Archive for June, 2015

Seventh Son (2015)

Starring- Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Antje Traue, Olivia Williams, John DeSantis, Kit Harington, Djimon Hounsou, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo

Director- Sergey Bodrov

PG-13- intense fantasy violence and action throughout, frightening images and brief strong language


Here’s all you really need to know about Seventh Son is this — I was originally going to write this review tomorrow, but I decided to make time for it tonight, because only a few hours after seeing it, I am already starting to forget what happened in it. So, if I were to write a review with any nuance whatsoever, it had to happen immediately.

Thomas Ward (Ben Barnes) lives with his family on a farm in the countryside. One seemingly ordinary day, a stranger by the name of Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) arrives. He’s what’s called a “spook” (movie, it’s okay to change some things from your source material) — someone who guards mankind against the dark forces that surround them. Gregory is in need of an apprentice and thinks Tom is it — he’s the seventh son of a seventh son and is, thus, supposed to have certain talents.

Tom agrees and begins his training — but he’ll have to learn fast, as an old enemy of Gregory’s, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), has returned and is assembling an army of witches in preparation for the arrival of the blood moon, which will give them the power to destroy everything.

To be fair, Seventh Son isn’t as bad as you’d expect a movie that was delayed a full two years and settled for a February release anyway to be. It strikes me as more absent of good than actively terrible. Not that it makes a whole lot of difference to me.

I guess what it comes down to is that I need a movie to be purposeful — I need to have some idea of what it’s trying to accomplish and be able to see how each scene fits into the puzzle. Seventh Son is shoddily constructed and aimless. There’s no particular arc to anything that happens — the main characters don’t really change, the themes are largely unaddressed, the story is reduced mainly to a Point A and a Point B and a lot of filler in between. It doesn’t even work well as a simple coming-of-age story — mainly because Tom barely changes over the course of the film but also because the script doesn’t have much of an angle to begin with. If nothing else, this is at least a story about an ordinary guy learning to become extraordinary, but Tom’s training is mostly a side note. There’s a scene where Gregory teaches him how to throw knives, and that’s about it. Any other skills he shows over the course of the film come from nowhere.

Seventh Son just plain budgets too much time for action sequences that don’t advance the plot in any way. There are at least two that are so completely pointless that you could delete them from the film without anyone realizing something was missing, a third that is almost pointless apart from a quick bit of character information it gives you as soon as it ends, and a fourth that seems purposeful until you realize how little it changed things. The movie jumps right into nearly all of its action sequences — there’s no build-up; the characters are talking one second and then fighting a minute later. The script has no organic way to work most of these scenes into the story, so all of them come across as totally random, dropped in your lap apropos of nothing because you only bought your ticket to see swordfights.

The film’s characters and world building reflect the same slipshod approach. There are a ton of setups with no payoff, perhaps the most egregious one being that Tom has superhuman abilities that never once appear in the film. The film derives its title from the seventh son mythology, but that ends up having nothing to do with the plot — Tom could’ve been anybody. There’s a big twist that changes nothing other than to give us an action sequence in which the heroes aren’t even involved. The blood moon supposedly gives the witches even more power than they already have, but we never see what they might entail; even at the height of their abilities, they’re doing the same things we’ve seen them do from frame one. There’s a pointless and chemistry-free romance. There are a few pointless side characters. There’s a lot about Gregory that’s much too difficult to pin down — and not in the way the film intends.

I think the most aggravating part of this problem as that some of these setups begin to sketch the much better movie that Seventh Son could have been. There are implications of moral nuance here and there — Tom is a merciful sort with a distaste for violence; Gregory occasionally comes across as a guy who can’t quite discern between dark creatures and evil creatures; the witches are occasionally treated like an embattled minority taking revenge on a society that persecutes them. There’s something complicated and potentially interesting bubbling right under the surface here, but the film devotes so little attention to any of it that I wonder whether it was just a happy accident.

It’s just not a very good movie. I’m not sure what to say beyond that.

-Matt T.

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterInside Out (2015)

Starring- Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan

Directors- Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen

PG- mild thematic elements and some action


Welcome back, Pixar. Welcome back.

I don’t know that I’d call Inside Out the studio’s best film — not that there’s any shame in taking second place to Toy Story or WALL-E or Up or Finding Nemo — if we mean “best” in the sense of “most thoroughly accomplishes what it sets out to do,” but if we mean it as a ratio of ambition to success, it very well might be. Pixar has never reached farther and only rarely aimed for this level of complexity. The movie might not always be 100-percent on top of its premise, but that it pulls it off as often as it does is nearly miraculous. For that reason, it can, on occasion, be more a film that I admire in the abstract than one I actually love, but I sure do admire the heck out of it. Okay, okay — and, for the most part, love it as well.

Twelve-year-old Riley’s (voice of Kaitlyn Dias) life is turned upside down when her family moves from Minnesota to sunny southern California. Riley’s not the only one dealing with the move — so are her emotions, Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith), Fear (voice of Bill Hader), Anger (voice of Lewis Black) and Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling). They’re in charge of protecting Riley and keeping her happy from their Headquarters in her mind. Joy has become the de facto leader of the bunch, though everyone has a part to play: Fear and Disgust keep her safe, Anger deals with the negativity in the world surrounding her, and Sadness… Well, no one really likes Sadness, least of all Joy, who simply can’t figure out what purpose she’s supposed to serve.

When the big move destabilizes everything, life in Headquarters gets a little screwy. When Sadness touches one of Riley’s core memories and accidentally turns it sad, Joy loses it…and, in the process, inadvertently gets herself and Sadness tossed out of Headquarters and stranded in the endless maze that is long-term memory. With only Anger, Fear, and Disgust left to help Riley deal with her new circumstances, Joy and Sadness — with help from Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong (voice of Richard Kind) — have to make their way back to Headquarters before they’re erased permanently.

Inside Out is a fantastic return to form for Pixar — simultaneously unique and exactly the sort of film the studio used to make. It can be laugh-out-loud hilarious and then turn sad on a dime — or the opposite. It’s bright, lively, and gentle, but not afraid to indulge and occasionally even conclude on emotionally complicated notes. It’s smart, complete storytelling. In tone and style, it’s for the kids, but it’s the adults who will enjoy it the most.

That’s perhaps even more the case for Inside Out than any other film the studio has made. Their other movies have always had jokes or plot threads pitched at the grown-ups, but this is the first to feel so heavily skewed that direction. Don’t get me wrong, the kids will love it — the humor, the characters, the color, the little bits of adventuring here and there. But it’s hard to imagine most of them being able to address the story on anything more than the most basic level — they’ll accept Joy and Sadness as characters and understand that they’re at Point A and need to arrive at Point B, but that’s about it. This time, the story is mainly for the parents.

And there’s a lot to chew on. Inside Out is the studio’s most thematically dense film to date. Almost every element of the story is operating on both literal and symbolic levels. The movie is trying to bring the complex abstraction of thought and feeling to the screen in a tangible, concise, and comprehensible way while simultaneously casting these characters and this story as a metaphor for a specific set of experiences.

It results in something I can’t recall ever having seen before — a children’s film about depression.

It still amazes me not only that a film like that could exist but it would be as intelligent as it is. We often discuss how the fact that Pixar is more a team of storytellers than a gateway for singular artists to express singular visions robs their films of especially distinctive voices; we don’t spend nearly enough time discussing the fact that the studio’s approach has some advantages, too. Inside Out is where they show. The collaborative nature of this film has turned it into a story that seems to have thought of nearly everything. The metaphor is so complex and multilayered; nearly every component of Riley’s experience, and the experience of depression more generally, is realized on screen through the characters and the world. The film hardly misses a beat. I’m just stunned at how thought out it is — partly because the metaphor is so detailed and expansive but especially because the filmmakers really seem to know what they’re talking about. It’s Joy and Sadness that get tossed out of Headquarters; in their absence, it’s mainly Anger that takes over; in their journey, Joy and Sadness find that portions of Riley’s personality are collapsing, and a lot of her memories are being erased, sometimes in large chunks. That’s not the work of a storyteller who’s guessing at what depression is like; that’s someone who knows it intimately.

I suppose the concern here would be that Inside Out’s narrow thematic focus might shut it off from a wider audience; fortunately, it’s about much more than that. Part of what makes the film so entertaining is the way it’s constantly expanding its metaphor and adding further detail to the strange world it inhabits. It’s the sort of movie where throwaway lines of dialogue and quick jokes not only do what they’re supposed to do in the moment but deepen the story’s universe — for example, a brief bit where Joy knocks over crates containing opinions and facts and tries to put them back in the right box while complaining that they all look the same. It’s a quick laugh with no real bearing on the plot, but it gives the world of the film more texture. Inside Out could easily end up feeling like school, but it’s always presenting its information in fun, organic ways. It allows the movie to package additional statements about the inner workings of the human mind into the background of the main plot. It even lets us out of Riley’s mind here and there to examine the inner lives of other characters, and what we see there is just as instructive — mainly, that Joy’s status as leader in Riley’s head isn’t universal. Sadness is running the show in her mom’s mind, and Anger seems to be in charge in her dad’s. I love how little explicit attention the film pays to reveals like that — it figures you’ll either notice or you won’t, and it’s content to let you do whichever.

And on the surface level, I just plain like how the movie realizes these concepts as characters and a story. My immediate fear for this film — the trap it struck me as most likely to fall into — was that the emotions would be the characters and the humans would be the blank automatons that they controlled. The film not only dodges this trap but outright excels on the subject. The human characters and the emotions are weaved together very seamlessly, acting as extensions of one another. Together, the emotions form a personality — when Riley’s are in Headquarters, talking and arguing with each other, they don’t seem like separate characters but a single internal monologue. The emotions aren’t five unique characters; they’re one whole person that reveals itself fully whenever they’re together. And again — that whole person isn’t always the same, depending on whose head we’re in. The emotions function differently. The same one isn’t always dominant. It’s the kind of subtlety I long for in a family film — something kids won’t immediately grasp but that’s quietly priming them to understand themselves and others.

It’s got to be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish all of that, so Pixar can’t really be blamed for any missteps the film might make. For my part, I think Inside Out does occasionally get overly literal — there are major obstacles that are resolved by magic or crazy plans or weird dreamworld logic, and these scenes don’t work on the metaphoric level the rest of the movie does. That occasionally undercuts the emotional journey of the film — when the story is a metaphor for depression that’s driven by the emotions associated with that, the resolutions to the problems the characters encounter need to tie into that. Sometimes, Inside Out just solves a problem with a weird gadget the characters got out of Riley’s imagination, and that’s not half as compelling. It leaves the film with a handful of dry patches that don’t properly support some of the bigger emotional beats — which, unfortunately, undersells some of them as well.

But as ambitious as Inside Out is, it’s a little unfair to expect it to be perfect. Instead, let’s celebrate the fact that it is, at the very least, really, really great — smart, funny, emotional, insightful, gorgeous. If you only take your kids to the movies once this summer, this ought to be it.

-Matt T.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again — that time when people without access to theaters that play movies with projected box office takes of less than $100 million finally get to compile their year-end lists!

So, what did I think about 2014 in cinema?

It was…okay.

I didn’t expect I would be saying that; neither did you, probably. Around August 2014, I was already calling it one of the best years in cinema I could remember. The year had already given us a myriad of good-to-great films, and if that was what Hollywood thought wasn’t going to contend for awards, I could only imagine what the coming months held.

But it turned out to be a weirdly lopsided year. Normally, any given year in movies starts out bad and keeps getting better until the holiday season hits us with what the industry considers the cream of the crop. In 2014, it was almost directly reversed — a few of the year’s best films were in theaters before we even got to summer blockbuster season, which itself had a lot of quality offerings. But then, we got into awards season. That’s a time of year that always produces some transparent Oscar bait, but normally, there’s a lot of great stuff sandwiched in between. Not so in 2014. The awards bait was clearer and more cynical than ever; the majority of the art films were stale and unadventurous; and even the usually reliable Christmas blockbusters mostly didn’t deliver. It led to one of the weakest Best Picture fields in a while — left up to me, I think I’d only have nominated two of the films that made it. The year started with a bang and ended with a whimper — one letdown after another as the year’s most hyped projects collapsed right in front of us.

And in the end, while the films from the first half of the year were surprisingly good, they weren’t enough to counterbalance the disappointment of the second half. Overall, for me, the year emerges as somewhat mediocre.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t some good stuff — there absolutely was! I’ll say this for 2014: There might not have been as many truly great films as there have been in past years, but there seemed to be a lot more really, really good ones. Other years may have registered more 9s or 10s, but no year in recent memory registered as many 8s. That’s the paradox behind this list — my feeling toward the year as a whole is one of disappointment, but my feeling toward my Top 20 is that way too many films got left out that would’ve made it in any other field. I agonized over this list like none other I’ve compiled. I’m actually hurting over some of the movies that didn’t make it.

So, for the first time since I started doing this, I’m going to kick this off with a complete list of honorable mentions. Starting with…

Movies That Were in Consideration for the Top 20 But Were Eliminated Fairly Early On and May or May Not Have Made the List in a “Weaker” Year: The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Guest, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Joe, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything

Movies That Fought Really, Really Hard and Just Barely Didn’t Make It; They Would Almost Certainly Be on the List Any Other Year: Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, We Are the Best!

Movies That I’m Physically in Pain Over and Not Entirely Sure Why They Didn’t Make This List, Much Less Any Other Year’s: Fury, because if it wasn’t for that clumsy third act, it’d not only be on the list but probably somewhere in the top five; and Pride, because it’s absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had watching a sermonizing special issues movie.

Movie I May or May Not Regret Excluding Depending on How Well It Ages: Interstellar. I saw it a second time and was surprised to find that my estimation of it improved. Who knows how I’ll feel after a few more viewings? Unfortunately, it’s too late for the list, but maybe I’ll be kicking myself over its exclusion a few years down the line.

Movie I Didn’t Get to See Yet: Two Days, One Night. Fun fact: The reason I waited so long to do this list is that Netflix said this movie would be available for streaming on June 16. On the morning of June 16, I logged in, and it was like, “Whoops, sorry, we meant August 16.” I figured that was too long to wait, so I decided to just post this and if Two Days, One Night ends up competing, it ends up competing.

Anyway, I’ve skated around this long enough. Without further ado, I give you… My Top 20 Favorite Films of 2014!


20. A Most Violent Year — There was a hard-fought battle for the last slot on this list, and even now, I’m glancing at Fury and Pride and wondering if I made the right call after all. But I’m sticking with my guns here. I think A Most Violent Year is J.C. Chandor’s strongest film yet, taking the best of both worlds from his previous projects and fusing them into a cerebral, atmospheric crime drama. I like its perspective — it’s essentially The Godfather told from the point of view of one of the ordinary people on the street, caught in the middle. And I love how organically it develops its characters through that — I’m fascinated by stories that force their protagonists to make tough decisions and moral compromises and then examine the consequences of those actions. A Most Violent Year is a good one. Also, I can’t wait for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to make Oscar Isaac a star; honestly, I have no idea how it hasn’t happened already. Dude is the real deal.


19. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — If 2014 was the year when the “serious art” — the biopics, the historical films, even a lot of the art scene — let us down, at least it was also a year when the big, silly, fun blockbusters stepped their game right up. American Sniper got nominated for Best Picture, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the year’s best — and smartest — war movie. Yes, I’m serious. No film in recent memory has explored the root causes of war and violence as intelligently as this goofy movie about chimpanzees with machine guns. That intelligence also allows it to tell an emotionally engaging story on the way to making those points: There’s a clear sense of cause and effect in the events of the story, there’s strong character development, and it governs the ebb and flow of its plot based on its emotional needs rather than an action sequence quota. I’ve seen a lot of great blockbusters over the last few years, but I can’t remember the last one where I went into the climax feeling like none of the characters were safe. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that, like its predecessor (though not to the same extent), the human half of the story isn’t as strong as the ape half. Everything else is shockingly well done. In any other year, it’d make the Top 10.

18. 22 Jump Street — Like I said…the mainstream cinema of 2014 was inordinately strong. The year as a whole may have been a disappointment for me personally, but I’m nevertheless thrilled that it allowed me to compile a Top 20 as eclectic as this one. 22 Jump Street is the funniest and smartest comedy in a long time. The script is multilayered enough to be worthy of Oscar consideration. I’m still somewhat at a loss for words to describe it — it goes so deep with its relentless self-parody that it becomes a parody of a parody of a parody that mocks itself, you, society, the people who made the movie, the people who greenlit the movie, and everybody in between. And yet, it’s not hateful or posturing like it’s smarter than you. It’s still just as hilarious on the surface level as it is beneath all those layers. It’s possibly the first comedy sequel in history to be better than its predecessor. Of course it’s going to make the list!


17. A Most Wanted Man — It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film (apart from his supporting role in the upcoming Hunger Games finale) and a powerful testament to what we lost with his passing. It’s one of the first movies, in my opinion, to meaningfully wrestle with the emerging post-9/11 security state — albeit less in the omnipresent technological espionage and more in the complex political realities. Ultimately, there are no simple answers — it’s a film that’s constantly weighing justice against security needs and never providing a simple out on the question. It’s a realistic spy thriller — slow-moving and largely unembellished — but it makes its routine plot absolutely riveting through its sense of character and consequence. It’s anchored by another one of Hoffman’s genius performances — one whose last five minutes have a permanent place on his highlight reel.


16. Frank — What a wonderfully bizarre film. I love it. On one hand, it’s a comedy, and it appeals very directly to my taste with its dry, dark, straight-faced, absurd sense of humor. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly stirring tribute to great art and the weirdos who make it. Despite its darkness, it’s sweet and warm — never cloying, though. It’s effectively critical of negative attitudes toward the creative process and how it works. And its portrait of mental illness may be slight, but it’s well handled, ultimately about how we all need each other and how sometimes a great thing should just be allowed to be great, whatever that means. Also, the music, bizarre as it is, is actually pretty fantastic.


15. Calvary — If you’d attached bigger names and a bigger studio to this film, there’s no doubt in my mind it would’ve cleaned up at the Oscars — especially for Brendan Gleeson, who does some of the best work of his career in this one. In fairness, it’s not something well positioned to appeal to a wide audience — it’s a character-driven drama lacking in clear, precise plotting and shot through with a wry, almost imperceptible sense of humor that’s guaranteed to be off-putting to some. If you can get through that — or if you find those elements personally appealing — what you’ll find is one of the most nuanced portraits of religious faith in modern cinema. Calvary’s Father James struggles against the comfort of modern religion; he strives to determine what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to represent his example in the culture that surrounds him. The film offers no easy answers but plenty worth discussing — for the religious and non-religious alike.


14. Whiplash — A breathless, relentless, incredible ride of a motion picture — not normally something you’d call a movie about students practicing at a prestigious music academy, but that’s just what makes Whiplash so special. It’s easy enough to appreciate the film’s surface level — namely, J.K. Simmons’ insane, over-the-top performance as the academy’s drill sergeant of a jazz band director. But what really gets me about the film is how it picks apart the concept of greatness in art and wonders what it truly is — pure technical skill, or something deeper? I love conversations like that, and I love where Whiplash ultimately seems to end up on the subject. The film has so much life after the credits roll — it’s so easy to speculate about where the characters end up and what the consequences of their actions will evolve into long-term. It’s a short, simple film but one that’s jam-packed with detail, insight, and yes, pure entertainment value.


13. Under the Skin — That this type of film ordinarily isn’t up my alley whatsoever is a testament to how great Under the Skin ultimately is. It’s oblique, abstract, suggestive sci-fi, telling its strange story almost exclusively through visuals, what dialogue there is feeling improvised (it often was) and more part of the atmosphere than anything. And yet, on every level, it’s incredibly skillful — despite its silence and abstraction, it isn’t difficult to make emotional sense of it. You won’t leave it understanding everything about it — not in the literal, concrete details, anyway — but you don’t need to. It’s an exercise in tone, in pure emotion, in visual storytelling. It’s beautifully constructed and haunting. And Scarlett Johansson’s absence from the 2015 Academy Awards was one of the year’s worst snubs — her work in Under the Skin is unquestionably one of 2014’s best performances.


12. Blue Ruin — One of the strongest directorial debuts in quite a long time, and one of the best films of the year more generally, Blue Ruin is one of those movies that’s just plain good. Everything it sets out to do, it does well, with very few exceptions. What’s fascinating about it is the way it drifts between so many different tones and styles without ever compromising itself. It’s a film that genuinely has its own voice. It’s part bloody revenge film, part drama, part indie thriller, part crime film, and part black comedy. Every tonal diversion arrives organically from the movements of the story and characters. The revenge film part of it is self-aware and effectively explores the consequences of violence and other bad decisions — another movie that’s interested, as I am, in the little moral compromises that inevitably lead us to bigger ones. It’s a story that brings its characters to a point where there no longer is a right decision — they simply have to pick their victim. That’s the kind of ambiguity I adore in a movie like this. The drama and indie thriller components of the film are natural extensions of the characters and their motivations, sketched gracefully through a combination of dialogue and effective visual storytelling. And the comedy stems from the general awkwardness of life. It pulls everything together beautifully and proves that you don’t need millions of dollars to tell an involving story. I’m excited to see what Jeremy Saulnier does next.


11. Snowpiercer — Speaking of films that navigate an insane tonal quagmire and somehow emerge on the other side unscathed…Snowpiercer is the uber-example. I’m obviously not prepared to call it the year’s best film, but it’s certainly the most…singular. It’s storytelling as pure metaphor — it’s not interested in the science or the world or the facts of its characters’ lives day to day. Instead, it outlines a situation, defines the characters’ motivations relative to it, and spends the remainder of its time developing that into a statement about revolution, systemic injustice, and power structures. It uses its tone and style as a tool in that arsenal — as the characters move from scene to scene, they seemingly encounter different genres, ranging from action to horror to outright comedy. The feeling of each scene informs us about its position in the central metaphor. Somehow, it comes out feeling cohesive — mainly because it does such a good job of anchoring its characters in the middle of the satire. They’re the consistent thread, the element that doesn’t change even as everything else in the film rockets from one extreme to the next. Snowpiercer isn’t perfect, but it’s smart, stylish, and somehow both fun and disturbing in equal measure. I suspect it’s destined to become a cult favorite.

10. Selma — This is how you do historical films. In terms of its premise, release date, cast, and presentation, it’s certainly very awards friendly, but it is not awards bait — and those are the films I most hope for when Oscar season rolls around. The difference, of course, is simple — Selma is dangerous, Selma is risky, Selma has real thematic depth, Selma has a point and a perspective, Selma is not trying to please everyone. In short, Selma is good. I like its limited take on the civil rights movement — most films would try to capture the bigger picture, but Selma is content to pull out this one moment in time and express itself through that story. Martin Luther King Jr. — insert obligatory praise of David Oyelowo’s performance here — certainly commands the most screen-time, but Selma truly feels like a story about the movement, one where all the characters are unique and interesting and have a role to play. The storytelling is focused but rich, using its limited scope to bring out as much detail as possible. I don’t love Ava Duvernay’s direction quite as much as everyone else — a few too many scenes came off as stagey, and I got tired of her placing the camera behind people’s heads rather quickly — but she gets the biggest moments exactly right; the Bloody Sunday march is one of the most harrowing scenes in 2014. I also love the film’s focus on the political causes, effects, and implications of the civil rights movement; not only does it capture the interconnected, systemic nature of the events, it also takes the opportunity to recast them as a sly parallel to the modern world. It’s not necessarily the most groundbreaking film ever made, but it is really, really good and puts a rich and vital new face on an important piece of American history.


9. Ida — I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of minimalist cinema; it would be more accurate to say that I could take or leave most of it but would die for the best of it. Ida rates among the best of it. It’s such a masterful exercise in visual storytelling. There’s very little dialogue, not because it’s forcing silence but because it isolates its characters so often. That puts a lot on the shoulders of the actors, and they deliver some of the year’s best performances. The two women at the center of this story are detailed and wholly understandable human beings, and that’s expressed almost entirely through the acting — you see changes in behavior and demeanor, you see their reactions to events in their eyes, you read it in their bearing. The characters themselves provide an interesting contrast in the titular character’s youthful naivete and her aunt Wanda’s haunted weariness; they deal with their respective situations in surprising but logical ways. They play off one another really, really well; their detailed and lived-in relationship is the film’s strongest point by far. But it’s also very well made on nearly every other level as well. It’s meticulously constructed, deliberate, and beautiful.


8. The Immigrant — There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about The Immigrant. It isn’t flashy, it isn’t pretentious. It’s a return to the drawing board — a story told with the most basic elements and the most standardized means. And it proves that not only can it be done well, but extraordinarily — it breathes fresh life into the familiar. There’s little to be said about it other than that it’s just plain a good story, but that’s all it needs in order to achieve greatness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles — both of them are in the conversation when we start talking about the best actors of our generation. And they both do predictably stellar work in The Immigrant. Everyone does stellar work in The Immigrant. The Immigrant is, itself, stellar.


7. Song of the Sea — The fact that I don’t like Song of the Sea as much as Cartoon Saloon’s first, The Secret of Kells, says a lot more about The Secret of Kells than Song of the Sea, which is beautiful, unique, and thoroughly amazing. The storytelling here may be a step down from The Secret of Kells, but it’s still stunning and welcome to see a children’s film with such thematic depth, such emotional ambition, such wonder and awe. And, of course, the studio’s animation is only getting better — here, they further refined their style, and it’s gorgeous. I want to cut out every frame of this film and hang it on my wall. The animation is detailed, fluid, colorful, and textured; the world it conveys is unique and imaginative. Cartoon Saloon stands a good chance of filling the void left in the wake of Studio Ghibli closing its doors — its films a spiritual, original, and rich with both real-world and invented mythology. I am so excited to see where the studio goes from here.


6. Locke — Can someone please explain to me why Tom Hardy isn’t the most famous person in the world already? He is idiotically good. No movie asked more of its star than Locke, and Hardy more than met the challenge. It truly is a one-man show — a story set exclusively inside a moving vehicle, presented almost in real time, and focused on a single character. No one other than Hardy so much as walks across the screen. He’s the most vital element in ensuring the film works — no amount of directorial flair or storytelling depth is going to matter if the only character in your movie isn’t believable. Fortunately, Hardy took the material and crafted what is certainly the most fully rounded character of his career. Whether he says it out loud or not, you will know absolutely everything about Ivan Locke by the time the credits roll. Hardy fully inhabits the part; there are no seams. Of course, it helps that he is working with a great script. It’s a smart and incisive film, and it explores the moral gray areas of its story very evenly and very well. As I’ve said in the past, I love films about consequences and how we deal with them. Ivan Locke has done one dumb thing; the movie shows us the hour and a half of his life where everything comes to a head. There isn’t really a “win” scenario for him, nor one where he can truly be said to have done the right thing. He just has to pick his poison. Watching him deal with that is fascinating. Locke in general is fascinating. Unquestionably one of the best movies of the year.


5. Guardians of the Galaxy — Ah, you know, just one of those boring art films I love so much. This is one of those entries where personal taste has an important influence — the last few films on this list are almost certainly “better,” but none of them are pop sci-fi/space operas, so Guardians of the Galaxy it is! And it’s also a great movie — please don’t take that last sentence as me trying to ghettoize it. It’s extremely well made and a ton of fun. It’s formula, sure, but its characters and emotional beats are built into that so well. The characters, especially, are fantastic — this movie is as much comedy as sci-fi, maybe even more so, and each of the actors gets to play into that dynamic. The members of the cast have great chemistry, and the comedic interplay arises so organically — and hilariously — out of that. Yeah, there’s no commentary on the human condition here or anything, but occasionally, everybody needs to eat a nice, big bowl of ice cream. Guardians of the Galaxy is one great bowl of ice cream.


4. Nightcrawler — I was always going to love Nightcrawler. I love great movies, and I work in the media, so any story about that is inherently going to appeal to me. I didn’t expect exactly how much I was going to love it, though. The cast is great, especially Jake Gyllenhaal; the themes are surprisingly well realized; the film is well engineered emotionally; and I’ve even come to appreciate the look of it with repeat viewings. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom was, for me, one of the year’s most memorable characters — one of the most purely loathsome film protagonists of all time, a character who seems to get more and more awful with each passing scene. I love the way the film is structured around that; I love the way it builds its arc into the audience rather than its characters. I love the commentary on the state of our sensational and narrative-driven news media. I love the tone — it sometimes teeters on the edge of black comedy but never quite falls in. It’s wry but quite sincere. It exists in a heightened version of reality, constructed to act as satire on the real-world state of affairs, but it also feels like a logical extension of our own culture — something that maybe isn’t happening right now but certainly could happen. I love everything about Nightcrawler. It’s absolutely fantastic.

3. Noah — Does everyone recognize this as a classic unfairly overlooked in its time yet? No? Then my task remains incomplete. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about Noah on my first viewing; I knew that I liked it but was struggling to piece certain things together. Repeat viewings have settled it — Noah is great and even has flashes of outright genius here and there. The surface elements are all excellent, from the production design to the effects to the score to the cinematography to the editing and even to the acting — Russell Crowe is still playing an emblem of stoic, embattled masculinity, but it comes off as more textured here, something that emerges very naturally from the established traits and motives of the character. It’s what’s under the surface that makes the film soar; despite the marketing, it’s no mere blockbuster. The more I watch the film, the more I think Noah’s character arc is its strongest element; he wrestles with so many questions regarding man’s relationship to God, the nature of morality with or without a higher power, the darkness and light inherent to human nature, and quite a lot more, all of which resonated with me because of how closely they mirrored some of my own experiences. The film expresses these questions beautifully, telling its story not as an adaptation of the source material but as a commentary on its spiritual and cultural significance. Like I’ve said time and time again — if I get my way, this is going to be the Blade Runner of the early 2010s. History needs to remember this one.


2. The LEGO Movie — Believe me, this shocks me as much as it shocks you. If you’d told me — and most other reviewers, for that matter — in 2013 that, in 2014, I’d declare The LEGO Movie one of the best films of the year, I’d either have laughed you out of the room or assumed that 2014 was set to be a legendarily awful time for cinema. But here we are — The LEGO Movie is one of the best films of 2014, and not for lack of competition. It’s just that good. If nothing else, 2014 is going to be remembered as the year that Phil Lord and Chris Miller arrived — their previous projects had been good enough, but the one-two punch of 22 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie proved they were genuine talents (with, apparently, an exclusive interest in making great movies out of unlikely premises). The LEGO Movie isn’t just a well-made piece of entertainment (though it’s super fun all the same); it’s dense and complex in its storytelling, its humor, and even its themes. On one hand, it’s a fun, funny little movie about plastic toy people having an adventure; on the other, it’s a deconstruction of the “chosen one” archetype and a commentary on childhood and family. Of course, I can’t conclude without mentioning that the animation is absolutely resplendent; Lord and Miller went the extra mile in filling out the absurd little world they created and making sure every corner of every frame was packed with detail and imagination. The LEGO Movie absolutely should not be as good as it is; in the hands of any other studio and any other director, it’d almost definitely be a soulless piece of cinematic merchandising. Instead, it’s a really great…piece of cinematic merchandising. Hey, it is a LEGO movie. Honestly, I’m grateful we got something so wonderful out of this unlikely setup. This is a movie the kids of today will be showing to their own children 20 years from now.

And my favorite movie of 2014 is…


1. Boyhood — Don’t lie; you all saw that coming. It might not have been as obvious as Her taking the top slot in 2013 was, but I’ve still spent the better part of a year raving about this one. Honestly, I never considered it an outright guarantee for the top slot; it struck me, upon my first viewing, as the sort of thing that might not play as well the second time. Fortunately, it did — better, in fact. I think of Richard Linklater as being not so much a great storyteller (though he can be, when it suits him) but a great cultural documentarian. No one is better than him at capturing the feeling of a certain time and place and age. Boyhood feels like the movie to which his entire career has been building, weaving together his fascinations with time and culture and people’s relationship to both into a singular epic that captures the evolution of a generation through the eyes of one kid. What’s so striking to me about Boyhood is the way it’s simultaneously so broad and so specific. It adopts a lot of nuance — in the characters, in the relationships, in the generational shifts, in the cultural trivia — so that the film always feels like it belongs to a specific point in human history, but it also captures, perhaps because rather than in spite of that, the feeling of growing up and moving on, something universal to all of us, regardless of age. I don’t always find myself in the characters; their experiences diverge from mine. But I do watch the scenes where the kids are fighting for their parents’ attention or their dad has taken everyone bowling or the family’s first camping trip or those first crushes or those post-high-school anxieties and find that the feeling of them is immediately recognizable to me. Boyhood is the story of one person’s life, but it’s also the story of all our lives. It was great the first time I watched it but absolutely transcendent the second time. It’s well written, well directed, well acted, insightful, emotionally involving, and honest. I can’t think of a worthier film to name the year’s best.

Chappie (2015)

Starring- Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver

Director- Neill Blomkamp

R- violence, language and brief nudity


At this point, it’s looking pretty likely that Neill Blomkamp only had one good movie in him. But I think he’s also on track to become one of those directors for me — that guy who doesn’t really make good movies but who just has a certain sensibility that appeals to me regardless of everything else.

All this is to say that I actually had a decent time watching Chappie, but I can’t really construct a compelling defense of it. It’s clumsy, confused, and kind of lame. It’s bad. But I had fun anyway — not in an ironic way, but genuinely. I don’t know why. There probably isn’t a “why.” But does there have to be?

In Chappie, the police forces of Johannesburg, South Africa have been revolutionized by the addition of new robotic officers. Their inventor, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is now considered one of the top minds in emerging technological fields. His real aspiration, however, is to create the first true artificial intelligence — a machine intellectually indistinguishable from a human being. He cracks the code…only to be kidnapped by a trio of gangsters (Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) who want him to build them a robot of their own to combat the police forces. Left with no other option for survival, Deon implants his new artificial intelligence into the battered husk of a police robot scheduled for demolition. The end result is Chappie (voice of Sharlto Copley) — a thinking, feeling, childlike, and infinitely curious automaton, torn between the kindness of his creator and the violence of his “parents.”

I don’t think there’s anything too surprising about most of Chappie’s problems. Even in District 9, Blomkamp’s stellar debut, he exhibited a few flaws that have only metastasized over time. They get a notch worse in Chappie.

His weirdest one is the fact that he seems somehow required to include absurd, over-the-top, gory violence in absolutely all of his projects, regardless of the kind of movie he’s making. The violence in both District 9 and Elysium was odd, at least in its extremity, but justified on some level — both were stories of oppressive situations, and violence usually isn’t far away under such circumstances. That he carries it over into a movie that’s basically a straightforward entry in the “adorable A.I. learns what it means to be human” subgenre is completely inexplicable. In fairness, Chappie has a lot less of it, and only one death is particularly gory; still, its need to build into big, loud action sequences is regularly at odds with the film’s more intimate emotional needs. It’s ultimately a small-scale story, and it doesn’t fit the big action beats Blomkamp shoehorns in, especially when they’re so bloody and excessive.

Blomkamp’s biggest flaw, as I see it, is related — he rarely seems to be in control of his themes; in fact, they regularly spiral so far out of control that I can’t even tell where he was ever going with them in the first place. Even if the film were nothing more than a story about what it means to be human, it would still be all over the place because of the sheer breadth of the human experience Chappie encounters before the credits roll. There’s some light questioning related to the aforementioned theme of violence, address sporadically and undercut by an ending that seems to reject and then partially embrace it. The rest of Chappie’s story covers family, love, individuality, power, moral codes, responsibility, and even the fear of death; the film never hones in on anything and develops it to fruition. I think it develops the theme of mortality the most consistently, but that’s also the question that gets the weirdest resolution. Then, in the background, the film is examining police states — any movie where human police officers are replaced with soulless, flawless machines is going to raise those questions. And I think this is the first time a movie about a police state has made the villain the guy who wants to decommission the robots and instead put human officers on the ground. I’m not saying there isn’t an idea to be explored there; it’s just weird how unquestioningly the film accepts that dynamic. Throw the absurd, unrealistic violence into the mix, and Chappie really is all over the place.

Chappie marks Blomkamp’s first real departure from his previous projects. District 9 and Elysium were of a like mind, both hard sci-fi, grim and socially conscious. Chappie keeps the hard sci-fi and, to a lesser extent, the social consciousness, but the grimness is totally out the window; it’s a more optimistic work, reminiscent of something Steven Spielberg might make (albeit with tons more unnecessary violence). And I think the end result shows that maybe Blomkamp is one of those directors who does a certain style well but can’t really deviate from it. He doesn’t appear to be in control of the tone here. During production, Chappie was described as a comedy, and I can see that in the structure of it and even some of the writing, but it doesn’t pan out in the tone of the film. Blomkamp is used to the gritty, serious worlds of his other films, to the violence and crime and poverty all over the screen; and he shoots Chappie the same way, which makes it impossible to tell the difference between the movie trying to be funny and the movie having a dumb idea.

The gangsters encapsulate this. They’re an odd bunch, to begin with, but that isn’t the half of it. Blomkamp cast Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, members of the band Die Antwoord, in two of the three roles — an odd choice, but manageable. But then he decided to name those characters Ninja and Yolandi. And he decided to stuff the soundtrack to the gills with Die Antwoord songs. And there’s a scene where Ninja very noticeably wears a Die Antwoord shirt. That’s the kind of meta-level even a 21 Jump Street movie would think is too much, and I have absolutely no idea what Blomkamp intended with it. It has to be a joke, but I can’t even begin to guess what the joke is, especially since the film treats the pair as serious figures with actual emotional weight.

I liked the whole, strange affair anyway. Like I said, I don’t really know why. I think Blomkamp’s films just exude a certain sense of conviction that appeals to me — no matter how weird they are or how far off the rails they go, they always feel very sure of themselves. They seem to enjoy their characters, however strange or thinly written they are — I don’t know how much of a “character” he is, given the way his personality wobbles back and forth, but Chappie is undeniably adorable and difficult not to care about pretty much the second you’re introduced to him. They clearly love the worlds they’re showing us; if nothing else, Chappie continues Blomkamp’s one undeniable strength — his visuals and his management of atmosphere. The dusty, pre-apocalyptic, poverty-stricken worlds of his film always feel extensive and lived-in; I don’t know that I want him writing the script, but I don’t have any objection to him being in the director’s chair for the new Alien movie. He also gets great work out of his effects artists and gives them all the behind-the-camera support he can; it isn’t until the climax that some of Chappie’s effects start to show seams. Chappie himself never once registered as an effect to me; I don’t know what combination of CGI and practical effects allowed him to exist, but he always seems present and wholly a part of his environment.

It might not be the most sterling recommendation — I don’t know if it even is a recommendation — but whatever. Chappie is a bad movie. I liked it anyway. Make of that what you will.

-Matt T.

Jurassic World (2015)

Starring- Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Irrfan Khan, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Katie McGrath

Director- Colin Trevorrow

PG-13- intense sequences of science fiction violence and peril


I don’t think I’ve been this torn about a movie since, well, The Lost World. There are things about Jurassic World that I really love and that I really hate. I left the theater generally feeling like I’d had a decent time, despite the fact that it was also the closest I’ve ever come to walking out on a movie before it was over (*). That’s a pretty polarized response.

In the spirit of disclosure, I always get nervous about reviewing a movie that does that to me — that’s when I start to worry if the critical consensus or my own predispositions toward the film are unfairly influencing my feelings in one direction or the other. With Jurassic World, that’s been even worse — now that this movie is apparently the new biggest thing of all time, I find I’ve already spent more time debating it than anything else I’ve seen in the last several years. That’s brought me to the point where I’ve already significantly over-thought this thing, and I’m unsure of the size of the gap between my initial response and my current feelings and how strongly either ought to weigh into the overall assessment.

Basically, I should stop reading other reviews before I see movies if I’m going to keep maintaining this website.

In order to preserve my own mental stability, I’ve decided to reduce this to the absolute basics: When I walked out of the theater, I was very definitely thinking of Jurassic World as a bad movie that was kind of fun in spite of itself, so regardless of how I’ve come to feel in the days since, that’s the tone I’m going to stick with in this review. And everyone should just keep in mind that there’s a really significant chance, bordering on complete certainty, that it’s only going to take one more viewing to make me outright dislike this.

So. Anyway.

It’s been 20 years since the planned opening of John Hammond’s dinosaur park went awry. Now, present day, the park on Isla Nublar is finally open — rechristened Jurassic World. Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) Mitchell are headed to a weeklong stay on the island to spend a little quality time with their aunt, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park’s operations manager.

However, she doesn’t have much time for them. She’s busy overseeing the opening of a special new exhibit. The park itself has been struggling of late, with kids losing interest in the novelty of dinosaurs. As a result, corporate has issued a directive — new dinosaurs, bigger, louder, scarier, cooler — and the park scientists have been only too happy to oblige. The new addition to the park is its first hybrid dinosaur — Indominus Rex, designed to be so huge and terrifying it puts the Tyrannosaur to shame.

It also turns out, unbeknownst to the scientists, that the I-Rex’s genetic concoction also made it highly intelligent — intelligent enough to engineer its own escape and unleash half the park’s attractions on the unexpected visitors, with Claire and family caught in the middle.

Also, there’s this guy named Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). He’s ostensibly the main character but cannot be organically worked into a straightforward overview of the plot, which is pretty emblematic of my larger problems with this film.

Despite the fact that I feel pulled in some many different directions with Jurassic World, its strengths and weaknesses can, I believe, be summarized fairly simply — because they’re the exact same thing. Jurassic World is entirely an in-the-moment movie that simply does whatever it thinks would be coolest to do in any given scene — without paying much if any attention to its functionality as a complete film. So, it’s fun, because most of what happens in it is, indeed, very cool. And it’s emotionally hollow because every last one of those scenes is shot solely to function solely on its own, with no thought to its larger impact on the plot or characters.

And so, you end up with a movie that inundates you with spectacle right off the bat, never lets up, and rarely introduces much variety. It’s a movie where most of the set pieces are exactly equivalent in size and spectacle. It’s a movie where every death is ludicrously violent — it far outpaces the first and third films in both on-screen body count and gore and even, I think, beats the second by a nose. It’s a movie that abuses its visual effects to the point of complete meaningless, with each action sequence introducing seemingly more CGI until the finale becomes a complete cartoon.

And every now and then, it does produce something kind of cool. There are a number of set pieces that at least work independently, with my favorite being a sequence where raptors chase characters fleeing in a battered truck — it’s the only action scene that feels like something that would’ve happened in the other three Jurassic Park movies, a smaller-scale bit that isn’t trying to be bigger and badder than everything else in the film to that point. But some of the larger sequences work, too, and if nothing else, the film’s hard to beat for pure visceral impact.

But a lot of it ends up being the proverbial “sound and fury.” It isn’t too difficult, reading my plot description and my review up to this point, to identify the fundamental hypocrisy that gives Jurassic World a really discordant feeling as a movie: It really is exactly the thing it’s criticizing. From the beginning, the movie is practically screaming its central theme at you: The majesty and wonder of dinosaurs no longer impresses the jaded kids of today, so we need to invent new ones that are bigger and louder and scarier and cooler. The metaphor there is pretty obvious, and it elevates Jurassic World, weirdly enough, into the realm of satire: After all, what is it if not the bigger, louder, scarier, and cooler version of Jurassic Park but without a third of the wonder or storytelling sensibility?

I don’t know how much I like it as a direction for the Jurassic Park franchise, but either way, it’s possible to make that sort of self-satire work. I see two options for Jurassic World — return to the simple pleasures for the finale, toning down the extreme scale and pace of everything and have that old-fashioned sense of wonder and discovery somehow save the day; or go the exact opposite direction with as much reckless abandon as possible, basically turning the whole enterprise into an event so brainless and soulless that it’s impossible not to notice. Jurassic World doesn’t really do either.

The combination of the unresolved satirical undercurrent, the constant action, the frankly lousy effects, and the over-the-top violence leaves Jurassic World feeling like a particularly expensive B-movie creature feature. Tonally, it has more in common with Tremors than Jurassic Park — except that Tremors demonstrably knew what it was.

If these criticisms sound solely like tonal quibbles, well, they are, somewhat, but it’s deeper than that. Ignoring the fact that the movie never quite makes up its mind how seriously you’re supposed to take it, its exclusive focus on “cool stuff” often prevents it from registering on anything other than the most superficial level. In any given scene, the prevailing wisdom seems to have been “shoot it to look awesome and to get as close to an R rating as we possibly can” rather than “shoot it for its impact within the story, whatever that is.” It’s why the violence feels so mean in this movie — not because it happens but because the deaths are so over-the-top and the camera gets right in there with the victims rather than adhering to any rules of theme or perspective. And it’s why everything seems so meaningless — the other movies in this series skillfully manipulated audience’s feelings toward the dinosaurs, treating them as, yes, dangerous and scary, but also animals, a part of nature that deserved to be respected. This movie just wants dinosaurs in every scene, so it practically makes them characters in their own right — by the end, every last one of them exhibits an intelligence that’s almost human. As a result, every scene that asks us to associate positive feelings with these creatures rings really ring false.

And the satirical angle wouldn’t work all that well even if the film effectively completed it — it is pure text, with absolutely no subtext backing it up. We’re subjected to conversation after conversation about how visitors are losing interest in the park and are no longer interested in dinosaurs. But from what we can see, the park is packed, and everybody other than Zach, who is generally portrayed as an obnoxious teenager, seems totally excited to be there.

There’s just no real storytelling sensibility on display here. There are tons of setups without payoffs — the kids’ totally random divorce conversation, for instance — and tons of payoffs without setups — the climax hinges on an element that was barely in play throughout the rest of the film. The characters mostly aren’t great — not awful, but lacking in nuance. Chris Pratt’s character really is pointless — he has the same problem Sam Neill did in the third film, where he has little connection to the emotional meat of the story but is nevertheless commanding all this screen-time that he doesn’t need. The supporting cast is so stuffed to the gills with obvious fodder that it doesn’t even have time to kill all of them off. The designated human villain, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, might be the dumbest character in the history of this franchise — he’s basically the Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, except instead of swallowing flies, he’s releasing dinosaurs to fight other dinosaurs.

There’s one bright spot, and it’s the reason the film works as well as it does in spite of everything. Claire Dearing is actually a really good character and arguably the best protagonist the series has seen to date (yes, it’s supposed to be Owen, but Claire is the one who ends up commanding all the beats that are usually reserved for the lead role). Unsurprisingly, it’s because her character is the only thing in the movie with some sort of arc attached to it. Watching her slowly transform from a well-dressed, perfectionist office stiff into Ellen Ripley: Dinosaur Warrior is a ton of fun even if the drama surrounding it doesn’t quite work. She’s the heart and soul of the film.

And it badly needs one. Like I said, I strongly suspect that it won’t be long before I don’t like this movie even a little bit, but right now, I almost do, so that’s where I have to draw my conclusion. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see that Jurassic World typifies everything that’s wrong with blockbusters right now — its breakneck pacing, its lack of character, its superficial thrills, its CGI overuse, its focus on cool imagery over feeling, its complete failure to understand the success of its predecessor, its inability to come together into a structured whole, etc. It just also happens to do a couple things right, which ends up making a world of difference. I guess, given all that, I can at least say it’s the best of the sequels, though not by as big a margin as I’d like. We’ll see if time allows me to be any more charitable than that.

-Matt T.

* To be fair, it wasn’t until the last five minutes or so that this happened, but the scene that provoked it was so incredibly stupid that it’s worth mentioning anyway.

* All right, all right, I’ll tell you what it is. MAJOR SPOILERS: Yes, it was the bit where the mosasaur leaps out of its tank and delivers the killing blow to the I-Rex. Because dinosaurs use teamwork now, apparently. And then the T-Rex and the velociraptor nod at each other like, “I respect you, my brother. Thank you for restoring peace to our world.” And they start giving the humans significant looks because dinosaurs are people now, apparently. It was totally subconscious, but halfway through that insanity, I realized my arms were braced against my seat to stand up, and I thought, “Calm down, dude, there’s only, like, five minutes left.”

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015)

Starring- Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Mr. Lawrence, Jill Talley, Clancy Brown, Carolyn Lawrence, Antonio Banderas

Director- Paul Tibbitt

PG- mild action and rude humor


The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is, much to my chagrin, kind of amusing — which, come to think of it, accurately summarizes my feelings toward this franchise in general. I laugh, and I hate myself for it. And then I go watch The Battle of Algiers or something.

The second feature film to be spun off of the hit cartoon series, Sponge Out of Water finds our sea-dwelling hero SpongeBob Squarepants (voice of Tom Kenny) and his friends called into action when the cherished Krabby Patty secret formula goes missing, triggering the apocalypse in Bikini Bottom. The culprit, it turns out, is a pirate from the (live action) human world — aspiring food truck entrepreneur Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas). And so, the gang must venture ashore to retrieve the formula and restore balance to their undersea world.

The prevailing wisdom is that SpongeBob Squarepants’ audience consists exclusively of small children and stoners, and Sponge Out of Water feels like the franchise’s first effort to appeal to absolutely no one else, by doubling down both on the juvenile stupidity and the surrealist insanity. The former ends up being its most significant weakness and the latter its greatest strength. And that’s where we’ll start:

Holy crap, this movie is weird.

It actually kind of thrills me that a kids’ movie like this not only exists but was a box office success. Not because it’s artful or because it has a good message or because it’s evenly paced and precisely thought out but because it’s so much the exact opposite of all those things that it just has to be intentional. It’s like if you amped up a Terry Gilliam film and removed all the social commentary. Nickelodeon Movies made an insane Dadaist stoner flick for kids. That amazes me. There’s no way it’s even remotely good for their developing minds. But it still amazes me.

Sponge Out of Water is basically an anti-movie. Stuff happens; none of it is explained. It invokes literal deus ex machinas on the regular. Character information sets up dumb jokes and is immediately forgotten. The main plot has absolutely no structure or arc whatsoever — it doesn’t even start until close to an hour into the film. It intentionally runs around in circles forever, rocketing aimlessly from one asinine scene to the next. The animation is so absurd it’s almost visually offensive.

If all of that sounds negative…well, maybe it is, a little, but there’s a way to spin it so that it becomes hilarious, and SpongeBob has always been pretty good at that sort of thing. It’s comedy as pure cinematic anarchy — no rules, no fourth wall, no internal logic. It never allows you to have any clue whatsoever what’s going to happen next, and it rewards that by never even beginning to find the upper limit to its weirdness. Every time you think you’ve seen the most confusing, left-field thing it has to offer, it does you one better. The humor is in how utterly baffling it is — it’s laughter of pure disbelief. It’s laughter as a defense mechanism at your own inability to make heads or tails of a single thing happening on-screen.

And it’s really, really trippy — I’ve never been stoned and don’t have a great frame of reference for how it works, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the ideal way to watch this movie. Even by the standards of SpongeBob Squarepants, an all-time weird show in its own right, this movie is…out there. There’s a musical number that starts playing with perspectives and infinite loops and presents the characters in this abstract form, twisting them into crazy shapes and sizes. There’s a dream sequence so absurdly sugary that it actually becomes terrifying. There’s a time travel scene that invokes so many…unprecedented images that there’s simply no way it was directed sober.

The animation, too, is just…bizarre. There are some scenes that use so many different animation styles (and live-action footage) all at once that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, not because they’re fluidly integrated but because they’re so disparate that everything hangs on the screen like a cardboard cut-out. There’s this immortal cosmic guardian dolphin who shoots lasers out of his blowhole (his name is Bubbles, and seriously, it can’t be possible to completely hate this movie), and…I think he’s CGI, but there’s a jerky, stop-motion quality to his construction. His clothes, somehow, look live-action, and his lasers are like an iMovie effect. The whole thing is perfect for people who want to watch it high — every frame is designed so that your eyes can slowly wander across it and find some ludicrous new thing to ponder and make sense out of.

The humor in all of this is really subtle, but it represents the movie at its funniest. It’s stupid, but it’s so stupid that there simply must be genius behind it — this simply cannot happen by accident. It’s great to see the movie gleefully leaning into the absurdity of its premise and milking it for all its worth, especially since each one of its ideas is somehow crazier than the last.

Its Achilles’ heel — well, other than the fact that the entire movie is one big Achilles’ heel — is its attempt at keeping the kids who comprise the majority of its viewership entertained. It’s not wrong at all to try to appeal to them; it’s SpongeBob Squarepants, for crying out loud. It’s just really, really bad at it. For all the laughing I did at the tone, at the hidden comedic undercurrents, I did basically none at the actual jokes, nearly all of which are stupid and obvious. There’s a fine line between being dumb and being artfully dumb, and we could have a long discussion about when SpongeBob Squarepants crossed it, if it ever did, or if it ever even had the opportunity to; regardless, Sponge Out of Water, in my estimation, ends up firmly on the wrong side of that divide. I cringed nearly as often as I laughed.

But the fact that I laughed, and more often than I’m willing to admit even now, is enough for me to say that maybe you shouldn’t write this movie off sight unseen. It’s one thing to be funny; it’s another to be funny in a really unique way, and I’ve rarely seen a movie arrive at its humor quite as The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water does — through careful management of tone and style rather than character, plotting, or dialogue. The overt humor might not work, but the subtle comedy is a riot. I mean, let’s not beat around the bush here — if you hate SpongeBob Squarepants, there’s no chance you’ll like this movie even a little bit. It is as it always has been. But if you enjoy it, it’s likely you’ll enjoy this, too — and then probably hate yourself for it. But hey, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Or something.

-Matt T.


Jurassic Park III (2001)

Welcome back to RetroViews! This week, in preparation for Jurassic World, I’m revisiting the other three films in the Jurassic Park series. Today’s entry: Jurassic Park III.

I know — I gave away the ending in my RetroView of The Lost World. I think Jurassic Park III is the worst film in the series, despite the fact that it seems to have accrued the most defenders over the years. I’d like to be one of them, but I just don’t see that happening.

Ultimately, it’s a difficult film for me to talk about — one of those movies that isn’t overtly flawed and that can trace most of its problems to the fact that it isn’t all that interesting. The problem isn’t what it does; it’s what it doesn’t do. It ends up feeling like exactly what we’d always feared a Jurassic Park sequel would be — one that repackages the premise as a series of generic set pieces and doesn’t develop the story or the world or even find much of a way to have the dinosaurs register emotionally.

It’s really competent, for the most part. Like I said, I understand why people would like this more than The Lost World; it all depends on whether you favor skill or ambition. I favor the latter, which is why this is my least favorite film in the series. There’s nothing too overtly dumb in it, it doesn’t lean too heavily on the sentimentality, it invests the necessary resources in the sets and effects.

There’s just nothing to it. There isn’t a story so much as a premise — find a way to get people trapped on the island again, commence dinosaur chases. The spectacle doesn’t advance character or theme meaningfully. It’s another action movie that mistakes tangential drama for character development, saddling the franchise with yet one more ineffectual dysfunctional family subplot.

Its connections to the previous films in the series are tenuous at best, to the point that I think it ought to have abandoned them entirely. Jurassic Park III would be significantly better if it completely reframed the story it’s telling. The only reason for Dr. Grant to be the protagonist is because he’s the only character carried over from the first film. When examined in any level of detail, the story doesn’t have anything to do with him. He ends up being a hanger-on to the plot in a movie that’s supposed to be about him. Seriously, think about it — what is his character arc? What is his relationship to the kid he’s supposed to be rescuing from the island? What is his relationship to the kid’s family? How does he grow and change over the course of the film? Why does his specific experience relative to the spectacle matter? The answers the film offers to these questions just aren’t compelling. It’s not his movie.

Jurassic Park III would work better with the kids’ parents as the main characters rather than the obnoxious sidekicks who eventually get heroic moments. Tell a story where they hire a mercenary team to take them to the island to rescue their missing son. Tell a story where they get there, things go wrong in exactly the same way, and they’re exactly as “in over their heads” as in the film we got. But force them to work through that on their own. The film already has them doing that, but in little bits and pieces, between scenes of Grant and his archaeology sidekick wandering around and not doing anything too interesting. Give us a story of survival against all odds.

The film as it stands ends up being a story of action sequences. There isn’t much connective tissue from one scene to the next. It’s all about moving the characters to the next dinosaur encounter. It never allows the feeling of the island or its inhabitants to sink in the way the first movie did. Every choice it makes feels undersold — it introduces a dinosaur that’s even bigger than a T-rex and then treats it the same as all its other monsters. Remove a couple lines of dialogue, and it could be a T-rex, for all the difference it makes. The velociraptors, even more than in The Lost World, seem like they’re here solely because they’re fan-favorite dinosaurs. Just like with the spinosaurus, the film builds up the sheer terror of them, particularly their intelligence, and all it does with that is recycle the stolen baby subplot from the second film. The main characters end up being pursued by two separate dinosaurs, and it never successfully weaves those subplots together — the velociraptors only interrupt the flow of the flight from the spinosaurus. They upend the pace of the film every time they appear. Only one encounter is potentially interesting — the pterodactyls in the aviary — and that far too quickly devolves into a silly, over-the-top action sequence like the scenes that defined The Lost World. (And Billy surviving that is Jaws: The Revenge-level implausible.)

But most importantly, Jurassic Park III carries over The Lost World’s biggest problem — it’s so enamored with dinosaurs that it just throws them at you every chance it gets. In the end, there’s no wonder or mystery surrounding any of them. The Spielberg version of this movie would’ve built up to the T-rex/spinosaurus fight; in Jurassic Park, it’s one of the first things you see. And the decision to have two separate dinosaurs stalking the main characters relentlessly drags the whole thing down to B-movie status. Like the others before it, Jurassic Park III banks on the “beauty of nature” beat semi-frequently, but it’s hard to take it seriously when the most prominent dinosaur is an outright villain rather than an animal searching for food.

It’s generic, tonally indistinct not only from its predecessors but from summer blockbusters in general. It continues a series that has traded primarily on fear and wonderment and barely delivers either one of them except in moments. Jurassic Park III is never aggressively awful — at least it looks nice and isn’t too long — but it’s absent of anything good, any one quality on which to recommend it. There’s no real reason to hate it and no real reason to watch it either. It might be technically superior to The Lost World, but I’ll always favor that film if only because it takes risks, regardless of whether or not any of them pay off. Jurassic Park III is simply too dull.

Tune in at some unknown point in the near future (but probably sometime Monday night) for the conclusion: Jurassic World!