless, Song of the Sea is superior to The Secret of Kells on at least one level — the animation.

Yeah, I know. The Secret of Kells is already one of the best-looking animated films of all time. How could it get better? I don’t know, but it does. Song of the Sea is simply breathtaking. It’s clear that Moore has found his art style — broad and simplistic but incredibly fluid character designs set against lush, painterly, complex backgrounds. Here, he’s even further refined it. The character designs are largely the same as what we saw in The Secret of Kells, but the animators really outdid themselves on the environments here. The complexity has seemingly tripled, but it never overpowers the central focus — Moore’s animation retains the same tendency to align similar shapes and make it look as though the entire frame is bleeding together. Once again, he’s created these lush and complicated landscapes, filled to all four corners with so much detail you can’t possibly notice all of it in one sitting. He combines that with rich watercolors, graceful motion, and constant imagination — no one setting looks exactly like another. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s working with so beautifully an alien environment as the undersea world — matched to further effect with myth and fantasy from a time long since past.

Song of the Sea finds itself as the second straight animated masterpiece from Cartoon Saloon. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait six years for the next one.

-Matt T.

* Well, all right, Miyazaki is basically the Brett Favre of animation and retirement has scarcely been permanent with him, but just in case.

Rosewater (2014)

Starring- Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy

Director- Jon Stewart

R- language including some crude references, and violent content

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

I haven’t missed an episode of The Daily Show since 2010, so both by proximity and intent, I’ve followed Rosewater’s production more closely than most films. I’m a big fan of Jon Stewart all-around, and naturally, I was interested in what he would do with his first foray into filmmaking. At the same time, my familiarity with his show gave me some idea what to expect — he’s interviewed plenty of actors and directors and has always shown that he has more developed tastes and knowledge than the average person, but you could tell that he was a comedian first and that there was an upper limit to his understanding of this particular subject. So, I moderated my expectations thusly: Rosewater will probably be a decent film with a relatively strong storytelling sensibility but most likely not great.

The finished product is that almost exactly.

You can tell how Stewart settled on this story — it has a unique relationship with his work as a comedian. Around the time of the 2009 elections in Iran, the end result of which was heavily contested, The Daily Show did a segment on the events surrounding that controversy. Show correspondent Jason Jones went to Iran and did a bit where he pretended to be an American spy and interviewed locals on why they hate America so much. The point, of course, was that Jones would play the hard-headed jingoist while the people he interviewed proved to be not so unlike us after all. One of the people with whom he spoke was Maziar Bahari (played here by Gael Garcia Bernal), an Iranian journalist covering the elections for Newsweek. (The film actually recreates this interview, with Jones playing himself, in a scene that’s maybe a bit too self-referential but provides an interesting glimpse into how Daily Show correspondents pull off some of these goofy interviews.)

It seemed to Bahari to be an innocent thing, but not long afterward, he was arrested, and the Daily Show interview was cited as proof of his collusion with foreign spies. He subsequently spent several months in solitary confinement, under heavy interrogation from a man named Javadi (Kim Bodnia), who Bahari came to refer to as Rosewater because of his distinctive cologne.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest problem with Rosewater is that it feels like exactly what it is — a filmmaking debut trying to find itself. Stewart is obviously coming at this from a different place than most first-timers, who go to film school, then work on sets for a while, climb the ladder, study under more established talents, make the right connections, and get handed the reins to a project as someone who’s already been around the block a few times. Stewart, on the other hand, has done some acting here and there but otherwise came to fame in an entirely different medium, at which point he decided to levy his resources into making a movie. I don’t have any special insight into the process, but I suspect he had to spend a lot of time learning on the job. As a result, Rosewater is a touch haphazard.

The way it opens perhaps illustrates this best. It begins with scenes of worshippers in a mosque, with Bernal delivering a voiceover making a connection between holiness and the scent of rosewater, tying it also into the actions of the brutal man we’ll be seeing later on. The film then cuts to a scene of rosewater — visually, heavily reminiscent of Terence Malick and other filmmakers in that vein — being made while subtitled poetry is read over it in Farsi. Then, the movie jumps to the real world and introduces Bahari at the moment of his arrest. Just as quickly, it jumps back in time to show us how Bahari got to that moment. It reprises the voiceover narration long enough to allow Bahari to explain the particulars of his family’s long history of being arrested in Iran. After this scene, the narration never appears again. During the scene, Stewart also splashes images of Bahari’s personal history and news items from Iran on the blank walls and windows Bahari passes as he walks down the streets, narrating his story to us. This recurs once or twice later on, notably in a slightly awkward scene where Twitter hashtags start streaming the length of a city to indicate the fomenting revolution. Otherwise, it, too, is enough of a non-presence in the film that it’s distracting when it does show up. Throughout, Rosewater struggles to settle on an approach that’s both visually suggestive and sufficiently concrete and never really finds one, always leaning too far in one direction or the other and rarely managing to make each scene feel like a seamless part of the greater whole.

More of the same seems to happen thematically. The title of the film, as well as that opening scene, signals that the man Bahari called Rosewater will be a significant presence and that the connection of that scent with Bahari’s childhood perception of righteousness will be of thematic import, but neither gets as much focus as you’d expect. For starters, the film, despite selling Bahari’s captivity as its focal point, spends an awful lot of time getting there; after it shows his arrest and jumps back to several months before, it takes what feels like about an hour to catch up to its opening scene. Once it gets there, the film’s focus seems to spiral off in another direction entirely. It hones in so closely on Bahari’s perspective that the interrogator doesn’t get a chance to be an interesting character in his own right; his existence is defined relative mainly to Bahari’s own story. The relationship has nuance but isn’t remarkable in its own right and doesn’t bring anything new to the picture of interrogators and their subjects. It also doesn’t really do anything further to explore that concept of religion, righteousness, and those places where the two don’t quite meet. By the time it ends, the film is signaling a new subject entirely — the necessity of freedom of the press — but that’s a theme that spends the rest of the movie being tertiary at best. It’s got too many ideas for one movie and isn’t always connecting them on a human level, completely selling their relationship with the particulars of Bahari’s story.

All of that said, there’s a clear extent to which Stewart appears to be trying to cultivate his own voice as a filmmaker, and I appreciate that effort — that, and the fact that he partially succeeds. As I said already, they film rotates through a number of different approaches, and they don’t always work, especially given that they’re not consistent. Still, they’re representative of a film that’s very earnest and genuinely trying its best. Moreover, I’m pleased with what does work about Rosewater’s approach — I can actually see Jon Stewart in it, making a movie with a tone that’s mostly distinct to him. It obviously has the sociopolitical intelligence you’d expect him to bring to it — its ideas aren’t always connected to the drama the way they need to be, but they do stand out as well observed and honest. Moreover, Stewart as a comedian is visible in this project. He never undersells the significance of the story he’s telling, and especially the cultural circumstances surrounding it, but he approaches it with a dry, disbelieving sense of humor. He finds the absurdity behind elements of this story — the fact that Bahari is believed to be a spy because of a comedy TV show, the way he gets grilled about his taste in movies, the interrogator’s sordid interest in his sex life. It’s telling that Bahari’s first major breakdown in captivity is insane laughter — he’s in a ridiculous situation, held captive by people who will believe absolutely anything he tells them except for the actual truth, and as the brutality intensifies, that’s the only sort of break that seems possible. As such, not only is Stewart getting laughs, he’s also successfully building them into something far more serious. He can get you to laugh and then break your heart within a single scene, and that’s a very difficult balance to pull off.

And at the very least, Stewart’s general ability to know a good movie when he sees one manifests in what is essentially an emotionally involving story, one that gives you a good sense of its characters and their motivations and that (once the chaotic opening is done) is generally paced well.

I expected to leave Rosewater thinking, “Well, that was nice. Don’t do it again.” To its credit, I left it thinking that I could stand to see Stewart in the director’s chair a few more times — albeit after he’s gotten a better handle on the visual and stylistic end of things. So, maybe it’s not great, but there’s more potential here than I thought there was going to be, and on that level, it’s both the predictable end result of the process that created it and simultaneously a pleasant surprise.

-Matt T.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Starring- Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Kathleen York

Director- Dan Gilroy

R- violence including graphic images, and for language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1uP_8VJkDQ

NOTE: It’s been brought to my attention that this review contains what I suppose you could call “thematic spoilers.” I don’t actually spoil any literal details of the plot, but I do talk a bit about where its message ends up, and some reviews have indicated that seeing the film unfold in this way is part of the fun on the first viewing. So, take that as you will.

I think I forgot to breathe during most of Nightcrawler. The feeling of watching it is one of someone reaching deep inside your stomach, seizing your innards, and slowly twisting them into a knot. It’s tense, unsettling, incisive, disturbing, and, of course, deeply messed up — naturally, I mean all of this as a compliment. Because I am insane.

But then again, so is Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s a driven, opportunistic go-getter who, totally unburdened by conscience, does whatever he needs to do in order to come out on top in life. As the film starts, he’s bouncing from one job to another, looking for something that could be a potential career. One night, he happens upon an accident scene, where he meets a group of freelance reporters and learns that local TV news stations will pay top dollar for footage from such incidents — the gorier, the better.

So, Lou picks up a camera and a police scanner and finds his true calling — scouring the underbelly of Los Angeles for video of the seediest crimes and most violent accidents the city has to offer.

And then he becomes much, much too good at his job.

I felt short of breath when Nightcrawler ended. It’s tense and engrossing like all of the best thrillers — you name them, I’m confident it can go toe to toe with them. However, it’s not tense and engrossing in the way they are. Usually, a successful thriller is about giving you a character you like and care about and pitting the world against them.

In Nightcrawler, it’s about giving you the world and pitting Lou Bloom against it.

I’ve been thinking about this hard. I’ve been exhausting the entirety of my knowledge of cinematic history (not as broad as some people’s, but still). Crime movies, war movies, most movies directed by Martin Scorsese, biographical movies about real-life despots. I’ve been searching every point of reference I have for this question, and I simply cannot think of a movie with a protagonist as uniquely loathsome as Lou Bloom. Make no mistake about it — he’s not the rough-around-the-edges antihero. He’s the villain. Full stop.

In short, he’s a sociopath. I don’t intend that to be an exaggeration. He’s a genuine nut-case, completely uncaring, a danger to everyone around him. He’s manipulative and hateful, a relentless opportunist who will step over absolutely anyone who becomes an obstacle to him. He will not look back. He will not search his soul over this.

Another character, at one point, calls him out on his behavior. In other movies, this would be a moment for introspection and, perhaps, repentance. Not in Nightcrawler.

“Have you considered that the problem is not that I don’t understand people,” he replies, “but that I don’t like them?”

The most fascinating thing about him is that he doesn’t appear to care whether or not people know he’s manipulating him — in fact, he seems to relish it when they figure it out but still don’t have any cards to play. There’s one scene where he has dinner with someone that starts out as the sort of thing designed to peel back the layers and reveal a glimpse of the human being beneath the slime. His conversation begins awkwardly and ineffectively, suggesting that he’s less efficient and knowledgeable when it comes to matters of the heart. Then, it becomes clear — if he seems unpracticed and uncomfortable, it’s only because he doesn’t care that you don’t like him. This scene starts sweet but turns insidious as it becomes clear that it’s just another bargain for him — one he’s already won, because he’s holding all the cards. And he has no interest in making this pleasant for the other person — in fact, he’d prefer it to be as unpleasant as possible.

He talks like a college student who’s read a few too many uber-Libertarian blog posts. To him, everything is business. Everything is a transaction. There is no such thing as a human interaction that is not a negotiation, that is not a bargain, that is not an expression of individual power. Everything is for sale, and money is not the only currency. He will work you into a corner and demand your soul in order to escape from it — all the while smiling from ear to ear and cheerfully explaining, like a college professor, the good business sense behind what you’re doing. The progression in the film comes not from Lou but from those around him — he’s perfectly easy to get along with when you haven’t figured out his game. But once you do, he’ll ask for much more than just money — and when he asks, it’s because he knows you don’t have any other choice. He knows how to get what he wants from everyone.

There’s only one thing Lou Bloom appears to love — his newfound career. He hates people, and he gets paid thousands of dollars to film them suffering. What’s not to love?

Jake Gyllenhaal is genuinely fantastic in the role — easily one of the year’s best performances. He’s not as immediately threatening as more overtly violent villains, but he’s somehow leagues more terrifying than all of them — probably because you always suspect he’s capable of much worse than what he’s already done. And man does Nightcrawler ever put that to the test. Gyllenhaal’s performance is creepy, slimy, disgusting — Lou’s eyes are open, his mouth constantly outstretched in this Cheshire Cat grin, his voice controlled and calculated but his mannerisms frenetic and unpredictable. He’s not playing a person; he’s playing a lion stalking a herd of cattle, picking his target.

The approach Nightcrawler takes to this character is reminiscent of the one The Wolf of Wall Street took to Jordan Belfort. This is not a simple story of moral comeuppance but a direct challenge to the audience. This film is not about how Lou Bloom changes as a person — he doesn’t. Not one bit. It’s about how the system rewards his sociopathic opportunism and encourages him to continue nurturing his darkest instincts until the depth of his wickedness is laid bare. And then, instead of arbitrarily punishing him for it, it looks at the audience, shrugs, and says, “Eh, what you are going to do about it?”

I don’t think it’s quite accurate to call the film realistic. It’s close, but barely off — something just heightened enough to feel like it inhabits a world adjacent to our own but not quite on point. I think Nightcrawler would be better described as satire — albeit not even remotely the funny kind. Any humor to be found in Nightcrawler is very, very dark and buried very, very deep, and even when it bubbles to the surface, it’s overpowered by something far more disturbing happening in the foreground.

Rather, I think it’s satire in the sense that it takes our current state of affairs and simply pushes it toward its logical endpoint. It’s not saying that there are tons of Lou Blooms out there — though there are almost certainly some. It’s saying that if we continue on our current course, there will be. It’s saying that our media culture, from the international to the local levels, is saturated with false narratives and blind sensationalism, and if we continue to reward that with our views, guys like Lou Bloom will inevitably be roaming all our streets — guys for whom conscience is an obstacle to be overcome and for whom you are bait as often as you’re a customer.

Lou Bloom never changes in this film, but his actions do intensify. He gets into the world of L.A. crime journalism and finds that the social conventions he’s been forced to follow for most of his life don’t quite apply there. He takes that to its logical conclusion. It begins with him hounding first responders on accident scenes and crowding in to get good shots of the victims. It ends with… Well, I won’t tell you what it ends with. Suffice to say that no matter how awful you think he’s going to get, there’s always one step further.

It’s the news station that reaffirms this for him, mainly the news director, Nina (Rene Russo), whose black heart largely matches Lou’s for basic humanity. Through her, we see not only the relentless demand to get any story, no matter how invasive or awful, through whatever means necessary, we also get to see how completely pointless it is. She’s in charge of shaping the narrative, and she’s under no illusions — she’s here to entertain scared, rich, white people with sordid true crime tales. Someone gets murdered in the projects? She doesn’t care. The more interesting narrative is one of urban crime seeping into suburban areas — a narrative unsupported by the fact that both in the film and in the real world, crime rates are decreasing all around. Her reporting both ignores the real problem and creates entirely new ones by encouraging a perspective of fear, one constantly drawn along class lines and usually drawn along racial ones as well. And for the record — that’s the one respect in which this film is less “satire” and more “the way things actually are.” I don’t know if I believe there are many Lou Blooms out there, but there are definitely a lot of Ninas.

In no other film would Lou’s assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), be the heart and soul of everything, but with a cast of evildoers this deep, he’s the best we’ve got. He has flashes of conscience, but his humanity is very much for sale — just at a much higher price than Lou’s. It’s a testament to Ahmed more than anything that his character never becomes totally unlikable. It’s necessary, because Rick ultimately plays as the human face on Lou’s wrongdoing, that reminder that there are consequences for allowing this sort of thing to go on. Allowing him to be corruptible, too, perhaps only heightens that — he’s a picture of how Lou’s brand of sociopathy threatens to become contagious.

Nightcrawler is just a well-made film all around. The writing and dialogue are sharp, and writer/director Dan Gilroy captures perfectly the progression of Lou’s actions, deriving tension not from your non-existent connection with him but from your fear for the world surrounding him. It’s also one of those movies where the score ends up being a huge component of its overall effectiveness. You can tell Gilroy and James Newton Howard really collaborated on this one. Early on, the score forces a sense of dissonance between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing, taking on a note of inspiration reflecting Lou’s emotional state while setting it to images of dead bodies at an accident scene. Later, as Lou’s wickedness deepens, the visuals and the music start to walk in lockstep, leading to one of the tensest climaxes I’ve seen in ages.

Nightcrawler is a scary and unsettling film, one that is scary and unsettling partially because of how well-made it is and significantly because of how it strikes right at the heart of important problems in the world we live in. It’s thought-provoking and challenging — as someone who makes a living in the news media, it probably has me asking different questions than it will someone who lives on the consumer end of that spectrum, but it has a message for everyone. The news media is our best window into the world outside our immediate selves, and allowing it to define reality, rather than the other way around, is incredibly dangerous both short-term and long-term. It ends in much the same way as The Wolf of Wall Street, with an implication that the disease is only going to spread. It has no incentive to do otherwise — ratings and sensationalism have positive correlations in our world. Why should it be otherwise in fiction?

With that in mind, Dan Gilroy gave us history’s first horror movie about TV news. He also gave us one of the best movies of 2014. Don’t miss it.

-Matt T.