Archive for June, 2016

Finding_DoryFinding Dory (2016)

Starring- Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson

Directors- Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

PG-  mild thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JNLwlcPBPI

Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres), the blue tang with short-term memory loss, is enjoying her new life with her friends Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks) and Nemo (voice of Hayden Rolence) when a random incident triggers her memories and she recalls the family from which she was separated years before. She remembers the place where they lived and sets off with Marlin and Nemo on an adventure to find her long-lost parents.

Finding Dory doesn’t come near the emotional highs of its predecessor, which should be enough for me to write it off as yet another unnecessary sequel to a movie that was perfectly fine on its own, thank you very much, another one for the “I told you so” files. Alas, it’s still pretty good, in a way that can’t quite be dismissed, and in a way that elevates it beyond the level of the forced, cash-in sequel — its existence doesn’t tarnish the original but expands the scope of its story and adds new layers that weren’t there previously.

So, yeah, all right: I was wrong. Happy?

In my defense, there was reason to be skeptical. Pixar’s on the precipice of becoming a full-time sequel mill, with only one original project scheduled for the remainder of the decade. And the elevation of comic relief character to protagonist didn’t exactly go super well when Cars 2 tried it.

Fortunately, Finding Dory is building off of a much better predecessor than Cars 2, so a lot of its groundwork was done for it. As a character, there was always more to Dory than there was to Mater, who was mostly just a comedic device. Dory’s role in Finding Nemo was second only to Marlin’s in screen-time and dramatic weight. She was mostly comic relief, but she wasn’t only that; nor was she the adorable, wounded puppy whose only role was to get hurt by the hero’s bad decisions. The memory loss and resulting spaciness were played for laughs, but there was real struggle behind them that built into a meaningful arc.

Finding Dory shows us exactly what that struggle was.

Despite her comparative depth as a character, Pixar definitely ran the risk that Dory would get annoying in larger doses. To correct that, it took an even bigger risk: It became something of a prequel as well as a sequel. Finding Dory is set primarily in the present, but there are flashbacks interspersed throughout that show us Dory’s childhood and the sequence of events that led to her first bumping (literally) into Marlin in the first movie. While less screen-time is devoted to this, it’s a separate story in itself, and it significantly affects the events of Finding Nemo.

Any movie that does this is taking a big chance — you don’t want to “over-prequelize” and explain every insipid detail, changing the context of some scenes so that the magic is sucked right out (here’s looking at you, Star Wars prequels). But Finding Dory does it as well as I’ve ever seen it done, and that really impresses me.

What it does is both clever and extremely difficult. Instead of tacking on an arbitrary origin story, it goes back to Finding Nemo and takes all of Dory’s random comedic asides — her bizarre, out of-nowhere references; her weirdly deep skill set; her intermittent ramblings — and retroactively weaves them into a narrative all their own, and a surprisingly touching one. It turns out they weren’t just the random thoughts of a jumbled brain but her mind’s subconscious efforts to recall her past and the family she loved. It’s surprisingly emotional to see it all come together and to realize what was informing the character all along, even though it wasn’t noticeable in the first movie. It makes Dory’s tale of family and reconciliation one we’ve secretly been following the entire time, and when it reaches its climax, it has the length of two movies backing it up. I suspect that when I watch Finding Nemo again, it’ll be an even more emotional experience for me, knowing what’s behind Dory and what’s ahead of her. It turns out the funny fish with short-term memory loss isn’t a half-bad protagonist in her own right.

If anything, it may be Marlin and Nemo who are the weak elements in this cast. This seems like a journey Dory could have taken on her own; Marlin and Nemo can’t help but feel a bit tacked on (even though the movie’s generally pretty good about not shoehorning in everything from its predecessor just to maintain the status quo — other than the main trio, only two characters from Finding Nemo reappear, and very briefly in both cases). Most of the criticisms of Finding Dory focus on the somewhat empty middle third, and I think it’s mainly Marlin and Nemo who bog it down. The movie seems to invent things for them to do while Dory’s elsewhere having more story-relevant experiences. It comes up with an arc for Marlin that, while complete and admirable in its refusal to tread old ground, is kind of irrelevant and comes across preachy by comparison to Dory’s more organic development.

Fundamentally, it’s a movie about disabilities in their various forms and how people learn to live with them. While some of the outlying elements aren’t messaged as well, the film nails Dory’s arc. It’s the story of her accepting her memory problems and realizing that she’s still valuable and can live a normal life if she focuses on the thing she’s good at. The movie doesn’t fix her disability but brings her to a place where she knows how to contribute and live fully, where she no longer defines herself by her short-term memory loss but by the other things she does well. That kind of thing is always Pixar at its best: teaching children not that the world is sunshine and roses and that everything will work itself out but how to make the most out of the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Still, there’s that meandering second act to contend with, full of incident but only a limited amount of meaning. Some critics have expressed frustration with the way the movie plays at the borders of the world it’s creating and stretches one’s suspension of disbelief. I disagree; while certain parts of Finding Dory are more extreme than the original (the climax especially), it still, for me, narrowly fit into the world of the first film, where fish successfully won a fight with a boat and the Tank Gang contrived a Great Escape-level scheme against their owner. The issue is what any of it means. Finding Dory isn’t very tightly plotted. Neither was the original, but everything that happened in that film had a direct emotional impact on the characters and their respective arcs. Too much of Finding Dory feels like random adventuring without any emotional heft behind it.

In general, the movie’s lighter and not as immediately arresting as the original. That’s not a problem in itself; it’s just worth knowing before you see it. The stakes aren’t as high, the characters are rarely in any real danger, and where Nemo’s climax put you on the edge of your seat, Dory’s is over-the-top and silly.

I also must admit to not caring as much for Dory’s supporting cast as I did for Nemo’s. Admittedly, both movies are fundamentally the heroes’ stories and don’t have many substantive supporting players, so it becomes a question of which movie’s characters have the better episodic one-offs; in that case, I’m leaning toward Nemo. There’s nothing here matching the color of the Tank Gang or the ingenuity of the vegetarian sharks and their intense AA meeting. Hank (voice of Ed O’Neill), an octopus, is definitely Dory’s standout, mostly because he’s an unusual character for a kids’ movie — an ally to the heroes who’s also kind of mean and unpleasant. He’s a supporting character in the more traditional sense, however, with a substantial presence throughout the film, and that makes his, in my opinion, poorly telegraphed arc a bit of a problem.

It’s not really surprising that Finding Dory falls far short of Finding Nemo, one of the best animated movies ever made. The reverse would have been much, much more surprising. That’s generally why I tend to oppose sequelizing such films; it can only ever feel like a step down. But Finding Dory is challenging my perspective on this matter, in that it’s mostly only all right but still feels like a vital part of the story. I wasn’t expecting to find myself grateful that this movie exists, much less because it adds even more layers to the already-great original. But here we are. I don’t see myself revisiting Finding Dory the way I do its predecessor, but I sure am glad Pixar put this much effort into it. It might not be great, but it’s still pretty good and does some interesting things with its premise.

Also, Baby Dory is my spirit animal. So there’s that.

Pride_and_Prejudice_and_Zombies_posterPride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Starring- Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Lena Headey, Matt Smith

Director- Burr Steers

PG-13- zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foGraEVNI0s

Jane Austen’s classic romance of Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), as told during the zombie apocalypse.

I thought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had the potential to be a great many things, and bad was certainly among them; but I certainly didn’t expect what I ultimately got: a generic movie largely indistinguishable from any other mid-budget blockbuster. On its own, it’s below average, not terrible, but it seems worse than it is because of how profoundly it wastes its premise and how thoroughly it fails to deliver on any of what it promised.

It flirts with being the absurd, schlocky horror-comedy you might expect of a movie called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for about fifteen minutes, at which point it gets oddly serious about all of this. The premise is inherently a joke; there’s no other reason for it to exist — you take a delicate comedy of manners and insert bloody zombie violence. The film’s relative humorlessness is inexplicable. The premise is the only joke, and it isn’t played very well. It takes most of the book’s story and doesn’t change it a bit. The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy plays out as it always has; zombies just crash into it for no reason every now and then. Watching a straightforward adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Dawn of the Dead in fifteen-minute intervals would almost exactly replicate the experience of this movie. It got exactly as far as “wouldn’t it be funny if there were zombies in Pride and Prejudice?” and then stopped, without expanding on the joke or significantly altering the story (outside of the third act) or building an interesting world around the concept.

The characters are living almost exactly as they did in Jane Austen’s novel. They’re under the same social structures in largely the same culture and live in relative normalcy. Like I said, the story plays out in the old familiar ways; every once in a while, it just takes a quick break to kill some zombies. The result of that conflict is neither a good Pride and Prejudicemovie or a good zombie movie. The two elements, almost entirely disconnected from one another, only fight for screen-time and compress one another to the point that there’s no time to properly develop either. Elizabeth and Darcy’s story feels almost like an afterthought. It doesn’t help that the actors seem a bit directionless, left to their own devices to decide how “in on the joke” they wanted to be. Lily James is in Pride and Prejudice; Sam Riley is in Zombies. Charles Bingley (Douglas Booth), Pride and Prejudice. Parson Collins (Matt Smith), Zombies.

The film’s inability to settle on a tone has its biggest impact in the ending. I haven’t read the book (the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book, I mean), but I left the movie convinced its ending was intended as humorous irony, commenting on the Prejudice half of the novel’s themes (the Pride and Prejudice novel, I mean). But because the movie takes such a po-faced approach to everything, the ending only reads as the heroes doing something truly awful and the film accepting it as perfectly fine and quickly forgetting it entirely.

I think it’s possible I might have given the movie a pass on all this if it had simply delivered on all the crazy zombie mayhem a premise like Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies, requires.

But it always feels like it has an upper limit it won’t exceed. Part of that is the result of the PG-13 rating — I’m no gorehound, but I am a fan of movies that are shot and edited for maximum impact in every scene. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gets away with quite a lot for a PG-13 (in terms of its violence, it might be the hardest one I’ve yet seen), but its action sequences still are cut within an inch of their lives. The camera’s always moving away at weird moments; it has an odd tendency to focus on the heroes’ faces while they swing swords at something out of frame. The movie uses cutaways again and again, to the point that they lose all meaning. It takes the energy right out of the scenes that most desperately need to be energetic. The action feels obligatory and entirely too mundane.

I also suspect there may be a budgetary limit here, and the movie doesn’t work around it all that well. It’s constantly promising a massive showdown between the iconic characters of Pride and Prejudice and a horde of bloodthirsty zombies; the opening scene makes much of the narrator ominously saying that the final battle between the living and the dead “has yet to be staged.” And Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does stage it, just almost entirely off-screen. The film shudders with anticipation on its way to the climax and then shows you almost none of it. Every action sequence in this film is small and contained; you can tell it wants to do a lot more but can’t. And when the British army is battling a swarm of zombies on the streets of a fortified London, it’s hard not to be a little peeved that you’re back in the Bennet estate watching a random duel.

Despite everything, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t terrible, but it feels like a missed opportunity. Moreover, I can’t imagine who it’s for, what audience is most likely to enjoy it. Certainly not Jane Austen devotees. And I suspect zombie flick fanatics are more likely to find it disappointing, since it offers such limited goods by comparison to other movies. It’s hard to recommend as an action movie because its visuals ring so hollow, and it’s hard to recommend as a comedy because the majority of it is serious business and the central joke only ends up being funny for about ten minutes. I have a feeling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will fill a lot of Walmart bargain bins in the near future.

The_Fundamentals_of_Caring_posterThe Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

Starring- Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Megan Ferguson, Bobby Cannavale

Director- Rob Burnett

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSXn-lIs4Y0

Ben (Paul Rudd), a grieving man trying to make his life matter again, undergoes training to become a caregiver and is assigned to Trevor (Craig Roberts), a snarky teen with muscular dystrophy and about 7-10 years left to live who almost never leaves the house and refuses to eat anything other than waffles and sausage. He’s interested in the Midwest’s plethora of novelty landmarks, though, particularly the world’s deepest pit — he’s convinced it’ll be wonderfully dark and depressing. Ben proposes he should try to go there someday, so Trevor corners him into a road trip to see all of America’s weirdest stuff. 

The Fundamentals of Caring is fine, but it really shouldn’t be Netflix’s second- or third-best movie to date, especially since it mostly works in spite of itself.

It’s a terminal illness/road trip indie comedy. Every stereotype you conjured up in your head just now? Yeah, it’s accurate. The Fundamentals of Caring is not a particularly adventurous movie. It’s Little Miss Sunshine without the personality. From the beginning, you know exactly how it’s going to end. You know who’s going to get what arc and how it’s going to come to fruition. The visuals won’t surprise you; it’s all soft, sunlit camerawork and nature photography with spurts of melancholy when the film needs to illustrate how Lonely and Meaningless the characters’ lives are at the start of the journey. The tone won’t surprise you — quirk mixed with dry, dialogue-driven comedy mixed with maudlin cheese mixed with dire seriousness, a concoction that usually works, if only because it’s working off a very defined template, but sometimes tries to get a laugh at a really inappropriate moment.

It’s constantly teetering on the edge of being “the story of the time I was depressed and lonely and then met a terminally ill/disabled person who changed my perspective.” It narrowly dodges that bullet by wisely centering its biggest emotions on Trevor’s arc, giving him enough of his own problems that he doesn’t feel like a mere device designed to bring Ben’s issues to resolution. So, thumbs up on that score.

Even so, the film charges into all of the overused beats without ever really establishing the context in which they might function. It goes for the typically sentimental, tear-jerking finale, but the third act dramatic shift it uses to get its audience there not only lacks a basis in the story to that point but actively contradicts parts of it. Then, said dramatic shift has no lasting impact on the story. Nothing stemming from it is ever really resolved, and the lesson Ben supposedly learns from it isn’t set up well enough to give it any detail. It seems as though it’s only there because an indie comedy needs a sad moment exactly two-thirds of the way through.

I enjoyed it for three reasons, the first being that it is, admittedly, pretty funny (apart from one unintentionally distressing scene in which tricking someone into having a panic attack is portrayed as hilarious). The dialogue’s sharp, there are a lot of great one-liners, the characters have amusing relationships with one another, and there are even a few solid visual gags here and there (the climax has a scene that encapsulates my slight but nevertheless embarrassing interest in this weekend’s Swiss Army Man, a combination of visual beauty, sincerity, emotional catharsis, and base vulgarity I couldn’t help but laugh at).

The other two are Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts, who just about rescue the entire movie. They have tremendous chemistry together and make for a great comic pairing — Rudd the lovable everyman and Roberts the lovable self-described prick (though “troll” might be the more appropriate description). It’s their movie, both by accident and design, and they’re a joy to watch.

Otherwise, The Fundamentals of Caring is largely been-there, done-that stuff. I’m not recommending it so much as saying it isn’t a bad way to spend ninety minutes if you need ninety minutes spent. It has its charms, almost all of them with the cast. But it still isn’t the sign we were hoping for that Netflix is anywhere near nailing this whole “original films” thing.

Anomalisa_posterAnomalisa (2015)

Starring- David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Directors- Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman

R- strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQkHA3fHk_0

Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), an author and speaking specializing in customer service, spends a lonely, depressive night in a hotel room preparing for a presentation the next day and contemplating his hollow existence. A chance encounter with Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman there to attend his presentation, seems to offer a chance at happiness.

The highest compliment I can pay a film is that I’ve never seen anything like it before and likely never will again. It’s a compliment reserved for Anomalisa, one of the most singular films in a year bursting with singular films. It’s emphatically not for everyone, and in the best way possible, belonging to no particular genre and binding itself to few noteworthy conventions. It’s outwardly simple and inwardly a spider’s web of human complexity.

Most of all, it cut me deeply and continues to do so — more and more the longer I think about it.

It’s not often you see a film make the medium the message in exactly the way Anomalisa does. It’s a stop-motion animated film, and the character models are obviously that, with a certain staggered quality to their movements and seams plainly visible where the animators substitute facial expressions between shots. These things aren’t an aesthetic; they’re part of the point. They don’t quite exist in-universe, but they nevertheless inform what’s happening thematically, appearing in Michael’s nightmares and driving his anxieties. He fears humanity is not unique, that it is programmed and manipulation, that its self-determination is a fantasy. He needs to control the world and the people around him.

Another component of the aesthetic is that Michael and Lisa are the only unique characters: All the others are derived from the same model and are voiced by Tom Noonan, who gives all of them the same vocal patterns, whether male or female, young or old. It’s a tool the film uses to expand upon Michael’s inability to connect with people, his fundamental view of others as being robots, inferior beings in a way — though, in his loneliness, he envies them. It’s Lisa’s unique voice and appearance that first attracts him.

Michael is a bit of an awful person, and that’s what gives the film its power — that he’s organically, realistically awful, that he may not know he’s awful, that we all fear we may become him or perhaps already have. He’s sad, lonely, and desperate, crumbling beneath the weight of the masks he wears to appear normal, running out of the energy he needs to maintain the illusion. His patience with other people has worn thin; he feels like a kind of spiritual outsider — the one person on Earth granted the vision to see that life is meaningless. He never says as much but appears to be the sort of person who thinks only the ignorant can be happy.

Of course, his own unhappiness has rendered him every bit as irrational as those he condescends to. He falls head over heels in love immediately and disappears from the relationship the moment that feeling becomes more elusive. Eventually, the women in his life begin to bore him, and they, too, become the same as everyone else.

But he doesn’t mean to be hurtful. Existence, he thinks, commits the wrongdoing; he and the broken lives he leaves in his wake are its victims. He’s in too much pain to truly analyze himself, to see whether he might be the problem.

But can someone like Michael change? What would it mean? Would he simply recognize his flaws and correct them as part of his obligation to society, to be good for goodness’ sake? Would that actually change his fundamental lack of interest in other people? Would it allow him to unlearn the things he knows? To change his beliefs? Is he fated to loneliness?

That’s why the film cuts so deeply — and how it approaches its depressing subject and characters with such grace. There’s never a sense that it’s judging Michael; it simply presents his life and perspective as they are. It needs that, because I think a lot of us, maybe all of us, are walking that line, our own pain obscuring the world around us and making it difficult to see the damage we do to others or to identify ourselves as our own worst enemies. Anomalisa doesn’t really offer concrete answers to these questions. “Sometimes, there is no lesson,” Michael says. “That’s a lesson in itself.”

Even so, it’s clear Michael would know better if he would open his eyes. The film embraces his perspective, presenting the other characters as interchangeable, but despite their similar appearances and shared voice, it’s clear that the people he encounters nevertheless have different personalities, lives, and experiences. He sees their flaws clearly and attributes them, correctly, to the human condition, but subconsciously positions himself outside of it.

That, of course, is only my read on it. Anomalisa makes a certain intuitive sense and never lets go of you emotionally, but it is, admittedly, an extremely ambiguous film, layered in metaphor and implication. With just about any movie, you’ll find interpretations that suggest the whole thing happened only in the main character’s mind, but there’s a strong argument to be made that what happens in the hotel is merely Michael’s imagination. The film leaves very explicit clues to that effect but also tugs in the opposite direction. But it’s ambiguous in the best way — not only is it wide open for debate, it’s wide open for debate that will necessarily focus on the themes and message. It provokes moral and existential debate, and even though it will mean a hundred things to a hundred people, it’s nevertheless consistent, cohesive, and specific. It explores its questions in the same way as life — things are complicated, and we learn what we learn from what happens to us. It won’t be the same way for everyone.

All in all, it’s a great way to conclude 2015 as a year in film.

Warcraft_Teaser_PosterWarcraft (2016)

Starring- Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbel, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkley Duffield

Director- Duncan Jones

PG-13- extended sequences of intense fantasy violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhFMIRuHAL4

When a horde of orcs, in search of a new home now that their own is dying, invades the peaceful land of Azeroth, its various peoples must come together, along with a group of orc defectors, to stop them from opening a portal that will mean deadly war for the entire realm.

I have some respect for ambitious failures, and Warcraft is exactly that — a big, sprawling, weird, risky movie that also suffers the misfortune of being a great, lumbering mess. Give me a choice between a movie that’s comfortable and okay and a movie that reaches for the stars only to crash and burn spectacularly, and I’ll go with the latter every time. You won’t catch me calling Warcraft a good movie because it really, truly isn’t. It’s almost a disaster. But it’s too strange to dismiss entirely, and honestly, I liked it for what it was.

I hope this movie’s poor reception doesn’t reflect too negatively on Duncan Jones; it would be a shame for such a promising director to go down in flames over his first bad movie. I won’t say what goes wrong here isn’t his fault — it kind of is — but it’s his fault in a way that’s really understandable. Warcraft is, as they say, the kind of bad movie only a great director can make.

Sometimes, being a fan of the property you’re adapting can be as detrimental as knowing nothing about it. From what I’ve heard, Jones is a big fan of World of Warcraft. And the movie itself appears to suffer from the problem of a fan: A.) Not realizing that most audiences know way less about the property than he does and will need to be walked through it to an extent; and B.) Struggling to “kill his darlings,” to cut parts of the story and the world and the mythology that he’s totally in love with in order to adapt it to a medium that can’t easily accommodate it.

Of course, movies have far worse problems than directors who love them too much to approach them objectively. I think that may be the one thing that allowed me to enjoy Warcraft— it’s so in love with and so committed to all this weird, silly, nerdy stuff, and that passion radiates off the screen. Warcraft may not be “good,” but it has conviction, and I admire that sort of thing.

Still, it isn’t a great trade-off — earnestness for functionality. And Warcraft simply bites off way more than it can chew. There are so many characters, so many worlds, so many creatures, so many races, so many rules crammed into this thing, and there isn’t an easy “in” for people who aren’t World of Warcraft diehards.

I’m in that category. I have never played a World of Warcraft game. I know nothing about it other than what I see on posters when I walk by Walmart’s video game section. That leaves me pretty well positioned to assess how newcomer-friendly the movie is, and the answer is “not very.” It isn’t unwatchable, but it is difficult. And that’s coming from someone who grew up on fantasy and science fiction and is used to parsing through giant blocks of unpronounceable proper nouns and nigh incomprehensible exposition. I can only imagine how troublesome it might be for someone outside of that sphere.

I mostly understood Warcraft, in the most basic sense of immediate, scene-to-scene motivations and allegiances and plot information. I knew, in essence, what was happening. But why? Why was a bit more elusive. And the why is where a lot of the emotional engagement comes from. There’s far too much of the games in this movie; you could probably subdivide it into two or three movies and still not have enough time to properly expand upon everything. Every scene is throwing new elements into the mix — a new character, a new piece of mythology, a new magical power. And while that’s easy enough to understand, it isn’t easy to follow — every twist and turn of the plot seems to come at the behest of something we’re only just now being introduced to. It affects the film’s stakes a bit; in every scene, you feel like there are a thousand possible outcomes that haven’t even been presented as possibilities. Plus, you don’t quite know where all the characters and storylines stand regarding one another — a major component of the climax hinges upon a face-off between two magic wielders, but having failed to define the rules of its mythology and the power levels of these two characters, the film can’t inject any real jeopardy into this scene. We suspect our hero is the underdog, but to what extent? And what does he have to do to actually triumph in this scene? Any decision made from there feels arbitrary.

“Arbitrary,” actually, is a good word to describe most of this movie. There are a lot of characters and a lot of subplots, and they aren’t always meaningfully connected. Upon some very, very cursory research, it appears as though the plot of this film is derived from in-game mythology and is trying to incorporate every figure from the events depicted there. In practice, however, it feels like a dozen conflicting subplots with no compelling relationship — here’s how this guy struggled against the orcs, and here’s what this orc did during the war, and here’s what this guy was up to, and here’s how the events affected this other guy over here. Yes, but what’s the point? Warcraft never really figures out what its main storyline is, and as a result, it has no way of weaving its disparate subplots into something larger.

Of course, with all these characters and storylines in play, someone has to get the short shrift. The lack of space to properly explore these ideas affects almost everything. The movie doesn’t have time to develop its characters, so most of them appear as a loose assembly of traits with no unifying psychology behind them. This is a very morally ambiguous movie wherein a lot of characters switch sides, change their minds, and struggle with the ethics of what they’re doing, so the fact that they’re expressed more through general demeanor than a defined worldview saps the story’s main emotional threads of any real power. What moral foundations the characters have are likewise constricted in their development. Warcraftregularly substitutes arbitrary (and often unprecedented) codes of honor or duty or whatever for actual character development, using these things to explain away sudden changes in behavior. It’s a shortcut, and it pales in comparison to the real thing.

But I liked it anyway, and not for any justifiable reason outside of my own personal taste. Part of it is that I’m a sucker for high fantasy of all varieties, the weirder the better. But mostly, it’s that I recognize a love of filmmaking and the source material when I see it, and I find it difficult not to appreciate that passion. If you love what you’re doing, odds are I’ll love it a little bit, too. And Warcraft is totally unashamed of its bizarre, geeky world and aesthetic. It wears everything on its sleeves. It’s relentless in its pursuit of the new and spectacular, and what can I say? I got caught up in it.

Whether or not general audiences will as well is, as ever, up to them.

Deadpool_posterDeadpool (2016)

Starring- Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic

Director- Tim Miller

R- strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity

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

When mouthy mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he subjects himself to a secret government experiment that heals him but leaves him half-insane and hideously scarred — and with superhuman regeneration abilities. Reinventing himself as the antihero Deadpool, he sets out to get his revenge and save his girl.

“Hi, I’m a superhero movie that is exactly the same as any other superhero movie except with constant snark, therefore I am subversive.

I suspect, even without knowing the makeup of the remainder of 2016, that this will be my strongest disagreement with a critical majority this year. I had a feeling Deadpool wasn’t going to be my thing, given what I knew about the character and what I had seen of the film. I just had no idea how much it wasn’t going to be my thing. I knew it was possible, perhaps even probable, that I wouldn’t like it, but honestly, I think my ultimate feelings toward it might be verging on hate. There’s very little I ended up liking about this movie.

Its main problem, if my first line didn’t make it clear, is that it’s the sort of movie that knows it’s bad and thinks that saying so out loud will make it good somehow. It’s a formula superhero movie; it might actually be more formulaic than most — it hits only the biggest beats of your average comic book flick and skips any texture or life that might be added in the interim (the film spends most of its time in a flashback explaining “how we got here,” and the plot itself doesn’t begin until a solid hour in — after which all that needs to happen is for Deadpool’s girlfriend to get kidnapped and the climax to start).

The only thing Deadpool does differently is hit all those beats with self-aware jabs. There’s a way to do that right; Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are basically building careers on it right now. It’s extremely difficult, though, and it relies on finding an alchemic balance between embracing the formula and lovingly picking it apart. I don’t think Deadpool ever finds it. The formula itself isn’t the problem; it’s whether the film justifies it through character. Therein lies the rub.

The issue, I think, is that Deadpool wants to adhere to a certain narrative structure wherein there is, at the end of the day, a hero you’re rooting for, a threat to something he/audience cares about, and a serious villain standing in the way. And I just don’t think the character works in that context.

I mean, does anyone really care about Deadpool? People enjoy the character, they find him amusing. But is he someone comic book readers and moviegoers really empathize with? Does what matters to him particularly matter to us? He’s a cartoon, not a real person — a hyperactive nut job who breaks the fourth wall on the regular. Even if he wasn’t an unlikable sociopath, the fact alone that he knows his world isn’t real kind of undercuts any rooting interest we might have in him.

The problem, then, is that Deadpool tries to be a superhero movie and a parody of superhero movies. The comedy might be the show here, but it’s undeniably trying to get you to identify with and root for Deadpool as a character in a story. I don’t think it works. In a more “serious” movie, Deadpool strikes me as best suited for a supporting role — the comedy comes from the way he irritates the other characters and completely jars with the world he inhabits. If he’s going to be your protagonist, the best route is probably to go full Army of Darkness — complete unhinged insanity from beginning to end, total cinematic anarchy, operating solely off energy, over-the-top comedy, and a propulsive script. That’s not what Deadpool is — the energy and propulsion die as the script spins its wheels for an hour or so, and the comedy…

Yeah, I suppose I do have to talk about the comedy sooner or later. I don’t think it works. Are there bits that work? Sure. There’s a joke every other line, so you figure one has to land here and there. It’s funniest when it’s poking fun at itself — “Do you think Ryan Reynolds gets work because of his superior acting method?” Deadpool says when asked why it’s so important for him to get his pretty face back. Speaking of Reynolds, I half-like and half-dislike his performance here. When it’s just him, it’s a bit too much — the energy just doesn’t suit him. But in the Deadpool costume, it’s as if something inside him is unlocked. It forces him to make the performance more physical, and it takes on a whole new dimension here. He gets a lot of laughs that way.

But mostly, the film’s comedy is overly enamored of its R rating and subsequent entitlement to blood, boobs, and f-bombs. I understand that Deadpool is a fundamentally immature character, but the trick is making it so that his immaturity is the joke itself — i.e., it isn’t funny because the jokes are witty and sophisticated but because of the effect Deadpool’s juvenility has on the world around him. Everyone has a different yardstick for this kind of thing, but for me, Deadpool never crossed that line. It marketed itself as offensive and daring, but that’s really only true by comparison to other superhero movies. There’s really nothing all that audacious in it; the film avoids anything too degrading in the interest of preserving its protagonist’s cool. The directions of the film seem calculated to fall in line with a certain sensibility of “edgy” comic book properties; there are only so many real risks it wants to take — hence its unwavering adherence to the origin story formula. It has the feeling of the kid on the elementary school bus who discovered swearing before everyone else and proceeded to do it constantly and very badly. Only occasionally does the movie successfully convey that the kid is what’s funny, not what he’s saying.

Beyond that, there’s just too much humor that doesn’t work — a lot more than does, in my opinion. Deadpool very much takes a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach to comedy, and quite a lot of them don’t. The formulaic script sinks it the rest of the way. Ultimately, what I wanted out of Deadpool was for it to be what it promised to be — a new kind of superhero movie, something daring and weird and risky. My disappointment, then, is that it’s the same old thing, just in a new package. It plays things just a little bit too safe.

Conjuring_2The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Starring- Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente

Director- James Wan

R- terror and horror violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFsmuRPClr4

Paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are called to England when a spirit begins tormenting a preteen girl and her family.

Would that the entirety of The Conjuring 2 were as great as its best moments; I would be reporting about one of 2016’s best films. Instead, it’s kind of average, and more or less in the ways that I expected — it’s visually top-of-the-line and narratively a bit of a non-starter.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve started rooting for James Wan. I recently watched one of his older films — Dead Silence — and was stunned at how much he’s improved since then. That movie, while generally good-looking, so obviously forecast its scares and had scarcely a single unique bone in its body. I can’t think of anyone else who’s shown such marked improvement over the years. He’s gone from a slightly better-than-average horror shooter to a genuine stylist making some of the most formally interesting horror movies of his generation.

As with its predecessor, Wan is the real star of The Conjuring 2. The man has become an evil genius in the director’s chair; there were parts of The Conjuring 2 that almost made me laugh because of how sadistic he was being, because I could imagine him behind the camera rubbing his hands together and cackling. He knows exactly how to manipulate cinematic language to thoroughly freak you out, and he’s subtle about it — he toys with his audience without ever letting them know they’re being toyed with. Some directors consider it “messing with you” when they pull off a cat scare or refuse a jump after spending a lot of time setting it up. Wan achieves the same effect purely through his careful visual management. He uses headroom and unmotivated camera movement to leave a thousand frightening possibilities on the table at all times; subtle movements and compositions draw your eyes to all of the right — or wrong — places. There were so many times, watching this movie, where I saw the camera shifting almost imperceptibly to allow just enough space for something to jump out without announcing that the jump was coming.

That’s not to say I was able to predict the movie’s scares, by the way. No, Wan is much too sadistic for that. The method behind his madness is that there really isn’t any method. He rarely reuses the same tricks, and when he does, he reorders them. If he leaves room for a jump scare, you can bet it’s coming from somewhere else — except for the moments when he plays it straight just to throw you off. His timing is just evil; past a certain point, I completely gave up trying to guess when the scare was going to arrive. I’m usually good enough at predicting horror movie jump scares to steer clear of them, but The Conjuring 2 got me again and again and again — solely because Wan always hits you earlier or later than you expect. That’s the main weapon in his arsenal — unlike far too many horror directors, Wan is unpredictable. He understands his genre conventions, and instead of falling into them, he turns them on their head and uses them against you.

When he gets paired up with the right script, I fully believe he’ll make one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Unfortunately, I don’t think The Conjuring 2 is that script.

Its problem is complex and would take time to discuss at length, but the core of it is that the film seems to struggle in the synthesis of character, story, and theme. A lot happens in this movie, and it just isn’t connected well enough. It mistakes form with function on its characters, including plenty of scenes detailing the characters’ motivations and baggage without ever really connecting them to the story at hand and developing them alongside it. It leaves the movie feeling scattershot and a bit random — without a structured story underneath, it feels like things aren’t going anywhere. It isn’t building toward everything; you just watch the movie and wait for the climax, knowing it could come within the next minute or the next hour without changing anything significant.

I don’t think that would be a huge problem if The Conjuring 2 was a brisk horror flick — an experience, a ride, not particularly intellectual but elevated by Wan’s stylish direction. However, it clocks in at well over two hours long, a run-time that’s difficult for horror movies to sustain in the first place (horror is such an intense emotion; too much of it over a long period of time can, in my experience, get exhausting, and that’s something that begins to affect this movie near its conclusion, even though the scares are, as ever, immaculately crafted). The lack of any narrative propulsion behind it left me feeling every minute of that. The scary bits are great but work mainly in a vacuum, and the dramatic stuff is flat and aimless. (Your mileage may vary on this one, but it doesn’t help that I don’t think Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have any appreciable chemistry.)

I wish I loved The Conjuring 2, because certain scenes still leave me giddy with joy over their imaginative presentation, but it just spends too much time dragging its heels. I think I’d be writing a positive review, with reservations, of a version of this film that’s 45 minutes shorter. As it stands, its narrative shortcomings ultimately sank it for me. Still, if you’re a horror buff, you could do quite a lot worse. Its offerings are, at times, undeniably impressive. It’s just a question of whether that’s enough.