Archive for December, 2012

ParaNorman (2012)

Starring- Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman

Directors- Chris Butler and Sam Fell

PG- scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1RXm81AsNo

Between its trailers and the simple fact of what it is — an American animated horror-adventure-comedy for kids — there are a lot of things that I, and presumably just about everyone else, expected to say about ParaNorman.

Raise your hand if you thought it was going to be this: ParaNorman is one of the kindest, most loving, and most understanding films of the year.

Yeah, me neither.

Honestly, ParaNorman is not a great movie; in fact, it’s probably more deeply flawed than most installments in its genre. It’s not going to make my favorites list when the year is out. But it stands as what will easily be one of my most memorable film experiences of the year, if only for how shocked I was at its sheer bravery. This is another film like Rango, where it seems that, from beginning to end, not a single studio executive intervened to make it safer and more profitable. I am quite certain it is exactly the film its creators intended to make.

Because, while it has problems, the more I think about ParaNorman, the more I think there is genius in it — subtle, almost devilish genius. We should be thankful its creators are using their powers for good.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young boy living in the town of Blithe Hollow, which is a tourist destination due to the legends surrounding a curse that was supposedly leveled upon it by a condemned witch centuries earlier.

Norman is quiet, shy, and withdrawn. He has a secret — he can speak to the ghosts of the dead, and there are a lot of those in Blithe Hollow. His peers reject him as a freak, apart from neighbor boy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). His parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) know Norman’s secret but believe he’s either making it up or crazy. He takes after his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), after all…

…Crazy Uncle Prenderghast who shows up one day, knowing he’s not long for this world, intending to pass on his duty to Norman, who shares his abilities.

You see, the curse is real. And it’s only by the efforts of one who can speak to the dead that the town is saved from destruction…

I generally find that, on the whole, I enjoy “light” horror for kids and young adults. I’ve never had anything other than a distant admiration for true horror films. I’ve never really bought into the idea of terror being a fun experience. It’s cathartic for some people, and that’s fine; it just isn’t for me.

So, horror-lite tends to work for me, because it gives you the scares, but it also gives you some heart and some humor, and usually, all’s well that ends well. And that’s largely the experience that ParaNorman provides. It’s sometimes a bit scary, but never too oppressive, and it also has a bouncy, fun, and adventurous quality that, when mixed with its more humorous side, keeps it entertaining and largely pretty light-hearted.

It’s also easily the most visually accomplished entry within the genre of stop-motion animation. Much of this has been said already, but it bears repeating, and at length: this is, bar none, the best looking stop-motion animated film ever made. Ever. Made.

Somehow, the animators have achieved a fluidity with the character models and environments that ordinarily is reserved for traditional or computer animation. ParaNorman gets the best of both worlds in that sense; it has the handmade quality of stop-motion and the grace and effortlessness of more standard animation. I have no idea how this was achieved in places. The film is always grasping at new heights, attempting some feats that I’m sure would freeze most animators in place. There isn’t anything this film seems scared of trying, and it results in any number of visually resplendent scenes. Of course, the best animation is of no use if the imagination is dry, and fortunately, it’s not. There is no short supply of creativity here; everything feels new and fresh, even as it’s somewhat paying homage to 70s B-movie/grindhouse features. (Yeah, a kids’ homage to grindhouse movies. Like I said, ParaNorman is very entirely its own thing.)

Where the film suffers is largely on the level of its script — the story and characters, at least. The pacing is all out of alignment. It pretty much hits climax mode about half an hour in and barely slows down after that. It veers back and forth between solemnity and mania, sometimes both at once. It can be an exhausting experience, and occasionally one that’s a bit unsettling because of how unclear it can be how you’re supposed to feel at certain moments.

The characters, too, are pretty flat, more types than individuals. Shy kid, check. Amusing fat kid, check. Drama queen teenager, check. Bully, check. Fitness nut, check. Stuffy drama teacher, check. Sassy black lady, check. None of the stereotypes are abused, particularly, but there’s no real attempt to flesh them out into something complex and interesting, either.

And, while I have occasionally found amusement from sneaky creators hiding adult jokes in kids’ movies, ParaNorman is simply too unsubtle about it. The thing about something like, say, Animaniacs, is that it gets laughs and rolled eyes from the parents, but it flies right over the kids’ heads. ParaNorman, though, just has blatant, if extremely mild, references to sex, porn, and obscenity, and is likely to provoke uncomfortable questioning from more than a few curious youngsters. So, parents, let that stand as a warning, albeit a relatively mild one.

But where this film truly exceeds all possible expectations is in its message. In a lot of ways, its themes are unsurprising: it’s a movie about a misunderstood and unwanted kid whose feared and maligned abilities end up saving the day, so, naturally, it’s going to be about being kind to outcasts and misfits. Lots of kids’ movies have done that. And it’s a good message, but… Well, most movies are hypocritical about it. Because while they are encouraging viewers not to, essentially, “judge books by their covers,” they usually do have a villain or antagonist who drives the plot and is generally not supposed to be understood. He’s the guy being mean to the poor hero, the one whose negative example we’re supposed to learn from.

In other words, their message is this: be nice to people you’re afraid of or don’t understand, because it’s possible you only think they’re bad even though they’re actually good. But if they’re bad? Screw it, they deserve it.

ParaNorman is so unique in this regard. I can think of so few American films for children that have done this. What we have here is not a movie where there’s a villain who is the source of all evil and must be beaten into submission until he or she stops. It’s one that conveys a cycle. Driven by fear and mistrust, people do terrible things to each other. And those terrible things, in turn, cause the formerly innocent victims to do terrible things. And it creates this whirlwind of wrongdoing from which no one can escape so long as they’re only pursuing some form of personal justice.

Violence, force, hate, and close-mindedness? They only fuel it, and they cannot break it.

ParaNorman is, in the end, a wonderful oddity. It is a kids’ movie that, instead of portraying the world as a simple, black and white thing, champions love, nonviolence, understanding, and sincerity as the most powerful forces against evil.

And it’s amazing how far the movie takes that. Full disclosure: I saw the twist with the zombies, or at least something like it, coming from a mile away, because ParaNorman isn’t even the first movie to do it. But when it finally dawned on me what the second twist was going to be, my reaction can only be described as sheer euphoria. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a kids’ movie taking the message of love that far — from “love people you don’t understand” to “love people who are objectively your enemies.”

But it does. And that is just…really awesome, you guys. I cannot put into words how awesome it is that messages like that are getting into our children’s movies and are getting into them in a surprisingly complex, measured, and well-argued way.

And now… Well, having read the discussions this film has provoked, I can’t say I’m pleased with most people’s reaction to the ending, but I won’t bore you with a rant about that. I will say, though, that I approve of the scene that incited it.

Yeah, it’s a throwaway line, and no, it’s not developed in a meaningful way by the movie that precedes it. But then again, if it had been, people would’ve seen it coming and rejected it outright, entirely missing the argument the film was making.

As a simple, stupid, throwaway joke, though, it allows something entirely different to happen. It allows people to watch the movie and be totally on board with its message, saying to themselves, “Yes, we should love other people no matter who they are! Yes, we should try to help them and add joy to their lives, because that makes our world better! Yes, we should be inclusive, kind, and caring, and we shouldn’t sideline people because we fear or don’t understand them!”

And then, that joke, that one joke, basically looks the audience in the eye and provokes a reaction that proves that a lot of people do the opposite anyway, without realizing it.

I didn’t like that line at first — I thought it was kind of dumb, not all that funny, and, in its own way, needlessly provocative. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that there is an almost hilariously devious genius to it. It might not really be a part of the plot, but it does get people thinking about the themes in a way that is directly relevant to their lives, and for that, I applaud it. I think the writer knew exactly what he was doing with that one.

So, that’s why, when I say that ParaNorman is shockingly brave and appears to have had no meddling executives involved with its production, I really do mean it.

It’s not fantastic; it has a lot of issues with its tone and its pacing, and especially its characters. But it’s an entertaining movie, and, more importantly, it’s a surprisingly intelligent one. And it employs that intelligence in courageous and loving ways, and for that, it gets a pretty enthusiastic thumbs-up from me.

-Matt T.

P.S. I will also concede that the ending revelation is also probably more for the adults than the kids, who wouldn’t be attuned to that kind of thematic subtext anyway. So, I guess I’m saying that I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that ParaNorman challenged that particular mindset and prompted that particular conversation. But I’m glad that something did, and at any rate, I laud it for its bravery in doing so.

Lincoln (2012)

Starring- Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath, Gloria Reuben

Director- Steven Spielberg

PG-13- an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language

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

The idea of the egotistical filmmaker is not a new one; in fact, it teeters on the edge of being a stereotype. And it’s not always terribly hard to see where it comes from, in the reaction creators talented and untalented alike frequently have to criticism or box office failure (and just as often, success).

For instance, how does Michael Bay ordinarily respond to bad reviews? Usually some media rant about how critics don’t know how to have fun anymore. And it’s plain to see how M. Night Shyamalan reacted — Lady in the Water, a two-hour middle finger to everyone who criticized The Village.

What’s fantastic about Lincoln, beyond the fact that it is, well, fantastic, is that it’s proof almost positive that Steven Spielberg is not one of these filmmakers. I’m not certain that I’ve ever seen a film so perfectly adapted to past criticisms; it is one that, in its flaws, is so decidedly un-Spielberg that it’s absolutely stunning.

Lincoln appears to be the work of a man who listened carefully to the critiques of his past works and attempted to adjust himself accordingly.

The end result is a film that is easily Spielberg’s best of the last decade, and possibly just one of his best, period.

The rest of the industry could stand to learn a lesson from its success.

Lincoln follows the life of the 16th President of the United States of America during the period in which he was attempting to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, formally abolishing slavery for all time.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) sees that the time is as right as it’s ever going to be. The Republican Party is largely behind him; its more tepid representatives are unlikely to be difficult to persuade. And the Democratic Party has seen several of its own lose seats in a recent election, leaving a handful of its representatives unbound by the opinions of their districts and perhaps free to vote differently than they have in the past.

But he faces a deadly choice. The South has expressed interest in negotiations to end the Civil War and be re-admitted into the Union — an event for which Lincoln is desperate, knowing that the advent of spring will start the slaughter anew. But the South will not negotiate its way back into a nation that has abolished slavery.

But he also knows that if he does not move on this amendment before the departing Democrats are out and especially before the South has delegates back in the Houses, the institution of slavery is likely to remain intact for decades at the very least — a tragedy for the slaves to whom he promised freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation.

The success or failure of Lincoln, from the very beginning, was always going to be predicated on its star. There’s a tendency with such universally revered figures to portray them as, well, universally revered ­— godlike, non-human, and uninteresting.

And the film scares you from the beginning, starting off with a quartet of Union soldiers singing praises to a fatherly Lincoln while he looks on with infinite grace and wisdom. Fortunately, it quickly breaks out of that mode.

One could argue that the character is still a touch too mythic, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. He suffers more from pestilence than demons and is frequently less interesting than a number of the characters that surround him. He can be a touch too unflappably good, for lack of a better word.

But the movie still humanizes him enough. It conveys perfectly the magnitude of the burden he carries, the awful, unwinnable choice he must make — the lives of the nation’s young men, or the freedom of an entire race. He knows he will carry guilt no matter what he does, and he bears constantly a distant look, one of deep and sorrowful thought. He is also a man who has accepted thoroughly the political process and what it is. He is not above bribes, manipulation, and the occasional lawyer’s dodge. The question is asked constantly: do the ends justify the means? Should a just cause stand above the game, or must it play it for the sake of ending suffering? Can we know when or if that actually occurs, and when does it make the player a tyrant?

More importantly, what this film does is make Lincoln into someone familiar. Lincoln has never been particularly real in the public consciousness; he has always been more of an iconic image than a man. Here, he feels like someone you know, someone you care about. He has the feel of an awkward uncle, lost in his own world, trying to relate to the kids with the constant friendly but bumbling personal or historical anecdote that always culminates in a cheesy and occasionally dirty punch-line. You know the type.

Daniel Day-Lewis is too far along for this role to define his career. However, it’s the type of performance that’s destined to define the character. Years from now, it seems inevitable that Day-Lewis’s voice, appearance, and demeanor will be irrevocably associated with people’s image of Abraham Lincoln.

What carries the film farther is its marvel of a supporting cast, composed of so many revered character actors that, past a certain point, it becomes a game of Hey, It’s That Guy!

One of the most important things any movie can do as far as creating its world and selling it as a place that exists, or existed once, is making every character who appears on screen distinct and memorable, and Lincoln is one of the finest examples of this in years. It has dozens upon dozens of characters in roles small and large but always important, who are given the exact right number of realistic demeanors, personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies that each one becomes distinct in the memory of the viewer.

With only a single viewing, it is nearly impossible to remember the role played by all of them, or even what all of their names were, but in that sense, Lincoln does what any historical film worth its salt ought to — it makes you want to learn. It makes you so fascinated by each and every one of these individuals that it drives you to research, to find out names, to see if the personalities conveyed on-screen match what we know of them as historical figures, to see if their stories run deeper with regard to the Civil War or to the plight of the slaves searching for freedom. There are few characters in this film who do not stand out. On that level, even if Lincoln did not have a compelling period setting — and it most certainly does — its world would still feel believable and lived-in. You get the sense that every character in it has a story to tell, and that makes it engaging.

The story itself has an admirable amount of focus, forgoing the usual biopic route that frequently gets these movies confused as to what they’re actually about and honing in specifically on the part of Lincoln’s life where he pushed for the Thirteenth Amendment. And what a compelling story it is — a chess game, a battle of wits between multiple intellectual giants, a prisoner’s dilemma, a give and take with a fundamental moral question behind it: end the war, or free the slaves? The scenes in the House are perfect, and beg the question: if we’re going to be politically polarized, can we at least do it in a way that’s witty, dignified, and frequently hilarious?

(I’m totally using the phrase “wretched lizards” in real life now.)

The dialogue is sharp on the level of Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon, and the repartee between the two sides is fun and funny. But the film is complicated as well, presenting complex figures on both sides of the argument. Tommy Lee Jones has a great role as Thaddeus Stevens, a representative who campaigns hard for the amendment, for reasons he keeps bottled up. He’s a likable if cynical character in his friendly moments and a highly entertaining force of nature when he’s riled up. The Republicans fear him as much as the Democrats, worried his loose tongue and strong will could do them in faster than their actual opponents.

But the movie, more importantly, is one that champions love at its center, both on a personal and, to a lesser extent, political basis. In the background of the film, Lincoln bears the burden of his bleeding family. His wife, Mary (Sally Field), still grieves for their lost son, and he carries the guilt for it, guilt he no longer has room to bear. That fear drives him to attempt to control his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and prevent him from enlisting, which creates further friction. His youngest son (Gulliver McGrath) gets lost in the noise. Lincoln attempts to care for him, but he feels as though his wife as abandoned him and is unable to care for the boy’s grief as well as her own.

But what’s doubly fascinating is the extent to which none of the characters seem to perceive the South and its soldiers as being their enemy. They seem very nearly confused by the idea that they are at war, unsure what to do with that notion. That they so eagerly wish to see the South readmitted and back in the government is extremely telling. That it was a war of brother against brother is immediately evident. Spielberg has always had a singular talent for conveying, subtly and otherwise, the horrors of war and the devastation it brings without attempting to take a side, to make one person’s death tragic and another’s good. When Lincoln surveys the carnage of a battle, the twisted bodies very nearly cannot be made out for blue or gray, only for bloodied and broken humanity. For all its triumphs — and there are grand ones — Lincoln is a film of pervasive sadness.

But, as previously stated, where the film shines is in what it does well without being expected to do well. For all his talents, Spielberg — and I’ll still contend he’s made very few movies that are outright bad — has been on autopilot for something like a decade now. His flaws have always to some extent been evident, but lately, they’ve been taking over.

Lincoln is the adjustment. It is the response to criticism. It’s not perfect, but the things you’d expect it to do badly it instead does very well. It is the first example in years of Spielberg stretching well out of his comfort zone, trying something at which he has not frequently been very good, and finding, through the help of his writers and cinematographers, resounding success.

Normally, his films are smothered in sappy, sentimental emotion, and, okay, Lincoln still has touches of that. Spielberg still likes his big emotional speeches, and Lincoln gives him a shot at the lion’s share. He loves to have the camera gradually zoom in on Lincoln as he speaks, first softly and then louder, while the music slowly builds. Sometimes it’s cheesy, sometimes it works, and sometimes it does both at the same time.

But what is shocking about Lincoln is that it is bursting with emotion, it its big climaxes, in its darkest moments, in its triumphs. By the end, I was more overcome with feeling than I have been in ages, and I realized: I did not feel like I had been manipulated into this. I did not feel like I’d been tricked. That emotion was fully earned by everything in the script that had been building up to those moments: the struggles of the characters, the difficulty in the task they undertook, the sacrifices that had to be made. All of that became so real and palpable that, by the end, nothing else was needed: only resolution.

Even John Williams is unusually restrained here. His score usually seems like it’s in a contest with the movie, trying to see if it can be more memorable than everything else that happens. Here, it’s content, largely, to remain in the background. It’s an unusually silent film, using nothing but ambient sound and the characters’ voices for very large portions of its run-time. When the score comes in, it enhances what the film has already built, exactly as a score should. You won’t remember the music as much as with Williams’ past work; this one is less listenable independent of the film. But the movie as a whole is so much better for it.

It’s difficult to remember a time when Spielberg was this patient a director, so content to allow an actor like Day-Lewis to slip seconds-long breaks in conversation, to let him drift off in thought and simply sit there, silent and comprehending. The shots are so long and unbroken; the music is so restrained. The subtle little tricks and manipulations are all but disappeared. Everything you feel by the end is earned, and what a rarity that is!

The best thing about Lincoln is that, when we talk about what’s wrong with it, we’re speaking less of what doesn’t work and more of what could’ve worked better. Enhancements, in other words, not fixes.

For starters, I wanted more from Lincoln and his family. They filter in and out; the movie is more about politics. Therefore, the characters whose personalities and motivations are tied solely into the political conflict are more interesting: Thaddeus Stevens, for instance, whose every moment is golden. With Lincoln himself, it sometimes feels like we’re getting distracted, like the film wants to say too much about too many different things, even if what it’s saying is largely done well. The family doesn’t get much attention, and their struggle as a whole, in my opinion, ought either to have been expanded or excised.

I also have some grievance with the ending. Any film about Abraham Lincoln is inevitably going to conclude with his assassination. This one depicts the deed (somewhat), as well as the aftermath, albeit briefly. But it becomes clumsy and awkward beginning with the arrival at the theater and ending with its attempts to somehow tie it into the actual triumphant feel of the film.

The perfect ending, however, was already there; the film needed only to stop. Here’s what should’ve happened. After the passage of the amendment, Lincoln is in a room speaking with politicians and officers when he is informed that his wife is waiting for him to leave for the theater. He says to those present, with a certain sense of significance, “I must go. I wish I could stay.”

He then takes his hat from a servant and starts down the stairs, silhouetted against a large window as the servant watches him depart from behind.

And, end.

But I’m nitpicking here.

What is there else to say about ­Lincoln, really, other than that it’s a film that can make us excited about Spielberg, the man whose name is practically synonymous with movie magic, as a filmmaker again? It is an achievement; that is the only word that can properly describe it. It is bound to lock up every Academy Award for which it has been nominated, and frankly, I’m unlikely to be particularly upset about that.

Whether it’s the best movie of the year or not, in the end, it is not one to be missed.

-Matt T.

Premium Rush (2012)

Starring- Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dania Ramirez, Michael Shannon, Wole Parks, Aasif Mandvi, Jamie Chung, Christopher Place

Director- Dave Koepp

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

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn6ie1zCkZU

Premium Rush is lightweight and thoroughly dumb, but aware enough of both of those facts that it’s not an entirely unpleasant watch, even if it is kind of a superfluous one. It’s best played in the background at social settings. Pay too much attention, and the deficiencies show.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a New York City bike messenger, and one of the more daring ones at that, riding without brakes or gears, swinging between vehicles and pedestrians with only a hair’s worth of separation. He’s one of the best there is, in an industry that relies on never being late.

One afternoon, he picks up an envelope from college student Nima (Jamie Chung) set for delivery at 7 p.m. that day. It’s routine enough, until crooked cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) shows up looking for it, desperate to get his hands on its contents.

Now, it’s a race against time, law enforcement, and competing bike messengers to get the package delivered on time, and even by comparison to the norm, this one threatens to be the ride of Wilee’s life.

It’s difficult to say much of anything about Premium Rush; it’s wafer-thin, one of the most perfect examples of “style over substance” filmmaking. In a rare twist, this is probably what saves it, in the sense that a bad movie can be “saved” into a kind of okay one.

Premium Rush benefits from the fact that it doesn’t burden itself with pretense or unearned gravitas and emotion. The ultimate deal breaker — or maker — for audiences is the fact that, as a movie, it’s pretty much guys riding bikes really fast and then guys riding bikes really fast some more. Sometimes, there are cars to shake things up, but only the bad guys use them.

It’s lightweight and seems to lack aspirations to be anything else. The story takes place over the course of a few hours and doesn’t take on many subplots beyond a few brief sequences of flashbacks that supply quick motivations for the characters and explanations placing them at the starting gate, so to speak.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while he hasn’t yet reached the stage of his career where he necessarily elevates bad material, is still pretty likable, and the movie coasts a long way off of that. In any case, the side characters are irrelevant; the movie is mostly him and Michael Shannon.

Shannon… Well, his presence here is inexplicable. But it’s also clear he knows exactly what he’s doing, as he delivers a performance that is equal parts active sabotage and saving grace. He’s Burgess Meredith’s Penguin meets Heath Ledger’s Joker meets Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone if he was an incompetent moron. He goes so far over the top, almost seeming like he’s testing the director at time. Glancing sideways at the camera: “He…he’s not stopping me? Okay. Well, wonder if he’ll stop this.

It’s hard not to believe that Shannon improvised a lot of his dialogue here, because the lines spoken by his character are hilariously dumb even by comparison to the rest of the movie. “I’m chasing a kid on a bike, heh, heh,” or, heck, the entire scene where he rants about people saying “suck it” for no reason at all related to the plot, characters, scene, or preceding dialogue.

Shannon is freaking glorious in this, is what I’m saying.

But, really, Premium Rush doesn’t overburden itself, which is why it… Well, it’s hard to say it succeeds, because it, you know, doesn’t, in the sense that I’m prepared to refer to it as a “good movie.” But it doesn’t fail, exactly.

It’s a short story, nice and simple. It doesn’t go for dark moments or big emotional climaxes. Just more bike chases. It likes itself some bike chases. The plotting is brisk and doesn’t accumulate any more information than absolutely necessary. And character development? Pah, that’s for squares. Premium Rush almost seems like a tease; it takes the time out to criticize the main character in places, but then, at the end, when something like an “arc” ought to occur, it just goes, “Screw it, more bike chases.” That kind of commitment is to be admired.

Normally, these things would be worth criticizing, and, you know… I guess they kind of are; the film’s lack of any substance whatsoever definitely holds it back from being good or at least something you’d want to see again. But the fact that it has this idea in its head of what it is and doesn’t really break from it makes it kind of entertaining in a way. Most action movies get sucked into a whirlwind of self-seriousness that their writers and directors aren’t anywhere near prepared to handle competently. Premium Rush is just along for the ride.

It’s a more stylish and visually impressive film than one might expect as well. I’ve seen many of Dave Koepp’s writing efforts, but this is the first of his directorial projects I’ve given a shot, and you know what? He’s a subpar writer at best, but he’s actually not a bad director. Give the guy a good script, and yeah, he could pull something off. The movie makes good use of its sets, on top of being a rare dumb action movie smart enough not to mess with its color scheme overmuch. The atmosphere of the city feels about right, and the movie captures the kinetic energy of its subject material well.

I mean, the movie’s dumb as a sack of hammers, and I’m not going to deny that. The entire thing is predicated on hero and villain alike making one phenomenally stupid decision after another without a single one of them ever demonstrating base intellectual competence. This movie could’ve ended five or six times prior to the moment that it actually did. It also has that distinctly Hollywood tendency to inflict serious bodily harm on its protagonists and then have them pretty much walk it off. Or bike it off, rather; there isn’t much walking in this.

But, whatever, you know? It’s that type of film, and it knows that. I suppose I could be bothered that it’s pretty much taking the easy way out of actually being good, but it’s decent enough at being stupid fun that it’s hard to mind too much. It’s lightweight and definitely not good, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s enjoyable in the sense that you won’t hate it if you watch bits and pieces of it in between hanging out with friends.

So… Half a thumb up? Or maybe just the thumbnail? I don’t know how this works.

Premium Rush: it is not absolutely awful.

-Matt T.

Total Recall (2012)

Starring- Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho, Will Yun Lee

Director- Len Wiseman

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language

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

Total Recall could’ve been worse. But it isn’t any better than that, which is the problem.

2011 seemed to mark some kind of milestone in blockbuster movies — social media turned word of mouth marketing into the most powerful kind there is, and bad movies (except, inexplicably, those made by Michael Bay) started underperforming.

So, in 2011, we witnessed the advent of the Okay Blockbuster. A surprising number of the year’s tentpoles actually put forth some effort not to be completely terrible.

And it’s gotten old.

It’s a style of filmmaking that’s very impersonal and mechanical, designed to achieve the bare minimum level of goodness required to get people to tell their friends to go see it, and nothing beyond that.

M. Night Shyamalan makes way worse movies than most blockbusters anymore, but at least his heart and soul is in each and every one of those, you know?

Total Recall mostly aims for the “eh, it’s not terrible, check it out” demographic. Unfortunately, unlike a lot of recent films, it puts forth too little effort and winds up on the subpar-leaning-completely-dull end of that spectrum. Which really isn’t much different from “barely okay,” but there you have it. Total Recall is “barely not okay,” which is hardly a sterling recommendation.

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a low-level worker in a factory manufacturing war robots for the government in a dystopian future. Ruined by chemical warfare, only two habitable locations remain — most of Europe, united under Britain’s flag, and Australia, now called the Colony. They are connected by the Fall, a transportation system that runs through the planet’s core.

Quaid is dissatisfied with life and constantly in search of more. Eventually, fed up, he heads into Rekall, a business that uses futuristic technology to give the customer any memory he or she wants, no matter how fantastical. Quaid opts for a secret agent fantasy…

But the machine rejects it, due to a conflict with reality. Police arrive suddenly, trying to arrest him. Losing control, he quickly and efficiently kills them all.

And begins to wonder if maybe the dreams by which he’s haunted aren’t really dreams at all.

I haven’t seen the original Total Recall. If I do decide to see it, it will be under the following two circumstances:

1.     It is on TV.

2.     I am bored when it is on TV.

Because, seriously, you guys, I am done watching 80s action “classics” on purpose.

But either way, I do know a thing or two about the original, mainly that it leaves the question of whether everything that happens to Quaid after he sits down in that chair is real or if it is all part of the memory being created for him up to the audience’s interpretation.

However, we no longer live in the age of ambiguity.

(Oh, my gosh, did I just refer to the 80s as an age of ambiguity?)

In this regard, the remake of Total Recall tries to have its cake and eat it, too, a bit. It leaves it just open enough for more conscious viewers to apply their own interpretation, but also ignores the possibility to the extent that it’s pretty clear what the writer thinks and what the people who are just turning off their brains and watching it are going to think.

In either case, it perfectly crafts a scenario where neither option entirely makes sense. If it’s all a memory being concocted for Quaid, then why does he dream of specific details of what happens to him in it prior to ever going to Rekall? And if it’s all real, well, the plot holes and ludicrous Batman Gambits have a lot of explaining to do.

It’s also really not much for the philosophical half of its premise, either. It clearly aspires to be Minority Report in many of its aspects, but it’s not up to that level. Not that Minority Report is the most brilliant thinker of all time itself, but it knows what it’s trying to say and says it pretty well. Total Recall is pseudo-philosophy at best, clumsily trying to get across some “it’s more important who you are in the present than who you were in the past” message but taking that idea to such an extreme level that it becomes entirely too easy to poke holes in it. One gets the impression that the old saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is lost on this movie. The premise ends up a waste in the end.

One could also complain at length about the film’s dull characters, whose names are quickly forgotten and whose personalities are nonexistent, or its repetitive reach-a-new-location-get-surprised-by-bad-guys-there-fight-while-running story, but it’s really not worth it anymore. The same could be said for the protagonist-centered morality that it practices for most of its running length.

However, Total Recall does have one thing going for it, and that’s its visuals. Granted, a lot of it is borrowed out of Minority Report, Firefly, and Blade Runner, but it still has an extremely well realized future world that’s simultaneously plausible and outlandish.

The special effects, too, are quite impressive, considering this film probably had a relatively modest budget by comparison to others in its genre. And Len Wiseman, to his credit, knows how to shoot them. Everything has presence and weight and feels like it belongs; there are only a few standout green screen moments.

If only the movie didn’t mess that up with bafflingly excessive lens flare. If you think J.J. Abrams has a problem with this, oh, boy. At least in his movies there is usually a visible light source causing the flares to occur. Half the time, in Total Recall, you’re scanning the screen fervently, shouting, “Where the heck is that even coming from?

Seriously, this thing is a potential seizure threat in some places, particularly the opening scene, which seems to have been shot in front of a set of strobe lights.

But I digress.

Is Total Recall good?

No.

Is it terrible?

Also no.

Should I see it?

Heck, no.

Let’s start demanding personal, interesting, and sometimes great films again.

 

-Matt T.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Starring- Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries

Director- Peter Jackson

PG-13- extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0k3kHtyoqc

   The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: really, it’s not as bad as all that.

Then again, I’m a Star Wars prequel apologist, so maybe I’m just irrationally biased toward franchises of which I happen to be a huge fan. Of course, I happen to think Star Wars: The Clone Wars is one of the six or seven worst things ever, so…take that, I guess?

Anyway, there’s certainly no denying that The Hobbit is a touch flawed as an adaptation of its source material and even as a film unto itself. It’s inferior to all three of its predecessors, and significantly so.

I keep reading the reviews, and yeah, they aren’t really negative, so to speak. So far, more critics like it than not, which is, then again, also true of those Star Wars prequels we were just talking about. In any case, the reviews are negative enough that I keep thinking about The Hobbit, waiting for it to devalue in my mind, but you know what? It’s not happening, and far from it — I like this more the longer I think about it, and I’m eager to see it again.

The Hobbit is an adventure in the purest sense, the kind I’ve been waiting years for Hollywood to get exactly right, the way it used to, and it allayed considerably a number of the concerns I’ve had for the direction of this saga. That’s a thumbs-up in my book.

Based on the classic novel by J.R.R. Tolkien (yeah, that’s going to be my segue, even though you all already knew that), The Hobbit tells the story before the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is enjoying a life of ease and comfort in the peaceful Shire when that most prying of wizards, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) shows up on his doorstep looking for someone to partake in an adventure.

Bilbo refuses outright and turns him away, but Gandalf, undeterred, takes the liberty of inviting twelve displaced dwarves, among them the once-great prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to the hobbit’s home as a stop on their journey to retake their old kingdom and vast treasure trove, stolen from them by the dragon Smaug.

Gandalf has apparently recruited Bilbo to be the fourteenth member of their party, for reasons entirely unknown to Bilbo himself. But, with some prodding, he is persuaded to join them on their quest, as the group’s “burglar.”

And, along the way, he encounters a certain ring…

Now, to start with, my own opinion on The Lord of the Rings is…well, positive, to say the least, but effusive probably captures it better. I happen to think that the original three films are pretty awesome. In fact, at all times, I count the original three Lord of the Rings films among my favorite movie trilogies ever made. Whether that biases me or not, it’s hard to say, but it’s worth throwing that out there.

I’ve also read the books — the trilogy more recently. As to The Hobbit, well, it’s been years, so I only remember it so well. Unfortunately, I can only criticize The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as an adaptation to a certain extent.

Now, the film. After mulling it over sufficiently, I think it’s best to begin with the list of things that don’t work about The Hobbit, or at least don’t work as well as they could. As I said previously, whatever its strengths, it is something of a step down from its predecessors, and there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, it suffers from a problem I’ve been encountering surprisingly often these days in that it’s got this tonal inconsistency where it really can’t decide what it wants to be.

As a book, The Hobbit is much more for children than the other three installments. Its tone is lighter and more playful, dark now and then, but even then in such a way that appealed to a more childlike element that was afraid of monsters under the bed. It had a lot more humor and was overall more bombastic and joyful than what followed.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sticks with that, mainly, and this is to its benefit. It doesn’t take the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality to sequels and prequels; instead of adopting the “same, but bigger” mantra and falling flat on its face trying to top a trilogy of modern classics, it goes for something wholly different, and it works, mostly. It’s not, as previously stated, a better film than its predecessors, in my opinion, but it is a sprightlier and more entertaining one as opposed to the darkness and ponderousness of the original trilogy. The Hobbit is a story with a smaller scale and a lighter tone, and its film adaptation pulls off both.

At the same time… Peter Jackson occasionally seems a touch ashamed of it. Here, he comes off as one of those filmmakers who views making movies for children as an inferior art form to making them for adults. He pulls back…frequently.

What we have here is a film that’s great for kids and adults alike in its fun and interesting story and big and humorous characters, and then great exclusively for adults in its action sequences, which are clearly overcompensating for a PG-13 rating. It’s easily as violent, grisly, and realistic as the darkest scenes in The Return of the King. The moment The Hobbit gets to an action sequence, it’s perfectly jarring; all of a sudden, the humor drains right out.

…Except when it doesn’t. Because even then, Jackson sometimes pulls back and tries to invite the kids in the audience back into the movie again. An ill-placed and unrealistic joke, for instance, appearing in the midst of an otherwise gravely serious battle sequence or immediately following an implied disemboweling (yes, that happens), making it tough to know what you ought to be taking seriously sometimes.

On the whole, Jackson is the type of filmmaker who clearly lets the “epic scale” run away with the plot and themes now and again. He likes himself some big and ruinous battle sequences, and he really doesn’t need much excuse to indulge one. Many of the film’s climactic moments run on too long and struggle between being faithful to the book and including all of the minor conflicts Jackson has added along the way to pad the film out.

One addition is that of a conflict between Thorin and the Pale Orc, an enemy out of his past who pursues the group. This isn’t a terrible idea in theory, but in practice, it simply could have been executed better. The Pale Orc is not a terribly compelling villain in design or personality and mainly just floats at the edges of the movie, waiting to charge in when a climactic moment is needed.

It’s hard, when you read of who Tolkien was in reality, to imagine he would necessarily have approved of having so much violent excess inserted into his battle sequences, which were frequently the least described occurrences in books that had a sometimes faulty compulsion to describe everything. In truth, he openly opposed the concept of total war and was critical of both sides throughout World War II.

Little snippets of that attitude make the transition from the page to the screen. “True courage is not knowing how to take a life but when to spare one,” Gandalf tells Bilbo. When Bilbo confronts a fallen enemy and puts this piece of advice into practice, fans of the series know that, in truth, he’s inadvertently providing the world of Middle Earth with its eventual salvation.

Indeed, Gandalf eventually says that he chose Bilbo for the quest because he’s come to realize that, contrary to the assertions of fellow wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), it is not physical power and shows of force that defeat evil but random and small acts of kindness.

Peter Jackson’s adaptation renders that line a touch hypocritical in its lavish and sometimes gruesome battle scenes. It’s a bit disappointing, because The Hobbit could’ve been a great film for children and families, but instead, it’s probably wisest to leave the young ones with a babysitter.

These illustrate the film’s largest problems, but there are smaller ones, hovering around the edge of things, more nitpicks than anything else, but they do add up.

First — as frequently and surprisingly funny as this version of The Hobbit is, the humor loses its restraint now and then and carries things a bit too far. There’s a fine line between a film being funny because of its characters and their interactions (Bilbo and the dwarves are wonderful, constantly getting on one another’s nerves in the best way possible) and a film failing to be funny because, instead, it’s just silly.

Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Good night, Radagast. Thank heaven he was only in three scenes, because he was treading well into Jar-Jar Binks territory. He has a sleigh pulled by rabbits, you guys. And it outruns wargs.

And some of the humor, as previously stated, is just ill-placed, adding to a lot of the tonal inconsistency. The ill-placed jokes tend also to be the dumbest and least amusing, which doesn’t help matters much.

There’s some visual inconsistency here as well. Guillermo del Toro might have left the project before getting the chance to direct, but it’s clear that a number of his ideas and designs were kept, because many of the new creatures have a very Hellboy look about them, and they simply don’t seem to belong in this universe. They look far more outlandish and cartoony, and frequently are rendered with that excess of blatant CGI of which the series was previously lauded for avoiding. They’re not inherently bad designs, but they belong in a different movie with a different tone and a different, not previously established universe. The Hobbit doesn’t have the same homespun quality as its predecessors, which robs it of some of its likability.

And, finally… Well, much has been said of the film’s bloated quality, stuffing in everything it can from Tolkien’s annotations and other works, filming nearly every iota of random knowledge we have about Middle Earth. To be honest, while I remain skeptical of splitting this relatively simple and straightforward story into three installments, it doesn’t go nearly as badly here as it might have. It really doesn’t get distracted from its main storyline as much as one might expect, expanding on the story merely in a few additional scenes with Gandalf, Radagast and a handful of other names well known to fans.

The only real downside, in the sense that it actually does bog down the film a touch, is that Bilbo, the film’s protagonist, can get lost in the noise sometimes. It would’ve been a problem from the beginning, since, half the time, Bilbo only stays in the limelight in the book because everything is seen from his point of view, but it’s worsened by the addition of all the extra scenes in which he has no involvement whatsoever. It’s called The Hobbit, so it fairly well ought to be about said hobbit.

But, enough of this nerdy fanboy negativity. It’s time to get into some nerdy fanboy gushing. I don’t pick on The Hobbit because I hate it; I pick on The Hobbit because I with all of my heart love The Lord of the Rings and always think it can be better. And anyway, films that are deeply flawed are also oftentimes deeply interesting. Flaws are not vices, and The Hobbit has few of those — and they run astride some particularly outstanding strengths.

I’ve already mentioned a few of them. The humor, aside from a couple of bumbling missteps, is mostly really effective, derived in large part from the relationship between Bilbo and the dwarves. Some of them warm to him more quickly than others; the friendly relationships have a wonderful sense of warmth and camaraderie, and the unfriendly ones are compelling without undermining the tone of the film. And, of course, you throw Gandalf into the mix — Gandalf with his infinite wisdom that he seemingly always chooses to disperse in ways that amuse him as much as they enlighten those under his protection.

It’s also worth elaborating on the way the film expands the adaptation to cover many of Tolkien’s notes and other works while also generating some mostly original content to pad it out, because, while I remain convinced that the best possible version of this film would be delivered in a straightforward manner as one part, it really doesn’t go over as badly as one might fear.

While it’s true that some of the added scenes feel more like imitation Tolkien than the genuine article, for the most part, it all fits in relatively seamlessly. It might not all tie into the themes and overarching story directly, but it matches the episodic quality the book does to some extent have.

I think part of the reason it didn’t bother me that much is that I do occasionally enjoy an adventure movie that’s more of a fantasy world travelogue, provided the adventures had along the way are fun, imaginative, and/or interesting, and in The Hobbit, they (mostly) are.

Like its predecessors, this is a film that is packed to bursting with wonders, some stronger than others but nearly all of them new or at least familiar in the best possible way.

The lighter tone, in certain scenes, really does allow Jackson to push the edges of his imagination, since he’s not as bound by “realism,” such as it is, anymore. The characters are bigger, the adventure is bigger, the action sequences are more outlandish, and the movie as a whole, if not necessarily better than the original trilogy, is at the very least a lot more fun. It’s jovial and spirited and mostly isn’t too ashamed of either of these things — however much it sometimes endeavors to bury them in its big battle scenes.

It’s also key that the film manages to get exactly right the one thing it needed to get exactly right, and that’s its protagonist — Bilbo Baggins. This movie could not possibly have better transplanted the character as he appears from the book into the film adaptation. The personality is right, the demeanor is right, the look is right, and Martin Freeman… There is no other actor on this planet who could have more perfectly brought this character to life. The guy is Bilbo.

It has strong characters all around, really. Bilbo is fantastic, Ian McKellan continues to bring Gandalf to life in the most perfect way possible, Richard Armitage is a fantastic Thorin in all of his self-seriousness and pride, and the rest of the dwarves a great bunch to join for an adventure. Of course, other fan favorite characters reappear as well, often in bit parts, and leave their mark as ever. And the world itself remains a character, so perfectly constructed from the ground up as to exude personality, history, culture, and even mood.

And can we talk about Peter Jackson as a visual director for a moment? We already know he can handle sweeping grandeur and can coax an iconic image out of just about anything. But one thing I hear far too few people talking about is his borderline Hitchcockian handle on suspense and tension.

He almost never has to resort to a simple jump scare, and indeed, there are many scenes in this movie where I was anticipating one, having been trained by modern cinema to do so, and yet, one never came. Despite that, said scenes usually kept me right on the edge of my seat.

I remember back to The Fellowship of the Ring, in the scene where the heroes are beset by the goblins in Moria and Aragorn and Boromir rush to bar the doors against the oncoming horde. And there’s this shot, perfectly paced, of the camera just rushing toward them as they scramble to block the path. It gives the sense of the threat bearing down and just catches your breath in your throat.

There is so much of that on display in The Hobbit. Jackson doesn’t rely on the obvious tricks most movies use to get people bracing — bracing, mind you, not actually scared, because there’s a difference. If the hero is confronted with a foe, said foe almost never arrives out of nowhere. Rather, it creeps at the edges of the frame and approaches, visible to the audience the whole time, and everyone watching goes completely silent, breathless.

There are numerous examples, but one stands out — Gollum (Andy Serkis), in the caves, approaching Bilbo, who is stuck in a narrow crevice, trying to squeeze his way out to safety. There’s no jump, no quick cuts, just silence and dread, pure atmosphere.

Gollum, by the way… Why does Andy Serkis not have an Academy Award yet? Gollum is only in the film for perhaps half an hour at the most, in a single scene that’s frequently interrupted by jumps to what the dwarves are doing at that moment. But Gollum’s game of riddles against Bilbo is easily the film’s best sequence, by a comfortable mile. Gollum is a walking contradiction — adorable and terrifying, funny and tragic, sometimes gentle and sometimes monstrous and violent. He has always been the saga’s most compelling character, and that remains true here. Everything about that sequence works absolutely as intended, which is crucial, because it’s one of the standout moments in the book as well.

Really, I could go on forever about the film’s strengths and weaknesses alike. I’m a nerd; it’s what I do. But this has been long enough already. So, in summary…

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not perfect, nor is it quite up to the standard set by its lauded “sequels.” It has problems with its tone, as it swings back and forth between merry and childlike, and violent and dark. It’s also just a bit much, playing poorly to Jackson’s habit for completely unrestrained excess. And, of course, there are more minor flaws here and there — humor that doesn’t always fit, a few characters who are either unnecessary or boring, and a tendency to distract itself from the plot with more annotation padding.

At the same time, The Hobbit has so much to like about it that it is simply impossible not to mark it, if not as one of the best films of the year, then at least as one of the most noteworthy. It brings to bear many of the strengths of the saga thus far — a beautifully constructed world, a sense of grand adventure, and visual style to spare — while also striking out on its own and not trying to be a “same but bigger” version of its predecessors. It largely adopts the tone of the book, and it’s better off for it. It’s a happy and involving journey, with plenty of fun and imaginative adventures along the way. And, of course, it’s got some strong and well portrayed characters bearing it through.

Disappointment? Sure.

Still pretty freaking good? Absolutely.

 

-Matt T.

Ruby Sparks (2012)

Starring- Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Wolfe, Elliott Gould

Directors- Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

R- language including some sexual references, and for some drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4RJYlSgDKM

Between this and Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012 appears to be the year of the self-critical indie movie, using the standard tropes of the genre and turning them on their heads to make some larger point.

Ruby Sparks is the type of film that’s sometimes easier to admire distantly than it is to truly enjoy, and it sometimes lets the indie movie run away with the story and characters.

But it is not only critical of its genre, it is critical of the culture that tends to embrace it, and it does so in a loving and constructive way, and it is hard to find many films of which that can be said.

Calvin (Paul Dano) is a child prodigy writer who made the New York Times bestseller list when he was only nineteen years old. Years later, he’s empty, wandering aimlessly in search of a great idea.

He’s become obsessed with relationships, as his own loneliness begins to sink in. His brother, Harry (Chris Messina), insists Calvin put himself out there a bit more honestly, but Calvin says the girls he meets are only interested in him as a writer and never for who he is.

His therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), gives Calvin a writing assignment in order to get him back on track. Calvin takes it seriously, and lo and behold — he begins writing again.

He’s found something that inspires him — a character he names Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), who, whether by intention or design, Calvin is slowly shaping into his vision of the perfect girl. He begins, to his horror, to fall in love with a fictional character he created.

And then, he wakes up one morning, and there she is — Ruby, as a flesh and blood person, leapt off the page and into his life. And she’s not a figment of Calvin’s imagination, as he quickly finds that other people can see her and are fully aware of her presence. She’s not a pretender, either, as everything Calvin writes in secret, Ruby does.

Calvin decides to take it as the opportunity of a lifetime and pursues the relationship, swearing never to write about her again. But then, we so seldom keep our promises.

Ruby Sparks in large part functions as a criticism and deconstruction of the so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl character type that’s become pervasive among what we would loosely describe as indie films and movies that aspire to be like them.

Calvin writes Ruby as pure wish fulfillment, which is what those characters almost universally tend to be. He writes her as everything he wants — fun, upbeat, cute, someone with the exact right personality to help bring him out of his awkward, nervous shell without making him too uncomfortable.

And when he writes her flaws, he doesn’t make her human so much as he makes her a bit messy. Her flaws don’t cripple her so much as they make her more endearing, and Calvin says as much, that he loves her because of her flaws even though they aren’t really.

His brother, Harry, calls him on this when he reads some of Calvin’s earliest writings about this character he’s created. Harry, who is married, tells Calvin the character is not human, that her flaws are not problems, not difficulties, not challenges to her relationships but rather are simply puppy-like and cute. Calvin doesn’t see it. He doesn’t realize he only loves this idealized image he’s created in his head.

Interesting, because his most frequent complaint about other women is that this is what they do to him.

Ultimately, Calvin sees Ruby this way because he sees himself this way. It’s interesting to see the way the film lets Calvin’s own flaws simmer under the surface at the beginning. We see only touches of them. He jokes about them. With a smile on his face, he announces that he’s kind of stubborn and a bit of a control freak. He figures he’s still essentially a nice guy and that these things are more neurotic and adorable than genuine problems with the potential to wreck people if they go unchecked.

And, oh, do they.

Calvin keeps his promise not to write about Ruby at the beginning. Unfortunately, even he can’t write perfection, and eventually, Ruby’s truly human side begins to show. Calvin, for rather obvious reasons, is used to having the relationship go exactly the way he wants without him actually having to do anything about it, so when Ruby expresses wants and needs, he tends to hand-wave them. He’s not being intentionally unkind; he just figures it’s no big deal, and why should he think otherwise?

Ruby, naturally, becomes dissatisfied with the relationship. She seeks after her own interests, the ones Calvin gave her, and begins to form her own dreams. She forges friendships outside of their relationship. She wants a little distance. Ultimately, Calvin needs her more than she needs him, and this begins to twist him up. She develops the life he always wanted, and all of a sudden, he’s alone in his apartment trying to write while she’s gone for much of the day, chasing her own dreams and having a good time with the friends Calvin can’t make.

So, he begins to write about her again.

He makes her miserable without him, and she clings to him harder than ever before, so much that even he wearies of it. So, he makes her constantly happy, and she immediately becomes a non-human entity, so constantly bouncy and unable to interact with her environment that it becomes aggravating and a touch unsettling. He keeps messing with the formula, becoming more and more frustrated with her, trying to find some way to forge perfection out of humanity. She becomes more miserable, even when being forced to be happy. When it fades, she has no idea who she is anymore or why this is happening to her.

The film’s emotional climax shows the full extent of what Calvin is capable of. In his darkest moment, the film shows that he’s as imperfect as anyone else, that perfection cannot be created or especially forced upon someone, and that he’s a hypocrite who idealizes everyone, including himself, and therefore wonders why people intrude upon him with messy humanity.

He perceives himself as the stereotypical nice guy, and he is. But he buries his imperfections under a façade of generic niceness and begins to perceive himself as better than everyone else. When women chase after him, they’re chasing an idea. When he does it? Well, that’s entirely different.

Ultimately, Ruby Sparks gets to a surprisingly dark part of Calvin’s psyche, but exposes it with grace and redemption. It’s not a dark film, just one that’s a bit honest in the end.

Its criticisms are its most compelling aspect — not just of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl subgenre of indie romantic comedies, but of the psyches of people who tend to perpetuate the stereotype. Calvin is a personality commonly encountered in geek culture — looking for someone to love him for who he is, naturally believing himself to be more perfect than he is (or just somehow “better” than all those other jerk guys he sees women falling for), and yet idealizing women in a borderline misogynistic way and expecting them to be flawless, or at least, only flawed in a way that’s rarely painful and never human. Calvin, as a character, is so real that it’s almost a bit frightening. It can be hard not to see yourself in him, which can make Ruby Sparks a difficult watch at points — difficult in the best way.

Which is not to suggest that it’s solely dry, serious, and self-critical. Its tone is mostly pretty light, without stepping over its bounds into the kind of comedic absurdity that would divorce it from reality. There’s a very realistic sense of playfulness between the characters that makes it fun without making it stupid. It’s not a tough watch; quite the opposite, in fact.

It can, as said, be easier to admire than actually enjoy in places. The early stages of the relationship between Calvin and Ruby, especially when it hasn’t made the transition from the page to reality just yet, play like some of the worst teen romance novels you’ve ever read — and they’re supposed to. It’s hard to be critical of something without showing how unrealistic it is. And Ruby Sparks takes an admirably balanced approach to this. The romance is cheesy and terrible, but it’s also just restrained enough to make it appealing, forcing the audience to include itself in some of the soul-searching to follow.

If it suffers from any one thing, it’s that, outside of Calvin and Ruby, the characters are largely pretty broad and fall into a lot of the usual indie movie archetypes. You have the comedy misogynist who encourages Calvin to use his powers to essentially make Ruby a sex object who nevertheless has hidden depths, you have the sleazeball rich guy, you have the overbearing manager, you have the hippie mom, you have her excessively Spanish boyfriend… Those parts can lean a touch insincere, and thus leave the reality portions of the film sometimes feeling as fake as the romance Calvin concocts. There needed to be a distinction in order to drive the point home. There needs to be contrast that can be drawn between the world Calvin inhabits and the fantasy in which he is living. The selling point of the film ultimately stays within the relationship between Calvin and Ruby, which is done to absolute perfection, defying the expectations it sets up in the best possible way.

(Minor end spoilers) Perhaps the ending of the film could’ve been done differently. The happy ending route is a good one for this film, which is able to pull it off without subverting the themes or giving the characters an easy pass out. Giving Calvin a second chance is a good idea; he’s learned his lesson, and he’s ready to carry it out. But a completely fresh start would’ve been in order, rather than simply trying again from scratch with a newly freed Ruby who remembers nothing of her ordeal. Think of Calvin’s family and friends. Eventually, he’s going to have to tell her he created her; she’ll always know something’s amiss. Better they go their separate ways and meet other people, in my opinion. (End spoilers.)

In the end, Ruby Sparks is not perfect, but like Safety Not Guaranteed before it, it’s a complete subversion of the expectations of its genre — more so, in this case. It is a surprisingly brave film, willing to criticize its own audience for the sake of exposing serious problems in the way it sometimes views friendship and love. And it does so well, with an even and perpetually loving and gentle hand. It’s not a great film, but it’s a film for its times.

 

-Matt T.

Hope Springs (2012)

Starring- Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell

Director- David Frankel

PG-13- mature thematic content involving sexuality

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

So. Um…

Hope Springs is very, very emphatically not made for me.

And that’s totally okay.

I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, especially if I’m mistaken on that point — one of the most pronounced and obvious tells that a critic or supposed lover of film, or art of any kind, really, in truth has no idea what he or she is talking about is this: this notion of film as an all-accessible thing, that if there’s any particular group of people unable to carve a path into the story you’re telling and relate to it in their own way, there’s something wrong on your end.

Part of me thinks it comes out of the fact that the film industry is driven mainly by youth culture, which has at all stages of human history been myopic in its sense of what is “good” and what is “bad.”

Right now, for example, the cool thing is to hate movies that are “for girls,” and especially to hate anything that is “for old people.” (And it will always be cool to hate anything “artsy,” whatever that word actually means.)

So, Hope Springs is kind of a one-two punch. It is very specifically made with a certain audience, with a certain set of experiences, in mind. That audience is not me, and those experiences are not mine. I am totally okay with this.

Honestly, as a (relatively) normal male twenty-something, Hope Springs doesn’t really have an access point for me. So, it’s hard to review it in this strict sense of “liked it” and “didn’t like it.”

I mean, I didn’t not enjoy it. It was a perfectly pleasant experience, if occasionally a somewhat, um…uncomfortable one. For reasons that become obvious when accounting for my age group and the specific thematic content of the film.

Because it’s not just about an elderly couple trying to repair their stale marriage, though it is that as well. Rather, it hones in on…um…a specific aspect.

Point is, I’m somewhat reviewing Hope Springs at a distance. It’s hard to evaluate its realism and attention to detail when it’s covering experiences that are so entirely alien to me, and will be for presumably many decades to come. Basically, I’m stepping back and being as objective as possible — what works, what doesn’t, and how likely it is that you’ll find it emotionally and intellectually effective if you are in the target demographic. That part’s important.

Analyzed on that level… Well, it’s a good movie. Probably not a great one, but a much better one than befits its bland title.

As previously stated, it’s about an elderly married couple, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), whose relationship has turned stagnant. They don’t fight or hate each other, but the fire has gone out. They rarely speak, because they have very little to say anymore. They don’t even share the same bedroom.

Kay, increasingly frustrated in this scenario, wants to change things. While sifting through the relationship aisle of a local bookstore, she comes across a title written by one Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), who holds weeklong counseling sessions in Hope Springs.

Kay wants to go, and she badgers Arnold into it. What follows is…largely what you’d expect.

In evaluating what doesn’t work about Hope Springs, it’s easier to say that it’s absent of greatness more than that it’s particularly bad or wrong-headed in any respect. Sure, the script misfires now and then, gunning for another mostly unearned ending typical of the genre, for one thing. But mainly, it’s that the film doesn’t go the extra mile that hurts it.

David Frankel’s direction, for one thing, is largely pretty pedestrian — not actively damaging to the film, but failing to enhance it in any meaningful way. It’s a style of filming and setting up a scene that more resembles the Hallmark TV movie that its title somewhat evokes. He fails, aside from a couple of sequences here and there, to bring out real personality and character in the sets and locations, most of which are generic to the point of showing the constructed artificiality that great directors are able to disguise. The point being that the movie never quite assimilates reality in terms of how it looks.

The musical selection is pretty off, too. It’s hard to say who specifically made a lot of those decisions, but they’re often the wrong ones. The scoring is fine, if unmemorable, but the film makes use of a lot of pop songs as well, and that largely goes awry. The songs come in two forms — ones that are either too fast or too slow when matched to the pacing of the scene they accompany (it’s usually the former), or ones that spell out in no uncertain terms the exact themes of the film.

On top of that… Well, part of the reason I saw the film was my increasing interest in Steve Carell’s dramatic career. This one… Well, it’s destined to be a footnote at best. The part is paper-thin, for one thing, existing only to ask questions of Kay and Arnold and otherwise not become emotionally involved in the story. And beyond that, well…

Okay, a small part of me still sees Steve Carell as Michael Scott. And when you point a camera at him and ask him to deliver marriage advice, that is exactly what I hear — marriage advice from Michael Scott. With more material to work with, Carell could easily have turned this into a workable character, but since the part is so thin to begin with, it might have been wiser to cast someone whose past would allow him to be less obtrusive overall.

What works about Hope Springs? Well, that’s also difficult to discuss at length, because the answer should be rather obvious given a cursory glance at the cast list — Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. I really shouldn’t have to go into this; they both do a fantastic job, far beyond the requirements of the script. They are subtle, moving, and never anything less than completely believable in their parts. These are human roles, and Streep and Jones don’t play it to the melodrama that they certainly could have. They have exactly the type of chemistry they should — not hate and not passion, but love, albeit a stagnant one buried under years of unintentional neglect. They really could not have been more perfectly chosen.

In addition, the script really is stronger than one would expect given both the film’s title and its marketing. In some ways, it is a Hallmark TV movie, but in a lot of others, it transcends that.

For starters, it is an absolute rarity, a borderline impossibility, among PG-13-rated romantic comedies in that it heavily utilizes sexuality as a thematic element but does so in a way that is not crass, vulgar, or immature. On the contrary, it is quite respectful and employs the themes in ways that are measured and necessary.

And in terms of its story and characters, it allows complexity to seep through and elevate it beyond something simple and superficially uplifting. Neither character is exonerated of blame, nor is one solely proactive and the other resistant (though it starts out that way). Negative behavior is reasoned and easy to sympathize with, if not necessarily respect. Each partner has demons to fight, and neither character remains rooted to them. It is a film that is partially uncomfortable because of how hard-fought some of the battles are. It renders it all the more jarring that it somewhat takes the easy way out in the last five minutes. I guess you have to wrap it all up eventually.

Regardless… It works. Probably. Again, it’s hard for me to know, because I’ve nowhere near advanced to this stage of my life yet. But Hope Springs is an unusually, and perhaps unexpectedly, honest and human film, and because of that, it’s likely to be a hit with its target audience, with the people who have been there and the people who are currently there. Maybe, even, it will help them. And that’s all that matters, really.

It might not be for you. It’s not for me. But that’s not its fault, and it shouldn’t be blamed — or criticized — for it.

-Matt T.