Archive for January, 2014

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Starring- Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Isaac White, Colman Domingo, Adriane Lenox, Terrence Howard, Tyson Ford, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Pernell Walker, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Yaya Alafia, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Elijah Kelley, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda

Director- Lee Daniels

PG-13- some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUA7rr0bOcc

It figures that the first year in a while where the awards season was so competitive that the Oscar Bait fell by the wayside was also the first year in a while where the Oscar Bait wasn’t really all that bad.

If, you know…still Oscar Bait.

I suppose Lee Daniels’ The Butler goes to show that if you’re going to make a hyper-emotional, inspiring weepy about race relations, the way to do it is to make it by and about the people who, you know, actually experienced it.

The Butler is based on the true story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man raised in the 1920s on a cotton plantation in the South who later went on to work for eight different presidential administrations as a butler. The film examines the quiet ways in which it’s suggested he influenced the racial climate at the time through his efforts there.

The Butler is significantly better than its trailer, and believe me, I breathed many a deep sigh of relief at that discovery — the trailer is only a slight tonal shift away from being indistinguishable from a parody of movies that are made to win Oscars. To be honest, at the end of the day, it’s still Oscar Bait personified. It’s sentimental. It’s important with a capital I. It stars a thousand different big-name actors, cast against type in roles that they’re desperately hoping will find a place in the highlight reels of their careers. It never goes for a small or quiet emotion when a big and bombastic one will do. Some liberties were taken with the story with which I find myself a bit uncomfortable. It’s unsurprising to me that the most clichéd and predictable tearjerker in the movie was one of these. It’s disappointing that a major event in the opening reel was another one — though perhaps not surprising, given that it has little effect on anything that happens later. In short, it lines up fairly well with the usual litany of strengths and weaknesses that one associates with this sort of thing.

And some new ones.

Visually, “weird” is the best word I can use to describe it. The direction and editing are fine, I suppose, but the whole thing is filmed in a color I like to describe as soap-opera-restaurant-interior orange, which leaves the movie with a strangely uncomfortable feeling at times and in locations where it really shouldn’t have one.

And the most glaring flaw, if not necessarily the biggest, is the ridiculous and completely inexplicable stunt casting with the Presidents. The best it gets are actors who don’t much resemble their real-life counterparts but who mostly capture their essence — for example, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson. James Marsden doesn’t look much like JFK either but at least has his demeanor — though he missteps in trying and failing to imitate his voice.

And then, there’s the other extreme. You’ve got small, youthful-voiced John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Robin Williams is distractingly obvious as Dwight D. Eisenhower — you can practically see the seams on his bald wig. The coup de grace for me was Alan Rickman — Alan Rickman! — as Ronald Reagan. The whole thing is like an SNL sketch gone horribly wrong. I really can’t imagine how this casting was handled other than with one dartboard labeled “U.S. Presidents” and another labeled “Celebrities.” They’re all trying anyway, bless their souls.

But despite it all, as “this sort of thing” goes, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is decent enough.

Again, if we’re going to keep making these movies, it’s nice to see them being made from the inside of this issue. And it’s nicer still that The Butler at least tries to aim for something more challenging than “open racism is bad.”

It’s more about the movement, in a way. It’s a war of ideologies during a pivotal time in the Civil Rights movement. In one corner, you’ve got Cecil, who’s gotten to where he’s gotten by keeping his head down and doing his job well and with care and precision. He believes the black race will achieve equality by the same means — defying the stereotypes, letting the hatred run its course until there’s simply nothing left to sustain it. In the other corner, you have his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who’s become involved with major Civil Rights protests, participating in sit-ins and marches, getting thrown in jail and sicced with dogs and pounded with firehoses. He believes the current power structure absolutely will not go down without a fight.

What’s commendable about The Butler is that it doesn’t make either of these men out to be wrong — or, at the very least, they are equally wrong, and equally right. It seems to suggest that what the world needs — what real change needs — is people who will quietly work behind the scenes and defy mean stereotypes through their kindness and their character, and people who will stand on the frontlines and demand equality and change and will not let their struggles be swept aside and forgotten. Of course, the movie hammers each of these moments in with monologues and rather obvious moments in which Cecil, whose role ordinarily makes him invisible to those he serves, is nevertheless deliberately sought out by his superiors for explicit advice on matters like segregation. But the overall effect is something uncommonly balanced, and that’s to be celebrated.

Of course, it doesn’t flinch from the darker side of the era — well, at least in terms of what it can slide in under a PG-13 rating — and that’s to its credit as well. The Butler gives audiences a real sense of the need for the Civil Rights movement and for change in the United States of America more generally. Its attempts at getting that across can, again, be extremely blunt — so much so that, on occasion, the point of a scene gets lost in the overall cheese — but it still gives the film an important emotional center. My biggest complaint is that the film invents the occasional piece of suffering for the purpose of emphasizing the terribleness of the whole affair. My issue here is not that things like that didn’t happen or that the movie is trying to make some reverse-racist political point; my issue is that The Butler needs to trust the facts of the story to do the job on their own. Sometimes, major tragedy only ends up being the character development version of the Easy Button. Not everyone needed to directly experience death and physical abuse connected with segregation and Jim Crow in order to be harmed by it — and it’s that emotional and psychological effect that you should be trying to tap into.

But more or less, The Butler is effective. It’s efficient, too, covering a lot of ground in a comparatively short time and nevertheless capturing the sweep of history within its story. It doesn’t feel rushed or crowded. Plus, for all it’s bizarro-world casting, there are some strong performances on display within the core cast — Whitaker as reliable as always, Oyelowo the best he’s ever been, and Oprah Winfrey getting me very close to seeing her as someone other than Oprah Winfrey.

It is what it is. I suspect you know if it’s for you, and I suspect you know if it isn’t. It wants to make you cry a bit, lift your spirit a little bit, and sledgehammer a message into you while it’s doing it. I suppose it essentially does all three fairly well. There aren’t many surprises to behold, but it’s familiar in enough of the right ways and fresh where it absolutely must be.

Still, I’m glad this was such a strong year. I’d probably like this a lot less if everyone I knew was referring to it as the new greatest movie of all time. I call it The The Help Principle.

-Matt T.

Lone Survivor (2013)

Starring- Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig

Director- Peter Berg

R- strong bloody war violence and pervasive language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoLFk4JK_RM

You have your idea, fictional or otherwise. You have your plot. You have your characters. You’re ready to put pen to paper. Before you do, one question remains: Why does this story need to be told?

That Lone Survivor never quite answers this question is its most damning problem.

You shouldn’t take that as commentary on the true events that inspired this film — writer/director Peter Berg’s take on the experiences of four American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan on a mission gone awry. The above statement would be as true if this was a film about some of the most important and interesting people who ever lived and the most important and interesting events that ever unfolded.

My point is this: It has nothing to do with the source material. The right writer and director could find within a story that needs telling. Honestly, the right writer and director could find a story that needs telling within just about anything you could conjure up — maybe even your own life.

Perhaps the question is not so much why the story needs to be told. Perhaps it’s why you want to tell it. There are many who would answer that question simply: “Well, you know…it’s interesting! Four guys behind enemy lines, only one survives… You know, it’s interesting!

But good storytelling requires not only that it be interesting. The writer must think hard and determine specifically what it is about it that makes it interesting. Tapping into that, he or she can then craft something emotionally involving, resonant, and gripping. These through-lines can seem like insignificant details that people like me spend too much time harping on, but I say again: They are, in truth, completely fundamental. It rarely surprises me to see which stories stand the test of time and which don’t. The ones that do, with few exceptions, are the ones that are tuned into that, that know what they are about and why. If you have only a passing interest in movies, if you enjoy, for the most part, everything you see, think about those stories that you really enjoy — your absolute favorites, the best ones you saw over the last few years, the ones that completely rocked your world. What was it about them that set them a cut above movies that you think are just okay? It isn’t totally arbitrary — there are reasons for it. And nine times out of ten, it’s because those movies, whether or not they’re great at everything else, at the very least got this right. Knowing why you’re telling the story is so much more important than people realize.

And again, this is the pit into which Lone Survivor falls. It never connects with the fundamental reason for its own existence. It never finds the importance of its story.

And I think it wanted to. I’ll give some credit here. I truly believe that this was something of a passion project for Berg, especially since he stepped up and adapted the screenplay on his own. I think he wanted to tell this story. I think he genuinely found it interesting. I think he truly enjoyed making it. His work here proves what we all should’ve expected — nobody making Battleship really cared about Battleship. Even the most untalented members of that crew knew they were making a cynical, shovelware blockbuster.

Berg’s interest in this material shows. It can be a bit of a blunt instrument, but his love of this subject comes through in that. There are stretches toward actual craftsmanship, moments where Berg gets quieter or more patient than I thought he ever would.

For all his passion, though, I don’t think that he sat down and really thought about what it was about this story that drew him to it — only that he was drawn to it. And thus, what comes across on-screen is somewhat arbitrarily constructed, a collection of scenes that Peter Berg really liked and wanted to commit to film but that don’t always, or even usually, feed into a larger whole. The finished work, thus, lacks cohesion — and it’s emotionally involving only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Is it an anti-war story focusing on the horrors of combat? Well, there’s plenty of gore and suffering to behold. But if you’re telling that sort of story, there are, in my experience, two ways (speaking broadly) to go about it — focus on the human cost of it on one side or both (The Bridge on the River Kwai) or psychologize a particular character and emphasize the effect of events on him or her (Apocalypse Now). On the former point, Lone Survivor lapses too readily into being a simple action movie, and on the latter point, it spends very little time getting under its characters’ skins in any meaningful way. (You could also go the route of Platoon and make everything so disorienting and painful that the battle scenes commentate on themselves regardless of the characters at play in the events. Lone Survivor is, to some extent, shot in the same way, but only as a byproduct of our current fixation on close-ups, shaky-cam, and fast edits. The violence doesn’t hurt in the same way, and the battles aren’t as terrifying. Again, there’s too much action movie in it. So, I don’t think you could argue that it’s going this route.)

Is it trying to emphasize the “lone” part of its title, i.e. being a tale of survival? Does it want to emphasize how its main character, played by Mark Wahlberg, through sheer grit and determination, survived the unsurvivable? Is its ultimate goal a theme of the triumph of the human spirit? Well, once again, it doesn’t get too far beneath the surface of its characters. But worse in this sense is the fact that not much time is devoted to the method of his survival. What time is devoted to it emphasizes here and there some of the challenging things he had to do to make it. But this is purely an in-the-moment thing. It begins and ends where it’s a factor with the plot.

Or is it trying simply to honor the men on whom it is based? This is almost certainly the answer. But it raises a new question beyond why the story was interesting to Berg, and that’s why these men were interesting to him. Once again, that isn’t a commentary on the real-life individuals — seeing as they were human beings like the rest of us, they certainly were interesting. The burden is on the film to determine the sense in which that is true and to bring it out. What we get is four characters who, frankly, are interchangeable, identifiable largely by the actors portraying them. Their personalities and demeanors all exist somewhere on the continuum of “light sarcasm.” The movie doesn’t dig deep and show us how these events make these men feel. It doesn’t define their relationships with one another. It doesn’t show their struggle or the reasons for their commitment to the cause. It doesn’t, except in straightforward statements, show us what they left behind. We don’t know what their lives were outside of this or what they hoped someday to become.

All of this combines to render Lone Survivor a film that consists almost exclusively of a single, prolonged action sequence with absolutely nothing propelling it. It plays out, in large part, as a literal visual interpretation of the events that only rarely manages to engage the material emotionally.

The moments where it does, for what it’s worth, elevate it considerably. They leave you thirsting for more and wishing more of the film attacked the story from that angle. Early on, the team is forced into a situation where it must seriously debate whether or not to commit a war crime. In this moment, personalities and ideologies emerge, and real ethical issues come to the surface. But it’s only one scene, and while it sets up the rest of the plot, it has no real emotional effect on what comes after.

Lone Survivor gets to its best portion in what you might call the third act, where, after an entire movies’ worth of trying to connect with the men it intends to honor, it actually does establish that connection…with a character who is not one of them. It’s a basic emotional connection, sure, built less upon crafting an intriguing personality and more upon the shining moral compass of the character concerned, but it does, finally, establish an individual about whom the audience is truly able to care.

These scenes only serve to drive home the point — that there genuinely is a story here, and if the film both found what’s interesting about it and then managed to remain focused on it for the entire duration, it could’ve been something special. Instead, it just shows us something that happened once — and that’s it.

-Matt T.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Starring- Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Canavale, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alden Ehrenreich, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard

Director- Woody Allen

PG-13- mature thematic material, language and sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FER3C394aI8

Granted that I’m not nearly as familiar as I ought to be with Woody Allen’s filmography — and granted, in turn, that it’s nearly impossible for the uninitiated to catch up with the work of someone so prolific — of late, I’m beginning to wonder if even Woody Allen knows what it looks like when Woody Allen is at his best. It seems sometimes that he has an idea and charges ahead with it, not attending overmuch to the method of it. Every now and then, there’s a magical confluence of events that results in something special, and Blue Jasmine — the tale of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a New York socialite who moves in with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after she’s left destitute when her millionaire husband (Alec Baldwin) is exposed as a crook — is one of them.

And perhaps that’s because Blue Jasmine doesn’t particularly feel like a Woody Allen film — or at least, the stereotype, based in a degree of truth, of a Woody Allen film.

His last two films struck similar tones. They’re tones that are quite familiar within his output. Midnight in Paris played it to wonderful effect, being backed up by a strong story and interesting ideas. To Rome with Love looked and felt the same but either didn’t have a point or conveyed it somewhat poorly.

That tone could be loosely described as “light drama,” though that does some disservice to what movies like Midnight in Paris actually accomplished. There’s plenty of comedy, the characters are just a touch larger than life, and the tone is playful. That’s not to say that things never get dark or serious, but they do so moment-to-moment, when the story organically reaches those points. You have your happy moments and your sad moments, and maybe the latter outweighs the former now and then, but it all gets drawn into an artistic whole that, when it works, mostly leaves you feeling pretty good.

On the other hand, Blue Jasmine is surprisingly uncomfortable. It’s not just uncomfortable — it’s pervasively uncomfortable. It starts out as a slight twinge and ends as a throbbing ache in your mind. I left Midnight in Paris feeling warm and encouraged. I left Blue Jasmine feeling anxious and upset. I say this with some degree of positivity, because it appears to have been completely intentional. Blue Jasmine eschews easy answers and explanations and, for that reason, becomes occasionally fascinating.

On its surface, Blue Jasmine remains unmistakably a Woody Allen film. Visually, it’s bright and colorful. There’s an abundance of verbal wit and a touch of quirky, character-driven comedy. It has an upbeat and cheerful score that’s highly idiosyncratic and yet almost deliberately lacking in variety.

And thrown against this subject material, these things actually make Blue Jasmine even more uncomfortable. Here’s a light and upbeat film with broad comedy and a sunshiney look and sound, and make no mistake — it’s also incredibly dark. I’m not sure if Allen was creating that dissonance intentionally, but nevertheless — very, very well played, sir.

Blue Jasmine is essentially a portrait of a woman whose life has crashed down around her and who lacks the basic skills to pick up the pieces. In real life, she would have no chance of recovery. Because of Allen’s style, Blue Jasmine starts off as enough of a “movie” that you suspect Jasmine has a shot at finding her way. There comes a moment, late in the film, when it begins to occur to you that, maybe, even here, she doesn’t. That’s when it transitions from discomfort to pain.

Jasmine is a completely insufferable character — maybe too insufferable. We watch movies about criminals and addicts and killers and find some way to identify with their positive qualities or their reasons for being or that basic sparkle of humanity we see within them. Jasmine is still somehow the most loathsome character in my recent memory — and a lot longer than that if we restrict our search exclusively to protagonists.

It goes beyond being selfish and self-absorbed — and the extent to which she appears to be both of these deepens beyond anything the audience might have expected as the film fleshes out her background in flashbacks. Much of it is handled by implication — viewers might know more about Jasmine than Jasmine knows about Jasmine. You have to speculate sometimes about whether or not she knows how badly she’s behaving. She might, or she might be blithe and innocent and naïve, or she might even half-know and look the other way so well that she essentially deceives herself. This is a complex figure, but very little we see of her as we explore her darkest corners arouses sympathy or compassion. What may harm the film as a whole is that it also arouses very little empathy.

Even her kindness is couched in condescension. And that’s when she doesn’t retreat from kindness, finding it too difficult or too much of a hassle. It threatens her pretty and neat little life with something unpredictable. She married rich; she sits around all day doing nothing and congratulating herself for it. She can’t be bothered with actual work — not even in relationships.

So, here she is, cast penniless into the world, forced to rely on the very people she pushed away. She finds work step by step after she’s exhausted every avenue by which she might stall significant changes in her life. For every job she takes, she is underqualified in skill and overqualified in ego. She figures she’ll take a single Internet class and emerge an immediate success in the world at large.

But she doesn’t even know how to interact with her fellow humans. Blue Jasmine is First World Problems: The Motion Picture. And Jasmine hasn’t the first clue about context. She rails endlessly about her newfound problems to people who’ve experienced them forever. Some of them haven’t even experienced the upside of those problems to be able to complain about them. And yet, she rambles. Somehow, she’s destitute, and nevertheless, she manages to misunderstand completely what it is not to have money — what it is to work and worry and not lie in luxury’s lap all day.

Of course, Cate Blanchett is brilliant in the part. Every emotion Jasmine experiences is filtered through her environment. Around some people, she experiences them more dramatically, to ensure that everyone understands how hurt she is, but she measures it so that her complaints seem strong somehow. Around others, she must play her old role — happy, dignified, artful arm candy to impress the bosses and bigwigs. Alone, there’s actual suffering there. This part is a performance within a performance within a performance. There’s a lot of nuance there to grasp, and if any of it fell flat, the movie would lose almost its entire center. It owes a lot to Blanchett.

At the same time, it is difficult to feel bad for this character. I suppose maybe we shouldn’t. Her suffering could not possibly have been more self-inflicted. Part of me wants to learn something from her example, though, and at least to latch onto that aforementioned sense of humanity that we often find in these awful and loathsome characters in the stories we tell. At a certain point, though, it begins to seem as if the movie hates Jasmine as well, and with a fiery passion. It’s not trying to feel what she’s feeling and try to find some reason for it and disseminate what revelations could be drawn from that. It’s trying to punish her.

The film gets plenty of laughs at her expense — or at least tries to. A few of them actually work. Others are too embarrassing to laugh at — embarrassing for the people she’s being inflicted on, I mean, rather than for her. Her head is much too high in the clouds for her to understand when her behavior ought to embarrass her. And then, there’s the other extreme — scenes that are so rife with pain that I realized only in retrospect that they were intended to be funny, that we are, in those scenes, meant to laugh at Jasmine for how ridiculous she is.

While she’s not likable on any level, it’s equally clear that this is an incredibly disturbed woman. She doesn’t just need to learn a few lessons and finally commit to some hard work; she needs to be institutionalized. The character we see in this movie is only a year or two and a few more downturns away from being a danger to herself. There are moments of her hysteria that can be amusing depending on how over-the-top they are, even though you remain cognizant of the fact that episodes like hers are not at all unheard-of in the mental health community. Then, there are moments that are more grounded panic attacks and flushes of intense anxiety and probable depression. I’m not sure if they’re funny or not, but the movie doesn’t seem bothered by their presence. For me, that struck far too close to home. I can’t overstate exactly what an awful person Jasmine is, but it’s hard for me to wish that on just about everyone.

In general, Blue Jasmine comes across as cynical. Every victory it gives you rides in astride a fresh new piece of awfulness. I haven’t yet decided what I took away from Ginger’s subplot — that we’re all fools in love? That all of us are equally insensitive to one another? That we’re all victims of our own stupidity who deserve to live in our filth? That we’re all trapped in unrelenting cycles that can only be broken when we…do something? I don’t know what; the film doesn’t specify.

I should take a step back here. Yes, Blue Jasmine is a bit of a muddle here and there. Or perhaps it isn’t, in which case, I simply object to some of what it’s doing. But it has a mastery over its tone, and it’s anchored by an incredible performance. And it does have some interesting things to say about class interaction, even as it gets uncomfortably close to some of the most challenging aspects of the human psyche and asks some pretty troubling questions.

 

-Matt T.

Prisoners (2013)

Starring- Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian

Director- Denis Villeneuve

R- disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpXfcTF6iVk

Hoo boy, I am not going to win any fans for this one.

Prisoners, 2013’s celebrated awards-caliber thriller, is not a bad movie. It is not a cynical cash grab. It has great merit in places. It has interesting ideas in others. It has apparently resonated with some very intelligent people.

And I am not one of them. Um, one of the people it resonated with, I mean. Not the very intelligent ones. I hope, anyway. You know what, let’s just do this review thing.

Neighbors Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are celebrating Thanksgiving together with their families when their two young daughters (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) vanish completely without a trace.

A strange RV was sighted in the area around the time of their disappearance. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is brought in for questioning and released after no evidence can be found to tie him to the crime — in addition to it being discovered that he has the IQ of a 10-year-old child.

The investigation, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has never in his entire career failed to solve a disappearance case, pursues other angles. But Keller is convinced that Alex is the culprit. And knowing that the police will do nothing further, Keller abducts the young man and locks him away in a derelict building — determined that he will make him talk or kill him trying.

Prisoners is not a bad film. There’s much to admire. Primarily, its greatest success is its stunning visual approach. Prisoners is immaculately directed; Denis Villeneuve knows when to pull back and build energy and, then, when to release it. His approach is patient, dark, and tense, and he fills his movie’s atmosphere with discomfort and fear.

Of course, as per the norm, cinematographer Roger Deakins is the real star of the show, and if he continues on his current course, he’s bound to end up setting some sort of record for Oscar nominations with no wins. Prisoners’ environment is bleak, gray, and shadowy, and in lesser hands, it would rapidly become dull, but Deakins makes every shot seem fresh and new. He finds the textures of trees and houses and grass and crumbling countryside roads. In his hands, the film has remarkable depth of field and a precise sense of geography. The musty and dark world of Prisoners seems to decay around — or perhaps alongside — its characters.

The cast, of course, is stellar as well. No one’s doing their best work here, but then again, no one’s getting their best part here either. They’re still at the tops of their respective games. Hugh Jackman, I think, is beginning to build a career solely on the fact that he has the most desperate, angry, and wounded eyes of any other actor currently working. Jake Gyllenhaal’s intensity helps save a relatively underwritten part that begins to function as a secondary protagonist past a certain point. Terrence Howard is the very picture of shaken and gutted decency. And the supporting players fill out the edges seamlessly — aside from, perhaps, the two little girls, who seem to have been given no script apart from “do little-girl things, and act natural.” Then again, their time on-screen is brief in the grand scheme.

But this script is troublesome.

I went into Prisoners knowing, more or less, where the critical consensus stood. I was aware that there was widespread agreement that it had a few semi-important flaws, and I even had a sense of what they were. But I approached it with relatively high expectations. I’m interested in films that explore topics like violence and necessity and the limits of self-defense. Moreover, though I should probably know better by now, I do have some taste for twisty-turny thrillers, and Prisoners, at the very least, promised to deliver on that.

And Prisoners is, to some extent, both of those things, and maybe that’s its problem. I’m given to suspect, though, that it means quite well and intends to convey a certain idea but simply lacks self-awareness and connects the dots of its complicated plot without realizing what they’re doing to the larger theme.

I am, of course, open to the possibility that I am completely off-base here. Prisoners is the type of movie that at least seems like it has a lot going on underneath the surface, so it’s possible there’s a larger point that I overlooked — for example, I still haven’t quite discerned the purpose of the film’s frequent forays into religious imagery and references.

To me, it seems as though it intends to be about the consequences of evil, or at least something along those lines. Despite that, though, the most concrete idea I can get out of it is: “Don’t torture people or behave violently, because you might have the wrong person.” Not even, “Don’t torture people or behave violently.”

Is it trying to psychologize the reasons for people’s violence? I suppose it’s possible. Keller Dover is hardly an ordinary person, though. He’s a stoic survivalist type who keeps a basement stocked with guns, first aid kits, and food supplies. It’s not terribly surprising that he’s capable of doing terrible things in order to protect “me and mine.” One of his first lines in the movie implies that he even knows this, on some level.

Others become involved in his scheme, but the movie does not delve deeply into their processes. We could chalk it up to desperation or perhaps weakness, and even then only broadly.

It might attempt to show the ways in which their actions destroy their souls; on this level, there is some success. Keller’s cohorts are shattered almost immediately, cognizant of what blood is on their hands — even as they in cowardice allow it to continue and accept that they will profit from it.

Keller himself has his moments, but the movie never gives them a chance to sink in, only to have him, briefly, recognize the irony of what he’s done and the reasons why he’s doing it.

For a time, I thought the movie was attempting to paint some parallels between his actions and those of Detective Loki, who is less dramatic in his wrongdoing but nevertheless treads into morally ambiguous territory — and is not always correct in the assumptions that led him there. But nothing, that I could see, ever really came of it. It gives the film a certain echo that does better tie it together as a piece of entertainment, but that’s about all it deos.

In truth, the real problem is that, if it is attempting to show the consequences of evil, it should probably have included a few more consequences. I don’t demand that movies explicitly punish the wrongdoing of its characters; that’s not how the world works, and good art doesn’t lie to us to make us feel better. But if indeed a story will paint an action as morally wrong, it should at least focus on the human cost or the societal responsibility or the personal harm — something. And if it cannot find any way to do so, then perhaps it’s arrived at a conclusion altogether different from what it hoped.

It’s here that Prisoners falters. Consequences come only by implication, and even then, only to one of the characters involved. Darkness befalls other characters, of course, but not as a direct result of what they personally have done. In fact, to my dismay (and it is my belief that the film didn’t realize it had done this), you could argue that the evil actions of the film’s characters do in fact bring about positive results. That could be another question in and of itself, but the film doesn’t seem to be asking it.

Really, Prisoners’ heart pumps with the blood of a simple thriller, and that may have been its undoing. It’s another in a long line of movies that, to their detriment, know what they are before their characters do. These films really should start with some sense of normalcy, not with an overtone of impending doom. The opening of Prisoners sets an extremely melodramatic tone that the movie takes a long time to fully recover from. Keller’s first lines in the movie are an unprompted and silly philosophical dissertation on survival that essentially lays bare exactly the type of person he is.

The ending brings it full circle. You know, for the entire running time, that there will be some final twist, and the true culprit will have been someone the audience didn’t expect, committing the crime for equally surprising reasons. At a certain point, this awareness overpowers the rest of the movie; you continue watching it not because you are particularly engaged but because you just know which of the myriad of options it will select for its conclusion.

I will admit that the final twist is not as stupid as I feared it would be — and there was a moment late in the game where I became very, very fearful. However, the movie keeps you watching solely for the surprise, so it’s something of a shame that the truth of the plot is not very hard to figure out. I’ve said it a thousand times — I am terrible at projecting plot points in movies like this. Despite that, I guessed at what was really happening fairly early on, and the only reason I wasn’t completely solidified in my guess was that it seemed too simple for a movie like this. Nevertheless, you still get your Scooby Doo ending with a final confrontation where the truth comes out and a villain explains for no reason how everything happened, and it’s the moment where the movie’s plays at realism finally collapse.

Prisoners is not a bad film. But it is a film that subjects its viewers to a lot of ugliness and disease and tries to say something about it without really doing so, all while setting its sights, perhaps unwisely, on broader entertainment. And for me, despite being a visual master-class, that just isn’t worth the effort.

 

-Matt T.

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Starring- Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director- James Ponsoldt

R- alcohol use, language and some sexuality — all involving teens

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

Between The Spectacular Now, Frances Ha, and The Kings of Summer — and those are just the ones I’ve seen — I’d say that 2013 has been a pretty fantastic year for movies about young people. But then again, what movies hasn’t this been a fantastic year for? Animation, maybe?

Either way, I’m glad that The Spectacular Now is continuing my favorite cinematic trend in a long time and is helping to establish 2013 as a year for the ages.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is your typical high school slacker: He parties hard, lives in the moment, drives fast, and studies not. He finds himself waking up in the middle of someone’s yard in an unfamiliar neighborhood after a particularly hard night of boozing brought about by a painful breakup.

He’s found there by Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a shy outcast who goes to his school. She gives him a ride back to civilization, but before he even steps out of the truck, it’s become something more than that.

I believe it was Roger Ebert who said that the best teen movies are the ones that keep making you think, “Yes — this is what it felt like.” And using that metric, The Spectacular Now is a resounding success.

It’s truly difficult to write these movies. You’re always doing it in retrospect, for one thing. If you’re choosing to write to the current generation, which is not your own, you’re forced to speculate and make difficult decisions about slang and fashion and culture. Of course, you could simply write your own experiences and not worry about making it modern. Even then, I think most of us remember our teen years with a sense of confusion. We know what we thought, and maybe we can even string together a semi-recognizable list of the reasons why, but we struggle to understand how such things were so important to us or why we couldn’t see our problems in the longer term or how all these issues became so magnified in our brains. I say there are two types of people: those who know they were stupid when they were teenagers and those who are stupid now.

The Spectacular Now taps into something incredibly universal. You could change its setting to nearly any point within the last fifty or sixty years and still come out with something familiar to most. Whether it’s reflective of your own experiences or simply what you observed around you, there’s something real and intimate and understanding about this film.

It never feels forced. That’s the key. It doesn’t have cute moments that aim chiefly for smiles and laughs. It doesn’t condescend with awful slang or thudding attempts at achieving coolness. Unlike a lot of other teen movies, it isn’t secretly pitched at kids who aren’t quite teenagers yet and who thus don’t know any better about what they’re seeing. It lets things play out as naturally as possible.

Here, we have a tale of young love. And it’s one of the few that one might describe as “sweetly awkward.” The Spectacular Now is tapped precisely into the strangeness of finding your way out of childhood and into the larger world — how unfamiliar it all seems, how weird, how occasionally uncomfortable.

These aren’t “cool” teenagers — neither in-universe nor in the way movies would ordinarily portray them. They’ve got only a limited idea of what they want. They don’t always understand the reasons behind what they’re feeling. They fail to interpret personal flaws as being exactly that and realize only after it’s too late that they are the own worst enemies.

The relationship between Sutter and Aimee is both adorable and immediately reminiscent, if not of your own first loves, then of all the hormonal awkwardness of everyone around you. Past a certain point, what happens between them isn’t dating anymore, if even it was ever that. It may be a juvenile and misguided version of it, but what they’re experiencing is some primitive form of love. They’re caught in the middle of that first relationship that isn’t just “hanging out.” They’re in the first one that means something.

In a way, it’s a good argument that the slackers and the overachievers of the world kind of need each other. Aimee’s smart and knows what she wants out of her life but shrugs it off because the expectations other people, particularly her family, place upon her. She needs the assertiveness of a socially fearless guy like Sutter, who, in turn, needs someone to give him some direction and force him to confront the underlying causes of his aimlessness. He talks her into actually taking steps to fulfill her dreams, and she helps give him some. They’re both products of broken homes, though for different reasons, and that’s the level on which they relate.

It’s all fumbling and awkward and sometimes a bit difficult to watch — at least if you’re someone like me, who gets vicariously embarrassed on other people’s behalf. But there’s something so genuine and well-observed at its core that it’s hard not to get swept up in it.

This has been some year for actors. I think my reviews over the last year have called so many performances Oscar-worthy that the phrase has now completely lost its meaning. I’m not being hyperbolic. Apparently, we all of a sudden figured out how to cast people in parts for which they’re perfect and then direct them perfectly. My point is that Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are both really fantastic here — Teller because he’s hilarious and likable and knows how to break down when he needs to and Woodley because she’s so detailed. The film never articulates it, but from the second we meet her, we know she’s watched Sutter from afar for a long time. This movie would’ve failed if either of these actors didn’t connect. But they do, and their chemistry together is precisely what it needs to be: reserved, quiet, warm, without fire and fury, and, of course, awkward as all get out.

Of course, it’s a coming of age story, too. In fact, that may be, in secret, what The Spectacular Now is actually about; you could make a strong argument that the love story is only there to advance that. The Spectacular Now builds its points with subtlety and grace. It establishes character information deftly, to the point that you’re not always aware you’re receiving it. It’s clear early on what Sutter’s real problem. The movie never directly articulates it or even, outside of extremely brief moments, shows us many of the symptoms of it. But you know, long before Sutter does.

When he starts chasing after his family history — searching for the father (Kyle Chandler) who abandoned him as a small child — we learn, gradually, the true nature of Sutter’s refusal to grow up. Teen slackers are no unfamiliar archetype in movies, but the reasoning behind it is usually overly simple: They just want to have fun. They’re just living in the moment. Usually, they turn out to be inspiring — free spirits who know how to live, man.

The Spectacular Now’s title is both literal and a touch ironic. Ultimately, Sutter is a deconstruction of this character type — someone who thinks he lives for the moment but in truth is just hiding from everything else. If the movie has a major flaw, I’d say it’s that it comes to this realization far too late in the game.

(If it has another major flaw, it would be its repeated attempts to convince us that Shailene Woodley is so unattractive that Sutter’s friends have no idea what he’s actually doing with her.)

But it has the good sense to draw it all to balanced conclusions, lacking in all-too-common sentimentality. Whether this love will last or not is beside the point, only that it was and that it was worth it.

 

-Matt T.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Starring- Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O’Reilly, Ariana Neal, Trestin George, Michael James, Marjorie Crump-Shears, Destiny Ekweme

Director- Ryan Coogler

R- some violence, language throughout and some drug use

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

On the day that this year’s Academy Awards nominations were finalized, we here discuss one of the also-rans: Fruitvale Station.

It shouldn’t have been.

On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) was shot by a BART officer in a subway station while allegedly resisting arrest for a fight that took place. The incident, which was recorded by dozens of onlookers, incited protests both peaceful and decidedly not. The officer was charged with murder but only convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

But what sort of man was Oscar? How did he spend his last day on Earth? More importantly, what sort of man might he have become?

That’s where Fruitvale Station comes in.

It’s a bit of a case study in not counting your chickens before they hatch, or perhaps in releasing your movie during awards season rather than mid-summer. A few months ago, not only was Fruitvale Station, to listen to most of the critical sphere, a lock for a Best Picture nomination, it was the movie to beat. Here we are now, January 2014, and Fruitvale Station not only missed the big prize, it failed to garner a single recognition in any category.

That’s not entirely fair. Fruitvale Station might not be a brilliant film, and maybe it only teeters on the edge of being a great one, but there are numerous great things about it, and it’s a remarkable debut for director Ryan Coogler.

Perhaps it suffered from the burden of its own praise. Fruitvale Station came hot on the heels of the George Zimmerman trial. Much of its awards buzz centered on its relevance — not a title it asked for or even could have. Maybe too many people went into it expecting direct commentary on that case. Maybe they expected that it would be “political” — whatever that means in this case, and I am somewhat afraid to explore that particular set of implications.

In truth, what I admire about Fruitvale Station is that it largely isn’t political, which is not to suggest that important social issues don’t interfere here and there as required. But there seems to be little resembling some overarching agenda. Fruitvale Station isn’t really about anything — anything other than Oscar Grant III, that is.

It seems, in perusing some reviews of this film, that those who dislike it generally accuse it of being unfocused. This is only true if you’re looking for a concrete political or moral agenda. It is very focused on its actual subject — Oscar Grant, a man of many virtues and many vices. He’s a muddle of unrealized potential and self-defeating tendencies.

He’s been in prison for dealing drugs. The first line of the movie establishes that he wants to get out of that business. Nevertheless, he keeps a bag of weed in his coat closet. “Just in case,” he might say. Somehow, his commitment seems genuine anyway. He’ll make money honestly if he can, but he has trouble holding down a job. When rent comes due, that bag starts to look tempting.

He’s a bit of a liar. It’s hard to say that it’s compulsive. It’s harder to say that he wants to hurt anyone. He’s a man, and he’s got an image to maintain, so he covers up his personal failings. He’s naively optimistic and assumes he can make all of them right before they cause trouble. Of course, they always do.

When he says that he loves his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), more than anything, he means it with all of his heart — especially his daughter, who seems to be his entire world. When he tells Sophina he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, it’s easy to believe him. Of course, this doesn’t stop him from straying occasionally. The movie drops us in the middle of a spat they’re having over a recent excursion with another woman. He’s also not above flirting with strangers in the grocery store.

He’s simultaneously an aggressive and gentle spirit. With those who mean him and have done him no harm, he’s warm and friendly. He’s great with children; his daughter adores him. Mostly, it’s that he doesn’t function well under pressure. He has a temper. When he’s angry, he loses control quickly. He’ll hit back as hard as he got hit.

He’s a contradiction, made up of conflicting mindsets both true and false, motivated both by love and self-interest, and seemingly not always capable of telling the difference. His old habits are dragging him backward into oblivion, but what positive qualities he has hint constantly at the man he could become — or rather, might’ve become.

Fruitvale Station shows us a single day of Oscar’s life — the last day. It’s a day full of big decisions, as he tries to make things right with Sophina, as he tries to raise his daughter, as he tries to get his job back, as he debates his New Year’s resolution not to sell drugs anymore, as he visits siblings in preparation for the celebration of his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday.

Michael B. Jordan brings him to life with detail and precision. It does my heart good to see more of the guys from Chronicle getting work. They all established themselves as exciting talents, and Jordan’s performance here does nothing to make me doubt that initial assessment. He might not have gotten nominated for the Oscar that some considered inevitable back in July, but he still captures perfectly the balance of his character’s warmth and his violence.

The supporting cast could not fill out the edges better. Melonie Diaz plays a tortured and skeptical character who is clearly beginning to dislike the fact that she loves Oscar — but she loves him nonetheless. Of course, Octavia Spencer is fantastic — better than she was in The Help, where her work earned her an Academy Award. She’s trying desperately to keep Oscar on the straight and narrow and clearly sees what he could become with a dose of wisdom. Spencer is an actress who could tell entire stories with her eyes; at any given moment, they contain palpable amounts of pain or worry or warmth.

When it all comes together, in a way, this movie is relevant to the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, though not in the sense that many awards prognosticators billed it — rather, it’s a very specific sense for a very specific type of person.

With cases like Oscar’s or Trayvon Martin’s or the young woman who was recently shot on a man’s front porch while seeking help after a car accident or even an incident in my own hometown not too long ago, there are people who debate the circumstances surrounding what happened and who was standing where and who felt like they needed to defend themselves and whether they went too far and whether or not that was justified.* And then, there’s the class of people to whom the circumstances of the event are irrelevant, who measure it in some grand “loss to society” system. These are the people who say, “He did drugs. It was no great loss. He had a criminal record. He deserved to die. He got a fight once. He was a thug.” As if one’s mistakes forfeit one’s right to life and foreclose one’s potential for growth or redemption. I heard it in all of those cases I just listed. I will hear it again in many others. Every time, it will make me sick to my stomach. It will make me sicker still that these are, in many cases, the same people who will, without hesitation and without the slightest sense of their own hypocrisy, take to the streets with placards denoting the inherent value of one’s life or sit in the pews of a church where they’ll worship a God who preached forgiveness, redemption, and love of one’s enemies.

It is with these people that Fruitvale Station takes issue. It’s not out to lionize Oscar Grant or to demonize the police. It’s out to make clear that his life was a life like any other, that he was a mixture of flaws and virtues like any one of us, that he was contradictory and complicated like any one of us. It shows us a man who might’ve found the light and become something greater. He might also have stayed trapped in the darkness and done nothing other than destroy relationships, break the law, and care only for himself. The point of Fruitvale Station is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a film that truly believes in the value of life and stands by it to the bitter end.

It isn’t perfect. For the most part, Oscar’s day plays out with a sense of normalcy, allowing the viewer to sometimes forget the end for which he’s headed, but every now and then, it plays a little too hard on the tragic irony — you can tell when any given scene is the last time he will hug his mother or play with his daughter or kiss his girlfriend; the movie doesn’t often let it escape you.

And as much as I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise, Fruitvale Station isn’t always one hundred percent honest with itself. It would be untrue to say that it saints Oscar — his flaws are readily on display throughout. But where it is required to speculate about his life and about the events that transpired that night at Fruitvale Station, it always goes for the softer option. We cannot know who started the fight or even if Oscar participated. The film assumes that someone else drew first blood. There’s the scene with the dog, which taps into a part of Oscar’s character we can’t really know existed. The same could be said of the scene on the beach. In Oscar’s final altercation with the police, the movie assumes that the reports in which the officers briefly beat him are the accurate ones. Of course, had the movie done the opposite, I could make the same accusation. Its goal is not to be retell historical events word-for-word but to take a single person’s tragedy and make it representative of all these events.

Its goal is to show us that there was a life there, composed of experiences, hopes, dreams, love, relationships, flaws, personal trials, good, and evil, and that because of what happened at Fruitvale Station, we will never know which might have won out.

And that, not Oscar Grant’s supposed guilt or innocence, is why it was a tragedy.

-Matt T.

* Though that is not to say that, in certain cases, unfortunate implications don’t arise out of this mindset now and then.

Turbo (2013)

Starring- Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Mike Bell

Director- David Soren

PG- some mild action and thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QULzGYRThH8

Performance-enhancing drugs, kids — they’re the only path to your dreams!

Okay, okay, that’s not the message of Turbo. But in terms of an action plan, I’m not sure what else you can take away from it. At the end of the day, the absolute best message I can apply to it is this: Hey, kids, if you want something badly enough, sit around and wait until it just happens!

Theo (voice of Ryan Reynolds) dreams of racing in the Indy 500. The problem is that he’s a garden snail. But when a random and rather inexplicable accident involving an illegal street race grants him super-speed, he falls in with a snail-racing ring (just go with it) on a trip to the big-time and, hopefully, fame and fortune.

Turbo has exactly the same problem as another recent film that doesn’t otherwise resemble it in the slightest: Captain America: The First Avenger. If getting superpowers will solve all of your character’s problems, subsequently giving him those superpowers will sort of do away with this whole “conflict” thing that we generally consider pretty important to telling a halfway decent story. (Note: This would not be the case if those superpowers had unintended consequences or something along those lines. This does not happen in Turbo.)

And so, Turbo is a movie that is wholesale absent of conflict. Theo, as a character, never, ever, ever has to actually work at anything in order to get what he wants. It all just falls in his lap. The superpowers happen randomly, which, to be fair, they usually do. He pretty immediately becomes an expert in their use. He doesn’t have to train with them. He doesn’t have to learn how to become faster. He doesn’t have to learn anything, really. The second half of the movie tries to fix its utter lack of conflict by starting him arguing with his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti). This argument should probably be balanced, and it seems like it’s going to be, if only because the movie has absolutely no idea what it’s about, but nope. Of course, everyone comes around; of course, everyone who teased or ostracized Turbo cheers for him in the end; of course, all his conflicts resolve themselves without him having to make amends or apologize or recognize the validity of someone else’s viewpoint. He doesn’t even have to reach out. Everyone comes to him.

He doesn’t have to search out the opportunity to race in the Indy 500. Purely by random luck, he and Chet get picked up by a member of what must be the world’s only snail-racing ring. His new friend and the members of his ring do all the work in getting him to the Indy 500, while he just sits there and waits to get on the track.

The only conflict the movie has at this point is temporary and in-the-moment. He’ll sidle up to the next hurdle he has to cross in order to race, and somebody will say, “A snail racing? Why I never!” Then, he’ll simply activate his superpowers, and that somebody will say, “A snail racing? Well, now, I no longer never!” And onto the next scene where Theo gets to prove everyone wrong through the power of magic.

It’s helpful, at least a little bit, that Theo isn’t unlikable or arrogant — just your usual goofy, wide-eyed misfit protagonist. But even for a character like that to randomly get everything he wants for absolutely no reason makes for something of a boring movie.

It’s clear that DreamWorks expected this to be a much bigger hit than it was. There’s an animated series coming to Netflix Kids that certainly must have been in production at the same time. It would also explain why the snail-racing ring introduces so many other racers, each with unique designs and bombastic personalities, who will definitely look great in toy form, despite the fact that they contribute basically nothing to the movie. Snoop Dogg voices one of them, lest you forget that this is a DreamWorks production. It would also explain why the ending, instead of really concluding the story, mostly maintains the status quo with only slight adjustments.

This year threw something of a wrench in my DreamWorks theory, as it seems that both of the studio’s projects in 2013 were meant to be good or at least to be big hits. Both Turbo and The Croods are extremely well-designed with vivid and detailed animation and a real sense of “place.” And I’ll give Turbo credit — it mostly looks great, and it has a couple of visually spectacular moments that, in all fairness, are as much because of the direction as the animation.

Moreover, it’s the kind of movie that’s fluffy and innocent enough that even if you can think of little to like about it, it’s hard to summon up the energy to feel too badly about it. It’s probably trying, in its own fundamentally misguided way.

Kids might like it. Maybe adults will, too. But I can’t recommend it, both because I think it’s a bad film and because 2013 gave us an extremely direct alternative that’s far superior in the form of Monsters University. It has the same follow-your-dreams message, handled in a much more realistic and even-handed way that emphasizes hard work and flexibility. It’s also just plain better, in my opinion.

So, some stellar visuals and a handful of amusing moments aside, you’re better off letting this one fall by the wayside.

 

-Matt T.