Archive for November, 2013

Red 2 (2013)

Starring- Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Byung-hun Lee, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Neal McDonough, David Thewlis, Garrick Hagon, Tim Pigott-Smith, Brian Cox

Director- Dean Parisot

PG-13- pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay,* and for some language and drug material


Do you remember when we used to care about sequels? I do. Maybe it’s just me, but even when noteworthy talent is attached to them, I just can’t summon up the energy anymore.

I’m just barely old enough to remember the world exploding over the announcement of the Star Wars prequels. I remember the same thing happening when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull went into production. Toy Story movies were as big an event as a kids’ movie could hope to be. Granted, not all of those paid off. But they had hype, you know? You could make a poster that was nothing but the silhouettes of the characters or a piece of familiar imagery with a classic quote on it, and that’d be enough. People would see the opening seconds of the trailers and freak out as soon as they realized what it was.

Now? Everything is made with the stated intention of sequels to follow. We barely have self-contained films anymore; so many of them end with sequel hooks. There’s more discussion when something doesn’t get optioned for a sequel than when something does. If it turns a profit, even just a little one, we outright expect it.

I recently sat down and tried to think of major movie franchises that aren’t currently in perpetuation and aren’t, so far as we know, even being considered for it. Back to the Future? The Godfather? Rocky? Off the top of my head, that’s about all I’ve got. I’m looking at 2015 right now, and I’m just desperately hoping that the Hollywood reboot/remake/sequel/adaptation finally collapses on itself somewhere in the middle of what has to be considered “peak insanity.”

What does any of this have to do with Red 2? Well, frankly, it’s the proof. I’m not saying stranger movies haven’t gotten sequels, and I’m certainly not saying worse sequels haven’t been produced. But its existence and, moreover, the fact that no one is surprised at its existence basically proves this. It turned a profit. Therefore, it got a sequel.

Of course, people saw the original. But are there Red fans? Are there people who go around quoting it? Do the names “Frank Moses” and “Marvin Boggs” and “Victoria I Forgot Her Last Name” actually mean anything to anyone? When the trailer debuted, was there a theater somewhere where a viewer suddenly realized he was seeing a preview for a Red sequel and got all excited?

I suppose it’s possible. I’ve never met any of those people, but it’s possible. But despite all that, not a one of us is surprised that this movie exists because the first one was transparently produced as a franchise-starter, and since it more or less made money, that was enough. Now, we have Red 2.

And honestly, all of that sums up the top-to-bottom of why I don’t care for this movie. It’s fundamentally unnecessary, constructed of fundamentally unnecessary pieces, constantly making shout-outs to a fanbase I’m not certain actually exists, and, worse, it seems to be aware of all this. It’s a movie without a heart or a soul that lazily connects dots and calls its job done.

This time, our aging heroes — Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Victoria I Don’t Have Internet Access Right Now and Probably Wouldn’t Bother If I Did (Helen Mirren) and Some Other People the Director Thought Would Be Amusing — are headed to Russia when it turns out a nuclear weapon they assembled there during the Cold War but decided not to use is still on the site and potentially headed for a detonation. This is particularly true given that various other parties would like to see that it does or at the very least get their hands on the technology for assorted other nefarious purposes.

And so, despite being Humorous Old People™, they must suit up once more to save the day — along with Frank’s wife/girlfriend (?) Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker), a half-deranged scientist (Anthony Hopkins) and Catherine Zeta Jones as Some Russian Person.

It’s pretty much the first movie. I didn’t care for that either, so I don’t suppose that wins it any points.

I still think these movies have a really rough time navigating their tone. It’s always hovering above “comedic,” but that’s it — hovering. This one might be a little more openly goofy. It’s less comedy and more irreverence, though. That doesn’t have to be bad, but it wobbles back and forth. Red 2 puts a lot of different spins on its action sequences — funny, disturbing, engaging, goofy, serious, etc. Which one you’re supposed to be feeling changes situationally.

The sunshiney sociopathy of these movies is periodically amusing. A scene in which Helen Mirren gives romantic advice over the phone while casually, in the background, melting down bodies in a bathtub stands out in my memory. They’ll play the violence for something light-hearted one second. The next second, you’ll have the attack on the police station. “It’s supposed to make you hate the villains!” you say. But both Red and Red 2 renege on this in the end, if indeed building up ill will against the villains is the intent here. Red 2 actually does this twice, for some reason. And of course, the entire joke behind these movies is that the heroes are as happy-go-lucky about violence as the villains — and maybe more so — but, for some reason, it’s funny in that context.

I don’t really mind as much as you’d expect. Comedy and satire can make a point more sharply than realism and observation sometimes. They can certainly make it more memorably, in the right hands. But I could use some consistency of vision, you know?

The movie develops — in the background, half-heartedly, and exclusively through dialogue — a theme of doing the right thing because you’ll save lives and yada yada yada. And then, it caps off a character arc with casual violence for expediency’s sake, not played for laughs, and treats it like a growth in personal strength.

And of course, the action sequences are usually, to some extent, meant to be taken in largely the same way as your usual summer blow-‘em-up. There might be a few more jokes scattered in, but there remains a fundamental sense in which you’re supposed to take this seriously. You’re supposed to get on these characters’ sides and more or less root for them. That doesn’t always jive with the comedic sociopathy, though it can; what it really doesn’t jive with is the fact that this is the sort of action movie where I’m pretty sure that if you were to tally up the heroes’ body count, you’d find they offed more security personnel and soldiers who were under the impression they were fighting terrorists than they did people with actual ill intent. This isn’t really played for comedy either, as part of the overarching dark madness of these movies. It’s either smoothed over or essentially ignored. And the movie’s already been doing this for about half an hour before the “do the right thing” spiel begins in earnest. It ends up being more like, “Do the right thing, as long as the right thing isn’t hard.”

I know I’m asking way too much of this movie, but if it just did all that but maintained the tone of black comedy more consistently, it’d probably have something passable on its hands. Its reversions into seriousness — or, at least, Dumb Action Movie Brand Seriousness — are its worst scenes, and they simply can’t work as intended.

Everything else is perfunctory. This is the sort of plot that acts like it’s an unfolding mystery but actually just tosses out random clues to get the main cast from one location/set piece to the next and that don’t really mean anything larger when pieced together. The characters themselves are mainly developed through dialogue if they are developed at all, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone on the crew much cared about these scenes. Frank and Sarah need to have relationship problems because that’s just What You Do in Movies.

Pretty much every character who was in the first movie appears in this one, and for no real reason other than that. Did anyone actually get excited when Brian Cox’s character showed up? Excited enough that they were fine with him not really doing anything? I’m not certain of the function of some of the new characters, either. Byung-hun Lee plays a hitman pursuing the gang and could’ve been cut from the film without changing it much. He supplies one completely unnecessary action sequence in a movie that already has dozens. Other than that?

Those action sequences, by the way, are what one might refer to as “bloated.” The climax in particular just goes on and on and on, like it’s trying to have as many different kinds of fights in as many different kinds of environments as it can, and yet, not a single one of them is anything particularly new.

Even the humor is starting to seem obligatory. For all its faults, I’m pretty sure the cast was having a good time during the production of Red. I think the novelty was wearing off during this one. No one does a bad job, but a lot of the actors seem like they’re either cashing a paycheck or regretting thinking they had this in them a second time.

Really, I’m not sure why anyone thought they had this in them a second time. I know I just keep going on about this, but I really don’t understand who saw a need for this movie. It’s not even that the first one was bad or that you just plain couldn’t make a sequel out of it. Transformers is bad, but I get why there’s a new one coming in 2014. With Red, it’s that the first one had so little measurable cultural impact that I’m not sure anyone remembered it even a month after it left theaters, so where’s this one coming from?

It’s coming because everything gets a sequel. If it makes money, it gets a sequel. Red 2 is the proof. Of course, how often has great cinema come forth from a foundation of complete indifference?

Generously? Not often.

-Matt T.

* Okay, seriously, there is some kind of weird contest going on at the MPAA right now.

The Way Way Back (2013)

Starring- Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, River Alexander, Zoe Levin, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Directors- Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

PG-13- thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material


The Way Way Back: The kids are all right. Or at least, they will be. They’ve got each other, and they’ve got the world outside.

It doesn’t quite seem that way to Duncan (Liam James). He sits in the rear-facing backseat of a station wagon — it’s always a station wagon, isn’t it? — on a trip to the beach for summer vacation, along with his mom (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).

Trent has absolutely no respect for Duncan, and Steph treats him like an amusing pet at the best of times. Duncan would rather have spent the summer with his father, but it wasn’t possible.

Left to his own devices, he wanders the beach houses and the surrounding community. One day, his random travels lead him to Water Wizz, an unkempt waterpark managed by an equally unkempt joker by the name of Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen takes a shine to Duncan and offers him a part-time job at the waterpark for the summer. It’s a job that ultimately becomes more than just a job.

The Way Way Back is a movie about the unique and highly individualized ways in which parents, good and bad alike, screw up their children.

Duncan is a child of divorce, and the more we learn — and the more he learns —about the environment in which he grew up, the rougher it gets. Trent is a bully. It’s unclear exactly how he justifies his behavior to himself. The fact that his bullying usually ends with a smile and a vague encouragement to do better suggests that maybe he thinks he’s making a man of Duncan. The fact that, occasionally, it doesn’t suggests that he’s an alpha male staking his claim and making sure the subjects of his new kingdom bow to him. What’s more is that everyone else seems to know, on some level, that Trent is a bully — up to and including, perhaps, Duncan’s mother. She tells Duncan that he’ll understand her loneliness once she gets older.

Another child of divorce is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the girl in the beach house next door. Her mother, Betty (Allison Janney), is an overbearing, talkative, and superficial woman. Her oldest son sells marijuana, a fact about which she demonstrably doesn’t care. She bothers her youngest son, Peter (River Alexander), about his lazy eye, mentioning it to others constantly and forcing him to wear a patch. Susanna speaks somewhat fondly of her father.

Even Owen mentions, in passing, the impossibly high standard to which his father held him. He says it’s why he resists structure in his life. It might also explain why he allows his potential to pass him by. Maybe that’s what he sees in Duncan.

What’s interesting about this movie is that most of the characters have an arc, but none of them really change — at least, not on the surface. Rather, they learn to be comfortable in their own skins. They learn that there’s a place in the world for people like them.

If I can say one thing for The Way Way Back, it’s that it’s got its finger right on the pulse of the socially awkward teenager. It’s always a uniquely rewarding experience to see a bit of yourself in a character, and I see teenage me all over Duncan. This is a character who was written by someone who’s either been there or who intimately knows someone who was. You see writer after writer tackling these quiet, geeky outsiders, and maybe they get a surface trait or two right, but they only scratch the surface of these characters.

Duncan, though, is genuinely spot-on. Most people have a tendency to deal with the socially awkward by trying to “get them out of their shell.” I absolutely love that The Way Way Back knows the exact means by which people will attempt to do that, the exact frequency with which they will do so, and the way it actually affects socially awkward people — which is to say, it makes them even more socially awkward. I love the unusual way in which Duncan talks. I love that, despite being an intelligent person, he doesn’t easily discern the difference between seriousness and sarcasm in other people and frequently takes what they’re saying 100 percent literally. I love the gradual way that he opens up to people. I love that, when he opens up, he doesn’t do it the way others do. I love that proper eye contact is a process he goes through with each person rather than something that either happens or doesn’t happen depending on the situation. I love his fumbling moves toward Susanna. This is a character that works. And Liam James is so acute in the role that he’s almost uncomfortable to watch at times.

Of course, Sam Rockwell steals the show. When has he ever not? He makes every line of dialogue sound improvised — and maybe it is; I wouldn’t know. He takes this complicated character and manages to find exactly the right tone. His sense of timing elevates Owen’s wit and inability to be serious for periods of longer than two or three seconds to something that’s actually hilarious, even when what he’s saying or doing edges close to dude-bro frat-boy comedy. He’s a joker and plenty lazy, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. As a character, he could end up being obnoxious, but a fundamental decency underlies his pranks and misuse of company time and renders him an immensely likable and — more importantly — trustworthy presence. He ends up, strangely, becoming the adult in Duncan’s life. He may or may not actually know what Duncan needs, but he helps him find it. With Duncan, it’s not about becoming a “man,” in whatever sense people like Trent would define it. It’s about coming to like who he is. This movie isn’t his journey out of awkwardness; it’s his journey in coming to like that about himself.

I’m somewhat more mixed on Duncan’s relationship with Susanna, the other character who helps center him. The fact that this plot point doesn’t amount to quite as much as you’d think both pleases me and leaves me a bit puzzled. On one hand, the fact that it doesn’t culminate in fireworks and sentimentality leaves me glad for the movie’s ability to let pass what will pass. On the other hand, I’m tempted to say that it leaves Susanna feeling more like a device than a character. It’s as if her purpose is mainly to help Duncan deal with his problems. As to her problems, it feels as if they’re left hanging. Some critics have argued that the whole relationship is a bit convenient. I would agree with that at least somewhat. It’s clear why she reaches out to Duncan — they’re the only two within their social circles whose lives have been affected by divorce. And of course, it’s clear why he wants her to be something more to him. I think I would be more pleased with this subplot if any hints of chemistry between them dissipated after a certain scene on the beach, if it had simply been friendship after that.

Sometimes, too, though the dialogue is mostly sharp, the writing takes a left turn. This manifests mainly in Steph and her friends, whose dialogue is drawn exclusively from the “Things Dumb Pretty Girls in Sitcoms about High School Say” handbook. A few bits with Trent lean a bit over the top as well. It may be that I don’t like Steve Carell in the role, despite generally thinking highly of him. He does solid work, but he simply doesn’t have the countenance of the bully, alpha male, was-probably-popular-in-high-school type.

I think my biggest issue with The Way Way Back is that it’s simply a movie in need of its own voice. You’re not going to see anything particularly new or interesting in this feature. If you’ve seen any vaguely comedic indie drama within the last five years, you’ll recognize most of the tropes as they appear here. The characters are sarcastic and worldly-wise with no shortage of witty observations about society at large. There are key references to at least a few retro geek culture properties. The tone is one of near-comedy, where there are plenty of laughs and ridiculous situations, but all of them end up revealing some kind of inner pain or another. The setting is tropical, with a quietly upbeat acoustic score that throws in the occasional bell either for whimsical or melancholy effect. The film it most echoes, as one might expect, is Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, for which directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash share a writing credit (and an Academy Award).

The Way Way Back doesn’t have any particular identity of its own, nor is it filling any cultural or thematic niche that needs to be filled. It isn’t even filling it better than some of the other movies that already occupy the space.

Nevertheless, there’s some strong writing going on here, particularly with the characters, and some even better performances. It turns out to be a more balanced film than one would expect. More importantly, while its characters are sometimes cynical, The Way Way Back isn’t at all. That can be a touch rare in its genre. It doesn’t condescend or make fun. It’s just got this simple, little story, and if not uniquely, at least it tells it well.


-Matt T.

The Conjuring (2013)

Starring- Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Sterling Jerins

Director- James Wan

R- sequences of disturbing violence and terror


I’ve said in the past that the measure of a good horror movie is not how scared you are while you’re watching it but how scared you are when you lie down in bed that night. The Conjuring helped me discover a new one — the quality of a horror movie is directly proportional to the number of times you pause the movie and leave the room for a snack break before it’s over.

The Conjuring is scary by a factor of exactly six snack attacks, which is to say that horror movies are not a great idea for this diet I’m supposed to be on, particularly since I was not even a little bit hungry by the third or fourth one of those.

The Conjuring is a ghost story like the ones they used to make…is what I would say if I knew anything about old-timey ghost stories. Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) move their family of seven, including five daughters, to an old house in the country, surrounded by trees and complete with its own pond. Of course, any musty old house like this would have to have its secrets, and this one’s are dark indeed. It begins with the requisite strange things happening. But it soon becomes clear that the family is being haunted by a malicious and powerful entity.

They call upon famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) — and I’m apparently the only critic on the Internet who’s guilt-watched enough episodes of A Haunting to notice the real-life Lorraine’s cameo — to investigate the strange goings-on. But with Lorraine suffering the aftereffects of an exorcism gone wrong, this challenge may prove too much even for them.

To start, I must admit a degree of confusion at the reputation this movie has already garnered as the new scariest movie ever made. Nevertheless, The Conjuring is an admirably spooky affair and definitely a lot of fun if you get your mind in the right place.

I’m beginning to wonder if director James Wan’s current output is some sort of penance he feels he owes the world. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the man who basically ruined modern horror by mainstreaming the torture porn genre is currently the same one fighting to restore it to its simple, quiet, homespun, subtly creepy roots. Most horror movies aren’t the sort of thing you could tell around a campfire anymore. It doesn’t have the same effect for the punchline to be, “And then, her guts exploded all over the place!”

The Conjuring is. From the quietly creaking floorboards to the thick air of the basement to the gnarled and groaning tree, you can practically hear the whispered voice of the storyteller in the howling wind, drawing a circle of listeners closer and closer with each hushed word. And the strangest part of this is that basically all of it is Wan’s doing, so…kudos, definitely.

For whatever it represents on the whole, 2013 is a year that has brought us, visually, a lot of uncommonly stellar directorial efforts — Gravity, Upstream Color, Pacific Rim, etc. The crew of The Conjuring should be proud to stand among that number.

All of horror is in timing. You could say that about any genre, of course — action movies need to pace out their rises and falls in a very similar sense, comedy has to have its editing down to a science, drama needs to know how to build emotions under the surface and steer clear of complete exhaustion — but it seems to come more naturally in some forms than others.

The Conjuring is precise bordering on the completely unbelievable, with nary a misstep in its entire run-time. In a strange way, this movie almost wouldn’t work as well if there wasn’t an entire pantheon of horror films preceding it. Horror movies, to a greater extent than others, have a formula, and they stick to it. There’s a certain way to deliver scares. There’s a certain way to set up the situation. There’s a certain way to move the story forward.

The Conjuring almost counts on the viewer anticipating the scares in the places they’d be in other scary movies. It sets up perspective shots of a character slowly rounding the corner. It hangs behind its actors’ shoulders as they open and close a medicine cabinet with a mirror on it. It follows their line of sight back and forth as they scan a dark and empty room into which they have stumbled. It drifts toward a window out of which a character is staring after hearing a strange sound. You anticipate the jump; it doesn’t come. You figure the movie is messing with you and is going to bring the scares just a bit later than usual; they still don’t come. The second the following thought crosses your mind — “I guess it’s just a fake-out” — that’s when it lands, each and every time. That would be impressive on its own, but The Conjuring manages to continue doing that even after you’ve gotten wise to its game. Toward the end, you think, “Yeah, movie, you did this already. You want me to think it’s a fake-out and then surprise me. Not falling for it. Okay, here’s where it’s coming. Right…now! Wait, what? Where’s the scare? Huh. Maybe it really was a fake-out this time. I guess horror movies need those sometiiiiiiii—ohhhhhhh GOOD LORD!”

The movie is so precisely timed it sometimes starts to feel like it’s reading your mind. I halfway expect Wan has a notebook locked away in a safe on which is scrawled the mathematical formula he discovered for scaring people.

He always chooses shots, camera movements, and edits that don’t leave the scene as wide open for creepy things to happen out of nowhere. When you’re not expecting it, something happens in the background, in the shadows. When you are, he cuts the shot shorter than you’d expect or holds it longer and still springs it when you’re not quite ready. He makes incredible use of nothing. That’s important to really getting your scares under the skin — knowing how to use nothing. For my money, this best scene in this movie is the one wherein the entity torments two of the young girls in their bedroom. And it’s because you don’t see a thing. Wan uses the sound of the creaking floorboards to place the entity — just near enough to the girls that you’re expecting something to happen any second and just far away that you can hear its footsteps creaking toward them, like John Williams’ Jaws theme. You think you can see it in the shadows. One girl can see the ghost, and the other can’t, which culminates in the absolute apex of this movie: “It’s right behind you!”

Moreover, The Conjuring has the sense to let the audience actually breathe once in a while. There’s always a sense of portent lingering under the surface, but the interactions between the members of the family and between the Warrens are played pretty straight and allow the viewers to get comfortable. You need a little of that, both so that the scares hit harder and so that there’s an established ideal for which the characters are fighting. Lesser horror movies, right off the bat, have cats jumping out of closets and people opening doors really fast and everybody freaking everybody else out for no real reason and to comically unrealistic degrees. The Conjuring doesn’t get any of its jump scares cheaply.

The success of The Conjuring truly is one of direction over writing, though. The script here is not bad. I can’t think of anything in it that struck me as a transparently bad idea — other than, perhaps, its pseudo-justification of the Salem witch trials. It just isn’t really good, either. In terms of structure, character, motivation, themes, etc., it scrapes up what it needs to in order to essentially deliver its goods and then doesn’t really go much farther than that. There are good things about it, chief among them the fact that, for once, we’ve got a horror movie where the characters are not idiots. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a scary movie where people actually turn the lights on while they’re stalking around the house after an unknown sound. Usually, the married couple being haunted has two parties — the woman, who is convinced the house is haunted far too easily; and the man, who will never, ever be convinced it’s haunted absolutely no matter what happens. Here, both of them are convinced at pretty much the exact moment any rational human being would be convinced. And even though The Conjuring doesn’t actually get its characters out of the house, at least it has a better reason than, “We’re poor, and hotels are expensive.”

But it’s always hanging just south of real emotional investment. The characters aren’t flat, but just barely. Their motivations aren’t non-existent, but just barely. The story itself isn’t without ideas, but just barely. There are a lot of interesting thematic concepts or interpersonal issues that the movie could build upon to really make you care about what’s going on — for example, the fact that nearly everything happening in the story could naturally and easily be tied into the Warrens’ religious situation — but it just presses forward seemingly without noticing them. On the whole, if The Conjuring’s direction is a 10/10, the script is more like a 5.

You get what you pay for, I suppose. But for once, I actually do mean that. Most horror movies combine relatively weak scripts with clumsily delivered, unimaginative, and predictable scares. With The Conjuring, you’re at least getting a solid script — and moreover, you’re getting scares that are slick, precise, effective, unique, and atmospheric. And that’s worth at least one stormy night’s viewing.


-Matt T.

Frances Ha (2013)

Starring- Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d’Amboise, Grace Gummer

Director- Noah Baumbach

R- sexual references and language


Even when you’re like me, and your tastes are rather broad — or at least, I’d like to think they’re broad — you nevertheless periodically walk into a movie expecting that it’s not going to be your “thing.” That’s not to say you expect it to be unintelligent or of poor quality; rather, you anticipate that you will admire it distantly, heartily recommending it to people who enjoy that sort of thing even while admitting that you are unlikely to ever see it again.

But then, there’s that one time when you’re wrong — that one time when not only does the admittedly unfamiliar taste play quite well for you, it becomes something more than that. It becomes something almost personal for you, as if this strange thing was actually, in an unexpected way, made for people exactly like you.

Frances Ha, for me, is that one time. I wasn’t expecting to say this. But in a weird way, I think it might be one of my favorite movies of the year thus far.

It is the story of Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something living in New York and pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer. She shares an apartment with her best friend — “me with different hair” — Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The two of them are inseparable, or so it seems — when Sophie begins taking steps toward true adulthood, steps that can’t and don’t intimately involve Frances, Frances is forced to begin considering who she is as well and determining the path to a brighter future in the present she has created for herself.

Mostly, trailers for a movie like Frances Ha leave me writing it off as pretentious indie mumblecore. Generally speaking, I expect to like it but to spend substantial portions of it rolling my eyes. Truthfully, I’m not sure why this is. Thinking back over the last few years, I quite enjoyed most of the movies I saw that society at large would declare “mumblecore.” And when I think of the movies that I actually do find off-putting for the same set of reasons other people write off Frances Ha and Safety Not Guaranteed — “artistically” stilted dialogue, surreal visual choices, odd staging, etc. — they have a tendency to be fairly acclaimed.

Honestly, I don’t understand the distinction. The Internet calls Frances Ha pretentious mumblecore, but I don’t see how this is the case. The quality that I find most striking about it is how natural it is. It’s not a movie about people whispering faux-witty cultural observations into the air while the camera hangs every direction but the right one. The characters in Frances Ha talk like real people. They behave like real people. They do the things that real people do in the way that real people do them, and neither the script nor the direction tends to intrude upon that.

I think what’s most exemplary about Frances Ha is that it’s that rare movie about millennials and their problems that accurately captures the way that young people talk and incorporates the key parts of their culture without becoming cheesy or overdoing it or seeming as though it’s only experienced that world secondhand — which is, perhaps, a factor of the relative youth of most of the people involved in this production.

And what Frances Ha also gets exactly right is what it looks like when someone repeatedly makes the wrong decisions for her life, sometimes seemingly deliberately balking from the very things she wants — and it does that while, A) making you want what’s best for that character, B) making it hurt when those wrong choices are made, C) making it make actual sense that she would repeatedly choose the wrong path without painting her as inordinately stupid, and D) keeping the viewer mostly on her side and largely unfrustrated with her, or rather, frustrated but in a loving way.

Frances is in the throes of a quarter-life crisis, whether she realizes it or not. She is adamantly warring against her own adulthood, against adapting to a world that is going to change whether she wants it to or not. She’s clinging to a childlike ideal wherein her friends are always right by her side — and also in a box, readily available when they are needed, bereft of any personal set of wants, needs, and dreams for the future. She is content to exist in flux, chasing after her own dream without assessing it as a series of small, practical steps or as something that exists for her in a form other than the literal and exact interpretation. She is interested in romance, but only so long as it, like her friendships, can also be neatly compartmentalized and placed, quiet and undemanding, into the corner for future use.

What’s remarkable is how organically this occurs. It’s never spelled out in dialogue, and Frances’s “falling out” with each new circumstance in her life doesn’t often happen in the form of a massive emotional catalyst or in a scene of extended navel-gazing. Rather, the film jumps ahead a period of perhaps a few weeks and finds Frances in a new circumstance — one that is the absolute most logical extension both of her personality and what happened to her in the last stage of her life, and one that is conveyed only in our knowledge of both of those things, never in long discussions or emotional meltdowns. And yet, it’s clear why she is where she is, what decisions brought her to that point, and what about her caused her to make those decisions. This is best exemplified by a moment midway through the film where she flees another apartment because her relationship with one of her roommates threatens to become romance — not romance as she has known it, but romance that is much more real, relaxed, bonded, and potentially long-lasting. We don’t see the moment where she severs those ties. We don’t see any emotional freak-outs. We simply see the moment in which she realizes what is happening and then immediately see her in a new environment, having fled the old one out of, again, an almost instinctive fear of adulthood. In the interest of fairness, Frances Ha has a handful of moments that could be described as a touch labored, especially in light of the naturalism of the rest of the film. But these moments are scant.

I love movies that are as stripped-down and minimal as Frances Ha. And that, to me, almost makes it the exact opposite of pretentious. People might describe it as a strange film, and even I had to take a moment to adjust to its tone. I’ve begun to pinpoint why that is, though — movies as a whole inhabit their own strange universe, so we’ve begun to accept that strangeness as “movie normal,” and it only registers as “strange” when a movie is portraying real life as it actually is. The weirdness of Frances Ha is that there aren’t many camera tricks, that there isn’t much overt visual flair, that most of the scenes are silent apart from dialogue and natural sounds. To us, that’s become strange. In truth, nothing could be more natural. The only noticeable trick that Frances Ha employs is the decision to film in black and white. I don’t begrudge it that. I don’t understand the why and how of visual craftsmanship well enough and could not regale you with an essay on French new wave, to which this is ostensibly paying homage, so, to me, color schemes are largely an arbitrary selection anyway. I appreciate a film shot in black and white for the specific ways in which that aesthetic looks good just as I appreciate a film shot in color for the same reason, and I don’t spend much time pondering the step-by-step behind that choice.

I’ve heard its tone described as a strange union of Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, and I think that’s quite apt. Not only that, it manages to marry their best aspects into a new whole that feels very much like its own thing. It’s got Woody Allen’s silence, smallness, and bits and pieces of his unusual wit and sense of humor, and it’s got the Coens’ penchant for memorable protagonists and side characters defined by varying quirks but founded in something very honest and real — all of them imperfect but nevertheless clearly beloved by their creators.

I like the smallness of the story. I like that it processes human emotion in a natural and believable way. People don’t melt down often, not nearly as often as they do in movies. Frances Ha is largely without big climaxes. It understands how people think and conveys clearly the development of a mindset over time as it is subjected to different experiences. The story is not one driven by the external conflict we’ve come to expect. It’s internal, a coming of age story about someone who perhaps should already be there. It has its moments of relative emotional intensity, but in truth, its climax and ending are simply the final steps in the process of a person learning a lesson and completing a change. It’s effectively small and quiet, but there’s more going on than there would seem. If you’ve been where these characters have been — even if not in the exact details — the broader context in which it fits will recall your own story. If you are where they are — which is to say, if you’re my age — it takes on a new feeling entirely, that of the third act of a story that is playing out in the here and now and whose ending remains a giant question mark.

Frances Ha is unafraid to tell the truth of the world and to acknowledge, with something of a heavy heart, that it isn’t always easy. But there’s an unusual hope in the way it looks forward. It’s a movie made by people right in the aftermath of realizing that they are, to whatever extent, captains of their own destinies, able to steer the ship as they will and become something other than a cog in a machine, governed by the whims of others and the machinations of a predetermined system. Hardship happens, but it’s a tool as much as anything else, and it needn’t define you.

When all is said and done, Frances Ha is a film about possibility and how, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — you are the only thing standing in its way. And you might not know what you are doing or why. All it takes is to wake up.

So, call it strange, call it odd, call it mumblecore — whatever. Frances Ha is none of these things. In truth, it couldn’t possibly be more normal. It’s a film of and for its times and of and for its generation. And much like its characters, it’ll find its place in the end.


-Matt T.

White House Down (2013)

Starring- Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Rachelle Lafevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Jake Weber, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Williams, Kevin Rankin, Anthony Lemke, Vincent Leclerc, Garcelle Beauvais, Kyle Gatehouse, Falk Hentschel, Jackie Geary

Director- Roland Emmerich

PG-13- prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image


This is going to be the hardest review I ever have to write. Even now, every instinct I have is warring within me either to ignore White House Down entirely or to find something different to write about it. My fingers are getting heavier with each keystroke. I’m feeling some chest pains that I’m choosing to believe are unrelated to this whole thing. What’s about to happen here is, for me, a betrayal of something akin to deeply held religious convictions, so bear with me…

…I actually like White House Down. I hate myself for liking it. In fact, I am my own least favorite person in the world right now for liking it.

It’s the second in an extremely specific and somewhat silly subgenre of White House action movies that thus far includes the anti-masterpiece Olympus Has Fallen — and there’s part of me that suspects it’s actively ripping it off. Its rating includes the descriptor “prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions.” Perhaps most importantly, it’s directed by Roland Emmerich, responsible for 2012, which I hate; Godzilla, which I have tried and failed to watch in its entirety at least three or four times now; and Independence Day, which, as far as I’m concerned, is not-terrible at the absolute best of times. Whenever I’m ranting about crappy blockbusters, he usually gets second billing only to Michael “He Who Must Not Be Named” Bay.

But screw it. I like White House Down. And informing the Internet of this fact shall be my penance for that sin.

John Cale (Channing Tatum) is an aspiring Secret Service agent and military veteran who currently works security for the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). He’s interviewing for a job at the White House — and bringing his daughter, Emily (Joey King), along for a tour — when all hell breaks loose. Insurgents swarm the White House and take hostage the tourists, the staff, and several cabinet members. Cale escapes. So does President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). And so, the two of them must find a way to stop their heavily armed and well trained assailants, rescue the hostages, and potentially prevent a much larger conspiracy with global implications from unfolding.

Two years ago, I probably would’ve written a negative review of this — firstly, because dishonesty came far more easily to me about things like this back then, and secondly, because my philosophy has since changed. I’m not really concerned about this thing called “quality,” not to the extent that I used to be, because I’ve come to realize how subjective and arguable it is. At this point, if I get a smile out of a movie, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not it does so by intent.

Part of me thinks that White House Down is maybe just a better movie than Emmerich usually takes on. There’s at least some sense in which this is true. Oh, it’s got his usual bevy of problems — he’s a competent director at best and a below average one at worst; every movie he directs has so many important characters that the difference between an extra running across the screen to shout some quick exposition and a name and a face that I have to remember later is completely indiscernible; the action sequences go on forever and account for most of the spots in which the movie, which is, inevitably, much too long, drags; and he never met a cliché he didn’t like.

I’ve always given him at least this one bit of credit — he’s always been good at building up his cataclysmic event. With the exception of Godzilla, which starts out awful and only gets worse (unless there’s some abrupt spike in quality in its second half, which, as I said, I wouldn’t know), his movies have highly watchable first half-hours that slide their pieces into place gradually, hint one scene at a time at the disaster that’s about to befall their characters, build tension, and then explode. It’s that they can never sustain that feeling and burn out in their action-heavy, character- and structure-free second halves. So, it didn’t surprise me that I was basically on board with the first half hour of this thing. The shock came in that it didn’t lose me after that.

Overall, I’m having a hard time accounting for that in terms of deliberate decisions the movie makes. It’s still really action-heavy, and it definitely starts to slow down in ways it doesn’t intend here and there. It’s still significantly dark in places, invoking any number of distressing realities and aiming more for “disturbed but basically engaged” — my least favorite tone for movies like this — than “having fun.” There are still too many characters to keep track of. Maybe it’s that they’ve got higher-caliber actors this time. Jamie Foxx, in particular, is good at seeming like a guy you’d vote for, which is important in a movie like this.

All in all… You know, I don’t want to call White House Down “so bad it’s good.” That implies a movie substantially dumber and more openly schlocky than this one. This isn’t Birdemic or Plan 9 from Outer Space. At the same time… I liked White House Down, but I’m pretty sure I liked it in a way that’s largely unintended.

This movie does have a few more defenders among the critical elite than Emmerich’s usual output. Most of them are asserting that it’s humorous and self-satirical, poking fun at the uber-patriotism and excessive reverence of these movies. I agree that I enjoyed it in that sense; I disagree that the movie is doing this on purpose.

Emmerich has always built his movies up into excessively emotional, trying-too-hard cliché-storms by their third acts. I think White House Down is just where it hit critical mass. And I don’t care whether it intends to or not — this movie is hilarious and adorable, and fun is fun whether you’re laughing at it or with it.

I love that its central theme is resolved in the absolute most literal way possible, in a moment that’s probably supposed to be a Crowning Moment of Awesome but is actually one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. It completely undermines the idea itself, but heck, I love that about it, too. If you’re going to screw up your big idea, you might as well go for broke.

I love that it’s determined to be really super political but has absolutely no idea how to do that other than to have massive and far more interesting global change casually happening in the background without anyone commenting on how extraordinary and borderline impossible it is.

I love its subconscious belief that there’s absolutely no problem on this Earth that cannot be solved with ludicrously huge guns. I love that it adheres firmly to the premise that there’s no kill like overkill even while hinging its protagonists’ entire moral compass on the notion of world peace. See, again, the incredibly and hilariously literal interpretation of the President’s whole shtick.

I love… Actually, here’s what I really love. And the movie actually did this one on purpose, so kudos on that. White House Down has one of my favorite new characters of the entire year, and I am glaring very angrily at the Internet right now for not talking about how amazing he is. He’s not the President; he’s not Cale; he’s not any of the military guys or any of the over-the-top villains.

He’s Donnie the Friggin’ Tour Guide (Nicholas Wright), who should’ve been the actual protagonist of this film and who deserves to star in dozens of increasingly ridiculous sequels chronicling his adventures through time and space and whatever. By the end of this movie, he’s gone full-on Ash from Evil Dead II. He’s the Indiana Jones of White House memorabilia, except somehow more unstable and unreliable. More, please.

I don’t know. I’m not prepared to call White House Down a good movie, though I suppose that if I don’t, I’m conceding that it has to be so bad it’s good, which is another concession I’m not ready to make yet. Olympus Has Fallen could still learn a few valuable lessons from it. Firstly, White House Down has the sense to give its characters meaningful motivations and to keep those in play. The character of Emily Cale exists rather transparently for the sole purpose of being endangered. The same was true of the kid in Olympus, but that movie randomly rescued him right off the bat and then kept wandering around. Speaking of which, White House Down also has the sense to change the game and raise some stakes here and there instead of assuming that Channing Tatum wandering around the White House and fighting some guys is enough to sustain a movie. These are not symbols of quality, necessarily, but at least it resembles a framework.

Granted, one of these movies probably ripped off the other one. I’m not sure which, given the closeness of their release dates, but I’d be awfully surprised if somebody didn’t see somebody else’s production notes and get cracking on their own version. I could buy the basic premise appearing twice in one year purely by coincidence. But these plots get awfully similar in their details. About the only substantial difference is that the President in White House Down is active in the plot, which is to its benefit.

White House Down, though, is the movie where the fundamental premise got good enough that I started to wish it was better. I wish a really talented and sharp screenwriter had gotten his or her hands on it. The villain here is perfectly poised to explore meaningful ideas about the distinction, or lack thereof, between personal conduct and large-scale, international decisions: If you’ve been trained your whole life to view certain losses as acceptable in the service of a “good” overarching political cause, shouldn’t the inevitable end result be the attitude that there’s no moral difference between that and doing the same thing to your own country when you believe it’s gone off the ideological rails? And yet, we’re upset by that notion, and this movie banks on it. I really believe it could’ve done that without really compromising itself as an action movie either. But, heck, this is a Roland Emmerich movie that I don’t despise; I should count my blessings, mixed though they are. It messes up its whole ideology, sinking it even further with a final twist that compromises its one intellectually sound and laudably open-minded notion. But like I said, if you’re going to screw up your theme, throw subtlety out the window and just freaking go for it — and White House Down does that, with an end result that’s hilarious, intentionally or otherwise, and sporadically kind of fun in a guilty sort of way.

I understand that this whole review reads like I have two personalities, and that’s probably for the best, both because it’s either a bad movie that I enjoy or a good movie that either isn’t that good or is secretly brilliant, and also because the half of my brain that kind of likes this and the half of my brain that wants to say I didn’t solely to save face are still kind of in conflict here.

So, here’s your completely unhelpful review, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash my hands really, really hard and pray I never have to do this with a Michael Bay movie. Fortunately, I suspect I may be in the clear on that one.

-Matt T.

Before Midnight (2013)

Starring- Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis

Director- Richard Linklater

R- sexual content/nudity and language


This has been something special, and I hope it continues.

To some extent, I feel as though I’m disallowed from reviewing Before Midnight and the series of films that preceded it. It’s a decades-long love story, and it’s clear, in some ways, that in order to “get it,” you have to have been there. I haven’t, and so, there’s very little I can say definitively about it — other than that this has been something special, and I hope it continues.

The story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) continues once more, this time in Greece on a vacation — eighteen years after they first met on a train in Vienna and decided to spend Jesse’s last day in Europe together in Before Sunrise and nine years after their paths crossed again in Before Sunset. They’re older now, but are they wiser?

Before Midnight can’t be reviewed like most other movies. These are not narrative films, telling stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. This series is essentially an experiment in film, stretched across nearly two decades now. Each installment consists mainly of these two characters walking around, having dinner and talking — often about nothing in particular. There isn’t any particularly consistent theme, except, arguably, the obsession with the transience of things that Jesse and Celine both seem to share.

This trilogy simply drops in on the couple every nine years, showing them at new stages in their lives and examining, largely through dialogue, how they’re handling that. And there’s something beautiful in that simple premise.

Of course, that places constraints on things. Each film covers only a single day of these characters’ lives, and sometimes less than that, and because of the focus on their conversations, we’re told a lot of things and not shown. That throws the main emotional responsibility on the shoulders of Hawke and Delpy, who continue to bear it admirably. Plus, in previous installments especially, these movies aren’t necessarily driven by much conflict — none of them really take it on until the third act. They’re candid looks at lives unfolding over time, almost like documentaries.

And there are inherent pluses — the films are set every nine years and produced at the same rate, so Hawke and Delpy are aging alongside their characters, and much of their work is clearly coming from a place that’s very real. And a better pair of characters could not have been chosen for this grand experiment — Jesse and Celine are real and detailed, with clear input from the actors in the writing process. They’re as flawed as any other person, but they’re also funny, intelligent, and interesting. And Richard Linklater has been a steady hand at the helm, his warm and sensitive direction leading the way. As far as I’m concerned, he is the underrated director right now, having consistently proven that he can handle a wide range of tones and styles with equal skill, whether that’s the Before series or a wacky Jack Black comedy.

Nevertheless, I’ve had something of a unique experience with these films. Love them or hate them, I find that most people are of universal mind of all three: if you like one of them, you like all of them, and the same if you happen to hate them. For my part, I didn’t care for Before Sunrise overmuch. I liked it — it’s sweet and charming, and the characters were great from the get-go — but I spent too much of its run-time calling B.S. on a lot of what was happening. Not the romance so much — as previously stated, I’m woefully unqualified to comment on that aspect — but just the way Jesse and Celine talked. They were artsy, intellectual types, of course, so it made sense that they would discuss heady, esoteric subjects. But they got into it so quickly, and moreover, they seemed somehow rehearsed. One of them would mention a subject, and the other would immediately respond with this thought-out, poetic reply that couldn’t possibly have emerged right then, in that moment.

But Before Sunset was excellent. It kept what worked about the first film, but its dialogue felt significantly more naturalistic to me, beginning with questions about work and family and life and building into philosophical and emotional debates that were delivered in a way that was more insecure, more off-the-cuff.

Before Midnight either continues the improvement streak or at the very least strikes the level of Before Sunset — I haven’t decided yet. Everything that’s always worked about these films is still here — Hawke and Delpy are still wonderful, with particular emphasis on the latter; Jesse and Celine are still very real, representing a mixture of uncomfortable flaws and endearing strengths; Linklater is still unobtrusive in the best way. The feeling remains that Jesse and Celine are not characters in a movie but rather friends of yours. Their family dinners are like events in which you are actively involved. You laugh when everyone else laughs, and you look away awkwardly when the humor and conversation strike at something serious and threaten a touch of conflict.

Nevertheless, Before Midnight is a very different film than its predecessors. In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the balance was tipped rather sharply toward light over darkness, toward happiness over misery. And well it should have — they were young and in love. They had their intense moments, particularly as Jesse was forced to reconsider his feelings toward Celine in light of his marriage to another woman. But another sense in which this series is different from a more traditionally narrative film is that its installments can never really be considered over. They don’t end, at least not as we would ordinarily understand the word. Each of them concludes with the suggestion that things will go on, off-screen.

As such, characters sometimes make moral choices for which there are no consequences. Bad deeds seemingly go unpunished. The effect of good deeds is not seen. The reason for this, of course, is that each film only inhabits a single day, and there is not time to expand upon these decisions.

And so, it is up to the sequels to show where Jesse and Celine’s chosen paths have brought them.

In Before Sunrise, young, impulsive, impossible love merely resulted in a day to remember. At the beginning of Before Sunset, it’s resulted in an impossible decision that Jesse and Celine must make, one that will leave neither of them either totally happy or totally miserable. In Before Sunset, Jesse, a married man, chooses to be with Celine after discovering the spark he’d hoped would no longer be there blazed with the same heat as ever, and the result seems to be his happiness.

And then, we come to Before Midnight, where the central dilemma faced hinges upon that decision. Jesse is now caught between two worlds, and the strain is threatening to break Celine.

The previous two films were breezy, light, and humorous with the necessarily realistic touches of humanity and struggle. Before Midnight begins largely on the former note, but it’s clear even then that something is very wrong under the surface. And that builds throughout, culminating in a film that is uncomfortable and sometimes deeply upsetting.

For the first time, Jesse and Celine are wrestling with the fact that they are getting older. The hopes and dreams they once talked about have become the here and now — either as something they’ve achieved or something they fear they never will. And as a result, there’s real strain in this relationship.

The state of movies more generally has trained me to seek a “bad guy” in every situation, to figure out whose side I’m on. I wrestled with Before Midnight for a while before realizing that there wasn’t one — even though, with conflict this intense and emotion this raw, you really want there to be. As ever, these films are complicated and balanced — and here, that results in real pain.

It’s clear that Jesse and Celine have, in their own unique ways, become insensitive to one another. It’s possible they always were and that it’s only now that they’re truly contemplating the trajectories of their lives that the soft spots have started to show. The film does its usual good job of maintaining the trademark dorky sense of humor its two leads have always shared — but for the first time, it seems to suggest something different. Jesse is still goofy and manages to twist everything into a big joke. Celine plays along, but it’s clear that the subtle suggestions she makes in the middle are hinting at bigger issues that are a source of genuine pain to her.

Jesse is aloof and unaware of how he comes off to her sometimes. He doesn’t realized how he’s sidelined her and become preoccupied with his own interests — not that those interests don’t bear pressing attention, which is his dilemma.

She, on the other hand, is insensitive to that dilemma, not seeing that his old family is not merely a temptation he must overcome but rather an active part of his life. She retains her strong feminist ideals, but they’re more of a fixture at this point; she has this arbitrary ideal of what she should be and fears she hasn’t made it and thus wars against it. Of course, she’s also partially right — Jesse leads this double life, abandoning her to make his rounds as a famous and successful author, paying little heed to her passions.

There was a point of discomfort for me in that it seemed like Before Midnight was laying most of the blame at Celine’s feet. I’m not the only one who noticed it either; numerous critics and members of the general audience said it seemed as though she floated around Jesse, waiting for him to say something over which she could get offended. But I came to see it differently. Jesse only comes off better because he intends to. He plays the reasonable, rational one, but he does so only because he thinks that makes him the bigger person and gives him leverage in the arguments — something we know because the façade occasionally drops, and he becomes downright mean. Celine, of course, sees through the act from the beginning, and so, the more “rational” he acts, the angrier she becomes with him. He’s pretending to listen, but he’s not hearing. In truth, the fault belongs to both of them equally, and the frightening thing about it is the way in which it sometimes seems as though they have no other choice. They are, to borrow the old cliché, caught between a rock and a hard place in the decisions that they both must make.

Their fights are incredibly painful as a result — not only because they seem like old friends but because their ebb and flow is absolutely insufferable. It seems like it’s over; they start making nice; and then, it begins anew — multiple times within a single scene.

The conclusion is the most mixed one this series has had yet. Like its predecessors, the literal interpretation comes off rather explicitly as either good or bad. But there remain conflicts, scratching under the surface, even in things that are said and done in the last scene of the movie, that seem as though they must inevitably emerge.

Whether Linklater and the cast are done or not remains to be seen. Perhaps it ends this way because this series has always been honest and knows that tidy resolutions are a thing of fiction and fantasy. Or perhaps it ends this way because they intend to explore it again another nine years from now.

I hope so. It’s a rare few films about which I’ll say this, but I’d be perfectly happy to see Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy continue this story until they are physically unable to do so anymore. If not, the experience — as foreign a one as it has been to me — has been entirely worth the journey. The experiment has been a strange one, with its weak points and its strong points. But it has been a quietly wonderful one.


-Matt T.

The Croods (2013)

Starring- Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Chris Sanders, Randy Thom

Directors- Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders

PG- some scary action


Well… This is new. I have absolutely no feelings whatsoever about The Croods. I don’t think it’s good. I don’t think it’s bad. I don’t like it. I don’t dislike it. I definitely…something…it. I don’t know what that something is or how much I something it, but there you go. Watching it, I fluctuated between slight dislike, complete apathy, and slight positivity. Afterward, that lapsed into overall positivity before degrading to something below average and then winding back around into having no feelings toward it at all.

The Croods! It’s a movie that exists, and I have seen it!

So, uh, consider this review as a joint adventure of discovery in which I attempt to figure out whether or not I liked this movie, and you get to watch.

So, The Croods is a DreamWorks Animation movie about cavemen. Grug (Nicolas Cage) leads his family with only two rules: never not be afraid, and curiosity is bad. It’s kept them alive in a world where most of their neighbors have been killed or driven out. They spend the majority of their time locked away in their cave and the rest of it haphazardly chasing after things they can eat.

Daughter Eep (Emma Stone) is not happy with the arrangement. She wanders off on her own. New things excite her. She chafes under Dad’s leadership.

One day, she meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a wanderer who appears to belong to a somewhat more advanced subset of human. He’s crafty and inventive, going new places and coming up with new ideas to better humanity. He says the world is ending, and it rapidly proves true when an earthquake destroys most of the valley, including the family’s cave.

Left with no other choice, the group follows Guy out into the unknown, looking for a new place to call home and create a better tomorrow.

I think the most unfortunate thing about this movie’s mediocrity is that it seems this was supposed to be DreamWorks Animation’s good movie this year. I’ve theorized in the past that the studio releases about three movies annually and only intends one of them to be good, and you can tell which one it is by the animation. To wit — in 2010, compare How to Train Your Dragon, shot like a live action movie, rendered gorgeously, and reflecting a detail-oriented approach to visual world-building, and MegaMind, which consisted largely of generic cityscapes, generic landscapes, and empty interiors. There was an important difference in their scripts as well.

The Croods’ visuals are easily its strongest point. It’s textured and detailed; more importantly, it’s imaginative. The color scheme is reminiscent of Avatar, and the movie’s beautifully absurd creature designs are reminiscent of absolutely nothing that has ever existed. There’s a tiger that’s camouflaged to match a Technicolor rainforest, and it seems to be covered in moss like a sloth. There are strange lemur creatures that are conjoined at their colorful tails. There are giant, flying turtles with feathery, rainbow wings. The creature that most regularly stalks the Croods appears to be some weird hybrid of a cat and an owl. That’s just the beginning of it. This is a cheerfully, unabashedly strange movie, and I have to give it points for that. Moreover, the background doesn’t simply reflect some vague art direction designed to look like something but not fleshed out to feel like an actual world that exists somewhere in someone’s imagination.

You’ve got a cast here that’s mostly pretty good. I’d kill to see Nicolas Cage giving this performance in person; the fact that this is an animated movie has robbed many a YouTube montage of some grand material.

The humor is more of a mixed bag. Taken scene-by-scene, I think almost all of the jokes work individually; the problem is what they add up to in sequence. “Cavemen invent early versions of modern amenities; hilarity ensues” is amusing once or twice, but that’s pretty much the only joke this movie has in its bag of tricks. At a certain point, it all blends together and stops working even though the writing is, in theory, mostly clever.

The script, though, is weak. I’m deliberately choosing the word “weak” over “bad.” That’s because the bare essentials are here, but for some reason, almost everything fails to connect. Part of that is how been-there-done-that this story feels. Eep’s personality could be loosely described as “every Disney princess ever.” Grug has a motivation and some character, but he’s still largely skin-deep; his relationship with the world is non-specific and rooted mainly in the simplistic moral ideas the movie is trying to get across. They’re not bad morals, but they’ve been done a thousand times in better movies. Guy is mostly a non-presence, though he gets a few amusing moments that mainly involve the Croods heaping constant abuse on him. The rest of the family is either a one-note joke — son Thunk (Clark Duke), who is bumbling and pathetic; daughter Sandy (Randy Thom), who acts like a dog for some reason; Grandma (Cloris Leachman), who is *insert your favorite sitcom’s ornery old lady here* — or a blank slate, i.e. mom Ugga (Catherine Keener).

The movie is a bit antsy about who its protagonist is. About halfway through, it becomes clear that it’s shifting its focus from Eep to Grug. It’s not a bad idea, but it fumbles in the execution. For starters, the first half of the movie invokes no change at all on Eep’s part, which makes her a questionable choice for protagonist status from the get-go. In truth, it probably would’ve worked better if it had been Grug the whole time — also if Grug was a richer character whose personal changes occurred more organically than they do. If you want to see this exact same parent-child dynamic done well, in another DreamWorks movie, no less, look no further than How to Train Your Dragon. That movie nails it.

By the end, The Croods is layering on the inspiration and the ironic echoes extra thick, to the point that it starts to seem like a parody of the cheesy family dramas movie characters are always watching. And it solves the majority of its problems by invoking complete nonsense solutions that it probably excuses for the reason of comedy but that usually don’t play out that way and harm the dramatic portions of it.

So, in the end, The Croods… Nope, I still don’t have any feelings about it one way or the other. Sorry, guys.


-Matt T.

P.S. I think I’m going to rank it positively on my year-end list, but only because it looks pretty and doesn’t offend.