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July 25, 2014

When the studio kept Hercules from critics until the last minute, I was worried; that’s never a good sign. Sure, it was almost guaranteed not to be the year’s worst Hercules movie, but Brett Ratner’s version could still turn out pretty bad. As it turns out, Hercules is a solidly fun and entertaining, if mostly mindless, summer action flick.

I say “mostly”, because there is an actual idea running through the movie: the distinction between the legend of Hercules and the facts. Never mind that the whole idea of a distinction between the two is rooted in an Aristotelian worldview that came long after the original Herculean stories, and having Hercules’ own contemporaries draw the distinction sounds jarringly modern.

The legend is pretty familiar: son of Zeus, driven to the Twelve Labours in an attempt to get the jealous Hera off his back, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is the greatest hero that ancient Greece has ever known. The “facts” are that Hercules was an orphan in Athens. His strength distinguished him in the army, and he now travels with a band of mercenaries, saving up to retire peacefully. Fighting alongside Hercules are his childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the Amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the berzerker Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), and the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane). And then there’s Hercules’ nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who recounts the legendary stories to alternately build the morale of those who hire Hercules and demolish that of his enemies.

That’s the real hook. Besides being the best portrayal of the bard class from Dungeons & Dragons — a game itself strongly rooted in the idea of storytelling — the counterpoint of Iolaus’ stories against the truth serves as a reminder of the importance of stories and storytelling. Stories give us something to believe in. And so when the Thracian Lord Cotys (John Hurt) enlists Hercules’ aid in putting down a civil war, it’s as much to give his army of farmers something to believe in as anything else.

The film plays out simply, anchored by two well-shot field battles and a nice climactic set-piece. None of them will blow your mind, but they’re good fun, and Ratner does a better job than some other directors at lifting that Michael Bay spinning camera move. The screenplay, based on Steve Moore’s comic Hercules: The Thracian Wars, borrows its story beats liberally from other well-told stories, from Star Wars to The Princess Bride.

Ratner’s Hercules will probably not be joining them in the pantheon of classic stories, but it’s a good story, and well told. It knows what it wants to be, and it does a fine job of being just that. As we found out earlier this year, you can do a lot worse.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

I Origins

July 25, 2014
I Origins

It should come as no surprise that I’m a pretty staunch believer in evolution. That said, I also recognize the importance of faith for many people, and I know that the actual process of science is not exactly a rigorous, clockwork machine grinding ever forward. There’s a dialogue to be had between the two sides, to come to an understanding of how science really works to incorporate new information and turn mysteries into understanding.

To look at I Origins, it seems that writer/director Mike Cahill understands the need for this dialogue. He also shows a clear respect for science, and a desire to escape from movie clichés about scientists. But I’m not really sure he quite gets what science is, in the end. The first half is excellent as it brings a scientific project into conjunction with more subjective aspects of the human experience, but then it gives way to an ambivalent second half marked by a wishy-washy “we just don’t know” sentimentality.

The story hinges on the evolution of the human eye, long held up by ignorant creationists as supposed evidence of “irreducible complexity”. In fact, as illustrated most recently in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot, there are stages of eye development all the way from a patch of light-sensitive cells to a modern human eye, and there are species that provide examples of each one.

Cahill at least knows this. He tells a story about a scientist, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), who wants to go further and find specific mutations that could bridge the gaps from each stage to the next. He shows his new lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling, who co-wrote Cahill’s previous film, Another Earth), how he’s inducing color vision in normally color-blind lab mice. Karen runs with it, conjecturing another step he hadn’t accounted for: a completely sightless organism may have a dormant gene coding for the most rudimentary light-sensitivity, and a mutation might be able to activate that ability.

At the same time, Ian is falling for Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a young woman with strikingly-colored eyes. As committed to science and rationality as Ian is, Sofi is sure that there’s something more. She speaks of their knowing each other in past lives; he, smitten, modifies this into some more sciency-sounding nonsense about their atoms. The things we do for love.

Seven years after both of these storylines come to a nearly-simultaneous climax, iris-scanning has become a prominent form of biometric identification. When Ian’s first son is born and his irides are scanned, something funny happens: a false-positive match returns a deceased black man from Idaho. Ian stumbles into a closely-guarded mystery, which seems to indicate some kind of connection between people with such matching iris patterns.

And this is where things really go off the rails: Cahill treats this discovery like it might point to some mysterious force beyond the realm of science. In fact, the researchers Ian meets are already on exactly the right track, building up data and seeking an explanation. Even in the real world there are certainly phenomena we do not yet understand, but that doesn’t mean they’re beyond science. Science is not about what is true; it’s about how we come to know that things are true.

Sofi delivers the supposed killer analogy: a worm that previously sensed only touches and smells has mutated to sense light, so maybe people of faith have mutated to sense some other real phenomena beyond our current understanding. But this doesn’t really mean anything. If it’s true, and there is some sort of metempsychosis, then we should be able to explore and eventually explain it. We could never detect magnetic fields directly, the way migratory birds can, but that hardly means magnetism is beyond the realm of science. In principle, blind worm-scientists could eventually describe properties of light in terms of how it affects the things they can sense more directly. That Ian doesn’t immediately give this response shows either how bad of a scientist he is, or how badly Cahill misunderstands science itself.

But Cahill is not a bad director, and I Origins is not altogether a bad movie. Marling is as great as ever, albeit with less to do than in Another Earth. Cahill brings the same well-produced, low-budget style we saw in that film, though, with a few more impressive tricks this time around. And he again does well in his attempts to explore human emotion. But it seems the debate between science and faith seems to be a bit beyond his depth.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Magic In the Moonlight

July 25, 2014
Magic In the Moonlight

It was bound to happen sooner or later: Woody Allen finally turned out a pretty good movie again. Not great, mind you — this isn’t Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors — but Magic in the Moonlight is a charming little period romantic comedy.

Wei Ling Soo is one of the most famous magicians of the 1920s, bringing the Mysteries of the Orient to European audiences. He’s actually an Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth), who has a sideline as a debunker of self-proclaimed spirit mediums. His old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) shows up after a performance in Berlin, with a tale about a particularly hard case.

It seems a charming young medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), traveling with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has latched onto a wealth American family Howard knows on the French Riviera. The widowed matriarch (Jacki Weaver) mourns the lost of her industrialist husband; young, dopey Brice (Hamish Linklater) has fallen head over heels, serenading Sophie with his ukulele at every opportunity. Of course, Stanley knows there’s no way Sophie is “the real thing”, since there’s no such thing as the real thing “from the séance table to the Vatican”.

So Stanley sets to exposing her as a fraud, staying with his nearby Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). But a funny thing happens: Sophie seems to have some actual talent. Right off, she asks Stanley if he’s from China, and something else about Germany. A candle floats at a séance, and Howard can find no strings or wires suspending it. When Sophie meets Aunt Vanessa, she uncovers the spinster’s long-ago love affair with a member of parliament. It’s eerie. Faced with such strong evidence, Stanley must reconsider his solidly, dourly materialist worldview.

Firth is a natural as the grumpy, no-nonsense debunker. He’s charmingly insufferable and in desperate need to have some of the wind taken out of his sails. And when Stanley is deflated, Firth delivers his turn towards the wonder and magic of life perfectly.

Of course, Allen shoots a very pretty picture, and the jazz he loves fits perfectly with the Gatsby-on-the-Riviera setting. His awkward stabs at blue-collar characters in Blue Jasmine are hopefully behind him now; everyone here — even Sophie and her mother — oozes with class. The dialogue is clearly Allen’s, but it seems he’s brightening up from his own nebbishy past here.

Rest assured, though, that Allen has not himself turned dewy-eyed mystic. If you’re at all familiar with con movies you’ll see the counter-turn coming a mile off, but it’s delivered so neatly it’s hard to mind how obvious it is. Besides, the movie isn’t really about the surprise so much as Stanley’s dialectic arc, and that works as well as any character Allen has ever written.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

And So It Goes

July 25, 2014
And So It Goes

A funny thing happened while I was watching And So It Goes. It’s not like jerk-gets-less-jerky is an uncommon trope in Hollywood movies, but what I saw really started to feel like a rehash of As Good As It Gets. There’s the rich Jerk with an uncommon name, the Nice Lady he interacts with with a jerkishness that slowly transmutes to affection, the cute pet/child, and other points that were more difficult to pin down but that all pointed my mind towards the other movie.

There are many thoughts that signal disappointment in a movie, like the bored frustration of “When will this thing be over?” Only slightly less damning is “This reminds me of another movie. Gee, that other movie was a really good movie. I wish I were watching that movie instead of this one.” If my memories of another movie triggered by your movie interest and entertain me more than the actual movie you’ve put on the screen in front of me, something is dreadfully wrong.

I also had another thought: to go out of my way to bring up As Good as It Gets as a better movie than And So It Goes might feel like kind of a jerk move on my own part. But as the lights came up I checked the credits; lo and behold, Goes was written by Mark Andrus, who had collaborated with James L. Brooks on the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Gets.

And then a lot of things made sense. This isn’t just a similar story, it covers the exact same ground. Oren (Michael Douglas) is a miserable human being despite his wealth and success. He’s got an ongoing spat with his neighbor, Leah (Diane Keaton), who stands in for both Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear. That he lives next to the less-well-off lady is explained away: he actually owns the building she rents in, and he’s only staying there while he sells off his old mansion before retiring to the country.

Tragedy strikes when Oren’s estranged son shows up. He’s about to go off to prison, and needs Oren to take in his daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins). Of course a curmudgeon like Oren wants to part of this, and Leah swoops in to help. The two start to fall for each other; Oren pulls some strings to help Leah become a club singer; Oren says and does stupid things, but they’re drawn together in the longer run.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that And So It Goes is just a retread of Andrus’ earlier work. It’s also yet another in Keaton’s series of comedies placing her opposite a rotating cast of similarly-aging male leads: The Big Wedding with DeNiro, Something’s Gotta Give with Nicholson, and others that crib heavily from Nancy Meyers.

And since it’s a romantic comedy by Rob Reiner it has to be shoehorned into his own rom-com formulas. His tricks worked like gangbusters for Flipped, or When Harry Met Sally, but here they flop. There’s something acidic and slightly desperate in the underlying story this movie shares with As Good as It Gets, and James L. Brooks can spin that into gold as we’ve seen over and over again through his career. Reiner can do sweet and funny, and even moving at times, but mean is just not in his bag.

The same goes for Douglas; he’s great at playing scheming and slimy, and every cinematic Wall Street scoundrel is just a pale imitation of Gordon Gekko. And while he’s competent as the snide misanthrope here, it’s just not fair to ask him to measure up to a role Jack Nicholson was born to play. It doesn’t help that And So It Goes spends so much effort trying to humanize Oren’s character, giving him tragic backstory that’s supposed to explain why he’s such a jerk now. Nicholson and Brooks had the confidence to just let Melvin Udall be selfish and angry and terrible to everybody and then make him earn our sympathies rather than buying them off with a sob story.

But that sort of overwriting is all over this script. Oren’s kid is going to jail, and he had a drug problem, but he has to be a sympathetic father figure so he can’t be going to jail because of the drug problem, so we have to have extra exposition to explain that it’s something else and he’s really a great guy. It feels busy and complicated and just so cloyingly needy to ingratiate itself to us.

There are many good influences coming into And So It Goes, and so on paper it might look like a great idea. On the screen, each one pulls in a different direction, and none of them blend very well. It makes for an uneven, dissatisfying experience, where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Oh well.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Planes: Fire & Rescue

July 23, 2014
Planes: Fire & Rescue

I really didn’t expect much going into Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue. I really hated last year’s first installment of the Planes spinoff from the Cars franchise, and this movie looked like a country-twanging cross between that one and Always, also known as the first evidence that Steven Spielberg just does not do sentimentality well.

And yet, where Planes was a corny rehash of the old follow-your-dreams story, Fire & Rescue is something else entirely. Planes is all puns and pandering; Fire & Rescue has real emotional stakes, and it earns them. I think it comes down to a principle outlined by Film Crit HULK in his massive James Bond discussion: Planes is about what we want; Fire & Rescue is about what we need.

It feels really good to hear that we should follow our dreams and fly off victorious into the sunset. I understand that Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) was miserable in his job and is happier as a racer, and I’m not saying that he’s wrong to have chased his passion. The problem was that the story is just so boring and old by now, and Planes had nothing interesting to offer to anyone over ten years old. Sure, it’s a kids’ movie, but that doesn’t mean it has to be stupid.

And I think director Roberts Gannaway knows that. After a long run of Disney-channel television and direct-to-video Disney spinoffs, he gets his first crack at a feature, with a story credit alongside Planes screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard. The first great choice is to take a little of the wind out from under Dusty’s wing with a failing gearbox that’s long since out of production and not easily replaced. Then an accident starts a fire at the Propwash Junction, and the aging firetruck (Hal Holbrook) can’t really handle it alone. The airstrip will be closed down without another firefighter.

This is the first key turn: Dusty feels like he’s nothing without racing, but he could have a second life as a single-engine air tanker. Following dreams is great, but not everyone will get there. More important than setting your sights high is knowing that you’re not a failure if you don’t get there, and you can still succeed and be fulfilled in other ways. The movie doubles down on this: racing is an entirely ego-driven field, devoted to personal glory; firefighting is about service to others.

Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), the helicopter leader of the Fire & Rescue squad at Piston Peak National Park where Dusty trains reinforces this point. He used to be a TV star — on CHoPs, with co-star Nick “Loop’n” Lopez (Erik Estrada) — but now saves people for real. The whole crew are on their second careers, and as mismatched a bunch as they can seem they’re all business when a fire breaks out. Their biggest obstacle the team faces seems to be the ego-driven park superintendant Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins).

But that’s not the biggest obstacle for Dusty; he’s still got that wonky gearbox, and he doesn’t dare redline his engine without risking a crash. And what with all the admiration he gets for having been a racer, he doesn’t tell anyone about his problem. For all his modest words about his crew at the beginning, he isn’t really good at working as part of a team. He ignores orders, acts superior, and refuses support.

Planes was all about Dusty chasing after the life that he wanted, feeding his ego and proving he can succeed. Fire & Rescue is about Dusty learning to deal with disappointment, to serve something larger than himself, and to ask for help. All in all, I’d say that’s a story kids need to hear more than the first one.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.


July 18, 2014

If the only thing to be said about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was the fact of its existence, it would be an impressive achievement and one of the year’s most fascinating films. For Linklater to not only pull off his stunt, but to tell such a rich, engrossing, and wonderfully textured story in the process is nothing less than astounding. Boyhood is easily the best film of the year so far.

Linklater has pulled off other filmmaking stunts before, like reimagining Fast Food Nation from yet another food documentary into a narrative feature, or the recurring installments every nine years of the Before series. But the idea behind Boyhood is so audacious — the sort of thing tossed out more as a grand concept than a realistic plan — that it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker even attempting it until you’ve seen the finished product. The story traces a boy’s life over twelve years from the ages of six to eighteen, filmed using the same cast over the same span of time.

That the boy’s divorced parents, Olivia and Mason Sr., are played by long-time Linklater collaborators Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette undoubtedly helped them keep coming back year after year to shoot the next scenes. His older sister, Samantha, is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, which is another way of keeping an actor under contract. But the story centers on Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane throughout. And that’s the most enormous stroke of luck: how can you possibly know when hiring a seven-year-old actor that he’ll be any good when he’s seventeen, or that he’ll even want to keep going? Coltrane could have backed out at any point, leaving the entire project hanging. But he didn’t, and he’s excellent throughout.

Outside these four, the rest of the cast come and go, though they are consistently cast from year to year. After Olivia moves with the children to Houston to go back to school, she marries again. Mason’s stepfather is played by the same actor over the years it takes for him to go from new provider to alcoholic, authoritarian bully before Olivia leaves him. In later years, high school friends and even a girlfriend are enlisted, each providing some recurring continuity from year to year.

Through it all, we see the truly formative experiences of a young man’s life. Boyhood redefines the coming-of-age movie, escaping from the fantasy of a single crucial time easily boiled down into an hour and a half, complete with a pop soundtrack and a trophy girlfriend (or sometimes boyfriend) to symbolize the Attainment Of Maturity. Real life is aimless and meandering. More things happen to us than we actively do ourselves, and there is no single narrative through-line that defines our lives.

Mason watches it all, but while he’s a smart boy, he’s not preternaturally gifted with our adult perspective, the way young protagonists often are. When he’s younger, he is utterly at the whims of forces greater than himself. As he grows older, he exercises more and more self-determination, and not always for the better. In short: he grows up.

If any movie deserves another full-length documentary about its development and production, Boyhood is it. I left the theater as fascinated with how they managed to pull it off as with the story itself, and full of questions. How much of the overall story did Linklater have sketched out at the beginning? How did they plan each year’s scenes? Did they shoot the beginnings of many more storylines than we finally saw, and winnow out the ones that weren’t working after a few years? Did they add in new scenes, or change their plans based on what they found they had to work with each year as they reconvened? How did Linklater pick the timely references each year that would still resonate in our memories today?

However they did it, Boyhood is an unparalleled achievement. Some scenes are tightly focused on advancing a certain point, like an interested teacher’s mentorship. Others float aimlessly through a conversation between father and son, or time misspent with childhood friends. Either way, each one sparkles with a sense of becoming, of a boy growing into the infinitely diverse potential of the life that spills out ahead of him, as far off and indistinct as the horizon on a clear day in Texas.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

The Purge: Anarchy

July 18, 2014
The Purge: Anarchy

I may be the one reviewer who actually really liked The Purge. The social points that seemed clear to me — an examination of racial and class privilege under the magnifying lens of policies put in place by a horrific Tea-Party analogue using religion and nationalism as a popular front for the effort to entrench the interests of the political and financial elites at the expense of everyone else — seemed to fly right by everyone else. Oh well.

But that didn’t mean that I was any more excited for The Purge: Anarchy than the rest. The big horror-heads scorned The Purge for not being more like You’re Next, and rightfully expect the sequel to be more of the same. For my part, I saw it going one of two ways: either writer/director James DeMonaco tries to give the slasher-fest most people seem to have wanted or he goes for another bite at his social-commentary apple. In the first case, that’s just the kind of horror movie I find boring and pointless; in the second, I see no reason to believe it will come across any more clearly than the first attempt did.

And indeed, Anarchy doubles down on the metaphor. The script gets even more explicit, with an anti-New-Founding-Fathers activist (Michael K. Williams) posting videos online calling for resistance. A laundry list of progressive social issues get folded in, and I love that, but nobody seemed to get it last time and I don’t know if anyone will this time.

We move from a tony suburb to the gritty downtown areas where the Purge is naturally most active. Gangs prowl the streets, hunting for prey. A young couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) try to get home before the sundown commencement, only to find their car sabotaged, stranding them. A mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul) try to hide out in their apartment, but a paramilitary-style unit storms the building and tries to kidnap them. They’re saved by an armed man (Frank Grillo) out on his own mission, just as the first couple tries to hide out in his car. The five band together and move across the city, trying to find safe haven to last the night.

Moving into such a large arena allows for many more moving pieces, and a lot more carnage than last time, but I doubt it will satisfy those looking for a slasher/splatter film. It also leads to a lot of running-with-camera, which can get nauseating at times. And it means we lose the focus on one man coming into awareness of his own privilege, and with it the chance for our own recognition as we identify with him. I get it: it’s more fun to have an underdog to root for than to identify with a character only to realize he may be part of the problem.

But that approach didn’t work last time anyway. In its place we get more explicit statements that the Tea Party — sorry, the “New Founding Fathers” — are really about entrenching the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor. And we get references to a bunch of related issues as well.

The Purge is obviously gun culture, fetishizing weapons; a woman describes her favorite gun with near-masturbatory glee. The Purge is rape culture too; a man holds two women at gunpoint, swearing tonight he’ll take the sex that he deserves as an American male. The Purge is income inequality; the lives of the wealthy are so abstracted from those of the poor that they literally buy and sell people to hunt for sport. The Purge is even a failed health care system; a sick old man decides he’s worth more as a sacrifice to the rich than as a burden to his family. The Purge turns America into a literal war-zone, but too many of our own people — female, black, hispanic, or simply not rich enough — walk through one every day in real life.

I admire DeMonaco for putting all these issues out there in his films, but I despair that it will come across to anyone. The people like me who already think that gun culture and rape culture and all the others are huge problems don’t need to get the message. Those who DeMonaco reflects in a funhouse mirror not only won’t recognize themselves, they don’t even believe that these problems exist. In a way, that scares me far more than the movie ever could.

Worth It: yes
Bechdel Test: pass


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