Archive for April, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

Starring- Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Morgan Freeman, Clifton Collins Jr.

Director- Wally Pfister

PG-13- sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCTen3-B8GU

Transcendence — all punch-line and no setup.

And it’s too bad, because I really wanted to like this. I’ve been following it with some interest since it was first announced, both because I like sci-fi and love original sci-fi, and because I was intrigued by the idea of veteran cinematographer Wally Pfister sitting in the director’s chair for the first time.

But what he’s created here is, unfortunately, what I think a lot of us feared it might be — very nice looking and almost entirely soulless.

Set in what appears to be the very near future, Transcendence is about a married couple of computer scientists, Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall). One breakthrough after another has led Will close to achieving what he calls transcendence: an AI operating far above and beyond the capacity of all collective human intelligence.

The advances in technology have led to resistance, mainly in the form of RIFT, a pseudo-terrorist organization that, on the day of a major presentation, arranges simultaneous attacks against research sites nationwide. Will is shot with a poisoned bullet, leaving him with less than a month to live.

Desperate to save her husband, Evelyn revisits one of his projects — an effort to replicate the human mind inside a computer. Will undergoes the procedure and dies shortly thereafter. But soon, a digital copy of him emerges — one that, connected to the Internet, has the power to go anywhere, do anything, and learn everything.

I think this is a parable of technology that we perhaps needed, or at the very least will soon come to need. This movie had my attention from the moment I knew its premise — not because it’s so far out there but because it’s so surprisingly grounded. I know next to nothing about computers and the human mind, so I’m no expert, but I’ve read and watched some interviews about technology of this sort, and what’s so stunning about it is that there seems to be an almost unanimous consensus out there that not only are such advances feasible, they are inevitable. I believe it was an interview pertaining specifically to this film in which someone was asked how far off this technology is, and without hesitation, he answered, “Thirty years.”

In other words, potentially within my lifetime. Ultimately, Transcendence is the rarest sort of science fiction in our current cinematic landscape — speculative science fiction, exploring things that very well may be someday.

But when you’re telling a story like that, exploring the benefits and perils of modern technological advances and trying to figure out how to balance them, you’ve got to be careful how many arbitrary rules you conjure up while creating your world. It’s a pitfall that strikes quite a lot of speculative science fiction. And it destroys Transcendence.

The problem is that none of it feels inevitable. And if you really want to challenge your audience, it should. You want to imagine this technology, imagine what it would be if it suddenly appeared in the world, and try with as much honesty and detail as possible to extrapolate from there how people would inevitably react to it, how they would inevitably use it, and how it would inevitably evolve as time goes on. And not only must you find that, you must then convince us.

Transcendence just doesn’t. Even from the trailers, you can guess what sort of story it is — people discover an incredible new technology with the best of intentions and begin to change the world for the better through it, but shortly discover the hidden downside and potential for abuse and find it spinning far beyond their control, soon becoming a monster that they must destroy.

And again, as a cautionary tale, you must convince us that’s the only way the story could end. But Transcendence invents too many arbitrary rules solely to keep the plot moving. And the thoughts you’re left with as it ends aren’t questions related to the technology and the moral concepts to which we must adhere in order to ensure that human progress is solely for the better. Instead, you come away thinking, “Well, it’s probably a good thing to have a computer that can do this stuff. All we have to do is make sure it doesn’t do that awful thing that it ended up doing for no reason.” It’s all too easily resolved in our minds.

(Just as an aside, I have read interpretations of this film that take it not as a story about technology but one about the relationship between humanity and God, or at least humanity and religion. And I think that’s fair; there’s enough evidence to support it. And I’ll confess that this read is far more cohesive. However, it’s cursory at best, fuel to keep the story going rather than a deep philosophical question being explored at length through the psychologies of the God stand-ins and the human stand-ins and the things that they value and why.)

But whatever. If it sacrifices its themes on the altar of story, it still has the chance to make that work. Give us interesting characters who are meaningfully connected to one another and work from there. But Transcendence is only so-so on this point as well.

There are a lot of competing ideologies in this film, which regularly trades characters between sides of the debate and colors them all in different shades, but their motivations are conveyed broadly at best, and the script doesn’t leave room for them to sit down and meaningfully explore the various aspects in which they are right and wrong. It all just happens. The movie jumps forward in time entire years with some regularity, which is fine, but it doesn’t leave space to explicitly define everything, to show relationships growing and changing, to show projects in progress, to allow the story to breathe. Of all the side characters, only Paul Bettany and to a lesser extent Kate Mara get to do much of anything, and even that’s scant. Cillian Murphy is inexplicably cast in a role that’s roughly equivalent to that of Clark Gregg in the first Iron Man movie. And Morgan Freeman, without any hand-wringing whatsoever, could easily be written out of this thing.

The worst of it is that so much hinges on our two leads, Will and Evelyn Caster.

The technological through-line is overly convoluted, and the religious theme is undercooked, but this movie could still be a perfectly serviceable story of one person’s inability to let go. But Will and Evelyn, honestly, are very flat, given only the broadest personalities and having no real chemistry with one another. Depp inhabits Will fairly well early on; it’s the first role he’s been given in a while that’s age-appropriate, for lack of a better word. In his hands, Will has a quiet awkwardness and reserve that comes out in subtle details. It’s once he becomes Will’s computerized doppelganger that things go awry. Suddenly, he’s playing Will like a robot, flat and emotionless. Yes, this might make sense given that the film argues back and forth whether he’s the real Will or simply a computer program that is mostly like him, but changed. But one thing is not debatable — Evelyn believes he is real, and it’s important that the audience knows what she’s getting out of that relationship, what the presence of this digitized version of Will means to her. Instead, to reference Iron Man again, he’s Jarvis. He’s a disembodied voice without personality that doesn’t do much more than tidy the house up neatly while she’s away and give instructions to the techs in the lab.

Transcendence really isn’t terrible; I should make that clear. It could be a great movie even with its present outline. Its problem is that it moves from one piece of information to the next without ever stopping to connect it emotionally. It knows what ideas and concepts and images it wants to get to and keeps plugging along. Each scene exists for the sole purpose of divulging information so that the next scene, which will divulge still more information, is properly prepared. And on and on and on it goes, culminating in a final piece of information, strung on the end, representing nothing more than a series of soulless data that never really becomes human.

 

-Matt T.

The Book Thief (2013)

Starring- Roger Allam, Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Levin Liam, Ben Schnetzer, Rainer Bock, Barbara Auer

Director- Brian Percival

PG-13- some violence and intense depiction of thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92EBSmxinus

If I were to ask you to pitch me an idea for a movie made for the sole purpose of winning awards, you’d probably come back with something pretty similar to The Book Thief — set in Germany during World War II, plot heavily affected by the Holocaust, child protagonist who learns the ways of the world, kindly but suffering adults played by major talents shepherding her in the background, and so on and so forth.

Normally, that sort of thing would bother me. Here, I don’t know. It just doesn’t, for some reason. The Book Thief is one of those movies that’s possibly bad and definitely not great, but it struck me on some personal level or another. Or at least, that’s what I’m assuming, because despite my enjoyment of it, I’m having a hard time constructing a particularly convincing defense of it.

The life of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) is upended when, in pre-war Germany, her communist mother puts her up for adoption in order to protect her from what’s coming. She is taken in by Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), a struggling German couple. Hans takes to her immediately and teaches her how to read, sparking a fascination with books that leads, one night, to her secretly rescuing a title from a Nazi book burning. She also befriends neighbor boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) and begins getting along in her new home.

Her new family’s life is complicated, however, when Hans fulfills an old wartime debt and hides Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew, in their home.

I should start by saying that I haven’t managed to read the book yet, and yes, I do plan to rectify that sooner rather than later. I’ve heard it’s excellent, and naturally, much of what I say about the film likely doesn’t apply to it.

As for the movie, well, it’s got its ducks in a row. You know from the opening scene exactly what it is — a tragic weepy that will certainly find some way to twist the whole thing into a note of generic inspiration by the end. There are times throughout where you can see it sliding its pieces into place, clumsily foreshadowing future terrible events or making something that’s happening in the present so sweet and loveable that the audience immediately knows it’s not going to last. I should probably hate it.

I don’t have much of an explanation for the fact that I don’t. My best guess is that it is, ultimately, a film about the power of words, the necessity of creativity, the way that stories shape us and the world we inhabit, the means by which life, ultimately finds a way, etc. That’s basically my porn. And that’s true even when the story being told doesn’t really handle that theme all that well, which is the case with The Book Thief. It pays a whole lot of flowery lip service to these notions but doesn’t show them in practice to a particularly affecting degree — there isn’t so much shown about how stories can change people or how words can enrich our lives. I suppose Liesel’s connection to the creative process is done fairly well; you can see the way that it excites her and comforts her in times of need. Max, who becomes something of an instructor to her in the poetry of words, finds solace in it as well, which, at the very least, connects one of the film’s most important relationships.

These characters are all really broad. There are no archetypes here that you haven’t seen before. But I suppose I could say that at least everyone represents a defined set of motivations grounded as much in what we see as what we’re told. And broad as they are, I didn’t mind them. Liesel’s a bit of a blank slate, but she almost needs to be, and her wide-eyed but not wholesale naïve approach to everything is quite charming. Rudy isn’t anything more than “unusually kind,” but it’s hard not to enjoy his presence for that reason exactly. Geoffrey Rush, as Hans, gets to do the Atticus Finch thing where all he does is radiate decency and uprightness and act as a security blanket for everyone else, and that’s somewhat enjoyable. I feel as though Rosa is actually the film’s most complicated character, though it’s less in the writing and more in Emily Watson’s performance — she’s cold at first, but the unique and somewhat stiff way that she warms to Liesel is quite believable.

My feelings about this film are also likely affected by its setting. It’s strange — I have no personal connection with Nazi Germany of which I am aware, and yet, it’s something of a minor historical fascination of mine. I suppose it’s because it represents evil of a variety that I’ve thus far been incapable of understanding. I can grasp evil born of desperation and evil fueled by religious fanaticism and indoctrination. I don’t understand how an entire modern society filled with people who were rather ordinary even by today’s standards turned genocidal. When I watch scenes like one of the ones here, where people, men, women, and children alike, are dragged out of their homes and businesses and savagely beaten, I can’t comprehend how these things occurred at the hands of men who believed they were doing something righteous. It’s become the abyss into which I’m constantly staring, trying to determine its source. There’s something about the imagery alone, entirely divorced from context or theme or characterization, that compels me.

So, we could talk at length about whether or not any film’s use of the Holocaust is potentially exploitative, but for my part, I’ve given up — the line between sincerity and Oscar bait can be extremely thin sometimes. It can be nearly impossible to tell the difference between someone telling a story a certain way because they simply think that’s the way you tell them, and someone cynically checking off the blocks. After all, nobody’s ever going to show their true colors by making a fun endorsement of these events. What’s The Book Thief doing? I don’t know, and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

I think where it really goes wrong is in the fact that I couldn’t discern what it was about, on a deeper level. It’s not an examination of the circumstances that drive dark forces akin to the Nazis, but it’s clearly not trying to be; this is a story of decent people trying to live in indecent times. It definitely centers heavily on Liesel’s love of the written word, but as I said earlier, so much of this is lip service that doesn’t heavily affect the larger plot.

I should also mention that this story has a narrator — Death (voice of Roger Allam). And perhaps the book connected those dots a bit more fluidly. As for the film, I can’t begin to guess why. Is it trying to deal with mortality in some way? Certainly characters die, but does the film wrestle with humans’ attitude toward death or people trying to cope with losing loved ones? It doesn’t that I noticed. We simply hear Death’s voice every now and then, usually as someone is about to perish, telling us what it’s like to be him and what he sees within the souls of people. I can see a number of angles from which the book might’ve tied this together more fluidly — mainly in that I assume we see everything from Death’s perspective, whereas, here, he’s just the disembodied voice that cuts in periodically. But here, it’s a whole lot of thematic mishmash that just gets haphazardly tossed in.

So, ultimately, the jury’s out. I know this is hardly a ringing endorsement of The Book Thief. Of course, I don’t particularly believe in the objective distinction between good and bad in storytelling — firstly, because a lot of it is rooted in the knowledge and experiences both of the writer and the audience; and secondly, because we could construct so many complicated analyses of net gains and losses in communicating story information, as well as tone and intent and theme and whatnot. I’m not here to say whether The Book Thief is a good or bad film, in the end; I’m here only to relate my experience. And I found it worthwhile, though roughly so. Take that as you will.

 

-Matt T.

Frozen (2013)

Starring- Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds

Directors- Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

PG- some action and mild rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbQm5doF_Uc

The longer I stay interested in movies, the more I find my specific fascinations shifting, and recently, I’ve become somewhat intrigued by the notion of film as an ongoing dialogue, with everything building off what came before it, supporting or refuting its claims, responding to what was said before.

And nowhere is this easier for me to track than with Walt Disney Pictures. Thanks to my parents, I was well versed in the Disney animated canon throughout history as a child. And thanks to the fact that Disney has always been something of a creative brain trust, it’s easier to assess its work almost as one would that of a singular artist.

It wasn’t the same during my childhood as it was during my parents’, and it isn’t the same time.

And that’s where I’m interested in Frozen. In some ways, it could be seen as a spiritual successor to Tangled, which seemed to be the first installment of a new era in Disney animation. But where Tangled was partial homage to the glory days and partial modern update, Frozen is the first of the new crop that seems to be actively communicating with the studio’s past work, and for the most part, I love the ways in which it does that.

It begins with two sisters, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), heirs to the throne of their idyllic kingdom. For reasons unknown — and the movie is wise enough to keep it that way — Elsa has magical powers allowing her to control ice and snow. As children, the two find it an endless source of amusement, until Elsa’s powers hurt Anna.

Fearful of the destruction her abilities could cause, Elsa withdraws, not just from her sister, but from the world at large. But when both their parents are lost at sea, Elsa must ascend to the throne. When the magnitude of the situation strikes her, she goes out of control, fleeing to the mountains and inadvertently trapping the kingdom in an eternal winter.

Believing she’s the only one who could get through to her sister, Anna sets off, with help from ice salesman Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his trusty reindeer Sven, and talkative snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), to persuade Elsa to release the kingdom from its icy prison and to come back home.

Disney has built its media empire with animated films of various types, from adventure stories to romances to fairy tales to mixtures of all three, and, of course, beyond. Most of them, however, tap into some sort of magical, wish-fulfilling variety of True Love — instantaneous, passionate, energetic love at first sight.

Frozen deconstructs the living daylights out of that concept, and I love it for that. I love it not only for the fact that it’s bold enough to break years of tradition in doing it but for the fact that it does it so well. I think deconstruction sometimes threatens to become the storytelling device of cynics, tearing things apart solely to tear them apart. Frozen, on the other hand, takes the concept, gives it a tiny dose of reality, and says, “Hey, kids — this magical, True-Love-at-first sight doesn’t exist. The good news is that what does exist is even better.

It obviously subverts that in the major sense of its main focus being on the relationship between the sisters and not any prince-and-princess romance. And it deals with them from both directions — Anna’s hopeless naïveté and Elsa’s melancholy, brought about by years of bottling up her gifts and withdrawing from everything. Truthfully, I think there’s a better film in here whose protagonist is Elsa, who encapsulates self-expression and identity in a surprisingly complex way — there’s potential in her both for darkness and light, and rather than being clearly delineated as one action or another, it’s about how she uses that and how she manages to live with herself in the meantime. Elsa’s powers have the potential to be destructive, but they also have the potential to be helpful, creative, and beautiful. But everyone fears the former, so she fears it as well and sinks into what I suppose you could call a long bout of self-loathing. She keeps it contained within, and of course, doing that is precisely what makes it worse — her focus on the negative and her denial of who she is make her unstable and uncontrollable, despite her best efforts. It’s finding freedom and self-acceptance, as well as the acceptance of others, that allow her to turn it around into something good. I think that’s a great message for kids, especially since it’s handled with such surprising subtlety.

And that it’s still about the sisters in the end, even when it threatens not to be, I think sends an equally great message about what love is and how many different forms it takes in our lives.

It’s also subversive in the way that it shows how old-timey True Love is, in a sense, dangerous. It doesn’t always work out. But instead of just warning kids off, it taps into something better — don’t be afraid of the journey. That can be the best part. It doesn’t happen right away, and it isn’t always neat and tidy, but it’s better that way.

Yeah, okay, the movie maybe cheats a bit to make that happen, but I can forgive that. And yeah, maybe, in the end, it tries to have its cake and eat it, too — but it’s a kids’ movie, so I can tolerate an obnoxiously happy ending so long as it doesn’t bend too far backward in order to achieve that.

And for the kids, it’s still a lively and amusing feature, tonally very much in the style of the classic Disney films. And the animation is just gorgeous; I’m loving this painterly style of computer animation the studio started with Tangled.

But for all its strengths, I’m not ready to cross over to the side that wants to put this on Disney’s all-time list. Maybe it can go just below the all-time list. But not on it.

Honestly, it’s hard to say exactly why I didn’t find this as gripping as other films like it. My best guess is that it seems to still be overly beholden to Tangled. Beyond the animation, it seems as though Disney was trying to replicate its success by ensuring that all the familiar elements were in place — upbeat, bubbly female protagonist; sarcastic, overly self-assured, kind of bumbling, but ultimately goodhearted male lead; and exactly two funny sidekicks. It strikes a similar tone, and the dialogue and humor, while unique in their own right, adhere to some familiar styles and beats. Even the names recall one another (and for the record, Disney — and yes, I know this bothers me way more than it should — the current approach where you come up with names that won’t scare off boys or girls by simply finding a bland adjective related to something that occurs within the movie is really getting on my nerves, speaking as someone who, for whatever reason, is obsessed with evocative titles).

Plus, as I said before, there’s part of me that thinks the writers should’ve switched the size of the roles accorded to Elsa and Anna, making the former the protagonist and the latter a subplot with smaller, broader development. They both have arcs, true, but Elsa’s is just huge and hard to compress in an emotionally satisfying way.

And on top of that… Okay, look, I just don’t like the songs, okay? Yeah, sure, I’m objective enough to say that “Let It Go” is pretty great, but it’s hard for me to feel that anymore after the Internet forced me to listen to it eight quintillion times. But the others are fairly generic musical numbers, the sort of thing where you just throw in an orchestra and find a way to twist the dialogue into singing and then call it quits. I saw this a day ago, but despite my best efforts, I can’t recall a single bar of anything other than “Let It Go.”

But I digress. If you have kids, Frozen is close to being a must-see. If you don’t, well, it’s still a probably-should-see. It’s an extremely interesting step forward for Disney and one that could very well promise some highly worthwhile work in the future.

 

-Matt T.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Starring- Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, BJ Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Bigham, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson

Director- John Lee Hancock

PG-13- thematic elements including some unsettling images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

On one hand, it’s a good thing 2013 was such a strong year for movies, because any other year, I’d end up in the position where I’d have to protest the inevitable assertions of this movie’s greatness. On the other hand, it would’ve been nice to see director John Lee Hancock rewarded for making a somewhat better film than usual.

True, at the end of the day, Saving Mr. Banks — the story of some unknown art film figure from the first half of the 20th century, name of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), and his attempts to woo P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, into signing over the film rights to her book — is a certain type of film, and from its trailers and its studio and its director’s track record, it’s likely that no one is particularly surprised that this is the case. It’s a light, largely family-friendly drama aimed squarely at audiences somewhere in between the art and blockbuster crowds. As such, it’s specifically calculated not to be particularly challenging or potentially off-putting and thus avoids anything of real interest — it simply turns things up just high enough to milk a few tears and a few smiles out of its audience and not much else. It’s got largely the same strengths and weaknesses you’d expect from a film of its type, and its overall effect remains unchanged: It’s okay.

But in this instance, it’s a somewhat tighter variety of okay than what we normally get out of this sort of thing. Of course, at the same time, most of what it does right has to be qualified with the fact that it either doesn’t go the whole way or does some things wrong at the same time.

We can start with this: These movies, in their attempts to become totally inoffensive, have a long history of somehow managing to do the exact opposite. My theory is that it’s because they try their best to hew close to reality in order to establish the sort of familiarity that gets the aforementioned tears and smiles, but they also soften it to make it a less difficult pill to swallow — something that has a tendency to bother people who have actually lived situations like what is portrayed and find it insulting that it’s portrayed in such a light and unintelligent way.

So, Saving Mr. Banks deserves some credit for the fact that — at least internally, taken solely as a story without larger implications, examining solely the themes of the work itself — seems, at least to me, to have limited potential to cause offense in the process of softening the blow.

Now, obviously, it’s not subtle, and it was never going to be — not even the trailers could resist explaining in detail the exact message it’s trying to convey. Mary Poppins doesn’t come to save the children; she comes to save Mr. Banks. And it turns out that maybe it’s P.L. Travers who needs saving. She’s not a particularly pleasant person and has a difficult time openly enjoying anything — even if she likes someone or something, she has to find some off-handed, passive-aggressive way to express that. (Emma Thompson, by the way, knows exactly which is which and conveys it in a way that is immediately identifiable, and it’s why she’s the best thing about this movie by a considerable margin.) And the story itself becomes a means through which her personal issues are one by one exposed and dealt with. The message is probably something along the lines of moving on from loss or forgiving yourself or something like that. It’s all of that and more, really, but we’ll talk about that in a moment.

At the same time, Saving Mr. Banks is…selectively honest in the literal details of its true story. A lot of people have praised it for humanizing the godlike cultural figure that was Walt Disney by showing his smoking problem and having him swear sometimes and whatnot, but there’s something very political about this. It acknowledges things that weren’t really all that bad but contradict his image enough that it can wipe its hands and claim to have done the job. It’s like someone who’s very self-deprecating about the one flaw he or she has but only to distract people from this incredibly noticeable and much worse thing going on over here. I mean, I wouldn’t expect a movie like this to show that, for example, Disney was a tiny bit racist. Within the context of its story, there isn’t even a reason for it to do that. But every moment in this movie where he does something “human” feels so calculated that it seems like anything but. At the end of the day, he’s still the funny, creative, goofy uncle figure who can always be counted on to lay off the laughs and deliver sage wisdom when needed. If it really wanted to humanize and explore this guy, it might’ve engaged some darker aspects of his character that are directly related to this story — namely that the only reason he got the movie that he wanted was by using contract stipulations to simply overrule Travers’ objections.

And plus, ultimately, while it deals quite explicitly with Travers’ reservations about the whole thing, and even acknowledges some matters of taste with the final product, it never gets near the fact that in real life, she notoriously hated the Mary Poppins film, to the point that she never spoke to Walt Disney again. So, when you take Saving Mr. Banks in the context of real-world history, there remains some small potential for offense with regard to the things it softens — a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, I suppose you could say.

The film chooses to tell the story with mixed chronologies, and there’s something quite effective in that approach. There are two stories being told at once — Travers and Disney navigating the pre-production process, and Travers’ childhood. The latter is shown to us piece by piece, and we get a new scene to fill in the blanks whenever Travers has an objection to something the creative team is planning to do — we go back and see why. Everything in the story she wrote is special to her because it’s loosely based on her own difficult childhood. She insists on complete fidelity to the source for that reason — not even the characters’ appearances can be adjusted. The real ones didn’t look like that. And even if parts of Travers’ childhood are so idealized that you start to wonder if you’re supposed to be taking them literally, there’s something surprisingly involving about the way the two stories are juxtaposed within the film.

Then again, there were parts that made me wonder if maybe Travers shouldn’t have been the lead role. Now, she’s the one who has an actual arc, so it makes sense for her to be the protagonist, but part of me thinks the film might have benefitted from following a reference point character to experience all of that secondhand. Thus, there would be less confusion about our protagonist. It’s hard to say, though; this truly is one of those issues where you’d win some and lose some either way.

In terms of the effect for which it’s all structured, well, John Lee Hancock has always been a very broad director. There are a lot of filmmakers who make everything bright and colorful during the more cheerful scenes and turn everything a bit darker when things start getting hard, but when Hancock does it, it’s the only thing you notice. Throughout, his tendency to suffocate everything in light and softness becomes a megaphone over the rest of the show.

The story itself works — in these films, they always do. The issue with movies like this, though, is that they aren’t terribly focused. They’re more interested in getting that feeling out of you, and it stops mattering how that’s achieved. As such, everything becomes vague emotion — things are either happy or sad, and arbitrary events are invented to feed into those states. It isn’t any one thing in particular; it’s this thing or that thing, whatever works for this scene or that scene. It makes it difficult to apply a thesis or a moral or even a consistent message to the whole affair. When a character struggles, another sits down and says, “Well, it’s because you haven’t whatever,” and you, the viewer, think, “Sure, let’s go with that.”

The upside is that it works, at least for one viewing. Structure enough sad things into one scene, and you will feel pretty sad, even if you don’t know why and don’t get much of anything out of it. But there is a version of sad one might describe as “entertainment sad,” and Saving Mr. Banks has lots of entertainment sad and some entertainment happy, too.

So, I don’t know. It’s fun to watch, and it isn’t entirely a brainless experience. But somewhat unsurprisingly, it isn’t a deep or incisive work of genius.

 

-Matt T.

Philomena (2013)

Starring- Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley

Director- Stephen Frears

PG-13- on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DBPqcp6Hc4

There’s a subset of Oscar bait that I refer to as “the stuffy British people movie.” You know the one — an hour and a half of people talking, often not about anything in particular, while wandering through sunny picturesque landscapes or while sitting in a finely decorated, old-fashioned room, and it’s all rather light and fuzzy with a sophisticated sense of humor. I don’t care for it, and when I watch a movie of that type, it’s usually out of a sense of obligation, either for the acclaim it received or the cultural status it achieved.

These movies are pretty easy to identify by their trailers, and boy did Philomena ever check off every single block. Then, it got nominated for some Oscars, so I sighed and added it to my Netflix queue.

However, one of the most enjoyable experiences a movie buff can hope for is to have an obligation become a pleasure, and that’s exactly what Philomena became to me, very early on. Here is a film that, while fuzzy and warm, is likably so, and still unafraid to wrestle with some darker notions. It’s actually quite engaging and isn’t, as sometimes seems to be the norm, all surface. And honestly, it’s earned its acclaim.

Based on a true story, Philomena begins with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) being fired in disgrace from his job with the Labour Party. He is considering returning to his journalism career when a woman approaches him with an idea for a human interest story — her mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who has spent her entire life searching for her son, who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years before.

Intrigued, Martin sells the idea to a magazine and sets off with Philomena on an international journey to find her son.

Other characters wander in and out, but this film really has a cast of only two, so everything hinges on that one relationship working — and it does. Martin and Philomena are perfect foils for one another in almost every aspect of their personalities. They’re quite the mismatched pair indeed. She’s an old woman looking back on a life she’s already lived. He’s a middle-aged man in the wake of a major career disastr trying to figure out what to do with the scant youth he’s got left. She’s a devout Catholic. He’s an atheist. She seems to have no idea when people are joking or being completely serious. He communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm. She is surprisingly energetic and perhaps a bit naïve, and every new thing she discovers on their journey overseas fascinates and excites her endlessly, almost as it would a child. He’s cynical and world-weary and finds everything exhausting and troublesome. They’re the perfect pair to poke and prod at each other and create humor and drama in equal measure. Moreover, while they’re spectacularly different and, on paper, probably should hate each other, you understand why they don’t — Philomena’s bubbly and talkative, but at the end of the day, she’s a harmless and well-meaning woman, and how could Martin hate her? And he’s standoffish and not much for conversation or for other people in general, but, well, it’s hard to imagine Philomena hates anyone. She gives people the benefit of the doubt far past what they deserve — and Martin deserves it at least a little.

You need a good pair of actors to sell that. Steve Coogan’s performance here is not too far out of his wheelhouse, other than that it’s a more dramatic version of the comedic type he mostly spends his time playing. But, having written the script as well, his fingerprints are all over this film, and it benefits from that immensely — again, a movie of this type threatens to get stuffy, so it helps to have Coogan’s dry sense of humor underneath everything.

And of course, Judi Dench is Judi Dench. She’s spent the last few years playing characters who are at least miserable in some sense, so it’s nice to see her getting the opportunity to play a character who can only be described as a sweet old lady. Philomena has pain, obviously, drawn not only from the loss of her son but from her horrible treatment at the hands of the nuns into whose care she was forced after her humiliated family basically abandoned her for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. But she still sees everything with fresh eyes and very much enjoys what she’s doing in the moment.

With these two spending all of their time together, the movie gets the chance to explore a lot of thematic ground. It tackles the exploitative state of the modern media industry, the harm of purity culture, the question of the existence and nature of God, religious abuse, the importance of the way we treat others, to a small extent politics, moving on from tragedy, and forgiveness in the face of great wrongs. It could all get very busy, and you could argue that it does, but all of this is so integral to the story Philomena is telling that there’s really no way it could not touch upon these issues. I don’t know that I’d say it satisfactorily answers any of those questions, or even that it needs to or tries particularly hard to, but at the very least, there’s plenty of discussion-worthy stuff happening here. And there’s plenty to take away from the story of Philomena Lee.

And that’s why, despite the fact that it can be a touch cliched and more than a little familiar, I’m truly glad someone decided to tell it.

 

-Matt T.

Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say, “This month, I did a dumb thing.” Movie buffs — hardcore guys like me who watch everything they can get their hands on and casual fans alike — get asked this question a lot: “How many movies do you figure you’ve seen?”

The right answer to this question is to shrug and cough up a rough estimate/complete guess and call it a day. Who cares, right?

Well, I’m famous for two things — only being right about stuff when it’s inconvenient for me, and caring about things that no reasonable human being with a job and a life should care about. So, my response to that question was the worst one possible: insatiable curiosity.

So, instead of guessing at the answer…I tried to find out.

And this whole deal was the result. I have just published a new page — The Pantheon: Matt’s Film Viewing Throughout History. The goal: to document every single thing I have ever seen ever and to continue to do so for as long as I still have eyes to see. Any movie I see, from now on, old and new alike, goes on the list.

It’s subdivided into years. I arbitrary selected 1900 as my starting point. Those years will be listed on separate pages, so click away.

That was another reason I did this. If you have a favorite critic, you’ve probably had that moment where you thought to yourself, “Gee, I really wish I knew what he/she thought about this movie that came out before he/she began writing reviews.”

Well, that’s no longer a problem here (though if I’m your favorite critic, you…probably have reason to be concerned). Now, you get to read my self-important opinions on everything.

The downside is that I’m about to publicly reveal exactly how poorly versed I still am on major portions of film history. Trust me, however low your opinion of me is right now, it’s about to get, like, way lower. However many movies you think I’ve seen, the truth is an order of thousands fewer. And there are some really, really important classics missing. I am doing my best to rectify that. But you should be warned if only so that I can say, “Told you so.”

As for the movies themselves… Well, I began this process earlier this month by going through Wikipedia’s Years in Film lists and marking everything I’ve seen, an effort that took, no lie, probably about six hours in total. My only rule was that I had to be absolutely certain I had seen the film in its entirety (with a handful of exceptions, largely for films that are so outright terrible that I’ve never had the endurance to finish them). If there was any doubt in my mind, I left it off the list. So, yeah, as close as I tried to get, this is never going to be a complete list of everything I’ve seen. I watched dozens upon dozens upon hundreds of kids’ movies when I was little. I have watched about that many terrible horror movies on the SyFy Channel while bored. And there are probably hundreds more movies where I’ve seen substantial portions of them but not the whole thing.

And even human error was a factor. After completing the list, I immediately thought of four or five films that weren’t on there and added them. I also noticed a few sequels without the original listed, so I had to go back for those. I know I missed a few movies while going through the Wikipedia lists. Foreign films or obscure arthouse stuff are also problematic because they’re not always listed on those pages; fortunately, I can count on one hand the number of those I’ve watched outside of the years when I began reviewing, so I hope my memory was able to make up for that absence.

Otherwise, here it is. You probably won’t enjoy it, but whatever. I gave it to you anyway. I’m in charge here.

Just click on the header up there and read away. Or don’t. I guess you’re allowed to do that, too.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

Starring- Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker

Director- Scott Cooper

R- strong violence, language and drug content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClzRVlMhU2E

   I’ve probably said this before, but it bears repeating. The hardest movies to review are the ones to which I have absolutely no response whatsoever. Great movies can be daunting, if only because I find myself hesitating on whether or not I have the ability to do them justice. Bad ones are easy, but I find I have to tread very carefully with my tone. Even stuff that’s middling can make for a decent review; usually, a movie has at least one outstanding characteristic, for better or worse, that I can explore at length.

   But then, rarely, you get that movie that means well, but stumbles in the execution, that brings a lot of potentially interesting elements together and neither bungles them nor does anything with them, and that is, at its core, fundamentally without any flaws or strengths you could meaningfully discuss or explore to the betterment of your understanding of the craft.

   I just don’t know what I’m supposed to say about Out of the Furnace. And that’s not because I’m not sure how I feel about it — mostly, I thought it was a bit boring. It’s not because I feel confused by it or as though I missed something — there were no stretches where it felt like something was going on that I wasn’t quite grasping, emotionally, thematically, what have you.

   Despite the director’s previous film, Crazy Heart (which, to my regret, I have not seen), being quite acclaimed and the cast being quite gifted and the fact that this probably wasn’t made as cynical box-office bait, nothing about Out of the Furnace feels new or interesting or passionate in any way.

   Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a weary member of the working class, laboring away at a local mill in double shifts, partly to support himself and partly to cover for his gambling brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is a veteran recently returned from Iraq.

   When Russell ends up in prison for a DUI incident and Rodney gets sent back to Iraq, both return to the free world as different men. In Rodney’s case, that means streetfighting for cash. When he heads off to New Jersey for a fight in a pit run by gangster Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and never comes back, Russell takes it upon himself to find and rescue his brother.

   I guess the issue here is that Out of the Furnace doesn’t seem to have any particular purpose. It lacks a reason for the story being told. Oh, I’m sure it has one, at least in theory, but it doesn’t come across on-screen.

   The most common read on it appears to be that it’s a commentary on the struggles of veterans when they return home and the cluttered, disorganized, and sometimes disinterested manner in which the system treats them. But I think it would be more accurate to say that Out of the Furnace merely invokes that in the same way Captain America: The Winter Soldier invokes government spying — not to explore the subject in depth but merely to be socially conscious and give the film a sense of time and place. Which is fine. I suppose the film’s title supports the notion that this is its reason for being. And we do get a window into some of what’s going on in Rodney’s life, albeit a small one that lacks detail. But it’s not interested in causes and symptoms and the real emotional undercurrents of the situation, and moreover, if that’s what it’s actually about, in what sense does it benefit at all from its main character being Russell?

   Equally common seems to be that it’s about a working class America that has lost hope. I might say the same thing about that, though; it merely invokes it. Yes, Russell and Rodney are not rich men. And that sets a lot of these things in motion. But a lot of it is external as well, and the places it leads have little to do with economic status.

   Is it dealing with Russell’s DUI? At a certain point, I wanted the film to be about this. The question of how you move on after accidentally doing something that awful fascinates me. How would you ever forgive yourself? But for being such an Earth-shattering event, it seems to affect very little of what comes later, beyond a single scene that briefly acknowledges Russell’s sorrow.

   It also seems as though it wants to say something meaningful about vengeance; it’s final scenes play out with a certain familiarity, hearkening to other, better films that managed to nail that moment emotionally and truly play out the decision being faced by the hero. Here, it simply doesn’t achieve any resonance. We don’t know the conflict, the hero’s internal struggle remains decidedly internal, and anyway, we don’t know where anyone stands on the issue ethically to begin with. Its left turn into being a violent revenge film is a fairly sharp one. And it simply feels as though nothing is explored and nothing is resolved.

   It’s got a good cast, and they all do good work. That’s to be expected. No one’s given anything challenging to do, though. We’ve seen most of them in parts like these before.

   The direction is…there. It’s not spectacular. It’s not noticeably bad in any places. It gets the job done. The atmosphere of it is lifted from a dozen other films focused on urban poverty. It, too, gets the job done.

   Everything gets the job done, really. All the elements are in place, but no one ever bothers to connect them. With this movie, it seems as though things just happen. I’m not sure why Russell had to go to prison, and I’m not sure why Rodney had to go back for another tour in Iraq. It seems as though the movie wouldn’t be different if Russell stayed where he was, and Rodney came back from the first tour with all that emotional baggage. The purpose of Russell’s relationship with girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) is lost on me as well. Russell’s initial foray into New Jersey in pursuit of his brother gleans no new information and affects nothing on a character level; it seems only to occupy space.

   It’s all fairly typical stuff. I’m not sure what went wrong here. But early on, Out of the Furnace just plain lost me. I don’t know what I can say other than that.

   -Matt T.