X-Men: High Class: Kingsman Review

“Why… so… serious?”

In the role that, in case you’ve forgotten, won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar just as the two defining film genres of our age – the superhero film and the gritty action reboot – were peaking in popularity, Ledger menacingly snarled out the question that may as well be an inquisition into our entire cinematic disposition circa 2015. We are just now waking up from the collective psychosis that led to a Spider-Man reboot so dark and gritty that the Spidey suit, in hopes of being more realistic, looked like a regulation basketball. The Oscars expanded the nominee pool partly in hopes of including a well-made blockbuster like The Dark Knight; did we really think the only reason Nolan’s film got that honor was because of its straight-facedness? Something about the complete and total embrace of The Dark Knight’s ambiguous and nihilistic virtues mixed with our morbid fascination surrounding the details of the death of its breakout star led us down this road of brooding – even each Iron Man film has gotten progressively darker, drowning out the winking charm of Robert Downey Jr.

Also: Superman snapped a dude’s neck! Then fell to his knees sobbing… It’s been a strange few years.

Along the way, one director was off to the side, giggling at the grandstanding. In 2010, he adapted Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, in which a little girl – essentially Batman’s daughter – is a cussin’-and-killin’ machine. It could have been a meditation on society, but it was really just supposed to be a rollicking good time at the expense of superhero overseriousness. In 2011, he revitalized the flagging X-Men franchise after Brett Ratner had killed off half its characters and a spinoff film had introduced a mute Deadpool (of all things). How did he do it? By reintroducing bright colors, kicky montages, and campy villains. He had Kevin Bacon monologue in German to open his movie! He pulled unexpected pathos out of a globetrotting vigilante Magneto, but he also appreciated that he had locked up-and-comer Michael Fassbender into a role where his character could pull a man’s gold tooth out with his mind! In doing this, he might have saved more than the X-Men; he might have saved us.

That Magneto-as-Bond section was a pretty neat warmup for director Matthew Vaughn’s next trick – a movie that blends the best parts of his emerging superhero aesthetic with the iconography of the spy film. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a serious film about the difference between the rigid class system and the actuality of “having class.” It is also, while not undermining that nuanced rumination, occasionally klassy with a K – it is unabashedly laddish, ending with a scene in which an older man catches the beginning of a younger man’s adventures in anal sex, thanks to spy glasses. (Okay that particular shot of a Swedish princess’s derriere as it prepares for entry might actually undermine some of the film’s classiness.)

What it is most of all, though, is kinetic with a K. It is a perpetual motion machine of nifty ideas stuffed into a colorful package. It is unafraid to be garish, camp, or silly. It wants to make you laugh and think and gasp and shudder, and, just about every step of the way, you follow its orders. Why not give into it? It feels like one of the first live action movies in a long time that just wants you, its viewer, to have fun.

It helps that Vaughn is a visual stylist par excellence, with a particular eye for the beauty of violence. He had to tamp that side of his filmmaking down for the all-ages X-Men: First Class, but he gets to unleash that id all over again in Kingsman, particularly in one church brawl that filmmakers will be swiping ideas from for years to come. His bursts of action aren’t choppily edited brawls. They don’t suddenly revert to slow motion (Snyder…) to let you consider the consequence of every punch for seconds on end. They are ballets – both literally in the case of an exploding head symphony, and figuratively, as in the film’s bravura centerpiece, where Colin Firth and his stunt-doubles move gracefully from bigot to bigot as a mass murder in a Westboro Baptist Church analog unfolds to the rousing breakdown of “Free Bird.” Their timing is everything. It’s musical.

The next scene is an even better encapsulation of Vaughn’s aesthetic. It is cheeky, referential to the very Bond films it apes, even satirical; but in doing this it never abandons the consequences one would expect from a real plot featuring real characters. Kingsman may be a pastiche, but it’s no Scary Movie. This is a satire with heart and gravitas. Sometimes it evokes less the granular ribbing of a parody film that aims its sight at recent film trends; Kingsman is smacking massive human foibles with a sledgehammer, Dr. Strangelove-style.

So critical to the film’s success is the wicked topicality of its villain’s evil scheme. If trailers led you to believe that Samuel L. Jackson’s heel turn was all lisping and no substance, the scenes in which he and Firth verbally spar will be a quick corrective. Jackson is actually in fine form, and he knows precisely what he’s doing palling around with a sword-legged henchwoman named Gazelle (how long has it been since we got fun henchmen?). He plays his tech billionaire gone bad as affable and completely convinced of his own righteousness. His plan is to lock away the one percent in a safe location while he forces the rabble outside to bludgeon each other to death until the 99% becomes a figure that is drastically lower. It’s insane, but also a bit beguiling; he sees, not incorrectly, stasis and he has the means to move the needle. He sees it in the government and he sees it in the people fighting back. He has found a way to do something about it, and to the people he promises to spare, he can be very persuasive. As he prepares to kick his plan into high gear, he tells the people at his one percenter sioree to buck up and start having some fun, they’re not the villains here. When Noah spared a chosen few from the onslaught, he wasn’t the villain after all, right?

The only group willing to stop him are the extraordinary secret spy agency, the Kingsmen, who happen to be going through a recruiting process. As the class issues are writ large in Jackson’s genocidal scheme, they are intimately explored through Taron Egerton’s aspiring Kingsman Eggsy, who is attempting to overcome preconceived notions his fellow recruits have about him based on his station. Egerton’s is a star-making turn, with warmth and charm and just enough of an upturned eyebrow to guide us through the delightful world of the Kingsmen. The world he is attempting to enter is wonderfully realized, and this is where it would be prudent to mention that Kingsman, like Kick-Ass, is adapted from a Matthew Vaughn comic, The Secret Service. Much has been changed from the comic, and the film imagines most of what makes the world of the Kingsmen feel so delightfully lived-in and imaginative. The Kingsman were the world’s finest tailors who banded together their immense wealth to start saving the world, forming an independent spy agency modeled after King Arthur’s Round Table. Their Lancelot has just passed away, and a group of young faces are brought in to try out for the role. Only one can be fitted for the bulletproof bespoke suit and thick glasses with computer chips inside that serve as the Kingsman’s armor.

Eggsy (who is a superhero level parkour master apparently because he was an Olympic level gymnast in his youth) is Hart’s choice, and the bond they form once Eggsy realizes that this posh, older man can see beyond his circumstances, his clothes, his accent, all the markers of class, is a touching one. While Hart works to soften a class-conscious Arthur (Michael Caine, who totally would have played Eggsy fifty years ago), Eggsy is bullied bellicosely by the tight-knit group of Oxford and Cambridge men for not belonging. Eggsy finds acceptance from the recruits’ taskmaster Merlin (one strong scene sees Merlin prove Eggsy’s assumptions about his prejudices wrong) and a Hermione Granger-like striver named Roxy. Hearteningly, Roxy is presented as equal to Eggsy in every way, and as far superior to all the boys that look the part of suave British spy, like the entitled Charlie. In the end, Roxy even wins the role of Lancelot, though she is at that point shoved off to the B-Plot while Merlin and Eggsy do the heavy-lifting. I’d hoped that Eggsy and Roxy would fall in love so that Roxy could stick around and show some close-combat bona fides, and I was extremely disheartened when a captive Swedish princess promised Eggsy they could “do it in the asshole” if he saves the world. It seemed like he was spurning a woman presented as his equal for a quick roll in the hay with a woman who is there to serve solely as his sexual object. The friend with whom I watched Kingsman offered a counterargument: that the film didn’t go the obvious route and make Eggsy’s romantic feelings Roxy’s ultimate validation, instead letting her competence stand on its own. I’ll buy that half-heartedly, but still wonder if indulging the worst parts of the Bond mythos (okay, the race stuff is the worst part, but the womanizing runs a close second) as the closing notes to Vaughn’s symphony struck some sudden discord that might just set Kingsman back.

Still, I struggle to fault Vaughn for indulging one last time in what makes most of Kingsman such a delight: its audacity and verve. It is bright, kooky, and a little kinky, a campy superhero film in everything but costume, It elects to clothe its Avengers in the finer wear rather than tights. In its quest for populism, it makes an Iggy Azalea reference that will do it no favors fifty years from now, but I hope it will be fondly remembered by then as an all-around fun movie that tackled some legitimately serious things like class and global warming, a turning point when “Why so serious?” turned from a desperate inquisition to the filmmaker about why they elected for that all-grey color palate again into a good-old fashioned jibe at the expense of over-brooding.

Nautical Nonsense: SpongeBob Review (C)

You can’t say SpongeBob SquarePants doesn’t keep promises.

The square sponge himself has always been honest to a fault –he’s like a helium voiced George Washington, incapable in Sponge Out Of Water of telling a lie, even if that lie could finally bury his arch-nemesis, the dastardly Plankton. His creators are just as honest. For sixteen years (as long as Jon Stewart has hosted the Daily Show), their theme song has promised children, stoners, nostalgists, and admirers of absurdist non-sequiters alike that “nautical nonsense” is on the horizon.

For the majority of SpongeBob’s eleven minute adventures, that nonsense has been confined to the undersea hamlet of Bikini Bottom, but – as a title like Sponge Out Of Water would seem to promise – that nonsense washes up on land in this second feature length interpretation of a Nickelodeon show that, yes, is still on. A seaside beach town and the entirety of acclaimed actor Antonio Banderas are completely overtaken by a nonsense tidal wave.

The inanity is nowhere near as palatable as it has been in the past. I am from a generation for whom the question “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” is a profound inquiry; I can handle my fair share of Bikini Bottom inanity. Here, in bits and pieces, it is inspired. One pun about condiments utilized as weapons really lands (“With relish!”). A trip into SpongeBob’s brain is a joyous nightmare. The transformation of hyper-intelligent squirrel Sandy Cheeks into a tattered conspiracy theorist is resoundingly enjoyable. Individual zingers do reliably hit their mark. But can a SpongeBob story hold together as a film experience? Two overstretched boondoggles that try to raise the usually impossibly low stakes of SpongeBob’s world – a world where, if the Krusty Krab wall is blown to smithereens one minute, it can be standing again the next – say no.

It was once thought that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – the first film ever to try stretching a character’s animated adventures from a tolerable ten minutes to a near-insane eighty minutes – would be the mighty Walt Disney’s great folly. This thought was obviously, in an ironic twist, quite a bit of folly all on its own, but it stemmed from an honest concern. The characters that ruled the roost when that waifish fairy tale princess changed the game forever never really HAVE had a feature length display worthy of their legendary shorts, have they? The Looney Tunes? Mickey Mouse and his ToonTown compatriots? Popeye, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop? These characters that seem so vital in short bursts come across disjointed when confronted by the bloat of a full run time. You need to staple them to a preexisting skeleton like “A Christmas Carol.” You need to prop them up with live action celebrities like Michael Jordan and Brendan Fraser. These characters live and die by their brevity, and, exposed to sunlight for more than a short cartoon at a time, they just die. If Mickey Mouse (the dashing Mickey of the 30s) and Bugs Bunny – gods of animation anarchy – have never been able to find a vessel that could carry them to the surface, why would SpongeBob?

That’s not a shot at SpongeBob’s inferiority. That’s a proud equivalency. In a way, he and they are one in the same. We were not so far from our animation roots in long ago 1999, when SpongeBob was created; in many ways, a show like SpongeBob is not so different from the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes of days long gone. They belong to a family tree distinct from the majestic oak that sprung from Snow White, with its gimlet eyed princesses, wounded orphans, and strivers pushing back against menacing villains forming the branches that have supported the animated feature for nearly eighty years. It’s always a bit of a shock when an animated film like The Emperor’s New Groove or An American Tail seems to be plucking fruit from the Looney Tree instead. Television – Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel – became the home for the eleven minute burst of comic energy.

Steven Hillenberg and team have created some absolutely transcendent explosions of antic energy. Just about half the segments in their first season went a long way toward defining the comic sensibility of a generation (notably, “Band Geeks” didn’t even come around until Season 2). While the humor can occasionally verge on sophomoric or gross, it is always tinged with sweetness and optimism, thanks, of course, to the lead character. Has there ever been a character more optimistic than SpongeBob SquarePants? SpongeBob is a chortling innocent, free from malice, wanting always to do a good job, but tugged down by forces that go against everything he believes – forces like greed and sloth and joylessness. Except for the malice, which young Mickey had in spades, he’s a lot like the Mouse if he’d never grown up to become the Disney company’s beguiling father figure.

The rub: SpongeBob never changes – he’s always fighting that fight for a promotion at the Krusty Krab. Bugs Bunny also never changes. Mickey did change, and it robbed him of his urgency. Look around the cast of characters in Bikini Bottom. They are as they were in 1999 – Plankton as malicious, Krabs as greedy, Patrick as stoopid, Squidward as annoyed – and, y’know, as we plunge in for a short visit on Nickelodeon, that is exactly how we expect it to be. But when we go to the theater for 92 minutes…

Look I don’t want to be that guy who says uniformly that movies SHOULD have anything in order to be good, even if it’s something so elemental as character growth. Plenty of movies circumvent this desire we have when we see a film: the desire to see relationships transform over the duration of the runtime, to end up somewhere other than the place where we started. But surpassing that desire takes a level of artifice that this series of gags lacks. SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out Of Water just doesn’t hold together as a viewing experience.

It begins and ends with Burger-Beard the Pirate and the seagulls that follow him around. Antonio Banderas is giving his live-action role here all he’s got in his own gonzo way, but looking at him buried behind a scraggly beard, I think of the sharpness in his eyes as he played Galgo, the best character in the arthritic Expendables 3. It pales in comparison. There’s no vitality in his work as he threatens awful-looking CGI birds who never once do anything funny enough to earn them all the screentime they get.

What is Burger-Beard doing anyway? He’s going to an island to retrieve a magic storybook? Where did this book about Bikini Bottom come from? Why is it guarded by a cursed skeleton? And from where did Burger Beard even hear about the famed Krabby Patty? This isn’t the kind of movie that cares, but because of that, all of this is is one long lead up to a “food truck” joke. Are food trucks really that funny?

Burger-Beard has used a magic book to rewrite the story of Bikini Bottom and steal the secret recipe to the beloved Krabby Patty, much to the chagrin of his avian audience. In Bikini Bottom, the denizens spend 2/3 of the movie completely unaware of his involvement, blaming the natural suspect, Plankton, for their sudden post-apocalyptic leather fetish instead. SpongeBob, the only man brave enough to stand up for the accused, is thrown in as a co-conspirator, and the main chunk of the movie is spent following this odd couple as they try to avoid capture and prove their innocence. This involves a good deal of time travel, and if this segment were an episode of the show, it would be perfectly serviceable. Some hits, some misses, not close to on par with most of Season 1’s segments. Plankton learns the meaning of teamwork (it takes him the whole movie to learn how to pronounce the word, which is the closest thing to character growth we see), but he abandons SpongeBob just as Mr. Krabs is about to sacrifice his fry cook to satisfy the burger gods.

The SpongeBob universe now has a time machine and a squid dinosaur, but the writers can’t find any utility for these devices in their quest to somehow tie Burger-Beard in with the larger narrative, so you know what they do? They have the characters smell the Krabby Patty. They pick up the scent… At the most convenient moment…

This would qualify as the biggest dues ex machina in the story if the film didn’t posit that the characters can breathe on land because Uatu the Dolphin was so grateful that SpongeBob got him out of a bad job by destroying Saturn and Jupiter that he cast a magic spell right when the characters needed him.

What is the point of any of this? Well, once we get to land, that seems obvious. The point was to contrive some sort of live-action/CGI scenario that would allow the producers to blow money on the 3-D build treatment that has beensooooooo popular in films such as The Smurfs and Yogi Bear. This is the Out Of Water portion of the film that made up ALL of the marketing, and it would be alarming how little of the film it actually took up if it weren’t actually a relief – thank goodness most of the film sticks to the classic animation style of the TV series.

It is at this point that SpongeBob’s two most reliably funny sidekicks, his neighbors Patrick and Squidward, finally get something mildly substantial to do joke-wise, but it’s all drowned out by a superhero film climax that is actually too scattered to even be any sort of satire of how scattered superhero film climaxes are. The whole enterprise wraps up with a heartfelt moment for Plankton who, with his long-coveted recipe in hand, fully embraces teamwork (even saying it correctly) and hands the recipe over to Mr. Krabs.

That sounds like character growth right? So why do I have such a big thorn in my toe with this movie? Because, the next minute, Plankton is up to his old tricks again in Bikini Bottom. “Why?” he is asked (both by the characters in the film, and by me, aloud, in the theater). His answer boils down to, well, because it’s what the audience expects. This is the perfect “Ain’t I a stinker?” capper to an eleven minute cartoon, and an absolute vacuum of an ending for a feature film. Essentially, it’s an admission that none of this matters; Planton can’t be good because the still-thriving television series needs Plankton to be bad. The whole film ends where the next episode would begin – with the opening theme. It’s fitting for a film this pointlessly circuitous. That the theme is introduced by a movie star and has an interlude featuring a space dolphin and talking seagulls performing a rap battle written by the Epic Rap Battles of History guys speaks to this film’s lack of confidence in its own inspired and durable creations. These rando charactes’ interpretation of the cheery sea shanty promises “nautical nonsense” and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten: a 92 minute string of gags that, put together, make… no… sense…

I know, it’s a picky gripe if you are a large enough fan of SpongeBob’s humor to want to see it puffed out to extremes like… well… like Mrs. Puff. This film has really found the film critic community in a generous mood, and I think if I’d found new creations like Bubbles the Dolphin and Burger-Beard as inspired as they do, I might have enjoyed it too. But, keep this in mind – there was never any rule written that decreed: Shorts and television cartoons are the little leagues; Feature length films are the big leagues.

SpongeBob does not need to be called up to the bigs every ten years to be validated. Nickelodeon segments are his big leagues. If the feature-length format doesn’t suit him, we do not need to keep forcing the issue. We can, in fact, keep the Sponge in the Water.

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 1

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta?

This is part one of a three-part series on V for Vendetta and its Wachowski-produced film adaptation.

We’ve all heard it a million—nay, millions—of times before: The novel was better than the movie! They totally ruined it! It just didn’t seem necessary to dumb the story down so much!

But really. Do we really think that. Or do we think that because that’s what we’re expected to think? Are we just acting on our programming?

V for Vendetta is a comic, one of the all-time greats, that was published serially from 1982 to 1989 and was collected later in graphic novel form. Alan Moore wrote and David Lloyd drew, and in 2006 the Wachowskis wrote and produced a movie adaptation which Moore the comics godhead famously declined to participate in because he believed adaptations of his work up to that point had all been failures.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t likely already know. V for Vendetta stands at one of the most well-traveled and fertile crossroads of our modern Anglo-American zeitgeist: where superhero comics (Superheroes! So hot right now), comic book movie adaptations, sci-fi dystopias, and political commentaries intersect1. If you haven’t seen the Guy Fawkes mask… no, actually, you have seen it. You just might not recognize the name, because, at this point, Guy Fawkes, the named person, is the least important element of the whole enterprise.

But that confluence of fortunate elements is only why we’re talking about the porcelain mask, why it looms, ever-smiling, over popular culture. But what does it mean? For that, we need to do some reading.

A Bastard’s Carnival

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore
There’s sing-songs and surprises!
There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!
There’s mischiefs and malarkies
But no queers or yids or darkies
Within this bastard’s carnival—
This Vicious Cabaret!

I’ll go ahead and say something up-front about V for Vendetta, the graphic novel. It is pulpy. I’m not talking about paper composition; I’m talking about literary composition. I’m talking about genre. But it can be hard to say what that genre, pulp, really is. Critics tend to offer the history of the term as an ink cloud to obscure the fact that they would rather not explore the issue. I suspect it’s because many aren’t confident they really understand what it means to be pulp and what it has to offer. So allow me to attempt to clear it up, or die trying:

  1. Adj. Pejorative: trashy, superficial, exploitative, sensational. Among the (many) things that Serious Literary Types/Real Grown Ups insist are beneath them.
  2. Adj. Affectionate: sensational, lurid, crass, brutal, over-the-top, crude, unabashed.

Two definitions! Because, of course, the term was born of a certain disdain but has since been co-opted by those of us who remain unashamed of our oh-so-plebeian tastes. Anyway: you might think the second doesn’t sound terribly affectionate. I assure you it is.

Topic sentence: V for Vendetta is a dystopian political commentary structured as a pulp serial that unapologetically observes the conventions of the genre, embracing the aspects that foster that affection, which is one of its greatest strengths. This is something that Moore and Lloyd tell us in the very first chapter of the novel. The two main characters, Evey and V, are introduced on the first page, Evey layering on makeup and slipping on a revealing dress in her bedroom, V donning his mask and his wig in a hidden parlor surrounded by bookcases and rousing movie posters. Evey attempts to prostitute herself to a cop, who calls his boys over to join in on the rape before the murder. V quotes Macbeth, literally swoops in, and saves her with tear gas and explosives.

The pulp is strong in the sexual bluntness, the in-your-face parallelism, and the classic dashing heroics. That strength, the sheer volume of this pulp, doesn’t let up for the rest of the book. One of Alan Moore’s favorite conceits (seen a few times in V and several times again in Watchmen) is to juxtapose speech with action: for example, the bishop Anthony Lilliman gives a sermon about “that wrath which did rain fire from the heavens,” the text of which is overlaid on an illustration of V falling upon the guards out front of Westminster Abbey. The reason I call attention to this particular device is that it’s a helluva blunt instrument. It’s a device that is immediately and extremely obvious to the audience, and a ten-year-old with minimal familiarity with composition could probably explain how and why the author/playwright/director employed it.

But we need only embrace the bluntness of the pulp to discover that not only does it successfully convey the obvious message, it also forms part of the novel’s rich thematic texture. To see how, reword what I said before about this particular device: instead of “juxtaposition” and “overlay,” think of it as “saying something while something else is going on underneath.” Put this way, the layering can be seen as a metacommentary on the novel itself. What Moore and Lloyd are saying, to whoever is listening, is that “things might happen in the comic, but something else is going on underneath. Pay attention!” And the ability to do this is afforded to them by the conventions of the genre and the medium they have chosen. It’s something that can only be done when your audience knows to expect, rather than disdain, such baldness. Get what I’m saying? ¡Viva la Pulp!

And remember, too, the drama of the juxtaposition technique. It, and everything else about this book, is striking and dramatic, theatric and vaudeville. All the world’s a stage.

Next time, we’ll meet the performers.

  1. Producing some truly horrific YouTube comment sections. 

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, well… It’s not your typical novel, which is why it’s no surprise that it led to an atypical film from some atypical directing siblings.

Written as a series of 6 stories nestled within each other, Matryoshka doll style, Mitchell starts us out in 1849 in the South Pacific reading the first half of Adam Ewing’s journal; introduces us to the talented young composer Robert Frobisher in 1936; follows tenacious reporter Luisa Rey around 1973 San Francisco; recounts the 2012 captivity of publisher Timothy Cavendish in an old folks home; builds the fascinating Neo Seoul of 2144, in which a genetically cloned fabricant Sonmi-451 leaves the safety of her fast food home for the world of the purebloods; and takes us all the way to 2321, where, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, we encounter the tribesman, Zachary. And then, once Mitchell takes us to the peak of this roller coaster, giving us the entire serving of Zachary’s journey with the Prescient, he sends us shooting back down, revisiting each story again in reverse chronological order, picking up from where he left off. Each story opens and reaches a midpoint and then is abruptly interrupted by the next story. The only plot told in one full serving is that of Zachary and the Prescient he leads up the mountain, as this is the point of view the entire book is being told from. At the conclusion of Zachary’s tale the other stories are closed out in the opposite sequence they were opened in, as we come crashing down the pyramid of stories we climbed.

Mitchell’s enormous task is a wonder to behold simply as a mammoth writing exercise – as he shifts his tone from 19th century naval diary to swooning epistolary meditation to taught conspiracy thriller to cheeky prison farce to dystopian adventure and finally to the post-apocalyptic journey of two people who speak in a futuristic dialect (and, good god, as he walks it all back). The diversity of Mitchell’s writing is astounding and, yes, endlessly entertaining. There’s something for everyone here.

It is, admittedly, not the simplest story to follow, even piece by piece, let alone as a whole, but it ties together rewardingly. The shifts in genre undergird an overall interconnectedness that is stunning. In each story, one of our characters is reading about or interacting with someone from the previous tale. Robert Frobisher is reading Ewing’s journal, Frobisher’s lover Rufus Sixsmith, now quite aged, meets Luisa Rey, and on and on. All the protagonists share a specific shooting star-like birthmark that is seen in all six stories. It appears as if a single soul is being born again and again, traveling throughout time. Even as Mitchell gives each of those times an exceedingly different voice, they all focus in on similar themes of how the oppressed struggle and fight for what they believe is right no matter how futile the situation seems. In each story, our birth marked soul must make the choice to be different from the thing they are expected to be, struggling against the norm, to achieve some personal goal, to prove themselves, or just to be free from enslavement because the station at which they were born.

It’s a lot to process. It’s cacophonous chaos or deeply resonant chaos, a beautiful masterpiece or a dysfunctional mess. I tend to come down in the former camp, admiring Cloud Atlas for its ambition and the message that ambition serves. Three other admirers in my camp, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, focused their ambition into a big screen spectacle, released in 2012. Their vision of Mitchell’s universe is easily one of my favorites films (being one of the few I actually own). If you’re going to take on Mitchell’s possibly insane literary high wire act, you’ve got to engage in some backflips of your own, and the directors don’t disappoint. Actors were cast not for a single role for multiple roles that spanned each of the film’s six timeframes. It takes the books notion of reincarnation to the next level, making it feel like not just one soul traverses time but that every soul is reborn and again and again.

As an adherent of Mitchell’s overall vision, I personally couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. However, for those not familiar with the stories going into the film, there is the potential (okay, the near certainty) for confusion. While it begins going up the pyramid of stories like the book, it quickly does diverges from this linear pattern, skipping around so that all the stories are being told at once. They dance in and out of each other based not on timestamp, like in the book, but feeling and thematic connection, and together, all six climax feverishly and resolve simultaneously. Occasionally, some of the logic gets lost in the transitions, but it makes for a much more exciting cinematic experience than what a literal translation would need to do: cycle through six long conclusions one after another, as a series of episodes.

The Wachowskis’ and Tykver’s vision is, from where I’m sitting, a humanist masterpiece of an interpretation; know this: Cloud Atlas the novel is absolutely worth its time commitment as well. Yes, its format may be a bit frustrating, especially when the story you’ve been following is abruptly interrupted for hundreds of pages. In mid-sentence to boot! Put that frustration aside, or better yet, embrace it as part of the artistic experience. David Mitchell’s skill and range as an artist are vast, and one of the tools he’s leveraging is the crash of one story giving way suddenly to another and the tingle of anticipation as you approach that long abandoned story thread once again. If you fall in love with Ewing or Frobisher or Cavendish, the distance makes the heart grow fonder, especially when the distance points to them being but one player in a centuries spanning epic. As Ewing says at the conclusion of 1849 journal, even though he is the only character who knows nothing of any of his other selves: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Cloud Atlas makes you fall in love with the drops, but it also makes you reckon with the multitude.

Project Almanac Review

Charles! This is an urgent missive from future Charles, sent back via time travel technology!

You just got out of Chronicle, which you loved. You think you just saw the breakthrough performance of Dane Dehaan, who you think has to become a massive star. (Instructions: do watch Kill Your Darlings; avoid Amazing Spider-Man 2 at all costs, especially since – you’re not going to believe this – there won’t be an Amazing Spider-Man 3! Keep your innocence you darling child…) At this moment, if I recall correctly, you have all the hope in the world for the found footage (sorta) genre (sorta medium) as it peaks its head sheepishly outside the boundaries originally set for it by The Blair Witch Project. Chronicle seems like the beginning of a new age, and in the coming year, James, your fellow Culture Conquistador, is going to turn you on to an upcoming time travel film called Welcome to Yesterday that’s going to get your Chronicle senses tingling.

They’ll keep tingling even after Welcome to Yesterday gets pushed back a year into the dreaded February dead zone. Even after Earth to Echo, another kids-with-cameras-deal-with-sci-fi-shennanigans two-hander, beats it to theaters and steals its thunder. Heck, even after the name is changed from Welcome to Yesterday, which, like Edge of Tomorrow, is a bit vague and middle school poetry-ish, but at least sounds like a time travel film, you’ll still be waiting for the newly-renamed Project Almanac to confirm your unifying theory of found footage: that it’s not the finding of the footage that has made so many of these films odious, it’s that so little care was put into anything other shaking the camera violently after seeing OMG WHAT”S THAT THING OVER THERE?!

I’m not reaching back to you through the fabric of time to tell you’re wrong necessarily. The found footage revolution is coming. You shouldn’t give up hope. But Project Almanac is not the affirmation you’re looking for.

I’m not telling you to not see it. It has its charms as a teen hang-out movie, though that hang-out movie does as poor a job of justifying why a camcorder is always around as just about every other found footage film. Even so, as these bright young men (we’ll get to the woman in a moment) finagle their new time machine just so, there’s a nifty “Isn’t science just the neatest??” tone that is VERY winning.

I am telling you this though: get out all while the getting is good! When the film spends so long at a Lollapalooza bacchanal that you feel like your movie ticket might have actually BEEN a ticket for Lollapalooza, calmly exit the theater. The future depends on it.

I know you don’t like spoilers. Maybe you’ll trust they’re worthwhile if they come from your future self. Here are the reasons you’ll be better off leaving Project Almanac before it puts its serious-paradox-face on:

1) It has some pretty strange ideas about the way technology would react to being displaced in time. There’s a moment early on in the music festival sequence where Quinn tells his friends not to worry about what to go see, and I thought he was going to say “Because we can come back here as many times as we want and see everything!” but instead he says he can look up reviews of the show on his phone right now since they already happened in his phone’s eyes. This seems to underline a profound misunderstanding of how the Internet works (even if the reviews were already in his feed, his phone would be freaking out at the download of incoming posts that should’ve happened days ago) that is really indicative of some strange chicanery surrounding tech in general. Cameras in particular. The whole twist at the end of the film revolves around the idea that the infinitely powerful time machine could be destroyed by a simple trash can fire, and that the time machine never existing would create such a paradox that it would completely eliminate the timeline in which the time machine existed in the first place, returning everyone to obliviousness, BUT the camera would stay right where it was placed in the past. To be clear: the paradox would clean out its system by spitting a human male out, but it’d invite the camera to hang out seven years in the past, in spite of the fact that the camera would also have never been there if not for time travel. LET ALONE ALL THE FOOTAGE ON IT. The last interaction of the movie, where our hero walks up to his lady love and invites her back into the secret time travel cult is entirely unclear: is he proposing they build a new time machine from scratch, is he saying they should go win the lottery next week since the camera has told him the right numbers, is he just flirting with a girl he knows has a crush on him because of time travel? Either way, him acting on any of the footage he sees on this magic time-travel immune, paradox immune camera completely counters his decision to divorce himself from the all-encompassing but destructive power of foresight and hindsight, which is a dramatic decision he HAD JUST MADE! Maybe that’s the point? Doesn’t matter. You will be too angry at the God Camera to care.

2) The makers of this film clearly saw Chronicle. They saw it and said, “We can do that, but with time travel instead of super powers.” So much of the film follows the same formula as your beloved Chronicle: a group of teens discover something awesome and scientifically vague together and make a pact to keep it secret and always engage in every step of the learning process as one unit. In Chronicle this made sense, and Andrew Detmer’s betrayal came from a place of clearly established woundedness and had sweeping effects on the story. David Raskin, Project Almanac’s protagonist, breaks his group’s time travel rule too. Like Adnrew, he also does it because of a poorly executed flirtatious encounter with an interested female. But where Andrew’s lashing out festered from so many other wounds, David’s descent down the time travel rabbit hole is purely brought on by his own shame at being the most oblivious and least communicative handsome nerd-boy in the history of handsome nerd-boys. Still, that’s not what rankles. It’s this: David is breaking a rule that everyone agreed to follow – we always travel as a group of five. As punishment for breaking this rule, things quickly descend into chaos that even our chosen genius can’t keep up with. Here’s the problem; actually punishing him for breaking this rule enforces that it was good rule to begin with. It wasn’t. It was a stupid rule that only carries any weight because everyone agreed to it. What follows makes some sense emotionally because it stems from a betrayal of trust, but as time travel logic, it rings false on every level. Why is always traveling together a good idea? It’s not like the group always holds hands and keeps away from people to keep their Butterfly Effect low! At Lollapalooza they’re all running every which way. All their stupid rule means is that instead of accidentally causing the death of the lead singer of Imagine Dragons as individuals, they could cause it as a marauding band of FIVE insanely irresponsible time travelers. This is all fine when it’s a lark and you don’t have to think about the consequences. Once the film implies that consequences only come once David goes back on his own and messes with the pasts of his own friends (rather than other random people we as the audience don’t know that well) it does severe damage to its own validity. (It also makes us question those friends’ intelligence when their leader begins finishing their sentences and acting like someone – a time traveler perhaps?? – who has been through these interactions before. Come on guys, put it together!) Is it crushing when Jessie breaks down upon finding out that David has been meddling with her past to win her back? Absolutely. But does it hold any water considering she’s been manipulating the time stream to affect her own relationships for weeks? Absolutely not. Jessie is just a device, someone who is in the movie to be betrayed, to love David “even though” he’s a nerd. Somehow, in spite of this, she gets more agency than David’s sister Christine, who is tasked with holding the camera and whose only defining characteristic is that she apparently gets bullied by a mean girl, whose only desire is to not be bullied by that mean girl. In a movie where the boys get to run around shouting “SCIENCE!” all the time, it sucks profoundly that the half of the cast that’s female is openly oblivious to anything that’s going on, to the point where David’s mother doesn’t realize that her children are spending weeks upon weeks causing violent explosions in her dead husband’s off-limits basement laboratory.

3) Speaking of that dead husband/father and his tricked out basement laboratory… You know what’s really wrong with Project Almanac, past Charles? It’s not that every moment in the film is accounted for by cameras the characters hold; you can’t blame found footage for this, though Charles, you will want to. Everyone will. It’s so easy to look at a scene like the one where Christine follows her clearly distraught and crying brother up to the attic not to console him but to film his grieving – a scene which, thanks to the magic of time travel, we actually get to see twice, thank goodness – and say that found footage will always be too convoluted to really work. Yes, acrobatics like this sad little trapeze stunt do tend to happen in found footage films, but they happened at the opening of Chronicle too. Like any movie that moves past some of the awkward growing pains of its opening scenes, Project Almanac could have easily grown past this. You know what a found footage film needs in order to grow into a successful feature? What any film needs? Focus, focus, focus. And everything from the change of the film’s name to reflect the time machine’s DARPA project designation, Project Almanac, to the heavy emphasis in the film on home video footage from the day David’s father received a super-mysterious phone call, hid his super-mysterious time machine and died in a super-mysterious car accident focuses our attention on the potential onto something much bigger and more shadowy and government-y and conspiracy-y than these five kids tinkering with time travel technology so they can win the lotto. As we spend an interminable amount of time watching our heroes use time travel to get VIP access at a music festival, we assume that DARPA must be breathing down their neck looking to cover up for whatever it is they did to David’s father. This is compounded by the fact that we know from the home video footage that David returning to the day of his father’s death is inevitable; we know that scene is coming and we expect two things: David will cathartically find out what happened to his father and he will do everything in his power to stop it. Instead, the film, strangled by its own time loops, literally begins glitching. As our found footage begins jumping and cutting and blotching, David and his father essentially nod and say “Sup” to each other before David’s father exits the scene to get in his car accident and David burns the time machine before it can ever be used. Maybe the film is telling us that some things are better left unexplored and unmeddled with – that seems to be the overarching theme – but if that’s the case, why send the audience missed signals about how David’s father’s death was tied to his work. Why not just imply that this was some random tragedy not tied to a nefarious emergency science phone call at all?

What if I told you that all that stuff I said about this message being “urgent” and the future hinging on you leaving Project Almanac at the right time was true, but I refused to clarify? Heck, maybe it’s not true! I heavily implied that there was something more nefarious involved in your future than just the simple non-enjoyment of a movie, which I’m sure you’re extremely curious about… But, all I’ll tell you is this. Someday, you’re going to go to Lollapalooza. It’s going to be a pretty fun day. You could probably afford to have one less drink than I ended up having past Charles. But there are going to be a lot of good bands and the weather is going to be nice. Best wishes, past Charles, peace out and oh yeah, praise be unto our God Camera overlords.

My Week in Movies – February 12th

An interesting week in which I see two of my most anticipated films of 2014.

Project Almanac

Project Almanac had been, when it was still titled Welcome to Yesterday, one of my anticipated films of last year. But it slipped into February where films go to die. The initial premise and teaser were intriguing. High schoolers get hold of a time travel device and go back in time, something they know they will be able to do because a video from the past shows them doing it. The movie explored the premise and the consequences, but I found it nearly impossible to watch. The shaky cam proved too much for my well-honed senses and I spent most of the movie lying down and listening to the action.

Watch It: Actually, you can just:
Skip It: It’s an average movie at best. No need to see it.

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return with another future science fiction epic. This time, sadly, it’s not quite as good. Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis deliver solid performances and the world the Wachowskis show us is incredibly colorful and interesting. But the main plot and the villain, played by a recently coronated Best Actor Oscar Winner, leave a lot to be desired. Jupiter Ascending doesn’t feel particularly new. The themes from The Matrix re-appear mostly untouched: harvesting humans, reincarnation, an anointed one. But it is a beautiful movie and has an every-woman protagonist who gets swept up in a sibling rivalry.

Watch It: If you’re willing to sit through a bit more film and few more characters than we actually needed.
Skip It: If you think you’ve likely seen this film before.

A Midsummer Night’s GLEE: Strange Magic Review (C)

So I’m gliding along pretty happily to the kooky vibe Strange Magic is putting out. Not without some hiccups – this is a movie where one of the leads presages a song by shouting “Booties, prepare to be shaken!” (No, Strange Magic, my booty will remain firmly unshaken, thank you very much for the suggestion.)

But we’re nearing the climax, and I’ve managed to make it through a shaky opening that was more of an aborted preface than anything else (seriously the two princess sisters completely switch attitudes and dispositions within five minutes of the film starting). I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that the plot about love potions will not make any darn sense. And I’ve even stopped caring that half the characters (just about every character with humanoid features) have the weirdest, most detailed, uncanny Steven Tyler mouths, with individual pearly white teeth that reach a level of verisimilitude that animated films maybe don’t need to reach.

And then one of the film’s weaker characters, a total tool with a blonde-Elvis vibe who believes he’s entitled to the hottest girl around based on his supreme attractiveness, shouts at the film’s two romantic leads, calling one of them a beauty and one of them a beast.

DARNIT! GOSH-ALL-LOVIN-DARNIT! Just as I am starting to get over how much Strange Magic had looked like a callous Epic rip-off during its extraordinarily brief marketing phase (what an odd movie to want to steal from, by the by; pretty sure I’m the only person over twelve who will go to bat hard for Epic, which is extremely Miyazaki-like, even if Pitbull does voice a frog in it) and just as I am starting to dig the secret surprise that this movie uses pop music (some of it with a bit of subtle criticism, which we’ll get to) to tell a truly off-kilter love story I don’t quite think I’ve ever seen before, Strange Magic goes out of its way to remind me that even though it’s not a rip-off of the good movie I thought it was a rip-off of, it’s a rip-off of an even better movie.

As charming as Strange Magic gets – and it gets pretty charming – it is no Beauty and the Beast. This Roland fellow, with his dashing good looks and his puffed out chest, is no Gaston and, as cuddly as Bog is becoming and as feminist-positive as Marianne has been, these two lovebirds are no Beast and Belle. And you know what? The comparison might have blissfully not occurred to me had the movie not brought it up in-text. Roland’s line is a thunderously poor idea, underlining a subtle and surprising plotline in such a way that it makes it seem not so much INSPIRED by threads in past films and an overall need to see different character types fall in love on screen, as straight-up PURLOINED from a movie that already hit just about every note this uneven musical hits. A movie that hit them better. And with original Menken/Ashman compositions!

No competition…

Which is too bad, because I was really falling under Strange Magic’s strange spell for a while there. I’d struggled mightily to reach that plateau, but by the time every major character was in the Dark Forest (it’s fo’ real name) traipsing around with unrequited crushes both real and ensorcelled, the movie was truly cooking with some heat. (No Canned Heat though; Deep Purple, The Doors, and The Troggs make it on the soundtrack, stopping just short of Canned Heat.) It had become clear that Kristen Chenoweth and Alan Cumming were in fine scene-stealing form. The song choice, which seemed cutesy and obvious in the opening act, had become downright interesting, with the filmmakers digging up some old diamonds in the rough and putting an interesting shine on them. Best of all, an unexpected romance was forming, and as it unfolded, my surprise that this otherwise unremarkable little trifle was going there had turned to delight.

Marianne, you see, is a punk princess – she found out ON HER WEDDING DAY (damn…) that Roland, her ambitious cad of a fiancée, had been stepping out on her, and she immediately went from humming “Can’t Help Falling In Love” to sobbing “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” on her rosebud bed. But as Marianne’s voice grew stronger during that ditty, so too did her resolve. And with that resolve came… rebellious eyeliner! Before our eyes, Marianne transforms from a Manic Pixie Dream Pixie (complete with pixie cut, because long hair’s expensive to animate) into a riot grrrrl Joan Jett with translucent wings. (I think it’s awesome that a movie like this makes it apparent to girls [and boys] that a woman can be a badass with a sword and a bit of an attitude, and be complete without a man, but I think it’s sad that this suggestion usually comes with the caveat that a person would only resort to such things if they had their heart broken by a man. They can never just be that way because that’s who they are.)

The Bog King is a nasty Prince of Darkness with his own rocky history with love (the full story is withheld until the third act for no real reason). His goal: find and destroy all the primrose petals that could be used to make love potions, come hell or high water. This goal makes little sense since no one has even tried to make love potions in years, and people fall in love without love potions anyway, and real love is more powerful than love potion love, plus Bog has imprisoned the only sorceress who has the power to make the potions. Which makes all those primrose petals just… fragrant. Pleasant. Not especially magical. Of course, in spite of all this, a lovesick little elf – inspired by the machinations of Roland, the supreme tool of the Fairy Kingdom – still managed to get the Sugar Plum Fairy (yep, her real name) to make him a potion, because this is a farce, and crazy plot things happen. This infuriated Bog so much that he committed mushroom genocide, but, in spite of this, it must be said, our villain’s nonsensical drive to destroy something that seems so ineffectual has made him a bit toothless.

Which actually might be sort of the point! Okay I won’t go as far as to say that the filmmakers intentionally sabotage their own plot to pave the way for a more sympathetic villain, but something about Bog’s showy menace (singing “I’m Evil” at his own rock concert, c’mon) that isn’t really menace as much as an open wound seems intentional, because guess what? After an initial sword fight, Marianne and the Bog King find out they have feelings for each other, though their feelings seem a bit atypical (they fall in love in front of a flower arrangement that has misspelled “Love” as “Lofe”).

It took them a while to come to terms with this, because they both have had their heart broken and have gone to extremes to stop that from happening again, and because they are rulers of two rival kingdoms of majestic fairies and oozing swamp creatures. But ultimately they realized that, as unlikely as they are as a pair, they really are meant for each other – Marianne’s thorny personality and thirst for adventure fits as melodiously with Bog’s mercurial but ultimately sweet nature as do the voices of Even Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming as they lock into harmony on the film’s musical centerpiece, ELO’s “Strange Magic.”

That’s what they’re doing right before Roland swaddles the proceedings in a “Beauty and the Beast” (wet) blanket: flying through the Dark Forest, which, with Bog around gently guiding you through the thorns, is transformed into a shadowy but majestic wonderland. Everything that seemed malevolent before now carries a natural wonder, and the emotions flying between the two courting lovers are swoon-worthy. At this point, just about everything in the movie is clicking. (Just about. Maya Rudolph’s blatant Jewish mother schtick is never anything less than off-putting.)

Bog’s henchman initially seemed a little bit too reminiscent of Pain and Panic from Hercules, but they’ve developed a personality all their own, and their confusion over whether they need to develop an “antidote” or an “anecdote” is both hilarious and understandable. The Imp – an adorable rat-like creature whose sole motivation seems to be stealing the love potion and causing mischief – and the Sugar Plum Fairy – a psychedelic lava lamp sorceress who sings with the dulcet soprano of Kristen Chenoweth – are getting a lot of play, which is great because all the movie’s inspired visuals surround them, meaning that when they’re on screen you forget how creepy the normal faces look. The movie has even managed to turn it’s shaky opening into an asset, as the film’s opening number, a mashup of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Crazy in Love,” has been turned on its head. More savvy than it initially seems, Strange Magic mines the dark side of pop lyrics like “I can’t HELP falling in love” and “Got me looking so CRAZY in love,” making it clear that the way society puts a priority on conventional beauty made Roland’s looks as potent as any love potion. Marianne is seemingly the only one that had that spell broken (her sister Dawn, for example, is an inveterate flirt). The connection to zombie-like fecklessness is made even more explicit as the viral spread of love potion dust turns the whole forest into a loony bin filled with lust-filled lovers whose crazed anthem is “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

That’s Strange Magic at its best: like Glee when it’s on its game (spotty track record there), it throws archetypes and pop hits into a stew and wows you with the professionalism of its performers while preaching a message of inclusivity in the face of a world that wants to keep people in their assigned boxes. But to get there, it trades in high camp, and without a true mastery of that tone, it just as often misses its intended mark.

In that, Strange Magic is reminiscent of Evan Rachel Wood’s last musical venture, Across the Universe, which tried to use the entire Beatles catalog to capture the tumult of an entire decade. That too is a film that seems so shallow that characters are clearly named to fit lyrics in famous songs that push the plotline too and fro. In Strange Magic, Wood proves for a second time that she is a phenomenal singer, but she finds herself trapped once again in a musical spectacular that, in spite of being worthwhile on a vignette-by-vignette level, doesn’t have much to say beyond “All You Need Is Love. “

At least Strange Magic lets people preserve their eccentricities while exploring this need for love (the princess who says “I’m stronger alone” has to be proven wrong). The best thing about Strange Magic is that it corrects the one issue Beauty and the Beast does have: when love is admitted, the filmmakers don’t sand the rough edges off the beastly character and magically turn him into Fabio.

Bog attempts to tell Marianne how he feels by parroting the film’s mad cry of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” Marianne, who understands that their feelings are unique and require a unique form of expression, interrupts Bog and begins shouting about how he’s a Wild Thing that makes her heart sing. One might expect her to find a man who makes her want to be a proper princess, sans eyeliner and sword, again, but these two happily share their love at a level they find comfortable (a high shredding volume) rather than the level society finds comfortable.

(And okay sure, Shrek got THERE first, but give Strange Magic this; at least it had enough confidence in itself by its final song to not make an ogre reference that casts attention once again to the better films that beat it to its worthwhile message.)