Archive for August, 2013

The Host (2013)

Starring- Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, Chandler Canterbury, Max Irons, William Hurt, Jake Abel, Boyd Holbrook, Frances Fisher, Lee Hardee, Mustafa Harris, Scott Lawrence

Director- Andrew Niccol

PG-13- some sensuality and violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5x1TZLcMjgA

I mostly missed the Twilight bus when it rolled through. I wasn’t doggedly determined to see every movie that ever existed at the point when that series started getting adapted. As to the books, I read enough snippets of them to know that I didn’t need them inflicted upon my increasingly fragile sanity.

For no particular reason other than boredom and/or morbid curiosity, I did watch the first two Twilight movies when they aired on TV a few months ago. And they are hilarious — for roughly an hour. After that point, the unintentional joke wears thin, and the awful reality sets in, and everything just hurts.

And now, we’ve got an entirely new film adapted from author Stephenie Meyer’s first non-Twilight publication: The Host. And we should be so lucky for it to have been as awful as Twilight.

It represents some sort of improvement over Twilight (as a movie). In the sense that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is an improvement over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In the sense that it is flawed in all of the exact same ways but with the really bad bits sometimes removed but mostly just reduced a little. In the sense that it’s still awful but no longer ludicrous and baffling and fun to watch with friends.

So, basically, it’s the second half of a Twilight movie where you’ve finally seen all the silly stuff and now just have to slog through to the credits, stretched out to full-length and stripped almost entirely of unintentional hilarity. Hooray.

The story: An alien race called Souls has chosen Earth as its new home. Souls live by inserting themselves into host bodies, overpowering whatever personality already inhabits them and moving into the world’s current infrastructure while simultaneously “perfecting” it.

As the film opens, the Souls have nearly completed this process with Earth. Only a few pockets of human resistance remain. When one of them, teenager Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), is captured, a Soul named Wanderer is inserted into her mind and takes over.

Melanie is strong-willed, however, and resists Wanderer with all of her might. Wanderer fights back and even then struggles to maintain control. But worse than that is the fact that as she spends time in Melanie’s mind, Wanderer begins to sympathize with her. And that could mean big trouble for the Souls.

One major issue that emerges pretty much immediately is that the split personality of Melanie and Wanderer is not the sort of thing that translates well to film. It might have gone at least a little bit better had it tried to visualize this in an interesting way, even if it’s just having a ghost of Melanie stand off to the side somewhere — anything other than extended sequences of Saoirse Ronan quietly arguing with herself.

But then again, human beings rarely think in complete, structured sentences. We think in words and images and sounds and smells and abstract ideas. That doesn’t translate easily to dialogue. Which is to say that Twilight’s dialogue problem? Yeah, that’s here, too.

But the main thrust of Twilight was an increasingly tedious and senseless love triangle. I wish I could say it didn’t get worse than that. It does. Bella could have had a split personality.

There’s Jared (Max Irons), a young man Melanie fell in love with while on the run. And then there’s Ian (Jake Abel), a member of the resistance who soon strikes Wanderer’s fancy. On the latter part, the creepiness factor of a romance between an ageless alien being whose physical form resembles a deep sea creature crawling around the bottom of a reef and a teenage human is…definitely mentioned. It is not otherwise addressed.

And worry not — there might not be half as much of it, but the sometimes-frightening attitude Meyer’s stories either by accident or design take toward male-female relationships remains very intact here. Both of these young men physically beat Melanie at separate points — and sometimes more than once — and one even attempts to kill her.

That Melanie remains in love with Jared makes at least some sense. She at least has the justification that he thought she was dead and that her body had been taken over by an alien monster that he was trying to punish for killing her. Wanderer’s feelings for Ian are basically without excuse, though. By the way, how Ian’s leap from “I would like to kill her” to “I would like to be with her forever” is handled with a process of character development that I like to call “two scenes and a hand wave,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

If I could say only one thing in favor of The Host — and I truly will say only one thing — it’s that I remain convinced of Ronan’s talent and potential as an actress. (Okay, and I suppose I’ll never complain about William Hurt in anything.) Ronan’s wide-eyed, optimistic passion carries the movie through a lot of stupidity and definitely softens the blow of the near-constant Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones-level romantic dialogue.

But there is almost no thrust whatsoever in this story. It just meanders and meanders and meanders and meanders. People talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. When something important happens, it just gets dropped on the audience like a ton of bricks. A minor incident early on that viewers will know is setting up important later events — because every last plot point is broadcasted directly to the heavens — goes away for a while, comes back in an off-handed “huh, this might be getting serious” type of scene, and seconds later is a huge, world-ending, climax-setting-up catastrophe.

And I have resolved not to spoil the ending, firstly because reviewers aren’t supposed to do that or something and secondly because it would extend this review by, like, eight pages. But this movie has an absolute barnstormer of a stupid ending that keeps adding level after level in its house of cards of things that do not work.

Level one — there’s a good moral here about love and kindness. Too bad “love” here is apparently being defined as “the same thing as coaxing a nervous kitten out from under the couch” but is still somehow perfectly workable on sentient beings. Oh, and the other moral here is even worse, because it’s essentially that Romeo and Juliet were noble rather than foolish, and I could easily see any real-life suicidal teenager using word-for-word the exact same argument the movie uses.

Level two — wherein the movie breaks the established rules of its own universe and then raises even more uncomfortable moral questions without seeming to realize it has done so. Both of those things are my favorite. Also, it’s a massive and — for certain characters in the film — incredibly fortunate coincidence. (See comments section for more, because I seriously need to complain about how fundamentally awful this scene is.)

Level three — oh noes we almost had an ambiguous ending here’s an unnecessary epilogue that is also structurally very stupid when you think about it

Compared to other teen lit adaptations, it is, like I said, significantly better than Twilight. It still has all the same flaws — troublesome and uncomfortable romance, unusual ideas executed poorly, highly questionable moral ideas, a plot with no thrust or structure, clunky dialogue, etc. — but softened so that they are no longer kind of amusing in their ridiculousness. It’s just boring now.

And worse still — I can see actual potential in some of The Host’s ideas. It reminds me of Beautiful Creatures in that sense. But whereas Beautiful Creatures seemed for at least half of its running time like it would actually capitalize on those before burning out and failing to deliver, The Host basically falls flat on its face straight out of the gate and keeps flopping along as if it doesn’t realize its shoelaces are untied.

 

-Matt T.

Kon-Tiki (2012)

Starring- Pal Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgard, Odd Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro, Agnes Kittelsen

Directors- Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

PG-13- a disturbing violent sequence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUnmjQJHRP4

Kon-Tiki is an adventure film in the grand old tradition, akin to the swashbuckling live action tales of 1960s Disney — beautifully shot, stripped down, hand-crafted, full of one danger upon another, rife with the human spirit, culminating ultimately in sweeping triumph, and, above all else, quite fun.

It’s based on the true story of Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen), a Norwegian explorer who, while visiting the Polynesian islands, becomes convinced that the scientific consensus of their having been settled from Asia is false and that, rather, the original settlers came from Peru.

Unfortunately, no one will fund his research or publish his writings, convinced that the idea is madness on its face — that an ancient culture with access only to balsawood rafts could sail all the way from Peru to Polynesia seems ridiculous.

So, Thor sets out to prove them wrong in the most direct way he can — by assembling a crew, building a raft to the exact specifications of the ancient Peruvians, and making the journey itself.

I should note that I saw the English version of this film. Apparently, if you want to see it in its original form, you have to pick up the Blu-Ray. That it’s been translated doesn’t particularly bother me; this isn’t some bad dub. I assume it was shot in both English and Norwegian because I can’t otherwise account for how seamless it is. My main concern is that I’ve heard the English version is 17 minutes shorter.

I will say this — the English version doesn’t have the appearance of anything having been cut from it. It doesn’t feel like there are pieces missing or that certain scenes don’t get to breathe long enough. At the same time, I know the power of a single scene to make or break a film, and it’s possible, if unlikely, that my assessment of the original cut would be quite different.

Nevertheless, what we’ve got here is a fine film — highly enjoyable and surely one of the most unfairly unheard-of movies of 2012.

It’s strange but wonderful that we somehow managed to essentially get two movies in one year about people on a raft out in the middle of the ocean who the camera never once leaves to entertain other subplots, featuring flying fish, whale sharks and sea-life that glows in the dark prominently both in the film and in its promotional materials. But under the surface, Life of Pi and Kon-Tiki are very different films, each of them wonderful in their own right.

Life of Pi is philosophical, fantastical, and steeped in symbolism and abstraction. Kon-Tiki, on the other hand, is adventurous, simple, and fun. It doesn’t drag you through the depth of the human condition to the same extent, but come on — does everything have to?

Kon-Tiki reminded me of childhood favorites like Swiss Family Robinson. The CGI is minimal; nearly everything on-screen is real, built by hand. The ship — Kon-Tiki — is a character all its own. In general, I am fascinated by ships in movies; something about the clomp of feet against the wooden floorboards, the creaking of the ropes holding everything together, the way it sways to the rhythm of the waves passing underneath it — all of these things spark an instant thirst within me for adventure on the high seas, and Kon-Tiki delivers in this regard. Vicious storms, treacherous reefs, the elements themselves, and — of course — sharks threaten death at every turn. Kon-Tiki derives its thrills from simple and stripped down action sequences, unglamorous but tense to the point of being unbearable. In the end, it’s a joy to experience this journey with this particular crew.

And I do mean “this particular crew.” It would be lying to say that Kon-Tiki has great characters by the standards of some of what’s out there. They’re archetypes conforming to familiar tropes: the wide-eyed, unwavering, and faithful hero; the one who barely knew what he was getting into and is in over his head; the natural-born leader who chafes under the command of someone else; the defiant one who does his own thing; the adventurous and fearless one who is unfazed by even the greatest dangers; and the quiet, reserved, but rock-steady one whose presence can always be counted on. And they get the job done.

Their personalities conflict in the ways you’d expect them to, even as they also gel in the way you’d expect them to. They fight, but their bond becomes an almost brotherly one. They can count on one another utterly. They band together in times of trouble; pressure only seems to strengthen their resolve. They get involved in plenty of derring-do, staging courageous rescues of fallen comrades in the midst of a feeding frenzy of sharks, fighting against storms that threaten to overturn them. And when the time comes for a bit of philosophy and stargazing, they can be counted on to share that moment.

Oh, yes, Kon-Tiki is overdramatized and broad in that way such tales tend to be. Nobody really talks like these characters. Nobody really thinks about some of the things they do. But all of the characters in Kon-Tiki do, so you don’t notice. You like these people, you care for their safety, and you pray for their success.

Certainly that Thor’s obsession and near-insanity goes unchallenged is troubling. He seems not to grasp that he risks not only himself but also the lives of those who have chosen to travel with him. His faith approaches absolute blindness, and it is some small wonder he does not rapidly inspire mutiny. But then, this is an adventure film, meant to glorify a sense of wide-eyed wonder about everything: even something as simple as figuring out how Polynesians came to be.

It is a shame so few people have seen Kon-Tiki. It should have been given a wider release stateside. I suspect it would play quite well to mainstream audiences, better than its producers perhaps expect. There are many who would look at it and see it as being some foreign film, writing it off as artsy and difficult. I would urge them to reconsider. I adore films such as A Separation and Amour. But Kon-Tiki is proof that these movies can also be marvelous entertainments: innocent, good-natured, spirited, earthy, human, and extremely enjoyable.

 

-Matt T.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Starring- Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Finley Jacobsen, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Phil Austin, James Ingersoll, Keong Sim, Robert Forster, Ashley Judd

Director- Antoine Fuqua

R- strong violence and language throughout

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwx1f0kyNwI

There’s that good, strong Least Favorite Movie of the Year contender I’ve been waiting for.

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is in charge of the Secret Service for the current President of the United States, Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) — until a fateful evening when a car crash in a snowstorm forces him to choose between the lives of the President and the First Lady (Ashley Judd).

Fast-forward a year and a half, and Mike is working an office job at the United States Treasury — and hating every second of it. He’s on his way home with North Korean nationalists launch a terrorist attack against the capital, disguising themselves as the South Korean prime minister’s entourage to take the President and most of his cabinet hostage. Their terms: full withdrawal of the United States from the demilitarized zone.

As the assault on the White House unfolds, Mike rushes to the aid of the Secret Service and soon finds himself the only survivor — trapped inside a locked down White House with a highly trained enemy army and potentially the only hope for the President and perhaps the entire country.

It’s funny that the two movies that are, in my estimation, the worst of 2013 thus far are both failed attempts at being Die Hard. (Even though one of them technically was Die Hard.) I don’t consider it terribly observant to say that Olympus Has Fallen is Die Hard. Because it’s Die Hard. Central premise: lone wolf locked in a single location with an army of baddies to kill and a slew of hostages to rescue. Villains’ plan: more than it seems, even given that it initially seems like a lot. Main villain: cold, smarmy, charismatic guy with sexy foreign accent. Use of Christmas as a setting at one point: affirmative.

It gets closer to being a Die Hard movie than the most recent actual Die Hard movie. In the sense that Earth is a brisker walk than Uranus where the Sun is concerned. Olympus Has Fallen is the most 80s thing to have hit theaters in a very long time, and I am absolutely including both Expendables movies in that assessment. It’s bad in the ways every bad 80s movie is bad. The few things about it that work work in the ways every 80s movie worked.

Well, I’m not sure “work” is the proper way to describe it. The movie does a few things that are appreciated, but I wouldn’t say they work because the movie around them doesn’t give them a chance to.

Like a lot of bad 80s movies I’ve seen, its creators have presumably seen a lot of movies but have perhaps not fully internalized why they worked. Instead, they seem to be subconsciously sliding things into the script that have potential but are never particularly utilized.

Probably the biggest thing going in the favor of Olympus Has Fallen is this little thing I like to call “personal stakes.” It’s bizarrely absent from a lot of action movies these days. The opening scene establishes that Mike and the President actually are friends and share a warm, brotherly camaraderie. It even sort of weaves Mike into the overall family dynamic.

I’m not sure the movie realizes it does this, though. The ways it expands upon these relationships make no sense. Killing off the First Lady is actually a bad move. The President could use that motivation later on. So could Mike. Killing her only serves the purpose of getting Mike of the force, which only serves the purpose of…making him have to run to the White House when the fighting starts instead of already being there?

Giving Mike a mentorship role over the President’s son (Finley Jacobsen) also comes to basically nothing. You rightly expect it to be a big deal during the hostage crisis, but…it isn’t, really. It barely feeds off it to begin with and then just kind of hand-waves it and moves on to more explosion-y things.

Olympus Has Fallen is bad in the ways a lot of these things are. Die Hard dragged in places for me, but mostly, it kept things lively with a pretty constant stream of humor and by constantly changing the circumstances in which John McClane finds himself, forcing him to imagine new solutions. If Die Hard struggles to sustain itself through the relatively plotless middle third, Olympus Has Fallen outright falls flat. The middle third of the movie is basically Mike wandering aimlessly around the White House, apparently hoping that something interesting will happen. And he fights guys occasionally.

Visually, it’s about the laziest thing I’ve seen in actual years. The CGI approaches Sharknado levels of badness. If you can’t render textures, use a model, guys. When the Washington Monument collapses, it does so in a heap of crumbling rubble that resembles nothing so much as chunks of jello suspended in low gravity. I’m pretty sure I saw black lines around objects where green screens were used. Also, I’m 95 percent sure that, during the White House attack, a shot of a guy getting killed is used twice because they needed an extra casualty to keep the rhythm going.

Also, Olympus Has Fallen is despicable.

I usually have to give myself distance after I see a movie that aggravates me like this one. If I don’t, I’m liable to say really stupid things. At the end of the day, I don’t want to judge people for liking one movie or another, because I know a thousand fingers could point right back at me. After all, I’m upholding Die Hard here; what’s the fundamental difference? (For the record, I think it’s that Die Hard is humorous about it, in addition to the Christmas theme clearly being there to force a sense of dissonance about the whole thing; I see it as being almost as much a black comedy as an action movie.) Maybe there’s something about Olympus Has Fallen that I’m not seeing.

All in all, I wouldn’t say that you have to be a violent sociopath to like Olympus Has Fallen. I’m also not going to say that it wouldn’t help.

My experience watching Olympus Has Fallen was a deeply distressing one. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve been as distressed by watching war movies that were actually supposed to be distressing. It invokes one awful reality after the next and can’t manage to medicate that by giving us a silly one-liner every forty-five minutes or so.

I mean, first, we’re watching pedestrians get mowed down in the streets of Washington, D.C., by an airplane with machine gun emplacements. Then, tourists are getting crushed by the falling Washington Monument. Then, the Secret Service gets obliterated in a bloody mess. Then, we get to see inside the local hospital, where there’s a guy with his leg blown off screaming right next to where a bloodied little girl who is clearly about to die is being wheeled away. Inside the White House, we get to see the terrorists shoot an unarmed woman in the head because the President won’t lift his arms. Then, they do the same to a guy on television largely for no other reason than to prove they’re serious before even stating their terms. Then, they torture an elderly man by pressing a knife into his throat so hard that it draws blood. Then, they torture an elderly woman by beating her within an inch of her life. Then, the hero gets in on the torture and brutality game for good measure. A couple extra glimpses inside the hospital later, it’s hard to think anything other than, “Yup, Olympus Has Fallen, we are definitely having fun now, and also *profanity profanity profanity*.”

The defense upon which its supporters have largely fallen is again, the 80s silliness of the whole affair, but I simply don’t see it. This is basically the only sense in which it is not an 80s movie. It mostly plays all that nonsense pretty seriously. Yes, the movie has, like, two blisteringly terrible one-liners, and maybe two characters use big, ridiculous guns at one point. That’s form, not function.

(I would imagine the silliness probably increases if you have any idea how the Secret Service works. I don’t, so it didn’t.)

A handful of scenes aside, Olympus Has Fallen simply plays too much like a potential future headline. I’d be more inclined to examine it more deeply than that if it wasn’t also terrible on just about every other level. But it is, so I won’t.

 

-Matt T.

Amour (2012)

Starring- Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell

Director- Michael Haneke

PG-13- mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7D-Y3T0XFA

Amour is a raw, gaping wound of a motion picture. It’s great. Brilliant, maybe. But I don’t think I could stand to see it again. I don’t think I have the stomach for it. To watch Amour is to stare into an abyss inside your own soul that you always knew, on some level, existed but were afraid to probe. To explore it is necessary. But Amour, sometimes, is like watching light get sucked down into that darkness and there ensnared.

Amour follows an elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), at the end of their lives. They’re retired music teachers, living out their days in relative peace, attending the concerts of successful former students and spending time together in their tidy apartment.

One day, the two are conversing when Anne leaves. She goes blank for several minutes, unresponsive. When she comes back around, she is unaware that any time has passed.

The cause is a blocked carotid artery. It’s treatable in almost all cases. Anne is the exception. The surgery leaves her wheelchair-bound and paralyzed on one side of her body. She’s fated to slowly get worse and then, even more slowly, die.

Her condition deteriorates day by day, leaving Georges to be her caretaker and to suffer alongside her.

Amour leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Even to say that it presents answers, other than in the smallest sense, gives me pause. To see it is to wrestle with it long afterward. I can’t imagine anyone leaving it completely satisfied, with nary a thought in retrospect.

This is a bit of an aside, but I think it’s relevant: Purely by coincidence, the last film I saw before Amour was Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. They make excellent companion pieces. The Fountain is also about a couple coming to grips with their own mortality. Ultimately, though, I think it’s a film that’s more about how to live than how to die.

In that sense, Amour is more painful by leaps and bounds. According to interviews, director Michael Haneke made the film as a means of addressing his own thoughts regarding the failing health of a loved one of his. And it doesn’t dodge the question, redirecting its focus to more immediate and controllable matters. This is a film that stares, unflinching, into that dark abyss. It looks you — it looks itself — in the eye and says, “Someday, you will die. How do you plan to deal with that?”

Georges and Anne are appropriate vessels for this theme. Their lives are not too unlike those of the majority of people who will see the film. Of course, this means that neither are their deaths. Death seems far from the First World. It comes regardless.

Their existence is one of quiet intellectualism, surrounded by classical music and a very thorough personal library. Their apartment somehow manages to seem simultaneously cluttered and immaculately managed. They love each other in their own reserved sort of way.

Moreover, they are very controlled — and perhaps very controlling.

To watch Anne descend from her prim, maintained, and reserved self into something else entirely is a constant barrage against the viewer, a blow sustained time and time again directly to the stomach. She is clean, organized, and in control of herself. Her initial pain is that her paralysis robs her of her music and forces her into near-complete reliance upon others — a position that clearly troubles her. It worsens. Soon, she is bedridden entirely. Then, she loses her speech. She seems to remain conscious of her thoughts, but her mouth cannot formulate them. Of course, eventually, she seems to lose those thoughts as well. She becomes a babbling, distant mess, a shell of her former self, lying on a bed that’s more machine than resting place, hooked up to so much equipment, barely aware of herself. What Emmanuelle Riva does with this is gut-wrenching.

Georges is not well positioned to handle this. Few are, but him especially. He also seems to appreciate control — and to appreciate his wife being in control of herself as well. He suffers with her through paralysis, but he manages it. What comes next breaks him. He must clean her, spoon-feed her, care for every need of this once-capable woman he barely recognizes but loves deeply. It is doubtful that he has ever once struck her in his life, but he does so when she begins to reject food and water. It’s a shocking and distressingly inevitable moment. So are the decisions he makes later.

It’s a shame, in the wrong online film circles, to see this film’s worth being discussed within the context of the euthanasia debate. That either side of that issue could see this as being so simple a film makes me wonder if, in fact, they saw it at all. To one side, I would ask: How do you square away the implications? How do you stand it? To the other side, I would ask: How do you manage not to see the inherent horror? What, in fact, is the meaning of love to you?

Amour is complicated and tragic. That is all I am willing to say about it with any air of objectivity.

Still, I wonder. I search for the light in Amour, and I find little. It is innately empathetic and not nearly so cold as it seems on the surface. But it must do right by its subject matter. It is rare to see a film go after so intense a theme with such unwavering courage. I find glimmers within it. I wonder if it might have ended differently had the controlling and independent natures of its leads not caused them to force out the offered help of their family and neighbors.

Regardless, what, ultimately, does Amour lead us to conclude about our inevitable and universal fates? Days later, I still do not know. Even had Georges and Anne done everything right — and that would require them to be strong, very strong, stronger than most — Anne’s condition would remain deplorable. What if that was my own fate? What would my desires be? After I lost my ability to interact meaningfully with everything and everyone I loved, what thoughts would cross my mind — if even I could still think?

I think of 2011’s A Separation. It’s perhaps not as thematically intense — which says far more about Amour than it does A Separation — but it’s almost equally as tragic and without clear answers. And yet, there is optimism in it. Love, understanding, moving on from what you’re justified in doing and choosing instead the path of mercy — these things flow beneath the surface. The audience knows that if the characters would put aside their pride and their self-righteousness, they could avert the tragedy that is otherwise inevitable.

I am not certain how true I think this is of Amour. You watch the light get pulled in, down, down, down. Little of it, almost nothing, escapes. Is it enough merely to face this? To look it in the eye, acknowledge its existence, and throw it on the backburner, questioning only what it is we must do here and now to maximize the value inherent in life? Are there no answers to be found? That’s not a possibility one desires to concede?

Or, in searching for that answer, do we not, in fact, risk becoming Hugh Jackman at the end of The Fountain, a man so long chasing after immortality that he’s forgotten why and has lost sight of what any of it ever meant? Do we risk becoming Georges in the final frames of Amour, lonely, despondent, and — ultimately — rash, dangerous?

Perhaps, in the end, sometimes there are no answers because the question — unsatisfying as it can be — is enough. It’s all we need for the here and now.

But when that time comes, as it will for each and every one of us, how will we face it, and how should we face it? Amour asks that question with boldness.

The burden may be on us for the answer. For me, I may leave it to those with stronger constitutions than that with which I am granted. Amour is powerful, brilliant, brutal, and disturbing. It leaves a permanent imprint on the memory — and that is just as well. It is difficult to want to revisit it.

 

-Matt T.

Admission (2013)

Starring- Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Lily Tomlin, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn, Elaine Kussack, Christopher Evan Welch, Michael Genadry, Travaris Spears, Rob Campbell, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa

Director- Paul Weitz

PG-13- language and some sexual material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QD88JpNEQz0

There isn’t much surprise about what you’re getting into with Admission. It was marketed as a comedy, but it’s really more of a drama, catching no one off-guard because these types of films always are. It’s not awful. It’s sincere enough and carries modest charms. It isn’t terribly original. You won’t find anything earth-shattering in it. It fades from the memory pretty much immediately. And you don’t completely regret the experience, even though you figure you’ll never have a reason to see it a second time.

All in all, Tina Fey still strikes me as a better writer and behind-the-scenes person than a viable leading lady.

She plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, which famously turns away the vast majority of its applicants. She has no children or family, has a tense relationship with her mother (Lily Tomlin), and is stuck in a loveless and comfortable partnership with longtime boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen), a Princeton professor.

One day, she gets a call from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who runs a type of agrarian school that will soon be graduating its first senior class. He thinks that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is Princeton material and hopes to introduce them.

He has ulterior motives. John went to the same university as Portia and knew a few of her friends. It’s enough information for him to drop the bomb: that he’s pretty certain Jeremiah is her son.

I can appreciate a number of things about Admission. I can appreciate that it’s mostly sweet and likable and, at the very least, doesn’t register much offense. I can appreciate that it forgoes “shocking twist” curveballs that really aren’t all that shocking and that lesser movies absolutely would’ve indulged (there’s one twist I was expecting throughout the whole film that I’m still completely shocked didn’t end up being a thing). I can appreciate even more that it throws a few curveballs that do catch you off guard — or me, at least.

But on the whole, this is just too low-key. Honestly, it’s a tough movie to want to review, because it barely transcends TV-movie status — if even that. It feels like an inoffensive, easily digestible thing for Lifetime fans to play in the background while they’re unwinding after work.

I’m a fan of Tina Fey — really, I am. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a 30 Rock nerd, but I absolutely am one. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember that I’ve seen any of Fey’s other big-screen forays. Frankly, here, it swallows her up. She’s an excellent writer of comedy and a pretty good performer of it as well, as 30 Rock proves. But with someone else’s script in a movie she’s required to carry mostly on her own, she falls a bit flat. The part was probably written with her in mind, because there’s enough of Liz Lemon in it — just a Liz Lemon who’s not as much of a comedic mess, who’s stiffer and a bit more down-to-Earth. Really, the character lacks the same amount of life and doesn’t substitute that with a whole lot of depth. I wouldn’t call Portia thinly sketched so much as broadly sketched.

Portia navigates two main relationships throughout the film — her awkward attempts to connect with Jeremiah and figure out how to be a mother or even if she wants to be one, and her burgeoning (and partially lifeless) romance with John. For the movie to divide its time like this would be inadvisable to begin with, but to dedicate the largest portion to the romance is even more so. To the movie’s credit, it does a relatively good job of streamlining all of its relationships — Portia are her possible son, Portia and John, John and his adopted son (Travaris Spear), Portia and her mother, etc. — into something resembling a connecting theme, which keeps it from becoming too busy.

Unfortunately, the characters have a tendency to behave like, well, movie characters. This is one of those light, fuzzy dramas where people tend to react to problems more dramatically than your average person would — forcing everyone else around them to react less dramatically, because no one in real life could behave this way without losing their jobs or their friends or being written off as insane. The sparse comedy doesn’t help with this. You can’t sell Portia as a real character with real problems and then also find room within that to have her be the sort of person who’d grab other people’s babies in public because she thinks they need help.

Admission does occasionally sidestep the histrionics and have people behave sensibly, sometimes in ways that other dumb dramas ordinarily wouldn’t, which I suppose sets it a cut above. It could’ve earned a lot of ill will with its ending, and I fully expected that was the direction it’s going. Fortunately, people suffer actual consequences for their bad decisions, and one hopes they learned something. At the same time, Portia’s actions in the climax put her in my bad graces in a big way, and the few scenes after that suffer for it. She basically gets what she deserves for doing so, but it’s unclear whether she realizes exactly how many people she’s potentially hurt through her actions. I’m not sure the movie realizes this, either, as her actions fly pretty directly in the face of its stance that these kids are not names on a sheet but actual people trying to secure their futures and carve out places for themselves.

Really, Admission is dry more than anything. It’s not terrible, and it has its moments, but it’s unimaginative in a baseline sort of way that leaves you questioning the reason for its existence — it’s not too visually stimulating, there aren’t any acting turns to speak of, the plot offers mild surprises here and there but nothing worth the ticket price. I’m still rooting for Tina Fey, but I maintain that for the moment, she’s best restricted to television.

 

-Matt T.

42 (2013)

Starring- Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail

Director- Brian Helgeland

PG-13- thematic elements including language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP3G4E2ael8

Sometimes, the man gets lost in the myth and the legend.

42, the true story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Bosemen), the first black player to join the all-white major league, and, to a lesser extent, the man who recruited him, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), certainly has very good intentions. Certainly, it has high ambitions as well. We get a great many biopics in a year. Few tackle a figure so universally beloved as Jackie Robinson. There are a lot of ways one might expect such a project to go right and a lot of ways one much expect it to go wrong — and one specific way in which 42, unfortunately, does.

42 is trying so hard to mythologize its hero that it actually ends up doing the exact opposite — it makes him a touch boring.

To be fair, 42 is not a bad movie. There are enough scenes that connect in the way that they’re intended that I can honestly say I left it feeling mostly good about the experience. Granted, a lot of that is its subject matter. Most people have strong reactions to outright racism, to the categorical mistreatment of human beings that we see here. A substantial number of us, myself included, have never particularly been victim to it, but most of us still relate to it on some level. There is a piece of it that is inherently dramatic, in other words.

And some of it also centers around scenes that just plain work, in exactly the sense they were intended. Every now and then, the acting and direction combine in precisely the way needed to approach creating something special.

In other words, I liked 42, for what it is. But I’m not prepared to defend it as a great movie. I might not even be prepared to defend it as a good one.

But from frame one, 42 is a film that is extremely preoccupied with portent. The dialogue is constructed almost solely out of trailer-ready lines about heroism and significance and meaning and concern for the future. There are few particularly human conversations in 42. Everyone is prone to reminiscing, to stargazing, to dreaming — constantly.

The movie knows from the outset that Jackie Robinson will become a hero and an icon. Nearly every scene in which he is a factor centers around characters informing him of this. When this is not occurring, the film simply starts slyly alluding to it: “Look where he is right now! So low, so downtrodden! But soon, he’ll be one of the most famous and beloved people in the world! Isn’t that special?”

   42 feeds constantly on imagery that it’s clearly trying to force into the cultural lexicon, to make people irrevocably associate with Jackie Robinson. But a film only needs one great one to stick, and it needs to earn that moment. Instead, it avails itself of every opportunity to highlight Robinson against light or shadows, to place him in slow motion, or to emphasize the number on his back — 42.

It gives you that with the supporting cast as much as with Robinson. Rickey is admirable for the reason of seeming like the sort of character who shouldn’t exude moral decency and courage — but he does anyway. The issue is that the character is perfect. He’s not the sort of man who simply yells at you for your prejudice and then forces you out of his space; he’s the man who has a perfectly prepared, witty, and structured argument for every occasion, who so thoroughly dismantles those who oppose him that you half-expect them to apologize on the spot and retreat from the room with their tails between their legs. Everything about him is measured and calculated; he seems incapable of making a misstep, ever. And within the movie itself, that I can recall, he never does. Whatever Rickey is saying or doing ought to be considered by the audience to be the default right thing.

Robinson’s teammates, on the other hand, never really assume much identity. There are two types of teammate, and each only gets two scenes apiece. Firstly, there’s the prejudiced teammate. His first scene will involve him making Robinson’s life hell however he can. His second scene will involve him being shamed and/or traded. Secondly, there’s the non-prejudiced teammate. His first scene will be him being introduced and named, and maybe expressing some trepidation toward Robinson but seeming reasonable overall. His second scene will be him finding a way to make some big show of solidarity with Robinson. Neither character will ever appear outside of those contexts.

Perhaps a bigger problem — and certainly one that contributes to its attempts to mythologize this man — is the fact that 42 doesn’t really have much emotional continuity. With any movie — unless there’s an important thematic reason — you want to avoid giving it a sense of “and then THIS happened!” 42 never really coheres as a story; it’s a series of random events that are sometimes related and sometimes not.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this. In order to truly mythologize Jackie Robinson, you have to find his humanity — and big-hearted but totally unrelated asides involving his personal life and scenes where he stares off into the distance in contemplation won’t do so. You need to build that over a narrative.

The success of 42 is that it works well in the moment. It establishes the character of Jackie Robinson well enough that, as events are playing out, he’s reacting with the correct emotions and responding in the ways one might expect. When a rival manger (Alan Tudyk, so deep into Racist Uncle mode that it took me, a Firefly diehard, literal minutes to realize why he looked kind of familiar) starts shouting racial epithets at Jackie during a game every time he steps up to the plate, his increasing frustration is palpable, and his eventual explosion alone under the stands — the movie’s best scene, in my estimation — hits hard. Because 42 is very good at asking the question, “How is what’s happening right here and right now affecting the characters emotionally?” But it is not very good at asking the question, “How is what happened in the last scene going to affect Jackie in this scene, and how is it going to continue to affect him long-term?”

And it’s important to have that down for a movie like this, because answering that question properly will give us a real sense of the obstacles Jackie faced, of the strength he needed to overcome it, and — perhaps most significantly — the way the man he became was shaped by the things that he experienced. We need to see how all of this influenced his character. But because the movie jumps around at random and doesn’t particularly allow what happened in one scene to dictate future developments in the plot, nothing ever gets to build.

We see that when Jackie’s son is born. Jackie stares lovingly over the child in the hospital’s maternity ward and quietly recites a monologue that exists as much to promise his own affection to the child as it does to hastily fill in background for the audience. Of course, this would be much more effective if we got to see Jackie’s absentee father and how that affected him. At the same time, it would be an unnecessary use of the film’s time to do so, because the scene in question has nothing to do with everything else that happens. The baby scarcely appears for the rest of the movie.

We see that in the fact that Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a black sports writer, is set up as the person who’s essentially telling the audience this story, but he phases in and out of the movie for such long periods that A) we lose the sense that he has any meaningful personal connection to Jackie and B) we regularly forget that he exists entirely.

Many movies have this problem. But even by their standards, 42 feels very random, like the script is making it up as it goes along and forgetting which elements it’s introduced and which ones it hasn’t. When the Dodgers lose one manager to a sex scandal, much ado is made of Rickey trying to find a new one. He goes to an old friend and a big, weepy scene with soaring musical motifs and speechifying from Rickey is spent on bringing this guy out of retirement. The film sets him up as a game-changer, introduces him to the team, and then…never has him speak a single line of dialogue for the entire rest of its run-time.

In terms of set-up, the climax feels much like the rest of the movie. It’s bereft of context. It’s an important game, but when the audience is dropped into it, apropos of nothing, we don’t know the score or what it would take for the Dodgers to win. The climax revolves around whether or not Jackie, who has hit plenty of homeruns so far in the film, will hit yet another one, with the twist being that, this time, it’s a racist pitcher who hates him and beamed him in the head once. This culminates, unfortunately, in a payoff that’s as cheesy and overdone as any sports movie climax but without being half as earned.

Honestly, we could certainly do worse than 42, but for someone like Jackie Robinson, I don’t want to be walking away from it thinking it anything less than fantastic. I especially don’t want to leave it thinking that it didn’t adequately capture his experiences — bring his struggles and his triumphs to the table, tying them into something genuinely inspiring. This man may only have been a baseball player, but he came at a time when the world needed him. Rickey encourages him by saying that he saw a white boy in a park pretending to be him, to be a black man. That’s the impossible thing that Robinson, merely by being a man of talent and character in the face of adversity, helped to accomplish in the long run.

I basically enjoyed 42. But it’s not the ideal movie for Jackie Robinson to be remembered by.

-Matt T.

Mud (2013)

Starring- Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Paul Sparks, Bonnie Sturdivant

Director- Jeff Nichols

PG-13- some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFBC8ohhVUs

Jeff Nichols makes something a little more mainstream and accessible, holds true to his vision, keeps the parts of his approach that work, makes something intelligent and effective, scores a minor box office hit, and shows the kids how it’s done.

Two boys in the rural South — Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) — are exploring the river that they call home when they encounter a deserted island, the most interesting facet of which is a boat that became wedged between the branches of a tall tree during severe flooding.

The boys want to make a private hideout there, but they find, living inside of it, a drifter who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He’s unsettling at first, but his fanciful tales of his life and the woman he loved — Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) — soon win the boys over, particularly Ellis, who’s having a hard time of it with his own family.

Mud appears to be in some sort of undefined trouble. He can’t go into town himself, so he soon strikes up a deal with Ellis to get food and supplies while he hunkers down on the island. But when the real Juniper reenters the picture, Mud begins taking great risks to reach out to her — and Ellis gets caught in the middle of it.

Jeff Nichols is on a powerful kind of roll right now. It’s beyond me that he remains such an unknown name in the overall scheme of things. This is only his third film, and I am already prepared to call him one of the best directors currently working. Shotgun Stories is tense, challenging, and amazing. Take Shelter is a piece of genius. I don’t think I like Mud as much as either of those two films, but that’s a completely meaningless statement at this point. It’s still great.

Three films into his career, Nichols has already firmly established his strengths. He has a fixation on the rural South, which has been the setting of all of his films. My understanding is that he grew up there, and his continued exploration of that culture feels remains nuanced and well-observed and plunges deeper with each film that passes. Here, we get a confused but loving look at the way such cultures blend their famous hospitality and congenial ways with worldviews that are often brutal and cold.

His visual approach to the landscape is like Terrence Malick but is more of a mechanism, not particularly calling attention to itself. Nichols’ style on the whole is unobtrusive in the best way, serving perfectly the needs of the story and actors. The tone is a bit different here — his previous films were slow and so tense they soon became unbearable (in the best way). Mud is a gentler film, and Nichols adjusts his approach accordingly.

Nichols’ skill with actors remains intact as well. Mud is another film in which every character who walks across the screen seems to have come from another movie that’s about them. There’s history there — life, personality, traits, emotional weight. It says something that Michael Shannon’s character — Neckbone’s deadbeat uncle, Galen — is the most easily forgotten presence. Tye Sheridan turns in that rare performance among actors his age that could potentially be Oscar-worthy; he finds a middle ground of teen angst that is believable without shooting over the top and fixating on minutia constantly. I’ve known a thousand kids like Neckbone, and Jacob Lofland might as well be one of them. Reese Witherspoon does surprisingly solid work with limited screen-time, particularly in her final scenes. Heck, this movie even features an appearance — and a good one — from Joe Don Baker, of all people.

But more actors should reach the point that Matthew McConaughey appears to have reached. Has any other actor in history managed to make so fast a transition from general punchline to critical darling? I’m hard-pressed to think of one. I have only the highest admiration for what he’s doing. Financially, there’s absolutely no reason why he couldn’t have stayed comfortable and done dumb rom-coms for the rest of his life. Instead, he swore those off and set out to take only the roles that interested and challenged him. And now, suddenly, his presence in a film is a near-guarantee that said film will, at the very least, be highly interesting.

His work here is par for that course. He’s still a little pretty by the standards of a guy like Mud, but I can’t fault him for the performance. He’s love-struck and wayward, half-insane, a rough man who has lived hard. He embodies the contradictions of this culture: a kind and reliable man who nevertheless has as much room for hate in his heart as he does love. Of course, Ellis brings out the best in him. And despite his shady untrustworthiness, it’s easy to see what Ellis sees. Mud is mysterious, but he’s quite the charmer.

However, in my estimation, Nichols’ most prominent skill is that he’s potentially the best writer of character development working in the movie industry right now. He really understands who is characters are; moreover, he understands what the events of the plot will bring down on them. In all three of his movies, you can plainly see the ways, subtle and large, that what happens impresses upon the psychologies of his characters. You can see the wheels turning in their minds, shaping them in response to their experiences. Every reaction to every occurrence is a real and felt one. Nobody can take a character and believably break him or her quite the way that Jeff Nichols can. His films usually climax in some form of emotional breakdown or another, and in each of them, that moment hits with the ferocity of hurricane water against rock. And of course, that means that Nichols is capable of reconstructing those characters just as easily.

To see him, for the first time, apply that skill to a coming of age story is a delight. Ellis is definitely a kid searching for his place on the world — and on the verge of deciding there isn’t one and that maybe he doesn’t even want for there to be.

It’s clear why he’s drawn to Mud. His stories about Juniper speak to Ellis of a love that’s pure, noble, true, and lasting — love that’s the way every teenage kid hopes it will be. It becomes important — vital — to Ellis that Mud and Juniper’s relationship is as he believes it is.

There isn’t much of it in Ellis’s own life. There aren’t many functional relationships for him to admire. His parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are fighting with one another and barely on speaking terms as a result. The reason for this remains unknown. Mom seems to have tired of their difficult life on the river. Dad seems like anything but a reasonable man.

He seems to care for Ellis deep inside, but on the exterior is a harsh man who fears his own emotions and maintains a deliberate distance. Mom is equally distant. She seems like she was probably warm and comforting at one point, but she’s so lost in her own pain and confusion that every attempt at reaching out to her son is strained, like it’s taking every ounce of her energy.

Neckbone’s parents are nowhere to be found. Galen is likable — more like an older brother than an authority figure. He seems to care for his nephew’s well-being. He’s also a womanizer whose only in-film interaction with a woman comes as she’s storming out of her trailer, swearing at him, and getting Neckbone’s solemn promise that he won’t grow up to be like him.

It gets worse. Ellis’s neighbor, Tom (Sam Shepard), has a general distaste for those of the female persuasion. And Ellis’s own efforts at reaching out to a girl at school (Bonnie Sturdivant) burn him badly.

He needs Mud’s stories to be real because they’re the only way he can continue to believe that love is real — well, love or his romanticized version of it.

What he gets, ultimately, is a stern reminder that things usually aren’t simple, and they’re almost never easy. But there is real love — it isn’t always romantic love, and it isn’t always pretty. But it comes through when it’s needed. And thus does the boy become a man.

I must confess that, for all its strengths, Mud isn’t as absorbing as either of Nichols’ previous films. I’m finding the reason for this a touch elusive. There are some critics saying that the movie loses steam when it leaves Ellis’s perspective. They’re not wrong about this. At the same time, this happens so infrequently that it barely affects the work as a whole.

Others have accused the film of misogyny. To some extent, I see where they’re coming from. In many of the film’s central relationships, it’s women who inflict the primary hurts, and it’s mostly men who reconcile. At the same time, this is also a film that is partially about the way perspective changes the way we see someone. We form our views of these characters through varying scenes as other characters tell of their own experiences with one another. Mud seems one way, is revealed by a close friend to be another, is revealed through his romantic exploits to be something else, and eventually assimilates into a full human being. Not to mention that, in all cases, the film is told from the men’s perspective, so of course we’re getting their version of events. The devil truly is in the details here. The reason for the conflict between Ellis’s parents is said — by his father, a clearly biased source — to be his mother’s desire to leave the river. There is almost certainly truth in this. But we know from examining his father’s character that, while he is not a bad person, few would describe him as easy to get along with. Surely he shares blame. The same goes for most of the other relationships — save maybe Ellis’s personal romantic pursuits, where he is perhaps overly blameless.

In the end, it’s possible that the film slows down because the most emotionally intense conflict — the one centered on Mud and Juniper — is seen secondhand by Ellis. It’s more than secondhand, really — Ellis pieces it together through stories told by the people who actually were there. Of course, to resolve this issue, one would have to take the focus off Ellis again — maybe permanently, and that would so thoroughly undo the beauty of this film.

Instead, maybe it’s best to take Mud for the gift that it is.

 

-Matt T.