Archive for June, 2013

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Starring- Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Director- Richard LaGravenese

PG-13- violence, scary images and some sexual material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mmo4GzMMqw

Beautiful Creatures has potential. That somehow makes it worse.

Honestly, I’d have had a better — or at least more sane — time watching this movie if it had the decency to just be awful, like most other teen lit adaptations. I forced myself to sit down and watch Twilight recently. And yeah, it was completely unredeemable. But mostly I just checked my watch. Never did I say, “You guys, there are so many interesting ideas here; please stop screwing them up; do you even realize what you’re doing?”

No. Beautiful Creatures is frustrating because it could be good, despite openly catering to the Twilight market. It could be great, even. And it’s not. And somewhere around the three-fourths mark, it’s so noticeably not that your only response is to wish that your TV wasn’t expensive so you could throw things at it.

The latest installment in the ever-expanding supernatural teen romance genre, Beautiful Creatures begins with Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a junior in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where you’re either “too dumb to leave or too stuck to move,” he says.

He’s a bit different from his peers. He’s not an outcast — at least, not by other’s doing. But he’s intrigued by things that scare them. He likes books that they think are dangerous. He views the world outside of Gatlin with curiosity and can’t wait to get there.

He thinks he’s found a kindred spirit in Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a new student who lives with her reclusive uncle, Macon (Jeremy Irons), a man oft suspected of Satanism by the townspeople, and seems equally outcast. She’s not receptive, but Ethan persists until, eventually, a rocky friendship begins to form.

And then, of course, the revelations come. Lena and Macon are not normal. They’re not Satanists, but neither are they far off, so far as the locals are concerned — they’re Casters, a specific brand of magical folk who inherit their abilities from birth.

Another unfortunate inheritance is this — female Casters, on their sixteenth birthday, are claimed either for the Light or for the Dark, according to who they are deep inside. And Lena just isn’t sure.

On the surface, Beautiful Creatures has a few minor problems. Directionally, it’s shot well enough, but it’s static, not capturing the weight and power of the special effects, leaving it with the feeling of a high-budget television production.

It’s got the usual set of problems associated with book-to-movie adaptations. Namely, a lot of characters and concepts, with emphasis on the former, seem to exist solely for the purpose of existing. If I hadn’t known this was based on a book, I might’ve guessed, solely by the number of characters who primarily stand in the background and say or do nothing despite seeming like they ought to be important. Some concepts are more slapdash; the revelation that one character is a seer lacks import firstly because the audience hardly knows the character at that point and secondly because it’s never quite explained what seers are, how they get their powers, and how they fall into the overall magical hierarchy.

Speaking of magic, the rules are, of course, somewhat arbitrary and seem specifically constructed to lead to certain plot events. The explanations can be flimsy and often feel like stretches. The climax contains any number of earth-shattering events that really ought to have changed the town dramatically and permanently, despite the fact that most things seem to return completely to normal almost immediately afterward.

And, of course, as you may have realized from my plot description, Beautiful Creatures is essentially Hipster Twilight. It’s got the same emotional beats, but it structures its plot around outsiders-by-choice and making them look smart and cool and above-it-all, packing their dialogue with obscure (by the standards of the target audience) literary references and jabs at popular opinion. It’s not so much intelligence as the appearance of it, and there’s some arrogance in there as well, and that’s not always easy to tolerate.

The characters are mostly pretty likable, and the acting is mostly pretty good. This helps the film a great deal.

The film is entertaining some big ideas, which is both where it becomes far more interesting that the average movie of its type, and also where it turns completely annoying. It’s uniquely positioned to deal extremely effectively with any number of these issues, but it keeps picking up and dropping the ball so many times that it becomes positively enraging. A breakdown:

THE IDEA: Noble self-sacrifice, the placing of one’s own wants and needs aside for the protection of another person.

HOW THE MOVIE SCREWS IT UP: Because the person engaged in the noble, selfless, and heroic deed does so by blatantly subverting the wants and needs of the other person, entirely without that person’s consent. It is also a violation of the person’s free will; never does anyone ask, “Do you actually want me to protect you? Would things actually be better for you this way?” No, the character just decides what the best thing is and then steals a few months of the other person’s life without asking. No biggie.

THE IDEA: We are not enslaved to our pasts. We have the ability to decide our own futures, to make our lives what we wish them to be.

HOW THE MOVIE SCREWS IT UP: Because the insertion of the arbitrary rules of magic into this movie’s universe makes it so the characters are literally and almost irrevocably enslaved to their pasts. They cannot succeed by simply choosing to do the right thing and ignoring fate; the rules of magic physically prevent them from doing so. The goal of the protagonists is actually to break the curse that does enslave them — and that did force many of their family members, through no choice of their own, to become unchangeably evil. The movie, for the record, never finds a third way around this ridiculous situation.

THE IDEA: “God will never give us more than we can handle…

HOW THE MOVIE SCREWS IT UP: …because we are the main characters. The people who got irreparably brainwashed into evil because of a curse they did not cause, the townspeople they in turn have brainwashed, and the people who have, thus far, died in this thing got way more than they could handle.” Protagonist-centered morality, everybody, it’s my favorite.

THE IDEA: Religion can be a shackle that causes us to judge others and be fearful and filled with hatred.

HOW THE MOVIE SCREWS IT UP: Because the characters the movie uses to make this point are utterly ridiculous and absolutely do not exist in the numbers the script suggests this side of the burning-heretics-at-the-stake period of human history — burning at the stake, by the way, being a thing I’m really surprised the characters in the story never actually try given how entirely insane they are.

Let me be clear about this — I absolutely do think that religion can cause judgment, fear, and hate. In fact, I think it happens more often than we would like to admit. I would love a movie that explored the why and how of that. Beautiful Creatures is, again, very uniquely positioned to be that movie, but it swings so far into excess, unintentional comedy, and borderline arrogance that it can’t come anywhere near pulling it off.

We’re talking about a town where people gather in churches to attempt to have a teenager expelled from school not because she did anything but because they think her uncle’s a wizard on account of…not going out in public much. We’re talking about a town where freaking To Kill a Mockingbird is on the banned books list. (The local theater is still playing Final Destination 5, though, an oddity that is never quite explained.) Teachers apparently stand by and allow students to disrupt the class to tease another student and accuse her of Satanism for no readily apparent reason.

It’s just…this stuff really doesn’t happen, people. Not in large groups anyway, particularly not socially acceptable ones. I don’t care how deep into the rural South you live. The town in this movie is only a handful of tonal shifts away from being a SyFy Channel religious murder cult. But it’s treated like this serious expose on the problems religion creates for creative and critical teens.

It creates many problems for them. Again, let’s make that movie. But it doesn’t create these ones — at least, not this dramatically.

So, at a certain point, you’re pretty much just yelling at your TV screen, begging the movie to capitalize on at least one of these ideas. Even writing this review, I’ve realized that I’m a lot more frustrated with it than I thought I was. In fact, I’m kind of angry at it. Reading over that list, it almost starts to feel deliberate — because that self-righteous, somewhat self-centered moral worldview appeals pretty directly to the kind of teens who thumb their noses at stuff like Twilight but only because it’s the cool and countercultural thing to do. I try not to be too condescending; as I’ve said before, a sense of one’s own perceived “rightness” about art and morality is generally a pretty necessary step into eventual wisdom and creativity. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be encouraging the swiftest possible transition.

Nobody expected that Beautiful Creatures was going to be a good movie. And I’d have been content for it to have met that expectation. But to go in, see all these fantastic ideas, and watch them all get burned to the ground in ways that raise only the most troubling questions… It’s weird, but I’d rather watch something that’s just plain terrible.

-Matt T.

Quartet (2012)

Starring- Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith

Director- Dustin Hoffman

PG-13- brief strong language and suggestive humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSEnh8Hi62E

Quartet is what you think it is. Nice and neat. The RT consensus on it is that it’s “difficult to resist,” and that’s apt. You feel like you should resist it. You try. You fail. You feel somewhat compromised for it, but you’re more or less okay with that.

I don’t know if I’d call it a strong directorial debut for Dustin Hoffman. It is a solid one. Where he’ll go from here, if Quartet is a springboard or a glass ceiling, who can say? There’s potential.

Set in a retirement home for former musicians, Quartet is the story of four aged opera singers — played by Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins — who are asked to reunite and perform their most famous piece at the home’s annual concert. The take from their reunion is expected to be enough to save the struggling facility.

Of course, there’s interpersonal drama. Isn’t there always? Smith and Courtenay’s characters have an undefined past. Collins’ character is innocent and caught in the middle. Connolly’s is perpetually above it all.

And so, cries are had and hands are held and long walks in the forest are undertaken — and plenty of music follows it through.

There’s a certain expectation you have for a movie like this. Quartet was just about perfectly marketed. It’s a touch less zany than the trailers would imply. Still, it’s light, breezy, semi-comedic, and adorable, with little dabs of sweeping sentimentality and big-heartedness. It’s a touch too far on the cutesy side. Actually, quite a lot more than a touch.

It’s pitched, as such films often are, primarily at audiences close in age to the characters. It incorporates their struggles, both internal and external — fear of aging, fear of death, longing for the good old days, regret of a life poorly lived or not lived as well as what could have been etc. All of it’s muted and broad, more pure storytelling than raw emotion. It’s fun, if uninspiring. It’s more accessible than the norm, too. Its focus is on aging, to be sure, but in truth, it only explores that in the broader context of pursuing what you love no matter who says otherwise and no matter what you figure is stopping you. Quartet is about the simple and pure joys of artistic expression — creating to find yourself and your place in the world and to bring yourself happiness, not to impress someone else or to make money.

What you get out of Quartet otherwise is what you’d expect — some solid interpersonal drama and some funny moments, covered in a veneer of cutesiness that makes you resist its charms. What helps you muscle through, inevitably, is the acting. You’ll never see a film about aging that has bad performances; these people have been at this too long. Billy Connolly, especially, takes a role that could easily have been unlikable and plays it with just enough good-natured humor to keep you laughing with the character rather than at him — or worse yet, outright hating him. And Michael Gambon is enjoyable as the show’s pompous and uppity director.

Hoffman’s a soft touch behind the camera. He likes things colorful, but subdued. He shoots things in a very straightforward and patient manner. The film looks very nice. The editing seems a touch wonky in places, like it’s trying to capture too many people responding to the same occurrence in too many different ways, but this is infrequent and barely noticeable. I’d see another movie of his.

And that’s sort of the reaction I’m left with here — Quartet as a preview of what Hoffman might do in the future. It’s a perfectly serviceable little film, flaws aside, but it is little and a touch uninteresting, and there isn’t much to say about it. Taken as some kind of trailer for the directorial career of Dustin Hoffman, it’s not exciting, but it’s got my eyes open, at least.

-Matt T.

Snitch (2013)

Starring- Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Susan Sarandon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Rafi Gavron, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Benjamin Bratt

Director- Ric Roman Waugh

PG-13- drug content and sequences of violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rieI5g9fgRc

We’ll address the elephant in the room right off the bat — Snitch should be terrible. It’s a Dwayne Johnson movie whose trailers have emphasized a tractor trailer doing a backflip and whose posters highlighted Johnson staring stoically off into the distance while stuff explodes behind him. Oh, and it was released in mid-February.

But it’s not terrible. In fact, it might actually come down on the side of the spectrum where I’d classify it as…good. I’m as surprised by that as you are, and equally without explanations for this bizarre reality. I don’t know if I’ve just gotten way less cynical or if 2013 is just the year where Hollywood collectively decided, “Hey, what if we actually tried for once?”

I’m good with either one. It’s made this a surprisingly interesting year in movies thus far — especially given that I’m still stuck in late winter’s output.

In Snitch, Johnson plays John Matthews, the manager of a construction company in Los Angeles. Then, his estranged son (Rafi Gavron) is arrested for the possession of illegal drugs and the apparent intent to deliver, a crime that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years, more if he fights the prosecution. He can get that reduced to a year or two by selling out other friends who have used, but he refuses to do so.

Determined that his son will not leave prison an adult — or worse, middle-aged — Matthews strikes a deal with the surly district attorney (Susan Sarandon). With the help of an ex-con employee (Jon Bernthal), Matthews will infiltrate one of the local drug cartels and serve one of its major bosses (Michael Kenneth Williams) up to the D.A. In return, his son only gets a year.

But proceeding on his own into unfamiliar territory, it rapidly becomes clear that clean-cut John Matthews is in far over his head.

Now, when I say that Snitch is good, I don’t merely mean that in the sense that it’s a propulsive and entertaining thriller that’s largely well made and keeps your eyes on the screen. That’s not the surprising part. Even if it’s not usually what we get, I can conceive of a universe where Dwayne Johnson stars in an action movie that’s basically fun, if unmemorable.

No, this movie is a shock to me because it’s entertaining actual ideas. Not only is it a diverting watch, it’s the type of thing that might actually leave you thinking about stuff. Remember that this was released and marketed as an easy-viewing late winter thriller for the people who absolutely needed to go to the theater that weekend.

As much as the blood of a thriller is pumping in its veins, Snitch is more drama than anything. That’s Surprise No. 1. John Matthews isn’t some highly trained ex-military killer waiting for an excuse to rampage against evil. He’s just some guy running a construction company, never been in or caused any trouble in his life. And it’s likely Johnson’s best performance to date. It might not be a complete transformation, but it’s the first time I can remember that I’ve seen him not show up and do the Dwayne Johnson Shtick — being a naturally charismatic camera subject, and not much else. This is the first time I can remember him playing a real everyman, a guy in over his head. He’s motivated by love of his son, and he makes very boneheaded decisions, sometimes the wrong ones, chasing after his goal. This is another thing the film does well, actually — having characters make bad decisions without making them seem like idiots for it.

That a question or two underlies every action the characters in this film undertake is no doubt its strongest point. It would’ve been so easy to tell the simple version of this story — Dwayne Johnson infiltrates a drug cartel, punches hundreds of criminals in the face, walks away from an explosion, and then reclaims his son while sneering at all the incompetent agents of justice as he marches out of the prison. That’s the nuance-fee version of this I was certain we were getting.

But it rapidly becomes clear that Matthews has exposed his family to something terrible through his actions. Every action is to save his son, who is not a bad person but who is also objectively guilty of the crime of which he’s accused. But those actions tear apart the rest of his otherwise innocent family, putting them in the crosshairs of a cartel that absolutely will go after them if his role as a police informant is discovered.

He exposes his employee, Daniel James, and his family to something equally dangerous and awful — and lies to them in the process, under the auspices of ensuring the mission’s success and maybe, in a backward way, ensuring their safety. Not that James is above reproach. You get a taste of his regret and his desperation, what he’ll do to move forward, as well as the way the past inevitably resurfaces and continues to claw at him.

Even minor characters are thrown into this mix of moral dilemmas. Barry Pepper plays an undercover cop who works closely with Matthews, and who, at one point, faces a choice to betray his trust and expose him to more danger in order to chase a bigger fish or to finish the deal honestly and take a lower-level dealer.

The main problem with the film in this regard is the extent to which the peripheral characters, the ones who don’t really have a role in this card game of moral gray areas, lack personality and presence. This includes Matthews’ son and the rest of his family, apart from possibly his ex-wife (Melina Kanakeredes). Regardless, it creates, surprisingly, an admirably complex web of lies, deceit, violence, poor decision-making, and moral gray areas without really losing its footing — until the end, where the movie gives away its game in no uncertain terms.

It’s frustrating to see the movie lose faith like this and spend the end credits doling out statistics on the war on drugs — especially since it had already accomplished its goal, doing so in a way that was subtle, involved no heavy-handed speechifying, and existed as a question in the mind of the audience rather than a message being delivered.

It wants you to ask the question, “Is this war on drugs really worth it?” And it succeeds in that, in a way that emerges through the subtext as one of several themes of the overall work. You ask that question. But then, at the end, it nervously returns to the stage and asks, “Um, did everybody see what I did there?”

It casts a cloud over the rest of the film in retrospect. It doesn’t feel like a preachy message movie prior to that moment, but then, at the end, it shows its real motive, one that was already subtly achieved and in such a way that people would ask questions rather than simply absorb a message.

Otherwise, the main problem with Snitch is that, as stated earlier, it is a drama, but it’s got the beating heart of an action thriller. It’s got “gritty” direction, all close-ups and handheld cameras. The score gives a dark, electronic urban vibe. There’s something of an impatience to that feel; Snitch, to me, was a movie that needed to simmer quietly, like a Jeff Nichols movie, in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Moreover, it reneges on the notion of being a drama for its last half hour, which represents an abrupt shift in tone and style. Suddenly, what had been a dramatic thriller erupts into an action climax with Matthews and James both getting in on the fisticuffs and car chases and gunfights and handling themselves far better than they ought to for characters who have been set up as ordinary guys prior to that point. This is where I suspect the movie most dramatically deviates from the true story that ostensibly inspired it. The final act is absurd and shoots up far too many notches from the comparatively restrained movie that precedes it.

But for a late winter Dwayne Johnson thriller — for a late winter movie of any kind, really — Snitch is smarter than the average bear, and noticeably so. It’s an issues movie that leaves you with questions, even though it briefly tries not to, and it makes a lot of surprisingly brave decisions for a film of its type that could easily have settled for being its type. I don’t suspect this would’ve made less money or made less of a cultural impact had it been just another Dwayne Johnson action thriller. But somewhere along the line, someone said, “Let’s actually do something with this.”

And is it great? No. But that it even got within spitting distance is something to celebrate.

 

-Matt T.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Starring- James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox

Director- Sam Raimi

PG- sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DylgNj4YQVc

One of the awkward things about writing reviews publicly is the consistency of opinion you start to expect of yourself and the way that doesn’t always translate. It manifests in those moments when, after years of complaining about some of the more obnoxious habits in Hollywood with regard to certain types of movies, you get a film with the decency to rather deliberately avert all of those flaws…and you don’t like it.

That’s the situation I’m in with Oz the Great and Powerful. On one hand, everything I’ve complained about in the past relative to fantasy films and blockbusters and fairytales, Oz steers directly around. But I still don’t think it works.

So, on one hand, I really want to say I loved it, to sweep the flaws under the carpet and over-emphasize the elements that do come together. I have this bizarre feeling that to criticize it would be mean somehow. But at the end of the day, as much as I like what it is, I’m not a big fan of how it is what it is.

Man, I am really not turning out to be any kind of fan of Sam Raimi, am I?

Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a low-rent carnival magician working out of a traveling circus that just so happens to be camped out in Kansas when a tornado sweeps him away in a hot air balloon to the colorful land of Oz.

There, Oscar, due to a combination of his name and the method of his arrival, is mistaken by the Good Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) for a prophesied wizard who it was said would save the kingdom from the forces of darkness.

Con man that he is, Oscar doesn’t have any particular problem with playing that game, especially since there’s treasure involved — that is, until he finds out that he, a decidedly magic-free human being, is expected to personally slay the wicket witch believed to be responsible for everything.

With any installment in the expansive Wizard of Oz franchise, I inevitably have to navigate through the somewhat awkward position of liking the original book by L. Frank Baum and not actually caring for the classic film into which it was adapted that has since become the story’s face in pop culture. My understanding is that this is film critic blasphemy of some sort. But, you know — come at me, bro, and such.

But as adaptations go, there are a number of things I like about Oz the Great and Powerful in terms of what it is, if not how it goes about it. First off, it’s an adaptation that sticks relatively closely to the tone of the original. It doesn’t mature things overmuch; it certainly doesn’t go all dark and gritty and turn it into an epic battle fantasy interspersed with pretentious ruminations upon the tragedy and horror of it all.

And some of the adjustments it makes truly are for the better, starting with the fact that Oz the Great and Powerful has a much more precise control over its tone. The main reason I dislike the original is that its tone is so persistently, forcedly, and overbearingly happy that it winds directly around to being uncomfortable and kind of, oddly, sinister. It’s bright and colorful and screams, “Nothing’s amiss here! No reason to fear! Please do not look in the basement, for surely we are a peaceful and happy people with nothing to hide!”

I don’t object to a film being good-natured — and mostly, that’s what Oz the Great and Powerful is. But, as they say, everything in moderation. This adaptation is able to indulge a happy moment without bulldozing you with it, and a dark moment without getting violent and (overly) scary.

I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s a mainstream fantasy blockbuster that has the courage to be (*gasp*) for children, and I’m glad for it. It’s broad and silly and maybe has the volume turned up a notch, but it knows what it is and isn’t particularly ashamed of the fact. Moreover, it does its best to conclude on the type of note that actually imparts some wisdom, rather than simply continuing to train kids to grow up to be faithful and unquestioning consumers of summer action movies.

That said.

As glad as I am that Oz the Great and Powerful is unafraid of being silly, simple, and fantastical…it is a bit too much of all of those things, with special emphasis on the silly. That its tone is as consistently managed as it is squares most of this problem away. Nevertheless, the movie swings into unintentional hilarity now and then. Rachel Weisz deserves every Oscar there’s ever been for the seriously stupid lines she delivers with utter conviction in this thing. (I can’t remember if it came from the book or not, but whyyyyyyyy did they name the guards that?)

It also suffers from its inability to regulate its James Franco, who I did not like in this role at all. Franco’s film persona, over the years, has increasingly evolved into something along the lines of pretentious frat boy jackass — and somewhat deliberately so, if the trailers for This Is the End are any indication. The key to using him properly is to moderate him, either by placing that persona into the proper context (Spider-Man) or by making it more realistic and human (127 Hours). But at the end of the day, even though the entire movie is about making him into a better person, Oscar Diggs is a profoundly unlikable protagonist who is, at the beginning, almost completely devoid of redeeming characteristics. He lies, he cheats, he’s greedy, he’s full of himself, he manipulates nearly every woman he meets, and despite all this, he still acts like some downtrodden soul who’s only flawed because he hasn’t discovered his greatness yet. Entire art movies could be made exploring his contradictory mindsets regarding his pursuit of “being great,” or of what that phrase even means to him. But this is a fantasy adventure that, therefore, relies at least somewhat upon the notion that we’ll root for him, even though he hasn’t yet grown as a person. Show us his potential to be good; that’s something onto which the audience can take hold.

But all we get is that he has something resembling an honest relationship with exactly one woman. He also seems genuinely moved by what happens to the china dolls’ village, but that’s all we get. The rest of the time, his every action is centered around advancing himself and his own well-being. I think the movie’s heart is in the right place, making him learn to care about others and make sacrifices, but prior to that, he is so devoid of redeeming characteristics that you don’t buy his inevitable turnaround at the end.

The movie overall has a more deliberate moral core than films of its type tend to, and again, that’s highly welcome. It’s not violent, and it doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. It’s a champion of using imagination to solve important problems. But it sends a bit of a mixed message at the end. We all know what Oscar ultimately becomes, but here, it’s sold as this noble decision, lying about what he really is because it keeps the people hopeful and unified. That’s not a bad ending, but it’s so unquestioning about it.

Ultimately, it’s the problem of so many prequels — they frequently either have to undo or fight against what the audience knows will come after. In The Wizard of Oz, the wizard gets lectured for his lies and trickery and ultimately learns that it’s not a good thing. In Oz the Great and Powerful, the ultimate deception is treated almost unquestioningly as a good thing and is even endorsed by Glinda (Michelle Williams), who has always been treated as the story’s pinnacle of unflappable goodness. So, which is it?

Learning the Wicked Witch’s backstory is an equally discomfiting process. A clear theme has emerged with Sam Raimi in that his villains are always somehow not evil by choice. They’re brainwashed, some scientific accident renders them insane, etc. That’s the case here. The original functioned on a very simple, child-like definition of good and evil; the witch was assumed to be evil because the movie said she was and because she added “wicked” to her title seemingly by choice. Turning that into some accident of brainwashing makes the whole concept a touch unsettling — particularly given that Oz the Great and Powerful functions off of a lot of the same simple notions of good and evil.

And here we arrive at that crossroads. I don’t think Oz the Great and Powerful works. Oscar Diggs is not well written, though his complex and contradictory mindsets, combined with his self-absorption, would make him a fascinating character study in a film that’s not too small and simple (and admirably so) to handle him. The characters outside of him, including a few players who serve as sometimes ill-advised comic relief, are not super strong — even in the kids’ movie sense, where all they really have to be is boisterous and enjoyable. It is to be admired for taking no shame in what it is, but it sometimes crosses the bridge too far in terms of its silliness. It’s got good morals, but it confuses them at the end in its need to get to The Wizard of Oz Square One. It’s a triumph of art direction, but not necessarily of CGI. As a prequel, it strikes the right tone but fights against some established elements of the story in so doing.

So, basically, if, but, on the other handOz the Great and Powerful.

 

   –Matt T.

Warm Bodies (2013)

Starring- Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, John Malkovich, Cory Hardrict

Director- Jonathan Levine

PG-13- zombie violence and some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07s-cNFffDM

Warm Bodies probably marks the first and last time we’ll ever get to refer to a zombie movie as “sweet and likable,” but it’s largely for that reason that I’m grateful for it. It’s a movie about the undead, but it nevertheless breathes new life into an increasingly stale genre.

(+1 for the Pun Jar.)

R (Nicholas Hoult) is at a crossroads. He wants more — to feel, to love, to have a reason to live, to find some purpose and meaning in his existence.

Also, he’s a zombie.

It’s unclear exactly how the world ended, only that the majority of the population is now like R — shambling corpses staggering around in search of food, in the form of the handful of human survivors.

Those survivors have holed up in the heart of the city behind a massive concrete wall. They send out foraging parties for provisions as necessary.

R and a pack of other zombies stumbles across one of these groups one day. But R finds himself in an unusual predicament, becoming smitten with one of the humans, Julie (Teresa Palmer).

He saves her and steals her away to the abandoned airplane he now calls home. And there, he begins to connect with her. And that connection may supply the answer to the entire apocalypse.

Warm Bodies walks a very tenuous tightrope. It is, first and foremost, a comedy, but it’s more internally serious than its marketing campaign would suggest. This means it has to occupy this zone where it’s dealing with a reality that’s pretty awful, populated by characters who have suffered, and using their emotions to fuel the development of the story, while also keeping it lighthearted enough that it’s still funny and doesn’t get bogged down in nihilism and tragedy. It has to acknowledge that its premise is incredibly silly while still keeping it at least somewhat serious to the characters in the story. It mostly pulls this off, and that’s to be admired.

What you get is a movie that is, well, a movie — more escapism than anything, that colors in broad strokes and keeps its emotions character-based but not overwhelming, that isn’t raw and complex and realistic — that still has a beating heart and a functional brain and some very admirable notions on its mind. Maybe even a little meaning.

Like I said, it is encouraging to see Warm Bodies taking strides toward reclaiming the subgenre that’s spent the last few years being defined mainly in the sense of The Walking Dead, which is, by the way, in my opinion, an utterly loathsome show. For starters, it’s great to have some social commentary back in my zombie movies. Granted, Warm Bodies can be a touch on-the-nose about all of this; it gives its game away pretty early on when R speculates about what the world was like before, and we get a cheesily joyous flashback to an airport full of people…who are all talking on their cell phones.

But at the end of the day, Warm Bodies is about living well and living fully, and it tackles that from both ends. The zombies are actually fairly identifiable relative to the world we live in; it’s a fantastical concept, to be sure, but the feeling R has that he and his friends are simple going through the motions, machine-like and uncaring, programmed to do a certain thing without wondering why, is not strange to the human condition at all. As for the humans, well, they’re walled off and no longer attempting to figure out how to cure the creatures with whom they now share a planet. They’ve become all about survival and have forgotten how to live.

I think Warm Bodies suffers a touch in that it raises these questions right off the bat and then never really goes anywhere with them, aside from a couple of broad — and admittedly, somewhat welcome, especially in this genre — notions of love and romance and whatnot. There was a lot of potential in drawing those comparisons, bringing them out, and arriving at some collective resolution. But I’m glad that the movie does have a positive answer to these questions and that it doesn’t immediately sabotage that answer by making everything immediately and irrevocably horrible and hopeless (here’s looking at you again, The Walking Dead.)

The movie’s got a big, sappy heart, and it’s not insufferable about it. I can go for that sometimes.

It doesn’t hurt that, when it wants to be funny, it’s funny as heck. It stumbles now and then; I was periodically unsure exactly how I felt about R’s internal narration. But mostly, it gets laugh — and, again, this genre has badly needed it. Recently, I think we’ve forgotten that the notion of zombies is, you know, kind of stupid. Not that it always needs to be like that, but I remain of the opinion that the genre works best in comedy mode. Some of the humor comes from specific setups and punch-lines, such as R attempting to act like a human while under duress. (“Nailed it.”) A lot of it, though, is my favorite type of comedy, i.e., comedy that’s not driven by jokes but just the absurdity of the whole thing. My favorite scene is a subtle moment that’s mostly serious but does contain, briefly, a zombie evaluating the quality of vinyl records over other music media.

I’ve also decided that Rob Corddry is rapidly becoming one of my favorite comic actors, and his role here, as M, another zombie and R’s best friend, is his best yet and easily my favorite character in the movie. There’s actual emotion behind him, for one, but he’s also hilarious — and the two states of the character are both done quite subtly. Seriously, that Corddry is not a headliner yet really bugs me.

I think there’s a sense in which Warm Bodies does slow down quite a bit in its second act. The plot seems like it’s not really going anywhere, and the characters aren’t necessarily developing except in very small, subtle ways either. But I think it might be another case of a flaw turning into a net gain. It spends time getting the audience acclimated to these characters, human and zombie alike, and making them likable through the nuts and bolts of their simplest interactions. It’s not always that fun to watch, but it does make the climax a much more involving thing in which the audience has actual emotional investment. It wouldn’t be half as heartwarming at the end, seeing all the characters and plot threads come together, without a lot of the general “sitting around” that occurs early on.

If Warm Bodies acquires any more concrete flaws, in my opinion, it does so in the form of some subtextual elements that emerge out of the premise, the sort of random “hey, what about…” questions that arise after the movie’s over and start to unravel parts of it. Some of that comes from, again, that tightrope it has to walk; it ordinarily stays the course fairly well, but there’s an extent to which it’s serious and the things that take place have relevant effects on the characters. In the case of death, particularly, and the zombies’ path toward some kind of redemption, weird questions come up that soften all of the “heartwarming” a bit in retrospect. To some extent, the movie isn’t necessarily about those things, but those things still exist within its universe, and one would expect they ought to be shaping the characters more than they actually do.

And, of course, it plays pretty fast and loose with the rules of zombies, as such films are wont to do. My favorite aspect of it is this notion of love conquering all and of meaningful connections with people working through their negative traits and behaviors, but when the movie stretches beyond that and starts to have love impact what one would reasonably expect to be science… Well, it’s a bit odd to call a zombie movie implausible, but you know. We’ll watch Superman fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes and then wonder how the heck the guy shaves.

There’s a lot of nitpicky little stuff, but Warm Bodies mostly works through it and certainly stands as one of the better early-year releases in recent memory. It’s got plenty of flaws and even more logical quibbles, but it’s funny and charming, centered around likable characters, and moreover, in its own broad and dumb-ish way, it’s got actual ideas and actually halfway means something. It’s a zombie movie for people who mostly don’t like zombie movies, so I suppose it’s very much for me.

 

-Matt T.

Welcome to Part 2 of my first 200 reviews retrospective: my Top 20 least favorite films from my first 200 reviews.

For newcomers, here’s Part 1.

Yeah, yeah, I know — this is what everyone was actually waiting for. To be honest, I actually hesitated a bit on the notion of making a Worst Of list. As much as I do enjoy venting against movies that caused me severe amounts of displeasure, I get far more enjoyment from dwelling on the positive. It wasn’t my intent at first, but honestly, my goal for this site at this point is to let people into my best moments, to give them a picture of what it looks like when I truly love something. I hope that by doing so, I’ll not only get to share in that experience with others but maybe convince a few more people to join me on this artistic journey.

At the same time… These movies really, really deserve it. And heck, I think I can stand to unleash my inner Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan once in a while.
So, without further ado, these are my Top 20 Least Favorite Films of My First 200 Reviews:


20. Battle: Los Angeles
Some movies are devoid of substance; Battle: Los Angeles is devoid of content. Sometimes, I almost start to wonder if people actually think that spectacle would be made worse by good storytelling and characterization; I ordinarily respond by asking them why even bad action movies attempt to have them. Battle: Los Angeles made a fool out of me, because it doesn’t even make that attempt. And yeah, it suffers for it. It’s two hours of indistinguishable, personality-free soldiers shooting at aliens in uninspired and boring action sequences that follow a path of run-shoot-run-shoot-change location.

19. Aliens in the Attic
Pretty much all I remember about this are the terrible special effects. Otherwise, it’s a vacant spot, but I’m pretty sure it was blisteringly awful. Sue me; it was a long time ago.

18. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
I remember actually kind of liking the first Night at the Museum, granted that I saw it a very long time ago and that I might think differently now that I’ve been through this whole process. It had some magic and imagination in it, and the storytelling was charmingly small and simple. Sequel, not so much. It has hundreds of characters packed in a meandering story that hasn’t upped the intelligence level since the first one. But the worst part is that the humor is terrible, visibly embarrassing the actors every time they try to pull it off.

17. Happy Feet Two
This one is also a blank space in my memory, but it’s had much less time to accomplish that. I didn’t even like the first one, but it looks like genius compared to the sequel. The movie is 95 percent padding with a predictable plot and no interesting characters to speak of. To be fair, there are a few visually inspiring moments, but that’s all it’s got going on.

16. Race to Witch Mountain
I promise this isn’t going to exclusively be family movies. This was one of the first films I ever reviewed after I started doing so, and it was also one of the first movies in my life that left me with the thought, “Noise, noise, noise.” It’d be far from the last. Between its haphazard visuals, its breakneck pacing, and its general loudness, Race to Witch Mountain is an assault on the senses that almost never lets up and squanders the talents of some skilled and likable actors.

15. Clash of the Titans
One of the more aggressively stupid movies I’ve seen of late, Clash of the Titans suffers from very uneven pacing, leading to a severe anti-climax, as well as disinterested acting, unimaginative point-A-to-point-B storytelling, and attempts at world-building that never once approximate sense. The special effects are quite pretty, though.

14. The Odd Life of Timothy Green
I really was not expecting this to be a contender for a list like this. This is about the only film on this list that I think meant well and actually tried to be a good movie — excepting maybe a few others (certain directors are hard to figure out sometimes). I like the type of movie it wants to be — sentimental and schmaltzy but likable family films like Disney used to make. But it is so constructed on sentimentality and cute moments that it gets to a point where it’s basically about nothing, and the things it has to say about parenting and family actually seem…wrong. The fantastical premise has absolutely nothing to do with the mundane family drama that follows it. And it’s so fixated on sweetness and light that it begins to resemble nothing so much as a television advertisement for perfume.

13. Wrath of the Titans
Honestly, it isn’t any worse than its predecessor. But one expects a sequel to improve slightly, not be bad in all of the exact same ways. For that lack of effort, it has to be ranked higher on the list.

12. Battleship
I’m stunned this isn’t higher. It says more about the movies yet to come than it does about this. Honestly, it’s like I said in my review: it’s Transformers without all the racism and annoying comic relief characters but without anything good to replace it. For being based on a board game, it’s an awfully serious affair and one whose spectacle really lacks in variety. And it’s best we don’t talk about how much sense the plot makes because it makes exactly none.

11. Dragonball: Evolution
I also remember nothing about this apart from hammy acting and poorly paced storytelling. The Internet tells me I had a really bad time watching it, and I’m just assuming it’s right about that.

10. G-Force
Oh, my memory had almost deleted this one until I looked through my old reviews to compile this list. But now, it’s coming back over me in a rush. Yeah, as kids’ movies go, this is about as pandering as it gets. It talks down to them and has no interest in engaging them or educating them or sending them a message. It just gives them cute CGI critters and has them fart a lot while referencing pop culture in Seltzer/Friedberg non-jokes.

9. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
I had almost forgotten about this one, too, but now that I’m reminded, all of my hate is sweeping back over me in a rush. Wolverine is the poster boy in the “why superhero movies should’ve stayed silly” discussion. Because it is silly, but it is also so violent and uncaring that it begins to approach gross immorality. It’s the type of movie that will just casually murder a helpful elderly couple before segueing into a dumb action sequence and never referencing that moment again. And it can’t smooth that over with an interesting story or characters. It’s just violent, violent spectacle.

8. Old Dogs
This movie held my Worst of 2009 slot for a while, before the arrival of a film we’ll be discussing in a few moments. And that’s because there’s basically nothing to like about it. The actors are either terrible or don’t care. The script is so cliched it threatens to evaporate into nothingness. The humor is obvious and bland. The editing is bizarrely incomprehensible. There really isn’t much of anything good to say about it. It takes a lot for an inoffensive family film to get a critical rating as low as what it has, and Old Dogs, well, it’s quite a lot.

7. The Last Airbender
I don’t know how much I’d have hated this movie were it not for the fact that I am both a huge fan of the series who is very aware of what an incredible movie you could make from it and a fan of M. Night Shyamalan who stuck with him way longer than most people. Regardless, from every angle that I look at it, The Last Airbender is pretty irredeemable. It’s awful in that special way that even people who don’t study film recognized as awful. The dialogue is some of the worst I’ve ever heard. The story picks and chooses from the show very randomly without developing any of its more interesting through-lines. It reduces the magic of the world. It takes the cool martial arts aspects of the show and turns them into stupid dancing that looks way less effective than just using a sword. The acting… Man. I try not to be too hard on this one either, because I also think it wanted to be a good movie. But it was the last straw for Shyamalan for a reason. I still hope the guy gets better, but this was the film where I stopped expecting it.

6. Contraband
This is certainly not going to make most reviewers’ worst lists, much less as high as this. And that’s because it’s not a terrible film, just a generic, uninteresting, unimaginative, and boring one. But… Look, read my review. This movie made me angry in that special way that only happens once in a blue moon. I can forgive boring, at least in the sense that I’ll write up a negative review and then forget about it. But this one is boring and also…I’m going to use the phrase “morally problematic” and then just walk away.

5. Jonah Hex
Don’t remember it. It was back during my “rating stuff” days (I was so cute back then, thinking I knew stuff — probably the same now, actually), and I only gave it a 1/10, so it must be pretty awful. I do remember it getting bizarrely surreal but having so little idea what it wanted to be that it butchered the source material and still came in at only just over an hour long. Were Josh Brolin and Michael Fassbender really both in this? Yikes.

4. Skyline
This is a SyFy Channel Original Movie that somehow wound up with a wide theatrical release. The production values are low, the effects questionable, the plotting nonexistent, the characters uninteresting, etc., etc. Really not a lot more to say than that.

3. Jack and Jill
Only No. 3? Yeah, I’ll justify that in a moment. But Jack and Jill… I don’t even know where to begin. I think Adam Sandler was testing us with this, seeing what he could get away with while still turning a profit. I shudder to think of what his next test will be, since this one clearly failed. Dudes dressing in drag is already a shaky comedic premise, especially for a full motion picture. But Sandler manages to elevate the shrill annoyingness of it to gargantuan levels. And that’s before you throw in the potty humor and what has got to be the most racist Mexican caricature to have ever appeared in a modern motion picture. It is impossible to watch.

2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Yeah, this was inevitable. The most offensive and annoying of the Transformers films, it ups all the noise and chaos and indecipherable direction of its predecessor while at the same time…adding dozens of obnoxious comic relief characters and somehow making what plot it has even more confusing. It’s a movie that needs to have someone sit down and explain to it that making sex jokes all the time is not an aversion of childhood, it is the definition of it. This movie is a kid who learned what sex and swearing are and then did it constantly to prove it’s a grown-up. It’s also ridiculously long, which doesn’t earn it any points. But not as long as…

1. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
I tried really hard not to have these films occupy the first and second spots on this list, but I have to be honest. If I’m asking the question of what two films were the most difficult for me to sit through over the last four years, these two are the answer each and every time. I almost slid Jack and Jill into the second slot, but then, I realized: Jack and Jill is bad in all of the exact same ways Transformers is, but it has the decency to be a full hour shorter. Therefore, hard as it was to watch, it wasn’t as hard. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is exactly as bad as its predecessors. Oh, it tones down the potty humor and also the racism (a little), but it keeps the misogyny, adds a thousand new characters, makes all of them loud, shrieking comic relief and flushes every ounce of plot or pacing right out (but its script is still confusing, because apparently this is a requirement for action movies right now). I also can’t overstate this: the climax is an hour and ten freaking minutes long, and it never varies. “Assault on the senses” doesn’t even begin to cover it; it’s a ceaseless bombardment. I have never been as bored watching a movie as I was while watching this one. But in a way, it was a transcendent experience. I know people think I’m saying this comedically, but I actually mean it as literally and non-hyperbolically as I possibly can: the feeling that passed through me when the credits started was euphoria. It was also fun to watch it with people. When it was over, we all just sat in silence and then started laughing at nothing. In retrospect, it was kind of hilarious. So, I suppose I have to thank Transformers: Dark of the Moon for the post-movie experience. But I won’t thank it for anything else. I argued forever about what movie should occupy the top slot on my favorites list. I have absolutely no doubts about this one coming out on top here. It was made for this position.

Well, thanks for sticking with me through that. Hopefully, we’ll be able to write some more positive stuff in the near future. And in fact, I fully intend to do so, which is why I now have an announcement to make. I’ll be doing a new series for this site, simply called “Favorite Movies.” And that’s exactly what it sounds like — a series where I do extremely in-depth reviews of my favorite movies of all time. And those will cover a broad spectrum — fun movies, thoughtful movies, happy movies, dark movies: all kinds, really.

I don’t know exactly when I’ll get started with that. It’ll take me a while to write them, as most of them will be quite long. I also intend to watch each and every selection multiple times before doing the write-up, to ensure I know exactly what I want to say and because it’ll just be fun to revisit them. But I do plan to roll that out eventually, and I already have a feeling I know what the first installment will be… But you’ll have to wait for that.

In the meantime, I bid you adieu. It’s been a good 200 reviews, and here’s hoping for 200 more.

Mama (2013)

Starring- Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat

Director- Andres Muschietti

PG-13- violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZlY47eCdas

One tries not to make snap judgments, but generally speaking, when a horror movie’s first jump scare comes less than a minute in and is just a guy opening a door really fast, you have a decent idea how the rest of that movie is going to play out.

I don’t want to call Mama horrible, because it’s not. But it is kind of clumsy and haphazard, and it plays mainly to the broad techniques associated with horror films without demonstrating that it understands what their functions are and how they work.

Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has spent five years searching tirelessly for his nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), after his twin brother went insane, murdered his wife and coworkers, and absconded with the girls, vanishing without a trace.

While on the job, one of his search parties encounters an old house deep in the woods — along with the girls, miraculously still alive but also feral. Nevertheless, the signs are good that the two of them can be rehabilitated and eventually go on to live normal lives.

They move into a new house with Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) — and with them comes an imaginary friend, a figure the girls say raised them while they were in the woods: Mama.

And then, of course, the requisite weird stuff starts happening…

I never really want to beat the old horse any deader than it already is, but I have to in this case, because a lot of what’s wrong with Mama is what’s wrong with most subpar horror movies, i.e. lack of buildup, characters who are bereft of common sense, and an overreliance on jump scares.

The last of these three things I’ve already touched upon. We really have run out of ways to set up imaginative jump scares at this point; it’s impossible not to see them coming. The scenes structure their shots around that moment. And as with many horror movies, all of the characters inhabit a world of constant tension and overreaction; every loud noise and every quick movement, no matter how mundane it is, startles them and sets them in gasping hysterics for a few seconds afterward.

And with Mama, there really isn’t any meaningful emotional connection between the big scare scenes. It keeps them coming constantly, for one thing — another regularly occurring horror movie problem, where the movie is aware from the beginning what it is and thus never approximates a sense of normalcy that highlights the darkness to come. But the jump scares and the creepy imagery don’t really tie together; they don’t build up or crescendo or climax. They just happen, and then they’re done. It would be great to see a movie like this treat its ghost as an actual character with motivations; you wouldn’t necessarily piece it together in one viewing, but in retrospect, its actions would tie together into a cohesive whole. Mama, like too many ghost stories, is just an otherworldly figure with a vague motivation causing minor and occasionally major havoc simply because it can.

And as for the characters, well, Mama won’t spare you yelling at them. At this point, I’ve just learned to accept that characters in horror movies will always be sitting around alone in the dark at night, or alone with every curtain in the house drawn during the day. At least those behaviors are recognizable. What I still don’t understand is why characters in horror movies do the lion’s share of their investigating at night. Even people who don’t believe in ghosts probably wouldn’t care to conduct their research by wandering out to the abandoned house in the middle of the forest in pitch blackness by themselves; for the guy who actually does believe in ghosts to do this is simply baffling.

And speaking of characters who are not identifiable: I’m not a religious person is the I’m not racist but of horror movies.

Beyond that, horror movies in particular always have to fight an uphill battle with the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and I’m not sure Mama wins that one. To the extent that creepy little kids are, well, creepy, there remains a pervasive sense, in some of the girls’ more intense scenes, that what you’re witnessing, if you stripped it of the tense editing, dark color scheme, and ominous music, is actually kind of silly.

All in all, so far, Guillermo del Toro the Producer is not a hat that is being worn particularly well, but the guy does have a habit of elevating films such as these in his own way, primarily through the fact that the directors he hires appear to be as much his students as his employees. You can see his fingerprints here and there — in the color scheme; in the essential winter scene with large, gently falling snowflakes; in its fixation on nature, with gnarled trees and sharp, sudden, angular mountains.

I think Mama benefits from having a halfway decent cast, too. Most of them are relatively unnoticeable newcomers or long-time D-listers, but none of them are bad. The little girls are pretty good for being, you know, little girls. And of course, Jessica Chastain is always reliable, even in a part like this that’s kind of…well, stupid. She’s the actual main character of the film, a fact that is not immediately clear at the beginning, and she plays this fake-tough tattooed rocker chick living in some kind of suspended adolescence. I think most big-time Oscar nominees would consider that part beneath them, but I’m glad she’s not afraid to try new things. The writing doesn’t do her many favors; Annabel goes from being casually friendly with the girls, though awkward around them, to being largely disinterested in them, to being actively malevolent toward them, to suddenly loving them with all her being and throwing herself in harm’s way heedlessly to save them. But she works it out, mostly.

And for all its obnoxious jump scares and lack of buildup, Mama does have one or two moments that I can only describe as deeply messed up. I have been afraid to sleep on my side for the last few days. That is an unusually specific thing for a movie to scare me out of doing.

I’m torn on the ending. I’m kind of glad Mama dares to be a little bit different. But as I could barely make any sense of it at all from a logical perspective, it started to look more like the high school kid who dares to be different by piercing his ears so wide he can stick soda cans through them — more of a calculated cry for attention than just naturally being different and embracing that fact.

It’s got its moments. But on the whole, Mama is just plain not scary, falling back on one too many horror movie tropes and clichés and carrying over far too many of the genre’s staple flaws. There are interesting ideas hovering around it, and it isn’t terrible, but it startles more than scares and doesn’t work hard to get under your skin and stick with you.

-Matt T.