Thursday, January 28, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Aw, Screw It

Hello, hello, hello, faithful readers! Normally I do my best to bestow full length reviews on current films, but I am so damn close to clearing my backlog that I can’t resist knocking out some of the less important, less current selections from last year with another slate of mini reviews. There’s got to be a statute of limitations on this kind of thing, right?

In the Heart of the Sea

Year: 2015
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

In the story that inspired Moby Dick, the captain and first mate of a whaling ship pursue a massive white whale that destroys the vessel, leaving the crew stranded.

As helpfully pointed out by Hunter Allen (of Kinemalogue) in the comments on my Muppet Treasure Island review, I’m a hard sell on ship movies. So right off the bat, I was disinclined to adore Ron Howard’s massively ill-advised seafaring epic In the Heart of the Sea.

But you know what I dislike even more than schooners? Movies that use the lazy framing device of an author coaxing a story out of somebody for the express purpose of reminding people that hey, they read this book in middle school, isn’t that neat? This technique can be used well, but here it’s just an excuse to slice the film’s pacing into ribbons in order to bridge plot gaps by using the “storyteller” to handily provide us with an airdrop of exposition and convenient analysis. There is literally zero reason why the Chris Hemsworth storyline couldn’t have stood alone, and the film takes on a lot of water thanks to this decision.

You know what I dislike even more than flimsy framing devices? The fact that Chris Hemsworth can apparently only get roles if they take place either centuries ago or in ultramodern yet inexplicably Medieval cultures. The man has talent, but he’s constantly shunted into stuffy roles with awful hair that clamp down on his range like an iron vise and surround him with such illustrious (read: pale) performers as… That guy from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And maybe wait until his Marvel contract is finished before you strand him on a desert island. With his scraggly beard and perfectly waxed chest, he looks more like a hipster barista than a marooned sailor.

But you know what I dislike even more than Hemsworth’s Buff, Waxed, and Stranded photo shoot? The whale! The CGI technicians do not commit to making this khaki monstrosity seem huge or white or menacing in any way, shape, or form. I’m all for cinematic realism, but would anybody be mad if the whale was a couple yards longer and bone white? If I had to hazard a guess, marine biologists are not in the primary demographic for this flick. Plus, it really doesn’t do anything impeccably beastly other than trawling around after our heroes like it’s Jaws: The Revenge and providing really obvious metaphors to conclude Our Hemsworth’s character arc.

If you don’t particularly mind any of these things, we are not on the same page and you can feel free to check out In the Heart of the Sea. But even putting those gripes aside, it’s still only a blandly functional adventure picture populated with stock characters and depicting oddly brutal animal violence. So have fun with that.

Rating: 5/10


Year: 2015
Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A teen boy moves in next door to R. L. Stine. He befriends the author’s teen daughter, then must team up with the two of them when he accidentally unleashes Stine’s creations upon the town.

Because I am nothing if not a consummate academic, I am much more familiar with the Goosebumps books than the TV show. As such, I had absolutely no nostalgia for any visual R. L. Stine property and came to the Goosebumps film unclouded by expectation. This is the best way to approach it, though I feel that all but the grumpiest among us would be hard-pressed not to have a good time.

Goosebumps might be fashionably generic (new kid in town, single mom, struggling to find place amid wacky mayhem, it’s not exactly Proust), but it enacts those typical plot beats with an energy that at least makes them feel fresh. Dylan Minnette and Amy Ryan forge an excellent mother-son relationship, and the movie’s humor and heart branches out from there. This is primarily a comedy film of course, especially when Jillain Bell (as an eccentric aunt) or Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund (as two inept cops) are on the scene, but there actually is a decent amount of juice in the horror side of things.

The monsters are all rendered with a cartoonish CGI, which in a family film isn’t actually a liability (Mama, eat your heart out), but the effects spring into high gear when they get sucked back into the books from whence they came. Their bodies begin to unravel in a tornado of ink that’s both beautifully rendered and quite gruesome. It’s Goosebumps, so it won’t turn your stomach, but it’s just raw enough to remind you that kids movies can be scary too. Anybody who has seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can attest to that.

Funny, scary, campy… Sounds like Goosebumps to me! The movie plays with a lot of classic monsters and scenarios, even conjuring up its own wicked twists. It might not be a perfect iteration of the Goosebumps mythos (sometimes the structure of a feature inhibits its ability to evoke some traditional Goosebumps storylines), but it captures the gleefully macabre atmosphere with no shortage of charm.

Oddly enough or perhaps no quite so unexpectedly, even taking into consideration the green teen talent, the weakest link is most obviously Jack Black. He hams it up like he works at a deli, and the taste of flop sweat curdles the tonal mixture a little bit. Goosebumps does exist in a heightened reality, so it makes a game attempt at assimilating his boisterous performance, but there are many moments that he tramples over by pulling faces and generally clowning around. It’s immensely frustrating, but this isn’t a movie about him. It’s about the young generation that loves Goosebumps, and for them the film is mostly a blast.

Rating: 7/10

We Are Your Friends

Year: 2015
Director: Max Joseph
Cast: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A young DJ meets an older producer, igniting a friendship that will lead to love, loss, success, failure, and eventually growing up.

We Are your Friends is not a lucky movie. If no for the box office cavalry of Jem and the Holograms, WAYF would have scored the lowest opening weekend of the entire year. Seeing how I’m obsessed with cinematic failure and Zac Efron is on my celebrity freebie list, I couldn’t rest giving the film a looksie. Boy, am I glad I did.

We Are Your Friends isn’t ever going to be unearthed as a true buried gem, but taken as the generic coming-of-age story in the modern world that it is, it couldn’t be better. It’s a mini prestige picture, hitting all the beats of larger, more successful films with just enough twists to keep it lively. My single favorite element is the editing, which a voids the temptation to turn the whole thing into an EDM music video, rather creating a slick visual rhythm that jumps off the screen with graphic and text overlaps. It’s an edgy, modern style that has certainly been seen before, most recently in The Big Short, but it’s an exciting cinematic presentation that works wonders for the film. These flashy technical moments unfortunately decrease as the movie foes on, but their presence gives WAYF a spark that never fades.

Also, honestly, the cast is pretty incredible. Wes Bentley is magnetic as a self-destructive mentor, Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal gets his Matthew McConaughey in Wolf of Wall Street moment in the sun, and Zac Efron turns in what is unequivocally the best performance of his career, one that’s tempered, at least slightly layered, and miles away form his standard dreamboat duties.

Please don’t leave this blog thinking We Are Your Friends is a life-changing motion picture, but aside from a bit of an unfocused narrative drive and a deeply generic plot structure, it really ain’t half bad. It’s messy, it’s foolhardy, occasionally deep, and plugged into some great beats; an imperfect love letter to modern youth that doesn’t talk down to them. I genuinely enjoyed this movie. That may or may not be a socially suicidal admission, but it’s the truth. Check it out!

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1468

1 comment:

  1. I still think the whale was pretty rad. Whaleboats, not so much. (And Herman Melville being in this movie, not at all.)

    Good news about Goosegumps, though, as I'm watching it sometime this coming week.