Sunday, July 24, 2016

Spring/Summer 2016 Movie Roundup, Part 3

And now, a final note from the General

And so we come at last to the final edition of our roundup, after which point I will finally, mercifully, be caught up, and we can get back to our regularly scheduled program of far-too-many-words-being-expended-on-individual-films. In the meanwhile however, let's catch up at last with the movies I saw as the spring transitioned to summer.

The General's Post Spring (and Summer) Roundup, Part 3

Finding Dory

Alternate Title:  The Octopus is In The Way

One sentence synopsis:    Amnesiac fish Dory experiences a memory revelation about her long-lost parents, and sets out on a cross-ocean journey alongside Marlin and Nemo to find them.

The Verdict: Pixar may be a gold standard company, but their sequels are not exactly the stuff of legends. For every Toy Story 2/3 we have a Planes or a Cars 2, which generally serve to remind us why Disney tends (with rare exceptions) to relegate their own sequels to the direct-to-video market. Still, 2003's Finding Nemo (God, has it been thirteen years?) was one of the great triumphs in Pixar's conquest of the 00s, and the hope was that they would find a way to not screw it up this time.

Finding Dory, as the title might indicate, focuses on Ellen DeGeneres' blue tang in a fresh adventure as she gets a fragmented image from the depths of her broken memory, and sets out to find her family, a journey which rather quickly deposits her, Nemo, and Marlin in an analogue for the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Hijinx proceed to ensue, involving the usual slapstick routines and host of celebrity-voice-acted comic relief characters, particularly a seven-armed octopus named Hank (voiced by Ed O'Neil) who is both an ornery bastard and a chameleon/escape artist (which is true to life for both actor and species, I guess). Other new characters include a Beluga with concussion-induced echolocation problems played by Ty Burrell, a pair of Sea Lions played by Wire alums Idris Elba and Dominic West (goddamn those bribing bastards at Pixar), and a bird named Becky, who is... just off. All of this is done up in the typical Pixar cinematic style, with a rich vibrancy to the color palate and anatomic details of behavior, movement, and structure, for every fish, bird, mammal, and mollusk that crosses the screen. The tropical world, either of the Great Barrier Reef or of the Aquarium and its environs, look gorgeous, from forests of kelp stretching towards the heavens, to swirling constellations of fish within a towering biome-instalation, to the grimy interiors of ducts, sewers, and outflow ports. Action and animation are spectacular, particularly for the aforementioned octopus, who slithers and slides and crawls in a manner that clearly substantiates Pixar's claim that his animation is "the hardest thing we've ever done".

So does this mean that Finding Dory is as good as Finding Nemo was? Of course not. Finding Nemo was one of Pixar's finest movies, from the beginning of a decade they would go on to dominate as part of what we can safely call, with the benefit of hindsight, a golden age comparable to any other (including Disney's three). That age rather definitively ended with 2011's Cars 2, and while Finding Dory is certainly a decent-to-good animated movie, it is not the powerhouse its predecessor was. The problem isn't the writing or the plot, though both are somewhat less fantastic than the predecessor was, nor the lack of emotional resonance, for some sequences in this film veer almost into horrific trauma, as we see the full consequences of a condition such as the one Dory suffers from. The problem is that the intention here clearly isn't to make a revolutionary film, but simply to get the gang back together for another fun romp, interspersed with the occasional moment of existential horror that Pixar fans are accustomed to seeing driven into their guts, just to liven things up. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but the movie as a whole feels considerably more ephemeral than its predecessor, with many characters inserted because they let the animators include a sight gag, rather than because the character itself was intrinsically funny or interesting. Fun as the octopus is to look at, for instance, we get no real idea of who he is as a character, or why he wants so desperately to get to Cleveland, and while that may seem like not a big deal from a comic relief character who is also a cartoon cephalopod in a children's film, this is Pixar, who once reduced entire adult audiences to tears and ruin with heartfelt stories about toys, garbage disposals, and grumpy old men.

There's nothing really wrong with Finding Dory, ultimately. But it can't be said that there's all that much really right with it in that old Pixar style either. And in a year that gave us Zootopia, that's not enough to earn the abject praise this company once garnered as a matter of course.

Final Score:  6.5/10


Free State of Jones

Alternate Title:  Occupy: Swampland

One sentence synopsis:   A confederate deserter forms a multi-ethnic militia to fight against requisition agents and the KKK.

The Verdict:  Big, sweeping historical war epic? I'm in! War epics are one of my favorite genres and always have been, and this one had the added benefit of actors I like (Matthew McConaughey for instance), and a story that does not get seen an awful lot. Oh there's plenty of Civil War epics out there, but this one seemed to be focused on a side unsung, the southerners who had no truck with betraying the Union, and who rose up against the Confederacy in a strange, second-order rebellion.

Well, it turns out I was wrong in that estimation, because once again, the trailers lied to me. Not about the fact that the movie was about Southern anti-confederate rebels, for it definitely is, but about the fact that the movie was a civil war epic, for it very much is not. Though advertised as some kind of great revolution-film ala The Patriot, Free State of Jones is really more of a study of the life and times of one Newton Knight, a farmer-turned-medic-turned-second order rebel against the confederate authorities in Jones County, Mississippi, and the biggest surprise, to me at least, is that a good half of the runtime of the film takes place not during but after the civil war, during the era of Reconstruction, a period not generally found upon movie screens, as it was an era where, unquestionably, evil triumphed and good men failed. From his origins as just a poor farmer trying to escape a war he wants nothing to do with, we watch Knight become a militant anti-Confederate crusader, as the requisitions of the local confederate authorities, carried out with brutality and callous disregard for the life of the poor locals, pushes him to open, armed rebellion. Meeting up early on with a group of runaway slaves, headed by Moses Washington (Hunger Games and Place Beyond the Pines' Mahershala Ali), he identifies quickly that blacks and poor whites in his neck of the woods have a common enemy in the confederate authorities, and yet the movie goes beyond that, as Knight (and this is all apparently true), follows this line of thinking to its logical end, becoming a John Brown-style evangelist against slavery, racism, and the suppression of civil rights by the KKK, until by the end of the film he has founded a mixed-race co-op of farms in a remote part of the county, married an ex-slave, in violation of the laws of the day, and helped organize voting registers of newly-freed slaves who would march, under arms, to the ballot boxes on election day to exercise their newly-won rights to vote. And just in case the point wasn't made clear enough, the film periodically cuts forward by eighty years to the trial of Knight's Great-Grandson, who was charged, in 1948, with marrying a white woman while being 1/8th black himself.

I try not to let preconceptions filter my experience when going to see a movie, but let me tell you all, it is rare that I encounter a movie that turns all possible expectations on their heads like this. And yet, I remain a historian at heart, and a cinephile, and I have to confess that I really liked Free State of Jones, almost certainly more than I would have liked the Patriot-style homily to the good warrior that I expected it to be. The structure of the film is really strange, what with constant cuts forward and backwards in time, and sections that seem drawn out for purposes unknown, and it's this reason, I assume, why the movie flopped overall and has a poor reputation among critics. Well I've never been one to follow the pack in this regard, and Free State of Jones is a very good film, bordering on an excellent one, thanks mostly to a trio of superb performances by McConaughey, Ali, and English actress and Dr. Who alum (of course in England, who isn't?) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing Knight's common law wife and ex-slave Rachel. It's one of the only movies I've ever seen since Birth of a Nation to dive into the Reconstruction period in the south, with all the wonderful historical atrocities that entails, from lynching and cross-burning, to voter-suppression, to the entirely historical scheme of "apprenticeship" that southern plantation owners came up with in the aftermath of Slavery's abolition that, at least for a little while, enabled them to continue to own and sell black people, particularly children. It is also one of the only movies out of the hundreds I've seen on the subject, that managed to make the KKK seem scary instead of ridiculous, something far more in keeping with the actual historical KKK than with the inbred Halloween rejects who don their sheets in modern times.

Free State of Jones is hardly a perfect movie. Even for a biopic I would have liked to see a bit more action, and many scenes or concepts simply seem to come out of nowhere, such as a sequence in the middle of the film, where Knight suddenly has an army with artillery at his disposal, and is engaging in pitched battles against the confederate troops of the area, things he appears to have conjured forth from thin air. But that's all more or less secondary. I know I have a reputation for being lenient towards historical films, and with good reason, but put another way, I have the expertise and experience to tell the difference between a good one and a bad. Free State of Jones is a very good historical film about a period in American history that isn't often seen or heard about. It may not be what I expected to see initially, but given what I generally expect every week, that's hardly a sin.

Final Score:  7.5/10



Alternate Title:  Big Flatulent Graphics

One sentence synopsis:    A young orphan named Sophie is abducted in the night by a friendly giant and taken to Giantland, the source of all dreams.

The Verdict:  Though my memory of such events is fragmented, I am assured by my mother that the BFG, by Roald Dahl, was one of the first real books I ever read, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. Roald Dalh was a huge element of my childhood, with books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and it's remarkably stranger sequel), Danny the Champion of the World, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, Henry Sugar, and a horde of other novels and short stories, child-themed or adult. Many films have been made from Dahl's books, some of them great (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), some of them execrable (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Now here comes Steven Spielberg, the master of whimsy himself, to put The BFG, one of Dahl's works onto the screen. Well at least it's not Tim Burton again...

The BFG stars Mark Rylance, of Bridge of Spies and The Gunman, as the titular BFG, though of course the character itself is a computer effect, and he's just great. There's a rumor out there that this role was supposed to go to Robin Williams before his death, but Rylance, a veteran actor of stage and screen, knows exactly how to embody the slightly bumbled-up, grandfatherly giant, and lets the animators take care of the rest. He's helped by eleven-year-old Ruby Barnhill, who plays the little girl Sophie whose role is to be abducted by the BFG and ultimately to drive a madcap plot involving flatulence-soda, man-eating giants, dreamforging, the Queen of England, and the British Army. Both Barnhill and Rylance are just excellent in the roles allotted to them, with Sophie the no-nonsense bookworm and the BFG the vocabulary-challenged old man who does his job because that's how he likes it. And in terms of supporting roles, one could do far worse than having the Queen of England (complete with Corgies) played by Dame Penelope Wilton (I know her from Dr. Who and Downton Abbey), or the evil man-eating giants Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler played by Jermaine Clement (What We Do In The Shadows) and Bill Hader (Trainwreck) respectively. Everybody does their job perfectly well, at least per my vague recollections of the story.

So... given that, you'd expect me to like the movie an awful lot, and yet... I mean I didn't hate it certainly, but there just feels like there's something missing here. Maybe it's my fault, my own childhood nostalgia fog denigrating the movie for not being some perfect representation of a half-remembered experience, but the movie just feels a little bit pro-forma. Some of the sequences I remember best from the book, the elaborate routine that the Queen's butler goes through when trying to work out how to accommodate and feed a giant in Buckingham Palace, or the crisp, military debates and operations of the Royal Army in devising a plan to capture the evil giants and then putting it into action, both of these sequences seem unduly rushed, in favor of more conventional "false crisis, false resolution" style storytelling that I don't remember being in the book at all. Maybe the slapstick of the evil giants undercuts their menace too much, maybe the BFG's world-weariness just feels a bit too world-weary, without any of the fun adventurous side that the character embodied back when I was five. Maybe I'm being totally unfair, and there's no version of this story that would have satisfied me, and this is just a subject about which I'm unlikely to find any shred of objectivity.

Final Score:  6/10


Independence Day: Resurgence

Alternate Title:  Returning to the Well

One sentence synopsis:   20 years after their defeat in "The War of '96", the aliens return to conquer Earth once more.

The Verdict:  I don't give a shit who says otherwise, I maintain to this day that Independence Day was one of the great films of the 1990s, a spectacular action-disaster blockbuster that blew me and everyone else at the time completely away with things we had never seen before, a movie firmly in the America: Fuck Yeah pantheon of super-patriotic action movies coupled with all the things that would become touchstones of Rolland Emmerich's career. Casts of dozens, criss-crossing narratives, destruction porn, action showpieces to the accompaniment of stirring patriotic music, the scientist as a hero, the works. Emmerich of course would go on to spend the next twenty years making very dumb movies on similar themes, which varied from the bad (2012) to the really bad (The Day After Tomorrow), to the unwatchable (Godzilla). And yet, I can't hate Emmerich, partly because he gave us one (possibly two with Stargate) legitimately great films, and partly because he's just not a hateable guy. Unlike Michael Bay, Emmerich's failings are usually earnest failures, not filled with ugly stereotypes and bilious contempt for all men, but movies about true-blue heroes doing wholesomely heroic things in the midst of calamity. And so, while I'm certainly no fan of basically anything Emmerich has done this century, I had to go see what returning to the ID4 well would give us.

And... honestly, ID4:Resurgence is exactly what I was hoping for. Not in my wildest dreams, of course, it's no masterpiece to compare with the first, but my sincere hope was that while Emmerich was likely to make a stupid movie, that it would be the right kind of stupid, and it is. Resurgence is in fact a spectacularly stupid movie, but it's a fun movie first and foremost, one that understands exactly what it is and how to play with the conventions of the genre that its own predecessor created. It's a movie with cool action and heroic one-liners and fast pacing and actually funny comic relief (Brent Spiner steals the entire movie and runs away with it cackling), something Michael Bay couldn't generate if you gave him the GDP of Norway to play with. It stars actors I don't much like (Jessie Usher, Liam Hemsworth, honestly Judd Hirsch), but softens their presence by giving them formula plots to enact that never really get in the way, and instead focuses on actors I love (Jeff Goldblum, William Fichtner, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, and a crazy Deobia Oparei, playing a central African warlord who fights aliens with twin machetes and kung fu). The film's plot is ludicrous in the extreme (although nobody hacks the alien mothership with a macbook this time), and it certainly does suffer from the lack of a leading presence like Will Smith. But if ever there was a film aware of its own failings and willing to work to paper them over, it was this one, a movie that tries so earnestly to distract us from its flaws for the run-time before shrugging its shoulders and patting us on the back and hoping that we enjoyed ourselves. I did, and given that I did, I can't really muster outrage at the planetary-grade plot holes or the stupidity associated with some of the story beats. I was too busy watching the daughter of the President from the first movie make strafing runs against the giant alien queen battlesuit chasing our heroes across the deserts of Nevada.

ID4: Resurgence is not great cinema, and it is not the equal to its predecessor, not by a country mile. But it is, fundamentally, a fun, exciting, and very funny movie. And given how most of these modern remakes of a late 20th-century classic turn out, that's good enough for me.

Final Score:  7/10


The Lobster

Alternate Title:  Artifice and Pogo Dancing

One sentence synopsis:   A newly-divorced man goes to a singles hotel where he must find a mate in 45 days or be transformed into an animal of his choice.

The Verdict: I am so sick of movies like The Lobster. I'm sorry if that spoils the review upfront, but half the reason I'm doing these catchups is to get to the point, and the point here is that I am tired of these arthouse dreck-fests that think confusing the audience means the film is highbrow and daring. Some directors can get away with this sort of thing, Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, but not Yorgos Lanthimos, who wrote, produced, and directed The Lobster with an eye towards making the tranche of critics that think anything the little people don't like must be amazing fawn all over him. He succeeded, winning BFAs and Cannes Jury Prizes and all the other awards that are fast becoming synonymous with "waste of time" in my book. Coming right after I got through praising a Rolland Emmerich movie of all things, I'm sure many art film fans will wash their hands of me as a plebeian bore who can't accept anything more intellectual than an explosion-fest laden with one-liners, but that argument is not only bullshit, but is the reason that crap like Under the Skin and Leviathan get made. These movies are not artistic, they are not clever, they are not interesting. They are boring intentionally-obfuscated garbage, and no amount of soliloquizing on the fact that people didn't "get it" changes that.


The Lobster is a movie starring Colin Farrell, normally a turn-off for me, but who is honestly fine in this one. He plays David, a middle-aged sad-sack of a man whose wife has abandoned him and who, by the laws of his society, now has to find a new mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal. Over the course of his stay he meets various people, hooks up with them, leaves them, runs off to join a group of single rebels living solitary lives in the forest, etc. Yes, I know that this is all allegory, and yes, I even know what this is an allegory for. What I do not know is why the film has to be so intentionally stilted to make its point. Every actor, good (John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Coleman), and bad (Farrell, Léa Seydoux) uses the same emotionless affect throughout the film, because society has deadened us to our true feelings or some damn thing, even when they are subjected to physical violence, atrocity, and the loss of loved ones. The rules of the dystopian society seem not merely arbitrary (which I could forgive), but mutable, particularly once the rebel group enters the scene, who have their own arbitrary rules which are violated periodically. The absurdist nature of the film does provide a few moments of hilarity, such as the deadpan line "We enforce solitary behavior, which is why we only play electronic music", or the man who attempts to attract a soulmate by periodically smashing his head against the wall, but the behavior of the characters is so alien across the board that we have no idea how anyone is going to react to anything, which de-anchors us entirely from the flow of the film. And while I understand what is being symbolized here (the arbitrary nature of social rules, and the ferocity with which we punish those who transgress them), did the film really have to bore us all for two and a half goddamn hours to make the point that social mores aren't always logical? Is this so revolutionary a concept that it could not be explained by actors acting like actual people? This is like putting together a discordant film consisting of three hours of interpretive mime dance over atonal music because if you do not, then how will the audience ever come to understand your revolutionary thesis that "love is a good thing"?!

The Lobster is nowhere as bad as some of the indie dreck I've reviewed on this project, but it is almost perfectly emblematic of what's wrong with a great deal of it. And I'd gladly take a Rolland Emmerich movie that's entertaining over one by a highbrow director who thinks I'm too dumb to be watching his movie.

Final Score:  4/10


Swiss Army Man

Alternate Title:  Harry Potter and The Posthumously Delusional Psychotic

One sentence synopsis:   A shipwrecked man finds a washed-up corpse with various fantastical abilities that becomes his best friend.

The Verdict: I know I just got through bashing an Indie movie, but the fact is that the reason I stick to my one-a-week schedule is to force myself to see the films I normally wouldn't, and that generally includes a lot of quirky indie fare, especially as we get later into Blockbuster season and the weeks between said blockbusters begin to stretch out. And so it was that I went to see a movie that my sister described as "The Farting Corpse Movie"

She wasn't wrong.

Even by the standards of weird indie movies, Swiss Army Man is a weird indie movie, about a man named Hank (Paul Dano) who is marooned on an island in the Pacific somewhere, and is on the verge of suicide when he finds a washed-up corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who begins displaying fantastic powers of flatulence, water retention, and muscle spasming, as well as the ability to talk and think (though not move). This is a concept that gets gross, though not as gross as it certainly could have (we do not get a medical treatise on decomposition, thank god), and the film more or less consists of Hank using Manny (the corpse) to help him escape the situations he is in, while re-introducing Manny to what it is to be alive. I'd explain more of what's going on here, but frankly, this movie is weird in a way that even Indie films typically are not, to the point where I have trouble even categorizing what the film is, be it coming of age, mediation on philosophy, broad slapstick comedy, gross-out humor, or (more likely) some depraved combination of the above. It's a movie that seems to expect you will take what you get from it, as many indie movies do, including quite a few terrible ones.

And yet... I gotta be honest folks, I loved Swiss Army Man, primarily because it is inventive where most indie dreck is formulaic, innovative where most are artificial, and intriguing where most are just boring. The film is weird enough to defy coherent description, but never feels random or incoherent, just a movie that takes its own premise seriously and derives weird rapport from it. Both performances from Dano and Radcliffe help, of course, as they are, the both of them, far better here than they have been in a lot of films I've seen, but the real stars of this one are the Directors (and writers) of the movie, unknowns Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who exhibit great mastery in pacing, shot selection, dialogue and scripting. They are also buttressed by a superb soundtrack, by Indie Rock band Manchester Orchestra, all of which comes together to produce a movie that may not make a whole lot of objective sense, but feels wholesome and coherent while watching it, and which holds together in my memory astonishingly well. It's not really a movie "about" anything in particular, and the twists that the plot ties itself into are left quite understated, but that's not because of some intentional effort to confuse the audience or appeal to critics, but because the movie isn't about its plot. It's about the ways in which these characters, real or fictitious, can generate meaning from one another, and how the artificiality of modern life can be a strength as well as a weakness. Maybe I'm reaching for meaning that isn't there, as this isn't the most coherent film I've ever seen, but it's one where the experience of watching it is far more enjoyable, in an almost whimsical sense, than one could rightly expect from a movie wherein Daniel Radcliffe plays a dead guy who farts a lot.

Whatever it was meant to be, the fact is that Swiss Army Man is a wonderful movie in both the literal and figurative sense, an uncatagorizable mess that was somehow polished into art. If it serves to prove to some of my detractors that I do more than just praise brainless crap on this blog, then all the better, but the best resolution of all would be for those of you who have an appreciation for the weirder side of cinema to go see this one. I can't promise you what you'll get out of it, only that I got something very close to magic.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time: Time to go where several people have gone before...

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