Archive for October, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

Starring- Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofksy, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez

Director- Paul Greengrass

PG-13- sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3ASoBrFGlc

I’m reminded of a quote from The Great Gatsby: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

Perhaps more important is what comes only a few paragraphs later: “A sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.”

Some have read classist interpretations into the latter quote. That may be true. But at its heart, independent of any one person’s life status, there’s a kernel of truth there regarding the way that the human moral compass appears to form.

Captain Phillips is not strictly about this, but the basics of it underscore each and every one of its scenes. That it acknowledges the distressing realities of its true story, looking them in the eye and never downplaying them situationally, depending on what emotion would make one scene or another go down the easiest, is the reason it’s one of the best movies of the year.

You remember reading about it in the news. In 2009, a commercial freighter under the command of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) was boarded by Somali pirates, led by a man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) while sailing around the horn of Africa. Phillips ended up being a hostage of the pirates over the course of a few days in a tense standoff with the Navy.

“You have to be strong to survive out there,” Phillips says early in the film, in a conversation with his wife (Catherine Keener), discussing his children’s future. This fact doesn’t seem to enthuse him; there is a sigh beneath Hanks’ voice as he delivers this line. But he has accepted it, and he believes it. He’s a relative taskmaster with his crew and not the sort of person who regularly expresses open emotion. He presents a cold front to most.

He doesn’t know how right his philosophy is — or how wrong. It’s one thing for his adult children graduating college into a harsh economy. It’s another thing for an impoverished young Somali living in an unprotected village harassed by warlords. They never articulate it as clearly, but these pirates live it in action — you have to be strong to survive out there.

And yet, Captain Phillips is a movie about strong, independent, and manly men who repeatedly throw unstoppable forces and immovable objects into every situation, undoing themselves and those around them. Reason ought to triumph, and the solutions to this dilemma are apparent at each step of the way — in Phillips, who comes to find a strange affinity for his captors; in a beleaguered Navy commander and his team of negotiators desperately trying to get someone, anyone, to listen to reason before the Seals show up locked and loaded; even in Muse’s rare but extant flashes of reason. But everyone has a singular goal — a mission, an image, an opportunity to prove oneself, an opportunity to be strong — and it is paid for in blood and freedom.

Captain Phillips could have been an ordinary action thriller, albeit a particularly reserved one. To my knowledge, it takes a few liberties with the timeframe of the events in its first half, so it clearly has no issue with streamlining and expanding where necessary. That means the direction it ultimately chooses is significant. It would be relatively simple to pace this into a heroes vs. villains narrative with an action climax and a cathartic payoff. Audiences would’ve liked it better, and with enough drama and technical skill, critics might still have signed off on it anyway.

Instead, it makes two important and absolutely deliberate moves. The first is that it expands Phillips’ hostage situation into the majority of the film — and in so doing renders him a mostly passive character in his own movie. One could argue that for roughly half of the entire film, it’s actually Muse who’s the protagonist — making the decisions, driving the plot, and going through an arc (though, to be fair, Phillips goes through one alongside him). The second important decision is to make it so that, from the moment the crew forces them off the ship, the pirates are no longer a real threat. Oh, they’re a threat to Phillips. The film milks a lot of tension out of one particularly hotheaded and unstable pirate and the danger of his flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. But Muse and one of the younger pirates don’t seem to have any desire to hurt Phillips — so long as they get what they want. An action movie wouldn’t have done either of these things.

Captain Phillips, you see, is really good at maintaining that complicated balance wherein it is sympathetic and nonjudgmental toward men who do wrong without condoning their actions. Of course, it wouldn’t. It would be hard to make a good argument for kidnapping and theft. But this is a script that feels for its antagonists — to the extent that you could even consider them that. It’s clear that even the most violent of the pirates, the one you figure wouldn’t feel the slightest bit of remorse for killing Phillips, comes out of a place of desperation — and a philosophy, formed from that same place, that believes, knows, “you have to be strong to survive out there.”

It can be easy to look at the economic reality in Somalia and casually recognize that it’s bad without imagining what it’s like to experience — particularly from birth. It can be easy to file away the idea that these are not people who can go out and get jobs, who must feed themselves only with what they can find on their own. There’s no structure in place, no opportunity. And then, there are warlords.

A lot of us — and I absolutely include myself in this — like to think that, faced with the same situation, our moral fiber would drive us to sit stoically in the corner and starve to death rather than kidnap and steal, to prove a philosophical point to the universe. Would we really, though? Not a one of us can fathom starvation. Men lost at sea seem frequently to attest to the idea that hunger changes who you are. Born into that environment, as another person, would such actions seem so wrong to us? I’ll take it a step further — even if we, as we are now, were transplanted into such a situation, even then, would we take the high road?

What these men do is wrong. Captain Phillips is not fuzzy on that. But what else could they do? What else can be done? It uses those actions to call attention to broader realities — to face down, if not necessarily solve, the complete disparity between the two worlds that collide in this story. The movie calls further attention to this in physical details: The Navy is big, structured, well-armed, and strategic. The pirates are few, outgunned, chaotic, disunified, and a bit stupid — at least by comparison.

Phillips comes to understand this. It’s difficult to say who his real-world counterpart is, but the man we see here is an actual hero, a type all-too-rare in today’s movie theaters. He looks before he leaps, takes the peaceful route when he can, and doesn’t hate his enemies — seemingly not even the most violent and untrustworthy of them. One could say that he forms a strange camaraderie with Muse, who refers to him as “Irish,” a nickname that almost becomes affectionate past a certain point. His kindness toward the youngest of his captors nearly makes him more friend than foe.

Hanks is the perfect actor for the role. Phillips, in this situation, could be considered representative of all of America, much as one could see the pirates as Somalia or Africa or even the Third World in general. And Hanks is the Great American Actor — which is not to say that he is necessarily the best American actor, simply that he is the most American. He radiates folksy simplicity and fatherly wisdom and gives a heck of a performance here. This story is such that Phillips can’t really be fleshed out as a character through too many personal interactions prior to his ordeal, so Hanks has to fill in a lot of the blanks himself. His final moments in the film would likely be his Oscar reel this year were they less distressing, and he sells the inexplicable way in which his character bonds with the pirates — and of course, the pirates themselves deserve equal credit in this. First-timer Barkhad Abdi is a very strong contender for a stealth Best Supporting Actor nomination this year. He’s harsh and unkempt, strong while clearly mostly playacting at being a man, and his increasing desperation as the might of the Navy bears down makes good use of the way in which he’s simultaneously sympathetic and a threat.

The best scene in Captain Phillips is the ending. In truth, it might be one of the best single scenes of the entire year. It is so, so difficult to arrive at an ending that strikes in precisely the way this one does. It must end up in such a complicated place. It was a highly publicized true story, so it’s no spoiler to say that it doesn’t end well for the pirates. But to see its climax be so distinctly the opposite of what most dramatic action thrillers would do is astonishing. It’s not unusual for such a climax to hinge on someone having to make an impossible shot. But ordinarily, you’re rooting for them to make it. Here, Phillips, having figured out what’s going on, has only the thought to attempt to save his captors — and the audience is mostly on his side. What comes after is tragic and gut-wrenching, shocking, but also cathartic and a bit of a release. You’re glad for the safety of your hero. You also wonder how it might have ended differently. You wonder how this keeps happening again and again. It’s a giant miasma of contradictory emotions, one seemingly shared by Phillips, who’s stunned nearly into silence and has no clue how to feel about the end to his ordeal.

There are moments of Captain Phillips that drag — particularly early on, when there’s a lot of people sneaking around ships and nothing much happening thematically. At the same time, I recognize this as a flaw that may improve the whole; rushing into Phillips’ captivity would have been even more problematic. I suppose I could say that I wanted a bit more of Phillips outside of the situation that came to define him, in addition to wanting more of the life these pirates lead on the side, but we nevertheless get a few scenes of both in which we are at least given the information and most of the emotional connection that we need.

Really, the only major criticism I’m prepared to lob at this film is that I’m still not a fan of Paul Greengrass. He seems to know a good script when he sees one, and he’s clearly good with actors, but his visual approach still seems stuck somewhere in “nauseate the audience.” You can generally tell what’s going on, to be fair, but it creates energy that sometimes fights against the motion on-screen. It’s possible this is a personal thing with me; I can count on one hand the movies filmed largely in quick cuts and on handheld cameras that I think work better for that reason. But this wasn’t working for me.

Nevertheless, Captain Phillips is an incredible story with some incredible acting, and it’s one of the most passionately moral movies I’ve seen in a while. It highlights actions as right and wrong, but more importantly, it expands into the real-world situations that drives them and simply sits there, staring at it, making sure we know this is a window into something terrible and true. It doesn’t know what to do about it, but it knows it ought to be something — and that something is not a continued condemnation of anything foreign, a continued shrug of the shoulders at real struggle, or a heavy-handed application of force. Who knows, really? But we need stories like Captain Phillips to make sure we don’t allow ourselves to quit asking the question.

 

-Matt T.

Gravity (2013)

Starring- Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Director- Alfonso Cuaron

PG-13- intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiTiKOy59o4

The Internet has no shortage of movie theater horror stories — patrons doing their absolute best to ruin the theatrical experience for everyone else present, to the extent that many people seem to have sworn it off altogether. I sympathize, but I don’t empathize. Maybe it’s cultural, but where I live, that type of thing simply doesn’t happen. Of course, I frequent matinee showings primarily, so maybe I wouldn’t know. And yeah, you get some wise-guy teenagers now and then, interrupting with unfunny remarks from behind you, or maybe that guy who sits a row ahead and immediately starts with the cell phone. That happens, but it’s rare.

There’s a downside, too. For most of my life, I thought applauding after a movie was something that only really happened at world premieres full of stars and Hollywood insiders. And other than comedies, which will provoke audible laughs where applicable, I don’t get to have the experience of gauging what’s happening with audiences emotionally during whatever movie we happen to be watching. Everyone sits in silence and leaves in silence.

But throughout Gravity, I heard audible gasps. I heard collective breaths being released with each respite. Granted, everyone still left in stony silence like always, but for nearly an hour and a half, you could feel the entire crowd leaning off the edges of their seats as one, breathless.

And why shouldn’t they have been? They’d seen the Earth from space — at least, they came as close to the experience as most of us ever will. They’d experienced the perils of weightlessness, the feeling of being completely helpless to control one’s body against the pull of the vacuum. They’d been through one life-threatening ordeal after another, as intimately as is possible — again, without actually doing it.

Summarizing Gravity’s plot is as pointless an exercise as I can imagine. It is an extremely minimalist affair, only loosely able to be described as a piece of storytelling. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, two astronauts who find themselves the sole survivors of a mission gone awry and must navigate one of the universe’s most unforgiving environments in an attempt to live another day. It’s a simple setup with a slight run-time, clocking in at only about an hour and twenty minutes.

And it works. This is the key. It is slight, simple, and it works. It is the most efficient film I have seen in ages. It’s the most technically impressive one I’ve seen maybe ever. It feels an insult to liken it to a nature documentary, maybe in 3-D and with some small story attached to keep the kids interested, that you would see in IMAX at a science museum or a planetarium. In all honesty, I’d probably use that as an insult under other circumstances. But that’s what Gravity is — and it’s the best one ever made.

Gravity is an experience. It’s about thrusting its viewers into the realm of deep space and subjecting them to as many dangers and trials as it can dream up, and it delivers those goods with incredible efficiency. It’s the type of film that has a limited story and limited themes; it thrives almost exclusively off of sheer spectacle. Despite that, it feels new, and it feels that way because it’s so good at what it’s doing that not only does it elevate its genre and expand its borders, it seems as though it reinvents our expectations of what movies in general can actually be. They can be slight, simple, and straightforward, and they can be so good at it that they no longer seem like any of these three things. There’s no obligation to the rules as we understand them — even though, on paper and when you really think about it, there isn’t actually anything terribly new on display here. It’s just done that well.

Technically speaking, there’s potential for Gravity to be a game changer. I don’t know how this movie was made, and part of me is unsure if I actually want to. In theory, nearly everything we see must have been accomplished inside of a computer, but none of it looks that way, despite the fact that there are entire scenes where Bullock and Clooney have to be the only physical things in the entire frame, up to and including their suits. The effects are detailed and textured; they have presence and weight. They’re colorful and visually interesting without being a wholesale assault on the senses. Bullock and Clooney interact with them seamlessly. When the action strikes, there’s a real sense of cause and effect that makes each bit of imagery a genuine presence within the scene, wholly involved in whatever’s happening at the moment. How they so perfectly replicated complete weightlessness with the actors is completely lost on me. That’s an effect that no one will notice if it’s done right but that will ruin the movie if it’s done even a little bit wrong. It’s done right; the actors are wholly a part of this mostly digital environment.

All of this is on Alfonso Cuaron’s shoulders. He may have done more interesting work in the past, Children of Men being a standout example. But visually speaking, Gravity is his masterpiece. This is an incredible piece of pure visual imagination, reinventing the wheel at every turn and solidifying him as one of the most technically skilled directors working. Gravity is so propulsive and energetic that it becomes easy to miss how sparsely edited it is. Most of the scenes play out as a single shot, and Cuaron milks those shots for absolutely everything they are worth. He is a master of allowing what’s happening on-screen to dictate what the camera is doing. He almost makes it a physical presence within the movie, allowing it to move completely unrestricted within the vastness of space. It sweeps around the characters and the action, pulling up, down, and back to follow the machinery and the explosive set pieces. 3-D is a remarkable tool in Cuaron’s hands; he uses it to explore every corner of this vast environment and give it real depth. He gets some of the film’s most striking images out of it — moments where characters drop equipment turn into real ordeals as they strain out over the audience trying to retain it; moments where Bullock tumbles out into space, farther and farther away from us, become lonely and harrowing. This is a film that demands to be seen in theaters and in 3-D.

(Seriously, Gravity can miss Best Picture without bothering me overmuch, but if Cuaron gets shafted for Best Director, the Motion Picture Academy and I are going to have words.)

I have seen some criticism of the film’s score, some calling it overbearing and others calling it forgettable. In my view, there are two types of scores that work very well for movies — the type that stands on its own for independent listening and is immediately memorable after the movie is over, i.e. most John Williams compositions, and the type that blends into the movie so well that you barely notice it’s there, i.e., well, this. Yes, I actually think this score works perfectly. It’s blended so well into the ambient noise — breaths inside a helmet, Bullock’s racing heartbeat during intense moments, radio static, the buzzing of machinery — that it gets difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins in some scenes. Otherwise, it moves things along nicely, and I’d contend it accentuates rather than overpowers.

There are some who would criticize this movie for how simple it is. But in a world of blockbusters that take two hours simply to get to their overly complicated setups and proceed from there with plot twist upon logical leap upon character obfuscation, that simplicity is its strength. There are hundreds of ways you could expand upon the story or the characters. All of them would require deviations from the movie’s primary purpose. They would require opening and/or closing scenes on Earth. They would require flashbacks. They would require more dialogue. They would require interruptions of the experience — and Gravity is, again, first and foremost, an experience, nothing more and nothing less. And so many people don’t understand how difficult it is to create something as simple and stripped-down as Gravity and still have it work as anything other than eye candy. For its short running time and its single-minded focus, Gravity manages to build a connection between its characters and its audience ten times as strong as your average two-and-a-half hour blockbuster. And a singular theme, built over the length of the movie, is still one more theme than most movies have: and this is a potent one. It seems the highest calling of a survivalist movie, man against nature, ought to be this: to have its audience come out the other side happy to be alive, and Gravity does that.

Others have criticized it for the fact that it subverts its attempts at realism by having every imaginable thing go wrong for its characters, to the point that one begins to suspect a gypsy curse. But I say again: It’s an experience. The realism is physical and scientific. The plot can still play by its own rules, and it does. The point is that it doesn’t overdo it. Things go wrong relatively naturally. And what’s more, Gravity is a masterwork of pacing; Cuaron knows how to use each of these moments precisely and surgically. He knows exactly how long the audience can hold its breath without suffocating. And he knows how long to let his viewers relax before beginning the assault anew.

Yes, I suppose I could say it’s distinctly a “movie” in several senses. I suppose I could say that it periodically relies on cliché and coincidence. I suppose I could say that there a periodic drops in the quality of the dialogue.

But I know, in the overall scheme of things, that those are nitpicks at worst. Gravity is breathless, thrilling, visually extravagant, and one heck of a ride — and in the end, it’s a more soulful one than you might expect.

-Matt T.

Movie Review: The East (2013)

Posted: October 19, 2013 in Movie Reviews

The East (2013)

Starring- Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter

Director- Zal Batmanglij

PG-13- thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VZpeoQsQ1w

Topical. Relevant. Intriguing. Engaging. Thoughtful. Idealistic. Perhaps overly so. Flawed. The East is a film by and for its times, in a lot of ways, with a premise that seems wrested from actual headlines. It’s in the right place culturally, given our newfound fascination with stories that deal primarily with the consequences of actions, though The East tackles it from a slightly different perspective — when consequences fail, how do we right the wrong, and is it possible to impose them?

Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) works for a prestigious private investigation firm that services predominantly wealthy clients. In chasing after a promotion, she is assigned to infiltrate The East, a secretive group of ecoterrorists that inflicts upon corporate CEOs an equal measure of the damage they did to the environment or to other people.

Sarah finds the eclectic group and is slowly drawn in as a member — in more ways than one. She begins to empathize with its cause — and to fall for its mysterious leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard).

A lot of movies — a relatively fresh example being The Place Beyond the Pines — have a tendency to handle relatively abstract moral ideas in relatively abstract ways, focusing less on the actions themselves and more on the people, i.e. they try to generate sympathy for despicable people on the level of their humanness without necessarily condoning, or directly confronting, what they do. And that’s great; there’s a place for it. In fact, I’d contend that one of the highest purposes of art is to help us understand and better love people who are entirely unlike us — or to make us realize that they aren’t so unlike us as we thought.

But what I like about The East is that, while it is abstract and complicated enough, it wrestles with very direct and concrete ideas in very direct and concrete ways. Its themes manifest as an actual moral dilemma that reaches out to the audience and says, “Here are the facts. What would you do?”

The script, written by its star, Marling, and its director, Zal Batmanglij, is a sharp one and a relatively even-handed one. It is balanced where it needs to be, neither condoning nor condemning actions. And in its search for that balance, it doesn’t overdo it by trying to shine the same moderate light on actions that are transparently evil and selfish. The characters who commit those actions remain human, of course — and that’s the important part. But the film doesn’t tiptoe its way around the things some of these people do.

The moral questions surround The East more so than the corporations they target. The facts are as follows: Sometimes, people do horrific things, they get away with them because they are powerful enough to get away with them, and the system is in some cases specifically broken to ensure that it stays this way. The film treats that as gospel and doesn’t question it. The question is this: What is an appropriate response to this fact? Is there a way to right the wrong? And even then, must there also be punishment.

The severity of The East’s reactions varies. It starts small, as these things always do — an oil tycoon’s carelessness wrecks the ocean, so The East soaks every inch of his house in oil. But it gets bigger, eventually threatening to culminate in physical harm and perhaps death. Does wrongdoing exist in the severity of the response, or is such vigilantism intrinsically wrong?

The East arrives at a twisted and complicated place about all of this. Sarah comes to empathize with the cause but not always the methods. But she comes to see the world at large as faceless and uncaring — The East has a sense of community about it that carries the film a great deal. Her feelings toward Benji are complicated as well; even to the audience, he becomes a figure who, admirably, manages simultaneously to be likable and sympathetic, as well as dangerous and a bit frightening. Sarah must make a decision knowing that whatever choice she makes will be the one where she feels the good most outweighs the evil, not that is good or evil entirely.

The decision she ultimately does make, unfortunately, represents more of a quick answer to the question to wrap up the story than a culmination of themes and experiences that could be considered a lesson to the entire audience. It raises questions and concerns of its own, largely related to its efficacy, that aren’t addressed for lack of time.

Really, there’s an extent to which the entire plot is rigged to ensure that the result comes out a certain way. One could say that it doesn’t have time to build a saga of elevating corporate abuses and thus jumps instantly into dramatic corruption. At the same time, it’s difficult to believe that the corporations in this movie are getting away with the easily provable and seriously damaging things they’re doing. To clarify — I believe, and the historical record has shown, it’s possible that a corporation could do such things and simply receive a slap on the wrist. But for no one, save for The East, to even be aware they’re doing these things? As dramatic as they are, I simply don’t buy it.

This upsets the film largely due to its plays at realism. At the same time, this doesn’t affect the central moral dilemma. It’s dramatic, but the nature of the question remains unchanged: When abuses go unchecked and unpunished, how should we handle it? Fantasy and sci-fi have always used outlandish and impossible scenarios to impart moral ideas that suggest a deeper, underlying philosophy. This is neither fantasy nor sci-fi, but the same principle applies.

There are other problems. The member of The East with the weakest justifications for the way he is also happens to be the person who needs the strongest — Benji. And his relationship with Sarah is one that ebbs and flows rapidly and with great suddenness. Nothing ever really flows or breathes between the two of them.

But there’s much to be asked here and perhaps much to learn, and that’s an important component of why The East — which is a slick, taut, and entertaining thriller, if an unspectacular one — manages to get its head above the rest.

 

-Matt T.

After Earth (2013)

Starring- Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower

Director- M. Night Shyamalan

PG-13- sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZIt20emgLY

A few days ago, After Earth casually came up in a conversation I was having, which reminded me that I had seen After Earth and forgotten to review it. And really, that fact alone could be my review.

M. Night Shyamalan’s films have segued from extremely promising to flawed but interesting to just plain flawed to flaaaaaaaaaaawed. After Earth is his best movie in years, and yes, I realize that I now owe a dollar to the Meaningless Statements Jar. He’s now made the transition from inexplicable terribleness to dull, mind-numbing mediocrity. And of course, I’d rather have the former any day of the week.

In the distant future, humans have fled an uninhabitable Earth and pitched their tents on Nova Prime. But they weren’t the first, and the alien race that was already there bred monsters that can literally smell people’s fear, hunting them through pheromones.

One man, Cypher Raige (Will Smith, and no, I’m not kidding, that’s his actual name), became a worldwide hero when it was determined that his fearlessness made him undetectable to these monsters — an act referred to as “ghosting.”

His son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), lives in his shadow and is determined to follow his footsteps in becoming a ranger. After being rejected for promotion yet again, Kitai joins his father on an intergalactic mission for what they hope will be a bonding experience to repair their fractured relationship.

But things go awry, and the ship crash-lands on Earth, leaving Cypher and Kitai as the only survivors. The ship is split in two, and the beacon that will summon rescue is stowed in the other half, miles away. With Cypher gravely injured and unable to walk, it is left to Kitai to venture out into the woods and retrieve the beacon — with Earth’s deadly creatures and one loose monster to contend with.

The fortunate part is that I really was never going to be disappointed by After Earth. I clung to the M. Night Shyamalan Train a little longer than most reasonable people and thus allowed myself to be completely blindsided by The Last Airbender, which I still watch occasionally purely out of morbid fascination and a complete inability to comprehend what even happened there. Point is — I learned my lesson and was braced for the worst going into After Earth.

So, given that it’s not the worst, only kind of the worst, I suppose one might say that After Earth exceeds expectations. I feel like being nice, actually — yes, that happens sometimes; just roll with it. That’s where I’ll start.

Shyamalan didn’t write the dialogue this time, which is an excellent career move for him. So, there are only two or three cringe-worthy moments (including an incredibly labored attempt at a humorous sexual innuendo). And most of the dialogue is simply flat and dull rather than actively offensive. So, there’s that, I guess.

His direction has moved back in the right direction, too. He still likes to film people straight on, dead in the middle of the frame, surrounded by absolutely nothing for no thematic or emotional reason that I could discern. But he only does it a little bit in After Earth. Also, there are no scenes I can remember wherein he films only one character and keeps the camera straight on them at length even though they’re not saying or doing anything or having any worthwhile reaction to what someone else is saying or doing. I mean, he still can’t shoot action literally at all; he’s too far away from it in most of the chase scenes. We don’t see much of the ship crashing, and what we see of the cockpit during the event seems to take place on the S.S. Movie Set That Is Definitely Made of Plastic. But, you know… It isn’t quite so static as it used to be, and the shot selection mostly isn’t completely confusing. Also, he never once puts an entire army in front of the camera during an action sequence so that we can see all the extras standing around waiting for their turn to fight, which is a definite plus (and something that may or may not be the result of the movie having only two characters for most of its run-time).

The story improves in that there are only a few plot holes, and they aren’t huge ones. Also, no asinine twist — insert Hallelujah Chorus here. Granted, there also isn’t much of a story. There comes a point early on when you realize that there’s over an hour of movie left and that literally all of it will be Jaden Smith wandering around in the woods being chased by things, and your brain just kind of checks out. It sort of develops the characters during this time, but it seems almost unaware of its central conflict, i.e., that Cypher is completely emotionally unavailable and not the greatest father overall, and it never really deals with that meaningfully. Best-case scenario, what happens is that Kitai earns the right to be loved by his father, which is not what we refer to as “good parenting.”

There’s a moral, and it’s not confusing, so kudos on that. It’s just stupid. The movie isn’t offensive; it isn’t inadvertently taking on deeply upsetting thematic undertones. It’s just that its moral makes no sense and has no real-world applications. Human beings do not have a fear switch in their brains that they can just throw. If they did, why would anyone ever choose to be afraid? Bravery is doing what needs to be done even though you’re afraid, not simply feeling no fear. I can’t even begin to understand the realization Kitai comes to, nor how he manages to accomplish it psychologically.

The acting is a definite improvement from the last two or three Shyamalan movies. This is possibly because neither of the Smiths are really required to act here. And you can’t give a bad performance if there’s no acting. Cypher’s main role is to deliver nonsensical scientific exposition in the dullest, flattest tone and the slowest, most deliberate speed possible (a trait of Shyamalan’s I will seriously never even begin to understand). Kitai gets to have an emotional outburst now and then, but mostly, Shyamalan’s direction seems to have been “be on the verge of a complete emotional meltdown, literally always.” But, you know… Both of them do a relatively decent job with the basically nonexistent material.

Oh, oh, I know! The score! The score must have been okay. I don’t remember it at all, but that fact alone means it must have been okay!

All right, so I suck at being nice. After Earth isn’t awful, but after fifteen minutes of robotic dialogue and basically no plot or character development at all, I completely checked out of it and spent the rest of its run-time shouting at it to move along and be done with it already.

There are ideas here, maybe? Someone could do something with them, probably. There is a consistent theme, even if it makes absolutely no sense. And there’s likely something to be done with this world, whatever it is. I really don’t have any ill will for Shyamalan; The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are still two of my favorite movies. Maybe he’ll come full circle here. Maybe his transition from “awful” to “dull” will take another step into “actually good.” I’d be thrilled if he managed to climb back on top of the world.

But all in all, I know better than to expect it, and After Earth is nowhere near enough to change my mind.

 

-Matt T.

The Bling Ring (2013)

Starring- Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale

Director- Sofia Coppola

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

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4LzhgExvrc

Imagine the song “Hollaback Girl” if it achieved self-awareness and realized it was a terrible song and responded to this by extending its length to an hour-and-a-half, running out into the world and shouting, “Look at this! This is a terrible song! Look at how terrible this song is! It’s really terrible. LOOK!” And then, everybody else says, “Yes. That is indeed a terrible song.” And then, they all keep listening to it for another half hour or so before somebody finally wises up and says, “Hey, this is a terrible song. Why are we listening to it?”

That’s The Bling Ring in a nutshell. Its heart is in the right place. I get what it’s trying to do. It was always going to be a difficult, awkward, insufferable, and enraging watch. The key is validating that by digging as deep as you can and coming out with some kind of insight.

In a weird way, I was interested in, if not necessarily excited about this project, and it’s a minor shame it went the way it did. It’s perfectly positioned to be this scathing indictment of modern youth culture and a meaningful call to some kind of action or another. It follows real events that made headlines a few years ago, in which a handful of teenagers began breaking into the homes of celebrities and running off with whatever they could get their hands on. The news media referred to them as the Bling Ring.

And mostly, the movie is content to stand back, show you awful people, and say, “Wow, these people are awful. Look at how awful they are!”

And to its credit, they are pretty awful, which I can’t really call a compliment. Teenagers are already difficult, but these are the most vapid, stupid, self-obsessed, and thoughtless teenagers even the most devious among us could manage to dream up. If spending the length of an entire film with people like that sounds like fun to you, firstly, I’d recommend therapy, and secondly, The Bling Ring is going to be your favorite movie ever. It has only a small handful of speaking characters outside of its band of thieves, and their roles are made as minimal as possible.

It’s strange that I’ll watch movies about killers and thieves and drug lords and dictators and various other unsavory sorts, but my mind draws some sort of line in the sand at stupid teenagers cooing over clothing, debating fashion accessories and the shapes of their butts, and — freaking especially — saying things that they think are, like, totally deep.

I’ll give Emma Watson credit. She’s almost terrifyingly committed to this stupid part. Other critics have called her hilarious. I have to disagree; the word I’d use is spot-on. I can’t call it funny because I know people like this.

But for the most part, the members of the cast are older and/or considerably smarter than the characters they’re playing, and there’s a huge extent to which you can feel their brains resisting the asinine dialogue they have to cough up. Or maybe that’s just the fact that I have a tendency to get vicariously embarrassed for other people.

The sort of observational distance Sofia Coppola tends to maintain from the characters, not really allowing you a window into their lives so much as selective access to various moments, is not very helpful with this particular film. She doesn’t use many close-ups, and most of what happens is very naturalistic and not always obviously designed for the purpose of developing a theme or a character.

But with The Bling Ring, that sort of intimacy is probably needed. For a movie that seems to be — or at least ought to be — trying to examine root causes, it develops an odd amount of loathing for its characters. It’s almost as if it bit off more than it could chew — starting out with naïve idealism, thinking, “I can figure out this problem and find a way to help people better themselves!” And then, after five minutes spent with these characters, the movie’s adult brain kicked in, and it turned into, “Holy lord, these people are stupid.” And then, it just operated as the film equivalent of talk show hosts bloviating about millennials for an hour.

At a certain point, it seems to say, “Hey, I wonder what it is that makes these stupid teenagers stupid?” And its answer is not wrong, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it the whole problem. Not to mention it’s a touch obvious and ill explored.

To be fair, from the beginning, it’s planting seeds. The main plot is interspersed with snippets of news footage of celebrities being caught in uncompromising positions or hauled off to jail for one crime or another, usually drug-related. It’s clearly trying to tie this into the teenage desire to be rich and famous, suggesting that the fact that people not only don’t lose their celebrity status for this behavior but rather seem to gain more of it drives this sort of attitude in kids.

There’s a scene in the middle that’s pretty good, wherein the mother of two of the girls sits them down for some sort of family meeting in which they discuss what a good role model is and what things the girls admire about their role models. Not only do they not have an answer to this question, they don’t even seem to have the vocabulary to answer this. The people they want to be like are famous for being famous; they self-perpetuate through cycles of crime, drug abuse, and sordid sex lives.

But mostly, the film makes this suggestion purely in an academic sense. It builds the point through the news footage and then punctuates it by making clear that a few of the teens actually get what they want when they’re caught and sentenced. They’re a tabloid fascination now, and people are actually interested in the stupid things they have to say about issues that, to them and their readers, are completely meaningless.

But worldviews build through emotion as much as anything else, and the film’s detachment prevents this from ever registering. Retroactively, it tries to explain this behavior by telling — rather than showing — its viewers that the ringleader was obsessed with Lindsey Lohan. But questions related to where it comes from, how it gets there, what about the teenage mind chases after it, what responsibility society has to deal with it, what capability society has to deal with it, what the potential future ramifications are, and whether, in fact, it’s all just teenage behavior like the teenage behavior of any era of human history that will be grown out of in time go largely unaddressed.

Instead, it spends an hour and a half following completely loathsome characters and not really trying to understand them or to make them less loathsome and is thus neither entertaining nor spiritually worthwhile, so what’s the point?

-Matt T.

The Kings of Summer (2013)

Starring- Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Erin Moriarty, Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson, Alison Brie, Eugue Cordero

Director- Jordan Vogt-Roberts

R- language and some teen drinking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cio8LOCZPzw

Every kid should have a summer like this — and in truth, every kid does, in one way or another.

No one can say when it is that you really grow up, if indeed anyone ever truly does, but for most, the first step comes in the twilight of the teen years and the onset of legal adulthood, in the form of a moment — whatever that moment may be — when the walls, internal and external, are stripped away. For the first time, you see glimpses of the world as it actually is. The pretense and the drama fades out, and your teenage self begins to look foolish and reactionary. And you choose either to mature or regress.

You long all your life to be king of your own domain only to grasp it — or something like it — and discover the truth: that no one is.

The Kings of Summer is the story of three young men chasing the dream, achieving a naïve version of it, crashing, burning, and seeing the walls come down.

Joe (Nick Robinson) has had a strained and combative relationship with his father (Nick Offerman) ever since the death of his mother. His father is strict, cold, and distant, and Joe seizes every opportunity, no matter how small, to quietly rebel and upset the status quo.

Patrick (Gabriel Basso), Joe’s best friend, has very loving parents — too loving. They border on being completely suffocating, passing down rule after rule after rule and leaving him with no privacy and little freedom. They’re downright sunny about it, too, seemingly incapable of realizing that he’s not kidding when he argues with them.

And Biaggio (Moises Arias) — well, it’s difficult to say what’s up with him.

His frustrations having reached the breaking point, Joe decides graduation is too long to wait for freedom. So, he ropes Patrick and Biaggio into a new scheme. They run away from home, build their own house out in the middle of the forest, and resolve to live off the land, kill their own food, and become men.

Mostly, I balk whenever a film is described as an “indie comedy,” because ordinarily, this translates as “a drama with quirk” — mumblecore, as the Internet has taken to calling it.

Well, call me surprised — and delighted — that The Kings of Summer is hilarious and one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while. It should become a teen comedy classic; I hope it does.

Of course, veteran funnymen like Nick Offerman turn in their usually reliable performances. But a lot rests on the three leads, and they all do a fantastic job.

Joe is more like his father than he would care to admit — he’s all man, or at least thinks he is, and his machismo leaves him in over his head more often than not. He’s got his dad’s sense of humor, too — both are possessed of incisive and absolutely devastating sarcasm and observational wit that would easily equip either of them to pursue careers in stand-up comedy.

Patrick is more the straight man. Joe thinks he’s the straight man but couldn’t possibly be for all that he blunders into. Patrick is the sane one who suffers the consequences of everyone else’s bad decisions. He and his family are a TV series all their own. He stares despairingly off into the distance as his parents buzz like flies around his head assailing him with sunshine and rainbows all the day long.

Biaggio is going to be love-him-or-hate-him for most people, I suspect. He’s not really a character so much as a comedic concept given life. If there was a prequel to The Office showing the teenage years of Dwight Schrute, it might look something like Biaggio — and even then, a fairly subdued Biaggio. He exists largely to do random things that terrify his friends, who are unsure whether or not he is a budding psychopath. His bizarre existence comes together in strange details that are quietly revealed at random intervals. Some people are going to find him obnoxious. But I got the biggest laughs out of him, consistently. It helps that the movie doesn’t really try to saddle him with any of the drama — and even when it does, it relies less on him being an emotionally relatable human being and more on the audience liking him and caring about what happens to him.

The film’s personality is such that it doesn’t really inhabit reality; it exists in a comedic imitation of it. It’s not gritty or raw. And it clearly knows what it feels like to be a teenager, but what it portrays isn’t that exactly. And yet, it finds its insights at the edges of its twists and exaggerations. It blends and balances the drama and comedy fairly well, making its characters fun and funny while also finding a way to incorporate relevant needs and motivations, existing in their own reality while running parallel to our own.

The Kings of Summer is about that moment when the walls come down. The boys make themselves kings and soon realize that, despite what they’d been told, no one is the master of his or her own universe. They run up against reality and have to figure out what to do with it.

Romance isn’t like it is in the movies. The pretty girl you desire with all your heart and who is nice to you may not be interested in anything more — and this does not make her a bad person. This does not mean that she is wrong. Nor does this mean that those for whom she does feel affection ought to be your enemies.

Adulthood isn’t complete independence. It isn’t making yourself the king of your space and forbidding others from intruding. That is not manliness; that is not strength. That is dark, lonely, and ultimately, impossible. Reality is that people are interconnected and need one another — and even if they didn’t, the world is not structured in such a way that we can be responsible to and interested in only ourselves.

And ultimately, parents and adults aren’t perfect. Sometimes, asserting one’s independence is mere bad behavior — aggravating the wound rather than healing it. In the end, Joe and his father are two people in pain from a terrible loss who are lashing out at the world without even realizing it. They are, after all, more like one another than either would care to admit.

Fights happen. Conflicts arise. There are too many personalities in that little house in the woods. The Kings of Summer resolves them with relative grace and surprising realism. It’s redemptive without being cloying. Moreover, it understands the way that teenage boys resolve conflicts — with one another as well as their fathers. It doesn’t always look or sound like reconciliation, but, to both parties, it feels like that.

Some seams emerge largely in that middle ground between drama and comedy. The Kings of Summer mostly combines the two well, managing to allow the laughs to take over the personality of the film and define the way that the drama works. But near the third act, the blend becomes uncomfortable and starts to mess with the film’s tone. There are scenes that get laughs, but it’s unclear whether or not they’re supposed to.

For example, The Kings of Summer contains two alarmingly serious games of Monopoly. The first one works — it reveals character information and fleshes out some interpersonal conflicts, but it’s also played very wryly, with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

The second one escalates into a full-blown fight, and it gets rough. Conflicts that have been brewing for the entire film emerge out of it, and the serious, straight-faced quality of it simultaneously makes it funny and makes you question whether or not it’s supposed to be. The whole scene is strange and uncomfortable in ways it may or may not intend.

But it rights itself quickly, and some of the more subdued moments to follow do stick the landing. It manages to construct its climax on a few more humorous premises while also making it something in which the audience is emotionally invested. And, finally, it resolves with grace and maybe just a touch of beauty.

Maybe most of us don’t run away from home and build an almost fully functional house out in the middle of nowhere. But most of us reach this stage where adolescence clings to us, adulthood beckons, and neither is what it seems. And we answer whatever call suits us.

The Kings of Summer understands that moment, and it knows enough to find both the humor and the life in it. Great? Maybe not. But it’s pleasant, warm, charming, and quite funny. And for now, that’s more than enough.

 

-Matt T.