Home (2015)

Starring- Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones

Director- Tim Johnson

PG- mild action and some rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyqZf8LiWvM

Well, it’s a DreamWorks Animation movie, so I guess it’s time for me to commence with my usual conspiracy theorizing. I have done almost no research, was granted no special access to this film, and probably have even less insight into the production process than most people writing about movies on the Internet. Here, anyway, is my theory on how Home came to exist in its final form.

So, every time I review a DreamWorks Animation movie, I hijack a few paragraphs to talk about my theory regarding the studio’s process: It usually produces at least two movies a year, and historically, I really like one of them (or at least admire it distantly) and think the other is soulless and pandering. Even knowing very little about how an animated movie is produced, it always seems like much, much more effort went into one of them, from the story to the characters to the animation itself. One good movie, one bad movie — that appears to be the DreamWorks philosophy.

But 2015 is unique in that Home is the only movie the studio is releasing. It seems, based on a cursory glance at its upcoming slate of projects, that Kung Fu Panda 3 was supposed to happen in December but got delayed for one reason or another. I don’t know what happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me if DreamWorks was caught off guard and had to figure out what to do now that Home, probably intended to be 2015’s bad movie, was its only offering for the entire year.

I say that because it would go a long way toward explaining why Home suffers from such a contradictory problem: It both tries much too little and tries much too hard.

Oh (voice of Jim Parsons) is a little alien who doesn’t quite fit in. His people, the Boov, frown upon individuality; he, on the other hand, has it in spades, though he agrees with them on one point: Cowardice and running away are the key to survival. The Boov have gotten pretty good at both, having been pursued across the galaxy by their greatest enemy, the Gorg. As the film opens, it’s moving day again, and the Boov have chosen their new home: a little planet called Earth. After forcibly relocating the current inhabitants to Happy Humans Land (it’s in the Australian desert), the Boov begin to settle in. Oh is so excited about his new place that he decides to invite everyone to his housewarming party. Unfortunately, he accidentally hits the “send all” button on his invitation, sending the Boov’s new location directly to the Gorg mothership.

Now a fugitive, Oh teams up with Tip (voice of Rihanna), a preteen girl searching for her mother, to set things right before the Gorg destroy the planet.

My stupid theory aside, Home does come across like a movie that did a complete 180 after it was already substantially finished. I’m pretty sure some script doctors were called in at a certain point to spruce it up a little — it’s mostly pretty mediocre, but every now and then, out of the clear blue sky, it’ll hit you with a scene that’s emotionally effective and intelligent in a way that suggests a steady hand trying to salvage everything.

Whatever the case may be, it would explain why it feels like there are two separate movies happening in Home. It would explain why the first half of the movie is totally coasting — light, fluffy, stupid, broad, uninteresting — and why the second half abruptly goes for your emotional jugulars and is practically screaming at you to have rich, important feelings.

The first half of this movie is token DreamWorks — zany rather than funny, too fast-paced, feeling pitched at demographic trends rather than establishing its own voice, and so on. The animation is simple and almost textureless — something that, unfortunately, holds true throughout — and I’m generally not a huge fan of the art direction here. The movie doesn’t seem to have a great sense of color or scale — how certain things look when they’re sharing a frame. It’s a very colorful film, but those colors never pop. Ultimately, it ends up feeling like an especially elaborate TV movie.

The second half of the movie, on the other hand, goes so all in that it was actually jarring to watch. It goes from an outlandish premise and goofy humor and silly, upbeat characters to emotional intensity in seconds. The first half of the movie involves Oh building a car out of a slushy machine and farting out of his ears, and the second half involves slow motion, dramatic self-sacrifices, an imminent apocalypse, live-action-style camerawork and editing designed to establish a sense of significance (there’s a totally sincere shot that made me think of Beasts of the Southern Wild, of all things), all of it set to a soundtrack of emotional pop songs. So. Many. Pop songs. This is not an exaggeration — I think if you took all the pop montages out of this movie, it would lose a full 20 minutes off its run-time. It’s bad — obvious and cheesy in the usual ways but stretched to its breaking point and then some after the fourth or fifth montage in one half-hour stretch. The first half of the movie barely tries to make you feel at all; the second tries so, so hard that you start to worry about it. “Movie, are you okay? Do you need an adult?” After keeping you at arm’s length for the better part of an hour, the movie suddenly asks you to care about its characters like you’ve never cared about fictional characters before.

I ultimately don’t know whether or not script doctors were involved in trying to stick the landing, but I feel like they were: Despite the visible strain in every other element of the film, the story actually does achieve the base level of functionality in the second half. The script packages in a couple of moments that are largely sweet and heartwarming. It even develops surprisingly complete themes — albeit simple ones, pitched at kids. I can’t really fault it for its message — it’s basically a case study in empathy, spread across all of its characters and conflicts.

It’s too little too late, especially since the parts that work are sandwiched between heavy-handed Jennifer Lopez songs and jumbled, unattractive visuals. Still, it ends up not leaving as bad a taste in your mouth as you might expect. I honestly don’t think it’s that bad a movie for kids — it has a good message and isn’t so brainless that I’d be concerned about them growing up on it. But I don’t write reviews for kids; I write reviews for the people getting dragged along with them. I liked parts of Home well enough, but they were few and far between and, ultimately, not worth it.

-Matt T.

Two Days, One Night (2014)

Starring- Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Batiste Sornin

Directors- Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

PG-13- some mature thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tb3zBq6gVRk

And so, we draw 2014 to a close with one of its strongest offerings.

Yes, I’ve confirmed the fear I had when I decided to publish my Top 20 2014 back in June — Two Days, One Night would indeed have made the list, and it would’ve been pretty high at that. It’s exactly the kind of beautifully simple, minimalist storytelling that I absolutely adore when it’s done well, and here, it’s done very, very well.

It’s a story about the everyday problems of everyday people. Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after an extended medical leave, the result of severe depression and anxiety, only to find that she’s been laid off. Her coworkers were told they could choose between their bonuses and her position and voted almost unanimously to terminate her. Her family depends on her income; without, they will certainly lose their home. Hearing that her supervisor manipulated her coworkers into voting against her, she convinces her boss to hold another ballot on Monday — leaving her, well, two days and one night to personally persuade each of her coworkers to forgo their bonuses in favor of keeping her on, all the while she tries to stave off her anxiety attacks and navigates an increasing addiction to her medication.

The most immediate comparison I can think of is 12 Angry Men. Believe me, I don’t say that lightly — 12 Angry Men is my favorite movie of all time. And for what it’s worth, Two Days, One Night doesn’t even touch it — not that that’s really saying all that much, considering what a high bar that is. But they’re similar in style and effect, and I love them, in large part, for the same reason: They are detailed, expressive, and economical in their approach to character.

The best way to describe Two Days, One Night is to say that it’s a version of 12 Angry Men where, instead of all the characters sitting in one room and debating the question at hand, Juror No. 8 goes out into the city and personally visits all the others to convince them one by one. You have your protagonist, Sandra — and I don’t need to tell you what a rich, textured character she is; she’s only in the hands of Marion Cotillard, almost universally agreed to be a candidate for the greatest actress of her generation. She’s our constant throughout the film. And then, you have her coworkers — about a dozen overall, nine or ten of whom we meet as the film progresses. Only two of them factor into the plot outside Sandra’s visits. We meet the rest only once. Not one of them gets more than five minutes of screen-time. But the film is so precise and economical in its writing and acting that you get a full, rounded sense of the types of people they are  — not broad stereotypes, but nuanced human beings with a lot going on both on the surface and underneath. It’s very like 12 Angry Men in that regard — other than Sandra and her family, the film gives you very little objective knowledge about its characters but still manages to establish their personalities and motivations in an emotionally compelling way within no more than a minute from their respective introductions.

It gives the film real life — and genuine moral complexity, the kind that makes you ache in how it weighs legitimate interests against one another and asks how it could possibly be said that someone did or did not do the right thing. Each of Sandra’s coworkers responds differently to her request. There’s a close friend who supports her immediately, being one of the few to have voted in her favor in the first place. There’s another who wants to but whose controlling husband is strong-arming her out of it. There’s one who felt so guilty voting against her the first time that the revelation of a second ballot brings him genuine relief. They are not universally heroes — some have to be cajoled into it, others lose reluctant battles against guilty consciences and make their displeasure known. Nor are those who ultimately choose to vote for their bonuses universally villains — or even overwhelmingly so. There are a few selfish types, entirely unmotivated by Sandra’s plight, but there also are some going into the situation with interests just as compelling as hers. One man clearly empathizes, but he’s been recycling and selling his own floor tiles to pay his mortgage. Another doesn’t care one way or another about his bonus but fears that his supervisor will retaliate and not renew his contract if he votes for Sandra.

There’s nuance in their responses, across the board. A lot of that is left entirely to the actors — how else would you convey some of this? One woman decides to vote against Sandra, and she attempts to break this news kindly and politely, but you can tell from her posture and presentation that she doesn’t actually care. The same goes for another man who rebuffs Sandra gently, who seems reasonable about her request — but you can tell, solely because of his bearing, that he resents her for even asking this of him, and it isn’t surprising when, in the final scene, when everyone is gathered to vote, he’s one of the few who becomes tense and angry. Some of them understand why Sandra is making this request; some feel put-upon; some understand and feel put-upon, in varying degrees.

And that’s because, well, she kind of is asking a lot. The movie understands that and never really passes judgment one way or another. It knows — and so does Sandra — that she truly is imposing on these people, that she’s asking them to suffer on their behalf, that their consciences and their common sense are going to come into conflict over this, that they will leave the situation feeling rotten about it no matter what they do. She’s putting them into an awful position, regardless of how she approaches them. Of course, it was her superiors who asked them to make this vote in the first place, and the film weighs that in as well. It views Sandra’s cause not quite as righteous, but as necessary. In her situation, we’d all do the same thing. What else could we do? So, it helps that the film allows Sandra to face tough choices of her own, regarding the well-being of others at her own expense, and that it spreads its sympathies as widely as it does, allowing some of the people who support Sandra to be a little unlikable, allowing some of the people who ultimately opt for their bonuses to be good, honest, and hard-working, and, of course, allowing nearly all of them to be human.

I use the word “nearly” for a reason. In Sandra’s travels, there are only two moments that ring especially false — which wouldn’t be that big a problem in a lesser film but sticks out like a sore thumb in something this realistic, measured, and intelligent. It’s balanced, at least — one moment comes from a supporter, and one comes from a detractor. But they both strike me as unlikely, or, at least, overly simplified given the complexity underlying everything else. One involves the man I’ve already mentioned — the one overwhelmed with guilt who jumps at the opportunity to help her a second time. That’s a strong foundation for a character, but the movie plays it much too broadly, the man bursting into tears and loud sniveling the second Sandra asks him. The second involves a man who becomes angry with Sandra at the mere suggestion — loudly, violently angry, ultimately making a huge scene of it. It is, again, less the character and more the lack of setup — just as the man in the first scene goes from zero to waterworks in just seconds, the other goes from normalcy to throwing things basically the minute Sandra speaks. Two relatively small scenes, but they stand out.

Still, even through them, we have Sandra, and every second she’s on-screen — which, for the record, is all of them — the film is full with detail and inner life. As a character, she’s immediately recognizable, reminiscent, for me at least, of people I know and perhaps especially of myself. Ultimately, this film got pretty personal for me; I can’t lie and pretend as though I didn’t see much of my own life in Sandra. For that reason, Two Days, One Night will, undoubtedly, play very differently to other viewers, those who have only been observers to situations like these or perhaps haven’t experienced them at all. For me, it has that ring of truth, that eye for lived-in, realistic detail, that makes the cinematic experience truly transcendent. I just love the nuance with which Sandra approaches each of these other characters: the desperation, the slight social awkwardness, the weird sense of trepidation with which she does something as simple as pick up a telephone to call someone. I like the way her moral dilemma, whether to beg others for self-sacrifice in her self-interest, manifests itself; I like the way her own innate compassion forces its way to the surface; I like the way the film pulls her in so many directions regarding her own wants and needs — does she actually like the job, does she actually need the job, is she actually physically capable of returning to the job, how would she handle working there everyday knowing that she’s unnecessary and that everyone else sacrificed a year’s rent to keep her there? I like the way the outside world weighs on her, especially as it relates to her mental health. It’s never quite verbalized, but you can tell her coworkers bear her some small resentment for having taken time off as a result of a severe depressive episode — that old stereotype of depression being an excuse to retreat and sit around while everyone else covers for you, the idea that it’s an inability to deal with otherwise normal emotions rather than an actual medical condition brought about when something real and tangible goes wrong with you. And you see that fear in Sandra as well — that fear of being judged, that distaste for being pitied, that dignity that makes her wonder if maybe she’d be better off walking away with her head held high than sticking around and feeling like she owes everyone. That’s just one of the many things interacting with her depression and anxiety and worsening both, and that’s where the film’s attention to detail really shows. I love the way the film gives her certain triggers, how events both small and large can set her off unexpectedly, how she retreats and tries to manage when they do. I also appreciate the difficulty it brings upon her marriage — her husband’s kindness and understanding are just as capable of triggering her as they are talking her down from the ledge. It all comes back to wanting things to be normal, wanting people not to pity her, having too many external sources of self-worth.

The resolution to all of this works, in a character and story sense, but struck me personally as overly tidy. That’s my personal experience interacting with the film again — something I see only because I bring it in with me. I also understand that even within the context of depression and anxiety disorders, no two experiences are exactly alike, so maybe the film’s ending is more realistic than it seemed, immediately, to be. Ultimately, I think it has enough grounding in the arc of the film and its text to work emotionally, even though I have complicated feelings about it beyond the technical aspects of its effectiveness as storytelling.

Either way, for being a film with such intense subject matter and such dark moments, Two Days, One Night ends up being anything but a miserable slog — quite the opposite, it’s packing some of the most powerful uplift of any movie in its year. And for being a film that could so easily become repetitive — it’s essentially a series of scenes in which Sandra visits people to make the exact same plea — it’s instead fresh and lively, each exchange drawing out unique expressions of character and almost working as a short film in its own right, each possessing a beginning, middle, and end with twists, turns, reveals, and climaxes. On the surface, Two Days, One Night seems like your prototypical artsy foreign drama, but dig a little deeper and it proves to be a complicated and original thing. Its missteps, as I perceive it, can do little to prevent it from otherwise soaring. What a way to wrap up a year.

-Matt T.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

Starring- Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle, Tina Desai, Dev Patel, Lillete Dubey, Richard Gere, David Strathairn, Tamsin Greig, Shazad Latif, Rajesh Tailang, Denzil Smith

Director- John Madden

PG- some language and suggestive comments

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O96og_f-Omk

I just want you all to know how much I care. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the sort of title that’s an absolute goldmine for amateur movie reviewers, regardless of their stance on the film itself. A cursory glance at IMDB and Letterboxd user reviews proves that very few resisted the urge to dog in. And make no mistake — I’ve thought of dozens of stupid puns to open this review. I could think of more. But you will not find them here. That, my dear readers, all seven of you, is how much I respect you. I respect you so much that I will not disgrace you with terrible jokes (this time). I don’t respect you enough to refrain from writing an entire paragraph about puns so as to pad out a review of a movie I don’t have much of anything to say about, but still, that effort has to count for something, right?

Yeah, despite its best efforts, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a complete non-entity of a film, one I’m starting to forget even now. It comes near to disproving the old Roger Ebert quote: “A movie is never what it’s about but how it’s about it.” The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does all right on the how; the problem is that it’s about almost nothing.

Even discussing the story in broad strokes is…challenging. You could essentially reduce it to this: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India, something of a retirement home, is trying to expand, with both staff and residents working overtime to acquire a new location and impress some inspectors. Even that is reductive, though — that’s not so much the film’s plot as it is the vessel through which a lot of relationship drama occurs. The movie is something of a Crash-style collection of mostly unrelated subplots, the majority of them, in this case, romantic — there’s a wedding everyone’s preparing for, one elderly couple at the hotel has begun to suspect one another of infidelity, a handful of the single residents are falling for each other and/or people they met in the community, one of them is navigating a divorce, etc. The ultimate point of it all appears to be that you never have too little time to become the person you want to be or so much time that you can afford to sit around and wait for life to come to you. I just don’t understand why a dozen often thematically interchangeable subplots were required to make that point.

That, in the end, is probably my biggest problem with the film. If you pared it down to two or three subplots and devoted enough individual attention to each of them, the film as a whole would be much richer emotionally. Instead, it spreads itself across several group subplots and close to a dozen individual ones to the point that almost no one gets more than a handful of scenes to complete his or her journey.

In place of that depth of feeling, the movie tries to get by on pure charm and likability, and its skills in this regard are not inconsiderable. It’s never anything less than entirely sweet and pleasant — arguably too much so — and the cast is full to bursting with veterans of the craft.

For those reasons and more, I really ought to like this movie. I certainly tried to. My review of its predecessor, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, initially leaned ever-so-slightly negative, but only a few weeks later, I bumped it up to a positive rating, finding that my memory of it was mostly warm. I hoped that would prepare me to better receive its sequel’s charms, but it’s just too insubstantial. That despite the fact that there’s a lot about this movie that I like, at least on paper. Mostly, that’s how casually progressive it is — the cast is mostly elderly, there are multiple interracial romances that are incidental rather than the point of the thing, the tone is constantly pitched toward openness and self-discovery. I also like that the film has doubled down on incorporating the local culture into events. I know very little about it, but I’ve always loved seeing traditional Indian culture on film; it’s so distinctly visual — elaborate, ornate, colorful, gorgeously designed. It’s got to be a filmmaker’s dream to put all that in front of a camera and move it and frame it and give it life on the screen. If nothing else, this movie looks and sounds fantastic.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to appreciate it on any level other than the superficial. It’s a movie that has all the right elements in place and just needs to figure out what to actually do with them. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is thoroughly lovely but also quite boring. It’s got its hands in too many jars; it doesn’t have the space to properly develop any of its ideas. It’s very pretty, very charming, occasionally quite funny, and almost impossible to engage emotionally. But if it sounds like something you’ll enjoy anyway, don’t let me scare you off it — not only is it well meaning and unceasingly pleasant, I also think it would only mean good things in Hollywood for something this niche to continue its predecessor’s surprising success. But personally, I lost interest in it within half an hour, and I don’t expect to be returning to it any time soon.

-Matt T.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Starring- Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Baldwin

Director- Christopher McQuarrie

PG-13- sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity

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

The Mission: Impossible franchise has become a sort of weird stalwart among modern blockbusters — a series of movies that no one, from the people making them to the people watching them, really ought to care about all that much (honestly, does anyone even remember the TV show anymore?) that nevertheless makes a ton of money, is generally well-liked across the board, and can usually be counted on to deliver with each new installment. I think Rogue Nation is the best one yet, and the main reason for that is that, of the five, it best understands the strange truth at the heart of Mission: Impossible’s success — people like these movies not in spite of the fact that they don’t work on paper, but because of it.

The story — not that it matters — kicks off shortly after the events of Ghost Protocol. In light of the destruction wrought by the Impossible Mission Force and its enemies during that encounter, the United States government decides to shutter the organization and merge it with the CIA.

Veteran agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, and hereafter referred to exclusively as such) isn’t having any of that. He’s been chasing a mysterious organization called The Syndicate, which he believes can be tied to several recent global disasters. The CIA is pretty sure he’s jumping at shadows.

So, he does the only thing he can — he goes rogue.

The interesting thing about most of the Mission: Impossible movies — and Rogue Nation in particular — is that they routinely violate the contract that nearly all movies, regardless of genre or purpose, make with their audience. We walk into a movie essentially prepared to suspend reality for a little while — to allow ourselves to believe that something we’re intellectually aware is fake is real, real enough to empathize with the characters on the screen and feel what they’re feeling as though we’re sharing an actual experience. All we ask of the filmmakers in return is that they do everything they can to maintain that illusion — keep the story involving, keep the characters identifiable and consistent, make it all look convincing.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, like the series that preceded it, basically does the exact opposite. There is absolutely no separation between its protagonist and the actor portraying him — if the box office receipts are anything to go by, everyone has seen at least one of these movies, but I’m willing to bet almost no one can name the main character by anything other than Tom Cruise. He is Tom Cruise. He has no personality outside of being Tom Cruise. Watching Mission: Impossible, it never once occurs to you to think of Ethan Hunt as a real guy — that’s Tom Cruise up there, performing all those feats.

The story? That’s Point-A-to-Point-B stuff. It’s all about moving things to the next action sequence. Here’s an objective; here’s how we’re going to accomplish that objective. Repeat until the run-time is exhausted. There’s no real internal logic to it. While the structure of the film is very simple, the details, largely centered on the villains’ evil plot and the heroes’ convoluted plans to stop it from coming to fruition, are extremely overcomplicated and almost openly encourage you not to give them more thought than they’re worth. There are plot holes and logical leaps; occasionally, characters will somehow intuit information from scenes and subplots in which they were not involved.

The stakes? They’re there, in the sense that failure on the part of the heroes will result in bad things happening — villains coming to power, political figures being assassinated, a bomb being dropped somewhere. They don’t have any emotional bearing, though — it’s not real, and you know it’s not real, because that’s Tom Cruise running from those explosions, so why would you care?

The themes? What the heck are those? No, seriously, what?

And the absurd thing about Rogue Nation — and Mission: Impossible in general — is that these problems don’t really matter all that much. Might it be a better movie were some of that improved? Yeah, sure. Mad Max: Fury Road is all the proof we’ll ever need that it can be done. But does it absolutely need to fix those things in order to accomplish what it’s setting out to do? Weirdly…no.

It’s becoming clear to me that the Mission: Impossible movies are not movies in the sense that we’ve come to accept, i.e., a specifically narrative art form. That is not to suggest that they do not have a narrative component, but it’s very, very secondary. Rogue Nation is not like a movie — it’s like a magic trick. When we see a magician perform, we see it in a different frame of mind than when we’re watching a movie. With a movie, we want to believe that what we’re seeing is real. Going into a magic show, however, we know that it isn’t — and that’s why we like it. The fun is not in thinking that person on the stage is a real-life sorcerer; it’s in knowing that he’s totally ordinary and in wondering exactly how he made that car disappear anyway.

My contention is that Mission: Impossible isn’t about convincing you that it’s real for the purposes of telling a story but that it’s about making you marvel at how it was done. And Rogue Nation understands that better than any of its predecessors. As such, I think it’s fun because it constantly reminds you you’re watching a movie — not in spite of it.

A good magic show runs on two things — presentation, and the trick itself. And that’s where Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation nearly finds its way to greatness. There’s first the fact that it seems a bit more knowing than the other films in its series. There’s an element of self-parody here — not in a jokey or winking sort of way, not even in a way that’s particularly easy to notice. It isn’t undercutting itself; it simply opens the window just enough to let the air in. It basically acknowledges that Tom Cruise is both immortal and absurdly lucky and sets that at the background of every action sequence.

And it’s extremely well engineered. Having unburdened itself of the need to convince you, Rogue Nation is set free to play fast and loose with its plotting, enough that the holes and logical gaps pass by largely without incident. It also removes any hint of pretense from the proceedings. The movie doesn’t slow itself down trying to drum up emotions it hasn’t earned, nor does it find the action and the story coming into conflict to the point that it becomes overextended or the pacing unravels. The story is strictly about establishing enough cast chemistry that you aren’t completely detached from the proceedings, developing the humor, and getting you to the next set piece.

And that, right there, is where the tickets are sold. Mission: Impossible has become one of our last bastions of practical action and effects. Everything looks real because it is, and that approach doesn’t restrict the film’s imagination or visuals one bit. If it gives you a sense of the scale Rogue Nation has to offer, that big money shot in the trailers, the one where Tom Cruise is dangling off the side of a real airplane in the real sky, happens absolutely no more than two minutes into the film. And still, nothing that comes afterward feels anticlimactic. Christopher McQuarrie’s direction proves equal to the task, and there’s some solid cinematography on display here and there — the camera is well used to capture the expansive sets and locations, to set the scale, and to create a sense of depth, even in only two dimensions. And each action sequence is perfectly calculated — independently entertaining, neither too long nor too short, each one different from the last in purpose and effect, and not a single one feeling like needless padding.

The movie is a showman standing on the stage, showing you one dangerous, fresh, and exciting trick after another, daring you to ask how it was all accomplished. And he’s doing it with absolute magnetism, commanding the room with his presence. I’m worried that this review read a bit like a backhanded compliment — like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a bad movie with enough sincerity to be watchable anyway. No, it’s actually a very good one, in the sense that it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It wants to be as fun as possible. And it is just about as fun as possible.

-Matt T.

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2015)

Starring- Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy, Oaklee Pendergast

Director- Tom Harper

PG-13- some disturbing and frightening images, and for thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYk0slXSY6s

Even when I dislike something, there are certain ways in which I hope to dislike it, most of them related to how much I’ll enjoy writing the review. If a movie has to be bad, I want it to be an ambitious failure — something interesting to talk about and mull over, even if it didn’t quite work in the moment. If a movie has to be bad, I want it to be really, really bad, something fascinating in the depths of awfulness that it reaches. If a movie has to be bad, I want it to somehow signify something about the culture that produced it, giving me plenty of material to write about.

What I don’t want is for it to be utterly bog-standard. What I don’t want is for it to be bland and uninteresting. What I don’t want is for it to be The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death.

It’s the height of World War II, and Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) is a schoolteacher tasked with caring for children evacuated to the countryside from London. Left with little other choice, the organizers have settled on an old seaside mansion, the Eel Marsh House, as the new home for her group. It’s creaky, run-down, and not particularly attractive, but Eve is determined to make it work.

But then — you guessed it — weird things start happening. Eve thinks she sees a stranger wandering in the fog outside. The children begin behaving strangely. One in particular seems to have latched onto some figure he’s dreamed up — a dark, mysterious woman, clad in black, clinging to her children. And as Eve begins to unravel the secrets surrounding the Eel Marsh House, it slowly becomes clear that every one of them is in grave danger.

I sometimes wonder if I was overly harsh on The Woman in Black when I originally reviewed it. Some people I trust continue to stand by it to this day, and I was pretty borderline when I first watched it anyway. I am not so conflicted about its sequel.

I like exactly two things about The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, one of which comes close to saving it and the other of which might have gotten it the rest of the way had the movie done anything with it. Firstly, like its predecessor, it’s an undeniably handsome production. I love period horror; there’s something about the combination of long-gone art and fashion and architecture and darker aesthetics that I’ve always found to be visually striking, like Tim Burton without the strangeness and kitsch. The look of the film is solid — the sets and locations are great, and there’s some impressive cinematography on display here and there. Secondly, there’s a lot of potential in the premise — with World War II as the backdrop and England as the setting, there’s a lot the film could do to develop thematic content and the psychological underpinnings of its scares, contrasting the invasion of war into the formerly comfortable lives of London children with the paranoia of the Woman in Black. The film does not seem to be even remotely aware of this potential, however, and thus, it remains something I hope for rather than something I saw realized. Ultimately, World War II is just the movie’s excuse to get someone in the house again; it could have been anything.

Other than that, I’m somewhat at a loss for what to say about The Woman in Black 2. It’s mid-budget, mid-winter horror, and all that implies. I don’t think there ever was a particularly concerted effort for it to be a good movie, and it shows — The Woman in Black 2 is blandly competent and has absolutely nothing to offer. Every turn in the plot can be predicted in elaborate detail based not on the characters, based not on the story, based not on the premise, but based on the fact that it is a mid-budget, mid-winter horror movie that happens, in this case, to center on a malevolent ghost. It’s so formulaic I half-suspect it was outlined for the filmmakers that way — here’s where you’ve got to go, don’t care how you get there, just give us a movie. The story is thin, the characters are uninteresting, the mythology behind the ghost is barely explored and extremely perfunctory — half the fun of these movies is the fantasy, the mystique, the imagination.

Even the scares are pretty easy to predict. The Woman in Black 2 is trapped in some sort of limbo in its approach to the horror elements — it seems to understand that building fear exclusively with jump scares is superficial and tired, but it also has little concept of how else one might go about scaring people. As a result, it relies on jump scares, but all of them are muted and bizarrely executed. It introduces a scare subtly but then acts like it was a jump all along, leading to entire scenes where characters started freaking out even though I hadn’t even had time to see the things that spooked them. It builds up its scares like any other horror movie, but it bungles the execution so badly that all of them feel underwhelming. The movie is basically one big Cat Scare, building up a horrifying moment only to have it either be nothing or feel like nothing. You leave each scene wondering what you missed.

There’s just nothing of interest here. I can’t recommend it for the paint-by-numbers story, I can’t recommend it for the stock type characters, I can’t recommend it for the boring and ineffective scares, and I can’t recommend it because it’s bad enough to be fascinating. All I can do is tell you to leave this one well enough alone.

-Matt T.

The Gift (2015)

Starring- Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillips, Adam Lazarre-White

Director- Joel Edgerton

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3IiZU9JBuE

I don’t want to write about The Gift. And you’ll just have to trust me when I say that you don’t want to read about it. Just see it.

I’ve mentally drafted and discarded multiple versions of this review because all of them ended up revealing things you’d be better off not knowing going into the film for the first time. That’s not just plot spoilers, though you shouldn’t know those either — that’s everything from the characters’ personalities to their progression to the film’s evolving tones and myriad genre flourishes.

I want to keep it simple, so here it is: The Gift is really good. Go see it. Know as little about it as possible beforehand.

If, for some reason, you absolutely must have more than that, here’s a review that I’m going to keep as vague as possible. Even so, if you’re already sold on this movie, don’t read it.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) Callen have just moved from Chicago to California, near where Simon grew up. He’s got a new job working for a billion-dollar company, only one promotion removed from the board of directors. Both are looking for a fresh start — they’ve been trying to have children, but Robyn’s pregnancies have, thus far, ended in tragedy.

A few days after relocating, Simon bumps into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old high school acquaintance he hasn’t seen since graduation. Gordo is extremely awkward, doesn’t have a spectacular grasp on social boundaries, and quickly becomes overbearing — making near-daily visits and constantly dropping off unsolicited gifts. Still, he seems sweet and well meaning enough, at least to Robyn. It’s Simon, who wasn’t fond of Gordo even in high school, who chafes, and eventually, he summons up the courage to tell their new neighbor to leave them alone.

That’s when it happens. Pets disappear. Mysterious notes arrive. The couple finds evidence that someone has been in their home. Robyn begins to crack under the pressure — and to suspect that Simon knows much, much more about all of this than he’s let on.

The Gift is one of the strongest actor-to-director debuts in recent memory. Joel Edgerton took on triple-duty with this one, writing the script, directing the film, and starring in it, and it’s impressive that he didn’t significantly falter in any regard. It may help that The Gift feels like something he wanted to make rather than something he made as a vanity project. It seems most actors make their directorial debuts with “high art,” prestige pictures, that sort of thing — movies they sell with flowery talk about how it was a story they just needed to tell. Edgerton decided he just wanted to make a creepy, low-budget, small-cast home invasion thriller — and he made an excellent one. The script is good, the direction is solid, and the performance may well be the best in his career to date — Gordo is one of the fullest and most nuanced characters he’s played, a guy who starts out creepy in a well-meaning and oblivious sort of way and gradually slides down the scale into just plain creepy, without ever quite removing himself from recognizable humanity or even, entirely, from the audience’s sympathies.

That’s descriptive of the cast as a whole, really. It’s pretty small; there are a few semi-important supporting characters, but mostly, it’s Simon, Robyn, and Gordo. The others are mainly just sounding boards for those scenes where the three leads can’t interact with one another. I think Rebecca Hall probably has the least interesting part — I generally find that Robyn is underserved and unnecessarily abused by this plot, which is my biggest problem with the film and something I can’t really expand upon without spoiling things — but she does a good job acting as the film’s emotional center. Robyn is the one character you feel you know from the outset, someone who’s unambiguously a decent person and whose perspective on things can always be trusted.

It’s Bateman and Edgerton’s show, though — the central conflict is between Simon and Gordo, and they’re the ones who most obviously change from one scene to the next. The film wisely positions them to have parallel arcs — not exact, but similar — in that, with both of them, it’s less that they’re different people by the time the credits roll and more that our perspective on them has changed as we’ve learned more about them. The Gift is one of the few films to truly use Bateman well. He’s typically a comedy straight man, and he works well in that role for two reasons: His screen persona is smart, and his screen persona is also kind of unlikable. So, he can be a voice of reason in a bad situation, but you don’t mind seeing him suffer because he usually deserves it a little. The Gift takes that and simply repurposes it for something darker and more serious.

It’s fascinatingly organic in the way it takes its characters’ established traits, all of them built up subtly and without strain, and drives them through to conclusion as the events of the story brings them out. It makes for a film that constantly keeps you guessing but never loses sight of the emotional reality of its characters — that’s always there; the movie just shifts the context every now and then. The Gift ends up being something quite different from your average home invasion thriller, even though it still hews fairly closely to the basic formula for such things. Where most such films are extremely black and white, The Gift always feels gray — it can make you hate its protagonist and like its antagonist, then flip back, only to do it a handful more times, while never keeping its characters too far outside of our ability to understand or empathize with them.

It often does the same thing with its tone and style as well. The most impressive thing about Edgerton’s direction is the ability he shows to vacillate quietly from one genre to another without ever upsetting the whole. It’s not surprising that The Gift derives its emotions as much from what’s going on inside the home as what’s going on outside of it; what’s interesting is the way it foregrounds those elements rather than simply using them as a springboard for the thrills and chills. The domestic strife between Simon and Robyn — which is subtle, realistic, and well realized and develops intelligently over the course of the film — sometimes starts to seem like the entire point of the thing rather than a side effect of the film’s engineering as a thriller. It’s only half about the creepy things Gordo does; most of the runtime is spent examining what those creepy things do to a relationship that’s already somewhat on the rocks. The movie wears its schlocky genre trappings on its sleeves but easily shifts into something much closer to a relationship drama; miraculously, the two complement rather than battle with one another.

The Gift is far from a perfect film, but expounding upon the flaws would require me to spoil it at great length — every single one of my objections to it has to do with where all of this ends up. Some of that’s personal, i.e., what I liked about the film and was hoping it would do more with, and some of that’s thematic, especially where Robyn’s character is concerned.

Most of it is somewhat unimportant in the grand scheme — at the end of the day, The Gift is still quite the ride. It’s not the first actor-to-director debut I’ve enjoyed, but it’s one of the first in a while to leave me genuinely hopeful the filmmaker in question will take on a few more projects. Edgerton has done some fine work here and shown some real potential to go places as a director one of these days. It turns out he’s been underutilized thus far. The Gift is one heck of a smart, well-crafted thriller.

-Matt T.

Welcome to Me (2015)

Starring- Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk

Director- Shira Piven

R- sexual content, some graphic nudity, language and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0KEe-hMsLg

Your experience with any movie is always going to be at least partially dependent on what you bring into it — how attuned you are to what it’s doing, how directly it speaks to your own circumstances, how much you know about its subject, etc. I think that may be especially true of Welcome to Me.

It’s about a woman named Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig), a California resident living with borderline personality disorder. She has a collection of Oprah Winfrey tapes that she watches enough to have them memorized. Her apartment is organized by color. Her diet is strictly regimented to augment the flow of her emotions. Her hobby is purchasing lottery tickets. One day, one of those tickets turns out to be a winner, and she goes home with an $86 million prize. She uses it to move into a hotel room above a casino and to get in the studio audience of a television show she likes. When the producers learn she’s a Mega Millions winner, they see dollar signs and are all too agreeable when she proposes financing her own talk show, where she talks about, well, herself. With no guests. Unscripted. For an hour each episode.

Ultimately, anyone’s experience with this movie is going to come down to his or her relationship with borderline personality disorder. I don’t have it; I don’t know anyone who has it. That means my feelings toward Welcome to Me are probably going to be very different than those of someone who’s actually lived the experiences it’s attempting to convey.

In this case, it leaves me feeling somewhat underequipped to properly review this movie. Because of its bent toward comedy and its specific treatment of Alice as a character, I’m worried that this is a movie that could potentially be offensive to people who are close to borderline personality disorder. I have no way of knowing that, and a cursory glance over other reviews and comments about this film haven’t been remotely helpful — they cover the spectrum, with some people saying Welcome to Me is spot on and others finding it insulting. There’s a strange lack of middle ground in these perspectives.

In short, I’m worried that my own opinion of this movie is simply too limited, and I would be horrified to find out I recommended something that, intentionally or otherwise, mocks the people it’s about. So take my view of this movie with a grain of salt. If you’re truly interested in knowing whether to see it or not, listen to someone with more expertise than me.

I can only review this from the layman’s point of view — whether or not it works as a film, apart from its treatment of its subject. Basically, is it any good? And…yeah, I think it is, mostly. It’s decent, anyway — not spectacular, but good enough.

It’s pretty slight, but I’m okay with that. It’s a short, sweet movie, not much more or less demanding than it needs to be. It has a largely solid grounding in character, it moves forward gracefully, and it’s rarely boring. The comedy generally works pretty well — the script reminds me of Tina Fey’s work, driven by complex and immediately hilarious non-sequiturs and dry and awkward as all get out. There are times when it gets tough for people like me to keep watching — I can’t even observe a socially awkward situation from a distance without squirming in my seat, and Welcome to Me’s humor is at least 90 percent socially awkward situations. They’re well-done, though, just…uncomfortable.

Like I said, a lot of this comes down to your assessment regarding its treatment of borderline personality disorder — or whether you even have the ability to make that assessment. However, even despite my lack of knowledge about the subject, the way that Welcome to Me approaches it strikes me as…strange, as though it took a highly specific situation not often tackled on the big screen and rent it into a straightforward, stale formula with an obvious, predictable character arc and a really simplistic message. Ultimately, the movie’s message involves change on Alice’s part — it’s not about the way other people treat her but the way she treats other people. I’m fine with that much — it’s just as condescending to portray disabled people as sinless angels who need everyone else to coddle them as it is to portray them with overt mockery. It’s the specifics of this arc that lose me a little bit — for starters, that it’s so broad as to render the fact that Alice has borderline personality disorder almost irrelevant to the film as a whole. It ends up being yet another movie where fame goes to a character’s head and she has to learn to come back to Earth and care about the people around her. You could put any character into that formula; the borderline personality disorder only affects a couple of things at the fringe.

In addition, Alice’s condition makes the nature of her arc somewhat confusing. As stated, I know very little about borderline personality disorder or its symptoms, but the movie, whether by accident or design, connects most of her bad behavior to her disability, so it’s difficult to view it as a personal, moral failing she needs to recognize and overcome. It seems more like something she has no real control over and for which she can’t really be blamed. Again, I don’t know whether or not these symptoms accurately describe people with this disorder; I only know that the movie seems to be making a connection. And either way, it still strikes me as a little strange to dig into this unique and largely unexplored subject and repurpose it as a generic indie comedy with a straightforward story of fame, excess, selfishness, and happy lessons learned. There’s such a fantastic story waiting to be told here. Welcome to Me ultimately could’ve been about anyone.

That said, it’s entertaining — funny, purposeful, generally tugs in the heartstrings in more or less the way it intends. I’m not qualified to examine it on a level much deeper than that.

-Matt T.