Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Big Hero 6 - Making Superheros Cuddly

With Disney having purchased the entire Marvel catalog lock stock and barrel, it was only a matter of time before we saw a superhero film joining the Disney Animated Canon.  Luckily Disney's main studio resisted the temptation to animate a recognizable character for easy cash.  Imagine a big budget blood-soaked Wolverine cartoon coming out of the same workshop as "Winnie the Pooh".  Instead they picked one of the most obscure titles in the Marvel line-up.  The "Big Hero 6" comics were originally a minor team made up of various X-Men rejects, recycled scientist characters, and monsters that only appeared about eight issues.  Ignoring all of the comic canon and the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney tore apart that dull plotline to mold into their own original creation.

The animated film "Big Hero 6" is a delightful animated experience.  The comic book elements are retained mainly just to add a final action climax, though little about this movie is written or designed like a superhero film.  This is not a deconstruction of superheroes like "The Incredibles", but rather a movie which throws them at the last minute just to add flavor.  This is a movie about crimefighters with a bright world and a bright frame of mind - an old timey Golden Age of comics kind of tone in a movie set in the distant future.

Actually the main focus here is technology and robotics.  "Big Hero 6" takes place in the cyber-city of San Fransokyo, a fantasy world where the Pacific collapsed, merging San Francisco and Tokyo into one megalopolis.  Science is the prime mover of society.  The local university seems to be based entirely around young people using their minds and creating amazing inventions - and being cool while doing it.  Neo-Tokyo is a nerd paradise - one of the most positives views of the future that modern cinema will supply.  The heroes of "Big Hero 6" are not angry emotional wrecks as in a typical superhero film, but rather engineers brimming with optimism about what their creations can do for the world.  When an masked villain threatens the town, the young people gather up their respective creations to make a decidedly non-violent and protective team of superheroes, saving the world without wrecking it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Hobbit 3: The Battle of the Tone Deaf

I am certain J.R.R. Tolkien would hate "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies".  Tolkien filled his works with his interests and pursuits.  He loved poetry, so his books are filled with mini epic poems and fanciful songs.   He loved languages so he wrote several imaginary tongues from scratch.  He loved mythology so he built an entire universe all to himself, based upon Germanic legend.  But above else he loved the rural simplicity of the English middle class.  The most idyllic place in the weird fantasy world of Middle Earth is the one closest to his beloved Britain:  the Shire.  Not a great kingdom, but just a collection of small peaceful grubby farmers, that's the land of Tolkien's brightest dreams.

If there is any one thesis to Tolkien's work, it is the rejection of the ubermench.  Classical heroes before "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were all figures that fit into the mold of Aragorn:  handsome, righteous, invincible warriors, and chosen to great destinies.  A little peasant like Bilbo Baggins would have no place in the old epic hero tales such as "The Song of the Nibelungs".  Those tales were populated by dragon slayers, not short crafty fellows who just want to go home to have tea.  When war comes in "The Hobbit", Bilbo rejects the entire business as childish ridiculousness.  The great battles of "The Lord of the Rings" were nothing but distractions for little Frodo and his friend Sam's lonely journey towards Mt. Doom.  Heroism could come in any size.

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" could not miss this point more badly.  Its title character has long been marginalized in these now clearly ill-conceived Hobbit movies.  In "The Hobbit 3", Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) might as well not exist.  He is entirely irrelevant, stepping aside to allow the things Tolkien rejected take over.  No Hobbit can perform acrobatics or defeat giant monsters or slaughter indiscriminately.  Thus they are useless for a huge indulgent special effects spectacle.  Director Peter Jackson, a filmmaker who has apparently lost every vestige of restraint, creates a final film in his Hobbit trilogy which is nothing but supermen battling for nearly two hours.  J.R.R. wanted to appreciate the small beauty of the mundane world.  It seems Peter Jackson did not get the memo.  There is nothing small here, and very little that is beautiful.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview - Freedom Doesn't Mean Smart

Freedom isn't free.  Sometimes you have to watch a really stupid broad comedy, all to save our freedom to have incredibly dumb movies.  North Korea can weep, I've seen their god king shit his pants.

If the controversy surrounding "The Interview" was actually an elaborate gonzo marketing scheme, it would be one of the greatest and most successful plans of all time.  What would have been a mediocre release destined to be buried at Christmas has instead become the movie of the moment, overwhelming all the Oscarbait, musicals, and action epics of late December.  This was a huge satire of international politics and the ridiculousness of the North Korean regime.  I'm not talking about the movie, it has about all the depth of a usual bawdy bro comedy, I'm talking about real life.  As it turns out, that is infinitely more absurd.  Suddenly a movie where Seth Rogan shoves a bomb up his ass has become a major patriotic symbol of the greatness of Americanism against tyranny.  What a world.

Actually reviewing "The Interview" now seems trite.  The film itself is far inferior to the controversy around him.  I did not want to review "The Interview" because the trailers essentially tell the story already.  You know what you're getting, what exactly can I say that will do anything?  Seth Rogan and James Franco run a crappy celebrity entertainment talk show, and in a bid to appear like real journalists, travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-Un, the most dangerous dictator on the planet.  Lizzy Caplan, a CIA agent, recruits them to murder Kim, for some reason overlooking that James Franco's character, Dave Skylark is a dangerous idiot, and Seth Rogan is hardly better.  Hyjinks ensue, parties are had, James Franco's badly overplayed Skylark winds up befriending Kim (who ironically is the most captivating character in the movie despite his real-life counterpart's attempts to stop "The Interview" from being seen.  Then it all ends in a huge explosion of action.  It's mediocre:  loud and annoying, but manages a few laughs.  If you tolerated "This is the End", you can tolerate this.

The stupidity of US garbage pop culture has become a triumph of good against evil - both in real life and in film.  Hopefully the next time a supervillain wants to bully the world's film appetite it can be for a film that is more meaningful.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Citizenfour - The Reign of King Paranoia

This year's latest round of Oscarbation* has been focused largely upon biographies of great men performing past acts of heroism.  "Selma" is about Martin Luther King Jr's decision to march against the president's wishes, "Unbroken" is Louis Zamperini's tale of survival against the Japanese, and "The Imitation Game" is Alan Turing's fight to hide his sexuality while essentially laying the groundwork for the modern computer.  As good as these movies may be (and I have no idea, I haven't seen any of them), they are all simulations.  We cannot be in the room where history was made, rather we can only create a dramatic play imagining what these people might have been like.  There is artistry in those constructs, but they will forever be infinitely distract from the actual people and the actual events.

No film, until "Citizenfour" has managed to set itself within the real room with the real history-makers at the very time when they changed the world.  It is a film that feels immediate and dangerous.  Our emotions are not manipulated by dramatic technique injecting tension, rather the filmmaking compliments the yet-tangible crisis.  These events are still enfolding following people who are still being targeted by the most powerful state on Earth.  There is no actor playing Edward Snowden, creating the illusion of his nervousness, paranoia, and excitement.  This is Edward Snowden himself on camera, feeling those emotions.  "Citizenfour" transcends rote filmmaking, this is a pure historical source.

Most of "Citizenfour" takes place in a hotel room, with three people sharing the crampt space.  Snowden himself mostly stays sprawled on the white bed, while reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill take shifts between using the one chair and standing.  This room is a basic white zone of tasteful mild - the kind of generic slightly-above-average temporary bedroom that could be found in any city on the globe.  The first interviews have that forced awkward quality you would expect from people meeting for the very first time, but as time moves and the momentousness of their discussion grows, a bond is formed.  They nervously smile with the knowledge they are starting a battle against terrifying people of unimaginable power.  Even in this isolated room, their enemies could be listening.  Big Brother, long-awaited and long-feared, is now here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nightcrawler - The Adventures of a Humanoid Corporation

Corporatese is the language of psychopaths.  Beyond being a tribal marking - a tribe of suits, ties, briefcases, and practical black German cars - it is a twisted dialect of understatement and avoidance.  Unlike its incomprehensible cousin Legalese, Corporatese at least can mimic regular speech that a person would use.  Yet there is no individual in "business-speak", merely a conglomerate of larger interests, 'the corporation'.  A person can have emotions, they can have guilt, they can even suffer pangs of responsibility.  A business corporation does not.  A corporation is a vast omnipresent psychopath made out of fleshy, presumably moral people.  Corporatese is a dance of bullshit that lets the humans within the business machine ignore the chilling nature of the shared universe they have created.

Louis Bloom, the main character of "Nightcrawler"* might be the first character to be a living corporation.  Despite a polite, positive, even friendly attitude, Bloom makes the skin crawl of everybody he meets.  There is something clearly off about this person.  A false smile lies on his unblinking face, below swepted-back hair and above a wirey frame.  His speech is full of nonsensical buzz words he is quoting verbatim from online interview guides.  Everything about him is a staged production performed just badly enough to make you wonder if there are lizard scales hiding beneath his human suit.  Bloom uses Corporatese in every line not because he's playing a role, rather this is his natural element.

If there was ever any doubt about Jake Gyllenhaal's abilities as an actor, "Nightcrawler" is the film that will silence that dissent.  This is a deeply impressive performance that could not have been done better if the master of slime himself, Eric Roberts, had played it.  Gyllenhaal does creepy very well, just see his double(?) role in the earlier "Enemy".  "Nightcrawler" exists mostly as a showcase for this disturbing character, much as "American Psycho" existed to project the horror of the yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman.  We follow Bloom's crimes, tactical advancements, and creepy gestures of friendship towards genuine people, and are made accomplices in his meteoric rise to camera greatness.  It is one of the best performances of the year in a thrilling film, showcasing just how much damage a single person with a corporate-mindset can do, while climbing upwards to his own nightmarish American Dream.

Intimidation Wins, Cowardice Wins, Film Loses

It feels bizarre for a post-Apatow bro comedy to suddenly become a major symbol of intellectual freedom.  The cast of "Pineapple Express" are not exactly pinnacles of American values and artistic expression.  But here we are.  Sony announced that after weeks of intimidation, hacks, and theater cancellations, that they are canning their release of "The Interview", a stoner comedy about two TV hosts traveling to North Korea to haplessly attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.

Critics talk a lot about bold independent movies that are ignored by "mainstream" Hollywood.  We champion movies that are small, creative, and groundbreaking, which dare to do things that stupid comedies like "The Interview" would never attempt.  Let right now we have a movie that has been crushed by what is essentially terrorism.  I'll try to hold back my patriotic rage and instead be more incensed that any cinematic release be assaulted by such aggression by a nation state, one apparently no longer content to oppress it's own people but now must oppress the entire world out of petty pride and a complete lack of a sense of humor.  We should be just as angry that "The Interview" was censored just as we were thirty years ago when crazy home-bred fundamentalists tried to shut down "Last Temptation of Christ".  Movies are an artform, they should be protected like any other.  If North Korea has a problem with that, we shouldn't care.  This is the Western world, this is America, we've dealt with worse than you.  If North Korea finds our way of life a threat, we should be all the more proud of it.

But more I'm angry at Sony, who have shown their true colors here.  Sony shouldn't be humiliated by the hacks, they should be humiliated by their actions today.  They gave in to threats.  I'm sure Sony was more than happy to have a way out of what was soon to be a major boondoggle and a film that probably was going to be a flop anyway in the crowded Christmas season.  Despite theater chains dropping the film, there were still tens of thousands of theaters ready to play "The Interview".  Sony took the easy route.  Charlie Chaplain's "The Great Dictator" was an inspiring use of film to assault the greatest evil of the time, lampooning Hitler at the height of his power.  The studio execs of Sony seem to lack the resolve of just a few generations past.  We should all be ashamed.

Film, as a medium, has lost today. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Babadook - Why can't all horror films be this scary?

"The Babadook" has been inaugurated by just about every critic out there to be "the scariest movie of 2014".  The fact they're right, and that a small independent Australian horror film made for two million dollars is the scariest movie of the year - by a wide margin - should be a damning humiliation to the modern Hollywood horror scene.  You'd think after they release dozens of scary movies every year, made for far more money by veteran directors, that we would be terrified every weekend.  But we're not.  Horror has become the dumpster of the film world.  The average found footage film or crappy slasher has only slightly more credibility than porn - and none of the visceral thrills.

The crazy thing is that "The Babadook" really does not do much differently in terms of horror craft.  I cannot say there was much in this film that I have not seen in dozens of other scary stories.  You take a naturally creepy concept, such as an evil boogie man figure, isolate your characters, and slowly increase the tension.  It's a basic formula, yet one that so many films seem incapable of grasping.  "As Above, So Below"* had a naturally terrifying plot:  trap your characters in the French catacombs and then force them to trek down into Hell itself.  However, it was lazily made, unable to reach even the basics.  "The Babdook" achieves that elementary score, and it goes far beyond.

But what makes "The Babadook" advanced is not it's capable terror or that freaky grinning bastard in a top hat.  It is a great movie because it uses horror to build up a fantastic and gripping character drama.  Too many assure that just because horror is a trashy genre that it cannot have the dramatic weight of other genres.  They are wrong, and "The Babadook" does everything any other drama does:  it has compelling characters with real flaws and an interpersonal conflict that is tearing them apart.  It even features two of the best performances from any kind of movie in 2014.  "The Babadook" is a desperately human tragedy, with the fears and loneliness of it's characters heightened by the things that go bump in the night.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Freelancin': Left Behind, the Worst Movie of 2014

I know I haven't even made my Worst Of list yet, but I already know what number one is going to be.  And it's "Left Behind".  In a year few of awful awful awful awful Conservative Christian films, this was by far the worst.

This might be the worst movie I've ever reviewed for this site.  Think about that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Interstellar - My God—It's Full of Itself

For many audiences "Interstellar" will be a movie that is far too smart and will blow over their head. For me personally, the problem is that "Interstellar" is far too dumb.  That is a severely unfair thing to say about a rare serious SciFi movie made by one of the greatest showmen in Hollywood today, Christopher Nolan.  "Interstellar" is a film built mostly of actual, honestly researched science fiction concepts:  climate change, demographic crises, and the cold brutal reality of intergalactic travel.  Nolan, ever the cinematic engineer but rarely the poet, creates a hard realistic journey across the stars, attempting to one-up last year's near-Earth disaster film, "Gravity".  Like all Nolan films, it is cool, slick, and brilliantly developed.  Nolan is a filmmaker who isn't just trying to simulate a space odyssey, he's trying to live one.

However, "Interstellar", despite clearly being one of the great tentpole releases of 2014 and an experience you would have to be anti-joy to decide to miss, is a movie that I hesitate to call completely successful.  Christopher Nolan is a reliable showman, he'll make something that will dazzle your senses for all three hours of "Interstellar"'s runtime.  Of course, being a showman, he has always felt like a deeply mechanical director to me.  His main fascination in "Interstellar" is the workings of the spaceship and his awesome monolith robots, not the people inside.

Yet this movie tries badly to be sentimental, even sappy.  There are directors who can do sappy, there are directors who can even make maudlin work.  Nolan is not one of those people.  He can strap a camera to the side of a huge spinning mechanical rig simulating precisely the rotation of a space craft, giving you the illusion of a documentary shot of a real spaceship traversing the cosmos.  He can create a CG model of a black hole so precise that his technicians accidentally made a real scientific discovery about the warping of light around a singularity.  Nothing feels more unnatural than for Nolan and for this movie to suddenly dump it's hardcore science background to suddenly declare that science is out, math be damned:  Love (capital 'L') is the true power of the universe.  "Interstellar" is a crushingly schizophrenic movie.  We aren't watching humans fighting the desolation of outer space for survival, we're watching a geeky space enthusiast director fight against the cheesy message of his own movie.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hunger Games 3: Fizzling Out

I cannot apologize enough for lack of new posts, there will be a Freelancin' next week with more apologies to come.  Until then, posts will be happening on a regular schedule, I promise.

It's been a few years since "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" introduced Hollywood to the innovative concept of fractional adaptations.  Why make one movie when you can make two out of the same book?  Thus opening the door to such incomplete half films like the "Twilight: Breaking Dawn duology", and the incomplete third of films as the "Hobbit franchise".  One thing you might recognize amongst this crowd is that almost none of them actually constitute a  good movie*.  On the one hand, it works out for the fans, who get another trip to the movies to see their favorite books on the big screen.  On the other hand, it works out for the studios, who get to horde another obscene pile of bullion for their bank vaults.  However on the mutant freakish third hand of this rhetorical organism, everybody else has to suffer through awkward plodding films trying their best to justify their half-formed existence, such as "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1".

"Mockingjay Part 1" does at least attempt a new bold direction for this franchise.  There are no Hunger Games in "The Hunger Games 3".  Rather the class warfare subtext of this dystopia has finally boiled over into a full-fledged civil war.  Our beautiful heroine, Katniss Everdeen (played by the future ex-Mrs. Highwind, Jennifer Lawrence) has been locked away within the secret underground fortress of the secret District 13, where the rebels plan to use her in a propaganda war against the Capitol.  Her partner in the Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark (played by the perpetually underwhelming Josh Hutcherson) is a prisoner of the Evil Empire, and is being used as their television talk show puppet.

The idea was for "Part 1" of this Mockingjay duet to be a slower more character-driven experience, with Catnip developing into a hero.  And discovering which of the two handsome angles of the mandatory young adult love triangle to fall in love with.  Unfortunately, while they got the "slow" part down, you will not get much in terms of character.  Catnip Everclear has never been a very exciting lead, and she is at her worst when she has to spend an entire movie in a gray bunker with seemingly nothing to do but watch events go by around her.  The rest of the Hunger Games cast hangs story equally ignored by an aimless script.  Catnip seems disconnected to everybody around her, as the script can neither build her relationship with hunky Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) or with her little sister or with anybody at all.  "Hunger Games 3" is a movie that not only doesn't have action, it really doesn't have anything.