Archive for February, 2012

Puss in Boots (2011)

Starring- Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris

Director- Chris Miller

PG- some adventure action and mild rude humor

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb7rR26ZqSw&feature=fvst

MODERN COMMENTARY, NOVEMBER 2015:

Yeah, I barely even remember this movie exists, much less what happens in it and how I feel about it. It sounds kind of like even the things I appreciated about it back in 2011 would get on my nerves now. That’s as close as I can get to telling you what I think these days. This just isn’t all that high on my list of films to revisit.

I liked “Puss in Boots,” which is weird, because it is probably a terrible movie. No, seriously. I cannot construct any kind of reasonable argument defending this thing, and I’ve found that poking holes in it is almost childishly easy. And yet, I had a halfway decent time. And not even in the “Birdemic” sense: it’s not so terrible that it’s kind of funny. I just… I don’t even know.

The point is, this review is pretty much going to unfold as follows: “‘Puss in Boots’ sucks!” “No, ‘Puss in Boots’ is fun!” “Must have the precious! They stole it from us, sneaky little hobbitses!”

Let us begin, shall we?

Running a solid first place in the Most Unnecessary Spin-Off Ever category (at least until we get a Skids and Mudflap movie, in which case the universe is likely to undo itself out of shame), “Puss in Boots” is a kind-of prequel to the now severely outgrown “Shrek” franchise that follows those movies’ popular side character… Well, Mary Poppins, who do you think?

Anyway… Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is on a quest for justice, having once been betrayed by his childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). But when he finds Humpty, the egg isn’t interested in being enemies—he wants Puss’s help.

The infamous outlaws Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) have come into the possession of magic beans that serve as the key to the giants’ kingdom, where there is said to be a treasure unlike any other. Humpty has dreamed of finding it since he and Puss were children.

Reluctantly, he sets off with Humpty and super-thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to stop Jack and Jill and find the giants’ kingdom.

Now, “Puss in Boots” is, like…really fast-paced. I don’t mean merely in the sense that there is a lot of action, which there, you know, is. I mean that things happen so quickly, especially in the beginning, that it’s tough to work out what’s going on sometimes. That would only be a minor problem if “Puss and Boots” was not a seriously weird movie. It’s drawn a lot of comparisons to “Rango,” and those are pretty justified. But at least “Rango” was slow-paced enough to allow you to embrace all the weirdness. “Puss in Boots” is more likely to leave you wondering if you bumped into the wrong person and came away with a contact high.

(Related—stoners, make sure to check this one out.)

You get past it eventually, but still. The beginning of the movie gives you no time to adjust.

On top of that, it’s not really a story so much as a series of action sequences. The action bits are all right, but nothing special overall. At least the movie is quick enough to refrain from being boring, as there really isn’t anything interesting going on dramatically. Towards the end, the movie has to make that crucial decision between character development and plot twists. In opting to try out a little bit of both, it doesn’t leave enough space to properly develop either. It helps that the characters are mostly pretty likable. Puss is far from complex and interesting, but he is at least fun.

It also has a lot of the traditional DreamWorks Animation problems. I talked about this enough in my “Megamind” review that I don’t much want to get into it here, but “Puss in Boots” once again feels like shortcuts were taken in the animation process—not in terms of the technical skill displayed, but in terms of the overall imagination that went into it. As previously stated, everything looks nice, but the world feels empty, not lived-in, like the animators are only focusing on the characters and then absent-mindedly generating rock formations and buildings and dropping them randomly in the background.

Also, the humor… Hmmmm. I will say this—unlike your average DreamWorks make-a-buck fare, “Puss in Boots” only made me cringe once, with a “Fight Club” reference that is the exact same “Fight Club” reference that every other movie has made, and in the exact same way, that will be funny if reminders that “Fight Club” is a movie that exists are amusing to you. Beyond that, I wasn’t usually embarrassed to be watching “Puss in Boots,” but the humor is still pretty weak, in the unimaginative sense. You see most of them coming from a mile away, and you respond to them with an disinterested, “Yup, that is definitely a joke.”

And yet… “Puss in Boots” is fun.

Yeah, go figure.

 

-Matt T.

The Help (2011)

Starring- Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Eleanor Henry, Emma Henry, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek

Director- Tate Taylor

PG-13- thematic material

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVTMkINRChk

“The Help” is not the film I expected it to be, and it shocks me more than anything to tell you I don’t mean that in a good way. What I was expecting was far from greatness.

I anticipated something a lot like “The Blind Side,” not in terms of style or production (though, now that I think about it…I guess I was), but with regards to my actual reaction to it. I actually considered writing this down and posting it online just to showcase my psychic powers, but this was pretty much what I expected: I would go into “The Help” actively trying to hate it, because I hate the Hollywood system that created it, but it would ultimately be good-natured, sweet, and well intentioned enough to win me over. I wouldn’t think it was great or anything, but it would basically make me feel good.

And that’s not what happened at all.

No, I went into “The Help” actively trying to hate it, and I freaking succeeded. Maybe not in those exact words, because it isn’t terrible, but numerous aspects of it aggravated me. In the end, it was a reversal of “The Blind Side,” which I expected to hate, wanted to hate, tried to hate, started watching it, found it was schmaltzy and overdone, and ended up enjoying myself anyway just because it was too nice to dislike.

With “The Help,” I expected to hate it, wanted to hate it, tried to hate it, started watching it, found it to be surprisingly well done and effective, started trying to like it, got blindsided with its negative aspects, and ended up feeling cold.

(This is going to be a long, long review, even by my standards. Forewarned is forearmed.)

Set in 1960s Mississippi, “The Help” stars Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent college graduate and aspiring writer. She lives in an affluent neighborhood where nearly all of her friends and family have hired, exclusively black help, who are not always treated well. While interviewing one of them, Aibileen (Viola Davis), for help with the domestic advice column she writes to pay the bills, she comes up with a new idea—a book telling the stories of the local maids, both the good and the bad, so that society can understand them as human. Recruiting fellow maid Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) as an additional interviewee, she begins to hammer out the book—even as former friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) does everything within her power to ensure that progress does not come to Jackson, Mississippi.

I should start from the beginning—the two reasons I really dislike, or at least try to dislike, movies like “The Help” and “The Blind Side.”

First off—the whole “white man’s burden” thing. This is such a “what he said” issue to write about, because seriously, every critic worth his or her salt who wrote a negative review of this, and even a considerable number of those who wrote positive reviews, has covered it in depth by now. Does the Internet really need another movie buff ranting about the portrayal of race relations in “The Help”? No, so I won’t.

To be honest, I do consider it to be a bit of an unfair bias. Certainly there have been white heroes in the history of racial issues, and I think it’s perfectly just that someone should desire to make movies about them. The problem is this—when was the last time you saw an American film that was strictly about racism where the protagonist was not white? Answer—a long, long time, which is really just my way of saying, “I can’t think of a single film, but I’m making allowances for the possibility that there is one that I haven’t heard of or have otherwise forgotten.”

Point—there aren’t a lot of them.

And that’s why it’s difficult for me to watch these movies, because Hollywood is such an inherently racist institution right now. If you don’t believe me, list right now all of the black movie stars that you can think of—and I’m talking stars, not just guys who make a living. Now, scratch everyone off that list who only ever plays stereotypes—shrieking comedy black guy, tough and scary black guy, boring token black guy, etc.

You are left with Will Smith.

Now, name me all the white stars you can think of. I’ll come back in a year or two and simply take the list as it is, however far you managed to get.

How does this relate to “The Help”? Simple, really—these “white heroes save black people from racism” movies seem really disingenuous coming from the institution that forced George Lucas to fund “Red Tails” himself and continues to stonewall Danny Glover from making his Toussant Louverture movie.

But let’s drag the discussion back to the actual film for a second. I think the reason I started out liking it, and still don’t find it within myself to completely hate it, is the fact that, at the beginning, I legitimately almost started to believe that white and black people were going to work together to solve the problem. And they sort of do, unlike with “The Blind Side,” but at the end of the day, Skeeter has more a hand in these people’s destiny than they do. And I think that’s a bit undervaluing to them. I try not to judge the film harshly on this single standpoint, but the fact that it’s the only kind of movie that ever gets made about the civil rights movement is a major disservice.

I should probably move on to reason number two that I have trouble getting behind movies like this: what is ultimately the point?

Every year, we get movies like this that everyone declares “important” and ensures we all know we “must see,” because it will “change our lives.”

That is like if I told you “Jaws” was important, and when you asked me why, I said, “Because it shows how it’s a bad idea to swim with a great white shark.”

The entire point of “The Help” is this: “Racism is bad.” And that’s it. I mean… It’s a message I can support, certainly, but in what sense is this something that’s important for me to see realized in a film? I kind of already have a good grasp on the concept, and most people who don’t aren’t going to be persuaded by a movie.

And that is what “The Help” is—it is a film in which racist acts are portrayed visually, and we are told, “This is racism, and it is bad.” It’s hard to hate it too much, because there are some stellar performances from a number of rising stars, and a lot of the primary heroic characters are both likable and complex. Nevertheless, I ask again—why is this “important”?

An important movie about race relations would be far more complicated. It would actually challenge the audience. I hardly think of the example I am about to provide as being a great movie, though I do quite enjoy it, and it is both popular enough to be relevant and steered enough toward the right track to serve as an illustration: “Remember the Titans.” Yeah, it’s not subtle, and it’s got plenty of schmaltz to go around, but it has the right amount of complexity in the proper places. You see, in that movie, many of the heroes start out as racists. Even the ones who don’t are still apprehensive around the Denzel Washington character for a variety of social and political reasons. That film ultimately asks us to identify with imperfect characters, to find commonality with them that is both unsettling and comforting, and to journey with them as they overcome those flaws.

“The Help” doesn’t do that. There is a moment in the film… I won’t spoil it. It involves Minnie Jackson and Hilly Holbrook. In the way that particular scene was put forward, and in the way that it was referenced throughout the film afterwards, it became clear to me… I was not watching a film that was a relevant commentary on racism. No, I was watching a film that segmented its audience—racists over here, non-racists over here. And then, it repeatedly humiliates the racists, while inviting the non-racists to laugh, enjoy their suffering, and hope that all their endeavors end in failure.

Far be it from me to defend racists, but they are more complex than dumb and simple hatred. Reducing them to dumb and simple hatred reduces them to an abstract, non-human element that cannot be reasoned or dealt with. And how is that important in any way?

In the end, this is not a film that challenges by showing how social circumstances and false mindsets perpetuate racism. This is a film that says to the audience, “Hey, you—you’re a really good person. You’re not like that person over there at all. If you lived at this time, you’d be like Skeeter, upstanding, progressive, and heroic. You wouldn’t be at all like Hilly. She’s getting what she has coming.”

And maybe she is. But I say again—how is this important? The audience is not challenged; the audience is reaffirmed. The movie treats racism as a thing of the past, something that no longer exists apart from backwoods hicks. It talks down to its audience, providing no relevant information, challenging no one at all, and doing little to change the status quo. In the end, “The Blind Side,” while perhaps a bit saccharine overall, was at least good-natured and nice, more about bringing triumph to those who do good than mockery to those who do not. “The Help,” on the other hand, becomes so vindictive towards its racist characters that it eventually almost oversteps a boundary. Hatred only begets hatred; in its obsession with sweet, sweet justice, this film overlooks that. Bryce Dallas Howard truly is a wonderful actress, but her character here is paper-thin, designed only as a vessel for racist caricatures.

There is only one character in the film who is portrayed in any shade of gray, and that’s Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney). She is probably not racist, and in fact likely respects and loves her help, but she capitulates under social pressure. “The Help” could’ve been a great film with more characters like that.

It’s all a shame, really, because from an entertainment standpoint, the film basically works. Its heroic characters are largely complex and likable, though Skeeter could stand to have a weakness, just one. It contains a bevy of wonderful performances, and it has a handful of sweet and funny moments scattered throughout. The realistic approach on the heroic side is measured and works well, but it collapses under the weight of all its antagonists being cartoons.

I could see why someone would find “The Help” to be an entertaining film, but I implore everyone to stop conflating something that makes you feel emotions with something that is actually important. “The Help” has a worldview that is redundant at best and mildly upsetting at worst. It purports significance, but those are very, very big shoes to fill.

 

-Matt T.

A Better Life (2011)

Starring- Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Joaquin Cosio, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Dolores Heredia, Carlos Linares

Director- Chris Weitz

PG-13- some violence, language and brief drug use

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaLSBdL-zCY

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

Yeah, I don’t remember anything about this movie at all. So, I really couldn’t tell you whether this review captures it or not, other than that it reflects my indelicate political commentary. 2011 Me had very definitely become the prototypical Accidentally Condescending White Liberal.

I don’t think of “A Better Life” as being a great movie, but it is a real and honest one, and for its purposes, that’s enough.

It follows the journey of Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) as a Mexican immigrant worker in Los Angeles. He lives there with his son, Luis (Jose Julian), who was born in America, and works hard as a gardener, barely making ends meet.

When his own boss (Joaquin Cosio) finally manages to move on to better things, Carlos is given the opportunity to make his own way. He borrows some money from his concerned sister (Dolores Herdia), who has become an American citizen, and buys his employer’s truck, thus becoming his own boss. He is determined to provide opportunities for his increasingly distant teenage son, to take him to a better neighborhood and a better school, far away from the gangs that have become all too appealing to troubled, poverty-stricken young men.

Unfortunately, when an act of kindness goes awry, Carlos finds his truck stolen and himself out of work. Left with no other choice, he and his son embark on a journey together to recover the truck and their chance at a better life.

I generally think of art as having two purposes—to express something that is inside of you, for good or ill; or to ask a question/put forth an idea about the external world. The former makes for more interesting discussion, but there is a place for the latter also, and that is what “A Better Life” is. After my first viewing, I was left reminded of last year’s “Winter’s Bone”: it is a close and even-handed look into a world and culture that most Americans are scarcely aware exists within our own borders. It is a situation of poverty and desperation, of crime and tragedy, where parents are separated from children, where necessity occasionally must trump compassion.

“A Better Life” does well what it primarily needs to do: it creates an absorbing, realistic, and credible world, one that is as shocking as it is tragic. I remember once, as a child, going on a cross-country road trip from Pennsylvania to Arizona. At one point, we drove along the southern tip of Texas, where one can see the border between Mexico and the United States and observe the stark contrast between the two. But one need not cross the border.

This is a world foreign to us, but one that exists nonetheless. “A Better Life” is a window rather than a filter; it provides no commentary, content merely to observe. This is to its benefit. It is not a political movie, but it puts a human face on a political issue. Regardless of one’s partisan persuasion, this is crucial. No decision should be made absent of the knowledge of consequences, not when it affects so many. “A Better Life” allows us to identify with those suffering under these circumstances, and in so doing, it provides a foundation for the understanding necessary for love. The film has no characters who are written with overwhelming negativity. Those who commit crimes are desperate rather than deliberately malicious. Even the members of the film’s various gangs are portrayed as misguided rather than evil, willing to help and be friendly towards those who will return the favor. It is not a decision they make so that they can do wrong free of consequences, but rather because it is a part of their culture and they know nothing else.

This is anchored by a strong performance by Demian Bichir, though it is the first film in which I have seen him, making it difficult to pass judgment. As an actor, he has that puppy dog quality that makes it heartbreaking to watch him endure hardship. This, in addition to the varying subtleties of his performance, lends him a likability beyond what the script alone provides. He is not a man that all of us know, but he is a man with whom we identify. In the end, some things are constants, regardless of culture.

What holds the film back? It is a fairly standard drama on the whole, populated with the predictable and clichéd scenes one expects from the genre: the father/son speeches, the big emotional climaxes, the moments of bluntly illustrated and not always earned changes in character. These scenes are executed well enough to steer clear of cheesiness and insincerity, but they don’t carry quite enough flair to be called refreshing reinventions of the wheel either. A handful of strong performances and some practiced enough direction keep it a few notches above TV-movie quality, but neither is it a “Casablanca” for this generation. (Then again, what could be?) And it is, admittedly, quite nice to see the film shoot for an ambiguous ending. Taking the route of the unearned and unrealistic happy conclusion would have undermined the communication of the desperation of these people’s situations.

I also found the development of Luis as a character to be wanting. He is another character with a solid base in personality and motivation that is simply not followed through upon in terms of how he changes and grows. Admittedly, it is hard to write teenagers, moody, illogical, and constantly shifting as the majority of them are, but it is often difficult to discern what is driving Luis. It leaves his decisions lacking in the proper emotional resonance. However, Jose Julian emerges scot-free in all of this.

“A Better Life” is not a film that can be talked about at length. It begs action rather than discussion. It does not express a complex idea; it is merely a window. It is a film of understanding rather than debate. And yet, it, like “Winter’s Bone” before it, remains in the mind long after it is viewed. I could not call it “great,” but I would call the truths contained within absolutely necessary.

-Matt T.

*Also, Demian Bichir looks like Robert Downey Jr. Somebody tell me I’m wrong about this.

Moneyball (2011)

Starring- Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Brent Jennings, Kerris Dorsey

Director- Bennett Miller

PG-13- some strong language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4QPVo0UIzc

MODERN COMMENTARY, OCTOBER 2015:

I don’t know that I ever came around to explaining what does and doesn’t work about this movie, other than listing things that are objectively true about it. It wasn’t until the last year or two that I came to fully realize that stories are something you can study objectively and that function in clear, practicable ways, rather than something you simply “feel” is good or bad. Obviously, feeling can’t be separated from it, but if a story does or doesn’t work for you, there is a vocabulary that can be used to explain why. I didn’t know what it was when this was written.

“Moneyball” is a series of extremely practiced hands at the top of their game set in service of a film that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. There is very little about it that can be criticized; it is an experiment in effortless professionalism. The problem is that there isn’t quite enough to praise, or rather, that it’s a masterfully produced work lacking in the necessary center. The problem with “Moneyball” is not that it’s a bad film; from every technical standpoint that I can think of, it is probably a great film. The problem is fundamental: it never convinced me that its story was one that needed to be told.

Inspired by a true story (and based on a book by the same name), “Moneyball” follows the exploits of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the baseball team the Oakland Athletics. They are a team lacking in the same financial resources as other big league players, who frequently poach whatever good players the A’s manage to pick up. Every year, it’s the same story—Billy and the other managers scrape up the best players they can afford, suffer a mediocre-at-best season, and then lose all those players to the big boys.

While negotiating a trade with another team, Billy meets a young staff member, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Their general manager listens to him, and Billy wants to know why. It turns out Peter has a theory about players—it isn’t really about them at all. Teams look at players in terms of personal statistics; they should look at them in terms of how those statistics fit into the overall team dynamic. Peter has a formula that does just that.

At wit’s end, Billy hires him onto the Athletics’ staff. Peter believes that the A’s can pull together a championship team on a dime. And Billy is prepared to stake everything on this one last shot at glory.

In his younger years, Billy was a star baseball player, drafted straight out of high school. He passed up an education at Stanford to play professional baseball, and his career didn’t work out. His high school statistics didn’t translate into the professional leagues. He was a nobody.

He is now a man determined. He made his decision, he can’t change it, and he’ll do anything to make sure it was worthwhile. Bringing Peter on board may be only half to win games for the A’s. The rest of it is to change something, anything, to leave his mark on history, to justify his entire existence. He is rarely happy inside the stadium and its offices, single-minded at the best of times and explosively angry at the worst. He has a contentious relationship with the sport. Maybe he hates it, as he always steers clear of the diamond when games are going on. He may think of himself as bad luck. The film is ultimately about him coming to peace with himself and the game, accepting who and what he is, and that provides the story with its emotional core.

This is anchored by a strong performance from Brad Pitt, in a movie that is mainly comprised of great acting. Does he deserve his Academy Award nomination? It’s difficult to say. Certainly he’s had better and more challenging roles. Still, his work here is quite subtle and moving. Jonah Hill, too, does well in what is, to my knowledge, his first serious, dramatic part, but his Academy Award nomination is perfunctory, given because that’s what we do when comedians try drama. He is perfectly adequate for the part, mind you, but there’s very little to his character emotionally. At the beginning of the film, we know very little about Peter Brand. At the end, the same is true. He is a factor in Billy Beane’s story, and the film is Brad Pitt’s show. If Hill were more of a scene-stealer, I might concede, but he isn’t. He blends into the background of Billy’s internal conflict, exactly the way he’s supposed to. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is good as well, in the way that he always is, in the film’s equivalent of the Only Sane Man, the cautious and beleaguered field manager who is only trying to keep the job the general manager is progressively making more and more difficult.

The cast, from there, is nicely rounded out. The characters are designed to fade into the background of one man’s story, and they all do so exactly as intended. On top of that, the cinematography is patient and deliberate, frequently producing truly powerful and memorable images. There is something pristine about a properly maintained baseball diamond, and the camera catches every inch of it beautifully. The subdued color scheme and lighting only emphasize this, bringing out the crisp green color of the grass. This is a movie that certainly looks very nice. It sounds very nice, too, possessing a delightfully minimalist score that properly supports the big emotional climaxes while quietly stepping out of the way and allowing the writers and actors to sell the small ones.

And as to the writers… Aaron Sorkin scripts usually end up being Aaron Sorkin movies, to put it bluntly, but that doesn’t happen here. His dialogue fades more into the background, being naturalistic and witty, but not quite as slick or snappy. I honestly missed that a bit, but I understand why the film took the direction it did. This didn’t need to be a dialogue show; it soars in its silences.

There is very little ill to speak of this film. In a lot of ways, it’s a great American movie. “It’s hard not to romanticize baseball,” it says at one point, and indeed—it is hard. It manages to take two of my least favorite things—baseball and math—and make them, in tandem, absolutely riveting. But it wears out its welcome, and it’s difficult to say why.

Certainly I would’ve liked to have seen more of Billy’s life outside of baseball. The film provides him with a fundamental motivation in the form of his daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), but she is only in, to my memory, a grand total three scenes. All three are quite cute and sweet, but they are inadequate as to expressing the relationship the two of them share. The film also tries out and promptly drops a subplot regarding some of the players Billy hires. Really, any time that is not devoted to Billy is time that the movie spends dragging its heels. On that level, it feels long.

Perhaps the true problem is, in the end, subjective. Here is a movie that is genuinely great, in terms of its craftsmanship, but it isn’t really about anything. True enough, it has compelling characters, none more so than Billy, and watching him come to terms with life and baseball is an engaging and sometimes touching experience. But I wondered what the film was saying about any of it. I wondered what the connection point was for the audience, how it related to them. It was an engaging watch, but it left only the smallest emotional impact on me. Perhaps it’s that I personally did not relate to it. Its circumstances are so specific. Maybe someone else would find it a fascinating examination of the balance between following one’s dreams and playing the game of life intelligently. That person would likely think it to be 2011’s best film. But ultimately, I found that undercurrent to be under-explored, and that was the film’s undoing.

It is an interesting character study, quiet, subtle, moving, well acted, well directed, well scored—the whole nine yards. It is a beautiful packaging with an empty core, possessing few weaknesses, perhaps none at all, beyond the fact that it drags its heels in coming to an actual point. It has all the trademark touches of mastery, with only a little bit of the soul. It has the presentation of great art, but the heart of great entertainment, and in so doing, it loses a little bit of what makes both, well…great.

 

-Matt T.

Real Steel (2011)

Starring- Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Marco Ruggeri, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda

Director- Shawn Levy

PG-13- some violence, intense action and brief language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxkJq9nSoBs

MODERN COMMENTARY, NOVEMBER 2015:

I’ve caught snippets of it on TV here and there, but I otherwise don’t remember it particularly well. Also, this review of Real Steel sure is a long review of Transformers.

“Real Steel” is pure cinematic junk food. But I can go for a good candy bar now and again, even if it’s that awful generic store brand crap that tastes like chocolate-flavored plastic. In fact, that’s pretty much what “Real Steel” is. I can’t figure out if it’s legitimately a good movie or just enjoyably stupid. I’m leaning towards the latter. It’s been referred to as a big old hunk of pure, distilled ‘80s cheese, and yeah, that’s at least partially accurate. It’s fun in exactly the same way as every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ever—at least in part because of how corny and clichéd it is.

In that alone, it’s a lot better than I was expecting. I dreaded seeing this. My reaction to the trailers was as follows: “For everyone who thought the human consequences in ‘Transformers’ were just a little too much!” (Well, actually, my first reaction was, “Well, at least it’s pre-empting the ‘Rock-‘Em Sock-‘Em Robots’ movie I’m sure is in development somewhere.’ I’m not going to pretend that’s a clever observation. Come on, we’re all thinking it.)

Anyway, it’s better than it sounds, if only by a little bit. In fact, “Transformers” could learn a few lessons from it, though I’d personally rather it spend more time in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Here are just a few of said lessons, for good measure:

The characters—well, first off, “Real Steel actually has characters. “Transformers” should try that some time. Anyway, both films have lead protagonists who are thoroughly unlikable. However, the main character of “Real Steel”—Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former boxer who now works in the field of robot boxing—is unlikable on purpose. The film actually tries to change him into someone better. In “Transformers,” particularly the third installment, the main character was whiny, entitled, sexist, and never called out for any of it. The supporting casts may be more or less equivalent in terms of personality, but at least “Real Steel” has the excuse that its robots aren’t sentient.

The design of the robots—this is what the Transformers movies ideally ought to have looked like. The robots in this film are complex and mechanical enough to look like working pieces of machinery without being so complicated that my eyes start to burn just from trying to follow them around a set. The camera also keeps them fully in frame at all times, without sacrificing any of the action sequences’ energy.

The action sequences—occasionally, in my lesser moments of humanity, I am forced to admit that it probably takes Michael Bay a lot of time and effort to stage the wild and ridiculous camera movements that go on during his battles. Still, I’ll never contend that it’s anything other than wasted effort. Shawn Levy’s approach isn’t brilliant, but it appears far more deliberate. The shots are selected far more carefully, and everything is kept firmly within the frame. The choreography is a bit stilted and overly bound by realism, given the fantastical premise, but Levy has a remarkable talent for drawing energy from the crowds at the fights. The actors make a notable contribution here. Even if you don’t care much for the characters—and most of the time, I didn’t—the action sequences are still fun, because they carry an infectious energy.

Finally, the story: “Real Steel” is nothing special, and in terms of pacing and general tone, I’m actually going to fuss about it a bit farther on in this review. But do you know what I can do with this movie? Summarize it. If you’ll look at my past “Transformers” reviews, all of my plot descriptions amounted to: “Well, there are robots. And they fight. And there are some scenes in between that vaguely kind-of-sort-of justify and connect these fight scenes.” As to “Real Steel”: Charlie Kenton’s operations in robot boxing have found him down on his luck recently. He owes a lot of money to a lot of people. Some of them are coming to collect—violently if need be. He’s living out of an old gym, owned by childhood friend Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), and she needs him to pay up, too, or otherwise lose his home. He’s also trashed two robots in a row and has no money for a new one. It’s then that he receives further distressing news—one of his exes has died recently, leaving behind an eleven-year-old child, Max (Dakota Goyo), that he was only vaguely aware existed. He plans to sign custody over to Max’s aunt and uncle (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn) and be done with it, until realizing two things: A) they are wealthy, and B) they really, really want Max. Seizing an opportunity, he pretends that he actually does want Max, and the boy’s uncle secretly cuts a deal for the money he needs. All Charlie needs to do is hold onto the kid for a few months.

But then Max gets attached to their new robot, scavenged from a junk heap. And Charlie starts getting attached to Max.

And then they start winning.

See? Summarized.

What could both films stand to learn from better action movies? One thing, in particular:

Running time—if you are going to continue defending these films as frivolous entertainments not meant to be analyzed critically, then they ought to play out as such. I have seen deeply intellectual and artistic films explore complex notions and ideas in full without going much longer than ninety minutes. In other words, your dumb robot movies have no excuses for being over two hours long. Cut some of the indulgence. You’ll save all of us a headache.

And “Real Steel,” in particular, obviously has a litany of other problems. The first is that Charlie may be just a bit too unlikable. He wakes up staggeringly drunk, he gambles what he doesn’t have, he runs from his debts, he hates children, he’s an easily distracted loose cannon, he junks robots like spare batteries, and he treats everyone around him with complete misery. Even at his kindest, he’s manipulating them to get something he wants. His turnaround is inevitable, but there is no amount of space in an action movie for that kind of character development. One redeeming character trait, movie, that’s all I’m asking for. It’s a miracle wrought solely by the talents of Hugh Jackman that he’s even likable at all.

And I might as well get to the story. There’s something to be said for simplicity, and also something to be said for movies where I can’t mentally plan out the endpoints of each of the varying subplots and be totally right about each and every one of them, and “Real Steel” is not that movie.

I mean, it makes its clichés fun enough, I suppose. It is very ‘80s, right down to the campy, over-the-top acting and apparent expectation that we are still terrified of Russian people. It doesn’t gun for depth in its villains, which usually bothers me, but then again… This movie is just too stupid. I’m all right with that. I didn’t make me feel stupid, but rather openly invited me to enjoy how dumb it was. So, naturally, the villains growl and snarl and smash their equipment while flailing wildly and shrieking like demons, and the heroes cry and deliver motivational speeches and jump and celebrate while the soundtrack tells you exactly how to feel. It plays out like the most entertainingly cheesy moments of all the wonderfully terrible “Rocky” sequels.

I might’ve liked it more if it had committed to being cheesy and stupid. I’m still not sure if it’s that way on purpose or by happy accident, because the dramatic scenes sure do take themselves seriously. I already whined about character development, so I need not explain exactly why this is a problem, but I will add that Max is such a stereotypical Hollywood movie kid that my heart and soul simply could not summon up any emotions for him.

Alas, it’s fun once it gets going. And that’s all it is. It’s like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; well made, but frankly, I’ve already forgotten most of it. It suffers from some tonal disconnect and overall disposability, but it’s got some strong direction and isn’t as bad as I’d expected—and frankly, hoped—it’d be.

-Matt T.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Starring- Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Yves Heck, Allison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard

Director- Woody Allen

PG-13- some sexual references and smoking

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atLg2wQQxvU

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

I don’t know if it really shows in this review, but this was the first Woody Allen movie I ever saw. I’ve since filled that gap a bit — I’m no expert (the guy is so prolific that I doubt I ever will be), but I’ve caught up to most of his more “vital” work, at least. As to this review, I don’t think I really “got” the film, but I sure am talking a good game. I haven’t seen this movie in a few years, but my memory of it is mostly pretty warm.

I liked “Midnight in Paris” enough and in enough of the right ways that I can’t help but wish I liked it more. That alone makes it a much more personally enjoyable film than what I was expecting from the trailers, which are dirty, dirty liars.

I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a film more thoroughly sabotaged by its marketing campaign. It’s difficult to say for certain, but I suspect Woody Allen himself may have been responsible for how coy the trailers and TV spots were with regards to what the film is truly about. Far be it from me to override the decisions of so legendary a director, but then again, as we all know by now, I have an overly inflated view of my own significance, so I’m just going to say it—“Midnight in Paris” is best watched spoiled. Not in the sense that you go ahead and learn how it ends, which probably would be detrimental to the overall experience, but in the sense that you ought to know what it’s truly about. Because the trailers are lying to you.

There may be many who prefer to see the film as the director intended. That is, I suppose, laudable. But you should stop reading here. It would be nearly impossible to review this film properly without exposing its twist, and I remain convinced nonetheless that it cannot be watched in the correct frame of mind if you believe it is what the promotional materials have said it is.

The trailers show you this much. Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are fiancées on a visit to Paris. Along the way, they meet another couple, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), and have obnoxiously cute and sweet Parisian adventures in which they discover the true meaning of love.

Those of you who wish not to know the twist: your stopping point is here.

Gil is a hack Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to be a genuine artist like the great storytellers of old. He is working on a novel, but he cannot make it come out right. He doesn’t like Paul either, though Inez is taken with him, and his need for some peace and quiet eventually drives him to roam the streets of Paris at night, thinking.

At the stroke of midnight, a cab approaches. Passengers beckon for him to join them. Confused, he relents. The cab drives for a while and lets him off—in the 1930s. It’s Gil’s favorite era, the heyday of art and literature, and he finds himself interacting with his heroes—Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), and others. He is also taken with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a pretty young woman who has been romantically involved with nearly every important painter of the decade. She yearns for the artistic heyday of the 1890s just as Gil yearns for the era into which he has stumbled.

By morning, Gil finds himself back in modern day Paris. But his journeys to the past continue, as the greatest writers of all time help him finish his book and also make him realize that his relationship with Inez may not quite be what he thinks it is.

The fantastical elements of the movie aside, the lie of the trailers is twofold—that this is a romantic comedy about two people falling in love, and that romance is even what it is primarily about. Romance is a thread through which the story weaves, and a significant one, but it is a means rather than an end. On top of that, it is more accurately about people falling out of love, though it is not a malicious, revenge-style break-up flick. It never stoops to overly demonizing the women in Gil’s life. Rather, the story is about him coming to terms with who he is, what he wants, and what he needs. It is never mean-spirited.

Truly, it is about two things—Gil writing his book, and learning the place and value of nostalgia. Truly, it is fascinating to me to see a film with a character to whom I relate who is not portrayed as a one-dimensional, hopeless loser. That is a truly rare experience. Gil is stuck in a rut, struggling to express himself, trying to make his thoughts come out right, and failing at every turn. The artists he encounters don’t tell him how to write his book or improve it on a technical level; they teach him the condition of a great storyteller’s heart, the confidence, the bravery, the role and function of an artist in human society. It is remarkable to me that I very nearly wrote this film off as a dumb romantic comedy and decided to avoid it. It is my good fortune that the Academy gave it a nod and brought it to my attention. It would have been a shame to have missed those aspects of this film. “Midnight in Paris” made me want to write again. Its flaws aside, that is an incredible virtue.

Those flaws, though… They are difficult to overlook. Gil’s experiences in writing are framed more as lectures than discussions, despite the subjective elements with which they deal. It leaves me with little to talk about with regards to its subject matter; it tells me things, rather than debating and demonstrating them. What we have here is a deeply interesting lecture to those who, like me, find the material compelling, but others will be lost. After all, we do have classes and universities for this.

On top of that, Woody Allen’s signature quirkiness remains fully intact, and while it isn’t distracting, it has a tendency to keep things skin deep in areas where they really shouldn’t be. He is a great director of impressions, creating little moments that convey subtle and effective emotions, but a lot of his characters tend to function as vaguely humorous characters rather than human beings. They don’t always support the subject matter, which can leave the film feeling as though it lacks narrative thrust. Only Gil, Adrianna, and to some extent Inez have any real depth; the other characters are a series of strong performances and surprisingly humorous moments, but most of them bear little heft. And even Gil, who is clearly a self-insert on Allen’s part, can come off as a bit of a Mary Sue. The point, overall, is that the film has a cutesiness to it that sometimes renders the whole a bit ineffective—especially in the first third or so.

It is, however, an interesting exercise in and commentary on nostalgia. And what city other than Paris could be more perfect for such a discussion? Paris exudes a personality all its own and seems to exist outside of time—fitting, for a film that is about time travel. What Gil learns is that even as he wishes to have been born in the 1930s, to have been there for the innovation and expression that seemed to permeate the entire decade, those were born there looked to their own bygone eras and lamented the state of things. It serves as a wonderful wakeup call for cynical old coots—like, occasionally, me—who look at the summer blockbusters and chart-topping pop songs of modern times and think that’s all we have to offer, and then look back on past decades and forget how “Mystery Science Theater” made a living. Art always goes on and thrives, and it nearly always exists outside of society. There is no heyday, and there never was; if we found it, we’d quickly tire of it. Great art exists as long as life exists, as long as there are great people to express it. Again, it’s more lecture than discussion, but it’s a lecture we don’t hear nearly often enough in the age of dark and gritty reboots of 80s movies.

Can it be treacly, cutesy, overbearing, and overdone? Yes, sometimes. And it will certainly have limited appeal to those who lack expertise in classic art and literature. In fact, those lacking in literary interest will probably find very little with which to tease their brains. However, its core is so rare, necessary, and wonderful that it merits viewing—a diamond in the rough if ever there was one.

-Matt T.