Archive for November, 2012

Dark Shadows (2012)

Starring- Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley

Director- Tim Burton

PG-13- comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpWvkFlyl4M

I think the production of Dark Shadows probably went something like this:

Tim Burton: “I like many genres of movies, in that I like taking the different ones and infusing them with my very distinct Tim Burton personality, which is both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. However, I am not sure what genre I want to try out next. Instead, I will film Dark Shadows as all the genres, and then I’ll find a tone in the editing room!”

This doesn’t work.

Dark Shadows is not a comedy. It is not a horror movie. It is not an action/adventure movie. It is not a drama. It is not a romance. It is not a family movie. It is not a schlocky, psychedelic homage to trashy 70s movies. It is all of these things, and all of the other things as well. Sometimes all at the same time.

I’m hard pressed to think of a movie that did that and pulled it off. I’m not sure where you’d even start. Whatever the case, Dark Shadows most emphatically does not.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and seeing that Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is a literal witch, she’s a touch more hellish than most. So, when Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the son of wealthy entrepreneurs, spurns her advances, she reacts as reasonably as possible, by murdering his entire family and his lover and thwarting his subsequent attempt at suicide by turning him into a vampire and burying him alive in an ironclad coffin.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The Collins family has fallen on hard times — as hard as they can be, anyway, for a family that maintains an entire mansion with servants. They’ve lost most of their business to a mysterious up-and-comer, and the town that once loved them now fears and avoids them. They’ve hired a governess, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), to help manage one of their young children (Gulliver McGrath), who continually speaks to his deceased mother and insists she’s still alive. And their teenage daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), well, she’s an unlikable brat, to say the least.

But then, a few construction workers dig in the wrong place.

Barnabas Collins is back, and he’s going to help his family reclaim his town, no matter the cost — and maybe punish one Angelique Brouchard along the way.

Dark Shadows ultimately has the same problem that plagued The Pirates! Band of Misfits, only more so, in that it’s so tonally confused that it becomes impossible to place it in any sort of context. The viewer has to wait on specific cues from the film in order to determine if something was supposed to be funny or taken seriously, because the line is really thin here.

Usually, it’s a scene-to-scene thing. There’s a direct contrast between two different scenes in which Barnabas goes on the attack; the first one is clearly intended to be horrific, scary, and violent, whereas the second one is black comedy wackiness. The only reason one knows this is the way the two scenes are filmed. Unfortunately, they have the exact same bearing on the plot, meaning one was supposed to be taken completely seriously, whereas the other one was supposed to be funny, but also serious. Like, “Ha, ha, ha, he’s taking human life! The context for this makes this humorous, because the scene was laid back and goofy a second ago and still is, but we’ll invalidate this context later on by making this a totally serious action! Laugh, but make sure you process how decidedly unfunny this is while you’re at it.”

In case it’s unclear, the majority of the tonal issues center around Barnabas. He’s funny, but he’s broken, he’s inhuman, but he’s in love, he’s a monster, but it’s funny, you like him, but he’s clearly evil. The film intends you to root for him to a certain extent, but he’s clearly, you know, a murderer. The film mixes in a dash of black comedy to keep you from dwelling on it overmuch, but it’s treated with complete seriousness in-universe, forcing you to consider the implications.

At one point, Barnabas confronts someone who’s wronged him, and this is clearly a serious moment. He kills the person for the crimes committed, and it’s obvious we’re supposed to think this was deserved, despite the fact that what this person did one time is clearly and apparently nowhere near as bad as what Barnabas never stops doing throughout the film. It becomes hard to side with the film in that moment, because it’s already asked you to show mercy to far worse people.

Back and forth it goes. In one scene, everyone’s slapsticking around; in the next scene, roughly equivalent actions inflict serious bodily harm. You never know what to expect, apart from the tone set up at the beginning of the scene, but even that gets broken sometimes. Every now and then, a serious scene will be interrupted by something profoundly stupid, and it’s never quite clear if the movie is being funny or if it’s just too dumb to know better.

The lack of focus carries over into the storytelling, which is slapdash and haphazard, clearly trying to incorporate an obligatory amount of content from the TV show from which it draws its inspiration, covering all the bases but not quite sure why. Victoria is set up as the protagonist through whose “normal” eyes the craziness of the plot will be seen, but the movie forgets her for long stretches and treats her like a burden of which it’s eager to be rid when she is there. It runs in circles until, finally, it finds an excuse to end.

It’s a movie that’ll win you a game of Tim Burton Bingo awfully fast, which is a cliché to say at this point. If he doesn’t know he’s abusing his old tricks and tactics, he either doesn’t read his own criticism or doesn’t care about it. But it’s becoming clear that he’s hanging out with too many of the same people and developing tunnel vision as a result.

Johnny Depp is a good actor, but one rather quickly forgets when he’s in Tim Burton movies these days. He’s not even Johnny Depp in these films anymore; rather, he’s some twist on the “wacky, socially confused nonhuman” persona. The only question is how many notches up the crazy dial he’ll play it.

Burton once had a fantastic talent for drawing eerie humanity out of incredibly bizarre characters — Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, etc. There’s little human about Barnabas; he’s equal parts generic monster and comedy caricature. There’s no real life or originality in him, which is a shame to say about an actor and a director whose defining talent early on was stunning, risk-taking, wholly unbridled imagination.

That sense remains a far as the visuals go — the one aspect of filmmaking where Tim Burton appears to have stayed on top of his game, with the possible exception of Alice in Wonderland’s overindulgence. The guy knows how to build a set, film it, and then incorporate effects, and it shows here, even though his approach to the 70s period setting seems to be take everything I can think of from the 70s and display it prominently and gratuitously whenever and wherever I can find the opportunity. It’s a film that works in color, style, and mood — when it can pick one. Which is never.

I don’t think of Tim Burton as a bad director. On the contrary, the guy is probably a genius, albeit one who’s stopped listening to people and may or may not be partially insane. He’s not an M. Night Shyamalan, starting out with tons of talent and then losing every iota of it for some completely unfathomable reason. The Burton we know and love is in there.

But it gets really hard to find him sometimes.

 

-Matt T.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

Starring- Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Adam Brody, Tonita Castro, Leslie Murphy, Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Kasey Campbell, Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, Derek Luke, Martin Sheen

Director- Lorene Scafaria

R- language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T43InzvBm-k

I don’t like the word “underrated,” because it implies objectivity and therefore requires a touch of arrogance to be used literally. But using it in the sense that something is quite a lot better than its buzz suggested, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is pretty underrated.

It’s not brilliant, mind you, but it gets the job done in enough of the right ways. I might even go as far as to say that, even if it doesn’t put her atop the list of most interesting new filmmakers right now, it’s a strong directorial debut for Lorene Scafaria. Most of what it sets out to do, it does right; it’s just a question of whether it goes the extra mile.

So, the world is ending. Humanity no longer has any doubt about that. The last mission to halt the advance of an approaching 70-miles-wide asteroid, dubbed Matilda, has failed, and now all anyone can do is wait. The survivalists are holing up, and the fatalists are jumping from buildings.

Dodge (Steve Carell) is kind of halfway between. At one point in the film, he jokes sourly that his midlife crisis and his end-of-life crisis somehow managed to strike at the same time.

An insurance salesman, Dodge isn’t sure where he’s going, what his life means, or why he even bothers before there’s an apocalyptic event in his future. Now, well, he clearly always thought that things would get better someday. What chance is there of that now?

The moment the announcement comes through, his wife abandons him on the spot and never comes back. She was unhappy with him, a fact to which he was oblivious, and was seeing someone else on the side.

Left alone, Dodge merely bides his time in his apartment until he befriends Penny (Keira Knightley), his young neighbor. If Dodge has lived too little, she’s lived too much, throwing her life away with carelessness and irresponsibility. They now face a similar crisis, though for different reasons — what to do with their time left.

Galvanized by Penny, Dodge decides he wants to track down “the one that got away,” a high school girlfriend about whom he never forgot. He also knows how to get Penny access to a plane so she can return home to England to spend her final days with her family.

So, basically, it’s a road trip movie about the end of the world.

Along the way, they meet a wide variety of characters responding to their imminent doom in a number of ways. There are those whose lives never meant anything to them, who were hanging on only because they expected life would eventually get better on its own and, deprived of that, found the nearest tall building or available hit-man.

There are those clinging to life, digging bunkers and stocking them with all the supplies they can get their hands on, wasting their last days trying to postpone the inevitable.

And there are those who have embraced it — badly. They go straight for the carnal pleasures. Everything they ever wanted, now they can just take it. Whatever it takes to distract them from what’s coming.

One of the film’s most poignant moments is a scene in the last third that takes place on a beach, where families have gathered for no other reason than to be there. No drugs, no orgies, no suicide, no fighting, no fear. It’s one of the only scenes in the movie that plays without a sense of insincerity, of people fighting to distract themselves, fighting to make their miserable lives right with the last few days they have. In that moment, their lives are already “right.”

Ultimately, interestingly enough, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not about death, though it certainly could be. It’s about life, and how to use it while you’ve got it.

The survivalists are people fighting for arbitrary success — at the end of the day, everybody loses the game of life, and what have you gained? The fatalists are people fighting for nothing, likely wishing they’d never been born to begin with. The anarchists, for lack of a better word, are the ones drowning their sorrows at the bottom of a glass — okay as long as there’s stimulation around to keep their minds off the emptiness of it all.

It’s those who live for the moment — but not recklessly — who come out on top.

Where the movie goes a bit wrong is that it’s wrestling with itself over tone. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s also half-comedy. This aspect, in my opinion, is actually done quite well. In the beginning, to borrow the old cliché, it’s a “wickedly funny” black comedy, going to ridiculously dark places and just poking fun at them. But as it progresses, it gradually filters out the comedy, rather than simply ending it and switching into drama mode. It gradually becomes more and more somber and by the end is a completely different movie than what it was at the start.

This actually benefits the film. At the beginning, humanity is in a frenzy over the bad news it’s just received; by the end, the characters’ mood is more resignation, acceptance. It makes sense that it would be wilder and crazier at the start than at the end; that it handles that with a comedic tone is simply a stylistic choice. And it’s often a funny one. That Rob Corddry guy, he should do more stuff.

No, the tone issue emerges mainly at the end of the film in that it can’t settle on tragic or triumphant and so tries to have a bit of both. In its final scene, it settles for romantic clichés rather than truly and logically resolving the plight of its two protagonists. It pays lip service to them, and even gives Dodge some very redemptive moments on-screen, but it ends more or less as it begins. They’re both somewhat more complete human beings, but not fully complete just yet, leaving the film feeling like more of a cautionary tale than a picture of people learning how to live right.

It ends with a sense that leaves you saying, “Oh, if only there was more time.

It should’ve have, because its message is ultimately, “Hey — there’s time right now.

It ultimately loses the war between its desire to be perceived as being profound and actually being profound. It’s not the first film to try out this particular theme, sure, but we can always use more.

But, hey, let’s be fair — what we get for most of the film is still really solid and deserves credit where it’s due.

Let’s start with Steve Carell, who really needs to do more roles like this. As a long-standing fan of The Office, I’ve always had really high expectations of him. His character on that show was a comedic caricature, sure, but he possessed subtle touches that I’m convinced were entirely Carell’s doing. That holds true here.

Carell has one of those faces; it manages to tell a story all on its own. He has the glazed-over, hollow-eyed look of a life of being an office drone. His eyes are distant, inward looking, and distracted. There’s a sense, when he’s not clowning around, of pervasive sadness, of a man who’s given up on life but fears death too much to go the extra mile, counting down the seconds until he clocks out. And yet, there’s a likable quality to it. He doesn’t play it distant and self-absorbed; he plays it as a man in search of meaning, who entertains hopes when he can summon the energy. In a lot of ways, he’s cast to type here, at least as far as his attempts at drama go, but he does so well in this role. I am very excited to see what he can accomplish if he stretches his muscles a bit.

And Keira Knightley, well, she couldn’t be more against type. Usually set as the stuffy, independent woman in a period piece, here, she’s shaky, haphazard, and spontaneous, but also very fragile, the result of a life of fearing loneliness and fleeing responsibility.

Together, they’re a likable pair. That they’ll fall in love is not in question. Their personalities seem a match, assuming that opposites do indeed attract. There is a problem in chemistry, perhaps, and in the amount of available screen time to flesh out the relationship. The two are not boring together; quite the opposite, in fact, but they frequently seem more like friends than anything beyond that. They have chemistry, but it’s a touch too relaxed. In the end, it leaves their developing love feel like something rushed into because there are no consequences to fear rather than something that certainly would’ve happened under any circumstance, which is a problem for the film, somewhat.

But I digress. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a strong film with a good head on its shoulders, very funny but also effective emotionally. It’s not a great one, but as a first effort, well, it’s interesting. I want to see Lorene Scafaria direct more films, and I want to see most of this cast be in more. And that, at least, is something.

 

-Matt T.

The Expendables 2 (2012)

Starring- Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Scott Adkins, Nan Yu

Director- Simon West

R- strong bloody violence throughout

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

The 80s was a terrible decade in cinema.

Honestly, entire books could be written on the subject. Heck, I’m prepared to write that book myself. My theory on the subject is this: first, with Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jaws having established the general template for the modern blockbuster, summer action movies were a new thing, and we had no idea what to do with them just yet.

(Not that we’re really any good at them now, but at least we mostly know how to shoot things without making them look like mud and have some general control over tone.)

Combine that with the advent of home media — meaning that dumb kids were able to preserve their dumb movies — and it all makes sense to me. These days, home media’s been around forever, and kids are raised on the movies their parents loved, which is why we aren’t really preserving the dumb ones today any where near as much.

In any case, and for whatever reason, certainly no decade preserved as many terrible movies as the 80s did. Go through any decade in cinematic history, and the ones that stuck around are almost universally, if not always great or even good films, at least films that are significant in a noticeable way.

And then you’ve got the 80s, where almost everything outside of the Oscar Bait and art film scene (and everything that wasn’t Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Back to the Future) is just impossibly stupid. Family films, action movies, it doesn’t seem to matter. This was the decade of cheese, excess, and violence in motion pictures.

So, for that reason, I’m really not sure what to do with The Expendables 2. When discussing movies with people, I frequently fall back on the old Roger Ebert quote: “A movie is never what it’s about but how it’s about it.”

In other words: don’t criticize a movie for what it’s trying to be but rather how it goes about being that.

The Expendables 2 throws a massive wrench into that philosophy. Because it succeeds completely and utterly in being what it’s trying to be. It is a phenomenal success in this regard.

However, what it’s trying to be is a terrible movie.

I guess this is the part of the review where I am bound by arbitrary rules I think I learned in a journalism class once to summarize the plot, but then again, The Expendables 2 is an homage to 80s movies, which should really tell you all you need to know: bad guy does bad stuff! Most stop bad guy! Blow stuff up! BLOW STUFF UP!

More specifically: there’s a Russian guy. He’s the bad guy. We know this because his name is Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), and because he’s Russian. Also because he’s Russian, he’s digging for plutonium so he can make weapons of mass destruction. (Between this and Red Dawn, 2012 appears to be the year inexplicable Cold War paranoia made a resurgence.)

So, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his mercenary team of dudes with increasingly stupid names (including one guy who I’m pretty sure betrayed and tried to kill them in the last movie; why are they still letting him hang around?) go out to stop him. Using their wits and genius handle on military strategy… Hold up, it appears I misread that. What they actually do is blow stuff up.

Honestly, I think I love the idea of The Expendables. The trailers for both films made me realize that I do have some iota of masculinity left in me that I haven’t completely farmed out while interpreting artsy foreign movies.

But I’m just completely giving up on the idea of this premise ever working at full length. I can enjoy about fifteen minutes of cheesy, tongue-in-cheek action, but for crying out loud, I’m an adult, and I need some substance to peek through somewhere in there.

And I think the creators of The Expendables know this, too, because these movies do shoot for substance and emotion now and again. Unfortunately, they’re colossally incompetent and substance and emotion and kind of destroy themselves with it.

And honestly, so did 80s movies. I’ve been watching a bunch recently, more by coincidence than design. And they didn’t know they were bad. We talk nowadays like they did, but they clearly didn’t. They would have serious love scenes now and then. They would try to be scary or emotional, or to act like their stories were actually interesting on some level. At some point, probably around the time of Last Action Hero and films like it, they finally figured it out, but at that point, it was too late — the decade had been defined.

So, in the end, the problem with The Expendables 2 and pretty much every film it’s imitating is that it’s constantly swinging on this pendulum between hilariously cheesy and deadly serious.

Because of this, the cheesy parts end up feeling really out of place and awkward — more so, given how self-referential and shoehorned in they are in this piece of work. Here’s a scene, verbatim, that occurs between Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and is, simultaneously, the film’s best and worst moment:

Schwarzenegger: I’m out! (P.S. This movie is People Running out of Ammo and Then Announcing This to Their Comrades: The Motion Picture.) I’ll be back.

Willis: You’ve been back enough! This time, I’ll be back!

Schwarzenegger: Yippie-ki-yay.

I promise you, I did not make up a single word of that.

And every scene in which Chuck Norris appears (all two of them) plays off as an extended Chuck Norris Joke that the movie doesn’t quite want to make. It just sits on the tips of the characters’ tongues. They’re talking about how awesome he is, but not too awesome, because THIS IS A SERIOUS MOVIE YOU GUYS FOR SERIOUS.

(By the way, I don’t know what it says about Chuck Norris that he delivers the worst performance in a movie with this cast.)

I mean, it does have some great one-liners (great here meaning awesomely terrible), but it’s always holding back. Those one-liners are its only real claim to cheesy awesomeness. Everything else is played insufferably straight.

(“I now pronounce you…man and knife.” I almost had to pause the movie in that scene. I love that the entire plan the mercenaries had in that scene appears to have been: “Do the same thing we usually do, except dress as priests, because that would be funny.”)

(Also, now would be as good a time as any to wonder why Jet Li just abandoned ship fifteen minutes into the movie. Dude, you got the whole way through the first one; there’s nothing you can do to get it off your legacy.)

I mean… Look, I’ll be honest. I enjoyed this movie for about half an hour. Because as much as I like to play the intellectualism card, I am totally game for a big, stupid hunk of cheese now and then. And the movie is enjoyable right up to the point where a character dies (and you’ll just never guess who; seriously, the movie does not broadcast this death at all before it happens or use cheap, predictable tricks to make you feel sad when it does, it’s just so unexpected, y’all). And then it becomes a SERIOUS MOVIE FOR SERIOUS, throws any spiritedness it has out the window, and just kind of self-destructs. Constantly swinging back and forth between stupid and funny and serious and boring.

I’m kind of glad it did, in a weird way, because it would’ve been tough to explain a positive review of this one immediately after bashing Moonrise Kingdom.

To be fair, it’s much better than the first one. The first one was completely intolerable; this is merely dull, and actually does have okay scenes scattered throughout. If a great action movie resembles a train speeding up faster and faster, barreling toward its target, then the first one was a train starting, blowing up its engine, chugging forward, stopping for repairs, then launching like a rocket and wrecking into something. The Expendables 2 at least builds.

On top of that, if this movie can’t figure out if it wants to be cheesy or serious, the first one didn’t even try to make that decision.

But, you know… It’s just too much. The 80s was, again, a decade of cinematic excess. The Expendables 2 is an excess of excess, and therefore, I’ve probably put exactly no one off of seeing it. We moved on from the 80s for a reason. At the end of the day, the films with the great stories and the great characters are the ones that stand the test of time. The Expendables 2 is certain to be enjoyed by its target audience and then forgotten forever.

 

-Matt T.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Starring- Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban

Director- Wes Anderson

PG-13- sexual content and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7N8wkVA4_8s

MODERN COMMENTARY, MAY 2016:

After several years of effort, I think I have finally arrived at a distant appreciation for Wes Anderson. Distant, mind you. But I’m getting there! Here’s to four more years of failing to understand his movies until I hopefully, at last, arrive at the love everyone else seems to have for them.

This is not going to be a review of Moonrise Kingdom. This is going to be a review of Wes Anderson. It is also going to be a bad one, because I am stupid.

Everyone seems to have that one director. You know the type — extremely critically acclaimed, celebrated by your trusted friends and favorite reviewers alike, and not just celebrated: lauded, as if every film he produces is the new greatest thing in the history of the universe.

And yet, your response to every single one of his films is: “He is seriously just seeing what he can get away with and for how long before the critical establishment finally turns on him.”*

Terence Malick seems to be this for most people.

Wes Anderson is this for me.

Wes Anderson’s movies make me realize what it must feel like to be a racist or a homophobe: hating something because you don’t understand it and thus fear it.

One trait that’s pretty necessary in order to be a critic or a reviewer or, heck, somebody who just plain likes movies, is not to really have a “thing.” You might prefer one genre over another, but just about anything can get through to you if it’s done well enough. I’d like to say this is pretty true of me; my favorites list from last year listed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and A Separation in pretty close proximity, after all.

But every now and then, I do encounter something that leaves me cold solely on the basis that it just wasn’t particularly for me. Not that it’s badly done; it’s just not my thing. This actually happened quite recently when I first watched Brick. It really wasn’t for me.

But.

I totally understood what it was trying to do. I got it. And, despite the fact that it wasn’t my thing, I was still able to analyze it on some objective level, however possible it might be, and say, “It’s not my thing, but it’s good, and if it sounds like you’ll like it, you probably will.”

Heck, to reprise my Terence Malick example — his work isn’t necessarily my cup of tea either. But while a lot of people think he’s just messing with the critical establishment, I get it. I know what he’s trying to do. I know why he’s trying to do it in the way that he does. I know why he likes doing it that way, or at least, I can conceive of a reason.

This is why Wes Anderson movies are so aggravating to me. Because I cannot do this with them.

On one level, yeah, they are emphatically not to my taste, and I fully and freely admit that. But beyond that subjective element, I cannot approach them critically. I cannot step back, analyze, and say to myself, “Well, okay, I don’t necessarily like this, but I can see what it’s going for, and here’s what I think it could do to be better in this regard or why I think it’s very much succeeding in this other one.”

And I’ve really been racking my brain, trying to determine exactly why this is. And I have reached the following, probably ignorant, conclusion: Wes Anderson movies do things that other movies get critically savaged for doing, and are also widely agreed to be less enjoyable for doing, but for some reason, when Wes Anderson movies do them, it is considered artistic, unique, and daring.

I should pause right now and remind everyone that I don’t consider my opinions to be the final word on anything. I am not calling other critics wrong; in fact, I find it quite a lot more likely that there is some gap in my understanding of film that’s leaving me unable to properly appraise Wes Anderson’s work.

But, by way of illustrating my point, here is a list of things that stop me from engaging with Wes Anderson movies that also stop me from enjoying other films that do them, the only difference being that Anderson is considered a visionary and the others, well, aren’t. So, without further ado:

STUFF WES ANDERSON DOES THAT OTHER MOVIES CAN’T DO WITHOUT LOSING THEIR OSCAR CHANCES (IN MY FEEBLE MORON-WITH-A-COMPUTER-PRETENDING-TO-BE-ROGER-EBERT UNDERSTANDING):

1. Making everything cutesy and precocious and wide-eyed and sugary and blech. Lots of movies get criticized for being so sugary they start to rot your teeth — We Bought a Zoo, for instance. Just as many movies get criticized for being so pervasively dark and oppressive that they exhaust you — Christopher Nolan increasingly seems to be suffering from this one. The problem is not so much that these films are happy-go-lucky or dark as it is that they’re impossibly atonal about it.

So, why is it that Wes Anderson movies are permitted to have the exact same adorable and quirky personality throughout their entire runtime without ever shaking it up just a little? They are far more adorable than any insufferably unsubtle mainstream family film could ever possibly hope to be. And yet they never seem to get criticized for this fact. Is it because they’re subtler, not about their personality, but in the general way they present things? I suppose I could spot it that. Is it because it’s not just adorable, but also has a weird black comedy undercurrent? But in any case, there’s no point in any given Wes Anderson movie where you kind of wish the scene that is currently on-screen would play out even a little differently than the one before it? He has such a specific way that he films things, edits things, and directs actors, and there simply isn’t enough variation in it.

You know, Malick, again, has a very specific style, but he employs it in different ways. There is a substantial difference in tone between The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. There are both unmistakably Malick films, but they are also not the same.

Walking into a theater for a new Wes Anderson movie, you know exactly what you’re getting: a quirky, bizarre indie drama with a certain color scheme and a certain style of acting and directing and a certain way it’s written and a certain sense of humor. And, frankly, a certain tone. Even when he broke tradition and did an animated film… Well, it was an animated Wes Anderson movie with no other major differences from the other films in his career.

2. This leads into my next point quite well, actually — other directors get criticized for doing the exact same thing every time they make a movie. Let’s start with Tim Burton, shall we? Granted that his recent output has seen something of a drop in quality from his earlier work, what are the most common things you hear in criticisms of him?

“Oh, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter again? Shocker. Oh, and look at the visuals and the camerawork and the art direction and the sets. I wonder if this is a Tim Burton movie.”

Please, somebody, please, for the love of everything good, explain to me why Wes Anderson is exempt from this. Even given my limited familiarity with his work, everything of his that I’ve seen has far less variation than even the worst of what Burton has done. And that’s not me defending Burton; he’s earned the criticism that his work has essentially “gotten old.”

That’s me saying that we should be accusing Wes Anderson of this as well. This is a guy whose work has stayed within a certain comfort zone for years now and has not left it. Why aren’t we trying to push him out of it?

3. Wes Anderson’s work is completely indistinguishable from a parody of his work. This is true of a lot of other directors, all of whom are considered to be bad at what they do.

Well, okay, and Terence Malick.

And, look, I could go on forever, but it’s far easier simply to run through all the techniques Wes Anderson employs that just plain don’t work for me:

• He assembles great casts and then deliberately has them all underperform, lending a bizarre undercurrent of fakeness and insincerity that is comedic, maybe, or perhaps making some kind of societal point.

• He utilizes a style of filming that shouts, “HI EVERYBODY I AM WES ANDERSON AND I AM MAKING THIS MOVIE!” rather than drawing you into the story and having you focus on it.

• Everything is filmed and set up so as to look incredibly stagy.

• The dialogue is clearly unreal on purpose, but it is unreal in a way that is incredibly awkward and makes me cringe and, on the whole, doesn’t seem to convey any actual point about the story or the characters or the themes. Instead, it just screams, “Hi, I am weird dialogue, bye.”

In other words… To be honest, Wes Anderson movies, for me, often play more like parodies of art films. When people who aren’t necessarily interested in this sort of thing think about what an art movie looks like, this is what they see.

And the weirdest part is… There is no director on the planet I have been trying harder to like than Wes Anderson.

Seriously. Every critic and movie buff I know who loves Wes Anderson appears to be getting something genuinely fantastic out of the experience of watching his films, and every time I put one on, I sit there and mentally scramble, trying to figure out what I’m missing, what’s there under the surface, what part of my mindset needs to change in order to allow me to unlock these feelings as well.

I’m not sure if his movies are simply an acquired taste that I’ll grow to love as I keep watching them, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

I have been reading so many reviews of Moonrise Kingdom, hoping that one of them, at least, will present it in a new light that suddenly brings it all around to making sense to me. I’m waiting for one to raise a theme that I didn’t notice and explain why Anderson’s very distinctive style enhances it rather than drags it down. I’m waiting for one to explain what specifically about Anderson’s style is enjoyable and unique. I’m waiting for one to tell me why it doesn’t simply strike the reviewer as incredibly weird beyond any rhyme or reason.

But, instead, the reviewers provide me with no new information. They observed the same plot, the same themes, the same characters, the same character development, the same visual style, everything. The only difference is that the elements of the movie that left me indifferent and confused seem to have directly caused them to think it one of the best films of the year.

The main thing is this: all of the reviews of Moonrise Kingdom seem agreed on the point that it is incredibly human and involving.

And my argument is that it’s so divorced from reality, so burdened by its quirky and bizarre style, and so hindered by its underdone performances and stagy quality that it couldn’t be further from being incredibly human and involving. Instead, I’d call it fake and incredibly distancing.

I mean, I don’t want to be too hard on it. When the camera gets out into nature and loses its ability to film things like a stage play, it looks quite nice. I love that it captures the visual style of low-budget films from the period in which it is set. It even manages to coax some funny performances out of Bill Murray and Edward Norton, and maybe Bruce Willis, though I’m still not sure how seriously I was supposed to take him. That’s the problem, really; I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to take anything. It’s a weird movie, and I cannot discern any purpose for that weirdness.

So, the conclusion I’ve been forced to come to is this: Wes Anderson exudes a very specific personality, and you either like it or you don’t.

And my objectivity-seeking brain completely irrationally hates that.

The only reason it’s baffling to me is that, as of right now, over 90 percent of critics can be checked off under the “like it” category, which isn’t too common among acquired tastes or love-it-or-hate-it pieces.

So, never mind. I don’t like Moonrise Kingdom or any Wes Anderson movie that I’ve seen, and this is because I am stupid and wrong. And there’s your DVD quote.

 

-Matt T.

* Just for the record, I don’t actually think that’s what he’s doing. I don’t presume to know what any artist is doing, short of what they explicitly say they’re doing. I try to interpret, but to do anything more than that would be profoundly arrogant and myopic. I was just saying that as a way to illustrate that the acclaim these films receive is not even remotely understandable to me. Which is an opinion, not a statement of fact. That’s all these reviews ever are.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Starring- Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka

Director- Marc Webb

PG-13- sequences of action and violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tnxzJ0SSOw

The Amazing Spider-Man is a film in search of a point — or, at least, a continuous point.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). His parents have disappeared, and no one particularly knows what happened to them.

He’s an outcast teenage genius, subject to routine bullying. He has a crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is out of his league.

He befriends Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a friendly scientist who is working on ways of improving humanity — in this case, trying to fuse the DNA of lizards with that of humans so that people can repair damage to their own bodies, whether it’s to stave off Alzheimer’s or to re-grow lost limbs.

Connors has some genetically modified spiders as well, and… Well, you know where that’s going.

So, young Peter wakes up to find he now possesses a number of spider-like powers. Around the same time, Uncle Ben (SPOILER ALERT) gets shot by a criminal Peter had the opportunity to stop but didn’t. And Connors’ experiment ends up backfiring and turning him into a monster who favors the color green and talks to his own split personality when he’s alone. Except he’s The Lizard. And not the Green Goblin, because that’s clearly entirely different. And anyway, he’s on a collision course with Peter/Spider-Man.

Clearly this is all revelatory to you. It’s hard to believe any element of that plot was predictable to anyone. It’s earth-shatteringly original.

But on the whole, I don’t particularly want to be that guy dogging this movie because it’s a reboot — and, honestly, basically a remake — of a movie that came out only ten years ago or so and kick-started a franchise that, one unfortunate installment aside, was basically well-received. The fact that The Amazing Spider-Man is pretty much the same movie as Spider-Man is a problem, but not an insurmountable one.

Before we go further, I really need to establish a pair of important facts. The first, in brief, is that I’m not a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. There are many good things about them, sure. But their strength is also their weakness — they’re good at being dramatic, interesting, and personal, and they’re also good at being campy and stupid. But they never settle on just one of those things.

The second fact will take a bit more explaining, but bear with me. For me, there are two circumstances (which, admittedly, do exist on a bit of a sliding scale) under which action/adventure movies will work: being light, bombastic, and fun, and being serious and realistic, and in either case, there are certain steps you have to take to make it work.

It’s become clear to me, with superhero movies in particular but action movies more generally, that we are currently living in a post-light, bombastic, and fun blockbuster world. The Avengers was a rare delight in this regard, an action movie that played its premise straight, but without ever burdening itself with self-seriousness.

You can see this within the franchises that have existed before and after that world, such as X-Men and, yes, Spider-Man. Compare Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men to X-Men: First Class and The Amazing Spider-Man, and what you’ll see is that the former two films had a lightness that is missing from their reboots.

For whatever reason, right now, culturally speaking, we’d rather have movies that are realistic and can be taken seriously than movies that are a touch goofier. And that’s fine. The monotony of it can get aggravating, but there’s no sense in which a serious action movie, taken by itself, is inherently inferior to a goofy one, and vice versa.

But each type of movie requires a different approach and requires that its creators put focus on areas that might not have been an issue with the other type. The problem we have right now is that we are making action movies that are intended to be taking seriously, but we are filming — and more specifically, writing them — like something that’s just intended to be light and fun.

Here is where The Amazing Spider-Man suffers.

You see, light-hearted action movies can afford to be more driven by spectacle. They’re less intended to be effective in terms of story and characters — although there’s still a sense in which they need to be. They are driven more by spirit and direction and big, unrealistic set pieces. Humor, as well, is a much larger factor, though it is spread more evenly across both types.

When you are aiming to be taken seriously, though, you start to bind yourself to the context of reality. You might insert a fantastical element — superpowers, for instance — but there’s a sense in which the world, the characters, the dialogue, and the humor need to conform to what we see around us outside the movie theater.

The Amazing Spider-Man does fine at all of those more basic elements. Where it falters is this — realistic, serious action movies are not driven by dumb fun alone. They are entertaining, sure, but they derive that as much from emotion, depth of character, and consistent thematic through-lines as action sequences.

For example, popular audiences almost universally hailed The Dark Knight as a masterpiece. Do you think that was simply because it was a solid action movie with good fight scenes? Not at all. It’s because it had a driving theme laying beneath the surface, pushing things forward and lending the film momentum. It’s because it had compelling characters who were being subjected to interesting and challenging moral dilemmas by a villain who was terrifying, played with style, and most importantly, represented a worldview, one that was both horrible and yet, in some sense, almost unassailable. There were thematic through-lines, and there were things going on emotionally with the characters as well. The Dark Knight wasn’t just an entertaining experience; it was an involving one.

So, here’s the problem with The Amazing Spider-Man, and it’s the problem I actually have with just about every superhero origin story ever made (has any genre subset ever conformed to so specific a formula?): it has two parts, the origin story and the hero vs. villain story.

As with many such films, the origin story is actually pretty good. In fact, I’d contend that The Amazing Spider-Man does it better than Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. It keeps a lot of what works about it — for example, Peter’s own flaws indirectly leading to his uncle’s death and forcing him to confront what he’s become and change. But it adds new elements that provide an additional layer of sense. In Raimi’s version, Peter immediately went after the killer, and after dealing with that, he simply decided to continue fighting crime.

In this telling, he fights crime specifically because he is looking for the killer. And in so doing, he saves enough people and changes enough that when the superhero thing finally sticks, it makes sense, because he’s already been doing it, for reasons that make sense on a character level with him.

The problem, though, is the same as with most other origin stories, with Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger standing as particularly egregious offenders: the origin story part of the movie ends about halfway through with the essential resolution of the protagonist’s character arc, and then lingers with a hero vs. villain conflict that isn’t half as interesting and has no compelling theme or character development going on underneath it.

Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were able to get away with it, because they were adventure movies in a much more traditional sense, built on big, physically impossible set pieces, with over-the-top villains who were lacking in layers in the best way possible, and Spider-Man flitting around in tights dropping cheesy one-liners.

The more realistic approach to The Amazing Spider-Man, however, leaves it cold. A point of contention I have always had with this franchise is the fact that it always wants to opt out of writing villains, instead mainly writing them as good men who are driven crazy because of scientific accidents they may or may not have had any control over. In the previous films, it was campy, and Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina delivered juicily over-the-top villainous performances.

Rhys Ifans, though, plays post-insanity Connors/Lizard for exactly as tortured and mentally disrupted as he is, making the character almost uncomfortable to watch, which doesn’t always work in the context of a film that, again, is written like a mere dumb fun adventure movie. The character is impossible to hate, because Connors is too good a person, and he has no control whatsoever over what he’s doing. And by comparison to your usual destruction-and-anarchy villains, what he’s doing is bad but not earth-shatteringly awful. But I digress.

More importantly, it leaves the film dull after the origin story ends. The characters are no longer going anywhere, there are no interesting concepts at stake, and the story has become a mere series of arbitrary action sequences that don’t contribute meaningfully to anything. The action sequences, by the way, are crappy, consisting solely of Spider-Man jumping around and landing lame punches on the Lizard, who mainly stands there and roars and sometimes throws his arms and tail around. It gets old pretty quickly.

More disastrous are the effects, which are probably technically impressive, but never at any point seem to be interacting with their environment. The Lizard looks like a massive, green cartoon bouncing around on the screen. If he starts touching anything physical, like one scene where he begins clawing the backseat of a car while trying to grab someone within, he looks like he was simply pasted onto the screen while whatever was actually causing the claw marks to form on camera was hastily deleted.

It kills him as a villain, because in addition to lacking emotional presence due to his absence of real personality beyond generic insanity, he also lacks physical presence, making him impossible to take seriously as a threat.

And as soon as the Lizard is introduced, the film completely abandons the one subplot that might’ve maintained some emotional interest or character development for Peter: his search for his uncle’s killer. He never finds him, and as far as we know, that part of Peter’s life will never be resolved (until sequels, presumably, but we’ve already had that conversation with Prometheus).

The back half of the film is, therefore, extremely dry and boring, because there’s nothing going on outside of some extremely crappy eye candy.

And it bugs me, because I’ll reiterate: the origin story half of this thing is pretty good, and should have been the film’s beginning and end. All the parts are well cast (although Andrew Garfield perhaps over-plays Peter’s awkwardness). I’m loving Denis Leary’s non-comedy career right now. He is that rare — read: borderline non-existent — comedian who appears to be presently maintaining the utmost standards with both his comedy career and his serious actor career.

The origin story works emotionally. It considers the effect of the events on the characters and brings them to fruition, allowing things to breathe and develop and make emotional sense. It’s frequently funny and sometimes heartwarming.

And then there’s a Lizard. And Spider-Man has to fight it.

And there goes the movie.

-Matt T.

Prometheus (2012)

Starring- Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Emun Eliott, Benedict Wong, Kate Dickie

Director- Ridley Scott

R- sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language

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

A lot’s been said of the problem the film industry seems to have these days with trailers giving away too much of the movie. And that’s definitely true in the case of Prometheus. Parts of its climax and a couple of major death spoilers, in addition to nearly all of the jump scares and the movie’s most spectacular moments, can be found in one trailer or another.

But a movie is not made or broken by its trailer. And that is not my criticism of Prometheus.

The individuals who edited the trailer did the best they could. A good trailer should set up the premise and end with a question, making audiences show up in the theater for answers.

The problem with Prometheus is that it is not more than its trailer. The TV spots were thirty-second commercials for Prometheus, and Prometheus is a two-hour trailer for its sequel, resolving nothing whatsoever and barely feeling like a story.

On the whole, it’s an exercise in visual prowess and a great cast elevating what might otherwise have been a dull experience.

In Prometheus, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover symbols and markings shared by ancient cultures separated by miles and centuries. They point to a galaxy, discovered with the advancement of modern science. The galaxy contains a planet that is seemingly capable of sustaining life.

They lead a crew there aboard the vessel Prometheus, including the indifferent Captain Janek (Idris Elba), a number of scientists, the mysterious android David (Michael Fassbender), and hard-edged leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the latter two representing Weyland Corporation and seeming to possess an agenda of their own.

What they find when they arrive could point to the origin of the human race, as well as its inevitable destruction…

Here’s the problem with Prometheus. From the trailers, even the incredibly vague teaser, you would discern the following: it is the future, there is a scientific expedition to an alien world, they explore the alien world, bad and deadly things are discovered  there.

The movie is that and absolutely nothing else.

It is a distant prequel to the Alien movies, and as such, it had two goals that needed to be achieved: how they found the planet, and where the xenomorphs come from. That’s a beginning and an ending, leaving two hours of space in the middle to be filled with something.

That something is: A) scientists staring at stuff, and B) that stuff inflicting body horror on the scientists.

There are no interesting discoveries made, nothing that wasn’t broadcast in the trailer or even by the simple fact that it is a sci-fi horror film. There are no particularly interesting plot twists. Oh, things are shaken up once or twice, but one of these twists is senseless and unnecessary, and the other could be chalked up more to a character whose motivations are left insufferably vague throughout the film.

It’s another one of those films where you don’t realize until it’s halfway through that the action sequence you’re currently watching is intended to be the climax. There’s no build-up. The characters follow only the loosest arcs, changing very little throughout the course of the film. The themes of mankind’s search for purpose are only raised in an obligatory fashion between scenes of gore, failing to culminate in any kind of point, argument, or meaning.

It seems merely to set up its pins and knock them down. It’s a horror movie, after all, so the cast needs to be whittled down. So, twenty minutes of the plot will be dedicated to separating two pointless characters and killing them off while forgoing narrative progression. Then, one guy will get infected and go ballistic on the crew, because then another excuse would’ve been needed to kill those guys. Same for the Heroic Sacrifice, which an unnecessary number of characters volunteer for. If they hadn’t, more scenes would’ve been needed to dispose of them. And so on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, the parts of the plot that are unique and interesting — and there are plenty — get sidelined.

In case you can’t see what I’m getting at here, one of the principal problems with Prometheus is that it forcibly ties itself to the Alien movies. This didn’t need to be light-hearted fare, but it shouldn’t have been gory sci-fi horror either. When you really think about it, while you’re watching it, you tend to notice that the body horror stuff really has nothing at all to do with the main plot and themes. It’s there because it’s an Alien movie, and it has to be. It’s like Super 8 — a movie about kids making a movie and navigating their childhoods, and also there is an alien monster.

Prometheus is a movie about scientists exploring a world and trying to find a place and a purpose in the universe, and also there is black goo and space cobras and tentacle monsters and Guy Pearce in the worst old person makeup I have ever seen in a motion picture (and yes, I am factoring the Back to the Future films and J. Edgar into that analysis. Heck, I am factoring Madea into that analysis).

To be honest, the horror scenes feel almost out of place. The film maintains a dark tone throughout, but it is one of mystery rather than fear. Its modus operandi is, in large part, awestruck wonder and discovery.

The film raises all sorts of questions — not just the themes, such as the nature of immortality and the search for purpose in a created universe as well as an accidental one, but also the plot, such as what the heck David is doing and why and literally everything about the alien Engineers — and it’s answer to every single one of them is, “Prometheus 2.”

For a film that sold itself strictly on the notion of being deep and interesting, that’s quite damning indeed. From the perspective of script alone, it’s quite dull, with thinly sketched characters who don’t change much and grab the Idiot Ball with alarming frequency (how does the guy who mapped the cave get lost in it, and why did the freaking biologist who wouldn’t examine a dead body try to play petting zoo with a hissing alien cobra?) and some occasionally baffling dialogue: “It’s Christmas, and I want to open my presents,” says one scientist, with a straight face, upon landing.

Well, let’s roll with the Christmas metaphor. (Actually, it’s probably a cliché at this point.) If Prometheus is an empty box, at least it has very pretty wrapping.

There is some fantastic cinematography and direction on display here. Ridley Scott is one of the best directors of cool sci-fi stuff currently alive. The ship Prometheus is a character unto itself, a Millennium Falcon of a vessel whose every nook, cranny, and dent tells a story. The sets are great as well; Scott’s vision of a future that is functional rather than pretty, having a very industrial look about it, has always been appealing and well realized.

He’s a director who knows how to shoot effects, blending them perfectly with their environments, lighting and placing them perfectly so as to make them seamless against the physical objects in the shot, and (of course) actually freaking building stuff when he’s able to.

The alien world is a formless, gray expanse, but it exudes personality. It’s mysterious and dark, but there are wonders within it. Scott finds them and emphasizes them.

One of the best scenes involves David following an ancient hologram to the workings of an abandoned ship. When he lights it up, the colors, to borrow the old cliché, leap off the screen.

This is a pretty great cast as well, and that carries the film a long way. When characters are drawn thinly, finding the right actor to pull extra depth out of the role is a major plus. Rapace, Fassbender, and Elba all turn their characters into memorable, scene-stealing individuals, all three of them harkening back to predecessors who played similar roles in the previous films. Others, including Charlize Theron (who I like, but not as much as everyone else), are perfectly serviceable, and more than that in their most challenging scenes.

However, a lot of the actors portraying the side characters, also known as the Dead Meat Characters, take broad parts and make them even broader, which is unintentionally amusing or obnoxious, depending on the circumstance.

So, do these things save the film? It’s hard to say. Maybe? It becomes watchable and summons up a number of moments that are powerful, gorgeous, scary, or gross and horrific (the birth of the tentacle monster, you guys. I still can’t eat anything squishy). There’s greatness on display here, but it’s more in the craftsmanship than the blueprints.

Prometheus just doesn’t quite establish a reason for its existence. The setup of Alien is one that leaves it relatively easy to fill in the mental blanks. Establishing the origin doesn’t add much.

Prometheus started out as its own thing, and it should’ve stayed that way. It should’ve remained as a film that was more dark and haunting than scary, one that focused on that sense of wonder and discover, one that emphasized its questions in every scene and had the courage to conjure up a few answers.

What we got, well, it looks and sounds very nice, but it feels quite arbitrary.

 

-Matt T.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Starring- Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, William Hall Jr., Tony Doupe, Xola Malik

Director- Colin Trevorrow

R- language including some sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73jSnAs7mq8

The year 2012 to date has mainly seen two types of films, broadly speaking — bad ones, and ones that are greater than the sum of their sometimes flawed parts.

Safety Not Guaranteed in a lot of ways fits neatly into the latter category, in that it is noticeably imperfect in some respects. At the same time, it is one of the rare few films this year about which it can be confidently said, “This is a good movie.

It is a piece of standout professionalism, written, filmed, and acted by talented people who clearly know exactly what they’re doing, steady hands at the mast.

And beyond that, it is an outstandingly kind, gentle, sincere, and loving film. It also continues a bizarre trend of well-done, “artistic” films whose endings don’t sit well with me.

A Seattle entertainment magazine is brainstorming ideas for articles for its next issue. Writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) proposes investigating a recently published classified ad seeking a companion for time travel.

He gets the go-ahead and drags interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) out into the middle of nowhere, where they encounter Kenneth (Mark Duplass), half crazy survivalist and half just plain crazy, the writer of the ad who appears to think he’s the genuine article.

Jeff’s first meeting with Kenneth doesn’t go well, so he throws Darius into the mix instead, having her pretend to answer the ad and report back to him on everything she sees.

Kenneth accepts her into the fold and begins to train her in the ways of time travel. But as time wears on, Kenneth starts to look less and less crazy, and his plan starts to look more and more real…

Probably the best thing about Safety Not Guaranteed is the way it defies expectations. Not that it is entirely the opposite of what you would expect it to be based on the type of film it is. More in that it starts out as that type of film and ends as that type of film, but a remarkably fresh, complex, and balanced version of it, not bogged down by the usual clichés.

It begins as your traditional indie hipster comedy — “mumblecore” seems to be the Internet’s term of choice. The main trio conforms to the standard comedy archetypes: Darius, the disaffected youth protagonist; Jeff, the womanizing party animal who’s no more than half as cool as he thinks he is; and Arnau, the hopeless loser whose character is defined largely in terms of his lack of sexual prowess.

And then you have Kenneth, who could essentially be called a somewhat more serious version of Dwight from The Office. He’s going to be the wacky, carefree character who makes the more sane protagonists see their mundane lives in a new light.

And it’s not that the film changes these things; rather, it expands them. It explores the reasons and circumstances of these characters and either fleshes them out or makes their stereotypical personalities logical within the context of their experiences.

Examples — Darius is not disconnected, sarcastic, and apathetic because “that’s what cool kids in movies do.” It’s genuine cynicism wrought by tragedy. Her life doesn’t mean anything to her, and she isn’t interested in pretending otherwise for the sake of those around her. Jeff puts on the hard partying persona in large part to help him get past the one who got away and to pretend as if it doesn’t bother him. He’s not afraid of commitment and rather rushes into it unprepared when the opportunity presents itself. And Arnau… Well, okay, that one could’ve been done better. But he’s undeniably slaved to his own negative perception of himself and of who he’s been in the past.

And Kenneth, well, he’s bound by the same kind of tragedy that struck Darius. But instead of becoming cynical and withdrawn, he’s poured those feelings and desires into an outlet that may bring him hope but also has the potential to destroy him in the end.

It seems not much of a spoiler to say that the relationship between Darius and Kenneth eventually becomes friendship and then something more. It’s wonderful to see the way they warm to one another, bonding over their shared experiences, Kenneth pulling Darius out of her shell by giving her a touch of hope and Darius pulling Kenneth back to Earth a little.

Normally, the Big Kiss Scene in these movies comes rather out of nowhere and is included mainly because, well, that’s what happens in scenes like this in movies like this. When it comes in Safety Not Guaranteed, it feels like the only thing that could have happened in that particular scene at that particular point in the film. For such a bizarre set of characters, it’s amazing how naturally and realistically that relationship unfolds.

It ends up being a sweet and heartwarming story of learning how to let go of the past and live unburdened in the present. However, it’s unclear if the movie actually knows it, because the ending…complicates things a touch.

It’s hard to say much without spoiling it entirely, which is not worth doing. It is not until the final few scenes that the film reveals definitively whether Kenneth is crazy or a genuine scientific genius unlocking the secrets of the universe. However, it presents the following problems:

• The ending confuses the film’s internal logic immensely. It raises many confusing questions, not about the film’s themes, but rather about its plot. Even Kenneth’s original ad becomes confusing in light of what is learned in its final reel. It becomes unclear precisely what has happened, and it renders the film before it something of a logical mess.

• And more importantly, it excuses the film from resolving its characters and themes properly, in that it essentially gives it a free pass out of acknowledging how fundamentally damaged Kenneth is, and how self-destructive he absolutely will become if left unchecked. He has already carried Darius’s weight into making her a happier and more hopeful human being. Now, she has to do the same for him, and there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting involved. But instead of acknowledging that, or better yet, resolving it, the ending allows the film to just kind of gloss it over and pretend that everyone lived happily ever after.

It can be said, as a result of that, that simply because one’s ending can be somewhat ambiguous and open-ended, does not mean it should be. Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t the type of film that can get away with it wholesale, because it feels like it still has places it needs to go. The Grey ended ambiguously, but it still resolved its protagonist’s character arc. This film somewhat leaves it hanging.

But let’s not be too harsh. The ending constitutes a mere five-to-ten minutes of the film. What comes before it is not perfect, but it is very, very good. It is strong storytelling, strongly characterized, and proof that one need not have an excess of sweeping scenery shots in order to have lovely cinematography.

It is also, in some ways, the anti-award-nominee in that it proves a film can exist that’s sweet and good-natured without being sugary, cloying, and heavy-handed. It’s a rare indie “art” movie that doubles as a potential crowd-pleaser.

It’s a film that ultimately champions love and understanding over violence and tribalism. It’s funny, charming, thoroughly enjoyable, and well worth seeing.

 

-Matt T.