star-trek-beyond-poster-internationalStar Trek Beyond (2016)

Starring- Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy

Director- Justin Lin

PG-13- sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRVD32rnzOw

While responding to a request for assistance from a downed ship full of scientists, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise fly into a trap set by a mysterious warlord named Krall (Idris Elba). Separated from one another and stranded on an alien world, they must find a way to return to Federation space before Krall uses an ancient artifact to destroy a space station housing millions.

Star Trek Beyond gets closer to the spirit of the original series than any of the other rebooted Treks, which is both its standout quality and possibly its Achilles’ heel — even in its best moments, it reminds you that perhaps Star Trek truly does belong on television. It’s a good movie, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more in the middle of a full season than on its own.

The “nuTreks,” as I’ve seen them called, have always had a bit of a tormented relationship with their source material. It started with J.J. Abrams being more on the Star Wars side of the aisle and steering the new series in that direction and continued with Roberto Orci stuffing the sequel with his 9/11 truther BS. The characters were strong, and the cast had great chemistry, but they weren’t the Kirk, Spock, and Bones that we knew and loved. Basically, the series has been trapped in an awkward place between fidelity to the original series and becoming its own thing, that conflict reaching its apex with Star Trek Into Darkness, where Abrams tried to glue Star Trek positivity onto a cynical Orci/Alex Kurtzman script that didn’t remotely understand the inclusive optimism in the show’s roots.

Star Trek Beyond is, in a lot of ways, the course correction nuTrek needed. It feels like the end result of a successful compromise between completely aping the source and striking out on its own, i.e. it feels like Star Trek but not so much like Star Trek that it starts to feel like an inferior copy. It’s still a touch action-heavy for my tastes; the series had plenty of sci-fi adventuring, but the constant, furious slam-banging of this movie tends to feel like too much (especially since the edits are so quick and the camera is so close to the action). Even so, Star Trek Beyond marks the point where nuTrek, at last, more or less occupies its own niche. It’s a modern blockbuster in all the old familiar ways, but it restores the U.S.S. Enterpriseto its original directive of exploration and discovery and adopts a fundamentally optimistic worldview, despite its occasional forays into appropriate darkness. It almost feels like a direct answer to the criticisms of Star Trek Into Darkness — thematically, the film is specifically about the strength of unity in diversity over enforced, insular uniformity. (Once again, 2016’s movies, filmed at least a year ago in most cases, sure are doing a great job of speaking to 2016’s problems.)

The characters reflect a similar sort of compromise. Star Trek Beyond seems to have accepted that these are different actors and different stories and as such, they can never completely recreate the magic of the original series. They have to find their own angle. So the movie advances the characters to a point where it’s plausible that they might be younger versions of their prior selves but they’re also distinct in a way. After all, it’s a different timeline, broken off from that of the original series — things aren’t exactly the way they once were. The movie successfully maintains the strong cast chemistry of its predecessors and also manages its characters fairly well — the separation of the crew as they crash-land on the planet allows each of them to shine in individual moments, and it isn’t maintained for so long that you start to miss their interactions with one another. It’s good fortune that Chekov, in particular, gets to do as much as he does, in light of Anton Yelchin’s recent untimely death.

Not all’s well just yet. I still feel like this series doesn’t quite know what to do with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who generally hasn’t interested me in these movies. It’s also struggling to establish an iconic villain of its own — Krall doesn’t have a particularly interesting personality (his motivation pretty much boils down to “war is awesome, we should have one”), and Idris Elba’s normally commanding screen presence is lost under several pounds of makeup. I can’t say the movie really played on my emotions either — I like the central theme and what it represents as a mission statement of sorts for the series going forward, but it always seems like it’s hovering somewhere outside of the characters and the relentless action, touched upon but never really felt.

But like I said earlier, the movie’s tonal closeness to the original series, strangely enough, may contribute to my lukewarm feelings toward it. It’s not that it’s a bad direction or that it doesn’t work but that it starts feeling as though it belongs on television, as part of a series. On one level, I appreciate the low-stakes feel of Star Trek Beyond, but that also fights against its needs as a movie.

Television and film are different mediums. They function differently. They tell stories differently. The line between them has become increasingly blurry of late, which is starting to rob them of some of that nuance. Television is long-form. You can tell the smaller, lower-stakes stories because you have the space to explore them while building them into a much larger whole. An episode of a television show doesn’t have to change all that much on its own — the approach to the story’s arc is much more gradual. Movies are short-form. And given the complications involved, audiences go years between installments of their stories. As such, in my opinion, they should be considered events, and I don’t mean that in the sense of an “event movie” — a massive, sprawling, spectacular thing where the whole world is at stake. Rather, I mean that an individual movie, broadly speaking, should represent a significant change in the lives of the characters or in the story arc of the overall series (assuming there is one). A film like Boyhood, for instance, may be relaxed, mostly non-narrative, and without a whole lot at risk in its story, but it nevertheless hones in on a really important idea and drives it home.

On the surface, Star Trek Beyond has huge stakes — not only the lives of the characters, but the fate of an entire planet. But for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, that’s Tuesday. That the movie is contained, that it has a smaller scope, that the setting is limited, that most of its run-time is spent on Kirk and Co. vs. the elements, none of that is a problem on its own. It’s that none of this appears to change the story overmuch, that the film feels like a pretty standard day in the life of the characters, that the character development is extremely minor, that the movie ends in a place so similar to where it began.

That sort of incremental change in a TV show would be more than enough, and as an episode in an ongoing series, Star Trek Beyond would have a shot at being a fan-favorite. But as a movie, blown up on the big screen with all this spectacle and significance, it leaves you thinking, “That’s it?” It’s still fun, funny, tense, and filled with all kinds of awesome sci-fi wonders, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for the heart. It’s a perfectly entertaining sci-fi romp, but it’s hard to imagine people thirty years from now talking about it the same way we talk about The Wrath of Khan. Still, Star Trek Beyond is a good time at the movies, and if only for the single best musical cue of 2016, I’m glad I caught it on the big screen.

Kung_Fu_Panda_3_posterKung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Starring- Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J.K. Simmons, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim

Directors- Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh

PG- martial arts action and some mild rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10r9ozshGVE

Po (voice of Jack Black) is enjoying his status as Dragon Warrior and protector of the Valley when his long-lost birth father, Li (voice of Bryan Cranston), suddenly stumbles into his life and reveals that they aren’t the last pandas after all — there’s a whole village of them hidden in the mountains. Legend has it those pandas are masters of chi, the mysterious power Po must learn if he is to defeat the latest threat to the Valley — Kai (voice of J.K. Simmons), an ages-old foe who has returned from the Spirit World and started picking off the world’s kung fu masters one by one. So Po follows his father to the village and prepares for his final showdown with Kai.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is fine, but now’s definitely as good a time as any to call it quits on this series before things start going really wrong.

I love the original Kung Fu Panda — perhaps even more now than when it first came out eight years ago (good lord). Maybe because it’s a DreamWorks Animation movie or because it’s a Jack Black comedy about kung fu-fighting pandas, it doesn’t get enough credit for actually being genuinely good. It’s more than “just” funny; it’s surprisingly well written and stylistically unique.

Nevertheless, I’ve been lightly opposed to sequels since the beginning. I was somewhat open to the idea of a part two and have held the line since then. Kung Fu Panda always struck me as something that was going to deliver diminishing returns in a hurry — that “lightning in a bottle” movie that shouldn’t have worked but did and therefore shouldn’t be expected to do it again. The premise is ready-made for serialization, but the filmmakers have never really tried to guide the series toward that end. Each of these movies is very self-contained and character-driven, telling a specific story and advancing the characters’ arcs. As such, sequels either need to refocus for serialization or invent new character flaws and stories to resolve in each successive film, and I never thought that would be right for Kung Fu Panda. Better to let it be its own little anomaly in the history of animated movies.

Neither of the sequels has been bad, but they’ve increasingly strained to justify their existence. Kung Fu Panda 2 worked, for the most part, despite an aimless middle third. Kung Fu Panda 3 gets close enough to the line that it very nearly falls over. It has the vague feeling of a group of talented filmmakers trying to make the most of a movie mandated from somewhere higher up the ladder — they love it and want it to be the best movie it can be (and generally know how to accomplish that goal) but are struggling to break any new ground with it.

Its main problem is that Po, as a character, has reached the point where he’s dealt with enough of his hang-ups that he has only limited emotional stakes in everything that’s going on. The first movie took him on the tried-and-true loser-to-hero journey; the second dug up some issues in his past that the first hinted at but didn’t really explore. At the beginning of Kung Fu Panda 3, Po feels like a pretty complete person who doesn’t desperately need anything. His arc in this movie is forced upon him externally — he is informed that no, he is not, in fact, a complete person because facing the villain arbitrarily requires him to master magical stuff that’s somehow never come up in this series before, and in order to do that, he needs to “learn who he is,” whatever that means. It’s not something he feels he’s been missing, but whatever, he needs to do it, so might as well. It isn’t all that compelling, and as these messages get more and more abstract and more and more deeply tied into all this weird mystical stuff, the harder they are to track in any meaningful sense.

Most of the supporting cast has no real stake in this either. That’s been a problem since the second movie. The other characters only ever had one problem to resolve — learn to respect Po and treat him as an equal. They did that in the first movie, and now they exist only to stand around and say, “You go, Po!” (And to an extent that’s almost absurd — Kung Fu Panda 3 is the movie where the Chosen One storyline becomes less destiny and more self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, Po’s just having things handed to him — opportunities, training, powers, responsibility, authority — solely because “well, he’s the Dragon Warrior, so he’s special, and whatever, because reasons.” And it’s really weird to me, even though they’ve all become friends, that the supporting characters aren’t the least bit bothered by all this.) Po’s birth and adoptive fathers

The effect is a movie that comes across a bit mild — nothing all that compelling going on, a major physical threat but little that’s emotionally involving at stake, a largely bland supporting cast. Here’s another random adventure Po had one time.

The jokes still land more often than not, but even they’re starting to get tired. There isn’t a lot of surprise in the humor anymore. It’s leaning too heavily on Po running around and shouting, “Whoa! Awesome! So cool!” It was cute the first time, but it’s beginning to wear thin.

Even so, at least Kung Fu Panda 3 remains a complete and largely functional story, albeit one that occasionally seems a touch bored with itself. The series is still doubling down on its myriad stylistic influences, from martial arts movies to wuxia, so there are some very striking images to be found here. And it’s still pretty funny, just not as fresh as it was eight years ago. It wasn’t a bad time. But the last thing a movie with the words Kung Fu Panda in the title ought to be is forgettable, and I can sense the capstone of this trilogy is going to be a blank space all too soon.

Ghostbusters_2016_film_posterGhostbusters (2016)

Starring- Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong, Michael Kenneth Williams, Matt Walsh

Director- Paul Feig

PG-13- supernatural action and some rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3ugHP-yZXw

Once upon a time, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) literally wrote the book on the science of ghosts. But she gave it all up in favor of a respectable university career, driving a rift between her and her partner-in-crime Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who continues to pursue proof of the paranormal alongside possibly-psychotic Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). When everyone happens to be present in the midst of a particularly violent haunting, Erin returns to the fold. Recruiting New York City history buff Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), they form a team to investigate reports of hauntings across the city — only to uncover a plot to unleash legions of the undead upon the world.

Ghostbusters is okay. Sentences like that are why I majored in journalism, folks; feel free to bask in their glory.

But really, I don’t know how else to say it. Over the course of its runtime, I never developed particularly strong feelings about Ghostbusters one way or the other. At the end of the day, it came down to whether I laughed enough that I didn’t consider my time wasted, and I guess I did, if only just.

Part of it’s purely a matter of taste. I simply prefer the somewhat drier humor of the original to the louder humor of the reboot — neither of which is the wrong decision; their styles reflect the times in which they were made. The 2016 version is still pretty funny — that’s really the only reason I’m still giving it a soft recommendation.

Well, that and the visuals. Ghostbusters isn’t a particularly well-directed movie (this is a longstanding problem with Paul Feig), but I still enjoyed the overall art direction. The cartoonish CGI creations of this version make the most of modern technology while harmonizing with the hokey, dated effects of the original. The film’s use of color also struck me; it paints in deep, rich reds, blues, and greens every time the ghosts are on-screen. Ghostbusters has a lot of visual personality, which did a lot to elevate it in places (parts of the climax come close to being the movie I hoped the whole thing would be — the kind of light, happy escapism I most want out of my silly, big-budget summer movies).

But it’s pretty funny, too. Some bits work better than others (there’s a “flipping the bird” gag early on that’s absolutely interminable), but I got enough laughs out of it to warrant a thumbs-up. Kate McKinnon owns this movie from the moment she first appears as the member of the team most likely to set someone on fire for her own amusement. She plays the part in a loud-quiet-loud sort of way that adheres to no rhythm in particular; her random outbursts never failed to catch me by surprise. Chris Hemsworth, too, is a total scene-stealer as the team’s dimwitted receptionist and all-around village idiot, a character whose stupidity becomes progressively more absurd with every passing scene, to the point that he essentially becomes the team’s pet human. And while I was cold to Leslie Jones’ performance at first, it slowly grew on me — she’s essentially the straight man character with the volume significantly turned up, and by the end of the movie, I appreciated the uniqueness of that.

If anything, the movie’s biggest stars — Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy — feel like the weak links here, not through any fault of their own but because the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. As a comedy, I think Ghostbusters may be tilted a little too strongly toward straight-man characters. Wiig is the full normal, the one character whose personality wouldn’t jar in a more serious movie. McCarthy is a little bit…kooky, I guess, but not in an especially over-the-top way. Keeping in mind that Jones is already doing a louder version of more or less the same thing, it isn’t clear to me exactly what either of these characters add to the overall dynamic.

And that speaks to my larger problem with this movie, that it feels so slapped-together on the narrative end of things — and, to an extent, on the comedic end as well. I don’t know how much improv took place in the original Ghostbusters, and that’s part of the reason it works — every scene is extremely deliberate, both in performance and direction, and feels precisely calculated to the movie’s needs. The new Ghostbusters is clearly improv-heavy, and it’s improv-heavy in the specific way that modern films often are, in that a lot of footage is shot on set and the director basically finds the jokes in the editing room. That doesn’t jar with something a little more stripped-down, but when you’re making a comedy that’s also an effects-heavy blockbuster with a need for functional, propulsive storytelling and, in this case, a little mythological development, you need things to be a little more precise. There are jokes galore in this movie’s action scenes, and it’s clear they happened in different takes and not always in sequence because a lot of the big effects beats here quickly lose any and all sense of geography: Characters cross large distances in a single cut, they’ll be fighting one ghost and then suddenly fighting five, everyone keeps jumping around. You can’t find an action movie in the edit, and that hits Ghostbusters hard.

The same thing happens with the story. There’s a little too much meandering (which, admittedly, is a problem with the original as well), too many character threads, haphazard thematic development that forces you to play catch-up during the climax’s big cathartic moment. For all the controversy centering on what this reboot has changed, one of its biggest problems may, if anything, be its fidelity to the source material. The cameos are the worst of it. Pretty much every surviving cast member, with the exception of Rick Moranis, gets one big scene where they get to do a bit, and Annie Potts’ is the only one you can maybe argue doesn’t interrupt the flow of the movie (all of the scenes are included for their own sake, adding nothing to the story; if you cut them, you wouldn’t have to change a thing anywhere else). Bill Murray’s cameo, sadly, may be the worst — it not only lumbers right into the film’s pacing but involves a catastrophic event that ought to have major consequences for the plot and is never once referenced again after it occurs.

So, that’s where I am. As you can see, most of the praise I have for Ghostbusters has a however attached to it. I’m not lying when I say that I enjoyed myself, but it was fairly mild amusement. When I say that the movie’s okay, I mean it’s just barely okay; a few more botched jokes might have been enough to push me into more negative territory. It’s quite likely this will be the most marginally positive review I write this year, which, of course, doesn’t remotely mean it ought to be a referendum on all female-fronted movies. It’s undeniably a disappointment for me; after the success Feig and McCarthy had with last year’s Spy, I was really looking forward to seeing what they’d do with something as iconic as Ghostbusters. I kind of hope it gets a sequel. I think this cast and this crew deserve another at-bat. And Ghostbusters is good often enough that I can see what it might have been under better circumstances.

ZootopiaZootopia (2016)

Starring- Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira

Directors- Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush

PG- some thematic elements, rude humor and action

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWM0ct-OLsM

Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) has never dreamed of anything other than a police officer, but no one else has been particularly encouraging — she’s a rabbit, and rabbits just aren’t cops. But her unbreakable determination carries her to the top of her class at the police academy, and she soon graduates and is assigned to Zootopia — a sprawling city where animals of all kinds, predator and prey alike, live together in harmony. Or so they say. Upon arrival, Judy gets the same treatment she always has and gets buried in parking enforcement. But when a missing persons case drives her to suspect that some of the city’s predators are, for unknown reasons, reverting to their savage ways, she teams up with fast-talking con artist Nick Wild (voice of Jason Bateman), a fox, to figure out what’s afoot in supposedly peaceful Zootopia.

In a way, Zootopia is a surprising achievement — it’s unlike anything Disney has ever made, and to a small extent, it isn’t quite like anything else I’ve seen either. Who knew they wanted a science fiction buddy cop comedy with talking animals, right? But its uniqueness is a double-edged sword and not one the studio seems ready to wield.

See, there’s the story and characters and all that jazz, which are imperfect but pretty good. And then there’s the central metaphor, which is…not.

As a piece of entertainment, Zootopia is generally a lot of fun. Disney doesn’t often stray this far off the beaten path, making something a little more mature with stronger adult undercurrents, a distinctly modern sensibility, and no songs or magical elements. Zootopia feels more like one of the better DreamWorks movies, albeit somewhat more deliberately paced and not straining as hard to be “cool.”

The story itself may not be particularly unique, at least in its structure. It follows the beats of a buddy cop comedy, which, to be fair, is not a style one often encounters in children’s cinema. It isn’t particularly hard to guess where it’s going plot-wise (mainly because it isn’t exactly what you would call subtle), and it sometimes stumbles into the old family film cliches (the dramatic turn just before the third act isn’t predicated on any of the character development up to that point and seemingly exists only because the movie figured it needed a sad moment). It’s largely functional, just nothing special.

The setting really breathes a lot of life into it, though. The most surprising thing about the film, to me, was the science fiction element, which is not only present but actually somewhat prominent. And it feeds into the movie’s life blood — its world-building. Zootopia lives in the most fascinating universe I’ve yet seen this year; the filmmakers seem to have put a lot of thought into what it would look like for animals of various sizes and shapes and needs to inhabit a world alongside one another. The city (which looks like something out of The Jetsons) is broken into walled-off components where machines maintain certain environments — there’s a section that’s cold and snowy, a rainforest district, and an underwater neighborhood, among others. The city center is built to accommodate as many species as possible — the storefronts have phones that stretch into the sky so giraffes can place orders; there’s a system of colorful, plastic pipes that carry mice and hamsters everywhere; public transportation has multiple entrances for animals of different sizes. There’s something new in every scene. The movie is constantly expanding the edges of its world, and impressively, it doesn’t always call attention to it to ensure we know how clever it’s being — this is a movie that very much rewards attending to the background every now and then.

The film’s disparate elements come together with surprising cohesion: the Disney movie with talking animals, the buddy cop movie, the science fiction movie — there’s even a bit of film noir in here, if you can believe it. They take the somewhat basic storytelling and make it feel fresh. Put a couple of fun characters in front of it — and they are fun — and you’ve got something.

But that isn’t the end of the film’s uniqueness. Zootopia is also, by far, the single most political kids’ movie I’ve ever seen in my life. To an extent, I admire it for that — Disney is one of the most ideologically risk-averse studios out there, only embracing the safest messages in its movies. Be yourself. Be kind. Follow your dreams. The kind of thing no one who matters could possibly get all het up about.

Zootopia is about racism. And it is not subtle about this. The basic premise goes as such: A long time ago, the animals were at odds, with predators pursuing and killing prey. Evolution interceded, and now everyone lives together (the one flaw in the film’s world-building is that I don’t recall it ever establishing what the predators are eating, but whatever). However, because of their ancient instincts, prey remains suspicious of predators, who comprise only about 10 percent of Zootopia’s population. Those tensions are exacerbated when it appears as though some predators are somehow reverting to their unevolved state. The movie specifically codes all of this as a metaphor for real-world race relations, and it explores that in weirdly political ways.

And here’s the qualification I absolutely must make before I go any further: I like everything Zootopia is trying to say about this. For the most part, I even agree with what it actually says (the problem is more how it says it). It’s a good message. The movie’s heart is unequivocally in the right place, and I’m not accusing it of anything here.

It’s just the wrong approach. It’s so very much the wrong approach.

This is one of those rare instances where I would have preferred the broad Disney message we usually get. Keep the premise the same and just turn it into a generalized “treat each other with kindness and accept each other’s differences” sort of thing. Don’t get too specific.

Zootopia gets specific. It gets really, really, really specific. So specific that it gets a little uncomfortable to watch.

The silly talking animal thing works for broader themes. It hits home emotionally but doesn’t strike upon anything too hard-hitting for its pay grade. But Zootopia borrows racist incidents and dialogue directly from our history books and television sets. The biases the characters have toward one another are lifted 1:1 out of the world we live in. Every racial conversation our society has ever participated in shows up here. The movie explores the political dimensions of race as well — there’s some discussion of race as it relates to political power or lack thereof, some stuff about policing, quite a lot of material about how the powerful use the politics of fear to maintain their station (it takes years to make animated movies, so it’s strange indeed that this thing landed smack dab in the middle of the age of Donald Trump). It’s weirdly heady stuff for a kids’ movie.

And in the context of a goofy, humorous, mostly light-hearted children’s film, it can’t help but come across a bit insincere. Hearing this coming from the mouths of cute animals in between jokes about iPhone apps feels almost like self-parody. Watching these characters suffer beneath the weight of the same stereotypes people face in real-life seems almost dismissive of the pain that informs it. At times, it feels like the movie’s just having a laugh.

And I know it isn’t. Its messaging on this subject is crystal clear. It means well. It’s just the wrong medium for something this specific and intellectualized — not to mention how raw these wounds are at this time in history. Watching it is awkward. Part of that is the tone. The problem is not necessarily the comedy; artists have used comedy to highlight society’s most deeply-rooted problems forever (case in point: Chi-Raq). With Zootopia, it’s comedy matched with cute animal antics matched with weird film noir/buddy cop stuff matched with utter sincerity about its themes. The result is a movie that feels like it’s too much of a lark to be running into territory this heavy.

Did I like it? Yeah, it’s weird and fun and ambitious, and I’m all about that sort of thing. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it a thousand times: I’d rather see a movie crash and burn than not try. Zootopia doesn’t really “crash and burn.” It’s functional on the dramatic level and pretty enjoyable as a piece of entertainment. It just suffered the misfortune of completely dropping the ball on the point that mattered the most.

Green_Room_(film)_POSTERGreen Room (2016)

Starring- Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Patrick Stewart, Macon Blair, Mark Webber

Director- Jeremy Saulnier

R- strong brutal graphic violence, gory images, language and some drug content

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

The Ain’t Rights are living the rock n’ roll lifestyle — sleeping in their van, stealing gas to make it from one lousy middle-of-nowhere bar gig to another, loving every minute of it. Desperate for a show that might pay semi-decently, they accept an organizer’s offer of a club in backwoods Oregon. They arrive to find the club is the scene of a skinhead rally, but hey — skinhead money is as good as anyone else’s money, and maybe they’ll have a few laughs along the way. The band does the show, and they’re getting ready to leave when they accidentally witness a murder. Retreating to the green room, they hole up in preparation for a drawn-out battle against club owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) and dozens of angry Neo-Nazis determined to keep their bloody secret no matter the cost.

The moral of the story, kids, is never forget your cell phone.

Actually, I’ve been thinking for quite a while about the moral of this story, because it’s turned out to be central to my attitude toward it. Green Room initially left me in the same place as a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies that rub me the wrong way: Wow, what a great movie! And I am entirely untroubled that I enjoyed it despite it being ninety minutes of pointlessly gruesome violence!

Originally, that was the main thrust of this review. But what you see is never entirely what you get with filmmakers like Jeremy Saulnier, and as I’ve thought it over, my mind has started to change. I now suspect that Green Room is 2016’s Mad Max: Fury Road — a schlocky genre flick easy to write off as such but slyly telling a very interesting story, primarily through visuals, and seeding every scene with barely perceptible nuance.

It isn’t the movie you’d expect it to be based on its premise. I’m glad the trailers did such a good job of selling what the movie actually is; otherwise, I might’ve gone in expecting something I wouldn’t get. Punks vs. skinheads sounds like something that ought to get insane and over-the-top in a hurry, but Green Room is pretty grounded by the standards of its genre and certainly treats it as serious business.

Now that I think about it, I shouldn’t have found any of this surprising. It’s hard to establish a trend when you’ve made so few movies, but it seems Saulnier’s thing is taking violent B-cinema and placing it in a realistic context. Blue Ruin, his ultra-low-budget 2014 debut (which made my Top 20 for that year), was a self-critical revenge thriller, borrowing the aesthetics of the grisly backwoods showdown but filling it with detailed, realistic characters and no shortage of moral ambiguity. Green Room is nearly the same thing, another grisly, backwoods showdown, outmatched city kids vs. bloodthirsty rednecks, with an adjusted thematic focus on the effects of groundless hatred. It’s just subtler about it than Blue Ruin was; here, you need an eye for the details in order to pick out the message.

Now, don’t get me wrong — Green Room is a thriller first and foremost, and it’s an absolute nail-biter. I can’t remember the last time a movie flew by like this one did. Once the doors are locked and the fight is on, you’re on the edge of your seat for the rest of the movie. Green Room is tightly wound and sometimes unbearably tense — it doesn’t tie itself to many of the traditional horror/thriller (not sure how you’d classify this) cliches (and one of the times it does, it quickly subverts it for the film’s biggest laughs), so it’s fully capable of throwing you a curveball every now and then. I’m not saying it’s completely unpredictable or that there are any big plot twists or reveals (there really aren’t), but the movie keeps every terrifying possibility in play throughout. It keeps you guessing without bending over backward to sweep the rug out from under you.

Its casual brutality may be to its benefit here. It doesn’t treat its violence like your average B-movie, where the death and destruction is the whole show. Green Room is shocking because it doesn’t go over the top, because death comes swiftly and without warning, because it chooses the characters it does so randomly. The movie’s action sequences devote a few seconds to the kill and the rest to the horrifying aftermath, as realization sets in. Green Room is not for the faint of heart; it’s one of the most viscerally disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It absolutely means business. Its first death is the most realistically gory scene in recent memory, made all the worse by how casual it is, the way the movie doesn’t warn you or devote much time to it. It just happens. And it happens to the “heroes” as well as the villains — Green Room doesn’t have a merciful bone in its body.

I’m coming to think it was the right call. It removes the separation between the characters and emphasizes the consequences, which I think is the key to understanding the whole movie. Green Room isn’t just a thriller, it’s an unflinching look at the cyclical nature of violence. Firstly, it doesn’t set anyone up as fodder meant to die in an entertaining way. The characters have names and histories and personalities, and that goes for the skinheads, too. You get accustomed to their presence and get a sense of their hierarchy and how they relate to one another. Even Patrick Stewart, who is very creepy in this rare villainous role, gets little human moments even though the movie’s utterly unambiguous about his contempt for others. He’s unquestionably an evil guy, but a realistically evil one.

There’s something refreshing about the film’s lack of ambiguity in that regard. It makes Green Room a more complicated and morally challenging film than it would have been had it retreated into empty platitudes and stacked the deck for more obviously redemptive storytelling. Again, it’s about the cycle of hatred and violence and what it looks like in the worst-case scenario. The protagonists’ arcs aren’t about ordinary people becoming heroes but others’ hatred and violence driving ordinary people into becoming unfeeling killers. And the movie is totally non-judgmental about that, in a way that both enhances the thriller elements and challenges viewers more personally. The heroes are flawed, and the villains are human, but there’s no attempt made to establish some kind of moral equivalence between them. The film understands that the reason the cycle persists is that not all of us are Gandhi — and hell, maybe even Gandhi wasn’t Gandhi. And that’s why the problems that inform the existence of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists and thousands of others like them can’t be solved by goodwill alone. And, wisely, the movie also shows, in however grim a context, that the cycle can be broken by those brave enough to step out of line.

Would you believe that it was a single shot near the end of the movie that made all this click for me? One little moment, involving a random side element I previously had mistaken for a bit of tone-setting abstraction. That’s the way this movie works — quietly but effectively, building you toward its meaning until it comes over you all at once. Green Room seems dumb and certainly works on a dumb level. Disturbing though it is, it’s absolutely riveting. It felt like watching a 20-minute short film; that’s how propulsive it is. This movie would make Hitchcock tense. But as the pieces come together, the clearer it becomes that Green Room is unassumingly smart — it knows exactly what it’s doing, and it plays you like a fiddle.

Blue Ruin made my Top 20 in 2014. I suspect Green Room will repeat that feat in 2016. Jeremy Saulnier has officially been cemented as a talent to watch.

The_Invitation_(2015_film)_POSTERThe Invitation (2016)

Starring- Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michelle Krusiac, Mike Doyle, Jordi Vilasuso, Jay Larson, Marieh Delfino, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Lindsay Burdge, John Carroll Lynch

Director- Karyn Kusama

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-mp77SZ_0M

Thinking it will be good for him, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and wife Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) accept an invitation to attend a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), whom he has not seen in years. No sooner have they arrived than Will has begun to suspect something strange is afoot — but is it his own mind or something more dangerous?

I don’t mind going against the grain every now and then, but there truly is nothing I hate more than being in the minority of an acclaimed film. I always feel like I missed out. But that’s where I am with The Invitation — where others saw a twisted, tense, surprising domestic thriller, I saw a competently made TV movie.

It isn’t terrible. I enjoyed moments of it, especially after things really got going. And I see its appeal, or at least what I presume is its appeal — it’s a dark thriller that takes stabs at real thematic depth, at exploring real-world issues realistically, albeit within the confines of something a bit more over-the-top. And like anyone else, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the resurgence of slow-burn thrillers in recent years — these quietly tense, character-driven pieces of ratcheting dread. They’re movies that get under your skin and stay there.

On paper, The Invitation is a movie I should love. I just think very little of it pans out in execution.

Some of it’s basic and difficult to discuss at length. There’s some awkward, stilted dialogue, and I generally wasn’t a fan of most of the performances. What more can I really say about that?

The big problem, I think, is pacing. The thing about slow burn thrillers is that they’re always turning up the heat; they’re just doing it subtly. Plot and character threads are always coming together, building toward something. The Invitation just kind of simmers at almost exactly the same temperature for well over an hour, then explodes all at once. The pitch increases, only to ease off for much too long.

For the first 75 minutes or so, the movie stumbles around somewhat aimlessly. It’s a comparatively short movie, but it isn’t particularly efficient. It seems unable to incorporate plot and character information alongside one another organically and so handles them separately. Most of the movie consists of Will wandering around and having awkward and mostly pointless conversations with all of the supporting characters so we can get to know them. The film feels like an incredibly prolonged first act followed by a sudden burst of the third. Nothing happens, and then everything happens. It spends forever on setup and then goes directly to payoff.

It spends that time struggling to develop a thematic core. Primarily, it’s about grief — Will and Eden divorced after the tragic death of their young son; the dinner party is his first time back in the house where it happened, and it immediately triggers the darkest recesses of his mind, throwing his perception of events as they unfold into significant doubt. That’s the film’s conflict more than anything else — whether something sinister is going on or if Will’s anxieties have him primed to interpret everything as a threat.

It’s a perfectly good setup; it just never resolves. I think the movie may be a slave to its own genre trappings in this regard. In pursuing its schlockier interests, it has to leave any proper answer — or at least a pointed non-answer — to the questions it’s asking on the table in order to address surface-level plot needs. It left me without any significant emotional through-line to connect to. Yes, Will’s grieving, yes, is relatable, but his emotional state remains so long in the same place that it’s almost easier to interpret it as character detail more than focal point — despite the prolonged attention the film devotes to it. The same, in general, could probably be said of the movie’s critique of our inability to deal with one another’s pain — how each member of this circle of friends is dancing around what Will and Eden have been through and otherwise inadvertently making it worse. It’s there, it’s something, I’ll even spot you that it’s smart and fairly well-observed. But it isn’t an arc building in one direction or another, and in this context, it isn’t all that compelling on its own.

There’s good stuff in The Invitation, and clearly, that’s speaking to a lot of people. And maybe they’re tapping into these characters and this situation in a way that I can’t, for whatever reason. I’ve actually had some interesting conversations about this one — despite my overall lack of emotional investment in the film itself, it touches subtly on enough subjects that I’ve found it worthwhile to debate what it all means and why the filmmakers made one decision or another. Still, from where I’m standing right now, I think The Invitation simply spends too much time standing stock still, and once it starts moving, it fulfills too little of its early promise. I think it’s a well-intentioned misfire, but still a bit of a misfire.

The_BFG_posterThe BFG (2016)

Starring- Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director- Steven Spielberg

PG- action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ0Bey4YUGI

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) suffers from insomnia and so wanders about the orphanage while the other children are asleep. It turns out to be a fateful decision one night, when she catches the attention of a giant, who snatches her from her bed and whisks her away to Giant Country. Not to worry, though — he’s the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), who’s mostly just lonely. More concerning are his giant neighbors, who are fond of eating children and suspect the good old BFG may have one secreted away somewhere.

Steven Spielberg has a reputation for being a great family entertainer, but thinking about it, he hasn’t made that many pure family films. Sure, a lot of kids watch Indiana JonesJurassic Park, and Jaws, but that doesn’t mean you’d screen them for an elementary school class. The BFG was exciting in that regard — it’s a side of Spielberg that’s borne such wonders in the past that we now define his career by it, even though it doesn’t comprise the majority of his work.

We hoped The BFG would be E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We feared it would be Hook. The reality, ultimately, finds it somewhere in the middle — The BFG is some of the purest Spielberg this side of the new millennium, even as it also plays to several of his flaws.

There’s real “movie magic” in The BFG, something I haven’t felt in quite a while. What I mean by that term is both very specific and somewhat difficult to describe. You find it in those moments of pure wonderment at what’s on the screen before you, in the confluence of emotion and character and spectacle and originality. It’s the T-rex breaking free of the paddock, Yoda lifting the X-wing out of the swamp, Superman turning back time. It’s something I haven’t felt in a while, at least while watching something made recently. Ours is a more cynical age than the 80s and 90s, and that even reflects in our children’s films, too many of which seem unable to take either themselves or their audience seriously.

The BFG is magical — in its approach to its characters, in its approach to its world, in its approach to visuals, story, tone. It isn’t ashamed of itself and follows its childlike wonder to real beauty and invention — sights and sounds that I’ll remember individually, even as the film itself begins to fade. It’s less than the sum of its parts in that respect.

The BFG himself is one of the year’s great CGI characters, and perhaps one of its great characters more generally. Spielberg’s introduction of Mark Rylance to society more generally (myself included) may be his greatest contribution to culture this decade. The amiable giant is such an imperfectly warm character — a doddering old coot with poor social instincts but a fundamental loneliness at his center, rejected by his peers and reaching out for someone without knowing why. He’s a gentle and melancholic spirit, but there’s a folksy sort of humor about him. He works at making dreams, and it’s difficult not to read him as a metaphor for Spielberg himself in that sense.

His young friend (and our technical protagonist) Sophie is the kind of kid we have far too few of in movies nowadays. Ruby Barnhill, too, hearkens back to Spielberg’s heyday, that era when the child actor was spunky, assertive, projecting as ever so adult, just over-the-top enough to be charming. This little girl is absolute fire on-screen and commands every moment she’s in.

Where it all goes wrong it’s difficult to say. I’ve heard it said that Spielberg’s bright sincerity isn’t quite right for adapting Roald Dahl’s stories, which I think may in fact be part of the problem, but that doesn’t account for the whole of it. The BFG works until it doesn’t, it’s relaxed pacing, light tone, low-stakes storytelling abruptly folding in on itself. It’s as if someone suddenly pulls a thread too hard and the whole thing unravels. The film becomes a little too formless, a little too empty; Spielberg leans a bit too hard into the sentimentality for which he’s so often criticized without imbuing it with actual meaning. The plot stands still for too long. Very little of what happens is the result of prior scenes. All conflicts and story threads are in place within the first fifteen minutes; the rest of the movie feels as though the characters are ambling about, waiting to answer a call they don’t realize has been made. And even once that energy builds, the film doesn’t pay it off. It could use a substantial cut somewhere around the time that the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) becomes involved; the film seems to grind to an entirely pointless halt the second it reaches that point.

In the end, The BFG is, unfortunately, lesser Spielberg — even by the standards of lesser Spielberg. And I fear it’s being overlooked for exactly that reason. But it shouldn’t be. The innocence of The BFG is something we see far too rarely, and the wonders it holds almost never. Neither as good as E.T. nor as bad as HookThe BFG is nevertheless vintage Spielberg.