Archive for July, 2014

Winter’s Tale (2014)

Starring- Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt, Mckayla Twiggs, Will Smith, Jennifer Connelly, Ripley Sobo, Eva Marie Saint

Director- Akiva Goldsman

PG-13- violence and some sensuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBSj1MKwx6A

Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I don’t want to be mean to Winter’s Tale. Morbid curiosity compels me to watch a lot of cynical Hollywood product in a year, so I know it when I see it. Winter’s Tale isn’t it. The actors all clearly believe they’re involved with something special. And mere products don’t usually get written, directed, and produced by the same person. Plus, it’s based on a book that a lot of people swear up and down is one of the greatest things ever. Honestly, it gets sadder the more I read into its history; it seems like this was a passion project for Akiva Goldsman.

That passion can go a long way. I can think of a number of films that I can’t really defend narratively or thematically but that are a joy to watch solely because of how earnest they are. Most of them were released in the 80s. Pretty much all of them were released in the 80s. But there is an upper limit to that, somewhere.

There really isn’t any nice way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it: Winter’s Tale is awful. Not just regular old awful — it’s that rare and baffling kind of awful where everything about it is so wildly wrong that you can’t understand how any of it even happened.

It’s a totally ridiculous and half-baked fantasy drama populated with stale, wooden characters, written with the poetic flair of a freshman creative writing major, and shot through what appears to be a lens made of melted Reese’s peanut butter cups. It’s just confusing.

It begins with a thief, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), in early 1900s New York City. Past associates in the criminal underworld — chiefly his former boss, a guy named Pearly (Russell Crowe) — very much want him dead, so he’s on the run. That’s when he meets Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a wealthy young woman who’s dying of consumption. They fall in love. But angels and demons, fighting a war for the human race, set their sights on the pair. Every human, apparently, has within him or her exactly one miracle. Those miracles, if they are allowed to take place, tip the balance in favor of the angels. And both sides believe that Peter is destined to use his on Beverly.

That’s about the least ridiculous thing about Winter’s Tale. Keeping in mind that I do mean actual miracles here; this isn’t like the sort of Hallmark drama with some sappy message about how everyday life and the little things we do all the time can be miracles or whatever. No, we’re talking “Second Coming of Christ” stuff here. But that’s just the beginning in a movie that also includes immigrants rescuing a baby Moses-style by stuffing him into a model boat and floating him to America, the main character befriending a magic guardian angel horse with butterfly wings, Will Smith playing Satan, people having real-world diseases kissed out of them on magical snow beds, a man deciding to burn with his house because his late wife hand-picked all the furniture, and a guy with a magic watch that allows him to time travel. I only made up one of those.

Winter’s Tale is one goofy piece of work. And that doesn’t have to be a problem, but man does it ever not know that at all. This movie takes itself pretty seriously, and you can tell it’s trying really hard to say Important Things. It’s diving into theology and mortality and destiny and lots of other heavy topics that require a fairly delicate hand.

Winter’s Tale’s hand is thunderously indelicate.

What we’ve got here falls very definitely under the category of Movie Philosophy — as in, it layers everything in so much pretense and awful poetry and pure emotionalism that none of it makes a lick of sense in real-world application. I suspect, most likely, though I obviously wouldn’t know, that the difference in quality between the book and the movie lies here — this is clearly meant to be a Narnia-style allegory with the fantastical concepts standing in for real-world issues or at least being used to draw those out in the reactions of the characters. Winter’s Tale, on the other hand, takes its in-universe theology so literally that part of me kind of wonders if Akiva Goldsman actually thinks we can all perform miracles and turn into stars when we die.

It’s mainly focused on the notion of destiny — it doesn’t explore the nature of its universe’s god very much, even less the effect of its existence upon humanity — which, admittedly, is a hard subject to address in storytelling. I’m not exactly sure how you’d argue for it in a story. Destiny is the idea that everything is a rigged game where no one really has a choice in matters. So, since it has a writer, characters in a story are inherently destined for something. You can’t just show us a rigged game and then say, “See? Destiny! We have one, too!” Which is exactly what Winter’s Tale does. It’s the closest it comes to making any salient point about reality. It concludes with voiceover monologues to the effect of: “Maybe we’re all connected, and maybe our destiny extends beyond this lifetime! The universe loves us and will bend over backwards to make sure that we are all saved from our afflictions!” And I’m like, “Well, I just watched two hours of a magic horse (okay, I’ll admit that was one of the ones I didn’t make up) intervening in the lives of humans over a period of nearly a century to ensure that everyone does their miracles for the right people, so, uh…what’s your stance on the existence of magic horses?”

I should point out, while I’m on the subject, that the last line of the monologue I alluded to above is pretty close to the way it’s delivered in the movie. For contextual reasons, I can’t say exactly why without spoiling elements of the ending, but I have seen some critics take offense at the ridiculous amount of privilege assumed by the speaker in that case. I definitely see where they’re coming from; if that’s intended on the film’s part to count as a statement about reality — and since it’s the ending, I have to assume that it is, at least a little bit — it’s patently false and almost hurtful in the extent to which it brushes aside the suffering of actual people. But I can’t be offended by it because, again, the film exists so far outside of reality and is doing so little to frame its ludicrous story in any terms that one might find relatable that I can’t even apply it to serious philosophical debates. Honestly, I’m not even sure the film realizes that well-told stories will always say something thematically; if they don’t, it means the characters weren’t wrestling with anything, had no conflicts, and experienced no changes at all over the course of the story, which couldn’t, therefore, have possibly been emotionally engaging on any significant level. Which is to say that it was a bad movie.

I think Winter’s Tale is one of those movies that’s conflated importance with big, sweeping emotions that are only tangentially related to anything larger. It’s hard to imagine a movie surviving with that fundamental a misunderstanding of where emotionally storytelling actually comes from, but Winter’s Tale doesn’t even make it out of the gate. It falls flat on its face from the beginning. Every single character in this is boring — and when you consider the absurdity of parts of this movie, that’s saying something. They’re blank, empty vessels who go through the motions of human feeling but are ultimately indistinct apart from their tendency to suddenly start improvising college-level poetry whenever they start feeling things. The romance that is the foundation for this entire movie doesn’t even start working; it’s not clear what Peter or Beverly need or why they find it in one another. It’s another one of those love-at-first-sight things that so rarely sustain entire films.

I wish I could say that you’ll at least get some pretty imagery out of it, but for the most part, don’t count on it. The story has two settings — New York in the past and New York in the present — and like too many movies, it decided to distinguish between the two by putting the scenes that take place in the past through a brown filter. But it is really, really brown. A major plot point involves one character having red hair. Do you know when I realized that she had red hair? When the characters told me. Because this movie is so brown that I couldn’t discern the color red. You can see why this might be a problem.

And when it gets to the wild special effects stuff, like every time Rainbow Dash the Guardian Angel goes on one of her inspiring flights, everything just comes off flat. There’s no sense of wonder or discovery attached to it. I mean, the movie’s trying, but there’s only so much pretty colors and slathering everything in sweeping musical cues can accomplish.

That describes the whole of Winter’s Tale, honestly — it’s trying, and it’s trying hard. And that makes it kind of depressing. It’s like the children’s story The Little Engine That Could if the little engine never actually got to the top of the hill. Winter’s Tale not only doesn’t get to the top of the hill; it suffers a catastrophic misfire before it even pulls out of the station. You really want it to succeed, but it’s clear before even ten minutes have elapsed that you’re in for a disappointment. So much love and care went into it that it’s actually kind of hard to slam it like this. But all I can say at this point is: “Better luck next time.”

-Matt T.

Joe (2014)

Starring- Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Jean Blevins, Adriene Mishler

Director- David Gordon Green

R- violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT-rEF6RIPA

   Nicolas Cage is one of my favorite celebrities to try to psychologize. I’m not talking about his performances here — I’m very firmly on the side that says he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s been in bad movie after bad movie, giving one spacey and absurd performance after another, but I see nothing but calculation behind each dumb haircut, each bout of random screaming, each moronic line delivered with a mixture of loathing and strange sincerity. He’s got the kind of comic timing that just doesn’t happen by accident.

   But it is fun trying to figure out what he wants out of it all. Well, money, duh — I understand the guy’s, like, a billion years behind on his taxes or something — but you’d think he’d have been in the position to get paid for quality roles or that even if he’s doing whatever pays, something good would come across his desk here and there. That’s what makes me wonder if he’s just totally satisfied with cementing his reputation as one of the all-time great Large Hams.

   But if he’s just taking whatever his agent hands him, I suspect he did a little happy dance when he read over the script for Joe.

   Yes, come ‘round, gather here, one and all, young and old alike (though probably not young because rated R and stuff) — see the one, the only, Nicolas Cage giving a legitimately good performance in a legitimately good movie! (Since it’s probably going to be the only one for another decade or so.)

   Cage plays Joe, a semi-reformed con man who now runs a small business killing landowners’ trees so they can plant stronger ones in their place. One day, a teenage boy named Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) stumbles across Joe’s latest work site and, spur of the moment, asks if he can have a job. Joe sees something in the kid — who turns out to be dirt poor, living in a condemned building with his abusive drunk father (Gary Poulter) — and agrees. And before long, Joe finds he’s become a father figure to the boy.

   Cage really is quite good in this. It’s a refreshing and unfamiliar sight for me, especially, having grown up largely in the timeframe when Wicker Man Nicolas Cage was the only one that existed anymore. I have no memory of an era when the Nicolas Cage conversation didn’t center mainly on his self-awareness level.

   Joe is proof that he really does know what he’s doing, even if 95 percent of that is “being ridiculous.” He carries this movie easily. And it’s not as though Joe’s a simple character to pull off. He’s a complex leading man for what turns out to be a fairly complex movie. Joe’s criminal record mainly consists of assault. He’s an angry man, suffering bouts of rage uncontrollable enough to potentially qualify as some sort of mental disorder. He knows that, though, and he doesn’t want to be that way. He deliberately avoids situations that he knows will upset him. And when his safeguards fail, he goes into desperation mode, doing whatever he has to do in order to calm himself before something bad happens.

   Gary brings out the best in him. That Joe isn’t the greatest guy doesn’t particularly matter in a relationship like that. He is, by nearly anyone’s standards, a pretty awful father figure — he buys the 15-year-old beer, he lets him drive, he teaches him tricks for avoiding police on the highway, he gives him more than a little questionable advice. That’s not the point — Gary is a kid with no future. He’s never been affirmed for his work ethic. He’s been taking care of what’s left of his family and has never once had an adult in his life care for him. No one’s ever put his needs before theirs or helped him get ahead in life. Most importantly, no one’s ever really loved him. That’s what Joe is to Gary — not a responsible role model but a presence Gary desperately needs in his life. He’s someone who treats him like an adult, gives him a chance, takes an interest in him, and helps him out when he needs it.

   There’s something about the way Joe maintains that balance that’s actually somewhat inspiring. The film is set exclusively within the confines of severe rural poverty, where nearly everyone has given up and those who haven’t are toiling seemingly in vain and suffering under the weight of their circumstances. There isn’t much hope there, and for a kid like Gary, there really isn’t anyone to show him the way to something better. What happens here is not a knight in shining armor swooping in to clean up the mess and save the day. It’s ordinary people — and for the most part, you probably wouldn’t call them good people — finding it within themselves not even necessarily to do the right thing but to act on their better impulses in such a way that redirects their flaws into something less harmful or even positive. They stumble their way through love and trying to do good, and much of it is haphazard and arguably not fully moral, but they find a way in the mess of existence to set things on a better path.

   And that’s where Joe stands out. It’s been drawing comparisons to the 2013 film Mud, and it’s easy to see why — young boy played by Tye Sheridan, living in an impoverished rural area, meets an ex-con who takes a shine to him and becomes a father figure. After that is where they part ways. Mud is a coming-of-age story that focuses on the kid more than the mentor. Joe is largely about its eponymous character and the effect he has on Gary. Ultimately, it’s not really a film about becoming an adult; it’s actually a surprisingly hopeful story of newer, stronger things rising up from the ashes of their forebears. To some extent, it’s a movie about intergenerational anxieties — the fear of some that those who come after are going to wreck everything. Truth is, in some ways, it’s a mess now. Nobody’s perfect, but we can use what we’ve got to make sure life moves on. Pass on what you have to those who will outlive you, and trust them to breathe their own unique life into it and make something a little better than what stood there before.

   On the surface, Joe is a grim, gritty film that isn’t even a little bit afraid to get its hands dirty. But underneath, it’s surprisingly optimistic about the future of the human race. There’s something good inside all of us, and even the products of our flaws can help make something better than we are. Joe might suggest that it’s inevitable.

   It might get a little pulpy here and there, particularly where the villains are concerned. Its approach might be a little too stereotypically “indie.” But if Nicolas Cage decides to spend the rest of his career on movies like Joe, I can’t say that I’d complain.

   -Matt T.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Starring- Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Tony Revolori

Director- Wes Anderson

R- language, some sexual content and violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

   I’m trying not to be too hard on myself over this whole Wes Anderson thing. I mean, it’s impossible that there’s anyone out there who likes all of the auteur-status directors throughout history, right? There’s got to be somebody they part ways with. I mean, there’s probably some weirdo somewhere who thinks Martin Scorcese’s an idiot or something.

   Then again, Wes Anderson movies fill me with a particular sort of anxiety — or at least, reviewing them does. But he’s not even the only celebrated filmmaker whose work doesn’t do much for me.

   I think the problem is that he’s the only auteur-status director who leaves me in a place where I just don’t get it. At all. There are other filmmakers whose work isn’t really my thing, but I understand fully why it works for other people. I can’t even assess Anderson’s output objectively. It just doesn’t do a thing for me. I’d explain why, but I’d probably only further embarrass myself. Just search for the debacle that was my non-review of Moonrise Kingdom.

   I did swear that I’d keep watching his movies until I figure it out, though. So, I begrudgingly added The Grand Budapest Hotel, already being called one of the hands-down best films of a year that’s only half over, to my to-see list.

   And I thought it was going to be simple. I really did. Knowing what I know of Wes Anderson, I expected one of two things was going to happen:

   Scenario No. 1: The film doesn’t do a thing for me, and I have basically no idea how to even begin getting my head around everyone’s appreciation of it. My intention in this case was to write the following review: “Nope. Still don’t get it.” I’m not kidding. That was going to be my review in its entirety. Simple, and it spares me the stress of trying to get my head around the thing.

   Scenario No. 2: I like it, and I get to write this lengthy, celebratory review raving about the successful conclusion of My Great Quest to Appreciate Wes Anderson Movies, whether that was because of there being something different about this movie that struck me as an improvement over the past films or because I’d finally seen enough weird art stuff to evolve into someone who kind of likes this sort of thing.

   Of course, because Wes Anderson is some kind of prankster demon who exists solely to mess with my head, neither of these things happened.

   On one hand, I actually kind of sort of almost actually liked The Grand Budapest Hotel, a little. Yay!

   On the other hand, I still don’t get it basically at all. I understand my enjoyment of this film about as much as my coldness toward the others, which is to say not at all.

   I keep trying to explain this in a review-like form. What did I like about it? Well, uh, it’s got this dry sense of humor that’s fairly amusing; I kind of like the weird visual thing it has going on; I like how quickly it takes these rapid hard lefts into being completely morbid; I like its sense of comic timing, visual and otherwise; I like, oh, wait, all of that is true of every single movie Wes Anderson has ever made. Um, okay. Ralph Fiennes’ totally unhinged performance in the closest thing the film has to a lead role — a committed and kind of lecherous hotel concierge who ends up in prison on false murder charges after a former guest of the hotel leaves him a rare painting in her will — yeah, I guess that’s not in other Wes Anderson movies. But did one guy seriously rescue this entire thing for me?

   For a second, I suspected that maybe I have changed. Maybe this is the new normal, and if I go back and re-watch the other Anderson movies I’ve seen, I’ll find my estimation of them has improved. I’m not at all opposed to doing that, but I don’t think that covers it. There were still long stretches of The Grand Budapest Hotel that left me cold for the usual variety of reasons. The dryness, the staginess, the underperforming, the primacy of its stylistic choices, what have you. I mean, this is still a Wes Anderson movie.

   Basically, I’m not sure why I wrote this. Other people wrote about it, I guess, and I take my free WordPress site way too seriously. And I’m kind of OCD about writing reviews of everything I see within whatever timeframe has my attention at a given moment.

   So, here’s your worthless review. If you already liked/disliked Wes Anderson, you knew whether or not you were checking this out anyway.

   Please keep reading my blog.

   -Matt T.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Starring- Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer

Director- Matt Reeves

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sHMCRaS3ao

I will absolutely stop complaining about franchise filmmaking if all of it is as good as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Set roughly 10 years after the events of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn follows the intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (motion capture by Andy Serkis) as he attempts to lead a colony of sentient apes and their offspring into some semblance of society in the forests of California. The lab-produced chemical that created them also devastated the human race, and 10 years later, Caesar isn’t convinced there are any left at all.

Until one morning, when a group of humans from a large colony of survivors in the ruins of Los Angeles ventures into the woods. It turns out the humans have some chance of contacting other survivors and rebuilding society if they can restore power to the city by reactivating an old hydroelectric dam in the apes’ territory. Tensions are high between humans and apes — the apes are sore about the way humans treated them when they were only animals, and the humans blame the apes for the flu that killed nearly all of them — but based on his past experience being raised by humans and his esteem for the search party’s leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who seems to be well meaning, Caesar agrees to let them conduct their work.

But dissident elements on both sides refuse to cooperate, and soon, what had been an opportunity for peace turns into a potential catalyst for all-out war.

It’s not just that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie. It’s that it actually has aspirations. Its predecessor did, too, but I largely found it too dry and overly interested in the how rather than the why to quite qualify as great.

We’ve entered an era where our mainstream blockbusters, with a handful of exceptions, actually aren’t terrible, but that’s largely because they’ve found a simple and fairly easy formula that regularly produces passable entertainment but almost never turns interesting on any level. What we usually get are well-mounted spectacles that basically give you a hero you like, basically give you a villain you dislike, and then pit them in a conflict that basically has some sort of structure and is basically smart enough not to test your patience with cinematic chaos. It’s all part of ensuring that the story, such as it were, goes on for sequel after sequel after sequel.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, is actually a thematically complete story that both follows and realizes its own implications, thematically and otherwise, doesn’t adhere to a specific Point-A-to-Point-B formula, allows the story and characters to drive the action rather than the other way around, and isn’t afraid to take risks or send the story spiraling off in a totally different direction when it needs to. It’s a blockbuster and, yes, a piece of spectacle that doesn’t live inside a box; it’s free to follow the elements inherent to its story to their necessary resolutions and to deal with whatever that does to the trajectory of the franchise.

I’ll admit that part of that is because the Planet of the Apes franchise has always been more about the premise — hyper-intelligent apes becoming the planet’s dominant species and eventually making slaves of the humans — than about the characters, who get shuffled around and replaced from film to film, so there’s no real status quo that needs to be maintained. And the premise is large, so you can pretty much go wherever with it. Regardless, it’s genuinely exciting to see a big-budget action movie that’s so freeform in its approach and so singularly — and, for that matter, intelligently — focused on telling a good story. There was a moment during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where I realized that even though the eventual endgame is a foregone conclusion, I genuinely didn’t know where the story was going or how it would end, and I felt as though not a single one of the characters, not even Caesar, was safe.

But moreover, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an even rarer beast — actual science fiction, science fiction that doesn’t just throw some cool technology at you but that uses an unreal premise to highlight very real problems. I’ve seen critics draw direct parallels between this movie and the situation in Israel and Palestine, and while I might not go that far — though, hey, what you get out of it is what you get out of it — that certainly illustrates the surprising intelligence of this movie. Really, it’s about man’s inhumanity to man — or to apes, I guess. I mean, they’re kind of like men, right? It’s about the complexities of war and the ways in which the human race (again, represented here by apes sometimes) manages to keep falling into the same pits over and over again. And I do mean that it’s about that, not just that it invokes it as sidelined social commentary that gives it a time and place culturally but that doesn’t particularly say much.

This is an action movie without a true villain — at least, not in terms of the sides. In the war that’s brewing, you don’t know whether to root for the humans or the apes — both have very real needs at stake and understandable reasons for the lengths they’re willing to go to. Moreover, the two sides have largely the same composition. Each gets a protagonist — Caesar for the apes and Malcolm for the humans — who is essentially a good person, who believes that peace is possible, and who is willing to risk life and limb to talk the problems out and arrive at a mutually agreeable compromise.

Each side also gets an antagonist. For the humans, it’s the colony’s leader, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who seems as though he hasn’t yet processed that the apes are as sentient as he is now and who is willing to go to extreme lengths to rebuild the modern world. For the apes, it’s returning character Koba (motion capture by Toby Kebbell), who was tortured and mutilated in lab experimentation and feels nothing but hatred for the human race.

But though they are antagonists, it’s hard to call either of these characters villains. In fact, based on how he was presented in the trailers, I was surprised and how much I didn’t dislike Dreyfuss — he shows a bit of a ruthless streak early on when he demonstrates that he’s willing to go to war to seize the dam even if the apes don’t draw first blood, but nearly everything else he does is totally justifiable within the confines of reasonable self-defense.

It would be easier to argue that Koba is more of a straight villain — as events progress, his true nature is slowly exposed, and it becomes clear that he is almost entirely devoid of positive characteristics. But his evil still inhabits a very real and understandable place. Terrible things have happened to him, and he’s no longer able to process that except through an obsessive desire for vengeance. What makes him even more real is the complex series of justifications he’s set up to convince himself that he’s not the bad guy. He gives Caesar time to solve the problem, but it’s clear he was never going to accept any answer other than “exterminate the humans” — though he probably thought he would. He’s also almost certainly convinced that he’s acting in the best interest of the apes, and he repeats that mantra endlessly, but whenever he faces a choice between his people and his revenge, he always goes for the latter. Nothing else matters to him. Hatred has blinded him, and he may be beyond convincing.

Both sides are composed mainly of neutral parties who just want to survive and will do what they have to in order to make that happen. There’s a chance at peace — there are leaders in each camp who want it, and most of the rank and file are likely willing to give it a try.

But the angry, paranoid, and/or hateful ones are the ones who bring guns to the exchanges and draw up secret plans behind everyone’s backs, so they also happen to carry the loudest megaphones. The reasonable people have to respond to what they’re doing — and they have to respond without all of the necessary information. How else are they going to discern the differences between the acts of a few and the acts of the many? And that’s how this whole thing gets started. Small acts of reactionary violence, mistrust, and unnecessary contingency planning set the stage, dousing it in fuel. And then, it only takes one person to drop a match. And all of a sudden, everyone’s marching off to war while the few peacemakers who remain scramble desperately to stop the tide, even as one domino crashes into another and everyone gets ready to annihilate an enemy they don’t understand in the least.

In that way, Dawn doesn’t really feel like your average blockbuster. It’s not fun. From the beginning, there’s a sense of desolation and loss permeating everything. It’s a morose film that, as it proceeds, becomes less and less frantic and more and more resigned to the inevitability of destruction. It punctuates that with moments of hope and light that are necessary both to keep the film from spiraling into monotone darkness and to make the heightening tragedy hurt that much worse for the realization of what everyone’s losing. It’s hard to say that anyone ever really won a war.

And it’s kind of impressive that Dawn manages to accomplish all that despite being a film containing a scene wherein a chimpanzee goes machine guns akimbo on horseback.

I do think there are a couple of plot and character developments that come off as touch undercooked. Note — I think that all of the development in this movie exists on the same continuum, so it wasn’t that I outright didn’t believe that these things couldn’t happen. But every now and then, a character would take a giant leap forward without a whole lot of justification. The most glaring example of this, for me, happens in the climax. There’s something one of the antagonists does that left me thinking there was no way anyone would continue to follow him afterward, and yet, they all do, just with trademarked Sideways Glances of Conflicted Henchman Conscience.

As well, the movie inherits one of its predecessor’s biggest problems — the flatness of its human characters. It’s less dramatic a problem here; at least the story is going out of its way to try to connect everyone emotionally. I actually think this is more of an acting problem than a writing one, though both are culpable. The actors all do a fine job of conveying the basic emotional fiber of whatever scene they’re in, but few of them are diving deeper and finding those little quirks and mannerisms that make a character register as a real person. Of course, Caesar is still the star of this franchise, and Andy Serkis is still knocking it out of the park. I think some love needs to go Toby Kebbell’s way, too, for bringing such palpable menace to Koba. It only takes a glance from that guy to set you on edge.

Despite its flaws, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is well-told, smart, and emotionally effective science fiction, arguably close to the level of the original Planet of the Apes. It’s amazing how one movie can take you from general disinterest in a franchise to excitement for its next installment. I can’t wait for part three.

 

-Matt T.

The Hunt (2013)
Starring- Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larson, Annika Wedderkoppe, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Sebastian Bull Sarning
Director- Thomas Vinterberg

R- sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language
Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vK9cO7QN8Ak

We’re pretty far into 2014, so after Her came out, I was planning to be done writing reviews of 2013 films, with the possible exception of The Wind Rises, depending on whether or not I think my feelings about it are interesting one way or another. This was also because other than that film, there wasn’t much from 2013 that I was really planning to check out.

However, back around the beginning of the year, I decided to kick off a question to watch everything in the IMDB Top 250 that I hadn’t seen. That begin with adding everything that was available for streaming on Netflix. The Hunt was one of those. For some reason, I didn’t remember until later that it technically did qualify as a 2013 film based on the criteria that I use.

So, I’m not really game for a full review, but I’d like to share some of my thoughts anyway now that I’ve seen it. So, here’s a brief overview.

What It’s About: A kindly kindergarten teacher and respected member of the community has his life turned upside down when a student accuses him of sexual abuse, kicking off a relentless witch hunt in his formerly idyllic small town.

What I Think: No major complaints here. It’s a really good film, and it definitely deserved its spot on the foreign language shortlist at the most recent Academy Awards. It’s one of those movies that’s just impressively solid, in that everything is executed skillfully and with a feeling of effortlessness. Everyone knows what they’re doing, and the missteps are slight.

The cast is fantastic, and it needs to be. You don’t want to elevate a plot this emotionally intense into something maudlin and cheap, so you need the kind of actors who are going to imbue it with subtlety and realism, and all of them do. Mads Mikkelsen, of course, stands out in the lead role. You can tell he’s a fundamentally decent if noticeably imperfect man, and you can feel the weight of the burden these heinous accusations bring down on him. It’s tragic watching the life he’s tried to build crumble around him as nearly everyone he knows turns against him. His hollow eyes emphasize the isolation and shame of knowing he’s innocent when, in the minds of everyone else, he has been all but condemned for one of the most horrid acts a man can commit.

The main strength of the film, though, is in the way it asks serious questions about very weighty problems we face in the real world. If it has a singular thesis, it’s a condemnation of the human tendency to find someone to blame and to resist suggestions that our initial conclusions might have been wrong. I think it looks with disdain upon the media circus that surrounds certain criminal cases, regardless of their national significance. But it’s more complicated than that. The film doesn’t go down easily, and I mean that in the best possible way. It knows, one some level, that this is an extraordinarily difficult situation and the sort of thing that will never wrap up in such a way that people will forgive and forget. It’s already so difficult for rape victims to come forward that we can’t in good conscience create a situation in which it’s harder still, where they’re viewed with suspicion and judgment. Their claims have to be taken seriously. Of course, there are liars out there, and even if there isn’t any substance to their accusations, can it be possible for someone to be publicly declared a child molester and later go on to recover from that event and regain his or her old reputation? Can “innocent until proven guilty” really be the standard regarding who gets to be around children? It’s all very complex, and there’s no tragedy-free way to navigate that situation. That only heightens the pervasive sadness and ruin of this film.

My only real issue with it is some general skepticism about the ending. I know what it’s going for, and I think that’s even the right angle from which to approach it, but I think the execution could be better in a number of senses.

But overall, The Hunt is definitely a pretty great movie, and I’m glad the IMDB Top 250 retained it long enough for me to have a reason to see it. I wish I’d held off on my 2013 Top 20 for a few more weeks, because The Hunt would definitely have been on it somewhere.

-Matt T.

RoboCop (2014)

Starring- Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson, Aimee Garcia

Director- Jose Padilha

PG-13- intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INmtQXUXez8

I don’t know whether or not I should consider it a success that RoboCop is strong and weak in exactly the same ways as the original film.

It’s definitely not as bad as you’d expect. From the moment all of the surprisingly high-caliber talent being courted for this movie walked away from it and we got those set photos of dark, gritty RoboCop in sleek, black armor designed for total seriousness, we knew what we were getting: exactly what we figured a modern RoboCop remake would be. Serious, dark, self-important, lacking in self-awareness, not even remotely cognizant of the fact that the original was supposed to be satire, and stamped with a PG-13 for mass consumption. Fortunately, only the last of those is true. Well, to an extent, anyway.

I guess the issue is that I don’t hold the original in particularly high esteem anyway. I went into it being told that it would sate my appetite both for cheesy, stupid 80s action flicks and for sneaky, intelligent satire disguised as the former. I didn’t really get either. It had its moments of over-the-top 80s-ness, but mostly, it wasn’t as bombastic as I’d hoped. And the satire is definitely there, but it’s all over the place and mostly hangs out in the background not having anything to do with the plot.

I can at least praise the new RoboCop for being aware that the original is satire and even trying to update it for modern times. (Well, it might be more accurate to call it a socially conscious action movie than a satire, because it’s fairly humorless overall.) This time, it’s drone warfare and American foreign policy. Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), CEO of OmniCorp, has made a fortune selling sophisticated robot soldiers to the U.S. Army, which has been using them as an occupation force all across the globe. Now, he wants to bring his inventions to the police force in America, but the government has resisted, fearing that putting the power of life and death in the hands of soulless robots could end in disaster.

When veteran cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) falls victim to a car bomb — designed to silence his investigations into the Detroit drug industry — OmniCorp sees an opportunity to combine the efficiency of machines with the soul of a man. A leading scientist in the prosthetics field, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), is hired to put what’s left of Murphy into a heavily-armored, digitally advanced metal body — becoming RoboCop.

You’ve got the drone warfare stuff, the American foreign policy double standard stuff, etc. Some of the first movie’s targets come back as well — corporatism, obviously, as the film turns into a war between Murphy’s need for a soul and OmniCorp’s need for a solid bottom line. There’s the fascism somewhat inherent in the RoboCop concept as well. It takes the same shots at the media, too, updated for the modern age — Samuel L. Jackson plays a TV host who’s Bill O’Reilly in personality and CNN in garish, over-the-top graphics.

It’s not a dumb movie, though. It actually gets close to justifying its existence as a remake in the way that it uses the story and the character to explore different, related concepts in our time. And that’s necessary — I sometimes suspect that maybe the reason the original didn’t resonate with me all that much is because what it called “satire,” I call “the world I live in.” The themes it does carry over from the source material happen largely as a byproduct of following the same structural beats — and even those aren’t overly beholden to the original. The biggest moments in this movie have direct counterparts in the RoboCop of the 1980s, but they’ve been totally re-contextualized here. It’s very much trying to be its own thing on a story level, while still being recognized as a modern take on the idea.

You could even argue that it handles the human elements of Murphy’s character even better, in that his corporate overlords aren’t trying to strip him of his consciousness from the get-go. That keeps his family involved in the story and gives him something to fight for, and it also turns OmniCorp’s decisions into a moral slippery slope that you can follow as things progress.

But like the original, it’s all so…unfocused. It’s definitely touching upon some big subjects, but it’s doing that in this really ancillary way. It marketed itself heavily on the foreign policy metaphor, but that only covers the opening scene of the movie. The corporate elements might not even be as strong as the original, which was constantly giving you a sense of the corruptive power its big, robot-inventing business had in that world. Here, it’s a couple of people in one ordinary-size corporation messing with one person’s life, and that’s it. And the media satire pops up pretty much the way it did in the original — relatively unnecessary scenes, mostly unconnected from the story at large, existing mainly to mock TV news and then move on to something else. It’s all there, but so little is done with any of it that it’s hard to call it satire or metaphor or whatever you would brand it.

The only thread that comes close to consistency is Murphy dealing with the changes that were forced upon him, trying to balance them with his humanity, losing his soul entirely as OmniCorp slowly tightens its grip, and then trying to defeat his programming to regain it. And to be fair, that’s probably the most important one to get right, and the fact that RoboCop comes close is the main reason why it isn’t awful.

What kills that is a fairly typical issue with action movies of somewhat lower pedigree — Murphy and his family come straight out of Hollywood’s Generic Suburban White People Generator. It’s, perhaps appropriately, like robots attempting to mimic human emotion. “You see, audience humans? He derives satisfaction from viewing sporting events with his son and seeing his physically attractive mate in her undergarments. Please describe for our research how this makes you emote.”

   But I guess if I didn’t like the original RoboCop, it was probably inevitable that I wouldn’t care for the remake either. I do have to give it some points for actually trying to be something and even succeeding in a handful of ways. It’s not what you feared the RoboCop remake would be (well, again, other than rated PG-13). But it’s probably not what you’d want it to be either.

 

   -Matt T.