Month: March 2014

Film Review- ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ (***1/2)

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Sherman, this is time travel.  You can't just push the "easy" button.

Sherman, this is time travel. You can’t just push the “easy” button.

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”   ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring (the voice talents of): Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Patrick Warburton

Written by: Craig Wright, based on the animated TV short ‘Peabody’s Improbable History’ created by Ted Key and produced by Jay Ward

Directed by: Rob Minkoff

Those south of 30 may not recall the “Rocky and His Friends” or “The Bullwinkle Show” cartoons, created in the 1950s and shown via syndication in the 1980s.  Attached to those shows were segments entitled “Peabody’s Improbable History”, which were neat, albeit corny little entries focused around the world’s smartest individual, Mr. Peabody.  He just happens to be a beagle, who happens to have an adopted son, Sherman.  I remember enjoying the show, more so than the adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose, for it focused on science (specifically time travel) and history, and had something to say.  They visited a variety of historical figures, breathing life into the people I only read about in class.

Despite how neat it was, I was surprised to see that this lesser-known property had the traction to become a major motion picture, for it was something I had forgotten over time. Thankfully “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is a flick worthy of everyone’s attention, and worthy of entering the stream of public conscience again.  It isn’t content to simply be a hyper children’s film, but also isn’t so highbrow as to distance itself from the little ones.  In other words, it’s rather satisfying, excellently rendered family film that gives ‘smarts’ a palatable voice in a genre that generally excludes them.

Mr. Peabody (Burrell) can pretty much do it all.  He’s a scientist, explorer, inventor, painter, photographer, athlete, chef, etc.  Like other high achievers though, he’s missing something.  That’s where Sherman comes in.  Mr. Peabody adopts him (which differs from the original show, where Sherman was his pet), as he sees much of himself in the young boy.  Luckily, the film acknowledges the species difference, and gracefully allows the explanation to work within the framework of the plot.  Mr. Peabody is not so graceful at expressing his feelings, for when Sherman tells his adoptive father he loves him, he’s met with a neutral “I have a very fond regard for you, too”.  As you can imagine, that is revisited later in the film.

This is an interesting family dynamic- not so much because he’s a dog, but because it’s non-traditional.  Even if it was by accident, the script wonderfully allows for their small, non-traditional family to have the same kind of ups and downs as a ‘regular’ family.  It may be a stretch to draw the conclusion that children who see this will remember this and become more accepting of alternative family situations, but it’s pleasant to see a children’s film open to different ideas.

Interestingly, the same family situation I referenced does drive the plot.  Sherman is starting school, and in the process he gets picked on for being the son of a ‘dog’.  Specifically, a girl named Penny decides he is ripe for the bullying, and picks on him until he actually bites her.  That’ll earn a trip to the principal’s office, and parents, teachers, case workers, etc will get involved.  Interestingly, the film doesn’t seem interested in the justice or injustice of the situation- after all, the girl did provoke him, but I digress.  Mr. Peabody does what he can to mend the situation by having Penny and her parents over for dinner.  He’s confident that a few drinks and pleasant conversation can wash the situation under the table.

As is wont to occasionally happen, the children explore while the adults chat, which leads Sherman to mistakenly show Penny the “WABAC”.  The cleverly-acronymed WABAC is, you guessed it, a time machine (looking more like the ‘red matter’ from “Star Trek” than a time-travel device).  Sherman and Penny get themselves into hot water, which requires some clever work on Mr. Peabody’s part to set things straight.  The resulting adventure through time is crisp, funny, and reverent to the original material.  Director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”) once again proves himself a very capable craftsman of animated features, managing to give us comedic and beautiful scenes interlaced with a needed intelligence.

The film isn’t without its’ flaws, however.  For as much as I praised it earlier for allowing smart to be cool, the filmmakers made the choice not to explain how Mr. Peabody figures out time travel.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the scientific inaccuracies, for this film has not heard of the ‘butterfly effect’.  Clearly Mr. Peabody’s actions would have drastic effects on the present, but it’s entirely possible that I’m giving this too much thought.  It’s an unfortunate choice, for if it trusts kids to enjoy being confident with their intelligence, it should have trusted them to enjoy being challenged as well.  These criticisms don’t hurt the film on the whole, however.  It’s enjoyable for everyone, and by being picky, I’m criticizing the film’s flip-flop on whether or not to trust us with ‘smart’ stuff.  That’s hardly a reason not to enjoy a tale of a beagle and his pet, I mean son.

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Film Review- ‘Divergent’ (**)

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"You can't hurt me!  I'm signed for three movies!"
“You can’t hurt me, I’m signed for three films!”

“Divergent”   ** (out of 5)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort,and Kate Winslet

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), Veronica Roth (novel)

Directed by: Neil Burger

 

divergent [dih-vur-juhnt]:  diverging; differing; deviating

If you find yourself lost in the apparent endless sea of similarly themed young adult novels & movies these days, please allow me to join you in your malaise.  Sifting through the titles can easily become annoying, as it is chock-full of semi-colons and non-sensical word pairings (i.e. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”- huh?).  Imagine my relief when I first learned that “Divergent”, based on the first in a trilogy of novels, only had one word to remember for each book.  How refreshing!  

Combined with the dual casting of young Shailene Woodley (brilliant in “The Descendants” but restricted here) and Kate Winslet (trying her best to keep a straight face), I allowed a modicum of hope to creep in my head for this project.  Perhaps this would be the one young adult adaptation up to the task of legitimizing the genre, thus allowing discerning audiences to take it seriously.  Try as it may, “Divergent” struggles mightily to make logical sense, drags on for an eternity, and leaves us scratching our heads in befuddlement.  Ironically, this offers very little in the way of deviation, or divergence, if you will, from its’ genre predecessors.

Please allow me to illustrate, for it is the crux of the film’s failure.  Strong, free-spirited heroine that can’t be held back by the constricts of society?  Check.  Token description of a brutal, world-changing ‘war’ with no resonance or background?  Check.  Dystopian future with a factionalized society convinced to the point of law that human nature is the enemy?  Check.  Mysterious absence of babies or seniors?  Check.  Initially misunderstood, controversial hunk turned sensitive, wounded lover?  Check.  Hushed references to life beyond a ‘wall’ that is never explored, much to our bewilderment?  Check.  Young people required to perform adult actions without the film lending the gravity that those moments require?  Check. 

There are more, but I’ll spare the reader additional sarcasm.  What I mean to point out is the film’s sincere lack of any fresh ideas or believability, despite its’ protestations that the ideas it presents are clearly a big deal.  How can we take the ‘test’ seriously when we aren’t given the slightest dose of scientific reasoning behind it?  Shoot, even if it’s an awful “Jurassic Park” half-hearted version of an explanation, at least give us something.  For that matter, how can the ‘test’ be so important in determining where one belongs, yet the individual still has the ability to choose their destiny?  Is the plot telling us that free will is an illusion?  Does the plot know what it’s telling us?  How can we buy that heroine Tris (Woodley) is able to wake from an unconscious stupor to catch up with a speeding train thirty minutes after Four (James) tells us she has “no muscles”? 

It would be preferable to take the film on its’ own merits, and not allow silly things like logic, science, or cynicism to cloud my judgment.  After all, it does appear that films like this are critic-proof; they simply need to satisfy fans of the source material, quality be damned.  For fairness purposes, please consider that I gave the film a shot to impress.  In fact, one particular scene struck my fancy, nudging me in the direction of satisfaction. On the eve of “Choosing Day”, the Prior family (Tris, her twin brother Caleb (Elgort), and her parents) shares a few quiet, tender, tense moments as Ellie Goulding’s entrancing “Hanging On” plays into the next scene.  In this, I sensed the filmmakers deciding to elevate the source material and create a more human film.    

Alas, ’tis but a fleeting moment, for the film nosedives into the typical immediately afterward.  Tris goes against the grain and chooses “Dauntless”, quite possibly the most awkward-sounding, goofy name for a faction ever created.  We’re treated to scene after scene after scene of training, training, training, with nothing particularly cool, noteworthy, or original to speak of.  All the while, this Chicago-based society (where is the rest of the world???) is trying to eliminate ‘divergent’ minds.  Conveniently (lazily), divergent Tris is tested by the one government-sanctioned tester that’s sympathetic, or we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose.  Think about this, though- murdering someone who doesn’t conform is a cold, ruthless, interesting, albeit unoriginal science-fiction premise.  This isn’t the type of film that wants to understand or explore those big ideas, unfortunately. 

In the time that has passed since viewing “Divergent”, I’ve actually grown more weary and less accepting of the film.  Maybe I’m just tired of the genre’s attention.  Perhaps I’m raw that the far superior weekend release (“Muppets Most Wanted”) will garner less box office and less audience affection.  The likely truth is that I’ve grown more weary of ‘products’ marketed as films, especially in this particular genre.  When there’s nothing new to take from the experience, and I feel like I’m simply contributing to the greenlight of a sequel, it’s an empty feeling.  Whether it’s Gryffindor, District 12, or ‘Dauntless’, it’s all starting to run together for me. 

“Divergent”, like others before it, and presumably more to follow, simply offers a structured way to package an entire entertainment experience in a consumable bundle, masquerading as a moving parable for our time.  In the end, I feel less like having just seen a film, and more like I just got swindled by a used car salesman.   It’s confusing, illogical, lacking in chemistry, and just doesn’t mean anything.  Presumably, those familiar with the novels but somehow not bewildered by this film will inform me that I shall  ‘understand’ by the end.  Frankly, I can’t imagine caring less what happens to these characters.  Give me the story of those living outside the wall, or the likely interesting and complicated series of events that lead up to the film, and I might just be on board.  This?  There’s nothing remotely ‘divergent’ about it.

Film Review- ‘Non-Stop’ (***)

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Everyone raise your hands if you remember me in a 'Dirty Harry' movie.
Everyone raise your hands if you remember me in a ‘Dirty Harry’ movie.

“Non-Stop”   *** (out of 5)

Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, and Lupita Nyong’o

Written by: John W. Richardson & Chris Roach (story), John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle (screenplay)

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

**ATTENTION: POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT**

There may come a day when Liam Neeson can no longer play the same (or similar) role over and over and get away with it.  Today is not that day.  He’s the sensitive yet menacing lead that audiences have warmed up to again and again (“Taken”, “The Grey”) .  He’s a down-to-earth god (“Clash of the Titans”), a war captain (“Battleship”), and even a benevolent yet rebellious Jedi (“Star Wars, Episode I”).  He’s the go-to guy for films that need a front man who audiences trust to not be too risqué, yet deliver on chops.  His latest action-fest  “Non-Stop” happens to be a generic film, and I liked it more than I should have.  I attribute that almost entirely to Neeson’s presence, and the expectations that now come with it.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a troubled, weary, alcoholic federal air marshal.  I’m sure the United States government chooses nothing but top-notch candidates to be air marshals, but I’m also sure that many of them are likely worn out by their jobs.  Bill sure is worn out by his, or perhaps it’s because of his life (does it matter?).  However, he keeps on keepin’ on, albeit with a swig of booze beforehand.  His latest flight is from London to New York (how’s that for foreshadowing?), and luckily for him, he gets to sit right next to Julianne Moore.  After all, if you’re going to take a transatlantic flight, can it at least be next to her?  She’d probably be game for a deep soul-searching chat, right?  The problem here is that we know her, and if something goes awry, how can we not expect her to be involved?  I’m sure this violates one of Roger Ebert’s ‘Movie Laws’.

I digress, for something does go awry once the flight is airborne, and we must get to that.  Bill receives a disturbing message (spoiler alert- it’s not Brett Favre’s dick) on his phone threatening to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless, you got it, money is deposited to a special account.  Bill has a secure phone, so whomever is texting him threats must really be, well, threatening.  Even worse, people begin to actually die, so somehow someone is sending him messages and making this all happen.  Bill knows the lead stewardess (Dockery), and enlists her and Julianne Moore to watch everyone on camera to see who answers their text.  This creates the air of suspicion, distracting us from the real troublemaker.

This film tries so hard to throw the audience off the scent by throwing in just enough recognizable character actors to generate reasonable doubt.  It basically works, for at one point during the film I eliminated everyone on the plane from being culpable, and began to consider even spiritual angles.  Bravo, plot.  It’s a contrived scenario, simply just to be contrived. I actually started thinking back to Occam’s Razor (all things considered, the simplest explanation is likely the correct one).  If only I’d begun with that, and went with my gut feeling that the one responsible was, in fact, responsible.  After all, “Non-Stop” wasn’t interested in changing the action-thriller game.  All the usual suspects for a functional whodunit are present, and while effective, doesn’t blow our minds.

Sure, the ending is unsatisfying, hammy, and abrupt. Sure, the would-be terrorist’s reasoning is unoriginal, selfish, and delivered in typical ‘villain reveals all motives for no reason’ fashion.  Sure, there’s another angle the filmmakers could have gone with regarding post 9/11 paranoia, or the loneliness of people who live in the air.  Sure, it’s not ground-breaking.  I really should hate this film for taking me on another unnecessary action-thriller ride, but I just cannot bring myself to do so.  It’s banality is just so complete, and I can’t help but wonder- was Liam Neeson was really the only thing I drew me to enjoy this movie?  The answer is basically yes, and that’s fine.  I would probably enjoy watching Liam Neeson simply sit on a flight and make strained facial gestures for 2 hours.  Really, who needs a film where he takes charge of a flight and hunts down a terrorist?  In fact, maybe I should write that script.  (Better get to it before Michael Bay or Luc Besson does)

Documentary Review- ‘As The Palaces Burn’ (****)

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The members of Lamb of God- a band name you could probably sneak past your local church music director.
The members of Lamb of God- a band name you could probably sneak past your local church music director.

“As The Palaces Burn”   **** (out of 5)

Directed by: Don Argott

When I was younger, I viewed metal music as dangerous- something the angry, mischievous kids listened to, and thus I stayed away.  Later, I found that I couldn’t digest it as music; it was too much for me- I only heard unstructured sounds and silly growling.   Here we are, in March of 2014, and I had remained ambivalent- perhaps until now.  I was clueless to who ‘Lamb of God’ was, nor did I recognize any songs, despite the band having had the #2 charting album quite recently.  According to this documentary, they’re a metal heavyweight, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Megadeth and Metallica- not that I knew any better.  “As The Palaces Burn” had the unlikely task of enlightening me to a side of music I had dismissed, simply due to a lack of understanding.  I’m pleased to report that it succeeded, not just in re-educating me, but also the way it deftly handles a complete swing in tone.

Vocalist Randy Blythe is the first to appear on-screen, as he takes the filmmakers back to where he once lived.  It’s neither a posh nor rundown neighborhood; it’s under a bridge near a river.  What makes this interesting is the way Blythe appears humbled by what he sees, and by his own words music is the reason he’s not dead or in prison.  Well, that makes sense.  If you’re exposed to the elements, you’ll eventually have to make unsavory survival decisions.  He also talks about music helping him to not feel alone- while that’s not the first time we’ve heard that, against the backdrop of his would-be home, it’s certainly more powerful.

Blythe’s intro lays the framework for what this documentary tries to tell us over the first half, i.e. the purpose of metal music in people’s lives, and the extent to which Lamb of God is responsible for that.  We’re introduced to a couple of ‘die-hard’ fans from different cultures, and the way they explain their affection for this music is unexpected.  Their love appears to come not just from the music itself, but also a need to release aggression, to purge unhealthy feelings, and the desire to belong to something.  Listening to a young Columbian cab driver spoke volumes- he thinks about “getting out a machete and start cutting off heads”, but he puts in the music and he feels better. 

That mindset may seem on the verge of sociopathic behavior, but in this context it seems reasonable.  Music has always been an organic, healthy outlet for people; it has a way of bringing focus and peace to minds constantly barraged by negativity.  “As the Palaces Burn” lends credence to the thought that there exists a healthy connection between the angst and energy of metal and the fans who crave it to release their own.  After all, it stands to reason that if the lyrics come from a place of hurt, desperation, and anger, it will likely resonate with many a person.  That’s a fascinating angle that I hadn’t considered before, and a welcome thought indeed. 

If I told you that’s simply what the documentary was about, you might think it was perfectly fine as is.  However, we’re led down an entirely different path as the band reaches the Czech Republic for a leg of their tour- a path the film had to explore, and it becomes the crux of the experience.  Fans familiar with the band know the story, but allow me to illuminate those in the dark- as they landed, the band was detained.  Why?  Back in 2010, as was alleged, a fan died as a result of injuries sustained ‘leaping’ from the stage at a Lamb of God concert in Prague.  The prosecution alleged that Randy Blythe was partially responsible for this, and thus charged him with manslaughter- later he was indicted.

If your first reaction was ‘what?’, you’re on the right track.  We’ll need to put aside the fact that a human being did die, a young man and fan of the band to boot- that’s clearly sad enough.  What’s interesting for our purposes is the legal situation itself. The documentary does a commendable job of intertwining the emotional journey of Blythe through this process and the guts of putting a real defense together, all laid out before our eyes.  As an American just familiar enough with our legal system to get by, I could easily spot the holes in the prosecution’s case.  However, I also know of the danger in allowing foreign courts, with all the uncertainty, to decide the fate of an American.  The end result might seem perfunctory- but be it by accident or not, the filmmakers were able to craft this unfortunate court case to the tune of a perfectly adept legal thriller. 

I commend the film for getting through to me as a non-fan of the genre, and furthermore for deftly weaving our new-found intimate knowledge of the band with a messy overseas legal scenario.  It’s honest, forthright, and unflinching as it reveals to us the band’s personal demons along with the celebration of their triumphs and successes.  We see the band for who they are- talented musicians with varied backgrounds who managed to put something special together, and nearly lost it.  What we may take for granted, as fans, is that bands are families too; non-traditional, perhaps, but families nonetheless.  The threat of losing a family member long-term had to weigh on the group, especially if you consider how unfair the entire situation seemed.  On top of that, think of something like this happening to, let’s admit it, a ‘more popular band’.  Take N-Sync at the height of their popularity, or Beyonce.  I never heard of this particular incident involving Lamb of God, but a major American band had a member detained in a jail– my guess is that we’d break Twitter again if Beyonce was put behind bars.  Luckily this documentary exists to tell us what happened.   

If there is one negative to take away from this, I’d say the lack of immediate reaction from the band, or the failure to capture what was likely more visceral disbelief in Blythe’s imprisonment is slightly disappointing.  I imagine that out of respect for the young man who lost his life, some stronger commentary existed, but it’s not for our eyes.  That’s hardly a damning statement, for this is still a very well-done documentary- tense and informative, even enlightening for this metal rookie.