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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.

Boyhood

July 18, 2014
Boyhood

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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 11, 2014
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I didn’t like Rise of the Planet of the Apes very much. It felt big and dumb, and like the whole idea of allegory went out the window for a cross between a typical hubris-of-scientists story and world-building setup for something else. Well, that something else has come, and some of that setup has started to pay off; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is really good.

It’s ten years after the intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) led a band of research apes on a rampage across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the redwoods of Marin County. They small band has multiplied, well, far more than can really be expected in ten years, but let’s just gloss over that little detail.

Human society has collapsed, brought down by the virus that raised the apes’ intelligence in the first place, now dubbed the “simian flu”. A few thousand people are left in the ruins of San Francisco, cut off from whoever else might be left out there. The leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), sends out a small group to find and repair a small hydroelectric dam before the fuel they use for generators runs out entirely.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his new, post-collapse wife Ellie (Keri Russell) lead the band into an uneasy truce with the apes. They make progress on restoring electricity, and look on hopefully as Malcolm’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bonds with Maurice (Karin Konoval), a calm, wise orangutan, over his copy of Charles Burns’ Black Hole. But at least one member of the party isn’t so trusting; Carver (Kirck Acevedo) shoots one ape in fear early on, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but he’s the only one who knows how the dam is supposed to work so they can’t just leave him behind.

Not all the apes are on board either. Caesar’s bonobo lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) still bears the scars of his former life in medical labs, and he doesn’t forgive so easily. Caesar’s son, River (Nick Thurston), is caught between his father’s cautious faith in humans — Ellie does use her medicine to save his monter (Judy Greer) — and the mistrust Koba urges — Carver nearly killed his best friend. Eventually something breaks, triggering an assault by the apes on the humans’ tenuous stronghold, and threatening a collapse in the apes’ own society.

The biggest departure from the original movies’ approach is that the new Apes movies focus primarily on, well, the apes. Caesar and his family are the real stars here, and the real fight is for the soul of the apes’ society; humans are on the way out. As an examination of tribalism and separatist movements, Dawn succeeds admirably.

But most people will take in the message by osmosis; the audience is coming for the spectacle. And boy, does it deliver. The motion capture work is excellent, with Serkis the master leading a whole cast of mo-cap actors. The action is clear and gripping, and director Matt Reeves delivers at least two fantastic extended takes. The shot from a tank at the climax of the first ape assault is worth the price of admission alone.

So as a sci-fi action special-effects blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes surpasses the first installment of this series, which should draw in the summer movie crowd. But the real success here is the return of allegory and social commentary to one of the great science fiction franchises of all time.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

La Vénus à la fourrure

July 11, 2014
Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski seems to be spending his time at the theater. He follows up his adaptation of Le Dieu du carnage with a French-language adaptation of David Ives’ off-Broadway drama Venus in Fur, itself adapted from — or at least inspired by — the infamous novella Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name and writing we get “masochism”. Again, we have a stripped-down setting and cast, but despite a wildly creative structure that offers stars Matthieu Amalric and (Polanski’s wife) Emmanuelle Seigner a playground for their acting talents, the story manages to undercut any of its own meaning while seeming to miss Sacher-Masoch’s own remarkably prescient point.

The play is itself centered on the pre-production of a play entitled La Vénus à la fourrure, adapted more directly from Sacher-Masoch’s novella by the director, Thomas Novacheck (Amalric). A woman who gives her name as Vanda Jourdain (Seigner) stumbles in one rainy night, claiming to have missed her appointment to audition for the lead role. Thomas isn’t inclined to bother, but she has a way of plowing on through. She’s brought a late-19th century dress to audition in; once she asks/tells him to help her with the back, he’s as hooked as the closures on her dress.

Not only does Vanda share her name with the lead role, she seems to know the part inside and out already, quickly discarding her copy of the script. Initially intending to read only the first three pages, the pair continue deeper in to the play. Thomas falls into the role of Severin, so fascinated with this mysterious Vanda that he begs to become her slave. Severin does, that is, with the Vanda in the play; Thomas’ own submission is less explicit, but just as real.

The dialogue slips back and forth between Thomas-and-Vanda the actors discussing the play and Severin-and-Vanda acting it out. The English subtitles for the quoted lines are italicized, which seems to make the distinction far too crisp. If possible, watching without them should help the two layers blend more effectively.

Any sort of play within a play like this can’t help but comment on itself. Every suggestive comment Vanda makes about Thomas as adapter is immediately promoted to a comment about Ives as playwright, and about Polanski for adapting the play. So as Thomas rails against the need to see meaning and social commentary in everything, does that mean that Ives (or Polanski) feels the same way? Or does presenting that idea as silly mean that he (either one) disagrees? Thomas seems to have adapted the novella out of some repressed psychosexual issues; it seems impossible for quite the same to be true of the real adapters, since if they can make statements about their own repressions it must not be so repressed. The structure is clever, and it’s fun to watch Amalric and Seigner weave in and out of the two layers, but the only thing it clearly shows is just how clever the writers think they are.

And in the midst of it, Sacher-Masoch himself is lost. The one clear statement is that, at the end of it all, Venus im Pelz is sexist and misogynistic; Severin and Thomas both seek to manipulate women only to blame them for doing as they’re told. It’s probably true that many fans of the novella are indeed puerile fantasists, wrapping their kinks and hangups in highbrow language to call it art, but Ives and Polanski seem to have missed the fact that Sacher-Masoch himself wasn’t.

Each of the adapters focuses on the same apocryphal quotation, but not on the actual punchline of the novella itself: “Woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.” The behavior we are asked to ridicule in Thomas and Severin is the natural outgrowth of a deeply sexist society. Maybe Ives meant to imply this in the way that Thomas’ masochism is just another form of misogyny, but it certainly doesn’t come across. And maybe Polanski, of all filmmakers, ought to shy away from allegories about gendered power dynamics.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Tammy

July 2, 2014
Tammy

Melissa McCarthy has become one of the most significant breakout comedy stars over the last five years. In television, we have her Emmy-winning work on Mike & Molly; in the movies it’s a sequence of increasingly higher-profile supporting or co-starring roles in R-rated comedies, from Bridesmaids to Identity Thief to The Heat. Now she has her first solo lead role in Tammy, directed by her husband Ben Falcone, with whom McCarthy co-wrote the script. But while it’s some decently funny stuff, I find myself wishing that McCarthy could get a wider (sorry) selection of material than two variations on the same basic idea.

Tammy is a midwestern, wrong-kind-of-white-people answer to the schlemiel. Circumstances and her own blithe idiocy conspire to never let things turn out in her favor. While rooting around in her beat-up Corolla one day, she runs into a deer. This makes her late for her fast-food job, where the peevish manager (Falcone) fires her on the spot. She makes it back home earlier than expected to catch her husband and the neighbor (Nat Faxon and Toni Collette), sending her two houses down to the resigned solace of her mother (Allison Janney).

Tammy has tried to run away from her hometown in a snit before, but this time she enlists her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon). It’s not so much out of any particular affection — Pearl is an ornery alcoholic — as for her Cadillac and the giant wad of cash she’s saved up. Still aimless, they set their sights on Niagara Falls and stumble their way as far as Louisville, where Pearl catches the attentions of the lecherous Earl (Gary Cole), who is himself accompanied by his bemused son, Bobby (Mark Duplass). And then things really fall apart.

Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed Tammy, and laughed pretty consistently throughout. McCarthy plays Tammy with abandon, and she’s very good at it. But at heart this character is not that far removed from the Boston detective she played in The Heat, or the con artist from Identity Thief. Her movie roles do have a different, raunchier feel than her work as Molly Flynn, but it feels like McCarthy has a lot more to offer.

Both as Molly and in her film roles, McCarthy is great at making real characters where comedy producers like Adam Sandler — and even Judd Apatow, to be honest — would see only caricature, but still they’re primarily fat. And she’s not alone; there may be more fat ladies in movies and television today, but it’s only really okay for a lady to be fat if she’s either pathetic or crude about it.

Sarah Baker, who gets featured in a subplot here, struggled to be more than the fat-cat-lady in last year’s Go On. Her appearance in one of the best episodes on this season of Louie was a fantastic rebuke to this trend, and yet it was still mostly about her weight, even bearing the title “So Did the Fat Lady”. Rebel Wilson had her own series, Super Fun Night, this last season, which like Mike & Molly often felt like an excuse to make fat jokes by pretending to laugh with-not-at.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Kathy Bates has built an award-winning career out of roles that have little to do with being a fat lady. Even when they do turn on her weight, there’s much more to the character than just that. As Pearl’s cousin, she gives Tammy a talking-to that could double as advice to McCarthy herself: stop taking the easy road and defining yourself in terms of what other people expect of you.

Sure, Tammy is funny, and Melissa McCarthy is great at playing this character. But this feels like the distillation of almost all the characters she ever plays, and it would be a shame if she never managed to move past this point. A one-note performer always grows stale, no matter how well she plays that one note.

Worth It: yes.

Earth to Echo

July 2, 2014
Earth to Echo

A few years ago, J.J. Abrams made a fair imitation of early Spielberg with Super 8. I liked it more than most, but there was still something missing. There were all the usual shots and angles to evoke a sense of wonder, but as I’ve gone back to it, something doesn’t hold up.

So now along comes first-time director Dave Green with a script by fellow newcomer Henry Gayden with Earth to Echo. And for all the slick effects and camera tricks they sacrifice by working in the found footage style, they capture what was missing. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes it work, but this is the true descendant of the “realistic” science fiction and fantasy of my childhood, from E.T. to Batteries Not Included to The Goonies.

In fact, the story is lifted almost directly from The Goonies. Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) are best friends in an Arizona suburb that’s about to be demolished. They spend their last night together on the adventure of their lives.

They’ve noticed cell phones acting up in their neighborhood, and they realize the glitchy screens are actually showing them a map. That night they take off on their bikes, finding what looks like an old piece of junk at the site. But their phones now indicate a new map, with a new destination. And so they go, point to point through the night, along the way picking up the requisite girl, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), and avoiding the interference of a mysterious group that probably aren’t really construction workers. At each stop the thing jury-rigs a new piece out of what it finds nearby, and when it’s repaired enough it opens to reveal a cute little robotic owlet they dub “Echo”.

There are echoes of Chronicle in the merging of special effects and handheld camerawork here, and the kids are about as realistic as you can expect. Having Tuck, the black kid, take the lead rather than fill out a token niche feels like kind of a big deal. I’m sure that this will play as well to kids now as the movies it draws from did for me back in the ’80s.

And yet, as a movie it falls short. The plotting is thin, literally pointing from one stop to the next with no connective tissue between them besides “Echo says to go here”. The kids may look and sound like real kids, but what they have to say rarely goes beyond archetypes: the brash leader; the socially-inept geek; the adopted kid; the sensible girl. Then again, maybe the same accusations could be leveled at the movies I loved. I’d like to think that, for example, Chunk had layers of texture as well as fat, but is that just because I can only see The Goonies through the lens of my own childhood memories?

Younger viewers will probably love Earth to Echo just the same way, despite the flaws that are deal-breakers for me, and likely for older audiences in general. Besides, all things considered, it’s a lot easier to sit through this than a lot of other stuff you could be taking them to this summer.

Worth It: for kids, definitely.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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