kuboKubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Starring- Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey

Director- Travis Knight

PG- thematic elements, scary images, action and peril

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4-6qJzeb3A

Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) lives in a cave by the sea, making a living telling the local villagers stories with his magical origami and caring for his mother (voice of Brenda Vaccaro), whose damaged mind only allows her a few hours of lucidity every night. On the occasions that her memory returns, she too spins fantastic tales of Kubo’s long-passed father and his heroics in protecting his family from the evil Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes), who supposedly stole Kubo’s eye. There’s only one problem — the stories are all true. There is a Moon King, and he is determined to find Kubo and steal his remaining eye. 

When Kubo breaks one of his mother’s seemingly arbitrary rules, the Moon King’s underlings, the Sisters (voice of Rooney Mara) find him. The boy ends up stranded in the wilderness, pursued by the sisters, his only chance at salvation a quest to reunite a magical suit of armor. Along with two new companions — Monkey (voice of Charlize Theron), a fiery spirit guardian of sorts, and Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey), a half-man/half-insect with few memories other than that he used to serve Kubo’s father as a samurai — Kubo sets on a journey across the world to save his family.

The trailers that played in front of Kubo and the Two Strings were for Storks, which seems as though it may be more aptly titled Stuff Happening: The Motion PictureMonster Trucks, which does not appear to have been developed any further than the pun that inspired it; Trolls, which looks like standard DreamWorks in all the worst ways; and The Wild Life, which I’m not convinced is even real. (And Queen of Katwe, but that doesn’t fit my narrative, so shut up.)

In short, the first fifteen minutes of my theatrical experience was a tour of Children’s Cinema 2016 in all its manic, shouty, awkward slang-heavy, “hip,” pop music-infused, subversive glory. And it provided quite the stark contrast to the feature film, as well as a potent reminder of how badly we needed it.

After all of that, Kubo and the Two Strings, its gravity, its poetry, its sincerity and full-heartedness, its tactile and lovingly hand-crafted visuals, its intelligence, its story focus, was nearly jarring. Remember when children’s films were taken seriously? They weren’t always great, or even good, but they tried to tell stories, tried to build worlds, tried to stoke the imaginations of their young audiences, tried to impart lessons that would follow them into adulthood. Remember when a story for children could have stakes and consequences? When they could be a little scary or emotionally intense sometimes? When they had faith in the ability of children to engage with them on a deeper level?

Kubo and the Two Strings sure does. And that’s a big part of the reason why it’s far and away the best summer movie of 2016, and one of the year’s best films more generally.

As someone who’s been following the evolution of Laika as an animation studio with some interest but an increasing worry that its movies were getting progressively worse, Kubo and the Two Strings comes as great relief. I’m not at all prepared to decide whether it’s better than Coraline, and it seems that neither is film culture as a whole, but the fact that we can even have that debate is reason enough to recommend it wholeheartedly. If nothing else, Laika here continues advancing the art of stop-motion animation to the point of sheer madness — the visuals here are complex, fluid, detailed, textured, and beautiful; it’s incomprehensible to me that all this was done by hand. I’ve heard that Laika used twenty-thousand — twenty-thousand! — detachable pieces to create Kubo’s facial expressions. I’ve heard complaints that the studio has reached the point where its animation is now almost indistinguishable from CGI, but I disagree. I would say the studio has achieved the strengths of computer animation — chiefly, its fluidity in motion — without running into its major weakness — its tendency to look sterile when the design isn’t working (and even, sometimes, when it is). Kubo and the Two Strings is graceful like computer animation, but it feels lived-in, like the world is a real place with real houses and trees and mountains and dirt. The texture isn’t an approximation; it’s real. It’s essentially stylized live-action. It’s gorgeous, and an absolute must on the big screen for that reason alone.

And even then, it’s not so much the animation as what it captures. Kubo and the Two Strings is a spiritual successor to the films of Hayao Miyazaki in its visual imagination, from Kubo’s deft and colorful origami performances to the weird and incredible monsters our heroes encounter on their journey. The movie is filled to bursting with extremely striking images, chief among them the Sisters, who for sheer presence are the creepiest and most intimidating movie henchmen since the Ringwraiths of The Fellowship of the Ring.

In every respect, Kubo and the Two Strings is a total original, capturing not only sights that have never been seen before but a fully realized and interesting mythology and a daring story that adheres to no easily identifiable formula — a story where what happens matters, where consequences can be permanent, where the status quo exists to be shattered, where the characters will inevitably find themselves somewhere other than where they started. It’s the only movie this summer to have surprised me in any meaningful sense — the lengths to which it goes and the intensity that it sometimes reaches would have been risky even the age when Disney was releasing animated films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I don’t know whether Kubo and the Two Strings will scare children — it’ll depend on the kid — but it will definitely confront them with some difficult concepts. And that’s okay — to a child, the world is difficult, and the stories we tell them are among the ways in which we help them deal with that.

Kubo and the Two Strings gets mighty philosophical from time to time, and I’m so glad it does. It enters dark territory but doesn’t dwell there and approaches it with a measured sort of optimism. It’s really a film about mortality, particularly the way we cope with the loved ones we’ve lost, but it also approaches death from the perspective of children just now beginning to understand the concept and realizing that it will happen to them someday. It’s about the here and now and what makes it special, even though it doesn’t last forever.

And it’s about the power of storytelling, not only as a means by which we contextualize our experiences and the experiences of others but as a way that we preserve the memory of those who have passed on before us. In so doing, it gets into territory that I find very subjectively fascinating — the abstract nature of the past and what a memory is (outside of the biological reality, I mean) and the way it so thoroughly defines everything about our world without actually existing in a tangible sense. It’s the idea that maybe we’re all living in Dark City and aliens programmed the totality of our experiences into our brains while we were sleeping last night — we wouldn’t actually know this had happened, but it would still define us. I’m fascinated by the idea of a man who committed murder and then hit his head and forgot everything that ever happened to him — without the experiences that shaped him into a person who would commit murder, would he still do it? In a philosophical sense, would he even still be himself? By addressing the subject in that way, Kubo and the Two Strings is able to end on a moral like “a memory is the most powerful magic there is” without it seeming like fluffy kids movie BS. To the extent that memories define our world, make us who we are, and can change absolutely everything when understood in a different life, I suppose they are a kind of magic.

Basically, Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t have an unoriginal bone in its body. Right now, it’s on track to be little more than a ripple at the box office, confirming once again that the number of people who complain about the film industry’s lack of original movies far exceeds the number of people who actually go and see the original movies it does make. Please, don’t allow Kubo and the Two Strings to pass without a sound — not only as a public service, to send a message that we want more of this, but because it’s worth seeing. It’s beautiful, visually and emotionally; it’s brilliant; it’s creative; it’s moving; it’s memorable; it’s one of the best movies of the year so far. Don’t miss it.

AllegiantfilmposterAllegiant (2016)

Starring- Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Jeff Daniels, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Bill Skarsgard, Jonny Weston

Director- Robert Schwentke

PG-13- intense violence and action, thematic elements and some partial nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G0C-vMHcQY

Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her band of friends/people who will inevitably betray her but are allowed to hang out anyway for some reason head over the wall when it becomes clear that Chicago’s new boss is the same as the old boss. There, they find an advanced civilization that monitors the city’s faction system as part of an experiment designed to restore life to the war-ravaged planet. It seems ideal, but is it?

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a franchise so consistently remain at the level of “not as bad as it could have been” without managing to get better or at least become a fascinating trainwreck — quality-wise, I mean; financially, it’s an almost unprecedented trainwreck (the current plans for the final entry in the series are to cut its budget and release it as a TV movie). If nothing else, this is hopefully the nail in the coffin of the “split the final book into two movies” approach.

I wish I could summon the active hatred so many seem to have for these movies. That reaction would be a lot more interesting. Instead, they just kind of happen in front of my eyes and don’t get absorbed into my brain at all; I finished watching this maybe seven hours ago, and I’m already forgetting the substance of my reaction to it, if there even was any.

Mostly, these movies just hit some basic level of competence. I can’t really point to any specific area where they go particularly awry (other than the confounding premise), but I can’t point at anything they do especially well either. In explaining my mostly ambivalent reaction to Allegiant, all I can really say is: “I liked the fun, dopey sci-fi nonsense, and everything else was whatever.”

It might be a little bit better than Insurgent. Strangely, despite being an incomplete piece of a book that was sliced in two, Allegiant somehow works better as a standalone film. Bizarrely, it’s one of the few Part 1s to actually feel like it could be an adaptation of an entire book. It addresses most of its immediate concerns before the credits roll, and the ending doesn’t feel like it comes out of nowhere. Most of its setups, meager though they are, are paid off here.

The problem is that none of it is particularly interesting. The story is predictable and mostly involves Tris sitting around while things happen around her. The world is pretty generic despite being considerably expanded in this installment. We finally get a mostly reasonable-sounding explanation of how the faction system came to be, but we still don’t get the interesting characterization that would lend any weight to the exposition. Some of the new characters are on the verge of becoming interesting, at least in terms of the worldviews they represent, but the movie never properly develops the themes that emerge at the edges. The series has reached a place where the various parties in conflict have a halfway understandable point, but it’s still playing the action sequences “fun,” or at least failing to give them the weight they need. Knowing what they know, the fact that the heroes never pause to reflect upon all of the violence leaves the movie feeling a bit cold.

It’s all very fine, and it’s also very forgettable and a little bit boring. At the end of the day, I think the most damning thing I can say about this series is that I probably won’t get to see how it ends, and that doesn’t frustrate me one bit.

Batman_v_Superman_posterBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Starring- Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy

Director- Zack Snyder

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX_iASz1Si8

Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) get mad at each other because Batman was all like “I’m the toughest” and Superman was like “nuh-uh.” Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) does sinister things for reasons. Stuff fights other stuff, and everyone is very angry about it.

DARKNESS. NO PARENTS.

I wouldn’t say that I had high hopes for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (giggle snort) — between that all-timer of a title and trailers that were ninety-five percent superheroes glowering at each other, I had a feeling this was a project no one really knew what to do with. But I also had a sinking suspicion that it would be the kind of disaster Suicide Squad ended up being, where enough of it was interesting that I had to suck it up and defend it anyway. It seemed like something that might turn out to be a guilty pleasure.

That is not what happened.

Batman v Superman is the regular kind of disaster, the kind that well into its second hour becomes totally unwatchable. I love movies — even the bad ones. When they’re bad, I at least have fun analyzing them, seeing what they tried to and might have been. I don’t enjoy them on their own terms but enjoy the experience of them. Batman v Superman broke the barrier. It’s an absolute chore to sit through — monotonous, emotionless, seemingly endless. When it isn’t chasing a million tangents attempting to set up an entire shared universe in the space of one movie, it’s approaching every single one of its own narrative threads wrongheadedly.

It’s hard for me to remain interested in the future of the DC Cinematic Universe now that it’s stuck with grills Joker, jackass Superman, and psychopath Batman — they’ve already screwed up their most iconic characters beyond the possibility of any simple fixes. I’m not interested in a series of films about an egotistical, aggressive Superman who pays no heed to collateral damage and, when called on it, gets defensive rather than reflective (upon being told that people died as a result of his most recent operation, he basically says, “Hey, I didn’t do that,” which is something I can’t imagine any other iteration of this character doing). I’m even less interested in the ongoing adventures of a sadistic, monstrous Batman who kills (sometimes indiscriminately), tortures, and brands his symbol onto his victims before turning them over to police (and also has a smaller but still quite noticeable disregard for collateral damage). Even the people he saves are absolutely terrified of him.

That’s a larger problem with the movie and part of why it feels so heavy. There’s an aspirational quality to superheroes; the fantasy behind them is derived from the idea that there’s someone out there who will save us in our time of need. The best superhero movies are fun because they tap into that — their heroes are relatable because they connect with our positive, altruistic instincts. That’s especially true of figures like Superman, who was essentially created as a symbol of hope. But Batman v Superman is much more interested in the violence and treats its rescue scenes with this sense of obligation — and undergirds them with too much of its protagonists’ ego and self-regard. It finds no joy in saving a life; there are no moments here like the train sequence in Spider-Man 2 or the plane rescue in Iron Man 3. Batman v Superman generally seems hostile to altruism as a concept; it struggles to plausibly root its heroics in anything else. To an extent, that’s appropriate for Batman, though there still needs to be a balance — the intrigue behind the character has always been his struggle to understand how much of what he does he does because he’s a good man and how much of it is just him trying to deal with his past. This Batman is more like the Punisher; he rarely shows meaningful glimmers of anything more than a desire to avenge his parents. But Superman is so far outside of that — as a character, he’s fundamentally altruistic. This version is totally alien to me. And it’s a problem for the movie as well, which has “superheroes as symbols of hope” as very much a part of its thematics.

But much ado about nothing, right? I don’t subscribe to the idea that a movie has to align with its source material in order to be independently good — though part of the fun of a comic book adaptation, particularly a shared universe, is to see characters people have loved for generations larger-than-life on the big screen, interacting with one another. I may not like jackass Superman and psychopath Batman, and I don’t think the movie gives any indication that it plans to be a deconstruction or alternate take; nevertheless, I’m open to the possibility that this was the intent. In that case, how is it as a movie? If I’d never heard of these characters before, what would I think?

I’d think the same thing. Its mystifying take on its characters isn’t a problem solely in the adaptational sense; it’s a problem for the movie itself. Here’s the thing: I absolutely hated these characters. And since the movie presents itself as a major emotional event — two beloved heroes coming to blows — that’s a big, big problem. I legitimately did not care who lived or died or even who won. I had no stake in their battle of ideologies, because there really isn’t one. They’re both massive hypocrites; every criticism they offer of one another is just as true of them. Batman is intentional about his wrongdoing, and Superman just doesn’t particularly care — that’s the only major difference here. Neither of them really grows as a person; they just slowly come to recognize that they’re actually very similar. Their conflict seems to stem solely from their inability to trust anyone other than themselves to sit at the top of the totem pole. You could make an interesting movie about a couple of hypocrites who realize that the things they hate in one another are simply projections of themselves, but Batman v Superman isn’t that movie.

I know that comparing this to Captain America: Civil War is That Which People Reviewing DC Comics Movies Must Not Do, but how often do we get two movies in one year trying to do almost exactly the same thing? In Civil War, we like both characters, and each of them has a decent point in the conflict of ideologies. As a result, when it finally escalates into violence, it’s absolutely crushing — we care about both of the characters, fear for them, and simply want them to stop fighting. In Batman v Superman, both of the characters are loathsome and wrong about everything, and it really doesn’t matter who wins. Without the proper context, it just isn’t interesting as drama.

Throw in the rest of the movie’s problems, and the whole thing just becomes soul-deadening. It’s artificially dark and never, ever lets a little light shine in. This doesn’t mean that the movie needs jokes or whiz-bang action sequences or a boyish sense of glee. I just want the darkness to be organic and the characters to experience a full range of emotions. People always point at The Dark Knight, but it isn’t as relentless as its reputation. That movie is very dark, yes, but it has light, ordinary moments — scenes where characters hang out, where friends joke around, where normal, everyday stuff happens. It goes to dark places, but it still establishes a standard of normalcy — which only heightens the emotion as the tone degrades.

It sometimes seems as though Batman v Superman was filmed under a rule that every scene had to be as dark as possible — take whatever’s going on and sharpen the edges until it reaches peak grittiness. Batman cannot simply be breaking up a drug ring; it must be a sex trafficking operation. Batman cannot simply beat up the bad guys; he must torture, terrify, and then brand them. A villain cannot simply attack, it must be a terrorist attack with hundreds of identifiable victims (and an extremely uncomfortable amount of 9/11 imagery). The movie seems to be working hard to make every scene as edgy as possible until none of it matters anymore and you just want to see characters doing something other than monologuing softly or growling at each other.

Only one character is an exception to this, and it ends up more a curse than a blessing. I think Jesse Eisenberg is an extremely talented actor; his performance in The Social Network is one of my all-time favorites. But his take on Lex Luthor is just awful, arguably the worst thing in a movie that’s already pretty bad. For some reason, Zack Snyder drove the rest of the movie into the deepest possible darkness and then directed Eisenberg to play its villain like a character from a bad 80s cartoon. Luthor is half Heath Ledger’s Joker and half Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Loud noises, twitchy gestures, constant giggling, forced eccentricity, bizarre speech patterns — the character is just plain annoying.

Then you’ve got the narrative missteps, most of which feel like studio mandates. A big part of DC’s struggles getting its shared universe project off the ground is that it’s trying to do in one year what Marvel did in eight. Batman v Superman feels as though it exists at the intersection of a half-dozen movies that haven’t been made yet, and it’s trying to summon the emotional weight of significantly more than that (most of the comic book lore it relies upon is fairly common knowledge, but it nevertheless counts on its audience having a pretty significant pre-existing investment in its characters — characters that are, I remind you, very, very different from their comic book incarnations). The presence of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in this movie is absolutely baffling; it’s such a non-event that it mostly serves to rob her upcoming solo film of the opportunity to memorably define her first big-screen appearance. I’d believe you if you told me she was added in reshoots.

Here’s the Say Something Nice section of the review — Zack Snyder is a decent technical director (though I still don’t understand why he holds the camera stock still during the action sequences and shakes it around when characters are just talking), so at least Batman v Superman avoids the ongoing trend of superhero movies looking like garbage (I’m a fan of Marvel’s movies, but I really wish they’d start looking like actual, big-screen films). I also like Ben Affleck’s performance; the character’s anger is always simmering just beneath the surface, constantly threatening to emerge. Jeremy Irons’ take on Alfred as a more bitterly sarcastic character is fun, too; he does away with the fatherly warmth Michael Caine brought to the role and fills it with a distinctly British sense of loathing.

But none of the movie’s strengths give me any hope for the future of the series. We may only be three films in, but this already feels like a sinking ship. Even if Warner Bros. nails Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash, it’s going to have to deal with a Batman and Superman that retain very little of their classic heroism and that a lot of people, judging by the severely diminished second-weekend box office returns, seem not to like all that much. Batman v Superman is only the second entry in the franchise, and it’s bad enough that it might also be the movie that kills it.

Midnight_Special_(film)_posterMidnight Special (2016)

Starring- Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Hensen

Director- Jeff Nichols

PG-13- some violence and action

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zuQTmVCEn4

Roy Tomlin’s (Michael Shannon) son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) was born into the same religious cult in which Roy was raised. When Alton manifests mysterious abilities and the cult leaders’ intentions for him take on a nefarious edge, Roy and wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) recruit childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and take off with him, heading for a set of coordinates the boy decoded, where they believe they will learn what he is and where he came from — and possibly how to save him.

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ worst film yet and as such demonstrates why his career is so exciting — because it’s still really good, albeit more as proof of his skills behind the camera than as a writer.

Midnight Special has what all too many sci-fi blockbusters lack — conviction. Confidence. A sense that it was not made by committee. This didn’t come from a board room; it came from someone’s imagination.

It’s patient and has a lot of faith in its audience. That isn’t too surprising; Nichols specializes in slow burns. But Midnight Special is stripped down even by those standards and contents itself with ambiguity where appropriate. Nichols is ordinarily a detailed filmmaker; the success of Take Shelter, in my opinion his best movie, is that it allows you to so perfectly understand its characters that every step in their development makes complete sense and can almost be guessed in advance. Fortunately, the ambiguity of Midnight Specialsuits him nearly as well. The movie doesn’t strain to explain everything and is comfortable letting its viewers fill in the blanks themselves. It doesn’t take on any more information than it needs to — the chase is already underway before the movie starts, and it never strays far from that threat. Nichols excels at weaving character and story arcs into one another, which makes Midnight Special propulsive despite its slow pace (by the standards of the genre). The movie has faith that its emotional undercurrents will connect; it isn’t particularly heavy on action or spectacle, which makes the big moments all the more hard-hitting when they arrive. Nichols has never shot visual effects on this large a scale, and he proves to be pretty good at it; the few spectacular sights the movie indulges are spectacular indeed.

In general, Nichols’ direction is everything that works about this film. It’s funny that his first movie targeting the 80s Spielberg feel (as filtered through the lens of a slow, tense indie thriller) also proves him to be a bit of a Spielberg himself, someone whose belief in the material and visual and tonal approach to it smooths over even the biggest flaws. His primary directorial talent is his complete mastery of atmosphere. From the beginning, Midnight Special is filled with mystery and wonder as ordinary people encounter strange goings-on; it resembles nothing so much as — here’s Spielberg again — Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s dark without being too heavy and touching without being cloying. The cast helps quite a bit. If nothing else, at least we can thank Nichols for ensuring that Michael Shannon is in our movie theaters at least once a year. He’s one of the greatest actors society at large has yet to realize is great, and Midnight Special finds a bit of a movie star quality in him as well — his character is, admittedly, underwritten, but Shannon completely sells everything that’s happening on-screen. His presence alone is compelling; he owns every scene he’s in. A solid supporting cast backs him up — Kirsten Dunst doing something similar, taking a thinly written part and making it feel real anyway; Sam Shepard as the shady but charismatic cult leader; Adam Driver as a nebbish NSA agent who accidentally ends up leading the FBI’s investigation of Alton. I think Hollywood has struggled to figure out what to do with Joel Edgerton, but his recent turns as the friendly roughneck sort of character suit his screen presence very well.

They work together to make Midnight Special feel a heck of a lot less flawed than it is. Its flaws strike me as a bit of an anomaly, in that they arise in respects that have not been a problem for Nichols before now. Usually, I love him as a writer, but Midnight Special’s script feels a touch half-baked, like a decent premise that went into production before it was developed into an actual story. The film’s emotional center is the family — Roy, Sarah, and Alton — and they’re pretty undeveloped on the whole. The script doesn’t provide them with nuance beyond the most basic emotions: The mother and father love and want to protect the son. There’s no life or sense of history between the characters, just the standard tropes of the parent-child relationship. The actors bring something true to the parts, but they can only supply so much. These characters walked away from a cult in which they lived nearly their entire lives — that should bring something very interesting to the table, but it just isn’t there.

Unlike Nichols’ other movies, which are, for the most part, very tightly scripted, Midnight Special tends to feel like a conglomeration of random scenes that often don’t affect one another. It seems as though nearly every scene is setting up something interesting or dramatically that subsequently isn’t paid off at all — the most obvious example being a tense scene where the family decides to try to run a military barricade after Alton promises he can help that’s followed up with a scene where they just crash through it ingloriously, Alton doing nothing whatsoever. There are a lot of bits like that — important characters suddenly vanish out of the plot, never to return; the villains’ sinister plotting often goes nowhere; characters stumble into important information that makes no sense, changes nothing, and is never mentioned again. The central mystery suffers the most from this, feeling as though not a lot of thought went into it — it resolves itself somewhat obviously, dredging up old sci-fi plots that have been done a million times. It isn’t very satisfying either, since the stakes aren’t well-defined and the ending ignores a lot of the build-up that went into it. The movie ends on a shot of a character’s face, staring into the distance in a moment of thoughtful spirituality, and it’s completely impossible to guess what he’s feeling or why — the conclusion of the arc simply isn’t set up well enough.

Midnight Special ultimately feels like a very good rough draft that inexplicably wasn’t touched again. What really went wrong here, I have no idea. But I digress — plenty goes right, and in the sort of way that makes me think Nichols and the others involved a capable of a lot that we haven’t seen yet. This one’s a bit shaky, but it’s nevertheless a solid addition to an already impressive body of work.

Hail,_Caesar!_Teaser_posterHail, Caesar! (2016)

Starring- Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill

Directors- Joel and Ethan Coen

PG-13- some suggestive content and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMqeoW3XRa0

When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) the star of Capitol Pictures’ big upcoming prestige picture Hail, Caesar!, a retelling of the Christ story, goes missing days before he was to film the climactic scene, exasperated Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and good-natured but dim Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) set out to solve the mystery before it starts costing the studio money.

I’m trying not to be too disappointed about Hail, Caesar! because it’s pretty good, but my hopes were so high and the movie is so…all right. In a lot of ways, it’s vintage Coen Brothers, but it’s Coen Brothers filtered through a much more fractured lens than usual and is perhaps a little too insular, even by their standards. It plays as an extended in-joke — a smart in-joke, but nevertheless one that very, very few people are going to get.

I think it speaks to the subjectivity of film in a way, how context and presentation can affect the content to the point that it changes tracks entirely. Hail, Caesar! is immediately recognizable as a Coen Brothers movie, and those have a rightful reputation for greatness. Hail, Caesar! approaches its story and ideas in much the same way as their previous films, but it just doesn’t work as well this time. What ordinarily would act in its favor here acts somewhat to its detriment. The idiosyncrasies that make the Coens’ movies so memorable here threaten to put up a wall between the film and its audience.

I don’t think it can be said that the Coens were ever particularly emotive filmmakers. They take a very clinical, detail-oriented approach to the stories they tell, devoting more attention to their ideas than to their characters. They focus more on engaging the mind than the heart. They tackle their themes in a more intellectualized way. Their characters and stories are more metaphors than a real approximation of the human experience. You don’t watch their movies looking for the emotional context but what everyone and everything represents. It’s listening to a philosophical argument rather than seeing it in practice.

But they know when to crack the windows and let a bit of air in. They still treat their characters like people, just people backgrounded to an idea. The characters in No Country for Old Men are symbols for perspectives on destiny, self-determination, mortality, change, and plenty more depending on how you interpret it, but there remains an empathetic humanity buried beneath the metaphor — Llewellyn’s average Joe desperation, Sheriff Bell’s fear of and sadness for what the world has become, Anton Chigurh’s attempts to divert responsibility for his actions and place himself outside of the rules that govern the rest of civilization. It’s compelling stuff, and it backs up the big ideas with something that places them in context.

I think that’s where Hail, Caesar! goes off the rails — it runs too far into its metaphors and forgets to make them matter. It often feels like a movie without stakes. There’s so little happening emotionally — the only significant character arc involves Eddie’s indecision about his career future, and honestly, watching a guy decide whether to keep his high-paying job working with a lot of celebrities or take a higher-paying job working with fewer celebrities isn’t all that interesting. I get that Hail, Caesar! is a comedy and therefore isn’t gunning for any particular emotional intensity, but other Coen Brothers comedies managed to find something compelling at their core — Raising Arizona is one of the weirdest, most absurd movies ever made, but it still has its protagonists’ loneliness and desire to have children of their own keeping it grounded in something we can relate to. Hail, Caesar! lacks both that and the propulsive structure that buoyed other Coen movies — O Brother, Where Art Thou? took a similar vignette-style approach to its loose, somewhat freeform story, but its focus was locked on characters we followed from one scene to the next; there was a sense that things were moving forward. Hail, Caesar! just jumps from one thing to another, between a couple of subplots that don’t have any immediately apparent utility.

I say “apparent” because the movie tackles its themes somewhat obliquely. That’s not at all unusual for the Coen Brothers, whose films are stuffed with details it takes dozens of viewings to notice. Not only do they like metaphors, they like highly specific metaphors; their movies are like puzzles, and the pieces are the entirety of human knowledge to date. It’s usually connected to something broad enough that you don’t need to grasp all of it — No Country for Old Men certainly gets even better as you learn the specifics of its symbolism, but its themes are all-encompassing enough that you can generally understand them solely by their narrative context. Hail, Caesar!, on the other hand, almost universally intellectualizes its themes — not in the sense that they’re too complex to easily understand but in that they have limited emotional underpinnings and catching the cues requires you to do a heck of a lot of research after the fact. I’m starting to piece it together, but one of the most critical components didn’t fall into place until I discovered that one of the characters shares a last name and nickname with a character from another, somewhat obscure work of fiction whose role in that story sheds light on the Hail, Caesar! character’s function in the religious symbolism that recurs throughout. I’m abstractly impressed by the attention to detail — but only abstractly. It doesn’t feel like much of anything in the moment, and the movie needs some of that humanity to remind us why these questions matter.

If it sounds like I’m coming down hard on it, I don’t mean to. I go into this level of depth because the Coen Brothers’ talent demands it. I’d never subject a mid-level blockbuster to this kind of scrutiny. Comedy Coen remains my favorite Coen, and Hail, Caesar! is predictably effective in that regard. Their distinctive sense of humor is at play in most of their films, but more pronounced here since the movie’s pitched more openly toward pure comedy. I would describe its tone as “light,” for the most part, but every now and then the Coens turn the dial just a bit more toward absurdity. They allow the comedy to built up over time; the movie gets weirder and funnier as it goes, climaxing in the kind of straight-faced insanity for which they’ve become famous. And they’re as sharp-witted as ever; highlights here include a religiously diverse group of ministers arguing over whether the studio’s production portrays Jesus respectfully and several prolonged conversations about the influence of communism in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

They get plenty of help from a typically stellar cast (I remain convinced that the Coens are among the best casting directors in the industry; it is so, so rare that anyone is less than perfect in one of their movies), this one particularly star-studded. George Clooney is very funny in a somewhat atypical lovable idiot role; Josh Brolin works well as the movie’s beleaguered straight man, babysitter to the stars; Alden Ehrenreich is the real revelation, bringing real heart and soul and humor to a character that could easily have been pure shtick in someone else’s hands. It’s the kind of performance that puts an up-and-coming actor on the map, so maybe we shouldn’t consider it all that surprising that he’s officially our new Han Solo. I can see now how he got that part — Hobie Doyle’s a much softer, more innocent character, but he has that same exaggerated self-confidence with the touches of rugged naïveté a young Han Solo needs.

Those three are the only actors who recur with any sort of importance. The rest of the huge cast advertised in the trailers is relegated to glorified cameos — one or two scenes in which they feature prominently, none of them having more than about ten minutes in total. But you can’t really go wrong with three solid leads walking through vignettes that feature Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and plenty more. The movie’s a two-hour montage of great actors digging into very funny material.

Basically, it’s lesser Coen, which means it’s still very much worth seeing. I can’t help but feel let down given that it was one of my most anticipated movies this year, but hopefully, with a little bit of time and distance, I’ll be able to appreciate it as the strong, smart comedy it is.

d4a65bda5131bde968111034cce8f4f33537875d-1Suicide Squad (2016)

Starring- Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach

Director- David Ayer

PG-13- sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language

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

In response to the threat posed by meta-humans like Superman, government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes the formation of the Suicide Squad — a team of meta-human criminals fighting the good fight in return for years off their sentences (and, you know, to keep the explosives in their necks from being triggered). When an otherworldly attack shuts down New York City, the ragtag band of thieves and murderers is dispatched to handle the threat.

Suicide Squad left me in the same place as Warcraft where I’m pretty sure it’s a bad movie but I kind of liked it anyway. It mostly gets everything wrong but is still unique and usually disastrous in a fun way. “Too weird to dislike” is the way I’d describe it, I think.

Word is that Suicide Squad went under the knife for relatively significant reshoots after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which I haven’t seen yet and cannot say out loud without snickering) underperformed and audiences responded well to the fun, funny first trailer, which reportedly wasn’t representative of what David Ayer originally filmed. Watching it, you can tell. Suicide Squad’s biggest problem is that it’s a titanic mess with no focus, no vision, and no ultimate point, introducing, forgetting about, reintroducing, recreating, and scrapping a thousand story and character elements from the moment it begins until the moment it ends. It’s either failing to resolve items it set up and attempting to resolve items it never touched upon prior to the climax.

Sometimes, it’s clear you’re watching a “fun” action bit or joke scene that was added solely to up the entertainment value; said scenes usually function as pure distraction, having nothing to do with the plot or characters and occasionally even making no sense geographically. I have a feeling the reshoots mostly involved tacking random Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) antics onto the end of every scene. I suspect they also involved interns googling “rock songs about being a bad guy” so that they could be pasted over every other scene to lighten things up a bit — Suicide Squad is an endless stream of comically on-the-nose pop songs.

The story is a mess, too, but I suspect that was the case even before the reshoots — it’s hard to imagine there was material cut or added that meaningfully affected things. Suicide Squad has no idea how to wrangle its large cast of supervillains and so opens on maybe twenty minutes of Viola Davis painstakingly introducing them individually alongside a montage of their respective brands of mayhem. Then, the movie immediately goes into climax mode. Most superhero movies end on the apocalyptic attack with a giant beam of energy shooting up into the sky and the city completely evacuated; Suicide Squad gets there in the first reel. Twenty minutes of pure introduction with no story advancement followed by ninety minutes of the “heroes” walking through an abandoned city and shooting stuff — yeah, there’s a bit of a structural problem here.

The real issue is that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with all its characters. This is a problem I often see in adaptations of long-form media such as comics, books, and TV shows — there’s a lot they’re “required” to have even if it doesn’t fit within the confines of a two-hour movie’s more limited needs. In Suicide Squad, that manifests in a group of characters who are mostly here because, well, they’re members of the comic-book Suicide Squad and therefore must be here. Three or four of these characters are important; the rest are action sequence props. But they all need to be set up, which results in the movie budgeting its time somewhat poorly. I’m particularly thinking of that aforementioned twenty-minute opening: You get an individual introduction to almost the entire team, but whereas, say, Deadshot (Will Smith) goes on to pretty much be the main character, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) goes on to participate in action sequences and nothing much else. And it left me wondering why the movie ever bothered in the first place. Why waste a scene introducing Katana (Karen Fukuhara) if she’s never going to have a purpose other than existing near the main characters? It ends up feeling like wasted time.

The movie’s tonal struggle doesn’t really help in this regard. It’s definitely lightened up a bit by comparison to other recent DC movies, but there remains a relative seriousness to it, sort of encapsulated by its comically bad “realistic” take on the Joker (Jared Leto) as a tattooed drug lord. There are political dimensions to Amanda Waller’s decision to bring the team together, and I just can’t justify most of these characters within that context. She says she wants to form a team of meta-humans capable of going toe to toe with Superman should the need arise, but it seems like she really wanted to put together a bunch of weird, themed villains for a laugh. Her team designed to fight gods among men consists of three meta-humans, one of whom is uncontrollable and an obvious bad idea (there’s “tampering with forces you don’t understand,” and then there’s “asking for it”), and then a clown girl who acts crazy while hitting things with a baseball bat, a guy whose shtick is rope tricks, and Captain friggin’ Boomerang (Jai Courtney). The movie distantly realizes that some of these characters are silly but seems unsure what to do with that. It seems unsure what to do with these characters more generally; they’re a mishmash of disconnected subplots and underdeveloped arcs, with the big emotional beats falling flat because they aren’t set up.

I would say that one storyline and three characters mostly work, and maybe that’s why I had fun in spite of myself. The storyline belongs to El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a meta-human with fire-based superpowers. He’s a former gang member turned repentant pacifist after his abuse of his powers resulted in a personal tragedy. Everything about him as a character is sort of thudding and obvious, bluntly explained and argued without subtlety. But his arc is the only one that completes itself in an organic and intelligent way — essentially that part of redeeming yourself is owning up to what you did and accepting that you can’t take it back — and for me, the movie’s only genuinely emotional moment belonged to him.

The characters are Deadshot, Waller, and, weirdly, Harley Quinn. Their respective storylines are unfocused and awkward, but I nevertheless enjoyed them as characters that I found interesting and well-realized. Deadshot mostly makes it on the strength of Will Smith, whose performance here is a strong reminder that he’s one of our last true movie stars; he brings his usual charisma to bear, seasoned with a darker-than-average tint that makes it feel fresh. Plus, obvious as it is, there’s something touching about the character’s relationship with his daughter. Waller isn’t as interesting on her own as she is in her effect on the plot, but I’ll take it — she’s ruthless, will do absolutely anything she feels necessary in the line of duty, spares no moment of reflection upon the wrong she’s done, and provides the movie with the compelling moral dilemmas it otherwise can’t quite reach. Suicide Squad absolutely intends for you to hate this character, and it uses that to occasionally interesting effect. Lastly, Harley Quinn — she’s more of a mixed bag, in that she can be a bit annoying depending on how obviously the movie’s using her to make a scene more superficially entertaining, but I found her much more interesting than I expected, especially since the character is mostly fan service. I don’t think the movie does anything all that interesting with her, but it’s certainly built a foundation with which interesting things can be done going forward. It strikes a tricky balance with her, keeping her fun while also tapping into the personal tragedy of her character in a way other adaptations haven’t quite. Suicide Squad gets that she used to be a normal person until the Joker destroyed her mind and then convinced her to permanently mangle her body; now, she needs to maintain that status quo because she simply cannot exist in society outside of it. She’s broken beyond repair, and the only place she fits is with the Joker — even though he’s the ultimate abusive boyfriend. The movie is capable of being surprisingly subtle about this; it’s like they brought in a completely different writer exclusively for this subplot.

I’ll also confess to liking the tone of this movie, even though it doesn’t really have one. Its constant conflict between anarchic silliness and dark self-seriousness may never completely resolve, but it does inadvertently create a bizarre new tone that may not be “good” but is certainly interesting. It’s best exemplified in a flashback that shows the Joker and Harley Quinn making out in the vat of acid that deformed them set to a hilariously obvious song about gangsters in love; it’s incredibly stupid, intended in complete seriousness, and very stylized, and I couldn’t help but find it extremely entertaining. I do, for the most part, think the movie manages its darkness well, successfully showing that achieving that weight requires that you not completely wallow in it. For once, I actually liked a superhero movie’s dark edge, especially in that it doesn’t make excuses for these characters. I went in expecting that these guys would all be “good” bad guys — he only kills bad people; he didn’t do anything all that bad; he was framed; he only committed crimes so he could afford his daughter’s cancer treatments. Only El Diablo gets that sort of portrayal, and he’s still done some heinous things; he just feels guilty about it and wants to change. These guys are objectively bad people who have done some terrible things for entirely selfish reasons, and most of them don’t feel remotely bad about it. That gives the movie room to treat them differently from your average superheroes, and that sometimes results in something interesting.

I’m using the word “interesting” a lot here, which I tend to do whenever I like a bad movie. As I’ve said in the past, my taste drives me to failed experiments more often than calculated successes. For a lot of reasons, intentional and otherwise, Suicide Squad is thoroughly fascinating, and I think that was enough for me. Partly by accident, it doesn’t feel quite like anything else in theaters lately, and I appreciate that uniqueness. It’s a titanic mess, but it’s composed of such strange parts that I can’t help but want to put it under a microscope. Most of what it tries to do burns to the ground before your eyes, but I sure had fun sifting through the ashes.

The_Little_Prince_(2015_film)_posterThe Little Prince (2016)

Starring- Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Mackenzie Foy

Director- Mark Osborne

PG- mild thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEPqgSNLfK8

A little girl (voice of Mackenzie Foy) moves to a new neighborhood with her perfectionist mother (voice of Rachel McAdams) in order to ensure her entry into a prestigious local school. She does her best to impress her mother and to live according to her rigid schedules and requirements, designed to make her the “best grown-up ever.” One day, chance brings her to meet their neighbor, a kooky old aviator (voice of Jeff Bridges) who tells her fantastic stories of his encounter with a spacefaring boy, the Little Prince (voice of Riley Osborne). 

What a troubled and weird history this film has had. I’ve been aware of its existence for some now, and a full slate of critical reviews has been available forever. It’s been in and out of the conversation so many times that I began to think of it as a movie that had already come and gone. It was released in France over a year ago (and debuted at Cannes prior to that) and then tossed around between seemingly every major distributor as it debuted in other countries. It ended up with Paramount for its U.S. release, only for the studio to mysteriously bail on it only a week before its opening. Then, it hung in limbo for a while until Netflix picked it up and released it to streaming today. Basically, I’m not even sure under which year I should classify it. It’s just now making its debut to the general public, but it’s already out on Blu-Ray overseas. I tend to go by year of eligibility for Academy Awards, which I thinkmakes it a 2016 release, but I’m really uncertain.

In short, it’s a patchwork film, bandied about between studios and delivery models, and nearly overlooked. And strangely, there’s something poignant about that — that this tiny, restrained, thoroughly charming animated movie that is, in a lot of ways, about finding beauty in difficult and painful circumstances would end up being its own sort of diamond in the rough, flying under the radar until it lucked its way into a release that may grant it the wide audience it deserves and might never have achieved otherwise.

It’s also appropriate in that the film itself is a bit of a mess, but a beautiful mess, the sort of mess that only comes about as a result of trying to wrangle so many ideas and so much feeling into one cohesive things. The Little Prince is so much more than the sum of its parts.

It’s easy to guess why Paramount flinched at the last minute. I’m not sure even Pixar could get away with a movie like The Little Prince. There was no easy way to market it to an American audience and very little guarantee that word of mouth would give it a longer shelf life. Quite simply, it isn’t like any other animated movie. It isn’t slow-moving, but it is patient and deliberate, gently paced rather than manic, throwing jokes and pratfalls and sound and color at you every other second. It’s a bit abstract, its narrative focusing on symbolic and emotional arcs rather than moving a conflict-driven plot forward. It’s heavier than average, not at all inappropriate for children but grappling with more difficult concepts than most kids’ films, from the specter of adulthood all the way to death and the meaning of life in the here and now. It’s also content with ambiguity when it appears — it’s willing to imply things when appropriate and to hone in on the meaning of a scene rather than laboring to set it up in concrete, literal details. Questions about whether the old man’s stories are true, and if so, how they’re possible, don’t really concern it. The important part is what he means by them and what the little girl learns from them (I’m not being lazy about the names, by the way; everyone is identified only by their role in the story — the little girl, the aviator, the mother, etc.).

Despite all of this, I think kids will get it — maybe even more than adults, which is strange in light of how heady it can get. That’s because kids won’t sweat the small stuff. They aren’t trying to separate the movie into literal and metaphoric components; they don’t question the absurd, impossible story elements. Kids accept movies as they are and feel their way through them. In that sense, the film speaks to its young audience brilliantly, presenting itself in a sort of emotional purity that opens them to further consideration of its lessons as they get older. It also turns the movie a bit meta, since its central point is that we adults too easily let go of our capacity for wonder and self-discovery in favor of our worrisome routines and fears of what might happen. The movie’s style, in a way, proves its own point. It represents adults through a series of characters the Little Prince encounters on his journey, each pursuing wealth, power, status, because these things are what represent success in the grown-up world. But each, to a point, is essentially arbitrary and has no inherent meaning, and to a child, who is biologically programmed to search for meaning in everything, the sacrifice of childhood to these pursuits is senseless. And to an extent, that child is correct. The movie’s style seems designed to prove its own point — to make adults fret about what, precisely, is going on while children cut straight through to the beauty underneath the surface.

If it bites off more than it can chew, well, of course it does. It handles some elements better than others (its suggestions about matters of the heart are a little too Disney-lite for my tastes, unhelpfully vague “if you just believe it hard enough, it’ll become true” sentiment). But at the very least, I can say that The Little Prince doesn’t feel like it came off an assembly line somewhere — even by a comparison to a lot of the very good animated films of our time. It’s thoroughly its own thing, designed and animated beautifully (though mainly in the painterly stop-motion segments; the computer animation is so-so), highly imaginative, and bound to no formula in particular. The story goes where it will, turning new corners and ending up in new and daring places. Sometimes, it works; sometimes, it doesn’t. Regardless, it’s always fresh, exciting, and filled with a sense of discovery.

I don’t know whether kids will like it. I don’t think it’s my job to make that determination anyway. But kids should certainly have the chance to like or dislike it — and I’m not sure they’d ever have gotten that chance had the cost of a couple movie tickets been in the way. Maybe, then, its difficulty getting to the screen is a blessing of sorts — it’s a small, unusual film that’s now only a click away. The Little Prince is a children’s film in so pure a sense that it nearly redefines the purposes and potential accomplishments of the “genre.” And it would be a shame if only the arthouse crowd got around to seeing it.