Archive for May, 2014

I, Frankenstein (2014)

Starring- Aaron Eckhart, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Bill Nighy, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Steve Mouzakis, Nicholas Bell

Director- Stuart Beattie

PG-13- sequences of intense fantasy action and violence throughout

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxOSPfUw3qw

   PREVIOUSLY, ON WRITERS BLOCK PARADE:

   So, that’s Vampire Academy. It’s terrible. I hope you find this information helpful. And yes, before anyone asks, I, Frankenstein and Pompeii are right at the top of my Netflix queue right now.

   THIS WEEK, ON WRITERS BLOCK PARADE:

   Matt continues his adventures in watching bad movies for what he can only guess are the same urges that compel him to read Yahoo News comments. Will he survive? Probably. Will he enjoy the movie?

   Yeah, no chance.

   I, Frankenstein — which I will be referring to as Sexy Frankenstein from here on out because I’ve been calling it that for so long that I’ll probably lapse into it accidentally anyway — had bad buzz long before it even hit theaters. Something disastrous happened at some convention, from what I’ve heard, and I can only assume that “something” was showing literally any footage from the movie because, yeah, that’d about do it.

   You all know the story of Frankenstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) — mad scientist attempts to bring the dead back to life, succeeds, finds that he’s actually created a monster that’s so lonely and emotional that it starts to kill, and so on. Sexy Frankenstein is about what happens later.

   After escaping his creator, the monster lives in isolation until demons begin to hunt him for reasons unknown. After one of these attacks, he’s taken in by the Order of Gargoyles, which you will remember as a very important part of Mary Shelley’s novel, who tell him they’ve been at war with the demons over the fate of the human race for centuries. They also give him the name Adam, and he sticks with that, because when an ancient gargoyle queen randomly decides to name you, I mean, why not? Are you strange?

   Anyway, Adam is a cool, dark lone wolf, yo, so he decides to stick it out on his own, armed with sacred weapons from the gargoyles, trying to unlock the secrets of his past while also staving off the demons that pursue him for reasons unknown.

   Mostly, hooray for cheap late-winter blockbusters! Sexy Frankenstein could not possibly be mistaken for anything else. For all the magical insanity going on in this thing, it somehow manages never to have it feel very magical. Or insane, for that matter, which I would also accept. The effects aren’t bad, but they have that distinctive flatness that comes with the territory of movies like these. You mostly buy them, but they never really sink in.

   But like effects could possibly save this thing. There isn’t really anything particularly redeeming going on in Sexy Frankenstein. Dramatizing character, people — it’s how you tell stories. Adam is a character right out of the 90s antihero camp, when we became obsessed with dark, violent, unpleasant heroes. We called them “complex” back then, but that was only true, like, five percent of the time, generously speaking. They were just as boring as the dumb, cheerful saints they were supposed to replace. Adam is very much the same way.

   His main motivation is trying to find and preserve the scientific journal documenting his creation. He says he wants answers about where he comes from. He never tells us the questions, though, because, well, he knows exactly where he came from. Is he just a curious scientific type who has to know the details? He knows what his creator wanted and why; I guess he’s just intrigued by the specifics.

   I think the movie tries to make him a better person — or perhaps someone whose awfulness is funneled in more productive directions. I say this mainly because of where the film ends up, though, and not how it gets there. Because it doesn’t. I think we’re supposed to get the impression that he learns to care about the fate of the human race. He spends the first half of the movie repeatedly saying that he doesn’t care, and in the end, he does put his life on the line for it. How he gets from Point A to Point B is anyone’s guess. And don’t tell me it’s the romance, because there’s barely one. I’m not sure you could even say that much. The movie makes a lot of the fact that he doesn’t have a soul, which means, inevitably, he’s going to get one, but I couldn’t tell you how that happens either — not the least because the story never even begins to specify what a soul is. Other than being dark and angry all the time, which, let’s face it, is true of plenty of humans who’ve been through less crap than this guy, he doesn’t act differently from anyone else. What would he even gain from having a soul? Is the movie trying to convince us that he gets one or that he realizes he had it all along?

   I don’t know. Confusing mythology is confusing. None of this ever really gets explained. The gargoyles fight the demons on the grounds that the latter plans, someday, to destroy the human race and enslave all who survive. Despite that, the humans are mostly unbothered in this movie; in fact, the gargoyles and demons seem to have made some sort of gentlemen’s agreement not to let the humans know their war is even happening. How they accomplish this is a mystery to me, by the way; I guess no one ever goes into the giant cathedral right in the middle of the city or happens to look up while spectacular battles take place in the sky around it. It’s hard to disguise your war when your species dies by exploding into a fiery ball or ascending as a wide ray of blue light, is what I’m saying.

   The action is all pretty straightforward, considering it’s demons vs. gargoyles. The latter fight in human form sometimes for reasons I can’t even begin to understand. The best this movie could’ve hoped for was to be so insane that I couldn’t care how flawed it was, but it somehow manages to make all this nuttiness totally mundane. There’s an unintentional laugh here and there, mostly at the expense of the filmmakers going out of the way to make Frankenstein’s monster a Twilight-level heartthrob with surprisingly well-defined musculature for a dead guy. “He’s mean, but you can save him.” Groan.

   I don’t know. I’ve kind of run out of things to say about this. I mean, there are a thousand other things I could make fun of, but there wouldn’t be any cohesion to it. And sitting down and explaining why its themes, largely inadvertent, don’t really play out, but I feel like that would be expending far too much brainpower on this thing. So, uh, see you next time, I guess. Don’t see Sexy Frankenstein.

   –Matt T.

The Monuments Men (2014)

Starring- George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas

Director- George Clooney

PG-13- some images of war violence and historical smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CreneTs7sGs

It seems that every year — mixed in with all the other surprises, disappointments, and everything in the middle — at least one of my most anticipated movies will end up letting me down hard. Unfortunately, this year, it’s The Monuments Men.

I really wanted this to be great. I’ve been following it since it was first announced — the cast was revealed alongside, and that alone would’ve been more than enough to pique my interest. But the story — from my understanding a moderately fictionalized retelling of the achievements of the real-life Monuments Men, artists sent overseas during World War II to save major cultural artifacts from theft or destruction at the hands of the Nazis — sounded right up my alley. I could already imagine the chemistry guys like Bill Murray and John Goodman would bring to our heroic team, and I could see George Clooney, both as director and star, bringing it that right amount of fun and gravitas. I imagined it as a more serious and thematically rich Indiana Jones, a bunch of likable old guys bumbling around in search of treasure and running from Nazis. And from the trailers, I got a sense that its themes would be an exploration of the importance of art to people and their progress as a race.

If I had made a list of my most anticipated movies of 2014, this probably would’ve been somewhere in the top ten. Maybe I put it on too high a pedestal. Then again, it’s not that The Monuments Men isn’t as good as I wanted it to be. It’s that it just plain isn’t good. And for me, it’s basically John Carter all over again — totally crushing.

It’s not necessarily that The Monuments Men uses all of its elements to ill effect; it’s that it doesn’t use them to any effect at all. It assembles an incredibly strong cast, a true story with a lot of cinematic potential, and a few great ideas. Then, it throws them out there and expects the magic will happen all on its own.

First off, this was sold as a team movie, and it mostly plays out as one, too, not devoting an excess of attention to any particular character. But the first thing it does as soon as it gets its characters to the front — which happens in about the first five minutes or so — is separate them into groups of two at the most and sometimes not even that.

None of the characters have any particular arc, with the possible exception of Cate Blanchette, and hers isn’t much more interesting than slowly growing to trust that the Monuments Men won’t simply keep her country’s treasures for themselves the way Russia has done. And that’s fine — a team movie is about the team. But these guys never really come together as a unit, both because they’re separated from one another for the vast majority of the film and because, surprisingly, none of them have any particular personality. The script simply seems to trust that the cast will do that job, and I suppose that’s a fair expectation, given this motley assembly of character actors, but it doesn’t happen. Each member of the Monuments Men is a light and unexplored facsimile of his actor’s usual persona.

George Clooney’s character is straight-laced. Matt Damon’s is earnest. John Goodman’s is a little bumbling. Bill Murray’s is very mildly sarcastic in the one or two scenes where he actually gets to do anything. Bob Balaban is a little uppity and irascible. Jean Dujardin is barely more cheerful than the rest. Hugh Bonneville is the stereotypical British teammate. And it’s not clear what role each member has within the team — we’re told what their basic discipline is, but it’s not clear how that plays into their search, as nearly all of them prove quite capable of identifying an artifact that probably should not be destroyed on sight. What are they doing during the many moments where they’re not chasing after artifacts? Just ambling around? Who’s the guy with the plan? Who’s the guy who provides emotional and moral support? Who’s the fun one? Who keeps the group together? When they’re near the front, who’s supposed to be doing what? Is one of them a good shot? Is another one good at identifying traps?

The Monuments Men are a group of loosely defined characters with no significant relationships to speak of, no in-depth motivations that the audience is allowed to know, no particular membership in the team, and only a vague overall mission.

There isn’t really a story either, in the sense that each scene directly informs the next or that the team is building toward one large goal with emphasized importance. They wander around, have minor adventures, find art, and move on to whatever’s next. None of them grow as people or as members of a group. The story moves forth arbitrarily, doing whatever it happens to decide it wants to do next. The closest thing it has to a climax is the Monuments Men loading up treasure super fast so the Russians don’t get to keep any of it.

The movie plays around with some of the big ideas I’d hoped it would — the importance of art, people’s relationship with it, the way that, used properly, it can guide societies toward something better and help individuals deal with the here and now — but it’s all purely discussion-based. Every now and then, somebody has to ask George Clooney why he’s doing this, and he has to give a big speech. The uninitiated will get absolutely nothing from it, because the movie does absolutely nothing to prove it. It doesn’t explore these ideas through the decisions people make and the consequences they bring about or through the ways in which they’re changed by their circumstances. No one has his or her worldview challenged or has to come to accept these ideas. They’re simply stated as justification for the story to even exist and then left hanging.

The Monuments Men could definitely have been a lot worse; it’s not as though it’s an active offense to one’s intelligence or film-going sensibilities. But given everything that went into it, it’s surprisingly and disappointingly stale and uninvolving. And it’s sad that this is probably the one and only time this story is ever going to be told, because there is such a great movie somewhere in here, and at times, you can even see a little bit of it. Unfortunately, as we feared, it ducked out of 2013’s awards zone for a reason.

 

-Matt T.

Vampire Academy (2014)

Starring- Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky, Gabriel Byrne, Dominic Sherwood, Olga Kurylenko, Sarah Hyland, Cameron Monaghan, Sami Gayle, Ashley Charles, Claire Foy, Joely Richardson

Director- Mark Waters

PG-13- violence, bloody images, sexual content and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1ERrnYunBg

HEY EVERYBODY THE STOVE IS STILL REALLY HOT BUT I KEEP TOUCHING IT BECAUSE I HATE MYSELF HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA—

I need to explain my process here both to save my dignity and to help all of you identify the exact form of insanity with which I am afflicted. At no point, when deciding to see films such as Vampire Academy, do I say, “This has a premise that interests me,” or, “Well, Vampire Academy got really terrible reviews, but I think it’s possible it may be underappreciated.”

Here’s what I say:

“Hey, Vampire Academy! I’ll bet that sucks!” *CLICK* *QUEUE UPDATED*

I used to think it was morbid curiosity, and yeah, it definitely is sometimes. But it’s not like I watched the reviews for Vampire Academy (NOTE: I accidentally started typing Twilight for a moment there) roll in and thought to myself, “How shocking! I expected that it would be bad, but upon my honor, 10 percent? I must see this for myself!”

No, I knew this would be bad, I knew its degree of badness, I knew the specific ways in which it would be bad, and even if I had reason to believe it would be good, it’s not like supernatural teen high school drama with love triangles is ever going to be my thing. But I watched it anyway because reasons. And now I’m going to write a review because reasons.

The Story: Indecipherable nonsense involving vampires. Seriously, I’m not even going to bother with the fifteen paragraphs of setup required for even a basic overview of the ridiculously complicated plot this thing got saddled with. I only remember one piece of this really extensive mythology: There are three types of vampires. One type is evil and insane and kills both people and vampires. Despite clearly being biologically different from the other vampires, you can choose to become one of these evil guys, through a process that as far as I can tell involves waking up in the morning and willing your mind into altering your genetic structure. The other two types of vampires are good: One of them has magic and is universally British. Despite having control over the elements, these guys are apparently really delicate flowers, so they have to be under the protection of the third type. Members of the third type appear to have absolutely no powers whatsoever, which is a raw deal, especially since they’re basically the military arm of vampiredom. But they do train how to fight in ways any ordinary human could learn, so…yay, being a vampire?

Anyway, Rose (Zoey Deutch) is the third type, and she has to protect Lissa (Lucy Fry), who is the second type, and the heir to something or other. Meanwhile, they go through stupid teenage stuff. That’s about as distilled as I can get this thing.

This is worse than both Twilight and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, so I really don’t know why the fabric of the universe appears to still be intact almost four months after the fact, but we should be grateful that space-time is apparently set in iron.

This is the sort of story I could imagine a 15-year-old Twilight fan writing in a notebook between classes. Its near-total lack of self-awareness blurs the line between earnestness and parody so hard that were it not for, you know, the entirety of the Internet, it wouldn’t even exist anymore. I mean, Twilight and The Mortal Instruments are both unintentionally amusing, but at least it’s clear that they’re trying to be serious. Vampire Academy is so profoundly stupid that I’m not even sure. I’m pretty sure it’s trying to tell an actual story, but some of the plot developments are so dumb and are played so unironically. Then, there’s that poster art, which is not art for a movie that’s taking itself seriously. I think maybe the studio got the finished product back, recoiled in horror, and without changing the actual film, tried to repackage it as Mean Girls-style high school comedy just to save face.

The juxtaposition of stupid high school melodrama with dark fantasy produces so many unintentional comedy gems. Characters with dumb, insignificant problems regularly turn to murder and evil sorcery to resolve them, so you get epic battle sequences where one of the participants is fighting because she’s awkward around boys or whatever. There’s a dream sequence in this movie where a character walks into the courtyard of the academy, only to have a spurned romantic interest charge out of the shadows and start slaughtering everyone, shouting stuff like, “We were destined to be together! Look what you made me do!” And until it was revealed to be a dream sequence, I absolutely believed it was actually happening, because the movie does things like that all the time.

The characters are all flat and/or cheesy, emphasis on and. Rose’s personality can be described as “being abrasive and determined to make her audience hate her.” Lissa could be described as delicate and, like, so tragic. The other kids at the school range between magic-wielding vampires who turn to petty bullying and really macabre pranks over idiotic social structures and dark, brooding love interests who are dangerous and edgy but actually are totally safe. That describes the whole movie, actually; unlike Twilight, it acknowledges the existence of sex and has Rose swear sometimes because she’s, like, so tough and cool. Then again, the vampires are all Christians, which, what?

There’s also a surprise villain, because I guess that’s obligatory in YA literature adaptations these days. Want to know when I called that the character was evil? First line of his/her first scene in the movie. No exaggeration. The actor is being directed to basically play his character as the Emperor from Star Wars — kindly and protective but in this way that, from the beginning, is clearly calculated and false. Because this movie doesn’t do subtlety.

I guess I didn’t see the other twist coming, but that’s on account of it being completely asinine.

None of this silliness benefits from being structured into a functional story. I think I accidentally referred to The Mortal Instruments as Exposition: The Motion Picture. For that, I would like to apologize. I didn’t know it got worse.

I’m not lying when I say this: Something like the first 20 minutes of the movie is nothing more than leaden exposition. There are 3,000 things you need to know to even begin to follow the story, and the movie just dumps it on you all at once. And it does it by having characters constantly explain things to each other even though they should already know it. And when I say constantly, I mean constantly. If, for example, Star Wars took the same approach as this movie, here’s how the opening scene would play out:

ENTER: DARTH VADER

STORMTROOPER: Welcome, Lord Vader, the commander of our Imperial legions, a Sith Lord, and the apprentice to the Emperor for a period of time approaching 18 years.

DARTH VADER grabs the CAPTAIN

VADER: Where are the plans to the Death Star, our superweapon capable of destroying an entire planet? You stole them from us during an act of espionage for the use of the Rebel Alliance, a group of freedom-fighters that rose up against us after we seized power?

CAPTAIN: Princess Leia, a former senator from the planet Alderaan, is on the vessel and has them!

I wish this was exaggeration, but it’s not. There are scenes in this movie that play out alarmingly like that.

It doesn’t even build its world well, and not just because most of it is established through a massive verbal info-dump right off the bat. Rose and Lissa aren’t humans who become vampires; they were born that way. But the movie treats them like the former is what’s true, because they’re always commenting on how weird and creepy everyone and everything is. It’s repeatedly established that the vampires have basically no contact with the outside world — when Rose returns from having escaped, one of them asks her what a hashtag is — but in another scene, Rose makes a dumb joke about Hot Topic, and nobody bats an eye. The whole thing is random and stupid and unfocused and GAH.

For all its information density, it can’t even get the basics straight. I’m still not sure what the villains were planning on doing here. As far as I can tell, their evil plot has exactly one step, so I’m not sure why they spend the entire movie doing dark and mysterious things in the background. And the movie has a million plot points and characters that are dropped immediately and never revisited — almost as many plot points and characters as show up out of nowhere and act like they’ve been a part of this deal the entire time.

Also, just in case it forgot to cover Twilight’s squickiness, there’s a romance between a teenager and a guy who’s probably in his thirties. Seriously, what in the world is happening to teen lit right now?

So, that’s Vampire Academy. It’s terrible. I hope you find this information helpful. And yes, before anyone asks, I, Frankenstein and Pompeii are right at the top of my Netflix queue right now.

Somebody help me stop this.

 

   -Matt T.

Godzilla (2014)

Starring- Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Carson Bolde, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn

Director- Gareth Edwards

PG-13- intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIu85WQTPRc

   Godzilla is the best movie in recent memory that’s literally only one hiring decision away from being terrible — and that hiring decision is director Gareth Edwards.

   Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is an employee at a nuclear power plant on the coast of Japan when something goes horribly awry, destroying the facility and taking many of its workers with it — including Joe’s wife (Juliette Binoche).

   Fifteen years later, Joe is a raving conspiracy theorist, utterly convinced that the incident that killed his wife was no natural occurrence and obsessed with finding out what the government is hiding. When he gets arrested for trespassing, yet again, into the quarantine zone, his military veteran son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) reluctantly heads overseas to bail him out — only to learn exactly how right his father is.

   Two enormous monsters — dubbed MUTOs — are unleashed on the world, wreaking havoc on humanity as they search for one another. And the only thing that can stop them is nature’s balancing element: Godzilla.

   Godzilla has an engrossing power to it that leaves you fairly well riveted for most of its run-time, so it’s almost astonishing, in retrospect, to consider exactly how deeply flawed — in that very little that goes on here, other than Gareth Edwards’ involvement, works on almost every level.

   This is as basic as screenplays get, and of course, you expect that. Sometimes, you go to the movies for no other reason than to see giant monsters wreck cities, and there’s only a limited amount of shame in that. You don’t necessarily need a story that really explores human nature or morality or whatever. Still, no one’s going to manage sitting through two hours of relentless monster fighting, no matter how good it is, so we do have to attach stories to these things, and it’s more important that they work than people realize. This one really doesn’t. At all.

   The first thing I should mention is that Godzilla is a Godzilla movie for people who don’t actually want a whole lot of Godzilla in their Godzilla movies. That decision is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s true that we live in an era where cinematic sights that used to strike us with awe have become commonplace and threaten to become so much of a muchness. Sometimes, hiding things in the edges of the frame, giving us one glimpse after another, building it up until the big reveal so there will still be something fresh and wondrous and terrifying about it. And yeah, Godzilla gets a lot of mileage out of that. On the other hand, if our monster movie is going to deny us our monsters, it’d better have something else interesting in its place. Godzilla doesn’t.

   The human story in this movie, which occupies the majority of its run-time, is almost totally unworkable. There’s no real arc or trajectory to it, nothing going on where the characters are growing or changing or responding emotionally to what’s happening to them. And those characters are flat — none more so than our protagonist, Ford Brody. He was chosen to be the lead character via the method too many of our disaster movies cast those roles: throwing darts at the Wall of People Who Will Be Running from the Monster and going with whatever sticks. He’s a flat character with flat relationships and flat motivations and a flat connection to the overarching theme of man’s powerlessness — and inexplicable arrogance — in the face of nature. And whether it’s because he’s untested or because he has nothing to work with, Aaron Taylor-Johnson brings basically nothing to this character. This movie is in desperate need of a Tom Cruise, someone who can play underwritten characters with so much intensity and conviction of their circumstances that the bad writing doesn’t even matter.

   The cast is strange all around, actually. This is a wide assembly of Emmy and Oscar winners and nominees and rising indie darlings, and Godzilla doesn’t do a thing with any of them.

   After the success of Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston is in the position to do whatever he wants, and Elizabeth Olsen seemed like she was doing whatever she wanted even when she wasn’t in that position, so it’s hard to guess what got them to make their major blockbuster debut in this. Despite what the trailers have shown, both characters have extremely limited roles and not all that much screen-time, and neither has much identity. Cranston definitely has the most room to work emotionally, but even he can’t really stretch it further than angry and desperate.

   And then you’ve got Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as a pair of scientists in pursuit of Godzilla. Watanabe is probably the second-biggest presence in the film after Taylor-Johnson, but it’s a presence that’s completely lacking in depth — his character gets to say exposition and, occasionally, trailer-worthy statements of ominous portent. As for Hawkins, I don’t even know what the filmmakers were thinking. Her role could’ve been played by a no-name and credited as Scientist No. 1 for all she gets to do. She’s fresh off an Academy Award nomination, and the best the movie can find for her to do is be wide-eyed while listening to Watanabe ramble and sometimes, every hour or so, to have a short line of purely informational dialogue. There is no way this movie could’ve squandered its cast harder.

   So, these are the figures we follow for the hour it takes Godzilla to show up. Again, I like the slow burn of tension and anticipation it achieves during that period, but there’s a major structural problem — the MUTOs show up first, and thus, the biggest and best reveals are reserved for them. Godzilla isn’t really anything too special by the time he makes his debut, and he feels very much like a minor peripheral character in his own movie.

   If you’d given this project to any of the usual suspects in Hollywood’s reserve of indistinct, easily controlled, and not particularly talented directors — with the exact same script and the exact same cast — there’s no way I’d be writing a positive review of this movie right now. But they gave it to Gareth Edwards, and that made all the difference. He saved this movie. I don’t know if that even describes it — usually, when I say that someone saved a movie, I mean they took something average and elevated it just enough that it became watchable. Edwards, on the other hand, took Godzilla from a three or four out of ten to, like, a seven, purely on the strength of his conviction in the iconography of this character.

   Like I said, the decision to hold off on the monster fighting just draws more attention to the thinness of the script. But it’s also, in its own way, what saves it. If you’re only going to get one thing right in a Godzilla movie, it had better be the money shots, and Edwards nails each and every one of them. I suspect most other directors would be foaming at the mouth to get to the part where the giant monsters start firing radiation at each other, and probably we’d be sick to death of it by the time its inevitable three-hour run-time finally elapsed. But Edwards opts for patience and chooses to lead into his action sequences with a quiet and tense touch that inches closer to outright terror the longer he holds it — and he really holds it. He’s made a film that doesn’t allow you to get overly accustomed to its wonders — and what wonders it possesses!

   I truly am glad we have movies like this and Pacific Rim coming along to instruct us all on how to do scale well. Godzilla establishes its environments and human consequences carefully and subsequently doesn’t lose its subjects in visual chaos — except for the moments where that’s the point. And Edwards is almost always showing us these beasts from a human perspective. He rarely brings his camera up to their height and focuses solely on them. Mostly, we see them from low angles, even when it’s just them, fighting each other. We see snippets of them in the backgrounds of our human characters, getting an actual sense of how badly they outsize them. We catch them in cities, stomping through skyscrapers that are scarcely three-fourths of their height. There’s real weight to them, too, a sense of tangibility that begins to make them feel a bit less like CGI creations. Edwards uses sound and effects in much the same way Guillermo del Toro did in Pacific Rim to make you feel the earth quake beneath each footstep and the crunch of each blow the monsters strike against one another.

   Edwards is good enough that he manages to sell the theme — well, it’s more of a social issues reference, because it’s not like Godzilla really exists to challenge the mind — solely through his direction. The characters only briefly discuss it, and there’s little if anything in their decisions that wrestles with it, but it’s hard not to quiver at the sight of mankind in nature’s uncaring grasp when it’s shot with such power and force. Beneath every action sequence is an overbearing sense of a world completely out of control, one that does not bend to humanity’s whims.

   And the effects team deserves praise here as well; they’ve put genuine detail and texture into the monsters they’ve created. Plus, it’s nice to see a big, bulky Godzilla, looking like an actual living thing but still having the basic structure of a guy in a suit like the olden days.

   I didn’t really know what to think of Edwards being brought onto this project. Hollywood does that kind of thing all the time these days — picking up a small-time director with an indie hit to ensure that it doesn’t suck while wielding too little power to get weird or difficult with it. Here, though, it was the right decision. Edwards saved this movie. He made it worth seeing — and probably in theaters.

   Whether he made it worth seeing again…well, the jury’s still out on that one.

-Matt T.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Starring- Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adam Scott, Paul Fitzgerald, Adrian Martinez, Shirley MacLaine, Marcus Antturi, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt

Director- Ben Stiller

PG- some crude comments, language and action violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1Xk-yTuFEU

   Our hero, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), is basically an amicable guy who probably deserves a little better than he’s got — if only he’d reach out and grab it. The movie about him — a remake of a film that I’d previously never heard of — is kind of the same way. It means well, but it dodders about in uncertainty and convention and never quite takes off.

   Walter is a shy and extremely awkward sort with a bad habit of zoning out of reality and into wild fantasies where he’s the hero or the cool guy or the one who gets the girl. Sometimes, he’s fantasies aren’t so wild — they’re nothing more than mental images of what he should’ve done but didn’t because he was too afraid.

   He works as a photo manager for Life Magazine, where he watches an attractive coworker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), from afar, trying and failing to work up the nerve. He has one career advantage, and that’s his friendship with a popular adventurer (Sean Penn) who sends him cover-worthy photos for the magazine.

   But when his friend’s latest submission — said to be the perfect photo for the final issue of Life before it goes online — turns up missing, Walter faces a choice: Lose his job, or conquer his fears to traverse the globe in pursuit of the picture.

   The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t terrible; there’s a lot that I like about it, enough that seeing it fade out on its promise as it goes along was a disappointing experience. I like Walter — primarily because I see so much of myself in him. I like what it’s trying to say — that, ultimately, happiness is about realizing that sometimes, we’re fantasizing about things we could actually do, and then actually doing them. I like that it more or less actually says that without overt contradiction or troubling undercurrents, even if it is a bit haphazard in structuring that message into a narrative. I like the cinematography, which is beautiful, though maybe a touch repetitive (each new landscape Walter surveys is approached in largely the same way as the last). I enjoy the lightness of the comedy and the fact that it doesn’t try too hard and that it doesn’t take away from the story in any way. I really like that it’s actually willing to end on a bit of an uncertain note: Yeah, Walter gets more of what he wants than maybe he would in real life, but I’m okay with that, and it’s more important to me that he doesn’t get everything — at least, not yet. There’s some ambiguity there, and room for the characters to continue growing after the credits roll. It’s hopeful but not entirely dishonest. I appreciate that.

   There are some problems that emerge early on. I’ll start with the obvious one — the product placement in this movie is totally ridiculous. Could they not get a studio to fund this production or something? Yes, we do live in a world full of brands, and brands, therefore, show up in our art. There’s a difference, though, between a character casually drinking a Pepsi in a scene and a character drinking a Pepsi and then talking about it for no reason, just as there’s a difference between a character typing on a Macbook and typing on a Macbook while telling their friends how many awesome features their Macbook has.

   Walter has a profile on eHarmony that’s the subject of a minor subplot, and at least one conversation he has about it starts getting into the features for some reason. Life Magazine is totally sainted in this movie; it’s the magical birthplace of inspiration and creativity. Papa John’s is tied into a tragic part of Walter’s backstory for, again, basically no narrative reason. And it ends up wrapping the themes in so much artifice that you start to feel a little deceived.

   On top of that — it’s somewhat inevitable, given what it is and who it’s made for, but from the get-go, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a bit…twee. I don’t know that, on its own, it would ruin the movie, but in conjunction with everything else, it’s noteworthy. It spells out its message with a fairly heavy hand — it even spells out its message literally, as in, with inspiring little quotes like you find on motivational posters sometimes showing up in the background in front of pretty pieces of scenery.

   And it’s constantly slipping into genre convention from time to time. Raise your hand if this describes you: You’ve seen a drama wherein the third act is predicated upon a dumb misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up if the characters had behaved like human beings and not just wandered off to wallow in assumptions. That’s always going to be a major eye-roller for me.

   But I think the movie’s biggest problem emerges roughly midway through: When Walter makes the decision to embark on his adventure, that marks the essential completion of his arc. That’s the moment where he learns that if he wants something, he should reach out and grab it instead of fantasizing about all the great things he’d do if he wasn’t scared. After that, all we get is a series of increasingly uninvolving scenes in which he demonstrates that growth. You get your climax, you get your catharsis, and then you get…an additional hour of movie for some reason.

   And it should probably be established in brief that there’s a difference between learning to seize the day and getting into helicopters with pilots who are clearly falling-down drunk. Just to be clear.

   Honestly, it’s pretty hard to hate The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Other than the product placement, it seems as though it means well and was made with love and care — if not love and care that resulted in outstanding success. It’s a little cobbled-together and ordinary and not all that interesting.

   -Matt T.

Ride Along (2014)

Starring- Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Bryan Callen, Laurence Fishburne

Director- Tim Story

PG-13- sequences of violence, sexual content and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5klp6rkHIks

Ah, the January/February doldrums — where not everything is awful (though it regularly is) but all of it has mere competence as its highest aim and lack of competition as its expectation.

Ride Along isn’t terrible, but it’s passionless and safe. School security guard Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) plans on marrying his longtime girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter), but there’s one obstacle to overcome — her protective brother James (Ice Cube), a tough cop with a thousand different axes to grind who hates everything about Ben.

Desperate to get rid of Ben, James comes up with a plan to take his potential brother-in-law — who has recently been accepted into the local police academy — on a ride-along under the auspices of giving him a chance to prove himself but with the intention of embarrassing and scaring him out of both the engagement and his dreams of being a police officer.

Of course, it all goes awry, and James’ longstanding obsession with a mysterious local kingpin comes back to haunt both of them. And what started out as an innocuous day becomes a fight for survival for the unlikely pair.

The main problem with Ride Along is that it just isn’t very funny, which is a bit of an Achilles’ heel for a comedy. It’s not unfunny, necessarily; I wasn’t constantly cringing the way I am during your average Adam Sandler production. Ride Along does have a laugh here and there, but mostly, it goes for safe and easy humor you’ve seen a thousand times. The moment it sets up its situations, you know largely how they’re going to play out — Ben is told to interrogate a child; naturally, that child is going to manage to get the upper hand on him. He’s told to arrest a drunken man freaking out in a grocery store; naturally, that turns into a total disaster. Some of it’s just obvious, like when the movie takes a break in the middle of a car chase for a “Prisues are for wimps” joke. It’s all pretty textbook stuff.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie if not for the fact that the trailers for it got a few begrudging chuckles out of me. But that just proves the power of editing in ensuring that a joke lands with timing and energy. Within the context of the film, a lot of these scenes aren’t very funny anymore. They’re too awkwardly shoehorned into the rest of what’s going on or are too laid back or are too loud or are sandwiched between a thousand other jokes and become white noise.

There’s potential with both Ice Cube and Kevin Hart to at least create a certain chemistry of antagonism, but even that falls flat. The movie tries too hard to put them on complete opposite ends of the spectrum and thus allows Kevin Hart to spend so much time shrieking and babbling that the sound of his voice rapidly becomes the music of hell, while Ice Cube is so reserved that he barely even registers as a presence in the film. It’s strange, seeing as how he has a producer credit, but throughout, Mr. Cube seems like he’d rather be doing just about anything else. It’s very much a show-up-and-cash-a-paycheck performance.

Plus, there’s some conflict in the movie’s balance of story and humor. There are certain approaches for certain contexts; sometimes, your movie’s just loony or absurd, or it’s satire, and your plot is structured around that. Sometimes, there’s a basically workable story under the surface, and you have to get your humor out of the characters and the tone, allowing everything that happens internally to be taken seriously, to an extent. Ride Along spends a lot of its time doing the former, but it rapidly becomes clear that it should be doing the latter. There is a villain and the bare bones of a plot, and there are moments where the laughs drain out and the whole affair becomes quite serious, but the movie undermines that by having characters step out of their immediate needs to make a joke. Again, the Prius bit — in order to make that joke, James, apropos of nothing, has to briefly abandon his in-the-moment motivation, i.e. catching the bad guy, taking us out of the story and out of his character. Some movies are all about that sort of thing, but this one seems like it would work better if the characters were totally unaware of the fact that it’s a comedy and instead pursued whatever it is they’re after with the passion of an actual human being — while the laughs are being drawn from what they’re doing or who they are or the increasing ridiculousness of their situation. For an example of what I mean, watch a Coen Brothers comedy or basically any Edgar Wright movie, as both of them are excellent at maintaining this balance.

Finally, on a broader storytelling level, Ride Along proceeds with too much of a sense of obligation. The resolution to every storyline is broadcast a mile away, and you know by the end of the film who will be where and why and how the characters will feel about their situation and about one another and the series of events that came together to make it so.

In no element of Ride Along is there any meaningful sense of joy or passion, whether that’s the humor or the story or the acting (sans maybe Kevin Hart, who’s giving it is all — in fact, probably a little bit too much of his all) or the visual construction. It’s just a safe late-winter action-comedy, destined to be forgotten before the year of 2014 even concludes.

 

-Matt T.

Heaven Is for Real (2014)

Starring- Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum, Lane Styles, Margo Martindale

Director- Randall Wallace

PG- thematic material including some medical situations

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

   Heaven Is for Real: Closer, but still no cigar. And not just because it’s religious.

   Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small country church who busies himself with hospital visits, community events, and volunteer firefighting, while living happily with his wife (Kelly Reilly) and two young children (Connor Corum and Lane Styles) — though tensions arise as crippling debt threatens to upend their lives.

   After a family vacation, both children fall ill — but Colton, the younger of the two, stays that way. With no end in sight to his fever, his parents rush him to the hospital — just in time for doctors to narrowly save his life from complications resulting from a ruptured appendix.

   Things soon return to normal. But within days, Colton starts telling fantastical stories about his time on the operating table — about a trip to heaven and back.

   I’m not going to dwell overmuch on the things you already know are wrong with this, based both on what it is and what we see in the trailers. It’s caught between its two primary tones, which are, respectively, schmaltzy and adorable. It tries extremely hard throughout to create all these Hallmark-ready moments with cute kids doing cute stuff or folksy country people praying on their tractors and such. The entire movie, heaven and Earth alike, is shot in soft gold and sky blue. In other words, it’s not particularly subtle. And that is not particularly shocking.

   But, weirdly, I actually want to accentuate the positive here a little bit. Because, in all honesty, Heaven Is for Real is probably the best Christian movie ever made. Two qualifiers — firstly, when I say “Christian movie,” I mean something very specific and somewhat hard to describe, but for simplicity’s sake, it includes anything pitched almost exclusively at conservative evangelicalism and branded, to at least some extent, as a “culture wars” property; secondly, calling Heaven Is for Real the best Christian movie ever made says a lot more about its competition than about the film itself, because I still wouldn’t vouch for its quality. It just gets a lot closer than other movies of its type. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s nowhere near arrived.

   Its main success is on a technical level — and when I say this, I don’t mean its budget, although its heightened funding access definitely allowed it to shoot for some heavenly imagery just loopy enough for me to have mixed feelings about it. What I mean is that, for once, one of these movies actually has a decent eye behind the camera. I don’t know how much I credit director Randall Wallace for this; his direction can actually be a touch haphazard in places. But the cinematography is actually top notch, and that’s something that has nothing whatsoever to do with its budget, just the talent of the guy holding the camera. It meets in the middle, essentially — the shots are not always well chosen within the larger context of the scene, but they are always very pretty regardless.

   Heaven Is for Real also leaps way ahead of its competition by, despite its branding, resisting the urge to again, be a “culture wars” property. There’s very little of the smug self-congratulation, tribalism, blatant dishonesty, and intentional divisiveness that have me avoiding fare like God’s Not Dead for fear of what it would do to my blood pressure.

   I mean, I still wouldn’t call it the most honest thing ever made. That’s not to say that it openly lies to get its message across or anything, but it still exists largely to preach to the choir. But hey, I’m just as guilty of enjoying the occasional bit of comfort food more than I should. I will say that there’s a scene with an atheist character that rang a bit dishonest — nothing like the sheer comeuppance festival that character’s appearance in similar films would provoke, of course, but it still slips in totally unnecessary implications of anger at God rather than genuine disbelief and also makes her a touch cattier than everyone else, even if not to the point of being totally unbearable.

   In truth, the film’s insular nature is probably what saves it. It’s the Christian characters who experience the most doubt and turmoil over what Colton tells them, and even the atheist gets to make one or two points that are recognized as genuinely good ones. Heaven Is for Real isn’t angry or repeatedly patting itself on the back, and that actually makes it something of a breath of fresh air in the current climate.

   Where it goes wrong is where a lot of movies go wrong — not just in this genre, but across the board. It fails to connect its story to its characters in a way that’s truly emotionally involving.

   To their credit, the filmmakers seem to be aware that whatever people come for, they stay for the emotional content. For that reason, they actually do spend some time building a meaningful connection between father and son, which gets the movie through some rough patches. Unfortunately, that’s not what the story’s about — it’s about a man questioning his faith because of extraordinary circumstances in his life. And on that front, Heaven Is for Real gives its audience almost nothing.

   I don’t know of it was trying to be as non-denominational as possible or if it simply overlooked this point, but the specifics of Todd Burpo’s theology are basically never explored. We don’t know what sort of denomination he is, what he believes on a variety of controversial spiritual topics, the extent to which his faith impacts his life outside the church, and ­— perhaps most importantly — what he figures is going to happen to him after he dies.

   When Colton starts talking about his visit to heaven, Todd’s life is thrown upside-down, and he has a major crisis of faith. Why? Good question. I don’t know the answer. His entire world gets shaken, but we have no idea the composition, strength, or importance of that world to begin with. For the rest of the movie, we see people responding emotionally to the effects of Colton’s story on their lives and religious beliefs, but we have no foundation from which to work. We can’t be emotionally invested in this idea — or even intellectually invested in it — if we don’t have a human component accurately conveying how these events would play out in the everyday lives of real people. We start with vague spirituality and immediately run headfirst into something that’s more specific, despite the movie’s best efforts to still keep it on the vague side.

   And since the rest of the movie consists largely of conversations about what Colton’s experience means, the whole thing just dies right before your eyes. It’s like sitting off to the side and eavesdropping on a bunch of strangers holding a Bible study group.

   Nevertheless, I have definitely seen worse.

   -Matt T.