Archive for January, 2016

ChiRaqMoviePosterChi-Raq (2015)

Starring- Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle

Director- Spike Lee

R- strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use

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

A modern retelling of the classical Greek play Lysistrata, set in inner-city ChicagoAfter a young girl is killed in a drive-by shooting, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), girlfriend of gang boss Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), organizes the women of the community into a sex strike in order to stop the violence.

At the very least, no one can say Spike Lee doesn’t have an extremely singular vision. There are movies that combine different elements in new ways, and then there are movies that combine elements you didn’t even realize were on the table with a litany of left-field ideas and concepts and come out the other side with something almost entirely unprecedented. I have no idea how to even begin recommending Chi-Raq to anyone. I really liked itbut good night is it weird. It surprises me how comparatively unified critical culture is in its praise of this one; in practice, it’s one of the most obviously “love it or hate it” movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

Its most dominant stylistic quirk stems from its roots in classical Greek theatre. Lysistrata — which I know nothing about, by the way; my knowledge of theatrical history isn’t even thorough enough to be considered functional — isn’t merely the inspiration for this movie. Chi-Raq is, in its entirety, a classical stage comedy — actually, one of my foremost thoughts while watching it was that it might be a lot more fun seeing it live than on a screen. Characters have names like Demetrius and Dolmedes, and the rival gang leader’s street name is Cyclops (and he has a glittery bright orange eyepatch to boot). The dialogue incorporates modern slang, but almost all of it is written in rhyme. The costumes are larger than life; the sets often come across as stages; objects are sometimes moved into shots; sometimes, light descends from a stage rig you can’t see; there’s a narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who interacts with the other characters and then approaches the screen to speak to the audience directly. It’s an odd framing device, and that’s before you use it to tell a story about gangland violence, drug abuse, poverty, and urban decay.

And that’s also before you add the endlessly idiosyncratic Spike Lee into the mix. I don’t think he gets enough credit for being one of our most deeply strange directors. Once I started exploring his work (and I’m still far from an expert), I realized that a Spike Lee movie is so radically different from the stereotype of a Spike Lee movie that I kind of wonder how many people have actually seen his films. Cinematically, he’s a guy with weird interests and weird influences and weird ideas, and he doesn’t seem to second-guess himself — he never seems to reach a point where he dials things back in order to become more accessible. He has a voice; it’s bizarre, but he uses it.

Beyond his strange, off-kilter visuals; his odd, theatrical characters; and his genuinely mind-boggling genre mashups, what I really like about him is his ability to wrangle seemingly incompatible tones into something effective. Reductively speaking, he makes bright, sunshiney comedies about atrocities. Chi-Raq is very much an adherent to the Do the Right Thing philosophy — it’s a colorful, jokey, weird, loosely narrative sort of hangout movie that also digs its fingernails into the bloody grime beneath society’s most deep-rooted and costly problems. Chi-Raq’s inciting incident is a little girl being shot in the street while playing hopscotch, and it’s also frequently hilarious. It’s miraculous that these two things are never at odds. The movie visits some very dark places, and there’s a sense of melancholy, loss, entrapment, anxiety, and fear overhanging everything; it’s also a goofy sex comedy that eventually turns into a literal military standoff where both sides are playing slow jazz and sexy dancing at each other.

But even at its funniest — and Chi-Raq is very, very funny; I was genuinely surprised how many big laughs there were — there’s a bitterness at the heart of this movie that pushes closer and closer to the surface before culminating in an ending that drips with sarcasm. The movie opens with what is essentially a lyric video for a rap song about the violence in Chicago; then, sirens blare, and big letters fill the screen reading, “This is an emergency.” The opening concludes with statistics comparing Chicago’s annual death toll to that of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Basically, the movie announces up front that, despite its quirky surface, you’re very definitely getting angry Spike Lee here.

And that anger simmers under the surface for most of the film’s run-time. Chi-Raq never feels like an angry movie; it’s caught up in its outlandish story and larger-than-life characters. But when you dig deeper, it becomes clear how ironic it’s being about all this, how the story and its fairytale/theatre aesthetic is mostly grim sarcasm.

Spike Lee’s movies have a reputation for being political cudgels, but in my (again, limited) experience, they’re almost the polar opposite. Do the Right Thing, for example, is clearly twisted up about everything that happens in it, unable to solve the problems it’s addressing, unable to provide a clear answer to the question of what it means to do the right thing. Similarly, Chi-Raq sure as heck unloads on a lot of touchy sociopolitical issues, but it, too, appears to be doing so mainly to express how complex and multifaceted this situation is. It understands the situation in a very measured way; it not only presents the problems as stemming from a variable mixture of external and internal forces but sees those forces as having an inseparable relationship as well. An external negative force creates an internal negative force, which feeds back into the external negative force, and so on. It doesn’t look at America’s racial problems through the lens of a simple solution, but as a series of interwoven threads that have to be pulled and untangled and addressed by everyone involved — including, unfortunately, a lot of people who want nothing to do with it.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Spike Lee is a subtle filmmaker; I suspect even his biggest fans would emphatically agree that he most certainly is not. Believe it or not, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything inherently wrong with that; it’s just that very few filmmakers are good at being unsubtle. Sometimes, shouting it from the rooftops is the only way to say something, and all the better if you can do so with passion, fire, and narrative backing. At his best, Lee is great at that. However, I think a lack of subtlety becomes a problem when the filmmaker is using it as a device to explain something the movie has already demonstrated visually. Chi-Raq lands somewhere in the middle. There are times when its plainspokenness is refreshing and times where my response was: “Yeah, I got it the first time.” (The worst offender is probably Samuel L. Jackson’s speech at the beginning of the standoff, just bluntly explaining something the movie had already definitively conveyed.) At times, it ends up being a bit of a problem for the movie; it keeps taking breaks to talk about the politics of everything and make sure the viewers at home are following along.

Chi-Raq is, as a result, a pretty tangent-driven film, which isn’t all that unusual for Spike Lee — after all, his most famous film, Do the Right Thing, barely has a plot at all. And I know I’m in the minority on this, but I just don’t think Lee is great at tangents. I don’t really mean that in a derogatory sense; very, very few directors are, even those among the all-time greats. Stories are structured things; breaking the rules for a larger purpose is extremely difficult to pull off. Lee’s tangents, in my opinion, aren’t always interesting or illuminating, sometimes distract overmuch from the main characters and storylines, and are occasionally heavy-handed ways of highlighting the message. Chi-Raq is two hours long, and I think it could easily stand to lose about 30 minutes of that. It really takes off once the plot kicks in, and I genuinely think it’d be one of my favorite movies of the year if it kept its focus there.

Even so, Chi-Raq is unique, funny, and surprisingly moving — sometimes, somehow, all at once (the final scenes, in particular, shift from bitterly funny to deeply sad to semi-triumphant in seconds flat; it fascinates me how spectacularly they defied my entire understanding of storytelling logic). It’s also extremely weird and almost intentionally off-putting, and as such, it simply won’t be for everyone. And I have no idea whether that includes you. But as one of the most wholly original movies of the year, I can’t help but enjoy it.

Goosebumps_(film)_posterGoosebumps (2015)

Starring- Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell

Director- Rob Letterman

PG- scary and intense creature action and images, and some rude humor

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Cn716jv61s

Zach (Dylan Minnette) isn’t happy about it when his mom (Amy Ryan) moves him to a new town and a new school, particularly given that his first friend, next-door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), is the daughter of the creepiest, meanest, most unpleasant guy on the block (Jack Black). One night, Zach is at home when he hears what he’s convinced is his neighbor beating Hannah next door; he rushes to her defense and finds the truth to be far stranger than that. His neighbor is actually the famed Goosebumps author R.L. Stine, and his original manuscripts are capable of summoning his monsters into reality. Which, of course, the teens have accidentally done. A particularly nasty ventriloquist’s dummy by the name of Slappy (voice of Jack Black) escapes and, set on revenge, frees all of Stine’s monsters and looses them upon the unsuspecting town. Now, Zach, his friend Champ (Ryan Lee), Hannah, and Stine not only have to survive the night but find a way to send the monsters back where they came from before they destroy the real world.

I didn’t expect to be thinking about Goosebumps a few days after I saw it. My response to it has undergone a strange evolution — in that my actual feelings toward it haven’t changed a bit since I watched it but have diverged into larger, still-unresolved questions about what it means for something to be a good kids’ movie. Basically, I think I’m going to write a negative review of Goosebumps and yet possibly recommend it anyway.

That’s because my main issue with it is that it lacks freshness — staging scares and fake-outs in transparent, heavily broadcast ways; twisting in predictable directions; rarely offering anything surprising or new. But then, I remember that Goosebumps is essentially a gateway horror movie for kids, and I wonder — how original does it actually need to be, especially since no one’s making anything like it anymore.

You might be surprised to learn that I was actually rooting for this movie, and not because of nostalgia either — yes, I was born in the 90s, when Goosebumps was a pervasive, all-consuming cultural eclipse, but I was pretty easily scared and mostly avoided it. I never read one of the books and only saw an episode of the TV show here and there. I don’t have a personal stake in this. I was more interested in this because of what type of movie it is. I really miss family-friendly horror. There’s something about the tone and style it has, and who doesn’t fondly remember the first movie that scared them in a fun way? When I was a kid, family-friendly horror was absolutely everywhere, but when properties like Goosebumps faded, nothing really rose to take their place. When Halloween comes around, what are all the family channels playing? Nineties stuff. Every now and then, we get something like Hotel Transylvania, but even that doesn’t really count — it’s a manic comedy with monsters in it; there’s nothing particularly scary about it. I can’t imagine people 20 years from now talking about how scared they got watching it and other movies like it when they were kids. I’ve missed this type of movie and longed for it to make a comeback. I had a lot of those hopes pinned on Goosebumps. I wasn’t naive enough to expect it to be good; I just hoped for the best.

And it’s possible that’s close to what I got. It just came with a loud reminder that I’m no longer in the target audience for it. And I’m becoming weirdly okay with that.

Like I said, my main issue with it is that it isn’t very original. But should it be? I can’t believe I’m asking that question; my knee-jerk response is: “Yes, idiot.” But Goosebumps occupies such a specific cultural niche — it’s supposed to entertain and scare children. It needs to be a little spooky, but it can’t permanently scar its audience. It needs to be a little upbeat and silly. It needs to be a little broad. None of the scares worked on me, but I’m a friggin’ adult. If they worked on me even a little, they’d probably mortify children. So, yes, when I look at the spooky moments, I see incredibly obvious jump scares that land with very little punch and are broadcast long beforehand through atmosphere and music. When I watch it, I see tricks and tactics that have been used a thousand times in other, better movies, but this one is supposed to prepare kids to watch those ones later in life. So, is its unoriginality necessarily a flaw? I’ve been spending far too much time torturing myself over that question.

Of course, there are plenty of things Goosebumps could do a lot better that would make it a stronger kids’ movie and add a little more adult appeal. That’s why I ultimately consider this review, on balance, to be a negative one. The big problem is that the script really isn’t there. It follows the formula of most mediocre family horror from when I was a kid — introduce characters, release monsters, go, go, go, go, go. There comes a point one third of the way through where the only thing the movie does for the remainder of its run-time is run from one monster chase to the next. You could cut most of those sequences without anyone knowing they had ever been there. As I’ve said in the past, I really dislike it when a movie feels like it could either end at any second or go on forever, and while Goosebumps doesn’t have it as bad as most, it’s still there.

It also doesn’t have a real sense of itself emotionally. Normally, a movie like this — a small community vs. a big threat — will spend time establishing that community so that whatever happens to it will matter to the viewer. Goosbumps’ setting and supporting characters could be anywhere and anyone, which wouldn’t be that big a problem if it didn’t bank so hard on those “everybody teams up” notes at the end. I got the impression a lot of material was cut on this front — toward the end of the movie, completely pointless characters start commanding screen-time, there are comeuppances and rewards with almost no set-up, and the early parts of the movie generally feel constricted.

As for the main characters and their journey, the movie has a lot of good ideas but doesn’t follow through on most of them. Well, okay, Zach’s arc wasn’t a good idea — the writers defaulted to the Dead Parent angle, and, as usual, it has nothing to do with the actual story and just randomly pops up every once in a while. But there are a lot of other cool ideas here that could have made for a truly fun and unique adventure had they been developed to fruition. It’s established that Stine began creating monsters as both an escape and a revenge fantasy when he was a lonely, bullied child, and he’s continued using them to fill the holes in his life even as an adult (the real-life R.L. Stine must be a pretty cool guy for signing off on this incredibly unflattering — albeit comic — portrayal). Later in the film, the characters find out — possible SPOILER, albeit one I don’t think would ruin much of anything — that in order to get the monsters back in the books, Stine needs to write a new one. Connect those two items and allow them to dominate the entire plot, and you’ve potentially got a very interesting, fun kids’ movie about the power and process of storytelling. Instead, the set-up becomes an unconvincing tie-in to Zach’s been-there-done-that baggage, and the resolution is more a device thrown in to give the heroes a shot. There isn’t much feeling attached to it.

It’s also worth mentioning that the effects in this movie are bad enough that even the kids might notice. The monsters look and behave like cartoon characters smashing into live-action elements; they have so little texture, and some of the green-screen work gets very obvious. I imagine it’s a question of budget, but it’s not as though this movie couldn’t be scaled down — a lot of the Goosebumps stories are small and contained and could easily be done practically or with only minimal CGI. And unsurprisingly, the movie is at its most fun when the monsters are practical; the graveyard sequence is the only one in the movie to actually get tense.

But I like the tone, I mostly like the characters, I like that the teenage characters look and act like real teenagers, I like that a lot of the humor isn’t half-bad, I like that the story is self-contained and doesn’t seem like ninety minutes of franchise creation (truth be told, I have no idea where the inevitable sequel will pick up). There’s a lot about Goosebumps that goes surprisingly well — nothing I’d single out as great, but even so.

That’s why I look at the movie and find that I dislike it and can’t quite call it a good movie but also don’t think it’s an entirely bad movie for kids. Weirdly, I think I’d actually give it a soft recommendation for children — no one’s making anything like it right now, and the kids will have a good time without rotting their brains. I can’t promise that the adults who watch it with them will get anything out of it, but then again, it isn’t for them.

Pan_2015_posterPan (2015)

Starring- Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Adeel Akhtar, Nonso Anozie, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis McDougall, Cara Delevingne

Director- Joe Wright

PG- fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1wRv8vTpxo

Peter (Levi Miller) never knew his mother, or anything about her apart from the fact that she left him at the orphanage where he now lives under the iron fist of some spectacularly unpleasant nuns. One night, he awakens to find the other children being kidnapped by flying pirates; despite his best efforts, they capture him as well and whisk him away to Neverland, specifically a mine where the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) forces his prisoners to dig for fairy crystals. Among those prisoners is the roguish James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), with whom Peter forms an uneasy alliance after it becomes clear they need one another’s skills to escape and appeal to the native princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) for assistance in the fight to stop Blackbeard from destroying everything beautiful in Neverland.

Good lord, even the poster for this is awful. Look at that thing. A Dutch angle in a vertical shot, the actors badly Photoshopped in. They’re standing in what appears to be the same shot, but clearly were photographed elsewhere — either that, or there’s a highly specific wind that only affects Hook. The environment could not more clearly have been green-screened in. Also, physics defiance — Hook’s right leg is somehow higher than his left despite being on the half of the image that’s tilting downward; apparently, he became a hobbling mutant at some point. The mast is superimposed behind Blackbeard in such a way that he appears to have a gigantic spear slung over his shoulder. I don’t know who told Peter to pose like Vin Diesel on a Fast and Furious poster, but that’s not working out. And then there’s that broad, eye-burning, utterly false light sprayed over everything, half early evening and half hot summer afternoon. Seriously, who approved this monstrosity? My website is going to be, like, fifty percent less visually appealing with this garbage plastered on top of it.

Yeah, that’s the kind of review this is going to be. Pan is a very serious contender for the title of 2015’s Worst Film (I’m still giving that award to Unfriended, but everyone else seems to have a weird affinity for it; call Pan the People’s Choice, then). It’s the sort of mind-boggling disaster that seems fated for a future of cult status and ironic viewings (or would, if it had made more than two dollars at the box office). Normally, I’m inclined to be nice to movies I think are genuinely trying to be good — and that’s my opinion of Pan — but this one is terrible enough that I’m really reaching to find my goodwill right now.

They say every good director has one truly horrendous movie in him, and this must be Joe Wright’s. Mostly, I think it’s a case of a director and a film being disastrously ill-suited for one another. Wright has mainly built his career in period pieces and costume dramas, with the occasional foray into a more modern setting. I don’t know that he’s ever been a great storyteller; it’s a matter of debate, at the very least. But he sure is one heck of a visual stylist.

That was true wherever he took his variations, whether a period piece like Atonement or a modern thriller like HannaPan, however, is the first time he’s wandered into the realm of pure fantasy. His previous films varied in their levels of realism and the periods in which they were set, but they were all filmed in real places or reconstructions of places that used to exist, using tangible items that had to be found or researched rather than created out of thin air.

That’s my long, roundabout way of saying that Pan looks uncharacteristically terrible. This is, as ever, baseless speculation on my part, but perhaps Wright’s skill lies more in framing, lighting, and coloring what’s in front of him than in inventing and/or approving otherworldly creature, location, costume, and effects design. Pan is pure visual chaos. There’s no unifying theme to the look of anything. The movie throws colors, fantasy creatures with simultaneously complex and bizarre designs (there are giant bird monsters that look like a crappy physical effect rendered as a crappy CGI effect, in that they look like unconvincing puppets but also burn your eyes with bright colors and textural weirdness), elaborate costumes, and confusing sets together, not only into one scene but often into one shot, and everything just drowns in itself. The cinematography and editing are fine, but that isn’t the be-all and end-all of drawing a viewer’s eye. This movie, particularly its action sequences, is like an impossible-to-follow fever dream where everything looks freakishly colorful and fake and a thousand elements are competing for attention. There’s a character in the middle of the frame you’re supposed to be following, and the shot is composed in the most logical way to do that, but every other inch of the screen is filled with discordant madness that pulls you in and out of the action and leaves you disoriented and wondering why you feel vaguely anxious.

The rest of the movie isn’t much better. The performances are a mixed bag, and I’m saying that only because Hugh Jackman is kind of entertaining in the most over-the-top role of his career, a screamy, melodramatic, flamboyant kids’ movie villain. My feelings about everyone else are mixed at best. As Peter, young Levi Miller exhibits a few too many of the typical child actor traits — he’s a little too poised, a touch bland, and hits every note just a little too hard. I don’t blame him for that, though. Everyone else in this movie is going over the top, and he’s along for the ride; plus, I don’t think even a seasoned adult actor could find life in the blank pages of the script where they forgot to write Peter a personality. Rooney Mara’s mostly doing the stolid warrior princess thing. And Garrett Hedlund is trying much, much too hard to be Han Solo — the smirk, the angry sarcasm, the obviously forced gravel in his voice, it’s basically a copy/paste job, except over-the-top and without a human center.

The script is worse. Honestly, it’s hard to summon the energy even to write about it. It’s boring in a completely lifeless and unimaginative way. More senseless, unnecessary prequelizing, complete with constant ironic references to the original story and a pasted-on There Is a Prophecy You Are the Chosen One narrative. There’s something potentially interesting in a story where Peter Pan and Captain Hook start out as friends, but Pan never comes close to finding it; they interact as any other characters would, except with constant “I bet we’ll be friends forever lol” jokes. Pan clearly wants to explore that storyline in a sequel its box office has 100 percent guaranteed we will never see. Instead, it burns time on a been-there-done-that, Point-A-to-Point-B fantasy action plot and leaves its odd-couple friendship hanging and emotionally irrelevant. If you’re telling a story because you had an idea where Peter Pan and Captain Hook are friends, you’d better tell that story instead of leaving us a promissory note for a sequel that might never exist. This, to me, is easily the most irritating thing about Hollywood franchising.

It isn’t, however, the most irritating thing about Pan, a title for which there are a thousand fully-qualified competitors, from the eye-melting visuals to the bad acting to the  contrived script. Pan is very, very bad. Somewhat uniquely bad, but I simply cannot recommend it on the level of morbid curiosity. I haven’t even seen the Disney animated film or the early 2000s live-action adaptation, and I don’t even like Hook, but I’ll still tell you to watch absolutely any of those before Pan.

Irrational_Man_(film)_posterIrrational Man (2015)

Starring- Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsey Aidem, Ethan Phillips

Director- Woody Allen

R- some language and sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP8mPkyBntw

Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is hanging by a thread when he joins the faculty of a small-town Rhode Island college. He considers the majority of his own field to be complete nonsense, has no energy, and has gave up a long time ago on ever finding a reason to live in a world that’s so resistant to change and improvement. Mostly, he sits alone in his house and broods. That changes when he strikes up a friendship with a bright young student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) — a friendship that threatens to evolve into something that might ruin his career but that also sets him on the path to healing.

Albeit in entirely the wrong way.

Surprisingly, I think I’m actually in this movie’s corner.

I was somewhat resistant to it going in. Oh, Woody Allen’s making another movie about an older man who falls in love with a much younger woman; I wonder how he’ll attempt to justify the fact that he’s married to his ex’s adopted daughter this time! (I defended Magic in the Moonlight in 2014 and still think it’s technically a good movie, but  I soured on it significantly after I realized what it was up to.)

But here I am, thinking Irrational Man is pretty good and actually a bit curious why it got such bad reviews. This isn’t one of those cases where I consider it functionally bad but like it because of the way it appeals to my taste; I genuinely admire a lot of what this movie does and how it does it. It absolutely has problems and is nowhere near great, but there’s an audacity to it that I found arresting.

If nothing else, it’s unique — at least in 2015’s cinematic landscape, if not necessarily film history. For the last several years, most of Allen’s movies fit comfortably into the lightly comedic indie drama mold — some are better than others, but tonally and stylistically, there isn’t a world of difference between Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, and Magic in the Moonlight.

Irrational Man doesn’t seem to be any different at the outset. There’s a depressed, middle-aged, self-styled intellectual who falls in love with a young woman who’s barely an adult and over whom he wields some kind of authority. It’s light, talky, a little bit quirky, and has a wry sense of humor that occasionally leans into black comedy but never goes the whole way. I didn’t hate the first half of this movie, but I watched it understanding why the reviews weren’t great — Allen didn’t appear to be doing anything new, returning to the same story and thematic wells he’s practically trademarked, and I was waiting anxiously for its subtext to once again be resolved in a way that left me feeling like I needed a shower. The first half coasts on sharp, witty dialogue and strong performances (I truly believe Joaquin Phoenix is one of our greatest actors), which is fine, but I definitely wasn’t on board.

What I’m about to say could possibly qualify as a spoiler. I’m not going to tell you a single detail of what happens, but I know some people like it when a movie tricks them into thinking it’s something that it’s not and like to be unprepared when the trickery is revealed. If that’s you, don’t read the rest of this.

At about the halfway point, Irrational Man takes a hard left turn and becomes the darkest movie Allen has made in quite a while. That twist comes on very suddenly, within the space of one scene — it starts as light as everything else in the movie, then suddenly goes to a very dark place and becomes an entirely different story. From there, the movie mostly left me amazed that it was actually willing to go there. I’m impressed how well the movie makes that dramatic shift — it makes perfect sense for the characters; I just never entertained the idea that Allen would allow it to happen, especially not in a movie this light and inconsequential.

The film turns into a reminder that Allen can do dark comedy very well when he wants to. There’s an absurdity to the decisions the characters make — their ideas are entirely ridiculous, and the movie waits a long time before revealing whether they were being serious. You laugh at a character’s self-absorbed lunacy and penchant for melodrama, and those laughs gradually become more and more uncomfortable as you begin to realize: “Oh, wow, he’s actually going to do it.”

I think the philosophy at the heart of it only makes it funnier. A lot of my laughter stemmed from how much sense Abe made here and there. It’s a classic case of a character finding the solution to his problems and then taking it waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too far. He comes to the right realization about himself but does it in the wrong way. Or perhaps he comes to the wrong realization about himself in the right way. Who knows? The film finds interesting nuance in what would be a simple moral in anything else. For some people, it’s about finding yourself and realizing that you can opt out of the systems you’ve created at any time, but there’s definitely a way to over-romanticize that and end up in a worse place as a result. Irrational Man just takes that idea to its most ludicrous endpoint.

In that sense, it’s the first Woody Allen movie I’ve seen where he seems to be reflecting upon his own wrongdoings in a comparatively honest and self-critical way. Yes, he’s built his entire career on self-critical filmmaking, but there’s a difference between self-deprecation and openly addressing something that’s deeply wrong with you. His male protagonists are almost always stand-ins for himself, and it’s clear from the start that Abe is no exception. Maybe he sees himself as having reached a similar turning point and taken his newfound sense of meaning and purpose to a hurtful place. Of course, mere reflection and a shrugged apology aren’t nearly enough to atone for certain things, but the film at least appears to acknowledge the problem. (Obviously, all of this is written on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” If he is, in fact, guilty of the rape allegations that were leveled against him years ago, then everything I just said doesn’t even begin to cover it.) In Irrational Man, it’s much clearer than usual that the usually-romanticized May-December romance is a bad idea that comes from a place of unachievable fantasies and imbalanced power dynamics. And it’s even clearer that Abe’s interpretation of purpose and meaning get bad in a hurry. In essence, it’s a movie about people trying to imbue their lives with purpose who begin sacrificing the well-being of others on the altar of maintaining their own happiness.

And it absolutely isn’t perfect. Primarily, I think it takes a while for the film’s tone to catch up with its script. The first half of this movie is a little more grounded than your average Woody Allen production — its reality is a little less heightened, something that’s reflected mainly in the performances, which have a bit more real-life intensity behind them. But the characters still express themselves in unrealistic witticisms, engage in plenty of unnecessary melodrama, and bluntly explain their own problems to other people with much more openness and self-knowledge than is normal for someone with internal problems to get over.

Even after the twist, Irrational Man is more a trifling amusement than anything else. But it’s very enjoyable and has a rare capacity for shock and surprise, always taking things a notch farther than you expect. It’s not your typical Woody Allen movie, and that may be the best thing about it.

The_Walk_(2015_film)_posterThe Walk (2015)

Starring- Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clement Sibony, James Badge Dale, Cesar Domboy, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Steve Valentine

Director- Robert Zemeckis

PG- thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR1EmTKAWIw

The true story of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a French street performer who became famous when he illegally walked a wire suspended from the top of the newly-constructed World Trade Center.

Truth in advertising, I suppose — if what you want out of The Walk is the walk, then you’ll leave satisfied. The rest of the movie, well, that isn’t so cut and dry.

The following is, as always, idle speculation — not an effort to figure out the process behind The Walk but to illustrate my feelings about it. It seems like the sort of film that was greenlit solely to win Oscars — it’s a true story, there was an acclaimed documentary about it, there’s built-in spectacle, grab a name director and a young star who hasn’t had his shot in the awards scene just yet (and have him do a funny accent), and action! But seemingly no one sat down and figured out what the story was other than, “A guy walks on a wire.”

The walk itself is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. The scene is beautiful, breathless, and terrifying, shot with dizzying depth and seamless effects. It’s paced out for maximum tension and wonder; it knows when to let you breathe and when to freak you out. I’m not really all that afraid of heights, but there were parts of the climax that nearly forced me to look away from the screen — especially as Philippe decided to press on, completing the walk again and again and again. I can only imagine how vertigo-inducing it must have been to see this in 3D. The climax of The Walk reminded me of Jurassic Park, nailing that tricky balance between raw terror and amazement. The movie really couldn’t have done a better job with its centerpiece scene.

But the rest of it is just so middling. I haven’t seen Man on Wire, the documentary about Philippe Petit; I’ve heard it’s fantastic, so maybe there is a compelling way to tell this story. I don’t think The Walk finds it. Don’t get me wrong — there’s some merit in its approach. Robert Zemeckis allows it to be more overtly stylish than many of his other films, giving it a unique tone of whimsy, like a children’s storybook. For once, the main character’s narration doesn’t feel like a shortcut; the film’s version of Petit tells the story with a lot of personality and a perspective that is uniquely his.

I just don’t think the story they’re telling has a lot to it. Early on, the movie hits fairly traditional biopic notes — Petit’s childhood, his life as a penniless dreamer, that time when he met a girl, his happenstance encounter with a mentor who educates him on the craft and offers folksy life advice, his emergence as a major talent. Once he sets his sights on walking the World Trade Center, The Walk suddenly takes a hard-left into heist movie territory, as Philippe puts a team together and formulates a convoluted plan to get the wire in place.

At no point did I find any of it particularly interesting. I never actively hated The Walk; I just found myself drifting away from it. Philippe is really the only character in it, everyone else being present solely to fill roles in the heist. His romance with Annie, a street musician, is pointless and dry. The movie barely gives her a personality or even a role in the story; she’s here seemingly because, well, hero needs a love interest, right? The other members of their team are largely interchangeable. One guy is a photographer; another guy is afraid of heights. Two others are stoners. That’s about as rich as any of them get. The film pays off very little of what it sets up in its first two-thirds, so it’s weird that such a substantial portion of the climax hinges on the random sidekick’s acrophobia — it’s not just a little mini-arc thrown in there to give life to a supporting character but is treated like major growth in his friendship with Philippe, a relationship that barely seemed to exist prior to that scene.

Philippe is the only character with any kind of inner life, and even his presence qualifies as fun more than engaging. The biopic half of the story doesn’t shed much light on him as a person, and the heist half is more focused on the execution of the plan than any emotional development. There isn’t much of a story arc in The Walk — Philippe doesn’t change, the only one of his friends who changes is the guy who’s afraid of heights, the world around him doesn’t change, the audience’s perspective on him doesn’t change. The film proceeds in a straightforward manner from beginning to end and doesn’t take on many layers.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance in the lead role. He basically plays Philippe as a cartoon Frenchman. It’s fun and lively but only rarely feels like a person. It works in the context of the film’s more fantastic tone, but doesn’t always gel with the more serious moments. The performance is never awkward or terribly out of place; it just isn’t as compelling as it might be.

That’s true of the film as a whole, I think. It’s never terrible, and in its final act, it briefly becomes terrific. But it’s a story in search of a reason to be told, and the decision to play almost everything outside of the main event as a lark only worsens that — like the other hour and a half of the film is the vegetable you have to eat before you can get to the dessert. Ultimately, The Walk is more a great scene than a great movie.

Fantastic_Four_2015_posterFantastic Four (2015)

Starring- Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson

Director- Josh Trank

PG-13- sci-fi action and violence, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMEa0CJbAUs

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has been a scientist since he was a small child. While other kids played outside, he tinkered in his garage, trying to build a functional teleporter, with a little help from his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). By his senior year, Reed has finished one — a volatile, unstable one, but it does appear to send objects elsewhere and bring them back. His teachers dismiss it as magic tricks, but he catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a scientist working for a government organization trying to accomplish the same feat. He invites Reed to come work for them, and he joins fellow young recruits Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) and Dr. Storm’s children Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Sue (Kate Mara) on a large-scale project to send people to another world.

They succeed. But when the government gets involved and decides to send its own operatives through the portal, Reed and the others decide to fire it up in secret so they can be the first to set foot in another dimension. But when they arrive, things go wrong, and when the dust settles, all five have incredible powers.

I’m not sure what I expected from Fantastic Four. Not that it would be good — as always, I went into it with an open mind, but something so universally panned rarely turns out to have much merit. But I think I expected it wouldn’t be as bad as everyone said. Critical and filmgoing culture seemed irrationally biased against it. Some seemed to take allegations that director Josh Trank caused trouble behind the scenes personally, despite the fact that they weren’t involved in production and would never have known otherwise; a lot of reviews seemed to be talking about something other than the movie. And the others were transparently hoping the movie would fail so Marvel would have a chance at getting the rights back and incorporating the Fantastic Four into the cinematic universe. No one seemed very objective, so I took most of the reviews with a grain of salt.

I now owe all of them an apology, because Fantastic Four truly is as bad as all of them said. It’s one of the most bafflingly awful movies of 2015 — maybe of the last two or three years.

Not the worst, mind you, but bad in completely confusing ways. It’d be one thing if this movie were an ambitious failure — sometimes, you walk off the path and stumble around in the unpredictable terrain. It happens. But this movie is the equivalent of someone on a nice, straight, paved road who’s somehow crashing into every tree. This movie aims for so little and falls so hard. I have now idea how, in the world of a thousand books about screenwriting and a dozen college courses and majors and an army of professional script doctors available on call, no one noticed that this big-budget hopeful franchise-starter somehow went into production with only a third of a script.

I’m not burned out on superhero movies — if anything, I’m learning to really enjoy them — but I am, as I’ve said in the past, burned out on superhero origin movies. There’s such a specific formula there, and it’s been worn into the ground after dozens of iterations in the last decade. But I can appreciate an origin story when it’s done well — when the script is there, when the story is purposeful and propulsive, when the characters are interesting.

Fantastic Four not only has none of that and follows the formula like it’s the Word of God, it stops before the plot even starts. Its entire run-time equals the first half hour of any other superhero movie, even the truly awful ones. I could tell you the entire plot of this movie without spoiling a thing; it only covers the absolute basics. It’s like if Spider-Man ran a full hour before Uncle Ben died and then made the part where Peter fights the random criminal who killed him the climax.

The amount of time the movie spends on simply getting the portal built is completely inexplicable. That part should take fifteen minutes tops. Cut out all the weird stuff about Reed’s childhood, especially since that spares us the part of the movie where Miles Teller and Jamie Bell pretend to be eighteen years old. Establish the characters, open the portal, give them powers. This movie could even skip the character establishment part of that equation, since half of them are pointless and none of their setups and have any payoff whatsoever. You could honestly replace the Fantastic Four with literally anyone in the second half of this movie and not hurt its narrative connectivity one bit.

It takes a long time for the heroes to even get their powers, and once they do, the movie abruptly jumps forward a full year, with all of them established and good at using their abilities. There’s no sense of discovery or change; the movie treats the origin half of the story like an obligation it has to get out of the way. A full year later, the members of the Fantastic Four mostly don’t like each other and almost universally hate their own powers — did I mention that this movie apparently thought our “dark and gritty” phase needed to make a comeback? Seriously, there should never be a version of the Fantastic Four where the Thing’s powers leave him in constant pain. Come on. The birth name of this franchise’s villain is Victor von Doom, for crying out loud.

Either way, it leaves the film with a necessary reconciliation arc, so the characters reunite, discuss their problems, address them directly through action and teamwork — oops, wait, that’s not what happens; they talk to each other for, like, five minutes and then fight a bad guy, the end. Most superhero origin movies follow a formula of: Introduce characters, give them powers, have a few fun scenes where they discover and then test those powers, insert a situation in which they feel compelled to use them to help someone, lead them to a decision to use their abilities for the betterment of mankind, have an action sequence where they save a number of people in a spectacular way, throw a villain into the mix, develop his/her plot, have the villain stomp the hero, have the hero return and find a weakness, victory, ending. Fantastic Four follows a formula of: Introduce characters, continue introducing them for another half hour but ensure you don’t layer their personalities at all while doing so, give characters powers, time jump past all the interesting stuff, introduce a villain and have the heroes fight him at the same time, roll credits. Maybe even calling that one third of a script is giving the movie too much credit.

Fantastic Four feels like it was made in the dark times of the late 90s and early 00s, when blockbusters were rightly regarded as lazy, make-a-buck filmmaking. It has that feeling all over it. It’s dark and gritty, for one — not in the organic Dark Knight sense where it was clear the darkness emerged as a result of the filmmaker’s specific idea for the story, but in the obviously forced sense where the movie is trying to convince people who are too old for the Fantastic Four but too young to embrace their interest in it that it’s totally cool for adults to be watching it. I mean, if you wanted a Fantastic Four movie where the heroes dislike each other, hate their powers, and barely share screen-time, you’ll probably love this to pieces. Call me crazy, but I was hoping it would be a little fun. Or, barring that, at least good.

Expect Fox to go crawling back to Marvel in the very, very near future.

Maze-Runner-The-Scorch-Trials-PosterMaze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Starring- Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, Alan Tudyk

Director- Wes Ball

PG-13- extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMEa0CJbAUs

Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the other survivors of the Glade are rescued on the other side of the maze and taken to a remote facility. The leader, a man named Janson (Aidan Gillen), claims the fortress is a way-station on the path to a safe haven for kids the group rescues from WCKD’s mazes. It seems idyllic, but Thomas senses something isn’t right and soon discovers evidence these rebels may actually be another arm of WICKD, putting the kids through another series of life-or-death tests. He convinces his fellow Gladers to escape with him — into the Scorch, a brutal wasteland set in the ruins of what was once civilization. With WCKD at their backs and dangers all around, they have only one hope — go to the mountains and find a rebel group called The Right Arm.

I don’t think I could have fewer feelings about Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. I know that sounds like a dire insult, but I have no other way to describe my reaction to this movie. I simply have no feelings in either direction, positive or negative.

It’s kind of entertaining in some stretches, kind of boring in others. Kind of interesting visually, kind of flat. Kind of propulsive, kind of dragging its feet. Five stars out of ten, did not hurt my brain, would not scream out loud if friends tried to make me watch it again. Woo-hoo.

Back in 2014, I wrote a generally positive review of The Maze Runner. It was borderline, though — it entertained me, but it couldn’t have afforded even one more flaw without winding up on the other side of my affections. I think that’s what happened with The Scorch Trials — most of what worked about its predecessor works here, most of what didn’t work still doesn’t, and it does just a trifle more wrong. As such, I’m in a state of complete ambivalence this time around.

It’s hard to explain the alchemical way the The Maze Runner worked. It wasn’t much less of a mess. The characters were underwritten, it never really developed any themes, and the world-building was complete nonsense. I think its simplicity was its greatest strength — the characters have no memories and, therefore, not much of a history. We see everything that happens through their eyes, so we’re only able to put together what they’re able to put together. Their motivations are very immediate and easy to understand. The story was a mystery — who put us here and why? The answer to that is stupid stupid stupid, but it’s enough to drag you along with all the action-adventuring, especially on the first viewing, when you don’t know that all your burning questions are going to be answered (or not answered) in the dumbest way possible. The script was pretty good about budgeting the reveals so that the movie always felt like it was moving forward.

I think it’s mainly Wes Ball who made the first movie what it was. Film studios don’t usually get this lucky with first-time directors attached to an early fall franchise piece. I wonder if they realized they had actually found someone with a bit of natural talent. Honestly, he’s just a solid hand behind the camera. He’s injected actual style into both of these movies; he’s done interesting things with the tone; he brings a distinct voice to what are otherwise some fairly standard proceedings.

He’s also the reason The Scorch Trials is entertaining for the length of time that it is. He gets some great shots and directs the action and horror sequences (yes, there’s a bit of a horror undercurrent in this one — there are zombies now, which I think officially makes The Scorch Trials not the best YA dystopian fiction adaptation but certainly the most YA dystopian fiction adaptation) with a lot of energy and carefully managed tension. Even by comparison to its predecessor, The Scorch Trials is really, really action-heavy, and I think it’s only because of Ball that it stays palatable for as long as it does. I hope I’ll eventually get to see what he does with a better script.

This one just isn’t it. That was somewhat true of the first one as well, but more so here. This movie is two hours of the following scene happening over and over again: People are not involved in action; Thomas (always Thomas, always) is the first to hear danger approaching; he gets to yell, “Run!” and, “Look out!” and, “Everybody get down!”; danger happens; there’s action; repeat from step one. This movie definitely has a formula.

And now that we’re aware we’re not going to get any satisfactory answer to this mystery about the apocalypse, WCKD’s motives, and Thomas’s past, it’s hard to stay interested in the threads the movie dangles — particularly since it doesn’t dangle all that many threads to begin with. There isn’t much mystery here; other than a few visions/memories Thomas has, it’s a Point-A-to-Point-B movie where little happens other than pointless action.

Emotionally, The Scorch Trials is more about internal conflict than the external conflict of fighting monsters and escaping from a deadly maze. The drama here comes from the characters and their personalities and their motivations. As such, while the characters here are no more or less underwritten than those in The Maze Runner, that fact is a much bigger problem. I simply didn’t care about these people and didn’t find their debates and moral quandaries all that interesting — nothing identifiable was at stake.

The movie gets by for a long time on its breakneck pacing and Ball’s precise direction. It starts out strong but slowly peters out over the course of its run-time. For most of it, I was confident I would be turning in a positive, albeit unenthusiastic, review. But I gradually lost interest, scene by scene, and by the time the finale rolled around, I couldn’t really be bothered.

I don’t know what I expect from another sequel — if it’ll become richer and more interesting, or at least get back to the simple effectiveness of its predecessor. I don’t see any resolution to this story that doesn’t leave WCKD a complete enigma; its plans didn’t make sense a full movie ago, and they make even less sense now.

For the moment, what we’ve got is okay enough that I imagine fans of the series will be happy-ish. As a member of the uninitiated, I can’t say I’m compelled to chase down the books just yet.