movie review

Worst Best Picture: Is Moonlight Better or Worse Than Crash?

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image source: pitchfork

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2016 winner Moonlight. Is it better than Crash?

In the days and weeks after this year’s Oscars, it seems like there’s only one thing to talk about: that final award. People will write tons of posts about the botched delivery of the Best Picture award as La La Land was mistakenly announced before Moonlight correctly won the award.

That will last for a little while. These two won’t be tied together forever, though it’s easy to forget that since we’re in the moment. When you look at the other 88 movies on the list, you realize that these movies will be remembered despite what they beat. We’ve decided that the Academy Award is our benchmark for greatness, or memory, or both.

If for no other reason, that’s why Moonlight had to win. We aren’t in agreement over if the Oscars point out our best or our most memorable or what, but we all seem to agree that they’re important. La La Land has been divisive for a number of reasons, but it’s a pretty good musical that a lot of us can’t see ourselves in. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play “down and out” characters that really aren’t and lament failures that many of us would see as successes. They’re beautiful, talented, and surrounded by support. In a future where we’re increasingly dealing as a people with groups being marginalized and the cruelty of humanity, it doesn’t ring true that a message of “maybe 100% of your dreams won’t come true but that’s the worst that could happen” should be the moral of our Best Picture.

I liked a lot of what this year had to offer. Arrival is a new, if flawed, take on something that’s been done too many times. Jackie is a shocking portrayal of a story we all know. Manchester by the Sea is crushing, Lion is inspiring, and 20th Century Women is heartwarming in ways I didn’t expect.

But it all comes down to the contrast between the two big ones: La La Land and Moonlight. I really liked La La Land, but I’m still thinking about Moonlight. It’s the three-part story of Chiron, a character locked inside himself. His mother is abusive and addicted, his friends are mostly absent, and his closest confidant is a drug dealer who may or may not really have a heart of gold. It’s the kind of story we don’t see very often because in a lot of ways it’s one we don’t want to think about. It’s a story about survival in the face of absolutely nothing going right.

I won’t break the entire film down because it’s really about watching the growth. Chiron is a boy, then a teenager, then a man, but he’s always quiet and worried. No matter who he talks to, you can see his character playing mental defense during every conversation. His mother offers no relief, his friends have their own challenges, and Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) is supportive and personable, but represents risks in his own way. Chiron can never let his guard down and the movie feels tense even in small victories as a result.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Chiron struggles with his sexuality. It’s a film about race as much as it is about sex, and while it isn’t shy or concerned about either topic, it’s told through Chiron’s eyes. His character obscures much of our view of his world, which allows the whole thing to unfold for us just how it would for someone going through it. We see hate and anger just as we do solitude and a mixed sense of finding yourself. It’s a lot to unwrap.

You should see both of them and you probably will. La La Land is going to be talked about for years and it deserves it. It’s a catchy, flashy musical with good performances and a slightly more complex message than I’m letting on, but it’s tough to compare it to Moonlight. In 1964 My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and in 1951 An American in Paris beat A Streetcar Named Desire. All four of those movies are classics, but it highlights how strange it is to classify musicals in the same category as everything else. We just don’t often think of them like that, though the Oscars force us to do so.

The Best Part: The adult version of Chiron styles himself “Black” and drives a long distance to meet an old friend at a diner. The scene is longer than you’d expect and it plays with the idea of expectations. After so much time with both characters we think we know what’s going to happen, so the surprise of what does happen is all the sweeter. I remember pivoting over and over again in my head as I watched it and it surpassed everything I came up with.

The Worst Part: Naomie Harris said that she was worried about the portrayal of Paula, Chiron’s mom, as she’s introduced as just an abusive crack addict. Her performance definitely elevates the role and the arc is more interesting than previous iterations of this character type, but if I had to pick something it’s the initial version of Paula. It’s necessary for Chiron’s development as a character, but in a world full of people we’ve never seen before it can be odd to see a character type that’s been done so much.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Now that I’ve been caught up for a few years and am writing these yearly, it feels even more ridiculous to approach this question. The only nominee this year that had a real shot at dethroning the king Crash was Hacksaw Ridge, which made me mad in so many ways I can’t even begin to describe them all. Moonlight is a difficult, dark, sad movie that offers few moments of respite, but I still think it’s more realistic than Crash. They both tread the same waters and deal with the same fears, but Moonlight does so with respect.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Dracula Untold: Should You See It?

image source: ign

image source: ign

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Dracula Untold?

October has finally rolled around and with it comes the ghouls and ghosts of the season in movie form. Living out in South Korea, I rarely have information about new releases beyond “Oh, this is in English, so I can watch it.” That being the case, I had been itching to see something in theaters for about a week and this looked like it would be a passable movie to quell that urge. The movie follows Vlad the Impaler, who was taken by the Turkish as a boy and then rose back to power in his hometown of Transylvania to resist their power. Vlad is well-known as a badass in this universe for his ruthless habit of impaling folks in fields. The story picks up with Vlad having retired from the shish kebab business and becoming a family man. The Dracula element is kinda thrown in as the Turkish legion wants 1,000 boys to join the Turkish army, including Vlad’s son. Vlad obviously says “eff dat noise” and decides to make a deal with a vampire. This vampire has been chilling in a cave for a long time and a trade is made where Vlad gets the vampire’s powers for three days but if he drinks human blood he becomes a permanent vampire and “something” happens with the original vampire. I know that last part is vague, but for the life of me I did not understand what the point of the cave vampire was other than the magical element. He gives up the powers and then is a complete non-factor for the remainder of the movie.

image source: bloody-disgusting.com

image source: bloody-disgusting.com

“I am a power piñata”

The movie itself is a complete mess. There are a ton of characters that get no explanation and seem to serve no point other than to patch plot holes. Vlad has decently cool powers, but it is a bit boring watching a one man army destroy normal people (Superman syndrome). The pacing is also a big issue in this movie as there just seems to be too much information to relay to the audience while also trying to be an action movie.

My biggest issues are the action sequences towards the end of the film. Things get ridiculous in a hurry and they stay that way for around 35 minutes. At one point, I turned to my date with my mouth agape at how stupid this all felt and she pushed my head back forward only for us both to see a scene that was even more ridiculous than before. She quietly shook her head and I went from muffled laughter to head-shaking disgust until the credits rolled. We both apologized for the film afterwards and vowed to do a little research before going to see the next movie.

Should You See It?

This movie has the framework of a potential blockbuster but it felt like the screenplay was written by a 10-year old, on set. I do respect it for getting so insanely bad that I wanted to see if it could maintain this level of failure, because it isn’t just mediocre throughout, it gets exponentially worse from start to finish. Watch it if you like films that are unaware that they are terrible, but otherwise steer clear.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

French film occupies a deserved and jealously defended place in the international consciousness. French film is where you go to see beautiful acting, dialogue, and cinematography fuse to communicate An Important Message. I’m not exactly sure what the message of Holy Motors is, but it is certainly filled with beauty. It might be my favorite movie of all time. It’s so bizarre and different from anything else I’ve seen. This is the part where I give you a general idea what it is, but I don’t even. Alright, the movie starts with you, the audience, watching another audience in a movie theater. A man in a room finds a secret door and enters the movie theater. A little girl and a giant dog are walking down the aisles. After that, the movie switches to the main flow of narrative. This movie’s goal is not linearity or understandable occurrences, but as far as there is any organization, here it is: the main character, Monsieur Oscar, has a job that involves getting in the back of a big white limousine and going from appointment to appointment throughout the day. Each of these appointments requires him to become something different. He leaves his family in a big white house in the suburbs of Paris and talks business on his cell phone on his commute into the city, fulfilling his role as a high-powered banker. As he approaches the city, he pulls a mirror to him, pulls a costume and makeup from the other side of the limo, and starts changing. When he leaves the limousine, he is a crumpled old woman, begging on the streets, caning her way up and down and muttering about how everyone she loves is dead, and how she’s gotten so old that she’s begun to fear she will never die. He goes through many different appointments: gangster with a vendetta, insane violent person running through a graveyard, old man on his deathbed, sharing a final, teary embrace with his niece. The film never explains how these appointments connect, who sets them, or what Oscar’s profession is. As an audience member, you need to just sit back, absorb without question, and enjoy the many benefits of the movie (although not plot. If you want to enjoy plot, you are out of luck).

This trailer makes about as much sense as the movie, but it’s not about making sense, philistine!

The film is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic, metafictional paean to the art of cinema. There are little interludes between some of the appointments, during one of which (the only part of the movie that even comes close to explaining what is happening) an old man visits Monsieur Oscar and talks to him about how good a job he’s doing, but he looks a little tired and is he sure he wants to go on? To which he answers, “Je continue comme j’ai commencé, pour la beauté du geste” [I’ll go on as I started: for the sake of beauty (more literally, for the beauty of the gesture)]. The only other tidbit this exchange gives, other than the motivation of the main character, is also the reason this is nominally a science fiction movie. Monsieur Oscar is a little tired and a little nostalgic for the good old days. He talks with the old pro who visits him about how cameras used to weigh more than the actors did, then they were the size of their heads, and now they’re so small you can’t even see them. Does this mean cameras are everywhere, invisible, and this is the future? Does Monsieur Oscar belong to some type of commune, creating art for popular consumption? Is this bizarre semi-scripted reality TV? Impossible to know – it is only possible to theorize. The structure of the film allows it to explore a rich mix of artistic themes without having to pin anything down to plot like a dead butterfly in a collector’s box. Parental disapproval, the intrusion of the bizarre into the everyday, the irretrievability of lost love, resignation in the face of duty, the nature of beauty and art, all swirl together onscreen in a beautiful, unhinged hurricane of creativity.

You’re going to want to buy a bottle of French wine (maybe make it a magnum) and enjoy this as part of a cultural night. Some French might take issue with this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more French movie. Screw the audience, screw the narrative, let’s see what we can cobble together as a deep exploration of the methods and techniques of cinema and humanity’s impulse to observe. The result is a resounding success. The lack of explanation might infuriate you, but if you can enjoy the movie simply for la beauté du geste, you will not be disappointed.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s 80s Movie About… Frogs: Should You See Hell Comes to Frogtown?

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Gardner Mounce

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out (or have “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in them). You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see Hell Comes to Frogtown?

Hell Comes to Frogtown is a 1988 movie about the last man on earth. Or maybe the last sexually active man on earth. Or at the very least, the last sexually desirable man on earth, given that what you find desirable is a fat Mark Wahlberg lookalike with a glans penis haircut. Piecing together what the movie is about is a pointless task. Most of the lines are mumbled and I had been drinking. But from what Wikipedia can tell me, it’s the story of a group of female scientists who kidnap a man named Sam Hell, put him in an explosive chastity belt, and use him to rescue some prostitutes from Frogtown (more on Frogtown in a bit). The movie is to Mad Max as Krull is to Star Wars. It’s one of those beautifully bad 80s clones that’s lovable for its earnestness (i.e. it’s sincere like The Room rather than purposefully campy like Sharknado).

One reason to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown is that it’s like a time capsule for what was considered funny in 1988. Rape, for instance. Lots of rape and misogyny. You’re not going to believe me but the following still is from a scene that’s meant to be funny.

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Oh, I get it! She’s like a slave but for sex! Zing!

I’m not saying that people don’t still make rape jokes, but how about this: in another scene, our heroes catch a female savage, give her a libido-boosting shot, and then Sam Hell rapes her. But, you know, in what is supposedly a “light-hearted way.” So light-hearted that the next morning the two are seen cuddling. Then the savage hugs and thanks Sam and we never see her again. She’s a plot device in the worst possible sense: she has no function in the movie other than as that which is sexually liberated (against her will). (Editor’s note: uhhh… whoa.)

All this happens before the heroes even make it to Frogtown. What is Frogtown? Frogtown is where the frogs live. Because of an Apocalyptic Scenario, frogs are now human-sized, speak English, and sometimes have three penises. The scenes in Frogtown are so sexually frustrated no one would be surprised if the writers all have frog fetishes.

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No, please don’t. You’re so far out of my league.

There are details I could go into, but that would be a one-way ticket to Spoilertown. And trust me, you want to visit Frogtown firsthand.

The plot holes in Hell Comes to Frogtown are Mexican sinkhole-sized. Why does Sam Hell need to go with them to Frogtown to save the women when they have this girl who just sits in the car and polishes her guns?

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Why do characters inexplicably change outfits from one scene to the next?

Why would the scientists strap Sam in an explosive chastity belt when his dick is the only thing of importance to them?

And who the fuck is this guy?

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God?

Should You See It?

Of all the reasons to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown, it’s the simplest reason that’s the most convincing. That’s this: in the late 80s a movie called Hell Comes to (Motherfucking) Frogtown was released, and for some reason you haven’t seen it.

Watch it on Hulu Plus or stream it on Amazon for $2.99.

Is the Reality of Dwayne Johnson More Interesting Than the Myth of Hercules? Should You See “Hercules?”

hercules dwayne johnson

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Hercules?

Last week I had the opportunity to watch Brett Ratner’s take on the tale of Hercules. This film stars Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock” from wrestling fame, as the eponymous Hercules.

I, like many others, have grown to genuinely like Dwayne Johnson as a celebrity. There are so many things he could be — rude, egotistical, abusive — yet he has managed to break the mold for super-juiced up athletes and has this genuinely endearing air around him.

He is constantly doing stuff like this. His life is a perpetual Old Spice commercial.

Now, I could write an entire article about why Dwayne Johnson is awesome but I will leave you all to Ask Jeeves that question. This is about the movie Hercules and there honestly isn’t much good to say about it. Ratner decides to eschew the various trials of Hercules (a.k.a. the interesting stuff) to instead focus on how a super strong (but entirely mortal) Hercules deals with being known as a demigod.

We meet his team of super talented warriors that help him take on the various trials he is known for. His group is an Amazon archer-woman, a rogue who throws daggers, a battle mage who can see the future, a mute berserker, and Hercules as a heavily armored “tank” of sorts. We see that the trials are all just tricks set up by various evil people that have entirely rational solutions. We learn that Hercules becomes about as popular as the Emperor he is receiving patronage from due to these accomplishments and then he is suddenly outcast after a tragic night involving his family (spoiler alert: they dead y’all).

The plot focuses on Hercules doing one last job as a mercenary to help pay for his self exile to atone for his sins. This does not go as planned and an insidious plot is uncovered that requires Hercules to effectively unwin a war he just won. This is all incredibly stupid and never takes the viewer off guard. It truly feels like a poorly written tween version of 300, except with none of the cool supernatural stuff.

Dwayne Johnson honestly does well in the role, and he is one of the few celebrities I could imagine playing Hercules. The main problem I ran into is that the man playing Hercules is honestly more Herculean than the character he is portraying. If the entire film was just about him going to the gym, listing the food he eats on his cheat days, and making Vine movies I would have enjoyed this film more. The supporting cast is completely superfluous and you will not care about any of them in any way, shape, or form. This holds true for the villains as well, who are just dicks for the sake of being dicks.

Should You See It?

There is absolutely no reason to see this film. It is a bad film, and it falls into that category of movies that just don’t have enough heart to be memorable. I wasn’t angry that I paid money to see it like I have been with other films, I just instantly forgot about it when I left the theater.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Snowpiercer is a delightful sci-fi concept film. The concept is that, amid concerns of climate change, humanity released a relatively untested “cooling” chemical into the upper atmosphere – an anthropogenic solution for an anthropogenic problem. By the way, if you are a person who still denies that something is happening to the climate and that humanity is largely responsible for it, please leave. Even offering a counterargument to deniers is creating a semblance of rational disagreement and debate, which only serves to allow major actors to continue down a path that, unmitigated, will quite literally end the world as we know it. Many scientists are worried that there is a point of no return, and that, once we pass it, there might be a runaway greenhouse gas effect that will radically alter the makeup of the only known body in the solar system that can support human life. Current governmental response to it is insane. Not only are they not freaking out, a full 58% of Republican lawmakers – over half of one major political party – doubt that it exists. The people responsible for legislating measures that might save us aren’t doing anything because a quarter of them are idiots. As a brief aside – a lot of climate change deniers are also evolution deniers. Evolution denial is similar to climate change denial, if the consequences of denying evolution made the whole human race lose their neocortex. That’s the thing – you can deny evolution all you want, and it will change nothing. Dismissing sound climate science, or even just fostering the appearance of any debate on the issue, weakens our ability to respond, in a measured and timely fashion, to a set of circumstances that could lead to mass famine, destruction, and loss of life. I don’t get it. During the Cold War, everyone was terrified of the world ending in a nuclear holocaust. There’s an outside chance the world might end if we don’t stop freely burning fossil fuels, and about a quarter of us are responding with  “Eh, fuck it.” (25% being the rough number of people that actually deny it. Probably a lot more don’t give a shit).

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, around 2128, Mars and its citizens stood as an oppressed colony of Terran corporate interests. Martians get a fighting chance when a major humanitarian crisis strikes Earth and diverts resources from harvesting efforts on Mars to relief efforts on the homeworld – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, dooming all Terran coastal areas with slow but inexorable inundation. Robinson, writing a far-future novel in 1996, trying to think of a semi-plausible disaster for purposes of his plot, came up with that. It happened eighteen years later. If that isn’t enough to terrify you, a science-fiction author’s future apocalypse scenario coming true less than two decades after his book was published, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, they release this quick-fix chemical into the upper atmosphere, and the immediate consequence is that they cool the Earth to far below the threshold for sustaining an ecosystem. All life on Earth is flash-frozen, save for a small enclave on a constantly-moving train run by a perpetual motion engine. Snowpiercer is a great example of the type of science fiction that takes a real science problem from the world, extrapolates it, and then uses it as a backdrop to have Captain America beat the crap out of people. Chris Evans, of Captain America fame, plays the rebellion leader Curtis Everett. Don’t come here for that though – other than hitting people with blunt (or sharp) objects, he’s not very Captainy. This film is way too grim for that.

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He also starred in this movie. We do not speak its name.

The grimness comes from the fact that on the train housing the last remnant of humanity, you have your first-class passengers, your coach passengers, and your oh-my-god-the-world-is-ending-let-me-on passengers. This last category is kept in constant poverty and misery, beaten by guards, and despoiled by the rich. They eat protein gelatin while first-classers eat steak and fish. They pile in squalid bunks while the rich lounge in private cars. The whole drive of the movie is Chris Evans’ character fomenting a rebellion, the stated purpose of which is to reach the front of the train and gain control of the engine, thus gaining control of the entire train. There is a lot of ingrained hierarchy and a lot of guards in place to keep them from doing just that. There is also a lot of propaganda, whereby the owner of the train is cast in a numinous aura of near-godliness. The lead propagandist is probably my favorite character in the film, and she is played marvelously by a ridiculous Tilda Swinton.

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Oh, Tilda.

The most remarkable achievement of the film is its transformation of the vertical, metaphorical rich on top/poor on bottom dynamic into a horizontal, literal rich in front/poor in back dynamic. The protagonist and his band struggle through car after car, moving from industrial-revolution level squalor, to clean and economical, to absurdly elegant and polished. This results in visual cues signaling Curtis’ progress – the further up he gets, the nicer everything is. It is a physical diorama of oppression. Another thing the film does nicely is the action – there is plenty of gritty, bloody scuffling as they inch forward to the engine. Much of the killing is done with improvised weaponry, as the oppressed poor are of course not permitted firearms. Some of the scenes, while not nearly as cool, reminded me of the transcendental hammer hallway fight scene from Oldboy. If you have not seen Oldboy, it is on Netflix. You should probably see Oldboy. Here’s the scene I’m talking about:

This is pretty much what happens as they move through the train cars.

The movie is well worth seeing. Its idea-driven plot, its ambition, its worldbuilding, and its unique sets more than win it the right to your time. However, it does fall apart in some areas. First off, the majority of the characters are pretty simply sketched out. There’s no real change or development throughout the film. Also, the ending is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. It’s fine, it’s fine – I still like the movie. But watch out for that ending. Overall, it’s nice to see small concept-driven sci-fi being produced as opposed to ginormous explosion-driven sci-fi (cough Transformers cough). Take an afternoon for yourself and check it out.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Another Look at Maleficent: Should You See It?

Maleficent

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Maleficent?

I saw this with my sometimes girlfriend and I will admit I had no idea what it was, going into it. I had forgotten the name of the antagonist from classic animation and I just didn’t put the pieces together until the film started. As Mr. May put it, the film is about pleasing boththe parents and children of the audience with a reimagining of a simple good vs. evil story. This is something I think it does rather poorly, as I could not imagine enjoying this as a child because it is a gritty retelling. There are all the magical elements and attempts at humor to please younger audiences, but throughout I never got a lighthearted vibe from the film.

The film is awkwardly chopped up into three acts with the real weight of the story in the beginning and the end. The middle tries to be fun and happy, but the setup is so grim it feels truly empty. You are introduced to Maleficent and the humans and you instantly are slammed with the knowledge that humans are the worst things to ever exist. Maleficent is tricked in probably one of the most uncomfortable rape analogies that will assuredly go over a child’s head but will not for any adult. She is drugged and has her power (the most important thing to her) forcibly taken from her by someone she thought she could trust. Once this happens there is no point in time where I wanted anything but for Maleficent to reclaim her power. Angelina Jolie is captivating in this role and I am not sure any other actress could have owned the role as well. That being said, most of the other characters are flat in comparison.

Should you see it?

Yes, much like the movie Noah, which I wrote about before, Maleficent has its fair share of flaws and pacing issues, but I think any adult who has seen the original animation from Disney will be stunned that the same company put out this film. I can’t say if it was good or bad, but just that it left thinking about it more than the new X-Men movie did.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

 

Maleficent Tries to be Sleeping Beauty for Both Children and Adults: Should You See It?

Maleficent

Jonathan May

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Maleficent?

Trying to make a movie appeal to everyone can be problematic. If it’s meant for children, studio executives/producers feel the need to also make sure the adults are in on the laughs and tears. While this might satiate everyone slightly, the end result is something almost unclassifiable: a hybrid movie with all the plot motivation and CGI a child could want with the postmodern self-consciousness and humor an adult would expect. Many times in the theater, I heard a child whisper to the attendant parent, “What’s happening?” If this question is asked during the run of a children’s film, then it is almost certainly a failure. The beauty of the original Sleeping Beauty film is in its simplicity; Maleficent, however, adds complication after plot complication, giving “adult” realness and motivation to the main character, ultimately making her more relatable to adults than children. This is the movie’s main flaw.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending in any way, but the complexity the film tries to attain through this ending certainly confused this viewer. I had assumed the Raven fellow (a stand-in for the companions of Odin: Huginn and Muninn) would end up being the one to break the spell; in that regard, I was wrong. However, I feel like the way the story was built (with Maleficent and her servant watching over Aurora), we were supposed to feel that way. I’m by no means begrudging the ending and its representation of the many different kinds of true love; I was just mystified by the movie’s many attempts to lead us astray in order to keep us guessing.

Should you see it?

Will this film be watched with the same fervor as Sleeping Beauty in 20 years? I quite doubt it. Though Angelina Jolie was a powerful force in this film, her power almost mutes the depiction of the other characters. Ultimately, this film falls between two worlds, an ever-widening divide as long as studio executives are calling the shots rather than the story-makers.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Neighbors: Should You See It?

Neighbors (from The Daily Mail)

Jonathan May

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Neighbors?

Neighbors is a movie that tries to bridge two kinds of comedies: the buddy comedy and the relationship comedy. The couple (Rogen and Byrne) uses the standard “bros before hos” as part of its trap against the fraternity invaders, backfiring wildly into what seems to be the start of a very different film. Needless to say, the film is billed as a comedy, so by stricter terms, it follows on its promise, reaffirming the relationship between the couple at the film’s heart. However, when I asked my friend Elizabeth what she thought about the focus of the film, she said it was more of a misguided bildungsroman for Zac Efron’s upper half, and I would have to agree. The movie tries to affirm some kind of epiphany on the part of the fraternity president as to what must come after graduation, yet it also clings more so to the couple’s determination to face what they must together. The new parents commit vandalism, trespassing, and (some may say) negligence to enact their wild schemes against the admittedly loud and obnoxious fraternity house 24-hour party machine; does this bring them down, or make it clear that some people will do almost anything to achieve comfort?

I’m no stoic; I laughed out loud plenty of times. Sex and drug jokes abound, reaffirming pot as the social drug of the new century. What really held the film together were the ancillary characters: Lisa Kudrow as the Dean, Hannibal Buress as the policeman, the fraternity as its own character. While I was compelled by the main plot(s) of the film as a comedy of manners, I found Efron to be stiff in front of the camera in contrast to the couple, a veteran pair in their own rights. Perhaps it’s because the film is of two minds that he seems weak in comparison; I’d never seen him in a movie previously. I did appreciate the continuation of the depiction of the American couple as two people who can be fun together, despite their seeming nefariousness as they manipulate others.

Should you see it?

What to take away? We get older, and it sucks sometimes, but sometimes it’s really cool. Abs help?

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image: The Daily Mail

The Wolf of Wall Street is About Excess and Debauchery: Should You See It?

wows

Stephanie Feinstein

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see The Wolf of Wall Street?

Spoilers, of course.

First of all, this was a really long 180 minutes, and the first 45 are just 2000’s Boiler Room all over again.

This is a true story: The real deal Jordan Belfort wrote a memoir about how he swindled the hell out of America, and Scorsese decided that would make a good movie. But unlike so many other debauchery-focused films, it lacks reflection and remorse.

This lack of victims, of consequence, of remorse, of pain, are my issues with Scorsese’s latest. The movie spirals down a hole of moral ambiguity, drowning in its own self-righteousness.

“But he gets caught!” You might argue, “He pays for his sins!” I disagree. A 36-month stint in a Nevada white-collar prison does not atonement make. Referring to the incarceration as a respite from his money-hungry life, he feels no remorse for what put him there.

There is a lack of remorse for cheating on his first wife, and we see no repercussions of divorce. There is no aftermath of her marriage, no additional hospitality or hurt. No or media backlash; no paparazzi-fueled tabloids.

When his yacht sinks during a hellacious storm, no one is harmed and only the yacht (which I assume to be heavily insured), suffers. His wife is fine, their friends are fine, no crew is lost. The plane coming to rescue them after the wreck? It explodes, killing three people. Do we see the funerals, the anguish of having ruined other lives? No. He does not even openly acknowledge the explosion, glossing over it in a smooth voice over, paving the way for his reluctant sobriety.

The two scenes that most display the lack of morality and compass do not use yachts, planes, or pussy to make a point. When Belfort Lemmon-ludes up and over at the country club, he chooses to drive his expensive-ass car home, despite a total lack of motor skills. He claims to have made it home without a scratch on himself or the gleaming Lamborghini. As the audience, we believe him until officers show up the next day, ready for an arrest.

If this were a tale of moral understanding and growth, more than just a fender and door would be damaged. In screenplay-land, this is the time to show us a bit of blood on the hood and imply that Belfort cost someone more than just their savings. This moral resolution does not appear; the charges of DWI are dropped without evidence.

Another car, a Mercedes with a passenger, and another great display. During Belfort’s slide further down the amoral rabbit hole, his model wife Naomi LaPaglia (Margot Robbie) challenges his life and he flips his shit. Destroying a sofa in search of his “small stash” (what I assume to be about ¼ pound of uncut cocaine), he buries his nose into the powder before snatching up his eldest child and attempting to flee the property. As expected, the car crashes, and although the child is absolutely not large enough or old enough to be in the front seat safely in an accident, no great harm is done.

As before, if this story was to have a lesson — a moral, an actual resolve beyond greed –that child would not have arrived unscathed. But like so many other things, Belfort’s life continues unruffled, no matter what he is facing.

As for the rest of the film, the side characters are by far the best. Cristin Milioti as the suffering first wife (Teresa Petrillo), has a beautiful emotional breakdown after finding DiCaprio’s Belfort cheating. A recent television sensation (she’s the mother in How I Met Your Mother), she plays the Jersey hairdresser delightfully.

Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff) is another surprising standout, as I was not really expecting much from him (Protip: To understand how I feel about Jonah, please watch 2008’s Strange Wilderness.) His meandering, pseudo-improvised diatribes are often humorous, but feel disjointed. It was great to see him jacking off at the party, smoking crack, or rip-torn on blow and pills, but the “chops” didn’t feel as genuine.

Anyone out there remember Early Edition? Crime solving with psychic newspapers? Kyle Chandler remembers, as he plays ineffectual FBI agent Patrick Denham in Wolf, making little money and an even smaller impact in the financial world. (His will-they-won’t-they bribe scene is pretty great.). Would the story be stronger if Chandler was again paired with a psychic newspaper? Maybe.

The cameos of television actors don’t end there, as Kenneth Choi (Sons of Anarchy), Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) make appearances with different ends. The addition of seasoned veterans Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Jean Dujardin rounds out the strong cast, but no one can save the film. Even the real Jordan Belfort, cleverly hidden in the end as an announcer in Auckland, cannot give enough gravitas or remorse to save it all.

Best Part: Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna. A single real scene, the introduction of drugs, a weirdly racist chest thumping, and the drive of the all-mighty dollar, McConaughey was better than the movie deserved. I wanted so much for him to return in the end, check up on Jordan, challenge him in some way, but to no avail. The chest-thumping remains, but McConaughey leaves us far too soon.

 2nd Best Part: DiCaprio’s worm flailing at the country club. Hilarious, as well as a great look at an actor not known for his physicality in roles (Gilbert Grape notwithstanding.) The fact it so delightfully mimicked his dancing at his wedding made it all the better.

Overall: In the kidnapping-car crash, Jordan receives a small wound on his forehead, and a trickle of blood is our only real indication of his pain. We see no recovery, no regret, no growth.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort bleeds, but it is never enough.

Should You See It? (Well, now rent it): Sure. I will say that I am super-duper glad I did not see this in theaters, as the debauchery of it all would have been too great, with no great Hunter S. reflection. At home, on the sofa, it’s a great watching experience. The story is surprisingly fun, once you get past all the moral ineptitude.

Stephanie Feinstein yells at her television daily, and you will never change that. You can challenge her at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.