Archive for December, 2015

Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)

Posted: December 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Spotlight” is the story of how an investigative unit for the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered the widespread rape of children by Catholic priests in the area. How widespread? In the film, an expert on priest sex abuse estimates that 6% of all priests act out sexually with children.  The reporters found close to 90 priests in Boston and its surrounding areas in the course of their work.  The movie is largely about the investigative process of how this was discovered and proved, about the journalism field and the legal field, and about how the Catholic Church as an institution operates like a cross between an evil corporation and the mafia.

 

The film isn’t anti-religion, but it is certainly anti-Catholic Church, at least to the extent that the organization aided, abetted, and covered up the systemic and widespread rape of children, most of them poor and from single-parent families.  Because most of the residents of Boston and the surroundings are Catholic, the Church has a certain power with the people there, and the old and opulent organization is held in people’s hearts with fondness for the most part.  Also, the Church does take part in charitable work that benefits the area.  Because of all of these reasons, it seems people, individually, decided to turn a blind eye to what was going on.  The thinking seemed to be that the Church shouldn’t be sullied because of “a few bad apples”, and so everyone (most of whom were not aware of how WIDESPREAD the issue was) decided to look the other way, bury the news, settle out of court, and remain silent.  Much like how small communities can come to respect local Mafioso even though they’re aware of their crimes (see “Black Mass” for a look at the mafia operating in this same basic geographic area), people in Boston could love and revere the Church even if they knew of a couple of instances where a priest raped a child.

 

The Church, like a corporation, exists solely for its own means, and exists in perpetuity, regardless of the individuals in charge of running it for any given time period.  This allows it to both facilitate child rape, yet also somehow claim to not be wholly responsible for it.  “Spotlight” doesn’t just tell us about many of these cases with multiple priests and even more multiple victims, it tells us that the head official, and the Church hierarchy, went to great lengths to cover their tracks, and superficially chose not to keep kids out of harm’s way even when they knew who was doing what.   It also shows us how, by using lawyers who are acting within legal ethics if not ACTUAL ethics, manipulated the legal system to keep things under the rug and pay out token amounts to settle things quickly and quietly.  So yes, the Church is the main villain of this film, and if there is any indictment of religion in and of itself, it is of how religion exists as a cover and an excuse like no other entity on Earth does. If the Church were actually a corporation of an organized crime syndicate, it wouldn’t be able to get away with 6% of its members raping children.  It takes the “power” of religion to make people turn a blind eye to something that egregious.

 

“Spotlight” plays like an episode of “Law & Order”.  We get lots of facts and procedurals, but only snippets of character and personality.  This is not a character movie, this is a story movie, and the movie is so compelling, and the actors so good (especially Marc Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, the most colorful of the reporters).  What makes the film so interesting is that it’s not really a mystery, but rather a film where almost everyone knows the truth, and everyone has pieces of the puzzle, but no one knows the SCALE or holds ALL of the pieces.  Reporters only follow individual instances, lawyers are bound by confidentiality and statutes of limitations, and perhaps the only person who really knew how deep this went was the man who was in charge of the Church in that area at the time, Cardinal Law (Len Cariou).  Once it was revealed to what extent Law went to hush up the rapes and not punish any of the priests involved, the fact that Pope John Paul II allowed Law to continue as a member of the Church AND to work in Rome at one of the biggest churches in the organization is reprehensible and certainly casts doubt as to whether John Paul should be held in such high esteem as he is today (the Church sainted the guy).  The Globe had many individual pieces and contacts, but it took a Jewish outsider newly running the paper (Live Schreiber) to want to put the long-term investigative unit on the case.  Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams don’t have much in the way of character material to work with, but as simply playing reporters looking into a story, they get the movie from point A to point B in a fashion that doesn’t feel as script-driven and perfunctory as it could be.

 

The lack of rich main characters holds “Spotlight” back from being a great movie about reports like, say, David Fincher’s “Zodiac”, but the skillful way in which the film unfolds and the raw power of the story it tells is so captivating that it almost doesn’t matter.  Plus we do get a few interesting supporting turns from the likes of Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup to spice things up, much like how “Law & Order” kept plots interesting with a rich revolving door of special guest stars.  As it stands “Spotlight” is an excellent film that is just shy of greatness because it feels like an acted documentary, a film that exists to give facts and show events than to have characters and create a narrative with them.  However, do not let that dissuade you from seeing this film.  It tells an important story in a compelling and at times suspenseful fashion, with wonky looks at the fields of media and law that will interest buffs of either industry.  It also breaks your heart because, no matter how much is finally revealed and how much truth comes out, nothing can change the fact that thousands of children were raped, and hardly anyone was punished.  Knowledge can be power, but it isn’t enough to provide justice. A-

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*THIS REVIEW CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS*

 

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (it’s Episode VII, but the title doesn’t often contain that distinction; it’ll heretofore be called TFA) certainly LOOKS like a “Star Wars” film.  After three prequels which were mired in green screen sets and characters, seeing actual sets and a decent amount of animatronics in alien characters is a breath of fresh air, and the new film certainly feels more like the original trilogy than the prequels ever did.  In fact, I have almost no issues with the technical aspects of this film.  The visuals are occasionally stunning (a lightsaber fight in the snow), and even director J. J. Abrams much parodied love of lens flares are kept to a minimum. I counted two obvious usage of lens flares, and one of them, as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) looks out a window into space at a red light, is so aesthetically pleasing that I forgave it.  We also get the usual wipe-transitions from scene to scene and the camerawork all feels like part of the original trilogy.  The score, while not having any new memorable themes (even “Phantom Menace” had that beautiful “Duel of the Fates” number) is suitably Star Wars-ian.  The acting is all up to par or better (no Hayden Christensen to mess things up here).  The CGI, when used, is of a high caliber and appropriate.  No, the nuts and bolts of this film are fairly flawless. My only problem, then, is with the script.

 

In 2006, Richard Kelly made a film called “Southland Tales”, and he had a weird idea when making it.  The film itself was meant to tell 3 episodes of a story, 4-6, but the first 3 episodes were not contained in the film, but rather in comic book prequels.  The audiences who saw the film without reading the comics were, well, lost and confused as to what the hell was going on.  Kelly later, in an interview, said he had misjudged how important reading the comics was to the experience of not just enjoying, but simply understanding the film.  I feel like the makers of TFA have made the same mistake.  Look, this is the 7th film in a series, so no one in their right mind should expect the movie to operate in a self-contained manner.  We’ve seen the other 6 films, and we know there are at least two more direct sequels to follow.  However, the filmmakers have misjudged how almost necessary it is to delve into canon outside of the film to get enough of grasp as to what is going on.

 

For instance, 30 years after the fall of the empire we seem to have 3 major political groups in the galaxy.  There is a New Republic, which is a democratic government, and there is the First Order, a fascist organization that seems to have the technology, aesthetics, records, and basic ideology of the old Empire.  But then there is the Resistance, which seems to be somewhat unofficially tied to the New Republic and is fighting the First Order.  Quite frankly, by just watching the film and not exploring any of the new expanded universe, it’s difficult to know why the Resistance is a separate body from the New Republic, and exactly what the relation is between the First Order and the New Republic. Are they in a full scale war, or merely a cold war? Does the Resistance have the full support of the Republic, or are they merely a rogue organization with allegiance to the Republic but working outside of their government and chain of command? Why isn’t the Republic fighting the First Order directly?  The film makes no attempts to answer these questions in the body of the film.

The movie also suffers from what we have colloquially come to call “Iron Man 2” syndrome.  “Iron Man 2” was a sloppily written film that felt less like a movie and more like a commercial for another movie yet to come (in that case, “The Avengers”) because it contained set ups for a different film and dangling plot threads that would be picked up later.  As such, “Iron Man 2” never felt like a movie in and of itself, and audiences felt cheated for having paid to get a movie that was building up for a later, better movie that we wish they had just gone ahead and made instead of the one we just watched.  TFA has so many dangling plot threads and set ups that at times I just wished they’d stop dicking around and tell me a good story, rather than set me up for what promises to be a far better film and story in Episode VIII.  This is one of the negative side effects of these long running blockbuster film franchises where an expansive universe is continued in film after film in order to extract more and more box office sales money and merchandising profits.  Superhero fatigue is starting to set in because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the Star Wars universe is still ripe for over-saturation.

 

Also, the fact of the matter remains that this film is stuck telling a story we didn’t really want told.  By waiting 30 years to continue the story of Luke, Leia, and Han, we cannot make a story about the immediate fallout of the events of “Return of the Jedi” without recasting those roles.  Since no one wants to see those roles played by anyone other than Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford (except in a prequel), we have to tell a story that takes place far later than we’d like.  We also, by necessity, have to completely do away with the Expanded Universe which developed after the release of ROTJ, wherein novels and comic books and video games continued the story of these characters because Lucas was not interested in doing so on film.  Fans had gotten quite attached to that EU, especially characters like Mara Jade and storylines like Han and Leia having Jedi twins, and now that’s all rendered non-canon so that Disney can have the original actors reprise their roles.  However, since the actors aren’t getting any younger, and Harrison Ford doesn’t want to play Han Solo anymore, they have to create new, younger characters and try to make audiences care about them at least as much as they care about characters they have known and loved since the late 1970s (plus, they want this franchise to go on beyond the lifespan of those actors).  The result, based on these practical issues, is a film that can never be what we really want.  For that, we’d have to go back in time and make Episode VII in 1988 or something.

 

So the film we get is, well, kind of weird rip-off of “A New Hope” (aka the original “Star Wars”) with various character traits of our original three main characters mixed and matched across three new characters.  We also get a character that has traits of the Anakin Skywalker we saw in the prequels, but played by a better actor (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren) and portrayed in a far less annoying and far more successful manner.  It’s a good 40 minutes or so before one of the original main characters, in this case Han, shows up.  Another main character, Luke, shows up in the last two minutes and has no lines of dialogue.  Leia, meanwhile, is relegated to standing around looking worried, or standing around looking sad.  None of her character’s old personality gets to shine through.

 

None of this would be an issue if our new characters were as compelling, or close to as compelling, as our old main characters, but they are not.  We get Finn (John Boyega) as a stormtrooper with a conscience who abandons the First Order.  The film never lets us know why they stopped using clones as troopers, and why kidnapping and brainwashing children is easier and more efficient and successful, but whatever.  Finn is good for some comic relief, but for the most part he’s a one dimensional character who is either scared or crushing on a girl.  That girl is another new character, Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Rey is an orphan on a desert planet who is good with fixing things and flying ships (so, Luke), and she’s likable enough, but her character isn’t infused with much personality beyond the things she’s good at doing. Later we see her able to use the Force rather well, so she’s a character with talents, but no personality behind the talents.  Our last main character is Kylo Ren, who is Han and Leia’s son, strong with the Force, and attempting to emulate his grandfather, Darth Vader, by wearing a mask and voice modulator and tapping into the Dark Side of the Force.  He has many of the personality traits young Anakin has in the prequels: he’s torn between light and dark, has issues with his dad (Anakin’s surrogate dad was Obi-Wan, even if he had no biological father), is prone to fits of whiny anger and violent lashings out, and despite being an object of fear and power is really just a whiny wuss.  The new character is a little on-the-nose, and also one dimensional, but he’s performed by a better actor than Anakin was, and the character has room to grow into someone more multi-layered in future films. Plus, his look is rather cool, even if he’s no Darth Vader.

 

In fact, TFA is to “Star Wars” what Kylo Ren is to Darth Vader: it’s not as good as the older thing it desperately wants to be, its weaknesses are very obvious, but the potential for improvement is there.  We also have new characters like Poe (Oscar Isaacs) and the droid BB-8 who are pretty all around successful and work really well in the limited capacity we see them in here.  Still, so much of this film feels like a pale imitator of what came before.  We get yet another Death Star, more or less (this was groan inducing in ROTJ and now it’s just sad that the Empire keeps trying the same stupid idea over and over again), and this film is about crucial information held in a plucky droid that has to get somewhere important thanks to a ragtag group of people. People are kidnapped and tortured, there’s a backwater desert planet, and there’s some awkward dialogue and blatant exposition abounding at every turn.  None of the dialogue is as awful as what we heard in “Attack of the Clones”, but this isn’t a film that will be quoted all that often.

 

The film is a lot of fun.  It’s well-paced and structured, the action scenes are done well, Harrison Ford recaptures the role of Han Solo as if he never left it, and you will have a heck of a good time watching this thing.  Story-wise, the prequels were a bit more inventive because they tried something new.  Mostly they failed, but I liked the attempts to explore the politics of the Star Wars universe more and some expanding of the mythology was welcome.  Plus, I’m a sucker for Palpatine, and the increased role for him in the prequels was welcome for me.  TFA is a better film not because it does many things better than the prequels, but simply because it doesn’t do anything as bad as the prequels did.  There’s no Jar-Jar, no Hayden Christensen, no horribly written love story with no chemistry, no overuse of CGI for CGI’s sake.

 

I’m not qualified to talk much about the Expanded Universe, but my guess is hardcore fans are not going to prefer the story of this film to the EU stories we’ve gotten.  TFA feels lighter, more surface, and just doesn’t have as much meat on the bones. When a main character dies, we don’t feel anything because the film hasn’t made us care about the relationship between murderer and victim, but merely relies on what we’ve brought to the film from the earlier ones.  If taken on its own, this film is lighter than air in the story department.  It almost makes you wish they at least kept the EU’s backstory and made a new story within that, or used some of that Benjamin Button CGI to de-age the actors and tell a famous EU story.  TFA is a fun film, but I’d rather see Luke fight Palpatine’s clones over the story TFA gives us on any day.

 

The thing is, it’s highly possible given the pieces of this film that Episode VIII will be excellent.  Now that set-up and (some) exposition are out of the way, the next film can actually build character personalities and give us a reason to care about the new characters for reasons other than that they populate a Star Wars movie.  They also need to break their own ground and not just re-tell the old movies in new ways, make each film an entertainment experience that doesn’t require exploration to ancillary media to fully understand and appreciate, and the dialogue and exposition need to be punched up and handled less awkwardly.  Look, this is a good, fun film and we’re all very happy to have a new Star Wars movie with actual sets and puppeteering and the old characters we know and love.  But if you step back from your fanboy excitement a bit, you have to know this film is severely lacking on the basic level of plot and story. Search your feelings, you know this to be true. B.

 

 

“The Night Before” is an attempt to make a bittersweet Christmas comedy with all of the wacky, R-rated hijinks of a Rogen-Goldberg film (“Superbad”, “The Interview”).  It makes perhaps too many references to Christmas films of the past (“Home Alone”, “Die Hard”, etc.) and the intertextuality feels a bit lazy and overly nostalgic.  Then again, nostalgia is perhaps the overriding theme of the film.  Tradition and ritual can be good, but when we hold on to them beyond their shelf life, well, it can be worse for us than we realize.

 

Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a car accident just before Christmas in 2001.  His best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), not wanting him to be alone with his grief on X-Mas Eve, take him out for a night of drinking and hijinks.  This becomes an annual tradition until, well, life happens.  In the present, Isaac’s wife is about to have a baby and Anthony is star football player, and they just can’t do the same damn tradition anymore.  Sadly, Ethan’s life has remained stagnant as his friends’ have not.  The film shows the last night they plan to honor the tradition, and what happens to them.

 

Ethan is clearly stuck in the past for understandable reasons.  His life doesn’t have much else going for it except his friendships. He’s broken up with his girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) because he was scared of commitment and change, and he’s working low-level jobs (elf waiter) while dreaming of a music career that’s going nowhere.  Isaac is also scared to move on, worried that he won’t be a good father and that he has no idea how to truly be a responsible adult, despite the bravado of confidence he puts on for his wife. Anthony is older than most men are when they become football stars, so to capture fame before he gets too old he’s injecting steroids. While Ethan is clearly in the worse shape, all of these guys are trapped by their past dreams, their uncertain futures, and just barely navigating the present.

 

The film proceeds as if it is a zany comedy of madcap adventures, ala an R-rated “Adventures in Babysitting”.  You know, one of those movies that take place over the course of one night and multiple set pieces build comedic suspense of how they’re going to solve this or that problem.  The issue here is that we never truly feel like much is at stake.  Anthony either will or won’t reveal his doping and either succeed or fail as a football star.  He’ll be fine.  Isaac is going to have this baby, whether he’s ready or not.  Ethan, well, he will either grow up or he won’t.  The lack of danger keeps the proceedings from being truly hilarious.

 

You can sense the pull of the director, Jonathan Levine, in this film.  Levine has made a mixture of horror films (the underrated “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”) and comedies (“The Wackness”), and mixes of the two (“Warm Bodies”).  It seems like the film that has most influenced him up to this point is “50/50”, a very good film that also starred Rogen and Levitt where one played a man with cancer and the other his best friend helping him through it with humor and support.  That film was surprisingly very good and also heartfelt.  “The Night Before”, unlike “50/50”, is a full-on comedy and not a dramedy, so the attempts at being heartfelt don’t work as well (save for a nice little flashback to the first X-Mas Eve), and you can feel the tension between the wackiness of a normal Rogen-Goldberg comedy and the dramedy Levine would probably be more comfortable making.

 

“The Night Before” also features elements that don’t really work at all.  An attempt to have both product placement for Red Bull that also satirizes and subverts product placement doesn’t quite work and becomes annoying.  Narration at the beginning and the end of the film by Tracy Morgan also falls into the annoying-and-not-funny category.  I’d say most of the film’s humor works, but it mostly works on the smile-to-chuckle range, and there are only maybe one or two moments of true gut-busting laughter (one of which was in the trailers).  We do get a nice supporting role by Michael Shannon as an aging pot dealer that hits all of the right notes, and a few celebrity cameos that work better than they have any right to.

 

“The Night Before” is a likable movie because the leads are all likeable and have a good chemistry with each other.  If the film doesn’t quite end up being funny enough or heartfelt enough to enjoy a full recommendation, it’s certainly not without its charm.  One just feels like it was one or two drafts away from being a much better film, either by dialing up the comedy or dialing up the sad dramatic elements.  As it is, the film doesn’t quite find the balance between wacky comedy and dramedy. C+

Krampus (dir. Michael Dougherty)

Posted: December 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

I really wanted to like “Krampus”.  Even after I learned the film would be PG-13 and hew more toward the older, kid-friendly horror of “Gremlins” and not the X-Mas horror featured in the famous “Tales from the Crypt” episode “And All Through the House”, I hoped we’d get a nice mixture of horror and comedy to bring us back to the good ol’ 80s when horror/comedies could still be good and have a little edge to them.  Hell, at worst I was hoping we’d end up with the “Ghoulies” or one of those films that I devoured on HBO growing up, the kinds of films that bombed but thanks to being shown on pay cable a million times became cult classics.  The director of “Krampus”, Michael Dougherty is perhaps most well known for his anthology horror/comedy “Trick ‘r Treat”, which gained a cult following after being dumped direct-to-video after the studio kept it on the shelf for two years for reasons still not quite know, though perhaps questions as to how to market an anthology nowadays had something to do with it.  Like most anthologies, that film was hit-or-miss, but it showed enough potential to hope that this follow-up would deliver in the ways that “Trick ‘r Treat” fell short.

 

Sadly, “Krampus” has wound up being a visually interesting film with a fundamentally weak script.  The scares aren’t scary, the humor isn’t nearly funny enough, and the entire third act is just plain weak.  What’s odd is that jokes that worked in the film’s trailer do not work in the finished film, leading me to believe the editor of this film has no idea how to cut a film to make a joke work, but the marketing department at Universal does. The editor was a man named John Axelrad, who has previously edited one other horror/comedy, James Gunn’s “Slither”, and for some reason his work completely kills two jokes that work in the trailer.  One wonders if the original cut of this film was more humorous and if the studio tinkered to try to play up the horror, thus resulting in some jokes dying or being smothered in the editing room.  In any event, the film doesn’t make you laugh enough, and it’s unlikely anyone over the age of 13 will be scared by the film.  Where the film works is in the design of the creatures and the generally visual look of the film.  Krampus himself is not merely the Bahomet–like goat creature we’re expecting, but a genuinely unnerving spin on Santa Clause with desiccated goat-like features.  His “elves”, which the film calls his main helpers, look like pagan cultists that would not look out of place in either a Stanley Kubrick film or a “Lords of Salem” sequel.  We also get some of the coolest demonic toys since, well, “Demonic Toys” or “Puppetmaster”, and some CGI gingerbread men that recall the one from “Shrek” if he were cloned and went homicidal.  We are also treated to a world  that looks so damn covered in snow and ice that it resembles a snowish apocalyptic hellscape, and I challenge you not to feel freezing as you watch the film, even if your theater is sufficiently heated.  Oh, and we also get a Henry Sellick-esque stop motion-looking animated flashback that spruces up the proceedings.

The plot is fairly simple. Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) is a little boy who has a bit more Christmas spirit than most. I must pause for a moment to mention that the name “Max Engel” is a little too close to Marx & Engels to be accidental, but since the film has very little political commentary it seems like a throwaway name with no purpose.  In any case, Max is beginning to lost his Christmas spirit because his parents (Adam Scott, who has horror/comedy experience with “Piranha 3D”; and Toni Collette, who was in the “Fright Night” remake but otherwise her appearance in this film is odd), while still loving each other, are growing distant because of whatever job the dad has (the film only tells us it involves frequent traveling).  Max also has an older sister (Stefania LaVie Owen), but their distance feels like normal older sister-younger brother distance.  Max is also close with his old, German grandmother (Krista Sadler), who only speaks German except, lazily, when the film requires her to give lengthy exposition and can’t figure out how to do this without making her speak English, yet the film still insists she only speak German at every other time.  That should have been handled in an early script draft before filming began.

The real conflict comes when the mom’s sister and her family arrive.  They are right-wing, gun-loving folks who arrive in a Hummer and don’t believe in global warming.  They burp at the dinner table, wear camo, and are a parody of obnoxious right-wing relatives so on-the-nose that even my Marxist-Atheist self thought it was a little much.  Their patriarch is played with gusto by David Koechner, and the family is mostly defined by the two daughters who look and act like boys (the film implies because the dad wanted boys), a son who never talks, and an alcoholic aunt.  After the tomboys tease Max about a letter he’s written to Santa, Max rips up the letter and, well, a huge blizzard comes into town knocking out power and cell phone reception, the town seems to empty out, and out family is seemingly untouched because German grandma is keeping the fireplace lit.

 

Given the title, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Max’s loss of Christmas spirit leads to Krampus, an old, pagan, evil Santa of seemingly Germanic origin, to set upon this family to punish them for their lack of Christmas spirit.  Except, that’s not really the case.  The characters in this film don’t have a problem with the holiday of Christmas.  The characters have a problem with their family, and that’s what the film is really about.  This isn’t a losing faith in a holiday movie, even if it tries to tell us that.  This movie is really about how we all hate out families, but we need to put up with them. Why? Well, Max specifically asks his dad that question, and his dad has no answer.  Despite that, the film shows us that if we don’t agree to put up with our family’s crap, we’ll be stuck in Hell with them for all of eternity. O…kay.  I’m sorry, movie, but as someone who has cut ties with shitty members of his family that he doesn’t like, and knows others who have cut ties with families that are not just rude and obnoxious but downright abusive, that the message of “play nice or you deserve to be killed” is a pretty shitty message, and trying to obfuscate that message by hiding behind a holiday doesn’t change the message.  This movie has almost nothing to do with X-Mas and everything to do with the concept of family.

 

This film presents us with two different families.  There is Max’s, which is vaguely upper middle class and affluent, with Liberal sensibilities and effete tastes.  Then there is the in-law family of camo, wrestling, hunting, shooting, gas-guzzling, burping, drinking, bullying, and the like.  If one were to look for the implicit political message to this film, and I’m not saying one was intentional, it’s a warning that both sides of the cultural divide, Blue States and Red States, coasts and fly-over country, need to bury the hatchet or we’ll all die, possibly in a weather induced apocalypse (climate change?)  I generally have an issue with this King Solomon reasoning of both sides having flaws and needing to go to the center and play friends.  Sometimes, one side is a lot more right on things and one side is a lot more wrong.  Even in this film, the in-laws have almost no positive merits to show for them, except maybe respect for protection of one’s family unit, and the main family are just not as close as they could ideally be.  The film is clearly on the side of the Liberals and their crème brulee, but it perhaps wishes that Liberals had the closeness of family that Conservatives are generally thought to have. Conversely, the film maybe wishes Conservatives had more class and refinement.  Still, taking this message outside of being about two families and brought to the real like and politics, it’s pretty hard to bury the hatchet with crazy and malevolent persons. Imagine a film that argued that if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can’t find common ground than all of humankind is doomed for eternity. That would seem like an unfair and pretty fucked up deal, especially when one man has really good ideas, albeit “radical” for the reactionary feelings of the average American, and one man is a bourgeois fascist and complete idiotic scum.

 

Still, none of this would matter if the film were funny, or scary, or at least inventive in the way it spins X-Mas on its head, but the film simply isn’t enough of those things.  The third act, where the film gets lazy and just kind of pulls characters into the ground with no logic because it’s run out of ways to dispatch with characters in a PG-13 friendly way, is groan inducing and disappointing in a huge way.  The likable actors and the interesting eye candy can only take you so far. One imagines the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the blu-ray showing the creatures being created and how they were made to perform on set will be cooler and more entertaining than the actual film.

 

This film could have been so much better than it is.  They could have punched up and focused on humor and made this “Gremlins” or “Phantasm”, or even R-rated and went “Evil Dead” with it.  It could have been more inventive with how it turned X-Mas tropes and iconography on their head, or even gone even more pagan in its visuals.  This film just feels like missed opportunities all the way through. Perhaps an R rated and being made outside of the studio system would have helped.  The film often feels like a late 80s direct-to-video influence infuses it (think “Tremors”), and perhaps this is one of the few horror films that would have played better as an indie VOD release instead of a major studio December release.

 

“Krampus” isn’t a bad film, but it’s a terribly, terribly disappointing one because of the good that’s in it. It wastes a terrific cast, the concept of Krampus, and interesting visuals and character designs on a really weak script.  Dougherty has some bad scripts to his name (“Superman Returns” and “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary”) but this film also had two other writers: Todd Casey (whose only writing prior to this film seems to be Superhero cartoon movies and TV shows) and Zach Shields (no other real writing credits to speak of).  THREE writers and this was the best they could do? C+

Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

Posted: December 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

Earlier this year the film “Southpaw” had the potential to be a very powerful film about grief, but it shot itself in the foot by becoming a clichéd and formulaic boxing movie in its third act.  “Creed”, by contrast, doesn’t try to be anything EXCEPT a clichéd and formulaic boxing movie.  This unpretentious nature works to the film’s advantage.  I could gripe that “Creed” follows a main character, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) who is bland and one-dimensional (his dad died before he was born and he was the result of affair and thus grew up in dead daddy’s shadow and is trying to both gain his approval and spite him at the same time…that’s all there is to this character. We get nothing else for him by way of personality).  I could gripe that the film gives us a love interest (Tess Thompson) who seems like a somewhat interesting and unique character, only to do nothing with her except have her sit on the sidelines to be a disposable and unremarkable love interest/cheerleader for our unremarkable hero.  I could gripe that, while “Creed” is a worthy addition to the “Rocky” series compared to most of the sequels, it can’t hold a candle to the great, Oscar-winning original, which is so much different from the sequels that followed that to go back and watch it feels like you’re not even watching a “Rocky” movie.  The thing is, though, that those gripes don’t stop “Creed” from being a thoroughly entertaining film.  Yes, the film could have been more.  It could have eschewed formula and gone for a tale that talked about fatherless black youths, directionless young males in general, poverty in inner cities, or any other issues that this story could have been a clothesline to hang things on.  Instead, we get just another “Rocky” movie, where Stallone’s character is the most interesting thing because he’s surrounded by archetypes pretending to be characters.

 

So yes, Jordan plays the bastard son of Apollo Creed, adopted out of foster care by Apollo’s widow and raised in wealth for the latter half of his young life. Adonis has a respectful and well-paying office job, but he quits that because he wants to be a boxer like his old man.  No one in his hometown wants to train him, and his adopted mother doesn’t approve because, well, she saw her husband get killed by a giant Russian in the ring.  So, he moves to Philly and meets up with Rocky, who reluctantly agrees to train Adonis out of a sense of duty to his late father.  Plus, Rocky is all alone. In addition to Adrian passing, Paulie has also died, and his son has moved to Canada, tired of living in his dad’s shadow.  So, Rocky and Adonis form a surrogate family as we get a rags to riches to rags again to riches again story of the young great training the son of his former rival-turned-friend.  Oh, and Rocky gets cancer.  This would be a spoiler if the trailers didn’t already give it away, so I will say that Rocky’s reaction to the news is one of the most simple, realistic, and heartbreaking things this series has shown us since the original film.  Stallone has always done a great job playing this character, who is ultimately a simple-minded by wonderfully-hearted man and is one of the most endearing long-running characters in film history.  Despite this film not being written by Stallone, the film does justice to the character.

 

This film delivers everything you think it will deliver, and nothing more.  It’s good because of the former, but goes no better because of the latter.  Making Adonis a stronger character, and either eliminating completely or fleshing out the love interest would have gone a long way to making this film better.  In the end, despite the title, this isn’t Adonis’s movie.  It’s still Rocky’s.  Stallone commands the screen, and when he’s not on camera the film suffers and you miss him.  “Creed” feels more like “Rocky 7” than “Creed 1”, and if they’re going to make more movies about Adonis, this character better get a whole lot more interesting. B.

“Secret in Their Eyes” is almost a great movie, and it would be if it weren’t so damn inaccurate about police work, didn’t telegraph its twists, and if Nicole Kidman’s character were developed in a way where you could compensate for the actress’s general coldness that she exudes in every role.  Since the film is a remake of an Argentinean film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, my guess is the original is a great film that possibly lacks the flaws which hold back the American version, but I have yet to see the original.  As it is, the American version is still quite a good movie.

 

The film intercuts between two time periods.  The first is January 2002, a few months after 9/11 where everyone is in a panic about possible terrorist attacks.  Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) are FBI agents working out of the L.A. District Attorney’s office watching a mosque that might be connected to a hidden terrorist cell. One day, they are called to a crime scene. A woman was raped, murdered, and disposed of in a dumpster in a parking garage next to the mosque.  The victim? Jess’s daughter.  After a small amount of investigation, all signs point to a man named Marzin (Joe Cole) being the perpetrator.  The problem is that Marzin is a confidential informant for the FBI stationed inside the mosque, and in the post 9/11 hysteria the potential to stop terrorism takes priority over everything, even the rape/murder of the daughter of one of their own. As such, the higher ups, including the local DA (Alfred Molina) do everything in their power not to touch Marzin.

The other time period is 2015, 13 years later, where we start off knowing that Marzin was never punished for the crime and that he disappeared shortly thereafter. Ray has been obsessed with the case ever since, and after looking through mugshots every night for 13 years, he stumbles upon the photo of man who has more than a passing resemblance to Marzin and matches up with how old Marzin should now be.  Ray wants to reopen the case, but the new DA, Claire (Nicole Kidman), who was a new assistance DA back in 2002 and whom Ray has been nursing an unrequited love for the entire time, doesn’t want to pursue it.  The film jumps back and forth between these two time periods gradually revealing details until we know what has happened and what is happening.

 

One of my favorite directors is Atom Egoyan, who makes films generally about people who are stuck in cycles of obsession, grief, and unhealthy rituals and habits.  “Secret in Their Eyes”, at its best, plays like an Egoyan film.  Nearly every character in this film is obsessed with something, or more than one thing: justice, revenge, love, etc.  They all hyper focus on something (a suspect, terrorism) to the exclusion of all else (the rule of law, the Fourth Amendment, basic ethics) which ends up ironically keeping them from their obsession, or resulting in the characters punishing and hurting themselves even more in the process.  The problem with the film is that this sometimes pushes the limits into the comical.  Are we really to believe, even in January 2002, that a DA would not pursue the rape/murder of one of their own because of a terrorism case?  Does Kidman’s character really need to have a weird habit with twirling her keyring?  Hell, are we really to believe that Kidman reciprocates Ray’s feelings when Kidman does nothing to communicate, in her performance, that she ever, at any time, felt anything for the guy?  Additionally, this film has a weird concept of law.  At one point Ray breaks into Marzin’s home and steals a piece of evidence.  Later, he’s worried about showing it to Jess because that would make it inadmissible as evidence even though it’d be inadmissible anyway as it was obtained illegally without a search warrant, probable cause, and was technically obtained in the commission of a crime by an agent of the state.  You don’t have to be a cop or in law school to know that’s whacky.

 

I think the problem here is that you have a less-than-talented writer/director, Billy Ray, attempting to replicate a film considered by many to be excellent, but just not having the chops to do so.  This film feels like not-untalented college drama class attempting to perform a well respected play.  The original play is so good, maybe even great, that not even the lackluster production can completely hide how damn good the play is.  I have a feeling the things about this film that I loved (the obsession theme, the political commentary, the almost-unexpected and original twist) are done exponentially better in the original film, but ported over to this version they still work enough to make this version really enjoyable, even if you can see the flaws in the stitching.

 

Billy Ray’s filmography before this is not impressive. He wrote the laughably unerotic 90s erotic noir “Color of Night”, the crappy blockbuster wannabe “Volcano”, the awful and incomprehensible “Suspect Zero”, the lousy “Hart’s War”, and a few decent films like “Flightplan” and “State of Play”.  “Secret in Their Eyes” is, admittedly, his best film, but one imagines that a much better director, like perhaps Egoyan, would have hit this out of the park.  As it is, the execution of this film is decent, and we’re treated to a pretty terrific performance by Ejiofor.  Also, I generally hate Julia Roberts in everything she does, but in this film she’s convincing as a pained and grieving mother.  It’s nice to see her play a role that’s not every other role she’s ever done (I don’t care that she won an Oscar from “Erin Brokovich”, that performance, and most of her performances, are the same damn performance. She has limited range as an actress).

I was fully invested in the story for the entire film, and it was an interesting mystery that was less whodoneit, or even whydoneit.  This is what-happened mystery.  In fact, the mystery isn’t really even what this film is about.  This film is about obsession: how it drives us, consumes us, eats us from the inside and kills us.  It’s also about how single events can have large ripples outside of that event that forever change the dynamics of many other people and events going forward.  This is a better-than-average film, but it feels like a great film performed by a repertory company. B+

Watching “Mockingjay – Part II” is like reading the Wikipedia summary of the book.  All of the major plot points are there, but you will feel none of the emotion. Main characters die, and the movie rushes on without making you feel a damn thing. Twists are dealt with in a perfunctory manner, and the movie seems in a rush to finish itself up, which is odd since the book was split into two films ostensibly so that plot points would have time to breathe and be explored.  Alas, the book was really split into two films for simple commercial greed, with a first part that was heavy on exposition and politics but found by many to be boring, and a second part that rushes through the action leaving you feeling somewhat entertained, but ultimately empty.

 

When Quentin Tarantino made “Kill Bill”, it was split into two films simply because most American audiences won’t sit through a 4+ hour movie with an intermission, no matter how good the film is.  Don’t get me started on the short attention span of the philistines that populate the American moviegoing public, a population that can barely sit through 90 minutes without checking their phone, opening their mouths to say something, or getting bored.  In any case, “Kill Bill” was one movie filmed with one budget that was split into two films and thus allowed the studio to make twice as much money (more or less) based on a single investment. Sure, two films meant two marketing budgets, but they still saved a lot of money.  This lead to other studios thinking they can split a single story into two films (“Breaking Dawn”) or 3 films (“The Hobbit”) and make money hand over fist, even if there wasn’t enough story to justify the split.  The problem with “Mockingjay” is that part II might have had emotion if it built on the exposition of part I and we were talking about ACTS rather than films that many people are viewing a year or more apart from each other.  Should we care about a character dying when we barely see them in the film they die in, but had a much larger role in Part I that, combined with their death in part II, might have made the death mean something to the audience?  This is a case where the commercial concerns for the studio were in diametric opposition to the artistic concerns for the work.

 

The plot you should already know by now.  There’s a proletarian revolution against a dictatorship in a dystopian apartheid run by the rich bourgeoisie of the Capitol while 12 Districts, divided by what commodities they produce for the Capitol, join forces to oust the dictatorship.  I’ve always argued that “The Hunger Games”, in addition to being a satire of reality television, was pretty much Communist propaganda for teenage girls which, because of a universal message about economic inequality that was luckily timed to the 2008 financial crisis, grew beyond a YA audience to mass popularity.  “Mockingjay – Part II” focuses less on the particular politics and more on issues dealing with war, specifically PTSD and the psychological trauma associated with battle and torture, as well how fragile a post-war democracy can be.  These are heady topics for a YA book or film, and perhaps it’s for that reason that the plebeians in the audience view these films as simple action movie fodder with a love triangle, and some dismiss it unjustly as a mere “Battle Royale” knock-off, even though “Hunger” and “Battle” seem to have different targets in mind for their satire.  Perhaps the biggest conflict in the film happens very late, when Katniss has to make a decision about what the biggest danger is, and about whether a certain leader might be less a savor, and more of a betrayer to the revolution.  After all, what good is throwing out the Tsar if he’s just getting replaced by Stalin.

”Mockingjay” is well-made enough.  The performances are all solid, even if we know by now that Jennifer Lawrence can do better roles than this. Not that Katniss is a bad role, just that the film doesn’t do as much with her as it should.  The Gale storyline could have easily been omitted from the films (and the books, for that matter) and some of the dialogue is YA simplistic or overly expository, for instance.  The director, Francis Lawrence, doesn’t make the film as visually interesting as it could be.  After previous films showing the Capitol as a dayglo garish nightmare of opulence gone tacky and wild, the battle of the Capitol makes the city look like an anonymous concrete block wasteland, which does make it look more like real life war zones of today, but doesn’t help the film look like anything more than war PG-13-style.

 

Look, if you’ve read all 3 books and seen all 3 prior films (or 2.5 prior films) you’ll end up seeing this, and you’ll probably like it. I did. But, like me, you won’t FEEL anything, and probably walk out cold and blasé, which is not what this story deserves.  If you can, watch both “Mockingjay” films back-to-back. It may improve the whole endeavor for you. B-.