Archive for December, 2014

The Wind Rises (2013)

Starring- Hideaki Anno (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Hidetoshi Nishijima (John Krasinski), Miori Takimoto (Emily Blunt), Masahiko Nishimura (Martin Short), Mansai Nomura (Stanley Tucci), Jun Kunimora (Mandy Patinkin), Mirai Shida (Mae Whitman)

Director- Hayao Miyazaki

PG-13- some disturbing images and smoking


The Wind Rises is, at once, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most unique, challenging, daring, beautiful, and personal films, as well as one of his most difficult, and perhaps one of his most flawed.

I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything quite like this before — an animated biopic, in this case of Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno/Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English dub), an aircraft designer who built planes for the Japanese military during World War II. It’s interesting that telling Jiro’s story in animation didn’t persuade anyone to shift it tonally; you could easily repackage it as a live-action film and sell it as some prestige piece. In terms of the characters and their behavior, The Wind Rises largely inhabits the real world and observes the details of everyday business.

You could almost criticize it for choosing its medium arbitrarily, but I won’t do that — anime is Hayao Miyazaki’s art form, and he’s not going to tell a story unless he knows it’s going to thrive on-screen. The Wind Rises is gorgeous, at any rate; you could make a strong argument for it being the director’s best-looking film, which is saying something. It uses a lot more computer-generated imagery than I can recall seeing in the rest of its work — it has to, with the sheer scale of the landscapes it has to cover and the difficulty inherent in capturing the motion of complex machinery in hand-drown animation — but I’m hard-pressed to think of any other animated movie that incorporated it half as well. Everything is detailed and fluid, and it can get tough to tell where one ends and the other begins. Miyazaki has always specialized in complex and graceful compositions filled with a lush color palette seen with few other living directors; if there’s anyone best suited to capturing the majesty of open flight, he’s the guy.

And despite the overall grounded-ness of this film, there are plenty of distinctly Miyazaki-esque touches in the form of dream sequences where Jiro communicates with his idol, an Italian aircraft designer named Caproni (Mansai Nomura/Stanley Tucci). These contain the most fantastic imagery and the sort of wild aircraft designs that feel closer to the subtly over-the-top creations typical of much of Miyazaki’s work. The film actually tells much of its story through these scenes, allowing them to get deeper into Jiro’s emotional state than many of the ones that take place in the real world.

Of course, it’s as a storyteller that he’s made his reputation. Miyazaki has achieved international acclaim in a way that few, if any, other foreign directors have — not just among critics, but general audiences as well. He may not be a household name, but his films? Many of those certainly are. That simply doesn’t happen over so long a career as his unless you know what you’re doing. And as good as he is, there are, of course, people out there who are better, even within his field, but I can think of few other storytellers making animated films that are as bluntly personal as his, and that’s what I love about his work. The Wind Rises is no exception — it may, in fact, be one of the most obvious examples — and that’s where it both soars and, for me, stumbles a little bit.

I’ll preface what follows by saying this much: I don’t think The Wind Rises, either by accident or design, says anything that struck me as wrong. In truth, the main source of my conflicted feelings in this regard is that I know exactly what it’s saying (or at least am pretty sure I do) and can even identify the framework by which it gets there. I think there’s just a little something that gets lost in translation where the film begins dramatizing its themes.

But let’s start with what I love about what this film is doing. Miyazaki’s work has covered a lot of thematic ground, but one distinct throughline has always been stories about telling stories. Think, for example, how Kiki’s Delivery Service ends up being a metaphor for Miyazaki’s own writer’s block. The Wind Rises strikes me as one of those. And it’s bold and self-critical in a way that very few films of any kind are. It’s Miyazaki, an old man at the end of his career (maybe), evaluating his life as a whole and the things he did with it, trying to determine if it was worth it and whether he did more good than harm. And he’s not trying to make a movie that tells him what he wants to hear but instead, in a lot of ways, leaves it up to his audience to decide.

Jiro seems to stand in for him, his love of flight and creating beautiful airplanes representing Miyazaki’s own drive to tell stories and compose spectacular images. With Jiro, there remains the looming specter of war — he knows that the planes he loves to create will ultimately and inevitably be harnessed for the purposes of violence and destruction. With Miyazaki, there remains the Business of Movies — will it sell; is it commercial? Disney has had a long history of recontextualizing a lot of his work in the English translations; that’s something he has to worry about. Moreover, there are the concerns every artist faces, perhaps especially the storytellers — what happens once people get their hands on this? Are they going to understand my intent? Will it help them or make them worse? You can tell a story about a cultural problem only to have audiences see merely the surface, and not the background you paint behind it. You can try to criticize the violence in the world only for people to interpret your story as a simple tale of heroes and villains and use it to file away their own friends and enemies. You can try to say something about sexual ethics and only manage to titillate someone. And so on.

The Wind Rises is Miyazaki asking himself — and everyone else — that question, whether his presence on this Earth has been a net positive or a net negative, whether this little passion of his actually meant anything in the long run or was just some frivolous thing he was lucky enough to get paid to do. Not only that — was it worth the sacrifices he made along the way? The Wind Rises introduces Naoko (Miori Takimoto/Emily Blunt) as a love interest for Jiro — he becomes engaged to her despite the fact that she has tuberculosis, making theirs a love that is doomed from the beginning. Every moment becomes precious to them, Jiro says, but his completely genuine love for her exists within the spiral of his passion for engineering, and both compete.

That the movie chooses to end on what is ultimately a tragic moment makes me hope that this doesn’t, in fact, turn out to be the director’s denouement. That’s not because The Wind Rises isn’t good enough to mark an end to his career; you could argue that it is, and I think, ultimately, that I would. It’s that it’s such a sad and cynical film that it makes you pray its creator hasn’t become a sad and cynical person. I almost want to find the guy and hug him and tell him he’s brought joy to millions of people, children and adults alike.

However. I think that, compared to some of his other films, there’s an extent to which The Wind Rises doesn’t dramatize this very well, to a point that it almost scares up some unintentional moral discomfort. It can be tough to put your finger on it, though — all the necessary information is right there in the text, enough to make it basically impossible to argue that Miyazaki sees Jiro’s passion as something divorced from the fact that his creations will be used to end human lives. Isolating that missing piece that doesn’t allow it to stick is difficult, but here’s the conclusion I’ve reached: The Wind Rises stumbles because, tonally, it treats the metaphor with the same level of moral seriousness as the thing it represents. And I don’t think this problem is unique to it; it’s something that, now that I think about it, I’ve seen in a lot of serious art. And it’s something that’s tough to navigate from the beginning.

Though The Wind Rises has to address the war, it’s not really about war at all — which is fine. The whole thing is a metaphor for something totally different — in this case, creation. But what seems to have happened in translating one to the other is that Miyazaki’s feelings about the art of creation got carried over to the story about people building machines to kill each other and didn’t manage to intensify appropriately. A good story can be a metaphor, and it often is, but the characters in it can’t be aware that they’re just symbolizing something other than what is literally happening to him. As a result, its portrait of a person allowing his creative drive to run roughshod over his life, to detach him from the larger moral implications of what he’s doing, is compelling — but only when you detach yourself from the literal, in-universe implications. The story brings Jiro to a place of soul-searching and self-doubt when it feels as though it should lead him to horrid realization, or at least to challenge him daily. For most of the film, Jiro hardly seems to wrestle with what he knows — that he’s building planes for the military, and they’re going to use it to do awful things. In the scenes where he does — dream sequences where he sees horrible images of impending doom or discussions with an anti-war activist while on a summer retreat — the film struggles to convey how, if at all, Jiro’s experiences impact his own attitude toward the whole thing.

It’s clear, at least in terms of the specifics, of the step-by-step of the plot, it’s clear where the film ends up on this — Jiro’s wrong not to consider these things. But it struggles to get its emotional subtext to end up in the same place. Jiro ultimately comes across as this passive, detached, thoughtless, and mostly arc-less person who just does whatever feels right in the moment, and the film doesn’t engage with that as readily as I’d hoped.

Nevertheless, to see The Wind Rises follow these themes as far as it does is impressive; Miyazaki submits himself to criticism with an extremely atypical honesty. I hope making this resolved whatever questions he was asking himself, and hopefully for the better. He’s wrestling with some incredible and complex things here, and he’s constructed an incredible and complex film around them.

-Matt T.

Earth to Echo (2014)

Starring- Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt

Director- Dave Green

PG- some action and peril, and mild language


Earth to Echo is basically found-footage E.T. However good that sounds to you, it isn’t even half that.

Told through the cameras they had with them along the way, Earth to Echo follows the adventures of three friends — Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) — all of whom are moving now that their neighborhood has been selected for demolition to build a new stretch of highway. To commemorate their last night together, Tuck goads the other two into biking into the desert with him to investigate a strange signal he’s picked up there. What they find defies all of their expectations — a small, robot-like alien they decide to call Echo. It turns out, however, that the highway construction is a cover for the government’s investigation into Echo’s crash-landing, and the kids soon find themselves on the run, trying to help their new friend repair his ship before he ends up being prodded in a lab somewhere.

I really don’t want to be too hard on this movie; I think we need more like that. I don’t think there’s any more depressing absence in modern Hollywood than movies about kids having adventures. They were a staple of my childhood, and I wonder where kids today are getting stories that are built to speak directly to their experiences.

At the same time, Earth to Echo is really, really bad, and I’m having an extremely difficult time thinking of anything particularly nice to say about it. The kid actors are mostly okay, I guess?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the found footage aesthetic was more pointless. To be fair, I can’t think of any movies where I liked that particular technique, save for a few like District 9 that only used it in certain scenes. Still, with most found footage movies, I at least got what they were going for — something like The Blair Witch Project hopes it’ll make things more realistic and immediate; something like Chronicle is hoping to capture a bird’s-eye view of flight. I’m not sure what they thought it would add to Earth to Echo. It’s mostly a grounded film without any major effects sequences; the lion’s share of it is kids riding around on their bikes and playing around with Echo. I could see why they might want to use it to enhance the sense of discovery early on, like a fictionalized version of one of those paranormal investigation shows (well, an openly fictionalized version, anyway). But the mysteriousness of everything is heavily underplayed in the opening scenes and doesn’t stick around long once it becomes clear that something is happening. Of course, after Echo is revealed, there’s no longer any mystery surrounding anything, and the movie turns into a straightforward adventure. Actually, the one or two big effects sequences in this movie are hurt, I think, by the found footage approach; you can’t see any of it clearly or in a wide enough frame.

I could deal with all that if it was set in service of a good story — like what ultimately saved Chronicle. Earth to Echo, unfortunately, is very underwritten, the sort of story that feels as though it was mapped out in its entirety in only one sitting and then filled out with dialogue and choreography. Most of the movie is the kids riding their bikes somewhere, picking up a piece of Echo’s ship, and repeating from step one. It switches main characters midway through — Tuck talks the most and is the one with the camera, so it seems like we’re supposed to be following him. But in the end, it’s Alex, who is very definitely the silent type, who gets all the climactic moments. He comes across as the least developed of the three kids — at least until Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) shows up. She was very explicitly included in the movie for the sole purpose of having a girl in the cast. You could write her out entirely and change basically nothing.

It’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but there isn’t much about it that’s particularly good — just some things it does wrong, and things it does less wrong. Most of what it does falls into the latter category, in all fairness, but that’s hardly enough. Even at its slight run-time, Earth to Echo can get a bit difficult to sit through, and it’s not hard to imagine why it totally disappeared upon release.

-Matt T.

Pride (2014)

Starring- Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, Andrew Scott, George MacKay, Joe Gilgun, Ben Schnetzer, Freddie Fox, Monica Dolan, Liz White, Faye Marsay, Karina Fernandez, Jessie Cave, Jessica Gunning, Rhodri Meilir, Russell Tovey, Lisa Palfrey

Director- Matthew Warchus

R- language and brief sexual content


Pride is the worst movie of the year that I love unreservedly. I mean, it’s really, really good, but there’s definitely a gap between its actual quality and how thoroughly I enjoyed it, and I don’t have a super compelling explanation for that.

Set during the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the U.K., Pride follows the true story of a group of gay activists who formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and sponsored a small mining village in Wales, eventually bridging the gap between two disparate communities and forming a diverse coalition that fought on behalf of both groups’ interests.

On paper, I really shouldn’t like this. About everything you need to know regarding the personality of this movie is that most of the village’s naysayers are won over through the power of dance. Pride is definitely very broad and emotionally big, and it might easily become cheesy were it not so knowing about that. I’m hearing rumors that the writer is adapting this as a stage musical, and that summarizes the feeling of the movie quite well.

Beyond the broadness of it, though, there’s a lot about Pride that should have me kind of frustrated with it. Its biggest issue, hands down, is that everything about it is specifically calculated to be as unchallenging as possible. There’s such a clear delineation between the “us and them” as far as the people who welcome LGSM with open arms and the people who hate and fear its members that it has an effect similar to The Help, where it almost starts to treat bigotry and mistreatment as a thing that’s mostly behind us and misidentifies it as a thing that could ever manifest, subtly or otherwise, in our own behavior. Pride is not trying to get you to do any soul-searching, and that may be a missed opportunity; then again, not every movie about gay people strictly has to be about homosexuality as a political issue, and I think it actually signifies some progress that films such as that can be made. Even on other levels, though, Pride seems to resist questioning much of anything. The most pertinent question it raises, in my opinion, is one of motive: Are these people helping one another out of the goodness of their hearts, or are they doing it as a subtle way of advancing their own causes? Pride doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, and the positive characters between both LGSM and the village are never once suggested to have anything other than the best intentions. And maybe that’s how it was in real life; maybe these people simply did help one another because it was the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean the dynamic doesn’t exist, though, and that it isn’t worth exploring. In short, Pride is a movie that stumbles into some big issues but has absolutely no interest in exploring them.

What separates it from something similar — for example, as mentioned, The Help? Honestly, I don’t particularly know. Maybe it’s that there’s so much cynicism in movies these days that it does my heart good to see something that’s so focused on pure uplift.

More likely, though, it’s that stories where diverse people from extremely different backgrounds join hands and help one another and learn to understand one another and become friends and stuff like that are totally my jam, and Pride plays all the hits.

Moreover, it plays them extremely well. Setting aside the fact that it’s a bit of a lightweight and more or less brainless film, this is still a really well-told story in the hands of craftsmen who clearly know what they’re doing. Pride is tight, immaculate, and perfectly paced. It recognizes, first and foremost, that this is not the story of any one person but of two communities coming together, and the group is the protagonist. The film doesn’t single out any of the players as the main character and instead focuses on the dynamic between everyone involved. It focuses on the way the community changes — how it comes together, turns adversity into something positive, deals with the blowback, and becomes stronger for all of it. Since the focus is on the group, Pride necessarily deals with a lot of characters, maybe a dozen important ones when all is said and done, and it balances them very skillfully. Just about everyone gets a mini-arc of some kind, and nearly all of them are executed well, if simply and without fanfare. Some of them are more serious, like audience surrogate Joe (George MacKay) wrestling with whether or not to come out to his conservative family; some are sillier, like a brief aside where a couple of tough-guy miners decide to let one of the more flamboyant LGSM members teach them how to dance so they can pick up women at bars; all of them feed directly into the larger, overarching theme of these diverse people befriending one another and working toward a common goal.

And a lot of it’s total nonsense — it isn’t long after befriending LGSM that a number of women from the village are totally content to follow their new friends into an inner-city gay bar and have tons of fun — but it’s amusing nonsense nonetheless. Even in its most serious moments, Pride never loses its knowing and generally warm-hearted sense of humor. There’s a recurring joke about an old woman from the village who’s genuinely, childishly curious about lesbians — “Is it true you’re all vegetarians?” — that doesn’t resemble anything recognizably human but is funny nonetheless.

The film as a whole is very intelligently written, and all of these little character moments echo through the plot, resulting in completed arcs, callbacks to the details of previous interactions, and a thorough sense of continuity that makes the story feel like something real, even though a lot of it is clearly exaggerated. The film doesn’t introduce any elements that don’t result in something important later on; it’s tight, precise, and complete.

The uplifting moments — and Pride doesn’t even attempt to hide that it mainly wants to make you feel good — are perfectly structured into the plot. They’re not overbearing; they’re not sparse. It knows exactly when you hit you with the big stuff and exactly how to set up its climactic moments so that they hit as hard as possible. Pride is a movie that scarcely has a dull moment; everything is rich with emotion and purpose. By the time the movie was wrapping up and everyone was together, marching with a common cause, supported by an extremely impressive soundtrack (seriously, this is going to make for a great musical), I was a total wreck. This movie made me feel like a big idiot, and I loved every second of it.

You can’t really go into it expecting it to be a definitive LGBT rights movie, or a definitive workers’ rights movie, or a definitive much of anything, when all is said and done. It’s not trying to challenge you, and it probably shouldn’t be viewed inside a vacuum. But go into it expecting to come out with a burning desire to march for something, right now, doesn’t matter what it is, and Pride is one seriously great time at the movies.

-Matt T.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Starring- Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Manu Bennett, John Tui, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly

Director- Peter Jackson

PG-13- extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images


Well…it’s over, anyway. And now, whenever I say that I’m a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to have to qualify that statement. Thanks, everybody.

I halfway don’t even know what to say about this movie. It’s bad in exactly the way everyone and their dog knew it was going to be after the debacle that was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Honestly, I could just repost my review of that movie, and it will still be a fairly accurate summary of my feelings toward The Battle of the Five Armies.

It begins with the climax of The Desolation of Smaug, as the dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks Lake Town and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) fights him off. Having gotten that out of its system, it moves on to the actual plot of this film. The displace citizens of Lake Town descend upon the Lonely Mountain, where the newly-christened dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), has reclaimed the treasure of his people and gone mad with greed. Shortly afterward, an army of elves arrives to reclaim a treasure of its own that the dragon stole long ago. Having heard of the dragon’s demise, hordes of orcs and goblins are also on their way to seize the mountain. Caught in the middle is our hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who must find a way to unite these warring forces before the dark armies of Mordor arrive and begin a campaign of conquest against the whole of Middle Earth.

You can tell right off the bat that there’s a major structural problem with this movie. The opening half hour should have been the climax of the last movie — not that it needed to be any longer, but still. Now, The Desolation of Smaug concludes on a needless cliffhanger that is promptly and unceremoniously resolved in the opening scene of its sequel. I was trying to be a little open-minded about this, thinking it possible that the climax was postponed so that the film could expand upon and fulfill a lot of the invented material in The Desolation of Smaug that seemed then like extraneous nonsense added to pad out the running time, but The Battle of the Five Armies proves it to be exactly that. Within half an hour, nearly everything that was needlessly tossed into The Desolation of Smaug is resolved — the Lake Town politics, the orc pursuit, the Lord of the Rings prequel-izing that Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the gang are up to, and even, to a lesser extent, the fan-fictiony romance between Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) (that subplot technically does carry through to the end of the film, but it only recurs in, like, one additional scene and doesn’t go anywhere or affect anything whatsoever).

To its credit, The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t grab very many ideas out of thin air, and the ones it does indulge show up and disappear almost immediately, so they’re pretty easy to ignore. What it does instead is take what’s in the book and drag it out well past its useful life, expanding all of it to interminable and frequently redundant length. It’s called The Battle of the Five Armies, and that’s a fairly appropriate title — the film is two hours and forty-five minutes long, and the battle constitutes most of that. For those who are keeping score, the battle in the book was mainly restricted to Bilbo getting hit over the head and then waking up after the worst of it was already over.

It’s not as tedious as the similarly long climaxes of your average Transformers film, because at least Peter Jackson knows to give you a sense of the geography of the battlefield and to have it play out as a series of changing objectives rather than two guys hitting each other until the director gets bored. Still, it’s far, far too much; you could make a decent adaptation of the entire book in the amount of time it took these movies to get the climax out of the way.

From there, the movie is what you’d expect. Jackson has sold his soul to the blockbuster action gods; there’s so much fighting in these movies that everything that ever worked about these stories has gotten drowned out and forgotten. With the arguable exception of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo has never even remotely been the main character of this film series — which is named after him, in case you’ve forgotten. And that just makes it even more depressing that Martin Freeman is still pretty much a perfect Bilbo; what this performance might have been if he actually got to do anything. The problem is that Bilbo isn’t a warrior, and these are movies that are interested exclusively in war, so the guys who swing swords around get the lion’s share of the attention.

There’s no real storytelling sensibility here whatsoever. Characters appear and disappear at random, nothing that happens affects anything else in the movie, and the themes are spread out so far across the extraneous scenes that they become totally disconnected. Big moments, like the death of Smaug — who is, for the record, the only wholly CGI creation in this movie that has any presence as a character and is the only villain that gets the space to be at all threatening — end up seeming like a footnote, a minor side adventure in a story that has more interest in a thousand other things. It’s also worth noting that the There and Back Again part of the book has been cut entirely — nobody kills anything in that part, after all.

I think the most frustrating thing about it, though, is not that Jackson and the writers have become too enamored of this world and every single note Tolkien ever tucked away somewhere that they’ve inadvertently created unwieldy messes connected by only the barest of storylines. It’s that they appear to have become completely lazy in getting it on-screen. The CGI debacles that were An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug have given way to what is essentially a three-hour cartoon that thinks it’s a serious epic. There’s infinitely more green-screen work than sets at this point, and gone are nearly all of the practical creature effects — if there’s a single person out there who thinks our new CGI orcs look better than the practical ones of the original trilogy, I haven’t met him. They used to put extras in actual armor in order to film the battle scenes and filled out the back rows of the armies with touches of CGI; now, it’s all done by computer, and it couldn’t be more obvious. There’s a new dwarf played by Billy Connolly who appears in most of his scenes to be entirely CGI; I have absolutely no idea who made that call. The stuff that is real is exposed to this harsh lighting that makes it look just as fake.

And it’s not just the visuals; it’s the content. The original movies captured fairly realistic battle scenes, aside from the occasional moment of unfortunate cartoonish excess — rare enough to be aberrations in what were otherwise great films. Here, they’re no longer the exception; they’re the rule. The action sequences in this movie are goofy, heavily stylized affairs; the camera’s all over the place, totally in defiance of the laws of physics. There is Arnold-Schwarzenegger-level unintentional hilarity in this film’s battle scenes, from an entire corridor of the conflict being held by five guys, one of whom is four feet tall and throwing rocks, to a combatant gravity-hopping on falling stones from a collapsing bridge, to a guy on a giant reindeer thing trapping orcs in the antlers and decapitating them all with one swipe (every death in this movie is a decapitation, for the record). If this was a dumb, silly action movie, I’d be fine with that, but this is tonally indistinguishable from The Lord of the Rings. One second, the film is drowning you in ominous portent; the next, a cartoon orc is smashing through a wall and smacking a guy so hard he basically rockets to the moon (I think this scene was supposed to be scary, but it was the movie’s biggest laugh for me).

It’s just noise, noise, noise, noise, noise. As expected, the only good moments in the film are the ones that hew closest to the book; they’re the scattered reminders of the great movie this could have been, rather than the three bad ones it ended up being. Weirdly, I think The Battle of the Five Armies is probably a better film than The Desolation of Smaug; it has all of the same problems, but at least the characters are all in the same place and focused on the same thing.

Still, it’s basically just an action cartoon at this point, a spot-on picture of pure Hollywood product. I don’t know if we’ll ever be allowed to have a redo on this movie — a singular, self-contained redo. Until that happens, the best I can do is think about what might’ve been and hope that it might actually be someday.

-Matt T.

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

Starring- Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason

Director- Craig Johnson

R- language, some sexuality and drug use


The Skeleton Twins is the kind of thing I’m talking about whenever I make fun of stereotypical indie movies, so you’d think this would be quite the opportunity for me to cut loose. However, as relentless as it is in checking off all of the most weirdly specific boxes that make up the modern indie comedy — so relentless it almost borders on satire — I have one problem, and here it is: The Skeleton Twins is actually really good.

Twins Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) Dean haven’t seen each other in about 10 years when, coincidentally, both of them attempt suicide on the same day. Maggie picks her brother up at the hospital and invites him to live with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) until he manages to find some stability. Of course, neither of them is in the position to help anyone, and as they reconnect and explore the twisted circumstances of their childhoods, they’re forced to confront their own culpability for the problems in their lives and find some way to move on.

The Skeleton Twins is like something that came out of indie comedy tropes being tossed into a blender: everyone has depression; serious issues like suicide are played dryly and with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility; half the cast is gay; major emotional developments occur over diegetic power ballads; it underscores everything with recurrent, seemingly unrelated images (it was a weird goldfish motif that I can’t quite interpret); most of the actors are comedians branching out into pseudo-drama; there’s plenty of suburban family dysfunction; happy moments are regularly interrupted with coincidental dramatic reveals; and so on. The biggest problem with it, naturally, is that it’s borrowed the now-clichéd voices of dozens of other films to no particularly new effect. The fact that it’s so oblivious about it is the worst part, that it is utterly stereotypical and clichéd but seems to have no idea its tropes are old hat.

But the good stuff here is so, so good that it needs to be recognized and even celebrated despite the fact that the packaging can get annoying from time to time.

At the heart of this is one of the best sibling relationships I can recall seeing in a film. The dynamic between siblings is one that’s strangely under-explored in fiction, considering it’s one I’d wager most people have experienced. Siblings appear in movies, sure, but they’re rarely the central focus. And that’s what’s best about The Skeleton Twins, the fact that the bond between Maggie and Milo feels like something real and lived-in.

The lion’s share of the credit in this accomplishment needs to go to Wiig and Hader, who absolutely nail it. Their work here isn’t the sort of acting that requires them to become another person — or at least, to adopt personas other than the ones they normally play. Rather, for example, it reminds me of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation — comedic actors transferring their characters into a more serious context and trying to play their usual mannerisms off of something that somewhat more closely resembles reality. This film, obviously, is significantly less dramatic in its approach to realism than Lost in Translation, but the principle remains the same.

Wiig and Hader, in most of their scenes, have to do two things simultaneously: first, allow us to get to know their characters well enough to see when they’re not being entirely honest about how their feeling; and second, to emphasize the sibling relationship well enough that we can tell the other person isn’t buying it for a minute. There’s a great scene early on where Maggie, Milo, and Lance are talking over dinner; Maggie and Milo are catching up, and Lance is just kind of hanging out. Maggie talks about how she’s been feeling and basically says she’s doing all right; the audience can tell that’s not true, and when we look at Milo, we can tell he knows that, too. Lance, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to perceive that anything is wrong at all; he sees no reason to disbelieve what Maggie and Milo are saying and doing on the surface.

I should talk about Lance, by the way, because I love what the movie does with him. The way he’s set up, I was certain he was going to turn out to be a horrible person and one of the chief sources of Maggie’s problems, but the film never takes the easy way out with him. He’s a bit dumb, but otherwise, he’s a nice, honest, loyal guy who treats Maggie well and does his best to understand her — a difficult prospect, given that the entirety of her personhood is buried underneath a thousand protective layers. That decision not only comes off as more honest, it also helps with its exploration of its two leads’ depression — it doesn’t reduce their emotional state to the clear end result of a single thing that’s wrong and needs fixed.

That’s the final piece that forces me to regard The Skeleton Twins as something that’s much better than it appears — I think the people who made it get depression; they’ve either experienced it, know someone who did, or otherwise did their research very well. It doesn’t insinuate that only people with bad lives get it — in their adulthood, both Maggie and Milo could be doing a lot worse, Maggie especially. It doesn’t try to psychologize it and trace it to one event or problem. It definitely insinuates that both of them are struggling because of the things that happened to them when they were children — their father committed suicide, and Milo had a relationship with his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) — but even there, it doesn’t draw a straight line.

And in the end, it doesn’t resolve the question the way I thought it would — “All they really needed to do was rely on each other, and everything was just better forever!” Its actual message is more sober than that, but not without hope: “Look, having someone by your side to walk through it with you isn’t going to fix this completely, but it’s a heck of a lot better than trying to do it alone.” It’s ultimately a film about letting down your defenses and being vulnerable enough to admit you have a problem and to accept others’ help. In Maggie’s case, that’s quite literal; she hasn’t even allowed her husband to know that she has a problem; she’s suffering in total silence. Milo, on the other hand, wears his misery and self-loathing on his sleeve, but he won’t allow anyone to get to the center of his problems — not the least of which is his refusal to let go of that high school teacher he thinks might’ve actually loved him but isn’t sure. The film is aware of the hypocrisy in the way they try to push one another toward self-improvement and ultimately forces them to come to terms with themselves and the way they’re perpetuating their own suffering. It ends up being a relationship where both parties teach and learn from one another and hopefully become wiser for the experience.

The Skeleton Twins is director Craig Johnson’s second film; I haven’t seen his first. As an early step in his career, it reflects a certain level of uncertainty, particularly in its tone and aesthetic. I’m not going to lie — this movie is probably going to get on some people’s nerves, particularly if they have a low tolerance for stereotypical indie fare. But it also reflects some natural talent and a certain intelligence and even wisdom, and if he ever manages to find his voice, he might become someone to watch.

It might not be one of the best movies of 2014, but The Skeleton Twins deserves to be seen anyway.

-Matt T.

Sabotage (2014)

Starring- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Max Martini, Kevin Vance, Mark Schlegel, Mireille Enos, Olivia Williams, Harold Perrineau

Director- David Ayer

R- strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use


I didn’t really think I’d end up feeling conflicted about Sabotage — and frankly, I didn’t want to be. The easiest thing to do would be to join up with the critical consensus that Sabotage is vile, ugly, mean-spirited, cruel, overly macho, philosophically confused, and generally immoral — and that consensus definitely isn’t wrong.

But…I don’t think that quite covers it, and it might even be unfair to the film. It’s definitely a thankless job to have to defend Sabotage a little — especially since I have a long history of being uncomfortable about cinematic violence a long time before a lot of other reviewers do. Not to mention that it definitely isn’t a good movie, and there’s still plenty of stuff in it that sets my moral sirens to blaring; it’s just not always the stuff everybody says it is.

I think the problem may be that everybody assessed it as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and went to it having already decided to view everything that happens in it through the lens of a film that’s only trying to entertain you. Of course it’s going to come off as wildly immoral if you do that. What we should have done, maybe, is go into it thinking of it as a David Ayer movie — as a director, he’s no guarantee that the movie will be great or even good, and Sabotage is certainly proof, but it is nearly a guarantee that it will at least have something on its mind.

My point, in short, is that I think there just might be a method to Sabotage’s madness, but that depends entirely on how much benefit of the doubt I want to extend to it, and I haven’t managed to decide yet.

“Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of an undercover DEA squads that specializes in the rough stuff, busting up one cartel after another. During one mission, $10 million goes missing, and Breacher and his team are suspected of having stolen it. No one can make the charges stick, however, and less than a year later, the team is back on active duty.

That’s when someone starts picking off its members one by one. As paranoia sets in and the survivors hunker down and prepare for Armageddon, they begin to suspect this isn’t the work of the cartels after all — one of their own is a traitor and out for blood.

I’ll start with the stuff I’m not conflicted about at all and work my way down from there — Sabotage isn’t a good movie, and I’m not telling you to go see it. It struggles with wonky dialogue and incredibly forced banter; the chemistry between the members of the team never really clicks; the film sets up a lot of plot points and either forgets about them or resolves them so quickly you wonder why they were ever introduced in the first place; and so on.

There’s good stuff, too — Ayer directs it with suitable aplomb, budgets the plot twists fairly well, and even somehow coaxes an unironically decent performance out of the Governator.

Where the movie has drawn particular critical ire is in its perceived immorality, and I’ll say this much — the critics are right on at least one point, and that’s its naked (often literally) misogyny. This is not a film that treats its female characters particularly well. This is a movie where the strip club scene is actually the least of its problems — it might dwell on the dancers overmuch in a way that becomes a touch problematic, but at least that scene says something important about its characters and can be forgiven on that level.

Somewhat less forgivable is the lesbian sex scene in the beginning that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anything else and actually extends what’s going on past its useful life. There’s also the scene during a shootout in an apartment where one of the cartel members grabs a female hostage…who is in her underwear, for some reason. There are only two female characters of note: Mireille Enos’s gun-crazy team member, who happily goes to the strip club with the guys and even gets up on the pole and whose most useful role is seducing bad guys, something she also appears to enjoy very much; and Olivia Williams’ interceding FBI agent, who’s a much better character, so of course the film needs to arbitrarily get her naked and have her exploited sexually.

Basically, Sabotage’s treatment of women is enough for me to condemn it even if everything else went swimmingly. It’s not pervasive and in-your-face about it, but that almost makes it worse — that the film seems not even to be aware that it’s doing this.

But what most critics have honed in on is the violence. Ordinarily, I’d be right there with them — in fact, I’m usually there long before them. So, it’s weird that I’d part ways with them on what is probably the most violent movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. Sure, I’ll confess that there is way more violence in this movie than there needs to be — it seems like it’s trying to beat The Walking Dead for the title of “Most Ridiculously Violent Pop Cultural Property,” and it falls into the exact same trap, where it exposes you to so much blood and gore that, eventually, it stops meaning anything. However, I don’t think Sabotage is condoning all this violence, and in fact, I think it’s turning it around into something that could actually be construed as positive. This is where I get conflicted about this movie — for all the sexism and everything else that goes wrong about Sabotage, there is a thematic throughline here that I think is surprisingly well done and makes an alarming amount of sense within the context of the film.

Critics have said that the “heroes” of this film are totally unlikable — loathsome, sexist, sociopathic murderers. I totally agree with them. Here’s the thing — I think David Ayer would, too. I think viewers are trying to impose the usual Schwarzenegger dynamic onto this team — something like Predator or The Expendables — and resist when they find they can’t like these guys. You won’t get anywhere doing that. If you interpret these characters as purposefully unlikable, the context of the entire movie changes. And I’m not interpreting them that way because it makes me feel better about everything but because the movie gave me plenty of contextual cues that compelled me to do so. These characters don’t get away with it. Their actions are shown to do actual damage. There’s no reward for what they do, and plenty of punishment.

Plus, look at how the DEA is portrayed — a self-defending, closed-off institution impeding the activities of the more unambiguously heroic figures in the other law enforcement branches, the ones who are primarily concerned with combating murder and theft rather than drug use. We see corruption at every level, folding in on itself until what we’re left with is an organization that exists mainly unto itself. Now, look at Breacher’s team within that context — killing people is what they do for fun, and they spend the rest of their time throwing their weight around for special privileges. It’s not hard to draw that line — I think Sabotage is a sneaky anti-drug-war movie. Of course Breacher’s guys are selfish and murderous — when you ask someone to risk their lives and kill to stop somebody else from getting high, how many heroes are you expecting to answer that call? You’re going to get guys who are only in it for the money, you’re going to get guys who just want the license to kill somebody, and maybe then you’ll get a small handful of actual heroes to pepper in there. The result, rather inevitably, is what happens here — someone’s selfishness overpowers the team dynamic, and suddenly, they’re paranoid, at each other’s throats, and trying to kill each other. It’s something of a simplistic take within the context of reality, but you can see how the ultimate message of the film is one that condemns violence — at least, the loose, easy kind that usually characterizes Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

I think the movie even criticizes the excessive masculinity that upset so many critics. Breacher’s wife and son have been tortured to death by a cartel prior to the start of the film, and he’s out for revenge. Throughout the movie, we see him watching the video of their torture sessions the cartel sends him; critics have interpreted this as him reminding himself what he’s fighting for, that he feels as though he has to stare into the abyss until he becomes one with it. I agree with that interpretation; I disagree with where they go with it. What I’ve read most often is that the film embraces this, that it suggests the nature of being a man is numbing one’s emotions and conscience so that you can do what must be done. I don’t think that’s what the movie’s saying at all. It’s quite the opposite. I can’t say why without spoiling major plot developments, but to those critics, I would simply say…watch the movie again. Pay attention to everything that happens as a result of Breacher doing this. Viewed in that light, it’s impossible for me to interpret what he does as a good or noble thing — not just for me, but for the film.

I don’t really know why I’m defending Sabotage. Maybe it’s because those undercurrents are executed well enough to make me actually kind of enjoy it a little, or at least find it compelling — it’s not fun, though I’m not 100 percent sure it wants to be. Ayer does have a tendency to want to make art and an action movie at the same time, and those instincts can sometimes come into conflict. They do here.

But if something has merit, it’s worth discussing. I think Sabotage has some overlooked merit. It’s nowhere near enough to want to wade through the disgusting sexism and general badness of the thing, but if we’re going to talk about it, let’s at least talk about all of it.

-Matt T.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Starring- Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Danny Woodburn, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg, Minae Noji

Director- Jonathan Liebesman

PG-13- sci-fi action violence


All right. Eventually, somebody’s got to draw a line, and here’s as good a place as any. Ideally, when you’re making a movie, you should be actively determining the best medium for telling your story, and for blockbusters especially, there comes a time when you have to make a call: practical effects, or an animated film.

As you might expect, Teenage Mutant Ninja CGI Monstrosities that Consume the Souls of Children comes down very much on the wrong side of that line. Visually, it’s totally unsalvageable; everything else barely matters aside from the fact that it is, completely without exaggerated, one of the worst-looking films I have ever seen in my life.

You probably already know this story — four baby turtles are exposed to a mutagen and evolve into intelligent beings, hiding in the sewers and training in martial arts with their master, Splinter (mo-capped by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub) to protect the city of New York as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Leonardo (mo-capped by Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard).

The movie begins with largely the same setup as the 1990 adaptation. April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is an underappreciated TV reporter hoping to gain respect by cracking the biggest story of the day: a rising criminal organization known as the Foot Clan, led by the mysterious Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), that has been terrorizing the city.

While following that lead, she witnesses a Foot Clan robbery — and sticks around long enough to see four gigantic turtles crash the party and foil the clan’s plot. The turtles are forced to bring her into the fold and swear her to secrecy, only to themselves become the subject of a conspiracy to destroy the city.

It actually helps me out that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a bad movie in the more conventional sense. If it had been good, I’d have to spend an entire review doing that “if and but” thing I always do when something has promise and a lot of quality but also significant flaws that undo that at every turn. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ most glaring flaws don’t step all over anything particularly worthwhile. Nevertheless, this movie was totally doomed from the moment the production team came out of the design studio feeling satisfied with what they’d just seen. They could’ve hired one of modern cinema’s best screenwriters, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The movie’s astonishingly awful visuals undermine it at every turn.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles looks totally repulsive. Say what you will about the 1990 film, which is one of those movies that I think gets viewed with nostalgia goggles — it’s pretty bad. But at least those corny costumes had weight and presence and interacted with their environments properly and gave the actors something to work with. There are shots in this movie that are basically a cartoon with an especially strange and ill-advised aesthetic. The CGI is about as well-integrated as modern technology can make it, but that’s saying basically nothing, given the demands this movie makes of its effects team. Poor Megan Fox is doing her best and is actually weirdly okay as April, but she spends 95 percent of the film staring off into the empty space just above or beside her CGI costars. Like I said at the outset — when you reach a point where your actors are the only thing in the scene that isn’t CGI, I kind of have to wonder why you aren’t just making an animated film.

It really isn’t just the CGI, though. Producing blockbusters entirely inside of a computer is basically what we do now. That goes for our good ones as well as our bad ones — in Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, there’s probably a process by which Rocket and Groot could’ve been constructed with a combination of practical and special effects and been given more presence. The difference is that at least those characters are very well-designed — they’re expressive and have exactly the right number of human touches, and you can come to care about what happens to them.

This movie, holy crap. I have absolutely no idea how the turtles came out looking like this — how someone came up with the idea, how someone else approved it, how an entire team created them frame-by-frame and never started to wonder why they kept feeling nauseous all the time. These characters are freaking terrifying. Even when you get over the gut-level flight instinct that hits you when you’re introduced to them, you still spend the rest of the movie uncomfortable in a hard-to-define way whenever they’re on-screen. There’s a lot going wrong here — their squat, snake-like heads; their giant, flaring nostrils; their “bad comic book” huge muscles; the way their skin is halfway between texture and plastic; the oozy sheen they all have now. As always, though, it’s the small stuff, the ill-advised attempts at humanizing their designs, that push them over the top into creepy. Human mouths, you guys. They have human mouths — giant, gaping, lippy, toothy human mouths. Ugh.

   It says a lot that despite this, Splinter is even more disgusting. You can tell most of the budget went into realizing the turtles. I honestly think you could have pasted a character from Rango into this movie and had something more textured and believable than this monstrosity. The fur is very badly-generated; he looks like he has mange. The skin is pebbly, wet-looking, and gross. And his integration is just awful; if you showed it to me divorced of context, I would absolutely think it came from some ugly animated film. The second he appeared on-screen next to a human being — or on-screen at all, really — my suspension of disbelief crashed and burned.

So, yeah, there’s really no script that could’ve saved this mess, and certainly not this one. I mean, okay — I’ll admit that the movie, as a whole, isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Early on, we were getting one baffling creative decision after another, and I was becoming convinced that this was Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman working together to intentionally make the worst movie of their combined careers. Neither one of them succeeded.

To its credit, the movie mostly gets the tone right and doesn’t take itself too seriously — though the score and Liebesman’s direction try to force a little too much “epicness” into the proceedings. At least the script allows the turtles to be jokey and everything surrounding them to be more or less the right level of over-the-top. There are some really bad decisions here and there — making the Foot Clan some sort of weird terrorist organization and mostly removing the martial arts element is the kind of “dark and gritty” choice that just makes me roll my eyes at this point — but mostly, it’s pretty cheerful and openly dumb. Plus, they mostly get the turtles’ personalities right, even though they are, as ever, extremely broad and sometimes kind of annoying. Also, it’s only an hour and a half long, which, yay.

Unfortunately, it’s also really paint-by-numbers. The story is so been-there-done-that that it’s almost aggressive, like the filmmakers are rubbing it in your face that they didn’t really try. Visually, it’s basically Transformers — gritty, in-your-face camerawork that drains much-needed style out of the action scenes, blisteringly hot lighting, alternating teal-and-orange and green color correction that, combined with the abundant CGI and awful character design, only serve to make the movie even more unsettlingly surreal.

It’s structurally weird, too. The first act of the movie barely has any turtles in it, and even when they appear, it’s only in glimpses. It makes sense to introduce them through April’s perspective, but even then, the original movie only took a couple minutes to make that happen. It’s worth mentioning that April is straight up the main character of this; the movie doesn’t leave her perspective even after she meets the turtles. The second act of the movie is relentless exposition — we get the origin story of the turtles twice, with no details the second time but nothing that would prevent the two scenes from being consolidated. The film isn’t content to imply anything even when it’s really obvious; every piece of information gets a scene where it’s explained in as much boring detail as possible. Finally, the third act — it’s one gigantic, unending action sequence.

All of this is as perfunctory as possible; the only reason the movie does anything is because, well, that’s just how it’s done. It introduces the turtles through April because that’s how every adaptation does it. It has to sideline Splinter and make saving him a major motivation of the heroes, because that’s how the last live-action movie did it. The origin story has to be rewritten so everything is connected, because that’s how we write blockbusters now. And so on, and so forth. The turtles have character arcs, but we don’t get to see any of them, and none of them pay off meaningfully. April, who ends up being the center of the movie, probably should have an arc, for all the time the script spends setting her up as a go-getter determined to break the next big story and become a household name, but none of that goes anywhere and, in fact, gets dropped as soon as the film gets more explosiony things on its mind. The movie just slides its pieces around to get them where it needs them and doesn’t attend to pacing or character even a little bit.

But, yeah, irrelevant. I feel dumb even commenting on the writing in a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — not that good writing wouldn’t improve it, but saying as much is a really thankless job. At any rate, it doesn’t matter — nothing would save this movie from its record-setting terrible visuals. This was a big hit — of course it was — so we’re probably going to get a dozen more of these, and every last of one of them is already fated to be awful. I’m looking forward to it.

-Matt T.