The Imperfections in the Box

unnamedI love animated films. They’re inherently complex. They’re well-oiled machines. But they’re not perfect. Taking the impressiveness of CG pipelines as a given, there is a sort of visual homogeneity in the big animated films released a few times each year. They’ve become too smooth; they’re too spliney. Other forms of animation aren’t as “perfect.”

With stop-motion animation, each frame fluctuates with little imperfections in a character’s expressions. In a way, I find this more human. This is where Laika’s third feature, The Boxtrolls, excels.

Underneath the town of Cheesebridge are a group of trolls who are accused of kidnapping children. The mysterious Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) offers a proposal to the mayor of the town, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). If Snatcher captures and kills the Boxtrolls, he will become a member of the town’s cheese-loving elite class known as the White Hats. But when Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a boy sheltered by the trolls since infancy, turns up on the surface, he soon figures out the horrors of Snatcher’s plan. Eggs enlists the help of Portley-Rind’s daughter and the two of them try to stop Snatcher at all costs.

The plot as presented is straightforward and never throws any real twists or turns, though it relies on metaphors and allegory much more than a typical children’s film. The true draw is Laika’s trademark stop-motion animation. At times the film feels a bit like a bad dream (and not in a bad way). It has all the twisted weirdness and confusion of the dreamscape without the terrors. And it’s the stop-motion, that imperfect art form, which really molds this feel. Archibald Snatcher’s repulsive cheese sickness is the most obvious example. As the film isn’t terribly bothersome to me as a (purported) adult, I can’t make the same claims for small children.

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To this end, I’m not sure the metaphorical commentary on human morality quite worked. The ways which the ultimate message – the consequences of misunderstanding an entire race – weaves together are familiar and neutered. Using little clay trolls limits what can be said about the horrors of history’s holocausts. And so I wonder what the point is and more importantly, at whom the point is directed. It’s hard to imagine such an odd story as one day becoming a children’s classic. And while the odd story is fun given the context of wider film theory and criticism, I’m not sure how many adults will find the film easily beloved either. The Boxtrolls favors the metaphor over the simpler and often more effective feeling of a given moment. Where The Boxtrolls abstracts death and slaughter, a classic like The Lion King tackles the moment itself with claws in the viewers’ flesh.

All this is to say the film shines in its technical craft and should be judged with special consideration given to that craft. I fear the marvelous discipline of Laika’s artists will be forgotten because the meat of the story isn’t very noteworthy.

Sin City’s Not-So-Triumphant Return

unnamedIn an interview on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez revealed his desire to have the final product be more of a graphic novel than a film. In theory, this idea is fine. In practice, it conjures up the tireless shuffling on whether book-to-film adaptations always favor books or films or neither. There is a precedent for the successful graphic novel-to-film jump: Rodriguez is fresh off the recent success of the first Sin City. And by recent, I mean 2005. A lot can happen in how we view narratives in that time (a lot did happen) and pretty soon what was novel is now not. Because of the relative uniqueness and the films it influenced (Renaissance, anyone?), this issue is especially pertinent for a film like Sin City. Most of the characters in both Sin City and this year’s Sin City 2 remind you the city never changes. Ten years later, it hasn’t changed. That’s not a good thing.

Following with the same spectacular visuals and anthology format as the first movie, this film is divided into three smaller stories following Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Nancy (Jessica Alba); Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); and Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) and Ava Lord (Eva Green). Getting into the details of each story wouldn’t be fair here so I will say this: they all chronicle betrayal, gritty redemption, and reluctant vendettas. They are variations on a theme. Of course lots of blood, booze, sex and, well, sin fill in the gaps.

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The problems start with the stories. They never really connect the way other anthology movies have-the city or “a dame to kill for” hardly cut it as the overarching theme-and so the whole package is confusing. Why now? This is the question with which I’m left. Why do these misfits and losers decide to tackle the seediest players in town at this point in their lives? What makes them snap? The three main stories following the three dames are arranged so that any answer we might come up with is never satisfying. Part of the blame lies with the actors. All the females play a variation on the sultry, sexy temptress and all the males play a variation on the cool, pained killer. This is a race to the bottom (or a race to the top, depending on your optimism) to see which actor works this monochromed archetype the best.

unnamedOn the ladies’ side, the answer is decidedly not Eva Green. Her most serious and intimate scenes, threaded by an accent intent on masking the small bird lodged in her throat, had me on the verge of laughter. Normally, I think she’s a great actress (Vesper’s dead-on counterpoint to Bond’s machismo is one of the biggest reasons I loved Casino Royale). This time, she phones it in. Part of me thinks she felt her nude scenes would drive the action. And there are a lot: it seems her topless torso had as much screen time as Joseph Gordon-Levitt. No matter how lovingly the filmmakers light and shoot it, skin is not character or good writing.

On the male side, the best player is Marv, the one character who really does the film justice. He plays his variation better than Brolin or Gordon-Levitt. He just needed more screen time. If the other characters were given the same humanity as Marv, A Dame to Kill For might not have bombed. As it is, the flashy look can’t save the film from its more substantive woes.

Marvel’s Galaxy

unnamedIt’s no secret Guardians of the Galaxy of is a good movie. The critics say so, audiences say so, even we say so. Rather than recap why it’s so much fun, I want to reflect a little on why I find this outing in the Marvel universe a bit more interesting than usual.

Guardians feels different than the other Marvel (and DC) films. All these comic book films are epic in some sense; a hero struggles against the overwhelming forces of evil, always making Joseph Campbell proud. But even though the heroes here struggle against the galactic evil of Thanos, Guardians manages to have more weight than its predecessors despite (perhaps I might say because) the movie knows it isn’t serious. Freed from the seriousness and dark overtones of “realistic” comic book movies, the characters have more space to explore good and evil and pertinently, what lies between.

The five guardians are not good moral characters, they are the Tony Starks of the stars. Stark privatized world peace to indulge an ego founded on his father’s passing. The protagonists have their own motives built not on universal goods, but on the ego or on a friendship or vendetta. Because the tone of the movie doesn’t stand in front of the audience yelling “I’m gritty and I’m real,” the characters are allowed to surprise us. If you yourself are surprised this blend works, know the reality of humanity is the unexpected. And one of the greatest delights as a human is to be surprised by the depths and shallows of the cacophony of humanity (so long as innocent people aren’t hurt).

unnamedA further note on the tone makes Guardians of the Galaxy especially fascinating in the Marvel canon (and I say this as someone versed in the films with little knowledge of the comics). The universe of Star-Lord, of Ronan and Xandar, feels much more like Star Wars or the Fifth Element than our own. Considering the histories of the protagonists, let’s throw Lost in Space into the mix as well. It doesn’t feel like Iron Man’s Middle East, Spiderman’s New York, or Thor’s desert southwest. Those supernatural or superhuman elements have existed on our world and the conflict of the characters and narrative comes from limited incursions from these “other” universes: how will humans deal with the Tesseract, how will humans respond to freak accidents and powerful mutations? Guardians of the Galaxy inverts this formula. How will an extravagant universe take a little dose of humanity, our culture – our mixtapes? These superheroes are different. They no longer exist in our world. We exist in theirs.

Of course here and there are all part of a bigger here in which all of us and all of the Marvel heroes live. This is perhaps the most interesting part of Guardians. Compare Marvel’s product in the early 2000s to their movies now. Iron Man 3 was bigger than Iron Man, Thor: The Dark World was bigger than Thor. Even Captain America: The Winter Soldier, felt bigger than The Avengers. Marvel has leapt from the earth to the fertile imaginations of the universe. It’s fun, but is it sustainable? How long can Marvel go the bigger and louder route before the pendulum swings back to a smaller superhero, a more personal struggle a la Unbreakable? Whatever the answer is, I’m along for the ride.

I Liked Lucy Better as an Australopithecus

 unnamed“It is estimated most human beings only use 10% of the brain’s capacity,” lectures Morgan Freeman in the trailer for Luc Besson’s Lucy. Two cells divide. My brain sort of phased out the rest of the trailer when I heard this for the first time. An antelope is born. Surely a movie wouldn’t be built off such a popular scientific misconception? It’s ridiculous people actually believe this sort of thing, right?  A cheetah chases an antelope. I assured myself it was, that this was just a sales pitch, and that the man behind The Fifth Element knew what he was doing. He’s an accomplished filmmaker. The antelope is dead.

I’m done with the italics interludes now because I can’t bring myself to write another; I assume you can’t bring yourself to read another. You see what they do to the flow of the narrative, how they chop it into piecemeal fragments you’d expect to see littered on a high school English teacher’s to-be-graded pile. For some reason (likely orbiting profound intellectualism), Besson decided to burden the plotting with his cinematic equivalent for the first half hour or so. Shots of animals birthing, killing each other, people moving, building, all intercut with the main action before they’re quietly abandoned. Apparently Besson didn’t feel the story of Lucy was engrossing enough on its own.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is tricked by her boyfriend into delivering a briefcase to the crime lord Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). The simple delivery is complicated when Mr. Jang has Lucy open the briefcase, revealing blue crystalized drugs Jang intends to sell to buyers in Europe. He decides to use Lucy as one of four drug mules: he gives her a ticket and sends her off. Some of Jang’s men want to have their way with her while she’s waiting for her flight and in fighting them off, Lucy is injured. The drugs leak into her body giving her immense power, escalating her brain output from a paltry 10% all the way to 100%. But in order to achieve full power and to keep herself alive, Lucy must hunt down the remaining three drug mules and take their drugs for herself. Morgan Freeman is in the mix too as a famed professor, but he doesn’t really do a whole lot in the story, even though we’re made to think he does.

scarjo-lucy-sarah-27may14If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen this and the rest of the plot. I don’t blame the film when a trailer reveals too much; I bring up the trailer because it so elegantly shows how disappointingly simple the movie is. I do blame the movie for masquerading as an unprecedented treatise on life. It’s like Besson saw the best shots from Koyaanisqatsi and 2001, stripped them of their subtlety, and tried to shove them in the increasingly formulaic Besson framework. Those elements don’t work in the movies he is good at making. And they really don’t work when the movie is riddled with non-sequiturs. Among these, you can look forward to a brain surgeon performing local anesthetic on the stomach, computers that gain processing power as Lucy gains brain power, a dinosaur, and a really special USB drive. Because Lucy never answered these small questions about itself; it had no hope of tackling the big questions of life.

If it wasn’t clear by now, I can’t find Lucy’s significant redeeming qualities. It had its moments, I’ll admit, but all films do. My entertainment was trying to keep the frustration and confusion and contempt I had while watching the film from upsetting the five rows in front of me. The thing is, I’m willing to bet for most audiences a sadomasochistic stroll through Besson’s newest action iteration isn’t high on the weekend fun list. Firing up The Fifth Element or Leon again is an all-around better choice.

It was the Rise of the Dawn of the Earth All Along

Apocalyptic movies have a certain undying appeal. We like to see ourselves ripped away from our technology and tools while keeping just enough knowledge intact to know that we had them. It’s a take on the old humans against nature trope where nature, in this case, exists in opposition to humanity because of some previous accident or mistake; the recent spate of zombie-centered entertainment in the last few years is the most obvious example. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes adopts this zombie aesthetic with an interesting twist. The threat of nature doesn’t come from former humans, it comes from, in a way, proto-humans: apes.

unnamedLike zombie movies, our supremacy is destroyed by a virus. Ten years after Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his ape-kin to freedom in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the simian virus that gave apes their intelligence has wrecked human civilization. Most of humanity is dead; the survivors work to rebuild their cities. A colony of human survivors in former San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), desperately needs power. Salvation rests in a decrepit hydroelectric dam but Caesar’s hostile colony of apes stands in the way. Just as the two groups reach a tenuous peace, distrust on both sides splinters diplomatic solutions into the kindlings of a minor war. Presumably, whoever wins takes the throne of the dominant species.

This film could not exist without the use of visual effects. Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffered from inconsistent effects where the realism of the apes varied given the shot. This time around, the effects maintain an impressive level of quality. They have a weight and a history; they’ve cut  the world we know down to a haunting shadow. When characters are effects as in the case of this series (no, Mr. Serkis, I’m not endorsing your comments on digital makeup), the caliber and quality of effects the film boasts are crucial. And the effort does pay off for the apes. But the human performances are stale and lackluster in comparison. None of the characters have compelling reasons for their choices. They tell us of course why they do what they do, but it’s obvious the actors (with the possible exception of Oldman) don’t believe what they’re saying. When the first half of the movie uses characters to set the stage for the second half, this is a problem.

dawnoftheplanetoftheapesceasarJust as with the characters themselves, the human side of the story is not terribly complex: “humans are against apes in some form or another.” The conflict between Caesar and his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) provides a solid counterpoint to this homogeneity but it’s just not enough. Even if the characters were more dynamic, even if the conflict was more nuanced, the lingering questions about the nature of this post-apocalyptic world are never answered. In other words, the humans and the apes don’t feel like they’re part of the world revealed through the spectacular effects. They don’t really answer why war was inevitable. How the simians and humans diverged to be virtually unknown to each other in ten years is a mystery given their proximity. How the apes managed to build a city, to use guns, and to develop husbandry is equally confusing: after all, a capacity for intelligence isn’t a command of a given knowledge, especially when the undirected whims of curiosity haven’t realized that the knowledge exists to be discovered.

Now, for a movie dramatizing a struggle between humans and apes, you might say I’m being a bit picky. Maybe I am. But the accumulation of all these little cracks in the foundations of this silver screen universe is all the more necessary if such a fantastical situation is to be believed as fundamentally human. We can forgive errors in logic in our world because we rarely question the world’s premise; errors in an unfamiliar world’s premise source a much more acute pain. And this pain keeps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from truly shining as anything more than a fun summer movie.

The Fourth Means Freedom

I have a problem. A few cinemas are in my rotation for new releases and they’re pretty much what you’d expect. One theater, however, has a small lobby which is designed to funnel the smell of popcorn through the front doors. Now I love movie theater popcorn with its addictive blend of gluttony and guilt but not the pain that supplants the guilt in the following hours. I resolve to abstain from the popcorn stomach-aches every time and every time I return, I buy “just one more bag.”

unnamedYou can see where I’m going with this. As I once again caved and bought popcorn for the new “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” I realized I’m a bit of a cinematic glutton. I was going to see the fourth movie in a series defined by, in my mind, Shia LaBeouf repeatedly screaming “no, no, no” and by giant robot wrecking ball testicles. Only this time, I knew there would be no Shia, I wasn’t sure there would be robot genitals, and I had no idea three hours of action could be so boring.

“Age of Extinction” picks up a few years after “Dark of the Moon’s” apocalyptic battle in Chicago. The prevailing powers have decided Transformers are humanity’s enemies and to rid the planet of their threat for good, have dispatched a CIA group led by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) to chase down the surviving Autobots. But when inventor Caede Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) saves Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the clandestine operation explodes into dazzling firefights that draw into the open other shadowy players. And now the fate of the galaxy is in the hands of an overprotective father and Stanley Tucci. Or something.

Honestly, I don’t know anymore. After three movies of Transformers saving humans, I’m not sure why earth is still such a big deal to all these alien machines. Why do they still transform into flashy cars? What’s the purpose in any of this? The effects are meant to sizzle brains into a perpetual catatonia of amazement but they work so well they become tedious. They let the mind wander back to the “why” of the story. And back to the “why did I come?”

hr_Transformers-_Age_of_Extinction_26I was already back to wondering within the first fifteen minutes of scene after scene of director Bay’s loving portrayal of Americana when I was hit with a frightening realization: I think this really “is” America. While CIA agents were using their faces as warrants (their words, not mine), I was thinking about what this meant. Transformers has always been about explosions and cars and lingering shots of barely-legal nubile bodies. Everyone knows this. And yet the series makes gobs of money. So is there any better way to portray us, our spirit, than this? It’s the ultimate freedom; the freedom to revel in bad taste, the freedom to indulge our stupidity, and to come back for more when this helping’s gone stale. It’s Americana. It’s the popcorn. And a lot of us, despite our better judgment, are addicted.

 

How to Train Your Audience

I imagine deep underground DreamWorks headquarters hides the formula to making a blockbuster animated film. Let’s call it How to Train Your Audience. The logic behind the document is sound: animated films are an expensive endeavor and getting the optimal blend of safety and freshness from both original ideas and sequels is the best way to put audiences in seats and give them a few hours of surefire enjoyment. How to Train your Dragon 2 enters theaters as the latest expression of this formula. And as the formula predicts, that’s not a bad thing.

unnamed-1In the first movie, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless established a peace amongst the Vikings of Berk and the races of dragons. In this sequel, Hiccup must commit to the increasing pressures of being heir to his father, Chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), and to the responsibilities of one day being chief. But the world outside Berk is largely unknown and Hiccup is willing to neglect his administrative duties to find out just how big the world is. Hiccup soon runs into the other inhabitants of this bigger world – among them, the mysterious dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) and Eret (Kit Harington), a bounty hunter working for an old rival of Stoick – Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Hiccup’s curiosity places the fate of Berk directly in their plans.

The world of Berk and beyond are beautiful; the filmmakers have taken the best parts of the first How to Train Your Dragon, Disney’s Brave, and Cameron’s Avatar to create this potent flavor of eye candy. They’ve built a living world existing between the real and the computer cell. They’ve pushed the points of their models so that there’s a weight, a history in which the characters naturally exist.

The technical achievement of creating this world is saved from being an expensive tech demo by the flow of a tight narrative. Hiccup doesn’t have the voice or sultry eyelashes of a Disney Princess to command his own take on the “Let it Go” chorus, but he has the reliability of the prototypical awkward teen. It plays well off the mimed humor of Toothless.

At times, the formula seeps through and the film feels like a paint-by-the-numbers affair. The plot moves in the typical Pixar/DreamWorks fashion and the characters grow and evolve and learn the lessons of so many children’s movies. But the numbers paint such a beautiful and efficient picture, the whole doesn’t suffer in any meaningful way.

While this seems like a home run for DreamWorks, there are rumblings of a protest. Buried in the typical nods to parents is one ad-libbed line by Gobber (Craig Ferguson): “This is why I never married. This and one other reason.” Dean DeBlois, the film’s director, has since stated the line is an intentional reference to Gobber’s homosexuality.

Now while it’s easy to see why this is the doom of the heterosexual parent (perhaps even of all heterosexuals everywhere), we must ask:  even with this knowledge, will kids question their sexuality due to this subtle joke? Or will they, not yet burdened by the ionized charge of American politics, simply laugh and disregard it in favor of the colorful dragons in the rest of the movie? Did they know the movie had an insidious agenda before their parents told them?

Maybe that’s the freshness part of the How to Train Your Audience formula. Then again, maybe it doesn’t mean all that much.