Sunday, February 28, 2016

Top Ten of 2015 - Part One

I love making top ten lists. It's not real writing, but it feels like it is. HERE'S MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2015!

10. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

2015 had a lot of great movies, and to be honest, narrowing down my top five for last year was really hard. Honestly, there's not much to say about Rogue Nation, though, which is probably why it's number ten and why it deserves to be there. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-made, fun and creative a lot of the shots and scenes were in this film, and even though I stopped watching after the first one in the series, I had an ok time sitting in the theater watching this. It's not high-art, and it's not meant to be; it's not ground-breaking, and it's not meant to be. It's a good action movie done well, and sometimes that's enough.

9. Inside Out

I actually was really torn on whether or not this deserved to be on my top ten list. First of all, this movie was something of a disappointment to me. Even though I'm a thirty-year-old man, I really enjoy animated movies of pretty much any style, from Pixar to Dreamworks to Ghibli, all of which have produced some of my favorite movies of all time as well as some of my most-watched. (There was a point in my life where I could say that I saw How to Train Your Dragon more than three times a week.) When Pixar announced that they were making a new movie with some really outstanding voice talent, needless to say, I was excited. Maybe it was my own overly high expectations for this movie, but in the grand scheme of Pixar films, I'd say this is one of the worst (aside from the obvious worst, which is the one about cars.) Still though, even when Pixar fails, they're better than 90% of the movies out there.

8. Creed

Like I said, making top ten lists does not count as real writing, but once I get started asking myself which movies I liked the most that came out last year, I begin seeing a few patterns. Creed is at the front-end of a few movies that came out in 2015 that took a tired, old formula and did it well enough to make it an enjoyable movie-watching experience. I haven't seen the original Rocky, and I can't say that I watch a lot of sports movies either, but I'll be damned if it didn't feel like I hadn't seen Creed a million times before. (Was it Little Giants or The Mighty Ducks that this movie ripped off its ending from? What was the baseball movie with the little kid as a manager...or a pitcher? I can't even remember.) Still though, there was a number of movies that added nothing to movie history or engaged in the audience in any kind of unique way, but were done so well that it's hard not to love them.

7. Crimson Peak

I think this movie fell victim to the same problems that I had with Inside Out. More than Pixar, I'm a huge Del Toro fan, and probably an even bigger fan of horror movies than I am of animation. As with Inside Out, this movie was not quite what I wanted it to be. It lacked the atmosphere and set design that Del Toro is known for; it lacked tighter, stronger characterization that made even Del Toro's weaker movies so great; it lacked that imagination that makes his great movies great. If I sit here and think about Crimson Peak alongside Pan's Labyrinth, there isn't nearly the same amount of creativity at work here, even when Del Toro is given free rein. Still though, there's enough atmosphere to make it great, and there were enough cool ghosts to keep it interesting. Tom Hiddleston is fucking cool no matter what he does, and I feel like twenty years in the future, we will look back on Jessica Chastain's performance in this movie as being her most Jessica Chastainiest.

6. Ant-Man

Ant-Man was pretty funny, had a great cast, and featured a lot of truly creative fight scenes. (Seriously, watch any modern-day kung-fu flick and tell me that the fight between Ant-Man and The Falcon is not at least as creative as any of those.) Most importantly, now that we're fucking swimming in super hero movies, Ant-Man made the brilliant decision to keep the story low-key and character-centric. I've complained about it on this blog (or maybe just endlessly to my friends) that every time an Avengers movie comes out, they have to save the world, but it's boring bullshit because you already know before the movie starts that it doesn't have the balls to actually have the world get destroyed, The fact that you get introduced to all these characters in the same movie means they're expendable, and the fact that it's not the fate of the world at stake means the trigger could potentially get pulled.

5. The Martian

I think there's two things that make this good. Number one, it's fun hanging out with Matt Damon for a while, which is pretty much all this movie is. Number two, it throws a lot of hard science the audience's way, and it shows how this information has a use. Another thing that I tend to hate in movies is when they are dumber than me. That is, if the character in the movie has a problem and needs to think of a way out of it, they should do it better or faster than I can as an audience member. (If you've ever seen a horror movie, you've probably had this feeling before. Walk out of the house with the killer in it you stupid idiot teenager.) Conversely, this movie does the opposite really well, where Damon gets put into a situation that if I was in I would definitely not survive. This not only beats in a knowledge is power message to the audience, but makes us feel good that this character overcomes what appears to be a completely insurmountable problem.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Room

SPOILERS
I don't think
Room is the type of movie that can be spoiled. That is to say, I don't think that the "point" of the movie is to have some big revelation or twist at the end. However, I'm going to be all up in this plot, so if you don't want to know anything at all about Room, this is your warning.

I think the hype for this film already ruined it for me. If I would have seen this film, back it was still a baby movie, doing the rounds on the film festival circuit, instead of this Oscar-nominated suck-my-dick oh-my-god-amazing monstrosity, I may have liked it. And to some extent, it's still a good movie in that it is mostly competent, but I was mainly bored throughout the whole thing. Maybe my expectations were too high.

In my mind, there's two big problems that I want to talk about, but there's a few smaller things I want to hit first:
1 - The cinematography is just fine, which makes it bad. I can make a few excuses for it, like the fact that cost hardly anything to make and working with child actors means you can't do a lot of long takes (because child actors suck), but that doesn't change the fact that handheld cameras, and the plain-old "shot/counter-shot close-ups of characters facing each other while they're talking"style gets boring really fast.
2 - I will contend that children in movies suck always, but the little boy here was not terrible.
3 - Brie Larson is always amazing. You know I loves me some Envy Adams


But besides that, two big things:

The Movie Has a Problem with Perspective
When I say "perspective" I mean it in both in the senses of the worse. First that we follow one character (Jack, the little boy) and are meant to identify with him, and second, we are only privy to the information that he himself is privy to. So, for example, if a conversation happens while Jack is asleep, we as audience members don't get to see it, but get to hear about it later.

Here, a quick summary of the plot is necessary. The story is about one woman, Joy, who was kidnapped seven years and put into a small room (a garden shed, actually), and raped on a nightly basis by her kidnapper, whom she names Old Nick. Five years ago, she gives birth to and raises a young boy named Jack. Old Nick provides food and necessities and things like that, and imagines himself to be saving Joy from the outside world.

First of all, I think this was an over-ambitious choice, or maybe it was just handled poorly. Jack is a boy who has lived his entire life, literally from birth onward, in a tiny room, and knows nothing about the outside. Anyone old enough to see this movie is automatically fighting an uphill battle trying to get inside the head of this child, because we think like adults and we're obviously aware of the outside world. Even though the movie tries really hard to keep the focus on Jack, there was never any doubt in my mind as to who I identified with throughout most of the film: Joy, the mother. I think the most striking example of this is a scene where Joy is trying to explain to Jack that there's a whole world outside, and he doesn't believe her. It's frustrating in the way that trying explain something that we all intuitively know to be true to a child can be. He screams, he throws insults at his mother, and he calls her a liar, and it's so hard as an audience member to recognize this character as the protagonist instead of the adult calmly and patiently trying to talk to her little boy.

Again, the movie would have been much more engaging, in my opinion, if the focus was on the mother. There's a long sequence where she decides to fake Jack's death so that they can escape the room. After Old Nick rolles Jack's "dead body" into a rug and puts him into a pickup truck, Jack gets a chance to escape. When the truck comes to a stop, Jack hops out, and there is literally a hundred billion people on the street he could ask for help but he doesn't say a goddamn thing. Now, Jack lacks agency and understanding for this entire situation. That is to say, he doesn't make any choices in this situation and he doesn't comprehend what's at stake. On the flip side, his mother has to struggle with these huge choices and fears: "Do I risk sending my only son out with this rapist-kidnapper or raise him in this garden shed?" "What happens if Old Nick finds out he's been tricked?" "Is Jack old enough to handle this responsibility?" I mean, can you imagine how frightening she must have been alone in that room after Jack's "dead body" went outside? That scene would have been so much more interesting to watch.

So, because our perspective is limited only to Jack, we miss out on a few crucial scenes, like Joy waiting inside the room to find out if Jack escapes or not, which is frustrating enough, but then the movie doesn't even stick to its own goddamn rule. There are times when the audience doesn't get to see something because Jack doesn't get to see it, but then there are times when the movie goes ahead and shows us something Jack couldn't possibly see or hear for no reason. Sometimes we get to see scenes when Jack is asleep, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we're not shown scenes while Jack is out of the room, unless Jack is in the basement and the conversation takes place out in the yard. Make up your fucking mind, movie. If you're going to stick with this stupid idea, stick with it.

And that's the thing, the idea of keeping the focus on Jack and limiting the information the audience is given is a stupid idea. This type of "limited perspective" filmmaking works best in films where the lack of information is the point of the movie. It's best for mysteries. Think Chinatown or Maltese Falcon, where both the main character and the audience don't know who to trust and what's going on behind the scenes. Oldboy is great at this, where a man gets thrown into a room for 15 years and he has no idea why, and we don't either, and that's the joy of the movie. Here, instead of there being any mystery -- because again, we are adults and live in the world that Jack is being introduced to for the first time -- Jack's confusion is not our confusion. Instead of seeing how Joy's father is handling his divorce and his new grandson, or seeing how Old Nick reacted when he was arrested, or seeing Joy in the hospital struggling with depression, we get to see Jack figure out how pancakes work.

The Movie Has a Plot Problem
This movie suffers from having too many plots and not enough story.

Essentially, the movie has three parts: the time spent living in the room, the time spent escaping the room, and the time spent adjusting to life outside of the room. Any one of these three sections would have been plenty to fill an entire movie. Ninety minutes based around a mother and child trying to escape their kidnapper would have been a good thriller, or showing Jack grow up in room and focusing on how it affects him, or show both of them try to figure out living would have been really interesting. But we get all three of these things so plot points get touched on but never resolved or they get focused on for no point or payoff later on.

The beginning of the movie focuses on Joy and Jack living in the room, doing their best to maintain their sanity and not exactly succeeding. Jack is not only a little kid who can't handle his emotions, but he has nothing to focus his energy on, so there's a lot of yelling and frustration. Joy has these "Gone Days" where she just lays in bed all day. I would mind it if the plot of the movie was nothing more than them inside the room for the whole time, and the point of the movie being how to be happy in a shitty situation.

The short middle section is all about deciding to, and succeeding in, escaping from the room. This was my favorite part of the film because it's the only part of the movie with stakes, despite the movie shooting itself in the foot by focusing on Jack. There is even a lot of comparisons drawn to The Count of Monte Cristo and Alice in Wonderland that I would have loved to have seen played out -- those revenge and escape themes. In the film that we got however, these allusions are quickly discarded and never mentioned again.

The last and longest section is about the two of them adjusting to the real world. I think this last part is handled so clumsily and it hurt. One problem is that the important things go by so fast and unimportant shit gets focused on. For example, shortly after escaping Jack forms a bond with his step-grandfather, Leo, over a bowl of ice cream. It's a cute scene, honestly, but any other opportunity to expand on this relationship is discarded, and the two of them barely share any dialogue for the rest of the film. Joy states that she wishes Jack would form an attachment with someone or something other than her, and what I thought was a very crucial moment in that growth -- Jack making a friend the same age he is -- gets zero screentime whatsoever. The little friend just kinda, shows up one day, and I guess they've been friends for a while? Or they just met and instantly bonded or something? I have no idea.

A huge problem with this whole last section is the TV in the first section. See, because Jack could always watch TV in the room, he isn't really completely clueless about things in the outside world. He's seen all of it before. And while there are a few things that Jack has to figure out -- for example, he doesn't know how to walk up and down stairs -- for the most part, he knows what stuff is. In my mind, this is a huge missed opportunity. This movie would have been so much more interesting if it was about a boy not knowing what a bird was and seeing one for the first time, or never feeling wind on his face, or, fuck, even seeing a TV for the first time must be a jarring experience. That movie would have been so interesting to watch.

So yeah, Room. It is a movie. See if you want to, but maybe don't, yeah?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Spotlight, Montages and Juxtaposition

I feel like sommeliers and critics feel the need to justify their existence on a semi-regular basis. If you're a wine expert, you constantly have to deal with schmucks drinking Boone's Farm in front of you, telling you that it's the best wine out there. The majority of the population can't figure out why an expensive bottle of wine is expensive; they (and myself) can't even understand what's being missed with our simple, rat-brained palettes when we taste [insert fancy wine name here]. I imagine that a skilled sommelier genuinely has moments of pity for people that cannot taste what she can. To put it another way, imagine if you were the one person on the Earth that could see a color that nobody else could. You're stuck trying to explain to everyone else how pretty this color is, and nobody else can even comprehend what is impossible to describe. Anyway, I just walked out of Spotlight and not to sound like a fucking snob, but you people probably don't get how great that movie is.

Which is cool. I mean, if I just sat back and watched a movie instead of wasting precious moments of life analyzing everything all the goddamn time, I would have enjoyed it, sure, but I probably wouldn't have seen a lot that color that nobody else can see.

Alright, so let's talk about juxtaposition, which comes from the Latin word juxta meaning "to make a movie all about raping children and have audiences not want to kill themselves afterward". Spoiler alert, this movie is about the Catholic church. And an idea that gets repeated a lot in this film about the Catholic church covering up the molestation of children is X is bad, but Y. For example, (and perhaps one of the best cuts in the film) has a lawyer declaring that "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them, and that's the truth" immediately before a smash cut showing a crowded room of Catholic philanthropists. The implication is clear: This is the village doing the abusing. But at the same time, the uncomfortable truth sets in (and is stated blatantly by some characters in the film) despite the evil the church as done, it is also doing good. Things are not so black-and-white, the movie informs us, and the truth is somewhere in between.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The above is an example of a montage, a word so criminally abused that the first thing you thought of was Rocky or Daniel-san training. Those are definitely montages, but the core idea between what a montage really is is that connection between two seemingly unrelated ideas. Deep down you already knew this, even if you're not conscious of it. If I flashed you a picture of Donald Trump, and then a picture of the devil, my message would be clear, even if I never explicitly said it.

But movies are almost entirely cuts, which is why I tend to believe that if an audience isn't conscientiously thinking, "The director wants me to consider these two images together as a whole," you might not realize what you're looking at. Spotlight contains so many of these types of cuts, meant to contrast different ideas and images and coalesce them into a single theme.

Spotlight doesn't stop there though, because it contains a number of those types of montages that you usually think of, those passage-of-time montages where you see Danial-san doing kicks on the beach so you know he's been training hard for a long time. One of the things that I love seeing in movies is telling a lot of information in a short amount of time, and with as little spoken language as possible. A great example of this in Spotlight is a short scene with one reporter explaining that he's married, and his wife doesn't like that he works so much. Later one, we see the same reporter in his tiny, dirty apartment boiling hot dogs, when his boss stops by with some leftover pizza. You get it, immediately, that this reporter is a really bad place right now, to the point where his boss feels the need to drop off half a pizza, because his wife is divorcing him.



Another theme that gets repeated in Spotlight is the ubiquitousness and overwhelming power of the church. And yet, there's only two actual clergy members on screen, both of them very nonthreatening, and there's definitely no mafisio, horse-head-in-the-bed shinanigans going on either. However, in nearly every shot of Boston the city, a church can be seen, oftentimes looming over the characters as they stand in the foreground, tiny and feeble. The intimidating nature of the church is seen in one particular time-lapse montage, where one character taking a taxi from the courthouse through the city of Boston. From the time he leaves the courthouse (a place comprised by the church) until he gets to his office, the presence of the church is everywhere, from the physical churches he passes to the sounds of bells interrupting his phone call. The gigantic structures of the church are promptly compared with the tiny Boston Globe building, adjacent to a billboard for the internet service putting it out of business. Of particular note is the office of our main characters, which is especially small, cramped and with a visible ceiling. (The ceiling is important. Are you sitting down right now? Look directly parallel to the floor and see how much of your ceiling is visible. Now imagine how small the room you're in would have to be for that ceiling to be visible at all times.) The contrasting shots of Boston on the outside, where the church rules, and the Boston Globe building on the inside, where the truth rules, is another great and omnipresent example of this juxtaposition. What sucks about being as dumb as I am is that even as I see these few examples, I know that in a movie like this, there's still a lot I must be missing.

Anyway, Spotlight is pretty fucking good and you should watch it.