Archive for August, 2014

Locke (2014)

Starring- Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner
Director- Steven Knight
R- language throughout
I feel like lightning only strikes so many times, so given that 2013 was a noticeably better-than-average year for movies, I keep waiting for the productions of 2014 to start letting me down hard. But right now, 2014 is on track to blow the previous year out of the water.And it continues with Locke.

It was fortuitous that I was able to see this film so shortly after my viewing of Boyhood; they’re both highly experimental, pushing against the boundaries of how we make movies, but their challenges take them in completely the opposite direction. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater embarked on an enormous, 12-year production process and came out of it with a three-hour epic about modern adolescence that’s almost global in its scope. With Locke, on the other hand, we have an ordinary production, a short film, and only minimal resources from a storytelling perspective.

It follows Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), who has just made an important decision about his life going forward. He gets in his car and starts driving, following up on that choice. Meanwhile, he deals with the consequences of what he’s done.

To have been a fly on the wall when this movie was pitched. At some point, someone must have said, “Well, it’s a movie where Tom Hardy drives a car and talks on a cell phone. And that’s it.” And someone actually greenlit that proposal.

Whatever the process, I’m glad it happened the way it did, because Locke is a fascinating exercise in cinematic minimalism. I’m really not exaggerating a word of what I just told you — Locke is a movie where Tom Hardy drives a car and talks on a cell phone. That’s it. Absolutely nothing else occurs in this film. No other characters appear; we only hear their voices on the other end. The camera does not leave the car. The story plays out almost in real time — it’s a brisk 90 minutes, and Ivan Locke’s journey takes about that long.

What the film manages to do with those elements is absolutely mind-boggling. Locke reminds me of Gravity in that it’s restricted to just this space and only has this character, and the voices of four or five others, to convey everything it needs to in order to invest you in the story it’s telling. That’s the kind of task that terrifies a writer (I know it terrifies me), but Locke somehow makes the most of all of that. Ivan Locke’s decision impacts both his family and career, and although we never get to see him at work and never get to see him at home with his wife and teenage sons, the movie manages to make clear what both mean to him not just in a broad sense but specifically, in a manner that’s both distinct and detailed. The weight of what he’s choosing to do and the upending effect it will have on Locke’s life is evident throughout, as the pieces begin to fall into place. You know exactly the hole losing those things will leave in Locke’s life — even as you understand why he’s choosing to put them up on the chopping block in the first place.

The decision he’s made — necessitated by a mistake in his recent past — is one I won’t spoil for you, though it becomes clear somewhat early on. Really, you should go into Locke as blind as possible. I will say, however, that contrary to what you might think based on the trailers, Locke doesn’t take the easy way out. Keeping the film restricted to the car would be a novel and challenging decision under any circumstance, but it would be easier dramatically to make the stakes as high as possible: Ivan Locke is a secret agent! Ivan Locke killed someone! Ivan Locke unraveled a government conspiracy, and now, everyone’s after him!

Locke is constantly challenging itself. Instead of going this route, it ensures that all of the problems that its protagonist faces are relatively ordinary — from his job circumstances to his family relationship to the mistake he made in the past to the decision he’s making as the film opens. He’s a construction manager, and let me tell you — you will care about the minutia of concrete pours by the time this movie is over. That’s the power of ensuring that you define a character’s relationship with something — regardless of how much it matters to you or whether you even know anything about it, you will respond when it’s made real and pertinent.

It feels like the third act of a movie we haven’t seen — though Locke very quickly makes it feel as though you have. All of the important decisions have already been made. Locke focuses on the fallout. In 90 minutes, Ivan Locke’s misdeeds unravel his life in real time, right before your eyes. The film lives in the consequences he thinks he’s too rational to face. He thinks there’s an easy and logical version of this story where he issues the appropriate apologies, finds forgiveness, and moves on one way or another. He isn’t blind enough to think that there won’t be problems, some of them long-term, but he believes there’s a happy ending that there simply can’t be.

To some extent, the movie is also focused on how to handle ourselves when we have made mistakes. You have to allow everyone else’s response to be human. You can’t hold them to a higher standard than you hold yourself. You have to give them time to think. You have to give them room to grieve. You have to allow them to hurt. You have to understand that it will be charity on their part if they forgive you and especially if they let you return to your former status. You have to know that you are not owed a reasonable, measured, and ultimately forgiving response. Ivan Locke doesn’t know this. So, as he drives into the night, he makes all of the wrong choices. And thus does the web further entangle.

But he’s not despicable. The film asks you to empathize with him and allows you to understand the way his mind works and why he’s so unshakably convinced that what he’s doing is the right thing. You could even argue that it is the right thing, at least partially — it’s his stubbornness and the way he handles all of the surrounding problems that leave him at fault. There’s something recognizable and, thus, instructive in his behavior.

Of course, none of this would work without our man in the lead role, Tom Hardy, who is without error in his efforts to create this character largely through mannerism and expression. He only gets so much to work with, so the fact that Locke ends up being a full and complete character has to be considered at least half his doing. Hardy takes Locke through an incredibly visible emotional arc during each of his many conversations, but he’s never showboating. He makes Locke someone you recognize as a real person, someone whose actions make a certain amount of sense within the confines of the world we live in. I really don’t know how Hardy hasn’t found his way into particularly widespread acclaim outside of more deeply involved circles, but I certainly hope that time is coming soon.

There are parts of me that recoil from Locke a bit, thinking that elements of it test the realm of plausibility, especially since the whole thing hinges on a fairly significant coincidence. There are also times when the movie’s efforts at remaining cinematic (in a visual sense of the word) showed signs of strain for me.

But outside of that, Locke is a remarkably gripping film about things one doesn’t ordinarily think of as gripping. It sucks you in and holds you at attention, not with intrigue, conspiracy, and impending doom but with construction planning and family matters. It’s all about the character at its center, and he — and the actor playing him — are both top-notch. Locke does incredible things that aren’t quickly reminiscent of any acclaimed film before it and carves out quite the unique niche for itself. We’ll see more films like this, I hope — ones that test what’s possible. In the meantime, I’m grateful for Locke.


   –Matt T.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Starring- Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, Campbell Scott, Marton Csokas

Director- Marc Webb

PG-13- sequences of sci-fi action/violence


I didn’t really expect that a middling Spider-Man reboot sequel would leave me as confounded as this, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a confounding movie.

I’ll start with what I know: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 definitely isn’t a good movie. I don’t think it’s the same thing to be enjoyable and to be good, not that they’re mutually exclusive concepts. For me to say that a movie is good, it has to be planned and executed in such a way that I can see the careful hands of the filmmakers at work, structuring everything into a cohesive whole. That doesn’t mean there aren’t flaws; there invariably are. But the skill of those involved is totally undeniable. I’m also not the type of person who reserves “goodness” solely for art movies and considers blockbusters merely dumbly enjoyable. For example, I’ll happily defend Guardians of the Galaxy as a good movie. It’s very, very goofy, but it knows what it wants to deliver and is careful and precise in the way that it carries out that goal.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bad. It’s such a huge mess on nearly every level — especially its script, which is one of the worst I’ve seen this year — that I simply cannot award it a passing grade.

But is it enjoyable? Well, um…maybe? Kind of? A little? It’s not one of those movies that’s enjoyable because it’s bad. It’s more that it’s enjoyable despite being bad. I don’t even know that I want to give it that much, though. To be fair, there are some things The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does really well, and it’s pretty efficient at faking it when it comes to the stuff it doesn’t. At the same time, for a lot of reasons, I don’t really trust my immediate reaction to it. This is the sort of movie that wasn’t a painful first watch but that seems like it would be really tedious on a second viewing. So, I have to account for the mild amounts of fun I had here and there on the first viewing while attempting to forward-project my feelings onto hypothetical future viewings (that I am unlikely to ever undergo) in order to arrive at some sort of personal consensus about the film itself.

You can see why this is a touch confounding.

This time around, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is still enjoying the heck out of being Spider-Man — and life in general, really. He’s graduating from high school, he’s got a good relationship with his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and he’s restarting an old friendship with Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), the son of OSCORP’s CEO.

Then, a lab accident gone (seriously, ridiculously, unbelievably, almost comically wrong) grants superpowers to Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a lonely, unnoticed, slightly unhinged OSCORP tech guy. He becomes Electro and sets out to take vengeance on the people who scorned him.

And Harry discovers he’s dying of a genetic disease, for which the only cure is Spider-Man’s blood.

And Harry’s corporate partners turn on him after he inherits his father’s position and launch a scheme against him, tracking his movements and trying to frame him for their own unrelated misdeeds.

And Peter decides to return to trying to figure out what happened to his parents and starts to unravel a far-reaching international conspiracy.

And Aunt May (Sally Field) is having issues keeping the family financially stable without Uncle Ben around, and she’s also dealing with the specific nature of her relationship to Peter.

And there’s a Russian gangster who calls himself the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and shows up to fight Spider-Man sometimes.

And Gwen is getting tired of Peter trying to control her life because of the promise he made to her late father to keep her away from the dangers inherent in his superheroics. She’s also up for a scholarship to attend Oxford, which is a separate source of friction in the relationship.

And stuff and people and things and…just everything, really. Everything happens in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and none of it means a thing. This is some of the worst structural writing I’ve seen this side of a Transformers movie. Good storytelling is a sequence of cause and effect: “This happened, therefore this happened, and because this happened, now that is happening.” This movie is just a kid going, “And then and then and then and then and then…”

Very little in this movie has anything to do with anything else in this movie. Point to any character other than Peter, Gwen and maybe Harry, and you’ve got a character who could be deleted from the film entirely. Only a lame and somewhat obligatory team-up plot attaches the multitude of villains, and even that comes late in the game.

The same goes for the subplots, each of which has its own tone and style. Peter and Gwen are living in some small, stripped-down, and largely realistic relationship film, while the villains are all living in a cartoon of some degree or another. There isn’t any thematic tissue tying any of these together: There’s no similarity whatsoever between what Max wants and what Peter wants and what Gwen wants and what Harry wants. There’s no reflectivity between the characters, no poetic echoes, nothing resonant.

Even by themselves, none of the subplots amounts to something complete or coherent. Peter has now successfully made it through two movies without learning a single thing whatsoever. It doesn’t seem as though it’s supposed to be that way, because all of the moping and significant life events he goes through aren’t there arbitrarily. But if we’re looking at the literal events that take place and their actual defined effect on Peter, there’s no discernible character development. Again — the film fakes it very well. It’s so good at all the moping and navel-gazing that it all starts to seem like change. But the character who comes out of it is always fundamentally the same guy.

And then, after walking Peter through what is, at least, an attempt at a full arc — one that terminates in such a way that, again, he either learns nothing or learns the wrong lesson entirely — the film abruptly changes gears, establishes an entirely new character arc in the last ten minutes, blazes through it almost montage-style, and then concludes on that note, for some reason. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie that somehow acts as its own sequel and a trailer for the sequel to that sequel.

With so much going on, everyone else’s character arcs get constricted into their smallest possible versions. On the villain end, that means that, once again (seriously, Spider-Man movies, you’re working on one heck of a drinking game here), instead of gradually walking the characters from ordinary to evil, the film just invokes science-induced insanity. True, the villains’ descent into evil does build on established negative characteristics that they have, so it’s not like it comes out of nowhere. But because the movie has to bring seven thousand subplots to fruition, it doesn’t have time to slowly develop the villains as people, so it just introduces their negative characteristics and then has science speed them up. And all of them are far less interesting once they’re full-on bad guys. At least two of them are established with some positive characteristics as well — Max/Electro starts out only wanting people to notice him and doesn’t plan to hurt anyone, and Harry would probably be an all-around decent guy in general if he wasn’t desperate because of his impending mortality. But the film doesn’t allow either character to wrestle with these. Electro turns to broad vengeful stoicism after only a couple scenes, and Harry becomes a Bond villain pretty much immediately.

If I was teaching a screenwriting class (which would be a bad idea all around), I honestly might make The Amazing Spider-Man 2 required viewing to show the students how not to do it. It is a convoluted, overcomplicated, confusing mess. It’s not necessarily confusing in the literal details, i.e. I always understood the basics of what was going on. But character and motivation were completely lost on me; by the end, I couldn’t apply a coherent thesis to basically anything. That’s not to say it’s impossible; at least one critic with a better memory and attention to detail than me managed to do so — and that thesis was “Spider-Man is awesome and can’t do anything wrong and it’s everyone else’s fault, really.” I can neither confirm nor deny that, because I’ve totally forgotten the specifics of the dramatic scenes that were sandwiched into this thing.

Really, the saddest thing about this script is that there are seven or eight different movies in here that could easily be really good. There’s enough character and definition in each of the subplots that if the film would just pick one and focus on it, it could’ve been one of the better Spider-Man movies. Like I keep saying, the movie is really good at faking it. Every scene in it has the potential to work within a more defined context, if only the film had a why behind the stuff it chooses to show us. It could’ve been a good relationship movie about Peter and Gwen; it could’ve been a good mystery about Peter trying to figure out what happened to his parents; it could’ve been a good action movie about basically any of the villains, take your pick. But because it tries to be all of those and then some, none of it manages to go anywhere.

I mean, the ingredients are certainly there. It’s amazing that neither of these movies has been particularly good, given that they have one of the most winsome casts in the world of comic book adaptations. Andrew Garfield is still pretty much the perfect Spider-Man, even though the script doesn’t quite understand why, and he and Emma Stone actually have a palpable chemistry that could easily be built into a story that does something interesting with them. Sally Field, of course, has never been bad in anything. And there’s a lot of debate about the villains, but honestly, as close to Joel Schumaker territory as they get, if they’re not going to be interesting characters, they might as well be goofy and fun. Jamie Foxx plays the pathetic creepiness of his character really broadly; he approaches “nerd in a high school movie from the 1990s” territory. He’s sniveling, weird, socially awkward to the nth degree, and Foxx’s performance gets close to parody without crossing the line. As for the Rhino, there’s something fun about watching Paul Giamatti, arguably one of our best actors, turn the volume up to “obliterate” and basically have a loud mental breakdown on screen. The Rhino always looks like his head is going to explode, and if he has an inside voice, he’s incapable of using it. There’s also an evil scientist who’s basically Dr. Strangelove, except in a more serious movie. The only real weak link for me is Dane DeHaan — a shame, because I’ve really enjoyed some of what he’s done so far, and I’d love to see him make it big. DeHaan is from a generation of actors that’s been trained more toward naturalism, and over-the-top campiness is clearly something he’s only just now discovering. There’s too much second-guessing in his performance here; he pushes it right to the edge and then retreats noticeably.

The main thing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has going for it is the action, which is…actually kind of awesome. The first movie was released in what was very much still a post-Dark Knight world and was aspiring to something more serious. It was dark, visually and otherwise, and it was only willing to go so far with the action. This movie was released in a post-Captain America and Thor world and is considerably less antsy about its own silliness, so this time around, the action sequences are big, colorful, stylish, creative, over-the-top, and tons of fun all around. The movie looks great, and it doesn’t hurt that the action, for once, is shot, edited, and staged fairly well.

So, there’s a part of me that found The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be a tiny bit enjoyable, in its own way. Great cast, a couple of hammy performances for the all-time list, spectacular action sequences, all that stuff. There’s also a part of me that’s aware those are superficial pleasures that might cover up this terrible, terrible piece of writing on a single viewing but will probably leave it totally exposed the second time around.

Do with that what you will.

-Matt T.

God’s Not Dead (2014)

Starring- Kevin Sorbo, Shane Harper, David A.R. White, Trisha LaFache, Hadeel Sittu, Marco Khan, Cory Oliver, Dean Cain, Jim Gleason, Benjamin Ochieng, Cassidy Gifford, Paul Kwo

Director- Harold Cronk

PG- thematic material, brief violence and an accident scene


WARNING: If you have to go to the bathroom, now’d be the time to do it. Oh, and spoilers.

Soooooooo… I caved. I think I always knew I was going to, even while I was publishing my repeated declarations that I would absolutely not be seeing God’s Not Dead for fear of what it would do to my blood pressure (nothing good, by the way). Nothing was ever going to persuade me to actually buy a ticket or intentionally rent a copy, but I always knew that, eventually, somebody in my social circles was going to obtain this and ask me to watch it with them at a time when I really didn’t have anything better to do. And even if I did have something better to do, morbid curiosity probably would’ve compelled me to join them anyway. People have been discussing this movie too much. I can’t not participate.

My original intention was to do my second live review on this movie. I actually watched it with my computer at the ready and took notes. But I looked at the raving screed I produced and decided that wasn’t something it would be a good idea to publish — not when the movie is this deeply tied into hot-button religions and political issues, and not when we so, so desperately need to have a productive conversation about it.

Actually, to be honest, part of me doesn’t want to write this at all, because I know I’m stepping into a cesspool of controversy here. At the same time, God’s Not Dead is more than a bad movie. It’s a movie that needs to be condemned, as widely and by as many different types of people as possible. It needs to be condemned by as many people as it takes to make sure everyone realizes exactly the depth of the cultural problem it represents and the negative attitudes it, whether by accident or design, reinforces.

“Whether by accident or design.” That’s a key phrase. I don’t like to judge. I don’t like to assume to know the hearts of other people. From my own experience, I understand how different one’s actions look to oneself than they do from the outsider’s perspective. So, I’m not going to pretend to know the writers. I’m not going to pretend to know the stars. I’m not going to pretend to know the director. But I also have to be as clear and direct about this as possible, so here goes:

Either the filmmakers know better and are lying to you because there’s money to be made in the culture wars; or they suffer from incredible and dramatic intellectual laziness.

I don’t know where the middle ground is in that. Historically, I like the moderate option. I like the one that lets me be nice to everybody. But when a movie, made specifically and openly for the purpose of conveying a point and producing an actual change in its audience, so loudly peddles easily disproven untruths about other people with the intention of making them look bad, what else am I supposed to think? Either the filmmakers are lying about this, or they failed a basic Google search.

I really don’t know which one of those I find preferable: that they’re knowingly slandering other people to make a quick buck or that they actually believe the slander. Regardless, God’s Not Dead is either hateful or ignorant, and even if it’s only guilty of the latter, the effect of that ignorance is still to spread hate. And as tempting as it is to say it’s “just a movie,” it’s more than that, especially since it’s a culture wars property that’s trying to make a specific point and is targeted at a large and politically powerful subculture. Yeah, it’s mostly preaching to the already-converted, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about the youth groups that are seeing this en masse and the number of children who are about to grow up watching it. That’s the sort of statement that’s going to get me in trouble, but I fully believe it needs to be said.

Here’s your premise, for those who aren’t aware: Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a good Christian kid, ends up in a college philosophy class with Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), the devil incarnate an atheist who tries to make all of his students sign a pledge that God is dead. Josh, of course, refuses, so Radisson offers him an ultimatum: Prove to the class that God exists, or receive a failing grade.

Also, there are five or six Crash-style subplots that don’t have much to do with anything in particular.

My problems with God’s Not Dead wouldn’t be as intense if it was just a bad piece of Christian apologetics. I would still have my issues with it — and everyone should, really. Evangelical Christians should find it bothersome because bad apologetics only makes their position look more untenable, and everyone else should find it bothersome because, well, it’s wrong. But a movie can be worse things than intellectually wrong.

And God’s Not Dead is wrong, quite regularly. The lion’s share of the film’s screen-time is devoted to the classroom debate and, thus, to proving the existence of God. That’s a big subject to take on, and absolutely no storyteller should dive headfirst into something like that without doing some research — coming up with arguments, checking online to see what the other side might say in response to that, trying to deal with the counterargument, and working from there. That’s a simple Google search. This stuff is not hard to find. And that’s why I don’t know how it could be anything other than lies or pure laziness — or maybe an inflated sense of self-confidence in one’s own opinion. I could write seven or eight pages on the arguments this film makes that it treats as the final word on the matter that are actually very, very old pieces of the discussion that have extremely simple answers — I still have my transcript from when I was writing this live, so I have them handy. But this is already going to be a long piece of work, so I’m not going to strike at every detail.

I’ll start with the fact that it’s weird that this philosophy class spends the majority of its time fixated on science, with both Radisson and Wheaton exclusively quoting scientists (and it’s even dumber that the non-believers in the class treat the word of Richard Dawkins, of all people, as gospel). And what rapidly becomes clear is that neither of them knows a thing about science; they simply spend all of their time quoting people who do. In particular, Radisson’s entire argument seems to boil down to, “Stephen Hawking said it; I believe it; that settles it.” It becomes an issue of discrediting sources rather than examining evidence and debunking arguments.

When it gets into questions of philosophy, it just keeps failing Google searches. It’s also amazing to me that Radisson, an educated atheist who teaches philosophy at the college level, is totally baffled by really, really basic questions that he simply must have encountered at some point along his path to non-belief. I am terrible at science and only okay at philosophy (and even then, not super well-read), and I know more about both than Professor Radisson. This movie makes clear that there are very fundamental components of his worldview that he has not only failed to personally examine but that no one in his life has ever even challenged. Does Radisson not own a computer? Has no one ever contradicted him before? Do books confuse him? How is he a philosophy professor? How does he not notice the glaring contradiction in Josh’s explanation of free will’s role in the problem of evil? Josh also makes arguments about an atheist like Professor Radisson having no source of objective morality, and he asks typical questions like where he derives meaning in life. Radisson, for his part, seems shocked by these fundamental and extraordinarily common questions, like he’s actually never heard them before. Radisson, a philosophy professor, has no answer to a fundamental question about morality and meaning? Really? I’m not saying it has to be answer that everyone watching the movie will agree with, but there very definitely should be an answer. Because there are various answers. I know this, because I know what Google is.

But the really baffling thing about this movie is that it almost never actually makes an argument for God’s existence. It almost certainly doesn’t realize that this is the case. But it is. The vast majority of Josh’s arguments don’t involve evidence or philosophy or any sort of proof. All he does is basically say, “Well, I see your theory of evolution and raise you that God could have created the world through evolution,” and, “Well, the Big Bang could’ve been the way God did things.” He just agrees with most of what Professor Radisson says and then inserts God into it, usually without giving any particular reason. It’s reflective of the problem in many of these debates, with people attempting to shift the burden of proof around all sideways. The movie establishes that it’s Josh and God who are on trial, and yet, for some reason, the prosecution is the party that almost immediately ends up under the spotlight, being forced to prove that God didn’t do it. And its failure to do that is treated like the proof itself, which is a fundamentally flawed and totally ineffective way to have this conversation. And again, it’s very weird that Radisson, a philosophy professor, never once notices the logical fallacy being employed here.

Of course, Radisson wouldn’t. He’s an idiot. The film is very clear on this point: All atheists are idiots. All non-Christians are, really. Actually, that’s giving the movie too much credit. If all non-Christians were idiots, at least they’d be sincere idiots, and sincerity is a positive quality, which non-Christians do not possess. God’s Not Dead gets so high on how awesome and impenetrable it believes its arguments to be that Josh’s ego gets multiplied by ten, and by the final debate session, he’s not even arguing anymore. He’s just glaring at Radisson and smugly demanding to know why he hates God.

The worst part? Josh is right. Radisson admits it: It’s not that he doesn’t believe in God. He just hates him. It’s not explored in much depth, but it’s pretty heavily implied that this is true of just about all the non-Christians in the movie — the ones for whom the excuse is not that they just want to do whatever they want, anyway.

I can’t tell you how loathsome I find this. The movie, in doing this, takes the easiest and most dishonest route it possibly could have. It could’ve had its non-Christian characters be insincere or stupid (or better yet, neither of those), but instead, it decided it should go with both. The storytellers aren’t well read enough to even conceive of a reason why anyone would ever disagree with their worldview, so they have to assume it’s just belligerence. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve never met an atheist who secretly believed in God but just hated him. I can’t find any atheist bloggers or public figures who’ve made any indication of that either. (I have met theists who hate God, or at least have interacted with them online, but we actually have a variety of words for them — misotheists, dystheists, antitheists, maltheists. An atheist is someone who simply doesn’t believe that there is a God, which, again, is something that Radisson, a philosophy professor, would know.)

The effect of it is to end dialogue. By extension, the effect of it is to prevent understanding between theists and atheists. And since understanding is pivotal to grasping the needs and experiences of other people, it’s also a major hindrance to compassion and empathy. Thus, it’s a major hindrance to…what was that thing Jesus talked about all the time? Love? Yeah, that.

“Love” is not an emotion God’s Not Dead processes where non-Christians are concerned. This movie is outright slanderous in this regard. The way it treats its non-Christian characters is abhorrent, dishonest, and wrong — intellectually and morally. It makes no effort to understand them, to internalize their experiences, to try to empathize with the people they are and how they got to be that way. It judges them. Then, it makes up additional wrongdoing so it can judge them some more. Whether it’s because of ignorance or because of outright dishonesty, the result is the same — God’s Not Dead hates non-Christians. It finds them shifty, untrustworthy, and terrible, worthy of love and respect only after conversion — and even after that, they still might have to pay for their awful crime of disagreeing with Christians.

The non-Christians in this are all horrible human beings. Horrible. Wholly bereft of even the slightest redemptive qualities. Radisson is a domineering bully. He has no actual interest in teaching philosophy. He strong-arms everyone into doing exactly what he wants. He treats his Christian girlfriend like an uneducated subhuman (that Christian girlfriend, by the way, being someone with whom he began his relationship while she was an undergrad in his class). He stalks and threatens Josh. He comes near to physically attacking him in one scene. The scary part is that Radisson isn’t even the least sympathetic of the film’s non-Christian characters.

No, that designation is reserved for Dean Cain’s businessman, a character so wretched on so many levels that he’s only one tonal shift away from being a Bond villain. He broke this movie for me. Up until his “big scenes,” I mainly thought of the movie as wrong-headed, poorly made, and somewhat inadvisable in the way that it was treating its non-Christian characters. After the movie made clear what sort of character he was, I knew the whole production was beyond redemption. I knew that the notion of all non-Christians being morally compromised was a fundamental component of the storytellers’ worldviews — fundamental enough to shape every aspect of them. We are talking about a character who reacts to finding out his girlfriend has cancer by breaking up with her and berating her for not telling him in a more appropriate setting. We are talking about a character who refuses to visit his sickly mother and who openly mocks her dementia.

The other atheist is a blogger and militant vegan (that’s the sort of movie this is) who does ambush interviews with Christian celebrities — here meaning that she asks them basic questions with a snarky tone and acts surprised when they somehow manage to have an answer to something like, “You believe in God, right?” She’s smug, condescending, all-around unpleasant, and yet, easily the most likable non-Christian in the film.

And lest it only be atheists who get the short end of the stick here, there’s also a Muslim father (Marco Khan) who beats his daughter when he finds out she’s converted to Christianity and then throws her out on the street. I’m almost willing to give this one a pass, because Marco Khan comes so close to creating an actual character that the scene almost starts to play out as one with a conflict of conscience. But at that point, I can’t say that I that I was particularly willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt.

In the end, some of these non-Christians get converted. Others don’t. The ones who do are converted solely on the basis of their fear of death, which is not the best way to conclude a movie that’s trying to make a logical argument for the existence of God.

Professor Radisson dies. That’s the mild way of putting it. He gets hit by a car. And given the context of the scene, it’s hard to interpret this as anything other than comeuppance. The film has not done anything to imply, at this point, that Radisson was included in Christ’s call to love everyone (his hatred of God, it turns out, stems from watching his mother die when he was a child, and when learning this and seeing Radisson break down, Josh’s reaction is not to apologize or to attempt to comfort him but rather to nail him with the final zinger and basically mic-drop his way out of the debate). He still converts with his dying breath, because even this movie understands that there’s an upper limit to one’s loathsomeness. But no one misses him, no one mourns him, he leaves no gap whatsoever, and the film rapidly starts cutting the audio from a cheery Newsboys concert over the accident scene. And then it high-fives Josh for being awesome. And that’s all anybody says about this. Radisson’s life had no value. The film comes close to arguing that no one’s does. But Radisson especially.

Conversely, the Christians are all portrayed extraordinarily well. Josh is basically perfect; he simply needs to be given the opportunity to act upon his perfection. The Muslim girl’s reason for converting to Christianity is never explored, but she is faithful and serene and steadfast in the face of persecution. There are a couple of pastors who are fun and funny guys you’d love to hang around with but can totally get serious and help you out when you need it. Radisson’s girlfriend is the only one who gets any real arc, but even then, it’s not clear to me what flaws she had other than dating an atheist.

I haven’t really even gotten to the premise yet. That almost seems useless to me at this point. But it needs to be addressed — the situation the film contrives with Radisson and Josh is utterly impossible, but it’s treated like a piece of reality. The film even ends with a list of real-life cases to send the message that non-Christians are totally like this; they control everything and are just waiting to trip you up or force you to deny your faith. I haven’t checked out all of the items on the list, but I did peruse the blog on the movie’s website and looked into a few of the cases it lists there. They come exclusively in two flavors: cases where significant details were omitted and cases where the whole thing went straight to court and was struck down immediately.

Radisson’s situation is completely ridiculous. I’ve been to college; I’ve seen professors using their position of authority to grandstand on political issues (though never religious ones, that I recall). The reason they didn’t get in trouble for it is because no one’s going to report a brief tangent.

Radisson’s entire class is structured around requiring his students to disbelieve in God. The trailers for this movie at least allowed me to believe that the “God is dead” thing was an actual assignment — which, for the record, wouldn’t be without value, as long as the atheists in the class wrote on the opposite subject; asking someone to write a paper arguing against a closely-held belief is a good way to put them in someone else’s shoes and examine their own unconsidered assumptions. It would actually be a very productive exercise for a philosophy class, but this class isn’t terribly productive. Or about philosophy.

But in the movie, it’s just Radisson handing out sheets of paper that say “God is dead” and requiring his students to sign it on threat of failure. In the real world, there is no way that would stand. No one would even consider letting that stand. Only the most strident of atheists would rush to defend his behavior.

And yet, the students know he does this. People in his social circles know he does this. Other faculty members know he does this. Despite this, not only has absolutely no one reprimanded him (it genuinely seems as though Josh is the first person to oppose this behavior, which is just weird), he’s actually up for department chair. It would only take one camera phone to expose this power-mad bully and end his career. But it’s allowed to stand. I guess the implication is that it’s all liberal academia, and they’re okay with this sort of thing. (In real life, it turns out that college professors, statistically, reflect roughly the same religious diversity as the rest of the population.) It’s just another way that the movie insists the world is a scary, dangerous place full of scary, dangerous people, and you always have to be on your guard. Otherwise, they’re going to get you.

I’ve said in the past, and I keep saying, that if I had the power to give everyone alive just one piece of knowledge, it’d be this: Every single person you encounter in your life is just somebody trying to get by. That’s it. It’s really simple, but I’m constantly finding myself mired in these circles where the only explanation for their worldview is that all of life is an evil conspiracy centered on destroying them. God’s Not Dead is a movie made by and for those people. God’s Not Dead is a movie that could stand to have that realization.

Honestly, the actual quality of the film isn’t worth talking about. I don’t plan to review a movie like this and examine it from a technical perspective, because you know what you’re getting. It hovers around the level of your average TV movie. The production values, acting, direction, etc. are mediocre. And anyway, none of that really matters in light of the truly important things it gets disastrously wrong.

In some sense, the quality of Christian movies has been improving over the years, but the filmmakers are still failing to understand the nature of everyone’s objection to them. I’m not saying that production values, direction, editing, and acting aren’t things that you should work on and improve, but these seem to be the only aspects of the process on which everyone involved is focusing. If you only focus on those, you’re not doing much more than cleaning up the packaging for something that is, at its core, still rotten.

Christian movies can scrape up the biggest budgets they can muster. They can find a way to incorporate bigger stars. They can study basic filmmaking fundamentals and figure out how to shoot, direct, and edit something in a visually effective way. Were they so inclined, they could even work on becoming better storytellers — even if you strip away how wrong it is about everything, God’s Not Dead still doesn’t work as drama.

But if they want to be taken seriously as a significant part of the cinematic landscape — if they want to be fully participating voices in the mainstream cultural dialogue — they’ve got to take the next step. It’s a dangerous step. It’s the step where you challenge yourself. It’s the step where you possibly confront significant elements of your worldview and find that there’s friction there. It’s the step where maybe you change. But it’s the only step that matters.

There was, in my live review, one paragraph that I would like to publish here. It reads: “If evangelical Christianity wants to make real art that actually challenges its own assumptions, tries to answer the big questions, and makes real changes in the lives of people who aren’t already members of the choir, it should make this exact movie, but the atheist should be a normal human. Not a raging, ridiculous jerk who’s one step down from a Bond villain. Have him be a pleasant and decent person, like most people, making arguments for the worldview to which he happens to subscribe. That’s what the real world is, so instead of making up a happy and easy-to-swallow alternative, deal with it. That’s what art is.”

And that’s about the long and short of it. Art — storytelling — is one of the ways in which we try to make sense of the world in which we live. It’s about empathy, about contextualizing the lives of others so that we see, in clarity, the parts of the world that don’t belong to us. It’s about improving our own understanding of others — and helping them understand us as well.

Art doesn’t always arrive at the right answer. Sometimes, it can only conclude that there isn’t one. But the answer isn’t as important as the process. It’s more important to make a good-faith effort than to be right. It’s more important to challenge everything you’re conveying through your characters against the lens of reality and the perspectives of others. It’s about balance, detail, intelligence, and, above all, wisdom.

And if you’re failing basic Google searches, well, it’s hard for me to give you the benefit of the doubt.

-Matt T.

NOTE: I considered, with this review/essay/whatever-it-is, talking about my own religious inclinations for what would likely be the first time in this website’s history. I elected not to do that for one important reason: It would defeat my entire purpose if I either used my own group membership to bolster my credibility in some people’s eyes or if I allowed it to give them the excuse to write this opinion off before reading it. I decided that I’m dealing with the facts of reality here. Those facts are facts regardless of the religious lens through which I see them, so ultimately, my personal leanings would change nothing.

SECOND NOTE: I encountered, as I was perusing other reviews of this movie, a perspective from Patheos blogger Neil Carter (for the record, if, like me, you have some interest in religious matters, I highly recommend Patheos; you won’t find a larger and more personal collection of writings from dozens of different faiths, or lacks thereof). Carter is not someone I’ve ever really read before, but this post offers a unique and worthwhile take: What I Learned about Atheists from God’s Not Dead. There are interesting points made throughout, so read the entire thing, but this part, I think, is the crux of it:

“This is not love.  You cannot love people while ignoring everything they tell you about themselves.  You are not loving people when you refuse to listen to their stories.  You are not loving them well when you decide before hearing them that you already know all that you need to know about them, overruling their own self-descriptions and self-identifications because you are convinced you know better than they do what’s going on inside of them.  When you continually speak of people in terms to which they cannot agree, you are not showing them respect or validating them as real people.  This movie represents a grievous failure to love people like me.  If you watch this and then beg me to go watch it as well, it tells me that in some way you accept its presentation of what I am like even though I’m telling you it’s not accurate.  If you say you are to be known by how you love, then this should upset you.  The words may be there, but the thing your words promise is not.”

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Starring- Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington

Director- Dean DeBlois

PG- adventure action and some mild rude humor


How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy sequel, albeit, in some ways, what you’d expect — inferior to its predecessor, with all of its best moments feeling like imitations of what worked the first time around. At the same time, its sometimes-courageous defiance of the ordinary tropes of modern sequels elevates it, despite its flaws, to a much-higher standing than a lot of the other franchise continuations in theaters this summer.

Five years after the events of the first film, all is well on the island of Berk. The Vikings and the dragons are now getting on swimmingly — every Viking now has a dragon friend of his or her very own, and they spend all of their free time playing games and racing across the island. Plus, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a hero to the community and one of the island’s most widely beloved inhabitants, to the point that his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the chief, is now officially grooming him to be his successor.

Hiccup, however, is more interested in exploring. He spends his days with his dragon, Toothless, flying off into the sunset, searching for new places. On one expedition, he stumbles across an icy fortress that turns out to be a sanctuary for dragons of all kinds — one safeguarded by his long-missing mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). He also discovers the reason for this safe haven — Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), an old foe of the Vikings who is building an army of dragons to aid him in his conquest of the world.

And once Drago hears of the dragon-masters of Berk, he makes that his next target.

I’ve come to expect a lot of things of sequels in this day and age. They follow the same basic formula so often that I began to accept it as the new normal. We get one movie that works really well, so we get a sequel, and that sequel mostly does the same thing — just insert a new conflict into the same old world and characters and engineer some fun spectacle around it, roll credits. Making those sequels is more a question of brainstorming ways to force another story out of the universe than in capitalizing on deliberate unresolved implications of the first film. Essentially, I don’t expect sequels to really continue the story in any way or to drive it in an interesting new direction.

So, How to Train Your Dragon 2 really is a breath of fresh air. It starts out like a movie that’s simply conjuring up excuses to put the old characters through a new adventure, but it turns into something that’s actually following up on the implications of the last movie and creating implications of its own that I imagine we’ll see dealt with in How to Train Your Dragon 3.

It manifests even in the small things — like How to Train Your Dragon 2 taking place five years after its predecessor. If you pay attention, most sequels don’t really specify exactly how much time has elapsed since the last movie. I figure it’s because that means they don’t really have to think about how the core relationships have changed over time or anything like that. Five years, though, that’s a significant absence for this franchise in particular. That means the characters were teenagers in the first movie, and they’re adults now. They have to be different. Their roles and responsibilities have to be different.

That means the movie can’t just repeat the first one’s character arcs. Hiccup can’t be a sullen teenage outsider trying to fit in. Now, he’s an adult, and he primarily needs to figure out what he wants out of his life — and that mainly means figuring out what it means to be a leader, now that his father is looking to confer that status upon him very soon.

And his relationship with girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) can’t be what it was in the first movie either. They’re not teenagers navigating awkward feelings anymore. They’re in a serious relationship, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 is talking about the potential of their marriage.

And fortunately, the film capitalizes in that in what it adds to the saga. This movie is not interested in maintaining the status quo; actually, in several ways, it shatters it completely. How to Train Your Dragon 3 simply cannot be the same movie that either of its predecessors were, because too much changes before the credits roll here.

I can’t understate how much all of this matters to the effectiveness of the story itself. When people and situations and communities are capable of change, that has the effect of making what happens in the story matter. It lends significance to the proceedings. Moreover, it makes things a touch unpredictable because you know that realistic consequences are a possible end result of any given action or experience.

Of course, that alone doesn’t do it. You also need characters you believe in, relationships you care about, and a story that knows how to tie those things into the larger part of what’s going on. And like the first movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, leaves you with very little to complain about on that front. I’d actually argue it improves on some of those things — my biggest complaint about the first movie, the modernity and obnoxious self-awareness of the comedic supporting characters, has been dialed down significantly this time around.

But it still can’t help but feel, occasionally, like a shadow of its former self. The freshness and surprise of the original — an animated film shot and lit like a live action film and capable of capturing the magic and intensity of flight in a way that some of the biggest spectacles of all time could not — is mostly gone. How to Train Your Dragon 2 goes out of its way on a number of occasions to recreate some of the highlights of the first movie — dreamlike, romantic flights; sequences of bombastic adventuring; some of the humor; etc. — and it all feels much more put-upon this time, less a natural consequence of the story and more something that was shoehorned into it.

Part of the problem, I think, is the apparent split between writer-director team Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Only the former has returned for this film. And honestly, I don’t think either of them has done anything alone that even comes close to what they made together. They seem to have been a team in the most important sense, in that they had different skillsets and covered for one another’s weaknesses. Based on their solo work, DeBlois seems to be the one who knows how to structure a story and bring a sense of import to it. He can engage the audience’s emotions. Sanders, on the other hand, seems to be the better world-builder, and also has a stronger comedic sensibility. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t as funny as the first one, which, admittedly, isn’t that big of a problem, since it mostly isn’t trying all that hard. But it’s also a faster film that spends less time with its characters and in its world and moves everyone from plot point to plot point much more hastily — enough so that it starts to become a problem. How to Train Your Dragon had me from the opening scene. How to Train Your Dragon 2 took until the really important things finally started happening.

And while I’m not quite sure which of the directors is more talented in this regard, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is much looser thematically than its predecessor. I’m not saying that either film tackles particularly complex themes — they’re kids’ movies, after all. The first movie had a simple but effective moral of finding unexpected qualities in the misfits and the outcasts, and of the importance of understanding someone before automatically making him or her your enemy. Those two concepts are closely related to begin with, but what really makes them work is the way everything the film does builds into those ideas. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is messier. There’s a bit about leadership and a bit about family and a smaller bit related to the first movie’s ideas, and it’s all over the place and sometimes seems more like a happy accident. The film’s numerous messages fight for screen-time rather than co-existing in a harmonious flow, and some of them don’t feel as though they’ve been meaningfully resolved by the time the movie ends.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like here — from the characters to the spot-on direction or the occasional riskiness of the story. There’s a boldness to the proceedings that’s lacking in far too many movies, and I’m pleased that DreamWorks Animation allowed that to happen. For once, I’m anticipating the third entry not because I’d feel okay about taking another, unrelated adventure with these characters but because I’m genuinely interested in what it does with the story’s changed circumstances and how it, in turn, develops them.

-Matt T.

Boyhood (2014)

Starring- Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Zoe Graham

Director- Richard Linklater

R- language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use


Boyhood: a movie to emotionally destroy late-end millennials. Like me.

I could discuss any one of a thousand things that Boyhood touches upon, some of which might not even be intentional on its part. I feel as though I need to see this a dozen more times before I can even begin to write about it in any kind of depth. But leaving the theater, the foremost thought in my mind was this: It all goes by so very, very fast. It doesn’t always seem that way in the moment, but when you look back on it, life starts to seem like a series of scenes and segues that passed before you realized it, and now, it’s just a concrete, unchangeable part of history. And this is your life right now, and it’s real, and twenty years from now, it’s going to feel the same. Where did that time go? How did I manage not to be conscious of it as it passed? At the end of Boyhood, two characters discuss whether we seize the moment or the moment seizes us and conclude, seemingly, that it’s a bit of both. Life is just this series of moments that, for good or ill, shape us.

God bless Richard Linklater. When you talk about movies on the Internet long enough, you get used to all the people who complain about how cinema is dead or, at the very least, a fading shadow of its former glory. There was a time in my life when I was that guy. But the longer I actually watch movies, the more difficult it is for me to understand the world those people inhabit. They surely haven’t heard about Richard Linklater, much less that he’s but one of many filmmakers constantly blazing new trails. He continually tests the limits of what’s possible in this medium.

With Boyhood, Linklater has distilled roughly one-fourth of the entire human experience into less than three hours and, in that time, created a full and complex human family, specific in its construction and infinitely relatable for precisely that reason. It’s a simple premise — we follow a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from young childhood to the start of college. There’s nothing too special or unusual about Mason or his family, but that’s the point. It’s cinema of the ordinary, and it finds absolute resplendence in the everyday. What it does with that simple premise is nothing short of extraordinary.

This film seems like the culmination of Linklater’s ongoing fascination with the effects of time on a narrative — both within the story itself and on the production. He’s interested not only in what it does for the story he’s telling and the characters who inhabit it, he’s interested in how that space affects his own perspective on the whole affair and what the actors bring to the table as time goes on. He made the (wonderful) Before trilogy, a series of relatively non-narrative films that followed one couple for no longer than a day at nine-year intervals — in-movie and real-world time.

Now, we’ve got Boyhood — filmed, piece by piece, over a period of twelve years, using the same actors.

As a film, it’s pure experimentation — to my knowledge, no one’s done this before, at least not with fictional productions and not in the same way, and Linklater could only have known so much about the eventual fruit of his labors. He would’ve gone into it knowing that twelve years is a long time — things could change wildly. A major cultural event could require him to readjust his entire vision. An important actor in the film could die. Since contracts of that length are illegal, someone could’ve decided to quit. Some of the younger actors’ skills might not have evolved with them as they grew older. The spectacular end result is half blind luck and half ridiculous contingency planning.

It’s my understanding that Linklater did not have a complete script when this production began — really, he didn’t have one until very near to the time that it wrapped. The film was shot on an annual basis, with all the actors coming together for a week or so to shoot the in-narrative events of that particular year. From what I’ve read, Linklater updated the script beforehand and adjusted it to the changing culture, as well as to what was happening in the lives of the young stars (while still, according to rumor, basing it on his own childhood). Given that, it’s difficult to attach any particular thesis to this movie, but that’s perfectly fine — I don’t think Linklater, with this type of film, is the sort of artist who really sets out to say something or to draw attention to a particular issue. He’s an observer of life who wants to recreate those experiences on film as vividly as possible. He is, in some ways, a cultural documentarian.

Really, Boyhood is best viewed as a series of short films, one for each of the twelve years represented. It’s not always clear where they begin or end or even what their significance is to the larger whole. It’s a series of moments, and if it has any point, it’s this — these moments, and the people who are involved in creating them, shape us. It tracks Mason’s development through all of these experiences.

Another filmmaker would succumb to the temptation to tell this story as broadly as possible. That’s why I’m glad this was Linklater’s idea. He knows that the more specific a situation is, the more relatable it becomes — you attach your own experiences to the commonalities you encounter and find, in the way the film attacks the details, that it’s not faking it. It really understands what it’s like to go through this or that. So, we watch Mason go through a lot of the staples, things a lot of us experienced at one time or another — moving to a new town, dealing with your parents’ divorce, trying to craft your own identity as a teenager, young love, starting college, looking toward the future with equal parts excitement and trepidation. But he’s not every kid, and his family’s not every family; they’re distinct in their experiences and in the way that they relate to each other. His mother (Patricia Arquette) has a self-destructive tendency in relationships that mostly deprives Mason of positive male role models growing up. His father (Ethan Hawke), who is already divorced from his mother when the film starts, is a bit of a pretentious layabout. You see the way these things affect Mason and, to some extent, model the young adult he becomes, scene by scene.

But while Boyhood is an intimate film, with a timeframe of twelve years, it can’t help but take on this all-encompassing scope. You watch Mason change with and respond to each and every experience he has, but you see the world changing around him as well. You see his mother try to pick up the pieces one bad relationship after another while also growing herself into a self-reliant career woman and genuine intellectual so that she can provide for her kids. You see his father slowly but surely try to get his act together and, belatedly, become an adult. You see the way the responsibility gap in the family, in a small way, drives his older sister (Lorelei Linklater) into early adulthood and then into a minor case of suspended adolescence.

Boyhood gets into some dark places, but there isn’t a nihilistic bone in its body. Even the bad things, properly contextualized, can work for the good. Mason has a lot of father figures in his life, men who, by some vague standard, are better and certainly more productive than his biological father. And yet, by the film’s end, most of what is good in Mason can be traced to his birth father. There’s an honesty to the way Hawke’s character presents himself, warts and all, and openly deals with his attempts to become a better person that shapes Mason much more than a thousand slaps in the back of the head from several of his well-to-do, authoritarian step-fathers. None of this is to say that Mason ends up perfect; this is, above all else, an honest film. You don’t have to dive too deeply into the message boards to find numerous threads complaining about how Teenage Mason is a pretentious, self-important navel-gazer and totally unlikable. I don’t think any of that is inaccurate. But I think, ultimately, Boyhood’s final assertion is that he’s going to be all right. Most of us grow up eventually. Mason is on the right track.

I suppose all of that could have been accomplished in one shoot, using different actors to represent the different age groups. But I think Boyhood brings something tremendous to the table in allowing the actors to grow with these characters and especially in having the film live entirely in the moment. In one interview, Linklater mentioned that during production, he was cognizant of the fact that he was making a period piece in real time. This, to me, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the finished film.

It comes wholly and without fail from the years in which it was produced. It’s one thing to recreate another decade — find the right wardrobe, make sure everything in the background is from the right technological era, try to keep your slang and other mannerisms straight, etc. But there’s always a personality that any given culture has, a certain quality that’s impossible to distill to formula and recreate exactly. Boyhood doesn’t have to try. At any given time, it’s working exclusively in the here and now, so it doesn’t have to be conscious of any of that. It’s simply a matter of capturing what is and saving it for later.

And those twelve years — it doesn’t feel that way, but they were so long, weren’t they? The film begins in 2002, with a touch of post-9/11 paranoia hanging over everything. It proceeds, and you hear talk of the Bush administration and what started to happen in the culture surrounding that. The music changes. The technology changes. It hits 2008 and reminds you of the political intensity of that year ­— how, culturally, there seemed to be change in the air, hanging over everything. There’s something so casual in the way that it presents itself, year after year. It takes you right back. I grew up in the decade that this was produced. I’m a handful of years older than Mason and, by extension, Ellar Coltrane. I lived in this world. Watching it happen on-screen is surreal. I watch Mason hanging out with his dad at the bowling alley and think, “At this time, I was getting ready to start middle school.” I watch him and his father messing with people’s McCain signs and realizing that I was just then stumbling terrified into college. Boyhood hit me in a way I don’t think any other film is ever going to. It’s the story of one child, Mason, but in it, you find your own — perhaps especially if you’re a product of his generation. I can’t speculate what would happen to those of you who aren’t. But I suspect your story is in there, too.

Great movies aren’t exactly commonplace, but I can expect in any given year to see several that qualify. On balance, I probably even see two or three outright masterpieces. To get that sense, though, that what you’re watching is something truly special, that’s rare.

So, you’d better not miss Boyhood before it goes. And you’d especially better not miss this moment while it’s here. And the next one.

-Matt T.

Non-Stop (2014)

Starring- Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Wigham, Anson Mount, Quinn McColgan, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal

Director- Jaume Collet-Serra

PG-13- intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references


The best part about Non-Stop is that its title is a lie — eventually, it does stop!

Oh, wait, wait, wait! I’ve got another one. Non-STOP? More like…Non-START!


Seriously, I’ve got a million of these. By which I mean I’ve got exactly two of these, but I’ll bet I could think of, like, way more if I felt like it. But I don’t, and anyway, I probably shouldn’t be too glib. Non-Stop isn’t quite bad enough to deserve that. I mean, it’s still enough of a recognizable product that I don’t feel too bad about that. But, you know. There are way worse things.

Actually, Non-Stop has me in a situation that I didn’t think I’d manage to experience twice — it is exactly like 2012’s Jack Reacher. It is either actually kind of smart or way, way dumber than anyone thinks. And I don’t know how to decide which one it is. I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, our setup. Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is a troubled, alcoholic air marshal who gets assigned to what seems like an ordinary flight to London. But once he climbs aboard and settles down for the trip, he gets a series of mysterious text messages from an unknown source. The messages are all the same — until a ransom of millions of dollars is paid, someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes. And so begins a high-stakes game of cat and mouse at thousands of feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

I’ll get the mundane stuff out of the way first. Non-Stop is, generally speaking, not the sort of film that aspires to start a whole lot of dialogue. It’s a Liam Neeson thriller. It’s a plane thriller. You’ve seen both. They’re not all that different anyway, and they blend in pretty much the way you’d expect. Best-case scenario, this was only ever going to be competent mid-winter entertainment. And to its credit, it almost is. Sure, there’s next to nothing going on character-wise, the evil plan is overcomplicated, undercooked, and silly, and the plot is riddled with holes. But it’s heavy on the atmosphere, and director Jaume Collet-Serra is no slouch on the visuals (though his action sequences tend to descend into the usual frenetic chaos). And no matter how dumb the factual details of the situation are, the movie mostly does a good job of staying two steps ahead of you the entire time. It’s constantly playing with your trust levels regarding each character and never quite puts anyone on the “safe” list. I wouldn’t say that it’s engaging, but it’s not quite boring either.

Still, the last blockbuster I watched before sitting through Non-Stop was Guardians of the Galaxy, and that definitely highlighted some of the…let’s say, differences in approach. Guardians reminded me that action movies used to be fun and that we could easily start making them that way again. And while Non-Stop’s environment probably suits a somewhat more serious approach than Guardians’, I don’t think the two films are aspiring to terribly different intellectual heights or overall emotional purposes. I mean, Non-Stop doesn’t have to be Guardians, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t use more of a Die Hard template, is there?

Mostly, is there any reason for it to be this morose? Everything is steely blue or dank gray, and the film opens with our hero sitting in a car, staring pensively into the distance on a rainy day while drinking himself into oblivion. This movie is clearly just trying to be a good time, so I’m not sure why everything has to be so deadly serious. I’m not saying it has to be jokey or anything; I just think it’d benefit from a lighter touch.

But for the most part, the movie is what you’d expect it to be, and you probably already know whether or not you’re on board.

And that brings us to the tricky part.

Liam Neeson action movies have managed to become their own thing culturally. It’s almost a subgenre of action movie. They have similar structures, the same tone, Neeson plays a variant on the same guy in all of them. They’re like far more serious Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

They’re also, to me, one of the most concerning aspects of modern film culture. They have this tendency to be, you know…kinda brazenly immoral sometimes. They glorify violence, bullying, torture, revenge, and lots of other fun stuff. The fact that moviegoers have embraced these characters as heroes bothers me a little.

Non-Stop doesn’t offer many surprises on this front. Bill Marks exemplifies, and then exaggerates, the typical post-9/11 action hero. He runs into every situation guns blazing, he beats people senseless at the slightest provocation, he manhandles and humiliates suspects whose guilt has not been proven, and he’s like some overly determined hunting dog when it comes to evidence — somebody comes up with a tiny scrap that puts someone adjacent to potential wrongdoing, and he spends all of a minute playing connect the dots in his brain, decides that person is guilty forever, and then runs in like, “RAR! WHAT DO YOU KNOW! PUNCH! PUNCH! KICK!” There’s a scene in this movie where he completely turns on someone in all of thirty seconds because he was suspicious of the character’s seating choices. He’s kind of an idiot, actually.

Not too different from a lot of his other characters, really. But Non-Stop is a different movie. It’s like I said with Jack Reacher — it argues against itself so effectively that I actually started to wonder if it was secretly smart. At this point, it comes down to whether or not I want to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. And even then, the only answer I can find is: Maybe?

I mean, it’s hard not to notice that most of Marks’ problems are very self-inflicted. This was made clear in the trailers, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that part of the evil plan is to frame Marks for everything that happens. And he sure makes that easier by basically terrorizing everyone and being the big man with the gun all the time. He’s basically the film character version of everything controversial about post-9/11 government: He tortures, he arbitrarily assigns himself moral prominence over everyone else, there are absolutely no checks on his power, he happily throws down when someone so much as gets lippy with him (for basically stopping-and-frisking the passengers), etc. Of course, a lot of movies do that these days, and they don’t seem to arrive at a message happier than, “It was okay for him to do it because he’s a good person.

Non-Stop is halfway there and halfway not. The biggest thing it’s got going in its favor is the fact that Marks is mostly making things worse for himself. But on the negative end of things, it spends some time justifying things as well and doesn’t really present Marks in a substantially different context than similar characters in other films. Like I said, it’s still basically a goofy, dumb action thriller that relies on you having someone to root for.

Then again, I’ve seen people not only highlighting this theme but making a halfway sensible argument that the arc is actually complete. I’m going to part ways with them here. The ending is fairly typical airplane thriller fare. I wouldn’t say that Marks ever meaningfully confronts his actions or realizes their consequences. We just get our reveals and our final showdowns, and that’s about it.

For all I know, all of this stuff is in the movie purely by accident, and, well, that’s part of the problem. But while knowing that this was done intentionally would certainly increase my estimation of the filmmakers and even, to a lesser extent, the film itself, I don’t think it would quite rescue the whole ordeal from its flaws. It’s still a touch monotone and tired, and it’s still too grim about its silly house-of-cards plot.

-Matt T.

Movie Review: Rio 2 (2014)

Posted: August 14, 2014 in Movie Reviews

Rio 2 (2014)

Starring- Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Leslie Mann, Bruno Mars, Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, Jamie Foxx,, Rachel Crow, Amandla Stenberg, Pierce Gagnon, Rodrigo Santoro, Jake T. Austin, Tracy Morgan, Bebel Gilberto, Andy Garcia, Kristin Chenoweth, Rita Moreno, Philip Lawrence, Miguel Ferrer

Director- Carlos Saldanha



   I’m not sure why I watched Rio 2. I didn’t even like the first one. It’s not like I was really looking forward to this or there was some critic or another who talked me into it. And it’s not like I was dreading this either. Morbid curiosity didn’t drive me into this.

   And I don’t even think I figured I was gong to write an interesting review of it. The first one was a generic kids’ movie; I was anticipating more or less the same thing out of this.

   I guess it made some money, so I just threw it in there and figured I’d give it a watch if nothing else was competing with it that week. I didn’t think all that hard about it.

   And yeah, it’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s a generic kids’ movie. It doesn’t actively offend on any level, nor does it go the extra mile in any respect. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s so lightweight that it threatens to evaporate before your eyes.

   Following the events of the first movie (and if you remember what those are at all, shame on you), blue macaws Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) are settled down in a wildlife sanctuary with three children when a discovery in the Amazon suggests that they aren’t, as previously thought, the last of their kind. So, despite city bird Blu’s objections, they fly off to the jungle, where they find a whole flock of blue macaws. However, an illegal logging enterprise is closing in on their home.

   Like I said, I don’t really know what to say about this. Generic, lightweight, forgettable, not terribly involved. It’s getting to the point where I feel that way about Blue Sky Animation in general. They started out with some promise, but lately, they’re stuck mainly on relentless Ice Age sequels and the occasional project that’s original in source but not in execution. I think of them to some degree as a poor man’s DreamWorks. They seem to be aiming for the same tone, but whereas DreamWorks at least to extent tries to inform culture, Blue Sky seems totally content with producing movies that are lockstep additions to whatever the zeitgeist happens to be at the moment.

   Rio 2 is basically here to provide the encyclopedia image under “Children’s Films in 2014.” Kids’ movies are still loud and manic but are slowly transitioning out of that, so Rio 2 is somewhere in the middle. For some reason, they all need to have a heavy modern sensibility, so there have to be references to hot new technology and things like that. So, one character has to be the “hip” one. And Blue Sky is still the foremost offender in ridiculous celebrity stunt casting — seriously, look it up, every single one of its movies has a bare minimum of one pop star who’s never done any real acting. This time around, it’s Bruno Mars.

   There really isn’t much of anything in Rio 2 that sets it apart from a thousand other movies. You’ve seen everything that happens in it before. This movie isn’t even trying to put a fresh twist on these old tropes; it just drops them in front of you half-heartedly. Everything plays out exactly how you’d expect — there’s even a scene where a bunch of birds play soccer that still somehow ends up being one of the most been-there-done-that moments in the film. The characters are all stereotypes who react to and behave around one another in exactly the way you’d expect, and their arcs bring each of them to the usual resolutions — most of them pretty arbitrary in the context of what we see anyway. The humor isn’t as bad as what I’ve seen in other movies, but it’s all really tired — “Oh, ha, ha! His GPS misunderstood what he said and is instead guiding him to something wacky!”

   The movie just seems to have a total lack of interest in itself. The story seems to have been assembled piecemeal from a couple of scenes the writers thought might be fun. The movie drops you right into things with almost no preamble whatsoever and then just does stuff. There’s no real rhyme or reason behind most of what happens. Scenes that seem like significant plot events regularly turn out to be little more than excuses for additional tangents. Generously speaking, over half the cast has no meaningful reason to be in the movie — most of them are here only because they were in the first one, and the lion’s share of the new ones are simply part of still more tangents. The movie has two different villains who are totally unconnected from one another, so you regularly forget about them outside of their scenes. The musical numbers are awkward and bringing very little new to the table. Plus, the scenes where the characters abruptly break into song are very strangely chosen — too many of them belong to minor characters or emotional beats and just seem like padding. The score itself is so light, fluffy, and devoid of identity that it actually starts to announce itself at certain points — it’s bad enough that it actively detracts from the moments it’s supposed to be propping up.

   The animation is still pretty nice. For some reason, Blue Sky’s characters still look low budget to me, but the environments are lush and colorful. And for all that it does wrong, at least Blu’s (generic, paint-by-numbers) arc has some definition.

   But Rio 2 doesn’t do a single thing you haven’t seen done a thousand times already. More frustratingly, it doesn’t seem as though it’s even trying to. It’s not an unpleasant watch, but it’s still a complete nothing of a motion picture that vanishes from your brain basically the second it’s over.

   -Matt T.