Archive for December, 2014

Big Eyes (dir. Tim Burton)

Posted: December 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

“Big Eyes” is an unsuccessful film, but unsuccessful in an interesting way.  The underlying story, which is the true story of an artist whose work was falsely claimed by her husband, is quite interesting.  But thre film is handled in such a wrongheaded fashion from the get-go that it’s baffling how this film was made in this form.

Let’s get this out of the way: Tim Burton has been coasting on the memories of his good films for quite a while.  When was the last time you saw a Tim Burton film that you could say was genuinely good?  For me, it was “Sweeney Todd”, and that was 7 years ago.  Since then he’s made “Alice in Wonderland”, which grows more mediocre in memory when I think about it, and “Dark Shadows”, which has an awful third act which nearly ruins a half-way decent film.  The animated “Frankenweenie” remains unseen by me.  Prior to “Todd”, I’d have to go back to 1994’s “Ed Wood”, his most critically acclaimed and, arguably best film.  Between “Wood” in 1994 and “Todd” in 2007, we pretty much have a big bucket of crap. “Mars Attacks!” was a star-studded failed satire with minimal laughs.  “Sleepy Hollow” was decent, but it was then followed up by a wrongheaded “Planet of the Apes” remake.  Then comes “Big Fish”, which is a well-liked film but to me is one of the worst films of all time for its morally reprehensible message that lies are always better than truth.  A more pro-religion film I can’t think of, and I’ve seen both “God’s Not dead” and “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” this year.  Perhaps even worse is that I know the author of the novel upon which “Big Fish” was adapted hates the film version, and that the film completely changes the message of his book.  “Big Fish” was followed by another wrongheaded remake, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “Corpse Bride”, in which Burton failed to recapture the magic of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Tim Burton is respected as an auteur, but he may not deserve such respect.  If you are a fan of Burton, I want you to consider what your favorite Burton film is.  My guess, and it is only a guess, is that you are thinking of either “Beetlejuice”, “Edward Scissorhands”, or “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.  You have to go back to 1988 or 1990 for the former two films.  As for “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, well, Tim Burton didn’t direct it.  He also didn’t write it.  He came up with the bare bones of the story and came up with some of the character design, and that’s pretty much it.  Henry Selick directed it, and is often shafted when it comes to credit because Burton’s name is above the title of the film.  Honestly, though, “Nightmare” should be considered a credit to Selick, not to Burton.  So, Burton’s good will is largely because of two films 25 years ago.  Of the 17 films he has directed, maybe 5 can be considered great.  Quality aside, however, he remains to have an ardent fanbase.

This is all important to go over when discussing “Big Eyes”, because this latest film reeks of anger.  Burton’s recent films have largely been financial hits. “Dark Shadows” was considered a bomb due to a large budget and low domestic returns but probably made a profit worldwide.  Still, critics have pretty much made the same assessments of his career that I have.  Hell, even his hardcore fans have gotten tired of seeing the same old visual style decorating Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and scored to Danny Elfman.  “Big Eyes” still has an Elfman score, but it’s noticeably absent of the usual Burton visual leitmotifs and the aforementioned actors.  In fact, “Big Eyes” in many ways feels like a big middle finger to his critics.

Consider the character of John Canaday, played by Terrence Stamp.  Canaday, a real person, is an art critic for the New York Times who hates the paintings of the Big Eyed children which Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) paints and Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) takes credit for.  He considers them lowbrow and kitsch, and doesn’t think their popularity is indicative of any inherent quality.  The film’s argument, and Walter’s, is that it doesn’t matter what the critics think, that haters are just jealous (we see two characters at an art show claim to hate the paintings, only to produce posters of copycat paintings and selling them), and that if something is popular it is automatically good.  Gee, I wonder if Burton is trying to send a message to his critics, especially using a film which does what his critics have wanted him to do, which is step outside of the box he has been in for the last four live action films.

Burton’s not entirely stepping out of his comfort zone, though.  As I mentioned, Danny Elfman does the score and, as much as I love Elfman, the use of score in this film is atrocious.  I don’t mean the score itself, I mean that Burton scores too many scenes, especially ones that would have played more powerfully without music.  Seriously, for a while, especially the first act, it feels like the score won’t shut the hell up.  Also, unlike most of Elfman’s best stuff, none of the score is memorable.  Don’t even get me started on the Lana Del Ray title song for the movie, which has the most on the nose lyrics I’ve heard for a theme song in some time.

In addition, the film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.  The last film these guys wrote for Burton was “Ed Wood”, and that film was Burton’s most critically acclaimed work and, arguably, his best.  If you’re going to break away from your last four films, three of which were critically derided, it seems a safe bet to go back to the guys who wrote your best film.  Alexander & Karaszewski are largely known for writing really good biopics, from “Wood” to “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to “Man on the Moon” about Andy Kaufman.  They are less famous for writing both “Problem Child” films, the film “Screwed”, and some other disposable kids’ movies like the “That Darn Cat” remake.  My point is that these guys are often very good, and if you’ve ever heard them on an audio commentary you know they’d probably be very cool to hang out with, but they don’t always hit a home run.  “Big Eyes” feels like a decent first draft that needed two more passes.  I don’t know how much fault lies with the original screenplay and how much lies with Burton, but the film is often shallow, brings up its themes in a very on the nose fashion, and is tonally inconsistent.  I say it is shallow because we’re left with questions about character feelings and motivations.  The film tries to make us feel that the bond between Margaret and her daughter Jane (played at different ages by Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur) is strong and that Margaret’s prime concern is her daughter, but the film doesn’t give us much interplay between the two of them to sell that bond and concern.  We see Margaret pack up her daughter and leave her first husband, we see the daughter pose for paintings while bored, and we see the daughter upset that she can’t see her mother’s painting studio or upset that she can’t hang out with friends.  That’s about it.  There are no really emotional or even expositional scenes between just the two of them.  We barely get the semblance of a relationship.

Also speaking of shallow, Margaret meets Walter and they seemingly get married in about a week.  The film presents this as a purely practical matter, as Margaret is a single mother in the 1950s and her husband sues for custody of Jane.  Being married helps her retain custody, fine.  So why does Walter offer to marry her?  This is before Walter concocts the scheme to take credit for Margaret’s work, and indeed there’s a scene subsequent to their marriage where Walter tries to give the paintings to an art gallery while rightfully attributing them to his wife.  That scene indicates that forgery was not his motivation from the get-go, and the film also lets us know through Margaret’s friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter, who looks like she belongs in one of Burton’s “normal” films) that Walter is a notorious lothario who sleeps around with every woman in the art scene.  So why settle down with Margaret.  The film gives us no indication he’s smitten in love with her.  I don’t know if that is the script’s fault, Burton’s fault, or Waltz’s fault.  Waltz’s performance in general is off, as it feels like Waltz thought he was in a broad comedy even in dramatic scenes.  Whether that fault is Waltz’s alone or Burton’s for not properly directing his actor I do not know, but Burton has let Johnny Depp run amok in his films with Depp-isms that I wouldn’t put it past him (Burton) to just let an actor do his thing even if it sabotages his film as a whole.

I mentioned the themes being brought up in a very explicit fashion.  Aside from the anti-critic stuff, the main attempted theme here is that of the hardship of women to succeed in a man’s world.  Upon leaving her first husband, Margaret applies for a job at a furniture company (she gets the job and we see her painting Humpty Dumpty on cribs).  The interviewer asks her what her husband thinks about her wanting to enter the workforce, and then looks at her with derision when she explains that she is separated from her husband.  Later, Margaret goes to confession, despite not being Catholic.  She tells the priest she is upset for having lied to her daughter, having told her that Walter is making the paintings and merely attempting her old style.  The priest simply tells her to trust her husband, as he knows what is right for the family.  Yup, I get it writers, the subjugation of women by men (and organized religion).  Perhaps you could have been more clever and subtle?  Walter’s whole excuse for continuing to claim authorship of the paintings is that no one would take a female artist seriously, so this story is rather perfect if one wanted to illustrate the systematic difficulties an even talented woman has to make something of herself in a system hostile to her.  Why doesn’t the film do that better, and not through awkward, on-the-nose dialogue.

Margaret Keane herself, at least as portrayed in the film, is not the best champion of feminism one could hope for.  Amy Adams is usually very good in everything, but in this film she plays Keane as a cross between Naomi Watt’s gee-whiz character from (most of) “Mulholland Drive”, and the put-upon woman of a Lifetime TV movie. Hell, much of this film feels like Tim Burton’s version of a Lifetime movie, especially one awkward, slasher-like scene of Walter throwing lit matches at Margaret and Jane, causing them to lock themselves in the work room and have Walter throw the matches through the keyhole.  But back to Margaret: while talented (if you like the Big Eye paintings themselves, which I do), is dumb as bricks.  For part of the film she is taken with numerology, apparently after seeing a cheap book about it in the grocery store.  Later, a man to her at an art gallery about her work, and she babbles on about numerology, ruining a potential sale and making the man view her as a fool, which at that moment she is.  Later on, she becomes a Jehovah’s Witness, and THAT is the event that finally gives her the strength to stand up to Walter.  You may not think being a Jehovah’s Witness is stupid in and of itself, but I ask you what religion continues to try really hard to recruit members when they believe only 144,000 people will be allowed into Heaven?

It doesn’t help that the film clearly wants us to see Walter as an abusive husband who keeps Margaret from leaving him out of fear and emotional abuse, when the film doesn’t really show us that.  Prior to the match-lighting scene, we mostly see Walter rationalize and cajole, and maybe lie about how much trouble they’d be in if she came out with the truth because it would leave them both liable to charges of fraud.  He half-jokingly also says he’d have her “Whacked” while they eat dinner at an Italian restaurant, but the scene plays it as the idle, joking threat of a desperate man and not at all dangerous or ominous or something Margaret has to actually be concerned about.  This, combined with the fact that Margaret has already shown herself capable of leaving one husband (for reasons the film doesn’t tell us or show us), make her just seem naïve and dumb for staying with him for 10 years.

I also doesn’t help that the film leads us to believe that Walter is at least partially right, and that her work would not have become popular without his name and personality.  Margaret does namecheck Georgia O’Keefe as a female artists who was successful at the time, so this neutralizes the argument that a woman couldn’t make it in the art world at the time (and partially undercuts the film’s attempts at feminism) and places Margaret’s lack of success on Margaret.  An earlier scene, prior to the fame, where Margaret wants to charge $2.00 for sketches but allows herself to be haggled to $1.00, combined with the numerology fiasco, show that she’s not good at selling herself, or anything.  The Walter of the film as played by Waltz seems a bit too overtly a B.S artist to be good at what he does, but no doubt the real Walter was a much better conman. So while this film might have been interesting from a Marxist perspective of a man making money from no work off the back of a silent laborer, that’s not quite an accurate criticism of Walter as he does bring something to the table, his adept conning, without which the paintings may not have been popular on their merit alone.  Margaret even admits at trial that this was likely the case.   So Margaret, as a protagonist, is dumb, naïve, weak, and even with talent could not have succeeded without a man.  This is the film’s feminist hero?

Perhaps if the film had stuck to one tone it may have been more successful.  The early scenes of the film are so arch and a stylized version of the 1950s (like one from a Coca-Cola print ad rather than real life) that for a while I thought Burton was making the entire film in the style of a 50s film itself. I was reminded of the film “Far from Heaven” from 2002, which was filmed in the style of a 1950s Douglas Sirk film.  Burton’s choice to make suburban America looks like pastels threw up on it (remember the small town in “Scissorhands”) doesn’t help.  The film abandons this style, however, and switches back and forth between broad comedy, earnest “Norma Rae” drama, that one slasher-esque scene, and at the end a courtroom film.  It was as if Burton changed his mind every day about what kind of movie he wanted to make, and edited all the scenes together hoping the final product would feel like the same movie.  It doesn’t.

Why did this film end up like this?  My guess is that Burton didn’t want to make this movie, and didn’t care much about it.  I’m told Burton once commissioned a portrait by the real Margaret Keane of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie, so clearly he likes her work, but liking someone’s work and wanting to film their life story is not the same thing.  Since I’m already on record as saying I think Burton only made “Big Fish” because he was interested in staging the visuals and didn’t give two shits about the story he was telling, I think this other “Big” movie was made for similarly cynical reasons.  Burton wanted to shut his critics up and show that he could make a movie without Depp or Carter (they’ve since broken up, so the latter will likely not show up in any more, much like Lisa Marie was in all of Burton’s films until they broke up) or his usual whimsically goth-ish visuals.  Hell, he’s even gotten good reviews again for it.  This was Burton’s spite movie.

So, we have a film with performances that don’t fit, an awkwardly shifting tone, one-the-nose messages that don’t quite work with the way the protagonist is written and portrayed, a script that needed a few more drafts, and a score that that is overused through many scenes, undercutting their dramatic power.  As I watched the film, I did not hate it, and was never bored.  I find this film to be an interesting and uneven failure.  The underlying story is indeed interesting.  The fact that such a con could be perpetuated for so long is fascinating, as is the fact that posters and photographic facsimiles of paintings being used to generate revenue from people who can’t afford to buy expensive paintings was a practice largely started by Walter Keane.  The examination of High Art vs. Low Art and the role of critics in society might have provided for an interesting film with a different script and a less angry director, but at least the film dips its toe into those waters.  “Big Eyes” isn’t a bad film, it’s just a muddled one. C+


After all of the controversy surrounding the release of “The Interview”, the threats from North Korea and the hacking and Sony and major theater chains retreating like pussies, the film has finally been released courtesy of a few hundred indie theaters, and VOD.  Releasing this film on VOD was probably the wrong move financially, as it diverted money that might have made the limited release huge, and ensures high quality pirated copies will flood the market, but Sony has fumbled this ball for weeks now.  Now that we’re able to see the film ourselves, we can judge whether it was worth all of the damn attention.

In a word: no.  “The Interview” is not a scathing work of blistering satire.  The film doesn’t even really rise to the level of satire.  It’s more of a parody that uses North Korea largely as window-dressing, and it’s attacks on the Kim Jong Un and the DPRK are of the sort you’d see in internet memes or Adult Swim.  One imagines the writers simply saw the episode of Vice where they traveled to North Korea on the same trip Dennis Rodman took and thought it’d be a funny setting for a film.  That’s fine, I guess, and the movie ends up plenty funny in the end.  Well, at least it’s funnier than “This is the End” (which I liked) and “Neighbors” (which I did not).  It’s just a shame that we didn’t get a really biting satire that cared at least a little bit about scoring political points while it was scoring laughs.

In case you’re unaware, the film is about David Skylark (James Franco), a pretentious and possibly mildly mentally handicapped television personality who calls to mind Byron Allen, if Allen was deluded enough to think he was Charlie Rose.  Skylark’s show seems to be composed of TMZ-style infotainment and weird celebrity interviews.  I assume either E! or bravo would air his show.  Skylark’s producer is Aaron (Seth Rogen), who wishes the show did more important news stories.  So, when Skylark reads that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a fan, he gets the idea that maybe he should interview Kim.  After some plot machinations and a hilariously brief meeting in China, an interview is set up.

Then we get the CIA, represented largely by the sexy Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who sadly only wears glasses in one scene (though this leads to a funny little exchange about the timeliness of her Lasik surgery later).  Lacey informs Aaron and Skylark that the CIA would like them to covertly assassinate Kim in the hopes that an unhappy faction in North Korea would take over, as opposed to another Kim relative or one of his generals.  Not exactly the best plan there, CIA, and the film misses an opportunity to use humor to indict the CIA for doing things like this in real life, only to have it come back to bite the US or other countries in the ass: the Bay of Pigs, helping depose Chile’s Allende only to have a dictatorship set up there under Pinochet, etc.  Sadly, the only cogent indictment of the U.S. in the film comes from Kim calling out America’s incarceration rate.  You might argue that the film is more concerned with parodying North Korea, but the film actually doesn’t do as much of that as you’d think.  We get a fake grocery story, complete with a chubby child eating a lollipop.  There’s propaganda hanging around and statues and the like, and an opening sequence of a little girl singing an anti-American song is pretty funny.  Still, the movie stays cautiously away from showing us the true hardships of the people living in North Korea.  Verbal references are made to labor camps and famine, but it’s not shown.  No, the film being a comedy is no excuse for that.  Any subject matter can be made funny, and showing horrendous things like forced labor camps in a bitingly humorous way might have elevated this film to the level of satire.

Once our protagonists make it to North Korea, we meet Kim Jong Un himself, played very well by Randall Park.  The Kim of this film is a shy man nursing daddy issues and an inferiority complex, who masks his feelings of inadequacy regarding his masculinity with women, margaritas, basketball, and collecting extravagant cars.  Also, like every other insecure guy who’s worried he’s not man enough, he like to throw his weight around by threatening violence, though for Kim that means nuclear missiles.  The greatest triumph of “The Interview” is making their Kim a fully fledged character with a distinct personality and not just a cartoon dictator or a background character.  Park finds just the right note to make the character funny while seemingly playing him straight, and deserves massive kudos for being perhaps the most successful element of the film.

The film’s humor doesn’t rise to satire, and spends some time with light parody, but the humor is largely derived from dick jokes, word play, ass/anal/rectum jokes, some celebrity cameos (Eminem’s is particularly funny), barely concealed homosexual undertones in the main characters’ relationship, and a really bizarre performance from James Franco.  There are times in the film where Franco’s portrayal of Skylark makes no sense.  Sometimes the character is a complete moron, other times merely a pretentious asshole, sometimes he seems somewhat intelligent but purposefully naïve, and sometimes he’s just fucking odd.  I don’t know if the character played more straightforward on the page, but as brought to life by Franco this is one weird creation.  It is both over-the-top and not, both bad acting and good acting, and it mostly works in the film but it still calls attention to itself because it’s a just plain WEIRD performance.

Then there’s the third act, which has an almost abrupt use of violence for humor, particularly in a scene involving finger biting.  The blood effects-for-laughs there border on “Too Many Cooks”-level.  It doesn’t go completely “Evil Dead II” on us, but it’s shocking because of how unrelated that humor feels to the rest of the humor in the film.  An unexpected gunshot to the head in the second act also does this.  Later, we’re back to ironic uses of Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Kim shooting a man in the asshole and yelling “Your butthole is ironic!” in Korean for humor.

I will give points to the film for its visual style.  The exteriors of North Korea perfectly capture the look of a place when it has just stopped raining but right before a fog is about the roll in.  Basically, it looks like Vancouver, but as subtle way of communicating the dreariness of life in North Korea via weather it is effective.  I also enjoyed how the film is lit overall, particularly with what look like emergency lights in the scene with the aforementioned unexpected gunshot to the head, and the warm interiors of Kim’s palace where there’s interesting use of shadows and not perfectly lighting everyone, yet not making the film appear dark (many comedies just put as much light on the actors as possible, as if the humor can’t come across unless we see every comedian perfectly).  Director of Photography Brandon Trost deserves special mention, as his previous work has mostly been unexceptional comedies with nothing special about their visual appearance.  Here, he’s brought some of the tricks he might have employed on his more visually interesting films like “The Lords of Salem” and applied them to a comedy.

“The Interview” is probably not the film you want it to be.  Maybe you were looking for something with a little more political humor mixed in with the potty humor, like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator”.  Maybe you wanted a searing indictment of Kim like Chaplin did to Hitler in “The Great Dictator”.  Maybe you wanted a great satire that also has plenty of potty humor, like Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”.  I kind of wanted all of those things, but “The Interview” is not that.  It is a sufficiently funny film which made me laugh a decent amount of times throughout its length, but didn’t inspire any fits of hilarity.  It’s likely the controversy surrounding the film will be more remembered than the film’s actual content, but the content has enough laughs to not be completely disregarded itself.  Take away all of the brouhaha and political stuff and we have a decent little comedy here.  B.

Top Five (dir. Chris Rock)

Posted: December 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

The surface message of “Top Five” doesn’t make sense in a film written and directed by Chris Rock.  That surface message is: it’s okay if you’re only good at one thing, because some people aren’t good at anything, so embrace that one thing you’re good at and don’t try to branch out to something you’re not good at.  This message is made abundantly clear when we’re forced to hear DMX (playing himself) sing a heartfelt, non-rap song in a prison cell.  It’s awful.  The thing is, though, this is a movie written and directed by Chris Rock.  That alone makes the message weird.  Rock was and is one of the best stand-up comedians alive.  Is this the thing he does best?  Most would say yes.  Still, he wrote and directed this film, which is a mix of comedy and drama (mostly the latter, in my opinion), co-wrote and directed two others, is an actor, and even created a TV series (“Everybody Hates Chris”).  Chris Rock is one man who is talented at more than one thing, and in interviews comes across as a person who gets angry when people only see his humor and not his fierce intelligence.

So why would a multi-talented man make a movie that seems to argue that many people only have one talent and should just stick to that?  Honestly, I have no clue.  The opening scene of the film may point to something. Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian and actor who got tired of playing in bad comedies where he was stuck in a bear suit.  This is partially because his mother died, but more due to getting sober after being quite the alcoholic.  In one of the film’s funniest scenes, we flash back to 2003 and Andre’s trip to Houston, which involves two prostitutes and a really whacky Cedric the Entertainer.  That’s all I’ll say here to not ruin anything, but there’s a shot of Rock laying on a bed in the fetal position that had me hysterically laughing.

Not wanting to do comedies anymore, Andre had made a film about the Haitian Revolution.  The footage of this film-within-a-film that we see involves Rock with an over-the-top expression, wielding a machete, and yelling “Kill all the White People”.  It’s like something out of “Tropic Thunder”, as are the scenes of Andre’s successful “Hammy the Bear” movies, where Andre wears a really unrealistic bear suit and shoots people from the top of a police car repeating the phrase “It’s Hammy time!” ad nauseam.   The Haiti movie is expected to bomb, but Andre still hopes that’s not the case, and through the earlier part of the film we follow him on a press junket that feels like it must be autobiographical for Rock.  We know actors hate press junkets and having to answer the same moronic questions over and over again, and my guess is the scene where Andre is doing a promo for a radio station and is told to “put some stank on it” comes from real life.

The biggest press Andre does, reluctantly, is allow himself to be followed all day by Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a reporter from the New York Times, a paper that had given Andre scathing reviews in the past for his work.  Throughout the day they start with animosity but begin to grow together as two intelligent people with commonalities will do if they talk long enough.  Some scenes between the two of them resemble an urban version of Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” series, though most of the film truly feels like Woody Allen territory (both Rock and frequent collaborator Louis CK like to pay homage to Allen….naming the main character Andre Allen might be an homage).

So back to that opening scene:  Andre and Chelsea argue about whether sometimes a movie is just a movie or a song is just a song, or if there is always something underneath.  Andre believes the latter, though the scene ends with him claiming he can’t get a taxi in New York as a black man, yet he gets the second one which passes to stop for him.  Does that mean the film is arguing the surface message is all there is to this film?  Or does the taxi stopping not relate to the message argument?  (They also talk about how much has changed in America with a black president in this scene, so it may be related to that subject instead, or both subjects).  Later in the film, Andre discusses a conspiracy theory that “Planet of the Apes” is about white fears of a black takeover of Earth (which may be true), but then links the murder of Martin Luther King the day after the film opened  to the film itself (conspiracy theory).  Perhaps that is a warning not to read too much into the film? I don’t know.  I only know that Chris Rock is a very intelligent man and may have injected his film with multiple layers of meaning, while I’m stuck with a confusing surface message that doesn’t make sense coming from him.  I could understand that surface message coming from, say, Adam Sandler, who makes a cameo in this film and has been stuck making shitty comedies even though his best films, arguably “Punch Drunk Love” and “Reign Over Me”, are dramas that did okay-to-bad business.  In fact, Sandler’s film “Funny People” covers similar ground to this film.

Rock’s film career has not followed the same trajectory as Sandler’s.  Sure, Rock has made some shitty movies, such as “Lethal Weapon 4” and “Grown Ups 2”, but he’s also made some really good stuff, like “I Think I Love My Wife”.  Still, the former two made money and the latter bombed.  I guess the difference between Sandler and Rock is that when Rock makes bad movies, we forgive him because his stand-up is universally praised, but Sandler doesn’t really do much else except make “Blended” or “Just Go With it” and other shitty comedies that his target audience has since outgrown. Hell, the Sony leaks show even his studio is sick of his shit, which may have prompted his Netflix deal.  But I digress.  Rock is largely respected, though perhaps he doesn’t feel like he is.

On the main message of the film, I feel that I’ve failed.  I understand the surface message, but I don’t believe the film is actually arguing that message.  Luckily, the secondary message of the film is crystal clear: Rock hates artifice and phoniness.  His character Andre is engaged to a reality star (Gabrielle Union) who is filming the entire lead up to the wedding live for Bravo.  In one on-the-nose scene late in the film, she confesses to Andre that she has no talent and reality TV is all she has.  In the film she also lies to Andre a few times, makes personal decisions based on what network heads want, and shows no signs of actually loving Andre.  She even later admits to blowing Andre in their relationship as a way of being able to call in a big favor later.  (This, along with two women falsely claiming rape, and another woman describing her promiscuous sexual past, not to mention thieving strippers, kind of cast a sexist pall over the entire film, which is my one major quibble with the film).  Aside from the fiancé, we also get prostitutes pretending to be horny fangirls, a reporter having multiple aliases and secrets, unfaithful comedians who advise to never admit their unfaithfulness, and many other characters that lie, hide things, and keep things secret.  Phoniness and artifice are a major theme in this film, and Andre himself is trying to fool himself into thinking he’s tired of comedies, when really he’s just scared.

One thing I have to point out about Rock is something that seems to have carried on from his last directorial effort, the underrated “I Think I Love My Wife”.  In that film, Rock played a man who was fairly unhappily married and is tempted with a fun, sexy ex-girlfriend who really wants him.  That film was trying to argue that Rock’s character should stay with his wife, but his wife in that film (Gina Torres) was portrayed as a completely unlikeable shrew, to the point where you were hoping he would just cheat on his damn wife.  In “Top Five”, we barely see Andre’s fiancé, and what we do see of her is merely her phony, reality TV persona, and we sense no love, affection, or connection between her and Andre.  When Andre and Chelsea begin to drift closer, we as an audience also want Andre to cheat on his fiancé.  This raises the question as to why Chris Rock makes films which make audiences encourage cheating.  The only other film Rock has directed was the goofy comedy “Head of State”, which doesn’t feature this, but both “I Think I Love My Wife” and “Top Five” are actually more dramas than comedies, and both have an indie film feel (the former was based on a 1972 French film), and my guess is they say more about Rock’s psyche than any of his other films.

“Top Five” is often funny, and scenes involving hot sauce and, later, Jerry Seinfeld, are as funny or funnier than anything else I’ve seen in the theater all year.  I especially like Rock giving a few jabs to Tyler Perry.  However, the film is more of a drama and you do feel, as you watch it, that there’s more going on than meets the eye.  At the very least, it seems that Rock has learned from his mistake in how he ended “I Think I Love My Wife” (in the audio commentary to that film he admitted not knowing how to end it) and this time gives the audience and his main character what they really want.  I wish I could say I truly knew what Rock was trying to say with this film, but I don’t.  That surface message makes no sense coming from Rock.  The industry jabs; the inside baseball; and even the visual gag of an apartment in the projects that has pictures of Obama, Jesus (a WHITE Jesus, mind you), and Dr. King hanging on the walls, but a coffee table full of alcohol, is an edgy indictment of the lofty aspirations of certain segments of the black community who then do nothing to reach their supposed heroes; these are all very interesting avenues to explore, and Rock’s hatred of artifice is hard to misinterpret.  Beyond that, though, I don’t know why Rock chose to make this film this way.  What’s your film REALLY trying to say, Chris? B

Sometimes a film walks right up to the edge of being a good film, only to run away completely in the opposite direction.  “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is such a film.  There are a number of points in the film where it looks like it is going to be good and explore interesting themes, but instead it settles for showing us lots of pretty shots of horses running and extras flocking. What a shame.

We cannot ignore the fact that this is a film of a Bible story, directed by an atheist.  Earlier this year we had another atheist-directed Bible film in “Noah”, and that turned out laughably bad.  “Exodus” isn’t laughable, mind you, but when it comes to dealing with religion it is awfully confused.  The film opens with a title card reading “1300 BCE”.  Already using “Before Common Era” instead of the Christian preferred “Before Christ” was bound to upset Christians, and the films half-hearted attempts to explain the plagues through scientific means (sort of) or compare Egyptian reading of animal entrails to slaughtering of lambs for Passover blood (with similarly gruesome close-ups of animal blood and evisceration) wouldn’t help either.  Shots of supporting characters watching Moses (Christian Bale) talking to an empty spot on a rock when Moses thinks he’s talking to God-as-a-little-snotty-British-boy (Issac Andrews) seem to indicate Moses is talking to himself and is some sort of crazy, hallucinating schizophrenic.  Hell, Moses doesn’t see God and the famous Burning Bush until he’s hit on the head during a mudslide.  Plus, hey, the Egyptian prophecy of Moses saving Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) and becoming a leader comes true, so doesn’t that mean either the Egyptian religion is true (or at least as true as the Hebrew prophecy that Moses will become a leader), or that these prophecies come true as a coincidence?  Weird.

So we start, as an audience, to think this is going to be the “realistic” telling of the famous Moses story. Nope.  We still get a magical sword causing the Red Sea to “part” via typhoon, and it’s hard to explain the weird, murderous crocodiles without some sort of divine intervention, even though one Egyptian tries to blame that on clay found in the Nile.  My guess is that director Ridley Scott wanted to do a realistic Bible tale (kind of like his shitty attempt to make a “realistic” Robin Hood movie), but the studio was afraid that would turn off the Faith-Based moviegoers they wanted to tap into, so we get this weird, mixed attempt that will likely please no one.  This film has FOUR credited writers, so it is likely this screenplay had numerous problems that were tinkered with piecemeal, resulting in this mixed-message thing.

So okay, this film isn’t going to succeed as either a straight-ahead Bible story or an atheist revision of one.  The film will drop the ball when dealing with religion.  It is too confused to make a pro-religion, anti-religion, or even mixed argument about religion.  Moses comes off as crazy, the Egyptians come off as fools, and a god seems to exist as a bratty child who lets his chosen people suffer for 400 years as slaves, and then when Moses calls him out on this, God’s come back is that Moses didn’t do much either.  Moses is also not omnipotent and didn’t know he was Hebrew until recently, so it’s not much of an argument.  It’s also never explained why God needs Moses in the first place.  He taps Moses to free the Hebrews, complains Moses is taking too long, and then releases plagues.  The god of this film is either not omnipotent or mentally handicapped himself.

Failing at religion, the film then seems like it is going to be about Class Warfare.  We have a rich ruling class of assholes (Ramesses pushes slave labor resources to the breaking point to build a palace and tomb for himself; another character embezzles money from the government to build himself a palace, etc) who are subject to a revolution by the proletarian slave class of Hebrews.  When Moses first demands that Ramesses free the slaves, the Pharaoh’s response is a weak explanation that begins “The economics of that alone…”   Moses’ first battle plan is to starve the Egyptian Bourgeoisie (of food and other supplies) until the government has to capitulate to the slaves’ demands.  It would have been interesting to paint Moses as Lenin of 1300 BCE since, in America at least, most strongly religious people would identify as economic Conservatives if not outright Republicans.  But again, the film only dips its toe in the water, and doesn’t really care to make any political statement, as God loses patient with Moses’ revolution and releases frogs.

So with no real comment to be made about religion or politics and economics, the last theme the film tries to bring up is race.  When discussing the Hebrews many characters, including the slave-overseeing viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), use terms and adjectives that one can hear racists today use to describe Blacks who live in poor, urban areas, or to describe Hispanic laborers.  Not to mention that anti-Semitism didn’t exactly die out in 1300 BCE.  The problem with this film trying to indict racism, however, lies in that we never really get to meet or care about any Hebrews other than Moses.  Sure, we meet Nun (Ben Kingsley) and Joshua (Aaron Paul), but we learn little-to-nothing about them and have no connection to them as an audience.  Other nameless Hebrews are hanged, and two Hebrews attempt to betray Moses by tattling on him to their slaver, which does nothing but solidify the anti-Semitic stereotype of the greedy, backstabbing Jew.  The only other Hebrew character the film even tries to get us to care about is Moses’ wife, Zipporah (Maria Valverde), and the film has them meet in one scene, only to get married in the next.  Not exactly enough screen time to be invested in their love story.

That’s not just a problem with race, though.  This is a problem with how unfeeling this whole film is.  In this film, there was exactly one scene where I felt even a mild bit of emotion for any of the characters.  After God has killed all the first-born sons of Egypt (because he’s all loving and hates babies dying of abortion…wait, what?), Ramesses wraps his dead baby son for mummification, kisses him, and tells him he sleeps well because he knows he is loved.  Then we see Ramesses wife rocking an empty cradle back and forth. So yes, it is only for the film’s villain, whose innocent baby son is murdered by God, that I felt a lick of emotion toward any of the characters.  Perhaps this film is so concerned with glittery golden costumes, CGI panoramas of ancient Egypt, and shots of horses and chariots running around that it just doesn’t care about our human characters (or even our divine ones).  Granted, there are a few genuinely good visuals, which the 3D helps as well, but the prettiest pictures in the world don’t make up for a cold and dry story.

Now I know what some of you who are familiar with me and my reviews are going to say.  You will point out that I am a strongly anti-religion atheist, so of course I’m not going to like a Bible story.  Well, you would be wrong.  I’ve always found the story of Moses and Ramesses to be very entertaining.  I especially love the animated film “The Prince of Egypt” (1998), which I feel captures this story the best it has ever been captured on film.  The medium of animation makes unbelievable myths easier to swallow, and that film has beautiful animation, using computer animation to supplement rich 2D animation.  Even in live action, I can enjoy an adaptation of a Bible story as much as I can enjoy one of, say, a Greek myth (though “Clash of the Titans” has sucked in both iterations thus far).  It’s not my atheism that keeps me from enjoying “Exodus”, it’s the failures of the film itself.

The film fails to explore any rich themes even though it dips its toe into them.  It fails to engage us in the story or have us care about the characters.  Individual scenes will work, only to be followed by two that are boring.  The film is both too long, yet also doesn’t have enough time or material to flesh out the scenes and story moments that need to be fleshed out for us to care.  Hell, if you didn’t go into this film knowing about the Golden Calf, you wouldn’t know what it is when you left.  Moses goes up a mountain, there’s a cutaway to something vaguely cow-idol-looking, and Little Boy God shakes his head derisively.   The  10 Commandments?  There’s one scene of Moses chiseling away a rock as Little Boy God talks to him.  There’s no scene of him delivering them to his people, no smashing of the tablets, nothing.  This film doesn’t care about the 10 Commandments at all, which is odd since that is the title of the most famous filmic adaptation of this story.

The film is dedicated to Tony Scott, the brother of the director, who committed suicide not too long ago.  It is clear Scott was drawn to this story because of the fraternal relationship at its center.  This isn’t exactly a fitting tribute, as Ramesses cares about Moses yet still orders his death. Moses seems to not like Ramesses all that much, but whether that is the script’s failure of Christian Bale’s I cannot say. I don’t know if Ridley seems himself as the crazy Moses or the inept Ramesses, but this story of brothers was likely not the best tribute to the late Tony.

Lastly, I have to address the controversy of the casting.  For a story filled with characters who are Egyptian/African and Hebrew, most of the main actors are English, Spanish, Australian, or American.  I normally don’t have issues with actors playing a different race.  Being an actor is about playing someone you’re not, and often times creative casting works better.  Think of Italian Al Pacino playing Cuban Tony Montana in “Scarface”.  We can’t imagine any other actor playing that role.  As long as the performance doesn’t descend into Blackface or racist mimicry, I don’t have a problem.  Granted, when a film has ONLY minorities played by non-minorities, it is a little disconcerting.  Also, in this film I can clearly imagine other actors in the roles because, while the acting in this film is certainly not bad, none of these performances blow me away.  Joel Edgarton gives the best of the lot.

“Exodus” is dry, emotionless, and has too many mixed messages or failed messages to be worth seeing for most.  The acting is sufficient and the film has some good visuals, but this is a mediocre film at best. C.

Snowpiercer (dir. Boon Joon-ho)

Posted: December 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

“Snowpiercer” isn’t a perfect film, but it is a brilliant film nonetheless.  The entire film plays as an allegory for, well, I was about to say modern day America.  However, since the director, Boon Joon-ho, is South Korean, perhaps it is an allegory for the entire world.  This is a scathing, depressing, misanthropic film attacking our world in the mostly cynically Marxist way I have seen in a very long time.  It’s one of the year’s best films.

I am guessing many of my readers may not have heard of this film.  Once again, the man to blame is Harvey Weinstein, who has never failed to fail when it comes to having a great film on the shelf which could be a huge hit.  Weinstein wanted Joon-ho to cut this film by 20 minutes and to tack on a prologue and an epilogue, for fear that stupid American audiences wouldn’t understand the film and would get bored by the non-action parts of it.  Joon-ho refused to cut and alter his film, so a film that was originally going to get a ride release was dumped to the Video OnDemand pile out of spite.  There was enough fan uproar, and good buzz from other countries where the film played well, to forced Weinstein to give the film a very small theatrical release, but in the end this film was deprived of the audience it deserved.  It was released in July and only now was I able to get around to seeing it.

The premise, taken from the French comic book upon which the film is based, is quite creative.  With Global Warming threatening life on Earth, scientists release a chemical into the atmosphere to cool the planet’s temperature.  This chemical ends up working too well, and the Earth becomes so cold that it can no longer sustain any life.  The only people left alive live on very big train, which navigates tracks that circle the entire planet and takes one year to complete a rotation.  This train was built by a wealthy industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris), and there are shades of “Bioshock” here, what with this closed-in ecosystem of Capitalism that runs on a cult of personality toward its founder.  Wilford occupies the front of the train, where the engine is.  Joon-ho has already come out and explicitly said that the engine represents Capital in this film.  When you find out what keeps the engine running at the end, well, you’ll see the metaphor driven home solidly.

The tail section of the train is occupied with the perpetually dirty poor peoples who didn’t pay for tickets on the train, but were allowed onto this ark of sorts all because of Wilford’s “generosity”.  With bunk beds atop bunk beds, the look of the tail section is that of a very narrow slum.  Occupants eat only black, oily “protein bars” for sustenance.  Their leader, Curtis (Chris Evans) plots a revolution with his mentor, the one-armed and one-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), and a young protégé of sorts Edgar (Jaime Bell).  There have been at least 2 failed insurrections before, but Curtis has been getting hidden, one-word messages sent to him in his protein bars, and he thinks he has an inside man helping him.  He also believes that, with resources on the train being finite, the guards no longer have bullets after firing them off in the last insurrection attempt.  His plan is to get to the prison section, free the man who designed the train’s security system (Song Kang-ho, whose dialogue is entirely in Korean), an addict whose drug is a flammable industrial waste nugget, and make his way to the front of the train. Namgoong Minsu, the security man, also has a daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung), who is also an addict but has the added benefit of being slightly psychic, often knowing what is behind the door to each subsequent cabin before her dad opens it.

It should be clear to anyone watching the film that this is all a metaphor for Capitalism and Class Warfare.  The train represents Earth (Wilford makes this connection explicit in dialogue for the slower members of the audience), which we sometimes like to forget has finite resources.  As our impoverished heroes battle their way up the train, and talk about how past revolutions failed because they didn’t go far enough to capture the engine (Capital), it’s hard to ignore that their horizontal battle across the train is akin to any proletarian uprising, which we normally picture as a vertical hierarchy which needs to be climbed up.  We watch as the slum tail section becomes the jail section, then gradually to sections like water purification, a greenhouse, an aquarium that serves sushi, a sauna and beauty parlor, rich people’s private cabins, and even an elementary school.  The crazy zeal behind the teacher’s eyes, played wonderfully by Alison Pill, as she dispenses propaganda, is the funniest and most chilling thing in the whole film.

My only complaint with how the train is structured is with the weird fetish nightclub at the front of the train right before the engine, and the drug addict flophouse attached to it.  One wonders how and why the richest of the rich on this train devolved into ravers.  I get the drugs, but the choice to make them angel-wing wearing fetish dancers seems a bridge too far.  And who brought angel wings onto the train in the first place?  The fact that this didn’t happen to all of the rich on the train, as we see more identifiably affluent passengers earlier as they dine and get their hair done, is not given a sufficient explanation and is the one main drawback, for me, of the film.

I haven’t even mentioned Tilda Swinton who, until we meet Wilford at the very end, is our main antagonist.  Behind giant vintage glasses and bad teeth, she becomes an unrecognizable Margaret Thatcher-meets-Gaddafi schoolmarm named Mason.  Delivering some wonderful speeches about how the poor are a shoe and shouldn’t try to be a hat, Mason is one of the oiliest, ickiest, wonderfully horrible villains I have seen in some time.  Despite how over-the-top she sometimes seems, she is oddly reserved for a villain.  She doesn’t behave in any over-the-top villainous ways.  All of her actions are believable and something a person in her position would do.

So does the film advocate Class Warfare as a solution to our modern day issues with Capitalism?  Sort of.  The film appears to argue that many insurrections do little more than to solidify the status quo, even if there is a change of the guard.  The system wins out even if the individual villains do not.  The solution, the film seems to say, is not to change the system or win within the system, but to smash to system entirely and create something new.  In that sense, this is no mere Socialist Revolution.  The film wants to smash the Capitalism system entirely.  This may the first full on Communist film I have seen, produced for a largely Western audience (80%+ of the dialogue is in English, with some other dialogue in Korean and French, respectively).  We’re told later in the film that Wilford would have settled for letting the tail section capture a few extra cars and have more space.  This brings to mind capitulations that Capitalism makes all the time in the face of proletarian anger: a minimum wage hike every few years, laws against child labor, overtime pay, etc.  No matter what capitulations are made, though, Capitalism as a system remains secure, and most people remain in the class in which they were born in to.  In “Snowpiercer”, no passenger has an opportunity to work hard and buy their way into a better cabin.  That illusion, of hard work equally upward mobility, is not an illusion for the passengers on the train.  Perhaps that is why they are so willing to revolt, while millions of poor Americans work shit jobs, vote for moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans, play the lottery, and think that one day they’ll be rewarded through either work or luck.  The truth is that most won’t, because we’re all on this damn train, and it won’t stop unless we try to stop it instead of settling for a few more cars. A-

I’m not sure “Horrible Bosses” needed a sequel. That 2011 film was a sometimes funny “Throw Mama from the Train” spin on worker angst that took the easy road when a higher level of satire about Capitalism was just out of reach. Still, I was not against a sequel being made, as perhaps a different plot with these same characters would work better.  “Horrible Bosses 2” turns out to be probably on the same level as its predecessor, as the film substitutes three murder plots with a single kidnapping plot, satire is left largely untouched, and the three leads spend a lot of time talking over each other.

Since the last film, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) have decided to become entrepreneurs and invented a showerhead that also dispenses shampoo and conditioner.  Not sure how this makes showering easier since you still have to buy shampoo to load into the showerhead, and it really only saves you the trouble of pouring shampoo into your hand and applying it to your head, since you’d still have to lather it yourself, but whatever.  Have you seen Skymall?  People will buy the dumbest shit you can think of.  I believe Marx forewarned of this Commodity Fetishism, and this might have been a good angle for the film to approach a satire of consumerism.  Nope.  The filmmakers have obviously seen “Fight Club”, since this film namechecks that one, but none of the satire rubbed off on it.

After appearing on a morning show to promote their prototype (because morning shows do that?) they get a call to meet with Rex (Chris Pine) who runs a Skymall-like catalogue retailer.  He offers are protagonists a one-time fee to buy their product, outsource manufacturing to China, and reap all of the profits.  The guys, mainly Nick, decide they want the profit for themselves since this was their creation and they worked for it (Marxist satire opportunity #930 missed), and turn down the offer.  That’s when we meet the REAL head of the company, Rex’s dad Burt (Christoph Waltz).  Opportunity to Satirize nepotism and inherited wealth also missed.

In any case, Burt claims he likes the cut of our protagonists’ respective gibs and says he’ll set them up with a loan officer at a bank to front them the money to go into production on their product, with a promise that he’ll buy 100,000 units to sell through his company, which will be exclusive retailer.  Our protagonists are thrilled and agree, seemingly without signing any contracts.  So they get the loan, rent space, hire a staff, build the products and…Burt cancels the order.  He does this so the guys’ won’t be able to pay back the loan, go into default, and then Burt can buy the stock of products and the guys’ patent for it in a liquidation auction for much cheaper than he could buy it from the guys directly.  “Hard work doesn’t create wealth,” he says.  “Wealth creates wealth.”  I guess the screenwriters have read a little Thomas Piketty, but again we have a great launching pad for some great satire.

Sadly, this film isn’t concerned with satirizing Capitalism, Consumerism, Wealth, Outsourcing, or any of the other rich areas it skirts by but never engages.  Nope.  It is more concerned with having MANY scenes of the three protagonists mumbling over each other until a supporting character tells them to shut up.  The film loves showing us how stupid Dale is, how horny Kurt is, how REALLY horny Julia (Jennifer Aniston, who plays this character better than she did in the first one but has a distractingly bad fake tan) is, showing Nick get exacerbated by his two colleagues, and letting Jaime Foxx’s Motherfucker Jones just be absurd.  Some jokes hit there mark, some fall flat, but most of the humor is of the super-fast verbal variety, so jokes than might have landed breeze by, or are talked over by lamer jokes given more volume in the sound mix.  There are no hilarious gutbusters in the film, but there are a few chuckles, and some interesting soundtrack choices.  We also get an Austin Powers-esque sight gag where something looks dirty but isn’t.  Then there’s Chris Pine, who is pretty annoying every moment he’s on screen.  One scene with him that sort of works involves him mistreating his maid, but again Immigration, Racism, and Cheap Labor are not satirized.  Instead, they’re more pointed out so we can get jokes about toothbrushes being rubbed against anuses.

This film was directed by Sean Anders, who directed the underrated “Sex Drive” and has written or co-written some other good comedies like “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “We’re the Millers”.  He also directed an, unseen by me, Adam Sandler movie that bombed.  “Horrible Bosses 2” is certainly competently made and the editing works to the gags advantage.  The issue is more that the film picks the low-hanging fruit of humor when this film, and the franchise, could have been the “Office Space” of the post-2008 era.  I wouldn’t say the film is lazy, exactly, but more that the filmmakers have the ability to make a more biting satire (evident by at least having the issues brought up, albeit shallowly) but decided to play things broad and simple, either to keep in line with the first film or from studio intervention.

If you liked the first “Horrible Bosses”, you’ll probably like the sequel to an equal or slightly lesser extent.  It works well enough for what it is, you just blame it for not being what it could have been. B-

Tusk (dir. Kevin Smith)

Posted: December 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

Kevin Smith seemed to have gotten tired of making his usual film right around “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back”, and so that film served as a send off to that phase of his career.  Sadly, he followed that up with “Jersey Girl” which succumbed to the anti-Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck wave that came about after “Gigli”.  It’s nice that Affleck’s career has recovered, but Lopez still seems to be in career hell.  “Jersey Girl” was actually pretty decent, though the last act was way too smaltzy, and Smith’s fanbase didn’t want to see Smith watered down to a PG-13 dramedy.  So, he went back to the well with “Clerks II”, and that was all fine and good, but then it was clear that Smith felt stifled creatively.

Smith now seems to be in a phase where he’s mimicking other filmmakers in order to decide who he wants to be next.  “Zack & Miri Make A Porno” was Smith trying to be Judd Apatow or any of the directors who have worked with his merry repertory cast.  That film was, to me, a creative success, but it bombed in relation to the other large grossing comedies of that group (“Pineapple Express”, “Superbad”, and the like).  “Cop Out” was the first film Smith directed that he didn’t write himself, and it turned into a mediocre, by-the-numbers entry into the buddy-cop genre.  Then came “Red State”, where Smith went WAY out of the box and tried to be a mix of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers in a film that dealt with religion and politics and came out with no particular message.  It was Smith’s best directed feature and yet one of his weakest screenplays.  It seemed like the man made a giant step forward as a director (his prior films got increasingly better from a cinematic point of view, but they were all pretty dry visually), but he got too lost in self-pleasure over his long monologues  to know when to step out of his own way.  Not to mention all the brouhaha around the release, with the fake auction at Sundance and the four-walling distribution method.

Now we have “Tusk”, which was released in a traditional limited manner, and not successfully at that.  The story was born out of a podcast where Smith and his long-time producing partner Scott Mosier discussed a classified ad they saw where a man offered free rent if the applicant agreed to dress like a walrus.  They broke down the story then and there, Smith’s fans tweeted that they wanted to see the story, and a film was made.  “Tusk” is structured in a similar way to Hitchcock’s “Psycho”: a main character goes missing, and two people task a private detective to find that missing person.  “Tusk” even gives us a shot of a car dumped into a lake, ala “Psycho”.  The similarities don’t end there, as we also get a creepy person surrounded by weird objects he has on the wall delivering creepy dialogue, and that same creepy person having a background of abuse as a child, but “Tusk” and “Psycho” aren’t films that FEEL like one another.

Instead, “Tusk” feels like Smith’s take on “The Human Centipede”, though “Centipede” leaned more on the horror scale of horror-comedy whereas Smith’s film is much more comedy than horror.  Both of these films feature a crazy misanthrope making a creature out of unwilling humans, and both films are not quite as gross as we think they are while we’re watching them.  “Tusk” is Smith perhaps trying to be Eli Roth but instead winding up as Tom Six.  “Tusk” is a joke turned into a film, and whether the joke is good or not will depend on each particular viewer.  I found it uneven but eminently watchable.

Our plot involves Warren (Justin Long, back in “Jeepers Creepers” mode), a podcaster who, along with his partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment…yeah, he’s still around) build their show around making fun of viral videos and interviewing the subjects.  So basically they are the podcast version of Daniel Tosh.  I’m not sure how this works well for a podcast as that is a medium that wouldn’t allow one to SEE the videos, but whatever.  The only viral video the film shows us is of a kid waving a sword around like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”, but the kid cuts his leg off.  The CGI for the video is HORRIBLE and distracting, with the accidental amputation looking like a bad amateur Youtube video’s animation.  In any event, Warren flies up to Canada to interview the kid, only to find that the kid has killed himself.  Left with no interview and no material for the following week’s podcast, and stuck in Canada, he brightens up when he finds a handwritten letter posted above the urinal in the men’s bathroom of a bar.  The letter offers to share interesting maritime stories.  Warren contacts the man and drives two hours to his impressive home in the middle of nowhere.

The man is Howard Howe (Michael Parks).  He offers Warren tea and regales him with stories of meeting Ernest Hemingway and being saved by a walrus after being lost at sea.  Warren passes out during the story and wakes up to find one of his legs amputated. Howard claims Warren was bitten by a venomous spider and the leg had to go lest the poison reach his heart, but after a short time it becomes clear that Howard drugged Warren himself.  Shortly after that, it becomes clear that Howard is intent on mutilating Warren until he can fit into a crude walrus suit Howard has constructed.  Howard hates human beings, but remains fond of the walrus that saved him, who he dubbed Mr. Tusk.  Howard will turn Warren into a walrus, or kill Warren if he doesn’t make a suitable walrus companion.

Meanwhile, Teddy and Warren’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) go searching for him, and wind up enlisting the help of ex-detective Guy Lapointe.  Guy is played by an uncredited Johnny Depp and continues Depp’s pattern of playing really weird, out-there characters.  As Guy, Depp has the worst and most over the top French-Canadian accident ever caught on film.  Depp lives in France, making this all the more baffling.  His appearance in the film, coming after a horrific revealing of Warren in the walrus suit, kind of brings the film to a halt, and Depp actually takes away from the film with this weird, showboating role.  The comedy and the horror in this film mesh well enough, I suppose, but the weird Depp character, and also a large number of unsuccessful Canadian jokes, result in an uneven final product.

The ending of the film is ludicrous and defies basic logic.  Why Warren ends up here he ends up, and is ALLOWED to end up there, makes no sense.  Smith seems to be stuck with the ending because it’s the one he came up with during the original podcast, but in a film that was already pretty ridiculous this turn of events is one absurdity too far.  That said, the film as a whole is very entertaining and watchable all the way through.  Smith still gives his characters passages of dialogue that are way too long at times, but at least he now knows to cut away to B-roll to break it up, or add other cuts and dialogue interjections to build tension rather than bore the audience.  This is one of Smith’s better directed films, and the production design of Howard’s home is superb and richly lit with reds and dark woods adding great ambience. The walrus suit, and seeing Warren in it, work really well.  It looks like Leatherface from “Texas Chainsaw” decided he needed a pet.

While Howard gives more than his share of lines about how humans are evil scum and animals are better, there’s no real message or meaning to the film.  The film really just exists to be a weird little artifact, and it’s amazing that it came together as well as it did.  There are plenty of quibbles to be had with it, including black and white flashbacks that look cheap and an insufferable scene between Depp and Parks where they seem to having a who-has-the-most-annoying-voice contest, but the film as a whole holds together reasonably well.  Smith is a comedy guy who wants to make movies that aren’t just comedies, and “Tusk” is enough of a comedy to be both safe for Smith, but also have enough weird-o elements for Smith not to get bored.  If Smith wants to experiment with weird ideas like this, as opposed to pretentious outings like “Red State”, I encourage him to do so. B.

It’s a breath of fresh air to see a pro-science movie.  This may seem odd, but most films which feature science heavily in the plot are films which are indicting science for running amok (“Jurassic Park”), or creating a dystopia (“Gattaca”, though I’d argue that film is more against discrimination than eugenics), or leading to the end of humanity (“The Terminator”, “The Matrix”, and nearly any film about artificial intelligence).  “Big Hero 6” loves science, and as such its main theme seems to be about humans misappropriating good science for bad ends.  If humans just used science the way it is supposed to be used, science would be fine.  Humans are the issue, not science.

Take the set-up of this film, for example. The non-subtly named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a young teenage prodigy who graduated high school early.  He spends his free time hustling people with a little robot he made for back alley robot battles, to the consternation of his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney).  Tadashi is similarly brilliant and goes to an MIT-like college where he is working on a robot, Baymax (Scott Adsit), which is to be used as a cuddling healthcare companion (think EMT meets nurse meets supercomputer, but with a childlike naivety on behavioral issues).  When Tadashi shows Hiro his cool lab, and his peers and their experiments, Hiro becomes determined to get accepted to this awesome school.  Think about it: a film aimed at children (and teenagers, it seems) where the first act is about a kid who desperately wants to get into a good school to get an education and do something productive with his talents.  Whatever insidious messages this film might possibly have under the surface (I took a class on Disney films in college and know that almost all of these films have something nefarious), the surface itself of this film stands out as remarkably forward-thinking.

Hiro creates these cool little minibots which, when controlled by a user’s neural pathways, can form an almost limitless variations of geometrical and architectural shapes.  He shows them off at an expo competition aimed at getting accepted to the college by Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), and Hiro does indeed get accepted.  But then a fire breaks out, Tadashi runs in to save Callaghan, and they both perish.  Stricken with grief, Hiro retreats into himself until, by accident, he awakens Baymax, and the plot proceeds from there.

This is an animated film, and it’s pretty much par for the course at this point to point out how beautiful this thing looks.  The setting for this film is the fictional mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo.  You may have noticed the Japanese names of the brothers.  It is a tad bit disappointing that the Japanese influence in this film is mostly cosmetic and adds almost nothing to the film plot-wise.  Seeing pagodas and bonsai trees are pretty awesome, and little touches like Hiro’s aunt (Maya Rudolph) having a café with a Japanese Lucky Cat logo, as well as an actual cat who looks like a Japanese Lucky Cat, are pretty sweet.  The issue I have is that the film only appropriates Japanese iconography for visual stimulation.  There is no reason this film couldn’t take place in normal San Francisco with a main character named Harry except the filmmakers wanting to pay homage to “Big Hero 6” being loosely based on a manga.  It’s playing to an audience that soaks up Japanese pop culture but has no interest in Japan itself whatsoever.  Though, admittedly, the extra bit of visual interest this adds does elevate the eye candy to a new level.  This isn’t the dystopic Neo-Tokyo of “Akira”.  This feel s like a vibrant, lived-in yet clean near-future.

Beyond that, the animation is superb.  There are elements here and there, like a bush or a chain link fence, that practically look photo real.  In fact, if the human characters weren’t so “How to Train Your Dragon”-blandly designed certain frames of this film would be indistinguishable from a live-action film (not many, but some).  Objects and elements look and feel like they have weight, heft, and three dimensions.  There’s detail packed into every corner that makes you want to be able to pause the film and drink in background ephemera.  This is a pretty, pretty movie to look at.  Perhaps the female characters could have been designed less like teenaged boys daydreams.  The unrealistically waifishly skinny Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), the punkish tough girl GoGo (Jaime Chung), and even Maya Rudolph’s Aunt Cass are all unusually pretty, thin, tastefully but noticeably busted, and crafted to have personalities catering to teenboy fantasies of a Manic Pixie (Honey Lemon), a cool tough chick (GoGo), and a hot older woman who can make really spicy fried chicken (Aunt Cass).  These are unusually crush-worthy female characters in an already male-centric film (what with superheroes and action scenes), and I question why these characters seem aimed to please young boys and not young girls.

Minor quibble, I guess.  Anyway, the film eventually does fall into being a somewhat run-of-the-mill superhero tale, wherein Hiro assembles a team of superheroes to take down a villain, in this case a kabuki mask-wearing guy who has stolen Hiro’s microbots and set the fire that killed Tadashi.  Considering how refreshing and original the first act is, it was kind of a shame to see this become yet another superhero film, albeit a very pretty one that is often tremendously funny and cute.  Much of the humor comes from Baymax, who sees all issues through the eyes of a caregiver who must keep Hiro healthy, and doesn’t understand how this or that task helps to enrich the health of his subject.

I said previously that the main theme of this film revolves around the misappropriation of good science.  This film gives us a villain who wants to use the minibots, a great and useful invention, for simple revenge.  We get a rich financier (Alan Tudyk) who cuts corners while working on a matter transporter (which I wish the filmmakers didn’t make look exactly like a Stargate, since it does exactly what a Stargate does too), to the detriment of an employee.  We also get Hiro, who at one point wants to use the helpful and chipper Baymax as a weapon which could hurt someone.  When Baymax asks Hiro if a revenge murder would “improve your emotional state”, we pretty much have a Disney argument against the death penalty, a revenge-minded and punishment-guided justice system, and firearm ownership all in a neat, one-line package.  All of these inventions are great, all of their respective inventors created them with good ideas for them in mind, and all are attempted to be co-opted or co-opted by others who wish to use them for unintended, nefarious means.  So the problem is not the science, or even the inventing scientist (good science is often co-opted by the inventor themselves in sci-fi stories), but by outsiders driven by emotion or greed.  You don’t recognize how rare this is done in films until you try to list other films where science is portrayed positively in and of itself, and if it is co-opted it is not by the inventor (and the science itself was not originally created for nefarious means).

I liked this film primarily because of its humor, its amazing visuals, and a refreshingly pro-science message.  I just wish it had a more original plot trajectory.  The first act is excellent.  If the film had stayed on course with that, it’d be one of the best films of the year.  After that, it gets caught up in being a kid-friendly, positive “Avengers”.  Not to mention that it is extremely evident from early on who the villain is.  The plot progresses pretty much exactly as you expect it to, and that hampers the fun a bit.  You keep wishing the second and third acts had the brilliant originality of that first act.  Oh well.

All of that being said, this is a very fun film, and well worth seeing. B+

NOTE: The film proper is preceded by a short animated film called “Feast”, about a dog who is fed very generous table scraps until his owner starts dating a woman who eats healthy.  It is very cute and funny and I enjoyed it immensely.

“The Theory of Everything” is a film that has every opportunity to be a great film, but seems to want to sabotage itself by insisting it is a romance.  I am reminded of when Clint Eastwood made “Invictus” and people were disappointed that, after years of waiting for a major film about Nelson Mandela, we were given a film about rugby.  Stephen Hawking is quite possibly the smartest human being currently alive, and his story has all the makings of a great film.  So why, then, did the filmmakers choose to make a pedestrian biopic which, while occasionally rising above the genre in isolated scenes, feels so conventional?

I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb to say that more people would be interested in seeing a film featuring a love story than one about theoretical psychics.  Fine, I get that.  It just seems like such a waste to turn Hawking’s story into a boilerplate mash-up of “A Beautiful Mind”, “My Left Foot”, and “Good Will Hunting”.  I suppose Hawking’s real life story does lend itself really well to the biopic clichés, tortured genius with a debilitating disease who triumphs against all odds and all of that.  That’s no excuse.  Any screenwriter or director could compensate for that by approaching the material in any number of different ways (a non-linear structure, focusing on a single event rather than a lifetime, oral history, etc).  For whatever reason, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh wanted to go with a love story.  The film begins with Hawking (performed with an uncanny resemblance by Eddie Redmayne) meeting his future first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), and any other events in Hawking’s life, from his PhD thesis to writing “A Brief History of Time”, are largely seen through the lens of how his relationship brought about inspiration, or what was going on in his relationship while he was doing these things, or how Jane’s belief in a god clashed with Hawking’s atheism and seeming desire to kill belief in a god by explaining the universe.  When ALS, the motor-neuron disease that paralyzes the body but leaves the mind untouched, strikes Hawking, we see Jane dutifully care for him as his body deteriorates.

They have children, as the film helpfully explains that sex acts are automatic and controlled by a different system in the brain, but Jane has an emotional affair with Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who works for the church choir Jane joins.  Whether the affair is consummated while Jane is married to Stephen is left ambiguous, but in real life Jane and Jonathan are married now.  Later, Stephen leaves Jane for Elaine (Maxine Peake), his live-in nurse, seemingly because she has a sense of humor and doesn’t mind that Stephen likes to thumb through Penthouse magazine.

The main problem with the film is that while it insists on being a love story, the film never actually explains why or how Jane and Stephen love each other.  They clearly do, as their actions speak to that, but whether it’s a failure on Jones’s part of the writer and director’s, we never understand what Jane ever saw in Stephen.  She doesn’t seem taken with his intellect or necessarily attracted to him.  It really comes off as pity and duty, which I doubt is what the film wants us to think and is surely not what it was in real life.  Stephen’s attraction could be chalked up to him being an awkward science nerd and Felicity Jones being very attractive, but the film never adequately conveys why Jane loves Stephen.  That is a crushing flaw for a film that has chosen to be a love story.

The film does gradually improve from its rather bland first act.  As the ALS progresses, we get harrowing scenes of Stephen losing the ability to feed himself, or sitting in the bath and trying to move his fingers, or trying to ascend a staircase.  The film does an admirable job of showing what a hell it must be to find yourself trapped inside your own body.  To not be able to feed yourself, change yourself, walk, speak, or do much of anything save move your eyes and eyebrows and an index finger…many people would rather  be dead.  Now imagine the intellect and imagination and ideas in your head are much more worthy and valuable to be shared with others than most other human beings and, well, it seems like a fate worse than death.  The film may not do the best job of letting us inside Hawking’s head, but being able to observe from the outside is enough in some of these scenes to hit you pretty hard.

It’s a shame the film is never quite as powerful as we hope it to be.  Hawking is a figure I have always been keenly interested in, yet this film never moved me.  Granted, most of the second act and part of the third do move away from the clichéd pacing and sappiness of the biopic and the romantic drama, but it never quite strays far enough to soar and be the powerful, insightful, and moving film I, for one, hoped to get from a film about one of the most interesting men currently alive.  The film is good, and for those who know little-to-nothing about Hawking it’s a good crash course on the man’s life and a really dumbed-down layman’s explanation of his theory and life’s work, but is supremely disappointing for not being more than that.  A film about Hawking could have been so much more, and instead of seeing the film I wanted to see, I’m stuck reviewing the movie these filmmakers chose to make.  The final scene, in which a divorced Stephen and Jane visit Buckingham Palace upon invitation from the queen, reeks of sappiness as they look upon their three children and marvel at what they have created together. Gag me with a spoon.  Seriously?

The film is good enough, I guess.  Redmayne’s largely physical performance as Hawking deserves much praise.  The cinematography is sometimes quite good, though other times the color palette was much too unrealistic for my taste (a few scenes are all-blue or all-tan in a distracting fashion).  Some scenes, such as when a doctor first informs Hawking about his disease, are shot in an uncomfortable and unconventional fashion that make you wish the filmmakers had done more of the film like that.  This is a fine enough film.  But oh, how it is disappointing that they chose to make the Nicholas Sparks version of Hawking’s life.  B-