Special_Correspondents_posterSpecial Correspondents (2016)

Starring- Eric Bana, Ricky Gervais, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Benjamin Bratt, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrara, Raul Castillo

Director- Ricky Gervais

TV-MA

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kKTFAEQgSY

Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) is a hotshot radio reporter who routinely goes so far as breaking the law in pursuit of a story and has a tendency to sensationalize his reports; he gets results, but as the charges pile up, he finds his job hanging by a thread. Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) is his sound technician. When civil war breaks out in Ecuador, the two are assigned to go cover it. However, Ian accidentally throws out their passports on the way to the airport. Left with no story, and quite likely no job, they do the only thing they can think of — hole up above a local restaurant and make up reports from Ecuador. One lie begets another, and soon, the two have to fake their own kidnapping while the world watches. 

The potential of Netflix as a film studio still interests me, but they definitely need to get a little more judicious about the projects they buy. They started strong with Beasts of No Nation, then went into an increasingly dire downward spiral, broken only briefly (and unconvincingly) by the barely-okay Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. Special Correspondents only continues the trend.

Most of the excitement about Netflix’s prospects, including my own, has centered on its potential to bring about a return of auteur filmmaking, and on paper, Special Correspondentsappears to be exactly that — Ricky Gervais wrote, directed, and starred in it.

And yet, somehow, this feels totally made-by-committee, a safe, predictable, surprisingly edgeless comedy that does nothing a thousand other movies haven’t already done. To be fair, Gervais hasn’t exactly had resounding success crossing over into film; he’s hardly been in any good movies, and most of his roles have been unmemorable. Still, he’s a smart guy, and he certainly has a perspective on things. I’m not saying Special Correspondents was definitely going to be good, but you’d at least expect it to be interesting on some level. I’m not shocked that it isn’t good; I’m shocked that it doesn’t even have a personality.

You could definitely do something with this premise. There’s a clear satirical angle, and there are a lot of directions you could take the story. The issue is that the movie never goes as far as it seems like it should. I’m not actually sure what it’s satirizing, if anything — reporters lie about being on the scene and make up their stories, and their superiors and the public believe them because, well, why wouldn’t we? If a reporter says he’s in Ecuador, it’s not like we can go check. Is dishonesty a problem in journalism? Yes, absolutely, but I don’t know what to take away from the story being told here. It’s surface-level criticism, neither very funny or very thought-provoking. This movie is to media criticism what “Donald Trump has bad hair” is to political commentary — blindingly obvious, and totally missing the point.

Structurally, Special Correspondents is a Coen Brothers movie, and I can only imagine what they’d have made of it. I don’t know if it means to be, but there’s something beneath the surface of this film that strikes me as fundamentally dark, and more than a bit cynical. The problem is that it’s trying to be the prototypical comedy with heart, and I think that’s the complete wrong approach to this. This movie drifts along at a relaxed pace, rarely heightens the comedy or storytelling, and approaches everything very matter-of-factly. This is the sort of plot that ought to be gradually ratcheting up, increasing the absurdity of the premise, and putting its characters through the wringer. Instead, it’s very level-headed and boring. It’s half dark humor and half lightweight dramedy, and those two halves don’t complement and enhance one another so much as walk obliviously past one another. It’s a dark movie that doesn’t feel like it was meant to be a dark movie.

In place of anything having to do with the actual story, Special Correspondents focuses the entirety of its emotional energy on Ian having to decide between the cold, unappreciative woman he’s with and the cute, funny, nerdy, devoted coworker who fawns over him for absolutely no reason (and, naturally, he doesn’t have to grow as a person in order for any of this to happen). Guess how it ends. No, guess. It’s predictable and worn, and the movie even sets it up clumsily — it’s obvious this is going to be the heart of the story a long time before the necessary elements are in place. It’s worth mentioning, also, that Ian hardly interacts with either of these characters over the course of the film. It’s just as well, I suppose; the movie immediately runs out of things to do with Frank. His purpose as a character vanishes into thin air the second the movie quits pretending at in-depth media satire.

I think I’d find it in me to forgive all of this if the film was even a little bit funny, but it just isn’t. Weirdly, it almost isn’t trying to be funny. It’s billed as a comedy, and the performances are broad in a way that implies comedy, and I spent the entire movie waiting for an actual joke to be applied to any of this. Some comedies go for deadpan humor — ridiculous things delivered with a straight face. This movie goes for playing ordinary things with a silly face. And that just isn’t particularly funny. Its biggest jokes would be minor banter in anything else; every humorous moments lands with a sense of, “Really? That’s all we’re doing with this scene?” It isn’t unfunny; I wasn’t booing at my television. The humor is just so light and mundane. If the performances were just a touch more serious, we’d be selling this as a drama.

Netflix is still in the early stages of this project; it desperately needs some sort of proof of concept, and soon. It needs to prove it can make movies that are better than, or at least different from, the ones that get wide theatrical releases. Special Correspondents does not bode well.

Sisters_movie_posterSisters (2015)

Starring- Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport

Director- Jason Moore

R- crude sexual content and language throughout, and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRnhEjP3R-c

Sisters Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate (Tina Fey) Ellis are living very different lives. Maura is a responsible adult with a cheery disposition and an almost condescending helpfulness. Kate is a trainwreck who rockets from one job to another, calls her friends’ couches home, and barely knows whether her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) is even in the same state. Maura and Kate are reunited when their parents announce that they’re selling the family home and need them to clear out their old rooms. Maura and Kate have little in common, but they’re equally opposed to the house leaving the family, and so they decide to throw a massive party for all their high school friends as one final act of defiance.

Is it enough that Sisters made me laugh somewhat regularly? Does that make up for the fact that it mostly bored me?

This movie really has me questioning what a comedy actually has to do in order to be considered successful. Can a comedy be funny but also boring, and does being funny make it good or does being boring make it bad? Can I actually recommend it to people? Am I glad I saw it, or did it waste my time? I’m actually having trouble deciding.

The problem is mainly that the story isn’t there, but is that important? I mean, how narrative is Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Some comedies are funny specifically becausethey’re so completely pointless. Obviously, there are problems particular to Sisters that affect this: The flimsy storytelling is more problematic because the film specifically relies on it. It leans into somewhat predictable sentimentality near the end of the film and tries to tap into emotions other than amusement.

Then again, so does Elf, and more or less equally badly, but I love that movie.

In the end, as frustratingly unquantifiable as it is, I suppose all I can say is that maybe Sisters just isn’t funny enough. Too many small jokes for a premise that requires big ones. It’s the same movie from beginning to end, always existing in the same lightly amusing zone without ever significantly increasing its pitch or developing the story and characters in such a way that the comedy and the stakes behind it heighten.

When your story is half an hour of setup and ninety minutes of a single party scene, you really need to be nailing those jokes. Sisters just gets comfortable and settles in. You consistently get a light chuckle every few minutes, but you’re looking at your watch the rest of the time. They’re individually humorous, but a full two-thirds of this movie are composed almost exclusively of jokes about how silly it is when middle-aged people party. How long can that reasonably sustain itself, even if the jokes are largely well-delivered?

Funny and boring. Do with that what you will.

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)The Jungle Book (2016)

Starring- Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose

Director- Jon Favreau

PG- some sequences of scary action and peril

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mkm22yO-bs

Lost in the jungle as an infant, the man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by a family of wolves and the wise old panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley). But when Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba), a tiger with a fierce hatred for men, promises to hunt him down, Bagheera elects to take Mowgli to the man village to be with his own kind. Separated along the way, Mowgli finds himself in the company of the lazy bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray) — with Shere Khan in hot pursuit.

I’ve heard it said that The Jungle Book is going to be Jon Favreau’s Avatar, and I think that’s true — for better and for worse. It’s a visual marvel, taking modern filmmaking technology to its absolute peak, testing the limits of what can be done on-screen, and it’s bound to be a big hit. It’s also a definite triumph of visuals over story and, perhaps even more than Avatar, is destined to age badly.

That isn’t necessarily a surprise; perhaps it was even inevitable. The original Jungle Book — and this is explicitly a remake, not a re-adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories — wasn’t really a triumph of storytelling to begin with. It’s episodic and meandering, perhaps even more so than this latest adaptation, enjoyable for the songs, humor, and characters more than tight, propulsive plotting. The live-action Jungle Book does the same thing, simply replacing the songs with high-tech spectacle. In that sense, blasphemous though this may be, this new version is more or less as good as its predecessor.

In some ways, it’s better. It’s clear the filmmakers realized from the beginning that the biggest problem with the original is what a complete non-presence Mowgli is. He has a pretty minimal personality, and it’s more often an obstacle to the story’s twists and turns than an incitement of them. Nearly all of his decisions are made for him. I think the animated Jungle Book could more accurately be described as Baloo and Bagheera’s story — they function as parental figures with different styles learning to appreciate one another and to let Mowgli grow up and have a life without them. Mowgli’s much more involved in this version, and that suits the film’s purposes quite well. The decision to separate him from Bagheera early on gives the story an entirely new lease on life — it forces Mowgli to strike out on his own and make choices and mistakes for himself. He actually has a coherent arc this time, even if it’s somewhat clumsily realized — there’s the temptation of man’s power as symbolized by fire, the “Red Flower,” and Mowgli’s attempts to fit in while being true to himself; these compete awkwardly for screen time. But it has the effect of making Mowgli more present in the story, a full character with his own motivations and agency.

In some ways, it’s worse. The renewed focus on Mowgli comes at the expense of the supporting cast, all lively and memorable in the original. I don’t think it’s the result of competing narrative interests so much as the film sanding the edges off its characters’ personalities in order to be more “serious.” (It’s a problem that persists throughout; there’s a perpetual conflict between its desire to be a serious fantasy and its child-friendly fidelity the source material — for example, even though it isn’t a musical, both “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” appear out of nowhere, the latter with particular awkwardness.) With the exception of Mowgli, I generally prefer the animated movie’s take on all of these characters. Here, Bagheera is stoic and dignified but without the prissiness that humanized the character in the original. The animated Baloo is lazy in a confident, upbeat sort of way; this one is Bill Murray’s usual detached sad-sack  act in the form of a CGI bear. The boa, Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), only seems to be in the film to check an important block from the original — it’s a brief appearance, and it’s one that offers the character no personality or menace. Only Shere Khan strikes me as equal to his predecessor — and that’s largely because of how perfect Idris Elba’s voice work is. Actually, I’ll concede that the voice acting is generally pretty good; I just wish it had been directed differently.

And in some ways, the live-action Jungle Book is simply different from the original — not better, not worse, just different. I actually like that about it. It justifies its existence as a remake, taking the same story in a different direction without completely betraying its source. It starts out in the same place but gradually directs its focus elsewhere, scene by scene pointing the story in a different direction. Somebody’s bound to write a think-piece about the generational and cultural significance of the way this movie tells the story: The original says, “You are what you are, so be that,” whereas this one’s more, “You can be what you want to be.” Not better, not worse, just different — and I like the risks the movie takes.

In any case, the visuals are the show here. They’re certainly impressive. It’s my understanding that the entirety of this movie was filmed in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, using only minimal sets; almost everything on display is CGI. It’s the environments that most impressed me — with rare exceptions, they looked fairly well seamless. The filmmakers used sets and props for elements that Mowgli interacts with directly, but it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The movie’s at its best when it’s exploring CGI landscapes and fully embracing the spectacle. And it’s smart enough to realize that technical proficiency can’t be the be all end all — if you’re selling your movie mainly on spectacle, you have to be prepared to vary it as much as possible, and The Jungle Book does. New locations, new environments, new moods — it carefully imagines its way through its world (even though it has a serious geography problem).

The CGI animals may be a tougher sell, depending on who you are. They’re impressive mainly in their integration; they feel very much a part of their environment, and Mowgli never feels like he’s interacting with empty space. Still, their digital nature can occasionally be glaring, and like a lot of CGI-heavy movies, some certainly look better than others. They’re technically impressive on many levels but are nevertheless obviously effects. Part of the problem may be the fact that they talk; I always find it weird when movies create photorealistic animals and then contort their mouths to form human words. To be clear — these effects are great, but I doubt they’re going to age well.

I don’t know that I can call The Jungle Book required viewing. It’s different from its predecessor in a number of fairly important ways, but I found the overall effect to be largely similar. If you’re more into the song-and-dance routine than the digital wonder routine, you’re probably better off with the original. But if you want some spectacle you can watch with the whole family (warning — some of the animal fights are pretty brutal for the PG rating) while enjoying yourself on some level, you could do a lot worse. If nothing else, it’s high-caliber big-screen viewing.

In_the_Heart_of_the_Sea_posterIn the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Starring- Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle

Director- Ron Howard

PG-13- intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-H35Mpj4uk

Based on a true story, In the Heart of the Sea follows the journey of the whaling ship Essex on its way to largely undisturbed breeding grounds, where it encounters a large and vengeful whale that soon turns their ordinary fishing expedition into a perilous fight for survival.

My general impression of Ron Howard is that he makes really, really okay movies, and In the Heart of the Sea is a really, really okay movie.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, in part because I already recall very little of it. In some respects, it’s well-mounted spectacle; in others, it’s directionless and dull. I think it has a good half and a bad half. It’s a decent enough high-seas adventure in the first hour or so. I generally find the ocean terrifying, and any movie that uses that against me at length is bound to have me on the edge of my seat. In some ways, it’s a spiritual cousin to Jaws — In the Heart of the Sea leans more toward adventure and Jaws more toward horror, but they nevertheless inhabit roughly the same space.

It is, from the beginning, an extremely melodramatic film — “If you do not return, the whole world will go dark,” one man tells another as he prepares to leave aboard the whaling ship — but it’s so consistently melodramatic that it becomes part of the personality of the whole thing. I found its heavy-handedness somewhat enjoyable in that way.

The movie reaches its emotional climax when the whale finally attacks the Essex. After that, it becomes a survival-at-sea story as the crew tries to sail thousands of miles to dry land in rowboats. That’s where it runs out of steam. Admittedly, such stories are difficult to tell — you have a limited environment and little opportunity for meaningful incident. It requires a laser focus on character that In the Heart of the Sea never finds.

The story is told in flashback — Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland in the main story and Brendan Gleeson as the narrator), a survivor of the Essex, shares it with Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), doing research for Moby Dick. Tom isn’t the protagonist, though; he’s barely even a supporting character. He would be entirely memorable, another face in the crew, if the movie didn’t occasionally cut to the future and remind us that he’s telling the story. He mostly disappears from the plot after his introduction, and the movie quickly departs into scenes to which he was not a witness. His relationship with the rest of the crew is established, forgotten, and then suddenly different at the end, like there was a whole other movie cut from the final film.

The movie devotes far more attention and screen-time to Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker, as first mate Owen Chase and Captain Pollard, respectively. The script sets up plenty of drama there — Chase came from nothing and has worked hard to get where he is, while Pollard, the man giving him orders, was gifted a captaincy because of his family name — but it never really gets paid off. Every plot and character element feels like texture rather than a focal point, which would be fine if the film honed in on something else, but it doesn’t.

Tom’s personal connection with the events is never really explored, so his role as the narrator feels like little more than a device. As a result, the movie does something completely unrelated with his scenes and uses them to guide him through personal baggage. It’s here that Howard proves, in my opinion, to be a bit of a bad fit for the material — he likes heartfelt, uplifting stories, and his best films all fall under that category. In the Heart of the Sea is not that type of story, and no amount of finagling could ever make it so. The account of the whaling ship Essex is grim and disturbing. Tom and Melville seem to be Howard’s way of trying to wrangle something inspiring out of this nightmare; the effect is that a story about suffering and death becomes a story about how suffering and death helped an author overcome his fear of writing. It’s a strange angle, to say the least, and one that’s not really borne out by the rest of the story anyway — it’s one of a dozen of competing thematic through-lines. Despite its melodrama, it leaves In the Heart of the Sea feeling strangely detached, capturing events in a very literal way and without understanding their meaning.

Still, the only thing I consistently hated about In the Heart of the Sea was its aesthetic. To see what I mean, all you have to do is watch the trailer linked above. Shading everything in dark, sickly green — even the scenes shot in broad daylight — is one of those decisions that seems to me like it’d be a bad idea on paper, much less in the finished film. The movie looks like someone put the camera inside an uncleaned aquarium before every shot. It’s incredibly unpleasant and makes the otherwise impressive sets and special effects look fake.

It is, on the whole, not a bad movie, but I wouldn’t say it’s a good one either. Just about everyone involved with it has done stronger work in the past. The story of the Essex is fascinating, albeit not particularly cheery, and I highly recommend you look into it, if you’ve got the stomach for it. The movie I could take or leave.

Daddy's_Home_posterDaddy’s Home (2015)

Starring- Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Haden Church, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Bobby Cannavale, Hannibal Buress

Director- Sean Anders

PG-13- thematic elements, crude and suggestive content, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sgpwTBnuLo

Will Ferrell is a stepdad. Mark Wahlberg is the real dad. They meet. Antics. Whoosh! Whatever.

I wasn’t going to review this movie because I wasn’t going to see this movie, but now I have seen it, so I am going to review it. But not really, because screw this movie. Look, I went home, and my dad had it, and everybody was like, “Let’s watch it!” and I was like, “Whatever,” and you — yes, you! I can see you judging me through my computer screen. Stop judging me! I decided to be nice and spend quality time with my family because I am a good person; what’s your excuse?

Anyway, I have yet to complete my exhaustive polling, but I’m pretty sure everyone in that room thought Daddy’s Home was garbage.

I’m actually kind of breaking a rule here. I know how much a single scene can affect the whole, so I absolutely never review a movie unless I’ve seen it from beginning to end. This one, I needed a sanity break. It lasted five or six minutes, I think. I ate some meatballs, so however long it takes to eat meatballs. I think I may have eaten some peaches as well. Peaches are amazing. My dad doesn’t like peaches. That’s weird, right? He’s, like, the only person I know who doesn’t like peaches.

Anyway, I missed x number of minutes trying to rescue my mind from the brink. When I got back, it was like I’d never left. Whatever scenes I missed apparently were entirely unimportant, because I didn’t have trouble understanding anything that happened for the rest of the movie. I think that’s true of most of Daddy’s Home. You could just cut whatever out of it, and no one would notice. It would be funny to do that and then screen it for the filmmakers.

Actually, I bet you could give me the last fifteen minutes of the movie, totally deprived of context, and I could produce an exact match for the script that preceded them. This movie charges so hard into every possible cliche it’s almost avant-garde. Daddy’s Home couldn’t possibly be this generic by accident. There’s a method behind this madness; if only I could see its purpose. This movie is so generic it brought me to another plane of existence; I had an out of body experience and spent the final third of the movie watching myself watch Daddy’s Home with a strange sense of anxiety hanging over me. During the inevitable dance-based climax, I think I became the background music — I felt the rhythm within me and marveled at the strange creatures surrounding me on the screen as their motions became one with my metaphysical self.

The movie is actually pretty funny for the first five minutes because I think it’s trying to agitate its audience. It proves it can do it and then picks up its ball and goes home. You could replace most of the dialogue in this movie with the sound of a balloon deflating and achieve more or less the same effect. Watching Daddy’s Home is like watching a semi-truck hit a deer in slow motion, except less funny.

Daddy’s Home sucks.

MV5BMzE4MDk5NzEyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM4NDA3NjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Brooklyn (2015)

Starring- Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters,  Brid Brennan, Fiona Glascott, Jessica Pare, Eileen O’Higgins

Director- John Crowley

PG-13- a scene of sexuality and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15syDwC000k

In the early 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish girl, leaves her home country for the opportunity of the United States, where she meets and falls in love with an Italian boy, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). Their relationship is put to the test as Eilis struggles to come to terms with her new life.

I was told that Brooklyn was well-made Oscar bait, and that’s basically what I got — a well-acted and charming but formulaic and non-threatening historical-fiction love story. Basically, it’s the kind of movie your grandparents like but one you won’t find entirely unpleasant, largely due to the charms of its capable cast.

I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is Saoirse Ronan has that other young stars don’t, and while it still remains somewhat elusive, I think it’s that she always seems to believe one hundred percent in the film she’s doing, regardless of where it falls on the “good/bad” spectrum. She never seems to take a role easy; whatever it is, she’s completely engaged with it. Brooklyn plays well to her strengths, especially since the role of an immigrant — particularly one who made the journey alone — is inherently complex. The character is lost, out of her depth, very awkward about a new culture and customs, struggling to make it by, and simultaneously someone with the confidence and verve to sail an ocean to establish a life somewhere entirely alien to her. Ronan transitions between both states of mind seamlessly — the pluck and stick-to-itiveness, as well as the anxiety and awkwardness.

Plus, she has solid, lived-in chemistry with co-lead Emory Cohen; the relationship between the two characters is very believable. It has the clumsy, adorable, puppy-dog quality of young love in its early stages but the old soul resonance of people who have, or at least will have, something deeper down the line.

Emory Cohen, by the way, is a name you should remember so you can tell people you knew about him before he was famous. This isn’t the sort of role that makes a person a star, but it is the sort of role that gets a person the sort of role that makes them a star. He has a natural on-screen charisma and inherent likability that could could carry him very far if he makes the right decisions. That’s despite him working with a fairly underwritten character as well — Tony is blandly perfect in that period-piece romance sort of way (so much so that, for a very long time, I was waiting for there to be some sinister turn in his personality; movies have trained me to be suspicious of his type of unrelenting niceness), but Cohen brings a nervous energy to the part that really pops off the screen.

It’s a mostly perfect fairy-tale love story without a lot of serious twists or turns. And honestly, there’s a small part of me that enjoyed the low-stakes earnestness of the film, the palpable joy with which it observes characters in moments of happiness.

Even so, Brooklyn is pretty edgeless, and I think that ends up being a problem for it long-term. As always, I’m not saying I’d prefer it to be a dark, unsettling, weighty film; I’m perfectly fine with something light and uplifting every now and then. Brooklyn just needs a little conflict somewhere.

It definitely doesn’t pass muster as a poor immigrant movie — I know the stories from this time period, and it sounds like immigration, for everyone but the richest people, wasn’t exactly a good time, not until one became established in his or her new country. In Brooklyn, it appears as though the worst part is the boat ride. The rest of it seems pretty easy, to be honest. You arrive in America, you get to stay in your own room in a nice church boarding house, you work at an upscale department store during the day and take classes at night, you go on dates and do fun stuff, you eventually work your way into a job good enough to strike out on your own, and you live happily ever after. Honestly, it sounds better than going to college. It’s kind of telling that the biggest conflicts in the first half of the film are Eilis’s gossipy housemates and her boss chewing her out for not being friendly enough with the customers.

The movie eventually does put the romance itself through the wringer, but I don’t think it works; it recasts Eilis’s relationship with Tony as a metaphor for her struggle to settle her Irish past and her American future and makes it all just a little too 1:1 for my taste. He represents America, and a man back home (Domhnall Gleeson, who needs to give his agent a raise) represents Ireland; it’s an interesting idea, but one that isn’t defined well enough. Eilis’s struggle to decide between them, given the point in the story at which it occurs and the extent to which her doubt takes her, takes on implications beyond the “romance as immigration” comparison and begins to say unfavorable things about her as a character that the film never really addresses. And even if it did, I don’t think the film dramatizes the psychology behind that metaphor particularly well; I can’t, in retrospect, trace Eilis’s arc to particular events in the story.

Fortunately, the film has strong dramatic instincts even if they aren’t as “intellectualized,” for lack of a better word. In short, it plays better to the emotions than to the brain. In spite of everything else, it’s decent at characters and motives and relationships.

Basically, it has everything in place for light, easy-viewing period drama, something inoffensive and largely unmemorable but nevertheless entertaining enough in the moment. Brooklyn is suitably charming and tough to hate.

Peanuts_2015The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Starring- Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Alex Garfin, Bill Melendez, Mariel Sheets, Venus Omega Schultheis, Rebecca Bloom, Noah Johnston, AJ Teece, Marelik “Mar Mar” Walker, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Anastasia Bredikhina, Madisyn Shipman, Kristen Chenoweth

Director- Steve Martino

G

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=The+Peanuts+Movie

Charlie Brown (voice of Noah Schnapp) tries to reinvent himself in order to win the heart of the Little Red-Haired Girl (voice of Francesca Angelucci Capaldi) after she moves to town.

The Peanuts Movie is good enough that I wish it was better. It is so, so close — at the very least, much closer than most modern animated films to the reserved tone and gentle humor of children’s entertainment past. The good news is that The Peanuts Movie is surprisingly close to the spirit of the comic strip (and the numerous film and television adaptations). The bad news is that it’s just far enough off the mark to fall short of greatness. The Peanuts Movie is good, but it seems as though Lucy is always whipping that football away at the last second.

Peanuts wasn’t really a bid part of my childhood. I’m surprised it was a big part of anyone’s. There’s always been a subtle adult edge to it. When I was a kid, reading the newspaper comics was a regular part of my daily routine, but I usually skipped Peanuts — it wasn’t that funny, I thought. Today, I still read the newspaper comics — though now, it’s because I work for that newspaper and have to double-check that we used the correct ones before we print it. And it’s given me a newfound appreciation for Peanuts — in fact, I think it joins Calvin and Hobbes among the comic strips that somehow elevated daily, three-panel jokes into an art form. Its sense of humor is subtle, reserved, and often very weird. Its characterization is strong. It can be strangely philosophical at times. It almost has themes, expressed across its brief continuing storylines. There’s something a bit dark about it — it has a firm grasp on the cruelty of children and the unfairness of life and makes complex messages of both.

The Peanuts Movie had a lot of skepticism to overcome. I didn’t think a modern kids’ movie could possibly be any of the things I just mentioned. I especially didn’t like the idea of it appearing as a 3D animated film. The charm of Peanuts has always been its simple, handmade quality.

The trailers allayed my concerns considerably, mainly in that they were visually gorgeous — and so is the movie. True, it isn’t the simple, hand-drawn look I’m accustomed to, but the new direction is very faithful to the spirit it captured. I’ve never seen a movie that looked quite like The Peanuts Movie; it’s almost difficult to describe. It lacks the clean, crisp look of computer animation; the filmmakers have dirtied it up, given it texture. The models retain their simplistic original designs, the details of their clothing and facial features appearing almost hand-drawn. They appear as two-dimensional figures moving to and away from the frame in a three-dimensional space. When characters interact with that environment — for example, the trail of dirt that follows Pigpen everywhere — the impact of their actions has a two-dimensional quality as well. The backgrounds are beautiful; they have the quality of the watercolor environments of old animated films. The best way to describe it is as a more detailed, three-dimensional South Park that’s trying to look pretty. The Peanuts Movie is somewhere between CGI animation, traditional animation, and even stop-motion animation — the characters’ texture has a very claylike quality to it. I’ve never seen anything like it; I was thoroughly in love with the look of this movie. It feels the way a modern update of an old property perhaps ought to — an extension of what was, rather than an exact recreation or a total reinvention.

Seeing it in the trailers actually got me a bit excited for the movie. The amount of love, fidelity to the source material, and detail in the animation suggested to me that this was no name-recognition cash-in. If they were that committed to the aesthetic of the comic strip, surely they were equally connected to its tone. Maybe the movie truly would do justice to its source.

And thankfully, for the most part, it does. That’s partly in the superficial details — the voice actors are all children, and most of them sound startlingly like the characters in the TV specials I watched when I was a kid (they also tweaked the late Bill Melendez’s recordings for the “voices” of Snoopy and Woodstock). But that’s mainly in the tone of the movie — I’m not quite ready to call it “relaxed” or “quiet,” but it’s significantly more so than the majority of animation right now (I’m trying not to sound like an old man pining for the good old days, but kids’ movies definitely lean hard toward fart jokes and mania in a way that they didn’t when I was growing up in the age of the Disney renaissance). There’s a maturity to the humor and storytelling — nothing kids won’t get but that nevertheless engages their minds in the process. It also isn’t an especially plot-driven film, something that rarely happened in any age of animation, much less the one we live in. In my experience, anything with “The Movie” attached to its title takes the premise and blows it up much bigger than it was ever meant to be. At the very least, “The Movie” will represent a seismic shift in the story, attacking the status quo in a truly significant way. At most, something completely off the wall will happen, and children’s characters in what had been a slice-of-life story will suddenly be fighting secret agents or aliens or something. The Peanuts Movie is what the comic strip was: a day in the life of its character. The arrival of the Little Red-Haired Girl is the only real “incident” in the movie. Everything else is character-focused and rarely in a hurry to get anywhere. I love that about it.

I also love that The Peanuts Movie is committed to the same complex messaging of the comic strip — the dark, adult quality of it, unfortunately, is lacking, but I still like what it says and how much nuance it incorporates. There’s nothing there for the adults other than the emotional pull of it, but it’s still somewhat refreshing to see a kids’ movie that says your life can be as good as you decide to make it, especially since the genre has almost always told really passive stories where things just fall into the characters’ laps.

If only it went the whole way. The Peanuts Movie is maybe 75 percent of the way to the comic strip’s tone, but that remaining 25 percent can be really damaging at times. It lacks the subtlety of the comic and even the other adaptations; there’s a monologue at the end of the movie that explicitly lays out What We Have Learned Today, even though it’s already pretty obvious at that point (honestly, I think even kids will know what’s going on at that point — subconsciously, if nothing else). It’s over-reliant on its soundtrack, with a building it of light, inoffensive pop songs and the prototypical jaunty, whimsical, elevator music kids’ movie score. The movie might lack the frantic pacing of its peers, but it’s nevertheless too afraid of silence. The comedy leans a bit too heavily toward the slapstick end of things; the philosophical, thematic humor of the comic seems to be beyond the movie’s grasp. It doesn’t write or present the jokes as well as Charles Schulz did. And the slight undercurrent of darkness is almost completely gone here, replaced with tooth-rotting sugary sweetness and unrelenting cuteness.

I think that need to be as smilingly adorable as possible may be the cause of the movie’s biggest problem: It understands every Peanuts character who isn’t Charlie Brown. I don’t really recognize the kid in this movie: He’s strangely optimistic and determined. He gripes about the things that go wrong but soon picks himself back up and tries something else. His view of the world is fundamentally positive, and that’s not something I really get from the Charlie Brown of the comic, that pessimistic grumbler who is constantly mistreated and never, ever allowed to win one. Of course, that has no impact on the effectiveness of the story, but the script of The Peanuts Movie appears to be writing its character arc for the Charlie Brown of the comic. In the movie, he only ever really reaches one point where he feels genuinely hopeless, and that’s during the movie’s “dark night of the soul” scene. His shift toward positivity isn’t as compelling as it might otherwise be, because the character as portrayed in this movie seems always to have it in him.

In a lot of ways, The Peanuts Movie feels like a missed opportunity, but then I step back and remind myself of the reason for it: It comes so close to being something truly special that you start to demand that of it. Maybe it never gets there, but it sure tries. It handles itself admirably given the difficulty of its ambitions. Like Charlie Brown himself, it’s pretty good; it just needs refinement.