Archive for August, 2014

“Transcendence” is a weird film.  I say that not because of how it’s made, or its storyline, but because of its morality.  The film wants us to consider three technologies that do not yet exist in our world: Artificial Intelligence, Singularity (the melding of the human brain with computer to allow a person’s brain to be uploaded and housed in a computer), and nanotechnology allowing both organic and inorganic tissue to be repaired.  The reason the film is weird lies in its ultimate approval of all of these technologies, its view of critics are fools trapped by their fear, and its disregard for any substantive discussion of these issues, even if the film is little more than people discussing them.

Let’s first set up this plot. Johnny Depp portrays his most normal character in a while, playing Dr. Will Caster, a scientist working on creating a sentient computer (i.e. A.I.).  His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is also a scientist, as is his best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), who in the past has written articles skeptical of science without ethical oversight.  Caster gives a speech at a TED-like tech conference talking about Singularity (which he dubs “Transcendence”, hence the title), where he is shot by a member of a “neo-Luddite” terrorist group called RIFT, a group seemingly made up of former computer science interns who use computers for some things, but are wary of Artificial Intelligence.  The precise message of RIFT is kind of lost in the film as they don’t seem to be completely against all technology, but whether they only have a problem with sentient technology or not isn’t clarified.

Caster survives the bullet, though RIFT succeeds in killing and/or blowing up other scientists across the country.  However, the bullet he was shot with was laced with a radioactive isotope, meaning he will die of radiation poisoning in 4-5 weeks.  Evelyn, filled with pain and grief, decides to try uploading Caster’s brain into an A.I. he already built in an attempt to keep him alive past his physical expiration.  Caster dies, and the upload eventually works.  Max, who is unsure if the program now calling itself Will Caster is truly a 100% copy of Caster or the A.I. pretending to be Caster not that the computer has his memories to work off of, is skeptical of letting the Caster program run free on the internet.  Well, RIFT kidnaps Max and tries to get the jump on Evelyn and destroy the computer housing Caster, but Evelyn hooks Caster up to the internet and gets away.

Years later, Max is part of RIFT, Evelyn and the Caster program have built a large facility underneath a Podunk town working on  nanotechnology to clean water and heal human injuries, and Evelyn grows suspicious of her computerized husband.

The dangers of A.I. have been covered in sci-fi films for a long time, and the premise has brought us everything from “The Terminator” and “The Matrix”,  to last year’s excellent “Her”.  Singularity has been less covered, but this film did bring to mind “The Lawnmower Man”, where a scientist takes a simple man and using virtual reality, or something, made him a megalomaniacal genius.  What’s weird about “Transcendence” is that while the film plays out as if it is an anti-science you-shouldn’t-play-god film, as most sci-fi films dealing with these subjects are to a certain extent, THIS film is purely on the pro-science side.  Caster does some ethically dubious things in this film once he’s a computer.  He repairs injured human beings, but then he shows that he can pretty much shut them off and take over in the driver’s seat, boating about how they can be part of a collective.  Sure, being able to see when you’ve been born blind is nice, but having to give up your individuality in order to be healed seems like a pretty steep price, yet the film ultimately seems okay with humanity paying that price. Weird.  Beaten to within an inch of your life?  No worries!  The computer will heal you, and even give you super strength, as long as you let it sit in the driver’s seat of your body here and there, and presumably see everything you see and listen in on your every thought.  The film doesn’t treat this as being as creepy as it is.

Caster never kills anyone, which always gives him, in the film, the moral high ground over RIFT and the skeptics in the film, who often kill people or otherwise put people in harm’s way for their ideological purposes.  The thing is: RIFT has a point.  If you upload a person’s brain to a computer, that computer is NOT that person.  At BEST, it will be a 100% copy of that person.  However, when that person has access to computing power, he or she will become exponentially smarter and more powerful, and with access to the internet and an infinite IQ would mentally evolve in a way that the physical person never could, thereby not making a much of a difference how much of the person started off in the computer.  As for A.I. itself, no less an authority than Stephen Hawking, perhaps the smartest man currently alive, has expressed misgivings.  A sentient computer with access to the internet would control everything from the stock market to the power grids.  I’m a little weary of handing over control over pretty much all of live to a super-intelligent computer who may know logic but lack empathy. Even a movie as shitty as “Eagle Eye” showcases these dangers.  “Transcendence” stacks the deck by having our A.I. be a likeable sort who looks like Johnny Depp and just HAPPENS to never do anything too too bad (he does manipulate the stock market for his wife to get their lab going, but aside from the healing-people-and-making-them-his-slaves-thing he’s a rather benevolent computer), but in real life I’m not sure we as a race would be so lucky.

The film wants to be firmly pro-science, which is admirable since there are few pro-science films in the sci-fi genre.  Science run amok makes for more entertaining narratives, though perhaps has also instilled in audiences an irrational fear toward science, which may be contributing to mistrust in it.  It may be a stretch to say that sci-fi films have unintentionally lead to Climate Change denialism, but it’s something worth exploring.  The issue with “Transcendence” is that it unfairly stacks the deck, and ignores legitimate issues with the particular scientific issues it discusses by making the opposition reactionary terrorists.  Personally, I’m far from anti-science, but the possibility of A.I. makes me thing it would be the worst thing science has given us since the atomic bomb.

The ethics of Nanotechnology aren’t really dealt with in the film, but it’s an interesting topic in and of itself and I hope a film does discuss it in the future.  If tiny robots could be used to repair organic tissue, we’d see the end to a lot of disease.  I worry about overpopulation after that, but that’s another issue and the subject of another movie.

Moral qualms aside, “Transcendence” is at least an entertaining film, sometimes smart, and wholly watchable all the way through.  The problem is that it is, above all else, an ideas film.  There’s some action, but most of the film is about people talking about what is right, what is wrong, and whether science has gone too far.  I believe the film deals with the argument unfairly and comes out on the wrong side of things, but I appreciate it’s attempt at something a bit more original, and at least dipping it’s toe into the wading pool of idea-driven-science-fiction.  But the film is no “Gattaca”, my favorite sci-fi lm and a template for idea-driven sci-fi in my mind.  Hell, it’s not even “Her”, a far better film about Artificial Intelligence that deals with its subject matter fairly and interestingly. B.

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If there’s a point to “Under the Skin”, the film certainly doesn’t communicate it clearly.  Sure, I could take a shot in the dark and say the film is about 20th century mating rituals, or the shallowness of men, or the difficulty of females having to choose a mate from men who all seem to be perverted or damaged.  Whatever the filmmakers intended the film to say, they failed to make the film say it.  Instead, the audience is left with an artsy, sometimes visually interesting film that reads like a French New Wave version of “Species”, the 1995 sci-fi/horror film about an alien who takes the form of an attractive female in order to mate and breed more alien babies. 

The main character of the film, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an alien.  I only know this because of information I’ve read about the film previously.  The film itself never lets us know she is an alien, or a monster, or whatever.  Sure, we see her in her true form at one point, but it doesn’t exactly explain things.  Anyway, the film follows her as she attempts to pick up random men while driving around Scotland.  The film has a lot of shots of her driving around.  Sometimes she succeeds in picking up a man after ascertaining they are a loner with no family, after which she takes them some place which is pitch black but has a reflective floor.  She gets undressed and walks away and the men undress themselves and follow her until the floor swallows them up as if it became inky water.  Once under water, or whatever, they seem to die leaving their skin behind.  I think.  It’s really not quite clear.

Amidst all this, there’s a guy on a motorcycle who seems to be helping her, but has no lines, nor any shared scenes with Johansson’s character.

Look, this is a slow, artsy movie full of symbolism that may be trying to say something, or may simply be pretentious garbage designed for equally pretentious audiences and critics to read things into it that aren’t there so that they may feel superior to those of us who don’t find a meaning in the work.  I’m pretty sure this work has a meaning, it’s not just random surrealism like “Un Chien Andalou”, but the message is nowhere near communicated clearly.

This film has mostly gained notice because Johansson appears fully nude in it.  The nudity in the film is quick and shot under very dark lighting so that you can barely see anything.  That hasn’t stopped men with photoshop from taking hi-def screencaps and cleaning it up to see everything, but that’s neither hear nor there.  I guess I just feel that, when you see a film, the opportunity to see an attractive actress naked should be a bonus to a film, not the main draw to it.  If Miss Johansson hadn’t done full frontal in this film, I doubt anyone would care about this film outside of the pretentious film festival audiences who will claim the film is genius.  The film was booed at the Venice film festival, so not everyone is fooled.

There are some scenes that work on their own, such as when Johansson’s character picks up a man with a facial deformity.  There are many wonderful shots, though they are almost always held too long before the film cuts away from them.  Aside from these merits, however, the film is slow, repetitive, and fails at communicating its message. C-.

 

Professional critics have a big advantage over amateur critics: They get to see films early and before the critical consensus or box office results have passed judgment on the success of failure of a film’s artistry.  I walked into “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” knowing that it received mixed-to-negative reviews, some from those who praised the original “Sin City” film 9 years ago, and that the film has for all intents and purposes bombed at the box office in relation to its budget and expectations.  This one two punch of bad news can both dissuade a person from seeing a film in the theater, and set a person up to walk into the film thinking it is going to be a disappointment.  This is sad because, quite frankly, this film is one that BEGS to be seen in 3-D, and most people do not have 3-D televisions to replicate this experience in their homes.  The 3-D fad is usually considered to be dying out these days, with audiences fed up with paying extra money for the tickets only to be presented with a film where the 3-D either adds nothing to the experience, or was a shitty post-production conversion that looks shoddy.  Sure, a film like “Dredd” or “Gravity” comes along here or there to remind us that 3-D can be used to heighten the experience of a film, but usually this is not the case.  I remember seeing “Green Lantern” in horrific 3-D with ghosting all over the place. *shudders*

If it weren’t a sequel, and we hadn’t seen the visual style of ADTKF 9 years ago, this film would be hailed for its visionary and, quite frankly, beautiful visuals.  This is a film that can be paused on almost any frame and you’d have something interesting and aesthetically pleasing to look at.  I’m not just saying that because Eva Green spends almost all of her screen time fully nude either.  The 3-D adds an extra layer to this, making us feel like we’re falling into the panels of a hard boiled neo-noir comic book.  If you wanted to watch the film on mute and just enjoy the visuals as a pretty piece of modern art, you could.  It seems critics and audiences have taken such visuals for granted simply because it’s a sequel.  How easily we lose our gratitude.  Considering other films who attempt to do what “Sin City” does, having actors and some props be practical but have nearly all sets be digital, we should not be so quick to dismiss the visual beauty of a film like this just because it’s a sequel.  “300” was ugly and painful to watch, which combined with its morally reprehensible pro-Iraq War message resulted in it being one of the few films I’ve ever given an F to.  “Sucker Punch” was not nearly as ugly all of time (visually, at least.  Its misogyny is another matter), but no film has truly used this production method to create such interesting and evocative images as the “Sin City” films have.  It’s a shame that because critics have grown rigid and audiences got tired of waiting for a sequel that the film now has the stink of failure on it, and it may dissuade fans of the original from enjoying this film that way it was meant to, in 3-D.

There is the question of why this film took almost a decade to be made.  The first “Sin City” was an achievement that captured audiences, impressed critics, and even won a technical award at the Cannes film festival.  So why did director Robert Rodriguez (I know Frank Miller is credited as a director as well, but how much he deserves that credit is arguable) wait so long to make this film?  The box office failure of the film is likely a result of not striking while the iron was hot.  It would be easy to blame Rodriguez, who followed up “Sin City” with some shitty children’s movies (“Sharkboy and Lava Girl”? “Shorts”? Another fucking “Spy Kids” movie?) and a crappy sequel to “Machete”, but he also brought us one half of “Grindhouse”, one of the most fun theater experiences I’ve had in a while, and the first “Machete” which was cheesy fun.  He also had a hand in “Predators”, which did a decent job of getting that franchise back on track after the horrendous “Alien vs. Predator” films.  In interviews, Rodriguez and Frank Miller have blamed the Weinsteins for the delay, and I’m inclined to believe that.  After all, the evil Weinstein brothers are responsible for holding “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane” on a shelf for years, destroying its critical and financial chances to take its rightful place as one of the best horror films of the 2000s.  I have not seen “Snowpiercer” yet, but the buzz is that it’s one of the year’s best films and a great dystopia that would have had a chance at mainstream success, but the Weinsteins wanted to cut the film for US audiences and, when the director wouldn’t budge, they decided to bump the film onto VOD  after a perfunctory limited theatrical release.  Every film buff worth their salt hates the Weinsteins at this point.  Delaying a “Sin City” sequel and dumping it in the late August death slot is just another in a long list of sins the Weinsteins have committed against film.

I’m not saying that ADTKF is a great film being given an undeserved shaft.  The visuals are gorgeous, yes, but the stories this time are not as captivating as those in the first film, and a lot of the violence lacks the same impact they had in that prior film.  That being said, this film is a lot of fun.  Building on how much love audiences have for Marv in the last film, we get much more of him here.  This may also be because Mickey Rourke’s comeback seems to have stalled and he had more time to devote to this project.  That would be a shame, as I was hoping his post-“The Wrestler” popularity would carry him through to more interesting roles befitting of his talent.  Sadly, that seems to have not happened.  Luckily for us, Marv is the same old Marv, busting heads and protecting ladies.  If his story arcs lack the emotion and pathos of his previous outing, at least the poor lug has a lot of fun in this film.

We also go back in time to see what Dwight was up that lead to his facial reconstruction surgery.  Josh Brolin plays him now, replacing Clive Owen.  One of the new films major flaws is when we see Dwight post-surgery, and all the film does is give Brolin the haircut Owen had in the previous film.  It’s laughable that the character (or the filmmakers) think that would help anything.  No matter.  Brolin fits well in the hard-boiled universe, though I did miss Owen’s English accent for the character.  He ends up embroiled in drama with an ex of his, the title dame played by Green.  Green has decided, with the “300” sequel (unseen by me due to my hatred of the first film) and this film to apparently become the next great fantasy girl of comic book geeks.  Unlike, say, Jessica Alba (who is also in this film, and does little more than PG-13 strip routines), Green actually has talent, screen presence, and commands all attention when she’s on camera.  Her character, the femme fatale who fools and entraps all men and uses her sexuality to get ahead without being used BY the sexuality, is the most alive thing on the screen.  Her body, often nude, is a special effect in itself, and she brings this character to life in an electric way that raises the quality of the entire film around her.  Her story forms the center and the bulk of the film, and wisely so.  It’s been a long time since she first graced the screen in “The Dreamers”, another film where she was nude most of the time, and I’m glad that now she is being recognized not just as a screen beauty no one ever doubted she was, but as a strong actress who can portray fierce characters in a way few other modern actresses can.

I’ve always had an issue with Jessica Alba.  I don’t mind that she’s against being nude on camera.  No actress should be required to do anything they aren’t comfortable doing.  What I have a problem with is she tries to have it both ways.  She claims to be against the nudity because she doesn’t want to be seen only as a sex object but as an actress, and yet she doesn’t seem to want to improve her acting ability with lessons to get better roles.  She also almost hypocritically allowed digital nudity to be grafted onto her body for “Machete”.  I’m not sure what difference it makes if the nudity is digital or real on whether you are objectified or not. I think she wants to have it both ways, and without a cogent explanation for it, combined with the holier-than-thou attitude she has toward on screen nudity, it just makes the actress rub me the wrong way. She reprises her role of Nancy from the first film, but she spends 2/3rds of her screen time in this film dancing in various states of undress.  That’s it. When she’s not dancing around half-naked, she’s leading us to the most anti-climactic ending I’ve seen in quite some time.  She does nothing in this film to convince me that she still deserves to be called an actress.

Our last main story involves a new character, Jonny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who is very lucky at the slots and cards, and who challenges Sen. Roarke (Powers Boothe) to a game of poker. Roarke is the Big Bad of the world of Sin City, seen briefly in the previous film.  Here, he takes center stage as our other main villain, along with Green.  Between Boothe, Dennis Haysbert (replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan), and Roarke (as in Mickey), we have quite a few awesome voices in this film.  Other actors include Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Lady Gaga, and Ray Liotta.  Oh, and Bruce Willis found time to drop in for a cameo as the late Hardigan.  The movie has cast to spare.

The weaker stories, the anti-climactic ending, and the REALLY “reconstruction” of the Dwight character are the main deficits to the film.  These are balances out by the basic fun, the strong non-Alba cast, the gorgeous visuals, the unusually spectacular effect that 3-D adds, Eva Green’s commanding performance, and the overall fun going on.  Straddling the line between a B and a B+, I find myself falling over onto the B side.  It’s not quite there to earn a B+, but I have affection for the film.  It’s violent and sexy as hell.  I only wish it had come sooner, and that Rodriguez and Miller would have taken the extra time to punch up the script a bit. B.

 

“All Cheerleaders Die” has enough originality for you to expect good things from it, but not enough originality to deliver those things.  The glimpses of originality, instead, cause one to feel worse about the film then one would if the film simply followed the basics conventions of its genre.  By giving us fragments of originality, it teases us with the hopes and expectations that we will see a unique and interesting film.  The result, when it doesn’t deliver, is a bigger let down than if the filmmakers had left out all originality to begin with.

A little background is needed.  “All Cheerleaders Die” was originally a film made in 2001 after the co-directors, Lucky McKee and Chris Siverston, almost immediately after college.  I myself have not seen this original version as it appears to not be in wide circulation and is not readily available.  After the film, both men went on to have individual careers as directors.  Siverston’s career is likely the lesser respected, having directed the Lindsay Lohan vehicle “I Know Who Killed Me”, which had the dishonor of “winning” the Golden Raspberry award for worst film of 2008.  I actually found that film to be decent with an interesting visual style, and think a lot of the criticism for that film was generic hatred for Lohan that was thrust upon the film.  It’s not a good film by any means, but not the cinematic atrocity it is claimed to be by those who have not seen it.  Siverston also directed an adaptation of the Jack Ketchum novel “The Lost”, which suffered from a horrible leader actor but was otherwise a faithful and decent filmic iteration of that novel.

McKee, on the other hand, had the makings of being the next golden boy of horror.  His 2002 film, “May”, was for my money the best horror film of the 2000-2009 decade, and received numerous positive reviews of the type which horror films rarely do.  “May” was really a character study and a drama that became a horror film as it went on, and created deep empathy for its main character, and remains a highpoint in 21st century horror film which I recall often.  McKee so far hasn’t lived up to the promise of “May”, but his track record is far better than Siverston’s.  He followed up “May” with a Masters of Horror episode, “Sick Girl”, which was one of the better offerings of that dreadful failed experiment in anthology horror.  His feature follow-up, “The Woods”, was tampered with by studio execs and what remained was a highly flawed and almost unreviewable work because it feels Frankenstein-ed from disparate footage left rotting in an editing room.  McKee tried his hand at adapting a Ketchum novel himself, “Red”, but left the production mid-way and was replaced.  That film remains unseen by me.  McKee seemed to pull himself out of this funk when he teamed up with Ketchum to write “The Woman”, a horror film allegory for the war on terror and state sanction torture which felt like a return to style after being lost in the wilderness of moviemaking.

Now McKee and Siverston team up again for a loose remake of their 2001 film.  In 13 years, I’m surprised all they could come up with was a warmed over version of “Jennifer’s Body” that at different times feels like a rip-off of “Mean Girls”, “Bring It On”, or, dare I say it, the Wes Craven abomination “My Soul to Take”.  One third of this film is interesting and inventive, and the other two thirds are semi-entertaining garbage.  I have a feeling I know which director is responsible for which third.

The plot involves Maddy (Caitlin Stasey), who is filming cheerleader Alexis (Felisha Cooper) for a video project when Alexis suffers from a broken neck performing a cheerleading move and dies.  The film cuts to three months later, and Maddy has a plan to take revenge on Alexis’s supposed best friend (Brooke Butler) and boyfriend (Tom Williamson) for moving on so quickly from the death.  That plan involves lies and lesbian seduction (McKee enjoys incorporating lipstick lesbian romances into a lot of his work), and after a half hour of not being quite sure where the film is going (something I enjoyed, as it made me assume the film would follow an original and unpredictable plot…my assumption was incorrect), we wind up the plot backfiring and boyfriend Terry running Maddy and three other girls, including the aforementioned best friend, off the road, killing them.

They’re not dead for long, however, as Maddy’s  ex-girlfriend (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) happens to be a goth girl Wiccan (I imagine real Wiccans may be offended by another clichéd portrayal of them as two-bit witches casting evil spells) and uses her magical light-up stones (I know) to bring Maddy and the three other girls back to life.  Two of them, a Jesus-freak cheerleader (Reanin Johannink) and the shy girl team mascot (Amanda Grace Cooper) are sisters, and they end up in each other’s bodies (what?) upon resurrection.  Oh, and all four resurrected girls suck the energy out of people via blood (vampire succubus?) and need to do this to keep going.  And another thing, they each feel when one of them has sex.  For some reason.  I don’t know, I didn’t write this thing.

Once they’re all resurrected and we know the basic rules of what’s going on, everything progresses in a predictable and unoriginal way, which is a shame considering the set up has flashes of originality and a few moments of the film in the subsequent second and third acts show through.  The most noticeable aspects of this film, in hindsight, are really the lack of nudity (we get one pair of breasts which, from the way they’re shot, reek of belonging to a body double), and that the film seems refreshingly casual about lesbian relationships, even if the film is firmly planted in the male gaze of shooting these twenty-somethings-playing-teenaged-girls bodies to show off as much skin as their contracts would allow the filmmakers to show.  The reviews claiming this film is a satire of how horror films treat women seem unfounded to me.  There’s no satire of sexualizing women here.  The women are sexualized in the traditional way, and they punish men for their crimes against them.  The clichés remain strong and un-subverted.  A shame, really, since McKee has been praised in the past, both by me and others, for not falling into these types of traps.

“All Cheerleaders Die” is too clichéd and unoriginal for me to recommend, but the flashes of originality produced in me a certain affection for parts of the film.  The acting is all appropriate to the material, and the film is well shot and edited, though a more realistic color scheme might made the madcap light-up-magic-stones zaniness seem less ridiculous, and I have no issues with the technical side of things.  This script just needed a lot more drafts for these guys to figure out what they wanted the film to say.  Right now, all it says is men are scum, women who chase men are scum, and hot girls should just stick to dating hot girls.  It’s hardly the argument I imagine either director intended. C+

The story of the making of “Boyhood” is interesting in and of itself.  Richard Linklater assembled a cast in 2002 to make a film about a boy’s life from the ages of 6 through 18, with the goal of filming a few days every year for 12 years, so you could see the boy, and all of the other characters, age in real time.  Contracts weren’t able to be signed because of some weird law saying you can’t contractually make anyone do anything for more than 7 years.  The risk of people dying or getting sick or dropping out of the project over a 12 year period was huge.  Also, what happens if the child you choose at age 6 can’t act at age 18?  What if the studio decided to pull the plug on the budget halfway through?  The fact that this film exists in finished form is astounding on its own.  That the film is also excellent seems impossible.

The film works on three major levels.  The first is on the appreciation for the difficulty in making it, and in simply noticing how characters/actors age.  It’s not just the boy (Ellar Coltrane, who starts off quiet but ends up with not a little bit of charisma and screen presence as the film progresses) we see age, but his sister (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), his parents (Patricia Arquette, whose acting vacillates between really good and kind of poor; Ethan Hawke, always invaluable), and every other character in the film that pops in and out of the boy’s life.  While there are film series which allow us to view the age of characters in relation to each other (including Linklater’s own “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” series), seeing it within a single film adds authenticity in a way that make-up or CGI can never replicate. 

The film also works as a time capsule for the early 2000s.  Kids who grew up in this period may one day watch the film in the way my generation watches VH1’s “I love the 80s/90s”.  The soundtrack (which aside from the use of Coldplay’s horrible song “Yellow” is pretty perfect), progression of technology, and references to the Iraq war, Harry Potter, and other cultural issues both firmly plant the film in a time and place, and also show both how much and how little really changes with the progress of time.

Lastly, both most importantly, the film works as a story.  This is the coming-of-age film to end all coming-of-age-films.  While there is drama in the young boy’s lie, and trauma, it is always handled realistically and without the faux pomp and drama of a TV movie.  It also avoids many clichés (no losing virginity scene, we only see one birthday, etc) and seeks profoundness not only in the obvious benchmarks in life, like moving or your first love, but also in stuff that happens day-to-day and may not seem important at the time, like a weekend bowling with your dad.

The film has no main overriding message or profound insight on life.  If anything, it shows that life is the accumulation of well-meaning choices, flawed personalities, and how outside forces and impossible to foresee variables are the main engines which propel all of our lives.  People do what they think is right, either for them or others, at the time, and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, or sometimes it’s a mix.  Life is at the same time both simpler and more complicated than we make it out to be.

While I have reservations at the film’s implicit gender bias: a mother who makes repeated horrible choices in mates despite good intentions (security for herself and her kids) and her successful attempts to better herself with schooling; a father’s girlfriend who is humored for her nutso religious and gun-loving family, and the boy’s first love, who cheats on him.  The film certainly isn’t misogynist, but it certainly treats equally flawed male characters (Hawke’s character starts out as a well-meaning deadbeat dad and turns into the closest thing to father-of-the-year that a father can get without actually living with and raising his kid directly) much better.

It’s also worth pointing out that alcohol plays a very prominent role in the film.  Scenes with the mother’s alcoholic first husband could have easily fallen into cliché, but they never feel anything less than real.  Seeing the passage of time helps, as we can trace the progression of the character from a well-meaning but perhaps ethically suspect man, to someone a bit too harsh with his kids who hides his drinking, to a full on violent and dangerous creep.  Like life, the progression is gradual, the climax is brutal, and the seeds of what has been sown are only visible in hindsight.  Alcohol and the dangers it poses are omnipresent throughout the film, and I couldn’t help but think I’d rather a bad parent be a lazy pothead than a violent drunk.  The film’s not trying to be an argument for pot being safer than booze (marijuana makes a brief appearance in one scene, but otherwise the film is refreshingly free of a drug experimentation scene for a dramatic coming-of-age film), but it could certainly be used as one.

As you watch the film, you will relate to some events and not others.  I moved around a lot as a kid, thankfully all within the same few towns so I never had to change schools or abandon friends, but the moving scenes and the mother forcing her kids to leave belongings behind were tough for me.  For others, scenes with the boy hanging with his friends (in scenes that are perhaps the most realistic depiction of bored young boys hanging out that I’ve seen in fiction film), or working a shit job as a busboy, will bring to mind their own childhood friends or teenaged shit jobs.  You’ll remember the childhood crushes that went nowhere, the friends who meant the world to you but whom you no longer see or hear from, and overheard conversations your elders had that concerned you and stay etched in your mind.  Everyone’s childhood is different, but there are moments of sameness in our differences, and every viewer will find scenes here and there that ring true for their own lives.  I think it was Roger Evert who once said that movies are empathy machines, designed to make you experience other people’s lives and feel with and for them in a way that no other medium will allow.  “Boyhood” is just familiar enough to everyone’s own lives and childhoods (and even parents may see their own selves as parents in the film, mistakes and successes) that when it veers into territory we’re not personally familiar with, we can still feel and understand what it’s like.  I, for one, never want kids and, if my vasectomy worked, will never have kids.  This film made me feel the enormity of how damn HARD it is to be a parent, assuming you are actually trying to be a good one.  You can’t account for variables, and you will never be able to keep yourself from fucking up your kids, at least a little bit, no matter how hard you try.

“Boyhood” is the best film of 2014 so far, and has an excellent shot at remaining the best film of this year.  If you like movies even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to experience it. A.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is amoral, lazy garbage. if the film is going to argue that torture did or did not lead to the death of Bin Laden, fine. If the movie is going to argue that torture is good, or bad, or only good or bad in this one particular instance, fine. If the movie is going to be pragmatic, or nihilistic, or matter-of-fact and neutral, devoid of any message, fine. BUT YOU HAVE TO FUCKING PICK SOMETHING.

This movie is lazy. It is a movie that PRETENDS to have a message, and expects the audience to do the heavy lifting and figure it out. And audience members will imbue the film with whatever message they find in it, like a Rorschach test. The movie has no message.  It’s not a matter-of-fact movie like Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”, or a matter-of-fact, in-the-moment film without the benefit of hindsight like “United 93”. It is a film with no attitude, yet pretends to have one. Oddly enough, the writer and director’s last film, “The Hurt Locker” was a movie which pretended to have no message, but DID have one. ZD30 doesn’t even have good murky morality, like “Breaking Bad”. It’s just a film that can’t decide on an attitude, but will pretend it has one, and it’s one the film forces you to search.

None of the characters have any development. All of the characters except the main one are portrayed as either negative or neutral, and the main character is portrayed as positive, but I don’t feel she deserved to be. She was right, but only because she had a hunch and wouldn’t let it go and she was fucking lucky. Another character also has a hunch and is wrong, and she’s killed. But the movie isn’t arguing the end justifies the means either. By the time the film reaches its anti-climactic climax, and we’re left with the lazy, ambiguous tears of the protagonist, I was left feeling dirty and angry. Either have the balls to say something, or say nothing. But don’t say nothing and pretend you are saying something, and then let the audience jump through mental hoops to excuse your laziness. The film earns a D because it doesn’t even have the balls to be a morally reprehensible F. And I can’t give it a D- because the film is competently made and not boring. But fuck this movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” may lack originality, feeling like a weird hybrid of Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” mixed with “The Chronicles of Riddick” and a dash of “Star Wars”, but it compensates with interesting characters and not a little bit of charm.  While irreverent and fun, it does feel like the irreverence is held back for the purposes of mainstream audiences (the film is both expensive and meant to fit in with the long range plans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe).  The director and co-writer of this film is James Gunn, a man who probably never thought, after writing and kinda-sorta directing Troma’s ultra-low-budget “Tromeo and Juliet” (a modern day “Romeo & Juliet” adaptation with lesbians, kinky sex, and dismemberments) that Disney (the owner of Marvel) would give him $120 million dollars to kick off a space opera franchise.  Sadly, there’s not much of Gunn in this film.  Oh sure, his brother and Michael Rooker and some of his other repertory cast make appearances (including a cameo from Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman) , but the Gunn who made “Slither”, “The Specials” (a far more unorthodox superhero film), “PG Porn”, “Humanzee”, and “Super” has watered himself down to a more Joss Whedon-esque level of mainstream acceptability.  Yeah, okay, Gunn also wrote the two crappy live action “Scooby Doo” movies, but this guy also once wanted to make a “Passion of the Christ” porn parody and has admitted to having sex with porn stars.  This is the Gunn who wrote the bizarrely moving novel “The Toy Collector”.  I wish there were more of him in the film.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is a solidly enjoyable piece of space opera.  The plot involves a kid who was kidnapped from Earth at the age of 8 after his mother dies, who grows up to be a Malcolm Reynolds/Han Solo-type outlaw.  This archetype is almost mandatory in these films lately, and Chris Pratt does a decent job with it.  Named Peter Quill, or “Starlord” as he likes to be called, he gets caught up with forces beyond his control while attempting to procure an orb of vaguely unspeakable power.  Like the cube in “The Avengers”, this orb is a maguffin.  While I’m getting a bit tired of seeing people risk life in limb over magical geometric shapes in big budget action films (the AllSpark in “Transformers” also comes to mind) I guess it works all right in this film since it seems to be a metaphor of sorts for nuclear weaponry…or something like that.  Whatever. 

Our villain is a guy named Ronan, who is a fairly boring villain which the film briefly tells us is some sort of religious zealot who is unhappy that his people, the Kree, and another group, the Nova Corps, have a truce of sorts wherein, despite their hatred for one another, they have a ceasefire.  It’s hard to watch the film right now and not think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the film was obviously written and produced before the most recent conflict between those two peoples, and in any event any attempt to attach these two peoples as a metaphor for either Israel or Palestine is futile as there’s not enough details to match up.  If anything else, the Nova Corps, made up of seemingly multiple different races, is more like the United States, with Ronan perhaps being a Bin Laden figure.  Honestly, though, the film isn’t really interested in religion, politics, or metaphors.  This set up is just an excuse for the characters to chase something, escape something, procure something, or kill someone.

So Ronan has made a deal with Thanos, a very powerful evil entity in the universe.  If Ronan gets the orb and delivers it to Thanos, then Thanos will destroy the Nova Corps homeworld for Ronan.  Quill doesn’t know any of this from the start, just wanting to fence the orb for cash, but taking the orb gets him tangled up with Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who must really like being in sci-fi movies), a henchwoman of Ronan’s who is looking to betray her boss.  Meanwhile, an anthropomorphic cybernetic raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his giant tree friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) want to capture Quill for the bounty on his head.  Through a series of circumstances involving a prison break, which also throws a revenge-minded hulk named Drax (Dave Batista) into the mix, these five disparate characters become the Guardians of the Galaxy and join forces to defeat Ronan and save the universe.

Look, the plot is space opera nonsense.  The action sequences, while not boring (thankfully; I find myself bored by many CGI action sequences in films lately) don’t thrill you.  They are visually appealing and the film is enjoyable to look at, even if not particularly original or memorable in its production and art design.  The film’s success hinges on the characters and, while you don’t CARE for them, exactly, they are quite fun to spend two hours with. Rocket Raccoon is delightful.  You may walk into the film not thinking a CGI raccoon that fires guns and is kind of a jackass is a good thing for a film to thrust upon you, but he is a hoot.  Groot, who only ever says the phrase “I am Groot”, is a welcome original and bizarre character who provides a decent amount of comic relief and is visually interesting throughout.  Drax gets a lot of laughs out of the fact that he speaks very eloquently, but is hyper-literal and doesn’t understand metaphors or figures of speech.  Quill and Gamora are a bit more pedestrian but, hey, the film has a giant tree and a raccoon, let’s not get greedy.

The film sometimes feels stilted, overly formal, and pedestrian in its dialogue, with characters making very serious and very grave pronouncements in a very Tolkien-like way.  Other times, the film engages in pop culture references and pumps up a 60s and 70s heavy soundtrack of perfectly mainstream music that everyone will recognize.  The film wants to be “Star Wars” mixed with “Firefly”, and while it doesn’t quite get there, I was happy to be taken along for the ride.  The film is fun, enjoyable, and will produce many a smile on your face.  Marvel took a gamble on making a non-superhero film based on a comic book property not many people have heard of (I’ve never read a Guardians of the Galaxy comic, so I can’t speak to how faithful the film is), and I’m glad that they did.  “Iron Man 2” and “Iron Man 3” pretty much sucked.  I didn’t give enough of a shit to see either “Thor” film, and the first “Captain America” film was boredom personified and a big disappointment, considering it could have captured the retro magic of “The Rocketeer” .  I liked the first “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” well enough, but so far I have not been too impressed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  “Guardians” at least makes me anxious for a sequel, and hopeful that these guys will meet up with “The Avengers” in the future.

You’ll know when you read this review if this film is for you.  If it is, you’ll like it, probably not love it, but like it enough to want more.  I think that’s enough to recommend it. B.

P.S.: Stay tuned after the credits for a cameo by a character I never thought I’d see on screen in a film again.  I was VERY happy they saw fit to include him.

 

“The Counselor” is a fairly bad movie, but it is bad in interesting ways. Mainly, the screenplay was written by an acclaimed novelist who seemed unaware that his dialogue would come off as inauthentic, over-written, tin-eared, and pretentious. What works in prose doesn’t always work when spoken by characters who really shouldn’t be educated or as philosophically-minded as the ones he has created. The film is very well-directed, and aside from Cameron Diaz giving a really crappy performance, the cast is fine. But the story is plain bad…but bad in an original way, which is at least more interesting than bad and formulaic. I dunno. Weird film. C-.

Click here for the lengthy video detailing my thoughts on the film