Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this week.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)
I really like the approach to this sequel. I tend to expect retreads from animated sequels, which may or may not be unfair. I really loved How to Train Your Dragon, and rather than repeating itself or trying to force a thread that needs to be continued (basically the "it was meant to be a trilogy the whole time!" approach), it's an actual second story that takes place in the world created by the first movie, which is refreshing, because it takes place in a world of consequences. Hiccup is changed from the first movie; he's a little older, a little wiser, and he's like a veteran. He's learned to live with having lost a foot, but he's not embittered. He still has ideals, but they're tempered by experience. I just found that really touching, particularly since the movie doesn't dwell on it. It's just who the character is now. It turns what was a wonderful, charming first movie into the opening of an epic, and I really hope this won't get too hampered by DreamWorks Animation's recent struggles. As it stands on its own, this is an excellent fantasy film. ****

BIG HERO 6 (2014)
This movie started wonderfully as a story about a boy genius named Hiro whose older brother Tadashi works at a robotics lab at a university. Impressed by the research he sees happening--and impressed by Tadashi's creation, a warm, cuddly medical robot named Baymax--Hiro decides to apply to the school by creating miniature robots that can be controlled telepathically and can be used to help. I liked that aspect particularly. Tadashi creates something compassionate in order to help people. Hiro, inspired by this example, creates something to help people. I found that very positive. In fact, I was so interested in Hiro's education and the science-friendliness of it all that I found myself disheartened when all of the superhero stuff started and then it just became about how Hiro, Baymax and Tadashi's friends become superheroes in order to fight the supervillain who has stolen Hiro's technology. The movie has some excellent and important themes, particularly the idea of kids processing their emotions positively and the way the movie links emotional health with physical health. But it's surrounded by a story that's... cute. It's a cute movie, but the superhero stuff isn't any different than any other superhero stuff going on in movies right now (right down to that cameo after the credits), and all of the plot twists are obvious in advance. Baymax is a nice character, but he also seems to be purposely and cynically designed to go viral. There's some nice stuff here, but I wish the movie had had the confidence to not shove it into a rather conventional and totally unsurprising superhero plot. (And yeah, I know it's based on a comic, but here that seems more like a crutch.) Well-animated and nice, but not special. ***

THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)
Isao Takahata has made some beautiful films at Studio Ghibli, and I think this one is his masterpiece. A beautiful movie animated (mainly) in a watercolor style based on the legend of the bamboo-cutter, who found a baby in the bamboo and raised her as a daughter. It's one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen, but also very sad in a way that still haunts me. It's honest and it is exquisite. ****

THE BOXTROLLS (2014)
Another delightful film from Laika, this one co-directed by the great Graham Annable. (Is it possible to have a Principal Skeleton movie? Asking for a friend.) This is the kind of weird movie that Tim Burton could make if he decided he cared more about just the aesthetics of weirdness, but I haven't seen Big Eyes, so who knows? I have seen every other movie he's made in the 21st century, though, and if there's a good one in there, I missed it. Why am I talking about my hatred of Tim Burton? Anyway, The Boxtrolls is charming and wonderful, a story about a boy raised by a strange species of box-wearing trolls who are being demonized and exterminated by a swindler so that he can join an aristocratic society. There's a beautiful absurdity to it that the movie revels in. ****

THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)
Great premise: art historians go behind enemy lines in World War II in an attempt to reclaim and protect historical treasures from the war and from the rampant Nazi looting. Great cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban. Sounds like it should be quirky and fun, but fascinating. In execution, no. No, not at all. It was an incredibly disappointing waste of time. Disappointing, because I generally love George Clooney as a director. (Yes, even Leatherheads.) **

TIMECOP (1994)
Stupid, but in a fun way. And in a way that knows how stupid it is. Overdirected in the way all Peter Hyams films are overdirected. **

DREDD (2012)
LOTS of people have recommended this movie to me over the last couple of years, and I can see why. It's not exactly the great Judge Dredd movie (and I refuse to slag off the Stallone movie, because I actually enjoy the hell out of that movie, and yes, I'm aware of how stupid and un-Dredd-like it actually is), and I wish it had been weirder, but it's committed to what it is and takes the premise seriously without being humorless and dull about it. Karl Urban plays Judge Dredd, and the film focuses on a single day in which he and his new partner (Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson, who is the real star of the movie, because Dredd has to maintain character; she gets all the development, and it's a great choice and she really carries it well) are trapped inside a housing block by a drug dealer (Lena Headey). She wants them dead, and they have to fight their way to her. It's like Assault on Precinct 13 in reverse, which is an apt comparison because this is like a John Carpenter movie. It also reminded me of the original RoboCop, although Dredd doesn't have any satire to it (though it does have some incredibly graphic violence). I enjoyed the hell out of it and I really would like to see a second movie which expands the world of Mega-City One (and maybe we can get into the Angel Gang and Judge Death now that we've established the place). ***1/2

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)
Jesus, no. Just no. This is an incredibly predictable and overly sentimental mash-up of two of my least favorite types of movies: the Cancer Is Actually a Gift That Gives You Clarity About the Important Things movie, and the Women Are Only Made Whole by a Man's Penis movie. And because it's aimed at young adults, you could also call it the Puppy Love and Blind Passion Are Really Idealistic Sweeping Romance movie. It's a grab bag of cliches and it made me really, really fucking angry. So Hazel is a teenager with lung cancer, and she's totally cynical about support groups because if there's one thing this movie insists on, it's that you can be cynical about needing support and totally believe in the transformative power of love at the same time. I guess support is more genuine when it comes from a pretty boy who says trite things that are meant to sound pithy and deep, because every moony teenage boy thinks he's a philosopher, but this one really is for really reals, because when you have cancer and read Important Yet Obscure Literature by Recluses, that makes everything you say Wise and Powerful.

So yeah, Hazel meets Augustus, and then he calls her Hazel Grace (her middle name) because men get to define women and even name them and it's so, so adorable. Gus is somehow a Gary Stu and a Manic Pixie Dream Boy at the same time, which is disappointing; I haven't read the book, but I have read John Green's Looking for Alaska, and what I liked so much about that novel is that it looked through our fascination with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl all men think they can tame and fix to see an actual troubled human being behind the facade. (Important message here: a girl doesn't live her life as a performance piece so boys will save them; often they are masking genuine pain and this is their way of coping, and you should goddamn respect it instead of thinking about how it affects you.) (Also I've read Green's novels Paper Towns and Too Many Katherines or whatever it's called, and I feel like Looking for Alaska was the one time he had anything genuine to say, and as nice a guy as he is and as much as I enjoy his video blogs for Mental Floss, I find his writing style cliched and needy.) And yes, their love story is grandiose and perfect and ends entirely predictably. But first there's a trip between two cancer-ridden teens whose parents have no problem letting them fuck off to Amsterdam to find this genius author they love (who--no surprise--turns out to be kind of an asshole and not the wise shaman-mentor they expected) because there is no conflict at all in this movie. Yeah, they're dying, but everything's okay as long as Hazel lets Gus selfishly push her and not consider for a moment that her lung cancer has progressed (she wears an oxygen tank through the whole movie) to the point where it might be physically dangerous for her to have sex or walk up hills or even fly in a plane. But hey, at least he insults her about her cliched tastes and talks down to her about destiny, and that's love for white teenagers in movies that cater to them outside of all reality.

About that oxygen tank: I found that kind of insulting. It's like the movie's way of pretending it's realistic about cancer; look at this shiny, beautiful, happy girl with a beautiful head of bouncy hair. Sure, she has fits occasionally, but she's not coughing up blood or randomly waking up and not being able to walk or losing control of her bodily functions. She doesn't have, say, Late Stage Plot-Inconveniencing Cancer. A lung collapse would dull the romance. It's not like she has realistic handicaps that can't be overcome by the power of pretentious love. Epic passion will always trump actual medical interpretations. Realistically, she would have died in Amsterdam, and the triumph would have been that she got to make the trip she wanted on her own terms. But this movie wants to have everything, so it does. It's yet another movie that completely romanticizes having cancer, and that pisses me off, because I know what it's like to see a teenage girl deteriorate and die. It's not cute. It's rarely triumphant. And I'm not saying that having a disease disqualifies you for having an adventure. But it also doesn't magically push reality aside. People struggle with this, and glossing over and not acknowledging the ways they struggle minimizes those people. It's dealing in all the sentiment of a person with an incurable disease without being held back by those limitations, so everything Hazel does is a triumph of overcoming. It's dishonest.

This is Inspiration Porn. It's another one of those movies where cancer patients only exist to inspire us with their strength, and whimsicality and earnestness are the best salves to their suffering. Cancer isn't a life-destroying killer that takes something from everyone who experiences the death of a loved one in movies like this; it just leaves the audience with "so many feels" and the idea that death is beautiful.

It's sentimental bullshit and it pissed me off. It pissed me off that Shailene Woodley, who is quite a good actress, is wasting her time on a YA adaptation that's about as deep as Fifty Shades of Grey and about as complex as The Da Vinci Code. This is as mundane, pretentious and wish-fulfilling as Twilight. She's just in full-on self-righteous simper like she was on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It pissed me off to have to look at Ansel Elgort's eminently punchable face as he smugly and condescendingly spouted out what passes for Wit and Truth in America's favorite Nicholas Sparks Starter Kit. It pissed me off that these two privileged Caucasian American kids could kiss in Anne Frank's attic and people would applaud it as meaningful. It pissed me off that the one character with any insight into these idiotic kids and the way they wrap themselves in and mimic their obsessions and call it depth is diminished by apologizing for his abrasiveness and given the cliched out that he's acting out because of his own personal pain. Way to neuter your own work, movie. It pissed me off that this puddle-deep nothing of a movie is what passes for hip and thoughtful to the attention-span-challenged Juno generation. It pissed me off that this movie is so in love with its intellectual references and meta-analysis of metaphors and yet is devoid of intellect and metaphor. It doesn't even let you find your own feelings; it explicitly spells out how you're supposed to feel about everything.

I saw someone on Reddit who summed this all up perfectly: "This isn't a movie about cancer, love and death. This is a movie about thinking about cancer, love and death."

But yeah. Willem Dafoe is good as Genius Recluse. He has the one good moment in the movie before they pull it out from under him later in one of the many scenes where the movie explicates the obvious, as it imagines smart stories probably do. I wouldn't be surprised to find out he based his performance on Werner Herzog. I wanted to spend more time with him and less time with the entitled brats.

This is a moron movie for morons. It's the worst kind of moron movie, actually: the kind that thinks it's too smart and needs to explain itself. *

3 comments:

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Damn boy, I wish I could write about movies with the intelligence that you use. You humble me and my fumblings. Don't ever change.

Keir said...

Took little Drake Winston to HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2- his first movie. Took an hour to walk to the cinema in the rain from the station (there were no buses or taxis) only for him to tell me he wanted to leave within an half hour. It was in German so I didn't know what it was that had made him uncomfortable...

SamuraiFrog said...

I'm sorry to hear that. When I was little I'm told I did the same thing. I remember leaving Fantasia early because the giant demon was too much for me.