Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jem and the Holograms Zero Stars

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    "Jem and the Holograms," objectively speaking, is not only the worst film of the 2015 campaign thus far, but it is truly one of the most egregious pictures I've ever had the liberty of viewing as a critic of the art form itself. It is cheap, showy, infused with bland dialogue, and in a general sense, it is about as empty and soulless as any low-budget production from here to Timbuktu. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it contains no value whatsoever (whether it is in the realm of profundity or entertainment), hence the very poor rating.

    The film merely chronicles the rise to stardom of one Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) and her flamboyant alter ego known only as "Jem" all while shamefully force-feeding audiences one-line motifs that become so unbearable that one will need a shot of penicillin just to remain coherent. (We are repeatedly told that it is okay to be who you are, that one should choose their own destiny, and that risk becomes necessary in order to live life fruitfully, yet these are all moot points considering the imbecilic spirit of the subject matter.) As a moral implication film, it is entirely mucked, and it would seem as if our writers here lack all knowledge of the concept that is subtlety. (The picture's inspirational dialogue is so repetitive and forced that one would have to have the lowest self-esteem imaginable in order to extract any sort of value from it.)

    Let's face it, "Jem and the Holograms" is nothing more than a melodramatic propaganda piece designed to enhance and spur the popularity of a culture that is defined by its intellectually undemanding naturethat being, viral culture. The question essentially becomes this: Should we really be surprised by this outcome? For, the presence of director Jon M. Chu, a man who piloted two projects dedicated to capturing Justin Bieber's implausible rise to fame, should only hint at the film's ulterior motive. To be quite honest, "Jem" would have served well as a simple allegory highlighting the self-identity issues aligned with viral celebrity stardom, and in the harshest light, it could have been a riveting satire aimed at the ludicrousness of the industry. However, this pro-democratization of talent emphasis is downright valueless; I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but not everyone is destined for wealth and fame. Democratizing talent (which is only one of several drawbacks of the technological era) only obscures true definement of natural aptitude.  

    As for the diehard fans of the original series, what can I say? The original animated classic captured the glitz, glam, and peculiarness that was the 1980s with relative ease. This rendition of your beloved "Jem" aims to encapsulate its relative era, and the result is not only unpoetic but absolutely ignominious.

    I'm sure that most moviegoers will find little worth when it comes to "Jem and the Holograms," unless, of course, one is Matt Zoller Seitz, a contemporary of mine who compared Chu's camera work here to that of Terrence Malick and who gushed over the picture's more heartwarming moments. (The former being an outright insult to arguably the greatest American auteur to ever have lived and the latter being a slight to the entire medium. Unforgivable.) I may be coming off as a carping critic at this point; however, a line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere. Pictures of this stature are simply an embarrassment to the industry.    

Friday, October 16, 2015

Goosebumps ★★

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    As a child growing up in the 1990s, there was nothing more exciting or enjoyable than indulging in the latest installment of the "Goosebumps" seriesa collection of children's novels written by the ever reclusive R.L. Stine. These adolescent tales of terror were infused with childlike imagination, subtle humor, and, generally speaking, glorious characterizations, most of which came in the form of something covered with hair or dripping with ooze. I suppose it was just a matter of time before these unique narratives made their way onto the silver screen.

    Although the 2015 release, simply entitled "Goosebumps," does well to include the above-mentioned nuances of Stine's writing style, it merely comes off as formulaic, repetitive, and, quite frankly, it comes off as a poor example of metafiction. (The picture routinely hints at its artificiality and literariness, yet this does little in the way of providing the film with any sense of soul or depth.) I'm sure that audiences understand the fact that this is a work of fiction and calling attention to this quality, I guess in an effort to deter skepticism and to evoke what I would deem to be "cuteness," only limits the effectiveness of the material. We are even told that "Goosebumps" tales involve twists, turns, frights, and personal growth for the central protagonist; however, these attributes are not only relatively absent, but the deficiency of such things only alludes to the picture's inability to deliver on its promises.

    The storyline here centers on Zach (Dylan Minnette), an average teenage boy who suddenly finds himself in a circumstance that can only be designated as adolescent purgatory: that is, he becomes the new kid in town. This leads directly to Zach's befriending of Champ (Ryan Lee), the token geek and the only individual who is likely to make a friend of the local high school's "fresh meat." Everything seems somewhat run-of-the-mill in fictional Madison, Delaware, that is until Zach meets Hannah (Odeya Rush), the cute and rather rambunctious girl next door who likes to sneak out at night and defy her father's demands. In fact, it is the peculiar relationship between Hannah and her father that will ultimately send Zach and company on a perilous journey in which they must save the town from imminent danger. What is this impending threat? Well, considering the fact that the marketing team for "Goosebumps" clearly utilizes the conflict of the picture as a selling point, then I am sure that if you are reading this you are already aware of the complication.

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    At length, "Goosebumps" is a film that suffers mightily from a poor sense of direction and from what seems to be an even more inept writing exhibition. Director Rob Letterman ("Shark Tale,"Monsters vs. Aliens") provides nothing in the realm of spirit or verve, and this, unfortunately, leads to several unflattering transitions between fixed-framed and hand-held shots and to a tone that is comparable to that of any network television production. (The latter of which certainly not being a compliment.) As for the script, it relies heavily on stereotypical personas, chase sequences, and on a number of awkward moments infused with teenage hormonal attraction, all in an effort to evoke some hint of laughter from the audience. Is it successful? To some extent it is, yet adequate humor loses its zest once it becomes evident that the rest of the film cannot keep pace.

    What is destined to be forgotten here are the three performances provided by an extremely youthful cast. Minnette, Lee, and Rush each had one notable acting credit coming into this production, and although none of them were particularly dreadful, I would be surprised if this showcasing led to anything other than mediocre work. (I'm afraid that Rush's role here may inevitably lead to the typecasting trap as she is too young to engage in parts brimming with maturity and as her likeness to actress Mila Kunis may become problematic over time.) With all of that being said, however, it may just be an incompetent release date that ultimately does "Goosebumps" in; for, the film only has two weeks to make its mark before Halloween comes and goes. Luckily, for most audiences, Halloween will pass by quickly enough, and the memory of "Goosebumps" will fade into obscurity where it belongs.                           

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Walk ★★★1/2

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    In all honesty, the success of "The Walk," a film that cinematically treats Phillipe Petit's death-defying wire walk, hinges entirely on the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For, any role that requires an actor or actress to speak in a foreign tongue or accent for the duration of the film would surely be designated as difficult, and, to be frank, it should naturally be seen as being of the utmost importance, structurally speaking. (Levitt's venture at a French-American accent is the most pertinent aspect of the equation in this particular instance.)

    And Levitt's portrayal of this young and charismatic Frenchman never disappoints. He is charming, undoubtedly authentic, and he excels--not only in terms of his execution of dialogue--but in his ability to transfix audiences. Of course, much of the latter certainly has more to do with the atmosphere of the moment than any one particular performance (this being in regard to a number of scenes dominated by a tension-filled ambiance); nevertheless, Levitt does hold his own on more than one occasion. As a matter of fact, I've never seen Levitt more comfortable in a portrayal; I guess this is a pleasant ramification of the rather ambitious and dream chasing-centered subject matter, which would make it quite effortless for any actor to evoke the technique of method acting. (You know, because they once dreamed of becoming an actor, and it would undoubtedly give them a chance to rekindle that same previously held sense of ambition on the grandest and most respected of all stages.)

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    What Robert Zemeckis has essentially done here is craft a picture that is as moving as it is witty in both tone and personality. Having descended from the Speilberg camp of filmmaking, Zemeckis has provided audiences with a plethora of lovable personas over the last few decades, from the zany Dr. Emmett Brown to such memorable dispositions as Forrest Gump. And yet, there's something downright compelling about the character of Phillipe Petit--a man whose sole aspiration would come to be synonymous with the term death wish in the minds of most sane, rational human beings. Is it because Petit's story actually took place? Perhaps, however, there is no question that Zemeckis aided in this appeal. His execution is flawless as far as on-screen composition is concerned (the director utilizes black and white color photography to perfectly accentuate an endearing exposition, all while never passing up the opportunity to instill a sense of soft lighting in an effort to capitalize on a sensual moment), and the source material really allows Zemeckis to do what he does best: that is, tell a story.

    "The Walk" functions very much like a fairy tale as it follows the events of Petit's early adult life and the key moments leading up to what becomes a climactic display of art and vertigo. (The former of that latter statement being a reference to the actual act of walking the wire, which, let's face it, may just be the most dangerous and beautiful art form to ever exist.) It is a picture that is immersed in human emotion and interest, and, well, it is simply a film built for the IMAX platform. Once Petit (Levitt) steps foot on that wire, prepare to be whisked away to a world filled with wonder and queasiness.                                
    One of my favorite moments in "The Walk" merely involves a chance meeting between Petit and Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), a bilingual French musician who catches the eye of our leading man. After a minor squabble resulting from what seems to be an infringement on Annie's artistic territory, we are presented with a look of outward regard from Levitt and a subsequent eye-line shot that focuses on a fleeing Annie. This scene is accompanied masterfully by a poignant score fashioned by Alan Silvestri, a regular when it comes to the films of Bob Zemeckis. And it is scenes of this nature that evoke the greatest of all cinematic ingredients: Nostalgia. In fact, as a film critic, there is nothing more enjoyable and satisfying than stumbling upon scenes of this stature. It fuels my interest in the medium, and, I think, it makes for good film. There simply need to be more pictures like "The Walk" in Hollywood.          

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Martian ★★★

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    Andy Weir, author of the novel turned box-office smash entitled "The Martian," must be on cloud nine if only for two reasons: First off, it was highly unlikely that this narrative, which was originally published as a mere blog post, would ever be recognized in the national book publishing market--yet it was--and its development into a major motion picture would have any aspiring author residing in a state of complete enjoyment. (This is even if several plot changes have occurred as well as the inevitable time and event compression that takes place when novels are translated to pictures.) Additionally, to have a renown auteur at the helm of the project would surely be a dream come true for any novelist. Although "The Martian" has its shortcomings, it is brilliantly shot (or "built" if you believe in Russian filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin's philosophy of filmmaking), and it brims with a strong sense of professionalism that only a director such as Ridley Scott can produce.

    Now, the story is easy enough to grasp, and it simply involves a sole astronaut/botanist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and his journey to safety after being left for dead on a manned mission to Mars. Well, at least, that it is the case until the political and public relations dealings of NASA come to the forefront, which, interestingly enough, leads to the use of several unflattering techniques such as time stamps and on-screen character introductions to spur the plot further; if there is any prominent flaw here it must be the fact that Damon is reduced in screen time in order to flesh out the workings of these other, rather tiresome aspects. (I must admit that I have much experience in the field of public relations, and to characterize the profession as insipid would undoubtedly be a utilization of the euphemism on my part.) Watney ultimately has to deal with complications stemming from Mars' habitat and equipment malfunctions, as well as what seems to be a conflict created entirely by circumstance, in what eventually becomes a showcase for the complexity that surrounds human relationships and a man's struggle for survival. Of course, these are only two of what seems to be a number of themes that make their way into the margins of the material.

    Matt Damon stars as the title character (remember our aforementioned astronaut and botany expert), and he carries the film in the same manner that has defined his celebrated career: with charisma and a force of personality. What makes Damon so unforgettable in this role is his lovableness, for lack of a better term; his ability to grasp a darkened room filled with complete strangers and have them all collectively rooting for his success. Does Damon have the most prestigious résumé in Hollywood? Does he come to resemble great names such as Nicholson, Newman, or Hoffman? Arguably not, but his commitment to certain moments here, which are undeniably infused with human emotion, epitomizes his ability to become that actor of impersonation. To accomplish something that few actors and actresses have touched in a lifetime: that being, essentially, the re-creation of humanity; the construction of a fictional human being in the body of a living individual.

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    I am quite aware of the fact that Damon has mostly been known as an actor of interpretation, as he rarely changes his physical appearance, and as the depth of some of his previous roles has lacked; however, he comes extremely close in "The Martian" to obtaining this rare and dignified feat. (Fortunately, Scott had the actor film for five weeks solitarily, which assuredly helped the act of getting into character, yet when it came to making that outer transformation--for scenes where Watney suffers from malnourishment--Damon was denied the opportunity. In regard to the actor's health, maybe it was for the best.) Although it is true that Damon could accomplish this without the aid of physical alteration, much like the previously named silver screen legends who never indulged in such techniques, because of the structure of the film, he was never really given the chance. (This harkens back to the running minutes where NASA's daily affairs supersede our involvement with the most integral component to the piece.)

    With all of that being said, however, my biggest concern with this film is its inability to make coherent casting decisions. For example, both Damon and Jessica Chastain were memorable in their roles from last year's space epic entitled "Interstellar"  (a picture that I find to be more profound and clearly more poignant in form) and, although Damon is charming enough to help us buy into that suspension of disbelief, Chastain cannot escape her previous performance. Scene after scene featuring Chastain plods along with little to no viability, as her face and temperament only remind us of Interstellar's more heartwarming moments. (I understand that Cate Blanchett may have been given the role if not for other engagements, yet it couldn't have been that hard to find another supporting actress without the burden of memorability. Or, maybe it just alludes to the ever diminishing pool of professional actresses worthy of employment.) Nevertheless, the rest of the ensemble cast (outside of Chiwetel Ejiofor) give uninspiring performances, and this includes Jeff Daniels, who sticks out as a sore thumb in his portrayal of NASA's director of operations, and Kate Mara, who I'm sure was just pulled from a nearby 20th Century Fox Studio (considering they were also in charge of this year's unimaginative production entitled "Fantastic Four," which may have been filming at the same time) in an effort to save time and general exertion.

    Moreover, it is ultimately the predictable nature and dramatic structure of the film that prohibits it from reaching elite status. As far as predictability is concerned, let us be frank: Although there is some doubt as to the outcome of Watney's journey while "in the moment," it is evident that heartbreak is the least of the picture's intentions. What's more is the fact that "The Martian" plainly warrants comparison to films such as "Cast Away" and "I Am Legend," where confinement shapes character, yet Watney is never really alone (he has the ability to communicate with others back at NASA), and his survival doesn't wholly depend on his actions. Other, less interesting characters, are responsible for such happenings, and this, unfortunately, throws off the dynamic of the drama and curtails a theme involving man's psyche in survival situations.

    This is certainly a different type of film for Ridley Scott, a director who is no stranger to the genre of science fiction. Of course, it does take place on the surface of a foreign planet, which lingers in the stillness of space, and it definitely consists of an innumerable amount of dialogue featuring technical jargon (most of which would confuse even the acutest of scientific minds), yet, unlike his previous science fiction indulgences ("Blade Runner," "Alien," Prometheus"), it doesn't rely on mood and atmosphere to intrigue. Sure, there is a gut-wrenching and rather excruciating scene where Watney must pull out a piece of debris from his midsection--a staple of Scott's films--and sure there is a handful of moments where Scott executes directorial technique with supreme professionalism, but it doesn't have the same effect. (With regard to the latter, Scott utilizes the indirect/subjective viewpoint early on in a brilliant fashion to increase involvement and to set the tone; high camera angles are used in an effort to convey Watney's insignificance on Mars' surface; gyroscopic, mobile shots and fixed frame pan and scans efficiently exhibit the terrain of our setting; he even integrates the GoPro Hero 4 adequately, as it is used for the "suit cam" and to record Watney's journal entries.)

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    There is even a moment where Kate Mara's character begins to utter the famous tagline for "Alien," (you know, "In space no one can hear you scream") which only adds to the yearning for that spine-chilling ambiance. Yet, I assume Scott's motivation to make this picture hinged on his desire to provide audiences with a human interest tale, which highlights man's innate capacity and pining to help others, which is admirable as it is bold when considering an audience's incapacity to sit through a film void of over-the-top special effects and vacuous action.                    

    If anything, "The Martian" can be seen as certain proof of the digital camera's ability to shoot a beautiful film. (In fact, it not only captures the picturesque landscape of the Jordan red desert where it was filmed in a remarkable fashion, but it bestows the exterior scenes with a sort of warm look and feel, and it gives the interior shots a cool visual attractiveness to counter the former.) Now, these attributes may have more to do with color palettes and camera filters than the actual effectiveness of the camera, yet one cannot deny its capabilities when it comes to producing a sublime work of art. Naturally, this is not to say that I am an advocate for digital filmmaking, as the raw material of celluloid film will always be my preferred choice of medium; however, I do believe that digital cameras are now efficient enough to warrant a pre-production discussion from the picture's design team. One must remember that when color was first introduced to the art of film, not every picture indulged in such luxuries. In general, each project dictated what form to use. It would seem as if "The Martian" required the use of this promising, yet fickle technology.

    *On a side note, it has come to my attention that "The Martian" has picked up a nomination from the Golden Globes for Best Picture in the category of Comedy or Musical. Have they lost the faculty of mind to distinguish between genres? Sure, there are a plethora of scenes where humor fuels the moment (most notably where Watney spouts lines such as, "In your face Neil Armstrong," and other lines of dialogue infused with profanity that I dare not produce here), yet this is obviously a film of drama with comedic elements; it is a picture built on its climax and the instances that lead up to such events. I mean, even "Schindler's List" has some humorous situations. I predict this to be a ploy of the Golden Globes in an effort to give two dramatic films nods for Best Picture, as the field for comedy this year has been somewhat forgettable. If this is true, then it is quite improbable that such methods will continue to mask the hole created by the comedy genre's helplessness when it comes to producing an exemplary product. I guess only time will tell whether or not my assertion is correct.          

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Iron Giant ★★★★

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    "The Iron Giant" is one of those rare films that seems to emit a sense of mysteriousness. I guess this stems from the fact that its initial run at the box-office was less than lucrative (a ramification of what can now be deemed a horrific and somewhat inept marketing campaign by Warner Brothers), and, perhaps, audiences were just not interested in seeing another poorly executed animated production without the accompanying name of Walt Disney. Yet, the film has outlived its original lack of success--which explains why I'm reviewing it some sixteen years later as a redefined 2015 theatrical release--by what seems to be sheer defiance. Although, I'm sure that our main protagonist, a towering iron man with a heart of gold, has something to do with the picture's appeal.  

    To be perfectly honest, there's nothing relatively new or innovative about "The Iron Giant," which simply chronicles the relationship between a young boy, Hogarth, and a peculiar robot from outer space, and yet, it unquestionably lures us in for several reasons: The Cold War setting in a small American town, where gossip spreads like wildfire, is quite the quintessential backdrop for the conveyance of a theme that comments on humanity's scathing attitude when it comes to anything they do not understand; the enjoyable characterizations, some of which are undeniably clichéd and stereotypical to a fault (this is in regard to the bumbling and cynical government official, who essentially becomes our sole antagonist, and to Hogarth's mother, a widow), bring a sense of realism and amusement to the film's structure; lastly, the presence of hand-drawn animation, a lost art form that I will discuss at some length shortly, gives the picture a muted, yet spirited appearance, which is accentuated beautifully by the hues of autumn. (I always have and always will be a sucker for such expressions of color.)

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    However, it is the picture's similarity to the timeless Spielberg classic entitled "E.T." and its faithfulness to the children's novel in which it was based that makes it a masterpiece. The parallel between "The Iron Giant" and "E.T." cannot be overlooked, nor should it be ignored. For, both stories center on the relations between an extraterrestrial being and a young adolescent male, and both rely heavily on discovery, fear of loss, and subjects such as death and sadness in an effort to bring these two disparate beings together. And what makes this formula so successful one may ask. Well, it's because it is involving; it hinges on moments fueled by this air of innocence and by childlike intrigue. As Hogarth teaches the Iron Giant these inevitable aspects of life, it is as if we are learning them for the first time as well. I've always been an advocate of the notion that if you are going to borrow some formula or technique from a compeer, then take from the best. I'd prefer an unoriginal product (which "The Iron Giant" surely is not) with a Spielberg dynamic over an original, yet tedious piece any day.

    As an English major, I dare not go without mentioning the work in which this picture is actually based, and that would be the 1968 novel entitled "The Iron Man" written by Ted Hughes--an individual who should be admired and respected for his achievements, which includes a stint as the Poet Laureate of England, and a man who should also be viewed under a lens of skepticism, as his role in the death of Sylvia Plath has never truly been unearthed. (Now, I'm not convicting anyone here, I'm just simply stating that sometimes actions, and, more specifically, infidelity, can have damaging effects on already troubled minds.) Hughes' short, yet riveting children's book touches base on several topics, including a criticism of warfare and inter-human conflict. And, generally speaking, "The Iron Giant" also indulges in such matters, as a blatant anti-gun message permeates the film, and as our ironclad hero must essentially save mankind from his own stupidity. Still, it is a concluding motif aimed at youngsters, who are surely the film's target audience, that truly steals the show. We are told that one can choose to be who they desire, which, in my opinion, has always been an important message for the young men and women of this nation. 

    Much has changed in the world of animation just in the last ten years, and Brad Bird's recorded introduction, which preceded this viewing, alludes to the unfortunate death of hand-drawn animated projects. (Although seemingly a moot point, considering computer graphic imaging was utilized in order to bring the "Iron Giant" to life, it is worthy of discussion.) I will not sit here and condemn CGI inspired pictures, and I will surely not denounce the wonderful sight that is "Toy Story," which arguably changed animation forever. Nevertheless, I believe that hand-drawn work was superseded when, justifiably, there was little reason for change. It is a medium that appears to be more natural, organic, and, quite frankly, more human. I think it would be wise to rediscover this lost art form, but I'm afraid this may be an improbable notion when faced with an ever-evolving technological age.