Archive for April, 2015

Wild (2014)

Starring- Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin

Director- Jean-Marc Vallee

R- sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language


It seems that every year gives us at least one strange pair of dueling movies — whether that’s last year’s Gravity and All Is Lost focusing on the survival instinct of a single person stranded in an inhospitable environment, or, for one of the more famous examples, 2006’s obsessive magicians movies, The Illusionist and The Prestige. They’re not similar because they’re noticeably satisfying any demographic trend; they simply began in similar places and wound up hitting theaters the same year. 2014 was no different, providing us with what is possibly the most direct example in recent memory. This year, it’s Tracks and Wild — both based on true stories about women heading alone into the wilderness to walk thousands of miles in the interest of attending to their souls.

While Tracks focused on the unforgiving Australian desert, Wild finds its setting on the West Coast of the United States. In 1995, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to escape from a troubled past fraught with relational issues, familial tragedy, and self-abuse.

Generally, I dislike writing a review as an ongoing comparison between two films, but the similarities here are too direct to pass up. There’s an interest contrast to be drawn between Tracks and Wild — they’re simultaneously so similar as to be almost the same movie and just different enough to highlight an interesting disparity between their respective approaches. I think what I find most fascinating about them is that, despite their varied strengths and weaknesses, in overall effect, it’s too close to call. Two movies, same year, same premise, and each is almost exactly as good as the other — how often does that happen?

Both succeed primarily due to a combination of visuals and performances. Between the two, Tracks is the better-looking film, with gentler, more suggestive cinematography and editing, and Wild has stronger acting (its cast netted two Oscar nominations); nevertheless, Wild is still very good-looking, and Tracks still has at least one great performance anchoring it.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s work behind the camera is more direct and abrupt; there’s an “in your face” quality to his approach that’s absent in the flowing, quiet visuals of Tracks, but it also lends additional intimacy to the proceedings. I think that, based on this film and 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, Vallee might be one of the few directors who’s good at this particular style. He stays close to the action and works semi-frequently with handheld cameras, but he also composes and edits everything carefully and manages to make each scene cohesive and understandable.

It also seems beyond question at this point that he has a skill for bringing out the best in his actors. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, as Cheryl’s mother, both do some strong and memorable work in this one. I don’t know that I’m as enthused about either of their performances as everyone else seems to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s quality acting, especially since Witherspoon basically has to carry the entire film. Without her, Wild doesn’t work.

Both Tracks and Wild also seem, interestingly enough, to have largely the same weakness — I don’t think either of them has the strongest storytelling sensibilities. However, their approaches to these very similar stories are quiet different, and it’s interesting to make a note of the contrast. Tracks, almost exclusively, is linear — you begin with your protagonist; she sets out on her journey; there are very few deviations along the way. There are a few short, disjointed, dreamlike flashbacks, but otherwise, the film remains in the here and now. Wild is different, eschewing chronological storytelling almost entirely. It opens on the start of Cheryl’s journey, and throughout, flashbacks and brief spurts of suggestive imagery fill in her backstory. The journey itself is chronological; one moment leads into another, and it’s always clear where things stand. The flashbacks are not — sometimes, we’ll see snippets of her adulthood; other times, it’ll be her childhood; still other times, we find her somewhere in between. The structure of the flashbacks seems built more around the film’s emotional rise and fall than upon anything more concrete or “intellectual,” for lack of a better word.

The structure of both films is perfect given the needs of their stories. Tracks deals with simpler motivations behind the journey and is, thus, able to tell its story with more potency by setting up its characters first and then getting on with the plot. Wild, on the other hand, is wrought with considerably more emotional potency — Cheryl is running from personal tragedy, from loss, from substance abuse, from reckless behavior, from a life she feels she’s already begun wasting. Linear storytelling would threaten to toss Wild into the same situation as, for example, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with the character arc and, in essence, the story, running out of steam before its most fascinating element, the wilderness journey, even gets underway. Using this approach, Wild is able to connect the past with the here and now seamlessly, lending a sense of structure to what would otherwise be a film about a woman walking in a straight line.

The decision-making is rock solid. It’s in the execution that both stumble somewhat. Ultimately, I think Tracks is a film that needs to be more about the journey and Wild is a film that needs to be more about the story behind the journey — but in practice, it somehow ends up flipped. What I like about Tracks is that, not only does it do the backstory fairly well, it also manages, in the moments where it flashes back to its protagonist’s past, to sell the emotion behind it; it has a strong sense of imagery and finding concrete feeling in the abstract. What I don’t like about it is that it devotes so little energy to the journey that it almost stops mattering.

On the other hand, what I like about Wild is that it actually does devote appropriate attention to the journey itself — you get a sense of the physical strain and the emotional impact, and a smaller but still effective sense of what goes into preparing for and executing such a task. But the flashback structure isn’t always executed that well, in my opinion — it’s more concrete and immediately understandable than what we see in Tracks, but the scenes we’re shown also come off as too obvious and too simple and lack the visual suggestiveness to really tie them into the main character’s journey and emotional arc.

There are things about both approaches that work quite well. As I said previously, they’re exactly where they need to be structurally. The seams don’t show until they start trying to get the right effect out of each scene in their respective outlines. Sometimes, they do, but sometimes, they don’t.

The effect, of course, is far from a pair of bad films, as both are quite good, for a myriad of reasons. It’s just that neither of them is, in my opinion, quite great. Still, Wild would make for a fantastic double feature with Tracks. And for what it’s worth, it’s pretty good on its own, too. It’s not an earth-shattering, culture-redefining work of artistic genius, but it’s a visually impressive film with some great performances and a decent enough story. It’s strong, confident filmmaking, and it’s earned its way onto the list of 2014’s more intriguing achievements.

-Matt T.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Starring- Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marno, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo

Director- Ana Lily Amirpoor



A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the world’s first Iranian spaghetti western vampire horror love story relationship drama. Honestly, what else do you need to know? Whether or not it’s any good? Okay, fine — it is. Are you seeing it yet?

Arash (Arash Marandi) lives in Bad City — not an ironic name, if the pile of dead bodies underneath the bridge is any indication. He shares a house with his addict father (Marshall Manesh), who has worked up mountains of debt with some of the city’s most unsavory characters. Arash works his fingers to the bone trying to pay off those debts, but to no avail.

But the city holds darker secrets than its criminal element. In the shadows lives a nameless Girl (Sheila Vand), who roams the streets at night, silent as the grave. She’s a vampire, stalking her prey — and seemingly seeing herself as something of a dark avenger.

Their paths are destined to cross.

Inevitably, it’s a highly eclectic film. It defies simple categorization, sliding deftly from one tone into another, blending its genres together into a strangely sublime concoction that rarely feels strained. That’s its strongest point — that it’s extremely unusual, very unpredictable, and highly varied in its storytelling and technique but is never once self-conscious about it. It’s an absurd film, and it isn’t shy about that. It takes its wild premise and plays it totally straight. It doesn’t feel the need to wink at you or to sand out the silliest elements of its plot. It feels like strong, well-acted drama — it just so happens to be about vampires. The film’s serious tone doesn’t always stay above the water — every now and then, the outlandishness of what you’re seeing bubbles to the surface and undercuts the storytelling, particularly in the rare moments that it indulges its more experimental instincts. But mostly, this bizarre mixture really works — it’s neither excessively heady nor overly simple, and it plays on your emotions in intelligent, largely effective ways.

It heralds the arrival of a promising new talent in writer/director Ana Lily Amirpoor. She seems like the weird baby of Quentin Tarantino and Ingmar Bergman, reflecting the former’s propensity for absurd genre flicks and the latter’s technique, interspersed with little inklings of her own personal flavor. She’s not quite as experimental or abstract as Bergman often was, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find she’s a big fan of his work. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night features many of his visual fixations, from its black and white aesthetic to its carefully framed cinematography to its strategic prolonged silences. She uses images and sound in the same subtly suggestive way, albeit in a more literal sense. The film ends up being a quiet one, but one that doesn’t forgo sound and dialogue simply because it can, one that doesn’t feel empty, and one that still manages to convey the necessary information clearly and concisely. I suppose a lot of people would call it “arty,” but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be, and for me, that makes a big difference. These stylistic flourishes are married to a distinctly millennial sensibility — one that’s deeply interwoven with pop culture and that thrives upon its carefully selected soundtrack. It makes for a film that feels both new and familiar, not necessarily innovating in any respect but bringing old ideas to the table and combining them in unique and interesting ways. I’m interested to see where Amirpoor goes from here — her next film stars Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves and is a post-apocalyptic Texas cannibal love story she describes as “The Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink,” so, yeah, it’s already my favorite thing of whatever year it releases.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is only technically Iranian, in that it’s set in Iran and all the dialogue is in Farsi. It was produced by American companies and filmed in the United States. Amirpoor herself — at least according to her biography on Wikipedia, which, as we all know, is a wholly reliable source for all things — is of Iranian descent but seems never to have actually lived there, born in England and raised in the U.S. Nevertheless, the film seems, at least in part, to use the country’s social environment to enhance and complete itself thematically, particularly with regard to the role of women in society. The Girl comes across, firstly, as someone who needs to feed regardless, but secondly, as someone who directs those violent urges in a certain way, i.e., primarily against men and especially against men she’s seen mistreating women. I’ve had difficulty discerning its exact point on this question, but it definitely uses gender stereotypes here and abroad as a means of flipping the tables on its viewers. It fits well into the film’s multiple tones — both the relationship that forms between The Girl and Arash and the horror elements (which are, as a side note, very well executed — Amirpoor has tremendous control over the mood of the scenes she intends will scare you). It’s still distinctly a genre film, but there’s thematic meat under the surface — not just related to sexual norms and gender roles but also to familial bonds, the effect of drug use, and especially loneliness and the way so much human communication can be surprisingly meaningless.

The lack of centrality in any of these concepts might be — for my part, anyway — the film’s major outstanding weakness. All of these things are present, but few of them feel tied into the emotional fiber of the story to the extent that I’d hoped. And I’m not sure the film really comes around to a cohesive statement on any of them. Also, the lack of a true protagonist, while not inherently problematic on its face, doesn’t always work well in practice, particularly with The Girl — she’s too much of an enigma, and I can’t say I ever got a real sense of what it is she sees in Arash that makes her behave so differently around him. These, of course, are questions that may or may not be resolved as I think them over.

And they may be irrelevant in the long run. The problems I have with the subtext, for the most part, don’t cross over into the text. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t the best film I saw in 2014, but it’s easily one of the most original. It’s impressive how many things this film is able to do at once without tripping over itself and while remaining spare, efficient, and subtle. It’s a bit slow-moving, but it’s also haunting, compelling, and gently emotional — also, pretty entertaining. It’s one of the biggest surprises of the year.

-Matt T.

Into the Woods (2014)

Starring- Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Chris Pine

Director- Rob Marshall

PG- thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material


“Why, Granny — what a big mixed bag you have!”

“All the better to confuse reviewers’ feelings with, my dear!”

Based on the popular stage musical, Into the Woods is a film in which several famous fairytales collide, all of them connected by the dark forest referenced in the title. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is entering the woods on her way to the prince’s festival. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) — of beanstalk fame — is passing through to another village, where he must sell his beloved cow in order to stave off starvation for another day. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off with a basket of goodies to visit her granny.

Connecting all of these stories is a new one. The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), as punishment for his father’s crimes, were cursed by the Witch (Meryl Streep) to have no children. But the Witch, in need of ingredients for a mysterious spell, comes to their doorstep and offers to lift their curse if they venture into the woods in her stead. Each of the ingredients belongs to one of the aforementioned fairy tale characters, and the Baker and his wife must find each of them in three days’ time or forever be childless.

So, Into the Woods left me with really mixed feelings. I liked it…I think? I’m not really sure. I’m struggling to decide if I think it’s good or bad. The problem with reviewing it is that its virtues and vices are so deeply interwoven that it’s hard to single out any one positive or negative characteristic without having to present its most immediate corollary on time. This is a movie that, scene to scene, is doing a dozen things I like and a dozen things I don’t, and weirdly, they’re sometimes the same thing.

To make things simpler for myself, I’ll start with the things I unambiguously like about it.

For starters, the cast. There’s no one in this movie who doesn’t really, really want to be there, and you’d better believe that shows on-screen. Just about everyone is noticeably having tons of fun, and you can see each actors’ energy affecting his or her co-stars, drawing them out to match it. The Baker and his wife are the heart and soul of the film, partially because their story is the connective tissue between all the others but mainly because James Corden and Emily Blunt have great on-screen chemistry. Compared to everyone else in the cast, their approach to the musical numbers is the most freeform; they focus less on nailing every note and perfecting their technique and more on letting those little human touches sneak through — a laugh, a sob, a caught breath. They’re smart enough not to overdo it either — they only indulge those instincts a handful of times over the course of the movie, so it doesn’t get overbearing.

Aside from them, Meryl Streep is fun — she should pick these over-the-top characters more often; she’s extremely entertaining on the rare occasions that she does. Anna Kendrick doesn’t get any favors from the material — Cinderella is, as always, pretty and boring — but she’s got a nice voice and a harried charm that works well enough with what’s there. Chris Pine, as the prince, is, if not the film’s best part, then at least its biggest surprise, showing range I didn’t realize he had, seemingly competing with former Star Trek co-star Chris Hemsworth to see who can play brainless pomposity the best.

There are a couple of weak links, mainly the kids. They’re good for kids, and I’m sure we’ll see great work out of them someday if they get the opportunity, but they struggle to go toe-to-toe with all of these heavyweights. Daniel Huttlestone is fine, I suppose, but generally uninteresting. Lilla Crawford is a bit too poised and practiced; it isn’t distracting but always feels like acting rather than a character.

And then, there’s Johnny Depp. He’s mostly doing his kooky Johnny Depp thing, except with singing. It isn’t bad, but it’s another part it seems he took mainly to add to his collection of weird makeup and silly hats. Anyway, he’s only in it for, like, five minutes.

Into the Woods is also a great-looking film. It’s that exact right mixture of sets, locations, practical effects, and spare CGI that mostly comes across seamless (the CGI, when it does appear, isn’t great, but it’s only heavily used in maybe two scenes). It’s both well executed and well designed — a good idea in theory that stays a good idea in practice. Director Rob Marshall is no stranger to musicals, and he generally has a pretty good sense of what to do with this one. What I appreciate the most is that he refrains from allowing the film to feel stagey — too many cinematic adaptations of musicals end up feeling like someone simply propped a camera up in a theatre and rolled, generally to preserve the dance numbers as-is. Into the Woods feels very free in its camerawork and editing. The characters aren’t restrained by the choreography or their environments, and Marshall found excuses to shoot plenty of scenes, musical numbers included, in the actual forest. He wisely focuses more on the emotions the characters are conveying rather than on the energy of the song or the size of the choreography. The advantage of film over stage is that it can get up close and show different perspectives; the disadvantage is that it can’t capture as much scale in one go — theatre can throw a dozen actors into one scene and choreograph them into immense, elaborate spectacle that can easily be seen all at once. Into the Woods understands that and strikes the proper balance, using the advantages of its medium and working around the disadvantages.

Those are my unambiguous feelings. I’d love to leave it at that. However, there’s a lot more to Into the Woods. I like some of it a lot and some of it not so much. And for what it’s worth, this was my introduction to the story — I know nothing about theatre or the musical this is based on. So, basically, I’m probably about to say some horribly ignorant things.

For starters, it’s becoming clear to me that, with few exceptions, musicals are the same for me as Arnold Schwarzenegger movies — something I think I like a lot and get really excited for whenever there’s a new one, only to watch it and quickly realize, “Oh, right, this isn’t my thing.” I struggle with musicals because there’s a part of them that will always be a little bit cheesy — what are they singing about, after all, if not their feeeeeeeeeeeeliiiiiiings? And that’s fine — I enjoy a bit of cheese from time to time, especially if it’s knowing and unembarrassed and generally well made. Still, Into the Woods crossed that line pretty early, even by my standards, and I didn’t immediately know why — it does know it’s cheesy, and it isn’t ashamed about that; moreover, it’s also generally well made, albeit more in the sense of its physical construction than its storytelling (and yes, we are getting there). Eventually, I figured it out, and this is might be one of those ignorant statements I promised — I think the music in this movie is…kind of bad. I don’t know how much of it is changed or compressed or expanded, if I’d like it more in the source than I do here. But with only a few exceptions, I didn’t like the music in this at all. The lyrics are repetitive and obvious, with characters sometimes wasting entire choruses on things that are right in front of them. The music is somewhat forgettable — there are a lot of recurring themes weaved into the film, and you’ll hear some motifs half a dozen times before it’s over, but I’m having a difficult time remembering any of them. The cast is good enough to compensate for the music, for the most part, but whenever any of the lesser performers are called upon to carry a song, the seams show. Like I said — I don’t know theatre; I’m stupid; maybe this is some of the greatest music that ever graced the stage. All I know is that, personally, I don’t enjoy it. And it’s not solely because of my bias against the genre — I didn’t even like the most recent film adaptation, but a lot of the music in Les Miserables is pretty awesome. This, I don’t know.

It’s the story that generates the most conflict in me. Into the Woods is one of the more clearly delineated two-act films I’ve seen in recent memory; it is its own sequel. Story-wise, the first act is okay at best. That, again, is mainly because of the Baker and his wife — Corden and Blunt really do carry this movie. But a big part of that is totally obvious — their story works the best because it’s the only one that unfolds entirely on-screen. A lot of the others — Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, most notably — handle their biggest moments and most significant emotional crescendos as dialogue or songs after the fact. And honestly, what would you rather see — Jack singing about how he just found a land of giants in the sky, or Jack actually, you know, going there? I wouldn’t mind it as much if the fairytale characters’ stories unfolded entirely off-screen, with the Baker and his wife occasionally bumbling into them. The problem is that Jack and Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood are protagonists in their own right who carry a lot of scenes by themselves, and missing the key bits of context in their stories really sells them short. Without the Baker and his wife, none of it would work at all.

It’s the second act that really throws a wrench into things. A lot about it is genuinely interesting and even risky, but a lot of it is also confusing and weird and tonally scattershot. The second act is what turns Into the Woods from a fairytale to a modern subversion of a fairytale — and for what it’s worth, it does that better than any other film in recent memory, in that it still feels like a fairytale and is being deconstructive not to look smart or superior but to recontextualize the morals of the stories it’s adapting. But what this does to the film thematically is absolutely confounding. It’s provoke a lot of debate in some of the circles I frequent, but that’s mostly because no one seems quite sure what this film is actually trying to say. I think, personally, that it’s a call to conscientiousness in our dealings with others, but I can definitely see the logic behind those who say it’s an apology for moral relativism. I did a little research on the story in the original musical, and I suspect based on what I found that there’s a little more thematic clarity in the source than there is here. Ultimately, I think the second act was too compressed — a lot of elements were removed, and a handful of them had their edges sanded off, in order to accommodate the first act seemingly in its near-entirety. Even then, the first act isn’t signaling the themes well enough, and seeing the film suddenly take its morals seriously in the last half hour can be jarring at first. It keeps your focus on the wrong things and then redirects you without warning; some films have done this well, but I don’t think this is one of them. It left me impressed with some of the unique places the story ultimately went and some of the big risks it took, especially for a Disney family film, but also deeply confused and unsure how to feel about any of it.

I think I’m in a place with Into the Woods where I can say there are more things I definitely like about it than there are things I definitely dislike about it — nearly all of its flaws are packaged into interesting ideas and risks that don’t quite pay off, so I’m inclined to be forgiving toward them. For that reason, I’m willing to say that I liked it and offer it a soft recommendation. Nevertheless, I suspect I may spend quite some time trying to piece it together, and I can only hope the end result of that process is more rewarding than I fear it’s going to be.

-Matt T.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Starring- Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Hiam Abbass, Isaac Andrews, Golshifteh Farahani, Tara Fitzgerald, Andrew Tarbet, Kevork Malikyan

Director- Ridley Scott

PG-13- violence including battle sequences and intense images


Growing up, I watched a thousand adaptations of the Moses story — some so obscure they’re probably impossible to find nowadays. I can’t remember ever responding to any of them less than Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s one of the emptiest religion-based films I’ve seen — not the worst by a long shot, but certainly the most thoroughly uninteresting. Even the scant risks it takes and the handful of themes it accumulates are handled with so little flair that they don’t register so much as a blip on the radar.

It’s another story you probably know — Moses (Christian Bale), born to a Hebrew slave but raised among their Egyptian masters as one of their own, learns of his heritage and is set at odds with his adopted brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) when a message from God compels him to return to his homeland and plead for the freedom of his people. The pharaoh’s refusal brings a scourge of increasingly deadly plagues upon the land while Moses and Ramses wage their own personal battle.

You may even have seen it before in an animated movie called The Prince of Egypt. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Exodus: Gods and Kings began as a live-action remake of that movie. At the very least, many people involved with its production saw that movie and were subconsciously influenced by it throughout the process. Exodus reads all the same implications into the story, feeds off the same emotional core, and even borrows a handful of visuals here and there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do any of it half as well.

I think we’ve forgotten how surprisingly good The Prince of Egypt is. It has its flaws — the placement of the film’s most uplifting song in the immediate wake of its most disturbing scene shows that it doesn’t quite understand where it ends up emotionally. But there’s a lot that it does well, chiefly its take on the relationship between Moses and Ramses, something it handles so skillfully that I think people have retroactively inducted it into the biblical canon. The original story never says a word about what Moses and Ramses thought of each other and how well they knew/liked each other as children. But when they were making The Prince of Egypt, someone realized that the two were essentially brothers and decided to make a movie where that fact drove the story — they grew up together, they were close, they loved each other, and eventually, they became enemies. And for an animated movie, that dynamic became unusually complex — as easy as it would be to do, it never allowed Ramses to drift outside the audience’s sympathies and imbued everything with a sense of tragedy. Both of the main characters remained conflicted and uncertain throughout. It made The Prince of Egypt a film that was thoughtful and involving. It allowed you to care deeply about both of its leads.

Exodus: Gods and Kings takes almost exactly the same approach to the story but never gets it off the ground. It’s too unfocused, for one; it’s always spiraling off on one tangent or another. But its biggest problem is that its characters never sink in the way they need to.

I think that might be Ridley Scott’s worst flaw as a filmmaker; it’s something that’s been with him from the beginning. Don’t get me wrong — he’s absolutely made some great movies, and they weren’t accidents either. He was an active contributor to what worked about them. But nearly all of them are great for reasons other than their characters, and the ones that do have memorable heroes and villains can be attributed to other people — the cast, the writers, etc. Scott just isn’t great at the little, human moments that connect us to the characters — whether on their own or hidden in the background of plot points and action sequences — and I think that’s contributing heavily to his increasing critical disfavor.

Not a single character in Exodus is interesting or engaging. No one is fascinatingly complex, and no one is endearingly charismatic. There’s no one you like to learn more about and no one you like to follow. It’s a shame, because you can see the film laboring to fix that; it just isn’t very good at it. It has difficulty incorporating character information organically, so instead it sets aside awkward scenes that have no purpose beyond allowing characters to clumsily express their feelings toward one another. In the rest of its scenes, it struggles to express any emotion other than manly stoicism through what the characters are doing.

The supporting cast offers very few figures of interest for Moses and Ramses to play off of. Exodus very much ends up being the Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton show. The film gives the impression that there’s an uncut four-hour version of it lying around somewhere because there’s so little attention given to the supporting cast that it’s a wonder they were included at all. Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame, is given fourth billing as Joshua; Sigourney Weaver appears as one of Pharaoh Seti’s (John Turturro) wives; between the two of them (and this is not one of my comic exaggerations), they speak a total of maybe twelve lines in a two-and-a-half-hour movie. No one has any presence or personality; the supporting cast simply files into two lines — the guys who stand near Moses while he does stuff, and the guys who stand near Ramses while he does stuff.

This is problematic given that, despite the fact that their relationship is sold as the emotional key to the story, Moses and Ramses do not share the screen very often. Moses’ campaign to free the Hebrews is restructured so that the two of them only interact twice after his return to Egypt. It’s hard to build their relationship that quickly; The Prince of Egypt devoted multiple scenes to their interactions as they argued about their circumstances and the morality of their actions.

But the film also gets off on the wrong foot with its schizophrenic characterization of Ramses. It never seems quite sure where he’s coming from. He and Moses are friends at the beginning, but there is tension, and it’s never firmly decided where that comes from — if he’s a religious fanatic who sees Moses as a threat because of his seer’s prophecy, if he resents him because he sensed that his father liked him better, if it’s just standard sibling rivalry. The film never makes up its mind about this. At any rate, it strips all the dramatic tension out of the situation by having Ramses switch to hating Moses almost immediately after his return to Egypt. In The Prince of Egypt, it wasn’t until the bitter end that Ramses stopped loving Moses on some level deep within. (I know this isn’t a review of The Prince of Egypt, but it’s such a direct comparison that it’s hard to avoid.)

The film handles Moses a bit better; you at least get a sense, broadly speaking, of where he’s coming from, and his personality remains consistent throughout (or at least changes in logical ways). He’s still not a great character, though — not because the foundation isn’t there but because the film doesn’t pay it off very well. One significant change — well, not so much a change as something the film read into one of the unknowns in the story — was the decision to make Moses a religious skeptic at the beginning of the story, if not an atheist then at least treading that line. That’s a potentially interesting character detail — how is it going to impact his worldview when he personally meets God and becomes a vessel for miracles and prophecy? The answer is that he’ll pretty much shrug, accept he was wrong, and then go do what he’s told. It’s a change that ends up feeling arbitrary because it contributes absolutely nothing to the story.

That’s true of most of the changes unique to Exodus: Gods and Kings — they all have potential, but the film doesn’t do anything with them. One of the more controversial choices was the portrayal of God as taking the form of a little boy (played by Isaac Andrews). Again — there’s some sort of interesting statement packaged in there somewhere, but the film never weaves it into anything larger. He appears as a little boy because…he just does. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, having little if anything to do with the rest of the story.

Most of the changes, unfortunately, were quite predictable. They don’t impact the story; they don’t impact the themes. What do they do? They add action sequences. This movie has the same problem the History Channel’s The Bible miniseries has — it seems unable to dramatize anything other than violence. In so doing, it makes everything even more confusing — the God of Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to operate on a timetable where he only intervenes after everyone’s had a good battle. When Moses returns to Egypt, he doesn’t go to Ramses with a warning and then step aside as the plague descends. For half an hour or so, he instead leads a slave guerrilla insurrection, until a scene where God basically says, “Yeah, that was dumb; let’s do plagues this time.” It also opens with a battle scene between Egyptians and a neighboring country that could easily be cut with minimal changes to the rest of the plot. The plagues are mostly faithful to the story everyone knows, but the film also adds a plague of crocodiles because…cinematic, I guess. The plagues, by the way, are unusually brutal in this movie — so brutal that I definitely started casting sideways glances at the MPAA over the PG-13 rating. I actually don’t disapprove of that; I think this story could stand to have a little injection of reality after how badly Sunday-School-ized it’s been over the years. But, as with everything else, the film fails to make any coherent statement about these scenes, so they just become strange moments of blunt cruelty that don’t affect anything.

It’s thematically clumsy storytelling, with no interesting characters or even great performances to speak of — there are a lot of talented actors in this, but none of them get to do anything. It’s seemingly just another opportunity for Ridley Scott to stage more swordfights and chariot battles — a less-than-successful return to the Gladiator format. The end result is two and a half hours of empty spectacle. Seriously — just watch The Prince of Egypt.


   –Matt T.

Big Eyes (2014)

Starring- Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur

Director- Tim Burton

PG-13- thematic elements and brief strong language


I think Tim Burton needed to do something like this. I know it’s not saying much, but Big Eyes is his best live-action film in quite a while. It’s not great, unfortunately, but it’s still a solid and entertaining biopic — just one that’s a bit too simplistic and familiar.

In the late 1950s/early 1960s, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) paintings became all the rage. You couldn’t go far without seeing his signature image — small children with huge, sad eyes — stamped on just about everything, from posters to cards to assorted souvenir shop items. Critics reviled his work, but the public couldn’t get enough.

Of course, it was all a lie. The actual artist behind the big-eyed children was Walter’s wife, Margaret Keane (Amy Adams). He was the salesman; she was the artist. Somewhere along the way, he’d been credited for the work and convinced her to let it stick. After all, it was a man’s world — who wants to buy a woman’s art?

But Margaret suffered under the burden not only of giving up her creations to someone who didn’t understand what they meant to her but also of having to lie to her closest friends and even her own child. And as her marriage deteriorated, she began to think hard about coming clean.

I’ll start by saying that it’s nice to see Burton out of his comfort zone. I think that might be the best place for him right now. He’s reached the point of personal success where there’s no longer any risk even in his most far-reaching ideas, and his films have suffered for it. Maybe he needs to paint inside a new boundary for a while and find new ways to express himself, new techniques to structure and reframe his vision.

Big Eyes is more or less a standard biopic, and I’ll admit to some disappointment at how little of Tim Burton ends up in it. I’m glad that he took a step back and didn’t allow his usual clichés to dominate the production; still, he could’ve done something really fresh and daring with this story. Nevertheless, the film’s voice is fairly distinctive by comparison to other entries in the genre, and you can see a couple of distinctly Burton touches throughout — it emphasizes kitsch throughout, filling every scene to the corners of the frame with pop cultural detritus; it heavily features his typically off-kilter color scheme and lighting; and it tells its story like a fairy tale, not so much in presentation as in tone, treating Margaret Keane a bit like a real-world Disney princess.

It’s not just Burton elevating this film either. Amy Adams, of course, is a boon to any production, and that’s no less the case here. I’m starting to think that the reason she has such an “always the bridesmaid” reputation with the awards scene is that she’s actually too good to win them. Film societies have a tendency to award the “most” acting more than the “best” acting, and the sly, subtle way she disappears into every character she plays is almost imperceptible, so seamless that you almost forget it’s acting. She’s the best thing about Big Eyes — it’s not her best performance, but then again, I’m not sure I think she has one. It’s yet another in an increasing long line of pitch-perfect work. Margaret is a bit passive but extremely sensible; her arc in the film is a gradual process of allowing the latter to take control of the former, learning to take charge of her life. The somewhat unfocused script doesn’t help much, so Adams is on her own in selling that — and she does. It’s only after the film ends that you realize you don’t have much concrete evidence to support the conclusion of Margaret’s development as a person.

A lot of the core elements of Big Eyes are really strong — the acting, the direction, the overall style. The problem is that the film surrounding those things is not up to the task of supporting them.

The biggest issue with Big Eyes is that it adamantly refuses to become interesting in any respect. Every plot point is stripped down to its barest element, and the film doesn’t allow nuance to creep in anywhere. Mainly, its story is this: Margaret Keane is a victim, and everyone else is an oppressor. And I’ll admit it — I don’t know much about the true events. It’s possible that the decisions Margaret makes in this movie were just as “right” in reality as they are here. But surely there was something more to it than Margaret Keane being this longsuffering saint and all her antagonists being inhuman villains, right?

The film’s unquestioning attitude toward her begins right off the bat — the opening scene shows her leaving her first husband. A voiceover narration informs us that he was suffocating and unkind. That’s the last word on the subject. It might be a truthful word, but how am I supposed to know? Later in the film, her numerous problems drive her to change her religious affiliation. It’s even implied, through a conversation between the film’s antagonists, that this has caused her to begin stifling her daughter. But no, her religious conversion is shown to have done nothing other than brighten her life, and her daughter seems totally okay with all of it. That, too, might be true, but surely there was something else to it.

In essence, every decision Margaret makes out of a desire to be her own person ends up being the right one, with absolutely no nuance or complication whatsoever. She only makes bad choices when she’s surrendering to other people — and those, too, are as simplistic as possible, bringing about nothing but negativity. Everything that happens in this movie is either really good or really bad with no space in between for complicated ideas or characters or emotions to emerge.

The film’s tone suffers for it, too. The film is half biopic and half fantasy, and those two halves never meet, even — and perhaps especially — when it’s doing both at the same time. Adams plays Margaret in typical biopic fashion, and the structure of her story is similar. Then, there’s Walter. The film wants to make him a pure villain, but in the attempt, it turns him into a cartoon. I need to be clear — I love Christoph Waltz. He’s done some fantastic work, and in fact, this is the only time I can ever remember outright disliking him in something. But his performance in Big Eyes belongs in a completely different movie and only gets worse as the film goes on. I don’t know if it’s a miscalculation on his part or Burton’s — given the tone of the rest of the film, I suspect the latter — but Walter is an absolutely annoying character, one who reminds you that you’re watching a movie every time he’s on-screen. He’s tolerable early on — he’s so theatrical, pretentious, and nakedly manipulative that you don’t know how anyone, Margaret least of all, could possibly fall for his act, but it’s slight enough that you can push it from your mind and focus on the things that are working. But he hams it up more and more with each passing scene until, by the end, he’s starring in some Monty Python-esque farce while Adams watches him in bafflement from the comfort of her realistic period piece. The climax of the film is jarring, rocketing from realism to broad comedy from one line of dialogue to the next.

The decision to keep Margaret the unambiguous hero dulls her as a character, too. It requires her to spend the majority of the film passively accepting everything that happens to her. Too much of this movie consists solely of Walter mistreating Margaret, followed by her having a good cry, and then on to the next scene. She never gets to have an actual hand in her circumstances, because that might indict her on some level, so instead, the entire movie becomes an exercise in wondering how long it’s going to be before her invisible arc finally completes itself.

The film resists making any sort of cohesive statement about any of this. In a lot of ways, Burton is the perfect director for this film — he adores weird kitsch like Margaret Keane’s paintings; his movies are essentially their modern version. But Big Eyes only considers making an argument about the value, or lack thereof, in populist art and silly cultural trends. And on a more emotional level, it tends more toward checking off all the typical biopic blocks — just making sure all the important stuff gets in there, regardless of cohesion or necessity.

I don’t want to make it sound like Big Eyes is a bad movie — its flaws have more to do with what it doesn’t do than what it does. It’s a movie that could’ve been a lot more than it is. It doesn’t give you much to think about or stay with you after you’ve watched it, but it is entertaining — you like and care about Margaret, and as long as the film is centered on her, it’s perfectly enjoyable. It’s nice to see Burton expanding his cinematic language; he might need a few more atypical projects in order to iron out the kinks, but this is a solid first step. Big Eyes isn’t great, but it’s still worth seeing for what it does right.

-Matt T.

The Babadook (2014)

Starring- Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman, Tim Purcell, Benjamin Winspear, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West

Director- Jennifer Kent



It’s difficult to say if there ever was a time when horror movies were taken seriously — maybe it was as much an aberration when Alien, The Exorcist, Jaws, or The Silence of the Lambs won awards as it would be if it happened today. Still, we seem somewhat far removed from that time — not only in the amount of prestige the genre is capable of achieving but in the how well-made our horror movies are to begin with. Every year, we get a couple of PG-13 horror movies pitched at teenagers and maybe one or two dumb gore-fests in the late winter. There are a few people, such as James Wan, experimenting with the genre in interesting ways, but even they tend to be more visual stylists — not doing something new with horror movies so much as wrapping them up in an intriguing package.

A few more movies like The Babadook, though, and culture might begin caring about horror again.

Seven-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) has never celebrated his birthday on the actual day. That’s because the date is also stricken with tragedy — his father died in a car accident while trying to get his mother to the hospital. His mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), never fully recovered from that incident. She won’t admit it, but the loss of her husband haunts her every waking moment — and a lot of her sleeping ones as well. It doesn’t help that Samuel is, to put it mildly, a bit of a handful. He never runs out of energy; he’s incredibly demanding; he’s constantly running around and breaking things; he’s frightened of nearly everything; he hasn’t allowed Amelia to sleep a full night in years. He also exhibits aggressive tendencies to the point that his school doesn’t want him to be alone with his classmates anymore. Amelia, balancing a career and single motherhood, is at her wit’s end.

One night, Samuel picks out a strange book for his bedtime story — The Babadook. Amelia has never seen it before and doesn’t know where it came from but reads it to him anyway. It turns out to be a horrific tale about a murderous entity, and it terrifies Samuel to the point of needing sedatives in order to sleep. And by day, he begins having morbid conversations with an imaginary friend. Amelia initially writes it off as Samuel’s behavioral problems worsening. But then, she starts to dream of the mysterious Babadook as well.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a couple of horror movies that I generally liked, but The Babadook is the first one in ages that left me thinking that what I had just seen was good — not a deeply flawed movie with enough interesting ideas to work it out, not something with one or two outstanding qualities, not a film that succeeds in spite of itself, but one that exudes confidence, careful planning, and thorough self-knowledge. It knows what it wants to achieve and, for the most part, how to accomplish that.

I don’t want to do The Babadook any disservice. It seems as though, every time there’s a new horror movie that opens to critical acclaim, reviews begin selling it as the new scariest thing of all time, and that just sets people up for disappointment, especially since our fears are so personal and subjective. I know people who find nothing scarier than creepy little kid movies, but they don’t have any effect on me whatsoever. And I know people who think Jaws is goofy, but it messes me up every time I watch it. If you want to know how scary The Babadook is, my answer is: Not significantly more or less than any other good horror movie. What’s exceptional about it is not so much how scary it is but how it manages to be that scary.

The Babadook hardly uses a single cheap trick in getting under your skin. It’s not openly manipulative (except in one depressingly predictable scene), it mostly keeps its scoring and soundtrack light, and it has hardly any jump scares. And yet, it’s still just as scary as movies that pummel you with those tactics repeatedly, including the ones that do it well. It accomplishes that through atmosphere, visuals, sound design (in the rare moments that it’s not pointedly silent), and — gasp — actual story and character!

I can’t think of any horror movie in recent memory that struck me as being primarily a success in storytelling — I can think of a few that were all right and a few that had a couple of strong elements but none that seemed as though they originated as a story someone wanted to tell that had rich characters and an actual point. The Babadook is that rare horror film where the writing feels like the strongest and most consistent element — it’s a complete story, one that allows the characters to drive the scares and has real thematic ambition. It’s surprisingly thoughtful, and it has a lot of complicated ideas on its mind — the way we not only deal with our grief but how our failure or success in doing so impacts those around us; coping with depression and anxiety; even something as simple as the struggles of a single parent in the modern world. And our latest movie monster, the Babadook, isn’t something separate that occasionally crashes into some psychological drama it doesn’t belong in — it’s very much a part of the film’s exploration of those ideas, something that acts both as an extension of Amelia’s mental and emotional state and a catalyst for it. The film doesn’t insert arbitrary sequences of horror simply to keep the audience on edge; it allows them to unfold as a result of the characters’ feelings and actions and the events of the plot. One thing leads into another seamlessly, which contributes to the claustrophobic, inescapable feeling of the film’s monster despite the fact that the characters are never bound to one location. It also allows this to be the rare horror film in which the characters aren’t idiots — allowing the monster to be an extension of the themes puts Amelia, in particular, in a place where she’s able to go a significant portion of the film unsure whether or not the Babadook is real without seeming stupid for it. If anything, the film derives even more drama from the fact that Amelia isn’t sure if she’s being haunted or if she’s losing her mind — especially since the latter seems like the logical conclusion of the way she’s been bottling up all her grief and anger.

None of this would work without what Essie Davis does in the role. This film was my introduction to her as an actress, and it’s quite a way to make a first impression. From the beginning of the film, before anything supernatural has occurred, she’s already finding nuance in Amelia to bring out later as the story develops. It’s her relationship with Samuel that becomes the centerpiece of basically everything that happens in the film, and she captures perfectly the tension between her complicated emotions toward him. He’s her son, and she loves him. He’s also annoying and poorly behaved, and she hates him a little. Davis is able to draw on both of those feelings and expand upon them as needed, and they drive both the plot and her actions within it. The progression Davis captures in Amelia’s character is so noticeable from scene to scene that I almost wonder if the movie was shot in order — I don’t know how else she could’ve accomplished this. She spends most of the film deciding whether or not she’s insane, and you can see Amelia slipping more and more with each scene. It helps that the film allows you to empathize with her very directly in the way it manipulates your own emotions toward Samuel — he is very loud, very annoying, and there will be times when you want to mute your television; but he is also, like any other child, innocent and capable, on occasion, of surprising sweetness and love. You’re standing outside of the film, watching Amelia react to this situation, but you also feel as though, to an extent, you’re in her shoes, experiencing it alongside her. That’s how you make a horror movie genuinely frightening — get your viewers so aligned with the characters that they share their own terrified feelings.

But it also helps that the film is generally well constructed otherwise. The house that serves as the setting for the majority of the film is well suited to the tonal shifts of the genre — in daylight, it looks normal, but as darkness falls, it becomes dark and eerie. All it takes is that shift in the lighting. It’s largely silent, with only a touch of scoring and mostly naturalistic sound effects. Still, the sound design, when it’s called upon, is pretty fantastic — the Babadook’s voice, which is heard very rarely, is one of the most hellish and unnatural things to ever have punished my ears. Every time it cut into the silence of the movie’s numerous dark rooms, a shiver coursed through my body. It’s nails on a chalkboard mixed with the growl of a hungry animal. It’s awful in the best possible way.

I still think The Babadook is a couple stones’ throws away from being a great movie, partially for a variety of nitpicky reasons not worth getting into and primarily because it could stand to be paced a bit better. One of the complications unique to horror movies is that they deal with a level of emotional intensity not frequently seen in other genres. And primal fear is one of the most exhausting emotions. This movie’s about an hour and a half long, and generously, I think the climax may take up a third of that. And as it went on, it just wore me out. The doesn’t end with as much potency as when it begins, and that’s always going to leave me with a sour taste. It still accomplishes a lot of good in that last half hour, but it becomes easier to admire it distantly than to be actively involved in what’s going on.

The rest of the film, though, is strong enough to more than make up for it. The Babadook is very skillfully made and relates a story that’s well worth telling. It’s easily one of the best horror movies of the last decade — maybe even the actual best. Time will tell what happens to the little indie horror that could, but I suspect it’s clear skies ahead.

-Matt T.

Tracks (2014)

Starring- Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Brendan Maclean, Rainer Bock, Jessica Tovey, Emma Booth, John Flaus, Rolley Mintuma

Director- John Curran

PG-13- thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language


Tracks is based on the true story of Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), who, disillusioned with modern life in the city, set out in 1977 to walk 2,700 miles of Australian desert to the Indian ocean with nothing but four camels and her trusty dog Diggity for company. The movie, ultimately, is more focused on the destination than the journey, but taken for what it is, it’s a lovely and sometimes moving piece of work.

The greatest strength of Tracks is that it’s one of the better-looking films to have been released in 2014. We’ve become accustomed to our movies being noticeably color corrected, often badly but sometimes well. The beauty of Tracks is in the way it places real people in real environments and, with only a few exceptions, captures them the way they are. It may spend the vast majority of its run-time stranded in the Australian desert, but it manages to find something new and beautiful in each shot — the ruddy sand, the deep blue of the sky, the sickly brown of the foliage, the clearness of water. Every frame of the film is steady and carefully composed — hours must have been spent positioning the actors relative to the camera and the plants and the hills and other geographical formations. The editing and camera movements are smooth and graceful, bringing a soft, deft touch to everything happening within the shot. Throughout, the film has a feeling of gentle reserve that is quietly hypnotic, working you into a trance-like reverence as it goes. By the end, you begin to understand why someone might decide to leave the comforts of modernity behind to retreat into this seemingly inhospitable environment. Even in its barrenness, this desert is beautiful.

The film also benefits from its star, Mia Wasikowska, who does some of the better work of her career here. The role isn’t a total departure for her — Robyn carries Wasikowska’s trademark shyness and introversion. That said, she’s a much brighter and more determined character than the sad, forlorn figures Wasikowska usually plays. Robyn is a bit of a lost soul searching for something more, but she’s someone slowly arriving at the truth. There’s a joy deep inside her that Wasikowska doesn’t often get to realize on-screen, and she does it well. Robyn is a solitary person, but likable.

The problem is that Tracks doesn’t always have the strongest storytelling sensibilities. The most compelling aspect of the true story seems obvious to me — it’s the journey. I’m interested not only in what would drive a person to do this — I want to know how. Something like that has to be difficult, right? Otherwise, everyone would do it. How do you tolerate the journey? How does it impact your mental state? How are you dealing with the heat? What are you eating? What are you drinking? Are you prepared to deal with the numerous varieties of deadly creatures that inhabit Australia’s desert? What does this journey look like? How does it feel?

But Tracks is weirdly disinterested in the journey itself. Perhaps it was worried that focusing on a single person’s quest for survival in the middle of nowhere would be boring. Perhaps it was trying to make some other point that was lost on me. But the film spends much more time on the stops in between Robyn’s adventure than on the work it took to get there. For roughly two-thirds of the film, we see her travels only as light montages. Occasionally, it’ll force a moment of tension, usually Robyn losing something important and having to backtrack through the desert in a desperate attempt to find it. But mostly, she’s stopping at small towns, villages, and camps along the way and talking to people there, and I largely didn’t find any of these scenes particularly illuminating.

There’s a minor romantic subplot that emerges between Robyn and Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a National Geographic photographer who meets her at the stops along the way to document her journey. It’s a relationship that doesn’t have much nuance to begin with and that I never believed for a second once it turned into a light semi-romance.

It’s not until the final act that the journey itself seems to take center stage, and even then, it seems to be focused far more on imagery and a handful of especially tense moments than it is on the things that might help the whole story stick, i.e., the day-to-day of surviving in this environment and the aspects of herself that Robyn has to develop or call upon in order to succeed at her impossible task. Themes emerge but never become cohesive — man’s relationship with nature, the role of nature in the modern world, the spiritual life of people in the technological age, the “ugly tourist” way we sometimes interact with other people and cultures (the last of these is the most interesting, but it never ended up quite where I hoped it would or made the connections that seemed most natural). All of it works in the moment, mainly because of the strengths I mentioned earlier — the film’s suggestive visuals and Wasikowska’s depth and likability — but it never becomes something whole, something great, something that stays with you long after the credits roll.

Tracks is still a lovely film and something very much worth seeing — it finds wonders in the most unlikely of places and is often ten times as enriching as numerous better written films. Whatever its flaws and despite the fact that it nowhere near ranks among the year’s best, Tracks is a lovingly and carefully made piece of art that merits viewing and consideration.

-Matt T.