Archive for February, 2014

Enough Said (2013)

Starring- Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Tracey Fairaway, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Tavi Gevinson, Eve Hewson

Director- Nicole Holofcener

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

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

Sometimes, through no fault of its own, a movie gets saddled with a bigger legacy than it asked for, and whatever it intends to be on its own terms becomes secondary to that larger cultural event. Sometimes, that burden is too large for it.

Enough Said could’ve had it worse. Long term, it is not James Gandolfini’s last movie — that distinction will go to a film releasing later this year. Nevertheless, it is one of his last ones, and it was the one we were all watching in the wake of learning the news.

It benefited from that, in some ways. While it ultimately was not nominated for anything, the fact that it was ever in the Oscar conversation at all is probably in part due to that circumstance. But farther down the line, it’s hard to say.

On one hand, it’s the perfect role by which to remember James Gandolfini — which is to say that it’s one he didn’t usually play, but it’s one that, by all accounts, appears to be pretty close to the person the real man was.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to want more than a somewhat better than average rom-com.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a middle-aged divorcee on the verge of a midlife crisis as her only daughter (Tracey Fairaway) prepares to head off to college. One night, while at a party with friends, she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), a man about the same age as her to whom she is not initially attracted. But he’s warm and funny, and they hit it off, bonding over their shared circumstances — they’re both in their late 40s/early 50s, divorced, and have only one child entering adulthood and leaving them.

At that same party, Eva — a masseuse — also met and picked up a new client, Marianne (Catherine Keener). After a few weeks of getting to know each other, they begin to become friends.

And it’s only when she’s been involved in both relationships for a few months that Eva puts two and two together and realizes that friendly, likable Albert is the loathed ex-husband Marianne is always talking about.

I don’t really think anyone can be too surprised about what Enough Said is. A rom-com for older adults, with dashes of humor and sadness in exactly the right amounts and in exactly the places you’d expect them to show up. It follows the typical formula — from Meet Cute to awkward early relationship to warm comfort to problems emerging to soft rock montage of sadness to predictable ending. Even its title comes from the usual rom-com grab bag of popular sayings and plays on words that don’t have anything in particular to do with what the movie’s actually about.

I guess what Enough Said benefits from is being a rom-com with brains. At least, a little bit. There are no major forays into wackiness; the comedy is mostly pretty grounded and comes from the wit and the recognizable human behaviors of its characters. It allows the chemistry between Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus to flow with a sense of comfort and gradual bonding rather than heated passion. The dialogue is mostly pretty strong. Most importantly, the characters don’t conform to type quite as easily as in most movies like this. Particularly, their personalities don’t seem to have been written solely to gender stereotypes — there are no pop-music-infused shopping montages for the women, nor are the men perfect princes. There isn’t much noticeable wish fulfillment going on here.

James Gandolfini is, of course, quite good. He spent most of his career playing criminals, but those who worked with him frequently said what a likable, outgoing, nice, and funny guy he was. So, it’s good that his last role allows him to play exactly that sort of person. Now, we have that cultural image that reflects something inside of him. The character isn’t perfect, of course, but he is very charming, and regardless of how the attempt comes across, he only ever means well.

There was a small — and ultimately fruitless — Oscar campaign for Julia Louis-Dreyfus that I figured going into this movie was probably BS, but coming out the other side…it wasn’t entirely. Her lack of recognition isn’t one of the great awards oversights or anything, but she actually is really good in this. This part would tend so easily into histrionics, but she’s smart enough to pull it back. And it hits hard once the movie finally does get to the big emotions.

All in all, at the very least, Enough Said accomplishes the essential purpose of any rom-com — it makes you, completely regardless of what your brain says about whether or not this relationship has a chance of working, want to see these two characters end up together.

It’s the comedic twist that holds it back — that little bit of relational coincidence that rom-coms tend to feed off of it. Those moments are to these movies what fancy new technologies are to science fiction. Enough Said would probably be a much better movie if it was just these two characters meeting, bonding over their struggles in navigating the new stage of life in which they both find themselves, and going from there. It doesn’t need the big reveal.

And it especially doesn’t need the obnoxious storyline that reveal sets in motion. You know the one — a character lies to multiple different people, and those lies compound, and they keep lying anyway, and everything gets worse and worse until everybody finds out, and then everybody mopes around for a while, and then there are cheerful apologies, and then blaaaaaaargh. I have seen this exact setup too many times, and I simply cannot get emotionally invested in it. It’s just a hurdle I have to push through in order to get to the parts of the movie that are actually good.

So, Enough Said definitely isn’t great, and I don’t think that would be disappointing or surprising to anyone if it had released as planned. But here we are. Fortunately, what we have is something that’s still quite likable — and mostly watchable, too, when it’s doing its own thing and not walking in lockstep with the usual formula. There’s a better movie in there that you kind of wish got carved out. But it highlights James Gandolfini’s talents in something of a fresh way, and there are worse notes on which to end.

R.I.P., Mr. Gandolfini.

 

-Matt T.

Wadjda (2013)

Starring- Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf, Alanoud Sajini, Rafa Al Sanea, Dana Abdullilah, Rehab Ahmed

Director- Haifaa Al-Mansour

PG- thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3koigluYOH0

Wadjda may not be the best film of the year, but I’m thrilled that it exists, I’m thrilled that it’s met with the support that it has, and I’m thrilled that, all that aside, it’s still really, really good.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a little girl who lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in Saudi Arabia. Her parents and teachers, asked to describe her personality, would likely choose the word “difficult.”

She’s rowdy, loud, and incredibly assertive. By choice, she wears ratty old sneakers everywhere she goes — and, when at home, jeans and a T-shirt. In her rush to get where she’s going, she regularly forgoes the headscarf and isn’t particularly troubled by it. She listens to American rock music. And her best friend is a boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), whom she happily pushes around and competes again.

It’s that competitive spirit that, one day, makes her decide that the thing she wants most in the world is her very own bicycle — so that she can beat him in a race. Of course, her culture sees bikes as a threat to a woman’s health and virtue, so her mother won’t give her the money to buy one. So, Wadjda sets off to raise it herself — by winning the Koran recitation competition at her school.

I love that this movie exists. I know that has next to nothing to do with how good it actually is, but if I’m going to talk about how happy this movie made me, I have to cover this.

First off, it was produced exclusively in Saudi Arabia, which has no film industry to speak of and, thus, not a lot of support for its burgeoning artists. One would assume it has even less for writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour, on account of that whole “being a woman” thing. She appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart not too long ago, and I recall, in that interview, her saying that in order to make the movie, she had to sit in a van the whole time, watching the production on a separate screen, giving instructions to the cast and crew through a radio.

But she made it. And not only is it good, it manages to be a very slyly feminist sort of work — the most powerful kind, too, i.e., not a heavy-handed Message Movie battering its viewers with overt argument (though, in this case, I can safely say it would have every reason to be), but one that wins its audience over subtly, gradually bringing them over to its characters’ side emotionally, keeping them, in many cases, unaware that their worldview is under attack. And that might not change the minds of many adults… But I wonder if there are Saudia Arabian children who will grow up on this movie.

All that’s great, but here’s the best part — it was made in Saudi Arabia, which has no real film industry; it was helmed by a woman; its cast is predominantly female; its message is very sneakily feminist; and, despite all that, the Saudia Arabian government not only has approved of it, it ordained to make it the nation’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

Storytelling matters, people. This is the last proof anybody should need.

And it’s such a good movie. It’s a charming and sweet story that isn’t afraid to indulge in harsher realities now and then. In fact, it’s potentially a great way to introduce older children to foreign films — it is, at its heart, a family film, and a much better one than the usual.

And while I know that foreign movies have rarely, if ever, featured star-making performances for unknown actors — America, can we please, please, please let Waad Mohammed be in more things? This kid is extremely talented and absolutely adorable, and I think Wadjda is one of my favorite new characters of the year. It’s hard not to like her — she’s so determined to do her own thing. Her private rebellion isn’t cultural or systematic; she scarcely seems aware of why people keep forcing her to wear these strange clothes and do these strange things, which is, of course, why she resists it, as any child like her would. She just wants to do what she wants to do and as yet isn’t capable of placing that in a larger context. She doesn’t want a bike because she hates her nation or teachers; she doesn’t even seem to hate her religion. She wants a bike because she wants a bike, dangit.

I think a lot of people are going to criticize this movie for being about “small” things — Wadjda can’t have a bike, she gets chewed out for laughing really loudly in public, her classmates get in trouble for painting their toenails, etc. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t occasionally involve something a little larger — there’s one particularly distressing scene when one of Wadjda’s young classmates is married off by her parents to an adult man, and all the girls sit around her asking her about the wedding and joking and wanting to see pictures like little girls would. It’s a totally normal interaction between small children, set off by something far in advance of their actual maturity.

But mostly, it’s those little things. I think some people might call it silly for focusing on such trivial matters. But not only do I not think it’s a problem with the movie, I think it’s possibly its greatest strength. Because oppression often is the little things.

I’m not saying it isn’t important to focus on the major factors in oppression. If we never focused on them, it’s possible we’d lose that sense of immediacy. It’s possible we’d never summon up the full compassion to do something. But most of the stories we tell about that subject do focus on the big things.

And I think that if that’s the only lens through which society sees oppressive behavior — if the only stories they’re told about slavery are the ones where people are beaten to death, if the only stories they’re told about misogyny are the ones where people are raped, if the only stories they’re told about sexual orientation are the ones where someone sets a gay bar on fire — problems emerge. On one hand — and we see this everywhere — you have people retroactively justifying these institutions by saying, “Well, things like that did happen, and that was wrong. But mostly, it wasn’t that bad.” I mean, how often in modern discourse do we hear the words: “To be fair, many masters were actually quite kind to their slaves”? Much too often, by my count.

On the other hand, we have an even worse problem — people for whom the message is not: “This is oppression, and it is wrong; don’t do it.” People for whom the message is actually: “Feel free to oppress; just don’t let is slide into big things.” People who say, “Yes, this is rather arbitrary and favors the group to which I happen to belong for no logically or politically established reason, but all we’re asking those people over there to do is this and this and this, and it’s not really that hard, so I’m a good person.”

I love Wadjda because it knows those are lies evil tells itself so it can feel like good.

Because it is the small things. Those things influence us more than we know. It’s the build-ups of all these little musts and must-nots that are one person’s burden to suffer and no one else’s — and for the innate, in many cases unchangeable characteristics of that person’s identity.

Wadjda doesn’t fully understand what goes on around her, but she suffers. “Fun” is off-limits for her. If she hears something funny, she can’t laugh. She must be subservient to the men around her. She can’t do what they do, like roughhouse or ride a bike. Her assertiveness and extroversion are bad habits that she must change. When she’s older, her friendship with Abdullah is going to become suspect, and their society is likely to force them apart. If a man appears while she is doing something, no matter what it is, she must go somewhere else in order to be viewed in a positive light among her peers and mentors. Her dirty sneakers and tendency to personalize everything she wears are a problem. She has no interest in doing so, but if she wanted to dye her hair or paint her nails, her teachers would punish her, and her friends would isolate her.

Most of that’s pretty small — and even when it isn’t, well, she can just choose to do the culturally acceptable things instead. It’s not really asking for that much, right?

But her identity — her ability to be what she is, to pursue whatever interests her, to become her own person — is subjected entirely to outside forces. And over time, particularly during one’s formative years, that builds. That becomes a cage that tightens with every passing day and drives people to insanity. Make no mistake — it builds, and it becomes agonizing. And this is not just a lesson reserved for the men of Saudi Arabia with regard to how they treat their women; it isn’t even solely a message about gender politics. It’s much more universal than that — and believe me, I see versions of it happening in the United States of America, too.

Don’t get me wrong; Wadjda isn’t some raw and aching production of misery and desolation. It’s fundamentally hopeful, for one thing — so am I. I think it believes that the trajectory of humanity, in terms of a millennia-spanning arc, is forward, toward something better, which, of course, does not mean we should allow injustice to continue unabated. But moreover, Wadjda is good-humored, kind, entertaining, and very much a family film. If anything, that makes it more powerful — we see this wonderfully free-spirited character and fall in love with her, all the while knowing that as she grows older, the walls are going to close in on her, and people will hurt her for that free-spiritedness. On the other hand, perhaps she’ll flourish and become a force for change.

And hopefully, Wadjda the film will be a stepping-stone for the same.

 

-Matt T.

All Is Lost (2013)

Starring- Robert Redford

Director- J.C. Chandor

PG-13- brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk_R04LfUQU

Robert Redford, a boat, and the great blue expanse. And go.

All Is Lost might not be the best movie of the year — at least, not by my estimation. But if we evaluated cinematic greatness as a ratio of input quantity to output quality, it’s definitely up there.

All we have is a man — Our Man (Robert Redford), as he is credited. He’s sailing alone. And that’s nearly everything we can know about him for certain. The first time we see him, he’s awakening below the deck to the sound of a loud crash and the discovery that his vessel now carries a gaping hole — above the waterline, but not safely so. It’s an accident that soon escalates and brings about unforeseen consequences as a violent storm bears down down upon our singular man, who now must face Earth’s deadliest environment completely alone.

All Is Lost has been called Gravity at Sea, and that’s fair. It’s remarkable that in one year, we got two such similar films, each one with a different dangerous setting, be it space or the ocean, each one having an extremely limited cast with only one figure carrying the story for most of its length, each one, to an extent, charting a similar thematic course. But Gravity is complicated and detailed compared to this.

Robert Redford is the only credit listed above for a reason — he’s the only human being who so much as walks in front of the camera throughout the entirety of All Is Lost. At least Sandra Bullock had George Clooney to talk to for a little while. And that’s the second important difference — because of his solitude, there is barely any dialogue in All Is Lost. There is the opening scene, where Our Man narrates a letter he is writing, presumably to his family. There is a scene where he attempts, with no success, to reach someone by radio contact. There is a moment of desperation where he shouts profanities into the sky. And that, essentially, is it.

The story begins on the boat and takes place entirely at sea. No other characters wander into the story of Our Man. Where it ends, I will not say. Our Man has no one to speak to, so he cannot reveal details of his past. He cannot, through his interactions with others, show us in particular detail the sort of person he is. What we can know about him comes through his reactions to the particular situation that he faces. He is clearly a man of some wealth, to own a boat like this and to sail as what appears to be a simple hobby. These facts combined with his age suggest that he is perhaps retired, to partake in so long a journey. He is extremely intelligent and resourceful and certainly knows his science better than the average person as well. It’s also apparent that, even if he’s not a professional, he’s no amateur in his adventures at sea. He goes about his business and tends to his ship with a practiced hand and the steady confidence of a man who has no doubts about what he’s doing. And we know, from the letter he reads at the beginning of the film, that whatever his faults are, he feels as though he has failed his family in some way and not been the person that he should have been.

And it’s amazing, with so little opportunity to expand upon this character, the extent to which All Is Lost gets you on his side. He’s the ultimate audience stand-in — a man whose name we don’t know, who could be just about anybody for all that we truly know about him, whose survival becomes of the utmost importance to us as people sharing, distantly, in his ordeal.

On a more technical level, like Gravity, All Is Lost is a visual masterclass — though, obviously, in a much different sense. Gravity took on an environment that, for filmmakers, is currently inaccessible, and it had to innovate with its effects and its camerawork to make its otherwordly setting feel like a place as real as the theater in which you’re watching it. All Is Lost, on the other hand, appears frame-by-frame to be almost entirely real. There are certain scenes that likely had to be recreated with a physical reconstruction on a soundstage somewhere, but there’s little if any CGI trickery going on, and everything else appears to be the real deal — a real ship, a real ocean, a real place. And having lost that need to innovate, All Is Lost falls back on the sum total of our cinematic knowledge to create something that is familiar but immaculate, with beautiful cinematography and patient editing and motion. There are moments when it’s quiet and must make Redford its focus, and there are moments when all the forces of nature bear down and the film must become a thing of disorientation and terror.

At its heart, of course, All Is Lost is pure performance piece, a showcase for the many talents of Robert Redford, who, in truth, is likely the reason this movie works at all. The 31-page script leaves him, deliberately, with a complete blank slate, and he has to fill the character from the ground up. And he does a marvelous job, turning in a performance that has been maddeningly unrecognized. Our Man goes from a sense of relative normalcy to shock to steadfastly going about his business and planning around the problem in which he finds himself to experiencing that first twinge of fear that he might not make it out alive and, finally, to desperation. Redford has to get all that across with almost no dialogue and very few excuses to do anything other than stare off into space and busy himself with the hard work of survival.

Perhaps the simplicity of All Is Lost does become something of a double-edged sword. Naturally, there are numerous scenes that consist of little more than Robert Redford pulling on ropes and working with tools. My mind tended to wander a bit. Of course, I’m aware that the movie needs these scenes, that it wouldn’t have worked if it had simply jumped from one dramatic event to another. This is a problem that inhibits it in the moment but builds everything up for the moments in which it really grabs you.

It also doesn’t have much of an opportunity to truly be about much of anything — anything other than survival. There is a sense that Our Man must learn to face death with dignity or to make peace with what he’s been in life, developed more through suggestion than through in-depth exploration. In addition, director J.C. Chandor’s previous feature — his debut as well — was Margin Call, so he definitely has an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy and powerful and in economic issues. In that context — and in light of the amount of focus given to it within the film — the means by which Our Man’s vessel comes to be damaged is probably no coincidence. Our Man is a beneficiary of a system whose excesses now find him stranded, alone, able to count on help from no one but himself. But this is an aside on the film’s part, if indeed it is even that.

But this is largely meaningless in the grand scheme. All Is Lost is harrowing and beautifully made, a simple and unpretentious picture that captures the human survival instinct at its best and worst and weaves it into something dark and disturbing yet somehow satisfying and — most importantly — moving.

-Matt T.

Ender’s Game (2013)

Starring- Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Khylin Rhambo, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Nonso Anozie, Conor Carroll

Director- Gavin Hood

PG-13- some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP0cUBi4hwE

As a standalone film, Ender’s Game is reasonably entertaining and more or less a fun way to spend a little less than two hours. But I suspect that when I’m discussing it with people who are new to this story, I’ll be answering a lot of questions the same way: “Well, you have to have read the book.”

And that’s a problem.

In the future, Earth is attacked by an alien race, the Formics (smaaaaaaaart move on that one, movie). The invaders are narrowly defeated and driven back into their own space. Following the attack, the nations of Earth united and spent countless resources on preparing to hit the Formics where they live. As part of this, they formed the International Fleet and the Battle School, which identifies and trains genius children in the defense of their home.

Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one such child. But when he arrives at the Battle School, it soon becomes clear that its commander — Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) — as much bigger plans for him.

Ender’s Game is one of those books that’s revered enough that my initial entry into any conversation about it, despite the fact that I like it a lot, ends up being that I think it’s kind of overrated. Orson Scott Card’s writing is really straightforward and scientific, with so little poetry or in-depth description that it almost starts to feel indifferent. And I also come down on the side of the fence that his children don’t behave even remotely like children — which is, of course, the point, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bridge too far.

Where it soars is that it’s intensely psychological, which is the reason so many people considered it unfilmable. It takes place almost exclusively inside Ender’s head, focusing on what’s happening there, describing everything else in only vague terms. Something happens, and the book immediately details Ender’s thought process until it leads to him learning something and changing.

So, naturally, the main obstacle that a film adaptation would need to overcome — and I don’t think it would be quite as impossible as everyone else says — is the fact that the story is so internal. It would have to find a way to externalize Ender’s character development and show how he responds to everything that happens to him.

How it goes about this is a mixed bag.

There are moments where he essentially says it out loud, which works well enough when there’s sufficient visual evidence to support it. There also are the scant moments where the movie finds some way to suggest it.

But the main issue with Ender’s Game is that it seems to treat storytelling as a straightforward series of objective information conveyed visually — information that can be changed so long as it doesn’t sufficiently alter later information. It doesn’t quite seem to understand that scenes are not simply “facts of a story” — they carry an emotional weight that grows and changes the characters and informs who they are and also, as a result, engages the audience on a deeper level.

The book was really good at this, and I suspect that’s why it’s managed to stick around a few decades after its initial publication. In the book, Battle School was challenging. It was a series of tests, physical and mental, designed to grow its subjects into battle-ready warriors — or otherwise break them. In the movie, it seems more like the military entrance exam — you either show up and pass it with flying colors or just plain fail. Ender is significantly more talented than the other students, as in the book, but he still learned in the school and struggled to deal with all of the egotistical militants being taught alongside him. Here, everything comes to him almost comically easily. He doesn’t even have to think about the situations and observe them at length as he does in the book. And his fellow students hardly seem dangerous — most of them are friendly, or become friendly later on. He has to work to earn their friendship as in the book, but here, it’s all of one scene — make a funny joke about a bully publicly and everyone will instantly be your friend, apparently. The only student who is consistently a threat to Ender is badly miscast in the form of Moises Arias, he does good enough work with the part but can do nothing about the fact that he’s 5-foot-nothing and 120 pounds generously speaking.

It pays lip service to a lot of things Ender should be experiencing but isn’t, so far as we can tell. His instructors isolate him as in the book, to teach him that he can rely only on himself. In the book, he learned this, and soon after began to rally supporters to his side. The movie, on the other hand, repurposes Bean (Aramis Knight) as a friend for Ender right off the bat, which undermines this a bit, as does the fact that Ender wins over his first team pretty much immediately. Therefore, the psychological effect that this has on Ender in the book is completely negated. There’s brief attention paid to Ender’s realization that other teams of students are not the enemy — the instructors are — but in the movie, this means nothing and doesn’t inform Ender’s character any further than being a rant he goes on in a moment of uncertainty. The game that seems to supply the story’s title — the trippy video game that is a prominent subject in the novel — gets all of two scenes here, and only for the purpose of setting up some imagery that will be important to the information that will be delivered later on. In the book, the school blocks Ender’s messages to his family but doesn’t tell him about this, using it to drive him apart from them, compounded later on when they use his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), to manipulate him. In the movie, they immediately tell him that his messages are being blocked, so he knows why his sister isn’t answering him. The movie also has basically no understanding of what the instructors’ purpose was in resurrecting Dragon Army. It certainly wasn’t the easy, friendly affair we see in the movie.

Then, you have Ender’s empathy — his defining characteristic. The movie sure does tell us about it a lot, but we see exactly none of it. The film doesn’t give a particularly good sense of why the International Fleet is training up children for this purpose rather adults; more damningly, it only gives the vaguest sense of why it specifically needs Ender. He’s here to learn how to defeat the Formics by understanding how they think, which is why his empathy is key — but, in the movie, when does he ever actually learn this?

And that, of course, leads to the book’s stellar ending — that ending that dismantles its own author’s worldview in so detailed and purposeful a way that Card certainly must have compartmentalization superpowers — being badly undersold here. It relies on Ender making decisions that the story simply hasn’t bothered to justify. And it does it quickly, too, bothering not at all with the politics or the possibility of human expansion and not even mentioning the Speaker for the Dead subplot, which, in the book, is heavyhanded but kind of beautiful anyway.

I’m a bit more mixed on other changes. The main one, obviously, is that the characters in the movie are teenagers, whereas in the book, they were children between six and 12 years old. This was periodically silly in the book, as the kids acted so little like kids that imagining them as such was laughable; making them teenagers grounds it a little bit. It’s also probable that the acting would be significantly worse if eight-year-olds were cast in every part.

At the same time, the book had a sense of brutality that’s mostly missing in the movie. It had a real sense of these kids’ minds being warped, of them being turned into hardened killers smart enough to be dangers not only to themselves but to adults. That they were children sharpened the shock over seeing them discuss and commit such acts. They’re young teenagers in the movie but not that much younger than the people we train for real-life wars, so it’s not quite as distressing. And all of the students are far too reasonable. They get along too well and don’t seem like they’re constantly jostling for social power in a school where everyone’s a potential murderer.

I should also mention — and I understand that this reference will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book — that the Demosthenes and Locke subplot has been excised completely. On one hand, that comes as a relief — the subplot wherein Valentine and Ender’s older brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) take over the world through the power of Internet trolling was handily the dumbest thing in the book.

On the other hand, removing it means the movie loses that complicated sibling dynamic — Peter, the murderous one; Valentine, the endlessly compassionate one; and Ender, somewhere in the middle; all working toward a common goal while striving desperately not to become one another, fearing that they have, and eventually, to some extent, succumbing. That drives a lot of what Ender does in Battle School and how he reacts to it — his constant fear that he will become Peter, who is clearly evil. The movie, once again, pays lip service to it and otherwise pays it no heed. Peter is only in one scene, which establishes that he’s a bit aggressive, as older siblings often are, but does nothing to show the full extent of it.

I don’t like to compare movies too heavily to their source material, but nevertheless, anything that borrows all of the same elements and places them into the same context but doesn’t understand how they work has a serious problem. Any book-to-film adaptation is going to need some streamlining, but it’s all in how you do it. Some, like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, manage to get across what they need to efficiently. Others, like Ender’s Game, simply cut what they need to while making sure to keep all the information the audience needs to follow the literal events without attending to the necessary emotional engagement that must be beneath them.

Fortunately, Ender’s Game has a strong pool of characters from which to draw, and it has a solid cast as well. It’s fun to watch the team come together and wage some visually interesting, if regularly disorienting, training battles, whether in personal combat or in fleet simulators. It’s also great that the movie doesn’t overblow the action. There wasn’t much of it in the book, and nearly all of it was simulated — this is a story of a kid in a sci-fi boot camp, not a heart-pumping actioner — and the movie doesn’t make any of it larger or longer than it particularly needs to be. That’s a rare level of restraint in the current atmosphere. And the message is still a good one, even though it comes across awkwardly.

Ender’s Game is a fun movie, but it could’ve been a lot more than that.

-Matt T.

In a World… (2013)

Starring- Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Michaela Watkins, Geena Davis, Stephanie Allyne

Director- Lake Bell

R- language including some sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZHBjLFu5is

My personal taste covers a pretty broad spectrum, and my reviewing habits stretch even further, but I think most of what I see in a year could be categorized thusly: mainstream blockbusters, awards movies, and independent films.

And each category has that one subgenre that constitutes the majority of its ouput at any given time. Entries in that subgenre usually aren’t bad; in many cases, they can be quite good. But there’s just so much of it that, at a certain point, it all starts to blend together, and the average entry in that subgenre doesn’t provoke anything more than a mild sense of like or dislike.

Right now, with mainstream blockbusters, that’s superhero movies. With awards movies, that’s anything about historical figures and/or important tragedies. And with independent films, that’s indie comedies.

And so, that’s kind of where I am with In a World…. I see a lot of indie comedies in a year, and I think I’m finally starting to hit burnout. It’s a good enough movie, an essentially likable piece of work. But it isn’t really a significant cut above everything else in this somewhat crowded genre, and it doesn’t do a whole lot to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack.

It follows Carol Solomon (Lake Bell), the daughter of Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), the current go-to guy for movie trailer voiceovers. Carol is a freelance vocal instructor, but she dreams of following in his footsteps and becoming one of the rare female voices in the business.

So, she puts herself out there and ends up in direct competition with a number of established voices — including her father, who’s not particularly open to change in this industry.

Not only is this an indie comedy, it’s an indie comedy about a late-20s/early-30s loser with halfhearted ambitions and no steady job who clings to family members and friends who enable her not to become somebody or to assume something resembling responsibility. Then again, since nearly all indie comedies are about exactly that, maybe it’s redundant to make that specification.

With In a World…, I’m left, once again, in that weird position where I don’t really have much of anything to say about it, and I don’t have a lot of interest in what I do have to say about it. But to write this quick, undercooked review feels like a disservice in light of the fact that this movie actually is pretty good.

Carol is written well enough, even if she doesn’t represent anything particularly new as a protagonist — the snarky, socially oblivious wreck whose friends practically have a guest room set aside for the nights when she shows up hammered on their doorstep. She’s a nice person, but aside from throwing audition tapes at people, she doesn’t have any process that includes “hard work” and “not doing everything you want all the time.” She just wanders around, randomly collecting sound bites from everyone she meets so she can study their accents. She’s witty and amusing, which I suppose is good enough for the purposes of a comedy.

The film as a whole functions less on jokes and more on awkward energy, and it maintains that fairly well for the duration. It’s not particularly quotable, and you won’t leave it talking about your favorite parts, but it is entertaining.

The supporting cast is solid, featuring a lot of character actors in interesting and memorable bit parts. I’m not entirely sure why nearly every character in this gets a subplot of some sort, but none of them fall flat, so it’s hard to get upset about it.

And on top of all that, In a World… does have a handful of interesting things to say about a handful of topics, ranging from deception, inattention, and temptation in our relationships to the gender politics of the film industry. On the latter point, I like that it understands that every victory is short-lived — once you’ve made it to Hollywood, the battle for equality is far from over. If you get the part, it’s not on your own merit but for the political statement, and every interview question you’re asked won’t be about the role that you played but what that role means for feminism and women in general. I remember Joss Whedon was once asked why he always writes such strong female characters into his stories; he answered, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

But again, In a World… is nothing new or particularly groundbreaking, though it is a solid directorial debut for Lake Bell. It’s amusing enough for a single viewing, but it dies in the memory almost immediately. In terms of its characters, story, tone, and sense of humor, it’s all been done before — and it’s all been done a lot. It’s easy to like it but difficult to really be interested in it.

In a world full of movies just like it, In a World… just plain fails to stand out.

 

-Matt T.

The LEGO Movie (2014)

Starring- Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Liam Neeson, Channing Tatum, Cobie Smulders, Jonah Hill

Directors- Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

PG- mild action and rude humor

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

I have so many observations that I could’ve used to start this review, and I couldn’t choose between them, so instead, I’m just going to use them all:

• I’m pretty sure this is the strongest movie that’s ever kicked off a year in reviews since I’ve been doing this site.

• I’m pretty sure this is the most positive I’ve ever been about a movie that hit theaters in February.

• I’m pretty sure, unless something really spectacular happens between now and 2015, that this is the earliest a year’s Best Animated Feature race has ever begun and ended.

And most importantly: These guys, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, they’re no fluke. They’re our new studio guys who will take whatever old franchise reboot or kids’ book adaptation is given to them and love it like it’s their own creation, bringing it to the screen in a way that’s both hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt.

The LEGO Movie had every excuse to be terrible. No one’s under any illusions; this got made to grab a quick buck off of the parents of young children and to sell toys after the fact. But in Lord and Miller’s hands, it became something more — something fun and funny and unexpectedly substantial. Moreover, it radiates a love of creation, imagination, and childlike wonder. I don’t get to say this often: This movie is going to stand the test of time. Twenty years from now, the kids who went to the movies this weekend will be sharing this with their own children.

So, what’s the story? Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is an ordinary LEGO minifigure — perhaps even more so than everyone else, a total blank slate who follows his book of instructions to the letter and contributes nothing new to anything. He watches the same insipid sitcom as everyone else. He loves the same hit song, “Everything Is Awesome.” He cheerfully goes through the motions day in and day out, in his personal life and at the construction site when he works.

It’s at that construction site that, one day, he stumbles into a magical artifact — The Piece of Resistance — and immediately becomes of interest to the world’s ruler, President Business (Will Ferrell), an order and conformity fanatic who is in the process of destroying the world so everyone will stop “messing with his stuff.”

Emmet is rescued by members of the resistance — Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) — who believe him to be a prophesied hero, The Special, who will end President Business’s reign of terror and open the roads between all the different LEGO worlds once more.

So, teaming up with robot-pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), the perpetually cheerful Unikitty (Alison Brie), spaceman Benny (Charlie Day), and Batman (Will Arnett), among other Master Builders, Emmett hatches a plan to destroy President Business’s superweapon — even though he’s scarcely ever had an original thought.

The LEGO Movie works on so many different levels that I don’t even know where to begin. I could start with the comedy, which is perhaps a touch less effective than in previous Lord/Miller productions, but which is still funnier than most movies by a considerable margin. You don’t go long in this movie without at least a little giggle — and more frequently, it’s a big laugh. It’s hard to narrow down favorite parts, but if I must, watch for the ending, Emmett pretending to be a stool, Liam Neeson’s Bad Cop launching into a storm of PG-rated profanity, Benny’s spaceship obsession, and — above all else — Batman’s subwoofers. Actually, just Batman in general.

I could also get into the visuals, which go far above and beyond the call of duty. This movie’s art direction is complicated and layered but only rarely overwhelming. Lesser directors hashing out a quick studio hack-job on this movie would probably have computer-animated a couple of minifigures and put them in a larger, more real-world environment, perhaps with a couple of LEGO buildings and vehicles. The LEGO Movie, right off the bat, does more with the characters than most films would have. It isn’t stop-motion, to be fair, but the animators did everything within their power to make it look like it is: The characters move in the staggered way you’d expect from both LEGOs and a handmade production, and they’re lit to look like pieces of plastic under an entirely realistic sun.

It’s in the environments that this movie truly shines. Everything you see in this movie — everything — is made out of LEGOs. The ground is made out of LEGOs. The oceans and lakes are made out of LEGOs. The puffs of smoke from a moving train come out as puffs of little, gray blocks. The explosions in the action sequences are composed of red and orange LEGOs being propelled outward. When something catches fire, they use the semi-transparent plastic flames that come with some sets. And some very cool visuals come out of this — there’s one scene, where a water tower explodes and washes through a town, that’s just extraordinary.

I could get into the story, which is more detailed and — dare I say — intelligent than you’d expect. Of course, this is an extremely silly movie, and it doesn’t ask for your emotions all that often. It understands as well as the audience that even if it successfully makes us care about LEGO minifigures, we’re still going to resist solely because of the strangeness of that. Because of that, it doesn’t take the obligatory turns into drama — mostly. It’s the moments where it fails to resist that impulse that the movie doesn’t quite sing the way it mostly does. At the same time, the movie gets that people want to leave the theater feeling something, and the way it does that is borderline brilliant. I’d hate to spoil it. Suffice to say that it turns out the movie, for its entire running time, is about something and someone that it doesn’t seem to be about, and when it makes that reveal, it achieves something genuinely touching. It finds the sort of climax and third act that rank among the few that could be called truly original. It’s stunning to me how layered it is and how difficult it would be to stick that landing — and The LEGO Movie does.

And when it’s not doing that, the satire angle — while not particularly incisive and somewhat hypocritical, not within the movie itself but within the larger context of what it signifies culturally — keeps it chugging along at a fine pace. It’s the engine that keeps the half of this movie that’s an action/adventure going.

But I’d rather talk about this: The LEGO Movie actually has the sense to be about the toy. Most filmmakers would’ve just borrowed the aesthetic and had an adventure in a LEGO world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Miller and Lord want to tap into what it is about it that’s made it endure, that’s made it so that multiple generations of parents and children have memories of playing with it. They want to tap into the creativity and the wild imagination — and the way it bonds kids to their parents and their siblings and their friends.

Watching this movie gives you the exact same feeling as playing with LEGOs when you were a kid. I know — I spent plenty of time doing exactly that. The story itself is a tale told by a child, one where there’s nothing too ridiculous to bring into the plot at any given time, one where cool stuff can show up randomly to solve whatever problem the heroes are facing, one whose action scenes are goofy and cartoonish and seem directly inspired by childhood properties like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, one that grasps toward adulthood in a silly and broad way, one that references culture in more or less the same way a child would understand it. It’s random and hyperactive and — weirdly — never to the point that it’s annoying.

There’s a sense that there’s no real limit to what can happen. It’s essentially the biggest movie crossover ever, and for nerds like me, it’s one of the warmest and most loving — if also one of the most self-deprecating — takes on a lot of our favorite properties. Because of this movie, I have seen an on-screen battle with participants including Superman, Abraham Lincoln, Gandalf, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among many others. That’s like getting a Christmas present I didn’t even know I could ask for. I don’t think I can watch this movie enough times for the novelty of that to wear off.

There’s hardly a scene in this movie where it’s possible not to smile. I left it completely walking on air. It could’ve been cynical profit-mongering. It could’ve been just okay. Instead, Lord and Miller put forth the care, the effort, and the love to make something that, frankly, is outright great. In fact, I’m prepared to call this the best American animated movie since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

I love, love, love The LEGO Movie. Your kids will love, love, love The LEGO Movie. And you might not admit it, but I suspect you’ll love, love, love The LEGO Movie, too.

-Matt T.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Starring- Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Barry Pepper

Director- Gore Verbinski

PG-13- sequences of intense action and violence, and brief suggestive material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9DDCKVrZfU

   First things first: The Lone Ranger is not one of the worst movies of the year. I might even like it a little. I would ordinarily be ashamed of that, but it’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies of the year, so screw you.

   I want to make clear that like is a very…um, soft word in this context. To be honest, I have such mixed feelings about The Lone Ranger that I’m having trouble developing feelings about it one way or another. This is the type of movie where, in every single scene, there are five or six things I like about what’s happening and five or six things that I don’t, and sometimes they’re the same thing, finding some impossible way to both work and ruin the movie at the same time.

   Full disclosure: It’s very possible that part of this is just some mental hoop that I’m jumping through. I don’t normally read reviews before I see a movie — I save that for afterward — but I do go in knowing what the general critical consensus is. If writing these reviews was my job, I wouldn’t do that. But at the end of the day, at least with theatrical viewings, I do have to discriminate a bit. And it does leave me worried that I’m capable of biasing myself against something because of the severity of the popular backlash. The Lone Ranger, in particular, really left me wondering if my feelings would be more positive had I not gone in knowing that it’s been topping a lot of worst lists, or if I’d still be really mixed on it. There were a lot of things that I liked about it, and despite its length, I was generally not bored, and most of what I dislike about it I could place in a context where it makes sense as some kind of artistic direction. At the same time, there’s a whole lot about it that’s bad and/or kind of confusing. And I’m just not sure which one should take precedence or if one of them would more clearly have done so had I gone into it a blank slate. Is that weird? Okay, probably. But let’s do that thing where I review the movie now.

   John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a lawyer heading out West to bring some civilization to the communities where the new railroads are springing up. But a chance encounter with outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) leaves John half-dead out in the desert, where he’s rescued and restored to health by a native, Tonto (Johnny Depp).

   Now dead-set on capturing Cavendish and bringing him in to face justice for his crimes, John teams up with Tonto and dons a mask, reinventing himself as the Lone Ranger.

   I both like and dislike everything about this movie. And that’s the reason I’m having so much trouble picking a side on it.

   It’s a Depp/Verbinski production, so, naturally, the story is a complete mess. At this point, that’s starting to seem less like Verbinski’s flaw and more like his shtick. Beginning with the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and running through the present day, nearly all of his movies have been unstructured in so dramatic a way that it almost begins to signal intent. The Lone Ranger doesn’t develop scenes out of other scenes or out of decisions and developments with its characters. Like the Pirates sequels before it, it makes it up as it goes along, doing at any given time whatever it thinks might be fun to do at that exact moment. Watching it is like listening to a little kid making up a story with his action figures. “And…and then, they’re in the town, and, and, they fight guys wearing dresses! But now they’re in a village, and there are scorpions! And…and then, they go to a big mine, and they fight with their guns through a train, but then, these other guys show up, and they’re all, like, charging, and, and…”

   So, there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of emotional continuity, and the movie takes something like 20 minutes on every minor plot point because it has to entertain a dozen tangents before it gets those out of its system. At the same time, I guess I’m incapable of hating something this purely insane. There isn’t a single thought that crosses this movie’s brain that isn’t immediately met with, “Yes, let’s do that! Mr. Disney, can we have umpteen kajillion more dollars to wreck some trains into each other, please?”

   Nothing that happens in this movie has any particular purpose, but man, is some of it fun. Some action movie directors shoot some car chases and some gunfights and call their job done. Some others will at least vary their environments and throw a couple new perils into the mix. Verbinski, on the other hand, just lays every last thing he thinks of on the table and hopes some of it sticks. It’s not enough for him to have a couple guys punch each other on top of a train; he has to have them getting shoved off it, shuffling along the side, crashing through windows, swinging beneath the cars and crawling along inches of the track, jumping around on and banging off of structures as they speed past, etc. His action sequences are huge and ridiculous, turning their entire environments into a set of dominoes that start crashing into each other in the background while everyone else is haphazardly fighting through it.

   Aesthetically, the movie is not bad. Verbinski is a much better director than your average studio hack. His projects are propulsive and energetic without being overwhelming; they capture the ferocity of the action without reducing it to indecipherable madness — apart, perhaps, from this film’s climax, where it gets really hard to keep track of who’s where and when, but then again, the geography of the whole thing is pure insanity, and even the greatest of our directors would likely have trouble cohering it into something.

   At the same time, he’s picked a very strange art direction for this. This movie is not particularly colorful. Everything looks dry, bland, and muted. It’s heavy on soft browns and algae-like greens and pure white, with an overabundance of lens flare. What I love about Westerns — though this is a spaghetti Western at the absolute most, and a complete farce at the least — is the pristine, blue skies; the ruddy brown desert sands; the flowing, green fields. This movie just filters everything through brown and gray.

   Of course, you could make the argument that the aesthetic is just a part of The Lone Ranger’s secret goal — satirizing, deconstructing, and ultimately dismantling this sanitized, sugar-coated notion we have of the Wild West as this place of nobility and men and wonderfully simple folk. It’s important to know going into The Lone Ranger that The Lone Ranger absolutely hates The Lone Ranger — as in, its source material. It isn’t the slightest bit shy about this — it openly mocks the characters and the iconic lines and imagery. In this adaptation, Tonto and the Ranger despise one another, and you could argue that this never really changes, even near the end of the film. Tonto is a complete lunatic, and the Ranger is a bumbling, ineffectual weakling.

   Particularly with Tonto, the movie is so cheerfully offensive that you have to begin to wonder if it isn’t actually poking fun at the old movies that portrayed Native Americans in this way. Of course, the line between “offensive for reasons of satire” and “offensive for reasons of racism” is a thin one. Nevertheless, what happens with the Native Americans — and the Ranger’s expectation of them — is consistent with the interpretation of this movie as satire. So is the movie’s turn in making the Ranger less like Superman and more like Batman — as in, explicitly an outlaw, having to exist outside the system because the system is inherently corrupt — once again turns its guns on the sainted ideal of the Old West conveyed in other films.

   However, if the movie wants to be satire, that’s the M.O. it needs to stick with. Another aggravating trope of classic Westerns — the superiority of rugged manly man man manly man mannish manly men over sissy intellectuals with an affinity for due process and compassion — is played pretty straight here. And it does that throughout, falling back on the old tropes whenever it needs a quick out.

   And like I said, that line between satire and ignorance is so thin. The movie hits these really heavy moments that, however briefly, strike their characters hard, and it relives many of them immediately, usually with an absurd joke, usually delivered by the character who just got hammered. And again… Tonto. If this is indeed satire, it fits that mold well, but still… We all complained about Johnny Depp getting that part, but I’m not sure any actual Native American would want it.

   Verbinski covers the whole thing in a veneer of surrealism that’s maybe supposed to amp up the satire angle — and it’s hard to believe that Helena Bonham Carter’s character having a gun in her shoe is something that was intended to happen in a serious movie. Then again, surrealism is starting to seem like it’s the only trick he’s got in his grab bag. Sometimes, this movie feels like a really bad fever dream, and it’s a rare occasion that I’ll find that a good direction.

   At the same time, while The Lone Ranger certainly seems dark and gritty — my two least favorite words in the film industry right now — it’s that very decision that makes the movie feel more subversive than that. It looks and sounds quite serious, but it’s so weird, and it’s got this bizarre and deadpan sense of humor that makes it seem like it never starts thinking more highly of itself than it ought to. It’s extraordinarily violent — probably a lot more than it needs to be — but there’s a strange PG-13-ish grindhouse-y kind of thing going on. It’s very black humor, but it’s still humor — almost, and only in the shared recognition of how over-the-top it is.

   But then, even if it does need to be dismantled a little bit, it’s hard not to wish for an update on a classic property that isn’t edgy and tongue-in-cheek. We’ve got a severe shortage of innocent, CGI-light, little adventure stories right now. Early in its production, I was really hoping this might be one.

   The characters are even more of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s nice that they have actual personalities and exist in a place of definable motivations and interests. I think Armie Hammer is actually kind of likable in this, looking like a movie star but having the screen personality of a complete loser. And despite myself, his constant bickering with Tonto is actually kind of amusing sometimes.

   But then… Tonto. Tonto Tonto Tonto Tonto. For starters, Johnny Depp apparently made a cultural icon of Jack Sparrow and immediately decided to only play that character for the rest of his career, and the longer that goes on, the less variation and surprise there is in it. And of course, he’s kind of offensive. But maybe in a good way?

   I’m a little less mixed on the villains. They’re not bad, but none of them struck me as particularly memorable. They’re suitably menacing, but only in a fairly generic and broad sense of the world. They snarl and spit and speechify, sometimes in that tough gunslinger way and other times in that cold, calculating guy way. Overall, they leave little impression. As to their evil plan, I don’t think the film really loses anything by keeping that a secret until the end, but either way, it’s not hard to figure out. You really only need the first clue the movie gives to piece the whole thing together, and that’s if you didn’t get it right off the bat. The rest of the movie is just watching the heroes flounder in trying to unravel a fairly obvious scheme.

   So, basically, everything and nothing works about The Lone Ranger. And I’m not really sure how to feel about it. At its length, that it mostly didn’t bore me is some kind of achievement. Then again, it’s hard not to marvel at how absurd it is. Of course, even that is commendable, that it goes so far out of its way to be the strangest blockbuster of the entire year and that it manages to have a little fun with that. Then again, its reaches at fun can shoot into really questionable territory now and then. But if it’s satirical, and you could argue that it is, that might not be such a bad thing. Of course, the rank and file won’t know that. But does that even matter?

   Yeah, just… The Lone Ranger. Fill in the blank.

   -Matt T.